Just Another SoldierA Year on the Ground in Iraq
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Jason Hartley
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060843667
April 30, 2005
True American Hero
Getting dressed in my desert camouflage uniform is something I've done hundreds of times, but it felt weird to be putting it on again for the first time in four months. Since returning from Iraq, my National Guard unit hadn't had any drills yet. Typically a drill weekend for us consists of some sort of infantry training, but this one, taking place at Camp Smith, about an hour away from my apartment, was nothing more than taking care of some paperwork and attending an awards ceremony and a dinner. I was wearing one of the uniforms I'd worn in Iraq. It was well worn and comfortable; my boots fit my feet perfectly — they were the only pair I'd worn for the last year. My roommate Matt, one of my platoon mates, was in uniform too now, something I used to see daily in Iraq. But being dressed in my uniform in our apartment in New Paltz, New York, made me feel fake, like I should be going to a Halloween party.
I'm very proud of the fourteen years I've served in the Army National Guard, but since we'd returned, I hadn't felt very gung-ho about being a soldier. In fact, I'd done everything I could to be as unmilitary as possible. I hadn't cut my hair for the entire four months we'd been back until a few days ago. I looked ridiculous with my mop of hair, like I should have been driving a Camaro and listening to an eight-track. My hair hadn't been that long in years; I just wanted to grow it as long as I could out of spite. I had also grown a goatee and a mustache that made me look more like a child molester than a hipster, two other things that had to be shorn before getting back into soldier mode.
Before I deployed to Iraq, I was part of an infantry company based out of Manhattan. There are a lot of infantry companies in the New York National Guard, but only a few are based out of New York City. Companies from the city are dramatically different in personality (and ethnicity) than companies based out of other parts of the state, creating rivalries based more on resentment than on competitiveness.
I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah — yes, I was once Mormon — and spent nine years in the National Guard there, where 99 percent of soldiers were white suburbanites. When I moved to New York City in 2000, it took some adjustment to learn how to better interact with the personalities of soldiers who had grown up on the streets. I was one of only two white soldiers in my Manhattan unit, a company that was almost entirely Hispanic, with a handful of other minorities. The other white guy was this jovial, barrel-chested Irish cop from the Bronx named Willy, who quickly became one of the best friends I've ever had. After a few months in my new unit, I realized I preferred soldiers who grew up in the city to soldiers who grew up in the suburbs.
When my battalion was deployed to Iraq, different companies were combined in order to get us to full strength. My city company was merged with soldiers from other parts of the state, and the disparity was the source of a lot of friction that never got resolved, even after eleven months in combat together. Now I was on my way to drill, where I would see all these guys for the first time in months.
I had pulled my uniform out of the duffel bag where it had been stuffed since I'd gotten back from combat and put it on without ironing it. I'd cut my hair, but it was barely within military standards and nowhere near as short as infantrymen usually keep theirs. It was still long enough that my hat didn't fit because of it. My uniform carried no rank. For the past several years, I'd been a sergeant, but on the second-to-last day of our deployment I was demoted. On the last day of my tour of duty, while at Fort Drum, New York, before being released back into the wild as a civilian, I wore the rank of specialist. As I drove away from Fort Drum that day, I threw my pin-on rank out the window. I never bothered getting another set of pin-on rank or having them sewn on. The stories in this book, and their presence on the internet, were the reason I was demoted.
Matt and I weren't in any mood to take this upcoming drill seriously. Before getting on the highway we picked up a case of beer at a gas station and put the cans in a garbage bag full of ice in his backseat. We drank all the way to Camp Smith.
All the stories I've ever heard from vets about returning from combat are stuff like "You fight for the guy next to you" or "The friends you make in combat will be the best you ever make." Whatever. For the most part, I enjoyed my time in combat. I love being in the infantry. I served with a lot of good soldiers in Iraq, in a platoon with solid leaders. Fighting there was an incredible experience for me, the culmination of almost everything I've wanted to do as an infantryman, but the worst part was being surrounded by so many assholes. When we got to Camp Smith, it was good to see all the guys again, most of whom I cared for a great deal, but it also reminded me of how much I couldn't stand them as a group.
Since the company I was originally a part of in Manhattan had been disbanded while we were in Iraq, now, like it or not, I was permanently a part of this new company. I wanted to show my face, hug everyone, then ask to be transferred to another city-based unit again.