The picture looks grim.
Thousands of men and women are returning home from a war that has, for the ordinary citizen both here and in Iraq, done nothing but manufacture cripples and corpses. The stench of the dead, of dismembered children, of dogs wired with homemade bombs rises to the heavens. And the American soldiers who survive this hell on earth are returning home sick, broken, damaged, and medicated for lifelong physical and mental injuries. The veterans of the current war will be the legacy of this presidency. They will haunt us for generations.
Sooner or later, many of us will find ourselves somehow affected by or entangled with the lives of these men and women, dealing with their nightmares, their sense of alienation, their medical problems, and having difficult personal and sexual encounters with them. And sex is precisely how Sarah entered this stormy world of war veterans, a storm whose spreading dark clouds will soon blanket all of us.
Sarah is against the Iraq war—like so many people in Seattle, she is politically liberal. In fact, those on the far right would call her a radical: she recognizes George W. Bush not as a democratically elected president but as a dictator, and believes that the form of government practiced by the Bush administration is ultimately totalitarian. For a long time, the war and its casualties existed at a distance from Sarah. The war, as passionately as she opposed it, was not part of her immediate urban reality. Its destruction, its consequences, is not in our city; it has not come home in a real way—which is why, when Sarah first met one of its veterans, she was intrigued.
One night Sarah, who is in her mid 30s, attractive, amicable, and sharp (she holds a master's degree from Seattle University), was at the Showbox for a benefit for the 2004 tsunami. She was drinking with a girlfriend. Two guys with bald heads stood nearby, bobbing to the music. One was wearing a T-shirt that read "IRAQ." Curious, Sarah went up to them and asked, "What's with the bald heads? Are you guys skinheads?"
"Real estate," the first one replied. "I'm balding, so I shave it clean. But my friend here, he's in Iraq."
His name was Peter and he was back on a break from active duty. She tried to engage him. He wasn't very talkative.
She kept at it, though, making small talk, smiling.
At another time, in another place, she might have been harsh, might have dismissed him silently as alien, duped, pitiable. She is profoundly against the war. She is educated. She manages a successful band. She is trying to broaden the arts curriculum in Seattle public schools. She wound up in his hotel room.
After they had sex, the soldier—breathing heavily, totally spent—jokingly asked Sarah if she was trying to kill him. When he got up and went to the bathroom, Sarah rolled over and noticed a large handgun on the table. It was sitting next to a bible.
When he came out, she asked him, "What does 'infantry' mean?"
"We're the guys in movies who kick down the door," he replied.
"Show me how you kick down a door in war."
He demonstrated on one of the hotel room's doors.
Sarah wanted to know more, maybe feel more.
At the time she was going through a divorce and her encounter with this soldier was a diversion from the wreckage of her marriage. The very idea of meeting a soldier and learning more about the military, about why he enlisted and why he's in Iraq, excited her intellectually and sexually. Was she darkly attracted to the violence of war? To the raw masculinity of armed force? She went online and found a few military dating sites—Military.com, MeetMilitaryMen.com, loveinuniform.com.
She was tempted to sign up, but for a few days she resisted the urge. In her social circle, lusting after soldiers—even with the aim of trying to understand a mindset foreign to her own—was a cultural and political taboo. Eventually, though, she gave in and made a few quick stabs at her keyboard. In a flash, the face of a handsome young soldier appeared, wanting to chat.
"Tell me about your days," Sarah asked him.
His name was Wayne. He was 25, from Alabama, a private first class.
"I SP in the early mornings usually, 30 minutes after Redcon 1," he replied, oblivious to Sarah's lack of familiarity with military jargon. "I PT on my own so I can meet or surpass APFT standards."
"What's SP?" Sarah typed.
"Start point. We roll a few minutes after SP."
"Are you sitting at your big gun when you're cruising?"
"Yes," typed the soldier. "It's a 7.52mm fully automatic weapon. Fires about 800 rounds per minute."
"Powerful. Would love to see a pic."
"We can only return fire, and then it's shoot to kill."
"Well, that's a good philosophy, honestly," Sarah wrote. "Less dead people. Better karma."
"I also carry three blades on me. In my shirt, vest, and pants."
"Do you feel confident about your killing skills with a blade?"
She paused for a moment.
"So, guess what I'm wearing?"
One morning, Sarah found a series of black-and-white photographs in her in-box. They were pictures of Wayne. She had requested them during one of their e-mail exchanges. He was nude, posing with a massive black assault rifle.
"Believe it or not, we've got downtime just like everyone else," Wayne said in his e-mail.
Sarah was moved. Somehow Wayne appeared vulnerable, even while holding a gun. He had a Prince Albert piercing.
She wrote and thanked him for the pictures and asked if he really wanted to kill people.
