First Place Writing – Features


The only way to hold on

By Kyle Clayton

From the back row of a lecture hall, I watch as a galaxy of laptop screens and smart phones lights up below me. I can see my fellow students in the rows below ignoring the professor as they sign on to Facebook and Twitter, troll headlines and play Angry Birds. Then I look at my tan backpack folded at my feet. The pack is dirty and faded, its straps already frayed. If I run my finger along its seams, I can still feel grains of sand from Iraq.

Not so long ago, this was my assault pack. I carried it across deserts, through mortar fire, into the war. Today, I tote it down hallways. A set of dog tags still lies tangled in an inside pocket. Those tags used to hang around my neck, ready to identify my body in case it became FUBAR. They’ve jangled in that pocket ever since I finished my deployment in Ramadi in 2006.

Returning to the U.S. was like entering a foreign country, except that the foreign country used to be home. After my discharge from the Army, I wound up back in Indiana, taking classes in Bloomington. Even though I was 23, I was a freshman. I was lonely and isolated. I felt dead. The only thing I connected with was my anger.

Today, seven years after I left Iraq, the rhythms of that life still echo inside me. The students who pass me on the sidewalk winding through Dunn Meadow are not my people. My people rode in Humvees and shot M-4 rifles and sweated under armor. They looked through the same bulletproof windows as I did. The undergrads who slump beside me in class were in elementary school when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. I’m angry that they have never heard of IEDs, that some of them can’t point to Iraq on a map. I’m angry that soldiers are still fighting overseas while these students listen to their iPhones, enclosed in the background noise of their own lives. Most of all, I’m angry that I feel this way because it cuts me off from their world.

The rage goes so deep it scares me. Where do these worlds meet? I need to know. It’s the lack of meaning that shakes me the most.

And that’s when I retreat to the desert.

Like the grooves of a used record, scratchy memories play inside my head. I think about a summer night when my squad went on a raid. I can no longer see the faces of all the soldiers who patrolled with me, but I still hear the routine sounds we made as we prepped for the mission. Those sounds formed a kind of melody. The trickle of water as we filled our canteens and Camelbaks, the clicks and snaps as we disassembled and cleaned our rifles, the scratch of Velcro as we mummified ourselves in body armor. Through it all, our laptop speakers pulsed with the soundtrack of our war: Creedence, Dylan, Iggy Pop, the Doors, the Dead Kennedys.

I was a medic attached to a combat engineer unit. Our orders that night were to find weapon caches buried in the sands. In previous missions, we had unearthed small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, all waiting to be assembled into improvised explosive devices.

After we finished our prep, we were sent on patrol inside a hamlet outside Ramadi. Everything was quiet except for our boots beating against the bricks, skipping stones and debris across an alleyway. We were a silhouette of rucksacks and rifles against a white wall surrounding a mosque. Midnight prayer suddenly burst from a loudspeaker somewhere high above us. The music smothered us.

It was Ramadan, a holy month, and as the prayers continued, the people of the hamlet wandered out of their homes. After fasting from sunup to sundown, they stared at us with hungry eyes. As we marched through the streets, I began to feel we were up against more than a few insurgents hiding weapons. There was something else, something intangible. I heard it in the howling of the mosque and the silence of the villagers’ vacant faces. For the first time, I felt like a foreign invader.

Searching for the buried weapons, we scanned with metal detectors and stuck probes into the sand until they clinked on metal. We unearthed cases of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and a sniper rifle, then stacked the weapons in a neat pile. Finally, we collected the men who owned the land.

We rounded up more suspects than I can remember, so many that we ran out of the zip ties we used instead of handcuffs. I tied one man’s wrists with my medical cravats and covered his eyes with a field dressing, then put my left hand on his shoulder and guided him away from his home. I didn’t notice when the prayers of the mosque stopped and the wailing of mothers and wives and children began. We dragged their sons and husbands and fathers away into the night, bound and blindfolded.

The stress of these missions left us bone-weary. But the tension was necessary. Whenever we left our base, driving out beyond the perimeter wire, a sign loomed over us with big red letters that told us, “Complacency Kills.”

That warning seared into my thoughts during guard duty one night at OP Thumper, an observation post on the southern bank of the Euphrates. I sat in a crow’s nest under a tall bridge that connected a main supply route. Below me, two of my squad mates manned a pair of gun nests that covered my back. Those not on guard duty were playing cards, sleeping or swatting the mosquitoes that always swarmed us at the river’s edge. I was clutching a M249 automatic rifle and scanning my field of fire.

