Baghdad: Why it was good for me.

In 2008 and I returned home from Iraq a changed man.  Unlike many that come home changed for the worse, suffering from PTSD, suffering from separation anxiety, or temporary depression, I returned home with a sense of purpose, a sense of change, I had matured, I was new.  This didn’t come easy, and honestly I didn’t even know it was happening.  I just knew that I had changed and that my life was soon to change as well.

In the fall of 2006 my First Sergeant had come to me and asked if I was going to re-enlist for another 6 years in the National Guard.  I took sometime to think about and kept letting him know that I was unsure and was actually thinking about taking a break for about a year.  Up to this point in my Guard Career I had been to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the war, Mississippi for hurricane Katrina, Italy for three weeks, and was scheduled to go to Arizona for a border patrol mission.  This was all fun but a very active National Guard Career for a job that they tell you was one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer.  The First Sergeant kept hammering away at me until one day I went to a local restaurant near the unit that I was in to talk with DP Killa so that I could make a sound decision.  I knew the whole time that I was going to re-enlist, I think that I just wanted to make sure that the unit leadership wanted back.  In addition to the leadership my wife told me that it was my choice and that she would back any decision that I made.  She also told me that I would miss it if I left.  She was right so I signed up early in the spring of 2007.

After from our Arizona border mission we received word that we were being activated and were going to be in Baghdad, Iraq in the very near future.  Married less then a year at this point my wife and I sat on the couch and cried.  That’s right, I cry and I cry a lot, so what.  I am like the Dick Vermeil of the military, and I cry at kids commercials.  Any way back to the story.  We sat on the couch holding each other and crying, we both understood the gravity of the situation, and that this wasn’t going to be Saudi Arabia.  We were going into Iraq during one of the deadliest periods, it was known as the Surge.

Almost five  to the day I landed in Kuwait once again.   Kuwait is used as a staging area and a place where you are supposed to get acclimated to conditions prior to go forward into Iraq.  If anyone has ever been to Kuwait understands that this is horse shit.  This is the hottest place on the earth.  Holy shit the heat is unbelievable, and porta johns at 120 degrees is Stupid!  We would stay in Kuwait for about two weeks prior to heading north for Baghdad, so that we could do additional training.

Flying into Baghdad is something that you can never forget.   You are crammed into a small military plane with no windows.  Your legs are interlocked with the person in front of you and you are wearing full body armor, your helmet, you have a bag, and a lot of prayers.  Prayers you say, why would I have to pray.  Well I generally don’t but because some guy in the back of the plane just explained to us that he is going to hang out of a small window with a 50 caliber machine gun, because people may try to attack the plane, might make you pray a little.  At this point the plane was goin to start it’s descent.  I knew then I was going to Hell, because the descent was known as a combat landing, which basically feels like a spinning carnival ride which all gravity seems to leave the plane and you fell like your going to either pass out or begin to fly away.  After the downward spiral into hell, we had landed, we were here, Baghdad.

The base we were staying on was Victory Liberty Base.  The base was huge with more than 100 thousand soldiers, contractors, and who knows what else on this place.  This was a fantasy world slapped dab in the middle of the deadliest place on earth.  Luckily I had deployed before and understood that the things that would happen here weren’t going to be like the things that happen at home.  Here love was fake, friendships may be fake, hell even I could be fake, it was just how it was, people become different, people change, people get worse and some become better.  This was going to be different for me because this time I was in charge of two Soldiers as where last time I only worried about myself.  This is where I began to understand how I personally was going to train people, treat people, and try to grow people as a supervisor.  This is where I began to take on a different mentality.  The first big change was that I began to read, and read a lot.  Plus play X-Box.  It was nice to escape or suspend reality for a little while with some Madden Football.  It didn’t take long before we were settled in and hitting the road.

My squad was composed of a cast of characters ranging from the group that loved World of Warcraft, to the retail salesman, a former Canadian Football Player slash University of Delaware stud, to my team which was composed of a female driver and a gunner that was the same rank as me.  It was this mix of personalities that makes the National Guard so great and so comprehensive.   Having the team that I had presented two new issues that I had to overcome.  The first issue, which was the easier of the two, was trying to show the rank respect to my gunner.  In the military rank is everything for the most part, my gunner was put into a position where he wasn’t going to do the job of his own rank but that of what is usually allotted for a private.  This decision was made because he was good with weapon systems, and could carry them.  My driver was less then excited to be in Iraq let alone having to maybe make the call to have to shoot at some one some day.  I knew the my gunner could make this call.  Also having good eyes in the turret of the vehicle is essential to baghdad-streetstraveling in the city.  The confined spaces in the vehicle makes you feel like a turtle stuck in coffee can.  It sucks.

We did a lot of driving in the city of Baghdad and that is where I spent a lot of time talking to my two Soldiers and talking to myself.  What felt like a game was where I began to ask my Soldiers, especially my driver, what seemed like goofy questions.  What I quickly found out was that I could learn an amazing amount of information about people if I just asked these silly questions.  This would later help me when I worked in a prison back home.  You see by asking things like what was you favorite cereal, or favorite toy, or favorite show, I could begin to build a profile about the people I was with.  I could find out if you ate name brand cereal, had cable television, or had the best toys.  This would help me build find out if they had money growing up and to me at the time money simply meant that they were middle class.  A few more questions later, and they would open up and the flood gates were released of information.  My driver more so then my gunner but I found that if I kept her talking it kept her at ease.  I would do this from day one all the way to the end.  The other thing that I was doing was war gaming everyday, seemingly every moment.  This is something that I still do today, just not with as much frequency.  I may be getting a shower and I will star to think about what I would do if someone came in my house right at that moment.  It was this style of thinking that began in Saudia Arabia, and five years later escalated in Iraq.  I would ask the what if over and over again.

