Zach LaPorte. Photographer unknown

Zach LaPorte

Zach deployed to Iraq twice as an Army Ranger. During each deployment he witnessed a number of things that led him to question the war and US involvement in the conflict. After getting out, he worked with a number of veteran's and writing groups and eventually wrote a book, Objects for Deployment, about his Iraq experiences.

His book can be purchased here.


Interview conducted on April 11, 2015 over the phone

Present: Richard Hayden and Zach LaPorte

Transcribed by Richard Hayden


Richard Hayden: What is your full name?

Zach LaPorte: Zachary Wayne LaPorte.

RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?

ZL: I was active duty Army 2004 until 2007.

RH: What was your rank when you got out?

ZL: I was an E4.

RH: What was your MOS?

ZL: 11B [spoken as eleven Bravo]. To be specific I was 11B1V [spoken as eleven Bravo, one Victor].

RH: Which is?

ZL: 1V signifies airborne and Ranger qualification.

RH: What was your unit?

ZL: Second Battalion, Seventy-Fifth Ranger regiment.

RH: What was your company?

ZL: Bravo Company.

RH: What motivated you to join the military?

ZL: It was kind of a mixture of things. I don’t know if anybody would ever say it was just one reason but I was in college, I wasn’t really sure if I really wanted to be in college. [laughs] I watched the whole shock and awe in Iraq – the bombing campaign – I watched it from my college dorm. I was in ROTC at the time but I kind of felt this gravitational pull towards serving in the military because some of my aunts and uncles had served and my dad was in the Air Force and I kind of felt like it was more of an obligation or responsibility that I had to do. It was an easy decision but there were a lot of factors that went into it.

RH: Why did you pick the branch of service that you did?

ZL: That’s a really interesting question. I think I picked the Army because that was the one I thought – I felt like the Marine Corps, I feel like those guys are just crazy and brainwashed so I didn’t want to be one of them. I felt like the Air Force and the Navy were too cushy so I felt like the Army was a happy medium.

RH: Why did you choose to join the Rangers?

ZL: They were an elite fighting force. My uncle had been Ranger qualified so I felt like that was pretty good measuring stick for myself to see if I could make it.

RH: How did your family feel about your decision?

ZL: Most of my family was actually kind of devastated. My mom thought when I went down to – I grew up in northwest Wisconsin, kind of in the Duluth area, a little bit around there – I went to the recruiting station and my mom thought I was just going down there to get more information. I went all the way down to Milwaukee. It was like a five or six hour drive from my home town and when I got down there basically they were just signing people up. It wasn’t like they were giving you more information, they were just signing people up. It wasn’t like they were giving you more information. It was like they were signing people up and I knew I was just there for it.

I went through the process and when I got home I actually called my mom and my mom cried on the phone. I felt so bad. I called my mom right after I signed my contract and she was like, “You did what?! I didn’t know you were going to sign up while you were down there.” And she got so mad. I don’t know if I ever formally told my dad. I think my mom told him. My mom told him and my dad believed my mom, for reasons I don’t know why, and then my grandparents were like, “You know this is all about money. This war is all about money. It’s all about oil.” And I was like, “Grandma and grandpa, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” and I just dismissed them because I was eighteen years old and I knew exactly what was going on in the world. Actually I was nineteen. But they were not happy. Most of my family, they were not happy.

RH: Where were you on September 11th?

ZL: On September 11th I was in a high school classroom.

RH: Do you have any specific memories? What happened in class?

ZL: It was actually my homeroom class. The classes for the day hadn’t really started yet. I think it was 7:45 or 8:15 or something like that. I usually got to school around eight o’clock and then we had a homeroom class until about 8:30. We were all just sitting around and one of my friends came in and he was like, “Hey man, did you hear? A plane crashed into the World trade Center.” I didn’t really know about the World Trade Center. They were like, “Yeah, it’s in New York City.” We turned on the TV and the second plane – I can’t even remember if I saw the second plane fly in or not but I remember watching it on TV and I was like, “Holy shit! This is insane!” And all of a sudden everybody was like, “Osama bin Laden.” It was like the same day. Everybody knew it was Osama bin Laden the same day. And in my head I was like, “If it was Osama bin Laden how did they already know that?” everybody started talking about the war and a draft.

In that moment I can honestly, in my head, my whole life is separated into pre-9/11 and post-9/11. I was seventeen years old and my life was completely different after that.

RH: Where did you go to boot camp?

ZL: Fort Benning, Georgia.

RH: What was your follow up training like?

ZL: Because I was in the infantry I had what they call one site unit training. Basically your follow-up training is an extra seven weeks of boot camp, or six weeks. Something like that. Basically my boot camp was eighteen or seventeen weeks long. We finished boot camp and the next day we started doing infantry training. I did infantry training and graduated in – I want to say April – and I think it was two weeks later I reported to Airborne school.

I went through Airborne school and saw some people get hurt. Airborne school is a pretty hazardous school. You basically practice falling out of the sky for about four weeks. At that point I feel like I was still pretty gung-ho about the military because at the training course I was surrounded by like-minded people. In boot camp it was a nightmare because you’re getting yelled at all the time. You’re not sleeping that much, you’re running and doing all of that stuff. I got to Airborne school and it was way more relaxed. I was pretty excited at that point.

After those four weeks I went to a program called the Ranger Indoctrination Program. In the military it’s commonly known as RIP. That program was set up almost like a selection course to pick people that were basically tough enough to make it in Ranger battalion. That was about four weeks long as well and mainly all they did was march us around all the time. They took us out to – I think it was called Camp Darby, or something like that. I can’t remember the name. It was like a range. Something range out in rural Fort Benning and they made us stay up all night and they made us run around in the woods in the middle of the night. [laughs] It was pretty insane. It was kind of like – what do you call it? – like an initiation into Ranger battalion. If you didn’t quit you made it in but it was tough not to quit.

RH: Did your training prepare you for deploying?

ZL: Most of this stuff was preparing me for my unit. When I graduated from the RIP program I was assigned to the Second Ranger Battalion in Fort Lewis, Washington. And when I got up there I was for probably seven, eight months before I deployed. When I was up there we did a whole bunch of training to prepare us because my old unit would deploy every six months for three months at a time. They were pretty hardcore about training for the urban environment, training us for – we called them assaults. We’d assault houses, we’d assault villages – stuff like that – in order to find high value targets or intelligence.

RH: So let’s jump into it. Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?

ZL: I served in Iraq two times.

RH: And what were the dates of those deployments?

ZL: My first deployment started in, gosh, I think it was April, May, June and then part of July in 2005. And then my second deployment was September, October, November, December and then I got back the second week of January of ’07. So it was like the end of ’06 start of ’07. I guess that they were three month deployments.

RH: So you guys deployed for three months and then trained for six?

ZL: Yes. It was like three and a half months.

RH: Let’s talk about your first deployment first. Where in Iraq did you deploy to?

ZL: We were in the Green Zone right in Baghdad.

RH: What was the mission of your unit?

ZL: Like I mentioned earlier, we did a lot of raids. We were looking for high-value targets and other intelligence. We were in a special operations group and we were not in the highest tier of forces in that group but we were more like in the middle so we were one step above the support units and one step below the top tier of units that I won’t mention at this time. So we would do the lower priority high value targets, acquisition raids and stuff like that. Obviously we’d find a lot of intel but we’d do other stuff too. You probably heard of the Jessica Lynch mission. That was some of the Ranger Battalion missions. Those were prior missions so that happened before I got there.

RH: What specifically was your job within that unit?

ZL: On my first deployment, my official positon was as an assistant gunner on a machine gun team. So basically every infantry platoon has a squad of machine guns. There’s three machine guns assigned and because they are a crew-fed or a crew-served weapon you’ve got two or three extra guys carrying ammunition for that gun, carrying equipment like the tripod and other stuff like that and providing security. In Iraq that’s more of like a relic, that style of structure of having machine-gun teams. And so in Iraq I didn’t serve as an actual assistant gunner. It was just my position and so I did a lot of driving. I drove Humvees and Strykers a lot for the team. If we ever did any helicopter missions I was an extra guy who would ride along and carry extra ammo for my gunner. But we didn’t do it in the same way as we did our standard training-style missions, if that makes sense.

RH: What do you remember most about deploying to Baghdad for the first time?

ZL: There’s a lot of things. I went to a lot of bases. We made a lot of trips to a lot of different bases and spent some time in Baqubah. We stayed overnight there three or four nights and operated out of there because there was a lot of missions against the Shia militias down there.

It was surprisingly more tropical than I expected. They always call it the Land Between the Rivers there. We did some missions where we would go into palm groves and we’d be walking between really thick foliage of palm trees and it felt way more like Vietnam than what Iraq was supposed to be like, you know? I don’t know if I have any one specific memory. It’s just a lot of things all kind of wrapped up. We never had any big bad missions while we were there. We had the one mission where we had some insurgents holed up in a house and we just basically bombarded it until it was a pile of rubble. We basically destroyed this house and it’s so crazy to think of. If you surrounded a house – I live in Chicago and if we surrounded a house in Chicago and we just shot the hell out of it with tanks and guns and all kinds of stuff, I can’t imagine that no bullets would go through that house and hit the surrounding area or fly off in the distance. Some of those things in the US, if we were in training, it would be a safety hazard or something like that. I just wonder what type of repercussions could potentially happen from something like that.

