After the Fall

By Kirk W. Johnson
January 28, 2007

Courtesy of the Washington Post

ALL AMERICANS WORKING IN IRAQ, ARMED AND UNARMED, MILITARY AND CIVILIAN, DREAM ABOUT THEIR HOMECOMING — about who will meet them at the airport, what they’ll eat first, whether things will have changed much while they were gone. During my year with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Iraq — first in Baghdad and later in Fallujah — the send-offs to those finishing their Green Zone tours were a weekly ritual. Deep within our perimeter of blast walls, there would be a lot of backslapping and comparing of “Baghdad Donuts,” the round computer graphics that ticked how many months, days, hours, seconds and milliseconds you had been in Iraq and how many you had left to go.

I had a plan for whenever I got back to the States: a month-long road trip with friends, from the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest. But when the time came, there was no send-off and no celebration at my return.

Instead, I was wheeled onto U.S. soil, pushed like luggage by a disgruntled employee through the bowels of New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. My face was awkwardly concealed with yellowed gauze and strips of medical tape. Adults stole quick glances and admonished their staring children.

I wasn’t supposed to be going home. And I wasn’t ready to go.

From my wheelchair, I watched a set of golf clubs circuit the baggage carousel — anything to distract my mind from the gnawing confusion. I had left Iraq, on R&R, to join a family reunion in the Caribbean. But while I had made it to the beach, now I was here, in America, and I couldn’t remember the few decisive events that had led to this. Nobody knew. Every few hours, my dad, who was escorting me back to the family home in West Chicago, Ill., asked the same question: Anything yet? He was the one who had answered the frail tapping of my ring on his hotel room window, who drew open the blinds to see my mangled face. He later told my mother, who had slept through the worst of it, that I looked as if I’d been shot at close range, that he had never seen anything worse than my face that dawn. Without any answers, he clung to his theories. You don’t remember being attacked, like with a crowbar?

It was useless. Despite my restless efforts to retrieve the memory, a few critical hours of my life were inaccessible. And what I’d been able to surmise, deduced from the recollections of witnesses and the physical facts of my injuries, made little sense: On the second night of my vacation, Fallujah had uncoiled itself in my mind, commanded my sleeping body upright and piloted me toward the window of my second-story hotel room. My sleeping hands pried open its latch. I went over the rail, sending myself tumbling 15 feet to the cold pavement below.

A WEEK BEFORE IT ALL, IN THE FINAL DAYS OF 2005, my brother Soren had called me as I stood at the landing zone in Camp Fallujah, to thank me for the gift I had recently mailed him: an AK-47 slug, spent in celebratory, retaliatory or predatory fire over Baghdad one August night. It had deep coppery scratches from its scuttle along the pavement beside my hooch and looked exactly as you might imagine a fired round would look. He told me he had placed it on his desk in the public relations office of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. “It’s a good conversation piece,” he said. I thought about priests picking up the bullet.

“I’ll see you soon, bro!” I shouted over the thump-thump of a pair of approaching midnight helicopters. I was leaving for my R&R, five days off to meet my family at a resort in the Dominican Republic. I sat with my gear on the edge of the concrete field watching the wobbling and shivering descent of the choppers. When they touched down, I made my way toward the beckoning aerial gunner under the rotor span, who read the letters I’d inked on my hand to confirm my destination. It would take only about 20 minutes to skirt over the deserted fields of the Euphrates River valley and past the glaring perimeter lights of Abu Ghraib prison before Baghdad’s knotted skein of dimly lit neighborhoods unfurled below us. The helo nosed onward, and Marine aerial gunners hunched over their 50-cals, squinting through night-vision goggles. The baby Chinook was an aging bird with paneless windows that channeled in the wind, forcing my eyes shut.

The last time I had seen Soren was in the freighted days before I left for Baghdad, in December 2004. West Chicago had been blustery but bearable. My brothers had both come home for the holidays, and we strung lights around our frozen pond in the back yard, which we shoveled off with mounting excitement. Their wives took pictures and helped my baby niece explore the ice. We played hockey without skates; Mom brought us popcorn and hot chocolate, and we stopped between goals, steam wending its way from our lungs. Dad appeared at the pond’s edge for a few moments with his pipe, surveying the game and his family quietly. We stayed away from the deep end, where Derek had once fallen through the ice 20 years earlier.

