De Nishia Yearby

September 22, 2008

(This content is produced by Rock the Vote in partnership with Wiretap.)

Kareem Lawrence, a 26-year-old Tallahassee, Florida native and disabled veteran, enlisted in the Army back in April 2001 at the age of 19. Since that time, he has been deployed to Iraq twice, in 2004 and 2007, serving as a unit supply specialist and armorer, among other duties. After numerous injuries, he returned home in December 2007.

He still struggles with how much he has changed since his first deployment. Like many of the over 30,000 injured soldiers returning from Iraq, readjusting to a daily life interrupted by two, three or even four deployments to Iraq is an ongoing challenge.

It is stories like his, of continuous mental and physical pain, that have contributed to the staggering suicide rates for returning soldiers–the highest in Army history. Wounded, well or waiting, there are currently 132,000 soldiers in Iraq and 30,000 in theater.

Lawrence intimately understands the challenges of returning soldiers. He has endured mental and physical pain–Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), permanent damage to his shoulder, back and knee–that has left him questioning his role in a war that continues to be waged at a cost of $12 billion dollars a month.

Lawrence recently sat down with Rock the Trail to talk about his time in Iraq, his painful adjustment to his new life and why he thinks American soldiers are being taken for granted.

Rock The Trail: Why did you enlist in the Army?

Kareem Lawrence

: I had a friend who was a recruiter. He used to come to my high school and he told me I would get a government vehicle and could hang out and have fun and get paid for it. I wasn’t doing anything constructive so I decided it was a good idea.

Did you ever imagine you would go to Iraq or Afghanistan?


: No, I never imagined I would be deployed. Everything was peaceful when I joined. They [recruiters] said it was money and parties and that’s what I joined for. September 11th happened while I was in training. We were actually in Virginia nearby the Pentagon when it happened. We were on a road march and they just told us to get on the ground and lay down. We didn’t know what was going on for almost an hour and a half. Then they told us something about planes hitting a building. Next thing you know, we were on lockdown.

What was your reaction when you found out that you were going to be deployed?


: My first reaction was that I was going to die because when the war broke out, that was all you were seeing. Jessica Lynch was stationed in El Paso with us. When everything broke out, the whole base was supposed to get shipped out at the same time. Something happened and my unit didn’t go. Jessica’s unit went out there, and they got ambushed. We’re sitting at home and watching them getting shot up on TV. I was sitting in the hotel room watching the news and they showed the face of this guy I used to hang out with on TV. I just broke out crying. We use to hang out–go to the clubs, go shopping–he was a real cool person. He was very “churchy.” Him dying was the first time it got real [for me].

We were on standby. We kept packing our clothes because we never knew when we were leaving. Your family is stressing out because they don’t know when or if you’re going because they keep hearing different information. You kind of want to go ahead and get it over with, but at the same time, you don’t. I mean, I didn’t think I was ever coming back.

How did you feel about going overseas for the first time in combat?


: I didn’t like it because I’m from Tallahassee where I was used to the whole family thing and being able to go around the corner and see whoever I wanted to see. In Iraq, they have phone centers, but sometimes the line was so long that you couldn’t even call. If something happens, the phone lines would get cut off. You may go days and people don’t know what’s going on with you. You’re so busy that communication is really stressful. The good thing for me, I guess, is I didn’t have as much stress as people who had small children. I couldn’t imagine how that would feel.

How would you describe your Iraq experience?


: Scary. It got real when they touched down in Kuwait. It’s a false sense of security when you hit Kuwait. It looks like Iraq but it’s not. There’s no bombing. They put you there, treat you to great food, comedy shows, concerts with Lil Wayne or 50 Cent and you get comfortable. When you hit Iraq, it’s nothing like that.

Were you able to meet the people of Iraq? What was that like?


: My name is Kareem so they automatically thought I was Muslim. They were cool with me. They would bring me little gifts and souvenirs to take home. They taught me Iraqi phrases, they sang me a Lil Kareem song. It was great. You can’t hate a whole people.