We had a pretty awesome place where we were hanging out. We were alongside the river in a General’s house. We had a swimming pool and we had our own running track. We were right along the river so we would go down by the river some days and just hang out. Sometimes it kind of just felt like we weren’t in the middle of this war zone but then other times we could hear firefights happening a half mile away and we could hear IEDs going off all the time, especially in the morning and at night. You could hear IEDs going off by the gate. It was a golden hour between dawn and seven o’clock and between seven o’clock at night and dusk.

RH: What were your interactions with the Iraqis like?

ZL: There were a couple of different interactions. So we lived inside the base and the bases were heavily guarded. They were surrounded by these huge HESCO walls. They were basically huge sandbags filled with sand and bricks and rocks. They were probably four or five feet thick. So the bases were surrounded by this and the only Iraqis that we ever had contact with inside were for services like cleaning out the garbage. We had a barber who’d come in and cut our hair. We had a couple of things like that but we never really got to interact with them.

There were interactions outside the wire where we would go out and we would meet them in houses. We would meet them on missions where obviously they were not under ideal conditions where you kick down their door and go in. You’d have to interview all the males and detain any males of interest. Then you have the women and children and you would separate them from the men. And then there were other times where you would detain a male and he would give us directions to the house that we were looking for, or something like that.

I like to travel and I like to meet new people and I like to learn about other people’s culture and stuff but I never really got that opportunity while I was there. It’s kind of a disappointment. It’s kind of one of those things where – I hear a lot of people who went to Afghanistan and some people up in the north who went to Tikrit and they got to eat the local food and talk to the local people through interpreters and stuff like that and we never really got that experience.

RH: How did your impressions change as the deployment went on?

ZL: Basically, I had this grand vision of the – what do you call it? – the liberator, like we were the liberators. I remember in basic training when they started talking about all these suicide bombings and IEDs and stuff like that, to me it was just like a fact of war. Some people aren’t going to want us there.

When I was on deployment, because it was a guerilla-style war and we weren’t fighting against the military anymore so you weren’t fighting against uniformed military, it started to change. I didn’t really know what it was going to be like when we started taking people captive. I witnessed some physical abuse that I didn’t agree with – people being restrained and people being abused – and I kind of started to realize that there were no checks and balances. I don’t know. You grow up and you think, “Oh hey, people are going to be doing the right thing,” and when you see people not doing the right thing and you realize that it is probably systemic and it kind of affects you, you know? I didn’t see ourselves as the liberator or defender that I thought we were.

Also I was reading another book about the war in Afghanistan at the time. I read it on my first deployment and it made me have second thoughts about why we even went there in the first place.

RH: What book was that?

ZL: It was called Ghost Wars. It was about the US and the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan prior to 9/11.

RH: What was the most challenging period of that deployment: the beginning, the middle or the end?

ZL: Probably the end. Towards the end everybody just starts to get on each other’s nerves and it’s hot and you miss home. I never really feared for my life on my first deployment so it was never really like, “I need to get out of here or I’m going to die,” type thought. It was kind of like, “I just want to get back home. I want to have a beer. I want to sleep in my own bed.” Stuff like that.

RH: Aside from what you already mentioned, did you have any transformative or significant events that informed your deployment?

ZL: Probably not on my first deployment, no.

RH: OK. Let’s move on a little bit then. So you came back in July of 2005, correct?

ZL: Yes.

RH: How long were you in the States again before you deployed on your second deployment?

ZL: It was a little over a year. I think it was about a year. Basically when you’re in the Ranger battalion and you’ve been in the unit for a while they send you off to Ranger school which is what everybody thinks of when they hear about Army Rangers. It’s the Ranger school. They send you off and basically it’s a course that they put you through to become a team leader to move up. It’s kind of like the next step in your progression as a soldier in a Ranger battalion.

RH: What was that training like?

ZL: It was really intense. It was kind of like boot camp on steroids. [laughs] Every road march that we went on was longer. Every obstacle course was bigger. Way less sleep. We probably averaged three or four hours of sleep every night and I remember one night we got five hours or six hours or something like that and everybody was just so happy. [laughs] An extra couple hours of sleep. You don’t really get much time to slow down and think about what you’re actually doing.

