As the U.S. prepares to pull out of Afghanistan, veterans are left with their acrid memories from overseas and at home: difficult to process, even harder to talk through with their friends or their family. Through the veterans writing workshops at UC Santa Barbara — which Professor Susan Derwin has offered for about a decade — emotions can be unpacked and histories discussed with other student veterans, an experience that one student defined as “liberating.” The stories they have written over the years have been both astonishing and captivating.
In a public reading that will be virtual this year, the student veterans will share their work and their lives. The event takes place on Thursday, May 27, at noon. To register in advance and receive the Zoom link, please go to the event page at bit.ly/Veterans-Reading.
Last Day at Baraki Barak
by Robert Hickman
Off in the distance I heard a distinct sound — the metallic blades cutting through the air. Could this finally be it? Was this really happening? I touched my face to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. I was 20 years old, and I was nearing the end of my first deployment.
As the helicopter neared, my excitement grew. My heart raced, and my legs and hands were jittery. I couldn’t stand still; I had to pace in circles. I could feel the gusts of wind getting more violent, pushing me back. The sound grew louder. Over the hill I saw a black shadow illuminated by the moonlight. Sand, dust, and particles filled the air. Within seconds, I felt like I was being thrashed around inside a wind tunnel. I didn’t care. I embraced the feeling. I ran to board the helicopter.
I had just spent eight months in a remote, small outpost in Afghanistan called Baraki Barak. I was with my platoon, and this was my final day. Ever since my arrival at the base, I had felt nothing but misery. We had been assigned to the outpost in order to create a “safe space” to protect the U.S. forces in the province as they slowly withdrew from the area. This meant that my job was to protect our base and make our presence known. We performed daily patrols to signal to the Taliban that we were in town. During the winter, we had no equipment to keep us warm, so every night it felt like we were inside a freezer. The cold would creep in, forcing me to wiggle my toes so they wouldn’t freeze together. In a desperate attempt to keep my hands warm, I urinated on them, only to realize that the freezing liquid made them even colder. Small red sores were appearing on my hands, the beginning stings of frostbite. In the spring, our only oven broke, and for a month we couldn’t replace it. We rationed our food. One biscuit for breakfast, one biscuit for dinner. Every night I could feel my stomach screaming for food.
I placed all of my hope in leaving so that I could escape the torment, but the date of departure kept getting pushed further and further back. With each delay, I lost a part of myself and became resigned to the fact that this place was my “home.” I had to accept this reality; I had to live in the moment. There was no alternative. I couldn’t spare the mental power needed to imagine being elsewhere. There was no more daydreaming about getting some R&R (rest and recuperation) on the main base, or starting the day by enjoying a warm hot shower, or treating myself to an ice cream sundae to cool off in the heat. I tucked those happy thoughts into a box and locked them away. The delays made me feel stupid for hoping this existence could be over. “How stupid could I be?” I would ask myself. I need to stop foolishly thinking that life would get better here.
I grew sour and bitter. I hated everything and everyone. The air, the people, the missions. I hated myself for ever wanting to join the Army.
As the helicopter began to take off, the pleasing thoughts that I had locked up slowly returned. I thought about how great it would feel taking a long, hot shower. I wanted to sleep in a nice, proper bed. I felt the bitterness leaving and optimism beginning to seduce me. As we flew over the hill, I looked back one last time at the small outpost, and I said goodbye to the old me.
Robert Hickman served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army for three years. He earned his AA in biology at Reedley College and is currently studying biology at UC Santa Barbara, where he will be graduating in the spring. He plans to become a physician.
by David Guerrero
My mother sat across from me at her kitchen table. The kitchen table had always been the location where we talked and shared the things going on in both of our lives. When I was fourteen years old, she was sitting at the kitchen table when I shared with her that I had had my first girlfriend. “You treat her like you would want me or your sister to be treated,” she said. I broke up with that girl the next time I saw her. I blamed my mom for that break-up. As a teenager I didn’t want to think of my mom or my sister as a comparison or measurement for my relationship.