The night before I left for Iraq, as my brothers and I sat in my room clanking our beer bottles, I taught them the geographic cues that the U.S. government had trained me to use if I was taken hostage and appeared on al-Jazeera, kneeling in front of masked insurgents. My forehead, north. South, my chin. My nose was Baghdad.

I’d tried for nearly two years to get myself to the war zone. During the invasion, I was living in Cairo as a Fulbright scholar, studying the intersection of politics and Islamism. It was a path I’d started down at age 15, after a trip to Egypt with my grandmother sparked a fascination with the culture. I had begun studying Arabic almost immediately. By the time Baghdad fell, I had six years of Arabic under my belt, a degree in Middle Eastern history and had lived throughout the region. I nurtured profound opposition to the war, but I thought I could contribute my skills in the attempt to rebuild Iraq.

Now it had been nearly a year since I arrived in Iraq. And, frankly, it felt wrong to leave for even a week. There was still so much to be done in Fallujah, so much to figure out. I didn’t want to take that responsibility lightly, like so many U.S. officials who had come for a few hours to get their picture taken and to say they’d been. But my family rarely had reunions, and I was due for a break. Plus, just days before I left, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, soon to deploy to Fallujah from Camp Pendleton in California, had requested a briefing on USAID’s work in Anbar province. I would be able to fit in that trip after my R&R and was pleased at the chance to get at least some work done while I was out of Iraq.

In the helicopter, I bowed my head in a feeble effort to catch a few minutes’ sleep before Baghdad. The air outside warmed as we dipped beneath the convection layer. I cracked open an eyelid and saw the drowsy Tigris ribboning through the center of the capital. We were almost to the Green Zone. I wondered from which street or rooftop an Iraqi had fired his Kalashnikov, arcing a volley of conversation pieces for my brother back home.

I checked my watch. In about 60 hours I’d be on the beach — away from the dusty sea of armor and Humvees, rubble and barbed wire, helmets and the weary faces beneath them.

FOUR FLIGHTS LATER, MY FAMILY LAID SHOCKED AIRPORT EYES ON ME — I’d lost a few dozen pounds in Iraq — and smothered me with attention. They said, You don’t have to talk about the war if you don’t want to, but it was as though I’d never known anything else worth talking about.

USAID, a government agency, was charged with helping to rebuild the country and with providing humanitarian assistance. My first assignment when I’d arrived in Iraq at the beginning of 2005, at age 24, was as the agency’s information officer in Baghdad’s Green Zone. The perpetually devolving situation beyond our blast walls had turned the place into a sort of prison, and colleagues who had forged successful careers in the trenches were stuck in a bizarre arena of paperwork and booze, punctuated occasionally by the sounds of the war outside.

I grew steadily more frustrated by the surreal isolation of palaces and swimming pools bobbing with drunken contractors and began to agitate for a job outside of the Emerald City. So, that fall, I was dispatched to coordinate the agency’s efforts in Fallujah, the restive (as our government labels it) city about 30 miles west of the capital on a southerly bend in the Euphrates. Despite its strategic importance, USAID had spent less than .05 percent of its Iraq budget on projects in Fallujah. I was charged with intensifying our work there before time, money or U.S. patience ran out.

My work was exhausting, infrequently rewarding and drenched with a sense of urgency and importance. What little work we had finished, I discovered, was either ill-conceived or poorly executed. We had paid more than $100,000 to erect a few billboards to encourage war-weary and unemployed Fallujans to keep a tidy city. At the government-run veterinary clinic we had funded, I walked in to find that the vet had moved all of our donated equipment to his private clinic, where he was charging the area’s impoverished farmers seven times the government rate for his services — and simultaneously asking us for more supplies. Out west in Ramadi, both the Marines and the Iraqis wanted to rehabilitate the city’s dilapidated glassmaking factory — once Anbar’s largest employer — but our advisers in Baghdad were pushing free-market policies that precluded restarting a failing state-owned enterprise. The glacial pace of our government bureaucracies meant that new projects, such as hiring droves of Fallujans to clear out the choked irrigation canals stemming from the Euphrates, would take time. So, for the moment, Anbar’s steadiest employer was the insurgency, which paid for planting explosives, for sowing disorder.