The course itself is designed to force you to think under stress and to make sound decisions under stress. So what they do is they divide up the training in phases. There’s three phases. There’s the Darby phase which is in Fort Benning Georgia. Then there’s the mountain phase which is up in Dahlonega, Georgia up by the Tennessee border. And then there’s the swamp phase and that’s down in Florida right in the panhandle. And so they teach you squad-type training and squad-type movements and they force you to be a team leader, a squad leader, a Platoon Sergeant and leadership positions within the platoon. And then you have to execute different types of squad movements and things like setting up ambushes, conducting raids, squad movements, platoon movements, all that kind of stuff.

Through that time they don’t let you sleep as much because you’re basically working the whole time. You’ll get to your campsite at like midnight and then you have to get up at like four o’clock in the morning to start planning and then you have to do guard in the middle of the night so you’re getting probably three to four hours of sleep every night. It’s the most hungry and the most sleep-deprived I’ve ever been in my entire life. I fell asleep standing up multiple times. People had log books. They would have their journal and then they’d just have a whole page and write down what they were going to eat when they got done with training. [laughs]

RH: In that period in-between the two deployments, is there anything significant that I left out or that you left out?

ZL: We did a lot of training where we practiced doing urban assaults and stuff like that. The training itself was really dangerous, to put it lightly. It was really dangerous. We did assaults onto airfields and we had guys that actually – they weren’t in my platoon or in my company but I knew guys who knew them – guys who actually died during training. I knew three guys got tangled up one night on an assault on an airfield. They got tangled up and basically fell from about a thousand feet and one guy died and two other guys ended up getting hurt pretty significantly – broken legs, broken hips, broken pelvis. That always really frightened me  because I felt like we were supposed to be doing this training under supervision and it was supposed to be safe. It wasn’t.

I knew a guy who got killed in a live fire exercise because the people who set up the targets and who set up the course didn’t properly check where the targets were and they put it on the wrong wall. My friend was on the other side of the wall and he got shot right through the sternum – or right above the sternum below his collar bone – and he died before they could even get him to the hospital.

It’s not that I have a lack of trust in my leaders but sometimes I felt like maybe we weren’t taking everything into account before we did things. Sometimes it felt reckless. If you’ve ever ridden in the back of a truck and you’re sitting in the bed of the truck, the person who’s driving basically has your life in their hands. If they drive too fast or they drive recklessly, that’s when you start to question, “Is this a safe situation or not?” But you don’t have time to think about it. It’s the same way in the military when you’re doing these operations. We didn’t have any choice. There was no chance for us to say, “Hey man. Maybe we should rethink this.” Do you know what I mean? You just can’t do that. So there’s times like that when my friends would get killed or people would die in training and it made me wonder if this was the cost of doing what we were doing.

RH: Thank you for sharing that. Let’s move onto your second deployment. What was the mission of your unit on the second deployment?

ZL: It was pretty much the same thing. Our mission every time we deployed was the same. We would just replace the unit that was there before us. We would go over and do the same types of raids. On my second deployment we were operating out of LSA Anaconda which was the code name for Balad Air Base. I think it was a hundred miles northwest of Baghdad.

RH: What were your initial impressions of Balad and the area surrounding it?

ZL: Balad was a lot drier than it was in Baghdad. Baghdad felt humid a lot and there were a lot of mosquitoes. The mosquitoes in Baghdad were like helicopters. They would land and they would just, I swear, they would remove a pint of your blood every time you got bit [RH laughs] but in Balad it was dry. It was more like the desert climate. It was dusty. There was a river north of the base, about a mile or two north of the base, and we would just operate out of this huge airfield. We did stuff out of there all the time. We did helicopter assaults mostly because our area of operations was a lot bigger. In Baghdad it was pretty much just Baghdad so we drove everywhere. Out of Anaconda we did a lot of helicopter operations so we’d fly around a lot. I got to see a lot more of the countryside and a lot more of the areas and stuff like that.

RH: What are some of the notable events that occurred during the second deployment?

ZL: We had a lot more action on my second deployment, especially because we were out and about a lot more. We would fly out and we didn’t have our vehicles with us so we did a lot more of these, indirect Hits where we would land five clicks out and then walk in.

There was this one night where we landed and we walked along a two-lane or four-lane road in the middle of the desert. We just walked along it. There was no cover, there was no foliage anywhere. It was flat. We started walking in and we started taking fire from the position in front of us. We were kind of confused because we weren’t expecting anything out there. It’s rare that you actually react to contact like that. That was actually a standard battle drill in the Ranger handbook – react to contact.