What were your relationships like with fellow soldiers?


: The people I went with the first time around were in my unit for a couple of years. I worked with them every day. I was more comfortable the first time because it felt like being with family. The second time was different. I came home from work in May of 2007 and there was a FedEx package that said, “Show up June 3, 2007. You’re going back to Iraq.” I didn’t know who I was going with. When I got there I didn’t know anybody. I had to go through the process of meeting new people who had already been together and gone through training together.

Did you ever question the war?


: Yes, because it didn’t make sense. When you see someone [who is] 18 or 19 die, someone who hasn’t lived or had real life experiences, didn’t have a chance to have a kid and a family, you think, Why are we doing this? People are dying. The Iraqis are dying. We’re killing off all of their people and for what?

Did you ever speak up against things you disagreed with?


: In Iraq? No. That’s probably not the best idea. For one, you really can’t speak up unless you have a certain amount of rank. If you’re not one of the people in charge or running something, what are you going to say? You’re just a body. You’re just another body to fill a spot. If something happens to you, they’ll find other bodies to fill in the slot.

How did young people cope with war and being away from home?


: It’s different for everybody. There’s a lot of people over there that have families, others are dating. There have been a lot of quick marriages because you feel like you want to get married and be with this person. You’re scared. The distance gets to you. The divorce rate is ridiculous. It’s only human nature that people get paranoid. They try calling you and because of the difference in time, it makes it harder for people to be reached. They may be at work or something. You want your loved one to be available at all times and it’s really not fair to that person.

You feel like it’s never going to end. You’re missing periods in your life that you can never get back. A lot of people get excited about their 21st birthday because you finally get to drink legally. If you turn 21 in Iraq, what are you going to do? You can’t get that year back. You come back to America and try to make up for the missed time.

Did a lot of people disagree with the war?


: The longer it goes on, the more people disagree. When it initially started, everyone went along with it. It seemed like there was an actual reason why everyone was going over there. The longer it’s going on, you ask yourself, Why do we have to keep coming over here? It also feels like there’s unequal distribution of deployment. You’ve got people that haven’t been at all and there are other people who have been three or four times.

What was the ratio of younger to older soldiers?


: I would say the average was three to one. There are a lot more young people. I’m 26 and the average age was 22. You may not get deployed if you’ve been in the military longer and you know somebody that can get you assigned to a unit that’s not going anywhere, whereas you don’t have that kind of pull when you’re younger. The only way not to go is if you’re a female and you get knocked up. Women are doing that left and right; They just want to get pregnant so they won’t have to stay in Iraq.

How did this war affect your life?


: Before I went to Iraq, there was so much stuff I wanted to do. Those chunks of time make you lose motivation. The second time I was deployed, I was enrolled in pharmacy school at Florida A&M University. I was supposed to start in August 2007. They sent the FedEx saying I had to go back to Iraq in May. I had been home for two years working and minding my business.

That was discouraging because when I joined the army in 2001, I didn’t want to go to school nor did I have the motivation to go. When I found something I wanted to do and made all the steps to get into pharmacy school, they took it from me. It takes portions of your life. A lot of veterans return home mentally scarred with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Do you have PTSD?


: I don’t know if I would classify myself as having it, but the doctor does. They ask you questions about how you go about your day-to-day life. I notice that I am more withdrawn from people. I don’t want to socialize. At times, I just want to be alone. My mother told me that I was a little more irritable. I never cussed at her or anything, but I know a couple of times we bumped heads. I’ve had other days where I’ve been down. You have to force yourself to get up and do something.

What are the hardest obstacles to readjusting to day-to-day life?


: I’m not adjusted to daily life. My first time in Iraq, I hurt my shoulder. I was with the hospital unit. I told them I hurt my shoulder and they kept giving me pills. My shoulder was just hanging [there], but they kept telling me I would be okay. There were days when it felt okay, and there were days when it was numb and I couldn’t move it. When I got back to the states, I had to have surgery and rehab.

