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Back Home: Reflections on Iraq

Suzie Lechtenberg

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Before the Messy War
(Courtesy Dylan Tete)
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Brian Turner: I remember the first day. We were in Kuwait and we crossed the border on Dec. 3, 2003. Somehow out of the entire brigade, out of the several hundred vehicles or so, my platoon was in the very front.

Only a few hours into Iraq, I find myself with this mnemonic playing through my head -- which is we'd been told if we see an AK-47, shoot it. That was our mnemonic to know who the enemy was basically, and it was horrible advice.

I found myself looking down the road and seeing a car on the left hand side of the road--civilian car--with four guys off to the right of the highway and they're each with an AK-47 hidden on the far side of their body. I came within a second of shooting a guy from Chicago. These guys were contractors. They were the rear security element for a convoy far up the road that we couldn't see. They just stopped to take a leak and I almost shot the second one from the left. He had a big potbelly and I had the little red dot on him. I had the weapon on semi and my finger was on the trigger and I was ready to pull.

And then the guy to the left of him was very smart. He turned his body and caught the light. I saw something flash but that wasn't going to stop me. But through my intercom I heard the vehicle commander say, "Badge! I've got a badge!" And that's what stopped me from shooting him. I remember thinking, "Wow, this is going to be a really long year."

Sandi Austin: It's pretty amazing to me how different the experiences two people can have. Just listening to Brian describe his first day and then looking here at my journal entry from when we actually arrived in Iraq, it's just so different. But I should probably start by introducing myself. I'm Sandi Austin. I was a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve. I just want to reflect on this: as I was driving, of course, I was a little afraid. And they prep you on IEDs, and if you're in incoming fire, and this person next to you might not be there tomorrow. So of course you have this internal fear, but you're pushing that away so you don't dwell on being afraid.

Reading my journal entry, I was focusing on what sounds so much more positive to me. Here we're driving in and I'm noticing that we're passing all these small villages and they're made up of these mud huts. You see barefoot children and you see men and women balancing baskets on their heads. To me, I'm seeing this new nation. I felt like a tourist seeing all of this and I wanted to stop and meet these people.

I remember thinking, "How are we supposed to make this a functional democracy? That's what we're supposedly here to do, and that's our job!" And I'm looking here and wondering if these people even want to be changed. I was happy to be seeing such a different world, but underneath that tourist feeling, I was definitely afraid and I was definitely hiding those feelings.

Dylan Tete: My first day in Iraq... my name is Dylan Tete, and I was at the time an executive officer in the 5th Battalion 20th Infantry Regiment. I remember this pretty well: Pulling out of Camp Udari, if you can imagine, hundreds of vehicles tracking mud over a highway. A Kuwaiti car spun out of control after it hit the mud that we had tracked onto this road. There was a fatality and the others were in serious critical condition. And we hadn't even crossed the border yet and, in a way, caused this tragic accident.

I also remember, and I have this picture hanging on my wall, a photo taken right before we crossed the burm into Iraq. In the picture is myself, my driver, and my vehicle commander. Our uniforms are clean, and our kit and our equipment were sparkling clean compared to what would become of it. In a way, on the inside as well, it was kind of the last moment before our lives would be changed forever. And I look at that picture now and I smile. It's just neat.

Turner: Can I ask Sandi a question real quick? I was going to ask, what vehicle were you driving?

Austin: We were in a Humvee. Just a regular....

Turner: It wasn't up-armored?

Austin: No, it wasn't up-armored.

Turner: Yeah, you guys were the ones that I remember thinking, "Man, you guys are brave." We were in the Striker and I was really confident. Later, we were hit by an RPG and it just proved to me just how strong they were.

Austin: Crazy. Yeah, I was actually the second vehicle in the convoy. But later when we were in Iraq, we actually drove SUVs for a little bit. We weren't even in a Humvee. And then when I was home on leave, my team got hit by an RPG in an SUV. So that was kind of crazy.

Turner: Yeah. When we were in that first vehicle, it was very tense in a lot of ways and we were sort of amped up. But we had jerry-rigged the intercom system in the vehicle so we could play music and stuff. So some of the guys' CDs were playing through there. And Sgt. Zavala, my counterpart, he was in the back. I remember at one point singing songs in Spanish with no musical accompaniment. It really calmed people down.

Tete: Yeah, that's true. We did the same thing. Soldiers are alike, you know. We had AC/DC pumping through the intercom, which was a big no-no.

Turner: I was in Iraq from Dec. 3, 2003 to just before Halloween of 2004.

Tete: I was in Iraq from December 2003 to October 2004.

Austin: I was in Iraq from December 2003 until October 2004.

Tete: I departed Iraq via a C-130

Austin: My memories of my last day in Iraq...

Turner: The last two days that I was in Iraq, I worked on this one poem. Should I read the poem?

Tete: Yeah

Austin: Yeah, absolutely.

Turner: It's called "Night In Blue"

At seven thousand feet and looking back, running lights
blacked out under the wings and America waiting,
a year of my life disappears at midnight,
the sky a deep viridian, the houselights below
small as match heads burned down to embers.

Has this year made me a better lover?
Will I understand something of hardship, of loss,
will a lover sense this in my kiss or touch? What do I know
of redemption or sacrifice, what will I have
to say of the dead--that it was worth it,
that any of it made sense?

