The War, In My Mind is a series of three posts detailing my recollections of life before, during and after my involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I deployed in October 2005 as part of an Armed Forces Radio and Television team whose mission was to tell the stories of those who served downrange. Most of the storytelling of this series is straight from my memory, with other parts of it corroborated from notes I had typed out in what amounted to nothing more than a crude digital journal.
We hovered over any computer we could find that was connected to the Internet.
Class was supposed to start at 7:59 a.m., but we didn’t care. Our eyes were transfixed upon an image we couldn’t even fathom.
I scrolled down the front page of CNN.com in the back of our computer lab as at least a dozen people hovered over me. I read through a bullet list of headlines that described the news that was breaking on the other side of our nation.
“Two planes,” I yelled as I held up two fingers. “It was two planes. Two buildings.”
Never mind what had happened in D.C.; we were all still transfixed upon that image on the screen in our computer lab.
“We’re going to have to order new history books next year,” a voice behind me said.
“I think the world just went to hell,” another voice said.
–Sept. 11, 2001; Rainier High School, Rainier, Ore.
I was writing a fake public service announcement script for a class assignment when I heard one of my fellow Airmen yell down the hall.
“Bush is about to announce something big on TV,” the man yelled.
My fourth week of training to become a radio and television broadcaster — and only my fifth month in the United States Air Force — was dominated by questions over the war in Afghanistan. Why hadn’t we found Osama bin Laden yet?
Now, President Bush had given Saddam Hussein an ultimatum in Iraq. The 48-hour deadline for the man to leave his nation had passed.
The man who shouted out just moments ago wheeled a television into the cramped hallway of our dorm. We all moseyed out of our rooms in whatever we were wearing as CNN carried a presidential speech live.
Images of a still-intact Baghdad filled the screen, then the president spoke.
We all stood still.
“Let’s all pray,” our chapel leader said.
And we all did.
–March 19, 2003; Fort George G. Meade, Maryland
The Chace Fitness Center gymnasium was empty. Perfect time to go shoot some hoops.
A layup here, step-back jumper there, two imaginary defenders on me and I still got each shot off.
My usual practice after I got off work late in the evening was to let off some steam by heading to the gym to shoot buckets and to run, and on this rainy evening it was refreshing to walk back to my dorm a quarter-mile away.
Once in my dorm, I took a shower, dried off and sat down to the computer. MSN Messenger was the preferred method of communication, and I noticed more friends online than usual.
But many of them had changed their usernames, if only for a fleeting moment.
“SADDAM CAPTURED,” one read.
“DIE, BASTARD, DIE,” another read.
“FREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEDOM!!!!!!!” read still another.
My friend Greg sent me a simple message, and I still remember it in its non-capitalized form:
turn on the tv now son
I did, and whoever was still at the station manning the equipment was running a crawl that advised the viewer to turn to AFN News for live coverage of the capture of Saddam Hussein.
I turned to the news channel and saw the iconic images myself moments later.
“We got him,” L. Paul Bremer announced.
I typed back to Greg:
it’s all over now, isn’t it?
–Dec. 13, 2003; Lajes Field, Azores
The incessant sound of the vacuum rattled my brain as I pushed it, pulled it, pushed it, pulled it. It was base detail day at my new base, and anyone living in the dorms was subject to a full week of cleaning all the common areas of the dorms on base.
Hey, at least I was back in the States and couldn’t complain much. I kept vacuuming.
I was taking a break for a few minutes and grabbing a bite to eat when I heard a knock at the door. It was the sergeant in charge.
“I’m sorry, I was just taking a quick break. Needed something to eat,” I said as I hurriedly stood up.
“Your supervisors called you in,” the sergeant said, handing me a note. “It’s urgent.”
I ran downstairs, hopped into my car and drove the two miles to the video services office I worked at. I ran up the stairs, hurriedly opened the door and saw our boss, Michelle.
“I need you to come into my office,” Michelle said. “Close the door.”
I saw my immediate supervisor standing off to the side with his arms crossed, looking downward. He said not a word.
“Have a seat, Airman Brewer,” Michelle said. When she called me by my formal title and not my given first name, I knew it was serious.
The words came down with no warning.
“You’re going to Baghdad.”
I stared at the floor for a second — I wasn’t even 21 yet, how could they do this to me? — then looked up and asked a flurry of questions.
“Are you sure this isn’t some sort of mistake?” I asked.
“You’re heading out in October so you have some time to prepare,” Michelle said. “Better get ready.”
–April 2005; Langley Air Force Base, Va.
The folks at church had known about my impending deployment for months, but with time drawing short, my last youth service for at least the next half of a year still wasn’t easy to get through.
We sang worship songs, our worship and co-youth leader John got up and gave a message to the youth, we sang more worship songs and had an altar call, then they called me up to the front.
John told the youth that I’d be leaving in just a couple days for Iraq, that danger was still very real over there and that he wanted to pray for God to grant me peace and safety.
Just about everyone — probably 40 or so, from what I remember — came up to me at the front of the church and laid hands on me for prayer, a show of solidarity in which they promised to keep in touch, pray for me daily and celebrate when I returned home.
I said a few words and thanked everyone for their prayers, and with that, the service for the evening was dismissed.
It was at that moment that a friend of mine came up to the front to tell me goodbye.
“I’m really going to miss you,” she said. “I really mean it, too.”
I reached out my arms to hug her, and it didn’t matter that her boyfriend was standing right behind her. She returned it, and as we embraced she began to weep uncontrollably, causing me to do so as well.
“I’ll be alright,” I told her. “I’m coming back, I promise.”
–October 22, 2005; Lakeside Church, Newport News, Va.