The night before, Steve Barnhart had been in the same crow’s nest when a sniper round screamed past his head. Now, sitting in the exact same spot where Barnhart had almost died, I knew the scope of some hidden rifle could be zeroing in on me, too. If the shooter adjusted his aim, there would be no warning. I probably wouldn’t even hear the shot before impact. At that moment, it felt like every goddamn weapon in the war was pointed at me. I had no control over whether I lived or died. What could I do but hold onto my rifle grip? Inside I felt brittle and tight, as though I could shatter. Then I heard the other guys laughing. Barnhart was wrapping duct tape around the sleeves of his wrists, ankles and waist, sealing his uniform.

“Let the fucking mosquitoes try and get at me now,” he shouted as he tore off strand after strand of tape.

Instead of breaking apart, I howled with laughter. If a sniper already had me in his scope, then this might be my last chance to laugh. I loosened my grasp on the M249 and listened to Barnhart curse the little bloodsuckers. The only way to hold on, if I wanted to live, was to let go.

When my deployment in Ramadi ended, I left behind the anticipation of IEDs, the fear of shrapnel, the exhilaration when that shrapnel missed, the relief when it never came. It was the end of flying and falling that is life in combat.

The adrenaline was like body armor for the mind. It protected me from anxiety, from fear. So when I returned to the U.S., I kept chasing that rush. Instead of returning to the Midwest, I moved to Colorado. The mountains held the promise of escape, something more intense than the flat sprawl of Indiana. Booze, flowing from the ski town bars. The Arkansas River, waiting for me to crash through its white water rapids. Endless peaks for me to climb before I hurtled back down.

I gave myself no time to think. There was no reflection, no introspection. Not for me and, it seemed, not for anybody else in Breckenridge. No one talked about the wars. Part of it had to do with where I was, a mountain town where adults could play forever and where the white snows blanketed the dirty things in life. I tried to ignore the apathy, but it gnawed at me.

This is where my anger began.

Eventually, I headed back to Indiana. I was out of money and missed my family and figured it was time to start school. One of the reasons I had joined the Army was for the education benefits anyway. Not really knowing what I wanted to study, I took remedial math and English. There were no more slopes or rapids to provide escape. Nothing pretty covered up the ugly or the mundane. Here in Indiana, the apathy I had noticed in Colorado was everywhere. The wars still didn’t exist. As my semester began, I threw myself into my classes. I focused on school, letting my frustrations go unchecked.

In the years that followed I found it impossible to forget the war. The dog tags in my pack were always jangling, a reminder that before there were notepads and text books and pens in this backpack, it had once been filled with 9mm ammo mags, MREs and medical supplies. Why had I carried those things? Was there a clear line that separated those two worlds? And in the Venn diagram of my past and present, where did my dog tags belong?

It was the lack of answers that led me to a confrontation one night in a bar. My friends and I were sitting in The Vid when a drunken student challenged me.

“I’m going to kick your ass,” he said. “And all your friends’ asses.”

I was happy to see the young fool beating his chest, trying to threaten me. His empty words gave me an excuse to unleash everything I hated about everything I couldn’t understand.

So I crashed a mug onto his head and watched him drop to the floor.

When the cops showed up, they bound my wrists with cold metal, carrying me off into the middle of the night. I writhed in the back of the squad car, remembering the men we had taken from crying families.

I spent the night in the drunk tank, measuring the time by how long it took for the other college students to sober up and be released. I felt the whiskey and the rage leaving me as well, crushed by the weight of a felony charge. I wasn’t going anywhere. The cell had no chairs, and when I laid down on the tile floor, it was so cold that it stung. Alone in the cell, I started doing calisthenics, jumping up and down, pacing. How had I come to this?

In Iraq, we fought an enemy rarely seen. It was the nature of the occupation. Every brown man was an enemy. According to our rules of engagement, anyone carrying an assault rifle was just a civilian until he raised his weapon and pointed it at us. The enemy waited out of sight, in the IED tucked under the trash, in rockets fired from dark alleys.

In Ramadi, we took the insurgents’ fire more often than we returned it. We waited for sudden attacks, for shrapnel to slice through us. We waited for the clatter of AK fire and streams of neon tracer rounds screaming past our patrols. We waited for violence.

