As you may or may not know, I was once in the U.S. Army. When I tell civilians how much gaming I did while I was in the military, they’re usually pretty surprised. When I say I played a lot of games in the Army, I mean I played A LOT of games. Imagine this: you’re single(ish), you live in what is basically an apartment building, you’re an introvert who doesn’t go out, and you have absolutely no responsibilities outside of your 40 hours of work a week. Sure, there were plenty of weeks before going over seas where I pretty much lived in a ditch in the woods, or worked 12 hour days readying for a combat deployment, but the weeks where I didn’t have to go play soldier? I played games. Lots and lots of games.
After getting out of basic and advanced individual training in 2004, I drove home for a week of leave, then drove down to Florida for another week of leave to spend time with my future wife. I didn’t do a lot of gaming during this time period mainly because I had family to catch up with. When I finally got to my first duty station, I set up my little 13 inch TV (which I still have) and my PS2 (Fat edition, which I no longer have… RIP Edwardo) and I played my first console game in almost 6 months. I don’t know how long it took me to beat Final Fantasy VI, but I remember it not being long. I engrossed myself in a familiar story to cope with the gigantic changes going on in my life. Sometimes familiarity is enough to get you through massive life changes, like living fourteen hours away from your closest family or friend and starting a career in which you’ll be told how to dress, eat, and take a shit. I don’t really remember what else I played between my arrival at my new duty station and my first deployment to Iraq, other than some sports games like NHL 2K5 and a lot of stuff that I had played a million times before. Again, familiarity was something that I sought out as often as possible. I leaned on it, and the cult I joined.
That’s not a joke, I legitimately joined a cult for a few months. These guys subjugated women because, BIBLE! They preyed upon (haha, prayed, get it?) young, impressionable, and lonely soldiers by telling them they could be part of a giant family. They tried to get me to pay them most of my paycheck, stop listening to music, and cease playing video games. Subjugating women? That’s bad… but, maybe they still have some redeemable qualities. Can’t play video games anymore? “THIS IS A CULT! OH MAN! WHY DIDN’T I SEE IT BEFORE?!” Yeah, I’m an awful human being. Sorry about that.
I deployed to Iraq in January of 2005. Leaving wasn’t too terrible, and I remember being more afraid of the heat and camel spiders than I was people trying to kill me. I’m not a bad ass, so please don’t paint that picture in your head. When I was in the Army, I was not a combat soldier. I was deployed with an infantry battalion, but the most combat I personally ever saw was a mortar fall and explode about 50 feet away from me. There was plenty of mental terrorism with some of my duties over there. Ever sit in a completely open gunners hatch of a humvee in the middle of Baghdad with a measly M16A2 as your crew-served weapon? I did. Mental terrorism, I tell you. I was one of my unit’s IT soldiers, part of the S6, or “Commo” (short for communication), shop. I probably left the comfort of my base only about once every week or so during that first deployment. In between my 12 hour a day, 7 days a week shift, I played games, mostly on PS2 and emulation. This was actually pretty cool, because between shifts, I had absolutely no other responsibilities. Sure, I had to share a tiny living space with two other dudes, but lucky for me, one watched movies on his laptop, and the other one played just as many games as I did.
Another duty that was required of those of us in the “commo” shop was a rotation at the “retrans” site, where we pretty much sat up on a hill in a shitty little tower and maintained a radio relay. Maintaining a radio relay is a more technical way of saying we sat on our asses for weeks on end and only ever had to do anything about once a month when we did checks and services on the radio system. Soldiers at the main base or on patrol would sometimes ask you to relay a message if their radio coverage was spotty, but that didn’t happen too often. These were the weeks that got incredibly lonely, and video games were pretty much the only thing to keep me company. Sure, I shared the space with another soldier, but since he had the night shift, your hours were completely opposite and for about 8 to 9 hours, you were sitting alone, with nothing but random radio traffic to keep you company. It was maddening. Even playing games for hours on end gets tiring. It was during this time I started to branch out and try games I wouldn’t have ever thought of otherwise.