"I have to kill," Wayne wrote back. "But it's not in my nature. I tend to be a peaceful person. But yes, I think these fucks deserve it. I do this to honor my nieces and nephews. I honor their souls by damning mine."
The answer startled her. She glimpsed an intense, internal struggle. She posted a request for more photos—not just from Wayne, but from any solider on the front line in Iraq.
Hundreds of photos poured in. Mosques at sunset. Arab men with their brains blown out. Children selling cigarettes to soldiers. More sexual photos, many of men in uniform.
"I know this sounds weird," Ned wrote, "But the only thing I want to change in my life is that I want you in it."
Ned, a 19-year-old soldier, had gone AWOL a few days earlier, but was caught and returned to base. Now he was back on a laptop, seeking out Sarah a few hours before dawn.
"This is tearing me apart 'cuz I like you and I know you like me," he said. "But it's not that simple. Shit, my whole body is trembling right now."
"You just made mine do the same," responded Sarah.
"I'm actually crying now."
"Oh, sweetie, you are so tired."
"No, I'm not," Ned insisted. "I'm just bothered. I don't know how I can cry tears for a person I have never met, but they mean something. It's hard to explain."
"Crying is beautiful," Sarah reassured him. "Liquid joy."
"It's not joy," Ned replied. "It's pain."
A week later, Ned went AWOL again. And again he was hauled back to base.
A few days after that, he fell off the back of a moving convoy. He simply tumbled out onto the hot, arid earth and blew out a knee.
After months of corresponding with Wayne, Sarah agreed to meet him. He was on leave for 14 days in Palm Springs, visiting his family. She flew there from Seattle to catch the tail end of his stay. She was nervous. One of the last things he'd written was, "I am a black void of energy and other times a supernova."
As she came down the stairs from her plane, she saw a sign. It read "Sarah Rawks My Socks." They stared at each other, wearing frozen grins. He was not as tall or as big as she had imagined.
"It's actually happening," Wayne said.
She gave him a belt buckle for a present. He insisted they find a belt to go with it—immediately. He wanted to accomplish a bunch of things: a tram ride, an art walk, a hot-air-balloon trip. She could feel his sense of urgency.
He went to Borders and bought a book: Everything Bad Is Good for You.
They walked through a fair. Wayne was alert, attuned to his surroundings, as if still on patrol. Somebody whispered in a singsong voice, "Mil-li-tare-ree." Wayne turned and saw a group of men smiling at him from a picnic table.
"Are they giving you shit?" Sarah asked.
"They're gay," Wayne replied, leading her deeper into the crowd.
Some people shook Wayne's hand. He made sure he enjoyed everything he ate. He made sure Sarah knew he was just into girls.
A few days into the visit they felt time running out. Her soldier would soon be back in Iraq. He was touching her constantly. At night, he would fight in his sleep.
"I'm glad I'm going back," he said in the darkness. "I can come home sooner."
They said goodbye at a tattoo shop. Wayne got a watercolor bonsai tree, to remind him to breathe and be tranquil. It was his first tattoo. Sarah wanted to go to the airport with him, but he said his family was seeing him off. She wanted him to tell her he loved her. She thought it might be the last time she talked to him.
Sarah began meeting other soldiers, the ones to which she felt a connection. Daryl was 27, from Iowa. He was in the first wave, when Baghdad fell. Three years later, he was back for good, in a whole new part of the world: Ft. Lewis, Tacoma.
They met at a park in West Seattle. He was tall and strikingly handsome with big, doe-brown eyes and long eyelashes. He had a cowboy hat on. A cluster of small scars distinguished his face. Sarah said hello and started explaining their surroundings: Elliott Bay, downtown Seattle, the ferries.
They went to Pike Place Market. They ate at Cutters Bayhouse. They went dancing at Neighbours. Daryl felt out of place. They weren't really clicking. She heard comments, like, "Hey, cowboy."
The sex was rough: choking, dirty talk. The skin above his hip was deep scar tissue, swollen with fragments of a wall that had exploded beside him. At one point, Sarah was knocked to the floor. Daryl panicked, begged for forgiveness. It wasn't an issue. They talked more openly. She learned that Daryl, like almost all of the soldiers she'd gotten to know, had been subject to emotional and physical abuse within his own family: things like cigarette burns, rape, humiliation. The army was his only way out.
Sarah didn't see the irony, a cycle of abuse perpetuating itself on a global scale. But Daryl was different, of this she was sure: He'd joined as a medic. They decided to spend the weekend together.
The next soldier was a gentleman. His name was Gus. He was African American, 36, placid, handsome. He was divorced, like Sarah. They'd had one date in Seattle, where he'd given her swag: a T-shirt and hat that read "Army of One," and dog tags engraved with "The Most Beautiful Woman" and "If You Can Read This You Should Be Breastfeeding."
