May 13, 2005

The Things They Carried Home: Young Soldiers Document Their War

By Josué Rojas
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE


SAN FRANCISCO—Tim O’Brien was 21 years old when he was sent to fight in Vietnam. More than two decades later, he wrote the literary masterpiece “The Things They Carried.” The book describes a handful of soldiers in Vietnam, and the things they carried — a girlfriend’s panties, a Cherokee hunting hatchet, comic books, illustrated bibles, dope, cigarettes, condoms, photographs, chewing gum and so forth. For years, O’Brien carried inside him the things his fellow soldiers carried, before setting them down on the page.

These days, soldiers carry gizmos. If O’Brien were to document the things soldiers carry today, he’d have to include a grip of technology. With digital cameras, laptops and MP3 player/recorders, today’s soldiers capture and convey the non-fiction, funny, tragic, bloody reality of war at the same time they experience it.

My boy C-los, 18, is one such soldier. When I met him four years ago, he was a tall, lanky, shy kid addicted to smoking menthols and talking mess after whoopin’ the rest of us at the computer game Halo.

Back then, he’d huddle beside me and his big brother Tear as we told small-time San Francisco graffiti war stories. These days, he does the telling, we do the huddling. He’s stationed in Mosul, Iraq and carries an automatic rifle, hella bullets, a pack of Newports, a special love for SF’s Mission District, a digi-cam, an MP3 player/recorder and a laptop loaded with music and a variety of mpeg music videos (Outkast’s Bombs Over Bagh-dad) and porn.

Not to mention some of the greatest war photos I’ve ever seen. Half the guys in his platoon pack a digi-cam, and after missions, C-los downloads their photos. He has about two dozen missions from the point of view of a dozen soldiers.

He also carries a special chunk of military jewelry, a powerful piece of metal dangling from his uniform. Known as a combat infantry badge, it’s much heavier than the modest couple ounces it weighs.

“You become combat infantry the moment you get shot at,” C-los explains. He describes how the soldiers have a campfire ceremony that same night, capturing the gathering on their digital cameras.

C-los’ first firefight lasted four hours. I ask him if he ever feels bad about killing people. “The ones I killed tried to kill me and my boys,” he answered. C-los says it’s about the man next to you.

Some insurgents spray-paint graffiti threats on the walls to dishearten the troops. “We have our translators write graffiti right back,” C-los tells me. A tag battle in Iraq — how’s that for a graffiti war story? (You win, C-los).

In the midst of it all, the troops make time to pose for goofy pictures, play Halo and sing their rendition of Lil John and the East Side Boyz’ “Get Low” in a fake Arabic accent. C-los opens iTunes to play me the track he recorded on his MP3 player. We laugh out loud for a while. Then C-los falls silent and stares blankly, straight ahead.

“There’s one thing I regret,” he says. “I wish I would’ve finished high school. I’d have different friends, more money, a chance to go to college.”

On his laptop, C-los opens one last picture. It’s a photograph of him, taken from behind, walking into a long, narrow corridor with high walls.

“All you have do is shoot at me from above and that would be the end of me,” he says. “The funny thing is, I walk into situations like that every day. Sometimes, I look back and the wall behind me looks like shredded cheese, like in ‘Pulp Fiction.’”

C-los packs his stuff away. He’s given me most of his last night home — not to mention a priceless library of his and his platoon’s digital documentation of the war.

I give him a cholo handshake. He walks into his parents’ house, oil refinery smokestacks in the background. I know he’s anxious to return to Iraq. He says he wanted to be with his boys who need him. The last glimpse I get of my friend as he cuts into the doorway is of his desert fatigue pack. The gizmos inside stand as witnesses, bearing testimony to the things he and his friends have seen — and carried home with them.

I pray for C-los all the time. I also tell his war stories.

Josué Rojas, 25, is an editor for YO! Youth Outlook (www.youthoutlook.org). To view photos from C-los and his platoon, go to: http://media. youthoutlook.org/flash/photo-essay/iraq-tttch/

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