Jarrod Taylor

by Jarrod Taylor

by Jarrod Taylor

LOA: How do you reconcile the difference in gravity between what you did in the military and what you do as a civilian? Do you get restless? How do you deal with this restlessness?

Taylor: There is no doubt that my military service and everything I experienced while in uniform changed me as a person. It can be challenging to come home and realize that decisions and actions no longer have life and death consequences. I sometimes felt like civilians were really missing the big picture, and I still find myself feeling that way at times.

So the waiter messed up your order? At least you are getting a hot meal. You have three final exams in the same day? I’ve gone days without sleep, been shot at blown up, and mortared. Is your life really that rough?

I found, when I came home, that I was ready to overcome any obstacle. Isn’t that what we did in the military? We faced challenges head-on, and always accomplished our missions. The civilian world can be frustrating, and it certainly has its challenges. There are obstacles, and they aren’t always as clear as those we faced in the military. It is never quite as simple as, the bad guy is in that house. Break the door down and get him. As a veteran, I often feel that the task at hand is never as clearly defined as things were in the military. Most of us have bosses now, but it just isn’t the same.

I am finding that I miss a lot of things about the military, and a few of those things are somewhat surprising. I miss moving every few years. I miss being out and seeing different parts of the country and the world. I miss the excitement, and of course I miss being with some of the closest friends I’ve ever had. Do I find myself being restless? Absolutely. I’ve been out for almost 7 years now, and I’m ready for a change. I’m ready for a new house in a new town. I’m ready for another new adventure.

Dealing with the restlessness is a different story. I have a family, a job, and responsibilities. I have a hard time being idle, so I am always doing stuff. I rearrange my garage and my closet, because I need something to do, and I want something different. I’ve realized that every time I have a day off, I’m working on something. It seems ridiculous, because I always feel like there is a mountain of work to be done, but I never make any progress on it. I’m always doing something though. I have a hard time just relaxing and taking time for myself. I have found some things that I enjoy. I like to write and cook. I ride a motorcycle, and I like to get out to the shooting range when I can. I don’t ride or shoot as often as I’d like to, but I do enjoy doing both of those things. Honestly, I think that the military is part of the reason I don’t spend much time doing the things that I really enjoy.

LOA: Scott Fitzgerald said, “all life is a process of breaking down.” How have you used these breakdowns (often of the body and the mind, and even the nerves) as a platform for rebirth?

Taylor: It’s like exercising a muscle. You work and work, and break it down. It comes back stronger next time, and things get easier. The military broke me down. I was away from home. I lost friends. I was tired. I was hungry. I can’t speak for everyone, but I was an infantryman, and I served four tours in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Each time, those experiences were breaking me down. We become more and more numb to physical and emotional pain and more prepared for the next challenge. Each time we come through something, we come back stronger the next time. There are times now when it seems like the world is just kicking my ass. I’ve been through worse, and I know I’ll keep moving forward. I’m still here, and I’ll still be here tomorrow.

LOA: What is the most life-changing event you’ve participated in since getting home?

Taylor: I went to college immediately after leaving active duty. After graduating, I became a teacher. It’s a very different world, but in some ways it is the same. I wouldn’t call this a life-changing event, but I have noticed that my identity has changed. I used to be a soldier. I identified as a soldier. When people asked what I did, I told them that I was in the army. If another military person asked, I told them, “I’m an 11 Bravo.” That meant something.

When I got out of the army, and someone asked what I did. I told them, “I just got out of the army. I’m going back to school.” Their next question was always if I had been anywhere, and it turned into stories of firefights and IEDs. Hell yes, I’ve been somewhere. Which time would you like to hear about? What the hell have you done?

When I became a teacher, I still identified as a combat veteran. It was one of the first things that I told my students, their parents, and my coworkers. I was proud of it, and it set me apart from the rest of the people at my school. They always asked why I became a history teacher, and I always told them that I missed the war. It’s like I’m getting my fix. I get to read, write, and talk about war almost every day. What a great job for me! 

I’ve been a middle school teacher for three years now. I am a veteran, but when people ask me what I do, I don’t tell them that I was a soldier. I don’t tell them that I’m a veteran. I tell them that I am a teacher. The tough soldier that I used to be is now hidden behind graying hair and a growing waistline. There are still little hints in my personal appearance though. My dress shoes are spit-shined like my boots used to be, and my shirts are creased and crisp. I don’t look like a soldier anymore, and I don’t feel like one anymore. I am getting softer, both physically and mentally, and I don’t like it. These days, I am a teacher. In my head and heart though, I don’t feel like a teacher. I don’t feel like a soldier either. I’m not sure where I fit anymore.

LOA: What do you miss about the military?

