I'm Not Your Hero
Most civilian actions toward veterans shield us from accepting our own complicity in war.
– Brock and Lettini
The first time I went to Maine was in preparation for war. My fellow specialists and I perused the unfamiliar terminal filled with kitschy I [heart] Maine shirts and smiling lobster decals, which, if understood Maine, had nothing to smile about. As we lined the edges of the terminal in our DCUs (Desert Camo Uniforms), a group of mostly white men and women, primarily seniors, formed a line near to the gate from which we were to depart. I watched as they organized, bantering, handing out small American flags which many of them tucked beneath their arms as they mumbled about one thing or another, as they occasionally surveyed us. When it was time to enter the gate, they shouted and cheered and waved their American flags. I watched as old men jolted their fists into the air, women swayed back and forth with a flag in each hand. Some of them had prop glasses like those common during New Year's Day, patterned with red, white, and blue, emblazoned with small stars. I saw a banner that read “American Heroes!” I smiled as my fellow Airmen did, thinking it’s what I should do, but I remember feeling a strange tinge of embarrassment and uncertainty—confusion about what they were cheering for. For us? For our bravery? None of us had chosen to go to war unless you consider our choice to enlist. No one was particularly happy about going to Iraq. It was just our turn.
Our unit was met with far less pomp upon arriving at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Another unit, another group of young men going in to make up for others going out. "It's one hundred and fourteen degrees outside," a sergeant said upon boarding the aircraft after the doors were opened. He didn't have to say it. We knew the second the door opened how hot it was, that it was hot in a way most of us had never felt heat. There was no gunfire or low-flying aircraft at the Air Base. Qatar was a station for mobilizing assets before Iraq, which was a place of more significant risk. A series of well-constructed and air-conditioned tents filled the base, alongside some larger permanent structures that served as the base exchange or as administration buildings. The terminal for our military aircraft to Iraq was a tent, too, and when we would depart was "undetermined," suggesting we were waiting for the next plane for which we would be part of the manifest. We slept on the floor, in the terminal seats, tried to entertain ourselves in ways we never would in the States, with unread Airmen reading books, or watching movies on portable DVD players. Some of us played cards, were taught Pusoy by Airman First Class Bustos, a game he used to empty the wallets of his competitors once we all understood the rules. We couldn't take money, so he kept a tally in a small notebook and promised to collect once we returned home. When the C130 arrived, I expected to board as I would a commercial aircraft, but quickly realized we were second to loading cargo. Huge pallets went into the aircraft one by one, and when all was secure, we boarded in a space so tight, we locked knee-to-knee in an uncomfortable weave, stuck fully upright until we arrived in Iraqi airspace.
As we prepared to land, the lights inside of the aircraft went dark, and a red beacon light spun in its housing. We shared a collective panic, though men in the company of men tried not to make it obvious, as we were taught not to. Without instructions on the procedures of a combat landing in Iraq, the flashing light, the sudden, unexpected maneuvers of the aircraft left me concerned that we were in imminent danger. And while I might suggest that we were, the sequence was part of a normal exercise while landing in combat airspace. A quick dive down toward the runway as to avoid the amount of time visible in the sky, preventing, in theory, a possible rocket attack or damage from small arms fire. Upon leaving the aircraft, the tempo felt a bit as it did in Qatar—mundane.
It didn't take long to get into the swing of life and work in Iraq. We spent six days working twelve-hour shifts, with which I was on the night shift, and we each had one day off a week. I worked out at one of the best-furnished gyms I'd encountered, had a mocha every morning from the lamely named "Coffee Bean," within our section of the base, spent the evenings in an air-conditioned trailer surrounded by walls of concrete fifteen feet high. For the first few days, the measures taken to protect us seemed to exceed the threat. Until the first night we heard the alarms, an intercom system echoing out a fuzzy, "Incoming, incoming, incoming." We were told to hit the ground, hide under whatever we could. I thought as I put my hands over my head, the only thing I had to put over me, that if whatever was falling from the sky landed atop our trailer, the concrete barriers would do better at concealing our carnage than protecting us from it. Suddenly the walls seemed thinner. I heard the whirring of unseen motors. The spray of machinegunned bullets, then we felt the earth-shaking thump somewhere in the distance. Then another. When we received the all-clear, we walked around disoriented, like bar patrons before close, and we tried to talk about how crazy it all was. "That was crazy, huh?" "Sure was. That was crazy."