My mother was the first person whom I told I was going to enlist in the Marines. This time, I was sitting at the kitchen table and she was at the sink, washing the dinner dishes. “Mom, I want you to know that tomorrow I’m signing my enlistment contract.” I wanted her to hear the news from me. My mother worked as a housekeeper and managed to raise my brother and me on her modest salary. She had earned the right to be the first to know of the life-altering decision I was making. “I’m not asking you to like or approve of my decision, but it would be really great if you supported it, Mom.” She did, and situations such as these were the foundation on which we had built a trusting relationship. I could ask or tell her anything, and I knew she wouldn’t judge me. I relied on that trust when I asked for her help with a dilemma I had a week before I left to Iraq.
We were both sitting at her kitchen table, and I was going over my pre-enlistment paperwork with her. I had handed over to her my power of attorney. I had named her my sole beneficiary. And I told her that if I were to get killed, the funeral arrangements and all expenses would be covered by Veterans Affairs. And the military would give her $400,000.
As I sat at the table, I knew my mother was the only one who could point me in the direction where I could find the answer to my dilemma. With fear and humility I asked, “When I die do you think I’ll go to heaven, Mom?”
“Of course, you will. Why would you question that, David?”
“I’m going to war, I’m in the infantry, I’m going to have to kill. One of the ten commandments is ‘Thou shalt not kill.’” I wasn’t afraid of the actual combat; I was concerned that I would not be allowed into heaven for my actions during combat.
My mother suggested that I ask my question to the priest from our church. I was skeptical. Here I was someone who might end up killing people but who still hoped to get into heaven. Fortunately, the priest turned out to be a former military chaplain. He advised me that murdering someone was a sin, but I was going to war, and in war, we are entitled to defend ourselves. He reminded me that God had gone to war. St. Michael was the leader of God’s army during the war against the forces of evil. God had sent St. Michael and his angels to fight against Satan and his evil forces. “Your life is going to be in danger, and you have the right to defend yourself in war, David.”
The priest’s words enabled me feel better about the possible consequences of combat. I felt a peace within. I didn’t want to kill, but I was ready if I had to. I didn’t hate my future enemy; I did not even know him.
My squad’s first combat patrol in the city of Ramadi was going to be a foot patrol. We were relieving another squad from an observation outpost, an old hotel in the center of Ramadi that we had occupied to keep a constant presence.
As we were preparing to leave on the mission, Lance Corporal Neirmann approached me. Even though Lance Corporal Neirmann was the same rank as I, he had arrived to our unit the previous year, so technically he was my senior. But he had he never seen combat, so in the eyes of the other Marines, he didn’t have the experience to make him a senior Marine. I liked Neirmann, and I respected him.
He said to me, “You know you’re taking lead on this one, right?”
“Yeah,” I answered, “no problem. I’m not scared; I’ll do it.”
Clearly I hit a nerve, because he said, “I’m not scared either fuck face, but at least I’ve already been to Iraq.” As I mapped out a route to Out Post Hotel, he pointed to one spot on the map and said, “Don’t go too far south on these streets. That’s where a whole squad of Marines was wiped out two months ago.” As he was speaking, our platoon commander walked into the room and told us the plan had changed: instead of me, Neirmann was going to lead the patrol as point man, since he had been to Iraq before.
Three hours later, we stepped out to begin our foot patrol. Neirmann and I locked eyes. Then he smiled and said, “You’ll take the lead on the next one, alright?”
I responded, “Of course, bro, you know I got you.”
Neirmann never made it to OP Hotel. En route we were ambushed by the enemy. Neirmann was hit by a burst of enemy gunfire. He was transported by Humvee back to our base, where he was medevaced by helicopter to a base hospital and treated for his gunshot wounds. When we finally reached OP Hotel, and I learned that Neirmann was going to survive.
