The Things He Carried

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In wine country north of Santa Barbara, before I left California

My call to arms came by e-mail on June 22, while I was at my office working on a research assignment for a partner at my law firm. The e-mail itself came as no surprise; I had volunteered for attachment to the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and mobilization to avoid a completely involuntary call-up, which I had been told was looming on the horizon. Still, the appearance of the orders shocked me. The two-page mobilization document left nothing to the imagination: It singled me out by name and Social Security number, mobilizing me for duty in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Everything about the war that had previously been academic or abstract suddenly became quite personal.

Active-duty soldiers and drilling reservists typically get many months of notice before a deployment; as an inactive reservist, I got roughly three weeks. Being mobilized for war involves changing jobs, moving, and leaving your family behind all at once. I was sorely tempted—as one lawyer at my firm suggested—to take a three-week-long siesta on the beach with my dog and some potent margaritas until my report date. But the Army officer in me knew better, so I developed a plan. When I was a young lieutenant in Korea, a charismatic brigade commander of mine likened mammoth military tasks to eating an elephant, saying that the only sure method was to eat it one bite at a time. And so I set out to tackle my deployment one piece at a time.

Telling my family and friends about the deployment was the first and hardest thing to do. My first call went to my best friend in New York. Like me, she had been expecting this for nearly the entire time we had known each other, and we had actually been through false mobilization alerts with the National Guard. However, this time was different, and she understood that as soon as I said I had orders (instead of a mere verbal warning). My subsequent calls went to my father, then my mother, then my grandparents, and then my aunt, then my best friends, eventually closing the circle of my immediate family. The next day, I told the partner I worked for at my firm and shared the news with the other junior attorneys over lunch. That afternoon, I shotgunned an e-mail to a few dozen of my friends, former colleagues, and people I hadn’t spoken to in years but I thought might want to hear.

It hurt to share this news, because I felt like I was inflicting pain on my family and friends. After all, I had volunteered for this when I could have theoretically continued to play inactive-reserve roulette, knowing that orders were probably on the way; I could have also volunteered for safer duty. Friends who have been there say the war is tougher on your family than on you. In Iraq, I will know when I am in danger and when I am safe, and I’ll be able to relax when I’m out of harm’s way. My family won’t. Every reported IED or sniper attack will jar them and send them rushing to CNN or their e-mail accounts to make sure it wasn’t me. Yet despite my worry, everyone seemed to keep a stiff upper lip. My grandfather, a World War II vet, was stoic and full of advice: “Don’t volunteer for nuthin’,” he said. Other family members reacted differently: Mom, who worried about me incessantly during my year of duty in South Korea, never shed a tear; Dad became the family organizer, planning a going-away party for me and pledging to create an e-mail chain to share any news from the front. Within seconds of hearing the news, my best friend volunteered to take custody of my precocious 3-year-old dog Peet. I even had a couple of professors I knew offer to send me journal articles and Supreme Court cases so I could continue my writing while overseas.

My law firm’s  human-resources team quickly swung into action, approving my use of sick and vacation time, and letting me know I’d be eligible for six months of differential pay after my call-up. (Federal law requires employers to hold reservists’ jobs for them, but goes no further, so my firm’s policy was quite generous.) My clients were very supportive; two even offered to send me care packages in Iraq. I tried to cancel my state bar membership, only to learn that California waived membership fees for mobilized reservists; I chose to keep it instead, because you never know when you’ll need your law license. The partners took me out to lunch at one of Los Angeles’ finer restaurants on my second-to-last day, the same restaurant they had taken me a few months before when I passed the bar exam. My fellow associates bought Anchor Steam, my favorite beer, to stock my last weekly happy hour at the office. I knew my absence would mean more work for my colleagues at the firm, yet they downplayed that, instead telling me how proud they were. Their gratitude only made me feel guiltier for leaving.

Wrestling with Peet, who I adopted in law school

The logistics of physically leaving Los Angeles took the bulk of my time during my last two weeks in town. I talked a law-school friend into taking over my apartment (for a reduced rent) while I was gone, eliminating the need to move out. But if ever there were a time for spring cleaning, this was it. So, with my best friend’s considerable help, I set to cleaning out my apartment. Any clothes that had not seen light in one year were readied for donation, along with old books, camping equipment, and three footlockers of Army gear. If it wasn’t going to war with me, why did I need it? The good stuff went to a local veterans’charity in Westwood; the rest went into the trash. Winston Churchill once said that nothing focuses the mind so much as being shot at without effect; I learned that the prospect of imminent combat focuses one’s housecleaning as well.

