On January 1, 1991, 230 Marine Corps reservists landed in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. They had left Chicago on a bitterly cold December morning, slightly delayed by antiwar activists who had locked the drill center gates on Foster Avenue. After four weeks of training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, they departed for the Middle East.
In Saudi Arabia, the reservists moved from one base camp to another, usually just behind the front lines. They felt the earth shake as B-52s dumped their payloads on the Iraqi soldiers north of them. As they searched booby-trapped bunkers and drove through cluster-bomb fields, they confronted their dead Iraqi counterparts. Oil residue from burning wells rained down on them from pitch-black skies.
They experienced what soldiers in all wars experience: equipment malfunctions; tasteless food; loneliness; camaraderie and a bonding misunderstood by many; exhaustion; incompetent officers; boredom; a low but grinding level of constant fear.
No one in this company of men–there were no women in this company–died. Not one set his M-16 sight on an Iraqi soldier and pulled the trigger. Never did they face a line of bulldozers bearing down on them.
But they returned on April 12 profoundly affected by their experience. While they didn’t suffer the losses endured by Iraqis, Kuwaitis, Kurds, and Palestinians, they did suffer losses. Said John M.* after he returned, “Nobody’s a winner in war. Everybody suffers, in one way or another. They say, ‘Yeah, we won the war.’ There’s no winning.”
John M. returned home to unemployment and a toddler-aged daughter who had adopted a new personality. Roberto S. brought back photographs of burnt and blackened Iraqis to remind his boosters at home that this was what they were celebrating. Jim M. had to face the problem that at one point had led him to curl up weeping on a dirt mound in Saudi Arabia; during his four and a half months away from home, he received no letters from his wife of 15 years. William H., angry at the racism he encountered and disturbed at his personality transformation, quit the Marine Corps.
On November 30, 1990, I met these and other unit members at a suburban hotel. As we gathered in the hotel bar, the air crackled with tension and excitement; the volume was high and the emotional pitch intense. CNN droned endlessly from the televisions. Strangers bought the reservists rounds of drinks. In 24 hours they would leave for Camp Lejeune.
The younger marines had an ill-disguised headiness. They clearly believed they were taking part in a rite of passage. The older Marines frankly admitted to deep fear for themselves and their families. The Vietnam vets recalled unpleasant homecomings. All of them spoke of what they anticipated.
While they were gone, many of them wrote of their experiences in journals. After they returned, several of them agreed to share their journals, recollections, and time with me. For a year I have watched the consequences of the 43-day war, the “bloodless war,” unfold in their lives.
“All wars are political. World War II was political. World War I was political. The Revolutionary War was politics. Every war is politics. And if the politicians had to fight the wars, there wouldn’t be any wars. It’s that simple.”
John M. planted his beer bottle on his kitchen table and ended the long conversation I’d been having with him and his animated wife Maria. He lit another cigarette and flipped the match into the ashtray. “Anybody that’s been to war will say the same thing.”
John is wiry with graying hair and the straight nose of a Polish aristocrat. But his large eyes are what fix you. His intense, penetrating stare can nail you to the floor and freeze you in mid-thought.
He finished his tour in 1966, joined and then left the reserves, and rejoined in February 1990 “to teach the younger guys.” A cabinetmaker by trade, he and Maria live in Chicago’s south suburbs in a modest split-level house remarkable for its extreme order. There are no crumbs on the table. There are no dishes in the sink. Even the garbage cans are spanking clean with empty bags inside. Married for six years, Maria and John have three children. The youngest is three-year-old Samantha, nicknamed Sami.
A corporal when he finished his tour in Vietnam and now a gunnery sergeant, John is unsparing of vets who can’t get their lives together. Yet he arrived home on April 12 to a major shock. The company he had been working for had closed, a victim of the recession. He was 44, returning from a war unemployed, with a family to feed and a mortgage to pay.
He found out “the day I got home. Got home Friday. Friday night this buddy of mine calls me, that I work with. He told me. Thanks a lot. I just got home and Friday night I get a phone call at 9:30: ‘Hey John, you ain’t got a job no more.'”
Maria hadn’t written him that the company had gone out of business. “I was afraid,” she explains–that if he knew he would stay in Kuwait, lured by jobs that promised incredible money.
The Sunday after he returned, they went to McDonald’s with Sami. John didn’t want to buy anything, not even ice cream. “He was afraid to do anything,” Maria says. “We were talking and I says, ‘Don’t do this John. We’ve been apart for so long, let’s enjoy. You’re on active duty till May 1. You’ve got two weeks. Give us that two weeks at least.'”
