My conversation with a returning US Marine


My life is really hard. A few weeks ago I was sent off to Barcelona to attend a conference for my sometime day job. I endured all day meetings and all night clubbing. Then on the return flight to Boston, I got trapped in the inevitable delay vortex that is the Philadelphia airport. I was livid. Then I met a US Marine returning from an eight month tour of duty in Iraq. Now, I love the Philadelphia Airport.

The delay really was ridiculous. I had a transfer set in Philly via US Airways and knew getting off the Barcelona flight that there were problems with my connection. I was supposed to do a show in Boston that night at 10pm, and with an original arrival around 8pm, it wouldn't have been a problem even with a small delay. But, I don't trust the Philadelphia airport.

Why? Like Mos Def said in The Italian Job, "I had a bad experience."

Six years ago, I was returning from my only other international US Airways flight, from Paris to Boston. There was a transfer in Philadelphia. My connecting flight was cancelled. In fact, all flights were cancelled. Rain. I was supposed to be in Boston early the next morning to start my first, post-college, full-time job. You understand? My first job.

I didn't have a cell phone, so I couldn't get in on the early morning flights out the next day and hotel vouchers. I had to wait in line. Some people played both ends. They were in line, but they were also on their little cell phones, stealing my lodging and plane seats. Damn you digital divide!!! By the time I got to a counter, all the hotels were full and no flight could get me to my first job in time.

On top of that, the train tracks on the whole East coast were flooded. It was at this point I had to ask myself, "Why did you leave Paris?" I had gone there to chase a woman. Don't worry, she was in on the game. It's not like I just looked in a Parisian yellow pages, found some femme worth stalking and booked a flight. This woman had invited me over... to Paris. You can't say no to that. Anyway, when I was leaving that great city, she asked if I didn't want to stay for the weekend at least. She was heading to the beaches in the Southern regions. I politely declined, explaining that I had to get back to Boston for my brand, spanking new job.

Then the rain came and shut down the Philly airport and stopped the trains and ate up all the hotel rooms in town. So, I did the only reasonable thing I could do: I rode a bus to New York and then another bus to Boston, all overnight. I arrived at the office about 15 minutes before the welcome-new-cubicle-dwellers meeting began. At the end of that day, I went to a SprintPCS store and bought a cell phone.

The moral of the story is that I hate the Philadelphia airport. So when my second ever US Airways international flight took me through Philly on the return, and when the connecting flight was set to be delayed by 45 minutes, I didn't trust the airport. I asked my girlfriend (using my cell phone!) to help get me a one-way car rental, but the cars were sold out. Again, I'd have to wait at this cursed airport.

If you're wondering where the US Marine is in this story, hang tight pahtnas. In due time. I'm weaving a tale here.

The flight kept getting pushed back. From 45 minutes to an hour to 90 minutes. I would wait in line, trying to talk to the gate agent. She would avoid eye contact with me, as if that made her invisible. It was cute, the little dance we did.

The flight still got pushed back. Two hours. Two and a half hours. It was around this point that I just had to give in and laugh. My evaporating hope of making my show finally dried up completely. I had just witnessed (with incredible joy, might I add) a near-fight between two 50+ year old white men over their spot in line. I was hungry and tired, and I finally accepted my fate and decided to enjoy it.

At the same time, another passenger had decided to snap. "Why should I listen to you now?!!!" he yelled at the gate agent. "You say it will be another hour, but you said that an hour ago!! How do I know you won't lie to me again??"

"Sir, I didn't lie to you. I passed on the information I was given at the time."

"You are lying again! What, do you think we are all cows!!?? To be herded about??? I just want to be treated like a human being!!"

How can you not enjoy that? All I needed was a $20 bucket of lard-drenched popcorn.

Shortly after that man's meltdown, I met "Joe". I'm calling him that because I don't want the military to get all upset in case he said something he shouldn't have. Joe looked like just about any man in his early 20s might, except he had better posture. His smile was really warm, and I can remember him being so calm amidst the mob of angry passengers. We both smiled at the situation.

