How the Iraq War Unmade Me… and Love Remade Me

I flew into the ink black night of Iraq with my gas mask on and a weapon strapped to my side. My job was to distribute atropine antidote syringes to my company of soldiers the minute we tumbled into the desert air, in case we were gassed.

We never knew how long we would be deployed there. We were never told when we would be able to go home.

397 nights I slept in an Iraqi desert tent with a 9mm Beretta lying next to me, before I finally boarded a C-130 cargo plane to return home.

Just a few months earlier, I had walked across the stage at my college graduation. Then I got a phone call telling me to “put my affairs in order.”

I was three months away from finishing my commitment to the Army National Guard, which had paid for my college education, when I was called up to active duty in Iraq. I was a recent college graduate who was being called up with a group of students, middle-aged shoe salesmen and pizza delivery guys, in a unit that hadn’t been called up in 30 years.

I watched bombs drop on Baghdad on the nightly news and heard rumors and debates over weapons of mass destruction and Saddam’s chemical warfare. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I’d be flying into that.

Some say that when you go through something hard or traumatic, it gives you a chance to find out who you really are.  I believe I met myself for the first time during those 397 days.

I grew up with a pretty black-and-white worldview. There was always a right and always a wrong, us versus them, good guys and bad guys. Most importantly, God was always on our side. Good guys could do anything they wanted to the bad guys. The ends justified the means, even if that meant taking a life.

I really never gave much thought to war. I accepted it all and like my culture, I looked up to anyone wearing a uniform.

Looking back, I think I used the medic bag I carried on my back as an excuse to avoid facing what I really believe about killing people as a soldier . I told myself and others that my job as a combat medic was to help people, not hurt them. I ignored the reality of what I carried on my right hip.

I was one month into my tour the night it all came apart, during an evening meeting in an impossibly hot and dusty tent in the desert. We were getting briefed on our convoy to Baghdad the next day.

Here’s how it went, as I wrote it later in my journal…

May 31.

The dust was stinging my eyes, while I struggled to hear what the commander was saying over the wail of the wind beating down on the desert tent.  I was 23 years old, preparing to convoy across the desert into a war zone when the idea of taking a life became a life-and-death reality to me. 

The briefing was informing our company of our duty to keep the convoy rolling at all cost tomorrow.  He related an enemy tactic of pushing little children in front of the convoy to stop the truck, which would leave the convoy vulnerable to attack. 

I was grasping at his words over the din of soldiers whispering next to me, and the drum of the sandstorm beating down: “If you brake the convoy in order to avoid harming a child, you will be responsible for your fellow soldiers in the last trucks getting attacked. I hope you understand your duty. If anybody isn’t able to do their duty and protect their battle buddies, stand up now and identify yourself.”  

His words hung in the air, suspended by dread for me.

Diana Oestreich was part of the US forces in Iraq during the US invasion.

Despite the direct order from my commander and the medals I knew would be pinned to my chest, something was pushing back—and it wasn’t letting up. Something seared across my soul and wouldn’t let me value my life or an American soldier’s life above an Iraqi child’s.

I was breaking apart on the inside. If I stood up and said I wouldn’t follow this order to run over a child, I would be betraying the uniform I wore and branded a traitor. As a Christian, I kept envisioning myself telling Jesus, “I had to, I had to take a life to save a life.”

The hollowness of those words echoed deep inside my soul.

All the military discipline that had been drilled into me couldn’t quiet the voice screaming in my soul.  Soldiers put their lives in each others hands—it’s part of what I signed up for.  But everything in me was shrieking that I couldn’t run over and kill an Iraqi child to save a fellow soldier’s life, or to keep our convoy safe from ambush.

I found myself  all alone in no man’s land. And the convoy was happening in a few short hours.

syria crisis

The voice never quieted down.

I kept feeling tension build up inside, as the things I was told to do—the “right” things—just weren’t adding up anymore. The war raged on into the next day and the next week—and by six months, I had seen so much human suffering at the hands of “good guys” that something broke inside me.

Fellow soldiers were raping their female battle buddies in broad daylight with no consequence, while other soldiers I knew were torturing people at Abu Ghraib prison. So many things I had grown up believing to be “good” were being revealed as nothing more than disguised hate.

In uniform, Diana takes a minute to smile beside a military vehicle.

I was done dodging death. I couldn’t find the good guys anymore anywhere. Death no longer seemed like it was the worst thing that could happen to me.

It wasn’t that I wanted to die. I just couldn’t witness any more of it. I caught myself whispering, “I’ve seen enough. Jesus, take me home.”

The low point came around Christmas, when I stopped putting my bulletproof plates into my flak jacket. A little while later, I stopped carrying bullets in my 9mm. My soul was just so weary by that point that I stopped trying so hard to protect my life.

I was betrayed in the worst way… and I am still not same.

At the same time, I was befriended by Iraqi mothers and fathers who other soldiers treated like dogs and ignored. No one seemed to care that their children needed clean water and were hungry. After sitting in their homes and looking through family photo albums with fancy wedding pictures, I was struck by how their lives were destroyed by Saddam’s regime, and how their dignity was just as trampled by the American occupation.

This is where my story of surrender began.

Diana Oestreich was part of the US forces in Iraq during the US invasion. In this photo she stands with a group of local Iraqi women.I can live with the nightmares I have from war, but I couldn’t live with what I would have carried had I kept loading my weapon every day. The weight of taking a life would have been too much for me to take.

The Iraq War unmade me.

I was given a small gift of grace: the chance to decide that I would never value my life over another person’s life, or be so afraid of death that I would take a life from this planet. I knew what I wouldn’t do. But I still didn’t know how I would live. I still didn’t know what peace meant.

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After I was introduced to the idea of preemptive love, news headlines of violence didn’t batter my heart the same way anymore. I could see that the news story wasn’t the end of the story. I was starting to see past the headlines and reimagine what could happen next in that story.

I became caught up in this new way of seeing people I didn’t agree with, of seeing tragedies, of seeing the wider world. This is how I wanted to start living.

This posture began to change how I viewed Ferguson, Charleston, all our political posturing, the Iran deal, and more. If preemptive love can choose to reach out to Iraqis and build a new story, then maybe—just maybe—the divisions and violence in my own country could have a new story.

In all my reading and wrestling, I had never heard anything like this. The idea that we can confront violence and not just sigh and turn the page?

The dam of tension inside my soul broke… this was the same truth that had seared my soul in the desert tent years before. This was the new posture, the courageous lens that reimagined what could be, instead of only grieving for what had happened.

Diana Oestreich was part of the US forces in Iraq during the US invasion. In this photo she stands with a local Iraqi woman. Diana helped her receive medical care.

Preemptive love was healing hearts across enemy lines, and mine was the first in line.

Unmaking violence and remaking our world ignited me. It released me from hopelessness. I was reengaged to choose love first and reimagine a new ending to my story.

I can’t undo conflict, or a nuclear arms race, or the fact that we went to war in Iraq twice. I can’t change that as many as 500,000 Iraqi civilians have died due to war-related causes. But I can love the people who were hurt and marginalized by those decisions.

Today, I don’t lean left or right. I lean in. I lean forward, because that’s where love lives.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this post was published in 2015. It has been updated and republished for the 15th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. The original post was an excerpt of a presentation delivered at Samford University, on October 1, 2015.  The full essay is available here.

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