Bridgewater-Raynham grad pens acclaimed memoir of his time in Iraq
When Bridgewater native Michael Anthony headed off to serve as a medic in Iraq, he thought it would be like a John Wayne movie. It turned out to be more like an episode of "M*A*S*H" - except it was anything but funny.
He was surrounded by rampant drug abuse, crass extramarital affairs and corrupt and incompetent officers, putting their own interests ahead of the needs of their soldiers, even when they were depressed enough to try to commit suicide.
“I expected to see soldiers who lived by the Army values, loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. What did I find? I found an underbelly of the military that no one wants to talk about for fear it makes the Army look bad,” said Anthony, 23, a graduate of Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School who lives in Raynham.
Anthony, who has turned to writing to express himself since he was a child, kept a daily journal of his experiences in Iraq and has turned them into an acclaimed memoir, “Mass Casualties: A Young Medic’s True Story of Death, Deception and Dishonor in Iraq.”
“I’d love to stay silent as much as the next guy, but these are stories that need to be told. A lot of people just want to pretend it’s all right, but if we want to fix anything we need to talk about it,” he said.
Since returning from Iraq, two members of his unit have committed suicide, several more suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and several more are in treatment for drug use, he said.
“You’ve got the stories where you’re being told everything’s glorious, and then you’ve got the statistics, and something’s missing in between. What’s missing is the human factor, American soldiers as humans rather than robotic machines. I try to fill that gap,” Anthony said.
Anthony, who attends Bridgewater State College, seemed destined to join the military. He grew up on G.I. Joe and Rambo in a military family. Both his grandfathers, his father, all four of his brothers and one of his sisters all served in various branches of the armed forces. The baby of the family, Anthony watched the siblings he looked up to one by one head out in uniform to become adults and never questioned he would do the same.
So at 17, while a senior at B-R, he enlisted in the Army. It was 2003. It was just after the invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t a question of if he’d go to war but when.
This isn’t a book about the wisdom of the war in Iraq. Anthony isn’t the person to write that book.
Anthony, who changed the names of people who appear in the book to protect his fellow soldiers, conspicuously steers clear of politics in “Mass Casualties.” If he debated the merits of the war with buddies or wrestled with its moral implications as he tossed and turned on his cot, he left that out of the book.
He said “Mass Casualties” “isn’t anti-war or pro-war,” and he’s certainly not anti-military.
“If I were, that would be one hell of an awkward Sunday dinner,” he quipped.
In an odd way, that makes him the right person to write a book that is critical of the Army. It has the potential to be an only-Nixon-could-go-to-China situation.
It is not really even a book about the Army’s handling of post-traumatic stress and suicide among soldiers and veterans. Anthony is not the person to write that book - though the book he did write might greatly inform someone who chooses to conduct that investigation of the big picture and cause and effect.
Thankfully, Anthony has instead chosen to write the book he was perfectly positioned to pen: a deeply personal, deeply honest account of what it’s like to be 20 years old and find yourself halfway around the world, sent there to help repair the damage to bodies that are being torn apart in a war that has suddenly become anything but abstract.
It is about removing shrapnel embedded in an Iraqi civilian, only in this case the shrapnel is the human bone of a suicide bomber; which Anthony notices perceptively is hard to distinguish from the splintered bones of the victim. It seems an apt metaphor for our common humanity defiled by war.
It is about a patient with a chest wound, a patient who is “losing blood as fast as they could put it back in him,” operated on by a general surgeon because there is no heart doctor available.
“The heart goes up to beat, back down and it stays down.”
It’s about the colorful, at times desperate, at times infuriating people in his unit, including himself, thrust into this surreal landscape. They seem so ordinary, and yet as we follow them around the base through peccadillos and pettiness, laughter and camaraderie, betrayal and arrogance, the backdrop is a place that is anything but ordinary.
It is about the officer who loves to play video games and gives himself a cushy schedule, while seemingly taking perverse pleasure in creating a brutal rotation through first, second and third shifts for medics like Anthony. It’s about theft and fraud and trumped up medals designed to make commanding officers look good.
