People always want to know What was the worst thing you saw over there? It’s never close family or friends who ask this question, but old acquaintances at the grocery store or bar. Most often it’s strangers, people you just met or were introduced to at a party. I don’t know why they want the worst. Is it some inadequacy they feel for not having been there themselves? Curiosity? To find out what it’s like? The inside scoop. Does it match up with what I’ve read, what I’ve seen on the news, what I’ve watched in film? I can tell you that it doesn’t.
Why is it that people feel so comfortable asking such a personal question? Is it normal to start a conversation by asking what was the worst day of your life?
I shouldn’t even answer, should just shrug my shoulders and look past them with that kind of vacant stare that says nothing but also says everything. That’s how you’re supposed to tell a war story. The guys who’ve really seen the shit never talk about it, so they say. But that’s bullshit. Most of us can’t wait to tell a good fucking story, especially to civilians.
I used to tell this story: One day we were doing a convoy down Route Ethan in Fallujah. It was hot, which is the only suitable word to describe it, for when you’re in such heat you tend to choose your speech carefully, fearful of any exertion, and so you just say “hot,” and those that know understand. We were the last vehicle in a convoy down Route Ethan in Fallujah when Nguyen in the back began to shout “Fire! Fire!” Which direction? I asked. “No. Fire!” At this point I could smell it, burning of metal and electrical wire. I looked down and saw that flames were licking up near my leg from beneath my seat. Everyone piled out of the Humvee, except for me. My goddamn door was jammed. Nguyen saw my dilemma and began to wrench the handle from the outside. Thing is, though, the Humvee was still rolling along at five miles per hour. Here we are, last vehicle in a convoy down Route Ethan in Fallujah and Nguyen is running along the outside trying to open the door and me inside banging on the window. When the door opened, I didn’t quite jump out as fall out, legs tangled with my rifle. Nguyen tried to catch me, but I was too much for his hundred-twenty-pound frame, and we both fell in a heap. The Humvee kept rolling forward until it reached a ditch and hit with a soft thud, smoke now billowing out of the door. We lay there in the middle of Route Ethan, I looked back at the two others who had jumped out, and they were on their hands and knees laughing. We all began laughing, the Humvee burned, and the convoy continued down Route Ethan, oblivious to our predicament. When I tell this story to other vets, they burst out laughing as if they were out there on Route Ethan themselves, and I laugh with them. When I tell it to civilians, they just stare at me, not sure whether to laugh or wait for me to continue. What happened after that? they ask. Some things just don’t translate.
That’s an authentic story to me, but not typically what people want to hear. Like I said, they want the worst. Here it is:
A couple years after I got out of the military I was back home in San Francisco at a bar with an old high school buddy. It was one of the seedy old places off Van Ness that the twentysomething Facebook kids hadn’t yet taken over. Crowded and small, no chairs, one long countertop that ran the length of the room and took up a significant portion of the twenty-foot wide space. Its heyday had long since passed and now just gave off a sopped-up, musty-smelling aura of borrowed time that everyone there seemed to cling to. My buddy had brought a couple girls over to our corner of the bar and introduced me as a vet, or “the real fuckin’ deal,” as he put it—despite reports to the contrary, this does still play in San Francisco. Naturally, after a few minutes the conversation steered toward the inevitable. “So, what was the worst thing you saw over there?” one of the girls said between sips of beer, as if it were a totally normal question. Something about her nonchalance, her kind of disinterested interest made me want to tell her. Maybe it was the four beers I already had. Maybe it was because she was pretty. Or maybe I knew it was just my role to play. Either way, I did tell her.
When I got back from my first tour, Hurricane Katrina happened a week later. It had been a rough tour; we were worn out. All we wanted to do was get home, get away. Word came down that we were going to be sent to New Orleans to help out with the disaster. A couple weeks of handing out water and filling sand bags. Not what we wanted to hear. Anyway, the day comes when we’re supposed to leave, we all line up in formation with our gear packed, big empty semi-trailers pulling up in the parking lot ready to be loaded up. Our first sergeant steps out in front of us and tells us the plan changed, we’re not going. But, he says, we are shipping all our furniture down there. To help out the refugees. So we all went back to our rooms and began moving stuff out. Remember, this was in August, in North Carolina. There were no elevators. Ever try to move a bunk bed down three flights of stairs? Fights were breaking out as Marines argued over the proper angle at which they should be holding the furniture to get around corners, or jostled over whose turn it was to carry their shit down the stairs. A hundred different Iraqs were being waged again in micro.
