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Iraq Memories: The Tent
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things you bitch about in the Army. Do I have to share a tent with guys?
With snoring guys? Do I have to share a room with other people? OMG,
latrines. Hauling jugs of water to do laundry; standing in the burning sun
waiting for chow, walking a mile each way in the heat to get to the internet
cafe, all that stuff. And then you get home and you find that life is strange
and different, and that you miss those things. Most of all you miss the
greatest irritant of all, your fellow soldiers. All along it was there, and you
didn't appreciate it. All along it there, hiding in plain sight, and you
couldn't appreciate it till it was all gone. And then you miss it and them with
your whole heart, and you're left trying to explain how, in war zone, there
were these people who irritated the fuck out of you really bad...and you miss
fellow soldiers. What a bunch. They irritate you when they're all you've got,
and yet somehow they leave a mark that can't be forgotten once you separate and
you're home...alone. Get a good group of good soldiers, and it's a return to a
kind of innocence, before gender, before any of that stuff. You're not male or
female yet, even though you all might be middle-aged, but something more and
less and all of that: you're just human, and you're tired because you've been
hauling your fucking duffels all over Camp fucking Wolverine, Kuwait, for hours
after a hellacious long flight and you're so tired you just want to close those
burning itching eyes and rest. It's an elemental existence. Sometimes the
elements one gets reduced to are inhuman, but sometimes-----oh, sometimes, it's
a delicate thing, where a huge ex-Marine asks shyly if he can have that set of
Harry Potter some kind soul sent, or a grim-faced Captain sees the handful of
chocolate you've got for him, and his whole face smiles. If you're all bitching
about the same thing, you're not bitching about one another, and that's what
counts. Pity it's bitching that binds people together, pity that it's war that
gives people an appreciation for these tiny little moments that pass unnoticed
in civilian life.
little second of happiness and contentment is finite in a genuine war zone, one
where bullets really fly, where mortars land and people die. You savor those
tiny little bits of privacy or quiet or happiness with some guilt and some
desperation, because they can't last and unless they're happening right here
and now it's hard to put your finger on them later. Only when you're home do
they hit with full force, when you dare to experience them fully, and by then
they're gone, like the smoke from a long-dead fire. You might as well try and
catch the smoke.
remember that tent choked full of soldiers in Kuwait, when you were so tired you
dropped your duffels on the cot and leaned against them and conked out till
they shook you awake for chow. You remember the thrill of opening boxes and
handing eagerly-awaited stuff to soldiers, the way their faces light up, the
way they scurry off with their treasures. Sometimes it's a soldier from another
country, in good times and bad. I was feeding some wild Iraqi cats one day with
food purloined from the chow hall when a Polish general stopped dead in the
courtyard and watched, his expression changing to something lost and longing.
After a bit, he came over to me, a tall, spare, stark man, with hollow
cheekbones and a luxurious mustache, to pet the kitties and sigh over them and
what they meant to him. "I...have cat home," he said. "She is
very bad." The mamacat, rasping at him when he paused in petting her,
purred like an engine. "She is boss, she is queen."
have cats, too," I said. We smiled at one another in complete and
international agreement: cats boss us around. I don't know what rank of general
he was, but love of cats reduced him to just another supplicant before the
Almighty Feline. Later on, in the twilight, I came out to put out some more
food and found some already placed there: a bowl of tuna and some milk. Home is
where your pet is, evidently; home is where you have something fluffy to cuddle
and love, no matter your nationality or rank. Even generals bow before cats, it
seems. Not a startling sentiment, but when you see it in action, it touches
you, literally. Every time that general and I spotted one another, after the
salutes there was a tiny little bond. You look for those when you're far from
home, you're living in a weird environment in a strange way. A lot of those
tiny moments can add up.
after the XO had his first kid---pretty much listening in on the phone the
whole time---and then got leave to go home we goofed around so much before the
convoy that we were late in line leaving the gate. I don't remember the details
really well----going out on the road was normal. We did it every week. There
was always a line of vehicles on the grand road that led into Babylon. Leaving the gate boiled down to one
or two seconds of fear where you remembered IEDS and bombs, and just for a
moment, you were a human and not just a soldier. Then you took a deep breath.
You just get used to startling amounts of danger.
It was a
normal trip till we were about a half hour out and spotted an obstacle on the
road ahead of us. That obstacle was a stalled convoy. What I remember is that they
were Poles, and that I'd gotten used to seeing them and hearing about them at Babylon. The Poles
have such bad vehicle armor that they hang their vests over the door to block
bullets. The Poles love the US.
The Poles have really shitty vehicle armor. I was in the gun turret and I
saw the stalled vehicles, pulled over to the side, even while we were pulling
over. One windshield had a red coating that slicked its glass like a sun
screen. One stretcher lay next to the vehicle, a form on it entirely covered by
a blanket except for the soles of the boots. Then a Polish soldier ran up to my
vehicle and I forgot everything else. He was wearing a light uniform, pressed
and perfect, and the only thing that stood out on that hot dusty day was the
bright red blood on the front of his uniform, on his hands to the knuckle, and
on top of his helmet. He was very young. Behind him, I saw that the driver's
side door of his vehicle was adorned with a flak vest. He was not wearing one. He
had blood on his helmet. He had blood splashed on the top of his helmet.
What do you do to the human body to make it splash blood that way, like a
puddle you've stepped in?
guarded the disabled convoy and the bodies till the Medevac choppers came. I
was pointed in the opposite direction but I could hear and catch a glimpse that
it was two of them: one for the living, one for the dead. Then we pushed on to Baghdad.
go to Baghdad
as a soldier for a temporary thing, you find yourself in the transient tents.
