Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chance Meeting - Two Veterans

When I created this blog I vowed that there would be no political or religious opinions expressed herein. The reason for this is that I feel such material tends to divide people from one another wherever they are in the world.

Instead, I'd rather write about everyday wonder and memories and what strikes me as humorous. These are things that humans can mutually love and appreciate and they might bring us closer.

But I suppose it's possible something historical and harsh can bring us together as well. If nothing else, I hope in the wake of what I'm about to share we can stand shoulder to shoulder and affirm that the pain some military veterans still suffer is worthy of concern and grief. 

What follows then, in true Van Winkle style, isn't likely in the news headlines that I've forbidden myself to consult. Instead, it amounts to a wholly accidental, face-to-face discovery. I sat down to eat dinner and I ended up hearing the tale of Margaritte and Tyrone (names changed to respect their privacy), a husband and wife who were caught up in a horrific war.

There was no agenda as they told me their stories. It was an outpouring, as if they felt, "I have to finally tell someone what happened over there."

He fell in love with her hands...
So I am at a writing festival this past Thursday-Saturday and it is on the campus of a college which happens to be a few miles away from a major U.S. Air Force base.

At dinner on Friday night I see a neatly dressed twenty-something couple sitting by themselves at one of the tables in the Theater Building. I get my shrimp cocktail, sit down beside them, and we introduce ourselves.

Margaritte works in the human resources department. Her husband Tyrone, who is wearing a sport coat and tie, has just begun his first week at a new job with a technology based organization.

Margaritte and Tyrone have not come to attend the writing festival. What happened is that Margaritte got an email earlier in the day from the festival organizers saying there was extra food and the university staff and spouses were invited to join us at the dinner at no charge.

So she told Tyrone about it and there they are--a free delicious meal is before them; it's a smart thing to do.

I finger a shrimp and begin to ask the first of my get-to-know-you questions.

":How did you two meet?"

"In the Army."

"Oh, really. What did you do?"

"I was a dental assistant and x-ray technician," Tyrone says.

"I was trained in heavy weapons and chemical weapons detection," Margaritte says.

"We met," Tyrone says. "when I took x-rays of her hand."

"Yeh, I slipped in the shower and I thought I broke my hand. It hurt!." Margaritte laughs. "Then I get it x-rayed and Mr. Suave here tells me I have beautiful hands."

I tell them that's a nice story. Then I do it.

It's like stepping on a mine. Except at first it doesn't go off. If anything maybe there's just a little "click." The "click" is in their eyes when I ask, "Did you ever go to Iraq or Afghanistan?"

They're thinking. Should we tell this stranger or not?

Margaritte: I moved up to the Kuwaiti border 48 hours before the deadline we gave Saddam expired. I was inside a tank. The deadline came and went and we rolled in. It took us a week and a half and then I was in Baghdad.

VW: Did you think you would find weapons of mass destruction?

Margaritte: No. But we tried! We found stuff. All of it was ours.

VW: What do you mean ours?

Tyrone: The U.S. gave Saddam weapons in the '80s when he was fighting a war with Iran.

Margaritte: We knew he had it. We gave it to him.

VW: If it wasn't about WMD, why did you think we were invading the country? Was it for the oil? Or bad intelligence?

Margaritte: We wanted to have a government in there that would be friendly to us and do what we told it do. That's all. It was regime change.

Margaritte: At first they wouldn't let us shoot unless we were shot at. We couldn't believe it. It was crazy!

Tyrone: Saddam had his Republican Guards, but most of the Iraqi army was just a bunch of men who they found and stuck guns in their hands. A million of them. All of these people are suddenly out of work. And we're surrounded by them.

"We were told to do things we had no training for..."
Margaritte: The Army told us we had to go on patrol. We were told to do things we had no training for. They should have called in the scouts, but they'd tell me to go clear a house. I have no idea how to clear a house. I refused.

