What A Veteran Taught Me About Facing My Own War

Chopper

Bringing Iraq — and my experience in Somalia — to the homeland

by MARK WILKERSON

Memorial Day is over. You had your barbecue. Now, you can stop thinking about America’s wars and the casualties from them for another year. As for me, I only wish it were so.

It’s been Memorial Day for me ever since I first met Tomas Young. And in truth, it should have felt that way from the moment I hunkered down in Somalia in 1993 and the firing began.

After all, we’ve been at war across the Greater Middle East ever since. But somehow it was Tomas who, in 2013, first brought my own experience in the U.S. military home to me in ways I hadn’t been able to do on my own.

That gravely wounded, living, breathing casualty of our second war in Iraq who wouldn’t let go of life or stop thinking and critiquing America’s never-ending warscape brought me so much closer to myself, so bear with me for a moment while I return to Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, and bring you — and me — closer to him.

Boom!

In that spring of 1993, I was a 22-year-old Army sergeant, newly married, and had just been dropped into a famine-ridden, war-torn Third World country on the other side of the planet, a place I hadn’t previously given a thought.

I didn’t know what hit me. I couldn’t begin to take it in. That first day I remember sitting on my cot with a wet t-shirt draped over my head, chugging a bottle of water to counter the oppressive heat.

I’d trained for this — a real mission — for more than five years. I was a Black Hawk helicopter crew chief. Still, I had no idea what I was in for.

So much happened in Somalia in that “Black Hawk Down” year that foreshadowed America’s fruitless wars of the 21st century across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, but you wouldn’t have known it by me. That first day, sitting in a tent on the old Somali Air Force base in Baledogle, a couple of hours inland from the capital city of Mogadishu, I had a face-to-face encounter with a poisonous black mamba snake.

Somehow it didn’t register. Not really.

This is real, I kept telling myself in the six months I spent there, but in a way it wasn’t or didn’t seem to be.

After about a month, my unit moved to the airport in Mogadishu — away from the snakes, scorpions and bugs that infested Baledogle, but closer to dangers of a more human sort. Within a few weeks, I became used to the nightly rat-tat-tat of machine gun fire coming at us from the city. I watched the tracers streak by as we crouched behind our sandbagged fighting positions.

We would return from missions to find bullet holes in the skin or rotor blades of our Black Hawk helicopters, or in one case a beer-can-sized hole that a rocket-propelled grenade round punched cleanly through the rear stabilizer without — mercifully — detonating.

And yet none of it felt like it was quite happening to me.

I remember lying on my cot late at night, not far from the flight line full of Black Hawks and Cobras, hearing the drone of low-flying American AC-130 gunships firing overhead for hours on end. The first boom would come from the seaward side of the field as the gunship fired its M-102 howitzer.

A few seconds later, another boom would mark the round’s arrival at its target across town, sometimes with secondary explosions as ammunition stores went up.

Read the Remainder at War is Boring

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