By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
This Soldier is actually an email I sent to friends when I was first in Iraq. It is dated November 11, 2004, and I had been in-country since June. At the time of this writing, I was working on Radwaniyah, the base that was the birthplace of the Iraqi Special Forces. I hope that the changes that were starting to be documented in my life will be perceived as they were intended; just a chance to say thank you. To all of our veterans, know that you are highly honored this Veterans’ Day and always. We thank you for your service. The nickname “Ali Kazammi” had been given to me by a pre-schooler back in the States.
It is pushing 2 in the morning, and it’s Veterans’ Day. I am coming up on having successfully completed my first week of working graveyard. This means working from seven at night till seven in the morning, and it will be for seven days a week until I get another break in February or March. There are a couple of guys in the computer room, and other than one “boom” a few hours ago, it is a quiet night.
For me, working graveyard may end up being one of the biggest blessings in disguise that could have ever come my way, though by nature I am not a night owl, nor did I ask for this shift. Quiet and time are commodities that are not usually flowing in a glut in my little life, and these days I have a bumper crop. May I use them well.
I am sad to say that in my 50 plus years of existence, this is the first Veterans’ Day that has meant anything to me. My grandfather, who we called Gumbo, had Ike for a lieutenant in World War I, and he and Ike had to go to war as newlyweds, both having respectively married Mary and Mamie in 1916. My dad, whose name was Roy, flew PBYs in World War II as part of the Naval Air Corps. He too, was in wartime as a newlywed, having married my mother, Mary Ellen, in 1943. Quite a sacrifice, this.
Neighbors and friends fought and some died in Viet Nam. Before I was given the opportunity to go on a wild trip to Baghdad, Veterans’ Day was a bank holiday, or if you worked for the government, you got it off. How grieved I am for having taken so much for granted, and how grateful I am for getting a chance to see freedom and the price that must be paid in order to live liberty, from a different perspective.
I am an emotional person. All my life I have worn and will probably always wear my heart on my sleeve. Here in Iraq, I find that the strangest things affect me deeply. Personally speaking, both compliments and digs go deeper, I think perhaps because the war drains us in ways we can’t always perceive. There is this “way, way on the back burner,” but nonetheless ever present, sense that not only could this be the last time you may see someone as they are leaving for a mission, you also live with the portended loss from the fact that their unit may be rotating out soon and you won’t see them anymore. This parade of grand people, as well as some who are real pains in the rear, is ongoing and you can’t stop the parade or slow it down. You can only enjoy it as it goes by. What I am about to describe sent me into deep silent sobs at our registration desk.
As I was cruising through my email and trying not to be too irritated with the “if-you-don’t-send-this-to-at-least-ten-people-something-awful-will-happen-to-them-or-you-or-both” style of message, I came across a picture of a soldier cutting some grass outside his tent with some scissors. The man is Army, in his PTs (the casual shorts and T-shirt uniform that the soldiers run or work out in), and he was outside squatting before a makeshift planter that was made from rough Iraqi brick. His weapon is, according to orders, within arm’s reach off to his left, ever at the ready.
This soldier-in-a-sandbox had missed the feel and smell of grass so much that he asked his wife to mail him some soil, fertilizer, and seeds so he could grow a tiny lawn. He was manicuring it with scissors rather than a LawnBoy. I am sure that he wished he was at home doing that thing that everybody hates to do — mowing. I wanted to reach inside the picture and hug him. I wanted to thank him for risking his life so people like me, people so ungrateful and undeserving, could be free. I wanted to make him some lemonade or offer to sweep up the clippings. I wanted to see him wiggle his toes in the grass after he was done “mowing.”
His creativity and can-do spirit is one of the things that makes being here a joy. Guys find the most ingenious ways to decorate or create privacy in their barracks. Women soldiers put the dearest little emoticons in their emails, or get all fancied up in feminine clothes and then stay in their rooms, as they can’t be outside without being in uniform. Talk about being all dressed up with nowhere to go…they still make sure they get a chance to feel like a girl when they can. Duct tape and parachute string are essential parts of life here, and their uses are nearly endless. The old-timers from ‘Nam miss the days when their helmets were made of metal and you cooked in them as well as used them to shower with.
They take it in stride, day after day. They do their job; they complete their mission; they just flat get the job done without fanfare. Tonight I met a kid in the Army from Kansas whose job it is to get fuel here, driving a convoy through Baghdad all the time. He happened to mention that his guys pray every time before they go out. I guess!!! Driving a flippin’ fuel truck through the Red Zone during Operation Phantom Fury (Fallujah, round II) would turn you into a praying person if you aren’t one already! His humility, sweetness, and serenity were deeply endearing, and he is by no means an exception. They are over here by the thousands, and from the depths I honor them.
I can from a full heart now say, Happy Veterans’ Day. Better late than never.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner