Too late for cryin, I’m a grown man strugglin,
To reach the next level of life, without fumblin,
Down to foldin, I got no shoulder to lean on but my own,
All alone in this danger zone.
At the age of nineteen I left the group home system for good and left for Army Basic Training. It was a move of desperation, looking back. I was due to be released from the home a few days after my upcoming 19th birthday, and needless to say I wasn’t prepared to be back out. I had no money, barely any possessions. It wasn’t an option for me to just “go to college”, as simply as it sounded to everyone else I went to school with. Where would I stay? Do I take on loans for everything I need? I couldn’t deal with it all. One slip up and it was back onto the streets where this journey had started. So I opted to embark on an adventure that I realized later on was the best decision I could have made for myself. It was either go die somewhere else, or die here. So I had decided it was off to Fort Knox, Kentucky to learn how to be a Cavalry Scout. To this day I can still smell the chemical cleaners that filled the hallways of my barracks. I can still see drops of sweat fall from my forehead onto the off white tile. I spent sixteen weeks in that place. It was so humid it seemed like you ran into a solid wall of wet every time you opened the door and left the comfort of the AC. The wilderness we trained in was like nothing I had ever known. Following my sixteen weeks, I had the fortune to get stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. How I got from slinging small time dime bags of weed in my spare time to watching a sunset in Honolulu is beyond me. But the real test was yet to come.
In the summer of 2010, my platoon along with our brigade was deployed to Iraq’s Diyala Province. It was rumored that Iraq was so hot that wind there felt like putting a hot blow dryer to your face. I quickly found that these rumors weren’t at all far from the truth. It was 122 degrees when we first landed in Kuwait, and around 115 degrees when we got to Combat Outpost Cobra in Iraq. I can still remember the first time we left the gate to make our way to the checkpoint we would spend a good portion of the next year in. I had never been so scared in my life as I sat in the back of our Stryker Vehicle. This wasn’t our road, it wasn’t our country. And it terrified me that some people actually wanted to kill us in this hot ass place without knowing who we were or what kind of people we were. But you find that you soon get over that fear with enough time in country, and soon the only thing I feared was the diarrhea you would most certainly get from eating some of the local food.
In my deployment we did our share of combat patrols and meetings with local authorities in Jalula and Sadiyah. These were the two cities we came to know and familiarize ourselves with, and had our fair share of scares in. I savored every opportunity I had to take the gunner’s position when I was saved the work of driving. From the gunner’s hatch I could see all the activity in the city as we rolled along the main road, and when we stopped for periods of time I kept a vigilant watch for any militants or suspicious activity behind my machine gun. The most striking thing to me was the children I saw in Iraq. As we drove by, all of them would make a concerted effort to get our attention. They screamed and waved, and we enthusiastically waved back. As I would wave I could never stop comparing my life to their own. I thought about my dark times growing up in America, tried to remember my childhood. But these kids played with deflated soccer balls next to miniature “creeks” full of human sewage. They laughed and played with the constant threat of a bomb on the road near them. What did they do to deserve to start their lives with such a gross disadvantage?
(Warning, the next two paragraphs describe a graphic and possibly alarming scenario.)
The defining moment of my deployment, for me and this story at least, was one scenario my platoon found ourselves in during the third or fourth month of our year long stay there. We were on QRF duty (Quick Reaction Force), and we were called up to provide support for a local Iraqi army contingent that had run into major trouble. One of their platoons had been caught in a booby trap set by local insurgents. We were specifically instructed to bring extra body bags on this mission, and I remember my morbid curiosity as we loaded double the amount of body bags we normally would carry with us. It could be any of us in that bag. We arrived at a ruin of what used to be a two or three story building. Local Iraqi Army soldiers were milling around along with what looked like two or three ambulance trucks and their attendants. I noticed from the dismount hatch that there was blood on some of the local soldier’s uniforms. I also noticed a strange strange smell I had never encountered in the air as we were instructed to be on high alert for a possible follow up attack.
We created a defensive perimeter, and then the call from our platoon leader came down of what had happened. He explained that a local insurgent cell had captured a local doctor and his wife, and proceeded to murder them in front of their children. These insurgents then sat the wailing children outside of the while booby trapping the structure itself. They fled the building and left the crying children as bait on the porch, with the bodies of their parents still inside. The Iraqi Army was soon on the scene to respond to the crying children, and sent a platoon of about fifteen men into the building to investigate the scene. They tripped off the explosives and all fifteen men inside perished. This explained the extra body bags, and we spent most of the night making sure the locals could collect the bits and pieces of the dead in the relative safety of the perimeter we had set. I’ll never forget this story as long as I live. What kind of people will those kids become as they grow into adults? What kind of problems will they have as long as they live? I imagined what life would be like for them had they grown up in Paris or Toronto.