So we started taking fire from the front. We returned fire and we started actually assaulting. When we started assaulting the position we had machine gun fire flying over the top of us and I don’t know if they were missing on purpose because they knew we were friendly. There were rumors that they were told that we were some special forces group from Iran – like we were a Shia Iranian Republican guard. That was one of the rumors in the platoon after we got back to base. But we took fire and they started throwing grenades and RPGs at us and that’s when it started to get really, you know? I remember looking behind me and there was another machine gun team right behind me and they started returning fire. On this deployment I was a machine gunner so I was the one carrying the gun so I was returning fire. Some of the guys around me – I looked back and I would see RPGs land right where some of my friends had just been. They narrowly missed getting hit by these RPGs.

It was so surreal to actually get shot at. You don’t really think about it. We started to get shot at by the bigger – we weren’t really sure what it was. We heard a huge boom right next to us, a hundred meters to our left. That’s when we started to realize that this wasn’t the insurgents that we were fighting against. Somebody called in air. We had air support that travelled with us everywhere and we had these Apaches come in and they landed right in the middle of the road between us and who we were getting shot at from. And everybody just stopped shooting. The Apaches have this big light in the front – this was all happening at night – and the Apache turns on his front light that they normally use only on the runway. They turned that on, landed, and everybody stopped shooting. We headed back away from the point of contact and we loaded into some Chinook helicopters, got into those and took off.

We got back to base and found out that it was an Iraqi armored battalion, a tank battalion. So we were basically shooting and squaring off with an Iraqi army unit that had way more firepower than us. Luckily we were able to hold our own. Nobody got shot, nobody got injured, nobody got hurt so we dodged a huge bullet that night. That was probably the most intense firefight that I’d ever been in.

RH: Alright. Thank you. Thanks for describing. Aside from that incident, what were your interactions with the local Iraqis like on the second deployment?

ZL: They were really similar. On my second deployment we didn’t have anybody internally that would cut our hair or anything like that. They hired a lot of contractors. I think there was a lot of Bangladesh or the Philippines or something like that. There were a lot of people like that working for Kellogg, Brown and Root that were around all the time doing our laundry, cutting our hair and stuff like that. All my interactions with the Iraqis were on missions.

My second deployment the people were definitely a lot more, I felt, more hostile. Obviously you have the men and women, or the men, who were military aged males. If we were assaulting their house they would probably were going to be violently opposed to us. But even the women and children, they looked at us differently. They weren’t as welcoming. On my first deployment I’ll never forget this one mission where we were out on the border with Syria. We were on the Syrian border in this little village west of Al Asad and we came into this village. We secured the whole village, we cleared it all and we came to the last house. I remember the man and woman came out and they almost had open arms. They were like, “Oh Americans! Welcome Americans!” And we came up and put handcuffs on the guy. He was welcoming us in. Obviously we have to be very cautious and everything but he was probably really surprised to be handcuffed because he was so welcoming to us. But on my second trip there was nothing really like that.

We did one mission where we did a direct assault. We got out of the helicopter in their back yard and basically directly assaulted the house and we had different rules of engagement for every mission but for this specific mission we were told that there was going to be some hostile people in the house so the first thing we were supposed to do was throw in what’s called a concussion grenade. A concussion grenade is similar to a regular grenade only it has a paper wrap instead of metal, like a fragmentation grenade. So they threw that in and ended up injuring some children and permanently disabling some children. Some of them had their legs and their feet very damaged. One of them was missing their feet. Those interactions really haunt me just thinking about what those children are doing now. As far as the mission, I don’t even remember if we ever got any good intelligence. As far as I know, we assaulted the wrong house. The women whose children those were, they were not very happy with us. They were crying. I felt like a lot of the missions we did were similar to that.

Everybody always jokes – you’ve done enough of these interviews so you’ve probably heard the catch phrase, I guess it’s not a catch phrase – they always used to say, “Winning the hearts and minds” in Iraq because it was a guerilla war. We had to win the hearts and minds and we were way beyond trying to win the hearts and minds at this point. It was pretty evident in the way we would assault houses and treat the locals that hearts and minds was kind of a thing of the past because we didn’t really seem to take that into account any more. A lot of my interactions were similar to that, the one I just described.

RH: Before we move on from that, is there anything else about this second deployment that is significant that you would like to address?

ZL: I obviously have some more stories probably that I could tell if I think about it long enough.

RH: Let’s move on to coming home. Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experiences?

ZL: When I got home I had about three months to get out of the military so I basically kind of just faded away. Towards the middle of my last deployment – it was probably November to December – I told my squad leader that I wanted to reenlist. I gave him the terms and everything and he started talking to our reenlistment officer. He wrote up a whole packet for me. There was three years and I think I was going to get a pretty good bonus. In retrospect the bonus was miniscule compared to the risk. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got out but after starting to have all these incidents on the missions and the raids we went on I was just like, “There’s no way I’m reenlisting. I just can’t do this.” When I got back I was just like, “What am I going to do? I have no idea what I’m going to do. What am I going to do for a job? Am I going to go back to college?” I had no idea and I had three months to figure it out.

