A Not-So-Happy Thanksgiving

A Not-So-Happy Thanksgiving

“I remember another time when someone was driving by and the man in the vehicle had done nothing, but the Bradley shot him anyway. I can still hear the man screaming and yelling as the car was burning. I hate to say this, but we had not eaten and were all hungry … it smelled like barbecue. After a while, we went over to the vehicle and the only thing left of the man were his legs; most of his body had been burned. The next morning we saw dogs eating his leg;, that’s the only thing that was left. I will never forget this … seeing the dogs eating his legs.”

“Hello Mr. Dallas.” I stopped and turned around. Standing before me with an outstretched hand was a tall, slender man. It was an awkward moment since we both knew I should have recognized him. “Do you remember me?” asked the individual, who by now knew the answer was no. As I reached out and firmly shook his hand – a long hand shake – I quickly fumbled for some words to excuse my lack of memory. “Remember several years ago,” he continued, “when you wrote an article about me … just before Thanksgiving. I was on leave from Iraq … remember, my daughter was struck by a car and was in serious condition.”

I finally gathered my thoughts and remembered the article entitled: “Happy Misgiving Day!”

I had sat down with him and his family in 2006 just before Thanksgiving. Three years into the US-led war against Iraq, Juan was on his third deployment. He and his family had serious misgivings about the direction of the war and the occupation in Iraq. I now recalled how Juan grew up in a small city, and had always been fascinated with guns and dreamed of a possible military career. At first, Juan had considered the Navy since he had heard it would involve him traveling to different places and learning many interesting and new things. But because of frequent visits by Army recruiters in high school, Juan later decided to join the Army.

Juan initially disregarded the military after graduating from high school. He married and started working at the local Wal-Mart. He soon discovered that $5.35 an hour, or $400 every two weeks, was not enough for his family. When their baby girl became ill, Juan was told that he would have to work one year to be eligible for any health benefits. He recalled how Army recruiters told him that in the infantry he could “mess with and fire some great weapons, such as the Javelins, Missile Clues, and M-16’s.” Since he had heard the military had great benefits too, he decided to join, mainly for his daughter’s sake.

During his initial deployment in 2003, Juan was in one of the First Armored Divisions to reach Baghdad. He remembered one incident while driving through Baghdad, and how his Bradley Fighting Vehicle suddenly made a sharp turn. He saw what appeared to be a market, but had been bombed and leveled, with people running and yelling on both sides of the street. After destroying an Iraqi enemy vehicle, he disembarked and helped establish a secure perimeter. According to Juan, “It was mass confusion … all you could see was smoke, fire, people running; you didn’t know who was who. A lot of people were killed.”

On another occasion, Juan’s unit took an alternate route through a marshland. One time, a tank slid off into a canal and so they had to dismount and pull security all night. In the morning, “all hell broke loose.” They were under fire from all over and were pinned down. Their unit called in air support and Apache attack helicopters “destroyed and obliterated everything … homes, buildings, sheds, even the trees.” When they reached Baghdad, Juan’s platoon had been assigned to protect an overpass bridge. Since leaflets had been dropped warning all Iraqis to abide by a strict curfew, orders were given that any Iraqi breaking the curfew was considered an “enemy combatant.”

Juan remembered vehicles coming from all directions and how they were all considered enemy insurgent vehicles. His platoon shot and destroyed so many vehicles that they lost count. He specifically recalled how one truck filled with people was shot with a tank round and how it went about “five feet into the air before it burned and crashed.” On another occasion, he had walked over to a destroyed vehicle and saw a dead guy, who had been there for several days. He was bloated, his eyes opened and glazed and his hands stuck to the steering wheel.

Juan and the other soldiers thought about disposing of the body, so one soldier found a stick and tried to pry the man’s hands off of the steering wheel, but they wouldn’t budge. They then poked the stick into the dead body and noticed how it would puncture the flesh and penetrate deep into the corpse. A kind of liquid puss would ooze out. They decided to leave the man in the vehicle. Once the overpass was secured, Juan’s platoon started to patrol the alleys. He estimated that about 20 percent of buildings and homes had been destroyed. His unit took a lot of mortar rounds and RPGs and suffered several casualties.

