Many readers know that I teach English at Las Positas College, and from time to time I share stories of my students. Today’s column is one of those stories, told through edited excerpts from a powerful and disturbing essay written by a 24-year-old veteran who returned from Iraq in April 2010.
While some veterans are hesitant to write about their experiences, this young man, two years after coming home, was willing to write his story and allow me to share it in this newspaper. He asked me not to use his name:
“Operation Dog Wood was a three day operation to search the desert for weapon caches hidden in or around manmade wells," he writes. "The mission began like any other. We patrolled the villages like we always did. On the second morning things changed. We came across a large well half-filled with water. In the water were three bodies floating and bloated as if they had been there for a while. I was ordered to jump in and retrieve the bodies.
.“As I got near the first body, I saw that it was a little girl around the age of eight. She had long flowing brown hair that waved at me with every step I took. When I grabbed her arm, her skin tore off the bone like tender meat. The other two bodies looked to be her parents; all three were shot in the back of the head, execution style.
“The next afternoon was a long ride to the base. All I could think about was the little girl and her parents, how their skin melted in my hands as I fished them out of the pungent, rancid water.
“The next thing I knew I was blinded by an intense light that seemed to be radiating from all around us, instantly followed by a deafening blast that hurt every fiber of my being. My body was bathed in an intense fire that lasted seconds. My nose was filled with dust and the scent of burning rubber. As my truck was lifted in the air, my body was thrown around like a doll in a dryer. The initial blast lasted seconds but felt like a lifetime.
“Before the dust could settle, explosions began to erupt all around my vehicle; I had to get out of the truck. My truck was flipped on its side with the driver door to the ground. I had to use every ounce of my strength to push the three hundred pound door open to get out. When my head lifted above the open door, I could see rockets flying in every direction. The nearby trucks had their machine guns sending walls of lead in every direction. I could not believe my eyes; we were under heavy attack. I spotted my gunner fifteen feet away either dead or unconscious. As I left my truck and ran to drag him to cover, I was hit by bullets in the vest three times, bruising a rib and cracking three more. Once I got my gunner to safety, I returned fire, engaging every target in front of me. It seemed like the fighting lasted for hours, but it only lasted for a few minutes.”
The veteran then writes that “I have been told I have developed post traumatic stress disorder.” He is often jumpy, fears sudden noises, and finds it difficult to trust others.
Fortunately, this young man, who is married and has a three-year-old son, attends a college that cares about him. He concludes his essay by writing, “This event and others like it have altered my life and have made me into the man I am today. For better or worse, I am changed.”