Saturday, December 24, 2005

Chance Encounter in the Air

Visiting family in Florida at the moment. On the first leg of my flight out here, I had an interesting conversation with a young man in the adjoining seat. He’s a Marine, home from his third tour of Iraq. A very sociable kind of guy. At first we were just talking about all of the things that interested him, snowboarding and skiing and -- his favorite thing of all -- jumping out of airplanes. It was obvious that he loved the Marines -- especially all of the physical challenges of learning survival skills and parachuting and rock climbing.

Gradually we started talking about what things were like in Iraq and his mood got a bit more sober, although certainly not negative. He’d seen a fair amount of combat. He once was in a convoy and saw an Iraqi by the side of the road pop up to fire an RPG and accidentally blow himself up. Apparently the country is not only full of millions of those weapons, but a lot of them are so old they will either misfire or not fire at all. He said the Marines just watched this happen -- so quickly they could not have reacted anyway -- and quietly said “See you later…” as they rolled past. He said that streets that are crowded with women and children are generally safe. Streets that are empty are best avoided entirely -- the absence of people going about their daily lives almost certainly means an IED.

The most surprising thing about our conversation was the casual way that he mentioned that he himself had been shot. He’d been sitting in the gun turret of a vehicle when he was shot right in the chest. The force of the impact knocked him backwards three feet into the back of the vehicle, threw his feet over his head, and left a bruise on his chest the size of a dinner plate. If it had not been for the ceramic armor he was wearing he would have been shot through the heart. He said he’d never been so scared. No doubt.

From this topic we veered to his father’s farm in Illinois. His pop grows feed corn and soybeans, and supplements his income by repairing machinery for other farmers. The young man I was talking with does similar mechanic’s work for the Corps. Dad sprays everything with Roundup to kill all the plants except the genetically engineered corn that he grows. It’s how things are done these days.

Two other things struck me: The first is that this kid, who has seen so much more of the worst the world has to offer than I ever have or hope to, and who in all earnestness in the conversation one time offered “Like President Bush said…” by way of making a point, is certain that when the Americans leave Iraq there will be a civil war. Absolutely certain, from what he has seen.

The other thing was that this Marine doesn’t read. Even most magazine articles are too long for him. He told me that if he was sitting in a doctor’s office and bored, he probably would tough it out rather than pick up a magazine. Maybe in this respect he is not representative of most military people, or most young adults, but of everything he said it was what worried me the most…


At 1/09/2006 6:10 PM, Blogger Algernon said...

Reminds me of a friend's recent tale of her chance encounter, at an airport, with two servicemen and two (apparently) recent recruits. My friend watched as the servicemen attempted to dissuade the recruits from going into the military. "You've got ten days to back out," they told the young recruits. "We didn't know that," they replied. (Of course they didn't know that! Why would the recruiting officers tell them that, when they're so desperate for fresh meat?) Apparently, the newbies were not to be dissuaded, at least not at that moment. After they had left, my friend turned to the servicemen (who had been to Iraq already and, if memory serves, were returning at the time of these events); she said, kindly (she's a kind person), "Some of us wish you weren't over there. We'd rather you were home." She told me at least one of the men teared up at the remark and thanked her.

At 1/11/2006 4:09 AM, Blogger tess said...

This kind of human encounter means so much more than 99% of the BS that passes for debate in this country. I applaud your friend's courage in speaking to the servicemen she met, and in turn theirs for speaking truth to the young recruits.

It is tremendously difficult to see and hear of these young, idealistic kids going over there to put their lives on the line for what they believe is the greatest cause ... in some ways, it must be even more wrenching than it was in the days of Viet Nam, even though that was a harder time in general terms. At least the war there was actually being fought for the reasons the government was saying it was -- to stop the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. (If one of you is more knowledgable about that conflict and can speak to the veracity of our reasons for being there, please pipe up, but as far as I know ...)

The contrast with Iraq, with the now-you-see-em-now-you-don't WMDs, the changing set of priorities and goals, and the absolutely naked profiteer mentality of those in charge, could not be stronger IMHO.

I'm just glad that Marine you talked to on the plane actually had that body armor -- many of the service men and women being hurt there now are reportedly suffering largely because of a lack of proper torso coverage.

Now if he could just educate his dad about Roundup ...



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