Everyone who goes to war comes home transformed. Two young veterans write about adventures that helped them figure out what changed.
By Roy Scranton
ROY SCRANTON served in Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004. His writing has appeared in Theory and Event, the New York Times, and elsewhere. | Portrait by Aleks Sennwald
It wasn't until the last day that we had our first war story. We were drifting easy down the final leg of the San Juan, just upstream from Lake Powell, the March sun warming us through the chill air as we paddled a little, watched the rust-colored cliffs go by, joked, and thought ahead to our journey's end and our return to the world of cell phones, alcoholism, VA counselors, and ex-wives, when Greg* started talking about what had happened.
Until then, while there'd been oblique mentions of where we'd served in Iraq or Afghanistan, nobody'd really busted out with a whole story. It wasn't that kind of trip. Although we'd all been deployed somewhere, not all deployments were equal, and we had the guides to consider. With every war story, there's an issue of audience—who you're telling it to, how and why you tell it. Will they be able to hear it? Can they understand the truth at its center, or will they just be awed by its intensity and strangeness? Are you sharing or bragging?
Besides, none of us had contacted Outward Bound and gone through the paperwork and bought neoprene socks and waterproof pants and come all the way to Utah to talk about the same crap we couldn't stop thinking about back home. The wilderness trips for veterans offered by Outward Bound, and funded by the Sierra Club, promised a chance to get away from things for a few days, to carve a breathing space into redrock and mountains, to find some quiet away from the echoes of war that resounded through our lives. It was good being around soldiers again: Everybody carried their weight, and we all took up the easy, ball-busting jocularity of military culture. Part of that culture is, you don't ask what happened. People tell their stories when they want to, if at all.
Greg had already told us some about his troubles readjusting to civilian life. He'd said that it was a little easier to get by after the VA gave him a 100 percent disability rating for post-traumatic stress disorder. The medication helped too. He was in therapy now, back in school, and a proud father. But there'd been plenty of struggle: the dark time after coming home, the alcohol and drugs and bar fights, the arguments with his wife. It had all come to a head when he'd found himself running down the street with a handgun after threatening to shoot his neighbor.
Or that might have been Eric, though I'm pretty sure it was Greg. I get them mixed up sometimes when I think back, because they both talked that day about their readjustment. If I remember right, it was Eric who'd lost his job at a department store because he'd attacked his supervisor—wrestled him to the floor and held a knife to his throat.
Eric and I were in the same unit, the First Armored Division, but at different times and in different parts of Iraq. Eric didn't talk about his tour, but he had a 100 percent disability rating too. It was hard for him to leave his house unless he was armed, he told us. Eric was our jokester, always had something funny or sarcastic to say, playing the clown all the way down the river. Like when we played "two truths and a lie," he kept telling three lies.
* * *
In many ways, the trip was exactly what I'd hoped for. Our first full day, after the frost on our sleeping bags had melted, started with a two-mile hike down the Honaker Trail, a 1,200-foot descent from our plateau campsite to the San Juan River. Vistas of water-carved rock exploded into view with every turn down the canyon.
We were still figuring things out, like how to use "the Groover" toilet with dignity. Down at the river we had a new set of lessons. First we inflated our rafts, then we split into teams: six each to two paddleboats, and two oarsmen on the supply boat. Even though most of us had never been rafting, it didn't take long to master the basics of paddling and navigating sandbars and boulders. Soon we settled into a relaxing rhythm, taking it slow and stopping early in the day to set up camp just below Ross Rapids.
That night, bedded down in the sand, listening to the water roar over the rocks just downstream, I looked up at a liquid blue-black sky thick with a light I hadn't seen in years, stars spanning the vault of heaven like scattered charges, as if the universe were electric fire. The last time I'd seen such a sky had been in this same part of the country, a decade earlier, when I'd lived in Moab and gone hiking in Canyonlands National Park. My girlfriend and I had camped beside some pictographs a few miles from the trailhead, and we'd stayed up late talking about Cassiopeia and Virgo, Saturn and Mars.
I didn't have a TV in those days, so when the Twin Towers fell, I listened to it happen on the radio. Soon after, I moved home to Oregon to be closer to my family. By February 2002, I'd decided to join the U.S. Army. There's no one easy reason why I did it, but part of it had to do with feeling at a dead end in my life, part of it had to do with wanting to be a man, part of it had to do with wanting to go back to college, and part of it had to do with my wanting to see, up close, what it meant in the world that 9/11 had happened. The talking heads on TV said everything had changed, and I wanted to see what that looked like.
So I did. I served four years in the Army and 13 months in Iraq, mostly driving around Baghdad. I had a relatively easy war—I saw some action, but nothing like what was happening in Fallujah or what you see in the movies. I felt lucky to have made it home in one piece. Now, I was on a rafting trip in Utah, on spring break from school in New York.
The talking heads had been right: Everything had changed. But I couldn't tell how much of it was the world and how much of it was me.
