WHEN I WAS IN IRAQ, I couldn’t wait to leave. Now, driving home to Texas, I wish I’d never left. Earlier today, I stuffed my car full of green military-issue duffel bags; the past four years of my life fit inside six of them. Then I changed out of my uniform and passed through the gates of Moody Air Force Base, in Georgia, for the last time.
The boots I threw in my trunk have desert and dirt stuck in the treads, pieces of Afghanistan and Iraq mixed with Georgia swamp. My favorite pair is stained with helicopter hydraulic fluid from flying over Baghdad with my feet hanging out the door, and next to those are my wet-suit booties, which still have mud from a canal near Fallujah, where we dived for bodies. I kept some others too. I did a lot of things wearing all those boots; I did a lot of things I never would have done before.
On September 10, 2001, a few months after graduating from college, I went to sleep not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. The next morning, I woke up and I did. I signed up for the hardest job in the military I could find: Air Force pararescue. Navy Seals with stethoscopes, as they’ve been called, their job is to save lives, not take them. Their motto is as apolitical and unambiguous as their mission: “That Others May Live.” Pararescuemen, or PJs, live and sometimes die by those words.
The two-year PJ qualification program is famously difficult: Nine out of ten don’t make it through. After basic training, I was there, and I was in over my head. During a tough pool session a few weeks in, the guy in front of me nearly drowned. Already hypoxic, he had had to swim fifty meters underwater, recite the pararescue mission between gasps, and then try to swim fifty more. Halfway, he’d spasmed and sunk. As they pulled his limp body from the water and worked to revive him, I relaxed. No way we’d keep going. “Broyles!” the instructor yelled. “You’re up! Go!” It was the first time I pushed the bubbling fear down, swallowed my own vomit, and did the thing that needed doing.
After the instructors put the trainee on oxygen, he came back to life, and before he’d stopped coughing up water, he’d quit. In two hours, six more were gone. One of them, a star athlete, lost it and started whimpering like an animal, and they carried him away. We never saw him again.
“Look at that sun, men!” barked our instructor at the end of the day. “While you were crying about how hard training was, two of your PJ brothers died today doing the real thing.”
He shifted and the sun blinded me.
“Enjoy this sunset,” he said, “because they can’t. Now, drop!”
We fell into the push-up position and knocked out the usual fifty, plus two more in honor of Ridout and McDaniel, the PJs who’d been killed. In a few weeks, we added another for Cunningham; he was shot through the abdomen during a rescue but saved ten lives before bleeding to death. Then there were two for Maltz and Plite; they died on a mission to save two Afghan children. I wondered if I’d be able to make the same sacrifice. I wondered if anyone would do push-ups for me.
Back on Interstate 10, I pull over on the shoulder somewhere between Alabama and Louisiana. Suddenly I don’t feel like driving. I study the backs of my hands on the wheel and listen to the rush of passing traffic. Maybe if I never get where I’m going, I can still go back