Dan Jones* joined the US military in his mid-20s. He talks to Sarah about why he signed up, and reflects on his experiences in Iraq and Haiti, as well as IS, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and American Sniper. *This interview has been edited for anonymity.
As a starting point, why did you sign up?
Little bit of background, I come from a military family. My father was career Air Force, so I guess I was probably always influenced by that. I guess it’s inevitable. I dunno, I just feel like it was always something that I wanted to do. Right out of high school I did not go to the military – I kinda wanted to, but I felt going to college would be the better route. Honestly, I didn’t take it seriously at all, school that is. So it was always in the back of my mind. I was like, oh, if school doesn’t work out I’ll just join the military. I don’t know, fastforward until I’m 25, 26, that’s when I finally finished up one of the school programmes, but I still felt like if I didn’t join the military I would regret it. So I just went down to the recruiter’s office and – that was in 2009, and that’s when I enlisted. I spent four and a half years. I got an airborne contract, so those are the guys that, you know – paratrooper, you jump out of airplanes, a soldier that jumps out of an airplane. Yeah, so I did that for four and a half years, and I just got out in 2013, the summer of 2013.
Oh, I thought that you still were [serving], and that you were studying whilst [doing that].
No, I do get money for my service, provided by the government – so, they’re paying for my school, but I don’t have any sort of. Oh, ok, that’s not entirely true – so, my four-and-a-half year contract, any time anybody enlists you have an eight-year obligation, so I really served four and a half years, but the remaining three and a half years, it’s called Inactive Ready Reserve. So, if World War 3 happens they could pull me back into service, and I have no choice. It’s just a way of retaining people for their military service for a guaranteed eight years. The chances of something like that happening are of course small, but it did happen, I would say at the beginning of the Iraq war – 2003 through 2005, it happened to a lot of people.
Yeah, right. I read a few articles about that, and just the struggle for numbers, and recruits. What’s your take on that, having voluntarily recruited, did you find that it affected who was signing up?
I feel like it was a mixed bag. I met college graduates, I met people who were definitely from a lower socio-economic status, I met guys that I would say are like my peers, people that are very similar to me. I met people that joined the army for college reasons, I met people that joined the army to pay off college loan debt. I had people that wanted to take care of their families. I went to basic training with people that were 38 and 40 years old, you know what I mean? But they were going in with a whole bunch of 18 year-old kids. It was a wide spectrum of people enlisted.
Were you one of the oldest?
It was a little bit older, yeah. I felt it was advantageous too, just because I was a little more mature, and I don’t know, I could kinda filter out more of the brainwashing and maybe the army didn’t have as great of an influence on me as compared to if I was 18.
What is that culture like? That side of it?
I can’t speak on all things army, or military, but – I was in the infantry, and it’s an all-male unit. It’s combat arms, we’re the guys that are on the front lines, you know what I mean? It’s definitely, it’s kinda like a macho society. A lot of cussing, a lot of drinking, it almost encouraged a culture of drinking. Maybe not officially, but you know, that’s what you do. I would say there’s a lot of young alcoholics in my old unit. But also I’d say it’s a good group of people that truly love each other. You really look after your buddies.
Where were you initially based?
I spent my whole time stateside at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. That’s where I was stationed. So after all my initial training, from basic training and airborne school, I went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. So, in October of 2009, that’s when I got to Fort Bragg. I spent my whole time there, outside of deployments. I had one deployment to Haiti after the earthquake in early 2010, and then also I went to Iraq in 2011.
How long were you in Haiti?
I was in Haiti for, I would say about 110 days or so.
Was it mostly humanitarian?
It was all humanitarian. I think more than 350,000 people lost their lives, and more than 1.5 million people lost their homes. As you can imagine, it was kind of chaotic. Basically our job was to provide medical assistance, and also to prevent chaos. Because anytime, when you’re in those kind of situations, I think people have a tendency to, I don’t know, kind of be worse, just because you lose a sense of what you used to have, and things can get ugly. A lot of times we worked with non-profit organisations, helped distributing aid, and we also would help erect compounds and camps, basically. Kind of like refugee camps, shelters for the rainy season. Make sure they had water. That’s pretty much what we did every day for the better part of three months.
What was it like going somewhere like that having been stateside up until that point?
In a lot of ways it was eye-opening for me. I think a lot of people too. It was horrific. I had never seen dead bodies, or anything like that, but you just have collapsed buildings with people trapped underneath [them]. People with no clothes, no shelter. It was humbling, but at the… it was a really good experience. Looking back on it, it was difficult for a lot of us too because it’s not really our job, per se, what we were trained to do, you know what I mean? We did our job professionally, I think we did a really good job. But, a lot of guys were kinda unhappy, just like this is kinda not our job. I would say I shared some of that sentiment as well. But I think it was a good experience.
