Saturday, June 23, 2007


By Sandi Austin
Home Fires
Iraq War Veterans on Their Return to American Life
The New York Times
June 22, 2007

I’m sitting on a curb along the edge of the parking lot next to the gym with two duffle bags, a ruck sack, the M249 and a 9mm strapped to my leg. It is hard to believe that all of my personal possessions for the next year can be hand carried.
— Journal Entry, November 11, 2003

It hit me two days ago, as I was unpacking the truck after a camping trip, loading the washing machine, washing the dirty dog, doing the dishes, mopping the floor, and finally driving downtown to pick up dinner, how simple the day to day routine of life in Iraq was. (By no means am I implying that I want to go back.)

Although in Iraq our lives were constantly in danger, everything was laid out for us. At the time, having limited choice felt like prison. Now at times I wish someone would make decisions for me. It has become clear that limited choice in a war zone allows the soldier to focus only on the task at hand.

Arriving with two duffel bags, I didn’t have to worry about material things, everything I was going to wear, wash with, or use for entertainment was packed. During the first few months an M.R.E. (Meal Ready to Eat) was simply tossed to me out of a cardboard box, I didn’t even get to shuffle through that brown box to determine if I wanted the tortellini or the ham slice. We all wore the same thing, so there was no need to fret over what to wear, no putting on an outfit, looking in the mirror, and thinking, “I don’t feel like tan today.”

After we arrived on base, there were Iraqis that did our laundry, kitchen staff that cooked and cleaned the dishes, air conditioning and hot water that was already paid for. Luckily, I had a great friend who was taking care of my finances while I was away, so I didn’t even have to look at my checkbook. All I had to do was wake up, go the gym, go down town, avoid roadside bombs, safely return to base, attend three hours of meetings, eat, and sleep. Although it became extremely routine, it was simple.

At home we are constantly trying to keep up with everybody and everything. Feels like I am spinning on a wheel that never stops turning. When will it rust up, slow down, stop? It took going away and coming back to see all of the unnecessary “stuff” that we clutter ourselves and our lives with.

You wake up, choose what to wear from a wardrobe that would fill ten duffel bags.

Look in the mirror and ensure that it meets the “business-world/professional standard” and looks good. Take a shower with multiple choices of body soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Open a stocked refrigerator, that in order to fill required you to look over hundreds of brands, and decide which of all of these things would make you the happiest. Choose which flavor of yogurt to eat, which juice to drink, which glass to use. Then decide what to drive to work; the van, the truck, the Toyota, the motorcycle, or the bicycle.

In the United State, grocery shopping — what seems like a simple task — can be overwhelming as well. I went to buy body lotion when I first returned and I remember having to choose from 20 different brands … and what makes one better than another?

I have yet to figure that out. It is a luxury that all of our meat is wrapped, and that the vegetables are stacked high in refrigerated bins with water misting over them. Iraqis have meat hanging in the streets, and are lucky to have a refrigerator that is actually running all day in their homes. Then there is the Super Wal-Mart … it is amazing the stuff I never knew that I “needed” until I walked into that store.

Upon reaching the check-out line, we choose which card to pay with. Master Card, Visa, Discover Card, gift card, Albertson’s card, Safeway card. I walked into Pet Smart last week and the cashier said, “Do you have a Pet Smart card?
“No,” I said. “Would I save money if I did?”

He replied, “No, nothing you bought is on sale.”

Why not just mark it as on sale? Simplify things, instead of having to carry another card?

After shopping you may finally decide it is easier to go out to eat. Now we choose which of the 100 restaurants in town to dine at. Sit down, look at an insanely long menu and try to decide what to eat or drink. Simplicity does not exist. Having come back I realize how big, how fast, and how excessive our lifestyle as Americans seems to be.

At times I am envious of the slow pace of life that I observed in Iraq. Simplicity definitely has its appeal; maybe that spinning wheel would slow down if everyone learned to live a little more simply.


Sandi Austin spent 11 months in Iraq as a sergeant with the 445th Civil Affairs Battalion, in Samarra and later Mosul. For most of her tour, she worked as a liaison to the governor of Nineveh Province. She returned to her home in Monterey, Calif., in October 2004.


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