“You know,” he picks up, “I thought I’d come back, take some time off, spend some money, take the kids, we’ll all go on a little vacation somewhere or something. And then I ain’t got a job. I don’t know when the hell the next check’s gonna come in.” He shakes his head and looks away from us.
John went more than two months without regular work. Maria was waitressing several nights a week and contending with three children, housework, and a husband who seemed increasingly unreachable. The team they had been, helping each other with the kids and sharing the housework, had fallen apart. Feeling supplanted in his role as provider and insecure about his job situation, John found ammunition for arguments in the disorder he found at home.
While he’d been gone, Maria had often stayed up until “two o’clock in the morning writing [to John] and then up at six with Sami. Well, I would be telling him this in my letter: ‘Well, today I didn’t cook a big dinner for the boys, I can’t wait until you get back and things are normal.'” Their home’s order and tidiness disappeared with his absence, and she conveyed this in her letters. “I was trying to make him feel that we really needed him and missed him and loved him and wanting him to realize how vital he was here.”
It did not elicit the reaction she wanted. “When he came back,” she says, becoming agitated, “he turned it around and said, ‘Maria, you went back to some of your old habits.'” She looks at her husband accusingly. “I felt like I couldn’t tell you my inner thoughts because you turned around and used them at me like I was incompetent.”
John continues. “Instead of working together with her when I came back, I’d sit in that chair,” he says, pointing. “That’s my chair, and instead of helping her like I did before, I’d just sit on my big butt, and she’d be running around and running around trying to appease me.”
He suffered from simultaneous senses of emotional paralysis and anger. “It was like I was laying back. I was afraid to discipline the kids or come on too strong. So I guess my frustrations with them and holding it all back, I put it all on my wife. I’d lay into her.”
The tension culminated a month after his return when they exploded at each other and stopped speaking. “We’re two people that, we have an argument, we won’t talk for a few hours, but we always end up talking. We never go to bed angry,” says Maria. “For a whole week, we didn’t talk.” She began to wonder why she’d married him.
John explains, “I was depressed about the job. You know, I told Maria, everything would’ve been all right if I’d had a job to go back to. I’ve got kids and a family, I’ve got a mortgage to pay. I would just sit back and observe everything, but I had that in the back of my mind. All this welcome home, all this hero stuff is great, but what am I gonna do about a job?”
By late July, he had found a position with a firm in Elgin. Things smoothed out for them. But, says Maria, “It’s funny. Everyone would tell me, ‘God, you’re so happy to have him home,’ and you are. But I’ll tell you, you don’t believe these changes occur in him but they do. When you look back at it, they do.”
More disturbing to John, however, were the changes in their daughter Sami. “The thing that got me the most,” he says, “was when Maria told me [by letter] that Sami took on another name.” Maria explains, “She wasn’t Sami anymore. She was Angie. Sami was in Saudi Arabia with her daddy.”
Beginning in December, two-and-a-half-year-old Sami had adopted a new personality. Sami had been high-strung, but “Angie” was more mature and calm. Maria thought “Angie” was easier to get along with than Sami, listened better, was more adult. She would insist, “I’m not Sami, I’m Angie,” when her mother called her. And she demanded that her mother “Turn off the bad stuff” when Maria watched the news.
When John returned, so did Sami. “As soon as I got back at the drill center,” he recounts, “and she seen me, she acted a little shy, a little withdrawn. You know, I had this [camouflage] hat on. I held her and could feel her. She was a little tense. Then,” he continues, smiling, “I took the hat off, talked to her, looked at her in the eye and said, ‘Daddy’s home. Is Sami back from Saudi Arabia?’ She says, ‘Yeah Daddy.’ And then there was no more Angie. She’s been Sami ever since.”
A psychotherapist I spoke with called this a coping mechanism. Her trauma at the separation was so devastating, he surmised, that she adopted this new personality to handle it. The danger, he added, is that if Sami found the mechanism successful, she might use it again when other highly stressful events arise.
Seven months later, Angie has not reappeared and Sami’s behavior is age-appropriate. But Maria recalls something else about her toddler that bothered her greatly. “When they came home, we were doing posters for the welcome home at the reserve center. I pulled out a magazine to make sure I spelled something right, and it just happened to be pictures on the war. And it had an Iraqi soldier laying there. And I’m thinking, being she’s little, she’s not being that bad affected.” Maria takes a breath. “And she saw that Iraqi soldier there, and she goes, ‘Look, Ma, someone’s daddy’s dead. Someone killed someone’s daddy.'”