We talked about the insanity and agreed that people were a little bit out of control. I asked him where he was going.

"Boston. I live in Hyde Park. You?"

"Somerville."

"Where are you coming from?" he asked.

"Barcelona. You?"

"Iraq."

Damn. I guess that explained his posture! And his calm, although I might have understood if he were completely berzerk as well.

Joe was a Marine, a sergeant I think. In the TOW Unit. I thought that meant he was like AAA for the troops. Nope. "TOW" stands for "Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided missile." See this page for more. Not quite as catchy as "you call, we haul," but it'll do, I guess. Joe's unit patrolled the Iranian and Syrian borders. He's been a Marine for two years and spent the last eight months in Iraq.

I was amazed. As we talked more, the one-man media conglomerate in me woke up. "Hey, do you mind if I interview you for my radio show?" I figured that would be a pretty dope podcast exclusive. After initially agreeing, he thought better of it and said he was pretty sure that wasn't allowed. I definitely didn't want to get him in any trouble. Thus, his name is "Joe," and what you're reading is my recollection, not a word-for-word transcript.

"You're the first person I've met who's actually been over there," I said. "And I don't want to hit you with all the boring questions. When people find out you've been in Iraq, what do they always ask?"

"They want to know about my politics."

"Ok, no politics questions from me. Here's my first question: what's the most fun you had in Iraq?"

I thought that was a pretty dope question, if I may say so myself, which I may, because, it's my blog.

Joe thought about the question for a little while. "That's a good question."

See, the Marine thinks Baratunde asks good questions. Told you.

"I'd have to to say it was the shower," he said.

"Really? The shower?"

"Yeah..." Joe went on to use some terminology describing the setup, but basically they'd create a shower floor out of the tops of ammo crates and get some sort of very small water tower or pump for the water.

"And how often did you get to ahower?"

"Oh, maybe once every six to eight weeks."

"Daaaamn. So you might have had 10 showers in the past eight months?"

"Yeah. Other than that, it's baby wipes."

I do believe such a schedule would make showers fun, indeed.

"Ok, then the opposite question: what's the most scared you were?"

This required no time for Joe to give me a response.

"Mortar fire. It's as loud as an airplane."

I thought that was it, but then he told another story. When he finished, I realized at some point, that I had stopped breathing.

"Also, when someone yells 'gas!' that means we suspect a chemical weapons attack, and we have to get suited up."

All the troops get suited up in their chemical gear -- huge, heavy rubber suits with full face masks. This is in 120 degree desert heat. Then they wait. To me, of the F-U-Philly-Airport crowd, "mortar fire" qualified as most frightening. When he upped it with "gas!" I could see that yes, thinking you might melt from the inside, was more frightening than loud explosions. But, Joe wasn't finished.

"When it's over, the commanding officer has the youngest, most junior marine take his mask off... to make sure the air is ok. I was the commanding officer, and I had to look into these kids' eyes and tell them to risk their lives by taking off a mask. The medics were standing by with [instant treatment of some sort] but I'm 22 looking into an 18 year old's eyes, and he's scared. It's hard thing to do."

Damn.

Damn.

I did not expect that. I'm not sure what I expected, maybe fears of a roadside bomb or some sort of ambush, but not some deep, emotionally scarring event. That's war. Right there.

Joe looked healthy. He hadn't seen his wife in eight months. He was easy going, friendly and had a good head on his shoulders. But the most fun he's had in the past three quarters of a year has been the occasional shower. And the most scared he's been was having to tell an 18 year old to take off his gas mask to make sure the gas was gone.

This is what they mean when they say war should always be a last resort. I knew I was against this Gulf War 2.0 from the start. But at the time it was about the policy: no real WMD threat and a president who'd proven himself untrustworthy. I thought about the Iraqis and Americans that would die over this, and it made me sick.

But I forgot about the changed lives, the mentally scarred, the future homeless veterans who will struggle to deal with all that they've seen and done. A life can end even while the person living it breathes.

For my part, I find it a lot harder to complain about airport delays.