Preparing the Mind for War

As our series on military service continues, we take a look at how people in the armed services mentally prepare to go to war. Airman Jesse Long, who served in Iraq in 2005, had only a few hours to prepare before being deployed. He offers his insight.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

All month long, we've been focusing on the Armed Forces in our series on African-Americans in the military. Going to war is one of the hardest challenges anyone can face. Later on, we'll hear from a family who has a relative serving in Iraq.

But first, imagine this. You're 21 years old, you're married with kids, and you serve in the Air Force. Then one day, you're told to pack your bags and say goodbye to your family because you are off to Iraq tomorrow.

A lot of servicemen and women have been through scenarios like that including Senior Airman Jesse Long. He is now 23, and he told me how he found out he was headed into the combat zone.

Senior Airman JESSE LONG (U.S. Air Force): So I found out when I first got to the base back in '04 that I was going to deploy in '05. Came the time for me to deploy, they said, okay, you're going and they said, well, you're not going, you're just an alternate. 5:00 rode around, orders drop down, okay, you're going now. So, from 5:00 that day 'til we left around about 6:00 in the morning next day, so I know eventually at 5:00, the day before, that I was going to Iraq the next day.

CHIDEYA: Wow. How did your family react?

Airman LONG: It was more like, they know I was going, but it was kind of just a throw up in the air because I had to tell them that I'm going but then I'm not going, but now I am going. So, I really didn't get the time to, you know, like, spend a lot of time with my family. But the whole time I was spending time, so it was more like, it was just like, it sucks, but it's something I had to do.

CHIDEYA: Now, you're not single. You're married with two kids…

Airman LONG: That is correct.

CHIDEYA: How did your wife react when…

Airman LONG: I'm out.

CHIDEYA: …you said, I'm out?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Airman LONG: My wife, she was hating every minute of it. You plan for stuff like this, but it really doesn't hit home until you're actually getting ready to go. Most of it, she was like she was mad and frustrated, but, you know, getting over it.

CHIDEYA: Did you ever think about, wow, she - you know, we're young and she must be going through so much or did you not even have time to really think about where her head was?

Airman LONG: To tell the truth, it all like sunk in so fast that by the time I was gone, that was when I was like, man, how does this really affecting her because the whole time, I was just thinking about trying to - not even in spite, you know about why (unintelligible) leave and why so soon - just trying to spend the last couple of moments alone that we had together on good terms. And then it really didn't sink in 'til I was actually leaving on the bus to leave when we said our last goodbyes and everything. I'm like, man, I'm about to leave her for six to eight months and no telling when I was going to come back.

CHIDEYA: What was the mood like on the flight to Iraq?

Airman LONG: You know, surprisingly, you would think that everybody was all sad and somber and everything, but mostly, everybody was upbeat because you know, it was more like, everybody going to do this deployment, get this out of the way. Well, nobody really sad. I mean, we got out the sadness out of us when we left on the bus on a ride to the airport. By the time we got to the airport, everybody's like let's go ahead, get this out of the way, get home and party up.

CHIDEYA: Where did you end up in the country?

Airman LONG: Well, I really can't disclose the exact location, but we were in Iraq, though.

CHIDEYA: Did you ever find yourself in a violent situation?

Airman LONG: Well, if I can give you one example, what we do when you go there, we all get an instruction by the pilot that we got to do on a certain kind of landing, it's called the combat landing when you go into a war zone.

And so when we got off the airplane, you know, we have people come out and greet us, you know, hey, welcome to blah, blah, blah, Iraq and stuff like that. And no later than stepping out of the plane, grabbing your bags, probably like 10 seconds into it, we could hear a mortar attack, first encounter within five seconds of being in Iraq.

CHIDEYA: What went through your mind?

Airman LONG: What went through my mind I probably can't say on the radio but I was just like, man, this is it. It's really real over here, you know, you hear the story, you hear people talk about, people shooting at you, but you really don't think that it's actually happening to you.

