Medic Remembers Stitching Up Soldiers in Iraq on Gurneys Next to the Terrorists Who Shot Them
He could tell a story about seeing a building blowing up, rescuing survivors, thousands dead, and you’d probably believe it. That sounds like a war story. But Michael Anthony experienced Iraq mostly from the inside of an operating room, spending hours on end helping doctors patch wounds for terrorists and soldiers alike.
“Whenever I think of my favorite stories, I don’t think of courageous stories,” Anthony said in a phone call preparing for the Warrior Writers workshop at UMass Boston today. “I just think of these stories that show the weirdness of people because we're at war. We're doing silly, crazy things.”
Mortars hit, sailing in dangerously from outside the wire, sending him running to bunkers from the gym, from chow, but he never knew exactly who shot at him, or shot anyone himself. Instead he saw the enemy’s insides. As an Operating Room Specialist Anthony saw blood, guts, death up close and doctors trying to hypnotize their Arab patients into becoming double agents for the American war effort.
“I like the ridiculous silly aspect, because it's real people at war, and I like to hear stories of real people doing real silly, stupid things,” he said.
Born in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, Michael Anthony, 31, joined the Army Reserve in 2003, served six years, two on active duty, one year working as a medic in operating rooms in Iraq, 2006-2007. He grew up in a military family, father in the Army, grandfathers served. His four older brothers and one of his two sisters all joined the military, serving in various branches. One of his brothers is now an officer in the Army.
Anthony grew up wanting to do two things, write a book and serve his country. Now he’s done both. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Boston area, and his advice to anyone who wants to write a memoir is just start writing. Go.
"Some people spend too much time aiming," He said. "You gotta fire it out there. You gotta be a person of action, be a person of writing."
Anthony’s first book, Mass Casualties, takes excerpts directly from journals he wrote while deployed. He started writing the book shortly after returning, and Simon and Schuster published it in 2009, the year he left the Army. The book is dark and moody, but in conversation Anthony sometimes sounds nostalgic for the time he served.
“In Iraq I probably laughed my ass off the hardest that I've ever laughed in my life just because of those late nights. You're working three or four days straight, zero sleep, you haven't eaten in like a day and a half, and you're just hanging out with your buddies chain smoking cigarettes, just making fun of each other and laughing,” he said.
“The military is the easiest place to make friends. I've never made friends as easily as I did in the military. It's just natural. It just happens. You're thrown into those situations where you need that companionship to keep your sanity. It's the friendships that help us put up with all the crap that comes along with being in the military, or crappy leaders or anything.”
Mass Casualties is a compelling first hand account of a “god awful” command with the specificity of a single experience. It’s one story, but there are thousands like it. Anthony does not try to tell the story of the whole war, just his part from his perspective. His writing is frank, funny, and not especially reverent.
“There's that whole mythos about everyone who puts on the uniform is just magically transformed into this amazing person, but the fact of the matter is there's a lot of heroes out there, but there's a lot of dirt bags too,” he said.
“Commanders in my unit were just deplorable people, putting people's life on the line just to get awards, and just lying about things.”
During its time in Iraq, Anthony’s unit was the most investigated in the entire country. The Criminal Investigation Command (CID) looked into mail fraud, malfeasance, and gang activity among other things. The investigation got a little ridiculous, and the oddity of the way the bureaucracy went about trying to root out evil from within makes Michael Anthony laugh aloud to this day.
“So over in Iraq we had a Halloween party, and a buddy of mine dressed up as a gangster,” he said. “People dressed up using war paint to put whiskers on their nose, going around as a cat, people going around as a ghost, just a Halloween party on base. My buddy dresses up as a gangster. He's got a do-rag and stuff like that. The CID sees this guy dressed up as a gangster, and they start investigating, thinking he's a gang member hiding within our unit.”
“So the CID starts investigating us, but it was funny because some of the doctors and the anesthesiologists when we had enemy combatants under anesthesia in the hospital, they started to try to hypnotize them to be double agents.”
“When we had these insurgents under anesthesia we'd be like, ‘You love America. You love America. You want to kill all of these other terrorists.’ We're trying to hypnotize these insurgents to be double agents while they're under this intense anesthesia. Once they found out that the unit was under investigation they stopped trying to hypnotize patients because paranoia runs high when you're trying to run these secret hypnosis operations.”
Anthony said he likes war stories that shows the real side of war, the real side of people. While in Iraq he worked on two bases, first in Mosul and then in Al Asad, in the middle of nowhere. In his book, Anthony describes treating enemy combatants next to wounded soldiers and the hospital where he worked in Mosul treated locals as well.
“I remember one time this guy gave me a kiss on the cheek because we helped save his son or daughter's life, or something like that. You know how in Iraqi culture they're a little bit more hands on and kissing, so that was kind of weird. He just comes up to me and my buddy and gives us a kiss on the cheek.”
“I turned 21 when I was over there, and I was just this green Joe who had this naive outlook on life, and once I went to war I did not come home as naive or green as I went there. So I definitely came home a little bit harder on the inside, rough around the edges.”
When he got back from Iraq tail end of 07, Anthony had about $50 grand in his pocket. He spent it a lot of it on pick up classes, and going out to drink and meet women. His new book, Civilianized, published by Pulp last December, describes how he came back and reintegrated into civilian life after a year away at war.
“I was a big nerd in high school, and I thought that when I came back if I could just learn how to talk to girls or get laid, that's what would bring me out of my funk. That's what would make me not be depressed and want to kill myself so I started taking all of these dating classes.”
“I think a lot of us had some struggles coming home. Out of my unit so far we've already lost three guys to suicide and there's a bunch of other guys that I know that have had problems with drugs and alcohol and stuff like that.”
“Oversees, in medical, we see a lot of different sides of the war, so we did see a lot of death, we almost died ourselves a lot of times, and those crappy leaders, it just wears away at your soul just seeing people fighting for a bit of colored ribbon or willing to lie or put your brothers in arms in harm's way just so they can look good and get promotions, so I think those combine to wear out your soul for a lot of us in my unit.”
“I didn't come back in the best shape either, just like a bunch of us. I was still taking Vicodin and Ambien, which I was prescribed in Iraq just to sleep and deal with some pain. I kept on doing those when I came home, and was drinking a lot, and smoking like a pack and a half a day. I was just in that really bad head space. That's what my second book is about. It's about coming back from Iraq and dealing with that transition back home.”
In both of his books, Anthony offers anecdotes that expose the honorable and mundane reasons the reasons people join the military, for family, for money, for security. He left the Army because he got what he needed, some money for college, some experience, and he didn't love war or the work he did in support.
"My job was easy enough," he said. "All I did was assist doctors during surgery, so it was an intense job. But a medical job is one of those jobs you gotta really love to do. I didn't love it."
So after his deployment, he moved on to college, and got an MFA from Lesley University. Military experience, like any experience, will change you. These days Anthony says his worldview changes month to month based on what he's seen, heard, read.
"Anything in life can affect you," he said. "If you're not constantly changing, you're a fool.”