Over the months, I settled into the grind, pushing myself through 80- or 90-hour weeks as though I were on Wall Street. I was sleeping less and less, exercising more and more. I felt as if the only way to obtain reliable information was with my own eyes and ears, so I took every opportunity to get out of the camp into the city’s streets. Several mornings a week, I’d armor up, Velcroing on my flak jacket, and prepare for meetings downtown with city leaders. By 7:30 a.m., I’d be shivering in the Fallujah dawn, sitting on my helmet as Marines pinched out their cigs and loaded their gear into our cluster of Humvees. We would listen to the same convoy briefing: order of march, execution, rally points, enemy tactics, routes, rules of engagement, escalation of force, medical aid. It never changed. I would ride in the open-air tub of a Humvee, which resembles the bed of a pickup truck with shoulder-height armor plating. That fall, several children had run up and tossed grenades into the tubs. I would have one chance, the Marines grinned, to swat these ringers away from the Humvee before they exploded. If I missed, I’d have to warn the others, who, unlike me, carried weapons and were busy peering through the scopes of their M-16s. As the convoy lurched its way through camp, I’d sheepishly practice swats, doubting my coordination, feeling absurd.

On the hardball road that led into the guts of the city, I would join the others in sizing up everything that lay in front of us. It was all lethal. Black bags of trash became the hoods of grim reapers. Parked and idling cars, massive and rusty weapons, bits of string, detonation wire. Left to right, right to left, my eyes scanned pavement, bodies, vehicles, signs, medians, hands, light posts, tree limbs, eyes, gas stations, bushes, abandoned shacks, auto body repair shops, pierced and rusting petroleum tanks, overpasses, children on bicycles, children on foot, children.

Convoy movement is forced amnesia, visceral and bitter. On the road, it didn’t matter that I spoke the language, knew the music, read the authors, studied the religion. What mattered was that they stayed away from my vehicle. That they not make any quick movements when I passed by. They needed to freeze. They needed to smile.

Hypervigilance, an expert in post-traumatic stress disorder later explained to me.

THOUGH I SHOULD HAVE BEEN EXHAUSTED FROM THE DAYS OF TRAVEL from Fallujah to the Dominican Republic, my mind was surging. I stayed up late the first night, talking more to myself than to my relatives. When I finally made it to bed, I lay there, staring at the ceiling and waiting for sleep.

A few hours later, I drowsily walked past the window in my room. Spotting a half-built dun-colored apartment complex outside, I dropped to the floor and shouted an expletive, thinking it was reckless for me to be walking without my body armor. A Fallujan sniper had put us all on edge after shooting several Marines in the weeks before, and here I was walking past a window without battle rattle. It was then, on the floor of my hotel room, that I realized where I was, safe. I was embarrassed and felt a sapping dissonance. I didn’t remember getting out of bed minutes earlier, but I could replay with precision the thoughts that flared when I saw that building. I got back under the covers and waited for the sun to rise. I tried to forget about the confusing event and chalked it up to fatigue.

Later that day, after my family awoke, I tried to unwind but couldn’t. Though tourists were relaxing by the ocean, I found it jarring to walk among civilians without a covey of well-armed Marines, past piles of litter while sightseeing helicopters flitted overhead. Again, I talked with my family for hours too long about Iraq. Even while I threw a football with my brothers and dad in the crashing surf, I thought about the briefing I’d give the Camp Pendleton Marines after my R&R, and I felt I was doing important things with my life.

That night, I folded my jeans, placed my watch on the nightstand and crawled under the sheets. This is my last memory of that night, which I now replay as one does the moments in which a car accident might have been avoided.

