How I Joined the Army, Went to War, and Came Back
This is an article that I originally wrote for Anjali, a publication from KHNA (Kerala Hindus of North America). I was asked to write an article describing my experiences in the Army and this is what I came up with. It eventually ended up being a lot longer than I planned.
How I Joined the Army, Went to War, and Came Back
About 8 years ago, I raised my right hand and took the oath of allegiance. I swore to follow and obey the lawful orders of my superiors, and to protect the United States of America from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I enlisted in the Arizona Army National Guard on December 19th, 2000. I was 19-years old at the time. Many people have asked me about my motivation for doing so; this was two-fold. Firstly, there was the issue of college tuition. The Guard offered to pay (at the time) 75% of my college tuition if I fulfilled my contract, and kept good grades. Secondly, I was attracted to the discipline of the Army, and I wanted to be part of something larger than myself.
After formally enlisting in December, I went to Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina on the 26th of May, 2001. Basic Training is definitely something I look upon fondly (now), but at the time it was definitely a very difficult and trying experience. I was never the overtly physical type while growing up. Hence, the completely physical aspect of the Military was intimidating to me. I had also heard stories about the Drill Sergeants, how they were extremely strict and demanding, and continually in your face. Basic Training is a strenuous physical, mental, and emotional ordeal. For most people, it is the discipline and lack of freedom that is most difficult. The Drill Sergeants control every aspect of your day. You do everything according to a set time-table, and you learn the value of punctuality and discipline. To the uninitiated, seeing what a recruit experiences at the hands of a Drill Sergeant may seem frightening, or even cruel. Recruits have to sacrifice some of their individuality and personal freedoms, and this is terrifying to some people. What Basic Training teaches you (other than how to be a soldier) is how to be part of a team; to place the welfare and well-being of your brothers and sisters-in-arms (and by extension, the nation) above your own.
To be very frank, the strictness of Basic Training didn’t faze me. I went to an Indian School, growing up. I found many similarities between the school environment in an Indian school and the environment in Basic Training (excluding the weapons, explosive, and other bodily-harm-causing implements). Both environments have a strong focus on discipline and respect. In Basic Training, the Drill Sergeants are God. To do anything, you require their permission. You speak when spoken to. If you want to go to the bathroom, you raise your hand. If you speak out of turn, or do not do what you are told, you get punished. Does this sound familiar to any readers who have studied in an Indian School?
The day I graduated Basic Training was a very proud day for me. I had endured one of the toughest experiences of my life. I went from a scrawny 104-pound 19-year old to a 125-pound, US Army Soldier. I was confident, disciplined, and words like “Honor”, “Duty”, and “Loyalty” were more than just mere words to me; they actually meant something now.
Over the next few years, things weren’t all that exciting. I went to AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at Fort Lee, Virginia in 2002 to qualify for my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty), which was to be an “Automated Logistics and Supplies Specialist”. To be honest, I didn’t know what my job in the Army actually was when I enlisted. My conversation with my recruiter went something like this:
Recruiter: Well, so what do you do in College?
Me: I’m trying to get a degree in Computer Engineering.
Recruiter: Oh really? Well this has computers in it!
Me: Oh really? I’ll do that!
At the time, I was really naïve and perhaps should have put a little more thought into it, but in retrospect it’s interesting how that one little decision shaped the rest of my life. The description of my job isn’t that glamorous. I essentially maintain a supply chain so that the mechanics in the maintenance section can get the parts they need to fix the vehicles in our unit. To this end, I worked on an archaic piece of software that was written in the 80’s and subsequently updated over and over again. When I found out that this was what I was actually doing, I felt a little… deflated. But eventually I realized that I was an important part of the system, and my programming and computer engineering background eventually did help me excel at my job, especially when I got deployed.
The next few years in the Guard were pretty uneventful. I attended and performed my duties at drill one weekend every month, and two weeks in the summer for Annual Training. Of course, things changed after September 11th, 2001. Twice after that, I was almost deployed; once to Luke Air Force Base, and then to Iraq . Though I understood my obligations, I was extremely unnerved and frightened at the prospect of putting my college education on hold. Through an intricate series of events not of my design, I somehow fell through the cracks and managed not to get deployed. I was able to continue my college education and graduate in the spring of 2004. When I finally did have to go, I felt that I was ready.
