Monday, June 29, 2009

A pistol in my hand

I have never owned a rifle or a pistol. The Army taught me how to use a rifle and a pistol and even lent me one or the other to use occasionally. I never carried a loaded weapon anywhere other than an Army firing range until I got to Iraq.

When I was a young Lieutenant an older officer gave me some advice that stayed with me throughout my career, "You can tell the Army is serious when they give you a flak vest and live ammunition." In March 2003 I was sitting on a cot in a hangar in Kuwait, waiting for the Word to go forward into Iraq, when the company supply sergeant issued me fifty rounds of 9 millimeter ammunition for the pistol I carried in a holster on my hip. I had already received my body armor in Ft Bragg, and it was lying on the cot beside me. As I loaded those rounds into a magazine I thought about the officer's advice and about how right he had been.

For the next 340 days I rarely, if ever, went anywhere without my pistol, usually unloaded. Whenever we went out to visit the local populace I locked the slide to the rear, inserted the magazine and then released the slide so that the spring could slam the slide forward with a distinctive, metallic sound and insert a round into the chamber of the weapon. Often, the metallic sound of my pistol chambering a round was echoed by many soldiers around me as they loaded their own weapons. Later, as Iraq grew more dangerous, I began to carry a rifle with me, so I had two weapons to load and twice as much ammunition to carry.

When we returned to the relative security of our base we unloaded our weapons. The military was very serious about exact procedures for loading and clearing weapons. A sawed off 55 gallon drum, filled with sand, was placed at the entrance to every military post in Iraq for use as a clearing barrel. The idea was to unload your weapon, point into the clearing barrel and then fire. Hopefully there would be no sound and the weapon would be confirmed as unloaded. Sometimes, that was not the case.

A young, Air Force Lieutenant remembered the part about taking the round out of the chamber but forgot the part about removing the magazine. Fortunately, he remembered the part about aiming into the clearing barrel before pulling the trigger. The sound of a gun shot is always unwelcome in a combat zone, especially inside the perimeter. The Lieutenant, horrified at his mistake, compounded it by repeating the error. He hastily pulled the slide of the pistol back, removing the round from the chamber. But without removing the magazine all he did was add another live round to the chamber. Once again he pointed the pistol into the clearing barrel and once again he buried another round in the sand. The Lieutenant was saved from further embarrassment by an Army sergeant who took the pistol from his hand and removed the magazine.

I understand that the Air Force is a suitable substitute for military service. The senior sergeant at my location gave the Lieutenant his pistol back, with one bullet. We took to calling him Barney Fife.

I never fired my weapon in Iraq except on a practice range. A few times I felt compelled to draw my pistol, but I never pointed it at anyone. On several occasions I got out of my vehicle and with a drawn weapon led my convoy of vehicles through a crowd of people. I can still see the faces of the Iraqis as they saw me, pistol drawn and pointed at the ground. I could see a barely perceptible shudder run through the crowd as pressed back away from me, reacting to the man with the gun in his hand.

Fortunately, I carried no terrible memories home with me from Iraq. Yet, to this day, like a tiny film in my head running on a loop, I will be walking innocently and alone across a parking lot, and then I will feel the pistol in my hand, and sense the fear of the Iraqis around me. The feeling that comes over me is always the same, like I have suddenly been possessed with a great and terrible power.

I have not had a pistol in my hand, loaded or otherwise, since February 28, 2004, when I returned to Kuwait from Iraq. I gave my pistol back to the Army and never saw it again. Sometimes, during those chance moments, I can still feel it in my hand again. I actually look at my hand to see if it is there. It never is.

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