Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, Jason Christopher Hartley is a member of the New York Army National Guard. After serving at Ground Zero following the 9/11 attacks, Hartley was stationed in Iraq, where he maintained the controversial blog Just Another Soldier until he was forced to stop by his commander. He is the creator of "Surrender," a play based on his wartime experiences, as well as the author of the book "Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq."
Question: How did it feel the first time you fired your weapon?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Well my experience combat-wise while I was in Iraq was mild. I mean we kind of joked about it being like Combat Lite. We had no illusions about where we were. We weren’t in Fallujah. You know, we weren’t part of the invasion of Samara. We weren’t like shooting people every day. You know, I fired my weapon three times at people with, you know, the intent to kill them twice and even for where I was that was like… There was only one other guy in my company I think who fired his weapon four times, but nonetheless -- I mean to be honest, I mean the few times when I had fired my weapon those were the greatest moments of my life. I mean I think I have like reverse PTSD where I think about firing my weapon every single day, but not in the way that like that oh, that was horrible, I can’t stop thinking about it. It was like that was so fucking cool. I wish there was a way that I could relive it every single day.
So I mean it’s -- and yeah, it is very visceral and you feel incredibly focused. It’s… I almost feel guilty like explaining this sometimes. Like it was, for lack of a better word, it was fun. I mean it felt good, but maybe that’s because I was lucky enough to not actually like -- not actually kill anyone, to not have to see the result of the violence. I just got to have kind of all the upside and none of the downside. I got to have a small degree of a fear for my life and I got to respond to it the way in which I was trained and it was exhilarating.
The first time that I fired my weapon was incredibly dissatisfying because it didn’t fire, which was also profoundly disconcerting. It was kind of a stupid situation where we were out doing a patrol near one of the oil pipelines. It was dark. We were kind of in Timbuktu. It was the kind of no-man’s land and there was a farmhouse and the guy who lived here, his family, they had a ton of dogs, so of course the dogs are all kind of freaking out and barking, like the guy knows what that means. He knows that there is somebody poking around that probably shouldn’t be there, so I can… We have night vision, but I can barely… I see a guy come out of his house and I see that he has an AK47 and he… From what I… He fires a warning shot into the air to kind of like let whoever is out there know that hey, I’m here, I have a weapon, you know, don’t fuck with my house.
So I stop and I’m like, OK, well, this is kind of what I’m perceiving, I can’t think of a really reason to return fire, and as I’m going through this thought process one of my saw gunners just opens up. You know, he’s like BRAAP! and started lighting the house up, and then everyone starts shooting and I’m like, well crap, if everyone is shooting I’m not going to not shoot, so I guess I’ll shoot too, so I think well I’ll just like shoot. I’ll suppress this guy. I know he is probably not a threat, but so long as we can keep his head down I’ll just fire over his house, so I was aiming into the roof of the house and so the first time I squeezed the trigger it just kind of went click, which was like not what you want to have happen as an infantryman. It was… It really freaked me out and in retrospect what I think had happened was just I had reloaded the same first round in that magazine so many times that maybe the primer had been dimpled and -- I don’t know. I couldn’t figure it out. It sucked, so I just you know I racked the weapon, charged a new round and I was good to go after that, but yeah, that was the first time I ever fired my weapon.
The second time I fired my weapon, yeah, that was a lot more satisfying because it went the way it was supposed to, and also that was a lot more sort of ridiculously Hollywood where there is like a car driving down the road that we thought was a bad guy and all of us in line are just kind of shooting at it like this. Yeah, I basically spent an entire magazine shooting at a car that I really couldn’t hit, but it did feel a lot better that this time the weapon actually worked. Having your weapon not work in combat -- that kind of shit will give you nightmares for the rest of your life. You know, that is what you do not want to have happen as an infantryman. So yeah, that was a lot more satisfying the second time, even though we didn’t really hit our target.
Question: Did you have running water?
Jason Christopher Hartley: The way that we had it set up, we had this animal bunker that we lived in. We actually probably through our tour got like a shower shack that had a big, like a water jug on top. That would get refilled like every three days. We just we had a ton of bottled water. We would just get pallets and pallets of like, you know, like one-liter size bottles of water on a pretty regular basis and we did everything with bottled water. Yeah, we did… Where I was we did not have any running water.
Question: Did you have bathrooms?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Yeah, we had port-a-potties. Initially, when we had first gotten there, the guys who had already been there for roughly a year they had created… They had built a bunch of, you know, their own port-a-johns and then the way that it’s… What we would do is they used like a 55-gallon drum. You cut like the bottom off of it, weld handles onto it and then just you crap into that. You have these wooden plywood crappers and you poop into this piece of you know 55-gallon drum and then basically about every day you know you had to grab some private, give him a 5-gallon jug of diesel and say you know go burn shit, and then with a big aluminum tent pole you just like you pour the diesel in, light it, and then just stir it with a big stick for like about an hour. You had to keep stirring it too. It’s one of the most disgusting things you ever had to do and that’s how we took care of going to the bathroom. We only had to burn stuff for like about a month or so then we got… We contracted somebody out to actually come in and you know do the whole port-a-john service.
Question: What about privacy?
Jason Christopher Hartley: Privacy is interesting in the infantry. Yes and no. Since we’re all in one giant bay, which is a kind of a situation that soldiers are generally very familiar with because it’s that’s the kind of way barracks are set up. We have all these bunk beds basically in this big bay. There’s probably 30, no more than 36 of us in this space and there isn’t any privacy, so the only time you have any privacy is maybe you might have partial privacy when you go to the shower. You have privacy when you go to the port-a-john and if you were lucky enough to have a bottom bunk with the bunk beds you could construct a Jack shack, which means you take two ponchos and you kind of like drape it over your area from the top bunk and make like a little tent for yourself and everyone kind of generally knows that if the sides are down in the Jack shack to… you’re to not be disturbed.
Question: How much contact did you have with people back home?
Jason Christopher Hartley: There was actually… There was a good bit of that. Since we had Internet in our bunkers a lot of guys… IM was huge, definitely. Sometimes a little bit of video chat. I don’t think anyone used Skype specifically. There was an Internet café of sorts the Army had set up that we would have to drive like, you know, a mile in a different spot in the base and we could use their computers. They didn’t have… I don’t think they had webcams, but they did have a couple of phones. So a lot of guys would make kind of the daily trek to the phones and to those computers, but most of us just sat in our bunker and we stayed connected back home primarily through instant message.