March 20 marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As the media reports on whether the war was worth it and how much it has cost the U.S., the stories that really stick with us are the personal accounts from the people on the ground.
Here are five of those stories.
“The first thing you should know about me is that I’m crazy.”
That’s how Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Officer Brian Castner opens his memoir — and that’s crazy, with a capital “C.” As his Air Force position suggests, Castner’s job was to disarm bombs, and the title of his book conjures images of the lone, brave soldier, and the ever-impending dangers involved with the job and thereafter. The Long Walk: A Story of War and Life That Follows is an introspective confession; a cathartic project, and one that proves that Iraq was a war of attrition — not on the opposition, but on the American soldier’s psyche.
The book’s essence in a nutshell:
I run, and run, and run, and in the Is try to pound out of my head what once Was. (From the first chapter.)
Read about the time Castner encounters a dismembered foot and more disturbing memories in an excerpt from NPR.
2. The War Within
In 2007, Salon’s Helen Benedict profiled over 20 female soldiers who recounted their experiences fighting the enemy: Iraqi insurgents and soldiers, but more harrowing, their own U.S. military male counterparts. Spc. Mickiela Montoya, who served with the National Guard in Iraq, always carried a knife around to protect her against sexual attacks.
“This guy out there, he told me he thinks the military sends women over to give the guys eye candy to keep them sane. He said in Vietnam they had prostitutes to keep them from going crazy, but they don’t have those in Iraq. So they have women soldiers instead.”
Abbie Pickett, a specialist with the 229th Combat Support Engineering Company in Iraq, shared a similar fear. She was raped while she was training in Nicaragua before her deployment to Iraq.
“We shouldn't have to think every day, ‘How am I going to go out there and deal with being harassed?’” she said. “We should just have to think about going out and doing our job.”
Read their stories here.
3. From the Flip Side
Sgt. Mahad Ahmed is an Iraqi soldier-turned-U.S. Infantry translator. In this unfiltered profile from the U.S. Army website, Sgt. David Bryant recounts Ahmed’s arduous journey from Baghdad to Texas where he trained to become a translator for the U.S. military.
Along the way, Ahmed confronts three near-deaths and numerous threats from Americans, Syrians, and even his own countrymen. On the day he was recruited by American troops, Ahmed had a run-in with two Syrian men from Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen posing as Iraqi Shia. When they were caught, one fled while the other swallowed a grenade and blew himself up.
"We checked the body and saw a letter saying, 'Kill nine Shia and you will go to heaven. If you kill no one and come back home, you will be killed. If you get captured, kill yourself.' Which is what he did. At the bottom was the signature of his mom and dad. We checked the body, and his passport was Syrian. The people were outraged and spit on his body. We dragged the body to a garden area we had in the middle of our houses and buried him there. That's how my story with the U.S. Army started."
Ahmed traverses the exceptional existential dilemma of being a near-native English speaker and critical of Saddam Hussein’s regime — all while helping his fellow Iraqis and cooperating with Americans. Read his remarkable story here.
There are soldiers who risk their lives on the front lines, and then there are soldiers who spend the day in the safe haven of a Forward Operating Base. David Abrams, a retired active-duty Army journalist, features the latter in his novel Fobbit. A “Fobbit,” or a soldier stationed at a Forward Operating Base in Iraq himself, Abrams satirizes the day in the life of these men (and women), and questions their worth amid the bombings and fighting that occurred outside the base’s gates.
A FOB in a nutshell:
They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazards of Baghdad's bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph. (From the opening paragraph of Fobbit.)
But being a Fobbit is neither without any cabin fever nor fear. Joshua Martin, a first time-deployed soldier at FOB Delta Iraq, recounts a bombing incident where his guitar becomes both a source of comfort and a reminder that he is at war where a weapon— not music — will save your life. Read his account on Real Combat Life.
Both Fobbit and Martin’s account de-glorify war in an entertaining, yet critical way.
5. A Different Kind Of Humor
Soldier Shaun Feingold provides much-needed perspective and humanity to the Iraq War story in his letter to journalist AJ Jacobs (published on the Huffington Post). Feingold coins himself a humorist: “someone who finds the little everyday things in life that make you smile.” From the time his company commander saved a drowning dog to his memories of careless children running about, Feingold brightens our perspective of the Iraqi war zones and finds beauty in an otherwise harrowing landscape in his letter, here.