Here is my latest column in the North County Times:
“So what’s it like over there?”
It’s a question that I get a lot. It is also a question that gets a different answer depending on who asks it.
The problem is not the curiosity expressed by the curious inquisitor, but instead with their ability to process the answer.
To be a combat veteran is to have lived through experiences that are completely outside the perceptive reality of those who have not walked in the same boots that you have. As a result, I have learned that I have to be very, very cautious when I answer such a seemingly innocent query.
“It’s pretty hot and miserable,” I say to most people, “except in the winter, when it is pretty cold and miserable. I like it here in good old America much better than over there.”
That’s what I say now, anyway. I didn’t always have such a benign response.
The first time that I realized that I needed to have a different answer for that question was a few days after I had returned from my first tour in Iraq. I had spent seven months in a tough place where I spent no small amount of time trying to kill people who were trying to kill me. So when a very nice civilian neighbor sidled up to me at a neighborhood get-together and asked what it was like over there, I made the mistake of actually telling him.
“Well, we got rocketed and mortared a lot,” I started, “pretty much every day. The insurgents were always aiming for the chow hall on our FOB, and they would hit us at meal times. One morning, a couple of Marines were walking out of breakfast when a rocket hit one of them in the chest. All we found were his boots and bits of his ribcage…”
The look of startled horror on my neighbor’s face was something that I had never even considered. I didn’t know what to say after that, and I suddenly realized that I had no way to express myself to those who had not “been there.” What was, to me, just another day in Ramadi was to a friend who had no experience in such a place a terrible shock.
It was then that I learned that such a simple question required a more selective answer.
Last Saturday I met an octogenarian at a veterans museum. After we shook hands, he asked if I had served in the military. After I told him that I had spent a little time in Iraq and Afghanistan, he visibly perked up and told me that he had fought in Korea. Then he asked that ubiquitous question:
“So what’s it like over there?”
So I told him. Not about the weather, but what it was like to fight a determined and wily enemy. He listened, nodded and told me about the frozen hills of Korea. How he had fought with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division against the North Koreans and how he and his unit had “bugged out” when they were assaulted by 150,000 Chinese soldiers from the other side of the Yalu River in 1950.
We chatted about what it was like to fight. Our wars were different, but we were the same: two men who had gone “over there” and lived to talk about it. He told me how he swore that he would never again climb a mountain but had somehow ended up retired in Colorado. I shared my desire to never see a desert again, much less live in one. He wondered at the amount of equipment we carry in the wars of today, and I marveled at how he survived the amazing experience of fighting his way through the ice and snow of the Korean winter to escape certain capture or death.
So if you ask me what it’s like over there, don’t be surprised if you get a pretty boring answer. Unless, of course, you have been “over there,” too.
Then we’ll chat.