Veterans' Voices On Iraq

An elated Lance Cpl. Brian Gottschall, with Lance Cpl. Zachary Rhodes, is photographed a week before the two returned home in September 2004.
An elated Lance Cpl. Brian Gottschall, with Lance Cpl. Zachary Rhodes, is photographed a week before the two returned home in September 2004. (By Cpl. Brian Onieal)
Sunday, March 19, 2006

The heat, which is like living under a french-fry lamp, like standing in front of the world's biggest hair dryer, like sitting in a sealed car on the hottest summer day in Washington with the heater blasting and someone throwing sand in your face.

The mud, which follows the hot season, cold, slimy, sticky mud that makes you wish it would turn hot again.

The green that erupts after a spring rain and astounds you the first time you see it. The blue of the timeless sky above and beyond all the troubles. The black of the inky desert night, thickly dusted with stars and galaxies.

The eyes of the children.

These are some of the things they remember from their service in Iraq.

Over the past year, The Washington Post conducted in-depth interviews with 100 of the more than 500,000 veterans of the war. They included men and women, officers and enlisted, active-duty and reserves, combat and support troops. The questions were open-ended. The intent was to hear from them, in their own words, what the experience was like.

They remembered the camel spiders, big, fast and scary-looking. The sand flies, scorpions, mosquitoes and flying crickets. The long, hard days -- 12-hour shifts that easily turn into 20-hour shifts when they don't turn into round-the-clock marathons.

They remembered the roaring metal of System of a Down and Adema, the throbbing rap of Public Enemy and 50 Cent, the soldier-celebrating anthems of Toby Keith:

And I can't call in sick on Mondays/When the weekend's been too strong/I just work straight through the holidays/And sometimes all night long. . . .

Stringing Xbox cables from bunk to bunk to play Madden football or Tony Hawk skateboarding games in the two-man residential trailers known as "cans." Visiting the "hadji marts," clusters of enterprising Iraqis who sell everything from bootleg DVDs to rotgut alcohol on the roadside just beyond the wire of nearly every camp. Watching an entire season of "The Simpsons" or "CSI" or "Saved by the Bell" on your laptop. Watching your baby grow up via e-mail and webcam.

Wondering how honest to be with the folks back home. You don't want them to worry. So you try to sound cheerfully vague and remind them to send gummy candies, which don't melt, rather than chocolates, which do. But all that loving deception ends in a whoosh if a mortar hits during a telephone call to Mom.

Iraq was bad, nearly all of them agreed. "Not knowing day to day what was going to happen." "Hard to figure out who the enemy was." "Never being able to relax." "The rules are that there are no rules."

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