My tinnitus hit me especially hard last night. I sat awake and let my mind wander. I picked up my phone and saw all the flashing facebook notifications: blanket “thank you” messages from distant friends, being tagged in posts from soldiers I served with, and dozens of “likes” on photos of me in uniform. Those pictures brought back a lot of emotions. I could feel the heat and humidity of Tigris River which sat 50 meters from Patrol Base Murray in Arab Jabur, where I spent a cumulative three months. I could remember stealing gas from a nearby generator to heat our tent in frigid Patrol Base Meade, a mudpit built in the middle of winter in Sayifiyah, where I spent another three months. I was a “Fobbit,” or a person who spends most of their time on a Forward Operating Base, and now remembered FOB Falcon in Dora, where I spent nine months hiding from military brass who spent their time in a war zone looking for uniform violations. I hated my time at all of these. We lived in danger, ate terrible food, and had constantly terrible weather. Still, I looked back at this time with nostalgia.
Then I saw a picture of our HMMWV, which had stood between an Iranian rocket and the barracks and took most of the damage. There was no warning, just a half-second whistle as the rocket went overhead. I looked at the picture and remembered the small crater near our vehicle and how shrapnel deeply scratched our thick, steel doors, destroyed much of the engine, and broke the bulletproof glass in the turret. This happened on base, 50 feet from where we slept. Iranian rockets flew overhead daily for several weeks after this. Why was I looking back at this with nostalgia? Then I realized it: I miss war.
When you “leave the wire,” or go off base, you expect to be attacked. You don’t like it, but you understand it and respect it: you’re hunting killers and killers are hunting you. When on foot patrol you have a memorized list of names and faces, a map, mission briefing, key Arabic phrases, communication and first aid instructions running through your mind, plus a vigilance which forces you to keep track of every minute movement in the area. You feel a heightened sense of awareness you can’t feel anywhere else. It’s a high. Even routine patrols brought up new twists, such as finding a police car buried by Islamist militias or meeting an illiterate farmer who used his guile to infiltrate the inner circle of abu-XXXXX, a notorious warlord whose death made international headlines.
This was all outside the wire though. Inside the wire, where I spent most of my time, was supposed to be different. It largely was that way until the Katyusha rockets started falling near our barracks at FOB Falcon, the Iranian man swam across the Tigris River and walked onto our base at PB Murray, or we moved from PB Meade to a small school called Whitehouse with an elaborate anti-western mural painted on the walls and a nearby apartment complex with windows looking directly into the classroom where we slept on a cement floor, with nothing but luck keeping snipers out of the unguarded building looking over us. When you left base, you expected this. You looked at those who wanted to kill you with a level of respect. That respect led to vigilance, the best survival mechanism there is. But what about on base, when there’s nothing you can do about the rockets coming in? What about the day when people who want you dead realize there is an unguarded window 100 feet from where dozens of soldiers sleep? There was a buzz now, even on base. No fear, no hatred, just buzz.
I’ve done a lot in the time since I left Iraq, all looking to bring back that buzz. I played rugby (poorly), then moved on to climbing and occasional spelunking and canyoneering. The buzz wore off, so I upped it and decided to explore the world with just a backpack: I slept in a tent at a refugee camp where I volunteered, backpacked through the Middle East, hitchhiked through Colombia and Mozambique, and put myself at the mercy of strangers throughout the journey. Along the way I met the best people on earth and had some amazing adventures, but I never replaced that buzz.
Thinking of the buzz brought me back to the tinnitus that was keeping me awake and back to looking through old facebook photos of Iraq. As I laid awake last night in a comfortable bed, with a comfortable job, in a comfortable city, I missed war.