A Soldier’s View 

Ex-journalist goes to war

Ex-journalist goes to war

I’m a soldier now. Again. I am a 37-year-old military policeman in the Tennessee Army National Guard, on active duty since the end of October.

Today I went through the gas chamber at Fort Campbell. The first time was with a leaky gas mask, slinging snot and lungs full of CS gas. The second time was, thankfully, with a properly sealed mask. Afterward I ran five miles. Did a hundred sit-ups and sets of pull-ups. Then I cleaned my squad automatic weapon (a.k.a. machine gun) for a couple of hours.

I haven’t had a day off in 18 days as I write this. There have been 4 a.m. formations, road marches in gas masks. We’ve been in the woods or at the firing ranges until 7 or 8 p.m. each night. Then we drink, pray or watch TV until we pass out for a couple of hours and the next day begins.

We’ve had the smallpox and anthrax shots. We’ve gone over our wills for the last time, handed powers of attorney to our wives and husbands, made sure we have the life insurance in case we’re killed overseas.

We all know we’re getting ready to go abroad. We’re about to go to war.

A year ago was a different life. I was an editor at the Business Journal in Nashville. I had returned to Tennessee after newspaper stints throughout the South. I had a beautiful wife, great kids, a great home.

From 1986 to 1990, I had been a soldier, entering as a 20-year-old. Cavalry scout, 19-Delta. Third Infantry Division, Schweinfurt, then-West Germany.

I was away from the U.S. for three and a half years. I never fought World War III, spending my time instead on five-mile runs, marches in the freezing mud, and beer drinking with good buddies with whom I’d cuss about the screwed-up Army. When I got out, I took my bonus money and went into the reserves. But then there was Desert Storm.

I had no desire to go. About to finish college, I had been admitted to law school. Screw the Army, screw the Kuwaitis, screw the oil, screw the weekend drills. When I got out, it was good riddance.

There were moves. A first child. Grad school. And a change of career: journalism. Several jobs, several newspapers, several states. Pay improves. Then I get a break: a job in Nashville. A move, a new house, a lovely new daughter.

Then 9/11: planes crashing, buildings falling. The Pentagon attacked. Children died on those planes. Children, just like my own. It’s payback time.

My wife begs me to hold off. I want to honor her wishes but I see a storm gathering. “It’s my last hurrah, honey. We could use the extra cash. And they never call up the Guard.” Before I know it, I’m back in the reserves.

The gathering storm breaks. Last October I was called to active duty and sent to Fort Dix to learn a new job, military policeman. “Assist, protect and defend.”

While there, my unit is called to active duty. Then it’s on to Fort Campbell. We replace active-duty MPs called to parts unknown, many young enough to be our own children. We work roads, arrest drunk drivers, guard the gates.

At this moment in time, we ourselves have been replaced. We train, eat, train, drink, train, sleep. Most of our equipment is packed away, awaiting shipment.

We know it could be worse: The war kicked off a couple of days ago. We could already be standing in the sand. My old unit is leading the race to Baghdad.

We’re glued to televisions on training breaks and at night. We watch as casualties mount, as reports of Iraqis shooting American prisoners surface. Rumors abound. Resistance seems like it’s stiffening. We know there might actually be a war on when we get there.

Our wives cry now when we call home.

I don’t think about what caused the war. I shrug at demonstrations both for and against us, both here and abroad. I am totally apathetic. I signed up for this stuff myself. No one put a gun to my head.

I don’t ponder the future beyond the next 48 hours because there are too many variables involved. I don’t worry about deadlines, meetings, changing the oil or my kids’ schoolwork anymore.

Instead, I worry about snipers. Iraqi civilians or soldiers getting close to us, then shooting us. Or blowing us up in suicide attacks. I worry about getting my gas mask on in nine seconds or less.

I worry about one shot, one kill.

I train hard, I drink hard, I sleep light.

I’m thinking about the mission, and nothing else. I’m in the mode. And I practice keeping low...very, very low.

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