Michael E. Tank

THE AMERICAN SOLDIER IN IRAQ

He is nineteen and he stands alone
Separated from his comrades in arms
Ten paces apart to spread out the group
For they have learned the hard lesson of bunching up
And now know not to make themselves an easy target

He is tall and lean, hard and strong
Has been a soldier for all of a year
The training came easy for he was motivated and prepared
But this was not what he had bargained for
For he dreamed of being a warrior at war not a cop at a security gate

He is well equipped with the latest devices
The best that money can buy
His Kevlar is strapped firmly to his chin, full body armor is worn
He has all the latest biological and poison gas protection
His weapon is of the newest design and he has night vision glasses

He is backed up by the warships of the World’s finest Navy
Overhead pass the newest fighters, bombers and choppers
With their lasers, rockets, and ‘smart’ bombs
Miles high and unseen, his country’s satellites spy down from space
The new armor vehicles which surround him have proven to be invincible

Yet with all of this new technology and equipment
It still comes down to him
A young American soldier
Making life and death decisions
Still too young to legally buy a beer

He is the low man on the totem pole
The one with the least experience, time in service and training
Sharing no word in the operations’ planning
He is the lowest paid
The man most with his life on the line

He carries out his country’s policy
Of policing and rebuilding a hostile nation
Caring nothing of the politics or debate
Believing his actions are right and sound
He simply obeys his orders

For he does not have a choice of the politics
Has no time or desire to debate the merits of the religious differences
His is just to complete the tasks at hand
With the one thing utmost in his mind
Everyone must come home

He has spent endless hours in the searing heat
Bundled under his equipment and gear
In temperatures which can soar to 124 degrees
When it drops to a warm eighty at night
He shivers with the cold

A soldier is always the first to go and the last to know
But eventually he hears what the home front is saying
And unlike those who would criticize his involvement
He has put his life on the line for his convictions
And lacks the comfort and safety of their distance to join in the debate

He knows that most of the World
Thinks of him as an unwelcome interloper
An invader, a pirate, the tool of a corrupt machine
A capitalistic warmonger killing for oil
The infidel assassins of a ‘peaceful’ nation

But this does not bother him
For he is an American soldier doing his duty
Fighting a terrorist movement, who given half the chance
Would remove his Country and countrymen from the face of the Earth
For they have already started to try

He is lost in a strange, foreign land and culture
Confused by the resistance to his aid
Mystified by the people he’s trying to help
Yet showing compassion, restraint and kindness
When he is allowed

He is pressured by the Brass
Who is in turn being pressured by Washington
To show the utmost restraint before defending his life
And he with his ‘Brothers’ do try
But it is not the politicians or the Brass who have their ass on the line

He is fighting an enemy who look and act like civilians
They fire from ambush behind civilian cover
Plant mines in the roads caring not, who all they might kill
They dress in women’s clothing to get close to him
Or drive a speeding, bomb laden car into his group

He knows about the Marine Barracks in Beirut
Has heard about the USS Cole
Watched the tragedy and murder of the Twin Towers
Was told about the two Brits killed in an ambush the day before
And saw firsthand the aftermath of a car bomb at a company check point

He lives in a high pressure, stressed out, dangerous world
Where the enemy can be anywhere at any time
Can look like any other civilian who passes by
Then turn to commit their suicide and his own death
And he lives with this everyday

He has read that there are people in the World
Even in his America
Who say that these self made martyrs are courageous
He wonders how these misguided, religiously motivated acts of cowardice
Could possibly be misconstrued as bravery

He has been in the service long enough to be a little ‘salty’
And like all good soldiers can complain with the best
But it is the right of a soldier to grumble
As long as he follows orders and does his job
And he knows that only politicians could have put him in a fix like this

He has been told that the war is over
But he knows America has lost more killed
Since the war ‘ended’ than during the war itself
And he knows that only a fool or a politician
Would say that he was not in the middle of a war

