A price of war

This essay was written in 2003 for a magazine-writing assignment.


I’m on the last cigarette of the night, lost in thought outside my apartment as the neighbors’ lazy conversation drifts down the hallway from their drunken, end-of-semester celebration.  They’re playing Bob Dylan.  The song Dom loves so much and played obsessively the last time I was in Connecticut, back when our relationship seemed normal, when life seemed normal.
He’d sing along on occasion, and ask me what I thought of this great musical genius who has been a favorite of his for years.  I couldn’t understand what the hell Bob Dylan was saying.
And I still can’t, I realize, as I strain to hear the last lingering notes of the familiar song. I wonder if Dom ever thinks of it while he’s in the Middle East, patrolling the hot, desert-encircled city streets.  If he ever has moments like this when a single, random memory becomes so vivid he can feel the chill of Connecticut’s late-February air.  Or if he blocks the memories because he has to:  It’s his job, first and foremost, to stay alive.
I find myself calculating the hours between Dom and myself, an unconscious habit I do throughout the day.  He’s starting his shift.  I’m headed to bed.  And I’m sitting here smoking, trying to clear my head of the day, and the headlines, and the 11 o’clock live broadcast of the flag-draped coffin arriving at McGhee Tyson Airport.  I don’t remember the soldier’s name.  But he was in the Navy, just like Dom was before he signed up for the highly lucrative – and highly dangerous – work as a government contractor.
CNN can be an unexpectedly powerful addiction.  Dom’s plane probably hadn’t even touched down at his war-torn destination before the news channel became a permanent presence in my room.  Numbers reeled in a continuous loop on that yellow and black snake of announcements at the bottom of the screen – the number of dead, number of wounded, the number from today and the building number from a year’s involvement in this war.  And I would watch, transfixed, with a new sense of attachment to a godforsaken patch of land halfway across the planet.
When someone you love is in the midst of the chaos and fighting, those numbers take on a new meaning:  Each one is a face, a life, sometimes of a man who didn’t even see his 20th birthday.  And each had someone, a wife – or a girlfriend – who, like me, hasn’t strayed far from CNN and those numbers scrolling across the screen. Whether the rest of America supports the war or opposes it, they can’t comprehend what it’s like to race to the phone on the first ring because they don’t know where their loved one is.  Or what an empty, unnerving feeling it is, especially during those first few days, not to know.

DOM SPRANG THE NEWS two days before my birthday.
After attending the funerals of more than one friend killed on a government contract, he had flatly dismissed the lucrative paychecks promised by private security companies as his four-year stretch with the military reached its final months.  He was 25; he wanted to buy a house in Fairfield County where he grew up, to have a family one day, to fulfill his longtime dream of going to culinary school.  While in the Navy, he watched many of his friends’ personal lives unravel into divorce, one by one, as the strain of long-distance relationships took its toll. It was why he didn’t re-up for another four years with the Navy SEALs, even though he had endured some of the most grueling training of all the military.
In October, Dom picked me up at the airport in Virginia Beach with a glowing smile in his dark eyes and the announcement that he was moving home to finish his degree.  It was the happiest I’d seen him in awhile, and we shared the sentiment because I knew how much college meant to him.
But October turned to January, and as spring approached and military funding for his education failed to materialize, the former Navy SEAL who served nine months in Afghanistan found himself at home, on his fourth month of doing nothing.  So Dom signed a two-month contract with Blackwater – the first of many he would sign, I was informed. He could see himself doing this for five years, maybe even more. In what seemed like an overnight decision, my other half chose a career that will keep him overseas more than he’ll be at home, doing some of the most high-risk work of the war and doing it without the protection of the U.S. military.
It would pay well – more in one contract than his friends made in a year, he claimed, as if that would change my resentment toward the job. Suddenly the concept of money seemed to take command over all form of reason, to become somewhat of an addiction in itself.  It crept into every conversation.  It instigated fights over subjects that didn’t even relate to the contracts.  It became the guiding priority in his life, the way to buy that house in Fairfield County and retire before he was 30.
If he came back alive, I’d remind him.
Dom couldn’t even tell me what country he was going to.  “Classified information,” he would insist, growing defensive at the onset of another heated argument:
Iraq’s a big country.  So are Pakistan and Afghanistan. He’s telling me he can’t at least let me know which country he’s going to so I can narrow down, however slightly, what to worry about on the news each night?  It was because I loved him, not because I wanted to threaten national security, that I pushed the subject, but I don’t think Dom understood that.
He was not going to Iraq.  That’s about all I could get from him.

