The home I once knew, the home I thought I knew, was nothing but a dream
In Portuguese, there is a peculiar, untranslatable word I adore: saudade. It’s a type of melancholic nostalgia for something that will never happen again or didn’t happen at all. In a sense, I felt I had a case of saudade in being home—the nostalgia for a peaceful sense of home I may never see again … or perhaps that home never existed at all?
Since returning from Iraq, it’s been difficult to focus on the present; each day is a struggle to not stare at the past. What was said, done, or what could’ve been done to prevent unfortunate events, to make all the pain go away, or what could’ve prevented a situation that is now despairingly irreversible.
Looking out of another airplane window in May 2006, Washington DC-bound, I was mentally preparing to leave the United States again.
Attempting to forecast my year abroad in Prague, I was feeling a return of that adrenaline rush I felt in Iraq. The rush I once felt for love and romance had peculiarly transferred into adoring unpredictable situations, possibly even danger, and the unknown. It felt strange when juxtaposed with everyday American life. It was a cold hard reality of a country suffering happily from affluenza, complaining about Wi-Fi and coffee flavors while millions around the world were starving, enduring war and violence, and were fighting with everything they had left to simply stay alive.
Every part of my being was rejecting being back in the US like an antibody to a cancerous cell. I loved my country; I was just wondering where the hell it went or if it ever really existed as I had imagined.
Perhaps things were always this bad and it took Iraq to shake me out of my slumber. I didn’t refuse to see the truth; it just didn’t occur to me how warped reality in the US really was. There is an ocean of difference between seeing graphic depictions of violence overseas from the comfort of your own home and smelling the dead bodies firsthand.
It’s far too easy for anyone to brandish the sword of war when it’s not them having to look someone in the eyes and pull the trigger. It seems much easier to run through a barrage of bullets than it is to walk through the psychological ruins of my post-war homecoming.
The video game-like detachment is far too overwhelming to digest. My once passionate soul is now a pile of ashes. The concept that people weren’t so devious, that there was a sense of karmic justice; that a divine entity had mercy out there; Iraq changed all of that.
My optimism is shot as I no longer believed that people got their just desserts; I believe that they go on to ruin more lives. Just look to Wall Street and any number of monolithic corporations. Look at any post-colonial environment or nation in which you see its vampiric effects continually feeding and feeding upon souls, flesh, and resources without satiety. I don’t believe in humankind anymore, and the life I’m living feels like borrowed time.
Upon arriving in yellow-tinged Reagan International Airport in Washington DC, I hail a cab to my hotel near Union Station. After dropping off my bags, I make a beeline to the White House. As a kid, my parents took my sister and I through much of the National Mall, snapping photos of monuments, memorials, and Arlington National Cemetery. What a strange picture that was of my parents pushing me in an umbrella stroller through a sea of dead service members’ headstones – a place I’d return to as an adult to mourn my friends.
While seeing any variety of monuments or museums is an option, I just want to see the White House. I have so much anger bottled up inside of me at the privilege in Washington DC. The fact that draft-dodging, trust fund baby chicken hawks are clamoring to send people overseas to die weren’t being prosecuted or even held remotely accountable for their actions enraged me.
Seeing the White House is a way to see the roots of much of my pain in tangible form, to look at the abyss for what it is. Amid the stifling humidity, I walk toward the source. It’s not like the heat we had in Iraq, scorching and dry. Washington DC has a late-spring, early summer heat that makes one feel as though they’re trying to breathe in an aquarium – an aquarium of rich white fish.
By the time I had reach the south lawn of the White House, I’m drenched in sweat. Walking alone through a concrete jungle, I had time to process some of my frustration. I feel powerless to change my situation, but I know that I’m not ready to give up either.
Here I stand outside the fence, an injured, angry veteran staring into the gaping maw of corporate interest over human lives, of money over principle, of sociopaths crippling the United States to pad their fat bank accounts. I grip the black iron bars and look on in livid disenchantment.
The White House. Behold, a building of emptiness, a veneer for freedoms we don’t really have anymore – if we ever had much to begin with. I didn’t linger. I just wanted to see where the true executioners live and dream that one day the US would wake up and see that the plutocracy is here and is strangling us with its sea monster-like tentacles every day.