Why were you sent?
We were scheduled to go to Afghanistan that summer, so summer 2010. But when the earthquake happened we were on something called a Global Response Force. So, basically they have about 2,000 troops in the 82nd – my old unit, 82nd Airborne – within 18 hours we had to be ready to deploy anywhere in the world. It’s always up to the President where they send us, so after the earthquake happened they deemed that, to best utilise us we should go help out the Haitian people, so that’s where we went, and our Afghan deployment got switched, another unit took over that deployment. In a lot of ways it was – I guess you could understand, you train for things and then you never really get to do what your trained [for].
Was it quite frustrating having had that on the horizon?
Yeah, in some part yeah. There was a lot of guys that, maybe they had three-year contracts, and they never got to go to Iraq, or Afghanistan, and they just went to Haiti, you know what I mean. Some people enlist to actively, they want to go experience Afghanistan, or Iraq.
I had an interesting conversation with someone who was on the National Guard, in Tucson. He was talking about how he had never been stationed anywhere like that, and the friend that he was with had been, but this other guy was just talking about how he had found it really frustrating because – his example was it’s like training for a test that, each week you’re told you’re going to sit the test, and it just is delayed week after week and you never take the fuckin’ test. And he found that really frustrating. And I could understand it. It was just interesting hearing that take on it, because I guess my default is to be critical of war, you know?
Yeah, it’s like – why do you want to go there?
Yeah, why are you so keen to go to war?
Yeah, but I, I don’t know, I just think – of course you should question war, and war in general is a bad thing, but I think people look for different experiences. It’s something that’s a topic of current events, and it’s something that’s going to go down in history, and whether you agree or disagree with the political views, there’s still an experience to gain out of it. I think a lot of people share that sentiment. Myself personally, I don’t really identify with either major political party in the US. I understand the bogusness – I’ll just say it – of going into Iraq, I do understand that, but that did not stop me from necessarily partaking in joining the military, during a war time.
What was it like to go to Iraq?
When we went to Iraq we were supposed to be the last combat troops there. So this was in 2011, and this is – it was another frustrating thing, because the action and stuff [was] in Afghanistan, and that’s where we wanted to go. But for whatever reason the higher-ups decided that, once again, my unit would go to Iraq. So we were kinda disappointed again, you know what I mean? But it wasn’t a bad gig. For the start of it we were on bigger bases, where we had a lot of amenities. I could Skype with [my partner] on almost a daily basis. I could get a nice haircut and I could take as many showers as I wanted, it wasn’t bad, at all. And then they started closing things down – ’cause that was our purpose, we were going to be there for a good six months and start closing everything down. So we would go to different bases, and just kinda ensure the closure of it, and then also we did a lot of key leader engagements. We would meet with certain police departments, and law enforcement agencies. We’d meet with them just to basically see if we could provide any help. We did route clearing for counter IEDs [improvised explosive devices], that sort of thing. It got pretty monotonous after a while, we wanted to go home. And we did, we got home right before Christmas, which we were hoping. So we got lucky – we didn’t have to spend Christmas there.
How long were you there for all up?
I guess it must have been strange to go at the point when things were finally winding down?
I don’t know, maybe at the time – ah I’ll just speak for myself. Maybe at the time I didn’t realise, you know, I guess the implications of us ‘closing down Iraq’, or whatever. I guess I never looked at it in that sort of big picture while I was there. I just always looked at it in, kind of like a selfish way, you know what I mean? You get tired of what you’re doing, it’s really repetitive; again, we are not really doing our job that we’re trained for. And you want to go home too. It was kinda open-ended, there was no solidified date of when we were going to be going home. There would always be rumours, you know – you don’t have anything better to talk about, so you talk about when you’re going to potentially be going home.
I guess it’s like any job after a point, especially if there’s no live combat – you’re going through a routine.
Yeah. That’s not to say we were careless, or we just were kicking the rocks in the dirt when we were out. It wasn’t like that. Everyone did their job, but there’s a part of you that’s just kind of like, ‘come on – something happen, please’.
And you and [your partner] had just started dating right, before you went?
Yeah, at that point we had been dating, oh my gosh, not even a year. Yeah, I think we spent our year anniversary apart.
It worked out ok though.
Yeah, it worked out. Deployment’s not easy on any relationship, even someone that’s married. I feel like it’s tough, it’s trying. It’s going to test both of you, your commitment to each other, your – I don’t know, just how much shit you can take. It’s not for everybody. I think long distance relationships are difficult as they already are, but then add in someone overseas in a war zone – it just makes it worse.
