Listen to our second podcast as I interview Matt Mack, a combat veteran from the early days of Iraq. He was blown up by a suicide bomber in a car and lived to tell the tale. Hear what it’s like to survive and recover from a bombing.
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.
EXCITING NEW ANNOUNCEMENT: 1000 Words (You can tell because of the Caps Lock)
The VAF is starting a project called 1000 Words. We want you (veterans and families) to take a picture/artwork/portrait/landscape, etc. that’s yours and write about it.
It can be the story behind your work, poetry, one word 1000 times over, what inspires you, anything in that vein. Or even a letter to someone you love/miss. We’d ideally like it to be 1000 words. It can be anonymous, or public. Just email us the piece, let us know if you want your name on it.
It’s designed to broaden our understanding of art and motivations, along with self or group healing. It can be happy, sad or anything on spectrum.
I’ll start one off by posting it Wednesday. We’ll see what type of momentum and power. Perhaps sometime next year, if we have enough work, maybe we’ll publish it (with your permission of course) in a book. Let’s see where this takes us at the VAF.
The 1000 words includes the title. You can swear, we’ll just label it NSFW.
You can submit at our Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Veterans-Art-Foundation/40569067611 Or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Three weeks. Three weeks changed everyone’s lives.
There’s no way I could ever explain what happened without the help of the men involved. The time between late July and August 2006 would impact all of us. Being recalled to war after returning home was…was…I don’t quite know. Some fled, others were “grounded” for medical reasons, most of us returned when the time came.
When it was all said and done, we were different. There were those who came home in silver military caskets strapped to the floor of cargo planes.
Those days were the wildest of my life. It was a blur of chaos, violence, sex and alcohol. Some of the memories are fuzzy. I recall some of the highlights. The good and bad. I’m not going to hide from my Each of us involved has a piece of the story locked away in the depths of our mind, waiting to be shared with the world.
This book is dedicated to the dead, wounded and broken soldiers of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team who spent 16 months of their young lives in a desert warzone.
The Veterans Art Foundation has recently renewed it’s facebook and twitter accounts with a passion. We’ve driven in more traffic and fans then we have in months. We have over 350 followers in the Art, Veteran, and nonprofit communities. Our twitter grade is: 88 out of 100, which is a decent start. It measures our influence, reach, and followers ratio.
The Facebook fan page now has 163 people “liking” it. It’s a small number to start with, but we’ve increased 150% in the last few days. Our links have been commented and re-posted across the net. We’ve also started a new campaign for a massive project that will bring together artists and veterans on an unheard of scale.
Thanks for caring.
I pulled this video off of youtube.com
It contains graphic language and gunfights. The reason I post this is to show readers what combat looks like in modern times. It’s not neat and often confusing. Some of the artists that help us survived this battle. I’ve not met anyone who wasn’t changed by their experience there.
I sit alone in some filth. My hot water is out and
consequently I haven’t showered in a couple of days. I cannot
stomach luke warm or cold showers. The memories of Sinjar come
flooding back to me. Sinjar was a desolate place, nestled tightly
against a rocky mountain range. The winds blew down off the ridge
and into out base. We were at least sixty miles from nowhere. Syria
was closer than our main body of troops. Syria was an unknown. It
happened that quite a few of the weapons, bombs, snipers and
insurgents were funneled across the border from Syria. I cannot
speculate on the true origin of those items, but it was quite hard
to stem the flow. Our unit would sit across the border, looking out
over the no man’s land. The dirt before us was covered with buried
land mines looking just witting for an errant foot to trigger a
devastating explosion. The desert between the nations was lifeless.
Along the border, there were patrols driving along the imaginary
line through the sand. The Syrian border guards drove trucks not
unlike their Iraqi counterparts. Rough men stood watch over the
sands from the back of white pickups, clutching machine
I grew up, hoping to be one of two things. A cop or an Archeologist (thanks, Indiana Jones!), and these at first seemed attainable. Arguably the archeologist one still is. I even graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in Criminal Justice. After failing to drift right into a police job, I joined the military.
Spending four years in the army was no cake-walk. It also wasn’t too bad at times. The 16 months of combat took its toll on my mental stability and anger management. I went for disability and ended up walking away with 60%. The choice I made of admitting my problems and seeking disability has rendered my dreams of ever becoming a cop virtually nonexistent.
I started the art foundation in response. I’m no painter, but I love writing and film and appreciate all aspects of art. I’ve written films, screenplays, and even shopped around a screenplay (failing, I might add) since being home. This is my plan for the future. (may do one of those Archeology vacations and hopefully fight off Nazis)
The problem with disability (mentally and/or physically) and admitting you have them, resounds throughout your life. As a 60% vet, I cannot apply for police departments. The state has the highest, at 50 percent acceptance. Even then, I don’t think they’d allow me, with my depression and anxiety in. These issues will affect large numbers of veterans with problems. They have to balance their issues with job opportunities.
A large portion of combat vets seek jobs in law enforcement or the likes. Those jobs suite their needs and personality. If they admit their issues, then they’re basically out of luck. Finding other meaningful work, will be tough. That’s why I hope to at least help alleviate some stress with this foundation. There will be thousands of disenfranchised veterans with little motivation when dreams disappear before their very eyes. Something needs to change, whether it be laws or employment standards. To deny veterans jobs, is a crime.
Another veteran, Pablo speaks of his issues of readjustment.
Taken last year. Mike Hawley talking about death issues with other veterans.