In this field of buildings that barely stretch to grope the sky, elected officials sanction the rape and torture of our only planet, the one world we have.
Corruption, rendition, the suffocation of whistleblowers, ground combat, air strikes, PTSD, violence, pollution, fracking, phone-tapping, mass incarceration, drone strikes, broken treaties, false flags, starvation, solution-selling, and war profiteering. It’s all here and it’s maddening.
The most insidious of our country, the greediest and highest rung of our socioeconomic ladder, line their pockets with misappropriated funds as military personnel and hordes of civilians are maimed or killed.
It’s not their children out there, blinded by manufactured patriotism or lured into the service with the promise of economic stability, all with the sanctimonious blessings of misguided public consent by way of corporate, state-sponsored media.
It won’t be their children who are terrorized by Wahabbist insurgents tearing through city blocks and rural areas as only an ever-devouring plague could. It won’t be any of their loved ones watching thousands of years of civilization unraveling like an old sweater as each thread of wool is lit on fire or stolen to sell on the black market for greedy consumers with a fetish for hijacked Mesopotamian artifacts.
The filth, the ever-lasting destruction is the furthest place we can find from the concepts of honor and integrity. There is nothing glorious or romantic about creating orphans, enabling violent religious fundamentalism, and the scent of decomposing corpses.
If this what our leaders call democracy and freedom, I’m underwhelmed and unimpressed. If this is what our leaders are lending their stamp of approval, I’m enraged, and if you’re breathing and have a pulse, you should be too.
Think of our beginnings: The United States was founded on violence and we have been at war the majority of the time we’ve been a country. It was drafted by white slave owners who told us that only the European male mattered and if you had a natural tan, or a vagina, you were not counted in the magical realm of equality.
All men are created equal was written that way for a reason. If you were the Natives on US soil, or were of African descent trafficked in through shackles to satisfy the economic urges and consumer impulse of the new white world, or perhaps a Chinese migrant building railroads, you were not considered human enough by colonialists to be counted as a man created equal – and forget women of any color.
Why are so few people looking back on this sociopathic narrative of history of the United States and calling bullshit, and more importantly, doing something about it? Operation Iraqi Freedom. What difference does the word “freedom” make to someone who's lost everything, from family to heirlooms to history, in the midst of terrible violence, death, and destruction disguised as democracy?
We took the word freedom, attached it to 155 rounds with the zealous blessing of extremists flooding the lands of ancient Mesopotamia like waves of body lice. We laced the term with det cord, a blasting cap, and a well-placed cell phone call. Aloha Snackbar: A manufactured Jihadi dream.
I couldn't stand to idly wave a flag or flaunt yellow ribbons without asking serious questions regarding motive. And I knew people would hate me for it.
I let go of the bars, shake my head in disgust, and turn away. Walking away from the White House and feeling far worse, unfulfilled, and with justice seemingly out of my reach.
Last summer, 2005 in Ramadi, Iraq was hell. However, the blistering heat paled in comparison to the hell-fire my fellow troops and I endured with constant rocket and mortar attacks accompanied with daily firefights between us and insurgents on the streets. By this time I had been in Iraq for about seven months, served on a female search team attached to Marine infantry units called Team Lioness, and as both a medic and mental health sergeant, my days were long yet rewarding no matter where I was working in the Anbar Province.
At this point in time, I had just returned from my R&R leave which was a relief to me as the whole time I was away from Iraq, I somehow, missed it. It was a noisy, gunfire-filled afternoon, but it was a particular incident that quickly brought me back from my recently returned-from-R&R mindset: five Marines were hit with multiple IEDs under their vehicle in front of the Government Center in downtown Ramadi. Those Marines were just a few of the infantry grunts that I had worked with at checkpoints with my buddy Mattingly on Team Lioness.
Sergeant X, one of the sergeants we knew from working mainly at Ramadi’s Government Center came to the clinic in tears and made a beeline straight to me in front of two male soldiers, Sergeant Arnold and Captain Jack. Mattingly was still in Baghdad en route to Ramadi from R&R – she didn’t know yet. These two males – both who’ve given me hell the past year for being everything they hate: a minority, a different belief system, and a woman – looked at each other.