At least, back then you did. The transient tents are stuffed full of cots,
maybe two feet wide, and feature a heavy duty air conditioner unit and maybe a
cot filled with donated items left behind by departing soldiers. Lights out is
eleven; sometimes you have to impress that on newcomers. The call to prayer
punctuates the day, till it becomes normal and expected. You don't realize its
absence will mark your days when you return home. Nor do you realize how
comforting it is to be surrounded by bodies, by women, by fellow soldiers. There's
safety there, in ways you can't precisely identify. You sleep with your weapon
in your bunk. You sleep with fellow soldiers beside you. Surrounded by enemies,
you find that you get along with people you'd hvae argued with back home. And
then you go out on the street and find yourself talking recipes and gossip with
Iraqis. It never ceases to be confusing.
you're home, alone, with a bedroom all to yourself or to one other person, no
gunfire going off, and suddenly you find yourself feeling...naked. The stuff
you looked forward to suddenly isn't that pleasant.
in April my team got stranded in an ambush. Incoming fire got so bad we got
separated from the radios in the Humvees, and for a long time we were unable to
comunicate with base. Twilight came and went. With darkness came ability and
then, finally, we were able to get back to the vehicles and let the camp know
we were still in the fight.
base, as our radios fell silent, soldiers and workers of various nationalities
listened in. They told us so themselves later on. Poles, Ukrainians,
Australians, English, and the Pakistani workers passed the word from one to
another, over plates and from person to person. Music usually dominated the
meals as Pakistani workers fed their favorite CDs into the CD changer. That
dinner, nobody had the stomach to listen to it. The soldiers requested silence.
That night, we had no nationality and every nationality. The enemy never asks
for ID. That night, we were all just soldiers.
tougher the situation, the greater the camraderie, if you've got a good bunch
of troops. What's a good bunch of troops? Here's me in South Korea,
the sole female in a tent full of guys given to getting up in the morning and
talking about their 'little friend,' their dicks. After a couple mornings of
this I was tired of it, not in a sexual harassment kind of way, because it was
obvious that wasn't the intention, but because, you know there are other things
in the world, right? The next morning I waited to pounce. Before the first guy
opened his mouth I held up his hand and went into my spiel, which went like
thirteen of you and one of me. You guys all get up first thing and each one of
you talks for five minutes about your...shortcomings. Now, some evening things
up is in order. Either change the subject or I get five minutes to talk about
whatever I want to times thirteen. Fair's fair."
morning, one of the guys got up, cleared his throat, and was promptly hushed by
another guy, who nodded at me and said, "Shh. Mixed company."
I said, "There's an officer in the tent."
ranking officer in the tent, caught literally with his pants down---in mixed
gender tents you either change in your bag or the shower or exercise tactful
eye aversion-----looked up suddenly, his blue snowflake-printed boxers on
display. "What did she say?"
sleep in the same room with somebody---usually several somebodies---to whom you
are not married and to whom you probably have not really been introduced. You
learn far too much about them, too fast, and it feels too intimate, too fast,
and a little depressing. I don't as a general rule want to learn about
somebody's stretch marks unless, you know, there's been generally-accepted upon
preliminaries. In the military you find yourself getting acquainted with
somebody's music tastes, sleeping habits, sleeping noises, lapses of
taste, bad habits, good habits, and all manner of things that usually come with
marriage or intimacy. You can be stuck in a room where your only privacy comes
when you toss a blanket over the top bunk of your bunk beds---yes, adults sleep
in these things---and pretend there's no world outside that for a few minutes.
Where so many people are crammed into any available spaces, the most valuable
thing is a little bit of territory to call your own.
funny, though, after a sojourn in an aircraft hangar with a hundred other women
and one electrical outlet, when you get home as good as it feels to have space
of your own it's having a hundred opportunties to talk that you miss. Nobody
talks about that, that feeling that you're alone in a strange world. They warn
you about all kinds of things but they never tell you that you'll miss being a
part of something, and you'll miss it badly. All those months of longing for
privacy and a bed that's more than twenty four inches wide and suddenly you
find that the feeling of not having people around makes all that space around
you too large to fill with anything. People go mad trying to fill that space.
The worst thing about it is that it doesn't hit you till later; you're too busy
marveling at the sybaritic conditions of civilian life: a room with just one
bed in it? Really? An electrical outlet all your own? The ability to crank your
stereo without waking someone else up? It's just that sometimes you think it's
not worth it, that there's something good about having your aspirations humbled
just a bit. Maybe it's not a bad thing to just be grateful your bed's
comfortable, your bookshelves are stuffed, and your existence makes you happy.
Maybe if you could trade it for a room full of those damned irritating fellow
soldiers, you'd do it, you'd trade in the relative luxury of civilian life for
the rigors of a soldier's life without a backward glance. There's nobody you
can explain that to any longer, because they're gone and scattered to any and
everywhere, and all the things you experienced and understood are gone with
them. It's all over, and you never knew anything was happening till it's gone,
Ginmar (not her real name), who has graciously allowed us to share some of her memories of Iraq, is a 16-year veteran of the U.S. Army. Her time in the Armed Forces have taken her around the world and made her one of the most passionate, opinionated, and caring voices on the Internet for enlisted people and officers.
A combat veteran who began and ended her tour in Iraq in Baghdad, Ginmar was stationed in Kut, Babylon, and (briefly) Ad Diwaniyah. While in-country and off-duty, she organized three goodwill drives: one to help the marketplace men, who befriended her, one to help kids, and one to mobilize people back in the States to send soldiers books and snacks and other useful items.
Ginmar speaks two languages and is a crack shot and former ballet dancer. She describes herself as an "evil commie liberal pink hippie gun nut feminist combat veteran."
A friend describes her as a major straight-arrow with an awesome bullshit detector and a soft spot for cats, the fluffier and more spoiled the better.
Her first book is under contract.