She met Gus the next time at a drag race in a rural town south of Chicago. Everywhere they went that day, people saluted him. Mothers stopped him to have their pictures taken with him. Children shook his hand, thanked him for his work. Gus wasn't active duty, though. He was a recruiter.
That night, in an even smaller town, they walked through a corn festival. The autumn air was mild. They were arm in arm. They stumbled into an Elks club. The room went silent. She thought they'd found a headquarters for the Klan.
"Are you cool?" Sarah asked Gus.
"Oh, yeah," Gus replied.
They finished their drinks, went back onto the main street. She watched dance teams performing under the stoplights. For a moment she lost Gus. Wandering through the crowd, she finally saw him. He was surrounded by a group of white men and women. Everyone was smiling. He was handing out swag.
A month later, it was Sarah's birthday. Daryl wanted to join her in Seattle, but he couldn't cover the gas for the ride up from Tacoma.
"I'll find a way," Daryl promised her. "But don't ask me how I got the money."
On his way out of town, Daryl visited a male strip club owned by a friend of his. He went to the back and took off his clothes. He worried about cameras. The army was known for staking out gay bars. Evidence of homosexuality or bisexuality was grounds for discharge—it could mean an end to his career, an end to the money financing his education. He thought of Sarah. He hit the stage.
Daryl left the club with $200. He filled his tank, drove to Seattle, and treated Sarah like a queen.
Despite a blossoming romance with Daryl, Sarah still welcomed personal contact with other soldiers. One soldier, Don, sent her some photos of his experience in Iraq. Sarah asked him if she could use the photos for an art project she was working on. Don agreed. She invited him to come to a party she was hosting at a downtown nightclub. Don arrived at the club where a band was playing. Some of the photos he took during the war were incorporated into the artwork of the band's latest CD in an antiwar statement. He said he was thrilled.
As the night progressed, Don began drinking hard.
He started telling horrible stories. He kept saying how fucked up he was. He wanted to talk to one of the musicians who was an Iraqi.
"You are the best girlfriend ever," he said to Sarah. "Not girlfriend, but friend, you know? No one has ever done anything like this for me before."
She wanted to make him feel normal, make all soldiers feel normal. But now she was concerned about his mental state; he was a little too intense. The things he wanted to say, to share, were not easy to communicate. He had watched an Iraqi man filling sandbags. The man was educated, clearly someone of importance (a former officer, government official, lawyer), but there he was, reduced to filling sandbags. Then there were the truly horrible things: the improvised explosive devices, the carnage, the snipers, the bodies dumped on the streets at night and discovered at dawn.
Along with the thousands of mentally unstable Iraq war veterans, there are thousands of newly dismembered young Americans—men and women with missing digits, feet, legs, arms. So far, nearly 20,000 U.S. soldiers have been injured by this war, many losing hearing in one or both ears or sight in one or both eyes. And then there is the lung damage. Sarah learned that one of the leading consequences of fighting "terrorism" in Iraq is returning home with severely scarred lungs. One soldier told her that the pollution in Baghdad is so bad that breathing one day's worth of that city's air approximates breathing a year's worth in L.A. This may or may not be true, but the reality is certainly this: Lungs that return from our country's first war of the 21st century are often filled with smoke from burning bodies and also from burning shit—the feces that soldiers have to burn because there are no toilets in the desert. There is also the danger of chemical exposure, and illnesses that have yet to be explained or named.
A growing awareness of this other side of the war—which is rarely reported on or recognized as a serious problem—eventually transformed Sarah's fascination with military power into an outright and outraged activism for war veterans, most of whom are poor. "I was amazed by how hungry and poor they are, particularly the single soldiers—if you're not married, the army treats you like shit," she says. Soldiers often receive below-standard health care for their mental and physical injuries. "If a soldier returns home, it's better for them to get their lungs tested by a civilian doctor than a military one. The army's standard for positive results for lung damage is much higher than the one set by civilians," says Sarah. As her activism expands, so does her collection of art—drawings, photographs, images of the war as witnessed by soldiers. Sarah wants to convert this collection into an exhibit or a book to publicize the horrors of operation infinite war.
Eventually Sarah cut off contact with all the soldiers she'd gotten to know.
All except one.
Sarah and Daryl see each other regularly, and for the most part it's a normal relationship. The only real anomaly: Daryl's on meds for the rest of his life. One for post-traumatic stress disorder, another to help him sleep. He doesn't let Sarah see him take his pills. One night over dinner, optimistic about the future, Sarah asked Daryl how much time he had left in the military. His head hung over his food. He asked for a moment, which turned into several. Eventually, he looked up.
"I might be recycled," he said. "Sent back into combat."
Editor's note: All names in this story have been changed.