An Army sergeant reflects on his service in Iraq and how his family’s history with PTSD led him to sign up in the first place.
Image by Nina Talbot, Eugene Jarvis, Vietnam, US Army, 2012, oil on canvas.
Currently on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts until August 24, 2014
The 1st Platoon of Blackhorse Company sits on the tile floor of the weight room cleaning weapons with CLP and bore snakes and dental tools after running lanes in the woods and conducting live-fire exercises. The men are dirty and exhausted. They laugh and shout out their orders as bags of burritos are delivered from the twenty-four-hour Taco Bell off post. I’m in the adjacent room with my squad leader, Staff Sergeant Bruzik, and Sergeant Zapata, my fellow team leader. We watch more of the war on television. Several Marines rush under fire to a bridge in Nasiriyah, Iraq.
They crawl on the concrete and asphalt of the roadway as the invisible trails of bullets zip past them from the far shore of the river. They return fire, shooting at what I’ve been trained to think of as known and suspected enemy targets. The Marines rush the bridge over and over as the newscast replays the scene.
The television is on mute. I don’t know what Bruzik and Zapata are thinking, but I’m looking at the far shore and trying to make out the muzzle flashes. Those on the other side of the river are honing the same fundamentals of marksmanship we’ve studied at the rifle ranges of Fort Lewis. It isn’t something I mention to Bruzik and Zapata. I feel remote, somewhat cold, my mind working out the possible trajectories that might bring me home. I’m Sgt. Turner and I’m a team leader preparing to deploy to combat. But there’s something echoing through the branches and channels of my central nervous system.
On the other side of that river, Iraqis continue to crouch along walls and lie on rooftops in the prone. Even when I fall asleep tonight, they’ll continue to fire their weapons. The news anchor will narrate the action. On replay. Figures in the distance. Soldiers running toward the bridge. The sight picture placed over them as I dream and sleep in the state of Washington. The Iraqi men, again and again, pulling the trigger.
The recruiter’s office was outfitted with swivel chairs, a framed photograph of the president, an old steel-cased tanker desk. The sallow-faced man had a dot matrix printer and a green polyester suit decorated with military ribbons. I could feel the warmth of the freshly printed list of options in my hands. There were particle-board partitions and fluorescent lighting—and a photo of a camouflaged patrol, stealthily crossing water, all muzzles and war paint and shadowy intent.
I pointed to the list and said the word Infantry.
I don’t remember when I started digging—maybe when I was about eleven years old, just after my family moved from Fresno, California, and into the farmlands and cattle-range land beyond the San Joaquin River—but I remember standing in one of the partially excavated holes and pausing to watch a slow-moving flock of vultures pass over to the sun-burned foothills at the base of the high sierras, Yosemite, Ansel Adams country. Those dark birds rode the cycling thermals in silence, now and then shifting their stiff wings to bank and turn, the way vultures do, heavy and awkward, articulating an invisible column of air rising through the troposphere and into the blue ether above.
And I dug, blade by blade, shoveling my way through scratchy sandy loam and down into the hardpan. I dug until the foxholes measured roughly chest-high for a grown man. I improvised overhead cover to protect against indirect fire, the metallic trajectories of mortar rounds and artillery shells. Wooden sector stakes marked the left and right limits for each soldier. A shelf carved into the back wall for binoculars, map, compass, maybe a cup of coffee in the winter. Grenade sumps and earthen berms to shield the defenders from small-arms fire. Each hole big enough to hold a casket. Each fighting position based on the dimensions I’d found in Dad’s infantry field manuals. And as I worked through the morning and deeper into the earth, I wore his old National Guard uniform, with black combat boots laced up tight. My green rucksack loaded with leftover C-rats, as well as a P-38 can opener, collapsible dinnerware, candles, matches, a coiled length of nylon cordage, an emergency survival kit waterproofed in plastic, a mummy bag for inclement weather, Penthouse magazines from 1976 and Soldier of Fortune.
The first time my mother saw my father was in the summertime and he was on the local evening news. The anchor described the scene as they aired black and white footage taken earlier that afternoon.
