This email came to me today from my friend, comedian Wendy Liebman.
"Yesterday I sat next to a soldier on my flight home from Dallas. He is 19. His name is John.
Before we took off he apologized if he smelled. "I've been in these clothes for four days - I've been in three different countries - so I'm sorry."
A few people said "Thank you" to him as they passed.
I asked him a lot of questions. He was eager to talk.
He had enlisted at 16. He had always felt a calling to the military even though he wasn't from a military family. His birthday was on 9/11. The kids he grew up with were potheads and derelicts - he wanted to get out of his hometown. "If I hadn't been in the army, I would never have been past Nevada."
He had been stationed in FOB Marez. He was going home for 2 weeks. He was not used to not having a rifle by his side. When they shut the luggage doors below he jumped, looked around, alarmed. He said he had gotten really sweaty and dizzy at the food court back at the airport. He thought he had that stress syndrome. He was looking to see if I believed him.
He said the surrounding area was like a slum. People threw their trash in the street. He showed me pictures on his camera. A burning car. A hotel where terrorists shot at them from the windows. A streaming video of his ride through the town - "We ride down the middle of the street so if a bomb goes off, or if we get shot at, we have a better chance of making it." He said they would ride over anything that was in their path - people included. He said terrorists were not only young men, but now they were strapping bombs to kids and pregnant women, so they always had to be on guard.
He said the explosions were louder than anything you've ever heard. Movies don't do the sound of an explosion justice. Even a tiny hand grenade is deafening. A bomb went off and the shockwaves managed to shut the doors of houses that were across a river, they were that strong. He knew a group of men who were killed when their Humvee exploded. Then he got promoted.
He said it was like Pandora's box over there. Saddam is definitely dead, he said, but a guy who's worse is in power.
He said we're never going to win a war that is about an idea. He didn't even know what the idea was anymore. He said we're not fighting about oil because OPEC controls that. (I didn't follow him on this.) But his point was clear - he wasn't really sure why they were there to help them set up their army - their hospitals - their government. He didn't understand why they weren't over here helping the victims of hurricane Katrina. He said he really couldn't make sense of our purpose.
His leaders weren't very good. He thought they abused their power. They weren't fair or honest. He had lost respect.
He used to like George Bush. But he thinks, now, that he is not wise or aware of the situation.
"What do you miss?" I asked. The food. Comfort. Alcohol. (I got him some Kahlua - what he wanted.) He said the soldiers are forbidden to drink. "Are there drugs?" Yes. Guys sniff permanent magic markers and huff aerosol cans for a little high. Plus the civilians (Americans who work there) get them other drugs - he didn't say what. "The civilians think they're superior to the soldiers. They can earn up to 100 thousand dollars, compared to our 20, and they don't regularly get shot at." He missed sex. They were told not to drink the water or eat the food, but he did sometimes. He said he brushed his teeth with water for the first time in 2 months at the airport.
He really did not want to go back. But they've just extended the length of duty by a few months for all soldiers. He looked really sad when he said he had to go back. "What do you want to do after the Army?" He said he wanted to be a police officer or work at the FBI. The Army would pay $64,000 towards college.
"What do you like about being there?" He said they got to see a lot of movies. They were all pirated and cheap.
He quoted a George Carlin bit about waging war. ("Do you ever notice in this country that when we have a problem with something, we always have to declare war on it? The War on Illiteracy, the War on AIDS, the War on Homelessness, the War on Drugs... We don't actually do anything about it, but we've declared war on it.") "What other comedians do you like?" Denis Leary. Richard Pryor. Dane Cook. John Candy. He started quoting lines from Planes Trains and Automobiles. I got his address, and I'm going to try to get George Carlin or Denis Leary to write to him.
"What are you going to do during your leave?" He said he was going to drink. Go to San Diego. Sleep.
I had to sleep. It was a little overwhelming, plus I had been tired to begin with. So, when he went to the restroom I put my head against the window. When I woke up an hour later he was in civilian clothes. We were landing. He looked out the window. "I bet you're happy to be home!" He said he was, and that it was weird that there were no bombs going off at the airport.
I said good luck. The last I saw of him was his reunion with his mother. The back of his t-shirt said, "Operation Iraqi Freedom."