My roommate and I were loading a cabinet into one of the trucks when I heard a massive crash and the sound of metal caving in on itself. I turned and saw one of the bunk beds lying in a mess on the grass in front of the barracks. Then I saw another tilt over the second-floor balcony and tumble to the ground. Soon, all up along the length of the building, beds and nightstands and cabinets began raining down. They exploded and crumpled into pieces as they slammed into terra firma. Marines were cheering and laughing. No one tried to stop it. A game developed as Marines dodged and weaved into the wreckage to grab the pieces and toss them into the waiting trucks. In less than an hour the trucks were full of the twisted, angling mess, and it reminded me of the blown-up Humvees we would tow back to the scrapyard on Al Asad. “New Orleans or bust,” someone joked. That’s how we helped Katrina victims.
I could tell by the look on her face that she wasn’t getting it.
Bottle caps, I told her. In Afghanistan we used to carry hundreds of bottle caps. Saved them up like they were currency. And they were, in their own way. We crammed them into our pouches when out on patrol. You see, Afghanistan is just one big fucking minefield, I told her. Every trail, path, road, doorway, bridge, all littered with IEDs. Every single day, every patrol we would find at least one. Find, of course, is a relative term. Stepping on an IED and having your leg blown off technically counts as finding. It got so bad that we started walking in the streams and rivers. No one could plant bombs in waist-deep water. But that limited our movement, and our officers told us to get back on the dirt. So we patrolled through fields and crops, pissing off farmers but keeping our patrols somewhat unpredictable and safe.
The bottle caps. We always patrolled in one long, ranger file, one guy after the other. The guy in lead had the metal detector and would sweep in wide arcs in front of him. He also had all the bottle caps. He would walk along sweeping the ground and then drop a bottle cap along his path, like breadcrumbs. Each man behind him would then be sure to step only on the bottle caps, knowing that that spot was safe from an IED. The last man in the patrol would then pick them up and collect them in a pouch.
Corporal Dubois had a hard-on for the bottle caps. He obsessed over them. Would go around all the trash dumps in our patrol base checking the water bottles for caps. You finish a bottle, he said, put the cap in the collection. Would wear your ass out if he caught you throwing one away. These caps save lives, he’d say. We called him Corporal Alms behind his back. Needless to say, he was the best guy to have at the back of the patrol. A cap never got past him. One day, he was back there picking up caps when one slipped out of his gloved fingers. It bounced off his boot and rolled about two feet off the path. It must have been pure instinct or muscle memory, but Corporal Dubois immediately chased after it. He was bent over, reaching down for the cap when the explosion caught him right in his face. Blew his head and arm off. I still find myself collecting caps, I said.
She still looked confused, nodding but not understanding.
OK, I said, there was this time at Walter Reed where I watched a family take their son off life support—
Wait, she said. But which was the worst?
I couldn’t fucking believe it. Just could not believe it. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and just shake her. It’s all the same, I wanted to yell, don’t you get it? It’s all the same. You, the furniture, those goddamn bottle caps. But of course, I didn’t.
When I tell my worst stories, it’s not to make myself seem badass, or brag about how tough I’ve had it compared to you. My intention is to make you complicit. But even that’s not exactly true, because you already are complicit. Can you see it? Guilty. Confused. Afraid. Impressionable. Brave. Intelligent. Longing. All of these things I would say about you. All of these things I would say about myself. The difference between us is understanding.
Stephen Hawking says that when someone crosses the event horizon of a black hole that he enters a place where time no longer exists and no information can escape back out. Once you’ve crossed, you’ve crossed. That’s what this feels like.