When I look at pictures of myself wearing my ROTC uniform, I am reminded of Desert Storm, which topped the headlines of all the major news networks at that time. I remember cheering the explosions that seemed to be on every channel. When a few friends of mine found out that there was going to be a rally at my high school to protest against the war, we made sure that we were there to protest against the rally. ” I’d travel a thousand miles to smoke a camel jockey” or “kill em’ all, and let God sort em’ out,” read some of the banners we held. I had joined the Army Reserves Delayed Entry program a year earlier and was eager to join in on the action. I was really gung-ho back then. Unfortunately, not everyone shared my ideals. I lost many friends because of my support of the first war in Iraq. As far as I was concerned they were a bunch of unpatriotic beatniks that should have taken the next flight to Canada.
Today, much like then, our country is experiencing a division that has split friends, families, and our nation. On one side we had those that supported our nation’s aggressive actions and feel that support must be total and unwavering regardless of the circumstances. On the other hand, you have those that reject violence and feel it is only a last resort to be used after all other options have been exhausted. The battle lines have been drawn. I was born on one side and grew up into the other. Much time has passed and I’ve matured so much since then. I’ve had one too many life changing experiences and that person I used to be has become more than a stranger.
During the first Gulf War, I would watch the news broadcasts that showed the most explosions, the closest shots to the dead Iraqi soldiers, and the best views of the mutilated bodies. I have no idea if the reporters talked about how many innocent civilians were killed, how many homes had been destroyed, or how many lives had been ruined. If they did, I didn’t pay much attention to it. When the second Gulf War began, I was much better informed about how war impacts so many lives in horrible ways. I was disgusted by the graphic pictures that were being shown on television. I found it difficult to avoid the gruesome images that seemed to be everywhere. They were reminders of the destruction of war and the ignorance and stubbornness of my youth. I wondered how many teenagers were also watching the same explosions but cheering for them instead of cringing.
In my senior year in high school, I used to have an Army recruitment sticker on my locker. I attended every rally. Both pro and anti war. If it was a pro war rally, I would give a loud “amen” to every phrase. If it was an anti war rally, I would bring my trumpet along and make the entire affair hard for anyone to hear. I wore a jacket that had an Ace of Spades card with a few bullet holes in it. It was a symbol used during the Vietnam War to mark enemy soldiers. U.S. soldiers wore them on their uniforms as a sign that they accepted death; that they knew death was a part of war. Since the second Gulf war began, I find myself writing letters to many newspapers and magazines expressing opposition to their pro war views. I have not taken part in any anti war rallies, but I would if I could. I’ve made plans to cover up the Ace of Spades I have tattooed on my back. On Television I see the faces of young soldiers and can’t help feeling sorry for them. If they live long enough, they will look back on these days and hopefully have a much better understanding of just how war destroys so much and accomplishes so little.
I enlisted into the Army when I was just seventeen. I had my recruiter visit my parents to have their permission to do so. Because of my high ASVAB score, I was able to secure an assignment to a computer programming unit. After the first Gulf war began, I went through a lot of trouble but was finally able to change my assignment to an airborne infantry unit. I wanted to be on the front lines racking up kills and not sitting behind a computer logging hours. I am haunted by images of people who I have hurt in my past. My subconscious does not differentiate between those that I hurt in self-defense or those that I have hurt for other reasons. I can’t imagine hurting anyone ever again, let alone, taking someone’s life for any reason unless it is to preserve my life or the lives of those I love. I find it hard to believe that I willingly enlisted in a job that’s sole purpose is to kill other human beings. I will forever pay the price for that mistake. I have enough skeletons in my closet to keep my sleep full of nightmares for the rest of my life. On television, and in newspapers and magazines, I see many young faces who will undoubtedly suffer the same consequences. Unfortunately, those who support the war but don’t actually participate, they will never have to face these demons. They are merely cheerleaders who never actually stepped onto the field.
A young teenager’s view of the world does not have room for the repercussions of his or her actions. There is no thought about how their present actions will destroy dreams only to have traumatic recollections take their place. To a teenager, war is a deadly game of freeze tag where they don’t think about whether people become animate once the game is over. I used to look at pictures of myself in uniform with pride. I would keep them in frames on my walls. Now I have them tucked in photo albums next to pictures of myself dressed up as Dracula, Zorro, and the homeless bum carrying his trick-or-treat bag on a stick–pictures of my childhood when I thought everything was great but actually looked pretty silly. I look at that boy’s face in those pictures and ask him what he was thinking. He just keeps on smiling. So sure of himself.
Jesus B Castaneda is currently imprisoned in California’s High Desert State Prison. Write to him at Jesus B Castaneda #K-23993, HDSP B4-109, PO Box 3030, Susanville, CA 96127