Primitivo, the Haitian night guard at the hotel, later told my family what he saw. At 4:30 in the morning, he noticed me perched on the windowsill, staring off in the direction of the unfinished apartment complex. “┬íPeligroso!” he warned, pointing a flashlight at me. Dangerous ! I yelled back something he didn’t understand. Rebuffed, he continued along his night watch until he heard a crashing thud. “┬íSe cayo!” he shouted. He fell! He raced back to find me kneeling in a pool of my blood.

A ravine of torn flesh ran between my brows. My chin flapped below my jaw. I held my mouth with two broken wrists and groaned about my teeth, jarred loose from my fractured upper jaw. Blood spigoted from my forehead, from the nostrils of my broken nose, over shreds of lip.

I WAS FACING MONTHS OF REHABILITATION. But upon arriving in West Chicago with my father, I fought against my injuries, sparring with doctors, tugging at stitches, mentally truncating every estimate about how much time I’d need to heal. I had spent months climbing out of Humvees and Chinooks to develop relationships with city leaders, identify needs and draw lessons from the mistakes of the reconstruction. Now, my mother was buttoning my shirt for me.

I lay in my childhood bed, willing the cracks in my bones to seal and the stress in my mind to settle, and stubbornly considered this a mere interruption to my job. In the first days, I forced my fiberglass-encased hands to work the phone and pound a keyboard so I could leave messages with my bosses in Baghdad and e-mail them pictures of me in the hospital bed, along with the list of required medical procedures.

I knew that to return, I’d have to get a new health clearance from the government, a requisite for civilians working in Iraq. So, as though setting out to repair an engine, I made a list of everything wrong with my body. It would take at least two months for the casts to be cut from my broken wrists. The wires lashed around my jaw would be removed in two weeks, at which point I could schedule the several root canals required for my front teeth. Afterward, I could visit my high school orthodontist for another round of braces to hoist my fractured teeth back into line. All in all, I’d need eight weeks, I told my office, before I’d be good to go. I asked if there was anything I could do in the meantime, offering to work with the agency in Washington until my return or to write a report with recommendations for projects in the city. Aside from early well-wishes, I heard nothing back. The friends over there who took my calls told me not to feel offended: I was merely out of sight and out of mind.

I wondered how the Fallujans would interpret my absence at our next meeting. Too many U.S. advisers and politicians had swooped in and out of Fallujah, making promises soon forgotten or ignored. I had sworn to myself I wouldn’t make grand promises, wouldn’t disappear. Now a series of ruptures snaking across my face and through my bones was making me break my word. I started to type an explanatory message in Arabic to Khaled, a city council member who was working on proposals for agricultural initiatives in the outskirts of the city, but I felt foolish. What could I tell him?

I realized I had come to know more about Fallujah than about my own home town. Stuck in a wartime framework, I made a Fallujah of West Chicago. I studied satellite maps on my computer, marveling at elements of our infrastructure that I’d never noticed, at how insecure we were. I plotted a takeover of the town in case the West Chicagoans sparked an insurgency. How many troops would we need, and how would we divide the city for administration? Where would we set up entry and exit control points? Where would rally points be set in case of IEDs or small-arms fire? Just as Fallujans had had to convert their soccer pitch, my town would have to use our high school’s football field for trench graves. As a show of force, I’d position an M1A1 Abrams tank in the parking lot between Ace Hardware and Taco Bell. I’d coil concertina wire into the street to snarl traffic into a slow, observable mass. While my parents drove me through town on the way to doctor’s appointments, I imagined mile-long vehicle queues snaking round the gas station and muzzles of counter-sniper rifles poking from the rooftops.

After I had pacified West Chicago, I succumbed to my anger. A month into my recovery, and I still hadn’t heard anything from the mission in Baghdad. With each procedure, new complications appeared, and my estimated return date was slipping further from my reach. In trying to fix one wrist, a doctor accidentally expanded the crack in the bone, adding weeks to rehabilitation. When my oral surgeon failed to remove one of the wires holding my loosened teeth in place, I drove to the hardware store and bought a pair of pliers. I wrenched the wire from the gum tissue myself, wiped the blood from my chin and crossed that procedure off my list.

