Old Men Dying Young

I’m a relic now, at the age of twenty-seven. When people say things like, “He’s a Marine,” I quietly proffer the word, “former.” But I’ll always be a Marine; I think that much is certain now. And not just a Marine but a Machine Gunner. That title is important because it’s synonymous with the term “super grunt,” and being a “heart breaker and life taker.” The old nostalgia still wells up in me, flooding my mind with the bad old days when things were so much simpler. Sometimes, when scenes of destruction play out again in my mind, I’ll mention a bit to a person nearby. They always look confused, unsure why I wouldn’t tell them positive military experiences instead of the negative.

People don’t want to hear about how hopeless it was between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, by Fallujah. When they ask me how it was over there what they are really asking is: What was it like to be that powerful, to hold lives in your hands? And I always grit my teeth, shake my head, and tell them I don’t tell war stories. People always edge closer when they want me to talk about it, even after I decline. At first I thought they did it to be conspiratorial, like I would tell them deep, dark secrets. Finally it dawned on me that it was just simple blood-lust. People got close because when they thought about me they thought about blood, and they thought about America flexing its muscles overseas and how great we are. Those are things Americans like to think about.

I was never that guy, though. Not the one they want me to be when they envision me in Iraq behind some machine gun they can only vaguely imagine. It’s like I told my grandmother the one time I called her from Iraq, three days before cancer took her: “I lost the taste for it.” And it was early on that I lost the taste for it—after two, maybe three, weeks. That sounds like no time at all, but to measure it in time would be all wrong. The standard for disillusionment is despair, hopelessness, grief, or rage. I mourned my country out in the sands of the Al Anbar Province. When my grandmother passed I couldn’t mourn her, my devastation was so complete.

I went over as the guy who actually thought a Machine Gunner in the United States Marine Corps was going to do good things. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking because the USMC, and Machine Gunners especially, specialize in the business of death. People would ask me if I was afraid to go over and I’d tell them no, that I wanted to go, that I was excited to see all of the good things our nation was doing, like building schools and hospitals. The kind of stuff you didn’t see on the news. When I saw that Iraq’s infrastructure had been gutted—schools, universities, police stations, hospitals, factories, theaters, shops, railroads, water plants, jails, bridges, the electrical grid, all destroyed—something inside me broke. There could be no future for the Iraqi people. Recovery would take decades at the least and most likely would never happen.

Soul sick, I walked around in a daze. This could not be, I would sometimes tell myself. And I’d know that soon I’d find something that would make it all make sense. Then I’d plod on through my sixteen-hour workday, looking forward to the slim chance I’d actually get eight hours to eat, sleep, and maybe shower. By the end of the day, stumbling and with my vision blurred, exhaustion would drive out all thoughts. Andreason from Mortars once wondered what all the sleep deprivation was doing to us; he figured the lack of sleep combined with all the stress altered our brains’ chemical composition.


And now I feel like a relic again, know I’m a relic, because around the time Andreason said that, I heard Sergeant Kistler, the Mortar Section leader, say something about how the economy back home was tanking. Machine Guns had just walked through the front doors of Forward Operating Base Riviera; we’d left FOB Riv to ghost through the streets of the nearby town with our night vision goggles (NVGs) glowing green and rifles at the ready. Now it was late, but for some reason Kistler was still up and waiting in front of the FOB’s small computer center, a storey up the winding stairs that went all the way to the seventh floor before opening to the rooftop and its two sandbag pillboxes.

“The economy back home is shit,” Kistler said. “Makes me worry about what I’m going to do when I get back.”

This was Kistler’s second deployment with Echo Company, 2/24 Battalion. We were Reservists from the Midwest, meaning most of the Marines of Echo lived in or around Iowa and most went to college while participating in the Reserves. I was almost three years into a seven year contract. When Echo had gone over this time Kistler had one month left to his seven year mark—the Corps activated him for a thirteen-month deployment to extend his contract into its eighth year. Most of the time he didn’t seem bitter about it.

I tried to eavesdrop as I passed him, but the NVGs were still on and burning a green hole in my vision; my rifle kept banging against my knee, and I kept knocking my helmeted head into the Marine trudging up the stairs in front of me. After I dropped my gear outside the small room I shared with six other Marines I went back. Kistler was still in line for one of the six ancient desktop computers a company of over three hundred Marines shared.

“Hey, Sergeant Kistler,” I said. “What’s going on back home? You said something about the economy.”

Kistler looked me up and down and wrinkled his nose. I’d taken a few tumbles through the night’s pitch that had ended in either garbage, dirt, or sewage. Sweat stains embroidered with white salt extended from my armpits, crotch, and neck. My legs and boots were stained black by sewage. My sleeve was torn from getting tangled in concertina wire I’d moved out of the road at an Iraqi Police checkpoint so the squad could pass through. At that time, the beginning of 2008, Marines often wore beige flight suits to keep cool. My flight suit showed every speck of dirt, grime, oil, and fecal mater I’d brought back into the FOB with me.

“Hey Kistler, you’re up for a computer,” a Marine leaning against the wall said.

Realizing he wasn’t going to answer my question, I started to say something—I don’t remember what.

“Don’t worry about it,” Kistler said. “You just need to stay focused on doing your job out there.”

I grabbed onto the sleeve of another old timer walking by and asked what was going on back home.

“It’s a recession. When we get back it’ll be tough to find a job.”

As Reservists we weren’t returned to the lull of stateside barracks life like Marines in the fleet. Instead, we got dropped back into our small factory towns, shitty jobs, community college, and all the relationships we’d put on pause when we went over. Most of Echo Company’s Marines joined to help pay for college tuition costs, costs Marines used the GI Bill, Pell Grant, and jobs to cover. But all that could change by the time we got back, although it seemed like it already had. The only thing I could be sure wouldn’t change was the desert outside the wire.