“To hear something like that from a two-and-a-half-year-old,” says John, wincing, “and she actually looked at a picture–”
Maria interrupts: “And related it to–”
“To daddy,” John finishes the sentence.
It was hard to see under the dim streetlights of north Ravenswood Avenue. Roberto S. had placed his photo album on the hood of my car and was turning the pages while he provided commentary on the pictures. “First my friends see us in Camp Lejeune, training. There’s us in Khanjar. That one’s from Kuwait City. We got there a couple days–no, a day after it was liberated.”
He placed his hand on the page and turned it. “And then,” he said, “I show people these.” I hesitated and then bent to look.
“Pieces of meat,” he had described them earlier, as we sat talking in a bar. Pieces of meat with just enough of a contour to resemble a man’s thigh, a man’s torso, a man’s arm frozen at a rigid angle to the desert sand. Four pages of Iraqi corpses. In color. With a witness, standing at the angle I now stood at, aiming a camera and clicking the shutter.
“There’s a reason behind it,” he said in the bar. “I took a lot of pictures of me at the beginning, the middle, and the end [of the war]. That’s the way I arranged them in the album. There’s a lot of pictures of my [marine] friends also. And then at the end of my album, I have four pages of corpses. Which I make a point of showing to people.”
“Why?” I asked him.
“I show them us. Which is the beginning of the album. I show them us. Then I show them what we did. So it stops being abstract. So the people that ride the wave of euphoria know, at least the ones I can touch, of what we did.” He spat out the last few words. “Was it a just cost or not? I don’t know. The debate will go on for years. But before they raise their glasses and drink, I want them to have a mental picture of what they’re drinking to.”
When I met him on November 30, 1990, Roberto had been a reservist for almost four years. Born to an affluent Central American family, he had been educated at a military school before leaving his war-torn country for the United States. He joined the Marine reserves at age 26, partly for the challenge and partly because it would help him pay his college tuition. He wanted to teach high school in the inner city. Operation Desert Storm abruptly ended his studies.
More than a year ago, looking stocky and relaxed, he had played devil’s advocate to my earnest questions. His smile contained a hint of awe at finding himself going to war. Nine months later, that smile and his playful baiting had vanished.
Roberto’s predominant memory of Saudi Arabia is the sunsets. “They were always this bright hue of yellow and orange. It was like watching a sunset over the ocean. You can’t see the other side and then it becomes black. Because the landscape was very flat. It was just very orange, yellow. That’s what I remember.” When he could, he would stare at the sunsets, think, and write in his journal.
A sense of timelessness overcame him in Camp Lejeune that remained with him for the next five months. “Days were meaningless. There was a concept of time, but in the longer scale, not only with days, hours, minutes to me. I pretty much lost all track of time soon after we got to Saudi. As far as dates and days were concerned, the labels we give them had no meaning to me anymore.”
He uses his journal now to recall the emotions he had at Camp Lejeune and in Saudi Arabia. Without it, he cannot remember them. “The day after the air war started, I wrote [in my journal]. I went close to the border. This is when the airplanes were dropping loads. And you could feel it. Ever so slightly, you could feel it. And I remember everything and hearing–there were thousands and thousands of men along the border. And this was raining on them. So I wrote something.
“But I don’t think I can tell you how I felt. ‘Cause I was just trying to get through this. I can’t remember how I felt unless I read what I wrote. When something would make me think, I would write it and [then] I forgot it.”
The timelessness, the physical exhaustion, the constant stress of meeting his number-one priority–staying alive–combined to help him suppress almost all his emotions. “I was just trying to survive. I was not thinking. I knew then that if I let my emotions go, that if I thought too much about what was happening, something was going to give. I did not feel that I was back and that it was over until a week after we were actually in Chicago. I had learned to suppress everything so well that I did not feel it.”
He says he stored his feelings in a bottle. “It seems I’m letting things out very slowly. I’m making a conscious effort to do that. I do know that if I can’t let it out, it will explode. I do know that I did bottle it all up. How can one know how deep that bottle is if one made it? I think there’s a lot to let out.
“I suppressed anxiety, fear, anger, sadness,” he continues thoughtfully. “About the only feeling I did not suppress was happiness. Anything else did get stored away. A week after I got back, I realized that it was time to put a valve in the bottle. Otherwise it was going to explode.”