I felt bad for Neirmann. Thankfully, my mom had directed me to that priest. I was spiritually prepared for this situation. I knew it wasn’t my fault that he had been shot. It was the enemy’s. Thanks to the strong bond I had with my mother, I had avoided moral injury. As the point man for our squad, I was now going to continue to lead our patrols until we left Ramadi or until, like Neirmann, I got shot.
Seven months later our company came home. Neirmann was at the parade deck to welcome us back. When we saw each other, we both smiled and hugged. The words “I’m sorry bro” came out of my mouth.
“For what? It’s not your fault, idiot.”
We smiled at each other again and I told him, “Bro, after you left, we ransacked through all of your shit. We passed around your DVDs like it was Black Friday at Blockbuster.”
David Guerrero served in the United States Marine Corps as an Infantry rifleman from 2003 to 2007. He earned his AS in Criminology and Liberal Arts from Santa Barbara City College. Guerrero transferred to UCSB in the Fall of 2020 and is currently studying sociology and minoring in applied psychology and education studies. He plans to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and help veterans improve and maintain their mental wellness.
by Nick Tash
In September of 2010, I shipped off to Marine Corps basic training in San Diego. I was in the best physical shape of my life, as I was a cross country runner in high school. I was ready for any PT that they would throw at me. However, I was not ready for the mental challenges that came with boot camp. As it turned out, they were far more valuable than I ever could have imagined. And they came from one drill instructor: Staff Sergeant Adames.
Almost immediately, I was under Adames’ spotlight. If there’s one thing I hate more than anything else, it’s getting into trouble for something out of my control. This was the very situation in which I found myself when I was issued mismatched pieces of my camouflage utility uniform. The trousers were darker than the blouse. Of course, this was beyond my control, and Adames knew this. But he still took me aside and chewed me out for this catastrophe. And I still lost my military bearing and yelled back at him that it wasn’t my fault. After this exchange, two other drill instructors got into my face and screamed at me. I don’t remember a word they said, but I do remember being sprayed with saliva. Adames concluded the episode by telling me, “Tash, You are a fuck up. Every breath you take is a fuck up. Your father shouldn’t have left.”
My dad is the most important man in my life, and I realized how much it would bother me if someone suggested he had left, even if it was said just to rile me. I hated this drill instructor with everything in my being. I cried in my bed that night, wondering if I would even be able to complete boot camp.
The weeks continued, and Adames’ verbal abuse. I was getting more and more used to it, to the point where I was able to laugh a little (only in my head, of course). His favorite nickname for me was “Trash,” which I thought was too easy, as my name is Tash. I made a joke to myself, thinking “OK, if I’m ‘Trash,’ then you’re SSGT A-Dumb-Ass.” I found myself thinking similar things throughout the duration of boot camp. I was no longer afraid of Adames and his insults.
However, that didn’t stop him from trying to make me lose my temper. He made his last attempt while I was standing in formation after evening chow on the final week of boot camp. He walked right next to me and asked about my dad. I responded with: “This Recruit’s father lives in Montana and works in public relations, Sir!” And Adames snarled, “Hopefully he dies soon, and then you’ll die, and this Tash legacy will be done forever.” I felt my blood pressure rising again in anger, just like the first time he talked smack about my dad. But I recognized that he was trying to test me. I responded with a simple “Aye, aye, Sir!” It seemed to me that his eyes narrowed in anger, because I hadn’t lost my temper. He walked away shaking his head, and I knew I had won.
On the night before graduation, I was in the barracks, waiting for the drill instructor’s cue to get into bed or break the racks as it was called, and when Adames approached me I was ready for him. I was now immune to his verbal assaults. But he didn’t attack. Instead, he told me, “You’ve come a long way, Tash. As long as you do what you’re told and relax, you’ll do fine in the Corps. You never quit.” It was surprising that he didn’t try one last time to push me over the edge, but I knew it meant one thing: that I had finally earned his respect.