Some of the tools of my craft that I carried with me outside the FOB’s protective ring of razor wire were relics from bygone wars. The M-16 A4 service rifle was different from the Vietnam era M-16 in all the ways that didn’t matter, like how the fore grips looked or the angle of the pistol grip. Some of the radios actually were from the Vietnam War, the infamous “green gear” that seemed to have as many edges as pounds. The old strategies, thought processes, and policies were all deployed, along with an old flame that burned in our hearts. It was all new to us first timers, though. To the uninitiated, the enormity, the sheer grandiosity of everything, overwhelmed.

The only place any of us really felt free was on patrol, especially foot patrols. When I was eating fresh food with a farmer and his family, running from a bull, or walking through remnants of cities as old as recorded time, I felt human. But it always came back to watching humanity crawl through the blood and the shit—as low as it could get. The unraveling of society’s fabric meant human dignity suffered. And so children played barefoot in lots filled with soggy garbage and syringes; men on the side of the road begged us for diabetes medication; a mentally ill man was chained to a tree by his brother; fathers offered to sell their daughters, pulling up their skirts to show us. The diseased, the maimed, the insane, all shuffling through the streets. Packs of roving dogs fighting viciously at night. And so much more I can’t wholly forget or fully remember.


Eventually, though I’d come to disbelieve it possible, Echo Company returned to America’s Midwest. I’d been told by various figures of Marine Corps authority that I’d come back changed, and everyone I knew would be doing the same shit. Alternately, I’d also been told that I’d come back the same and everyone else would be doing their own thing without me because life went on while we were in Iraq. I figured the two predictions weren’t mutually exclusive, but neither was truer than the aphorism of the unorthodox sergeant whose call sign, Green Mile, served as a physical descriptor like my call sign, Big Head—although Big Head didn’t have the panache of a Hollywood film. Green Mile was a giant of a black man who’d made his living outside of the Corps as an iron worker; he’d been all over the world by the time I was in his charge, but he went back to the Fleet Marine Force before I went over. A year before my departure he’d told me not to worry about it, that people “either live, die, or come back extremely fucked up.”

No Marine ever thinks he’s going to be the one who’s fucked up, and that’s exactly how I thought about it too, that there would be maybe one or two people who came back and had problems readjusting. No Marine ever thinks most of his squad isn’t going to be able to sleep because of severe insomnia. No one thinks they’ll have flashbacks, or nightmares that continue in a loop forever. Now our backs are bent from the war. Now there are whispered conversations on the phone late at night.

“Are you having visions?”

“Do the nightmares follow you?”

“What is happening to us?”

We speak about the men we were, then of regrets. Eventually the conversation turns to the VA hospitals and how the scandals on the news show veterans’ healthcare is as fucked up as the military. And I already feel the real Iraq slipping back into people the same way insurgents ducked down side streets and faded into crowds when they saw us patrolling, all armor plated and machine gun wielding. In memory, Iraq has transformed into the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland—no fear, all spectacle.


I’m losing the real Iraq, or maybe I’ve lost it already; the winnowing reminds me of Vietnam. When I sit at the VA hospital waiting, I think of my second grade history teacher, Mr. Burns. He’d fought in Vietnam from foxholes and trenches, the last line of defense for Forward Operating Bases deep in the jungle. One day someone asked him if he’d ever killed anyone in the war and Mr. Burns said he didn’t know and described how tracers had glimmered in the night back and forth between defensive positions and the jungle. And although Mr. Burns came home unscathed, it was apparent he didn’t make it out untouched—drinking, fighting, and factory work had filled his days until he found God. The way his discolored flesh, like bruises on a pear, sagged underneath heavy eyelids, along with his explanations of sleepless nights, made me wonder why he was so scared of the dark.

Now I can relate. If Mr. Burns is still alive he’d be pushing sixty, and I can only hope he found relief. But more than likely he still hears machine gun staccato, still feels the earth rocked back and forth by explosions. He probably still talks about that war, so long ago, where he lost his innocence and left so much of himself. A relic from a bygone era, he’ll never stop tracing the scars on body and mind as he deteriorates to nothing. I can relate to that too, rusting away like some forgotten tank.

Will the pain I feel ever be more than posterity’s mementos? Pill bottles rattle empty, then fall silent—the only answer I get. I’ll fall to pieces, up late with soldier’s heart, unable to forget. It won’t surprise anyone because relics are expected to disintegrate. That’s what veterans do now that we aren’t asserting America’s will in far off countries. If we were meant to do something else, if expectations differed, then why are people content to do nothing as a veteran commits suicide every hour? That’s nine regiments worth in a year. By now that’s more dead than were lost on both sides at Gettysburg, the largest battle ever fought on North American soil.

This invisible war, fought in the minds of wizened youths, has the greatest attrition rate of any known conflict in U.S. borders. And with more war ever looming on this nation’s horizon, it seems the losses will be exponential. Because the toll is not just broken men who take their lives—it’s the widows whose hearts won’t mend, the siblings who mourn, the parents who wonder how much more this country will expect from their family. And it’s not just those tragedies, either: it’s also every single thing those men and women who died could have contributed; it’s every single painting they never painted, the words they didn’t write, and the deeds they left forever undone. But most of all, it’s becoming old before our time. And wondering why no one cares. I guess that makes me one of the walking wounded. Or, as the 1st Battalion 9th Marines are nicknamed, one of “the walking dead.”


Photo credit: The U.S. Army / Foter / CC BY