How we preserve our experiences

I’m not much for having my picture taken.  It’s not a phobia or anything like that.  I don’t believe the camera steals a piece of soul, although I often tell people who try to take my picture just that.  The real reason I don’t like having my picture taken comes from a rather morbid experience I had when I wasn’t even old enough to legally drink in the U.S.

The backdrop I used in the story I wrote for “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” is where I misspent my youth, in a place where I was old enough to legally drink.  Rather than going off to college like most of my high school friends, I wandered into an Army recruiter’s office and made a decision on a whim that would alter my life forever.  I wasn’t particularly patriotic.  I don’t come from a family of distinguished military veterans.  My dad served in the Air Force, in Florida, as a flight line firefighter during the Vietnam War.  I did have an uncle that was a pretty badass infantryman that served multiple tours in Vietnam, but it was something he never shared with me.  When I came back from Iraq he called the house to speak with my dad.  I answered the phone and he said, “It’s different now isn’t it?”  That was the only thing he ever said to me about his war.  But neither of these men were part of my decision to join the military.

I don’t have a good answer for why I joined the Army, but I think it has something to do with this desire I have to collect rare life experiences, and being a tank gunner on an M1A1 Abrams main battle tank is exactly that.  There wasn’t much serious conflict in the world when I enlisted, so I figured it was a good place for me to grow up and learn how to be a man.  And, to be frank, blowing shit up for money sounded way better than sitting in classes for another four years.  But on a Tuesday, four weeks into my basic training, on September 11, 2001, my job got serious.

Three years later when I deployed to Iraq, a year after America successfully toppled Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime, I was thrust into a situation that I’d barely trained for.  A tanker’s job, prior to the Iraq and Afghanistan, was to break the enemy’s front line by overwhelming force.  This meant rolling in a line of 70-ton death machines and killing everything that stood in our way.  By the time we got to Iraq, however, there were no tanks to fight and no front lines.  Our enemy was an elusive “soldier” that liked to pop in and out of alleyways and fire rocket-propelled grenades at our tanks, or sometimes plant some of the abundant explosives left over from the Iraqi army stockpiles under the roads we patrolled.  To make matters even more complicated, this elusive soldier looked exactly like the people we were supposed to help transition from a fascist dictatorship to a functioning democracy.

To get to Iraq, we took a big charter bus from Schweinfurt, Germany, where I was stationed, to an airport in Nuremberg and I remember very clearly sitting on the bus with my platoon.  I’d known some of these guys for years. I came up through the ranks with them and learned how to be a tanker with them.  They became my family 4,000 miles from my home back in Indiana.  But I looked around and it dawned on me that we probably wouldn’t all be coming back to Germany.

My leadership knew this because that’s the kind of thing leaders discuss when they aren’t around lower ranking soldiers.  Telling the minions their friends are going to die is bad for morale.  To plan for such an event, leaders must order body bags and make sure soldiers have two sets of dog tags– one to identify the body and one to send home to the parents or wife.  One of the more peculiar tasks that must be undertaken to prepare for a KIA is the taking of the death photo, which is the photo, should you be killed, that the leaders will hang in a company headquarters when the platoon returns.  The was the first experience I had as a young man that taught me I was mortal.  That photo was a concrete reminder that I could be killed.

Although I still don’t like having my photo taken, I’ve learned since then that a photo is one of those extraordinary things in life that gains value over time.  We look at photos years after they’re taken and they accrue meaning, reminding us of things we’ve forgotten and evoking feelings that have long since passed.  One of the reasons I decided to be a part of the Invictus project is because I believe stories share this characteristic with photos.  I read through my own story, months after I wrote it down and memories of my trip across western Europe come flooding back to me.  I can taste the fresh coconut and peaches in Rome, and I smell the Spanish beach where my friends and I drank sangria and watched planes descend into Barcelona.  Telling the “Waystation” story was a way to preserve my experience, and reading it again reminds me of feelings I might otherwise forget.  Writing it down has made it more valuable than any of the pictures the gypsies stole from me.

When we launch Invictus II next month I hope the new group can appreciate this, because I think, without a doubt, the group of writers that shared their stories with you on this round will agree that some stories just can’t be told in a conversation.  Some stories must be written down and preserved in words.