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 to where I’ve been.
On my first mission in Iraq, a soldier was trapped underneath an overturned Humvee near Kirkuk. And my main concern, beyond his survival, didn’t have anything to do with insurgents: Jesus, I thought, please don’t let my boots come off in this mud, not in front of this guy we’re supposed to rescue, not in front of his buddies waiting for us to save him. Slipping and struggling to move, with their eyes on me, I felt like an impostor. My biggest contribution was grabbing a backboard and throwing it down in front of us. When we stood on it, our boots didn’t sink into the mud anymore.
I was disappointed in myself, but it didn’t last. In Iraq the desert sand scoured away all the bullshit, and what was left was what mattered. The heat melted the big ideas and the bluster of the talking heads back home but not the guy next to me; he just kept sweating. The bullets and mortars uncluttered the view, and I saw the world in sharp relief. I saw it as it truly was. Sometimes, in those rare moments, I saw myself too. In a war now so lacking in clarity, clarity is what I found.
On the highway, that bright awareness fades. The politicians and pundits and proud citizens are chattering on the car radio; they’re on the bumpers of Buicks and the truck-stop televisions. The closer I get to home, the louder their voices become and the farther away I feel.
In high school and college I had friends. In the military I had brothers. I didn’t always know their hometowns or what their parents did for a living, but I knew that Tommy wished he were taller and that he would break his back for you if you asked. I knew that when Wes was pissed, he smiled only halfway and talked with an even slower surfer’s drawl. I knew that Zach got moody away from his wife but that Copenhagen and shooting helped.
We had to know each other. On a moonless night over the Atlantic, with parachutes on our backs and fins on our feet, there couldn’t be any questions between us. The first man out of the plane had to pull his rip cord after five seconds, the second man after three, and the rest immediately. If someone didn’t, there’d be a collision, and we’d burn into the water. Under canopy, it was all black and the sea flowed into the sky and you couldn’t see the guy flying in front of you. You had to listen for the flapping of his chute and trust he wouldn’t slam into you and drop you both like rocks. After we’d splash down and swim free of our lines, we knew who’d chase down the rescue package, who’d inflate the boat, and who’d prep the engine. We knew none of us would panic and sink under the swells or choke on the rotor wash of the helicopter when it came. And after it was all over, we knew which guys liked Heineken and which liked Shiner.
As I pass through Beaumont, I glance at the empty seat by my side. For the first time in four years, I’m on my own. The smell of oil blows through the vents, and I wonder if I’m driving away from those guys for good. I tell myself that this is what I wanted. All those times I was tired, cold, and afraid, I wanted to go home. But at three in the morning, when I pull into my driveway in Austin, the garden seems strange. The door looks different. Was the mailbox always that color? I don’t know this place.
A few days before I’d left Iraq, after my third and final deployment, we had one last mission: A Marine patrol had been hit by an IED. This time, I was team leader, and this time, I did my job and did it well. I finally felt like a PJ. Now I’m growing my hair out. I haven’t shaved. I’m lounging on the sofa in pajama pants and flipping through seven hundred channels of cable television. There’s nowhere to go, no one to impress, and nothing to do. I feel comfortable, I feel safe, and I feel like the bones have been ripped from my body.
In four years of service, I learned more than I ever did in college. When it was over, I didn’t get a diploma, and there was no commencement speech. I packed up and drove away. I put my boots in storage. They don’t fit anymore.