Today I am a somewhat overweight, bearded suburban dad entering a comfortable middle age, but it was not always thus. Seven short years ago I was a lean, clean-shaven, heavily armored combat medic in Iraq, and today, November 11th, everyone is apparently required by law to remind me of the things I did in my youth. Restaurants offer me free food and everyone who knows about my past feels compelled to thank me for it. I get phone calls from relatives as if it were my birthday. I jokingly ask my wife for presents.
But here is something no one wants to know about on Veterans Day – I ought to be dead. Not that I intend to take my own life as thousands of my fellow veterans have, but I know that I am only alive because innocent people died. And not in an abstract sense. I saw them die, in the explosion that was meant to kill me.
In March of 2007 I was in a Humvee returning from a supply run to an American consulate in Al-Hillah, Iraq. The roads in and out of Al-Hillah were so dangerous that the only way to maintain the outpost was to fly supplies into Baghdad, 90 miles northeast, and then deliver them via heavily armed convoy. We, troops, looked forward to the trip. The food we brought the State Department functionaries was better than the food we had and, so, lunch in their chow hall was an experience not to be missed.
The trip back was always more dangerous than the trip in. The insurgents saw us come in and knew we were leaving that same day, usually, within a few hours. They could, I am sure, monitor the unloading of the trucks from vantage points outside the consulate and determine when we were likely to go. That day they were waiting for us.
The weapon of choice was a form of roadside bomb called an Explosively Formed Penetrator or EFP. These comparatively high-tech weapons were their response to the increased use of armor on our vehicles. An explosive charge would melt a disk of copper and form it into a supersonic slug of molten metal, which would punch through our vehicles’ armor like the fist of an angry god. As we left the consulate, one of these nasty things detonated.
The target was the fuel truck in front of me, which had delivered its load and thus had a container full of fuel vapors ready to detonate. My vehicle was not far behind. The insurgents were lying in wait to machine-gun the survivors. But I was saved.
A white minivan containing two women and their three children happened to pass directly in front of the EFP when it exploded. All five were killed, as was a woman I saw walking down the street. Her body was bisected along a diagonal line from her left hip to her right shoulder. She landed prone in the street. Her one remaining hand was outstretched in front of her remains. Her black abaya was gently flapping in the breeze. And we drove away. I am alive and six innocents are dead, and every moment of my life was purchased for me with the blood of women and children.
No one was a villain that day. The insurgents were acting entirely within recognized rules of war by attacking a supply convoy; and we in the convoy were acting entirely within recognized rules of war by traveling in clearly marked vehicles and interfering as little as possible with civilian traffic. Atrocities happened in Iraq, but these three dead women and three dead children were part of the ordinary, unavoidable butcher’s bill of any war. In their memory I fight and call on you to fight against all wars, and against that which makes war possible – the state.
For Veterans Day, let’s try to stop making more veterans.