He has seen things no man should see
Maybe had to do a few of them too
Unknown to him, his life is now forever changed
His youth of a few months ago
Is nothing more than a distant fading memory

He believes that at the end of his tour of duty in Iraq
That he will easily slide back into civilian life
And all will be the same as before
It is a misconception of his youth
Mistakenly shared by all combat Veterans

He is constantly tired and hungry
No amounts of food or sleep are enough
No matter how hard he tries he cannot stay clean
And although surrounded by his mates
Has a deep, yearning ache for home

He misses his mother and father
Brothers and sisters, cousins and all
Even the neighbors next door
Family has never seemed so important
As the distance has made them grow even more dear

If he is married or has a ‘girl’
She is forever on his mind
Remembering times and places together
Veiled images of their intimacy
Fueling a growing love for her, exaggerating his desire

His boyhood home where once boredom ruled
Has become magical with his absence
Remembering small details of his previous daily life
With such clarity and longing
Nagging him like a dreadful ache, deep in the pit of his stomach

He wants again to tread on white wintry fields
And hear the crunch of the snow with each step
Feel the sting of icy winds on cheek
The bite of it on his nose
The soothing warmth when he reaches home

To inhale the fresh green smell of Spring
Walk in the warm sweet rain
Watch the robins hunt his lawn through his window pane
See his Mother’s flowers bloom
The trees and bushes bud to leaf

To witness the growing warmth as the sun rises higher in the sky
Hear the crack of bat on ball, enjoy the mad dash to first
Feel the burn deep in his dusty throat
As he downs an ice cold Coke
When the game is won

To watch the flocks of blackbirds flying south
Darkening an already dull gray sky
Enjoy the dance of swirling winds lifting the fallen colored leaves
Smell his Mother’s roasting turkey on Thanksgiving Day
Spending the day watching football with his Father and brothers

All of these things he had taken for granted
Now loom up as precious gifts
It is a sign of his maturity and growth
An indication of he is longing for home
A reminder of his present situation

Yet when he finally returns home
He will partake in few of these pleasures consciously
Not because they are no longer available
For the seasons will always remain
But sadly he is the one who will change

He is closer to his God than he has ever been before
Or will ever be again
He prays almost constantly
For his family, his comrades
And himself

Yet he keeps this faith mostly hidden
In his youthful, macho military surroundings
It is alright to be religious
But only to a certain point
Too much religion can be considered a weakness

For in this soldier society of life and death
God helps those who help themselves
Thus the Lord’s Prayer changes to:
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil, for I am the meanest son of bitch in the valley.”

He is tired of sand in his food and water
In his clothes and in his shoes
But he has no trouble sleeping at night
That will come later in life
Right now he is always exhausted at the end of the day

He is tired of the same old food
No matter if it’s the field rations or in the mess
And finds that he often dreams of home cooked meals
Cold cool drinks and clean sheets
Even more than he dreams of pretty girls

He swears that when his enlistment is finally up
He will never stand in a line again, sleep in the ‘great outdoors’
Nor will he ever again wear green or brown clothes
And promises himself that he will forever more have a private bath
To wash and to relieve himself

Occasionally he may get to phone loved ones
At the beginning of the short call
Both parties talk excitedly, rapidly
Almost shouting their words
Exchanging the “I miss you’s.” and “I love you’s.”

As the conversation quickly progresses
They talk of minor things at home
Maybe he will relate a funny story of something that happened
But he will never tell them how bad things really are
Or how miserable he is without them near

He is always “Doing okay.” and, “Feeling fine.”
“No Mom, I’m not in any danger.” He will lie.
And, “Yes I am getting enough to eat.”
“I should be home in January.”
He will remind them for the tenth time

“I can’t wait to see you all again.” He says
As the conversation winds down
Their voices have quieted now
Speaking almost in soft sweet whispers
As they know the call’s end is near

On both ends of the line
Eyes begin to tear
With the sadness of the distance
And of hearing the voice without a chance to touch
Adding weight to their collective hearts

“You take care of yourself son.” Says Dad
“Yes, you too.” Replies the son
Then the soldier sadly states he has to go
The words catching in his throat
At both ends the voices fail on the word “Good-bye.”

