“That time I became a space explorer” by Tom Deakins

“Would you like us to cut down this grass over here?” she asked.

“Uhhh what?” I replied.

“Would you like us to cut down this grass?”

She must have overheard my squad leader talking; it was the whole point of this patrol. There was some overgrown grass near our compound and the leadership was concerned that it was possible to sneak some IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in there. Well, at least that’s what they said. It was probably just something for us to do, as the mission in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, was quickly changing, and our command was trying to get their head around what we were supposed to be doing here, if not shooting the enemy who was no longer around.

But at that moment, none of that was on my mind. Here I was, full gear, rifle in hand, not completely drenched in sweat, because this patrol happened to be going on near dusk, and I was being talked to by a woman. This did not happen, at all. This was a conservative Muslim country, the women here wearing full burkas covering all but their eyes, never speaking to men who were not a family member or husband. Their silence was so great that we needed special female Marines attached to us when we would interact with female Iraqis or else we could cause a major civil affairs incident. Yet here was a young woman, wearing just a red scarf and Western clothing, talking to me. In English.

The bizarreness of this was amplified by the strangeness of this place becoming normal over time. The buildings of this city stood tall but empty, some with whole walls blown out, but imposing nonetheless. The streets were covered in dust and dirt if we were lucky, sewage water if we weren’t. Bullet holes punctured the buildings, street lamps, and basically anything else that stood vertical. And after a few months here all of this looked normal. 2007 Iraq was mostly in a state of post-war, with its biggest battles behind it. The insurgents had all abandoned the city and now it was up to us, Marines trained to kill, to keep it from getting back into their hands. It was in this state, with buildings destroyed, men and women dressed in foreign clothing, speaking a strange way, eating strange food and all of this becoming normal to me that what was not normal, shocking me into silence, was something as basic as a civilian woman speaking to me in English.

We would joke that we had actually been shot into space and landed on an alien planet. It was why we had to always wear full battle gear when we stepped even a foot outside. It was our life support. The people dressed strange and speaking a strange language were of course the aliens which we interacted with. The helicopters were spaceships and our Humvees were terrestrial ships with life support allowing us to take off our helmets. It was in this alien environment that talking to this woman was like finding a human on another planet. It wasn’t that I didn’t view the Iraqis as humans, but they were different and here she was, the same. Like us, or at least how we used to be, before we became space explorers.

It was this shock that caused my training to kick in before my own thoughts did. I wanted to talk to her, ask her what life was like, where she learned her English, why she was willing to talk to me. My curiosity about other people was as great as it ever was. What I said, though, was straight from training as I referred her to go speak with my squad leader.

I would get the chance to speak with many other Iraqis, to the point I spent some days speaking more Arabic than English, but I would never have the chance to talk with an Iraqi woman like this again.

Tom Deakins served four years on active duty in the United States Marine Corps and two years in the USMC reserves. He was deployed twice to Iraq with 3rd Battalion 7th Marines Kilo company in 2007 as an assaultman and again in 2008-2009 as a squad leader. He deployed with the reserve unit 1st Battalion 25th Marines Charlie company to Afghanistan in 2011 as a squad leader. He is from Foxborough, Massachusetts and is currently attaining a bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.