Homeward Bound: A Memoir

Homeward Bound: A Memoir

It was soft, the feeling of my chin resting on my flak jacket. Mesopotamia danced in red-orange flame and moonlight. The crackling of a thousand fires in a city was strangely silent while a drumbeat of soft explosions in the distance lulled my mind to sleep. Shattering the peace, a cacophony of anger barked from the mouth of a tattooed corporal with brown-skin and a square jaw. “Eh! Steen! You awake?”. Startled, the harsh voice altered me to my trespass, and the punishment my trespass would earn. I responded quickly. “No corporal”. My nose grew long; I was falling asleep on watch.__after_action___by_avogel57_d1tjpp4-pre

At 19 years old, I found myself afraid and exhausted on my first tour of duty in the city of Fallujah. The “city of mosques” presented a world that I could have hardly imagined in my life before. On early patrol in the city, my eyes squinted in the Iraqi sun as the day’s light glanced off the city’s spires and domes. Foreign prayers drummed throughout the city and echoed through the streets, alien to my ears. I began my career in the military longing for an experience to define my life. Inevitably when you ask for something, you get more than you bargained for.

Three sleep-deprived days caught up with me, their visions fighting a war for dominance in my mind. There, behind my eyes, I saw a man standing in an empty street, screaming holy hell, spraying gunfire at faceless threats on the rooftops. The forms of his targets were blurred in my memory. Were they covered? Or was it that I didn’t remember? No, they were covered. The details returned to me and I remembered the cracks of the rooftops and the red patch that formed on the screaming man’s leg where he had been struck.

After the man fell, two faceless comrades grabbed him and hauled him to the ground where I had been standing. He wasn’t screaming anymore and laid moaning softly, tranquil in a drug-induced stupor. I preferred the screams. When the soldier was yelling incoherently, it seemed like he was saying “Not Yet, there is so much that is unfinished”. With the drugs, there was nothing but resignation. In the quiet, the man continued to die in front of me.

Finally, after what seemed like ages, a squadmate set a tourniquet on his leg and placed his knee on the man’s chest as the injured soldier faintly struggled against his friends’ attempts to help. A covered vehicle with a tattered drab green color pulled up and a group of desert-fatigued men placed the injured soldier in the back. The man was still audibly groaning as the Humvee pulled away.

I closed the hatch to my own vehicle and prepared to move out. As we accelerated, the remaining pool of blood spread across the vermillion floor and down its narrow channels forming a sort of morbid mosaic on the floor. A man named Charlie sitting next to me opened a pack of cigarettes drawing one into his square white jaw. The smoke passed the filter of his lips and gave a slow white puff. The smell was glorious, masking the smell of rotting flesh. Extending a narrow digit into the pack, Charlie extended his arm, offering a choice from roughly twenty, a gray stick that promised something more peaceful than what I had just witnessed. I took the cigarette and lit up. And for the first time in my life, I breathed the fire out my lungs. The inhale was tormenting.  My head spun violently. Then there was relief, and the veins in my head disappeared. My body relaxed. It was peaceful. Like a dreamless sleep, I thought of nothing in the present or the future. The distant noise of the city was replaced with calm.

The vision ended and my head turned back to the corporal screaming. The memory vanished but the reality of Falluja persisted, I was still deployed, still riding patrol. This was yet another day in a long stretch of days one very much like the other.  As I came back to my senses, a whirring sound crashed outside of my vehicle. We ground to a halt and I opened the hatch. A dead man lay next to our vehicles treads. How long had he been there? hours? maybe days? Death was plentiful in the city. Answers were scarce. All I knew was that the man was dead and that I hadn’t seen him die.

The corporal got out to take pictures of the man. His burnt brown body was growing putrid in the hot sun. At the time, I thought it was strange to take pictures. The man was of no relation to the corporal or any of us. He was, as far as we knew, a random fixture of the city’s decay, betrayed by one explosion or another within a city at war. The Corporal climbed back in the vehicle in a hurry. “Steen! Are you deaf? Back up! We are getting mortared from our own people”. I pulled the gear selector in reverse and slammed the accelerator. The green beast lurched backward and then screamed down the street away from the threat. My nerves were reeling. I wasn’t sure if I was more terrified of the exploding projectiles or the verbal punishments from the corporal, either was motivation enough to move quickly.

The corridor with the corpse grew small and disappeared into the distance. But the body of the unknown man remained; in the corporal’s camera, and in my memory. The image was there indelibly: an unknown Iraqi man, burnt and decaying in the Fallujah sun.

Pictures are odd things. I have often found it strange how people want a physical image to remind themselves that, sure enough, they were somewhere, that they participated in life events that should be well-recollected. Are memories not enough? It seems that the frame and the caption associated with each picture provide a type of comfort; “A Fishing Trip with Dad 2002”, the moment captured with smiles, poses, and a convenient explanation.

Lots of Marines try to label their own experiences in combat with these kinds of convenient explanations. But explanations fall short, they are cheap. People say that a picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes a picture is worth no words. Labeling an image removes a part of its power. Pictures of smiling men with guns standing next to one another, corpses in the backgrounds, dead bodies hanging from a bridge, I look at pictures of myself from that time and understand nothing aside from how I felt in the moment. Apathy, anger, camaraderie, and cowardice alternate across the memories. But emotions are words, and words are insufficient to explain anything. I can’t bring myself to understand these moments, but I re-live them from time to time over a cigarette.

