Eleven years ago next month, on February 28, 2004, I led a convoy of 2 HummVees from Al Hillah, Iraq into Kuwait. The ride took longer because one of the vehicles broke down on the way and we had to wait by the side of the road while one of our mechanics replaced a hose. Except for the mechanical problem the ride was 10 good, boring, windblown hours of staring at concrete and desert. In a combat zone boring is good and most any excitement is bad. Plus, we missed the unpleasant company of the summer heat.
When we crossed into Kuwait we were met by two U.S. Army military police. They told us to clear our weapons and take off our body armor and helmets. In other words, we were safe now. I remember feeling as if a great weight had been lifted off me, a weight that I had not fully realized was there. This was followed by a tremendous sense of relief. I had made it. We had all made it. I unloaded my rifle and pistol, took off my body armor and helmet, and climbed back into the vehicle. I would never return to Iraq again.
This would not be true for some of my fellow Active duty and Reserve soldiers. I retired with 30 years of service the following year but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued. The one year that I had served in a war zone began to pale in comparison to the multiple tours (some as long as 15 months) that the Active Army endured. Some Army Reservists that I knew even went on a second tour, if not in Iraq then in Afghanistan.
And as the wars and the tours continued I began to feel guilty that I had not done enough. I didn't talk about this with many people because it was illogical. When I was called I went. The retirement at 30 years was mandatory and I couldn't have stayed in the Active Reserves even if I had wanted to. But I still felt guilty. There's the guilt about the multiple tours that I didn't have and there's the guilt about the ones who didn't come home and the ones who returned maimed in body and/or spirit.
I'm not looking for sympathy or understanding. I'm not crippled or impaired by these feelings but they exist. The bottom line was that I didn't go again so someone else had to.
In this way, I identified with Chris Kyle, the protagonist in the movie "American Sniper." He kept going back to the combat zone because he knew that he would feel guilty if he didn't. If he didn't go someone else would have to. This was illogical but he felt it anyway. He couldn't be sure that whoever took his place would do the same job that he did.
This was a hard movie for me to watch, but I knew it would be. I felt that I had a duty to go see it. I had to see it for Chris Kyle and and those who went back. I had to see it for all those Army Reserve soldiers who did the tours because I didn't go.