The what if question would go from not just war gaming but to other parts of my life down the road.  I understood that I was changing in my thought process, and began to explore more on how I wanted to be treated and how I wanted to treat others.  Always asking myself what if, and then trying to find a way to try it out.  My biggest change was that I realized that I couldn’t make people lead and execute actions the way I did.  It wasn’t that they wouldn’t do it, but they would try to do it my way which was counter productive to what they were comfortable with.  Instead I began to take on a different style and I was given a nearly twelve month platform to train on.  I merely started to look at what the individuals were good at, how they learned and how I fit into there methods.  This meant that I would conform to the many rather than the many conform to me.  My driver was quiet, female, and very bright.  Instead of forcing her to yell at people, and trying to make her overly aggressive she began to read and learn about the local culture.  She used her infectious personality as a way to begin to talk to people, and help move us forward.  This would later lead her to receiving an award for helping take care of a family that lived in a bombed out building.  She would organize on her own time bringing them supplies, from an AC unit to vitamins.  familyThe family in return showed us great respect, and the company great respect.  This would not have been possible if I forced her into an aggressive style.  My gunner a bit of a different code to break, yet he enjoyed his sleep, and not being hovered over.  He was excellent with the truck and kept it in amazing operational shape.  Allowing him the freedom to do these things made it easier for me.  I don’t know anything about vehicles unless it’s my jeep, and I’m using a YouTube video.  Encouraging them, and instilling trust in that I would protect them as best I could not just from outside forces but from other toxic leaders helped form a team that worked  great together.

We left Baghdad unscathed in the late spring of 2008.  There were some incidents with one of our southern elements, and some close calls with others but in the end we lost no one.  The tour was a success and we all learned and grew over the last twelve months.  The real work was yet to come.  When you return home from a deployment you get and extended period of time off.  You meet 30, 60, and 90 days after a deployment to get back together review programs, and mainly to see if you are adjusting to home life.  For many this is pretty smooth transition, especially if you have a great support system at home, but for others this isn’t the case and many issues begin to creep up well after the final 90 day visit.  For myself the transition wasn’t that bad.  I took a lot of time off before going back to work, and my wife would reel me in if I got out of line.  I had to be retrained on working around the house, and was preparing for a new member of the family.  My biggest adjustment would come from my civilian job, things had changed.

I had taken a job as a correctional officer in 2005.  This was a great entry level position with great benefits, and a job that wasn’t going to get outsourced anytime soon.  Before leaving for Iraq this job was fairly easy, and I was putting in a ton of hours. Post Iraq I no longer enjoyed it, no longer wanted to be around these people.  I began to understand that I was different, I had changed.  I could see that I was missing the comrade of being the guys, being in charge, being around the army.  The life style had consumed me at this point.  I have been active in the military so much so early in my career that it was all I wanted to do.  I didn’t want to go back over sea’s but understood that it was that environment that I thrived.  I had wanted to be around troops, I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and saw that as a correctional officer, I wasn’t going to have the chance.  Sure I could have tried it on the imprisoned, but they didn’t see me that way, they didn’t care about my back story, they care if I understood where they came from.  I was the law, and that all there was to it.  I began to look for jobs in the military, either as a paid technician or and Active Guard Reserve member.  The Technician gets to stay with their unit of assignment but work else where, you get to wear the uniform each day but not always paid as much.  The Active Guard Reserve Member is assigned to a position that you interview for and work there, you are also paid and follow the same rules as an active duty Soldier.  After getting beat on my interview board by a good friend, I thought all was lost and I would have to return to the prison.  I was lucky enough to get another chance months later for a similar position, and was able to slightly beat out the completion.  Now 2009 and  I finally felt like I was back, I was whole again.

The new job helped me tremendously, it changed me and changed the way I carried myself, and the way I approached things.  This best part was that I truly had a job that I could take the tasks I learned about myself and try to use them on a daily basis.  This has helped  my career more then I could explain.  Each day presents a new chance to try and help others complete tasks, but also to encourage them to do more.  Fast forward to today, I have continued to change.  We deployed again in 2013, this time to Afghanistan, where I learned even more about myself.  The more I change the happier I get.  I work on my blog almost daily, look for ideas to start an online retail website, encourage my wife and others to do new things, and tell my kids to do the things that make them happy.  That doesn’t mean it fifteen pounds of chocolate, watch SpongeBob, and fall into a sugar coma.  It simply means continue to change until your happy, waiting for someone to change things for you isn’t going to happen.  I joined the military on a whim, I have worked various jobs, I started a blog because I want to tell people my stories, and I dream of the future daily.  I can’t wait for the next change, the next thing, the moment that I realize I am different again.  Today a friend reached out to me a person that I look up to and a person that I consider a brother.  He wants to start something that is slightly out of his comfort zone and he told me it was because I started this blog site.  With out knowing it I unintentionally had an impact, totally unexpected.  He will make it work, and he will be good at it.  When it comes to dedication, hard work and getting the things you want, not to many people are better at it.  Thanks Sean and good luck.

Baghdad changed me and many others.  I don’t suffer from PTSD, I don’t have any misconceptions about what deploying has done for me.  The lessons I learned over sea’s have been the best lessons ever.  Each time I have changed for the better, I have developed stronger relationships, and moved on from toxic ones.  My career in the army has been slow moving but that is the nature of the business.  I wouldn’t change the first 15 years for anything.  In that time I have accumulated  more then 10 years of active service, and work almost daily on preparing myself to retire in the next 9 years.  That may seem like a long time but we all know it will be here before we know it.  I just want to be ready for the change this time.


See you in Future – Thee Time Traveler