I’m not a young man. As much as I like to delude myself into thinking that my weight, sore joints, failing eyesight and lack of stamina are temporary conditions that will be remedied at some point in the future, I know my immortal youth has fled…long before I realized it.
There are few things as demoralizing (or freeing) as accepting the permanent and progressing disorder known to us as “aging”…it sucks, but everyone faces it. Some better than others.
The reality hit me a few months ago when I saw a brief news clip of female Kurdish fighters taking on ISIS. Not being one to have my politics or allegiances pigeonholed, it infuriated me. The US destabilized Iraq and then criticized the region for not cleaning up “its own mess”.
The Kurds and Syria (and Iraq) are paying the price for that. They are paying at such a level that their women make up a large portion of their fighting force. (I’m not the old school chauvinist that statement makes me seem, but I do get a bit red faced at the notion of mothers and daughters having to take up arms against an enemy my country created.)
Being an old army guy, my bravado surged and I briefly (okay…maybe more than briefly) fantasized about gearing up and heading over to help fight the enemy that is brutally cutting a swath through the Middle East. After all I’m great with a rifle, okay with a pistol and have been trained (and have trained) among some of the finest fighters on the planet–the US Army. In my late teens, I started my military career as a combat engineer. I learned how to and then taught the use of explosives, fighting tactics, navigation, communications, mountaineering, etc, etc.
I was in a line unit of a Sapper battalion (Charlie Company) and then a battalion operations specialist (a fancy name for a grunt in the battalion Ops section). And then moved my expertise to the field artillery.
I was arguably a poor soldier. “Shut up and sit down” always rubbed me the wrong way and I wasn’t shy about letting that be known. I had a semi permanent chip on my shoulder and it was only my skill at making things happen magically/mysteriously when no one else would or could that kept me out of trouble most of the time. Ironically, several of the officers I frustrated with my pigheaded and insubordinate attitude, are now good friends of mine…go figure.
I always longed to go back to a line unit. I felt much more at home there “operating” with the operators. There was something about silently crossing vast distances on foot, carrying explosives on my back and then blowing the living shit out of some offensive structure that charged my blood with adrenaline. I was a quick study and able to pass knowledge on to others effectively and easily–a skill I carried into the private sector, building my business in the IT field with those very traits.
The heat on my face, the snug fit of combat boots around my ankles and the feel of a carbon composite and steel weapon in my hands was a joy for me. I got tired, bitching and moaning about the conditions like any other soldier. But when I was “operating”, I was a machine–and I loved it.
Sadly, I didn’t have passion for anything but the excitement in my twenties. The Soviet Union was our hated antagonist and facing them would be done with ICBMs and tanks…neither of which I had any contact with. I eventually tired of the discipline at a time of a personal loss and it drove me to leave the military after almost a decade.
A few months after I left the Army I learned second hand that I had lost some friends overseas. That was the first time I considered going back…sometimes I still regret not doing it.
Then on 9/11, I pulled out my old gear and actually picked up the phone to see about going back into the service. I was out of shape, working hard to start the engine on my own business and despite the pleading of my business partner, I went down to the recruiting office to see about re-ing-up. They weren’t terribly interested…that was my first clue that I was past my prime.
My business partner was relieved. She had good reason to worry about me leaving. I was the primary architect of our system and one quarter of the operation, my system doing 70% of the work. Had I left, the blossoming business most certainly would have failed in a short amount of time.
Having been rejected by my country, I stopped fantasizing about returning to the dust and loud noises I missed so much.
Fast forward fourteen years to the present and those old feelings have popped up again. This time, spawned by the images of young women fighting and dying while struggling against an enemy that was in no small part, created by the ill-advised invasion of a country we had no business invading…Iraq. Call it bravado, misguided, emotion driven man flexing…it’s all of those things. But the thought that men and women are having their lives brutally ended while fighting to survive against such a barbaric force, is frustrating. I can’t do anything about it.
We (the US) created ISIS when we destabilized Iraq and then left. Now they’ve taken over large swaths of Syria and Iraq. We don’t like Syria’s Assad, but we should have learned a lesson about trying to topple dictators…why we never seem to is a mystery to me.
I know Syrians. They are educated, civilized, ambitious, and I count several among my friends. They don’t like Assad either, but they like a war ravaged country even less. And more than that, even as Muslims, they dislike a caliphate of personal aggression and violence being rammed down the throats of their region. They liked their secular government (corruption and all) when compared to what is destroying their home now.
And then there are the Kurds…fighting. Always fighting. Only now they are fighting a monster of our making. I’m always one for the underdog, especially when the goal is something noble–Survival is pretty damned noble. I want to fight. I want to gear up, fly out, hit the ground running and help people survive. But now, a walk through town tires my legs even without a backpack or forty pounds of ammunition.
Reality vs. passion. Tough, damned luck, son. In the old days, I’d wake up sore and eat that shit for breakfast. Now, before I even roll out of bed my body is reminding my that I am decades past my prime. It laughs at me when I picture myself slipping my arms through a pack, or hiking up a hill. I’m still a great shot…my hundred meter shots are often better now than they were when I was twenty five, which is saying something; I was steely eyed, precision shooter. But the long walk to the target reminds me that not much else about me is better than twenty five.
At this point, all I seem to have left is my voice. And honestly, that’s a bitter pill to swallow for someone who has rappelled out of helicopters, run face-down a tower with a rifle in hand, and exploded countless pounds of C4, mines, det-cord, etc.
But with my voice, I can urge action. We created ISIS. Men, women and children are being raped, beheaded, tortured and enslaved by this thing our actions created. We might not like the politics behind what happened and we might despise seeing American casualties, but we made this mess…it’s our responsibility to help clean it up, like it or not. That’s called honor, and it’s something that is in short supply these days. We need to do our best to ensure our leaders know it’s something we want.
Or maybe I’m just an old soldier with more passion than common sense. In either case, we can’t forget those who are dying because of our mistakes.
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