I am fortunate to have been born in America and I am proud to have had the opportunity to serve my country in a time of war. In my opinion, there was no greater privilege than to lead some of our nations bravest and brightest Soldiers in combat. I am grateful to have served during a time in our nations history where men and women of the Armed Services were revered and respected. I am grateful for my loving family that supported me unconditionally. I am grateful for the experience. I am grateful for my friends. I am grateful for the random handshakes; the occasional free beer. I am grateful to be alive and I am forever grateful for my brothers that gave the ultimate sacrifice. I am grateful for a sound mind and body.
Besides the cliché question: ‘Have you ever killed anyone?’ (which from my experience has come from the most random of acquaintances) the one question I I’ve had the hardest time answering, which fittingly usually comes from the dearest of friends, is “how is it that you are normal?”
The first question I want to ask back is “What the hell is normal in this world and why would anyone want to be it?” But beyond that, back to the essence of the question: I am expected to assimilate to this perceived “normality” during my transition back into society, or, as the military would say, my ‘reintegration’ into the civilian world. Of the many theories I may have to answer the question at hand (and I must acknowledge the infinite combination of fortunate circumstances that have contributed to my version of “normal”) there is one theory that rises to the top.
As routine as brushing my teeth and as necessary as drinking water, for me, so was the act of maintaining a journal while I was in combat. I had always kept some version of a journal but never before as an act of survival. Regardless of how tired I was after a patrol or mission, regardless of my state of mind, I wrote in that thing. Doing so was just as important as maintaining equipment for reliability, exercising to maintain performance, or showering to maintain hygiene. I wrote to maintain mental sanity and sharpness, the most important and often over-looked form of personal maintenance in my opinion.
That book held every truth, feeling, fear, and reservation. My 1st patrol. The first time I met an Iraqi kid. The first time I was shot at. My 1st IED. The 1st time I pulled the trigger. The smell of fresh Iraqi bread. My ninth IED. I will never forget the first time one of my brothers died in my arms. The journal captured everything. It held the ugliness and beauty of war. Stories of a city, the beginning of the 2006 surge, the coming of age of young 2nd Lieutenant. As a 22 year-old Platoon Leader in charge of 34 men in high intensity combat in the most dangerous city in the world, it’s safe to say there was a lot that I needed to get out of my head.
Fast forward to two years ago. I was a few years removed from my active duty and well into my civilian reintegration. Everything was going along about as well as it could be. But then one night, I picked up that journal and did something unexpected.
I remember holding it in my hands. I remember reminiscing on the contents inside. And most importantly I remember not knowing what to do with all of the memories, emotions, and overwhelming content it held. After a moment of consideration, I decided to burn it. Why is a question that I never really tried to articulate until now. The truth is that it wasn’t an act of shame or regret, but one of freedom. My journal symbolized the functional acts of a combat Platoon leader and the emotional vomit of a confused kid. I would peruse it at times and it would bring me back to the long, hot, dusty patrols in Ramadi, Iraq. The transactional details of firefights, the emotions of losing friends, and beautiful excerpts of awe and respect of the men I served with. It was a finite story of specific time and space. And the truth I felt constrained by the contents because what the journal didn’t tell was the story of the lessons learned and memories made during the eight years following. For example, one of the lessons I learned in Iraq is that sometimes you get blown up. I learned you can sit there and cry about it, you can cower behind a rock, you can ask yourself the question, “what the fuck am I doing here?” What I learned is that sometimes bombs go off, but what matters most is what you do after. My journal was a symbol of bombs that went off and the years elapsed was the symbol of what you do after.
The act of burning my journal wasn’t an escape from the past, but a decision to enjoy and pursue the freedom to be found in the present. The pages may be gone but the memories never will be. I’m ok with that because it’s the memories that matter. It’s the actions that I take now, and not just those of the past, that define me. I am grateful for my memories. War didn’t teach me to hate, it taught me how to love and how to be. The pages were a symbol of a war and a man I once was and now the memories that I’ve kept have been turned into fuel for the man that I am.
I can now sum it all up in a simple sentence: It’s easy to die for something you believe in but it’s hard to live everyday of your life for that same belief.
I learned that I didn’t want to have just to have ‘survived’ the war but to be better because of it. For the Soldiers that I served with and the Soldiers that I lost, I live every single day for them and most importantly for myself. I live to be the best person I can be. When people ask me ‘”how are you normal?” I think back to that journal and how it helped me capture for a moment in time all the memories experienced, lessons learned, and people I’d met. I relish how fortunate and grateful I am for the role it played.
So now, with a little bit of distance between the end of one journal and the beginning of another, I smile. Both then and now, one of the things I am most grateful for is not being normal. And there is a very good chance if you’re reading this, you aren’t normal either, and to that I say “cheers.”
Perfecto Sanchez is a horrible surfer and even worse fly fisherman. He’s also an Army veteran, American patriot and purveyor of a better right now.