1000 Words

1000 Words

Welcome Home
By Michael Hawley

There’s nothing like coming home after a wartime tour. Sometimes it’s beautiful, yet others have a tragic edge. It didn’t seem that way for us

In 2006, 371 soldiers, myself included, from the Alaskan Stryker Brigade touched down upon the ground in Fairbanks. We were greeted by the cool summer weather associated with sub-arctic regions, but after the simmering desert heat of Northern Iraq, it was a welcome treat. We were “home.”

The battalion I hailed from hadn’t lost a soul over the past year. We’d plenty of wounded, but nary a single soldier had been killed.

Our group was the first wave returning from war, the vanguard. Most of us were single or geographical bachelors, with little family or friends in the region. There was a bit of chaos and furor when one of the men lost their night vision goggles, causing everyone’s bags to be searched, and delaying us hours upon arriving at the hanger.

Enterprising souls had placed beer and liquor on our beds to welcome us home. I ended up with Killian’s Irish Red, a beer I loathed and instead of drinking myself into oblivion at such an early hour, I settled in for a long summer’s nap.

Other men didn’t relax. By noon, one man was dancing upon the Chile’s bar. He followed this antic up by punching another soldier in the face. Luckily, the cops let it slide. It was a mournful sign of things to come.

The following day, awful rumors spread through the barracks, unit, fort, and the city itself that our unit had been extended. Even the 24 Hour News stations had picked up the story.

It couldn’t be true, we were home. Home. How could anything like this be possible, I thought. “Fuck that, I’m not going back.” I said, quickly regretting the words as they spilled from my mouth.

Across the ocean, in the Middle East, men and women had packed their gear, weapons, and even vehicles into storage and they were lined up, thinking they’d be given the itinerary for plane rides out of the desert heat. The news hit them first. Unpack your shit, you’re headed South to Baghdad, for another 4 months.

The news broke fast and furious, but for those of us in Alaska, life was limbo. Generals, politicians, and civilians alike pondered our fate. On one hand, “You’re the best unit there is, you’re going back to save Baghdad,” and the other, “We don’t know what’s going to happen to you, you’re already here.” For three weeks, the 371 of us lingered in the unknown.

Rage, spite and bitterness started wrapping itself around my soul and it didn’t take long for an explosion. I became a walking IED.?.

The third day back, I drank myself stupid and the next day, I’d fought a massive hangover and lost the battle. During stretches of our morning exercise, I spewed grape juice, across the green grass and my PT uniform. Instead of drinking that night, I remained sober.

I’d been flirting with a local girl and watched an argument spiral dangerously out of control across Midnight Mine’s small parking lot. It took seconds to realize it was our men. Pushes, punches and kicks felled a pair of obnoxious locals spoiling for a fight. Regardless of who was at fault, they’d called one of our men a “Nigger” and that was enough.

I remember the fight, well most of it. One of the men who’d been stomped regained his feet, walked up behind a short recon sergeant and punched him the ear. The man must’ve outweighed him by 50 pounds. As the soldier fell, he shattered his ankle, and was unconscious before he hit the rough pavement.

The assailant lined up to kick our man while he lay prone. Without thinking I began to kick him across the parking lot as hard as I could. It was a fun fight, until the posse showed up. Reddot, a white rapper showed up with a yellow lead pipe with tassels and began clubbing us. He clubbed me first, across my lower back, but I stood, and threatened to “break his fucking knees.” I was so calm, he ran from me.

Live or die, I didn’t give a fuck. I was probably headed back to Iraq.

I turned around and saw a half dozen men. I hadn’t noticed them before, but assumed they weren’t friendly, so I began kicking everyone I saw. For ten seconds, it was like a Bruce Lee movie, then reality hit and it hit hard. I was pounded into the blacktop and when I woke up, cops and ambulances surrounded me. The picture above was taken immediately following the fight. Some of us broke hands, others had bleeding on the brain, and the sergeant with the broken ankle was forced to stay behind in Fairbanks for surgery.

The following three weeks were a blur of women, booze, and an occasional painkillers. Most of the 371 returned to combat. Many were shattered, below the surface, including myself.

Thousands remained in Iraq while this occurred, and soon we were reunited in sun-drenched Baghdad. Our boots touched down upon the dusty airfield in Iraq with unseen wounds, despair and a strange sense of brotherhood. If we were going to be fucked, we’d be fucked together. It took me years to heal and in some ways, I still am.

Even when I tell the story, nearly breaking down at times, I cannot convey the horror of having our lives ripped out from under us. To me, there was no escape, no hope and I figured it was the end. Our own suicide mission.

Those four months cost lives. The unit lost it’s only man, Alexander Jordan, a man we’d called a brother, a man who should’ve been home in a just world. This story’s dedicated to him and all the men we lost those final months. You’re not forgotten, at least among us, the unlucky 371.

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My world comes crashing down…

Before the Veterans Art Foundation was even a concept weaving it’s way inside my brain, I was an infantryman. Some people don’t know what one is. It’s simply a foot soldier, a grunt, the front line troops.

Like everyone who’s deployed, I have war stories. I try not to exaggerate or embellish mine. For instance, I didn’t kill a hundred Iraqis with my bare hands. Maybe one by knocking out his chest tube. It didn’t look like he’d had a chance, anyways.

Truth be told, I never pulled the trigger outside the “wire.” I had made the choice once and was pulling the trigger as my squad leader stopped me from firing on an Iraqi National Guardsman who’d been tucked away in a window, above our heads firing rounds into the field before us.

The real problems I had didn’t start until I touched down with the rest of the first wave home after our 12 month tour was complete. The three weeks that followed were both the best and worst of my life. I’ll never have another time like that. In some ways, I’ll miss it. In others, I’m glad it won’t happen again.

The powers that be had decided to extend my unit, the 172nd SBCT out of Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska. Our unit was to take control of Baghdad for four months. The news spread like wildfire, through the media and eventually down the chain of command.

Soldiers overseas were lined up, ready for their plane roster, in hopes of getting home soon. The CO of the unit ripped the dream to shreds. Panic, anger, and disgust swept through our ranks, at home and abroad.

My own thoughts initially were to stay at home, to ride the surge out. The vast majority of us fought the urge to run, to cower, and to opt out medically.

Coming home from war as a unit is an amazing, unforgettable series of events. Being greeted by family and friends is heartwarming. Unfortunately, most of us had no one there to greet us. We’d been moved north for the remainder of our time in the army.

The only sign welcoming our unit back was taped to a dumpster in a parking lot away from the main roadway. If you strained your eyes, you might catch it. Regardless, our homecoming was bittersweet.

After the news rocked the city, fort, and soldiers (families too) our lives became chaos. We fought white rappers in the streets, drunkenly screamed at military policemen, vandalized, and womanizer. What else could we do but unleash the fear and horror of returning to the unknown of war.

Those weeks, without the fanfare, politicians and anger were the best of my life and I’ll never be able to find that again. Good or bad.

– Mike Hawley, co- founder.

Some wounds can’t be seen.
PTSD can be a death sentence, if untreated.