I grew up in the 80s and 90s and I believed the stuff that was fed to me that the American military fights for freedom and to make the world a better and more equal place for all.
I was 11 during the first gulf war and I was 15 in 1995 when the Dayton Peace Accord was signed and NATO sent its operation into the Balkans to unscrew the failed UN operation there. During my much younger years I watched and played a hell of a lot of G.I. Joe which, in hindsight, probably impacted me more than I thought. I hung onto the words thrown by the Green Berets as their motto "de oppresso libre" or liberator of the oppressed and I believed that we had learned our lessons from entangling ourselves in a war like Vietnam. I truly believed that our military was a force for good and would only be used to that end. I wanted to join to make the world a better place.
I was a fat kid and a nerd in my youth (I'm still a nerd, but I've come to realize that being a nerd isn't a detriment). When I turned 15 I got into weight lifting and even started to compete a little bit. Although I never had any aptitude or interest in sports like helmet touch or ball-pass, I realized that I could push my body and endure a certain amount of pain. I may not be the strongest or the fastest, but I could always endure more pain and just drive myself further than my peers.
I joined the Army when I was 17 and I went to basic training between my junior and senior year of high school. My parents had to sign a waiver to let me do this at my age. Granted, I didn't do "real" basic training with the grunts at Fort Benning, GA like I had hoped to, but I went to Fort Leanardwood, MO and, after completing basic training, I spent my senior year of high school in the Army Reserves. I had a blast at basic training and I loved the Army and the people I was with. I was mildly disappointed with how easy basic training was and I wanted to do more.
During my senior year of high school, I applied for and received and Army ROTC scholarship. Since I would be "double dipping" if I remained in the Reserves and, due to my college schedule I wouldn't be able to attend my AIT (job training) the following summer as was stipulated by my contract, I was discharged from the Reserves and thrown into a track that would put me into Active Duty as an officer when I completed college.
In college I continued to drink the koolaide and I continued to fall more in love with the military. Due to our proximity to Fort Drum, a lot of guys who were in my ROTC program were former enlisted people on ROTC scholarships. I hung out with a group of guys who were former enlisted Infantrymen. One used to be a Drill Sergeant and two spent some time in the Ranger Regiment and were all "tabbed out". I was one of the "PT studs" in my ROTC group and I actively participated in a competition they had called "Ranger Challenge" where they put a squad sized team together from all colleges offering ROTC and competed against eachother in various military competencies (like calling for artillery fire, first aid procedures, shooting, physical fitness test, land navigation with a compass, obstacle courses, forced march, etc). The team that I was a part of finished 3rd out of roughly 270 schools). I was in love with the Army and I wanted nothing more than to hurry up and get active duty and to serve as an Infantry Officer. I had grandiose ideas of going to Ranger School and, when the time was right volunteering for Special Forces Selection with the hopes of making it to Special Forces.
I was a college senior when September 11th happened. In fact, the morning of September 11th, we had just submitted our functional branch request. Infantry was my first choice followed by Armor as my second. I eventually got my first choice - Infantry and I graduated college and went to Fort Benning, GA to complete about a year of training before I would make it to my unit. I completed 16 weeks of Infantry Officer Basic Cource, Airborne School, Ranger School, and Mechanized Infantry Leaders Course. During my last few months at Fort Benning, stuff was heating up with Iraq. I didn't have the time to follow the news, but I remember thinking to myself about how messed up going to war with Iraq would be. I never saw or understood our reasoning to go into that country. But, that didn't really matter. I figured that by the time I actually got to my unit that the "war" part of the war would be over and it would turn into another Kosovo-type of deployment.
I got to my unit in June 2003 as they were returning from Kosovo. They got orders that they were going to deploy to Iraq in Feb 2004. I was given a platoon in January 2004 - just in time to deploy with them to Iraq. None of us had any idea that Iraq in 2004 was going to be as intense as it was. We all thought that maybe we'd see an IED or maybe a small arms ambust (if we were lucky) but we would probably be doing the same thing in Iraq as we did in Kosovo.
I ended up spending 13 months in Iraq as an Infantry Platoon Leader. To make a long story short, it really shook up my core beliefs about how I thought that the military was and should be used. After seeing what combat was really about, I dropped my dream of seeking our Special Forces Selection and the plan I had for my life completely changed. In a deployment that I thought would maybe result in a singe IED strike or maybe a single small arms ambush, I found myself fighting in numerous small and large combat operations. I got lucky in that my platoon was attached to a different battalion during Fallujah in November 2004. The rest of my company went on to spearhead the marine operation there, but I still managed to find more combat than I wished for.
On 18 June my platoon was involved in a 24 hour firefight in which we were credited with kill 26 and on 24 June we were part of an operation in Baqubah and were credited with killed 14 there. After a small-arms exchange on another day I had the privilege of combing a field and finding a young boy that had been shot in the crossfire. It really made me feel like crap to deal with him and his family. After another incident, a van filled with candy was misidentified and hit. Our weapons ripped the middle of it open like a can, set it on fire, and spit candy and soda everywhere. One guy was running around with a big hunk of his head missing and brain spilling out while another guy burned to death in the drivers seat. The combination of his fat burning and the fabric of the seat melting stuck his body to the seat and we had to actually get a scraper to remove him. There was another incident in which 5 Soldiers in my platoon were killed when I lost a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. There is a lot more, but that is the stuff that is just sticking in my head the most right now.
I remember sitting in a palm grove on the side of the road just chilling and eating some lunch when some guy thought it would be a great idea to throw a hand grenade at me. It blew up 15 feet in front of me, but nothing actually hit me (I don't know how that happened). I remember just being pissed and angry that I would have to 1) stop eating my lunch, 2) get off my butt and react to it, 3) and, the worst part, write an after action report about the incident.
None of this had anything to do with the image and ideal that was fed to me during my childhood that the Army was there to liberate and help people. My actions and the situations that I found myself in have disturbed me deeply and I feel even worse when I realize that it was all for nothing.
It is a shame was bush did to our Army. It is filled with good people who want to do the right thing and who care deeply about the values our country was founded on. Unfortunately it keeps finding itself being used the wrong way and used in situations contrary to our core beliefs. I loved the Army and the people and I miss it deeply.