by H.S. Solomon
Dan's Note: Have you ever looked at your life in the place you are now, and then looked back at the way you were before? What changes do you see?
Once, a while back, I heard someone tell me: "People don't change!" Well, if I believed that, I think I'd just give up right now. Certainly I wouldn't keep a blog highlighting transformative stories. People do change. All the time. Today's contribution comes from an American soldier. I know him, but he's asked to remain anonymous as the content you're about to read would affect his career negatively if it got out that he authored it. WARNING: Contains graphic imagery. (But there's plenty of redemption and transformation too.)
I’m a racist, sexist, redneck, xenophobic, homophobic, cad-bastard.
At least that’s where I came from.
I grew up in the foothills of the Ozarks where I don’t remember seeing a black man in real life until I was in my teens and the only gay folks I ever met came out long after leaving the tiny piss-pot of a town I still call paradise. Bigotry was bred into me over generations of backwoods upbringing in the heart of the Cherokee Nation. Aside from a stint as an exchange student in Germany, I didn’t set foot outside those hills until adulthood.
So, I joined the army to pay for it, then went to college, then found the army again and took to soldiering like a hog in mud. I loved the infantry as a place of punctuated and slightly choreographed violence, structured to give merit and focus to anger with an emotional staccato any young Okie Officer could really sink his teeth into. We were all men, mostly white, homophobic red-blooded Americans itching for a fight. It was the work for which I was made. I could shoot, move, and communicate, parachute from airplanes, and endure austerity, the likes of which other more refined individuals write novels about. In short, I was that invincible jackass the government pays good taxpayer money to ensure gasoline stays cheap, America remains #1, and that folks across the globe know their rightful place.
Eventually, I left the infantry for a part of the Army’s Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) and I excelled there, as well. No longer would I be expected to kill enemies of the state and break their stuff as the primary objective. Death and destruction would need a specific purpose or life would be preferred until such time as the enemy’s demise made more sense strategically. Often, I was the one who got to decide life or death.
Sent to Iraq again, I found myself in Mosul, just after the so-called “surge” when massive increases in troop levels drove the radicals from Baghdad elsewhere. Unfortunately for yours truly, “elsewhere” happened to be Mosul, which up to that point had been pretty peaceful, as war zones go. My job often had me in small teams amongst the population and I got to know people at a less threatening level—except when they tried to kill me. That wasn’t all the time, but it did happen at least once a day.
One day, I was out with an adjacent unit following up with the goings on of a suicide vest cell, when the world exploded a mile away. And, although we’re clearly not as brave as Marines on recruiting ads are, we ran toward the explosion with reckless abandon. Nothing. NOTHING. Nothing, during my previous fifteen years of service could’ve prepared me for what we found. Later, the media called it “the Mosul Hiroshima.” An Iraqi EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) unit had been trying to disarm an HBIED or house-borne improvised explosive device. Some highly creative individual had decided to turn the whole building into a bomb. To their dismay, the Iraqis neglected to find the explosives and weapons cache in the sub-basement of the structure and decided to detonate the bombs they could see. This mistake ended up igniting everything: the resulting blast leveled not just the house, but a neighborhood full of families. My boys and I went to help pick up the pieces.
I spent three sleepless days picking up those pieces. Pieces of lives that now haunt me. One quirk of human psychology has to do with conditioning and conditioned nobility has a way of making itself manifest in unexpected ways. Protecting others can become a rather blind habit. So, over the years, up to this time in my life, I had been constantly conditioned to protect those who could not protect themselves and the face of carnage was never too far from that intent. Up to that point, I'd seen the other as exactly that, not me. Not my people.
But this was different. I changed. The death I saw no longer bore nationality or melanin content or politics or sexual orientation. They were just people. Dead people. People who once were someone's sister, brother, wife, child, friend. Something cold and taut inside me snapped at some point. I don’t remember the exact moment, but I remember the slackening of a displaced center. My center, my core, my anchor-of-certainty measuring my own worth against the differences I saw in others had shifted. The identity that brought me through years of combat had changed and I was embarrassed of the man I’d been, only days before.
Looking back now on the redneck I was, full of hatred that he hadn’t recognized as such, I sometimes feel pity, as if I should weep for his ignorance of the fragility and preciousness of life. It’s easy for most folks born of upper-middle class ideals to suspend natural suspicions of the ‘other’, because their place in the world feels secure. But that ability is tenuous; they’ve usually not earned it. Those of us who have truly seen the darkness know all the more what the light is. Or at least what it ought to be.
A person earns perspective, maybe wisdom. Although I still exist in the shadows of many things—my past and the horrible memories are two that continue to burden me—I can finally see light. I no longer have the capacity to care about your skin color, whether or not you can make babies, with whom you share your bed, or where you were born. I’ve seen true ugliness and you—you my friends … are all, simply, beautiful.