A drunk driver in a pickup swerved into Dad’s lane and sideswiped him as he rode his chopper down Chestnut Avenue.
I remember the first time he described his memories. After the crush of metal, after the clamping of brakes, the truck slid off into the near distance, and he found himself lying on his side in the middle of the road. The blacktop was scorching. And in the August heat the world assumed a tilted quality—the way a frame breaks and the photograph it holds slips at an angle from its station within. In my memory of that moment, his abdomen split open and his intestines spilled out onto the asphalt. Steam rose from that tissue and fluid as he lay in the broiling heat.
The scar said—that which is written in the flesh is irrefutable. This is the mark of a man. This is what it takes.
On the newscast, the anchor detailed the accounts of eyewitnesses who saw the driver of the truck stumble out of the cab once it had lurched to a halt. He’d gathered empty cans of cocktail mixer littering the seat of his truck and then carefully began placing them in a line from Dad’s wrecked motorcycle to the front bumper of his truck, some distance away. When the police questioned him a short time later (and before he’d had a chance to sober up), the driver explained that those empty cocktail cans were visible proof of how Dad had been drinking while riding the chopper that now lay in ruins.
When I was a boy, he often went barefoot with cutoff jeans and no shirt, a can of Coors in his hand. The accident left a vertical pink scar, thick as a sword blade; the scar ran from the arrow-shaped point of the xiphoid process at the bottom of the sternum straight down to his belly button. He never had to say a word about it. The scar said it all. The scar said he could take it. Pain. Hardship. Trouble. The world could carve him open and spill his guts out, raw and steaming on the summer asphalt, and he could take it all. Come back up cussing and drinking and punching any doctors who got too close. The scar said—that which is written in the flesh is irrefutable. This is the mark of a man. This is what it takes.
I pointed to the list and said Infantry because I wanted the man in the polyester suit to know, at some unconscious level, that I didn’t give a shit what row of ribbons he had pinned to his chest, that I was willing and prepared to crawl through the mud and muck any time of day or night, winter spring summer fall you name it, I was prepared to low-crawl with my face down in the nastiest, foulest, brackish sludge and sewer the world could offer, that I was from Fresno and people from Fresno can take it, can take it in spades and shovelfuls, people from Fresno can take decades of it, that people from Fresno can outcrawl any motherfucker on the planet, or at least crawl with the best of them, low and cold and reptilian. That’s why I joined.
It’s early January, I think. 1981. Dad and I are beyond the eucalyptus trees out front, there in the broken furrows of sand. We’re making napalm.
With the San Joaquin Valley’s notoriously thick fog to hide our work, we follow a recipe from The Poor Man’s James Bond. Dad uses the same wood-handled kitchen knife we use to trim fat and meat from vertebrae and gristle for the weekly ham hocks and beans, drawing the flattened edge across a bar of soap to strip thin curling peels into the empty five-gallon paint bucket below.
I’m also learning that napalm is a gelled substance that can burn right through bone. What I don’t know is that my Uncle Jon has seen it put to use.
In another month, I’ll be fourteen. Ronald Reagan is in the White House and I’m learning about the Cold War and the Star Wars missile defense shield, the impossible hooks of bra straps and how to build a model volcano out of newspapers and masking tape. I’m also learning that napalm is a gelled substance that can burn right through bone. What I don’t know is that my Uncle Jon has seen it put to use. He’s smelled what comes after the scorching heat. He’s patrolled through jungles and forests I haven’t heard of yet. He teaches drama and English classes at Mariposa High School and works the family cattle out on the ranch.
When he visits our house, he gives me books of fiction, poetry, drama. And when he talks about Vietnam, his stories focus on Tu Do Street in Saigon, the old French hotel with a dingy courtyard where he stayed, as well as the bars and cathouses where Vietnamese bands played all hours of the night. He says, “When we landed at Tan Son Nhut Airbase, we stepped into the fiercest humidity and heat I’d ever encountered. I wanted to vomit. The air was so thick, sluggish, steamy. And smells. I remember the diesel, rotting garbage, excrement, exhaust from thousands of motorcycles, cyclos, trucks, jeeps, and the smell of nuoc mom, this Vietnamese food sauce, which I couldn’t stand at first. But we got used to it. And fresh breezes would sometimes blow in off the delta, cleared it all out for a short time. Of course, the monsoons would clear the air, too, and then we’d steam as we dried out.”