I started going to all these career placement seminars with border patrol and Coast Guard and all this other stuff. I kind of didn’t want to be in the military any more but I didn’t know what I was going to do so I started looking into contracting to Blackwater. I applied to them. I applied to Triple Canopy and couple other security groups because they were making bank. They were making more in one month than I would make for the entire reenlistment bonus they offered me. It was pretty crazy

But I was dealing with the effects of the deployment. I turned a little bit to alcoholism. I was drinking a lot. I was basically drinking every single night. It was like, “What else am I going to do?,” you know? When I was on deployment I couldn’t drink but now I can. So I drank a lot. I holed myself up in my friend’s basement for months. I stayed down there and played video games and drank and smoked pot and didn’t really do much. I was in, as far as I’m concerned, the most beautiful part of the United States. I was in Washington State. I had the ocean in front of me and I had the mountain behind me and what was I doing? I was sitting inside just drowning myself in alcohol. I didn’t want to do anything else.

I finally got offered a job from Blackwater. It was like thirteen thousand dollars a month tax free as long as I stayed out of the United States for a whole year. I wouldn’t have to report it to the IRS. [sighs] I had a really vivid dream that scared me out of signing that contract and I don’t regret it. Sometimes I wonder where I would be with that money but then I also wonder where I would be if I went on deployment with Blackwater and died. I wouldn’t be able to do the things that I can do. It’s a tough decision but.

RH: Did the soldiers around you change after deploying?

ZL: I was a team leader in my squad when I was getting out. I had a Private who reported to me and that was his first deployment. When we got back – every time after you get home from deployment you take a leave – a two week leave – and when we got back he didn’t come back. We called him and he never answered and then his dad called and said, “He’s been checked in. He’s having some problems with life.” They checked him in for mental health. He told his dad he was suicidal and feeling depressed. It turns out it was probably side effects. He was sitting right next to me on that mission when we injured those children. I can imagine he was probably affected just as I was. He came back and they put him into a mental health unit and, honestly, the military mental health stuff is kind of a joke. At least it was at the time. This was 2007. They wouldn’t even let him stay in a normal room. When I was in basic training, if you told them you were suicidal they’d make you wear a high-visibility vest, reflective with bright yellow and orange. And it was like, “Oh, here you go. This will make you feel better.” They cordoned you off so you were separated from rest of the normal troops like there was something wrong with you.

They separated this other Private and he got out. He basically got ejected out of the military because of it. I don’t know if he got full benefits. I still talk to him once in a while. He did not handle it as well as maybe some of the other guys did. He wasn’t as vocal.

RH: How has your military experience shaped your life since you got out?

ZL: It’s really hard to say. When I got out I started going to college within a few months of getting out. I just went back to community college. I kind of made a decision to go into engineering. I was in engineering school when I enlisted and I went right back into engineering school when I got out. The only reason why I went back into engineering is probably because it was a comfort thing. It was like, “OK. I was in engineering school when I joined so maybe if I go back into engineering school everything will go back to normal or go back to the way it was before.” I think that’s kind of why I did that.

Part of me wonders if I would have taken some extra time would I have still gone to engineering school. I don’t know. But because I got out so abruptly I had three months to get out. It’s not even enough time to apply to a good college. Most four-year accredited colleges you have to apply nine months, eight months in advance. I didn’t have time for that.

It’s really affected my decision making. It’s affected the way I approach social situations. It’s affected the way I sleep. It’s affected the way I eat. My life is completely different, completely different. My financial situation. It’s impossible, I really have no idea. I would never have probably met my current fiancé. I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I don’t even know how I would compare.

RH: Did you finish college?

ZL: I did. Yes.

RH: Did you use the GI Bill at all?

ZL: Yes I did. Wisconsin had a really good program. They had the free tuition for veterans before they had the national program. It was actually one of the most progressive programs in the country. I think 2007 or 2006 they made it free basically. It was like a tuition waiver. You could go to college and basically just not pay tuition.

Actually, that was the main reason that I moved back to Wisconsin. I was in love with the Pacific Northwest. I thought I was going to stay out there forever but they didn’t have a program for people that lived in Washington at the time so I applied to UW Madison because that was the only school I really wanted to go to. I wanted to be a Badger. I applied to Madison and I didn’t get in the first time around. I had to redo my application, redo the whole thing, and I ended up getting accepted the second time. So in 2008 I moved back to Wisconsin and started into engineering school and finished in 2011. So it took me about three years after the fact.