Since his return from the gulf, Roberto has tried to get his life back into shape. That means “catching up with all the things you left behind. Catching up with winters, Christmas, New Year’s. Adjusting to the notion that I have to go back into our society.” He is also refiguring his priorities. “I know that a lot of things I felt were important, I no longer think they are.” His first priority is still “to stay alive, emotionally.”
His second priority? “Getting my dream back. My dream was to eventually help somebody become something. Hence teaching. To help somebody. Out of my [college] class, only two were going to go into teaching in an urban setting. And I was the only minority. The only Hispanic. But that was my dream. I’m grasping onto it. I’m grasping.”
The greatest change in his character, he believes, is “a sadness. I think of it now. People have told me that I am sad. I used to be very happy, happy, happy. Smile a lot. Try to make you smile. Maybe that’s what I have to deal with. My sadness. I have to figure out where my smile went. ‘Cause I know it’s still in here somewhere.”
In addition to the photos in his album, Roberto also brought home a tattered Kuwaiti flag “with writing on it. Arabic writing. It says, ‘Kuwait will be free.'” Out of gratitude, a Kuwaiti toy-store owner gave him a Minnie Mouse doll, the only thing saved when Iraqi soldiers destroyed his store. Roberto also brought home a seashell from the gulf, a Soviet-made flashlight, and one other thing.
“With our dog tags,” he says, “we wear a key. That opens our duffel bags. That’s the one place you won’t lose it, so you wear it around your neck.”
“It was after the tank battle, there was an Iraqi corpse by a bunker. Part of a corpse. I wanted to get into this bunker. And inside of it I found a set of dog tags, Iraqi dog tags, with a key on it. Identical to the one I was wearing. Just a chain and a dog tag and a key. Like what I was wearing. I took it. From the ground. I don’t know if it was his or somebody else’s. I took it.
“We killed over 100,000 men. We, not I singly. We. As a nation. [And] a lot of innocent people after those 100,000 men that we don’t know about. To me it’s not an abstract.” Roberto’s voice softens. “The force that went and killed, I was with. The nation that sent me, I was a part of. The issues, the political issues, have ceased to be important to me.”
Roberto wipes his eyes. “I have a set of dog tags belonging to an unknown soldier who died for what he believed was right. A mirror image to what I was wearing. It could have been me. It could have been us.”
December 28, 1990. “Things are getting better inside me. Compartmentalization’s getting stronger.”
Jim M., a 15-year veteran of the Marine Corps and a reservist for two years, called me from Camp Lejeune two days before leaving for Saudi Arabia. “As the day grows closer, I’m just turning off my entire life. It’s hard because so much is running, running from one compartment to another and slipping under the borders. One thing I’ve made up my mind on,” he continued, “my son is not going in the military.”
“Why?” I asked.
After a long pause, he responded with a cracking voice. “Because of the taste I’m taking now. Now I’m starting to understand.” He paused. “Part of it’s really the deep-seated fear that goes with it. The other part is the fuckin’ hatred.”
Six months later, Jim sat across from me with a beer before him and his cigarettes beside him. Broad-faced, with thinning steel gray hair, Jim has restored the almost 30 pounds he lost from his six-foot-two-inch frame during Desert Storm by pumping iron. His laugh is as large as his body. On the rare occasions that he breaks into genuine mirth, his hazel eyes crinkle, his deep voice erupts, and the lines of experience fold into his face, making him look much older than 35.
When he was four, Jim and his family moved from Dublin to Lakeview, then a seamy ghetto. They lived in a succession of area apartments, moving as his parent’s economic fortunes fluctuated. By 15, Jim was taking to the streets the violence that exploded at home from his alcoholic father. There was no money for college. Two weeks after he graduated from high school, Jim arrived at the San Diego Marine Corps depot. There he began boot camp–a life as hard as the one he had left, but one he felt had purpose.
Determined to make the Marine Corps his career, Jim reenlisted several times and rose in rank. By 20, he had a newborn son, Suji, born to his wife Keoko. Though they were a seemingly unlikely pair–a young, hot-tempered marine and an older Asian antiwar activist–the marriage was very happy. They moved from one posting to another and had two more children.
But in 1987 Jim and Keoko decided it was time for him to leave the Marines. Raising a family on his monthly pay of $1,700 was increasingly difficult. Jim found a job at a Chicago software firm, joined the reserves, and settled his family in the north suburbs, as far away from his old neighborhood as he could get.