TWO WEEKS LATER, the gruesome pictures of that burning American truck in Fallujah filled the screen on CNN all evening.  They weren’t airing the most graphic footage, broadcasters reported.  But images of billowing flames that swallowed the truck and consumed the four contractors inside recounted their death at the hands of a gleeful mob of Iraqis in brutal detail.
The contractors were with Blackwater.  They were part of Dom’s company, doing the same job, and now their remains were hanging from a bridge, murdered by the people they were sent to help.
For hours, I sat motionless in front of the TV, a sinking knot of reality settling in my stomach as I watched the same footage repeat in succession. I knew it wasn’t Dom.  I knew he wasn’t in Iraq.  But I kept picturing his face, his hands – these were men in his company.  It just as easily could have been him.
I mourned the little boy somewhere who was watching his daddy hang from that bridge without knowing it was him. I felt the swelling anger toward that surreal, exuberant mob that seemed beyond human, and decided that the whole country could be bombed off the planet for all I cared at the moment.
Mostly I wondered what was running through the minds of those four contractors as the fiery walls of their truck closed in.  It’s safe to assume that they weren’t thinking of the money they made with the job.
CNN became more than a 24-hour war bulletin to me.  It became a story of the people behind the conflict, the lives that were changed by the decisions of a single man in the White House.  Would George W. Bush still have that confident smirk that’s become a trademark of his speeches on conquering the “enemies of freedom” if his daughter Barbara served in the National Guard with the Witmer sisters?  Did he think of his own family – his own daughters – as the two surviving girls bade a tearful goodbye to 20-year-old Michelle during the national broadcast of her funeral?
The President can send his condolences to the wife of the captured civilian contractor who was imprisoned for A MONTH as a tool of negotiation, but his own family is home safe in the White House. The assurance that Thomas Hamill was defending freedom hardly could have brought comfort to a family who didn’t know where he was, or if he was even still alive after the deadline set by his captors passed three weeks.
The man’s eyes held a frightened vulnerability on the television footage from Iraq that still lingers in my mind.  Here’s a father of two, a dairy farmer from Mississippi, just trying to earn money to feed his family.
I wonder how Dom reacts to the news of Tom Hamill, or of his fallen Blackwater colleagues, or of the scores of other contractors who were lured by the money but lost in the end.  Do these people cross his mind during the long, solitary hours on night watch?  I’m not sure if he even thinks of me.  He’s said it before:  Over there you either maintain your focus or risk getting killed.  So I keep these questions to myself, along with all the other churning emotions that I’m dealing with, alone, on the other side of the world.

