I joined the Marine Corps as an infantryman in 2005. I consider my time in the corps as positive, but it comes with some caveats. Let me explain.
On one of my deployments to Iraq, I was riding on a very large cargo plane, strapped in with my gear, descending at a furious rate toward Al Asad Air Base in Iraq. We were dropping so quickly that when a Marine next to me decided to try his own science experiment and drop his Kevlar in mid-air, it suspended, just a little bit, before falling into his open hand.
Even as a young lance corporal, I had witnessed the extraordinary. Within my first few months in the fleet, an F-18 had dropped 2, 500-pound bombs on my mortar platoon’s position in the desert of Southern California. I could see the bombs falling from the sky before impact. Somehow, we emerged without a scratch, despite shrapnel clawing its way across the Light Armored Vehicles behind us.
That was extraordinary, but watching this Kevlar defy gravity, marked something else. We were going into the Zone of the Unreal. Where rules and logic from the outside, from my country, the United States of America, didn’t apply.
But that barrier, at the edge of the Zone is a 2-way street. As much as our government tried to sanitize our actions on the way out, inevitably, little bits and pieces got caught on the contours of our souls like the dust we would clean off weapons after every mission and down in the toes of our boots like the scorpions and camel spiders we would check for every morning.
In 2008, I found myself at the top of Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq. My job was to protect the radio relay equipment that the U.S. government had set up. The entire time I was there, a steady stream of Yazidis, an ancient Kurdish culture, made the arduous journey up razor wire lined switchbacks to visit their sacred temple at the top of the mountain. Months prior, Yazidi communities in Mosul had sustained four suicide bombings on a single day that had killed 796 people and wounded 1,500 others. And yet, here they were.
The temple was off-limits to U.S. personnel, there was an Iraqi guard with an AK-47 posted in front of the beehive shaped structure. I decided I wouldn’t be able to break my way in, so in the shower facility, while standing buck-ass naked and with zero Kurdish or Arabic language skills, I somehow bartered access using a carton of cigarettes.
I showed up to the temple with a battle buddy, Troyer. As promised, the guard unlocked the old, powdery red metal gate to reveal a very small opening in the side of this ancient beehive. He motioned for me to ditch my M4 and get on my hands and knees to enter the temple. Troyer gave me a look, and said, “Dude, I don’t think you should go in there. It looks like a weird trap.” It sure as hell did, like a guillotine would come down and chop my head off, but as the guard left his AK-47 with Troyer, I did the same with my M4, and I got on my hands and knees and crawled in.
I couldn’t see anything when I first entered, just a dark chamber. A shadow emerged in the white light of the tunnel as the guard crawled through it, and when he stood, he struck a match and lit a candle near the center. He lit a few more candles, and as the light blossomed around us, it revealed hundreds of pieces of colorful and seemingly ancient, knotted cloth hanging from the ceiling. I was mesmerized. This too, felt like I had crossed some sort of boundary. The guard smiled at me, and for that brief moment, on top of Mount Sinjar, among the slightly acrid smoke of the candles and under an incredible tapestry of color, I took a breath of something pure, life beyond that artificial Zone of the Unreal.
After 5 minutes, the guard extinguished the candles and motioned toward the tunnel. I thanked him and re-entered my world in Iraq. I made it back to the States, turned in my weapons, got my DD-214, and tried to go on with my comfortable, American life.
In August of 2014, after the U.S. had ceased major combat operations in Iraq and had closed many bases, the Islamic State chased the Yazidis up the side of that very same mountain. First-hand accounts from survivors detail children being shot in the head, men being beheaded and burned. According to the U.N. 5,000 Yazidis were murdered within 2 weeks. 6,000 women and children were taken hostage and turned into sex slaves.
Fuck it though, right? It’s just a number that I’m telling you, one that you can look up on the Internet. In the Zone of the Unreal. The thing is, I have a piece of that place and those people forever intertwined with the fabric of my soul. I’m contaminated.
Taking a bullet, getting bits and pieces of my body blown off, that would have made more sense. After all, it is what I had signed up for. There’s no cleansing this contamination, but thanks to the PCVI, the lessons we’ve learned about history and philosophy, art, drama, and the voices of other vets with their own experiences, I’ve come to terms with it.
As a result, I have a few things I would like to say.
First of all, I’m a veteran, not a victim. I signed up for this. Don’t throw me in a box. Secondly, this Zone of the Unreal, this disconnect between the American people and our military…it’s a bullshit construct. Servicemembers don’t mount mythical unicorns and fight dragons across the globe. It sounds ridiculous when I say that, but that’s how abstract we’ve somehow made military service in this country.
It’s time to demand accountability at home and abroad. Pay attention to extreme injustices that are happening around the world, and don’t be afraid to demand judicious, and sustained actions against evil.
On the flip side of that coin, the American people need to be invested in what’s going on and monitoring the process. What are the objectives? What’s the timetable? Do you want to know why Iraq and Afghanistan ended up the way they did? Because they were money pits that were allowed to fester unsupervised for decades.
Tens of thousands of Americans that truly wanted to make a positive difference deployed to those countries, only to watch ISIS and the Taliban slaughter the people they were trying to protect.
We can do better.
There were 10 innocent people shot dead in a grocery store in Buffalo, NY on May 14, 2022, by an 18-year-old male. Eleven days later, 19 children and 2 teachers were killed in a shooting in Uvalde, TX on May 25, by an 18-year-old male. I’m concerned for this country. By not keeping our eye on the ball, by not holding our government and ourselves accountable to do the right thing and see it through, by holding up military service as the pinnacle of sacrifice, and completely disregarding what’s actually occurring on the ground, we’ve let a cultural nihilism seep in. 9/11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq happened before those two shooters were born. By the time they were coming of age, they witnessed America throw in the towel, and say, fuck it, this was all for nothing. Not only did those conflicts devolve into money pits, they became burn pits for American morals. Why give a shit? None of it matters anyway.
The Zone of the Unreal is in the United States.
You being here tonight, listening to veterans speak is a step in the right direction. Lessons learned in the PCVI have helped me break through the toxic, almost unknowable cloud that surrounded my service and my experiences.
Listen, speak, pass the word, support the PCVI.
We must become more transparent and honest with ourselves about what military service is in the United States of America and its connection to all aspects of being an American.
We must give the youth of America something to look up to and believe in, and act as responsible stewards of those ideals. This Memorial Day, please take a moment to not just honor servicemembers that have fallen in some bygone era and in some faraway place, but question yourself, what does it mean to serve in 2022? What role does the military have in your life, as an American, today? What is it to be an American? And finally, how can we do this better?
When we ask those questions, we push against the Zone of the Unreal.
Our survival depends on it. We cannot carry on like this. We must do better.