RH: Aside from the guy that you were telling me about, do you still talk with people that you served with?

ZL: I have a very select few people that I still talk to. There’s about five or six guys from my old unit that I still talk to. We keep in regular contact. It’s not as much as it was. I’ve been out now for eight years. I don’t keep in contact as much as I would like to. Everybody’s got busy lives. They live in different parts of the country. And in countries. I have a friend who lives in London. We try and keep in contact as much as we can. We try to get together once every couple of years. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve seen a few of them.

RH: Have you joined any veteran related organizations?

ZL: Some of the groups that I’ve participated in, they’re not necessarily membership groups but I’m part of the VFW. I don’t spend that much time with the VFW but they’re somewhat well-funded and somewhat well structured. They help a lot of people with things. I go to the VA hospital for all my healthcare needs. Even though I do have private health insurance, I still get my healthcare through the VA.

I participate in some other groups. I’ve found that writing has helped me cope with some of the problems I’ve had dealing with my experiences. So I joined a couple of writing groups. I do this one group called Warrior Writers. They do some really cool workshops where it’s more like free flowing. They give you a prompt and you write around that prompt. After the prompt you share and talk about it. You talk about what you wrote about and people will comment. It’s very open. It’s very free. There’s not a lot of criticism. A lot of people think that they can’t write. I was like that before I started writing and a lot of veterans don’t want to deal with the criticism because they don’t think that they’re a writer. And they go and they start writing and it kind of opens up a well, you know?

I’ve been a involved with a couple other groups. There’s the Combat Paper Project. They make paper out of their old uniforms. Then there’s the Iraq Veterans Against the War. It’s another group that I’ve kind of dabbled in.

RH: Before we move into Iraq’s current state, anything else you want to address? Anything I left out?

ZL: No.

RH: How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?

ZL: It’s devastating. It’s devastating to the whole region especially because the sectarian violence was never really as bad as it is now. You saw hints of the civil war after the US pulled out and left that power vacuum. Basically it only reaffirmed that the mission to take out Saddam Hussein was a flawed one. I personally believe that it was a lie. They say that they wanted to liberate the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein. They created that after they said that it was about weapons of mass destruction. They said, “OK. It’s weapons of mass destruction. We have to go in there. It’s all about keeping America safe.” That’s part of the reason why I joined the military. I thought it was to help keep America safe and prevent another 9/11. Then after they couldn’t find any weapons of mass destruction they made it about operation – actually, one of the original acronyms for the war in Iraq was Operation Iraqi Liberation and they stopped that one because the acronym was a little unacceptable.

The way that they are currently existing, I can’t help but look at their situation and feel a sense of guilt. The power vacuum that we created has directly led to the extremism and the radicalism, I think, is a direct consequence of what we did there. I can’t help but feel some responsibility. I’d like to go back to Iraq someday. I want to go to Baghdad, I want to go back to Balad, I want to go to Baqubah, I want to walk around. Maybe I won’t tell them that I was there before and I’ll just go visit but if I have to wait until I’m seventy-five, I guess I will. It’s really heartbreaking what they’re doing to each other, what they’re doing to their country.

RH: Are there any lessons that you learned while you were over there that are relevant to the current situation?

ZL: I can’t help but wonder what type of – just like the situation right now in Iran. We look at what’s happening in Iran right now and I’ve heard people say, “We made a mistake going to war with Iraq. We should have gone to war with Iran. They’re more dangerous to destabilize the region.” I look at Iran and, even though they’ve been under economic sanctions for years and years, I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we would have done the same thing with Iraq. The people in Iran are starting to demand a more free and open society and obviously the government has struck it down but the last elections that they were allowed to have, they elected more of a moderate and I think they’re coming around to be a more secular, more moderate society. At least they’re on the path to be one. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we would have gave the same chance to Iraq. Maybe they would have had a chance because you see what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. I can’t help but wonder. I don’t know.

RH: Now I have some spiritual questions for you. Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?

ZL: That’s a good question. I guess I fear death less now. Maybe I feel like I just got a new lease on life or more like I have something to do. It’s kind of hard to explain. I’m not a spiritual person. I don’t believe that there’s an afterlife. A part of me feels like I have to do whatever I can now but, I don’t know.

RH: Did the religious nature of the Iraqis effect you at all?

ZL: No. I got to see their mosques but I never got to see them practicing or anything like that. I guess I didn’t know that many, I don’t know if I knew any Muslims before I joined so I didn’t really have a chance to fully understand that.

RH: Has deploying effect you spiritually and, if so, how?

