A great gulf exists between American military and civilian societies. But paradoxically, it can be hard to tell young veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from their peers who haven't served. As I wrote a book about West Point recently, I would visit with vets who had left the Army and were attending some of America's most prestigious universities. I was struck that the veterans were often the ones walking around campus with the longest hair, and the most stylish clothes. Spot a guy with a high-and-tight haircut and a wardrobe looking straight out of the AAFES at Fort Bragg -- odds are he's a wannabe who reads too many Tom Clancy novels and never served a day in the military.
But soldiers and veterans want to be noticed. That's not to say they want to be singled out, but I found over and over as I wrote my book that they want civilians to pay attention to their collective service. Soldiers talked with me for thousands of hours, and even gave me access to their diaries, their letters, the "sent mail" folders of their yahoo and gmail accounts. They know their stories are worth telling. And what's more, they recognize that the rest of us need to know. We need to understand.
I did more than six hundred interviews for In a Time of War. I recorded most of them, and paid people to write transcripts. Here's a sample of what I heard:
Joe DaSilva was assigned to lead a platoon of soldiers in Kuwait just days before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"I pulled everyone in that night, and I told them, look . . . I'm not going to lie. I don't know what awaits us on the other side of that berm. I have no idea but I'll tell you this . . . [I]f I have to give my life for any of you I would do that in a heartbeat . . .
"And I had soldiers after that come up to me and telling me that they don't know why but just hearing that from their lieutenant made them feel better. I knew they weren't B.S.-ing me because months down the road we would talk about how they felt when I took over . . . They were brutal. They were talking about tying [me] up in the back of a humvee . . . Some of the other platoons were joking with them, saying, You guys are going to die! You guys are going to die!"
Drew Sloan was nearly killed when his humvee was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan. He turned down a medical discharge, endured a year of surgeries, and recovered to go to Iraq. When an IED went off right in front of his humvee, he was surprised by his own reaction. He smiled broadly and reached out to bump fists with a sergeant in the front seat.
"Having a bomb go off close by to you can't help but remind you about your own mortality," he explained later. "And being reminded of that makes you feel really alive."
Eric Huss served an intense Iraq tour, taking over for a lieutenant who had been killed in action. I interviewed Eric and his wife, Julie, in a brew pub in Denver, just after he got off active duty.
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