Once upon a time I was a soldier. I remember this time with more clarity than any other period of my life. I remember the war. I remember things that happened in the war that never should have happened. I remember the faces of the fallen.
I remember Old Baqubah. I remember running towards a battle that was long over. I remember that while I was running to that battle the mortars were clearing the path for us...a little too close. I remember thinking that this would be what the end of the world felt like. You feel the shock wave before you hear it. Its like a rubber band around your chest tightening for a moment before shoving you back. It was always not quite powerful enough of a blast to completely knock you off of your feet. Or perhaps you've gotten better footing through a long bitter deployment. The explosive concussive blast makes a shrill trilling noise that comes after the shock wave but still before you hear the explosion. The explosion itself is almost anticlimactic, because once you hear the explosion it doesn't matter. Once you hear it, that is when you know that it didn't kill you, and you have to keep moving forward.
You can't use your night vision because the explosions are close enough that the light from them will blind you. The mortars are coming fast enough that you are never without light for more than a few seconds.
I remember these moments were the most terrifying of all of the moments I had during a long 15 month deployment. And as it turns out, when the mortars stopped, there were no enemy in Old Baqubah that night.
I remember the firefights. I remember the IED's. I remember the sound of bullets flying a little too close coming from no where. I remember the silent wounded. I remember the corpses lying dead in the street. In the night animals would come and eat from the dead. No family came to claim their dead while we were there. I remember I really never wanted to know what the inside of the human body looks like. I remember I once served tea during a firefight.
I remember all of these things through a kaleidoscope of emotions.
I remember the smell. I remember the smell of the raw sewage and garbage in the streets in Old Baqubah could almost kill you by itself. Underneath those smells, were the smells of desert sand, like burning hair and smoke. Gunfire has its own smell as well, as do most explosives. So does fear.
I remember I was part of a team that didn't want me there. I remember the bitter taste of contempt. I remember blank confusion in the face of misplaced rage. I remember being friendless and alone. I remember after the battles, in the dark, fighting dirty hands. I remember the silence. I remember choking on tears and screams when I couldn't get away, when I was cornered. I remember being raped. I remember never stopping to think about how that made me feel. I remember being afraid to go to sleep and not understanding why. I remember drugging myself to sleep because I had another mission hours away and I remember having no choice.
I remember so many things I want to forget. I remember once upon a time I was a real person. Then I was a soldier. Now I am a ghost. Because you can survive these things, but you never feel quite real again.