His transition to civilian life was difficult. For 15 years he had cultivated the mask of a hard-nosed marine. As a drill instructor he had practiced brutal psychological warfare on new recruits. And he had learned to completely compartmentalize his daily life; he says he would leave the marine on base when he returned home each day. At home he suppressed the behavior that made him a good military man; he didn’t want to act like a drill instructor with his wife and children.
Now he had to learn a different role and bridge the compartments. Rather than suppress the marine, he had to reorient that portion of his personality. His relationships with Keoko and his children changed as they endured many months of tension, but by November 1990 Jim believed that his life had smoothed out. He discovered during Desert Storm that that was because he hadn’t looked beneath the surface. His letters and journal entries reflected that discovery:
Letter, December 5, 1990: “I have avoided thinking about my family. I have written but not called yet. It still hurts too much to think about those things. I have to face it soon and work through it.”
Journal entry, December 6: “On my end my life seems to be like a barber’s straight razor. As each day goes by like a strop on the leather belt, I seem to be getting a sharper and sharper edge.”
Journal entry, December 15: “Still no mail from home. I will call tomorrow. . . . This will all come back to haunt me. I’ve put different pieces of myself in little boxes in my head. I hope to hell I get my shit together.”
Journal entry, January 12: “My longing for my family and friends deepens with each passing day. At times I feel like I’m going to crack up, but then I calm down and go about my business.”
Journal entry, January 20: “I’ve had people wondering what has changed in me. I see it myself but I’m not totally sure what it is. I’ve become very quiet and withdrawn and then at odd times I lash out. . . . I’ve still not received a letter from my family.”
Letter, February 18: “My thoughts of late have been going straight home. I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching about who and what I was back there. I now don’t see the same person anymore. What I am I’m not sure of yet. . . . This has taken a lot out of me. What is filling the void that has been created I don’t see yet, but soon I will.”
Jim never did receive a letter from his wife. And he didn’t understand the void for another three months.
The ground war ended February 28. After a month of boredom, relieved by a day of “asshole closing” fear when he and some fellow marines wandered into a cluster-bomb field, Jim and his company returned to Camp Lejeune on April 2. Ten days later they flew to Chicago. The void flew home with him.
For three months he had fits of intense anger followed by storms of weeping. “I feel like a time bomb, like I’m gonna explode,” he told me at one point. But most of the time when I asked how he was doing, he’d reply, “Calm, just calm.” It was another mask, concealing a boxcar-sized depression. Finally, increasingly unable to cope, he sought help at a veteran’s center. Five months later, he continues to see a therapist. He has experienced flashbacks of SCUD missile attacks and obsessively works out as a means of directing his anger.
“After I got home,” he says, “I had a very nasty realization waiting for me. I found out that something I’d shared my life with for 15 fucking years, I didn’t love anymore.” He spoke haltingly. “To go away, and to come home with. . . . I don’t know what kind of expectations because I can’t even imagine what they really are, but to know that you really don’t love them anymore–you still care, you still worry about them, but to know that you don’t really have what you had before–it hurts, it really hurts.”
The void he felt in Saudi Arabia had grown as each day passed with no letter from his wife. It finally hit him when he returned: his relationship with Keoko had been empty for years. His marriage was nearly bankrupt emotionally, and he couldn’t compartmentalize his hurt. Would he have realized all of this had he not been called to war? I asked him. His curt reply: “No.”
Then, unable to sustain his mask, Jim covered his face with his hands. “The only real outcome of all this,” he continued between muted sobs, “is those who are dead and those who made it home. That’s it. You either make it home or you don’t make it home. And there are certain pieces of you that, even if you physically make it home, there are certain pieces of you that never come back. It hurts like a motherfucker. It’s not something I wanted to leave behind.”
“I never want to be away from her. We’re not married, but the total time that we’ve been apart since I’ve been home has been maybe six days, five days. That includes nights. ‘Cause when she’s here, she can sleep on the couch and I can sleep in my room. And when I’m at her house, we can sleep on the couch.”
William J. is explaining how he has not let his fiancee out of his sight since he returned from the gulf. “If she said, ‘I’m going to the store,’ OK, I’m going too.”
We’re sitting at the dining room table of his parents’ small house, late on a summer afternoon. Parked outside is his car, with new license plates that say “KUWAIT1.” A yellow ribbon still dangles from the front door months after his return; there are many yellow ribbons on many front doors in this all-black south suburb.
