Shortly after getting home from Iraq in 2004, I attended an Army leadership course for new sergeants. We were sitting in class on day one, going around the room, making introductions, and saying a few words about our short- and long-term goals. A year in Iraq had instilled me with ultra-confidence, and when it came my turn to speak, I said, “Hi, I’m Sergeant Don Gomez. I’m from New York. My short-term goal is to survive. My long-term goal is to get out of the Army and go to school.”
I knew what I was talking about. When we invaded Iraq in early 2003, we all thought it was going to be quick and dirty—but quick. That endless deployment eventually ended. Our commander, speaking to us days before leaving Baghdad, warned us: “Men, listen, we’re going to go back home, take some much deserved leave, but I’ve got to be honest, we’ll probably be back here next year.”
He was right.
I got out of the Army in 2006, and I thought I’d never go back. The war in Iraq was getting hotter and hotter. When I said my goal was to survive, the instructor and the other students chuckled, but I kept a straight face. I was talking about the odds. It was clear to me that vigilance and training helped, but getting out of there unscathed had as much to do with luck as anything else. Getting smoked was just bad luck, and the more times you rolled, the more likely you were to see snake eyes.
I got out and went to school. I did pretty well, actually. The Army did a fantastic job training me, and I used that training to help myself excel. It’s like the Army commercial, “Strength for now, strength for later.” I got involved with veterans issues, and I met lots of other veterans who were following similar paths out there in The World. I won some scholarships, and I went to graduate school.
I started to write about war. It was a way to connect with my own experiences and try to understand them, something I knew would be important as time carried me further away from what I had seen.
Now, 10 years after invading Iraq, I’m back in the Army.
When this year began, I decided to write about my deployment experience in Iraq. I always imagined coming home from that war and going home to see my parents. I would sit them down at the kitchen table, spread out all of my pictures and letters and a map of Iraq. Then I’d tell them about the war. Day by day, moment by moment. I’d lay it all out. We’d drink beer, and I’d tell them everything. We’d laugh and cry, and they would know. The sun would rise, and I’d finish, and they’d nod, and then hug me. And that would be it.
Then I’d tell them about the war. Day by day, moment by moment. I’d lay it all out.
That never happened.
Instead I came home and didn’t really say anything. I’d tell a story here or there, but I never got it out. I’d sit at the bar with my dad, and his friends would buy me beers until I couldn’t see. I’d say we were doing good things, that the media weren’t being fair. They liked that.
In graduate school, I interviewed Iraqi veterans of the Iran-Iraq War to learn more about their experiences. I was looking for universal truths, like pride in military service, and the forever camaraderie of veterans. We sat in a small pub in London, and I fed them cheap beer as they told me how much they hated the military, how it robbed them of everything. They felt no pride. It didn’t matter.
I spoke for hours on the phone with one of our interpreters in Iraq who was in the Iraqi Air Force during the Iran-Iraq War, but was forced to flee to Syria for his safety, while that country began its slow descent into chaos. He echoed that same sentiment. “Fuck the military, and fuck Saddam,” he said. It took everything from him.
I learned about how important it is to talk about war seriously. As veterans, if we talk at all, we tend to get drunk and tell war stories that may be full of boast, but are essentially unrevealing, protective of how we really feel about the things we did. It leads nowhere good.
I’m about halfway through my blog experiment about the war. The other day I felt like quitting. I spent my day in the Army, doing Army things, then came home and read about military stuff in the news, then jumped on Facebook to see all my military friends and veteran friends, posting their articles about war and the great things they write. I panicked, suddenly realizing that this never ends, that my entire life is being consumed by this. I wanted to stop. It’s the same stuff over and over again.
That panic passed, thankfully, and I’m still writing. I remembered that war is forever and goes on without an answer. I couldn’t tell my parents everything in a night—there’s no way to spread a war out on a table and have them understand the whole messy thing and their son’s place in it—but I can write.
I really only intended on posting pictures from my year in Iraq. Pictures with little snippets. Then, I realized that no, some of these events deserve more attention. My old platoon mates ate it up, egging me on, saying, “Yeah, that’s how I felt!”
Then I got to the “war” portion of the war and felt compelled to write more and more. I went to work, came home, and furiously banged away at the keyboard, letting it all come out. It was simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing I’ve ever done. I hated it. I hate it.
What I really hate is how I can never tell it all. There are stories I tell everyone, the stories I tell my close family, the stories I tell veterans, and the stories I tell infantrymen. And then there are the stories that I don’t tell anyone, that I save for myself. And right there is where it is. It’s the truth and a torture I’ll never escape.
And I don’t want to escape.
The other day, I sat there, chatting with another officer about the idea of being the last unit in Afghanistan. How romantic, to be out there on the Frontier, closing out the big show. Just dust and us. The young infantryman in me beamed and I started to grin, thinking about the glory.
And then, I remembered. No, stop it. It’s not romantic. People are going to die. And everyone will want to go home. I caught myself and I wrote it down.