We were informed that there was an Iranian mortarman hired by insurgents to bomb the base. While we had the intelligence on the individual, we were uncertain of his whereabouts or when he would strike again. It was our first lesson on how mortars, one of the greatest threats to the base, worked. Our flight chief, who must have been taught recently by someone himself, showed us a map of the base with pins in it, with each pin representing the location of dropped mortar. He showed us a series of pins staggered, unorganized, lacking a pattern throughout the base, and many beyond the walls. He said, "Most of the mortars are 'indirect fire,’" meaning that, while they're shot to strike the base, due to the crudeness of the equipment or the lack of training of those firing the mortars, many of the mortars miss the base entirely. He informed us that the mortar we experienced earlier that day was indirect fire.
For a second, I remember my attention spinning away from our flight chief's briefing. Indirect fire? What we experienced was indirect fire? It didn’t even hit the base, but it had that much of an impact? I realized that it was impossible to fathom the concussive power of a bomb, that something such a far distance away could shake and rattle the entire world, that one could feel its swell from under you as much from around. I considered moments I was taught about in history, about the bombs of World War II, weapons of much greater magnitude, falling within the limits of cities and villages, how it must have felt for the men, women, and children bearing down on the ground or huddled into one another, with their hands over their heads, with nothing else to put over them. Nothing to protect them but their interlaced fingers turned white from their anxious grips. I tuned back in as our flight chief outlined much tighter pins in the map, pointing at lines of them, patterned one atop another, each deeper into the base. “This,” he said, “is the work of the mortarman.”
I spent nights considering how far I was from the developing rows on the map. How long it would be until our trailer was one of the pins, and if the pattern maintained as it did, I saw no way it was possible. I considered the possibility that he might start a new cluster and catch our intelligence people off-guard, that we might be the target of his surprise shift. Many nights came with more shouting from the intercom, "Incoming, incoming, incoming," and somedays the concussion beat my heart against the back of my ribcage. Other days I felt a jostle in the tips of my toes, pointed at the ground as I lay prone with my hands over my head. Two days later, we received confirmation that they killed the mortarman, that we should not become complacent, but that at least one threat was “neutralized.”
Complacency was hard to overcome. After a few months of relatively consistent mortar fire, it became routine to duck under a picnic table or hide away in the nearest concrete bunker. We’d still have that dumb conversation when the explosions felt close, “That was crazy, huh?” “Yeah, that was crazy,” but it always took them hitting a little closer to send us into the frantic back and forth. I remember one moment while my friend Merrihew and I were at Pizza Hut (yes, there was a Pizza Hut, and a Burger King right next to it because American capitalism knows no bounds), and a group of about one hundred of us under the eating area gazebo received the warning, "Incoming, incoming, incoming," and no one moved. Instead, everyone froze, pizza or burger in hand, looking at one another, waiting for the first person to act or not act. Finally, a soldier stood and yelled, "Everyone get the fuck down!" and we did, somehow more terrified of him. I remember Merrihew reaching up to the table and grabbing a slice of pizza., and eating it from beneath the cover of the wooden planks. The mortar hit closer than any of us had experienced before. “That was crazy, huh?” he said. The road we walked in on was gone on the way back, so we went another way.
We turned F-16s constantly, always in pairs, giving each pilot a “wingman,” a term the Air Force uses like it’s going out of style. While it was unnerving at times to see aircraft leave with live bombs and return without them, the distance from the truest scenes of war insulated me and the others from the havoc that ensued in Iraq. That all changed one day while I was filling out electronic maintenance forms from our cement hangar.
First, I heard the scuffle of boots across the concrete, all at once, moving through the tent inside the hangar out into the common area. One of our Tech Sergeants walked by and said that we needed to go to an emergency briefing outside of the hangar. I logged off of the computer and went outside. I noticed immediately that only one jet returned. Another briefing we didn't need to hear because we all knew the second we'd gone out that something was wrong.
Our flagship aircraft, 524, was believed to have gone down somewhere outside of Falluja, that the circumstances were uncertain, but Special Forces would be arriving soon, and the Avionics troops needed to meet with them as to show the soldiers where on the aircraft the Flight Data Recorder was located. They would be in charge of recovering it. I felt that jarring feeling again, the sudden loss of attention, thinking that the aircraft I spent hours maintaining, replacing hundred-pound generators on and slaving over to open panels, was gone—the pilot either MIA or dead. As our briefing continued, I followed the turned heads of my fellow airman, and we watched the pilot emerge from the returned aircraft, the lost pilot’s wingman, fall to his knees, and completely breakdown. War didn't feel so insulated anymore. The distance closed. The walls were thin. By the time we went inside and opened our web browsers, the media already reported the downed aircraft. They showed pictures of the aircraft’s vertical stabilizer flat on the sandy ground, disconnected from the rest of the plane, stood upon by Iraqi boys around our age.