Taylor: Like many veterans, I think I miss the camaraderie the most. I miss living in different parts of the country and the opportunities for new experiences that went along with that. I lived in Georgia, New York, and Hawaii. While living in those places, I got to know the areas. I did some traveling and exploring on my own time. Those are experiences that I wouldn’t have had outside of the army, and I miss that.

LOA: What do you NOT miss about the military?

Taylor: I don’t miss being away from my family. I don’t miss the late night and weekend phone calls because some soldier in the unit got into trouble. I don’t miss the unpredictable day-to-day work schedule.

LOA: When you reflect on your time in uniform, what moment, or event, comes back to you most often?

Taylor: This varies from time-to-time. I have so many stories that pop up in my mind at different times. Some are good, and some are bad: weekends in Canada and boating on the St. Lawrence River when I was stationed at Ft. Drum, surfing when the sun came up when I lived in Hawaii, the other married couples we hung out with at Ft. Drum, fighting in Sadr City, losing friends, etc. I could go on and on about memories. There are times that I remember fondly, and other times that I really didn’t like. There are stories from great friends and great times we had.

If I had to choose a time that comes to mind most often, I would have to say that it was the time I spent in Sadr City, Iraq in spring 2008. It was there, in the streets of Baghdad, where we really put out training to the test and learned what we were made of.

LOA: Do you discuss your time overseas with your civilian friends? How do they respond?

Taylor: I have discussed some stories with civilian friends, but to be completely honest, I don’t really have many civilian friends. I have shared some stories with my coworkers. They don’t get it. I once played a video that I took in a firefight in Sadr City. The video doesn’t show much. I turned the camera on and just let it roll during the fight. The battle sounds intense though, and it’s more than enough for people to understand what a firefight is like. One of my coworkers commented that she hoped we were shooting targets for practice.

I have told some war stories here and there, but people just really don’t get it. The humor isn’t the same. They really can’t relate to my experiences, because they have just never been in situations that are anything like combat. Sometimes they are interested, and they want to listen. Other times, I can tell that what I’m saying is making them very uncomfortable.

I’m not shy about my experiences, but I also don’t push my stories on people. Plus, the longer I’m out, the less relevant my stories become.

Hitchhiking with the Marines

by Jarrod Taylor

by Jarrod L. Taylor

“Sergeant Taylor, First Sergeant wants to see you in the company CP for the platoon sergeant meeting.”

“I’ll be right there,” I said, as I sat up. Getting up from my green canvas cot, I pulled on my desert camouflage uniform shirt and buttoned it. I grabbed my M4 and slipped the sling over my shoulder as I walked toward the door.

When I stepped out of my dark tent, bright African sunlight assaulted my eyes. It was mid-afternoon in October, but the temps still hovered around the 100 degree mark nearly every day. Before my eyes had completely adjusted, sweat was beading up on my forehead, and my brown undershirt was sticking to my skin. I hate this fuckin’ place, I thought to myself as I walked down the gravel path between rows of tan tents.

I stepped into the company CP and found my 1SG and the platoon sergeants from headquarters, first, and third platoons sitting around rickety table made of plywood and scrap 2x4s. “Sergeant Taylor, just the guy we were looking for. I’ve got a mission for you,” First Sergeant said.

Aww shit. I’m supposed to be going home in less than a week. My platoon was in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, a couple hundred miles south of our camp. The platoons in my company were doing two week rotations between Camp Lemonier, in Djibouti, and Camp Ramrod, in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. I had been left behind, because I was on reassignment orders from Fort Drum, New to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. Basically, I was leaving one deployment to move from upstate New York to an island in the middle of the Pacific, so that I could get ready for another deployment. What the fuck do I have to do now, I wondered. “Sure, First Sergeant, what do you need?”

First Sergeant explained, “Your platoon is doing a MEDCAP with a civil affairs unit, and they need some more medical supplies. I need you to get this box down to them tomorrow.”

“No problem, 1SG.” I grabbed the box, and asked, “What do I need to do about transportation?”

“Just walk down to the flight line tomorrow morning at 0600. There are usually flight crews working on their birds in the morning. Find one that is going to Dire Dawa sometime tomorrow, and see if you can catch a ride. Hopefully they’ll be able to get you back tomorrow too.”

All of our aviation assets in Camp Lemonier were either Marine or Air Force. Anytime we had to fly, we flew on CH-53 Sea Stallions. They were bulky gray helicopters, and they leaked unbelievable amounts of hydraulic fluid. When the helicopters banked, the fluid would drip from the ceiling, or run down the walls. The floors that we sat on were always slick and oily. I don’t think a single soldier in my company left Africa without greasy brown stains all over his uniforms after riding in the back of those leaky helicopters.

The next morning rolled around, and I was at the flight line at 0600, as instructed. I had everything that I needed for the trip, since I had no idea when I might leave. I wore my body armor and Kevlar helmet and carried my M4 rifle, and my black 12-gague shorty shotgun. I also had the box of medical supplies, and a rucksack that was packed for a couple of days. I really did not believe that I would manage to get there and back in the same day.

