EXCERPT: Chasing Ghosts by Paul Rieckhoff

Sunday, May 7th, 2006

By Larry Smith

Read an interview with Paul Rieckhoff here.

After spending 10 months in Iraq leading a platoon with the Third Infantry Division, IAVA founder Paul Rieckhoff returned home to an America torn between The Sopranos and the ground situation in Baghdad, with the former usually garnering more attention. As Rieckhoff writes in his new book Chasing Ghosts, “The adjustment was tough…my values had changed. I didn’t have time for bullshit, velvet ropes, and polite small talk anymore.” As our excerpt of his memoir demonstrates, a veteran’s values aren’t exactly a top priority back home—especially in L.A.

It was a sunny January morning in Georgia when our plane landed. We all were bouncing and frantic like kids at the end of a long family car trip. A line of smiling pogue Generals and officers shook our hands. A few of my guys kissed the pavement. My boot hit the tarmac, and I exhaled deeply for the first time in ten months. My tax-free days were over. I was different now. We all were. Not everyone returns damaged, but no one comes home unchanged.

Turning in my weapon for the last time made me sad. The same M16 had been with me for fourteen months. I knew where every chip and dent was. I knew how to use my Leatherman to open the bent latch of the buttstock. I thought I’d be liberated by handing away my rifle, but instead I felt empty, weak and vulnerable—like a piece of my body had been amputated. I signed my name on a clipboard, gave away the Platoon’s weapons to a Sergeant, and joined the men in the same gigantic Hunter Army Airfield hangar we had left from ten months before. The great adventure was over.

A few weeks after I got back to New York City, three good friends invited me to join them on a long weekend of partying in Los Angeles. It would be my first time in L.A. and I figured it would be a blast. I had more than enough steam to blow off, and ten months of tax-free combat pay burning a hole in my pocket.

Todd and I were roommates at Amherst. Todd was a banker in Tokyo for Merrill Lynch and had spent the last year traveling in Asia on business and pleasure. He didn’t do things halfway, and he wanted to give me a proper welcome home. When he brought the boys together in any city, he did it right. Todd made good money, had great contacts in every city, and always seemed to get incredible discounts.

I stepped out of the plane at LAX to bask in the trademarked Southern California sun. Gawked at the Capitol Records building and the Hollywood sign as the cab made its way to the Mondrian Hotel on Sunset Boulevard. White-jacketed Hispanic valets clustered at the front door, parking Ferraris and Hummers (not the kind I was used to in Baghdad). I pulled my desert camouflage backpack out of the cab, paid the driver, and strolled into the lobby. It looked like heaven’s waiting room. In the luminous glow, gorgeous rich people sized each other up while chatting loudly on the newest-model cell phones. I felt more out of place there than I ever had on Haifa Street.

The whole weekend was like living in a music video. We spent our days lounging by the pool overlooking the world of the common people from high atop Sunset. Celebrities strolled in and out sipping on drink—Terrence Howard, Jamie Foxx—but the L.A. glamoratti hardly seemed to notice. Gorgeous tanned waitresses in white sarongs brought us food and drinks, flirting for tips and compliments. I was distant with my good friends, who I couldn’t seem to relate to. But I still had fun. After a year away, I had forgotten how beautiful American women were. I could smell them from fifty meters away. I felt like a pervert, or a felon just released from prison.

To get us around at night, Todd rented a stretch limo filled with liquor. We ate at fantastic restaurants. He got us twelfth-row tickets to two Lakers games. We sat five rows in front of tennis star Lindsay Davenport. I felt like I was on a weekend furlough. On the final night, we went to a velvet-rope party hosted by Prince at the hotel nightclub Skybar. The bouncer wouldn’t let us in at first.

“Dude, give us a break, this guy just got back from Baghdad,” Todd said.

“And?” The bouncer shrugged. “Dennis Rodman’s here.”

It wasn’t like I was expecting the red carpet. But it was one of those moments when I wondered if anyone back home appreciated the sacrifices I had just made. The bouncer eventually relented and we got in. I slurped a beer just a few feet away from Prince. Rodman was at the other end of the bar smoking cigars. It was too much to digest. Two months ago, I was with an Infantry Platoon getting mortared in Baghdad and eating MREs. Now I was sipping twelve-dollar cocktails at a bar with Prince and Dennis Rodman. These people couldn’t have been more removed from the geopolitical crisis going on half a world away. Part of me wanted to toss a grenade into the well-dressed crowd and kill them all.

I was an outsider. My driver’s license had expired while I was gone, so I used my military ID to get into bars and clubs. Some bouncers looked twice, but unlike in New York and Georgia, not a single one in L.A. comp’ed me for it. Then again, my buddies used what they called “the Iraq factor” as an extremely effective tool to meet women. Some women were fascinated to meet me; others were outright terrified. By the end of the weekend, I was sick of it all.

My trip to L.A. was full of fabulous and terrible contrasts. It was fun, but in the back of my mind it didn’t feel right at all. I felt terribly out of place. I was in my homeland, but I felt like a stranger in a foreign land. The opulence, the glamour, the detachment from reality disturbed and angered me. Everyone was too busy primping, chatting about Desperate Housewives, and looking to see who would walk in next. There were American kids dying a world away, while the glamoratti sipped Vitamin Water and tanned. I felt guilty knowing that as I listened to the latest Usher remix by the pool, there were guys on patrol in Ramadi.

America was a country at war. But it sure didn’t look like it. Everywhere I went I saw Americans living their lives entirely uninterrupted. No threat of the draft, no increase in taxes, no sacrifice whatsoever. All the benefits with none of the risks. Patriotism Lite. It was hard not to hate them all. Didn’t these people understand there was a war going on? Weren’t they concerned about the future of their country? Didn’t they care? No. And no one was making them care. Certainly not the president. The American public had no idea that thousands of soldiers were on their second tours in Iraq, without body armor, in thin-skinned Humvees.

Excerpted with permission from Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier’s Fight for America from Baghdad to Washington (NAL Hardcover, 2006)

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