It’s taken Joel Robertson of West Richland five years to reconcile himself to the permanent ways his life was changed by serving in Iraq.
The former Army infantryman came home from two tours, totaling 28 months of combat, with injuries to his brain, back, shoulder and knees, and post-traumatic stress that gave him nightmares.
He came home to a divorce and non-military friends who didn’t want to hear about the horrors he had seen, even though he needed to tell someone — needed for someone to understand.
A decade after it started on March 19, 2003, the Iraq War likely isn’t on the minds of many people not directly touched by it. Troops have been withdrawn, news coverage has dropped off, life has moved on.
After struggling — having trouble with jobs, relationships and even a few run-ins with the law — Robertson has rebuilt his life and reached a point where he can think about a future.
But the war remains with him and always will.
“Every single day, I am thinking about something that went on in Iraq,” he said.
'SOMETHING BIGGER THAN MYSELF'
Robertson’s journey started in February 2004, when he enlisted while attending Yakima Valley Community College on a baseball scholarship.
“I wanted people to recognize me for something other than sports,” he said. “I had already accomplished a lot in baseball. I could have done more. I wanted to do something bigger than myself.”
His grandfather had been a World War II veteran and his father served in Germany during the Vietnam era, so it seemed natural to Robertson to follow in their footsteps and join the Army.
Two weeks after he enlisted, he was in Fort Benning, Ga., starting his training.
By August of that year, he was in Iraq for his first 13-month tour of duty as a machine gunner with the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, N.Y. It was the same unit his grandfather — who died before Robertson was born — had served with during World War II.
Robertson’s unit spent 2004-2005 in Baghdad and in rural areas southwest of the city in Anbar province. Their job was to go to hot spots — areas where there was fighting — and “find the bad guys.”
“We had huge groups of guys coming down the streets for us wearing these big, green headbands,” he said.
The headbands were a sign that the men were part of a private army created by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Newspaper reports from the time said al-Sadr’s group instigated the first major armed confrontation against occupying American troops in April 2004. A truce was negotiated, but that truce was breaking down when Robertson arrived in August.
Fighting was constant and intense.
“Sometimes even our medics would be shooting people,” he said. “That’s pretty bad.”
The time of Robertson’s first tour was also marked by the rise of the improvised explosive device, or IED. The Iraqi army had left behind huge caches of hidden munitions when it disbanded after the American invasion a year earlier. Insurgents coupled ammunition from those stockpiles with simple household electronic devices, such as garage door openers, to fashion highly lethal roadside bombs.
“It was the main killer for U.S. forces and still is,” Robertson said.
American troops driving soft-skinned “Humvee” wheeled vehicles had to get creative with welded armor plating until heavier, better-protected transportation could be manufactured. They’d line the floors of their vehicles with sandbags to prevent shrapnel from coming up through the floors, Robertson said.
He had so many brushes with injury or death while on patrol it was difficult to think of an example, he said. Every day brought the threat of suicide bombers or having children throw grenades at them.
“You have to come to grips with the reality of where you’re at. You have to find some mental place to go,” he said.
For Robertson, that meant convincing himself he would die — not to let go of fear, because that didn’t go away — but so that he could focus on the job he was there to do.
“You pretty much have to become insane yourself to do what we were doing,” he said. “I knew guys who cracked up because they thought they were going to die.”
One night, while talking to a good friend, Robertson asked the soldier to be the best man at his wedding.
“A minute after I got done talking to him, he got shot in the head by a sniper just sitting there on the side of the road,” Robertson said.
TAKING THE LEAD
During his second tour — 15 months from 2006-2007 — he became the leader of his team of machine gunners. Most of that tour was spent in humid, marshy land along the Euphrates River and focused on efforts to take a power plant occupied by al-Qaida forces.
“We were getting ready to go take the sector and the squad leader says to go talk to the guys. I pull them outside of the tents and tell them, ‘This is real. We’re not at Fort Drum anymore. Someone to the left or the right of you might not be here anymore,’” Robertson said. “I’m only 23 and I’m telling guys that are 18 or 19 this is real time now.”
Before taking the power plant, Robertson’s unit spent time patrolling an area known as “the bayou.” They often went without supplies because shipments would get blown up on the road. And they’d have to wait a month and a half before they could return to their base and have showers or a decent meal. One time, they lived on saltines and peanut butter for weeks.
He recalls driving on roads with craters the size of Volkswagens left behind by explosions.
“So you’re gunning as fast as you can down these roads trying to mess up the timing of the guys blowing up the bombs,” he said. “You had to be super vigilant, knowing what you’re looking for.”
It was during his second tour that Robertson was injured in an IED explosion while on patrol.
He and a buddy were checking out a large crater they found — the kind of place explosives might be hidden.
“As we turned and walked away, there was a huge explosion of dirt in front of me. My buddy flew across the canal,” he said. “We got blown up pretty good. There was a huge heat flash and it felt like someone hit me in the chest with a bat. I finally sit up on the cement and people are yelling. I can see their mouths moving but I can’t hear what they say.”
Robertson suffered a concussion and deafness in his left ear. His hearing still is impaired, and he sometimes hears ringing in his other ear. The brain injury affected his short-term memory for some time, although that since has improved.
The injury wasn’t enough to send him home. Soon after his unit got orders to take over the power plant — a concrete compound six stories high and a mile and a half long.
American troops had the advantage of technology. Someone had pulled together all of the photos they could find of the plant and its layout and combined them into a computer model that allowed troops to virtually walk through the plant before they attacked.
It took two weeks of dodging bullets and explosives, and searching for enemies in ditches and among rubble, to secure the plant, he said.
“It was long, long hours of utter hell,” Robertson said. “In the distance you were always hearing stuff blowing up, people shooting. Looking through the green glow of your night vision. Hearing the whistles of rockets coming in.”
Robertson spent a year at the power plant, leading patrols and keeping the road into the plant secure, before coming home.
That was around the time of another political shift in the country. Iraqi civilians who had become weary of al-Qaida decided to help Americans to end the fighting, he said.
“It was eerie because these were the guys we had been fighting,” he said. “I never really trusted them, but tried to respect them.”
He landed back in the United States on Halloween in 2007. By December, he was home in the Tri-Cities.
“It’s been a bumpy ride since I got back,” he said. “I was numb to everything. Everything was different.”
He had nightmares about Iraq and experienced the stress of going through a divorce. It took years to readjust and feel normal again.
“It’s only recently, within the last year, I started pulling myself together,” he said.
He wants civilians to understand the challenges veterans face when they return from combat.
“When you see someone who’s a homeless veteran, maybe the reason they don’t have a job isn’t because they’re lazy,” he said. “I could see myself being there too if it wasn’t for friends and family.”
An important part of Robertson’s readjustment to life after war was to talk to other soldiers, including friends he served with, to “get clarity in my mind.” He encourages others to do the same.
“I try to tell my buddies just because you’re talking to somebody about it doesn’t mean you’re weak,” he said.