The U.S. has left Iraq, but Iraq has not left one U.S. soldier, writes veteran Justin Cliburn.
Fear of love is such a cliché male fear . . . whether it is framed as fear of commitment, fear of settling down or fear of change. Like any other cliché, it is complicated, meaning different things to different men. It evolves and manifests itself differently over time. Each manifestation can be defeated, but the seed of fear will always remain. I cannot speak to others’ fear of love, but I know where mine started.
When I was 23 years old, I had not yet been in a relationship with someone I loved, fathered any children, or had my heart broken. My only fear regarding love was of not finding it. I was in college but had little idea what I was going to do with my life. Between my training and activation stints in the Army National Guard and my own failure to be a responsible student, I was a 23-year-old freshman. Every day, I thought I was a complete failure that would never graduate college. Then my unit was sent to Iraq.
I spent my tour in Baghdad as a humvee gunner. My squad escorted a military captain and four State Department police officers to police stations in Baghdad to train and support the Iraqi security forces. Baghdad, for all its troubles, made me feel alive again. Each day had a purpose and my actions, for better or worse, had consequences. The year was not a cakewalk, but it opened my eyes to the world around me.
Some of the best days of my life occurred inside the compound of the Iraqi Traffic Police, where my squad escorted our “packages” at least twice a week, sometimes more. Early on in our deployment, we saw a dirty-looking kid walking through the compound with a large sack slung across like his shoulder and convinced him to visit with us. His name was Ali and he was about 12 or 13 years old. The bag contained aluminum cans, and he was only in the area to find and collect cans, he told us with body language and a few broken-English words. We joked with him, gave him our cans of Rip It energy drink, and a couple bottles of fresh water. I hoped to see him again.
The next time I saw Ali, he was with his best friend, Ahmed. Ahmed seemed to be a little younger than Ali and more personable. Ali had to be convinced to trust us, but Ahmed was different. Over the next several months, the boys became my escape from what was happening around us. It was 2006 and the al-Askari Mosque had just been bombed, sparking the civil war that ultimately prompted President Bush to institute “the surge.” I emailed friends and family at home and told them about the boys. I asked for care packages for the boys on my MySpace blog, and the response was incredible. Over the months, we gave the boys food, clothing, toys, school supplies, shoes, footballs, (American) footballs and candy. To a cynic, it is no wonder the boys loved us. It was different though.
On most days we played Rock, Paper, Scissors, kicked around whatever ball or can was nearby, or spent hours making jokes in the way that only two people speaking different languages can. We posed for photographs and talked about our families. Ali and Ahmed asked me just about every day when I was going to develop the photographs so they could have them.
One day we arrived and Ahmed was not there. Ali was sullen and I knew something was wrong. Through our interpreter, he told me that Ahmed and his mother were in line at a gas station when a suicide bomber detonated. His mother died immediately, but Ahmed, who was holding the gas canister, was alive and severely burned. I remembered reading in Chasing Ghosts by IAVA founder Paul Rieckhoff that, after the invasion, Iraqi hospitals would not administer care until a patient had paid, so I went around to the members of my squad asking for money for Ahmed’s care. Soldiers in a war zone do not typically carry a lot of cash, but we gave what we could. Then we waited.
Our mission did not take us back to that police station for four agonizing days, and, as I saw Ali approach my humvee, I knew: Ahmed died. Ali dug a hole in the dirt, pointed to it and said “Ahmed, Ahmed.” Then he covered the hole in dirt. He repeated this several times. I was crushed. Ali and I sat on the curb and cried: him, the Iraqi boy who had lost his best friend; and me, the U.S. soldier in full desert camouflage, body armor, combat boots, helmet and rifle. After a time, he said he had to go and I was left to cry silently in my humvee without him or Ahmed.
Within a week, my mother sent me a photo book of me, Ali and Ahmed together. Ali’s eyes lit up when I told him that I had it. He hurriedly opened it up, turned to the first page and saw a picture of Ahmed smiling back at him. That is when he fell to his knees sobbing. It is still the second-worst day of my life; the worst was the day I learned of Ahmed’s death.
I still had many months left in country and Ali and I spent them in much the same way we had before. Eventually, however, my time was up and it was time to go home. My last day with Ali was difficult. He asked if he could come with me. He asked why I could not just stay. He shouted. Finally, he burst into tears and ran away. I was heartbroken for the first time in my life. I went home soon thereafter.
Home was not the same anymore. Like many soldiers, I avoided talk of PTSD, but something was wrong. I thought about Ali and Ahmed all the time. I realized that I loved them like sons or little brothers. They were the only two people I had loved like that and they were gone. I wondered if I would have been better off not befriending them at all.
Thankfully, fear of love and hatred of love are not one and the same. Eventually I met a woman who saw me for who I was and loved me anyway. She listened to me on the few occasions that I made myself discuss Iraq issues with someone, and she kept quiet when she knew that “I don’t want to talk about it” really meant that I did not want to (or could not) talk about it. She was wonderful, and I knew that I was in love.
It was not long after that when the nightmares started. I was no stranger to nightmares even before Deanne. I had dreamt about Iraq often. I second-guessed myself. I relived moments. I woke up in terror. Those weren’t the dreams I had sleeping next to Deanne, though. Now my nightmares were about life stateside. They always included something terrible happening to the woman that I loved: She died in a car accident on the way to see me. She was murdered and I was not there to save her. She was gone, and I was heartbroken again.
Deanne began censoring our choice of movies. Scenes where children died caused me to break down. Seeing wives or girlfriends die on screen sometimes did the same, although then it was more internalized and caused traumatic nightmares. Finally, she asked me to seek help from a professional.
After two years of counseling at the local VA center, I can say that I fully recognize my fear of love and its consequences. My nightmares have almost completely ended, and I am better at refraining from watching movies that make me miss Ali or trigger my grief for Ahmed.
Deanne and I got married, too, although I never feared having my heart broken via breakup. She still knows me better than anyone and makes my life better every day. I still sometimes have bad dreams about losing her, but they are infrequent. We live in a safe town and she rarely works nights. Life is good.
Before I know it, I will be starting my career and making enough money to support a family. I am still terrified of losing a child, but if I had not faced that fear, I would not have my wife. I expect to have flashbacks and nightmares when I have children of my own, but, like anything else, they can be managed. Love is too grand not to at least try. At some point, you have to be a man and hope for the best.
—Photo by Justin C. Cliburn