I still couldn’t explain why the accident had happened, or even how. My dad, a Vietnam vet, still insisted that I had been attacked or robbed, unwilling, I think, to accept the idea of any sort of mental failure. Friends overseas told me that Marines and diplomats I barely knew were gossiping about me — a two-star general was overheard declaring that I had been drunk, that I was trying to get out of coming back. When people suggested, gingerly, that I might have been suffering from PTSD, I rejected it out of hand. I hadn’t worn a uniform and didn’t believe I had the right to group my injury with those who did. So many had it worse: Marines, soldiers, Iraqis — so many Iraqis. I called a psychiatrist friend, who said that I probably had experienced a stress-prompted fugue state, which is characterized by dissociative amnesia and autopilot behavior. I didn’t see a shrink because I didn’t think I’d have the time, especially since I was still hoping to return to Fallujah.

I decided to accept that explanation as the most likely, despite its obvious frustrations: The most important decision I’d ever made in my life happened that night on the windowsill, and I wasn’t around to make it. I declared a family moratorium on discussing other possibilities. I wasn’t likely to retrieve the lost memory, and the conjecture was draining us all.

As to the larger question of why it happened, visitors would offer unsolicited explanations. A minister friend of the family informed me that I was breathing because I’d been saved, because God had plans for me. “It’s a Wonderful Life” looped on television for the holidays, telling me I should be feeling reborn. Each day is a gift!

I didn’t feel that way; I felt ridiculous. After all, I’d spent the 12 months before the fall in a landscape scarred by a hail of bombs, mortars, rockets and bullets. I had seen death and the on-the-brink moments that make you think you’re headed there: On a cold morning in Fallujah weeks before I left the city, my convoy had missed the wrath of a suicide car bomb by a few minutes. The vigilant Marines in the lead Humvee had even spotted the vehicle lurking along Route Fran, but for whatever reason, its explosives were meant for someone else. The next morning, we drove past the black char blossom left by the blast on the pock-marked pavement. Yet it was sleepwalking at some beach resort that nearly did me in.

I wondered if it would be any different if I had sleepwalked over there, instead. Would it be easier to understand? The ifs were exhausting, unrelenting.

I came to loathe the night. I’d crawl into bed warily. After a few hours, I’d snap awake, the kind of awake that is complete and leaves you with no doubts as to its certainty. My doctors blamed it on the Vicodin and general anesthesia, but I’d never told them about the nightmares since my return. In each, I was back in Iraq, abandoned, in danger or helpless to save others. In a sweat, I’d roll over and turn on the television, which lit the room with infomercials hawking bagel slicers and girls gone wild. In the hours until the sun came up, I wondered what was happening in Fallujah.

For a while, people called from Iraq to tell me the news. The canal-clearing initiative foundered in my absence. I learned that our colleague Sheikh Kamal, head of the city council, was assassinated while walking out of his house.

January lapsed into February, and I still had no final word from Baghdad about my future in Fallujah. My bosses hadn’t yet discussed with me the likelihood of resuming my work. A friend in Baghdad forwarded an e-mail from a newly arrived diplomat who asked, “Who was Kirk Johnson, where did he work, and when did he leave?”

Moments before getting the roots of my three dead front teeth bored, I thumbed through magazines in the endo-dontist’s waiting room and came across a quote of mine in Time magazine, made weeks earlier on Election Day in Fallujah, at a time that now seemed so much more important, more loaded, than anything at home. Humming drill in hand, the doctor asked, What was it like over there? I wasn’t ready to accept that past tense. I hadn’t finished over there. Hell, my socks and razor were still over there.

But I wasn’t going back. My cellphone rang a few weeks later, on the drive back from getting my casts sawed off. It was Baghdad. Mom turned down the radio. My contract had expired during my recuperation, my superiors said, and they weren’t going to field a replacement for me. Congress was slashing reconstruction funds, and what remained wasn’t likely to be spent in Fallujah. As I listened to the news, I stared out the window at the freshly plowed, salt-streaked parking lots that pooled around the strip malls and fast-food joints. The neon in their signs cut against the encroaching dusk: Fantastic Sams, L.A. Tan, Hollywood Video, Dollar Heaven. I was home, after all.