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The War Comes Home

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Anand Gopal

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November 7, 2007

War is everywhere here. On his wall, the banner of his unit, the 101st Airborne, hangs next to a framed portrait of his good friend and fallen soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Karpowich. He wears a tight-fitting U.S. Army tee as he shows off thousands of pictures and videos from his Iraq tour. There are pictures of military vehicles spotted with gunfire, captured Iraqis cowering on the ground, and exotic weapons. There are pools of blood, mangled military equipment and even a recovered bomb-belt from a thwarted suicide mission.

He doesn't want you to get the wrong idea, however. "Americans think war is glorious," he says, "but war is only beautiful to those who know nothing about it--it is barbaric."

To Forget or Regret?

Jesse Hamilton wasn't always like this. Growing up in north Jersey, it was strip malls and dead-end jobs, frat parties and suburban ennui. War was thrilling and guns sexy. So when he dropped by an Army recruiting office, the recruiter's sparkling offers were just the right mix of excitement and direction. "Army recruiters are fast talkers," he says.

Hamilton enlisted as a scout, spent four years at Ft. Campbell, Ky., and then slid into the reserves and enrolled in drill sergeant school. Eventually, he began gearing up for war. "After 9-11 everybody wanted to go to Afghanistan. I was a fanatic about going in there."

Soon however there were sparks of doubt in Hamilton's mind. "I saw that Michael Moore film--what was it called? Fahrenheit 911. It was so radically liberal, and I didn't believe 95 percent of it. But it kind of opened my eyes." And then a man dressed in Iraqi Army fatigues walked into a soldiers' mess hall in Mosul and detonated a bomb strapped to his chest, killing Karpowich and 21 other Americans.

By early 2005, he was quickly waxing anti-war. War was still thrilling, however, and it could still solve problems. "An opportunity came up to serve as an embedded advisor to the Iraqi Army. I said 'I could help end the war by going over there and training Iraqis'" to better police the country.

By August, Staff Sergeant Jesse Hamilton found himself in the embattled city of Fallujah, little more than a year after Marines plowed through the city and ended a six-month insurrection. "They destroyed the city. They destroyed and ransacked homes, and they kicked people out from where they were living," he says.

Tasked with training Iraqi soldiers to control the restive city, he went on mounted patrols, conducted house raids and performed coordinate searches. "There are things people did that I am ashamed of," he admits. Iraqi soldiers would unleash "death blossoms," gusts of gunfire aimed in no particular direction, which often hit innocent civilians. Soldiers would dehumanize Iraqis, driving them into the arms of the insurgency. There were bloodied Iraqis, gunned down by American fire and captured on his film. There was the never-ending news of friends and colleagues, torn into pieces by insurgent bombs.

There was the daily patter of machine gunfire and the brisance of detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It all began to wear on Hamilton. Soon the end of his tour couldn't come faster, and he found nothing more brutal that warfare. The romance of war had faded.

Back home, he cringes at the video games and movies that he feels sell war. But he still shows the photos, the mementos and the memorabilia to anyone who is curious. He still talks the talk and wears the garb. He surrounds himself by war, so that he will never forget. Meanwhile, another potential teenage recruit faced tough questions about his future and the prospect of war.

Iraqis Are Us

Where do you see yourself in ten years? What do you want out of life? The recruiter said that all young men should think about these questions, that he should want to better himself. But Fernando Braga, didn't really know how to answer. He did know that he wanted to go to college, get a job with a pension maybe. He knew about the GI bill, and he knew he wanted to help his mom, a domestic maid. He also knew that the Army life is tough, that governments lie and that war isn't pretty.

But when it came right down to it, Braga, a diffident, unassuming 25-year-old with wispy brown curls and narrow frame, knew that the military was one of the few options available to a working-class immigrant from Brazil living in the Bronx, N.Y. He joined the National Guard after high school, got shipped off to Ft. Jackson, S.C., for eight weeks, and ended up as a paper pusher in Ft. Lewis, Va. "I'm not in it because I want to go run around in the desert," he admits. "I just wanted to go to school."

By March 2004, Specialist Fernando Braga was convoying up to Camp Cedar 2, south of Nasiriyah and a fly-infested 10-minute drive from the ancient city of Ur. "It was hot as hell," he recalls. "There was nothing to look at but dirt all the way up. You could see tire tracks going off to the side, but you didn't know where they were going." When not moving trash or cleaning the base, he would occasionally accompany private contractors like those from Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) on supply missions. Near misses with IEDs and ambushes became regular.

But it wasn't the violence that left the biggest cast on his mind. Growing up in a post-9-11 world, Muslims were exotic at best, fanatical at worst. And Iraq was a monolithic whole, unsullied by such complexities as secularism and intraregional diversity. What he found once in theater, however, surprised him. "Many of the women didn't wear veils, not the women I saw; some times they wore a headscarf and some of them didn't even wear that." He adds, "I expected women to be mostly in the home, not in the field and doing work."

For many in the U.S. military ranks, Iraqis were "hajjs" or "rag heads" or worse. "The culture at home puts it out like that, so there's nothing different to expect" in Iraq, Braga explains. Most soldiers felt that the Iraqis were poor and backward, desperate for American help. On the road near camp, bare-footed Iraqi merchants had set up makeshift stalls of mud, clay and straw, while others peddled wares from tarps hoisted by a single wooden stick.

