One of the hard things about having been a war vet and how I have dealt with my feelings on the matter is the difficulty in drudging up sad or traumatic memories and unpacking them years later. I tried for years through drugs to kill my memories and my emotions about the war; meth was an efficient way to distract myself so thoroughly that I did not really think about the things that upset me about Iraq.
It's been ten years, but occasionally I am forced to confront memories and events that happened so long ago. Today was an excellent example of this; I am taking a course deconstructing societal ideals of masculinity and as part of the class we read "The Things We Carried," a short story detailing an Army lieutenant and his methods of dealing with grief during the Vietnam war.
Two details of the text sparked some pretty poignant memories that I haven't examined in a long time. The first was how we dehumanize those most at risk in combat; in the text, soldiers in the most danger are called "grunts." I surmise we do this in order to minimize their humanity so that it's less painful when they die, and it's a cultural military meme that carries forward to this day. During my time of service, for instance, some soldiers in the Army referred to Marines-- who generally see far more combat when invading a country than the typical soldier in my field of work-- as "sandbags." Sandbags are bags filled with sand that can be used when building fortifications in order to stop bullets when under attack. The comparison between Marines and sandbags is rather brutal.
The other detail that hit home was the romantic relationship referenced in the texts. The main character, Lieutenant Cross, carries photos and letters from a woman in the States named Martha. When he is depressed or unhappy he daydreams about being with her. It's how he copes.
I had a Martha.
Actually, to be honest, I had several Marthas (I've always been something of a scoundrel). One in particular, however, was pretty exciting. Shortly before my deployment to Kuwait and the following invasion of Iraq, I met a man. He was so beautiful it made my heart break to look at him. He was unbearably kind. He was exceedingly intelligent. He was a little shy. I was charmed by him.
I met him online (does anybody remember the chat rooms from Gay.com? Sheesh), and we would spend hours chatting or talking on the phone. We only met a couple of times, but we made a delightful connection. I wanted to get to know him better. I wanted to do more than just the one sweet kiss we shared.
He was a Marine.
He left for Kuwait before I did, and before he left he told me "I wish I wasn't leaving. I wish I had time with you."
So I went to Kuwait, and I invaded Iraq, and even though there were so many horrible things going on and I was so unhappy I still had him on my mind. I hoped we would both pull through the war okay, and that when I got back I would give both of us the chance to see if we were right for each other.
Everywhere I went in Iraq I would look for him. If we drove past Marines I would hang my head out the window and try to examine their faces, hoping for a fleeting glance of him, this Marine ever present on my mind. I would not be able to speak to him (keep in mind how difficult it was to be gay in the military at this time), but at least I would see him, know he was okay, and hope that he saw me.
I think I saw him once in Baghdad. I'm still not sure.
When I got back from Iraq, I tried to contact him in every way I knew how. His Gay.com profile was deleted. His number didn't work anymore. He didn't return my emails. I never heard from him again.
He was from New Orleans. He was going to take me there and show me around. I ended up going without him.
I don't know what happened to him. He might have changed his number, changed his email. He might have decided that he didn't want to talk to me. He might have died. I assumed he did. I hope he didn't. It's a possibility, however... he was, after all, a sandbag.
I still remember his sweet face. His gentle voice. His admiration and attraction for me, and how it made me feel.
I wish I could remember his name.