And Uncle Jon would elaborate like this, circling the thing not talked about: the Combined Military Interrogation Center near the racetrack in Saigon, and places further away: the cells where he questioned the prisoners in their blue suits, how they huddled in the cages at the zoo, how they begged.
And when one of Dad’s friends, the trumpet player Ray Ramos, comes out to teach me how to play the horn, I won’t ask him about his time as a mortar man in Vietnam. And Ray won’t talk about the burned grass he walked through the morning after the assault when they were nearly overrun by the VC, the smell of the dead drifting over it all, birds singing in the treeline. He won’t tell me about the bugle he found beside a Vietnamese soldier who stared at him with his dead eyes. When I come home from my own war, we’ll talk about these things. For now, though, he’ll tighten his embouchure and place the mouthpiece to his lips, phrasing the twenty-four notes that graveyards know too well.
With each can of Coors opened and downed, Dad gets closer and closer to blacking out, closer and closer to resuming his high-altitude reconnaissance missions over Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, over the year 1965, MiGs rising fast from their airbase to greet him.
Each night he places an oxygen mask over his face and breathes in as the plane lifts off the tarmac of dream, from the airstrip at Eniwetok Atoll or the barren outcrop of Shemya Island in the far north. He checks his gauges. Checks the onboard cameras. Calls out the countdown for the navigator to set his timepiece and mark the stars to chart their way.
Below and above them—the Pacific Ocean and the pale cerulean sky, a vast blue world in its fluid nature, the exosphere stretching out into the drifting reaches of space. He’s harnessed into his seat in the well of the fuselage, helmet on, oxygen flowing through the mask, service pistol in its holster, a survival knife in its sheath, while he turns the radio dial away from known Red pilot frequencies, to catch a few moments of Johnny Rivers singing “Secret Agent Man,” a song he’s never heard before, even though it seems written solely for him. As the MiGs swing out over the Pacific Ocean in pursuit, Dad listens to Johnny Rivers through the static of his headset.
If the MiGs had shot them down, it would have been reported back home as a training accident.
In 1995, in the hospital, they called in the crash cart and had to jump-start my dad with electric paddles. My mother and sister both said that when his eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped over, their field of vision narrowed into a dimly lit tunnel and the noise of the world muted within the curving structure of the ear until they heard nothing at all, or only a low murmur, something like the thrumming of engines. They could see each other’s lips mouthing a language that could not be heard. When the nurses and orderlies rushed into the room, they did so in slow motion, as if submerged underwater.
When they describe the moment Dad died, I see the white pills on the blue tray by his bedside rising upward in slow motion, too. The pills ascend one after another the way exhaled air rises in translucent spheres from the dive master’s regulator. As Dad’s body is touched by figures in blue gowns, red and white carnations drift upward from their glassy vases, their clipped stems a green too bright for the room, glowing in the afternoon light. Slippers, flowers, ballpoint pens, clipboards, small plastic cups, the tray of hospital food separating into sliced rounds of steamed carrots and tiny misshapen globes of split peas—all of it floating in a strange confetti up to the ceiling.
Dad had somehow managed to clock the surgeon across the jaw, even after a rotary saw had split his chest open and he was hooked up to all manner of wires and gadgets and tubes. The surgeon hit him back.
A nurse lifts one of his eyelids slowly with her fingers. She leans over to stare into the closed doorway of a world. What she discovers there sends her running through the chained curtain and into the hallway, waving to someone out of view.
And my father came back to life.