* * *
The next morning, in the dim blue before the sun broke over the narrow canyon's walls, we shot Ross Rapids. I got to know the guys on my boat better: Steve, the gawky deputy sheriff; Josh, the college kid who had a thing for crashing Jeeps; Mike, the burly dude's dude and EMT from Northern California; Taylor, the stoic Texan; Eric, who drives a tow truck; and Greg, a volunteer wilderness guide for at-risk teens. All veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All carrying something inside, quiet. Under the leadership of our Outward Bound guide, Scott, a laid-back nature lover who'd just come off a Vipassana meditation course, we made our slow way down the river.
We shot Government Rapids that afternoon. Our boat made it through fine, but one of the guys in the other raft, Sam, flipped into the water and had to be recovered. After we made sure he was OK, we mocked him and his boatmates mercilessly.
Competition between the two rafts had built throughout the day. We decided, a few miles down, to add insult to injury by staging a raid on their snacks. We paddled up, looking innocent, close enough for Taylor to pounce. He leaped into their raft with a yell.
Mike jumped over next but got whacked in the chest with a paddle and knocked into the water. Undeterred, he clambered aboard. Taylor and Mike snatched the snacks and flung them to us, then dove into the water and swam back. We laughed and applauded our improvised spec-ops team, who were now close to hypothermic. Snow still lined the canyon's rim in spots, the water was brutally cold, and the sun had disappeared from sight, but our heroes' spirits were warmed with hard-won spicy Cajun mix and salted cashews.
That night around the fire, as Taylor and Mike warmed up for real, we laughed about the snack attack and about Sam bouncing out in the rapids. We talked about the military, our lives, some bighorn sheep we'd seen up-canyon, the wild dog that had followed us for a while. But nobody broke out their war stories, even though you could tell from what people didn't say that most of us had some.
It was the same thing the next day. We took a slow downriver run broken by a stop at a waterfall, where we all took off our shirts and sputtered under the snow-chilled flow. That night we had our "solos," an Outward Bound tradition that involves spending the night alone on an isolated patch of ground, away from others. Silence is the rule, and no contact. We were supposed to give each other space. It was a meditative time, something sacred set apart. Just before we went out to be on our own, our guide Dustin, who'd been in the Army before the wars, suggested that we all find something, a rock or stick, say, that could symbolize something we wanted to let go of.
In the morning, after we came back together and broke the silence over bowls of steaming cobbler, Dustin led a ceremony in which we threw our rocks and sticks in the river. Some guys had something to throw, some didn't. Some said something, others were mute. The mood was somber. We were all letting go of something, whether we acted it out or not. It was our last day on the river. In the hushed air of the canyon, we could see the end just ahead.
Maybe it was that awareness that prompted Greg to tell his story. Maybe he needed to get it off his chest. Maybe he thought it would help Eric tell his. In any case, I can't tell you what Greg said that day, about what happened when his Stryker got hit by an IED. I can't tell you about his buddies or about his war. I can't tell you, because it's not mine, because it's horrible, and because it's true.
I wish I could sing, like in Homer's Iliad, of the people on that trip, what towns they came from, why they fought, where they got their scars, and what they learned. And I wish too that I could tell you of all the men and women I served with in Iraq, and of all I've met since, the people who've fought and bled in America's distant wars, the heroes and cowards and regular soldiers who showed up every day to do what George Orwell called "the dirty work of Empire." They're legion, and I wish I could do the one thing I can't, which is tell you each and every story.
I can tell you this: A mile or so above the takeout at Clay Hills, I spotted a great blue heron silhouetted black against the white sun, its wings blazing. This heron, like the phoenix of ancient Egypt, the Benu bird, I keep with me, and when I think of Greg, Eric, Taylor, Mike, Sam, Steve, and Josh—who's still in and looking ahead to his second tour—I want to believe it means something. I want to believe that you can go down a river and, like that bird, be reborn from fire.
By Maurice Decaul
MAURICE DECAUL served in Iraq with the First Marine Division in 2003. He is currently studying creative writing at Columbia University. | Portrait by Aleks Sennwald
For years I've been getting up before the sunlight sneaks into my bedroom. I leave home and squeeze with others onto a subway that rarely breaks the surface. On days when I eat lunch at my desk, I hardly see the sun at all.
I know this is not uncommon. Many of us live lives fueled by coffee and deadlines. Promotions are based on knowing our numbers, being able to recite sales figures to a boss who sits in an office in another part of town, maybe even in another state. We move from inside to inside: bedroom to bathroom, bathroom to closet, closet to kitchen, kitchen to subway, subway to cubicle. If you're lucky, you spend your day in an office with natural light.
This is the life I've become accustomed to since leaving the U.S. Marine Corps a few years ago. I miss the Corps—all former Marines miss the Corps in some way—but I especially miss the many hours every day that I got to spend outside, even though it was impossible for me at the time to disconnect being outdoors from the fears and discomforts of soldiering. I don't miss the hardship, of course, but at least back then I almost always saw the sun rise and set. I also remember long periods of solitude and space—even during my tour in Iraq.
Although I know that the younger me, the one on active duty, would consider it ludicrous, lately I've been looking back on those days with something approaching longing. So last summer I spent some time on a sailboat in Maine trying to find it again—that sense of stillness and space that comes with being in a place where the stars aren't obscured by city lights.