A strikingly handsome 23-year-old, William carries himself gracefully. He cuts an elegant figure in the clothes he wore to church this particular day. He was probably impressive in his dress uniform too, but he won’t wear it again. William is quitting the Marine Corps.
“There’s a lot of readjusting. A lot of readjusting to a lot of things that happened. [My fiancee] can’t realize or understand the change in me that happened from Mr. Mean, Mr. Violent before I left, which was basically [my] military personality, to Mr. Soft.”
“Why do you think you’ve stuck so close to her?” I ask.
“Because realizing where we were at, the risk that we took, it humbles you. It brings you down to earth. I used to call myself a pacifist. You try to mess with me, I’m gonna pass-my-fist through you. Pass-a-fist. And now, I’ll walk away from a fight I’d never walk away from before.
“It’s from seeing it,” he continues, staring past me as he tries to convey the images in his head. “Actually seeing dead bodies, seeing this blood–when you’re sitting 30 miles away and you hear explosions, and it’s shaking the ground, shaking the tents, you know people are dying. Every time you hear a boom, you know someone’s life has just been taken. You’re realizing it, you’re really close.”
Leaving the Corps was a dramatic switch for William, who joined the reserves at 17. He hadn’t done well in high school but he didn’t want to settle for a job. “I saw myself getting into a trap that a lot of people around this area get into. They say, ‘I’m making $7 an hour. You can do that too, [but if] you go to college, you ain’t making no money while you’re in school.’ In the small scale, $7 an hour is fine. And a lot of these people–some of their parents don’t even make that much. So when they hear $7 an hour, their eyes light up.
“You have to achieve more than that. So I went to the Marine Corps. I wanted the discipline, I wanted the leadership training, I wanted all that stuff that I could probably use in the corporate level. And then I could wait a couple of months to try to get into a school and say, ‘Well, I went to the Corps. I’m a marine now, I’ve grown up.’ And that’s exactly what happened. [A] university accepted me.”
But after the gulf war, William reevaluated what he had become. “The Marine Corps can turn you into a lot of things. In the Marines, I learned how to change personalities. Just click, and you’re this person. You click, you’re back to this person. If something would start to bother me in the civilian world, I’d just click and I’d just move on. And that was bad. ‘Cause a lot of things should have bothered me in the civilian world and I’d click and turn hard-nosed.”
His awareness of living two personalities in one body “started in August when Iraq attacked Kuwait. That’s when the personality started conflicting. I was fine until then. But watching CNN every day, I knew we were going instantly. The reserves are going. And then it started to bleed over. My defense mechanism of the Marine Corps was starting to say, ‘Start training yourself now in the civilian world, because you’re gonna be over there and you gotta bring these boys home.'”
Interior conflict wasn’t the only reason William decided to leave the Corps. In Saudi Arabia, he felt that some of the orders issued by the mostly white officers demonstrated a pervasive and largely unconscious racism. He and other blacks “would get together and discuss things, just to keep us going. Because the brass is all-white. Most of the sergeants were black, but you go higher than a sergeant, that’s when it drops dramatically.”
Typical of the brass’s insensitivity to blacks was an order issued by a white lieutenant colonel after the cease-fire. Saint Patrick’s Day was approaching, and Colonel H_______ ordered members of the reserve unit to wear their green uniforms for the occasion. “And we’re saying, why? For the entire war, we had Black History Month. That wasn’t recognized. You got other ethnic groups here, Polish, Korean, Filipinos. Anytime you start setting out one race, that just happens to be a light race, you gonna cause problems on the other side.
“We asked if it was a voluntary thing. They said, ‘No, it’s under orders. You have to.’ We had people dress in their chocolate drops [desert camouflage uniforms] in retaliation because we felt like, no, we’re not gonna do it. That caused problems. A lot of people were to get promotions, and as soon as it was their time to get promoted: ‘Well, remember that time you dressed up in your chocolate drops?’
“Here was Colonel H_______’s excuse,” he says, shaking his head. ‘Saint Patrick’s Day is a Chicago tradition. Therefore we are Chicago marines, therefore we are marching.’ Well, Harold Washington was the mayor, he had to, just as Daley probably goes in the Bud Billiken parade. But they’re not in a combat zone.”
In another incident, officers were to decide which members of William’s communications platoon would form Alpha command, the group that stayed with high-ranking officers while other communications specialists went to the front lines. “Comm platoon is maybe 60 to 70 percent minority. It’s real high for our platoon. When I got picked to go with the Alpha command, I looked around me and saw all these white guys, and looked at Bravo command and saw all the brothers over there. The Alpha command is used in the most protected area, because it’s where the colonels were at. The enemy’s way away.
