Haunted by 40 Months in Iraq

A former Marine re-ups 24 years after his discharge and volunteers for four consecutive combat tours. Now he’s at home fighting the war within.

Since Iraq, I might go several days without sleep. It’s hard to function like that. When I do sleep, I often wake up after a bad dream and all I want to do is put on my gear, grab my weapon and hurt someone. On nights like that I can never fall back asleep.

I was in Iraq for almost 40 months straight, so long that all of my neighbors at home moved away. I came home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a traumatic brain injury (TBI). What follows are some of the thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head since my return. But it’s hard to focus. TBI can do that to a person.

Four U.S. Marines detain two Iraqi men, as seen through the infrared scope of a 50-cal.
Photo: Mikko Carranza

I joined the Marines in 1977 and served in the infantry until I got out in 1981. I went to work for a major transportation company, eventually rising to a management position. But as I saw the war in Iraq dragging on, I decided in 2005 to re-enlist. I was too old at 46 to get back into the Marine Corps, but with a waiver I was able to join the Army National Guard.

I volunteered for the next unit deploying to Iraq, and reached the combat zone in late 2005. I knew that I was filling a slot, and I hoped that because I had deployed that a soldier who did not want to go to Iraq was able to stay home with his family. I felt that I was contributing more in Iraq than I had during the previous 24 years as a civilian. I truly enjoyed being in Iraq and doing an important and dangerous job.

I volunteered to stay in Iraq for four consecutive tours. I stayed because I felt that I was doing something worthwhile, regardless of the politics of the war. I felt that the younger soldiers deserved experienced leaders. I knew that they needed someone who would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them by choice, not because he was ordered to. I know that I had a positive impact on the soldiers in all of the units that I served with.

I stayed in Iraq because I knew that I was good at my job. I enjoy the infantry, the core fighting unit of any armed force. Not everyone can handle the conditions we suffer and the environment we operate in. Infantrymen share a brotherhood and pride that excludes other units.

And I stayed in Iraq because I adjusted so well to the environment there that I did not want to come home.

This is part of the sickness of PTSD. We become so proficient at operating in combat that we forget how to function effectively in a normal environment. Therapists and readjustment counselors call some of these symptoms “survival skills,” behaviors that keep us safe and alive in a combat environment. Being paranoid and quick to react to movement or sound, and the readiness to use violence are all good things in war. It isn’t easy to come home and turn that off, because when we try to do it we don’t feel safe.