19 March, 2008

Five Years Ago Today...

I was in a college town in Indiana, up to my eyeballs in the student teaching phase of my training, and supervised by a harridan who was making my life miserable. Every hour outside the classroom was spent perfecting lessons plans and trying to be above reproach.

I knew what was going on in Iraq, but didn't have the time to absorb the details; my professional future was at stake, and my memories of that time are not comprised of the vivid pictures and events of the opening days of the war that everyone else seems to have. I remember President Bush talking on the White House lawn, and I remember snippets of video from the bombing of Baghdad, but that's all.

I didn't know anybody in the military, but I loved and honored them in the abstract. My heart was heavy with apprehension, and concentration was difficult. I remember sitting in an empty classroom, trying desperately to finish a lesson plan while my brain insisted on wondering what was happening on the other side of the world, fervently hoping this would be as easy as some of us thought, and worrying about what might be unleashed in response to America's actions. And I remember knowing that between Afghanistan, Iraq, and who knows what else the future held, I was going to get a long lesson on living as a citizen whose country was at war--I'd always wondered how the homefront coped with years of war in WWII... now I would find out.

Five years later, it drags on. We are older and wiser, and maybe not as idealistic. We've seen how hard it can be, learned names of people we thought were "everyday Americans" who turned out to be extraordinary heroes. We've seen and heard from those who were eyewitnesses to the depravity and evil humans are capable of, a depth many of us no longer pretend doesn't exist.

Five years later, I'm not teaching. Instead, my two jobs are neck-deep in military-related activities. Five years later, I know soldiers and sailors and Marines who have very recently "seen the elephant," and I've heard their stories. Five years later, I've interviewed colonels and generals, won awards for blogging (didn't even know what a blog was in 2003), sat in a veteran's truck while I touched the hands he held out as proof of his healing as he described the blast that had come through the humvee's windshield, returned to the hospital grounds my father walked before I was born, and served as a privileged funnel for the astounding generosity and energy of people who wanted to help the wounded.

Five years later, I've been told "you're one of us." Five years later, I cry with pride, fear and love when I think of the people I know who are "over there," those who will be there soon, and those who are waiting for them at home. Five years later, I find that volumes can be spoken in the look and touch of a stranger. Five years later, I know the difference between a colonel and a corporal, can spot a serviceman's rank and branch when he's in civilian garb, and have harvested enough acronyms that I find I am possessed of a civilian language and a military language that I must choose between when addressing someone.

Five years ago, dear friends I didn't know yet were standing on the decks of ships, peering out of tanks, worrying about their loved ones on the ground, and doing what had to be done in the middle of a man-made hell on the other side of the world.

Five years later, I know what my freedom has been bought with... for the last 230 years. War changes people--the closer to the fighting, the more they are changed. But it changes us all.

For a less self-centered retrospective, read what I wish I'd written.