“And that’s when we were like, why are all the brothers going to the front line? ‘Cause out of communications platoon, you pick people to go to the line units. Well, you take all the white guys and stick them in Alpha command. . . . When it’s time to pick people to go into the line companies, you just got the brothers. And that means they go to the front lines.”
After the war was over and the troops were waiting to leave, “We got to a position where they said, ‘You can [camp] where you want to.’ That became a problem [for the brass] because we had sections that we called the suburbs and the ghetto. The higher-ups were saying it was a racial thing, but it really wasn’t. There was some white guys in the ghetto and some black guys in the suburbs. Because they were friends.”
The racism William perceived frustrates him. “I’m in the middle. I see arguments of both sides. Yes, there is a disproportion of minorities in the military. A lot of people don’t have a way to escape their neighborhood. If I’m raised someplace and I don’t like it, I always know I can go into the military. I can get some foundation instead of getting on aid or welfare.
“But just look at who the brass are,” he continues earnestly. “The government should look at it and say, ‘If there’s more blacks in the military, why aren’t they in the upper ranks?’ I’m letting a lot of people down because I’m leaving. But I talked to another marine who said, ‘You’re not gonna change the world. So don’t even think like you are. You’re gonna go through more pain trying to change it than you are just by leaving.'”
I ask William what his primary feeling is now, since his return. He stops a moment and searches for the word he wants. Finally he says, “Withdrawing.” Like Roberto, William uses the metaphor of a bottle. “If you shake it up, cap it, and hold it under pressure, and then you let it go, it’s all gonna explode at one time. That’s why I just let things go. [I’m just] trying to figure everything out.”
According to the Pentagon, Desert Storm soldiers suffered no emotional difficulties after their return. A recent Army Times article reported that a Walter Reed Army Institute research team found little incidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among Desert Storm veterans. “What we are seeing,” the team reported, “is an extraordinarily healthy force. The real story is what the problems weren’t.”
In fact, active-duty soldiers often don’t report emotional problems. They are discouraged from admitting difficulties for fear of harassment from their officers and discharge from the service. Their tightly circumscribed environment allows them little autonomy and demands that they discount their psychological health if they want to stay in the service.
But autonomy and healthy emotional expression were the very qualities the reservists needed to regain when they returned to their families and to the nonmilitary world. They had to once again make choices and take control of their lives in ways they became unaccustomed to in Saudi Arabia.
I asked several reservists if, during their April layover at Camp Lejeune, they were provided with counseling or were encouraged to find some. One responded, “It was typical Marine Corps propaganda. They throw you a couple of pamphlets, a couple booklets. It’s like, ‘Read this.'” Another said, “Basically they told us not to beat our wives and to have a lot of sex with them.”
“I think a lot of people may be faking that they’re OK,” William says. “We’ll see how they’re managing in two or three years.”
But in two or three years, Desert Storm veterans may have more than the lingering effects of PTSD to contend with. In November the Pentagon banned blood donations from gulf war veterans after 22 of them were found to have leishmania, a blood parasite reportedly common in the Middle East. And according to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, other illnesses endemic to the region have lengthy incubation periods, some of them years, during which a veteran may have no symptoms at all.
Equally threatening may be the effects of three experimental drugs that thousands of Desert Storm troops took. One is an experimental vaccine against botulism, another a cream they were given to smear on their skin against the effects of mustard gas. The third drug, pyridostigmine bromide, soldiers took three times a day.
Pyridostigmine bromide is approved by the Food and Drug Administration only for treatment of neuromuscular disorders, such as myasthenia gravis, in which specific nerves no longer receive the signal that makes muscles contract. The drug bombards nerve receptors and produces the signal the muscles need in order to move. The effects of this reversible drug wear off quickly, and these patients take large doses of it.
Classified as an “investigational new drug” by the FDA, pyridostigmine can be used experimentally, but only if researchers follow the FDA’s protocols for investigational drugs. These protocols require that people taking the drug be informed of all known side effects and furnish their written consent.
But in a deal worked out between the FDA and the Pentagon in December 1990, and despite a lawsuit filed against the FDA by Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based citizen-advocacy organization, the FDA waived its protocol requirements for the Defense Department. Pyridostigmine bromide could be administered to Desert Storm soldiers by the Defense Department with impunity.