How did your friends with families, with kids, how did they find it? The people you were stationed with?
It was challenging. Some of the guys have done it before, some of the guys would have problems – cheating wives, wives spending all their paycheques while they were gone, shit like that. You see bad things, but you also see – there’s ‘good wives’ too, that are always sending their dude nice care packages, you know.
Some good snacks –
Snacks and chewing tobacco.
Was there anything like that that you really missed when you were away? Any cravings?
Uh.. alcohol? And good food, you know? [My partner] was awesome, she would sneak those little airplane bottles of booze in my care packages. They inspect it, but she was smart about it. She would put ’em in – open a package of chips, or crackers, you know? Shove them in there and close it and re-tape it, reseal it, you know? I’d be in a bathroom stall, just like slamming a couple of those, you know.
Did you have much to do with the Iraqi people? Were you in communities, or mostly on the base?
Our presence in the community was, maybe just like presence patrol. I’m trying not to use too much jargon, but presence patrol is, basically what it sounds like. You’re out and about, like ‘hey, look I am here’. It has two purposes… you’re identifying yourself to the local populace, and saying ‘hey, I’m not some asshole’. Also, it’s to deter any sort of military combatant activity in the area. Maybe it encourages them too. I don’t know, that’s the purpose anyways. We would go to a lot of police stations, meet with a lot of police chiefs and officers, and just try to ask them, what do they need from us? We’re leaving, can we help? A lot of them – we would drink tea with them and stuff, but they just wanted us to get out of their country. Rightfully so. Look at that place now.
Did you find that people were negative towards you [generally speaking]?
Not too much. There was one time we went to a city called Haditha. You should read about it sometime – there was a big incident, I want to say maybe 2006 or 7. It’s a city in western Iraq. There’s a big damn there. Marines were responsible for that area of operation, and I guess one of their trucks got hit with IED, and the guys that didn’t get hurt, they kind of freaked out, I would say, and they got out of the trucks and they just started going house to house. Basically shooting civilians. So after that, as you can imagine – that’s inexcusable, that’s horrible, that’s everything that’s wrong. You’re not supposed to do that. After that, rightfully so, there were a lot of bad feelings about that. So when we went there Americans hadn’t gone there in more than a couple of years. I remember driving through that city and people looking at us like, what the – what are you guys doing here?
Do you know if that was because – this is purely because I went down a rabbithole, reading about Neo-Nazi groups in the US wanting to join the military, and I read about some attacks that were related to that. Do you know if [the Haditha attack] had anything to do with those groups?
I don’t think so, I can’t speak with 100% certainty, because I wasn’t there, but my understanding was – a couple of their buddies got killed, and they freaked out. They had bad leadership, in that somebody allowed that to happen. I think it was adrenaline, and anger-filled, kind of spur of the moment. But horrible, you know, inexcusable. Pretty disgusting. But I don’t know, stuff like that happens sometimes.
What are your thoughts on ISIS? Just to throw you a really easy question.
They’re some of the worst people, I don’t know. How much time do you have? It’s bad, I feel that it’s their ideology and then just this hate-filled agenda, hiding behind the veil of Islam. It’s bullshit. That’s not what Islam is about. But they conjure up enough support, and I don’t know. I feel like they’re going to be able to sack different governments in the Middle East. And I think it’s going to be only a matter of time before they suck in the rest of the world to have to do something. Outside of drone strikes and funding other, more moderate Muslim groups to fight them – that shit’s not going to work.
Do you think the Iraq war that you served in spurred on the rise of [IS]?
Yeah, for sure – we helped create that. Saddam Hussein was a horrible, horrible person, but in some way he kind of had a lid on all of that stuff. And when you remove that person, Americans are going to be there, and people want to fight the Americans. I can understand that. So, you’re going to bring a lot of people from surrounding areas that basically go there to fight the Americans, and they’re going to have different interest groups. Some are going to be stronger than others, and it spreads. That’s why I feel like we have a lot of responsibility for what happens with that. That’s why it bothers me that a lot of the world is just kind of like [shrugs]. I guess they talk about it, but they’re not really doing anything about it.
Do you find that it – again, because my default is to be quite anti-war, or conflict – I try to put myself on the other side of the coin too, because I think that ‘the rest of the world’ is quite selective about when America should and shouldn’t be involved in something. We’re very quick to criticise in some scenarios, and then in others it’s like ‘where is America?!’
