Read more from Slate's Sept. 11 anniversary coverage.
The following essay is excerpted from the latest issue of Granta, the quarterly magazine of new writing. It is available online only in Slate. To read the complete version, click here to subscribe to Granta in print. For a limited time, Slate readers get a 25 percent discount.
The flyer on my windshield promised free tuition at any state university and an $8,000 signing bonus in exchange for six years of part-time military service with the Virginia Army National Guard.
It was July 2001 and I was 20 years old, living with my mother in Richmond, Va., rotating between a job waiting tables and another folding clothes at a retail store. That May, I had received a letter explaining that I would not be eligible for re-enrolment at Fordham University in New York City in the fall because I'd failed every class but one in the spring term. The letter came as no surprise—I drank up the entire city that spring and rarely rose before noon. I passed American History only because it was at three o'clock in the afternoon and I already knew most of the answers.
When my father—a heart surgeon and Vietnam veteran—found out the news, he called to tell me that whatever I did henceforth, I would do without his financial support. By midsummer, my transformation to the loser of my nightmares was nearly complete. I had realized the immensity of my error and was desperate for a way out.
Sweltering in the afternoon heat, I read the recruiter's flyer over and over in my car. I'd been successful as a cadet at Valley Forge Military Academy and I thought I knew the drill well enough to skate through army training, so I dialed the number at the bottom of the page.
The recruiter explained a clause in the contract that said I could be called to active-duty service for up to two years in the event of a major foreign war, but I wasn't worried. The Soviet Union collapsed when I was in fifth grade, and we'd been the world's sole superpower ever since. The United States had contributed soldiers to peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and Africa but we had no enemies of real concern. The recruiter said he could get me a slot in basic training by October. He promised I could finish training and be back in school by the fall of 2002, with the army paying my way.
Five weeks after I raised my hand and swore the oath of enlistment, I was listening to the radio in the stockroom of Banana Republic, drowning in a new shipment of summer skirts and linen blouses. The DJ interrupted the music to say that a plane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. When my shift ended, I raced home in time to see the North Tower swallowed up by a black hole of smoke and debris. Osama Bin Laden's bearded face was all over the television by late afternoon, juxtaposed with the scenes of horror in New York, and I felt a surge of adrenalin mixed with a twinge of panic.
Afghanistan receded from the headlines a few weeks after the invasion force ousted the Taliban and installed Hamid Karzai in Kabul in late 2001. There were only a few thousand troops in Afghanistan then, mostly special operations forces, and for a year or so after basic training it looked as if I would miss out on the war after all. Then, on my way home from class one day in the fall of 2002, I tuned in to National Public Radio and listened to a panel discussion on the Bush administration's case against Saddam Hussein. Suddenly an ultimatum was on the table and the next thing I knew, bombs were raining down on Baghdad and 150,000 American soldiers were rolling north through the Kuwaiti desert into Iraq. Nobody thought we'd get out of this one.
The alert order came eight months after the invasion, in November 2003, and by March I was living in a metal container on a former Iraqi airbase south of Mosul. My National Guard unit did whatever the active-duty units thought would be a waste of their time; we ran convoy security and route-clearance missions up and down Highway 1, pounded in hundreds of yards of razor-wire fences, guarded detainees and pulled watch at the gates to the base. The days passed like restless, sweaty sleep.
It was a different war back then in the north—the tail end of a tense lull before the Sunni insurgency exploded with terrifying ferocity. But the enemy was always out there—quietly taking our measure as we rolled through the villages, biding time. The war finally struck a few weeks before we were set to go home; on 21 December 2004, a suicide bomber blew himself up at lunchtime in a Mosul chow hall, killing nineteen people, including two men from my unit, David Ruhren and Nicholas Mason. Mostly quiet for an entire year, and then one day: boom—your friends are dead.
In March 2005, I came home from Iraq and spent a few months drinking up my savings and travelling the world—making up for lost time—before I began studying at the University of Virginia. The hard part wasn't dealing with the things I'd seen—it was moving amid crowds of civilians who had no idea there was a war going on, and didn't want to be reminded.