Over the years I have corresponded with an American who fought in the first Iraq War. We began writing because we share the same name, though we are not related. Just recently he wrote again, in response to my essay Speaking Truth to Trauma (TQE #156). His letter was moving and thoughtful, and stands powerfully on its own. I have therefore given this edition over to my friend's letter, in his own words and with his permission. Loren Cobb, editor.
Letter from a Soldier
I have been following your work and wanted to comment on the PTSD issues related to combat, and other non-combat events. This is a difficult issue for me I don't share military experiences very often. There is one truth, however: it takes only eight weeks to teach someone basic tactics and marksmanship; about two years to develop from individual to soldier, and an event like combat to make this change permanent. The real issue is that there is no "un-training" and there is no "un-soldiering" that can be done. The pattern of thought is permanent, indelible, and ever-present. This is very frustrating.
I focus on cooking. Amateur cuisine! I proclaim myself a Chef by self-appointment.
One thing I am not is a soldier. Former trooper Cobb, the soldier that I was that individual still pushes directives and issues edicts from time-to-time. Hypervigilance. I don't like the term "divorced", I prefer the term: "single". I also prefer the term "civilian" and not the term "veteran". The term "combat veteran" is worse than the term "bitterly divorced", I'm sure.
People have jobs. I used to be a carpenter. Now I just make things. I used to work at a place that mandated the use of firearms instead of Skil saws, but it was a living. I don't think of mud, cold, fatigue, and trauma. I think of filth, of injustice and tragedy. If I could forget one single thing, it would be my encounters with "The Enemy". The ones who surrendered. We were tasked to capture, search, segregate and secure.
The people I saw were not the Nazis, not the Red Chinese, not the Viet Cong, not the (pick any term that means "bad guy"). Instead they were what I was: scared, frightened. Looking back at me in masses were hundreds of "soldiers", hungry, dirty, scared, uncertain. I was a real bad-ass until that moment, then I became a bully. Soldiers too old to have hair on their heads, or too young to shave. Soldiers who had filthy rags for uniforms. Soldiers who were left poorly equipped to fight and if not, then die by our hands or the hand of their ruthless commanders.
I saw that no matter what uniform a soldier wears, it is cut from the same cloth. The only difference was that we were on the winning team this time. I fought on a battlefield, maybe the last conventional war any non-third-world country will ever fight. Now I see kids who were babies fight in a war that has no end. In spite of the best equipment and training ever provided by any nation in history, they are fighting in a war with no battlefield, no uniformed enemy, and no clear indicator between kill and no-kill.
I often wonder if any of those soldiers who surrendured to us had brothers or fathers or sons who lost their lives at our hands before we plucked them from the hands of certain death. I will never forget how many pictures, trinkets, letters home and other personal effects I discovered while searching for weapons. Each person had something personal. They were not soldiers, and they were as afraid as I was. I can't imagine what they were thinking when an entire cavalry troop decended upon them. I wonder if any of them think of me. The fact that I was firm but professional. The fact that I had compassion for them the enemy. The fact that since the first day I searched prisoners until the last time the sun sets, I think of them.
Seeing this war on TV is horrible. It was never supposed to be on TV. It was supposed to be a place that someone went, came back from and never talked about. That was the way it was supposed to stay. Now soldiers have internet access, email, video cameras, and there is no limit to the news coverage. This is a place I don't want to be. It is their turn. Not my time to fight any more. I want to be a civilian and an amateur chef. If they called me I would go, but I would want to leave it there if I returned. This is completely unfair. Someone took my turn away, and slapped me in the face with it.
We destroyed their army, but we didn't destroy their people. Maybe we should have done it all in one sweep at least then I wouldn't see it come back fifteen years later. An hour, a minute, a day or a year it isn't the time you're in danger that bothers you. You cope or you crack. You have your brothers there with you. But when you finally come home, there are no brothers there with you. You are alone.
The sad thing is it took me almost fifteen years to finally realize that I was not really alone just long enough to begin adjustment and then came the new Iraq war on TV, to seriously screw things up for a while. It wasn't until recently that I finally admitted to myself that I am indeed a good person. I have made many mistakes. But I have to be okay with that. I have asked forgiveness from the living and hope the rest accept my apology. I was no Rambo, I was no mindless killing machine, nothing of the sort. I was just one molecule on the sharp edge of a really big sabre, nothing more and nothing less. Now I just want to be known as a civilian and an amateur chef. That's enough to make me happy, even if I can't forget.
I am a good person. I have equal compassion for the ally and the enemy if they're in uniform and fighting for their country. These new warriors who fight for no cause other than to harm, be they terrorists or freelance soldiers, those men I have no respect for. They may be known as Al-Qaeda, Blackwater, insurgent, or advisor same difference.
I have elected to choose my own battles now. And the things that trouble me most, I cannot solve. So instead, I will try something new, perhaps chicken and roasted peppers inside a miniature dutch oven, with some lemongrass and buttered edamame beans on the side.
If I had one wish one that really mattered to me it would be that all soldiers with good hearts and troubled minds will find their way to a hobby much faster than I did. Be they cooks or carpenters or cat owners, I don't care, but I hope they can live in tomorrow and enjoy the simple act of simplicity.
If I were granted one wish, that would be it.
(former) trooper Cobb
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Copyright © 2008 by Loren Brent Cobb. All rights reserved.