Turley Boys: A Memoir
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Turley Boys weaves together fragments of my 2003 and 2005 deployments, my childhood in rural Kentucky, time spent as a soldier in Europe, and my subsequent years of navigating academia as a combat veteran. I’ve tried to tell my story the way it is remembered, in vibrant flashes of disparate events held together only by the interpretive act itself. My hope is to say something about war, but also to show how war is remembered by those who experience it.
I have given it the title “Turley Boys” because, in addition to my story, the memoir follows the lives of a group of young soldiers stationed at Turley Barracks in Mannheim, Germany. Like most platoons that serve together, as war changed us we grew close, only to be sent home to deal with the aftermath alone.
I attempt to bring together many perspectives—veteran, educator, scholar, leader within veterans’ writing and arts communities—to comment, I hope, upon the experience of modern war and homecoming in an honest way, free of the whitewashing so common in much of today’s war literature, juxtaposing the experience of war alongside our undeniable youth in order to recreate the absurdity that is teenagers using machine guns to shape the destiny of another country.
“Liquor up front, poker in the rear.” Or was it the other way around? In any event, a gravedigger wore these words to work on the day of my father’s funeral. They ran at a slant, bold white letters waving in the wind with a confederate flag, the fine art of a local flea market, no doubt. I couldn’t stop myself from trying to rationalize the decision as I asked for the shovel. It wasn’t particularly hot. Most of the work was done by backhoe. But, for some reason, this particular gravedigger had opted for a faded-black cut off instead of, say, a button up, or something with a tie. On the flag pole sat a buxom blonde whose expression left nothing to the imagination. Dad would approve, I thought, as I scattered dirt over the coffin lid.
It was the man of the family who gave orders to a woman and a small boy. He stood at the left extremity of the roof with a cane, yelling for his family to hurry in their work. He refused to lift a single hand to help them. The heat began its own work of making me sweat, and without realizing it I found myself watching the family through the sights of my rifle. The son rushed up the ladder with an arm full of thatching and dropped it at his father’s feet, but not fast enough to be spared a lashing. My sights wandered over to the mother who, in the black covering particular to her faith, also rushed up the ladder to deliver an armload to her husband. She received a blow to the face.
My sights, at that point, ignored the mother and her son. They stared instead at the father—the man—as he shouted something I was too far away to hear, pointing towards the pile of materials on the ground below. I caressed the trigger of my M-16 and let the iron sights hover a couple of feet above the man’s head. The gun, like me, was soaking in the heat. It needed release. I needed release. The convoy started moving.
Grabbing the steering wheel, I pulled myself up, looking out the driver side window. I was the heaviest thing I’d ever lifted. Round after round made its way from our convoy—at least twenty trucks—from turrets, the tops of cabs, and driver side windows—into the mud brick buildings. Each bullet kicked up dust as it found its mark. I remember thinking that the cavalry scouts, who’d been sent to escort us after the first attack, were trying to saw buildings in half with their bullets.
Professor Lambert, a psychology professor, made me think about the calculating I did in Iraq: “Think about the simple act of driving to school or work. Every day, you get in a car—a hunk of metal that weighs thousands of pounds—and you go fifty or sixty miles per hour from point A to point B. As you drive, the only thing keeping you from crashing into another vehicle—going the same speed and with the same amount of weight—is a thin, yellow line painted on the pavement. That line can’t protect you. But you fool yourself into believing it can—that the other drivers, people you know nothing about—will stay in their lane. It’s all a fantasy. So, why do we believe it?”
Because I had to, I thought to myself. He was right. And the more I thought about this illusion the more I realized how necessary it was to delude myself before each mission. We were never safe. There was nothing we could have done to stop an IED or an ambush from killing every single person in our convoy. We might have fought back. But if it had been our time, we would have died. I started looking at the whole of my military experience very differently.
When the convoy halted, and as I jumped out of the truck to go talk to SGT Brockman, the red, white, and blue rosary beads I wore on my flak vest snagged on a piece of metal and the string holding them together snapped. The beads scattered across the ground—some rolled into the sand, never to be found—and I did the best I could to retrieve the others in the dark. I’d carried that cross ever since Eloge, the Haitian who drove the platoon sergeant before me, left it behind when he went home. It hung from the interior light of my PLS on every mission in 2003. In 2005, it hung from my flak vest. After CPT Sheets and the others left my room, I started putting the beads back on the string. The number I’d saved equaled the number of soldiers in third platoon. My prayer had been answered, in a way.
The bomb detonated with precision. Shards of metal and unchecked combustion pummeled our vehicle; parts of the inch thick armor were peeled away like a candy wrapper. One, two, three tires were pierced with shrapnel. Our communications and tracking system antennas were completely blown off. Dust, fire, smoke, and tiny bits of metal began ricocheting around in the cab. Our headlights mixed in with the fiery-smoky-sandy concoction and made it impossible for Jose to see. Aaron began the pointless effort of trying to scan his sector for an enemy, but the dark was impenetrable except for about 20 meters off of the road. The two of them asked each other if they were all right and then Aaron asked me three times in row. I was unconscious for about a minute.
The first thing I saw was dust. And the first thing I felt (apart from the intense ringing in my ears) was a slight burning sensation under my left shoulder blade. But I put these things aside and asked Aaron and Jose if they were all right. I slowly came to the conclusion that we had run over an IED. It was the time to act. It was time to be a leader. If anyone dies, it would be my fault.
I didn’t stop once I started. I quit worrying about my school work and teaching. Each day, I woke up and started typing until the meds knocked me out at night. I’d preached about the benefits of writing and overcoming trauma for years, but I’d never had time to do it myself. Each time something shook my foundations, I’d found a way to cover up the fractures and pain, ignoring them only to experience more pain, more repression. The VA wanted me to pin everything on “one traumatic event,” but I couldn’t. It was infinitely more complex than that.