For as long as I can remember, I have asked myself if there was a plan for existence, some meaning that could make sense of things. As a child I was raised to believe in God, that life had a plan and that one’s duty was to realize his gifts to the glory of God. But war has a way of laying bare the uncertainty and grim realities of existence. After returning, I found myself questioning whether there could be any plan or purpose. Men who had much more to lose than me were dying every day in overseas cities. Men with wives and children were shipped home in flag-draped coffins. Sometimes I felt that the injustice was unbearable. Why did I live through so many close calls when others did not? Other times I could not even mourn those who had fallen. I was just glad they were not me.

And through all of this, the notion of a divine plan for the universe began to seem like a farce. The idea sickened me. Mankind was horrible enough to not need the Devil to explain his evil and meaning was too absent to require a God to explain it. Besides, if the cruel contradictions of war were part of some larger divine plan, I wanted no part in it.  

After returning from deployment, my thoughts began drifting in a new direction.  I began to read and listen to the skeptic voices popular in the late 2000s: the secular witticisms of Christopher Hitchens, the insights of Richard Dawkins, and the rational refutations of Sam Harris and Matt Dillahunty. These were my guides on a new intellectual journey. From them, I was able to build a new logical foundation to form the atheism that I still maintain.

I became enamored with the idea of building a world without fate or destiny, a world in which people were free to act without God, and where empirical reality revealed the correct path for humanity and myself. Science and secularism provided a story and a sense of stability that didn’t rely on a divine plan which seemed absent both in America and Iraqi. There was a certain confidence that the atheist approach provided to both the present and the past. However, even this confidence would be shaken by events to come.

Today, I find myself looking back on these life changes, in a crisis I had never anticipated in the streets of Fallujah or in my subsequent philosophical ruminations. My father is diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer.

People act like science has all of the answers. Maybe it does. Science has an answer for my dad. The answer is that he will likely die from his affliction. But this is not the answer that anyone wants, and it is not the answer that anyone is looking for after the prognosis.

Now, even as an atheist, I think I understand why people pray. People pray because they don’t have control. Most of us are not doctors, and none of us can heal the sick with certainty. Rather than pursue self-destruction, stew in anger, blame the government for not curing my dad and burn down the world, I have to accept that there is no remedy that is within my power. All I can do is hope that my father survives his treatments.

In the same way, while I was at war, I could not stop the bullets and explosives directed at my comrades and myself. Rather than shoot everything that was a threat I had to accept that there were things beyond my control, things for which scientific warfare and tactics had no answer. In these places, I have found that it is necessary to believe in something beyond the plain facts of the situation. And, even as an atheist, I can’t think of a better word for this than “faith”.

I have to have faith that things in life will work out. I have to have faith that even though my dad will die, and he may yet die horribly from the cancer consuming him, his passing will be serene and sacred. In order to continue to live and justify my own existence, I have to believe that life can be better and that my father’s memory in this world will be honorable.  

Science has possibilities, but I remain with the hard reality of my life. I think back to my family’s last conference call. I listened to the thoughts and hopes of my family members believing all the while that I could not share in their prayers to a God who I rejected. But after everything was said, I realized that I could not help but pray. There was nothing else to do.

The foxholes of Iraq were not enough to force me to understand belief. Instead, it was that deeper foxhole of seeing the man who raised me from birth face his final hours, a man I love, and deserving of a good life, dying. I am the continuation of my father. I am his flesh and blood and there something from me is a part of him, just as a part of him will be with me always. The blessing of life he gave me is something that is sacred and must be continued forward into the future.300px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project

As I close these reflections, my mind again returns to another dusty tale from the Middle East, not a wartime memory but a parable, the story of the Prodigal Son. I remember Jesus’s parable more vividly in these times recalling its many details: the younger son’s life of wanton decadence, the hard times of hunger, and then the feast and the fatted calf that greeted him upon his return to his father. Undoubtedly the original moral of the tale was directed to those in the role of jealous older brother, a caution against pride. But in the parable’s words, there is a promise of hope, a story of a son returning to the love that he had thought he had lost. Every day, I try to remember to take one step closer to the parable’s example. I am grateful for each lamp post that I have found on my way, but I must remind myself that the future is unknown. There remains no certainty of an ultimate answer at the end of things, but I have a direction to travel and I know that I  must hurry home before the light grows dimmer.

2 Replies to “Homeward Bound: A Memoir”

  1. Very powerful writing. I think quite a few people walk a similar path eventually, though few in such a dramatic fashion as you outline here. Without an understanding that so much is unknowable, out of our hands and that all things – even though we can’t always see it or understand it – have meaning, I think we lose our humanity. We even lose our ability to talk about things like death and loss in any way that is true. I’ve stood around relatives in hospital beds, watching them slowly fade away and had nothing comforting or meaningful to say. What can you say other than, “oh dear”, without alluding to the spirtual, God, or some higher order of things? I certainly could think of nothing. I wish we could have that spirtual lanuage back in the modern world. I hope your father lives a long time yet.

  2. He’s living as long as he can, and as long as God allows. The emptiness of the situation was something that definitely caught me , when i was having the conversation with my family. Everyone was just trying to say, well I hope everything gets better. I realized how shallow it was, and that when we were all a lot younger we used to say I’ll pray for you. We used too…to do a lot of things together as a family, and for some reason it felt a lot of my atheism was stopping that connection. That my lack of belief was stopping me from having communion with my family.

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