Three Details

by Eddie Dzialo


During the time I was in the Marines, units deployed for seven months, then they trained for seven months in preparation for going back. When I returned to the United States in October of 2008, it was a statistical certainty that I would be back in the Middle East by May of 2009—and I was. Before my second deployment, I was assigned a new platoon. A platoon usually consists of 40 Marines, give or take, and when I took command of it, I had less than 20. People had been sent off to specific schools for training, others had been moved to other units, and the rest had started the process of being discharged because their contractual obligations had been met.

Every few weeks, new Marines would check into my platoon. Shaved heads, rigid, nervous. They’d stand in front of my desk as I went over their files, figuring out where they were from and how well they had performed at the School of Infantry. Most of them were young. They’d just graduated from high school, or they’d left college to join up. I would try to draw out three details about them during our initial conversation. They were married.  They had kids.  They had slept in a van when they were homeless. This way, they were not just machine gunners or riflemen, they were kids who carried pictures of their children around with them in the same shirt pocket every day.

Once, when a new Marine was checking in, I looked through his file and noticed that he was 27 (I was only 24). Because he was several years older than most Marines of his rank, I asked him why he joined at an unusually late age. Without hesitation, he said, “Because I was sick of bagging fucking groceries, sir.” Afterwards, when I would see him during a field exercise, I would think about his answer, and I was proud of him for his conviction.

It’s been nine years since the day I checked that Marine into my platoon, and his response is no less powerful now than it was then. For as complicated as war can be, it’s the tiny moments that become so important.

Before leaving for Afghanistan, I was transferred to another platoon. When we deployed, I wouldn’t be in charge of the person who had quit his job as a grocery bagger to risk his life overseas. And on July 11, 2009, he was killed. He’d been driving a vehicle, and an IED detonated underneath him. His lieutenant, a close friend of mine, had been thrown from the vehicle by the blast. Another Marine lost both his legs and bled out in the helicopter while being transported to a medical facility. Of the three, the lieutenant was the only one to survive.

When I think back on it, I think of all the things that had to happen for that person to be in that vehicle on that day. Four feet to the left, and the vehicle wouldn’t have rolled over the IED. Had they chosen a different route, would things have been different? Would they have been worse? I don’t know, and there will never be anyone to tell me.    

Hope From Falling

by Eddie Dzialo


After I jumped out of a plane for the first time, I didn’t sleep for two days. The experience was something I needed to repeat. That was in the summer of 2010, five months before I left the Marines. I had deployed twice and had just assumed command of an infantry company. When I wasn’t at work, I went to Phish shows, surfed, and studied for the Treasury Enforcement Agent Exam to pursue a career in the Secret Service. The exam always got pushed aside in favor of the other two things. But each day seemed flat. I held onto a deep concern about what life was going to feel like after the military. To counteract that, I gambled on football and tried to surf through a hurricane. Deployments are filled with a devotion built around comraderies, something I knew I would never experience in the same way again. Because I’d been the platoon commander, ripe with my own shortcomings, the men probably hated me. But I loved them.

I wasn’t seeking any answers because I didn’t think they existed, but the girl I’d recently started dating suggested skydiving and I said we should do it. When? Next weekend. Part of my sudden agreement was to enforce some narcissistic, macho image that I had of myself, but a lot of it had to do with how much I wanted to be around her, even if it meant riding up on a plane and not being on it when it landed. To prevent myself from appearing vulnerable, I never told her that I was scared of heights. When I was young, I got so physically upset on a kiddie Ferris wheel at Funtown Splashtown USA that I made them stop the ride and I’d been older than everyone else on it. My father still laughs about it.

On the drive to the drop zone, my legs went numb. When we were signing our waivers, I watched people getting on the plane wearing shorts and t-shirts, and their parachutes were like little backpacks. The smaller the parachute, the faster the descent after it opens—if it opens. After we took the class about jumping and practiced going out the door, I went out behind the hanger and puked. The girl I was with didn’t seem bothered by the inevitability of having to physically hang out the door of a plane for the first time. Because we were doing a tandem jump, she got paired up with a guy in his twenties, and I was set up with an older guy who waddled.

