Thursday, August 5, 2010

Texas Airplane Conversation

March 2005. I'm on a plane to San Antonio, TX. Sitting beside me is a young soldier on his way home from Iraq for a two-week leave, dressed in his desert-camouflage fatigues. With little knowledge of the war aside from what I see in the media, I jump at the chance to talk to someone who is actually there and find out his perspective. He, on the other hand, seems much more interested in chatting up the stewardess....but I do manage to get him to talk to me whenever she isn't around.

He takes out a piece of twisted, coppery metal from his pocket and offers it for me to hold. I hesitate, not knowing what it is, but after holding it and examining it for a moment I realize it is a bullet, or at least it used to be. Clearly, it impacted something with great violence. "They pulled that out of my chest," he explains, "out of my vest." He points to his abdomen and traces the 10-inch square of armor that (sort of) protects his heart and lungs.

"Was it an insurgent who shot you?" I ask. It's a stupid question, but if it irks him he doesn't show it. He nods. "He shot me once, and I shot him eight times." He puts the bullet into a little pouch of talismans that he wears around his neck.

I'm speechless for a moment after that, adjusting to the knowledge that the person I'm sitting next to has shot another human being eight times. Abruptly, I feel closer to the reality of war than I was just a moment ago. I know this is the sort of thing my father must have done in Vietnam and Korea -- I'm sure lots of people I know have done it. But somehow those other events have faded into the background, become remote and abstract. They're not sitting beside me.

We're in the very last row of seats in the back of the 737. "He was about as far away from me as the cockpit," the soldier explains, and then he repeats himself. "He got me once, and I got him eight times." There's a curious mixture of pride and sadness in his tone.

Later in the conversation it emerges that the insurgent who shot him wasn't his only casualty in Iraq. He has shot and killed about six people since he was stationed in Iraq seven months ago. "I have a hard time living with that on my conscience," he says. "But I do that for you guys. I hope that you don't ever have to see what I've seen."

"Kicking in doors and killing people, that's my job," he says at one point. Again, I am speechless. For a moment, all my personal beliefs and opinions about the injustice of the war seem pale, sitting next to someone whose average day consists of shooting people and getting shot at, someone for whom the carnage is not abstract or far-removed.

Digging for a political angle on the conversation, I ask him, "So what's your perspective on this whole thing?" He has been waiting for this question. "It's really stupid," he says without hesitating. "You know what? I get paid about a dollar a day, and I have the most dangerous job in Iraq. I have health coverage, but it sucks. I broke my finger," and he holds out his hand for me to see his finger, which is clearly swollen, "and you know what they told me? Take Motrin and drink lots of water. There's something wrong with my lungs, and they told me to take another pill." His list of grudges against the Army goes on, and gradually morphs into a litany of the atrocities he has witnessed in the past seven months: the friends whose heads were blown to bits or whose abdomens were torn in half. How do I respond to any of these things? For the most part I shake my head and simply try to show him that I'm listening. He explains that the fighting is much worse than what you see on TV, that the insurgents are coming right up to the fences of their camps and shooting at them; they regularly engage in firefights right in the middle of their camps. It's all going "very badly," he says.

"You want to know the stupidest thing? You see this uniform I'm wearing? I had to buy it myself. The soldiers who are coming in now, they get their uniforms paid for, but when I signed up, we had to buy our own uniforms. And these things are not cheap. The pants alone were $80." I try to imagine having to pay for several expensive uniforms -- clothes that I'm required to wear -- on the kind of salary he just described to me, but it doesn't make sense. I wonder if he was exaggerating about the salary, to make his point, but I don't ask.

Periodically during our conversation he turns away to pursue more interesting conversation with the stewardess in the nearby jumpseat, excitedly showing her pictures on his digital camera of his camp and his armored vehicle. At the end of the flight the stewardess stops in the aisle, next to his seat. She has a puzzled expression on her face, and seems to be hesitating about whether or not to say something. Then she makes up her mind, puts her hand firmly on his shoulder, and says it, with a note of urgency in her voice.

"Now listen. You take care of yourself over there. And don't forget what I told you before, about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior. It's the most important decision you can make in your life."

The soldier seems almost as flabbergasted as I am by this unabashedly prosletyzing airline stewardess, but he nods his head politely and thanks her and she goes on her way. “Ah,” I say to myself, “welcome to Texas.” The implication of her statement -- that she knows he will go back to Iraq in two weeks and that she suspects his chances for surviving the next year are perhaps less than average -- hangs like a cloud in the dry, recycled air of the plane cabin. I feel suddenly overwhelmed with irrational affection and tenderness for this young soldier, and I wish I could put my arms around him. I want to recklessly open my wallet and hand him all my cash and tell him to buy something nice for himself while he's on leave. But neither of these impetuous gestures would be understood correctly, or necessarily welcomed, and it seems the only thing I can do is to wish him well and wave goodbye as we part ways in the airport.

I notice his last name on the shirt pocket of his uniform and realize then that we didn't even exchange names. I know that he has killed six people, I know about his broken finger, and his lung problem, and assorted other details of his life -- but I don't know his first name. At that moment, I decide that I will remember his last name for the rest of my life. It seems the least I can do.


Dennis Hunter said...

This piece was written five years ago, after returning from a trip to San Antonio where I met the young soldier in question -- but it was never published. Details may have changed, but five years later, the war still drags on, so perhaps this piece is still timely.

This is a different kind of post for One Human Journey, but it seems pertinent. Part of this experience for me was about unbiased compassion: staying open to the human being in front of me and seeing his suffering -- not just seeing his uniform and objectifying him, or saddling him with my own judgments about the war in which he's fighting.

RR said...

Good listening, man. I wonder if he got to talk to anyone else who didn't have an agenda or a filter a foot thick. Getting heard matters.

Unknown said...

This story is so human. I don't know any better word to describe it than "human."