I didn’t know how to deal with it. There are classes and they try to tell you what it’s going to be like when you’re back. But it’s nothing like what they said it was going to be like. When you get back, you see so much has changed. You see how much people have changed and what you missed in the time you were gone. My sister died as soon as I came home. I didn’t get to talk to her in Iraq. I hadn’t talked to her in almost a year and she’s dead now. I can’t get that back. It’s just gone.

My second time, I was going back and forth between Germany and Iraq. They weren’t sure if they were going to send me home. Then they sent me down to Fort Benning rehab in Columbus, Georgia. I got surgery. I got shipped to Iraq, twice, and got hurt, twice, now I just want to be fixed so I can live my life. They ended up telling me that I’m going to have knee troubles for the rest of my life. They said there’s no point in doing surgery. I’m just going to have knee pains. At 26, I’m thinking about how I’m going to be limping and hurting for the rest of my life. I want to have kids. I’m thinking about running outside with my babies. If I’m hurting now, what’s it going to be like when I have a two-year-old?

What are your worst fears now that you’re back?


: My worst fear is that things will never be like they were. You may never be the person that you were. If you went to war at 22, like I did, and you’ve been there twice, like me, you’ve seen all kinds of things. When you get back and you’re dealing with friends and family, the first thing everyone wants to know is, “How many people did you kill? Did you shoot somebody?” That’s all they want to talk about.

You don’t take things for granted like you used to. I get kind of irritated when people don’t appreciate what they have–being able to wake up in a bed, jump in a regular shower, and if you’re hungry, drive to McDonald’s and get a cheeseburger.

Have you been able to access all of the services–medical care, job assistance and financial aid–that you need?


: I haven’t had a problem, but I’ve heard of other people having problems. I went online and researched it, so I knew exactly what I was doing when I got out. You have to be proactive about it. If you know you’re about to get out, you need to make those steps and get started because if you wait until you get out of the Army, you’re no longer first priority. If you wait until you get out, you may be waiting for years.

What are the main veterans’ issues you want to see presidential candidates tackle?


: Financial assistance. Not for me, because I feel like I’m okay right now. But, if someone has served in past and current wars, they should be helped. There are so many people that haven’t been helped. Kobe Bryant gets paid to dribble a basketball. A man may have gotten paralyzed for life defending this country. How much money does he get? I never really understood that. What about Bob who left his family five times, or Daniel who can’t go to the bathroom by himself? They can’t get some money? It’s ridiculous.

Do you think soldiers should be withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan?


: Yes.

Reading this interview, people may think you aren’t a very patriotic veteran. You don’t have that “dying for my country” spirit, or do you?


: I’ll die for my mother. I’ll die for niece. The country? No. This is a great country. The best place to live, but I wouldn’t die for it.

Wouldn’t you say that you’re defying those beliefs and values that the Army tries to instill in all soldiers?


: Yes. In basic training, they convince you that you will die for this country. You go through your school training and then you get assigned to your unit. Throughout this time, you see people get their flag tattoos and use patriotic phrases. Like I said, this is a great country. I love this country. I’m not going to go and burn a flag or nothing like that, but I’m not going to die for the country. If I go over there and die, I’m just another body. They’re going to ship me back. There will be a little footnote in the newspaper in Tallahassee that says, ‘Local Soldier Killed.’ And that’s it.

There was a soldier’s funeral about a month ago and they had a little procession through the city with a flag on his casket. I remember one of my homeboys saying it was emotional. He said he was so touched by the ceremony that he stopped his car and stood there for a second. He got back in his car, went to his house and drank his beer. That man is still dead. He died for the country. Now what?

De Nishia Yearby is a reporter of Rock the Trail–a project of Rock the Vote and WireTap.