After High School, I joined the U.S. Air Force as a means to attend college. I signed up as a computer programmer, knowing even then exactly what I wanted to do in life. Sadly, due to one of those strange twists of fate, they didn’t have room in that career field and offered me another. Since I spoke Japanese, I could change my job to a Cryptologic Linguist. This would mean I would be able to perfect the language I loved but didn’t master, as well as giving me the chance to live and learn in Japan. I jumped at the chance. Sadly, nobody warned me at that time that recruiters lie.
I went to basic training at Lackland AFB before going to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey California. I was excited and ready for the challenge, or at least I was, until they gave me my language. Arabic. I was told that only officers get Japanese since we’re not actively “watching” them. So, I began my life as a trainee linguist who began to understand how easily the government can betray. I begged for at least Chinese, which was a language they did offer, but by that point I was simply a number and those in charge could care less what I did.
After a year of learning Arabic in the classroom, and studying Japanese after class, I was pulled from my class. I didn’t want to be there, and they didn’t want me. My sergeant at the time swore I would get the worst job possible. They asked me what jobs I wanted and I chose Electrical or Software Engineering. Instead they pulled my Top Secret clearance, which they paid insane amounts of money for, and made me a bus driver. 2T1x1, or Vehicle Operator to be precise.
The job was simple. Think of a cross between a rent-a-car for people visiting the base and a taxi service. The good side was that the base I was assigned to had lots of downtime, which meant I had plenty of time to go to school.
The story so far is simple. Quick back-story I guess. Maybe not even all that exciting. For me it was more insulting than anything. Shortly afterwards, however, things got exciting. The Army was short on manpower and the Air Force offered their troops as a stopgap. I went from bus driver to gun truck operator. I was part of the team that drove the armored vehicles with the big weapons on top.
When I first got to Camp Anaconda, a base north of Baghdad, Iraq, we were being actively bombed every day. It became commonplace to see missiles flying overhead or hear explosions sound from just across the way. Nobody really talked about those explosions or those involved in them. You just moved on.
One time, I was at the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) tent doing what any good soldier does in his off time: playing a first person shooter. It was a usual day until we all heard the tell-tale sign of a missile. A whistling sound followed by an impact. We opened the door to see a still smoking missile, about a foot high, buried in the ground a couple feet from the door. The fact that it didn’t explode wasn’t uncommon since most of the weapons being fired at us were old and derelict. We quickly evacuated and went on with our day, refusing to believe that we were one spark away from not returning home.
My job was to drive in the convoys in my armored Humvee with a 50cal mounted to the top. You rarely stop on these missions and after hours of staring at the road through armored glass, everything gets distorted. When you do get to stop, you hold the brake pedal a little firmer than usual since, to your eyes, the world is still rolling along in your peripheral vision. I’ve had a couple encounters where I would do a full day’s drive just to find out that the convoy directly after us was hit by a roadside bomb. Children you meet on the way would beg for candy and then flip you off as you drove away. Everyone, and everything became a threat. Months after returning I would steer clear of plastic bags and cardboard boxes someone left on the road.
My one deployment lasted just under a year and was filled with many similar stories. It was a unique and challenging experience. It was a time that I’ll never forget and one that definitely shaped my life. The part that is really strange to me is that my experience was roughly calm. I’m sure there are thousands who go through much worse than I could ever imagine. After experiencing that, I watch these films of war and can somehow relate. Some may say that I was protected by plot-armor. The protagonist of my own story who avoided these deadly experiences because the plot said I should.
Fiction can be strange, but it’s bound by rules. My story is true, but nobody would buy it. I didn’t save anyone. I didn’t help advance an overarching plot. I didn’t do anything special at all. I simply lived my life and was extremely lucky that I passed all the rolls of the dice that could have ended that. And these things happen all the time. It might not be exciting enough for a mass market, but it was hell of a thriller for me.