One day we were patrolling outside the city in a convoy of Humvees, trailing a cloud of fine dust, when we heard what sounded like a thousand bass drums booming. A suicide bomber driving a dump truck had barreled into the courtyard of an Iraqi police station and detonated the explosives hidden inside the truck. We were tasked to secure the area.

Our convoy stopped just outside the gate of the police station, but we could see the building’s charred and broken remains, its walls angled inward over random piles of rubble, shards of rebar shooting out in twisted angles. A metal skeleton was the only thing left of the bomber’s truck. Some bodies – I couldn’t tell how many – had already been removed from the site and collected under a quilt. A feral cat dug into the sand at the quilt’s edge.

Staff Sergeant Mang got on the radio from the lead vehicle.

“Get into the compound,” he said. “And get Doc up here.”

That was me.

“Doc, take the interpreter and go see what’s up with those hajis,” Mang said, pointing to three Iraqi policemen. Two of them were holding up the other. I looked at the man who had collapsed in the arms of his friends, unsure of what I should be doing.

“What’s wrong with him?” I asked.

“His brother is dead under there,” the interpreter said, then motioned to a large pile of debris.

I lowered the man to the ground and opened my aid bag. He was crying and speaking in a soft low voice, repeating the same phrase.

“Ma’a salama,” he said, over and over. “Ma’a salama.”

His blue uniform was drenched in sweat, so I gave him an IV I rolled up his shirtsleeve and rubbed an iodine pad on the fold of his left arm in dark orange circles.

“Ma’a salama . . . Ma’a salama.”

“What’s he saying?” I asked the interpreter.


I uncapped a needle and pierced the man’s vein, then hooked up an IV bag to a line and taped the tube to his arm.

The staff sergeant came over and told me to help some soldiers standing near the outside of the blast zone. I was stepping over loose pieces of concrete and broken brick when I saw a long smear of bright blood glimmering in the sun. The smear made a 15-foot trail that led from the skeleton of the bomber’s truck to the wreckage of an Iraqi police vehicle. The soldiers were taking pictures of something under the wreckage. As I came closer, I realized they were photographing what was left of the suicide bomber. The force of the blast had torn him in half. His trunk and head had skidded underneath the police truck. His shredded torso was spilled across the pavement. Some kind of vehicle part, a belt or hose, had wrapped around him. Though his body was scorched, I could see the whites of his eyes and the few teeth he had left in his gaping mouth. For a split second, a camera flash illuminated him in the shadows under the truck. Suddenly I became aware of the 120-degree heat. Under my body armor, my shirt was completely saturated, too.

“We don’t need a shovel, dude,” said one of the soldiers. “We need a pitchfork.”

I wondered if the bomber felt any hesitation just before he detonated. Probably not, because he’d thought he was doing the right thing. I had no idea what I was doing here in Iraq, or why I was doing it. I had no cause, except to scoop a corpse into a body bag. I hated that the bomber had gotten off so easy. He felt no pain while everything around him was in ruins, leaving us to clean up the mess.

After the fight at The Vid, I sought counseling. My therapist asked me the hard questions that had lurked within me for years. She asked about my emotional triggers from the war. I described the prayers from the mosque and the wailing mothers. I listed the names of soldiers now dead. I talked about the mangled bomber and the pain I had wanted him to feel. About the daily warning on the red-lettered sign, reminding us that the moment we relaxed, we died. And I told her how I missed that rush.

She told me things I already knew, advising me to quit drinking and smoking, to find other outlets, to keep in touch with old friends, to meet new friends away from the bars. The thing I appreciated most about the therapist was that I could talk to her about my experiences in Ramadi without scaring her or upsetting her. She listened without judgment, without forced sympathy.

What really brought me to my senses was not the therapy, but my explosion at The Vid. That was the reality check. I will never forget the unbridled rage I felt in that bar. That lack of control was more terrifying than any IED. At times I still feel frustrated and angry. All I have at those moments are my choices and my memories. I think about the crow’s nest on the Euphrates and how good it felt to loosen up on that rifle grip. I’m a senior now, ready to graduate and head for my first job. I have a cell phone bill, I pay rent, I go rock climbing and I hike with my dog, a Huskie mix named Brody. I have a life in this world.

Like my backpack, I carry many things inside me. Underneath it all, I will always hear the desert.