In early 2005, I was told that I would be deploying to Iraq. Needless to say, my family wasn’t very thrilled. They were understandably scared and worried about my safety. Many of my friends asked me to figure out some way to get out of it (one of them kindly offered to break my legs, so I wouldn’t be able to go). If I had done what they had asked, I don’t think I would have been able to live with that decision. The truth of the matter is that no one wants to go to war. In fact, I vividly remember my Drill Sergeant talking about going to war. He once asked us to raise our hands if we wanted to go war. Of course, all of us raised our hands up. He said, “Really? Then all y’all are stupid! No one wants to go to war! No one wants to die! We go to war because it’s our duty!”. Trying to get out of going to Iraq seemed dishonorable to me. I would be turning my back on my comrades and I would be violating the oath I took when I enlisted. I understood, and knew that it would be a difficult and dangerous experience, but I decided to do it any way, because it was what I had to do. It was my duty.
I left Phoenix on the morning of the 30th of August, 2005. It was definitely one of the most heart-wrenching and saddest days of my life. I wasn’t sad for myself, but I was sad for my family and friends. I didn’t want them to worry about me and I even felt slightly guilty at the emotional turmoil I was putting them through. But even though they’d rather have me back home, they all understood why I was going and why I had to go. I spent three months in Ft. Lewis, Seattle where the whole unit underwent pre-mobilization training. We left for Kuwait on the 18th of November. We spent about two weeks there before we actually flew out to Baghdad, Iraq.
I realize that most people, when asked to make up a list of positive experiences, don’t put “war” on that list (unless you’re an arms dealer). My year in Iraq was definitely a stressful and difficult experience that fundamentally changed me in some ways. But in a gestalt sense it was a positive experience for me; in some way it has characterized and validated my service. Prior to my deployment, I often had the feeling that I was simply “going through the motions” of being a soldier. But there I was in Iraq, doing what I was trained to do, supporting my fellow soldiers, and getting the mission done.
For most people, politics and war are inextricably intertwined. War is, after all, an action which is the culmination of a series of events based on some sort of political policy. This really isn’t the case with soldiers (or any military person). Of course, this seems paradoxical, or even nonsensical. After all, we’re the ones who’re participating in the war, so shouldn’t we be aware of the politics of it as well? Not really. Politicians decide policy, and in the case of war policy, the military carries it out. I was well-aware of the hugely political overtones of the Iraq War. I was also well aware of the arguments for and against the war, and I had my own views on the matter. But when you’re lying awake in bed in the middle of the night, listening to incoming mortars exploding all around you, shaking your flimsy tin-can residence, politics becomes largely irrelevant. People often ask me about my political feelings about the war and I decline to answer. They often ask me my views because of my experience, but this is the very reason that I don’t answer. People assume that because of my experience, my views have an extra legitimacy to them because “I was there”. By extension, they also assume that my political views define the character of, or motivation for my service in Iraq. It is hard to explain how or why soldiers maintain this “wall” in their heads. It’s not an attempt at rationalization, rather it is necessary for us to function properly in a combat environment. Trying to decide whether throwing the grenade that is currently in your hand espouses and promotes a libertarian or neo-conservative political world-view, while bullets are flying at you from all directions, is probably detrimental to your combat effectiveness. Hence the need to completely render politics irrelevant. When people ask me why I went, and why I served there, I tell them that I did it because it was my duty; because I wanted to support my fellow soldiers and because I wanted to complete the mission. I owe no further explanation.
Like I had mentioned before, my experience in Iraq was definitely stressful. I missed my family and friends terribly. I realized the value of the simple things in life, like not being afraid of being hit by mortar (for instance), while lying in bed, watching South Park on TV. Finally, imagine spending a whole year with your baseline level of anxiety ratcheted up to about 10 times its normal level. When we first got there, I was startled by every incoming mortar, but I eventually got used to it. I was initially stationed at the Green Zone, and got to visit the major landmarks in the area, like the Crossed Sabers, Saddam’s Palace, and the Al-Rashid Hotel. However, our mission changed and I came back to join the rest of the unit at Camp Liberty, Baghdad.
Our unit’s mission in Iraq was varied. We would usually be transporting VIP’s, prisoners, or supplies to different places in and around Baghdad. My job mainly kept me on base (and my family was extremely relieved because of that). To be very honest, there were times that I wished I could go “outside the wire”, instead of stay on the base. It wasn’t because I was fatalistic or crazy, but I enjoyed the adrenaline rush and also felt like I was doing something more tangible. I was able to go out about 10 or 12 times during my tour in Iraq. If you ask me what it feels like to be in imminent danger, I can say that it’s definitely an odd feeling. While I realized that I was in extreme danger, I didn’t feel scared or frightened. Only extremely alert and focused, which I guess, is how you would want to feel in a combat environment.
