The first month that David spent at Forward Operating Base Warrior, located in Iraq’s Kirkuk Province, was when he saw the most fire. Mortar rounds would periodically make their parabolic path to the base, most of the time exploding without causing serious damage. Their only warning was a whistle that descended in pitch as the round approached the ground.
When the mortars started to fall, David and his fellow soldiers were supposed to grab their gear and make their way from the barracks to a concrete structure on the base with walls thick enough to protect them. They were supposed to do this even after coming out of deep sleep, or a light sleep, or whatever kind of sleep they were having. That was what they were taught to do. That was procedure.
But after several weeks of regular fire, procedure changed. Mortar fire in the middle of the night came to mean much less. Hearing the commotion, David would slowly open the door of his room—a 6-by-14-foot space that he shared with another soldier—and with one look to the right, and one look to the left, he would close his door and go back to sleep.
It’s been a long time since procedure has mattered to David. After being honorably discharged from the Army on March 17, 2010—a date he will “never forget”—he moved to Boston, where he attended an anti-war talk led by an Iraq War veteran.
His political views have isolated him from many of his former Army friends, and people in the radical community don’t seem to understand David’s Army past. So he finds himself in a lonely limbo, trying both internally and externally to reconcile his past and his present. (David is not his real name; he asked that it be omitted because he fears that his political leanings and past might endanger employment opportunities. —Ed.)
David joined the Army in 2006. He’d dropped out of high school and was looking for a way to get trained as an automobile mechanic, or at least some alternative to the night shift at Wal-Mart. College never seemed like an option to David, who comes from a family of tradesmen—window washers, janitors, mechanics, plumbers. But apprenticeships were hard to come by, and training programs were too expensive. After talking with a coworker who was leaving his job to become a recruiter, he decided to enlist.
“One day I kind of just woke up,” says David. Besides dealing with a dead-end job, his hometown of Derby, Conn., was full of bad news. He was doing drugs, his friends were going to jail, and people around him were dying. David enrolled himself in a methadone clinic. He took his last dose two days before basic training.
“I was sick during basic training, which sucked, but I was too busy doing push-ups to think about it,” says David.
When David enlisted, he didn’t exactly look like the Army type. His face still bears the scars of piercings, with tattoos up and down his arms. His ears were gauged but were surgically repaired and now show just a faint crisscross of scars.
Basic training was where David first got a taste of the Army mentality. Every exercise had a dual purpose—you learn strength, dexterity, and attention to detail, but also discipline and teamwork.
“A lot of it is mental,” he says. “The whole thing is that they try to beat you down and then they build you back up with the values that they think are important.”
Everything had to be perfect. Beds had to be made within certain measurement. Clothes had to be folded to precision. Once, David made the mistake of leaving a sock in the dryer. He paid for it the next morning.
“The drill sergeant came in screaming, ‘Whose fucking sock is this?’ And I was like, shit, that’s mine. So he made everyone else do push-ups except me, and he made me call the cadence,” says David. “‘Up, down, up, down.’ I thought I was going to get my ass kicked.”
After basic training, David trained to become an Army mechanic. He was stationed for a year in Korea, which he says was a lot of hard work and a lot of drinking. Even there, procedure prevailed. Drills would sound in the middle of the night. They were meant to keep soldiers prepared in case North Korea attacked. David and his peers were never in any real danger, but their commanding officers continued to promote the groupthink the soldiers had learned in basic.
“Every once and a while, at around 2 a.m., the alarm would go off, and everyone would have to jump up, get on all their gear, and go to the armory,” says David. “You make your way to your vehicle and sit there for two or three hours until they say, ‘OK, you can go back.’”
When he returned from Korea, David, planning on pursuing a career track in the military, requested to be stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. This base was known for frequent deployments, and he was eager to complete his first.
“I just wanted to get it over with,” says David. Soon enough, his deployment date was set. He arrived in Iraq in January 2009. He no longer served as a mechanic; instead, he operated the radio in the Battalion operations center.
Iraq was not like the bar-hopping time he’d had in Korea: There was real mortar fire and real casualties. But most of all, there was time to reflect on why he was there.
Kirkuk, Iraq sits to the northeast of Baghdad. It’s known internationally for its oil reserves and makes up about half of Iraq’s oil exports. At night, David’s base would be dark except for the headlights of Army vehicles and the glowing oil fields in the distance. Oil trapped in the earths crust is usually accompanied by natural gas that is preemptively burnt off to prevent explosions. For David, it was a distant candle of remembrance as to the real reason for their occupation and what they were protecting.
“You’d just see it glowing, the whole landscape,” says David. “It was kind of hypnotizing in a way. Every night, same bullshit. Every night. This is why we’re here. I became really fucking bitter.”
David spent the rest of his deployment greatly anticipating his return to the States. In the meantime, the contradictions continued to pile up. He saw mechanics going out on patrols without adequate training. He saw contractors putting coats of paint on what were supposed to be huge renovation projects. And then in November 2009, just a month and a half before he was to come home, Army psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on Fort Hood, killing 13 and wounding more than 30 others. Some of them had been in David’s brigade.
“People make it through deployment and think they’re finally going home and they go home and get fucking blasted,” says David. “It’s like, what the fuck.”
