“It was April 4th, 2004 when I heard from the commander’s office that one of our convoys was ambushed. Yihjyh L. Chen was the first casualty. He was in his 30’s. He was the oldest one from all the soldiers that died during the incident. The others were in his 20’s. They were so young... We were so young. I wish those that died could tell their story.”
“We can stop this whenever you feel uncomfortable. Just letting you know,” said Ermenegildo Allende.
“Alright. Thanks for letting me join this project of yours. I don’t think I’m any more important than anyone else-- you know. I know that lots of people believe their lives are so special, that they should be turned into a movie. They imagine that because they are the only ones to experience all of the events in their lives, you know, sitting through all of this shit in front row seats. They think they deserve to be heard, but can you imagine if everyone actually tried to listen every little bit about each other? We will never shut up about it.” Arturo De La Garza turned to look out the window, to a sunny, spring afternoon.
“Well, your first front row experience is valuable for my research. Shouldn’t I be thanking you for your service by listening to you?” replied Mr. Allende.
“It’s alright. Let’s just skip all this etiquette and manners. Getting this burden out of my head helps. I have heard enough ‘thank yous’,” Arturo De La Garza said anxiously.
Allende chuckled a bit and relaxed his tone. “Ok, ok, Mr. De La Garza, I am going to start by asking some questions then. Why did you enlist?”
“Well, despite the fact that I was born in the U.S., I still consider myself a Mexican because my parents were born in Mexico. My family was poor throughout my childhood. The welfare assistance that the government gave to my family for having me helped us survive. At some point, I felt that I needed to repay Uncle Sam for all of the help he gave to my family. It wasn’t just that though; I had no idea what I was going to do for myself at the time, so I thought it would be best for me to join the armed forces. The summer of 2001, I was already 18, and I was enlisted by the selective service,” Mr. De La Garza said as he looked to the floor while sitting on a brown leather couch with his palm hands facing down over his lap.
“My friend, Andres, and I went to the recruitment office down Ruben Torres Blvd that day. While I was filling out the paperwork, I looked up from the desk and saw a humongous picture of a tank covering most of the wall. I stared at it and told Andres, “I’m going to drive a tank, Andres.” When I finished filling out the papers, I went up to the recruiter and started asking him a lot of questions about becoming a tank driver. At the end of the day, my friend and I became official government property for the next 6 years.” Mr. De La Garza paused for a moment, staring off into the empty corner of the room. His face scrunched up a bit. “The job was actually pretty smooth until shit hit the fan, you know, with 9/11 and the hubbub about Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction. While I still was in America, the government propaganda started kicking up, showing that we were the heroes that were going to save the Middle East and liberate its people.”
“Alright, I recorded all of that, Mr. De La Garza. Now, do you think your identification as a Mexican having to fight a war that is not yours, created conflict within you?” Mr. Allende asked while he flipped over a page on his notepad.
“At that moment, I didn’t know that wars involved interests, and I really felt I needed to give back to this country, so there was no conflict yet,” Mr. De La Garza replied.
“Well, Mr. De La Garza, I would have been surprised too if I found out that that my work did no good in the world. We have to keep going. Can you please tell me about your first arrival to Iraq?’’ Ermenegildo questioned.
“We entered Iraq on April fool's day, 2004. Our commanders explicitly told us during the briefing that we were in Iraq only for peacekeeping missions. The only things we were supposed to do were build schools, hospitals, power plants, jails, and roads. My company was assigned a suburb district in Sadr City nearby Baghdad. Our objective was to conduct a presence patrol and help in the construction of infrastructure. Because we only had peacekeeping missions, literally all of our vehicles were not bulletproof. Anyway, I already had a feeling about how bad things would go by the 3rd day there,” Mr. De La Garza said, clasping his hands while he stared at his reflection on the floor.
“I remember it was April 4, 2004, I will never forget that day. It was around 5:30 P.M. when our commander in charge of the base came out and said to us that one of our units doing patrol had just been ambushed in Fellah Street. He told everybody in the camp to be ready in case we had to rescue them. By 6:30 P.M. the situation got worse; one of our soldiers was killed and others were injured. At around 7:10 P.M. a convoy went out to rescue them, which 20 minutes later was going to be ambushed as well. By 8:00 P.M. it was more than likely that I was going to see combat in Sadr City. At 8:10 P.M. I went out to rescue the ambushed units in a convoy of two Humvees and two trucks,” Mr. De La Garza told Ermenegildo.
“When I got in to one of the trucks, next to where I was positioned, there was a solider about my age in a fetal position crying and sobbing saying, ‘I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go.’ I remember that I grabbed him by the vest and yelled at him, ‘you need to man the fuck up, we need to save those guys.’ Finally, the soldier realized what he had to do and stopped crying as we entered the suburb receiving heavy enemy fire. This was the moment when I first killed. Down the street we entered, was a field where an RGP group of insurgents was hiding waiting for us. When I looked at the field where the insurgents were positioned, I saw their weapons pointing at the truck I was in, so I immediately shot at them, emptying my magazine,” the military veteran said as he drank a sip of water.
“The locations where the ambush happened were peculiar; it seemed that there was an unusual order within all the disorder that was going on, it was chaos. Bullets were flying everywhere, but the people around us kept doing their own stuff while our units interchanged heavy fire with insurgents. I remember at the moment I hadn’t realized what was exactly going on, the only thing in my head was to survive, and keep myself alive to get out of that situation. We were ordered to form a perimeter so some of us could place the dead body and injured soldiers in the vehicles, and at that moment I felt something in my body that made me outperform during combat. Something besides our instinct of survival,” Mr. De La Garza told Ermenegildo.
“What was that something that you felt? Can you please try to describe it?” asked the young Ermenegildo Allende as he typed in his computer.
“It was that I was a soldier. The training kicked in, the degrading insults from the drill sergeant now helped, and I knew how to do everything. I did not know why exactly I was doing it, besides that these people wanted to kill me. But why? We were there to give them freedom, democracy, build schools and hospitals, but they were shooting at us! And they had already killed one of us, you know, one from the good side. So, on our way back to drop off the first group of injured soldiers and the dead body, I started to doubt myself and what I was doing in Iraq, and everything just went downhill from there,” Mr. De La Garza reply in an exasperated manner.
“The peace keeping operation label was conflicting with my identity of soldier. My job was to get the people of Iraq closer to humanity while they tried to kill us. By midnight we all evacuated from the incident’s location. The final statistics said that the insurgents killed 8 of our brothers and around 60 personnel were injured. We killed 170 insurgents according to records from the bodies that were identified. From that day on until my rest of my deployment in Iraq, in almost every patrol done in Sadr City, our units interchanged bullets with the enemy,” added the veteran.
“It’s hard to fight against insurgents, sometimes it felt that the same people we were helping out, just changed their attire, grabbed an AK, and started to attack us. The longer that we stayed there, the longer that they hated us. The government finally realized that winning this war and giving democracy to the people of Iraq was not going to be easy, so they brought us our tanks and armored vehicles. We could not tell a civilian from an insurgent other than if it carried a weapon it had to die. The enemy was out there, but it did not carry a uniform for identification, they showed who they were by their actions,” said Mr. De La Garza.
“The more time I spent in Iraq, the more I questioned what I was doing. Certain things conflicted with the orders I received from my superiors. I was killing to not be killed, but in the processes of surviving, I was creating more reasons that infuriated the people of Iraq, at some point it felt that everyone was the enemy. I can’t handle saying anymore, I need to get some air, let’s stop now. Thank you for listening to my experience in Iraq,” concluded the military veteran as he got up from a chair and started walking towards the door.