I’m glad you could see that. I just feel like, that’s how it is. America’s kind of like a world policing force, you know what I mean? A lot of times you’re going to get the shit, but – they’re always going to get shit. They’re going to get shit for being there or they’re going to get shit for not being there. I feel like the media in general is very selective in what they care about. Look at Nigeria right now. Boko Haram? Those guys are, they’re just as bad as IS, just as bad. I read somewhere, some village, they killed a couple thousand people. That got a blip on the BBC newsfeed. But someone shoots up a publishing building and some journalists in Paris, and that’s going to dominate the headlines.
Do you think part of it is that, so, to attack a media group feels a lot closer to home in the sense that it’s, I don’t know, people assume conflict will continue in Africa – ‘what can we do about that? It’s always going on’. But when a terrorist group comes into, and even the stuff with The Interview movie – the James Franco movie, and Seth Rogen? That’s sort of dipping into, I dunno, what is expected to be a safezone. And I think maybe that’s what freaks – I mean, that’s why it’s terrorism, but –
No, that’s a very good point. It’s close to home, and anytime it’s – if something’s happening in another city you don’t really care, but I guess if there’s an attack in Paris, with some journalists it’s going to be – it’s in your neighbourhood, or it could even be on your block. Of course that’s going to affect you a lot more. But I just think, sadly that’s the kind of world we’re living in.
Whereas Iraq was monied interests, so that was valid. How did you feel about there ‘not being any weapons of mass destruction’? Did you all the way along assume –
I assumed, like I say – I remember watching the news in 2002, 2003, talking to my dad. I was just like, there’s no – it’s just bogus, you know what I mean? I just felt like it was a George Bush daddy, George Bush son, just some total, crazy conservative ‘let’s go blame people, let’s go finish up with Saddam’. It felt totally bogus. And I still joined the military.
Well, like you say there’s different reasons for doing that.
But I never felt there was weapons of mass destruction, nah. But I don’t know, I guess you could make the argument that, if I was a good person, for me to not join the military, and not join the combat arms, and not go to Iraq, but… I don’t know, I kind of look at it, it’s like a separate entity than the politics. Things that go up in Congress, the people that plan these things. I would say, don’t so much blame the soldier. In a lot of ways it’s just a person that’s making a living, you know what I mean? You could argue, you should do something else, you don’t have to – you volunteered to go into the military. But in a lot of ways the military is a great way to take care of your family, it really is. Provides college education for people that don’t have families, like myself. You have healthcare, you’re going to get two solid paycheques twice a month, it’s all automatic. You get 30 days paid vacation a year, you know? I feel like if you don’t have many opportunities, you know – you’re not going to go to college, and you’re from a shitty midwestern steel town, it’s like ‘yeah. I would totally join the military’.
It makes a lot of sense looking at it from that perspective. I think targetting – like, setting out to target high school students, to sell the military as a career option, there’s a lot that I find quite dubious about that, and have major problems with. But not everything the military do is around conflict, so I hear all of that. And I find it quite interesting to hear about the different reasons people go into it.
There’s tons of jobs, career opportunities in the military. If I wanted to be a cook, I could be a cook – or a medic. I could look at it in a way like, ‘I am physically helping people’. Helping save lives. There’s tons of jobs. Mechanics, supply clerks –
I think increasingly too the military plays quite a big role in humanitarian [aid]. Do you find that, when you tell people that you were in the military, what are some of the responses that you get?
It varies, I feel like the conversation doesn’t come up too often. Sometimes thank-yous, sometimes just like, ‘oh cool’. I feel like most times it doesn’t even really elicit a response.
Have you ever been harrassed, or criticised?
No, honestly I haven’t.
Well you’re not really someone who’s looking for it, as well.
Well, [my partner] might say differently, but –
It’s a total tangent, but – so that new Bradley Cooper movie, American Sniper. I don’t suppose you’ve seen it?
That movie is so bad. I was very excited to see the movie – not because I worship this crazy Navy Seal sniper or whoever, I’m just, I don’t know – I’m interested in that kind of stuff and I would like to see it generally. I think Clint Eastwood’s a pretty good director, so I was like, there’s some hope for it, you know? So I convinced [my partner] to see it. [She] does not watch those movies, at all. She can’t even watch – I try to get her to watch documentaries about Afghanistan and Iraq, and she will not do it. She hates the sound of gunfire, it bothers her. So I convinced her to go watch this movie with me – there’s a new movie theatre in town called the Roadhouse. It’s got these big fatboy reclining chairs, and they have – they cater to you. They bring you food and beer and wine. It’s very American, it’s just total fatass moviedom, but it’s a nice theatre.
Is it a fancy theatre? ‘Cause I went to the Loft a lot.
No the Loft’s amazing – the Loft’s way better. But it’s kind of fancy, yeah.