Desert Storm troops took low doses of pyridostigmine as a pretreatment against exposure to Iraqi nerve agents. These irreversible nerve agents bind permanently to nerve receptors, causing instant muscular contraction. Exposure to even a minute quantity of such nerve agents would kill a soldier in seconds–his diaphragm would contract and he would die of suffocation.
Based only on laboratory-animal studies, the Pentagon believed that low doses of pyridostigmine would partially block the nerve receptors affected by the lethal nerve agents. If attacked by nerve agents, Desert Storm soldiers were to inject themselves immediately with atropine, a drug that would completely block the nerve receptors, and then go to a field medical unit for further treatment. Each of the Chicago reservists carried an atropine injection at all times.
But what happens when thousands of healthy humans take a low dose of pyridostigmine for a long period of time? It’s difficult to say. Few long-term studies have been done on humans.
In what may be the first salvo of a public-relations offensive, the Army published a retrospective study of the effects of pyridostigmine in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They dismissed the problems reported among members of the 18th Airborne Corps–diarrhea, headaches, nausea, slurred speech, blurry vision, rashes, edema, acute elevations in blood pressure, muscular cramps, and involuntary twitching–and concluded that the drug can “be administered to virtually all soldiers . . . without impairment of military performance.”
One Army soldier I talked to reported going into convulsions after taking pyridostigmine for only two days. “Every muscle locked up,” he says. He experienced disabling headaches, uncontrollable urination and defecation, blurry vision, and disorientation. Rushed to a field medical unit, he was told that he had been given pills from a bad batch, though no one else in his company had become ill. After a few days of observation he was returned, “basically paralyzed for six days,” to his unit, where his friends cared for him, bringing him food and water and carrying him to the latrines. He does not want to be identified for fear of reprisals from the Pentagon.
And one member of the Chicago reserve unit reportedly began experiencing neuromuscular problems in February. His symptoms continued long after he had stopped taking the drug; for months he had uncontrollable twitches, severe muscle fatigue, blurry vision, headaches, and a complete intolerance to alcohol. Last summer he collapsed after walking less than a block and had to be rushed to a hospital. While the severity of his symptoms has since lessened, it’s an open question what permanent damage he may have sustained.
There may be more such cases among Desert Storm veterans, but it’s unlikely that we’ll learn about them through the Pentagon. In fact, Desert Storm soldiers’ medical records don’t even indicate that they took the drug. According to a spokeswoman in the Army Surgeon General’s Office, wartime security dictated that the administration of all experimental drugs be omitted from the records. She explained that the information is now slowly being added to records. But that was little comfort for one Chicago reservist, who said angrily, “It’s like Agent Orange all over again.”
The Military Families Support Network, an advocacy organization for Desert Storm veterans and their families, reports an abnormally high rate of miscarriage among the postwar pregnancies of veterans’ wives, and MFSN director Adelita Medina believes that there may be a relationship between the experimental drugs and the miscarriages. And another soldier told me that after his wife’s second miscarriage in four months, an Army doctor told him not to start a family for at least two years. Medina and the MFSN want the federal government to conduct a long-term epidemiological study of the effects of the experimental drugs on Desert Storm troops. Medina believes that these soldiers should be tracked to see if they develop health problems or if their children are born with birth defects. For months the MFSN has been lobbying members of Congress to start a registry of soldiers who took the drugs, but Congress has thus far been unresponsive.
There is one final problem that the reservists I talked to suffer from, though it’s hard to put a label on. An integral part of the training Desert Storm soldiers received focused on the debasement of Iraqis. Objectifying the Iraqi soldiers and denying their human qualities–the “fuckin’ hatred” Jim D. described–enabled U.S. soldiers to summon the will to kill them.
“I still don’t like them,” Jim said of Iraqis months after he returned, “and I still don’t care about them. That’s where probably the physical portion starts to come in, the physical violence, because you actually dehumanize them. If you thought, this is a father, this is a son, this is a brother, you’ll hesitate. And if you hesitate, you might die or somebody else might die.
“That’s the part,” he continued, “that dehumanizes you. You and them. ‘They’re ragheads, they’re fucking camel jockeys, they’re not people.’ Well, what the hell does that make me? They are people. They are humans. I know it in my head. But I don’t know it in my heart. And if I give up that piece of their humanity, what the hell piece of humanity am I giving up of myself?”
“What have you given up?” I countered.
Jim was quiet for a long time. Finally he said, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t miss it. But something’s gone.”
* The names of the reservists, their spouses, and their children have been changed to protect their privacy.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.