The last time I shot my rifle in war, I killed an old man.
I wasn’t the only one shooting, but I could see my rounds riddle into him through the scope of my M4 carbine as he barreled toward us in his car on one of the most dangerous highways in Iraq. As we fired through the windshield, red polka dots of blood covered his white dishdasha, and the car ground to a halt. When I was certain the vehicle wasn’t laden with explosives, I dragged the man from his seat and onto the shattered glass littered across the road.
Only then did I notice that his eyes, now lifeless, were covered in cataracts. He was probably blind, or damn near it, and simply hadn’t seen us. Like other civilians we’d killed. “It’s their own goddamn stupidity,” I’d thought. Once you’ve accepted that the values you grew up with don’t apply in war, once killing becomes a given, it’s easy to convince yourself that these things just happen. The fear fades, and you bury the guilt somewhere deep. We did what we had to do to keep one another alive.
At least that’s what I’ve always told myself. It’s been a little over seven years since that deployment, nearly twelve since I raised my hand and swore my soul away to the Big Green Machine. Twenty-three and almost out of college, I enlisted in the Army as a rite of passage more than anything. I never imagined I’d see combat. But my first day of basic training just happened to be September 11, 2001, and in an instant, my fellow newbie pukes and I became the first class of the new American war.
Two years later I was assigned to 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. A storied brigade known as the Rakkasans—a nickname given by the Japanese that loosely means “falling umbrellas”—the 187th has served in every major conflict since World War II. In the spring of 2003 I was deployed to northern Iraq, where I spent the majority of the year near Mosul and Tal Afar, as well as along the border with Syria. In 2005, after a return to Fort Campbell, in Kentucky, my unit redeployed, this time to Salah Ad Din province, where we operated in and around the towns of Tikrit and Bayji. By then I’d been promoted to staff sergeant and was the section leader of my platoon. We trained Iraqis, went on patrols, and gathered intelligence. By night, we conducted raids and sniper missions; by day, we tried to rebuild communities. We fell asleep concussed from IEDs and woke with a mind to kill. We washed blood from our uniforms and Humvees and listened to wailing prayers that were never for us.
War is a relative experience. Some people love it. They make it their work and disappear into that world for the rest of their lives. Others hate it. They abuse themselves forever after, never recovering from the things they were asked to do. I fall somewhere in between. I saw more combat than most, but less than some. I know what an M240 Bravo or an IED does to a human body. The violence and killing have yet to torment me as much as the guilt over the war arbitrarily taking my friends when it could have—maybe should have—taken me instead. Sometimes I wake to them hovering over my bed, paroled from my dreams. I’d ask their forgiveness if I knew they could hear me. There have been days when I’d give anything to trade places.
Still, even now, nearly a decade since I first went to Iraq, I miss war. I miss the highs from surviving roadside bombs, firefights, snipers, and the hellish madness of combat. Even more, I miss my men and my friends and the insular camaraderie forged between us. Sharing a dip of Copenhagen with our morning coffee, a bracing combination we called an Amarillo-Dillo. Chatting about the depraved lengths we’d all go to for the chance to earn a million dollars or fulfill a sexual fantasy with our favorite actress. I miss going by “Sergeant” and even more by my old call sign, Shooter Five, which at times I believe defines me better than my own name.
I was honorably discharged from the Army in December 2006, two months after we returned home. Getting out wasn’t a difficult decision; I knew I was done. What I didn’t know was what to expect from civilian life. I moved to Austin with aspirations of going to graduate school and making money and settling down, but I quickly realized I wasn’t ready for any of that, because none of it seemed to carry the kind of purpose I’d felt as a Rakkasan. I was good at being a soldier; the thought that I might never be as good at anything else was terrifying. I became listless, unmoored by simple decisions and mundane tasks. I developed a hair-trigger temper. My head hurt every day, and I fought spells of dizziness. I’d drive, forget where I was going, and end up miles from my destination. I drank myself into blackouts and picked fights. Though I wasn’t suicidal, I often fantasized about dying. When I finally got an office job in the oil and gas business, in Fort Worth, I found it impossible to fit in. The war had changed my political views, and though my co-workers were good people, I spent most of my day staring out the window, wondering how so many of them could support a conflict without any real knowledge of the sacrifice it required.
There were some grace notes during this bleak period. I met my future wife, for starters. And I returned to what I’d enjoyed most before joining the military: writing and acting. I published a couple of magazine pieces, made a documentary, appeared in some commercials, and got cast in a cheap, campy horror movie directed by actor Barry