But, different vibe.
But yeah, so I convinced [her] to go watch it, which we did. And of course it was getting a lot of – it’s still getting a lot of buzz, a lot of negative things said about it. But, at the same time, it’s opening weekend it made like $92 million dollars or something. So, that’s pretty incredible, it’s got a lot of nominations for the Academy Awards. It was just a shitty movie though. Yeah, it was just really bad. I was cringing at some of the parts – how bad it was.
Because it was different to your experience?
Yeah, I just felt like was very Hollywood, in the scenes that they were in Iraq. And then they turned the movie into a Bradley Cooper revenge movie, ‘I gotta go to Iraq and kill the one sniper that shot my buddy’, you know what I mean? It’s just like – it’s so, fucking bullshit. I felt like it wanted to be a PTSD movie, which is great, there needs to be more awareness of PTSD with soldiers. I feel like that’s something that the government is doing a horrible job on. So, I was kind of excited about that – I was like, oh cool, maybe this is a good way to bring PTSD into current events, the forefront. But it was so vague about it. It was like, I could tell he kind of has PTSD ’cause he’s like, kind of weird about it – he’s zoning out when he’s driving his car, but they never really hit up on it, which is weird. Because Chris Kyle, the guy who’s portrayed in the movie, he’s someone that suffered from PTSD himself, and he ends up being killed by someone with PTSD. So I’m like, right there – you should be using it more. The soldiers are portrayed in the movie, they were not deep. I just felt like they were some generic Hollywood – saying the generic macho lines. It was stupid, it was bad. Which is funny though, because I have old army buddies that think it’s the best movie ever.
Do you have friends who have PTSD?
For sure. Yeah, my first squad leader in the army, I would say – he still suffers. I don’t really talk to him too much anymore, but I remember when I was new to the unit. He’d experienced some bad things in Iraq and I think he personally felt – basically one of his guys got blown up in IED, and he feels responsible for that. I don’t know how valid those feelings are, him feeling responsible, but I know he has – he lost a marriage over it, he’s drinking a lot of Jack Daniels, he’s not sleeping. But it’s so weird, because I feel like at the time people were like, ‘oh, [X is] just being weird’ – ‘that’s just [X] being [X]’. But the dude obviously has issues, you know what I mean? But I feel like the culture is like, you just suck it the fuck up, and you drive on. You don’t bitch about it. But, officially when you’re in there, your units always are like, ‘do you need to talk to someone?’ Or you do these little surveys, you’re like ‘I have thoughts about suicide: Yes/No, one time a week, two times a week’. You just do these stupid surveys, and if you answer yes to any of the questions you might have a talk with a psychiatrist or something. But I feel a lot of times people just skim through that. It’s like, you’re made to feel bad if you’re broken, in any way. Not even mentally, just you know – if you break your leg or something, it’s like ‘oh your broken, you can’t do your job’. It’s such a macho culture where – you don’t want to be broken.
I guess it’s at odds entirely with your brief.
Yeah, it goes against it. But it’s real, it needs to be addressed. People have issues, I don’t know – I think the statistic is 22 veterans commit suicide a day. I want to say a quarter of all suicides in the US are veteran suicides – that’s a pretty high number if you consider that maybe 1% of the population is a veteran.
Do you think it’s harder on younger people?
I don’t know for sure, honestly. I can’t say. I would imagine that, yeah if I had to guess it probably would affect you more if you were younger. I think so. But at the same time I know a lot of guys that, when they were senior to me they were guys that joined when they were 18, they went to Afghanistan or Iraq when they were 18 or 19 years old, you know what I mean? Now they’re like 22, 23 year-old staff sergeants, in charge of guys like me that – I was 28, 29, you know? I was older than pretty much all the guys in my platoon, with the exception of maybe four or five guys. A lot of those guys especially had been there for a while. They experienced it at a younger age. I think maybe people are wired differently, and it’s just going to affect them differently. I know people that experienced the same thing, and one guy totally seems fine, or totally professes that he doesn’t have any issues about it, but then another guy – it’s all the same thing – and he kind of goes off the deep end. It’s interesting though, it’s a real issue. The recent State of the Union address, the President – well he did mention, ‘hire veterans to get a job done’. You know, that’s cool, yeah.
It’s cool to get a job and all, but how about the dudes that, they have fucking issues, mental issues? How ’bout that? How come you didn’t address anything about PTSD, and these guys that are doing your deeds, the deeds on your behalf. How ’bout you take care of those guys? I have some issues with that.
*We’ve kept ‘Dan’s’ real identity private so he could speak freely. Thanks to him for doing so.
Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.