Tyrone: I'm a dental assistant. They put me on street patrol. There was looting going on and we just watched it. They told us to report it. So we'd get on the radio and tell them where the looters were and where they had moved to next.

Margaritte: One of the myths was that women weren't in combat. I was walking around with a rifle in my hand. Before that I was manning the 50-caliber machine gun on a tank. I was in a fire fight. After three hours I couldn't hear anything. I could only see the tracers and RPGs going by. It all appeared in slow motion. We'd move to a new position, they'd find us and start shooting again. After 24 hours I couldn't do it anymore.

Tyrone: There was no "insurgency." It was all various tribes fighting us and each other. They started sending women suicide bombers to check points because they knew Americans wouldn't pat them down the same as men. After one week when 9 Americans got blown up that way the higher ups changed the plan. Now we could shoot and ask questions later.

"It was totally misreported..."
 Margaritte (still thinking about the women's role in the Army issue): That Jessica Lynch thing. It was totally misreported. She was injured all right, but she ended up in an Iraqi hospital. The Iraqis tried to give her back to us twice. But we wanted to stage a rescue to look good for the folks back home.

Tyrone: And they didn't report, too, that the Iraqis after they killed everyone else in that convoy, they beheaded the bodies and buried the heads in the sand. They thought it would keep them from going to heaven. I know. Because I was involved in identifications. You know, dental records.

Tyrone: We met some special forces from Macedonia. I said you're from Macedonia? What are you doing here? And they told us. We don't follow the Geneva Convention. That's why you want us here.

Margaritte: Abu Ghraib that was all misreported. You can look today. None of the military personnel they identified as the perpetrators are in jail. You look at those photos and you know these people didn't do this torture because they were just sitting around and felt bored.

Tyrone: Yes. Look at the photos. It's all done according to the textbook. The torturers were trained. Then they left and the reservists were fall guys.

Margaritte: That's why I got out. I couldn't take any more of the Geneva violations. The stuff we were willing to do.

Tyrone: You want to know about the Surge? The Surge isn't what stopped the bombings and the violence. Adding those troops wasn't enough to make that kind of difference. What happened was that they turned loose the special forces and they went out in  assassination teams. At Fallujah they surrounded the city and they let out the women, the very young, and very old. They made the males age 9 to 60 stay inside. Then they killed them. All of them.

VW: If the media failed to cover this, why didn't soldiers speak out about some of these things. Or at least tell their families? They had access to the Internet and...

Tyrone: The Army controlled what you sent on the Internet or said on the phone.

Margaritte: If you were standing in line to use the phone and someone ahead of you said something they shouldn't, they'd suddenly say the phones were down. In the whole country! Once I sitting around while some officers were talking and I had a notebook. I was doodling in it. An officer came over and took it away from me. Even after I showed him I hadn't written anything.

After the couple got out of the Army it was clear that Margaritte suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something the Army has been reluctant to acknowledge is a legitimate combat caused disorder. She is now part of a class-action lawsuit (Sabo v. United States) to receive benefits and care for this injury. She admits, "No one thinks you have it. You look normal on the outside. But you're not normal on the inside."

When Margaritte enrolled in college one of the first classes she took was history. She dreaded the possibility that the class might reach the Iraq War as it moved forward in time. It did. When she spoke out about a few things she experienced she was told by two 18-year-olds, "You were never there!" Another student took another line of attack and called her a "baby killer."

Hearing that I understood why the couple was so reluctant to speak in the first place. But I couldn't help thinking they deserved to be heard. Maybe they weren't eyewitnesses to everything they claimed, but they actually had their boots on the desert ground while the rest of us were sitting at home in comfort. They put their lives in harm's way every day.

I'm sad to see them end up this way. Conflicted about what they did. Feeling used and abandoned by the people in power.

I hope they are successful in what they're trying to do nowadays. Move on, raise their son, and forget about those bad years of their lives except whenever the nightmares still overtake them in the dark. - V.W.


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