I can still remember sitting down with Marcus at that table way back when. The things he was saying back then were just stories to me, a separated observer from the life he was trying to describe. But it was exactly that for some people, a life. It wasn’t just an isolated experience, and it took me almost a decade to really understand this on a very deep level. People as real as you or I are living these lives as you read this sentence, we just aren’t close enough to feel them or the things they go through. When I left Iraq in 2011 I remember feeling how glad I was to finally get back home and have a proper shower, and a proper Mission St. burrito when I got back to my city by the bay. But I’m twenty five now, and these detached experiences of those kids waving at me… The experiences of every young man I met in my time in the system. These aren’t just stories for me looking back, these are part of a real life of people that live on this planet struggling to get by. When we left Iraq we would fly home, but those kids I waved it would be there forever. And it never struck me as fair. It wasn’t fair that Larry had to grow up the way he did, and experience the pain we all heard as he screamed for his medication while some of society acts like everything is fine. It wasn’t fair that Marcus had to describe scenarios where he had to fear for his life like an animal in a city like San Francisco, tucked away in neighborhoods no one could give a fuck about.
There was no mercy on the streets, I couldn’t rest,
I’m barely standin, bout to go to pieces, screamin peace,
And though my soul was deleted, I couldn’t see it,
I had my mind full of demons tryin to break free.
I tried to think it through as I looked out of my girlfriend’s window at those green Hawaiian mountains. Why couldn’t I take a break and stop thinking about these things? How did it come to pass that not a second went by that I didn’t connect something or another together, like Kahala and poverty. Its because I am Marcus. I am Larry. The children I saw in Iraq, they could’ve been me and I could have been them given the luck of the draw. I never had any family, so I adopted the world. And what do you do when someone in your family is in trouble? You help them, you feel for them. It hurts me to no end seeing other people in pain, and I lay awake at night sometimes wondering what is happening to those who may not have a place to lay their head that night.
Sometimes I curiously asked my girlfriend where she was at age fifteen. She had answered that she was going to basketball practice, surfing on the weekends at one surf spot or another. Hearing about a normal life like the one she described so well always kept me enthralled. Its a life I could have never imagined back then. I always substitute the image in their stories for me trying to pick it way back when. I feel relieved these types of childhoods exist. But a fraction of the time, I can’t keep the thought far away that at that same time other people were worried about fighting boredom, kids in group homes are fighting life. I was spending my nights silently crying as I hid my pain from the kids around me who were too happy to pounce on weakness. There were a lot of times I would curse myself and want to end it all. I know others who came close to doing it. Who hasn’t? The staff at our rehabilitation programs used to tell us how 50% of all kids under state care end up on the streets, dead, or in jail by age 21. It always bothered me to think about it. When I reached my twenty first birthday (In Iraq of all places), I remembered those figures and smiled. I’m in college now, twenty five years on this planet living on my own with my troubles behind me. I have more than two shirts, and have a little money left over to save once rent is taken care of. I had made it out. For a hot minute I was happy with my material things that reminded me I wasn’t sleeping on a twin bed thirty others had before me. But I’ve come to realize that this isn’t where it ends.
Some kids get to go home after school and sit down to play video games while their mom makes them a sandwich. Others get to go home and wonder why their mom has to work so much. Some go home and get banged up like me. It isn’t any kind of secret anymore that people who grow up in fucked up conditions are more likely to be fucked up. People are products of the material surroundings they were formed in, and this is the fundamental truth I have come to know. We blame poor people in this country for all of their woes. We look at homeless people like they are a nuisance as we walk along the sidewalk. But we as a society never stops to think “that could be me, it could be me in his shoes given a few bad hands in life”. Instead, we rationalize this barbaric lifestyle that capitalism allows to exist and instead we say “they didn’t work hard enough, they chose that life”. We rationalize the bad fortunes of those who were dealt a poor start, or those who have fallen on bad luck as any of us could have. You go ahead and tell a younger me that all of us who lived in that home deserved that kind of start to life. Go ahead and tell a younger me that all of us in there chose to be fucked up in the head for the rest of our lives. I would probably punch you in the neck.
When we would all eat dinner together back then in the group home, we would always have to wait for everyone to sit down at the table. Jaesean was always on some other shit, and always making us wait. I always saw Reggie try to sneak some break while no one was looking. But we never began dinner proper without everyone taking a seat, and I don’t see a reason why that rule changes as we get older and as life gets harder. If there are people in this world who can’t take a break and live a decent life, the burden is on the rest of society to help them enjoy what we enjoy. This is why I’m a socialist. I never saw why “never leave anyone behind” mattered in combat but never made its way into our collective value system. I won’t stop until everyone has a seat at the dinner table together. I won’t say I’ve made it out until we’ve all made it out.