Zachary Kaiser Journal
I first met with Todd on a Thursday when we both had time in between class. He was waiting at a table out of the main pathway at a table with a Pepsi in one hand and a book in the other.
He looked like what I expected a 23+ year veteran to look like. He is bald and has a face that aged just enough to show the world his experience. I have met tons of senior Non-commissioned officers just like him, which made me wonder if there was something that made them look a certain way. They were the men that looked too young to be your father, but not old enough either. On his hat was a logo for the Army Combatives, which is the army’s hand-to-hand fighting program. Maybe it was that hat that made me picture him right at home with his face bloodied and beaten, and his hands raised in an octagon ring.
We started to discuss the project and quickly went through his military career. Even though it was extensive, it only took a few minutes. In my experience this is common. Soldiers have rattled off their rank, unit designations and various duty stations so many times, it requires little thought. But after we got the logistics out of the way, we talked like soldiers. We started to swap stories and share battle scars, inside and out. I have met a lot of people claiming PTSD, but Todd was the first I’ve heard say that part of his was from being away from his children for so many years.
As we discussed the various things we did, he sometimes sat with a half smirk, and other times with a solemn expression that snapped one to attention regardless of the current topic.
I had emailed Todd the Thursday before and was starting to wonder why I hadn't heard from him. The first time I emailed him he literally emailed me back in a minute. This time I emailed him at about 7:30 p.m. and heard nothing all through the weekend. By chance we ran into each other at the gym.
“Aren’t you doing army stuff?” Todd asked.
“I’m out,” I said.
I asked him if he had received my email from the previous Thursday. He told me he had and responded that night. I later looked at my phone and noticed my email notifications were turned off. I had gone the whole weekend without any emails? I hadn’t noticed till then. Maybe I enjoyed the peace and quiet. We set up an interview or the following Thursday. Then, like Batman, he was gone when I looked up. He wasn't much for drawn out goodbyes.
Todd and I met in the studio to take photos. He wouldn’t smile, not even a try. After the photos, we sat down for our first interview. I felt a bit overwhelmed at first because Todd has such a long history. He has been to Germany during the cold war, launched artillery in the Gulf War and trained Iraqi soldiers during OIF. That covers a lot of earth, and not the best parts of it.
Maybe one of the most interesting things about hearing Todd’s stories was hearing pieces that fit into my own. He spoke of training Iraqi soldiers to protect polling sites in the first Iraqi election. I deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006, and ran convoys from Kuwait to almost every base in Iraq. During this election Todd spoke about, I was on one of the only seven convoys that were allowed to travel on that day; otherwise all routes were black, meaning no one was allowed to travel on them. The Marines were not told about us coming through, so they shot warning shots at us at every bridge for about 30 miles.
I also remember how excited the Iraqis were. They used a thumb print to mark their ballot. It was a point of pride for several Iraqis to show their thumbs to us as mark of their enthusiasm for democracy
Today Todd told the story about the soldier for whom he wears the memorial black bracelet to honor a fallen comrade. These are common and I know a lot of vets who were similar bracelets, but I noticed Todd often twists and fiddles with his bracelet. I can only speculate why he moves and plays with it, but after the story I heard about his friend, I think he lets it reminds him of what he has lost, and to be thankful for the life he has.
In this phot Todd smiles while standing next to a SpongeBob Squarepants toy his children sent him while he was overseas.
Todd and I met in the studio again to have our third interview. Todd brought with him all the pictures from both Desert Storm and OIF.
The really interesting thing during the interview was when Todd started talking about a “Superman” mentality amongst young men. He was talking about how his perspective changed after he had children. I knew exactly what he meant. I enjoyed my first deployment because I felt the invincibility that he brought up. I enjoyed being away from home (to an extent) and enjoyed the adventure Iraq provided because I felt what Todd described. There was nothing for me back home but a job at Menard's or for a roofing company.
Today’s interview was introspective for me. Todd described the stages of coming home from overseas, but before I explain, it is important to understand the way Todd discusses these things. I’ve met some people who are overly dramatic about their deployments to get attention. Guys like Todd don’t want that attention. They know they are worth a damn and refuse to be pitied. Anyways, he said young people, once they realize they aren’t Superman, first self medicate and settle down only after legal trouble or domestic issues make them realize they need help. Luckily I realized I was going down a bad path and changed. I found therapy in writing about my experiences, even though they were not that bad. In a way, interviewing Todd is like reliving my life and seeing where it might be going. There are only a few similarities, but I think it’s why I find Todd’s stories so fascinating.
At any rate, the interview lasted about an hour, and I finished up by looking through a gig of photos of Todd in Iraq with Shawn McAfee, the art director of this project.
I am starting to get plenty of material, but every time we meet, it seems like Todd and I find some new aspect of being a veteran that people don’t understand. I continue to see myself as a younger version of Raley. He perfectly articulates why veterans feel uncomfortable when thanked. We don’t know what to say. Todd points out that although we appreciate the concern and the gesture, the person doesn’t know why they are thanking the vet. They don’t understand what they are thankful for or what it meant to serve in the military.