In the recovery room of the ICU, I couldn’t help but stare at the strange orange stain of Betadine on his skin where the stitches joined him back together. They’d sawn his sternum wide open to work on his heart, eventually completing a double bypass and pre-wiring him internally for any possible future heart attacks. Along with the two small wounds on his left leg—where they cut out a section of vein for use in the bypass—he also had a swollen and blackened right eye. The surgeon said it happens sometimes. Patients wake up on the table, confused, scared, in great pain. Like my dad, who must’ve seen a vision of aliens working over him and came up swinging. That’s what the doctor said—Dad had somehow managed to clock the surgeon across the jaw, even after a rotary saw had split his chest open and he was hooked up to all manner of wires and gadgets and tubes. The surgeon hit him back.
He sucked on bits of crushed ice.
His gaze wandered through the framed window and into the tops of the cypress trees beyond, leafed out in a brilliant green. They swayed gently back and forth in the breeze as if an enormous hand were brushing through them with great care.
I leaned over and asked him, “So what was it like, dying?”
“That?” he responded, shifting bits of ice to the other side of his mouth so he could speak clearly. “That was a trauma junkie’s delight.”
When we triggered the device and the napalm exploded, I felt charged and electric. We were surrounded by the cold. Coffee steamed in the cup as the entire world disappeared in fog. And for a moment, I knew—here was the great body of Death. A portion of the inheritance we all share. I wanted to see it break open in fire. I wanted the world to be shaken by it. And, most of all, I wanted to be shaken by it, too.
I said Infantry because I didn’t really know if I could do it, if I could take it, if it would break me down and chew me up and then continue to keep on chewing. I said Infantry because I knew that here was a portion of what work is, here was a portion of what they fed to the lions in the dust and name of Rome. I said Infantry because my great-grandfather Carter was gassed during the Battle of Meuse-Argonne in the fall of 1918, the bloodiest battle in American history. He was there in the muck in France during the First World War and yet he still managed to crawl out, through the ruined ground, the world rung into a gear-toothed roar, canisters of gas hissing as they flew over, and he made it back home, though the war would drag him under a few short years later.
Between me and the people I revered most there were beaches and jungle foliage and Russian MiGs and snipers and artillery craters and midnights spent drifting on the Pacific under the Southern Cross.
I said Infantry because one of my great-greats enlisted in the Union Army—15 November, 1861—at Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, and later served as a corporal in the Tennessee Volunteers, and even though he’d cracked his back on a green horse at Camp Dennison and later contracted rheumatic fever during a bitter December in Knoxville, he stayed on through the fight, from the Confederate horses shot in the river at Shelbyville and on to Huntsville, Alabama, from Buck Town Tavern to Powder Springs to the Siege of Atlanta, from the Battle of Franklin, the Battle of Nashville, and the pursuit of General John Bell Hood clear to the Tennessee River.
I raised my hand and said the words I swear because I would’ve been ashamed in the years to come if I hadn’t, even if it didn’t make sense, even if nobody I cared about ever thought about it, even if all the veterans in my family never said a word, or even if they did, saying, It’s cool, Brian, it doesn’t mean a thing, believe me, the uniform doesn’t make the man, or anything along those lines, because it would’ve meant that between me and the people I revered most there were beaches and jungle foliage and Russian MiGs and snipers and artillery craters and midnights spent drifting on the Pacific under the Southern Cross; between me and the people I most revered there were explosions I couldn’t hear, curses and shouting and laughter, engines thrumming, Hueys and Black Hawks lifting from the grass and sand to map the earth in medevac flights that would deliver the wounded to gentle hands in latex gloves, surgeons calling for scalpels and sutures and more blood, type AB negative, while airmen on the flight line hosed bodily fluids from the decks and drank coffee when the day was done.
I said, I, Brian David Turner, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend, because of my grandfather’s whiskey-tinged silence as he sat through the Indian Wars of 1970s television, movies euphemistically called westerns, the sound of Bougainville and Guam and Iwo Jima hovering over him as we lit the Christmas candle and put more wood on the fire. I signed the paper because I knew that on some deep and immutable level, I would leave and I would never come back.
Adapted from My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir. Copyright © 2014 by Brian Turner. First American Edition 2014. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Brian Turner is the director of the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and the prize-winning author of two poetry collections about his seven years in the United States Army. He lives in Orlando, Florida.
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