No Middle Ground: my life after Baghdad

Editor’s note: We’d like to offer a warm welcome to our newest columnist, Sylvia Bowersox, who will be sharing her unique insights on life during and after the War in Iraq.

My husband and I were sitting at an outside table at Sierra Nevada having lunch, when I suddenly had something else to blame on the Iraq war: My bottom left molar. The crown had cracked, again, and instead of chewing on the gristle of a grilled chicken sandwich, I was chewing on slivers of temporary crown. My tongue was already being sliced by the jagged edges that the crown left behind.

“Jeez,” I mumbled.

“What happened?” asked Jon, looking up from his iPad.

“My tooth. The crown broke. And I just got it fixed.”

“My poor honey, you have had more trouble with your teeth than a tweaker. Since I met you, it has been one dental disaster after another,” he declared, focusing on my mouth like he could actually see the wounded tooth.

“Maybe, but not this tooth. This tooth is the Army’s fault. Don’t you remember? In Baghdad, I needed a root canal and was in massive pain and the doctor at the hospital in the Green Zone… ah… Ibn Sina, gave me Percocet to hold me over to the next day and I took two Percocet with a beer and then started that fight with that guy and loudly told everybody that I was going to jump off the high dive with that Russian dude and some kind soul walked but really carried me back to my trailer and the next day the Army dentist did the root canal and packed it with gauze and then covered it over and sealed it without telling me about the gauze and how it needed to be removed and surprise, surprise a year and a half later there wasn’t a whole lot of tooth left for my dentist to cap when I got home and the gauze was black and disgusting and the tooth was decayed all to hell. Remember, you said that I always had bad breath?”

My husband looked straight into my face for a moment with that “I can’t believe you remember so much and got it out in all one breath” look that he has been giving me since the first second we met.

“Disgusting breath as I remember. But Army dentists are normally better than that.”

“Not in Baghdad during the war, they weren’t.”

I blame everything in my life that annoys or hurts me on the war. One day I just started doing this, and it felt great. It is what my therapist calls a coping mechanism. Every day I find a new thing to blame on the war. I missed out on my son’s life… Iraq. I slept with the wrong people… Iraq. I handled my divorce badly… Iraq. Three tours, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the VA put me on on too many pills… Iraq. My father died, I feel out of place in the world, My stepdaughter hates me… Iraq. I jump at loud noises, I can’t find a parking place, I can’t find a job, my hair cut looks terrible, and the unfortunate facts that I will never make love in a castle or be best buds with a rock star… Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. All of it’s Iraq’s fault.

I was in Iraq for a total of 32 months, starting out in uniform as an Army broadcast journalist, and then as a State Department press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. I finally came home after a short stint handling the press for SIGIR, the watchdog agency responsible for overseeing the 49 billion dollars American taxpayers spent on reconstructing the newly democratic Republic of Iraq (we’ll get to that later).

Sylvia Bowersox first went to Iraq in 2003 as a US Army broadcast journalist. She was stationed in Mosul and Baghdad, but reported from Coalition outposts around the country. A year in Iraq wasn’t enough, so she returned to Baghdad as a civilian, spending almost two years working in the US Embassy as a State Department press officer. Bowersox received her BA in English literature from San Francisco State University, and is currently completing her MA in creative writing at California State University, Chico. She was recently honored by a Pushcart nomination for her nonfiction essay, “This War Can’t be All Bad.” Her nonfiction essay, “The Importance of a Dollar Bill,” has been submitted to the National Associate Writing Program Awards competition. She lives in Chico with her husband Jon, her son Holden, and her service dog Timothy.