It was a plaintive display in an atypically rustic corner of Iraq, but to many GIs helping these impoverished Iraqis eclipsed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as the casus belli. In and around Baghdad, however, Braga found a reminder of his own upbringing. "People everywhere are basically the same," he says. "It was funny to realize the similarities--you want to see poverty? Go to the urban centers. It looks like poverty in New York or Brazil."

Back home in the Bronx he started to think about what made him different from Iraqis and what he had in common. "When we drove by the cities," there were "kids going to school, in their uniforms. It was like any country, with the same differences--rich, poor, secular and religious--as in our country."

Braga is back in school now, doing the ordinary things that most Iraqis can no longer do. And he speaks out to anyone that will listen with the message that poor Americans and Iraqis have a lot more in common than anyone would like to admit.

Survival and Action

He becomes enraged even thinking about it. He was the one who put his life on the line, not those smug critics calling him unpatriotic. "If someone is not going to give me respect over what I say, then they are not worth my respect," he says angrily.

With fiercely passionate eyes, a goatee-speckled visage and a large tattoo of Chinese characters in fuchsia ink that peeks out from under his right sleeve, he looks a bit older than his 25 years. He is sick and tired of people who don't understand him, who don't want to understand his experiences. They told him to move on, get a job, and most of all, to stop complaining about the war. "I'm supposed to walk around and say, 'That's OK'?" he says as he glowers ahead. "I'm supposed to walk into my 9-to-5 as if nothing has happened? I walk around and half the time I want to smack the shit out of people."

The war did quite a number on Steve Mortillo. The resentment he harbors, however, was once directed elsewhere. As a child, he watched the fires from the first World Trade Center attack from his house in North Jersey. His grandmother, who worked in the towers, escaped, but the whole experience proved terrifying. By the time two planes slammed into the towers that morning in September, he was convinced that he had to do something about it.

"I was 19 and didn't have a high school diploma and was looking for a way to change my life in a drastic way," he recalls. "I got my GED, then walked into the (Military Entrance Processing Station) MEPS station and said 'I want to fight. Send me where I need to go.' I wanted to go to Afghanistan to get back at these people." Mortillo did his time at Ft. Knox, became a calvary scout, and was shipped off to Swineford, Germany, before deploying to Samarra in February of 2004.

The guns were silent when Specialist Mortillo arrived to forward operating base (FOB) McKenzie, just south of Samarra. There were large mansions with exquisite gardens, a highway system that could have been lifted out of California, and a population that was either sympathetic or indifferent to the U.S. presence. "I was thinking 'what a beautiful place'--I had thought that these were Third World people who couldn't help themselves. But they were happy there." He continues, "The culture really confuses me--I thought, why are men holding hands? On the one hand, there is this violence that the Middle East possesses, and on the other hand there's a lot of tenderness. I just didn't understand."

The tenderness, however, began to evaporate. Mortillo did house raids, checkpoints and roving patrols. A group of soldiers would burst into a darkened house, screaming at the top of their lungs, while terrified Iraqis were rounded up wholesale. "I've been in operations were we rounded up literally 150 people at one time," he recalls. He guesses that 90 percent of the time, unless Special Forces were involved, the U.S. forces took in innocents. Soldiers screamed at Iraqis, humiliated them, and even killed them at times.

By April, the insurgency was in full force; units faced daily attacks and parts of the city became no-go for soldiers. The Army moved in, desperate not to let Samarra become another Fallujah. "We blew the ever-loving hell out of Samarra," he recalls. "We went in with 36 Bradleys and 27 tanks. You could hear 25 mm chain guns going off like popcorn. There were 2,000-pound bombs that got dropped, and there were Hellfire missiles fired into buildings."

Many of the dead in the Samarra siege were civilians, and the insurgency grew in confidence and reach. By the end of the year, Mortillo had suffered 13 near hits. "I got hit by IEDs, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), indirect fire, and was in a Bradley that got hit," he recalls.

Two weeks before Christmas 2004, Mortillo thought that he was dead for sure. He was on a dismounted patrol with a platoon leader and two others when "we got hit on this little path right at the edge of the field. [My platoon leader] got shot by the first round, which went through his arm and into his rib cage." The others went to tend to the wounded solider, and Mortillo was left to fend for himself. Bullets whizzed past his head and thick, yellow smoke that had been kicked up from the road smothered him. He desperately radioed for help as he fired off a grenade launcher and his M4 Carbine [rifle]. "There was definitely a period where I could acknowledge that I was about to die."

Mortillo eventually managed to escape after unloading the grenade launcher and the M4 on the environs. And a month later he managed to finish his tour, unharmed but changed forever after ten months of skirting death. "While I was there, I was trying to survive, but I had a lot of anger." It became hard to deal with the simplest affront or the slightest suggestion that he should support the war.

Slowly, however, he began to channel his anger. What if he could transform those unforgettable moments, the hailstorms of gunfire, the IEDs, the camaraderie? "It took a real long time for me to come to grips with it," he admits.

He joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW)--they weren't "tie-dyed, smelly hippies," and they were serious about stopping the war. He started going to protests, speaking out against the war, and organizing against military recruitment. He started meeting supporters, allies and even friends. Still angst-ridden, Mortillo nonetheless found a new sense of purpose. "When I realized I should be in IVAW, it was very liberating for me," he says. "I could be myself, and it could be OK."

For more info about Iraq veterans peace efforts, visit: Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace

Anand Gopal is a freelance journalist and writer. He is a founding editor of the Finland Station, a political magazine and writes widely about current events. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.

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