Iraq war vet's novel wraps some ugly truths in fiction

By JEREMY REDMON | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | Published: August 19, 2014

(MCT) Michael Pitre faced a dilemma when he returned home from his two deployments to Iraq between 2005 and 2007.

What should he tell others about his experiences there? He didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. So he told them “decoy stories,” comical tales he hoped would satisfy their curiosity and allow the conversation to drift elsewhere. Like the funny story about Fred, the super spider-eating scorpion fellow Marines kept as a mascot.

He wrote down the grittier, more uncomfortable stories for himself. And with his wife’s steadfast support, he wove them into a gripping and penetrating novel, “Fives and Twenty-Fives” (Bloomsbury). The New Orleans author is scheduled to discuss his first novel at the AJC Decatur Book Festival Aug. 30.

The book’s debut this month is particularly timely amid the sectarian violence plaguing Iraq. In recent weeks, Islamic militants have captured large swathes of Iraq west of Baghdad, where Pitre’s novel is set. In his book, Pitre illuminates the long-running sectarian divisions that are driving the conflict.

At the same time, the novel exposes the alienation that can stem from combat. After surviving harrowing deployments in Iraq, Pitre’s characters struggle to fit in back home with friends and family who know little about what they experienced.

“You do want people to understand, ‘Hey, American voting public… this is being done for you and in your name. You should know about this,’” Pitre, 35, said in an interview over Skype, the day before he embarked on a book tour across Britain.

“And when you come away from military service you want to be able to reenter the civilian world and just be part of it. You want to come home. But you can’t come home when no one knows what you did. And it becomes a secret. And when it is a secret, it’s a burden.”

At times both tragic and comic, Pitre’s story follows a Marine platoon responsible for filling potholes in Iraq. Sounds like a mundane task. But every one of the holes they fill is loaded with a bomb planted by insurgents. The novel’s title refers to a tactic the Marines use to protect themselves. When their white-knuckle convoys come to a stop, the troops scan for bombs five meters around their trucks. And when they climb out of their vehicles, they widen their search to 25 meters.

Pitre’s novel is threaded with some of his decoy stories, including the one about Fred the scorpion. There is also a funny scene about an ad-libbing Kuwaiti interpreter. Lying, the interpreter warns suspected Iraqi insurgents that his Marine boss is a violent cousin of American rapper 50 Cent and that the Marines will punish them by posting nude photos of them online.

Some of the most compelling parts are told through Kateb, the platoon’s Iraqi interpreter, a jaded former college student from Baghdad with divided loyalties. Known to the Americans by the nickname “Dodge,” Kateb is alienated from his father, who served as a bureaucrat in Saddam Hussein’s regime before joining the Ansar al-Sunna insurgency.

Kateb loves American music and literature and even carries around a worn copy of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” But he is also critical of the Americans and their mission in Iraq. In one scene, Kateb reacts angrily as the Marines stand by while Iraqi security forces roughly treat some prisoners — his countrymen — forcing them to go without water under a blazing sun.

To transport readers to Iraq, Pitre drew on the people and places he saw during his months-long deployments there. The former Marine captain was based near Habbaniyah west of Baghdad, where much of the novel is set. And the character Kateb is a composite of Iraqis Pitre met there, including an interpreter nicknamed Jaguar. Pitre called the new sectarian violence raging across Iraq “a kick in the guts.”

After he returned home, Pitre got an MBA at Loyola University in New Orleans and started work in the surety industry. He spent his nights writing “Fives and Twenty-Fives,” usually from 8 p.m. until 1 a.m. and wherever he could find a quiet spot, including on his dining room table and at a local coffee shop. He is now writing a novel set in Louisiana during both the last year of the Civil War and the last year of Reconstruction. He said it deals with how the public’s perception of war differs from reality.

Of the characters in “Fives and Twenty-Fives,” Pitre identifies most with Kateb. “He’s never quite at home,” Pitre said. “He straddles vastly different worlds. I can sympathize with that.” But Pitre is most similar to Donovan, a young Marine lieutenant who strives to hold his platoon together even as it fractures around him. Guilt plagues him after several of his platoon members are killed or injured. When he returns home, he struggles to adjust.

In one scene, Donovan is chatting and drinking at a bar with his civilian boss and some acquaintances when he realizes he has shared too much. He tells them about the bombs insurgents planted in the road, in dog carcasses and even in headless bodies.

Suffering from a massive hangover the next day, Donovan considers his predicament: “It’s even worse, though, when I just sit there quietly and refuse to discuss the war at all. People get the impression that I’m the stereotypical brooding vet. That’s why I always keep two or three stories on deck, harmless and cute, to distract and move the conversation elsewhere.”

Pitre talked about how that same tension inspired him to write his novel.

“I thought, ‘God, I’m just telling these decoy stories all the time,’” Pitre said. “I’m not doing myself any good because I’m avoiding dealing with some of the things that still were bothering me. And I was not honoring the memory of the people who I served with — some of whom did not come home — and those who were still serving. So I wanted to make sure I told the real stories, the stories that I had avoided telling for years… that were uncomfortable.”

©2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.