* * *
Despite the storm, Rusty was able to keep our crew of amateurs calm. From my portside vantage point, all I could see was the ocean getting grayer and the waves getting higher. I had no view of the moored boat that Rusty, our skipper, was trying to dodge.
"Prepare to tack," he said coolly, from somewhere behind me.
"Prepare to tack, aye," came our answer.
I pulled on my line as if there were lives at stake, because there were. The mainsail fluttered, swiped from starboard to port, then popped taut as we came around. Now I could see the green cabin cruiser that we'd been trying not to ram. It was only 20 yards away—much too close, given the strong wind, choppy seas, and inexperienced crew.
It took us six passes before Pete, our lookout, was finally able to snag the mooring ball. We hooked up to it and dropped anchor. Now the question was, Where was the other boat with the rest of the vets? They'd disappeared behind the curtain of rain hours ago.
Eventually, we were able to reach the crew of our sister ship on the radio. It turns out they'd run into a lobster pot, which had ripped out their rudder and left them dead in the water for a few hours, pummeled by wind, rain, and waves. We gave them our location, and they rowed to safety and tied up behind us. They were wet and hungry and cold, but no one was clamoring to go home. I had two thoughts as I listened to their story. The first was that I was glad I hadn't been on their boat, because I might have been immobilized by my fear of falling in the water. The second was that this wasn't what I'd signed up for.
* * *
I'd flown to Portland, Maine, from New York City the day before with only a vague idea of what would be required of me. My hope was that the Outward Bound sailing expedition would force me out of my comfort zone. But as the plane descended, I saw that the ocean was alive with whitecaps, and it hit me that I'd be learning how to sail in serious seas with a crew of strangers who probably knew as little about boats as I did.
What's more, I've been afraid of the ocean since age four—since the day my father left me in the shallows off a St. Vincent Island beach and waded back to shore. He wanted me to learn to swim; instead, I carried with me into adulthood a phobia of being abandoned in water. In fact, my fear is so acute that it almost got me booted out of boot camp.
But as the plane touched down, I dredged up a tactic that I'd learned in the Corps to deal with such stress: PMA, or positive mental attitude. I decided to seize this adventure as an opportunity to face my anxiety head-on.
Before we knew it, we'd been divided into two crews and found ourselves in Wheeler Bay practicing capsizing drills. The drill began with us rowing about 100 yards offshore. After the boat stopped, each crew member stood on the portside gunwale, leaned forward to grasp the opposite side of the boat, rocked back and forth until the craft began to capsize, then jumped clear as it rolled. I ended up under the boat, eyes open. I stayed calm, and I ascended slowly toward the light. As I surfaced and took a breath, I could feel my confidence build. Rusty assured us that the sailboats we'd be using were almost impossible to flip. Despite my newfound fortitude, the key word—"almost"—stayed with me the entire excursion.
That night, we rowed across a bay and began to learn the Outward Bound routine. There were a dozen of us on the small boat: male and female, Marine and Army, officers and grunts, active and discharged. We sat around in a circle on the gunwale, our feet in the cockpit, and recapped the day. When the talking was done, I looked up at the tranquil night sky, and for the first time in a very long time, my mind was absolutely still.
The next morning opened with a mandatory dip in the chilly ocean. I jumped overboard, determined to enjoy an invigorating swim, but I lost some of my nerve in the frigid water. I knew that if the weather turned and the unthinkable happened, my swimming abilities wouldn't count for much if the rescue didn't come quickly. So now I had a new fear: hypothermia. Which was at the front of my mind a few hours later when a storm blew in and we found ourselves tacking like mad to avoid that green cabin cruiser.
The following day the weather cleared, and we made our way to Burnt Island to camp for the night. I watched the kaleidoscope sunset fade from orange to purple to deep red to darkness. The moon and stars that night were impossibly clear, and the sky reminded me of a night in Nasiriyah when I'd sat on post with other Marines, trying to count each star. It had been a quiet night in Iraq—no tracer fire had pockmarked the heavens, no rifles had rattled in the background—and I'd felt an inordinate peace despite the hostile setting.
The trip lasted five days, though it felt like half that. Soon we were back at the dock, saying our goodbyes, exchanging e-mail addresses, and making plans for reunions—plans that would soon be forgotten or lost in the whirl of our worker-bee lives.
When I'd signed up for this trip, I'd hoped I might learn to sail, and I suppose I did. I'd hoped I might lose some of my fear of the water, and I suppose I did that too. But as I stood in line to stow my pack in the van that would take us back to the airport, I realized I was taking something else home as well. Reluctantly, I stashed my pack, looked around me to take in the silence one last time, and breathed deeply.
These articles were funded by the Sierra Club's Military Families Outdoors program.
Sierra would like to thank New York University's Veterans Writing Workshop, a free, nonpartisan creative writing class that offers veterans an opportunity to express themselves on paper, to cultivate a voice with which to bear witness and tell their stories, to be heard, and to record their experiences in combat and afterward.