The phone calls are always welcomed
But like generations of soldiers before him
Mail is still most important to him
For a letter is something to hold
A small piece of home to read over and over again

Simple words on plain white paper
Telling tales of everyday things
He will read them till every word is memorized
Then read them over again
It is an all important physical connection to his other life

He has made a dozen good friends
But two men stand out from the rest
They spend all their off time together
Talking of home, cars and girls
Making plans for when they get back to the States

Off duty among his friends and comrades
Tricks are pulled on one another
The jokes they tell are crude, usually degrading
And almost always pornographic
Boys will be boys

They have established their own language
Terms for different foods, duties, equipment and other odds and ends
But mainly this code is addressed towards the country’s people
It is always unfavorable, even crude and vulgar
A self defense to de-humanize those they have to deal with

He may even feel somewhat uncomfortable
Repeating some terms or names
But he will never let on to the others
And the language will stick, become familiar with use
Outsiders would be offended, but then they walk in different shoes

On any given day he may feel a wide range of emotions
Shifting from utter boredom to frenzied activity
Feeling at times frightened, lonely, depressed, exhausted, anxious
Sad, angry, happy, exhilarated, excited, panic, remorse, invincible
And never really knowing exactly why

He feels better when he is kept busy
Although thoughts of home start to intrude the longer he is away
Yet he stays highly motivated, focused on his duty
For he feels he is doing something important
And learns he has a better chance of survival if he pays attention

Once again from home bound sources
He learns that the American people
Are shifting focus away from the ‘war’
The newspapers move the stories to the back pages
War correspondents become less visible

What once was a front page headline
Now hardly gets any print
When once the names of every KIA was somberly posted
Now hardly a mention of the dead
Numbers of the total figures replacing individual names

America’s attention span has moved on to something new
Only the protests and articles of distraction against the ‘war’ effort
Make the nightly news
America moves forever onward
While America’s sons and daughters are stuck in Iraq

He will continue to do his duty with vigor
For he will not forsake his brothers in arms
He will not let them down
For he now serves for his fellows
As much as he serves for his Country

He knows of the American fighting man’s traditions that he must uphold
To honor the memory of all those who came before
And to the names of Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, Normandy, Iwo Jima,
Inchon, Pork Chop Hill, Hue, Hamburger Hill and Desert Storm, among so many others
Will be added Nasiriya and Baghdad

Older and forever changed
He will come home when his time there is done
Sadly too many of his contemporaries
Will never make that trip
For the true cost of war is so high

It is the memory of these men and women he served with
Which he will cherish the most
This Brotherhood of his Corps
A bond that is unbreakable
That the untested do not get to know

And in his waning years
Growing old and weak with age
He will be forced to sit by and watch
As other young men and women march off to war
New patriots to follow in his path

For he knows as long as there are politicians
Young men will be called on to fight and die
His blood will boil at their misuse
And even knowing of their hardships and trials
His heart will yearn to be young again so he could join their ranks

He will listen for years to come
The should-haves and would-nots of Iraq
But deep in his heart he will know, that he was right to go
For no matter what was really the political agenda
He and his kind planted the seeds of democracy and freedom in an oppressed land

And whether or not those seeds bore fruit
Was not to be determined by the soldiers
But by the Iraqi people themselves
The soldiers were just the instruments of freedom
They did their job and did it well

Iraqi freedom was there for the taking
Paid for by the blood of American and British Patriots
He will know that America may not always be right
But as long as She continues to have men and women such as these
She will always be around to try

IWVPA Double Tap Award for War Poetry: December 14, 2004
Awarded: December 14, 2004

Author’s Note: Dedicated to the men and women serving in the American and British Armed Forces