I also spent a lot of time doing things for the “last time,” something that felt strangely hedonistic and fatalistic at the same time. Most of these adventures involved things I’d get no taste of in Iraq—tasting wines in Santa Barbara and eating garlic chicken at my favorite Cuban place in Culver City, for example. Some were more physical, like going for my final run on the beach in Santa Monica taking Peet to play with his buddies at the Brentwood dog park one last time. The confident soldier in me knew I’d be back to do these things again, but it was still hard to silence the voice that asked constantly “what if?”

My unit sent me a packing list, but it had been a while since I had done something like this, so a bit of shopping was in order. I made a trip to REI and A-16, the local outdoors stores that stock everything an American mountainman or infantryman could want. (Army stuff is great, but nothing compares to Patagonia’s silkweight shirts and boxers.) I asked a friend stationed in Arizona to FedEx me some insignia so I could show up wearing the right uniform; I then took my battle dress uniforms to the L.A. Air Force Base to get them sewn on. Civilian tailors usually botch the job, so it was worth the 30 minute drive to ensure that I reported for duty with the right accoutrements.

As an inactive reservist, I had not practiced soldiering in a while, so I spent some time training my body and mind for war. I asked a colleague from the Los Angeles County anti-terrorism task force I had worked on to take me shooting, and he lined up some combat pistol practice with one of his department’s best shots. Instead of taking leisurely jogs with my dog, I went for longer runs by myself and intensified my weightlifting regimen as well. In those last few weeks, I scrounged the aisles of Borders, Barnes & Noble, and the UCLA bookstore in search of primers on Iraq, Islam, and counterinsurgency warfare, devouring the books I found in search of wisdom that might help my soldiers and me over there.

A few days before leaving, and just before I took the final load of clothing to my grandparents’ house for storage, I set out to pack for my deployment. A Marine I know in Iraq advised me to pack light, so I squeezed everything into one duffel bag, one gym bag, and a carry-on containing my laptop, medical records, and personnel file. On the advice of a fellow reservist, I also scanned the important documents like my birth certificate and military shot records into into PDF files and uploaded them into my official Army e-mail repository. At times, I felt like a college graduate packing for his backpacking tour of Europe, except I probably packed more socks, underwear, and razors. I also added a few sentimental items to the load, like the Ranger Handbook I’d carried in my rucksack as a lieutenant, and a small laminated photo album containing 15 or 20 pictures I could take with me to Iraq and back.

My dad volunteered to throw a backyard going-away party to gather all my friends and family in one place to send me off. The party started in a fairly jubilant mood, given the occasion; my family doesn’t do a lot of big get-togethers, so this was special despite its cause. But as the night went on and people started to leave, and I had to start saying goodbye, the night became much tougher. I had resolved not to drink much because I wanted to remember everyone and everything about my last night in Los Angeles with everyone. But when it came time to hug my grandmother for the last time, I suddenly wished I had finished the case of Sam Adams I had brought. After my family departed, leaving only my close friends, the conversation finally veered to my subject of my deployment itself. I tried to explain as much as I could, but found myself saying “I don’t know” more than any other phrase.

By the time the day came to report, I had numbed to the thought of my deployment. My checklist of tasks was complete: I had moved out, closed out my legal practice, hugged my dog, packed my bags, and said my goodbyes. Eventually, the time came to leave. My parents drove me to the airport so I could catch the 4:30 p.m. Southwest flight from Los Angeles to Nashville. We hugged at the curbside briefly, and that was it. I walked into the airport, went through security without a hassle, and sat down at Gate 13 with my bags to wait for the flight. I spent an hour hand-writing my will on the legal pad I had brought with me to write letters home, and then spent the next hour listening to my iPod, trying to relax while waiting for my flight. It would be a while before I saw Los Angeles again.

Tomorrow, Carter reports for duty and prepares to ship out.