Iraq war veteran
on coming to accept
a nation’s gratitude
I remember the first time I was thanked by a stranger for my military service. It was February 2006, and I was on the way home for mid-tour leave with a planeload of other troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Our plane stopped in Bangor, Maine, like thousands of similar flights before and after ours. One by one, garbed in dusty camouflage, we walked into the terminal.
I was expecting an empty airport, but instead we were met by a platoon of older volunteers decked out in red-white-and-blue, welcoming us home with cookies and cellphones so we could call our families and let them know we were back stateside. One by one, the volunteers thanked us, shaking our hands or hugging us.
The display of patriotism and gratitude surprised me, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. Just a few days before, I had been living with my team in squalor on a small compound in downtown Baqubah. Now, I was in a comfortable suburban airport, being handed treats by somebody’s grandparents and treated like a returning hero. I couldn’t understand why they were thanking me, with only half my tour done and a great deal of work left in Iraq before we could rightfully claim success. I stuffed those feelings away, though, muttered something to myself about focusing on the vacation ahead and quickly found a corner of the airport where I could wait with other soldiers for our flight to resume its journey to Dallas, where we’d all catch connecting flights home.
Several months later, my team and I came home from Iraq for good. Once again, the thank yous began, except this time they hit me differently. The first came from a general who spoke to our welcome-home ceremony at the airfield at Fort Campbell, Ky. I heard him offer several platitudes — thanking us, calling us “heroes” — that seemed like the sort of thing a general is expected to say at such a moment, but they also felt disconnected from the state of the war. The “hero” label, in particular, didn’t feel right to me. Most of us did nothing heroic in Iraq; we merely volunteered to serve and went to war, in the same way that a firefighter volunteers for work and then runs into a burning building. We came home just before Gen. David Petraeus took over and the troop surge began, at a time when thousands of Iraqis were dying each month in a hellish civil war. If we were really heroes, why was the war in Iraq going so badly?
I struggled to reconcile the general’s gratitude with my mixed feelings about Iraq, and how our efforts had done little to stop the violence there, and I came up empty.
Two weeks after redeploying from Iraq, I returned home to Los Angeles. There, “thank you” was less frequent. My family and friends welcomed me with more intimate questions based on the stream of e-mails I had sent from the war. They asked what had happened to the interpreter I’d befriended, or what came of the program we developed to issue blue-painted Humvees (we called them “Smurfvees”) to the Iraqi police, or whether traffic was worse in Baghdad or Los Angeles (hands down: Baghdad). Other veterans, recognizing the Army patch on my baseball cap, or the tan Under Armour gym shirt I wore everywhere, sometimes said hello and asked where I had been and how I was doing. But with few veterans around me in L.A., those inquiries were rare.