War on Iraq

They Sent Me to Distant Lands to Fight Against Muslims ... Then I Became One

Along the way, I ate Burger King in Peshawar, developed a debilitating drug habit and caught a 3-year prison sentence.

Mike's attraction to Islam dates to 2001, when his Afghan interpreter gave him a Quran. Mike had a deep respect for the spirit of those he fought and wanted to better understand what it was about their belief system that roused such a fierce dedication to their cause.   

Last month, after a year of one-on-one study with Imam Sabur, Mike made his shihada at the Kemble Street Mosque in Utica, N.Y. He is now officially an adherent of Islam.   

As a practicing Muslim, his life has become a virtual prayer. Five times a day, he ritualistically washes his body and kneels to pray facing the Kaaba in Mecca. (The first time, he used a compass and marked the direction with tape on his floor.)   

"Islam," the imam explained to me, "is a way of life more than a religion. It teaches you how to do everything, and everything becomes an act of worship."

Mike agrees, allowing with some amusement that the structure is both reassuring and familiar for a soldier, "but the military isn't nearly as strict as Islam."  

Every day, he downloads the prayer schedule off the mosque Web site. Prayers are timed according to the hours of sunrise and sunset, and on some winter mornings, that means getting up at 4:30.

But Mike rarely sleeps more than a few hours anyway. He has found that the exhaustion produced by long hours of concentrated work seems to keep his night terrors under control, so he "practices avoidance," letting his schoolwork regularly keep him up well past midnight.

Mike has a 4.0 grade-point average at State University of New York, and plans to get a Ph.D. in trauma research and counseling when he graduates.

He is also a convicted felon who suffers from a terrible post-traumatic stress injury.  

If Uncle Sam were to use his finger like a Ouija board pointer searching out a U.S. Army poster boy, it just might stop on Mike.

He's tall, fair-haired, handsome, stands with a posture that suggests military training, but without rigidity, and he speaks with a polite confidence, intelligence and insight that made him a natural leader when he was in the service and makes him a campus and community leader now.   

Mike was with the first wave of Americans into Afghanistan in 2001, and then, 15 months later, with the first wave into Iraq. Like so many combat veterans, he quite enjoys talking about the funny-crazy memories he brought home.

Like when someone discovered that there was a Burger King in Peshawar, Pakistan, over the border with Afghanistan.   

If there wasn't a lot of traffic in the Khyber Pass, he and his unit could make the trip from Jalalabad in half an hour. Like schoolboys playing chicken, they'd go – 12 guys in three vehicles bristling with guns.

"We would just run in and grab our burgers, scarf them down, and get back out of Pakistan. If we would have run into somebody, we would have been massacred," he admits sheepishly. "But it was so good to have a Whopper."  

But he won't go near the bad stuff that happened. He has learned that indulging someone else's curiosity predictably brings on terrible dreams.

"My body," he says with painful understatement, "blows everything out of proportion."  

The imam has helped.

"There is just something about Imam Sabur," Mike says. "He has taught me to trust him."   

It probably helps that the imam is a veteran and recently retired after a 20-year career at New York State's Department of Corrections.

"He knows that nothing he might say is going to shock me," Sabur told me. "I just listen and remind him that he may have done wrong in the past, and he surely will make mistakes in the future, but God is perfect, the rest of us aren't."  

Mike enlisted in the Army in 1998. His first semester in college hadn't gone all that well, and he had a bunch of uncles who had told him the military would grow him up and give him a little discipline.

They were all Army or Marine veterans, and they told stories about exploits, adventures and camaraderie, all punctuated with: "and then we got drunk."  They made it sound better than college. But none of his uncles had ever been to war.

After his first tour, Mike would have said his uncles were right. He was stationed in Korea and Bosnia, visited 27 other countries, went to jump school, and while he learned that he hated parachuting, he got a pretty badge for his uniform. He also got awards and affirmations, he made E-5 in 2 1/2, and he says he enjoyed every minute.   

A month after his contract was up, the Twin Towers went down and he re-enlisted.  

Mike wanted to be a Special Forces medic, but instead they made him a civil affairs specialist, which turned out to be "nothing but glorified social work."

His job was to do needs assessments in local villages, consulting with village elders about where schools, clinics and hospitals needed to be built, and organizing their construction.

"I was the one who would go in, smiling and happy:  ‘Look, we can get you guys schools.' "   

But he was not immune to the irony of living in an old royal palace in Jalalabad, which he says was "very nice before we blew it up," or in Fallujah, before "the Marines came through and blew that up," and then making a show of gifting the locals with replacements for what the Americans had destroyed.   