As we ascended with thirty other people, I focused on breathing, giving the appearance of control. The air smelled cold, people checked each other’s equipment. For most of the ride, I wanted it to end; I’d jump, share the videos, tell stories about it. But that changed when we reached altitude. People started chanting in unison like drunks and doing drum rolls on their knees. Seeing their faces made me realize that I’d been the only unhappy person on that plane. After the door opened, people gave one another a specific handshake before they jumped. Someone turned to me and showed me what they were doing. That was the sort of bond that I’d been missing since returning home. 

Stepping out of a plane is an act of devotion. Nothing else matters during freefall. Because it’s so consuming, it’s not possible to think about anything else. Falling gave me the sort of calm that I’d lost over two deployments. There’s a spirituality to skydiving, a state of peace that I didn’t know was possible.

I went back the following week with the girl I was dating and started the process to get my license. Life was unpredictable again, full of hope. Our kinship was brightest in the moments right before we jumped. I am married to the girl I jumped with that day, and now our daughter likes to climb on my parachute rig.

How to Write War: Learning from Tim O’Brien

by Eddie Dzialo


Though it seems like a different life, I used to be an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. I deployed to Iraq in 2008, Afghanistan in 2009, and I usually don’t elaborate further. I don’t avoid talking about my service to protect myself from painful memories. Some of the proudest moments of my life happened during those years and the people that I deployed with know a side of me that no one else can. When I avoid the subject of my deployments, I do so because I know I will become the focus of the story. And I’m not the point. I’ve read too many war books, written by people who aggrandize their heroics, their condemnation or support for the political ideologies that fuel combat. I didn’t want to become one of those people. Shortly after getting out of the Marines, I stopped reading books about war altogether.

When I entered the Mountainview MFA program, I wrestled with how to write about my own experiences in a way that would overcome the trappings of war narratives that I so detested. As I struggled, my mentor recommended I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, to show me how O’Brien navigated the difficulties of writing about combat. I agreed to read it only to prove my mentor wrong, to explain why I was against such books. It would be my excuse to walk away from writing about my experience. But my mentor was right. Halfway through the first story, O’Brien had already posed and answered the questions I hadn’t even known to ask.

I understand what O’Brien was risking by writing those stories: making the book about himself.  In writing war, you are never what’s most important. Any fear that Tim O’Brien might have written this book for his own edification leaves with the story “On the Rainy River.” Tim O’Brien, the story’s protagonist, is present, but as a frightened teenager who’s been swept up in events that he was powerless to stop. It’s self-deprecating, discussing fear with a brutal integrity that does not allow ‘heroics’ to intrude on the story’s honesty. “...I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything.”  These earnest emotions allow O’Brien to downplay his role within the stories and allow them to become more powerful than himself.

 “How to Tell a True War Story” gave me the words to understand my discomfort with war narratives by explaining what a war story is, what it isn’t, and what it can achieve.

What it isn’t: “A true war story is never moral...if a story is moral, do not believe it.” By not attaching lessons to his war stories, O’Brien is making a conscious effort not to bend them towards a purpose. He doesn’t give the atrocities any value. A real war story has an “...absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

What it is: “In any war is difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” Though the book is a work of fiction, The Things They Carried blurs the line between fiction and reality. The men named in the dedication are characters in the stories, and the opening sentence of “How to Tell a True War Story” is “This is true.” The reader cannot distinguish fact from fiction, just as O’Brien struggles to resolve his memories of war. “When a guy dies, you look get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot.”

What it can achieve: The most emotional scene in “How to Tell a True War Story” occurs when one of the characters tortures a baby water buffalo. The more the baby struggles, the more pain the character inflicts upon it. “It wobbled and went down sideways. Rat shot it in the nose.” As disturbing as this story is, the reader is left wondering if it really happened, if the author spliced an event that he witnessed into his fiction. To O’Brien, veracity is relative. “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

I still approach books about war with a healthy amount of skepticism, but by reading The Things They Carried, I witnessed how Tim O’Brien embraced his past and discussed it with honestly and humility. It’s a book that was selflessly written for other people, and I think that each time I reread it.