|Ken&I just outside the post office in Al Asad after mailing my footlockers of stuff home ahead of me|
I read Jane Blair’s book, Hesitation Kills, this week. The final pages captured some common emotional threads of war and sparked some of my own Iraq memories when she shared moments such as the one when her Sergeant Major said, “You never forget those you go to war with. We’ll remember this always. All of us will probably lose touch at some point, but we will never forget. One day you’ll see one of them, and it will seem like not a day has gone by. My buddies I went to Beirut with, I saw one at the Walmart and we didn’t care, we hugged each right there in front of everybody. There’s no brotherhood or sisterhood like the bonds we form in combat.”
My best male friend in the Marine Corps, Ken, wrote me the letter below in December 2006 (during my second deployment). At that point I’d been at Al Asad for a month. He, too, was there for a stint. Although the circumstances under which my move from TQ was executed were negative, being near a friend like him made it bearable. That’s an understatement. Ken was one of the people who kept me breathing during that period.
I used to run to his unit’s position every day. Yes, every day. It was a physical mantra that became a mental salve. If I could move my feet that far, I could keep my heart beating. Sometimes we had time to talk, sometimes we only had time for him to peak out of the bunker and say hello before I’d continue on my pony-tail swishing way. One afternoon, we sat atop one of the fortifications alone and watched the sun begin its setting. People often talk of sunsets…how spectacular they are, inspiring, beautiful, any dozens of tired words can accurately be applied to the natural event. But in Iraq, they were different. There was a clarity about them, a haunting, an exposure of your soul that those middle east equinoxes caused that I haven’t witnessed elsewhere. Likely this captivation occurred because I was in a warzone and as all my emotions were heightened at the time, so it’s no real surprise that simple observations of the solar cycles were, too. But no, I won’t cheapen it; the sunsets and sunrises were special.
The early January one I recall now was even more exceptional than the others because I finally had a departure date and the eminent event of going home was at last a guarantee. Ken and I stood side by side. He was adorned in boots and utes; I was clad in cammie green skivvies. We didn’t need to look at each other to communicate. “You know, habibi, one day we’ll be old and tell our kids about this. We were at war together. Can you believe it? We will remember this moment in a way no one else will understand. We’ll be like those old crusty Vietnam vets one day. You’re going to be able to tell your grandkids you were at war.”
We stood together and the memory feels like we were holding hands even though I know we weren’t, because that’s how close we were with words unspoken and acts not done. It was possible to have that intimacy with a friend. People couldn’t believe we weren’t sleeping together. Marines always think about sex: how to get it, why they’re not, if they are getting it how to get more. They assumed since sex would be their goal, it had to be ours, as well. The fact that we didn’t “do it” made our attachment all the more special, though, and my bond with Ken has provided a framework for friendship ever since then. And we stood and we wondered at the world…
Why do people wonder at war? It’s an awful thing…yet somehow, it still retains a sense of nobility. Maybe it’s because we’re not so unlike the Romans, effectively conquering foreign lands but never having our capital ever really threatened other than by our own civil unrest. Our civilian family and friends can be proud of us and keep removed from the realities while we go away, change a little (or a lot), and come back home to assimilate. They listen to some stories, if we share them; but life goes on. Another quote from Jane’s book speaks to this sentimnt, “Post-traumatic stress disorder isn’t just flipping out and killing someone: it is a failure to adjust to normal society. Every Marine had it. Some admitted it.” Whether we’d committed murder with our bare hands, a button, or a SITREP, we all know we did it in one way or another and at a bare minimum, it modifies you, or on the darker end of the spectrum, for some trigger pullers, it threatens to ruin you.
Anyway, back to the letter…Ken was in the beginning of the end of his several year-long relationship with a woman named Sarah. I was a month out from the severing of my serious romantic tie. Relationships were a common topic of discussion. I think that’s probably enough background to make sense of the letter. I’ve included it because I think everyone can relate to the heartbreak he describes and the friendship that blossomed between us.
On 28 December 2006, he wrote: I’m going to call you Habibi, not because I am twisted and am trying to make you into my ex-Sarah but because it means “beloved” or “very close friend” and that’s what you are.Habibi,
I am going to use some of what you sent me on SIPR in my response to Sarah-A (if you don’t mind)…if nothing more she might learn something from our breakup and change who she is. She really is not malicious and she is one of the sweetest people you’d ever meet. She’s not funny at all and she can’t do shit cause she is so out of shape, but I will miss her. I guess I am writing this to help me realize that we are done, and to not even attempt to get back with her. See, when we were together and we started having some issues or she started having issues, I told myself if we don’t have a plan by the time I got back from deployment I would have to leave. I couldn’t continue to invest my heart in someone and get nothing in return. I know I act all tough and I probably don’t look like I am pretty devastated from all of this but I have never had a woman break my heart before. (I broke my wife’s heart so I feel like this is my penance). I never even knew what a broken heart felt like to be honest with you. I think about what I am going to do with the 999+ pictures of Sarah I have stored on my computer and I start crying. I went to Beirut for her, France, packed up her apartment, moved her to California, took her to school, reviewed all her papers, took her on many vacations, etc etc etc…I could go on and on and you know how I feel, you feel the same hurt you just express it differently. I want to cry but can’t and I want to see her again but never will.
You know AJ told me to look for you at Intel school. He said you were pretty cool and that you were funny, could dance, could do pull-ups; all the stuff a boy loves you know! All the same qualities we’ve talked about for the last month. (I also thought you were pretty hot). Anyway, as the weeks passed I realized how wonderful a person you were after all our little chats and luncheons. Then after we got to our units I loved reading all your deployed mass emails and I wanted to send you something special for Xmas so I did. (I just noticed this is beginning to ramble). I guess what I am trying to say is that I have seen you about every situation possible and you have come ahead every single time. You are amazing, resilient, and have a glowing personality. I am sorry for what happened to you and wish things would have worked between you and your chosen mate but it didn’t and it didn’t for a reason. You will, I promise, find someone that will love and care for you the way you should be treated. Things will work out, just like they will work out for me…trust me they really will.
I’m thankful you’re here. I mean, I wish you could go home tomorrow but I am thankful I got to spend time with you and discover even more reasons why you are a good person. I love you, Sarah, and I want you to know that even though I am not a big faith kind of guy, I truly believe that things always happen for a reason and that God does have a plan for us. I hope this somehow helps your heart heal (now I am crying) and you can move on and enjoy what life has to offer. I really wish you could talk to my Sarah…Not because I want you to make her come back to me but so you can help her be more like you. There are not many people out there like you Sarah, so please don’t let Patrick kill your spirit…or the little squirrel inside of you! J