We all wept at a memorial for the pilot we didn’t know. Hundreds of airmen and soldiers filled a sheet metal building as they displayed pictures of the pilot, of his five young children and wife at home. Army soldiers stood at the podium and told their story of how it happened on the ground, that the pilot was providing "cover fire" for the advancing units in the field, how he probably saved lives. "He's a hero," they said. That would make his wife a single parent. His children fatherless. His family a gold star family. His wingman alone, unprotected. Broken down.
We arrived in Maine upon returning from Iraq, and a line met us the same as when we left. They shouted and cheered. They waved American flags. They donned funky American-patterned glasses, rattled signs that read "American Heroes!" But only a few of us smiled. We tried to keep our heads down, rush through the line, not make eye contact, and get the fuck out of there as quickly as we could because we were ashamed. I was ashamed of being called a hero. Of being “thanked” for my service. Of feeling like, no matter what I did, it was not consequential, because how could it be? I’m still alive. The hero was dead.
Years after leaving the military to return to school, I began to reflect on how people treated me when I told them I was a veteran of the Iraq War. The university would often hold events for our “heroes,” honoring the veterans of war, the soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines turned students, now reaping what many of them had joined the military to earn in the first place. I felt the hollowness of the phrase, “Thank you for your service,” feeling, almost instinctively, What the fuck do you know about my service or the service of anyone? I never heard this phrase from anyone that actually went to war, but for the older veterans, for which I held contempt because many of them understood war in a capacity worse than my own. You know better, I would think. I tried to understand why it was I felt as I did, why the phrase rubbed me so raw, what it was about this seemingly cordial, respectful act that seemed so disingenuous and fake.
Eventually, I feel I understood. As the politics of the world soured, as populists began to take footholds around the world, as Donald Trump was elected to office in the upset American presidential election of 2016, as Bolsonaro took office in Brazil, as Boris Johnson became Prime Minister of England, as Marine Le Pen ran a competitive campaign in France, I realized that I hated the phrase because it was bullshit. If people cared about the young men and women they sent to war, they would insulate us. They would protect us. They wouldn't vote people into office that were warmongers or hawks or oilmen or one-percenters, bone-spur draft dodgers. They would be fifteen feet of concrete between us and war. They would be the hands over our heads, white-knuckled, exerting enough imagination to try to fathom the unfathomable concussion of a bomb dropping from the sky, educated enough to understand that war is terrible and chaotic and evil, and worse so when there’s no reason for it but greed and carelessness and apathy. But that’s too much to ask. It’s too much work. It’s much easier to say, “Thank you for your service.”
I worry because I see it again at this moment in the United States. I see ads on television thanking the "front-line heroes" in our hospitals, our grocery stores, and our essential businesses. I see events coordinated by well-meaning people to acknowledge the tireless work of men and women, all medical professionals, to try and contain an out of control pandemic. But it means nothing if their politics support a president that can't be so bothered as to wear a mask. It means nothing if they support a man that suggests the virus would disappear magically one day. It means nothing if he retweets conspiracies about the virus being a hoax. It means nothing if they attend his rallies, unmasked, waving their tiny American flags, donning their red, white, and kitschy blue sunglasses, if by "Make America Great" they mean one-hundred and fifty thousand coronavirus-related deaths in the United States, the majority of which could have been prevented. According to the Department of Defense, 4,424 soldiers died in the Iraq War. More than thirty times that many people have died from Covid-19. As of June, 600 American healthcare workers have died, and over 60,000 were infected by the disease, some left with permanent debilitations as a result of their contracting of the disease. Professionals doing their job but suffering from the incompetence of their national and local leadership, and the contemptible ignorance of a voting public too foolish and selfish to change for the “heroes” they thank.
If we care about the people we send to war, that work in our hospitals, in essential businesses in our community, we need to do our part through substantial action and not hollow words. We need to educate ourselves, we need to step outside of our media echo chambers, we need to put our head above water and see that people are dying. That for as much as my heart beat against the back of my ribcage when that first mortar in Iraq hit the earth, my heart shattered when I saw the returning pilot on his knees, when I saw the face of our lost hero’s children, his wife, and when I saw the line of flag-waving citizens upon returning from something that should have never been.