Nick Tash served in the Marines from 2010–14. He graduated from UCSB in June 2020 with a BA in philosophy, and he is now a paralegal in the Army Reserve. He is planning to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Boyd School of Law and become an attorney in the U.S. Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps.
by Michael Ramirez
When I first arrived in Saudi Arabia, I didn’t know what to expect. I was fresh out of the Air Force and starting my new job as a private military contractor. Because of my background in aircraft fabrication, I had been hired by the Royal Saudi Air Force to help support their jet fighter program. I had heard rumors from other contractors about how cold and indifferent Saudi Arabia could be, but I was advised by fellow contractors to focus on doing my job and collect an easy paycheck.
My life slipped into a steady routine. Each day I would leave my villa on the heavily guarded compound, work my eight-hour shifton the air base and return to my villa. The compound had all the amenities I needed — a grocery store, a pool, a gym, and even a small restaurant — so there was no reason for me to venture into the local city.
One day, my supervisor, Willie, who had been in the country for decades, and I decided to go to the mall. On the way, as we drove slowly through a crowded street, I saw him: he was a small kid, dirty, and dressed in ragged clothing. He looked like a lost puppy. I knew he couldn’t be Saudi Arabian, because he was wearing an Afghan-style hat. He walked up to our carand knocked on the passenger window. He was begging for money. Willie told me not to give him any, but he didn’t say why. However, I decided to give the kid a fist full of riyals, so I rolled down my window. As I handed him the money, he looked up, thanked me, and quickly ran back to the corner. Willie grunted, visibly upset.
After I rolled up my window, Wille said, “Michael, I hope you’re happy. You just contributed to human trafficking.” Soon after, I saw a van pull up and watched the kid give the Saudi driver all the money he had. Willie told me that human trafficking was common here and that boys were usually tasked with begging for money for their handlers. Begging was the best-case scenario, he said. At first, I didn’t believe Willie, but I already knew about Afghan “tea boys,” the sex slaves of older men in Afghanistan, but everything made sense once I really thought about it. Why else would an Afghan kid be in this location, on the far side of Saudi Arabia? Willie told me that this was the reality of the country and that most contractors couldn’t handle working in the Middle East. I reminded myself that I was only supposed to care about getting the job done and making easy money, but my stomach still twisted into knots.
On the drive back to the compound, I didn’t say anything. I was just trying to make sense of the world around me. I had heard stories about rape victims being lashed when they left their homes without a male escort, people having their hands chopped off, and the debt slavery of third-world workers. But now, I could finally connect a face to a story. I felt a whirlpool of emotions; I couldn’t sort myself out, but I knew I wasn’t acting like a contractor. Contractors were supposed to be indifferent professionals who only cared about the money.
A few months later, my contract was near its end, and I was given the option to sign up for another year, but I didn’t take it. Willie told me I was an idiot to give up my company-paid housing, my tax-free income, and my relatively easy job. He had valid points, but I felt I had to leave. In order to continue being a contractor, I would have to kill a small part of myself, as Willie had done. I didn’t want to end up like him.
When I left Saudi Arabia, I took a lavish holiday in Thailand before returning to the U.S. I ate at the best restaurants, stayed at expensive hotels, and spent a good amount of time drinking. While on holiday, I donated money to charities, gave money to those who looked like they were in need, and always tipped the workers. However, I couldn’t escape my feelings of guilt and shame. I had managed to leave the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but I knew a lot of people weren’t so lucky.
Even after five years, I still wonder what happened to that kid with the Afghan hat. I know happy endings don’t exist. Maybe in a different place and under different circumstances, I could have helped that kid, but in Saudi Arabia, I was a bystander.
Michael Ramirez is an Air Force veteran who served from 2008 to 2014. After his initial military enlistment, Ramirez became a private military contractor for a foreign country. After working overseas, he decided to quit and return back to the U.S. to finish his degree. Currently, he is finishing his degree in Statistics and Data Science at UC Santa Barbara.