“How can we hold onto the real heroes when we praise everyone as a hero?” Anthony asks.
The underlying situation Anthony depicts is anything but funny, but, as in "M*A*S*H," he inserts dark humor as a salve. There was the time someone stole his tooth whitening strips and he proceeded to scrutinize everyone’s smiles for the next week for whiter teeth; or the image of him and his buddies playing baseball in the OR hall.
We watch as Anthony goes from running for his life, unable to calm down or recognize his own emotions, after his first mortar attack to an astonishing apathy a couple of months later in the face of the bombings. He and many others choose to stay in their warm beds instead of seeking safety in a bunker. It’s not that he wanted to die. It’s that, at times, as he puts it, “you don’t care if you live or die.”
To survive, you’ve turned your emotions off. To save yourself, you have to stop caring so much about saving yourself.
Before his first surgery, about to have his arms “elbow deep in someone’s stomach,” Anthony feels the anxiety building and makes a conscious decision.
“I close my eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. With the exhale, I tell myself that I don’t care if the patient dies. I tell myself that emotions are pointless and that nothing matters. I open my eyes back up and the fear, anxiety and nervousness is gone. I am blank. I feel nothing and this is how it has to be.”
But emotions can be pesky things, popping back up, catching us off guard.
Five months later, he nearly loses his composure when an injured dog is brought in for care.
“After seeing it lying on the table, brought over from the K-9 unit, its big brown eyes wide open, I almost started crying, I forgot to block my emotions. Then a 9-year-old Iraqi child is brought in. She’s got a shrapnel wound to the stomach and leg. I wasn’t prepared for this.”
And his emotions surface in his dreams, too: “I look up and see the faded eyes of a boy in uniform, someone hurting and looking for help. I realize that it’s me and stare into my own eyes.”
We watch as Anthony goes from a non-smoker to using cigarettes to relax, to abusing cold medicine and sleeping pills and finally prescription pain killers. He is far from alone. The Nyquil is gone from the store as quickly as it comes in. We see how the drugs help him cope and simultaneously undermine him physically and mentally.
And finally, we’re there when one of his good friend’s tries to take his own life. Instead of being sent home, he’s given extra duty. His commanding officers don’t want to do the paperwork “because it will make them look bad that one of their soldiers tried to commit suicide.” Eventually, he succeeds.
Despite all he has seen, Anthony is still a believer in his little boy’s vision of an honorable military. He is like a disappointed lover, who expected more from the military he revered and still holds out hope of redemption and reform.
“What do we have if we don’t have that hope we can change things? It just makes the whole system pointless,” Anthony said.
Anthony is sometimes so honest it can make the reader flinch.
As Christmas approached in Iraq, he received letters from third and fourth graders back home. One might expect him to say they inspired him, but that’s not how he felt.
“Those are the most depressing of them all. Kids writing letters supporting something they know nothing about, only that they’re told to support their country and the war,” he writes.
He had a similar reaction as he was leaving for Iraq, flying out of Maine, where a set of greeters applauds every flight of soldiers that comes through, Anthony said.
“That was the most torn I’d ever been. It was great for them to show their support. We’ve heard so many stories of Vietnam veterans being spat on, but now I was getting ready to go to war and I couldn’t help but think these people are applauding my willingness to die.”
It is a powerful, thought-provoking image, the other side of the coin of the cruel rejection of Vietnam soldiers. It raises the question: What does it really mean to support our troops?
Anthony is an intelligent, sensitive observer of the surreal environment in which he found himself.
And he writes beautifully, in simple, natural prose. He does not add melodrama but lets the inherent drama of the situation speak for itself.
Anthony wasn’t sent to Iraq as a witness. He was sent there as a medic, but a truly grateful nation willing to listen to what it might not wish to hear, should thank him not only for his military service, but for bearing witness to the conduct and cost of a war being fought in all our names.