Sometimes I am asked whether I saw any combat action in Iraq. What does it really matter when I’m in prison? Do other inmates think I have been a hero? Do they ask because they have a criminal agenda? I never know. Every now and again, a correctional officer will ask me about my service or my training. The officers have access to my military record (DD214). Many correctional officers are veterans just like me, but they kept it together. Do they feel shame that one of their own fell and went to prison? Do they feel veterans like me let down our country? I think so.
Before I came to prison and even before I went to Iraq, I remember doing a promotional event in my hometown for the National Guard. The National Guard sometimes orders soldiers to attend various events like rodeos, car races, etc. I hated it. This is the work for a weekend warrior? I was formerly an active duty Infantryman. The event was a post 9/11 event at our local airport. It had all the fixings of cheesy marketing for recruiting guardsmen: tables, flyers, gifts, retired warplanes, a climbing wall for the kids, and someone singing the National Anthem.
I will always remember the singer. A few months later we were scheduled to leave for Iraq, and this beautiful woman raved on and on about all of us. Soldiers being heroes and being so brave. So brave? We were just a simple unit working in transportation. Our primary duty was to relieve the previous unit and transport food, water, and various supplies. A hero? I didn’t think of myself that way at the time. Having now come to prison, I definitely don’t. Back then, and even now, I built walls around myself. It started with the wall in my mind and then became the walls around me as I sit in prison. Even the camp we were in in Iraq was surrounded by concrete walls to protect us from the insurgents.
These days, when I do venture outside, the prison walls are there to greet me. I wonder, when I approach the end of my sentence, will I carry these concrete prison walls with me in my mind? I’m sure I will. The walls we had in Iraq are still there for me mentally after almost a decade. The stories about recidivism — drugs, violence, and pain — haunt many of us here in the prison. Will I make it on the outside? I hope so.
I think back to the singer, singing the last verse so beautifully: “Land of the free, and the home of the brave.” I didn’t feel like a hero back then, nor did I feel brave.
Maybe once I leave prison I can live up to the singer’s expectations. Maybe, just maybe, I can muster enough courage to be the hero and to be brave.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.