We all fear the unknown, and mankind’s fear of death comes from having never experienced it. Ask the few people who have been certain, utterly certain, they were about to die, and I think you’ll find men and women who can ponder their own end without the paralyzing fear so many have. Not that we necessarily want to embrace that ugly bastard, but we’ve shaken his hand and we’ve huddled together in the same fighting hole. It’s not that we’re more brave than the rest, but for some of us the fear has been worn away from long familiarity. Or maybe we’re just used to it always hanging around. I’m not saying fear is a friend, but I think I’d be lonely without it.
In March of 2003, a few days into the invasion of Iraq, I was lying in the survivability hole I’d dug for myself. With my gas mask on, suffocating, completely certain the rockets Saddam Hussein’s army were firing would kill me with choking, agonizing, chemical weapons, that hole felt like a shallow grave. It was only a foot deep and I had been trying to snatch a few minutes of sleep, laying in the cold, sandy earth of southern Iraq. Then the alarm had sounded, and Iraqi artillery was incoming. I jerked out of my quasi sleep with the squelch of static from the radio. It was a punch in the chest and my blurry senses tried to keep pace with my reflexes as I instinctively donned my gasmask and waited. And waited. The act of breathing is deafening inside a gasmask. I could hear my Staff Sergeant. While I stayed in my hole he stayed in the humvee, exposed to fire as he manned the radio telling us over and over, “We’re going to survive this. Our chem suits work. Our gasmasks work. We’re going to survive this.” His mantra was good to hear, but I knew the rockets were inbound, and the gas was coming. I was convinced I was about to die. The utter imminence of those rockets made every sound around me an explosion, but thinking about dying was difficult with the sweat in my mask and the rocks in my back, lying in that shallow hole.
Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I survived. The rockets missed and Saddam never used chemical or biological weapons against us. Still, the depth of that fear has stayed with me through the years since, still a part of me but now more of an old cyst I can’t remove than a rope around my neck. And maybe at some point I stopped caring if I survived. I have pondered my own mortality, and realized it doesn’t matter. I’m going to die at some point, so a few years plus or minus don’t really matter that much. A twenty-four year old kid has a tough time realizing he can die, but once he does that realization stays with him. Since the invasion I’ve had rockets crash down near me, I’ve been blown up by a roadside bomb, I’ve been in foolish motorcycle wrecks, and put myself in dangerous situations in foreign cities where I should have been robbed or killed, but I just couldn’t care. Somehow I keep surviving.
This story is not entirely true. There are parts I will tell as I wish they’d happened, or I wish they hadn’t. Parts that could have happened, but might not have. Things happen in war that are improbable, or impossible to believe. War is blurry, whole days and weeks go by without any clear definition, yet there are some moments that are suspended in time with perfect clarity. Memory is imperfect and fragile and has faded in the intervening years, but there are those rare touchstones that can be moments that tie everything together, which is what I’ve tried to do with this story. Filling in the gaps with what probably happened. Maybe.