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Coming Home: A Soldier Returns to a Family He Didn't Leave Behind (Part 2 of 4)

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Part II: RJ in Iraq
(Read Part I.)

For the entire time RJ is living with us, I bite my tongue. I treat him like the beloved stray dog who wanders into your life and you give over to the droopy ears and shaggy coat without caring about its precise antecedents. Once in a while he makes a reference to his service, and he patiently answers the boys' detailed questions about M4s, M9s and M240s. But it takes me a whole year to drum up the courage to ask RJ what I'm burning to know: what he actually was doing in Iraq.

Even then, I preface everything by saying, "Of course you don't have to talk about this if you don't want," especially when I ask him about what he did when he entered the villagers' houses in Fallujah. And he doesn't. He says he has honed his ablility to "bury things," a "defense mechanism" he's had since his troubled childhood.

Still, I'm able to learn a bit at a time by uncharacteristic indirection. The eldest of three and the only boy, RJ grew up in Hopedale, a Boston suburb, an angry child whose father, an alcoholic whom he "didn't want to pollute (his) head," only came around on the weekends. Despite the influence of his beloved grandfather who had served in the Navy, he became a "risk-taker" and a "troublemaker." He dropped out of college after a year and was struggling financially, "not feeling fulfilled or getting anything out of life...going down a dead end." His cousin had joined the Navy and RJ had seen his "life turn around." Instead of joining the Navy, or the Marines, he joined the Army because he felt "it fit my character...(it was) a little more lenient, let you be your own person a little bit more, but when I got in I realized that really wasn't the case at all." RJ considers himself an individualist and isn't comfortable with regimentation; yet when he signed on, he knew, he didn't "want to sit around just for the fact that they'd pay for school." He wanted to be the veteran of a foreign war and be shipped overseas.

For RJ, 9/11 was the cataclysm that put everything into focus, so when he was called up a few days later he was grateful he'd finally be able to test his fearlessness and make his grandfather proud. He says his basic training (where at 22 he was among the eldest) and his short stay in Fort Carson (less than a month where he never actually drove a tank, just a simulator) did not prepare him for what was to come, though things happened so fast, he can't remember feeling any uncertainty. His drill sergeant told them, "You guys are going to Iraq, taste some action. Good stuff!"

After a 22-hour flight via Turkey, he landed in Kuwait in the midst of a dust storm. After a week, his company began the long road march into Iraq. The Marines were just ahead of them, but the intense sandstorms and hellish terrain made for stultifying 14-hour days and infernal conditions. His tank commander, "a vile, narrow-minded person," yelled at them all the time. RJ's concerns about regimentation bloomed right away: he hated taking orders from "incompetent people who had no vision, who didn't understand teamwork."

They reached Iraq and set up Camp Mad Dog in Ramadi on the outskirts of Fallujah in an abandoned railroad station. His often broken-down tank was his home for the next six months. Rather than sleep in the claustrophobic huts, he and his friend Matt slept on the tank or right next to it, tethered to it like babies who always keep mother well within range.

For almost a year, RJ and his platoon conducted "presence patrols", house-to-house inspections looking for insurgents or weapons, first in the tank and then in more flexible armored Humvees. The raids lasted up to two days with only 2 to 3 hours down time. They knew the insurgency was primarily composed of "poor farmers or confused kids," but Army intelligence was so weak that their missions were often severely compromised by misinformation as well as exhaustion. Though the villagers had been warned to turn in their weapons to avoid search and seizure, mostly they didn't. So RJ didn't feel any compunction about knocking the doors down if he had to: it was "us or them." I flinch when he says this but say nothing, resisting mightily the impulse to be a one-woman truth and reconciliation commission sitting in judgment on this young man.

Recently in The New Yorker, Kalev Sepp, a retired Special Forces officer who now teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, said that's how the military was operating in the first two years of the war. Though classic strategies to combat insurgency rely on isolation, security, a strong police force and economic development so that the government can inspire loyalty, the US pursued what's known as "kill-capture" during the early years of the war. "The failure of that approach is evident," says Sepp. "There's more insurgents there than there were when they started." Now, the generals are coming out of the closet to agree. In the spirit of the "new" war, soldiers are sent for pre-op training to the Mojave Desert. There, they role play with actors to learn how to be insurgency-savvy and how to speak Arabic since once they get to Iraq they spend much of their time trying to keep peace (or provide escort for private contractors like Halliburton -- see, not make war. It's unbelievably depressing that this whole mess has landed in an expensive and surreal faux Hollywood sound stage.

I wish I had recorded the talk Condoleezza Rice, then a trustee of Notre Dame University, gave to the spouses at a meeting I attended as the wife of an invited architect making a presentation in Palm Beach some years ago. (Strategy numero uno for the pro-war team seems to have always be to spend as much time as possible in places as far away from the war as you could get with the words "Palm" or "Ranch" in them.) Condi, then just an informal advisor to not-yet-Candidate Bush told us that the Clinton administration had made a total hash of Bosnia and that she and Bush were staunchly against sending our troops into harm's way as peacekeepers, something they were just not set up or trained to do. Were Bush to be elected, she suggested, we would never be tolerating this misguided use of our military.

Selective memory is probably a very good thing if you're the Secretary of State of an administration that has taken the lives of almost three thousand soldiers.

I know only one other vet, Joey, the brilliant, Harvard-educated son of a distinguished historian and former presidential speechwriter who used to baby sit my boys when they were small. Joey grew up only half an hour away from RJ in the upscale Boston suburb of Concord but it may as well have been a different planet. I was certainly blindsided when Joey signed up -- he had always been politically active -- but his parents explained his devotion to democracy and his view that everyone should be called upon equally to serve. Recently, he clarified his motivation to enlist after 9/11 with an air of inevitability that sounds like RJ: "something pretty major about me was perfectly positioned" to serve. As a college graduate, he was invited to officer's training school and was on offensive combat patrol to secure Baghdad at the same time that RJ was in Fallujah. He witnessed "horrible situations" and the "fumbling of the first year" which he claims is much improved now that the Army is "not only teaching how to kill, but how to put your hand out and shake it."

But RJ says, "A lot of things they preach over there were stupid to me: these weren't my friends or people I was trying to help ...this was my enemy, face to face shaking our hands, then trying to blow us up." He "kept them at a distance" and didn't learn the language; he didn't want a guy approaching him saying "thank you mister, thank you, thank you, not knowing what he had strapped to his back." Though he came to understand why someone might join the insurgency (poverty, no food, "hell on earth"), he "never got to a personal level with Iraqi women and children." Unlike Joey, his strategic overview made possible by his post-Iraq service as a General's aide-de-camp, he didn't see détente as part of his mission. "You don't join the military with prospects of changing the world," he reiterates.

But I thought somehow he might eventually feel differently, once he'd had time for reflection, so when the Kerry campaign teetered towards its own crash and burn, I reverted to type: I offered to pay for him and his combat buddies to travel to a swing state to help campaign. Hearing his politely confused reply, I realized he was in no shape yet to test his belief system about the job he had just finished doing.