Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families
Edited by Andrew Carroll
The first book of its kind, Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families (Random House; September 12, 2006) is the result of a major initiative launched by the National Endowment for the Arts to inspire U.S. Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen and their families to write down and share their personal wartime experiences.
Encouraged by such authors as Tom Clancy, Mark Bowden, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tobias Wolff, Jeff Shaara, and Marilyn Nelson, who visited military bases throughout the U.S. as part of the larger Operation Homecoming initiative, American troops and their loved ones wrote openly about what they saw, heard, and felt while in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as on the home front.
Almost 100 uncensored and never-before-published eyewitness accounts, private journals, short stories, letters, e-mails, poems, and other personal writings are featured in the book, and they show an extremely intimate and human side of war, including:
the fear and exhilaration of heading into battle
interactions between U.S. forces and Afghans and Iraqis, both as friends and foes
boredom, gripes, and humorous incidents of day-to-day life in a war zone
the anxiety and heartache of worried loved ones on the home front
the brutality of warfare and the physical and emotional toll it takes on combatants
tearful homecomings and somber ceremonies for those who returned to the States alive - and for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their nation.
From riveting combat accounts to profound reflections on warfare and the pride these troops feel for one another, Operation Homecoming offers an unflinching and intensely revealing look into the lives of extraordinary men and women. Their words represent the stories that have yet to be told and the voices that have yet to be heard
"Even if troops emerge from a firefight or attack physically unscathed, the emotional damage can nevertheless be substantial. Watching buddies get killed or hideously maimed and realizing how close they might have come to dying as well, many service men and women are understandably traumatized by the experience."
"No one ever feels like they are doing enough. If you are in a safe location, you feel guilty that your friends are getting shot at and you aren’t. If you are getting shot at, you feel guilty if your buddy gets hit and you don’t. If you get shot at but don’t die, you feel guilty that you lived, and more guilty if you get to go home and your friends have to stay behind. I have not seen one person out here who didn’t [check off] “increased guilty” on our intake form."
"I had no initial clue that the problems were combat related and no idea that I should be assessing for acute stress disorder or PTSD. None of these guys or gals said “I was in combat” or “I saw someone die.” None connected these experiences to their symptoms. It was as if they didn’t remember how hard and unusual it is to be at war. They’re used to the danger. They’ve been out here too long. Why would a war mess with your mood, right?"
"At home I ask people if they have ever experienced or witnessed a traumatic event or abuse. But out here I ask, ‘Have you ever been in combat?’ Apparently, this is a question with the power to unglue … because all of [these] troops burst into tears at the mention of the work ‘combat."
"…In other words, I mean sobbing for minutes on end, unable to speak, flat out grief by an otherwise healthy, strong, manly guy who watches football on the weekends and never puts the toilet seat down."
"Each time I sat there with not a clue what to say … offering tissues … saying I’m sorry … trying to normalize … trying to say, ‘It was not your fault that so and so died’ and ‘If you could have some differently, you would have’ and ‘You had a right to be scared.’ And even worse, ‘You had to shoot back’ and ‘Yes you killed someone, and you still deserve to go back to your family and live your life.’"
"As I walked off the plane, I was taken aback; in the small, dimly lit airport, a group of elderly veterans were there waiting for us, lined up one by one to shake our hands. Some were standing, others were confined to wheelchairs, and all of then wore their uniform hats. Their now-feeble right hands stiffened in salutes, their left hands holding coffee, snacks, and cell phones for us.
"As I made my way through the line, each man thanking me for my service, I choked back tears. Here we were, returning from one year in Iraq where we had portable DVD players, three square meals, and phones, being honored by men who had crawled through mud for years while little more than the occasional letter from home. A few of them appeared to be veterans of the war in Vietnam, I couldn’t help but think of how they were treated when they came back to the U.S., and yet here they were to support us."
"These soldiers – many of whom had lost limbs and comrades – shook our hands proudly, as if our service could somehow rival their own."
"We later learned that this VFW group had waited for more than a day in the airport for our arrival."
"When the time came to fly home to Colorado, we were added by our commander if we would like to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Every hand in the unit went up eagerly – including my own."
"From the day her husband, twenty-five-year-old U.S. Army Specialist Shawn Andersen, was mobilized for duty in Iraq in April 2003, Paula Andersen pictured in her mind the precise moment he would be back in her arms. … She would soon discover, however, that the homecoming she had so desperately yearned for would be nothing like the one that she had imagined."
