Up On the Net

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The author with former soldiers (L-R): Staff Sgt. Ian Strickland, Nate Rawlings, Staff Sgt. Nick Haas and Sgt. Zack Carpenter in Afghanistan

Before I introduce myself, I want to thank all of the readers of this column for your kind words about my first post. David Self was a wonderful person and a dedicated NCO. Men and women like him are the backbone of our armed forces; they do the tough business in training and in combat. We lose them far too often and it’s always heartbreaking when they don’t come home.

A tiny bit about me: I went to Princeton University on an ROTC scholarship, and when I graduated, I was commissioned in the Army’s Combat Engineers. I took a platoon to Iraq, arriving in late December 2005 when things were supposed to be winding down. In my first three months in Baghdad, three of my soldiers saved my life in three different, heroic actions. I’ve written about one of them for TIME. If the other two ever give me the thumbs up, I’ll write about them too, but everything I will write here and elsewhere is dedicated to them, because without them I wouldn’t be here.

In my 24 months in Baghdad and five years and change in the Army I did grunt work and staff work; I saw terrifying combat and incredible boredom; I served with Navy pilots and Air Force EOD techs; I had good commanders and bad ones. Some of my stories may make their way into these pages, but this column is about the men and women who are still out there, doing the hard business every day.

As I get started, I want to dispense with one of the two questions I get most frequently when people find out I was in the service (we’ll look into the other one another time). I’d like to answer, for what I know won’t be the last time, “What did you think about The Hurt Locker?” Like it or not, the film represents reality for many people, and though it came out three years ago, it’s a persistent question, one I’ve been asked hundreds of times, most recently only a couple weeks ago.

I always start by saying that the opening scene is partly one of the best depictions of Iraq I’ve ever seen (with the exception of the uniforms–ACUs didn’t exist until almost two years after the film took place–but we’ll call that a gripe). They got so much right: the gallows humor, the tension, the steady to 1,000 heartbeats per minute when things go wrong. Even the explosion looked as real as I’ve seen on film. But after that first scene, the film goes off a cliff.

To find out what the Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) community thinks, I called Staff Sgt. James Scott, an EOD team leader whose unit I visited in October in Baghdad. Since Scott is an EOD technician, I wasn’t surprised at the question he also gets asked all the time, “So what you do is like The Hurt Locker, right?” His short answer to them is, “Yes, but with many of the same situations and none of the terrible judgment.”

He began listing the technical problems with the film. After what seemed like minutes, I asked him to summarize. “This is important,” Scott says, “because it’s a world where it’s so important exactly how you do everything.” It’s these inaccuracies that we appear to brush off, but for EOD techs, they’re a misrepresentation of the near-death decisions they make every day. It’s not the graphic depictions of combat–they’ve all seen graphic combat–but the embellishments and some outright fabrications that are why many of Scott’s colleagues can’t bring themselves to see the entire film.

There is one scene Scott pointed out to me that is mostly fiction, but started out as something true. The cowboy bomb tech runs up to a charge that may go off at any second because he realizes he forgot his gloves. It’s supposed to convey incredible tension, but I figured it was Hollywood drama, and that no one would ever run up to an impending explosion for a pair of gloves.

“No, he would go up there,” Scott corrected me, “but they would pull the shot. Because any time a tech leaves equipment on the shot, he owes the entire shop a case of beer.” It turns out there are many such offenses–trying out new equipment, small screw ups, leaving a piece of equipment on a detonation– that require an EOD tech to buy his company a case of beer. When I called, Scott owed his shop five cases. He now owes one more for talking to the media.

In the coming months we’ll be looking at issues that affect the folks out there, like Scott, who are doing the hard business. We’ll see how policies affect the men and women on the ground in all of their complex, sometimes difficult and often funny ways (yes, there are a lot of funny things about the military). And for your guide, you’ll have not just any veteran, but the only soldier I’ve ever met who likes the Jambalaya MRE. If there are others out there, speak up.