IT’S ALMOST A YEAR AGO to the day since Dom returned from his nine-month deployment in Afghanistan and we first met.  He was in perfect shape, confident, full of stories and pictures from the war.  But the more time we spent together, the more I realized that the military was a part of him he would never completely reveal.  He hated the adulating hero treatment he’d get whenever someone would find out he had served abroad.  He grew uncomfortable whenever politics became a topic for bar discussion, or if people wanted to know how many terrorists he’d killed or how much action he saw.
“It’s my job,” he told me once. “People shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it.”
Dom went through some of the toughest training in the world to get where he was, 25 weeks of  brutal endurance tests that only a handful in the class would see to the end.    He shared pieces of his BUD/s training with me:  About reaching the brink of hypothermia, the hallucinations that came with only four hours of sleep during Hell Week, the nights he and his buddies would down a bottle of Jim Beam despite the day’s physical exhaustion.  BUD/s and Afghanistan were things I knew about him — but only to a point.
He was trained not to feel, and I know the wall is up during his shift even as I write.  The lack of emotion carries over to the daily e-mails and sporadic phone calls that keep us connected, however tenuously, to each other’s life.  Last night it was 11 minutes and 29 seconds, hardly enough time to get used to hearing Dom’s voice, much less analyze the feelings behind it:  Whether he’s scared and lonely or truly happy, or if he’s just telling me that to keep me from worrying.  “It’s not that bad over here,” he says.  “Really, it’s great.  Feels like home.”
I ramble on about my day as if we’re separated by several hundred miles instead of the Atlantic Ocean and several time zones.  I want to ask him where he is, what he’s doing, what he had for dinner last night.  I want to tell him the dirty joke I heard at work without it feeling as inappropriate as cursing in church.  Instead, we continue a relatively bullshit conversation about the weather and his pending return date, acutely aware of the government presence monitoring the call from some cubicle deep inside the Pentagon.
“Don’t ask about anything that goes on over here,” he warned before he left.  So I don’t.  And I try not to cry, or to raise my voice at him for leaving me with a relationship that has become a grand understatement of “long-distance,” one he expects me to keep up single-handedly.
He’s been gone for a month and has another to go.  CNN is still my addiction.  But I’m becoming more preoccupied with how life will be when he returns because I’ve learned to trust when he says he’ll be OK over there.  How can someone go from the security of America to guarding his life with a gun on the unstable outskirts of a foreign city, then back to America in the course of three months?  I visualize what he’s doing when he’s alone more than I do about his hours on patrol.  I wish I could be some sort of comfort, to hold him and tell him everything’s all right.
But it’s not, because nothing’s fair about the situation he left at home.  I wasn’t a factor in his decision to make these contracts a career.  Dom wasn’t sent to fight as a Navy SEAL; he went on his own free will, as a civilian contractor. He knows that the months apart are going to be hard, that it will get worse before it gets better. But he refuses to face what it’s like on my side of the world, to be completely in love, obsessively anxious, yet increasingly angry that he expects me to maintain a relationship based entirely on those once-a-week phone calls when he’s the one who created the predicament.

AT NIGHT DOM WOULD often twitch as he drifted out of the reach of consciousness.  I’d lie awake watching his trembling eyelids, wondering what he sees when he sleeps.  Are there nights when he’s transported back to Afghanistan to relive the things he can’t talk about?  There’s a side of him I’ll never know; these two months will pass by unspoken between us, to join that part of his life.
I’m scared that he has changed over there, that the instinct to close off emotion will be brought home along with his luggage and guns when he steps off the plane May 22.  I want to see the same tall, easygoing Italian with his lovably sarcastic sense of humor and see him smile at me the same way he did a year ago. I want to resume the conversations we had in Little Italy over pasta and wine about hopes and dreams, to dance to Frank Sinatra without saying a word, completely at ease with each other. Maybe Dom will one day realize that his talents offer a future beyond a series of government contracts. I cling to this hope, refusing to acknowledge that separation may become a way of life.
More than anything, I hate these empty conversations over miles of ocean and the feeling that we’ve lost each other after only a month.  I hate the war.  And I hate that thousands of other women are going through the same thing, watching CNN and silently hoping it was someone else who was killed today.  Dom is oblivious of the warring emotions he left me with that sometimes seem more intense than the fighting in Fallujah – and that’s what I’ve grown to hate most over the past six weeks.
I’m 21. I should be worried about finals, not the June 30 turnover of Iraq, and whether that will ignite a new wave of violence, since Dom is set to return to the Middle East in July. In the remaining days of this first contract, all I can do is wait and pray that he’s safe. And quietly wish that something will change his mind and keep him home.

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