Jack rolled his eyes and gave a look to Arnold that said, "He wants to talk to the woman, of course." Little did they know, I had worked with Sergeant X before and he wasn't merely trying to pick me up as they always insinuated. Since they were too chicken shit to leave the base, they never knew who we worked with or what we encountered. Of course, in their eyes my clinical skills had nothing to do with the rapport we had with these Soldiers and Marines.
Sergeant X sat down with me in our makeshift clinic cell and began telling me, "They're gone, they're gone, they're all dead!" while crying profusely into his hands. His eyes were blaring red and I began to ask which ones were dead. "I'm glad you're here, at least you know…" he kept saying as he continued to identify the five Marines who were killed after rolling right over a spot in the road that turned out to be five 155 rounds waiting to detonate.
He then tried to change the subject, asking me how I was doing. I couldn't believe it, but I kept encouraging him to tell me more. He did, and the pain in his eyes spoke more than his tear-soaked words as though he lost family members. A lump grew in my throat as I too wanted to cry. The urge to scream until my lungs fell out, to put my fist through a wall, the death of part of myself was overpowering. The devastation, crushing.
I held my breath as my eyes burned, trying to console him, asking him to recall what he saw. "He was still smiling," referring to one of the Marines whose face was still partly recognizable after detonation. The turret gunner was blasted out of the vehicle immediately upon explosion and thrown meters away into a wall and the others in the vehicle were literally in pieces. I offered my advice, and since I knew him to be a very spiritual and religious guy, I consoled him along those lines; something I’m extremely reluctant to do in any case.
"They're feeling no pain now. They passed instantly and you did your very best to protect them," I said, assuring that this wasn't his fault. I wasn't even sure of anything anymore, not even God at this point. "I know, I just have to trust God, you know," he said still crying so painfully and passionately. These men are his brothers. Brothers from another mother as some of the Marines used to joke. Or sisters from another mister in reference to Mattingly and I.
These guys were hilarious, brave, humble, feeling, thinking people. And now they’re dead. A slow montage of their smiles and jokes paraded through the back of my mind as I held back my own tears while helping SGT X catch his. I held my breath intermittently throughout conversation, a trick I've become accustomed to in order to halt any crying of my own. I had to put it away and deal with it later, I had to be strong for them now.
After all those months on Team Lioness, Mattingly and I made a vow to look at this war with open eyes. Seeing what was really going on, beyond what the Banana Republic vest-wearing war correspondents or newspapers said. We didn't want to hide from the good or evil our eyes and souls would encounter, so we stared deeply and attentively into the abyss.
Unfortunately, that abyss can certainly stare back, and for us it surely did. Were we unwise to stare into oblivion for so long? We stared so long into this living nightmare that it never left us, leaving us longing to be woken up. Running through the streets of this post-apocalyptic nightmare throughout this deployment had scarred us, changed us. I didn't realize the impact until we got back to the US, but it was there all along, waiting.
My eyes can no longer savor striking colors nor can any of my other senses indulge in anything I once enjoyed thoroughly – nothing, even the simple, makes sense anymore. This was our price to pay for leaving our eyes wide open in the darkness. We sacrificed our inner peace to help pull others out of hell, only to witness the horror ourselves, forever burning its image into our souls. In Iraq, I built myself up to be a fortress, unable to cry or mourn openly.
SGT X would become a metaphor for my homecoming; Americans comfort the male warrior, even when he weeps. They shake his hand and pat his back. The female warrior is allowed no space to grieve, she is expected to hold it all in that psychological ruck sack or risk being shamed as not only weak, but someone who doesn’t deserve any honor at all simply for being a woman, a minority. Every war is about money and resources, often with religious and political ideologies blinding and guiding the general public and disenfranchised.
While resources can be finite and ultimately disappear, money doesn’t – it just changes hands. In the meantime, innocent people die, you lose hope, and you’re left among ruins to rebuild a life in the aftermath of trauma. Trauma from which you will never fully recover. Among the ashes of your life as a new combat veteran, the road home is unclear.
Home, a safe place where I can be free, be myself without being exploited, abused, or attacked, exists somewhere out there. It has to. I must find it. The home I once knew, the home I thought I knew, is there for me no longer. As saudade wildly sweeps through my spirit, I close my eyes and dream of the desert.