Note: All names have been changed.
Major Mark Ross is currently home from Iraq. He has had two tours of duty and will redeploy in a year. He knows he suffers from PTSD and that returning to battle is unhealthy, but wants go back, feels he needs to go back. He’s 49 years old and has a family of five. We met in Boston.
Mark waited thirty-one years for Iraq. As a military man, his first tour of duty was a five-year stint in the West Pacific. On a battle cruiser, his crew waited to respond to the Iranian Hostage Crisis.
“We were waiting for the go ahead,” he says. “But we never got the call.” His voice is low and gruff, his hands moving as he talks. “That shit really hit the fan.”
At 17, Mark enlisted in the Marines. With two sisters and two brothers, he left his broken family, his father a military man, his mother sick of it. The war in Vietnam had ended four years prior and he started to spend his days smoking pot.
“There was nothing else to do out there,” he says, referring to his hometown in Western Massachusetts. “There were about 3,000 cows, you know?” He laughs. “That was it.”
At first attracted to the Service because of the recruiter’s stories of glory, Mark went into boot camp as a self-proclaimed “fat kid” and came out weighing only 127 pounds.
“It was sixteen weeks of abuse,” he says. He’s not sure if he’s joking or not. “It wasn’t a shock though. I knew it was coming. Only one rule: Do what you’re told.” Recollecting, he looks to the ceiling. “Oh, yeah, another one: Family comes second.”
Now, Mark is no longer a grunt (an infantry man), but a Major. Major Mark Ross. He heads the branch of Civil Affairs, a branch charged with rebuilding Iraq — infrastructure, education, employment. For fifteen months, his unit set up camp in Doura, a slum in southern Baghdad. There, he led 300 missions, each one different from the next.
“We could never set a routine,” Mark says. “Ever.”
Routine would have meant digging their own graves. It wasn’t hard for insurgents to track the schedule and habits of Mark’s unit, to watch the caravan from afar—from a rooftop, maybe—to hit a detonator’s switch, to trigger an explosion.
Explosions were not uncommon. Doura—home to countless civilians and a large market—was an Al Qaeda hot zone. The neighborhood was called “the arena.” Not only was there conflict within the native population (the effects of ethnic warfare), but also animosity toward Mark’s unit of 13 men and two women; with Mark delivering jobs and security to the city, Al Qaeda put a bounty on U.S. soldiers’ heads.
“The place was kinetic,” Mark says. “People shooting at you every day.”
While patrolling sixty blocks of the city, the unit grew accustomed to gunfire, rounds pinging off their Humvees for eight to fourteen hours a day, IEDs and homemade bombs turning the streets into litter, rebels shooting children in the street, bodies mixing with the sewage, no longer belonging to time.
Elsewhere, the Green Zone. A safe zone north of Doura, the Green Zone was “where you went if you didn’t want to fight.” Complete with a swimming pool, air conditioning and near-gourmet food, it was a whole other world. Most often, orders from high command came from there, administered over the radio. These commands even had a name: Good Idea Ferries, so named because of their lack of sensibility.
“You get these calls, you know,” Mark says. “And they’re just like, ‘Hey, Major Ross, we think it would be a good idea for you to go check out this power plant or that school.’”
He pauses, thinking of how to phrase what he’s about to say.
“And you know what? They’re usually not good ideas, not good at all. You’d think those guys would have a clue, but they don’t.”
He raises his fist to his mouth and coughs.
“They have no fucking clue.”
The Good Idea Ferries usually sent Mark’s unit to the countryside, down farm roads, into gunfire. Once, away from the relative safety of the city, 200 meters of his Humvee were taken off by an IED. Somehow, everyone walked out. But according to Mark there were a few soldiers too shaken up to function, too “fucked in the head” to even get back inside a car, let alone a Humvee. Because of the blast, Mark himself suffers from mild traumatic brain injury, even now. He remembers the sounds of the bomb going off next to him, and then, just a few days later, the next one. He remembers the shock of the concussions. He remembers the ringing inside his ears that wouldn’t go away. He awoke this morning drenched in sweat, with a searing ache in his head, with a memory.
In Baghdad, Mark has stood in a morgue packed with bodies, the smell of decay in his nose, blood on his boots. He’s turned right while the Humvee behind him turned left, the latter then obliterated by a bomb. He’s laughed at this matter of chance, thinking it could have been him, wasn’t he lucky? (All he could do was laugh, grieve for twenty minutes at the memorial service, strap on his gun, head back out into the streets, stay focused.) He’s been shot at by children who were given fifty dollars to shoot at American soldiers. He’s seen a baby being eaten by a dog on the side of the road. For entertainment, he’s watched flies being zapped by a bug light: “hillbilly TV.” He’s seen soldiers collapse in the 140° heat. He’s seen a soldier fall and never get back up. He’s seen the principal of a Palestinian school hung in the middle of the Doura market. He’s given five dollars to children for picking up the trash on the street, for helping. He’s seen these children shot in the head by insurgents, left on the street as if they were symbols. He’s put these sights and memories somewhere deep within his mind, a place he calls his File Cabinet. Months later, the File Cabinet has been opened, kicked over, not even sleeping pills or anti-depressants able to close it or right it up. He’s tried to be “a callus.” He’s tried to forget. He’s walked over dead bodies. He’s been covered in dust, even after showering, nothing but dust. He’s felt responsible. He’s tried to justify giving those children money, getting them killed, all for picking up trash.
“I know this sounds sick,” Mark says. “But there’s an adrenaline rush.” He’s talking about the stuff of battle, the satisfaction of “hunting someone who’s hunting you.”
Besides the aspect of thrill, Mark says he’s good at leading others, likes it — loves it. “You get so caught up in it. It’s like a drug,” he says. “You need it.” Keep doing it. Keep using it. Keep going. “Even if it’s bad.” And the powers of addiction are strong; Mark says he would already be back in Iraq if it weren’t for his kids, his daughter and two sons.
Mark talked to his wife on the phone every day. But the lack of connection—the lack of touch—was, and still is, a factor.
“The hardest thing about war isn’t being away,” he says. “I can deal with that. I have a job to do.”
Meanwhile, at home, his children had celebrated their birthdays, his son had had a bad day at school, his daughter fallen off her bike. Without a father to turn to, though, they turned to their mother for comfort, for discipline and advice. So now, Mark’s children aren’t used to his presence; they barely recognized him upon his return, didn’t know how he fit into their lives. He didn’t know, either. He didn’t know how to hold them, what to tell them, what to think. For the children, it’s as if they are sometimes fatherless, sometimes walking with a ghost. For Mark, his life is always in midair.
Mark admits to suffering from PTSD, to borderline depression, to feeling the terror of utter boredom, of total helplessness. Compared to constantly having his senses on edge overseas, at home, everything becomes mundane and dull. What is there to do besides sit in front of the television set and eat, put on weight, think about the friends he left over there? There’s nothing. He watches CNN, tries to stay up on the news. Before, he was the news, he knew things that couldn’t be told on the screen or shared over the airwaves. Now, he knows nothing, only what passes by so briefly on the box.
And then there’s the pain, the doctors who don’t know how to treat it. When Mark sees his physician, he’s prescribed aspirin until he explains that he gets headaches because of bombs that went off below his feet. If he goes back to war his wife will divorce him.
“She will,” he says. “She’ll fucking divorce me.” He’s told there’s no medication for that. He’s going back next year.