Combat troops were on the ground blazing their way towards Kuwait City. The U.S. was at war which meant so was I, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was surreal, growing up my entire life wanting to serve my country and now when the crap hit the fan, I was serving time for disservice to my country. This was the second time I missed out on combat. I wasn’t a warmonger, and I had no desire to go to a foreign land and get shot or anything. It’s just that I dreamed of being a soldier and serving when duty called.
Unfortunately because of my selfishness, immaturity and stupidity, I was about as far from being a soldier that anyone could be. Having the status of deserter meant that I ran from my responsibilities. There was no turning back now, I was reduced to watching the whole thing unfold from the walls of an Army prison on a little two dimensional screen. Once again all the military experts had their opinions and comments. They would talk about how the war would be won if they were in charge, or criticize the way the Generals were commanding the troops.
But the most interesting discussions came from the inmates who converted to Islam while inside the walls. Several times there were statements like “Saddam Hussein is my homeboy.” If these guys hadn’t gotten locked up, they wouldn’t be cheering him on. They would have been right over there being shot at by their “brothers.” To this day, I’m surprised that these guys were never retaliated against. I think the only thing that was keeping it from happening was the inevitable trip to the hole if there were any issues. Even heated discussions were a red flag for the guards. That stuff got shut down quickly to avoid any incidents.
Even though everyone in Fort Leavenworth was an inmate, they all were military and were still very patriotic. So many people were excited by the rumor about reinstatement to their respective branch of service. I think everyone was thinking things were going to go down like the old Lee Marvin movie, The Dirty Dozen. I was assured by my counselor that they were only rumors. No inmates would be going to combat.
Some of the Cadre went though. A Sergeant First Class who was one of our supervisors in the dining facility was deployed to Iraq. When he came back he had pictures of the “Highway of Death” to Baghdad. Burned up tanks and trucks littering the sides of the road. Two of the pictures were kind of disturbing. One was of an Iraqi soldier that had been blown up and so some of his body parts were not in the right place. The other picture was of an Iraqi soldier sitting in a burned up vehicle. At first it looked as if he was still driving it, but he was completely charred to a black remnant of a human being. He was frozen in time. It was strange to look at because I had never seen anything like it before.
Later in the war, I watched a sobering report on the news. In an incident of friendly fire near the the Saudi-Iraqi border, a U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle (Bradley) and an M113 Armored Personnel Carrier (M113) were destroyed by two Hellfire missiles fired from a U.S. Apache helicopter killing two U.S. soldiers and injuring six others. The soldiers were Cavalry Scouts and a reminder that, had I gone to war, this could have been me. Since I had been a Cavalry Scout, I could have ended up in this same situation. (Middleton, Jeffrey Thomas, SGT) (Talley, Robert D. PV1)
All my life I wanted to be a soldier, and now we were at war. The struggle of feeling like I had let my country down, by not being able to stand by my fellow soldiers, was brutal. The guilt and shame I felt for running away made me feel like such a coward. I would do anything to go back in time and right the wrongs, erase them or make the mistakes that haunted me go away. I couldn’t do anything to fix or reverse them. At the same time, I don’t know if I could have handled some of what I was seeing. Maybe it’s best that I never went to combat. The war that waged within me was between patriotism, shame and regret and yet at the same time I was glad that it wasn’t me on the highway of death or inside of a burning vehicle dying at the hands of one of my brothers-in-arms.
Truthfully, I didn’t really have any brothers-in-arms anymore. All the soldiers I hung out with and called my friends were either, out of the Army now, or were convicted of the same crimes as me. I did hear that Eddie Gaines and Vann had both been released from Fort Riley. They were there because they had shorter sentences. Fort Leavenworth was for inmates who had been sentenced to five or more years. Once I found out they were out, I called both of them.
Eddie had gone back to Georgia and got a job at a Krogers grocery store. Vann went back to Alexandria, Louisiana for a while and later moved to the West Coast to pursue a professional rock climbing hobby. It was so good to hear their voices. They were so very familiar sounding, but yet there was something different. It had been over a year since I had seen them both and I think they both knew that we were all moving on to different paths. There was a distance in their voices. At this point I wasn’t sure if I would ever hear from them again.
Next week, this place was more dangerous than I realized and another escape….