When David came back to the U.S. at the end of 2009, he felt like he had entered a foreign country. In Iraq, the only cars on any roads were armored vehicles and decades-old beaters. Here, cars were everywhere. And people. People going to work, or out to eat, or just taking a walk down the street.
About a year and a half after David got back, he saw Ross Caputi, an Iraq War veteran who had fought in Fallujah during the second siege, speak at Boston University. Soon after, David began reading voraciously about radical politics and a critical history of the United States government. He read about union organizing, the Israel-Palestine conflict, anarchism and Marxism, and of revolution. He became a vegan, and the hard muscle he had built in the Army softened.
Before long, he started organizing.
Much of David’s organizing has centered on Boston’s Industrial Workers of the World chapter, where he is heavily involved with their organizing department. He also leads organizing trainings to help workers build and maintain unions in their workplace. He is also a member of The Boston Solidarity Network (BSOL), which helps people win back their unpaid wages/security deposits or other issues by utilizing direct action tactics.
David was never very interested in talking about his experiences, at least not with most people. As he grew more and more radical in his politics, he became alienated from old Army friends. At the same time, he shied away from talking about his military past with his friends in the radical community. In fact, David has a hard time connecting with any civilian on the subject of his deployment.
“Most people don’t say anything. They don’t know how to react. I don’t blame them for it. But it all adds to that feeling of you can’t talk to anyone because no one understands you,” says David. “I feel like there’s a lot of people who think they know me who don’t. You know, you expose certain parts of yourself, but not the whole. Not even close.”
In the fall of 2012, David moved into an anarchist cooperative in Allston. His former roommate KC Mackey remembers a conversation the housemates had about the co-op’s name. One person suggested the Black Soldier Fly Collective. KC later found out that David was uncomfortable having the word “soldier” in the name.
“I was really, really surprised that he was a veteran. I can’t even picture him holding a gun. After he told me he’d been in the Army, when I looked into his eyes I started to see a kind of lingering pain that I hadn’t noticed before,” she says.
David graduated in May from nursing school at Quincy College. One of his best friends there is another nursing student, Marusya Federici, who served for four years in the Air Force as a military police officer and is now in the Air Force reserves. She says that she and David get along well, despite their different opinions on the military.
“When I first met him I think he was a little jaded, maybe bitter,” she says. “Over time I believe that through his experience in nursing school he has found a way to help people the way he wants to.”
David is one test away from becoming a registered nurse. He eventually wants to work in the intensive care unit, and one day go back to school to become an acute care nurse practitioner. “I want to know what to do in a situation where someone is fading in front of my eyes, and what I can do to try and save them,” he says.
It was Federici who called David and told him about the Boston Marathon bombings. He became angry and resentful, especially over people’s reactions. He was frustrated with the overflow of compassion that only seems to arise when the violence is on U.S. soil and when the victims are primarily white. As his Facebook feed filled up with the message “Boston Strong” and the streets filled with the ensuing paraphernalia, he turned away. For the first time in a long time, he felt a strong urge to re-enlist.
“I just couldn’t connect with people,” says David. “Send me to a place where people are damaged and understand this.
The only thing [civilians] give a fuck about is when it happens in their own backyards. Then they pay attention, but any other time, they don’t have to.”
David still keeps his room clean. Too much mess will send him into a panic attack. Being in large groups of people can make him nervous. Sometimes, when he sees a group of people walk by, he’ll scan the area for something to use as a weapon, and who he’d take out first should “something go down.” He’s seeing a therapist and a psychiatrist. At the very least, he says he doesn’t have nightmares.
There’s no handbook for how to act when you’re in David’s position. There’s no procedure. David’s experiences and the way he feels about them don’t mesh with the overarching narrative of the American soldier. His time in the Army was devoid of the abstract ideas of “fighting for our freedom” or what David calls “blind patriotism.” At the same time, he doesn’t regret going into the Army. He’s sure he’d be dead if he didn’t. But even so, there are parts of David that have changed forever.
“I’d probably be dead. Or something else bad. And I never would have gone to school,” he says. “[The Army] definitely damaged my mind and my body. But I’m alive. It’s a weird trade off.”
David moved out of the anarchist house earlier this spring. He now lives in Dorchester, where he plans to stay, even though he admits the neighborhood is a bit rough. In the couple of months that he’s lived there, he says he’s heard gunshots around five times. A triple shooting occurred within blocks of his apartment. But the people in the neighborhood are nice, and David prefers living among working class people. He likes it there.
He is still doing social justice organizing, though he’s had to take a small step back to study for his nursing certification exam. After that, he’ll look for a job, or maybe do some traveling. The only time he’s ever left the United States was with the Army.
It’s been more than two months since the Boston Marathon bombings, since the urge to re-enlist came to the front of David’s mind. Those feelings haven’t gone away, but he says he says he’s safe for at least a couple years, as Army nurse is an officer job, which means he would need his Bachelor’s. David says he would never consider doing something other than nursing.
He also knows that he’s not alone. Some of his friends who got out of the Army around the same time he did have been experiencing similar feelings—the alienation, the dissonance, the temptation to go back. They’ve run into the same trouble, too.
“It seems like all my friends that got out of the Army the same time as me have been into some type of bullshit since getting out,” says David.
“Trying to fight cops, getting multiple felonies, bar fights, drug addiction, divorce. Thanks Army, you fucked us all up royally.”