Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Call to Duty

After I was back in the good old USA for a few months, I still remembered those with whom I served in Iraq. Only those who have been to war would understand the feelings I wrote about in the following op-ed piece:

Where the soldier’s heart dwells
Special to the Orlando Sentinel
June 26, 2005

After spending most of last year on active duty with the Army Reserve, I am having a difficult time relating to a civilian world that is far away, physically and emotionally, from the turbulent life of Baghdad. This life is the illusion – the war is the reality.

Last year was my turn in the swirling sandstorm of the war on terror. I spent most of my time running hundreds of convoys in and around Baghdad, including the infamous airport road, Route Irish, the most dangerous stretch of road in the world.

I may be home, but many of my comrades are not. Some remained in Iraq and some have returned voluntarily for subsequent tours. A few were killed. My former lieutenant now works for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone.

Doc, my medic, is now a private security contractor, doing the same protective service job we did, but for a bigger paycheck. He was almost killed recently when a car bomb exploded as his team passed a checkpoint.

When I try to explain to someone that I miss Baghdad, they look at me as if I just escaped from a mental hospital. What they don’t understand, and will never understand, is that there is an exciting, electric feeling when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death – and live. A soldier is never more alive, and his senses are never more in tune, than when his universe is immersed in war.

I must admit that I have thought about going back. What keeps me here is an important job that I must prepare to retire from in a few short years, a wife who went through hell once, and does not deserve to go through it again, and the reality that I am not a youngster any more and will, in fact, probably retire from the Army Reserve next year.

It is still hard to sit in a restaurant, walk through a mall or drive down the road without thinking that most of the people around me are clueless about what their fellow Americans are doing on their behalf.

They could not understand what it feels like to walk out of your granddaughter’s recital and hear the thump of mortars in the distance. Turning to the sound, the realization hits that the explosion is a fireworks display at nearby Disney World, and not incoming rounds.

It is said that soldiers will naturally feel the urge to march toward the sound of the guns. After all, that is where their comrades are. It does not feel natural to stay behind, in safety, when your brothers and sisters are still on the battlefield. I cannot deny that I feel that sense of urgency and call to arms, even now.

It took a long time for me to “return home” after my tour in Vietnam more than 30 years ago. That is why I understand the reason I feel the way I do about Iraq. I am home, and it feels good to be safely in the arms of my beloved America. Still, something is missing.

I know I left a part of me in the jungles of Vietnam, and now I have left another piece of my soul in the deserts of Iraq. My wife understands, and sometimes, when she is about to enter the room, she will stop.

Somehow she knows that I am not at home at that moment. I am an American warrior in a Humvee, traveling hell-bent down the most dangerous road in the world, and may God have mercy on the terrorist who takes me on.

SFC Chuck Grist

NOTE: Obviously, I did not retire in 2006. I have discussed my upcoming mobilization with my wife and, as always, she is supportive because she is the wife of an American soldier and she understands. Whether I serve here or abroad, she will stand by me as she always has. I am indeed a lucky man.

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