I approached the open ramp of the nearest helicopter and saw one of the Marine crew members inside. “Do you know if anyone is flying to Dire Dawa today? I need to deliver some medical supplies to a unit down there.”

“We aren’t flying today, Sergeant,” he said walking toward the back of the helicopter. He stepped down the ramp and pointed to another bird parked near the other end of the row of helicopters. He suggested that I ask someone down there.

I moved down the flight line, already sweating from the warm humid air and the gear I was carrying. I’m glad they had me clean my gear for customs already. This shit is going to be covered in dust and sand again.

I walked up to the back of another Sea Stallion and asked the Marine inside if he knew of anyone flying to Dire Dawa. “I’m supposed to hand deliver this box to a unit down there, and they need it today,” I explained.

“We are heading down there this morning, Sergeant. We are supposed to be wheels up in about forty minutes,” he said.

“Can I catch a ride with you?”
“Sure, I just need to add your name, social, and blood type to our flight manifest.” I chuckled to myself thinking, holy shit. This is actually going to work. I’m going to hitchhike from one country to another on a damn Marine helicopter. I put the box in the back of the bird and gave the crewman my information. I sat down on the canvas seat in the back of the helicopter and pulled a cereal bar and a warm Coca-Cola Lite from my cargo pocket. Breakfast of Champions, I thought. I couldn’t wait to be home to real food in just a few days.

I sat there waiting, and I wondered if I was going to have the whole back of this bird to myself. After about twenty minutes, the crew members climbed in and started getting into their gear. Helmets were going on. Machine guns on the sides and on the tail ramp were being loaded. The pilot and copilot climbed in and started flipping switches and pushing buttons. The helicopter came to life. The engines started to whine, and cockpit lights turned on or flashed on and off.

Just as the rotors were starting to turn, several Marine Corps officers climbed on board. There was a colonel, a couple of majors, and then two or three captains. They did not appear to be infantry officers, as none of them were wearing any sort of tactical kit. They each carried a pistol in a hip holster. Their uniforms were neat and clean, and even their boots looked new.

As they climbed into their seats, they each put on safety glasses and helmets. One of the majors sat down next to me, and from the way he was scrambling to find the female end of his seat belt, I got the idea that he was a little nervous. He appeared to be relieved when he had finally fastened his seat belt and pulled the straps at each end to tighten it.

I slipped some ear plugs into my ears, and leaned my head back against the inside wall of the helicopter closing my eyes for a nap. Over the growing noise of the whining engines, I heard someone. “Hey Sergeant, are you our…” I opened my eyes and saw this very nervous major looking at me and talking.

I pulled the ear plug out of my right ear. “What’s that, sir?”
“Are you our security, in case we go down?”
Is this guy fucking serious? I held back my laughter. Did this major really just ask me if I am his security…in case we fucking crash? I smiled at him. “Yes, Sir. If we go down, just get behind me. You’ll be alright,” I said, as I slipped the ear plug back into my ear. I took my helmet off, and leaned my head back closing my eyes again.

The crew chief signaled that we were ready to move, and the ramp raised a couple of feet off the ground. The bird started to shake, and we began rolling forward. We taxied away from the rest of the parked helicopters and moved toward the runway. Once there, the pilot turned and stopped the bird. We sat waiting, I assume, for clearance to take off. After just a moment, the helicopter got much louder, dust kicked up from the runway, and the bird started shaking and bouncing. Once up to speed, the pilot pulled back on his controls, and the rotors started making the loud whop, whop, whop sound as they pushed down hard on the sticky morning air.

The wheels left the ground, and we hung there, wobbling side to side for just a few seconds. The pilot dipped the nose, and we slid forward gaining altitude.

The ride was uneventful. I napped, and the marines made it to their destination safely. I even managed to be back at Camp Lemonier in time for dinner chow.

Unfortunately, things wouldn’t go so smoothly a week later when I was trying to get home on a flight that the army had booked for me. After flying from Djibouti to Cypress, then on to Germany, and finally back to the United States, I landed in Baltimore, Maryland. When I checked in for my final flight, the gate agent told me that my itinerary was not a paid ticket, and that I had not been booked on a connecting flight. It was late in the evening, and my bags were sent to baggage claim. The Delta representative apologized and said I would have to wait until the following day to get things straightened out. Fort Drum was a seven-hour drive, and I had been missing my wife for more than six months. I was exhausted from traveling but not interested in waiting one more day, so I rented a car and started driving. With the help of several cups of truck stop coffee I pulled through the main gate at Ft. Drum just before sunrise. Throughout the entire drive across Pennsylvania and New York, I couldn’t help but think that I could have gotten home faster if I had been hitchhiking with the marines.

 

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