I have an entire vernacular of war sitting in a retired section of my brain, waiting to be dusted off and put to use – good or otherwise. Next to it sit the emotions attached to body armour and up-armoured vehicles. That feeling of being hugged by metal and kevlar. There was a time when I wore my body armour so often that when I took it off at night, I could still feel it – my ghost limb. It had become an extension of who I was.
There is nothing romantic or glorified about war, but it is a genre that stays with you forever once you have lived it, even from the fringes. It influences your engagement with the rest of the world and alters your perspective entirely. It took me a long time after I returned from Baghdad to understand this and to identify ways to reconnect with my former world. It wasn’t as straight forward as rearranging my priorities – i.e. someone leaving the cap off the toothpaste as opposed to getting to a hardened site during a rocket attack. This was more like being an astronaut, without the relevant training, and re-entering the earth’s atmosphere after a prolonged stint in space, having spent it looking down at our small blue dot from a great distance. Gravity was a bitch.
In Iraq everything had perspective, and immediacy. The world was in sharp focus and you knew that if you walked 1.5 clicks in a certain direction, you would fall off the edge. In my case, I would be out of the IZ (International Zone) and into the RZ (Red Zone) – also fondly known as the ‘real Iraq’ or the ‘badlands’. There were times when the only thing between me and the edge of the world was chicken wire and shade cloth. A thin veneer of safety. My tin can was an up-armoured SUV that wasn’t immune from flat tyres or break-downs.
I had been in Baghdad less than 24 hours when the first IDF (Indirect Fire) landed within 50 metres of where I was sleeping. Followed by four more – rockets that is. For the first few weeks I tried to keep count of how many rockets and mortars fell – how many times I locked my computer, ran for cover and threw my helmet on. Then I gave that up for predicting when the enemy would attack. I became superstitious and suspicious; I was careful to get out of bed on the right side (literally) and put my right foot on the floor first. I was convinced that the enemy had my shower under surveillance and were just waiting for me to wash my hair. I got my ablutions down to a fine art – everything staggered perfectly to allow for decency in the event of an evacuation. I learned the art of talking in code about where I was going and when. I never made appointments, preferring to show up unexpected and leave alive.
My first close call was a mortar that landed 14meters from where I was standing, while taking a photo of the old visa building, now our office, backdropped against a dust storm. “Get inside”, the small voice inside my head told me. “Get inside, NOW.” No one in their right mind ignores that voice, and so even as the CRAM (Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar) system started broadcasting, I was running. I wasn’t laying down flat, as trained (it’s all about surviving blast trajectory). I was Wile. E Coyote running, legs pumping, arms windmilling, a comic in motion, feeling as though I was going no where, but somehow getting to hardened cover. I would remain there for the next 20 minutes while 17 rockets and mortars landed within 50 meters. Half of those within 20 metres from where I had been standing. There would be another 13 before the end of the day, and a direct hit on our office the following day (no one was hurt).
There would be more close calls in my year in Iraq. More rockets, mortars and even a grenade thrown at a check-point as I was passing by. I would become uncomfortably familiar with the prevalence of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices and VBIEDs (Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Devices). I would learn the feel of a military vehicle tearing up Route Irish, and how to wait silently, without moving an inch in hotspots. I would learn how to manoeuvre CPs (Check-Points) with possible lock-downs in mind. Watching the dogs as they worked each vehicle. If one sat down, I was already looking for my evac. When the CP brought in a second dog and walked it around the same vehicle, I would watched closely to see if it also sat down – a DD (Double Dog), resulting in a lock-down (i.e suspected IED or VBIED). After that it was (relatively) simple, crouch down in the wheel-well or brave it out trying to get to a blast wall. I liked to joke that the dogs were just tired… we were all fucking tired.
When I look back on it all, it’s no wonder that re-entry took some time. It’s no wonder that I would jump at the sound of a car back-firing, that I was hyper-aware of my surroundings, that I had a short fuse and that I hated (still do) crowds. It’s no wonder that I looked at every back-pack with suspicion, found it difficult to sleep through the night, and that small talk was offensive.
And this after only a year, and mostly on the fringes of this war. When I think about the men and women who serve day in and day out, on the front line, fighting for people they don’t even know, I am left breathless.
In Australia military service isn’t compulsory. It isn’t about obligation. And although a lot of military officers will tell you they were just doing their ‘duty’, it is much more than this. Serving your country, protecting the lives of others even at the cost of your own, standing up for liberty, that’s a ‘calling’. It comes from a place deep inside, that is selfless and honourable.
I am proud to have served alongside the men and women of Australia’s armed forces, and my respect extends to their families and loved ones.
I have only one war to my name. It will stay with me forever.
Lest We Forget.