I didn’t truly realize the importance of my MOS until my tour in Iraq. Since our unit’s mission consisted a lot of convoying, the maintenance team was extremely busy ensuring that the vehicles were in a fully mission-capable state. A vehicle that breaks down outside the wire is extremely vulnerable, and so we had a huge responsibility to ensure that this never happened. My job, as mentioned before, was to ensure that the maintenance team had access to the repair parts they required. Most people in my position simply use the software provided. However the software being archaic, and having been written a few short weeks before the invention of the wheel (I am being sarcastic, of course) was not very user friendly or intuitive. Tasks that should be simple took forever to complete. The interface was obtuse, and the designers had made some seriously brain-dead decisions. Reporting was even more tedious. Most other units there would painstakingly write up a report every morning manually and send it up to the TOC (Tactical Operations and Command). Not content with this state of affairs, I resolved to completely streamline our operations. I essentially wrote my own programs that automated a lot of the data entry and reporting. Tasks that normally took hours now took only a matter of seconds to complete. In addition, I was able to send out extremely accurate reports because I figured out how to interface with the Army software’s database. I never once in my life thought that I would be putting my degree to use in Iraq. I never created any of these enhancements in the expectation of some sort of reward. My driving force was to ensure that I did everything humanly possible to guarantee the safety of my friends and the success of their mission outside the wire. Towards the end of the tour, I was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for my efforts.
Due to the nature of my job, and the fact that I mostly stayed on base, I wasn’t able to interact very much with the Iraqi people, or catch that much of a glimpse into their lives outside the base. In my experience though, most of the Iraqi people I did meet were extremely friendly and hospitable, with a sincere desire to see their country succeed. This is not to say that all Iraqis liked us. More than once I saw people on the street make obscene gestures at the convoys as we drove by. That, and the IED’s (Improvised Explosive Devices) clued us into the fact that we weren’t universally liked. A lot of Iraqis actually worked on base and ran shops that sold different kinds of merchandise and also a whole lot of bootlegged DVD’s (one of the first Iraqis I met was a kid on the street who wanted to sell me DVD’s). They would arrive at the base in the morning and leave in the evening. They were required to have escorts at all times as well, and this was how I was able to meet a lot of them. The lower enlisted (I was specialist at the time and hadn’t been promoted to Sergeant yet) had to perform extra duty, and one of these was “escort duty” where you had to escort Iraqis or TCN’s (Third-Country Nationals) around the base. I can recall my first time performing escort duty as especially poignant. The person I had to escort was a 12-year old boy who helped the garbage truck collect garbage around the base. He spoke excellent English and I asked him why he didn’t go to school. He told me that his father had been killed when insurgents blew up a mosque he was praying at. Since he was the oldest member of the family, he had to quit school and earn money.
The year passed by quickly (although at the time it seemed to drag on forever). Soon, the unit that would replace us arrived on base and we quickly started training them. We had gone from counting-down months to counting-down days. Finally, the day of our departure arrived. We flew out of Iraq at the beginning of November. We stayed in Kuwait for two days before flying out to the United States. As the plane left the tarmac, everyone on the aircraft started cheering; we were glad to be finally leaving the Middle East.
The day I finally landed in Phoenix, Arizona was one of the happiest days of my life. My friends were there to greet me and I was relieved and ecstatic that I was finally back home. Getting back to civilian life took some work. My friends told me that I was a little more subdued, and quiet. My family complained that I wasn’t that social and didn’t want to talk. The truth was that I really didn’t feel like talking about anything, really. Sudden noises would startle me, and make me think of an incoming mortar attack. As the months went by, I finally got used to being a civilian again. For the most part, I was my old self, but with a host of new memories.
As I write this, I have less than a year left in the military. My ETS date (time of separation) is December 18th, 2009. When I am discharged, I will have served 9 years in the United States Army National Guard. I have decided not to re-enlist, even though I know that I will miss the Guard terribly. Even though there were difficult moments I had to deal with, I know I will miss the camaraderie and the discipline. I have decided to focus completely on my civilian career, and I feel that 9 years is a decently long stint in the Guard. Even though I will be out of the military in a year, it will forever be a part of me, and will also be something that defines me as a person. Joining the military was one of the most pivotal decisions of my life, and it has turned out to be a rich, rewarding, and wonderful experience all the way. It has helped me grow more as an individual, and has built up my confidence. It has taught me the meaning of the words Loyalty, Honor, Duty, and Courage. Even though I may not wear the uniform in a year, in my heart I know that I will always be a Soldier of the United States Army.