Before now poetry has taken notice
Of wars, and what are wars but politics
Transformed from chronic to acute and bloody?
from "Build Soil"
Robert Frost

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tokens of Home

There's a small charm that hangs around my neck. Many soldiers carry some small token or good luck charm- Saint Christopher medallions, coins, crosses, sometimes even hand blown glass hearts. Mine is a stylized fishhook carved and polished out of bone. The Maori call it Hei-Matau; they believe it will bring strength, peace and good health. My sister bought mine for me while in New Zealand this winter, and I've worn it ever since. The Maori say that with time, part of the essence of the bone and of the wearer will swap places, and the necklace will become a small part of one's self. Mine has certainly changed in the six months I've worn it- one side has become even more highly polished from the constant rubbing of my cotton shirt, and the other shows dark streaks along the pores of the bone and hints of color from months of sweat and dust.

I've changed, too. One of my friends told me I wouldn't begin to realize how different I had become until I saw other soldiers going on leave who had spent their tours in Kuwait or other less violence-prone areas, and that I would not realize it fully until I got home.

A part of the difference is a profoundly deeper appreciation for peace. One of the first days I was home, I lay on a strip of grass while I waited outside the store my sister was shopping in. I breathed in the clean air and closed my eyes to better hear the wind whispering through the trees. I opened my eyes again and watched the people strolling by, caught up in their own concerns and ignoring the quiet beauty that surrounded them. I jerked upright when a garbage truck dropped a dumpster- the harsh thump of metal sounded enough like a VBIED to jerk me back to Iraq.

The polished sheen of my necklace is there- one friend told me that he'd never seen me act more confident. I felt it before he mentioned it- I own the ground I walk on, and you'll have to go through me if you want to take it. I've made it through nine months in what was once called the "triangle of death"; that area of Iraq that last year saw nearly thirty percent of those serving within it earn the Purple Heart. I've learned, as I think most combat soldiers do, to truly "not sweat the small stuff". If a situation doesn't threaten death or injury, I can't trouble myself to care too much about it. The only things that bother me are the moments in which my reflexes work faster than my brain, and for a moment I'm "back there". It didn't happen to me often over my two weeks at home, but when it did, it reminded me of what I think of as my "dirty side". I don't say dirty as in bad, but as in colored by Iraq.

By the time I left home again, I'd stopped jerking the wheel when I saw pieces of junk on or near the road, but I was still cautiously approaching manhole covers and overpasses. The dumpster falling bothered me. The car backfiring startled me for a moment. The neighborhood kid dropping a string of firecrackers out in the alley definitely startled me (Boy, am I glad I'm not home for the 4th of July!). All those incidents were quickly over, though.

The only one that truly bothered me was while I was on a trip up to Alaska. One of my roommates from college was getting married, and I happened to make it home over the wedding. The bachelor party was standard Alaska fare: shooting guns (Don't worry- the drinking waited until afterwards!). We took a long drive out around the coast from Anchorage. The improved road ended at a small dirt airstrip. My friend took his little Toyota Camry up to about 40mph and pulled the e-brake, spinning us in a complete circle. Things started going downhill from there. We drove along a rutted, potholed road through trees and undergrowth that looked like places I'd been along the river, and turned to cross a small culvert onto another road. Some enterprising Alaskan had blown up a car on the narrow crossing- the rusted hulk of it and another vehicle lay bullet-riddled on the other side of the blackened hole in the dirt. A little further on, the road disappeared into a giant hole. Another bullet-scarred car sat in the water-filled bottom. We backed up and took another side road and parked. I got out and smelled rotting meat- the smell of death. One of my friends gagged, and I remarked to him that all we needed was the smell of burning trash to re-create Iraq. That was the cue for someone nearby to start firing single high-caliber rounds. Of all the things on the trip so far, that was the one I was actually expecting- it startled me less than it did them. Another friend said he hoped we didn't get hit- I said not to worry, because the rounds weren't coming our way. He said that sounded like the voice of experience. I just nodded. It made me feel better to pick up a gun.

People will think I'm crazy for saying this, but I'm glad to be back in the desert. Things aren't quite black and white, but there are fewer shades of grey. The danger is real again, not imagined like some monster in the night or a djinn conjured out of the air.

Life is real.


  1. Anonymous25/6/07 18:24

    Teflon Don:

    Odd to say this - but welcome back and quite frankly, thank you for going back and for your service.

    Cigars are boxed up and will be in tomorrow's mail :)

    All the best!