ZL: No. I would say no. I was and atheist before I joined and I’m still an atheist.

RH: OK. Good to go. We’re going to shift it up a little bit. What’s the happiest memory you have of the entire time you served?

ZL: The happiest memory? Man. I do remember spending a lot of time with the guys. We did a lot of goofing around and had a lot of fun times just joking. There were times when we would – we shouldn’t have been doing what we were doing because we were supposed to be sleeping or whatever and we’d be up playing poker or some stupid board game until all hours of the night. We were like, “Well, what’s the worst thing that could happen?,” because sometimes we would get called up in the middle of our sleep period which was the middle of the day. So we would just end up hanging out and we would joke and we would screw around. It was very casual and it was probably the closest I’ve been to some other people outside of my fiancé.

RH: What, if anything, do you miss about the military?

ZL: I miss the sense of urgency. I miss the sense of a goal. Sometimes I didn’t know if we had a goal but I miss the sense of camaraderie. And the thing about the mission – regardless of whether the mission was the right thing or whether I felt like it was the right thing, we had the goal. The goal was to do these certain things. I feel like maybe a lot of the other guys, our sense was to do some good in the world even though that’s debatable.

RH: What was the best chow hall in Iraq and the best chow hall stateside?

ZL: Oh man. The best chow hall I ever had was in the Green Zone and it was in our compound. One of the units that we served with, they had an unlimited budget so they would ship in surf and turf every Friday. So we had surf and turf every single Friday. It was awesome. The cooks were cool guys. They were from Texas or something like that so they knew how to cook. [laughs] I remember having surf and turf every single Friday so I would always get a lobster tail and a steak with mushrooms and onions and I loved that.

As far as stateside, there was one chow hall I remember and I think it was up around the Officer Candidate School. I think that was in Fort Lewis. There was a chow hall over by Officer Candidate School and that was a really good one. Everything was made to order. It was almost like a restaurant, pretty much. You could order whatever you want. It wasn’t buffet style.

RH: What was the best MRE?

ZL: Oh man. My favorite MRE had to be chicken with noodles. It always came with m&m’s, I think. It always came with peanut butter m&m’s.

RH: Alright. What’s the funniest story you have?

ZL: Oh man. Let me think. We might have to revisit that one.

RH: OK. Alright. I have just a couple more questions. If you could communicate something to young soldiers fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?

ZL: I would ask them to do their research. So many wars have been fought, especially in the second half of the twentieth century and moving forward now in the twenty-first century, so many wars have been fought and I don’t know if anybody really knew what it was for. Did the troops know what it was for? Do we know what it was for? We have to know what these wars are for before we fight them otherwise we can’t develop a strategy. If we knew what they were for, a lot of these wars we probably wouldn’t even be fighting.

I had a friend who wrote a song who said he was a dirt farmer from Arkansas and he was fighting a war with dirt farmers from Afghanistan. He came to realize that he didn’t know why they were fighting against each other and he was pretty sure that this Afghani didn’t know why they were fighting against each other. The only thing that we hear about when we fight these wars is the media narrative. We watch television and we let the media tell us what’s happening in our world. We don’t actually know what’s happening in the world. I didn’t know anything about Iraq except for Saddam Hussein. I didn’t know anything about the Ba’ath Party. I didn’t know anything about the Sunnis versus the Shias. I didn’t know anything about the history between Iraq and Iran. I didn’t know anything about the history of Americans backing Iraq in previous wars. I didn’t even hardly know anything about the first Gulf War. In the sense that all these things are not intertwined and interconnected and the role that the global economy in global conflicts, these are all things that people should know about before they join.

RH: Is there anything at all that I left out that you would like to address?

ZL: I also think that, on the last question, I think that if you’re going to join, you should probably interview at least five veterans and ask them all the questions you can think. What was your favorite part? What was your least favorite part? All these kind of questions, you know? Or maybe they should listen to your interviews.

RH: My last question is, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of? It could be during your service or after your service. What specific accomplishment are you most proud of related to your service?

ZL: Oh man. I would have to go to the first thing that comes to mind when you ask that question and it’s probably going to be somewhat divisive. A couple years ago there was a NATO summit in Chicago and a group of my friends went down to the NATO summit and we organized a march. We returned our medals to the NATO summit. We didn’t believe our medals were worth the conflict. It was a non-violent march and really we were just asking to be acknowledged by the NATO generals to let them know that the war in Iraq and Afghanistan were in questionable faith and to get them basically to acknowledge us and maybe through dialogue try and ask the question of whether or not the war was worth it.

RH: Alright. Is there anything else?

ZL: No. I think that’s it.

RH: Alright!