Monday, April 4, 2011

There and Back Again: A Soldier's Tale

Nathan Mulligan served as a radio operator with the Marine Corps during the Iraq War between the years of 2006 and 2007. Now, though he is back in the US, Mulligan recalls his time spent in Iraq three years ago as though he’d only just returned. He speaks with a raspy drawl caused by frequent smoking. As he discusses his experiences, Mulligan appears removed, almost unemotional. Yet, it is evident from the vividness of his description that what he witnessed is still cycling through his mind. 

“I can tell you that the first time you get shot at it’s. . . it’s pretty much an interesting experience. You’re not sure what to do. You fire back. . . and then when you’re ordered not to fire back you just have to sit there and take it, until you get your orders. . .” Mulligan and his troop would sit and wait until it was discovered whether the gunfire was “an actual engagement, or they’re just taking pot shots.” 

“I can’t say I wasn’t scared,” he added, “but you get over it. You move on.” 

On February 24th 2011, CNN reported that 4,756 American women and men deployed to Iraq did not get up, did not move on as Mulligan did. These 4,756 returned to the US in coffins.

Mulligan was fired on so frequently that, as he said, “you get used to it after a while.” This statement is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t served – that a soldier can be under fire so frequently that they get used to it. “After a while you can tell how far away it is, if it’s coming at you.” This sentiment dispels the hyper-emotionalism saturating Hollywood’s war films. Sure, being under fire is stressful, frightening, and it’s certainly dangerous – but it’s commonplace, everyday. Undoubtedly, rather than a cliché scene in which a cliché hero to bursts out and kills all the bad guys, most of the time the soldiers just sit and wait impatiently for the gunshots to cease so they can continue about their business.

Mulligan was attached to what he called a “grunt” unit, which is a group of infantrymen. These infantrymen “engaged multiple times.” On these instances, Mulligan was faced with more than just pot shots (meaning “shots in the dark” “blind shooting” in hopes that the shooter will hit someone). In fact, many of these “engagements” were not with enemy soldiers, but with menacing devices buried beneath the sand. 

“We engaged IEDs. . . improvised explosive devices.” I asked him how he and his men went about disposing of these cobbled bombs. Often, “if we disposed of them, we hit them.” That is to say, while driving along in a heavily armored car, little ramshackle death-machines would occasionally pop beneath their heavy tires. 

They encountered IEDs on the road quite often (or so Mulligan made it sound). Like the gunfire, these low-end landmines were just part of the routine – a routine that casually accommodates bullets and loud booms. 

While seven months may not seem like a long time, the period of time Mulligan spent overseas, away from his friends and family, has obviously affected him. He respectfully but firmly denied to answer when I asked him about any experience he’d had with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “I don’t really want to get into that,” he said. 

“I’m going to be pretty vague,” he confessed (more than once, to a few of my more prodding questions), “but I’m not going to lie to you.”

Although Mulligan didn’t open up about any experiences with PTSD, it is not hard to imagine psychological issues surfacing in those who are shot at so frequently they just “get used to it.” 

PTSD is just a series of letters that means “psychological harm caused after a traumatic incident.” To someone who has not been to war, this is just another definition of another illness I have no experience with. I needed an example to fully appreciate the seriousness of the illness. Although Mulligan, understandably, didn’t “really want to get into that,” I had an eye-opening interview which did deal with this common veteran sickness.

Last semester, I wrote a piece about the Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences. I interviewed Paul Atwood, a professor at UMB, a prominent member of the Joiner Center, a Vietnam Vet, and an author. He described a situation in which a soldier who had been repatriated (or so it was thought) came into his office with a loaded gun and very nearly used it (either on himself or on Atwood). Although nothing happened then and there, the veteran was later taken into protective custody. Tragically, though the veteran was well monitored, he committed suicide sometime later. 

So, I understand why the topic of PTSD can be so sensitive.

Mulligan did open up when I asked him about returning to civilian life. “Coming back… everybody else has moved on with their lives without you. You almost disrupt their lives. Don’t get me wrong, they miss you and they want you to be back, but once you get back certain things that you used to do together. . .” he went on to an example of a soldier coming back to a wife. “The wife would be doing everything. Have a system down.” Veterans would “feel like they were a sore thumb.” 

I asked him about coming back to school specifically. “I don’t particularly care for crowds much. For me it kind of helped me because I can keep to the regiments, the structure, I guess. The structure of the school. You have a goal. It’s like I have a mission and I have to complete it. That’s helped me.” He described teachers that helped him, teachers who were also veterans and had dealt with the common difficulties returning veterans face. Teachers that were “willing to sit there and talk to me.” Coincidentally, one such teacher is Paul Atwood.

“I’m not really healed, but I’ve moved forward,” Mulligan confessed, “I took baby steps. I don’t think any of us fully heal – but I think we have to learn to move forward. We have to learn how to make our experience over there part of our lives.”

Mulligan is now a Political Science Major with a minor in Public Policy. When asked if his experiences in Iraq influenced his choice of major, he conceded that his time there had a strong influence. He added that “foreign policy is too sticky.” For this reason he didn’t pursue a major and or a minor into that field. Mulligan said (reasserting that he is only speaking for himself and for no other veteran), “I didn’t like the way we enacted our foreign policy.” 

He hopes to help people (veterans especially) here solve problems, rather than dealing with the sticky, volatile mess that is foreign policy. So far, he is doing a very good job – Nathan Mulligan is the coordinator of the Veterans Center, one of three centers at UMB devoted to helping veterans repatriate and rejoin school (the other two being the Joiner Center and the Upward Bound Program). He believes that greater coordination between these three groups would benefit more than just veterans, but the entire school.

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