Another topic that was discussed today was the need almost every veteran feels to return and experience their service again. I feel this all the time. I still feel I could serve and when things get hectic, it is natural for me to wish to be overseas again. Todd said he felt this way too. Overseas there is one main objective. Get home. After that, you have food prepared for you, you have someone doing your laundry (in the later years of the war), you don’t have to worry about money, you don’t have to worry about picking out clothes to wear or whether you need to buy new ones.
But at the same time, it is the same freedom a prisoner enjoys. I know with these new found freedoms, all I did was wonder what was going on at home. In the end, the simplicity is an illusion, because for every menial task performed for me was met with a feeling I was missing out on everything going on at home. That feeling has never left me. That ‘wish I could go back’ feeling is no different than anyone looking back on any of the “good old days.”
The week before spring break is here and it is time to show something has been happening for the last month and a half. I am closing in on the first and second podcast. I have cut them all together and had Grace listened to the first one after I recorded a few lines I still needed. She said I need to speak with more confidence and become part of the story. I am not sure how to do that. I guess I don’t know what to sound like. I have always had an easy time manipulating my voice, but why is this difficult. I am not sunk yet, just short on time. I need to re-record my lines in my podcasts.
I also need to start this story. It almost writes itself because Todd has given me so much material. He really has had an adventurous life. But if you hadn’t met him, his life would sound like a war hero from a book or a movie. Without seeing the scars he wears when he discusses these things, he would almost become a romantic character of war rather than real person with kids and a mortgage. I am thinking this story is going to be made or broken on if I can give Todd a face to go with his stories.
This photo was taken by Raley during his deployment to Iraq. It shows a tank moving away from a violent explosion.
Over spring break I have done little to advance my story on Todd Raley. I looked through the quotes I have from Todd and decided what is going to make up the story. But something else happened that gave me glimpse of what Todd had gone through when he told me about deploying as a father and deploying as a young man.
I was shooting dart league at a bar this week and saw a very unstable person I was deployed with. He has been crazy as long as I have known him, and I had a firsthand perspective of his insanity while working with him in the year leading up to the second deployment. We tried to tell the commander but he didn’t listen. On deployment, the soldier lost it, ended up being shipped home. Now roams the streets of Oshkosh and he was roaming the bar I was at. He looked at me, and I knew he recognized me. I was afraid he was going to do something, namely come into the bar and shoot me or something.
It was a long night. I kept watching where he was sitting, just to see if he was coming. I even went so far as to ask my friend if he was carrying his gun. I was afraid because I didn’t want to be killed. I am getting married next September and want to be there for that. When I was deployed, I was single and, in crude terms, only had to worry about myself.
This incident gave me an idea of what Todd went through his second deployment as a man with something to lose. I had a glimpse of how difficult that can be. Imagine that uncertainty and fear for an entire year.
I get frustrated most when I think back on the war now because we only discuss us.
This week was the ten year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Our class had to read some blogs from veterans talking about the war. They made me angry.
The biggest thing I deal with now, after spending almost two years in Iraq, is this constant feeling that I wasted my time. I read the news and hear about Shiite and Sunni conflict and realize we left them naked.
I used to think we need to leave and let them figure this out, we couldn’t prop them up forever. The day the last soldier left, there was a massive attack in Baghdad. That didn’t take long. A few weeks later, their vice president was accused of committing acts of terror. Their VP? Come on.
What I am getting to is that we helped people over there. We did something. There are Iraqis that would attest to this. I know it. But reading these stories, if I didn’t know any better, I would swear we went there to messed up a generation of young people through PTSD and amputations. We did something there, but you would never know. You don’t hear the stories about how our unit captured a man who stole a family’s car. You don’t hear about British EOD removing hundreds, maybe thousands, of unexploded mines, mortars and rockets that would have maimed, maybe killed small children. You don’t hear about our medic who patched up Iraqi citizens after a freak bus accident. How many lives have been lost in the Iraq War? How many have been saved?
The story is always the same. I am like this now, fill in the blank. I just want to know we accomplished something.
This photo shows the leftover wreckage of a Hesco barrier, a sand-filled baricade used to protect soldiers from explosions.
The semester is getting into what my father would call “prime time.” With only a few weeks left a few projects are converging on deadlines.
It isn’t such a big deal, but with work picking up and me hitting a lazy streak, it has been hard to avoid procrastinating. Tonight I am forcing myself to at least get a few words on the page for the story behind the story. I also decided to attach a horrible picture of me in my class A uniform.
My first move was to stare at the screen for a few minutes. After a story didn’t start writing itself, I decided it is vital for me to see the video from the Waco, Texas. After I watched that, I moved my clicker to the Facebook icon. I had a notification that was pressing.
Why is it when time is tight we waste the most?
The time has come for the editing process where I tear down all the things I thought the story needed. “Killing the Darlings” as they say. I am pretty sure that is just an expression to make a writer feel accomplished even when continually hitting “delete.”
Beloved sentences murdered, I got the story down to 2,300 words on the nose before Grace got a hold of it. All my careful planning and precise word counts shot. It is back up to 2,350.
It will be finished once I get a couple questions from Todd answered and his final approval/fact checking. Then I want to make a video slideshow, which also needs to be recorded. The last push is here. I am on schedule.