  2. Badger filled in some of the blank spaces you didn't of your time home. You're such a celeb. glad to hear from you--glad the time home went well--looking forward to the time you will writing from home. We appreciate your service and you view of it.

  3. Anonymous25/6/07 19:47

    Glad you survived the "real" world. You're not crazy, just a veteran. Veterans are definitely special people.

  4. Anonymous25/6/07 19:49

    Wow, awesome writing dude. You could make a good living at it when you get back home. Keep up the great work you are doing.

  5. The Maori also say: "He aha te mea nui: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata."
    (The most important thing in the world: it is people, it is people, it is people.)

    I'm still wearing my fishhook. Love you.

  6. Thank you for being WILLING to go back.
    I appreciate it more than you know...America appreciates it more than you know.
    I appreciate your writing! You are excellent!
    Keep it up! You are in my daily prayers.

  7. Thank you, Specialist, for your service.

    I will never have the words to express my gratitude.

    So I simply say again: Thank you, all of you.

    Stay safe, TD, and when you rotate out, I think you'll be decended upon by many fans wishing to ply you with drinks...

  8. Such a good post. I read it twice just for pleasure. Good luck, stay safe.

  9. Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 06/25/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

  10. Oh honey, you break my heart...

    Prayers for you --

  11. Ignore the previous comment, Link Corrected

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 06/26/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

  12. TD

    Good luck, god speed, keep the head down when you get back to the sand box.

  13. Anonymous26/6/07 16:18

    I was sorry to hear that I missed seeing you while you were home, but Josh, Krissy, and Jenna sure enjoyed the time they spent with you.

    You are in my thoughts and prayers take care.


  14. Anonymous26/6/07 16:58

    I'll hold up my hand as someone addicted to your blog! :-) Terrific writing. I am a Soldier's Angel - and you give me a unique perspective. Thank you for that and for your service. Stay safe; I look forward to reading more...

  15. Anonymous26/6/07 17:31

    TD, as the old mountain men used to say, you're a man to ride the river with. Can't thank you enough for what you do.

  16. Nicely written TD.

    Learning to appreciate the peace and beauty of the simple things in life is something that many never congratuations on learning this young!

    Stay safe and keep sharp.

  17. When my father came back from VN he talked of "de-animalization". He spent 7 years in Southeast Asia. He believed in what he was fighting for. He would have liked you. I imagine you would have liked him too.
    God bless you, daily....

  18. Anonymous27/6/07 10:36

    Stay safe. God speed and deepest appreciation.

  19. TD - Glad you made it back safely. Keep writing and those of us who support you will keep reading. I loved Mel's posts and B6's too about your R&R.

    Stay safe

  20. Anonymous28/6/07 01:10

    It was really, really way rad to be able to see you when you came home!!!!Be safe and much love!!!

  21. As an old soldier to a young soldier, we love you and thank you for what you do, you may not have physical scars after the war but war changes a a man in a profound way, hopefully they will not let it take you 30 years as i did to find those scars, PTSD is real son, take that from an old soldier who thanks you on a daily basis for what you are doing.

    If they would let me I too would be in the sand box, I have been told no, you are too old and too sick, I wish I was there to watch you back.

  22. I don't think you are crazy for saying you are glad to be back in the desert... it's "normal" to you now... you know what to expect, you've gotten used to's familiar. It's amazing how the human spirit can adapt to any and all circumstances, isn't it? YOu just hang in there... you are doing a great job and we are all proud of you. We are praying for you all the time, and we are so thankful for all you do on our behalf. And when you get home again, and have to re-define "normal" again - we'll still be here, praying, as you re-adjust and get back into the swing of things. We're standing with you the whole way. :)


  23. Light can only be appreciated from being in the dark. And if you can have both it creates a wonderful internal tension for growth.

    I'm glad you're back wiser and deeper for the wear and tear and vacation.

    God bless you and keep you safe.

  24. Anonymous1/7/07 10:17

    I just wanted to say thank you for your service and dedication and some insight into what you troops really go through over there..we appreciate you ..may god bless you and keep you safe...hugs, jodi

  25. Your writing is amazing. Thank you for being so transparent.

  26. Anonymous3/7/07 18:38

    Thanks for your writing and thank you more for your service.

    Stay safe and have a great 4th of July. Your efforts ARE appreciated.

  27. TD, you have a new fan, lala is my grandaughter, that sailor she is with, the love of her life, is a jet jockey, what a way to make a living.