"When we got off the plane, I walked slowly so that Shawn was ahead of me. I wanted Andrew to see him first. [A] nice lady on the plane walked along side me , and she was excited for Shawn herself. She knew that this father was going to be reunited with his little boy again."
"The anticipation of seeing our son was agonizing for Shawn. He worried that when Andrew saw him, he might be scared to approach him. As soon as we turned the corner, I say Andrew there with his WELCOME HOME DADA sign and I burst into tears. Shawn kneeled down towards Andrew, who rushed to him without hesitation. Shawn hugged him and then lifted him up, and the two of then had never looked happier. I gave Shawn’s parents and sister a hug, and I watched as they all embraced him. I saw how thrilled they were that he was back and, although injured, at least still alive."
"month later we returned to Washington, and in November 2004 Shawn was awarded his Purple Heart. It wasn’t until then that I found out that the five-ton truck he’d been traveling in near Tikrit had been lifted into the air when a roadside bomb exploded underneath it. Miraculously no one was killed, but everyone inside was badly wounded."
It took many months, but Shawn, except for some scarring, fully recuperated. He has stayed in the military, and he now works as a special agent in the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. At any time, he could be sent to Iraq again. If asked about going back to Iraq, Shawn will say, ‘If I have to go again, I have to go. It’s my job.’ I couldn’t bear to watch him leave a second time, especially for a war that I do not agree with. And I defiantly couldn’t handle waiting from him to return. One homecoming is enough."
"For every serviceman or woman killed in Iraq, it is estimated that seven times as many are wounded. Many of these troops – who returned home paralyzed or with missing limbs, terrible burns, major head trauma, loss of vision, or other catastrophic injuries – face enormous physical and psychological hardships. They rely heavily on their families to help with their rehabilitation, and the process can be excruciating for their loved ones as well."
"When I first saw my son, I did not recognize him. His face was very thin and drawn and he had about a week’s growth of beard. There was a lot of pain is his eyes. He grabbed my hand and would not let it go…I’m a Registered Nurse and I’ve seen a lot of people with amputations, so I know what to expect. But seeing my son’s less than half leg for the first time, wrapped up in that big, bulky surgical bandage, was an experience of indescribable grief. Seeing him maneuver so awkwardly in bed, and seeing the pain that he was experiencing, just to do the simplest activity, was something I had tried to prepare myself for, but now I don’t think I could have ever been prepared."
"Once he was settled and medicated with morphine again, the pain began to ease to what he described as a constant 4 out of 10. He never really complained about anything. He just gritted his teeth and did what he had to do. ‘Mom, don’t try to help me unless I ask you,’ he said, ‘I need to learn to manage everything myself.’ His left leg is also very painful as he has numerous smaller shrapnel wounds, which are sutured and the leg bandaged from toes to hip. Charles said he’s had many larger shrapnel pieces removed, but some of the smaller pieces will just be left behind."
"Charles held my hand and talked extensively to Tom and me. Much of what he said, including thoughts and impressions, he did not want repeated to anyone. He has begun to express that he would like to stay in the Army, if possible, after he is fitted with his prosthesis and finishes his rehabilitation. According to Charles, his orthopedic surgeons have told him they believe he could so that, with a different MOS other than Infantry."
"…I keep thinking a time will come when it doesn’t hurt so much to watch Charles struggling top recover. Watching what is left of his right leg withering up and growing ever smaller is something I know is normal, but in my dreams at night I see him at about seventeen, running so smoothly and beautifully, and when I awake to reality I know how cruel this new ‘normal’ is. Sometimes, still, when I see him I find my heart clutching and I have to take a deep breath and swallow hard to keep the tears at bay. My tears won’t help him; hopefully my support and encouragement will."
In January 2005, a review board of Army physicians recommended that Charles be medically discharged because of his disability. Charles, however, successfully appealed the decision, and received a waiver so that he could stay in the Army. (He was promoted to a sergeant in April 2006). Knowing that he couldn’t continue serving as an infantryman, he changed his specialty to military intelligence and was selected to begin studying to become an Arabic translator. His goal is to serve in a combat unit in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever else he is needed.