The “retrans” site was actually sitting on a giant hill in the green zone, so we had regular access to an AAFES store that stocked movies and, you guessed it, video games. You think of war as hell, constantly fearing for your life, watching for the enemy at every turn. Life in the green zone was pretty tame. Your biggest enemies were boredom and loneliness. Your greatest friends were your combat buddies, movies, and video games. Yeah, that sounds REALLY hard, right? Pretty much a long ass vacation. I’d always be incredibly excited to get to my rotation on the “retrans,” but always incredibly glad to go back to my normal job at the camp with the rest of my unit. You can only sit on your ass for so long before you want to start working again. To give you an idea of the downtime I was looking at during these rotations: I invented TV show binge watching. I watched all 10 seasons of the TV show Friends on a set of bootleg DVDs purchased from a local Iraqi in a little more than a week. I’m pretty sure I was actually in love with Rachel by that point.
Anyway, onto the video game stuff! I’ve been one of those types of gamers that will constantly stick to his comfort zone a little too frequently. I played a lot of Square RPGs, Mega Man games, Metal Gear Solid games, pretty much big name Japanese game series from the SNES and Playstation eras. It wasn’t often when I would venture out and try a new platformer or action game. Everything changed when I was at the point where I had nothing left to play. I purchased games like Beyond Good and Evil, God of War, and The Mark of Kri. If you haven’t played Beyond Good and Evil or The Mark of Kri, you really are missing out. These two games really helped me branch out and start taking a bit more risk when looking to play new games. I’m pretty sure that I finished both games in one or two sittings. You go a little crazy when your friends are talking people on TV. If Rachel from Friends was my one true love, than Jade from Beyond Good and Evil was my little sister. Rau from Mark of Kri was my best friend, honorable and loyal. Kratos was that one friend you have that can kind of be a douchebag, but you love him anyway.
During the middle of any year or longer deployment, soldiers get two weeks to head back to the states, or a nearby country, for some rest and relaxation. I went back home to spend as much time as I could with my wife and beer. I didn’t play a single video game during those two weeks, but I’m pretty sure I went 14 days without being sober for more than an hour or so. I was 21 and I missed my big birthday because I was deployed, don’t judge! Leaving the lush green landscapes and loving family and friends for the brown desert (The reason FPS games are all brown is because the modern wars we fight take place in countries were LITERALLY EVERYTHING IS BROWN. Coming back to the States was like being involved in an orgy of colors, seriously) and dirty ass soldiers who only bathe on a semi regular basis was heart wrenching. I buried myself in The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap during the trip back to Iraq. We got stuck in Kuwait, waiting on transit, for a few days longer than anticipated. You don’t know lonely until you’ve left the love of your life to wait around in a bunker full of strangers on the way to a place that will try to kill you for the next six months of your life. I honestly was unable to finish Minish Cap during that trip back. While I waited for the C130 to take me back to work, I just searched Hyrule for secrets and items I may have missed, knowing that when I was finished, I’d have to face the fact that I wasn’t at home anymore. My wife wasn’t with me and I was alone.
I always remember fondly playing Diablo II on a local network that my SIGO (Signal Officer) and I set up specifically to play computer games on. We were getting ready to leave the country, and our replacements had already started taking over a lot of our duties. With almost nothing to do, we spent our work days fighting hordes of Diablo and Baal’s minions, he with his Sorceress of Ice, and me with my Legion of Undeath. It was a freaking blast. I also played Bet On Soldier and Quake 4, two first person shooters. I was NOT into the FPS scene any more than I am today, but those were fun games to pass the time when time was all you had. I specifically remember Quake 4 not working on the hardware I had available to play it on, so everything in game was a shade of green, like my character constantly had night-vision goggles on. You also made do with what you had.
Yeah, so I had some pretty shitty times in Iraq during that first deployment, but I also played a lot of video games. I try to remember some of those stories when I look back at my time in the desert. Sometimes I even wish I was back there, working 12 hours a day and being able to not really worry about normal daily life after your shift. Life is never complicated in the military. It’s always pretty damn simple, and it comes with a lot of time to play video games. I wish I had more interesting stories to tell, like the time I rode on the back of a griffon, fully automatic M16 in one hand, flaming sabre of justice in the other, leading the charge of damn fine Cottonbaler soldiers against Saddam’s legion of zombies, but I was just the lowly computer guy, a hero in his own mind.