I have no words to speak of war.
I never dug the graves in Talafar.
I never held the mother crying in Ramadi.
I never lifted my friend's body
when they carried him home.
I have only the shadows under the leaves
to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
the low fog of Balad, orange groves
with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.

I have a woman crying in my ear
late at night when the stars go dim,
moonlight and sand as a resonance
of the dust of bones, and nothing more.

I wrote that poem as if I was already on that plane. But that's what I spent doing. Guys were playing cards, joking and talking about what they were going to do back at home, what girls they were hoping to hook up with, what clubs they were going to go to, what they were going to drink first or eat first, that meal they'd been imagining for a year, that kind of thing.

Austin: I have just a little comment on that too. Touching down, to me, that's when you actually feel everything. We landed in North Carolina, so nobody's family was really there. But we had this whole group of people there to greet us and they were playing "The Star Spangled Banner." We all stood there and I remember crying. It's going to get me teary right now! It was such an amazing feeling to actually be on your own soil. Whew! I'm sorry about that.

Anyway, here's the funny part. We get off the plane and they're playing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and there's this bass drum, which I must say, they need to leave the bass drum out of the welcome-home "Star-Spangled Banner" because every time they would hit that, it would make you jump like there was a mortar coming in.

Tete: I departed Iraq via a C-130, which is an aircraft cargo plane. And I remember sitting at the airfield in Mosul and a report had come in about some kind of rocket activity or missile activity, and we did a near vertical take off. But I remember as my body was leaving the Earth, this enormous rush of relief come over me. In the back of my mind, I had this self-inflicted prophesy that I was going to be replaced by my newborn son who was born while I was in Iraq. We were supposed to share the same birthday and I just felt that -- it was paranoia -- that he would do the things that I never got to do. And as I left the ground, it was the last check that said, "You know what? I survived and I'm not going to be replaced." It felt good. It felt really good.

Turner: I just got a phone call from a guy that was in my squad. He asked me to give him a recommendation if I got called for a security clearance because he wants to work for Blackwater. He could be someone coming in on this weekend and he's going in a very different way than what we're talking about. I told him not to get--insert expletive--shot.

Tete: Nice advice Brian!

Turner: Yeah! And this relates to our last day in Iraq, because our last day in Iraq is also sort of tied to our first day back in America. Do you know what I mean?

Austin: Oh yes.

Turner: Or back home, in a way. I remember there were retirees, WWII vets, and they shook our hands and they didn't say anything about the war, if it was good or bad or whatever. They just said, "Welcome home." And that's a lesson we've learned since Vietnam -- how do you treat the warrior, regardless of where you may stand politically.


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Margaret Hernandez

    From Los Angeles, CA, 07/13/2008

    Brian, I love your poem and would like to include it as a part of the curriculum in my classroom for high school freshmen, and for my college students as well. May I have your permission to reprint it?

    By Susan Price

    From Warrenville, IL, 07/13/2008

    Brian Turner: you used very vivid and effective imagery in your "Night in Blue: poem. I hope you continue to write poetry and share it with others. You have a gift for communication.

    And to all 3 interviewees: Thank you for talking about your tours in Iraq and helping the rest of us understand even a little of what you have experienced.

    By Marilee Odendahl

    From Freeport, IL, 07/13/2008

    When a story is aired that features the spoken words of the soldiers instead of the talking head "experts" what invariably fails to move me is their individual courage and patriotism. What comes through in the sound of their voices is the sheer weight of their experience and the recognition of how those experiences have changed them forever. If the Vietnam war taught America anything (sadly, a debatable point)it is to honor our soldiers. Allowing Vets to speak for themselves in thoughtful, conversational ways - as Weekend America often does - helps educate America about the price war exacts. Thank you for featuring the poetry of Brian Turner and for the links to access more. He is amazing.

    By Paul Bello

    From Escondido, CA, 07/12/2008

    This was a very touching story. I was moved by the poetry and the emotions as the vets talked about their experiences. It reminded me that, regardless of the position a person finds themselves in there is always present a sense of humanity, society and civility. Good stuff!

    By Waleed Murad

    From Amman, 05/24/2008

    My name is Waleed Murad, I worked with Mr. Dylan Tete to construct the Cisco Training Center in Mosul in 2004. He was very gentle, civil, and courageous. I would appreciate very much if I could get his email. Thanks

    By Stephanie Richardson

    From Lincoln, CA, 03/28/2008

    I thought Dylan Tete's prophecy about his son replacing him showed how difficult the separation from family can be. Our soldiers who are facing their military commitments with integrity should be honored. This war never should have been started, but America needs to be as committed to our veterans as they have been to this country.

    By Jimmie Brunson

    From Fayetteville, NC, 03/23/2008

    I am loosing trust in America, my goverment has been billing me for Mental Health since 1997. How can you ask me to love America, when it bills me for Mental Health from the Gulf War, I was with 2nd Armor 2nd Calvary. I will always remember my first general order. But America has forgotten about it VETERANS. I am very upset of how America treats it VETS.

    By kelinda scott

    From wayland, MI, 03/22/2008

    I really enjoyed this. I loved the conversational format and enterchange between the soldiers. I thought it was an excelent reminder to us all that these kids are wonderful people, with names, families, personalities, etc... We all know this but some how we get lulled into a nightly news mentality of numbers and politics. God bless you three, and God bless your freinds still there.

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