"While many parents have just one child in the armed forces to worry about, Daniel Uhles had two; Neil and his younger brother, Drew, had both joined the military when they turned eighteen. (Their older sister, Melissa, had served in the Gulf War and was later honorable discharged.) Neil enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard, Drew joined the Marine Corps, and in late 2003 through 2004, both boys were in Iraq at the same time. And, to the absolute joy of their parents, they were both stateside by May 2004. Daniel wrote in his letter to Neil:
"You’re down the hall sleeping. You’re resting. We’re resting. And now – finally – all seems right with the world for the Uhles family. When mornings and moments like these present themselves to me, I feel so guilty for having such a perfect family. Your brothers and sister and you were worth the wait for these moments. They’re like rare diamonds to be enjoyed with a touch of misunderstanding. By way of defining that, I remember Jack Buck was asked in an interview what he would ask God when he got to see him. His answer, ‘God, why have you been so good to me?’ The answer applies to me also."
Uhles’s happiness, however, would be short-lived; in August 2004, Drew was redeployed to Iraq for his second tour of duty. On September 15, 2004, two uniformed Marines appeared at the Uhles home in Illinois and informed the family that earlier in the day. Lance Corporal Drew Michael Uhles had been killed in Al Anbar province by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was for days shy of his twenty-first birthday. Neil, who had fulfilled his commitment to the Guard, volunteered to go back to Iraq. Shocked by the decision, Daniel implored his son to reconsider.
"You’ve given a foreign country a jump start our country never had. You’ve given the Iraqi people a vision of working together to rid THEIR country of insurgents just as we did our country centuries ago in the United States. What more could they ask for than a year of a stranger’s time to help them attain freedom?"
"Lastly, I would ask you to take a deep breath, took at your ENTIRE life – past, present and future – and say ‘Now I’m going to do something for myself! If it’s school, so be it. If it’s career, so be it.’ I guess what I’m saying is, plan for YOUR future. ‘Will another year away be beneficial for what I want and not what someone else wants, or will it only help fill a void in a battalion’s troop list?’"
Despite his dad’s plea, Neil could not be persuaded and was unable to explain to his father why he felt so certain about this matter. Struggling to make sense of his son’s reasons, Daniel asked his daughter, Melissa, and he reply was: "Dad, you just have to have been there to understand."
The knock that DeEtte feared more than anything in the world came … a few minutes after 11:00pm on November 9, 2004, three casualty notification officers arrived at the Kirkland, Washington, home of DeEtte and Rex Woods and informed them that their nineteen-year-old son had been killed in Fallujah. Nathan had been shot while conducting a door-to-door sweep through an apartment complex the morning (Iraq time) of the ninth, and he died instantly. For parents, like the Woods, confronted with the trama of losing a child, the grief can seem endless and all-consuming. Some try to cope with the pain by writing a letter to the deceased, expressing how much he (or she) is still – and always will be – loved and missed.
Nathan’s mother’s letter follows:
Today is May 30, 2005, Memorial Day. You have been gone for almost 7 months. Sometimes I still don’t believe it. I never really understood what Memorial Day was about until this weekend. I was browsing through the mall and felt so angry that the stores were taking advantage of this holiday to push their sales. I wish I was still naïve and could celebrate as through it were a “holiday weekend.” I will never look at this weekend the same. Today I share in the grief that many other families have known since losing someone they love fighting for their country.
…Not a day goes by that I don’t think of you. I never knew that love could hurt so much. There are so many things that spark the memory of you – a song, a boy in a baseball cap and baggy pants, a skateboarder. I wish I could spend another summer at the cabin with you. I know that when you were there you were in heaven. When I think of you now I know that you are on the lake fishing with your friends and I know that someday I can join you. Until then little man I love you and hold you close to my heart.
Nathan’s father wrote the following:
To my son, my hero Nathan R. Wood With memories of a little boy who brought me such happiness playing in the yard with is dog, playing catch in the back yard and trying his best to help his father in anyway he could.
To the little boy who wore my shoes and gloves that were five times the size of his own hands and feet trying to be like me…
As you got older into your teens I lost you because I couldn’t seem to remember what it was like to be a teenager and we grew apart. You became your own man and became a Marine. On the day of graduation at MCRD I felt so proud of you, you had made it and you know you would, you were a true Marine.
I told you on the phone while you were in Iraq, it is strange how the farther away you are the closer that we seem to be getting. I longed for the day that you would come back home so that we could start again and be close once again but that day will never come.
Today we stand in front of this memorial wall with your name etched into it, I feel a great emptiness inside knowing that I will never get to tell you I love you and to thank you for all that you have done. You have given the greatest sacrifice for your family and country. You have given more in your short life then I will ever be able to give in my entire lifetime and that son is why you are my hero.
When I see the pain and loss in your mother since your passing I would gladly change places with you so that she could hug you and smile one more. I will never forget you and I hope that you are in a better place. I miss you.