Juan’s second deployment had landed him in Sadr City. He distinctly remembered three major firefights with Iraqi insurgents. One morning after his platoon talked to an Iraqi doctor who was suspected of taking medical equipment, medicines, and other supplies, when they returned to their base, they came under fire. Even though they were never able to locate the shooters, they arrested many men in the area who were taken away by the military police. Another time, six mortars hit their base. They returned fire, destroying a pickup with three men inside.

The third firefight happened after they had been on patrol for more than 14 hours and were exhausted. Their forward observatory post was mortared, and when they rushed to investigate, they observed a BMW leaving the scene. They fired at and chased down the vehicle by running it off the road. All of the occupants were arrested and treated. Juan had described Sadr City as “very messed-up.” There was no water, sewage or electricity, and trash was everywhere. While children were going through piles of garbage, dogs were eating corpses littering the streets. Many of the buildings and houses had been bombed.

In 2006, Juan was into his third deployment. He had many misgivings about the war and military occupation. Juan believed “We should not be there. There is nothing in Iraq, just a lot of killing.” I remembered how he looked at me, serious, reflective, and said, “We were supposed to go there because Saddam had WMDs. I have not seen any; we did not find any.” He then added, “The war is different now from back then … now it is confusing. I mean fighting in an urban area … vehicles and people are everywhere. In the military you always rehearse for a plan of action, but it never works out the way you want … the way you expect. Something always seems to go wrong.”

Four years had passed, and perhaps it was just me, but I noticed how mature and much older Juan looked, specifically, how he had aged. I was frank with him and told him I would not have recognized him, but that it was good to see him and I had wondered how he was doing. I then asked if he wanted his photos back that he had given me, photos that I had occasionally looked at over the years. Having ignored the latter question, he replied that war had a way of changing a person, of making one look older than what they really are supposed to be.

Juan told me, too, about how the numerous deployments became too difficult for his wife, and how she divorced him and remarried. However, he still visits his daughter. After his fourth deployment in 2008, Juan spent some time training with the Federal Emergency Management Administration. He decided not to re-enlist in the Army. He also mentioned how he has had a difficult time reintegrating back into mainstream society. Juan admits he carries the Iraq war with him, especially some of the feelings, sounds, images and smells that never seem to leave. He is deeply troubled by some of the things that happened, too.

Unable to find steady employment and having to move back home with his parents, Juan sometimes thinks of himself as a “living casualty.” His deployments and the war in Iraq and military occupation have also been hard on his parents and younger brother. He related an incident in which his father refused to fly an American flag on Flag Day. His father, like Juan, no longer supported or believed in the war. When a neighbor accused him of not being patriotic, a fight broke out. Police had to be called to the scene. Meanwhile, Juan’s younger brother is often angry and resents what the war has done to Juan. Juan said that his mother, who had always opposed the war, still cries.

In writing this piece, I had to read again “Happy Misgiving Day!” I had written how, during his third deployment, Juan observed that generals rarely ventured out of their quarters, and how they seldom dealt with the locals. Because of this, Juan said there was a major difference of perception in terms of how the regular troops viewed the war versus the generals or the politicians in America. I also wrote how US Army Gen. John P. Abizaid had just spoken about the US war in Iraq to military officials and academic scholars at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Poking fun at wearing camouflage fatigues instead of his green dress uniform, Abizaid said, “I usually wear my green uniform, but there was so much blood on it that I had to come in this uniform.”(1) Laughter immediately erupted.

As of today, there have been 4,427 US military deaths and 32,900 US military wounded in Iraq. Estimates of Iraqi deaths are between 135,000 and over 1,000,000,000. And then, there are the “living casualties.” For some, it will be a not-so-Happy Thanksgiving.

Perhaps the answer to preventing not-so-happy Thanksgivings is the remembrance and practice of what Abraham Lincoln wrote and proclaimed in 1863: “I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of thanksgiving and praise … they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers, in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

1. Mazur, Diane H., “A More Perfect Military: How The Constitution Can Make Our Military Stronger,” New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010., p. 106.