CHIDEYA: You lost a friend in the war. Tell us about who he was as a person and also what happened to him.

Airman LONG: You know, you had different people that are with you from all the different bases, that you meet friends and stuff like that. And I had this one friend, (unintelligible) Airman Chavez(ph). I remember like, we used to play, you know, in your down time, you go out and you play video games, you know, to watch the games, go play or watch a movie and stuff like that. And we build a real bond. So, me and him had a common interest in cars. We like cars a lot. So, we always just talk about cars and argue about which car is better and stuff like that.

I left Iraq. He had to go another tour. He went back again, this time, to a different part of Iraq. He was a turret gunner. That's (unintelligible), ride in the Humvees and everything. And what happened was he was the person that got out when a local Iraqi has gotten out in front of the convoy, and his job was to notice - tell people, move right away. You know, you just can't shoot them. You've got to tell them move right away because they were in a hostile, there's just people in the street. So he comes, stick his head out (unintelligible) to tell the people to move out the way and he got shot by a sniper right in the head.

CHIDEYA: How did his death affect you? Because I'll just say that I've seen a lot of people who come back, they're wearing emblems that represent the people they had lost. And there seems to be obviously, there's a huge amount of camaraderie among people who serve together. How did you react to that at the moment and how do you carry his death with you now?

Airman LONG: At the moment, because I found out - because one of my friends called me when I was at home. They told me about it. And at the time, I didn't want to believe it because, you know, I was like, not Chavez. No, that couldn't happen.

But they, you know, really start (unintelligible) up on it that it was real. And it affected me because, you know, you were just with this person. You know you just talking to him, you're hanging with him, and now, the person is gone. And it's kind of hard to grasp. And it's crazy because now when I look at it, every time I go somewhere now, you know, you just got to use common sense and you got to always know about your surroundings and know what's going on because that could have been anybody at that same time. You never know what's going to happen. It's just hard sometimes. So, you think about it a lot and you just don't want it to be with you.

CHIDEYA: When you were over in Iraq, how much contact did you have or did other airmen you know have with the civilians. Was it a situation where you could ever just have a normal conversation with someone or go shopping, or was there this divide where you just really couldn't even deal on a person-to-person level with the civilians?

Airman LONG: Well, we have over there, we have gates that you work over there. And it's funny because you would think that the Iraqi people won't want to come talk to you and everything but that is complete opposite.

A lot of them over there, they do like the military men over there. They come up to the gates all the time. I've been working at gates when the Iraqi kids would come up. And they bring you things. They always try to sell things to you and give you things and ask for water all the time.

And you know, you give them water and you build friendship with the kids and they come every day and talk to you. The people come up and talk to you and it's (unintelligible) a normal person basis. You have a conversation (unintelligible) on there. Sit down, chit-chat with you for a little while then they go on about their business. So it's like, yeah, I have contact with them.

CHIDEYA: Now, you have just come back from Kuwait.

Airman LONG: That is correct.

CHIDEYA: When you think about your life in the military, do you see it being something that extends way out into the future or something that when your enlistment ends, you're like, peace out.

Airman LONG: Well, actually, if I would just say, because I'm on my second enlistment now. I just reenlisted of July of last year. The way I look at it now, the military, you have to travel, you have to go and you have do different jobs and got to deploy but all in all, it's not that bad at all.

CHIDEYA: Do you think you'd be deployed again to Iraq?

Airman LONG: Realistically speaking, yes. I think that's going to happen.

CHIDEYA: You have made up your mind that that's a path that you're willing to walk?

Airman LONG: Pretty much.

CHIDEYA: What about your family?

Airman LONG: My family understands. My wife was with me before I came into the military. She knows the decision I make and she backs me a hundred percent.

CHIDEYA: Well, Airman Long, thank you so much for talking to us.

Airman LONG: Oh, no problem. The pleasure was all mine.

CHIDEYA: Jesse Long is a senior airman for the Air Force. He's stationed at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia.

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