BY: MARIA NACLERIO
“I don’t have any regrets or feel bad about anything I did over there.” There was certain fierceness in my cousin’s voice that I had never heard before. In 2003, President George W. Bush sent troops into Iraq to disarm alleged weapons of mass destruction and end a reign of terrorism supported by Saddam Hussein. When my 32-year-old cousin was 19, he enlisted in the army. When he was 24, Brian was deployed to Iraq where he served for 17 months. He served in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq for 12 months. Less than a week before Brian was supposed to go home, his tour was extended and he was told that he had to go to Baghdad for an additional 5 months. Initially, I was scared to interview Brian for this project. He had never spoken to me about his experience, and my parents told me he did not like to talk about it. I had a preconceived notion that war was generally a dark experience for veterans and something they wanted to forget. Brian has always been somewhat of a protective older sibling figure in my life, and I was unsure if he would be willing to display vulnerability by sharing his experience.
My hand trembled as I picked up my phone to call Brian. I pictured his soft face and kind eyes as he answered. We caught up as he told me about how his two kids were doing, and I told him about my junior year. I joked about how my 83-degree March in California was unbearable compared to his 7-degree spring in Alaska. He laughed like a little kid as I remembered my purpose in calling him. I told him about the assignment and asked my first question.
“Why did you enlist in the military?”
“I was on a mixed path,” Brian responded. “I didn’t have a good direction and I had always pictured myself doing it as a little kid. I wasn’t doing much else, I guess.”
Joining the military is a common path in my family. My grandpa served in the army for 20 years, my aunt is an army doctor, my dad served in the Navy and Air Force, and another cousin of mine is in the National Guard and worked with the Army Special Operations Force.
“What were your fears going into Iraq?” I asked.
“I was 24. I didn’t have any fears. I thought it wouldn’t be that bad, but it was way more intense than I thought it would be. You get there and you think you’re bulletproof, and then the longer you’re there the scarier it gets. At the time, I didn’t feel fear. Looking back I have more fear. You just kinda go with emotions you feel at the time and don’t really think about it.”
“What was your typical day?”
“We usually spent 6-8 hours driving out meeting with people, and then at night you would do raids where you would capture the people you were looking for and then go home and do it again the next day.”
“What was involved in a raid?”
“We would block off a neighborhood so nobody could get out, and then we would search for weapons and torture chambers.”
Brian’s tone of voice did not change. He stated it matter of factly; finding torture chambers was a regular day on the job. I closed my eyes and thought about dancing with my smiling cousin on his wedding day and joking with him at family dinners. Most of the time I spend with my cousin involves laughing, playing Wii golf, and making fun of my brothers. It was difficult to imagine him raiding towns and driving armored vehicles. I had always viewed him as one of the kids, but I could feel this image changing throughout the interview.
“When you first went in, did you think the American mission would work?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think you kind of have to. You kind of want to believe everything you do is for a reason. So my friends didn’t die for no reason. I don’t think we were there for what they said, because we didn’t find what they sent us in for. I tried to justify.”
“How did the local people perceive the conflict?”
“It was a really mixed bag of people. Some had a third grade education level and hated us and couldn’t understand why we were there. The old people seemed really happy we were there. There were more problems there than just terrorism.”
“What kind of problems?”
“The whole thing struck me as very corrupt. You could pay anybody for anything. Everybody was trying to get a pay off. The country is really dangerous and really corrupt. We were there for the first real election; that was really rewarding. We did a lot of good things over there.” Brian continued to tell me about how he made the cities more secure, the neighborhoods safer, and the soldiers more self-reliant. I could hear pride and strength in his voice.
I was scared to ask my next question, but I heard him shuffling in his chair so I continued.
“What was your most vivid memory?”
“There’s a lot of death, I guess. There was a little girl we picked up that was shot pretty bad and that was very vivid.”
I could hear a strain in Brian’s voice for the first and only time in the interview. He took a breath and his voice hardened again.
“Most of them were pretty horrific.”
I was unsure whether or not to pry into his other vivid memories. His voice had regained its steady tone, and his guard was back up. I decided to move on to my next question.
“How has your experience changed you?”
“Things aren’t as important as people make them out to be. I don’t get stressed out, and I let things slide now. It could be a lot more serious.” I quickly scribbled down his response and was about to ask my next question when he continued.
“Religion is a hard thing for me now. Seeing everybody kill each other over religion. Religion growing up was a big part of my life…I haven’t found a way to process it.” He paused for a moment. “It’s kind of hard for me to figure out for myself much less talk to you about it. But I was not changed in a bad way. I don’t have any regrets or feel bad for anything I did over there.”
“Do you wish you could have done anything differently?”
“No. You look back on things, and I was a squad leader so everyday you had to make decisions about where to put people. But you have to live with them. You make decisions and they get shot and you have to live with it. No, I don’t think I would change anything I did over there.”
I was shocked by this and felt the hard edge of my dining room chair pressing into my leg as a leaned back and stared at the clouds tinged pink from the setting sun. Regret was something I expected to hear a lot about in this interview. Instead, he seemed to move on from the bad parts of his experience and focus on the good. I wondered how he would perceive the events that are ensuing in Iraq right now.
Currently, violence in Syria is spilling into Iraq, the government is proving to be highly dysfunctional, and extremist terrorists are still a threat. I asked Brian what he thought of the situation.
“It’s hard reading the news. The situation is a tough one. Seeing all your hard work go down the drain. Something has to be done, what’s going on over there ain’t right. My friends are still deployed over there, so hopefully we can help.”
“What kind of relationship did you form with the people you served with?”
“It’s a bond that I will never have with anybody else. My idea of family…it’s a deep bond.”
“What is your hope for the future of Iraq?”
“I hope they get on their feet with terrorism and violence. The religious fight is ridiculous, how they kill each other over it. I as a father should have the same worries as an Iraqi father, not having to worry about my kids getting shot.”
I thanked Brian for the interview, and we promised to visit each other soon. I had never thought of my cousin as a stereotypical soldier. He laughed, smiled, and joked too much. His face did not have sharp enough edges, and he was close with his extended family. Through this interview, my perception of what it means to be a soldier and witness drastically changed. Brian went into the army as a lost teenager and came out as a man. I expected that as a witness of war, Brian would feel victimized and traumatized. He definitely experienced trauma, but he did not let it consume him. Unlike many witnesses, Brian chose to be a soldier. As part of his job, he had to justify what he was doing. Brian went into Iraq to help a struggling country, and that is exactly what he did. Instead of seeing small details, Brian saw the big picture. Instead of seeing a dying soldier, he saw a more secure Iraq. Brian’s story illustrates that soldiers do not fit a mold. It shows that people must move on and forgive themselves so they can live without regret. Most of all, it gives a voice to those who voluntarily put themselves in danger to help others and have the strength to see the entire perspective of a situation.