"They didn't like us as much after we blew things up," he told me with a wry smile. "We had to do a lot more building to make the Army look good."   

Civil affairs, however, was not what Mike had re-upped for. He wanted retribution, and he "wanted to do the fun stuff -- kick in doors and fight war." 

So he doubled as an 18 Bravo weapons specialist, joining a team that was doing the actual fighting. But only at night. If he went out with them in the daylight, where his face and his patches could be recognized, it would be much harder to "come back the next day and try to put a smile on 'em."  

But as it turned out, he couldn't do the fun stuff with impunity. About four months into his first tour, he started having intolerable nightmares.

The unit medic gave him Valium, telling him, "If you're not sleeping, we can't use you." 

He started out taking one a night, but after a month he was taking three or four just to get to sleep.

And drinking heavily as well. They all did, in part for the artificial courage, but also because alcohol was an excuse for these warriors to share their horror.

"We'd do a drug house or something, and whatever happened, when we came back, before we cleaned our weapons or anything, somebody would have a bottle of liquor, and we would talk everything through.

"This is among a bunch of guys that normally, if you're sober, aren't prone to expressing their feelings easily, especially with other men."  

It was when he got to Iraq that he started doing heavy drugs.

"With American money, you can walk into any pharmacy, and they will give you what you want. I had someone write Oxycontin and Valium on a piece of paper in Arabic, but after the first few times, they just knew me."  

Of course, he came home addicted to the drugs and dependent on the alcohol. The Army sent him to its Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Program when he came home.

He sat there for eight weeks in bored, defiant silence, celebrated his graduation with a 12-pack and took his "honorable discharge with a bar to re-enlistment due to medical reasons" pretty much straight to jail.  

With one painful detour: an attempted suicide. He took all the meds the VA had given him and anything else he could get his hands on.
"They didn't kill me," he told me matter-of-factly, "so I just kept on drinking and getting heavier into drugs."

Mike got himself a generous one- to three-year bid in state prison for possession --  generous because even though he was holding a lot of illegal substances when he was arrested, the sentencing judge took his PTSD diagnosis into consideration.   

After he sobered up, he spent his time in prison reading the Quran, and he began attending services. When he got out, he made a beeline for the Kemble Street Mosque and asked for the imam.  

Although the spiritual leader has become his primary mentor and support, Mike also has a counselor at SUNY and another at the VA. When he first got out of the Army, he thought he could handle things on his own.

"I went downhill real fast," he recalls, "and it didn't come out good. If that happens again," he told me earnestly, "I need somebody right there, and I don't know if the imam could handle everything that would happen."   

Another breakdown might cost him his Ph.D. He knows that as a convicted felon, he will have to go "an extra 10 steps to get there."  
When he applied for transfer to a four-year college, some of his interviews were more like interrogations. He had to provide convincing answers to questions such as, "What makes you think you're not going to backslide?"  

And when one of his classmates opined that felons are a waste of social service resources because they will never change, Mike just got up and left the classroom. But he came back -- he was "too scared about not getting A's" to make an issue of the slight.

But "felon" isn't the only label Mike carries -- he is also a veteran. Although veterans may appear to be the flavor of the week in many circles, the caricature of the troubled, addicted, angry misfit is often close beneath the surface. Faculty and students alike often slip into blaming soldiers for the policies of the government and military.  

Steve Darman, who teaches sociology at SUNY and is at the epicenter of activism on behalf of Oneida County's veterans, says that "professors and students who make facile remarks about the wars and how misguided and/or stupid they are really piss these guys off -- and not necessarily because they are pro-war."

Pro or con, right or wrong, our veterans have learned something about what war is really like, what it really does to people, something that those of us who have never been might find useful if we're serious about pushing back against our nation's militaristic policies and institutions.

Comparing the surprise attack of Pearl Harbor with that of the Twin Towers, Michael Hayden, who in 2001 was director of the National Security Agency, said, "perhaps it was more of a failure of imagination than last time."   

Certainly, the vast majority of Americans failed to imagine what the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would really cost. Author Robert Lifton has said that the task of our times to "imagine the real."

Our veterans might be able to help with that, if we are willing to listen. Having been in both wars, Mike is convinced that, "we will never win either, because Muslims have more fighting spirit than any Americans." 

Imagine that.

Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War, was released on Memorial Day, 2006. Her Web site is Flashback.
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