When some men and women speak of their experiences in war, it can seem as if the experience makes itself known on its own--not just in the words they speak but in the way the words are spoken, the length and cadence of their sentences, the way the words flow together and the times when the words are overcome by silence. This rarely, if ever, seems to be a conscious or deliberate act, yet it often seems to have the stark, deliberate reality of a truth that will not allow itself to be hidden by the manners and mannerisms so frequently used as disguise.
And so it was with J.C. Cordova. He seems to be a man more concerned with the truth than with the comfortable appearance of truth.
Quiet, reserved and direct, but politely so, J.C. gave nine years of his life to the United States Army. He enlisted in November of 2002 and discharged in 2011. Nine years spent during a very intense time for US soldiers.
“I wasn’t exactly the kind to go to college, but I always wanted to do something with my life,” he says. “I wanted to have some skill I could learn, and so I’d always thought I should probably go (in to the Army). But 9/11 changed everything. After that happened, I didn’t just want to join, I felt like it was my job to go. It was my duty,” he says. “I’d also planned on only doing one enlistment, but I ended up doing a few more enlistments after that.”
J.C. did his basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, after which he went to Arizona. During this time, he gained the skill he’d hoped for—communications with a specialty in fiber optics and networking to be used later for satellite installation. “I did 15 months in Arizona, mainly training and learning communications. After Arizona, I really expected to be shipped straight to Iraq, but that didn’t happen. I was sent to South Korea, instead.”
He doesn’t have much comment about his time there. When asked, he is quick to say it was interesting and a place he never would have visited otherwise. “The older generation liked us a lot, but the younger generation didn’t like us so much.” He adds, “It was really crowded. There are a lot of people there. I never got used to that. But it was…okay. The people were pretty friendly. It was just a little different.” Undoubtedly a very true statement for a man raised on the wide open prairie of Kiowa County.
As J.C. speaks, it seems that part of him is holding back and waiting to see what questions will be asked of his time in Iraq. There is hardly a more normal response, on his part. For those whose time at war was decades ago, the subject has become a part of them—even if it’s a subject that carries scars and wounds, the pain that is there is still old and familiar. But with a war so recent and so unresolved that the names still appear on newscasts and browsers, there are questions to be asked that may be questions he doesn’t want to answer.
But, eventually, the subject turns itself in that inevitable direction.
“Then, in 2007, I was sent to Iraq,” he says, “I actually went to Kuwait first. After Kuwait, we flew into Baghdad International Airport.” From the airport, J.C. traveled to Camp Echo, a coalition base run by the Polish near Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad. In addition to Polish forces, he was based with Latvian, Mongolian and British. “I don’t want to say we took over their base, but we basically showed them how to do things…how to train the Iraqi forces, how to keep the peace, things like that.”
A side of J.C. begins to emerge in his language—the “soldier” side that had been in the background. The young man who is a proud soldier in the finest military in the world finally in the place that was his original reason for enlisting. And, at the same time, a side also tempered by his life in Kiowa County where people are taught to be hesitant to brag.
“That little base down there was tiny—maybe just the size of Haswell,” he continues with a half laugh. “There were only 2 units—my unit and a unit of military police. And the war was still pretty vicious then. Pretty brutal. There was a lot of indirect fire, a lot of mortars. I was at Camp Echo for about 15 months.”
During this time, he needed to travel long distances, by convoy. The most prime target of the time for explosions. “But,” he says, “you do what you have to do. When you’re there, your main job is to be a soldier. That’s your first job, so you do what you need to do. Your other job—like training or whatever—is second. You’re always a soldier first.”
The more J.C. speaks, the more life comes into his voice, especially when talking about not the places, not the tasks, not the duties but the people. On both sides. “I reupped because…well…I didn’t have much else going on. And then I reupped again because, when I got to Kansas, my unit was deploying again so I extended my time. The guys I’d been with were going, and I wanted to go with them. You get close to people like that, you want to make sure you’re around. You want to make sure you’re there to protect them.”
On his second deployment to Iraq, J.C. was in Basra. “There was a lot more security there. And it was a lot scarier. You had to think on your toes—there were rockets and mortars and attacks all the time. That was the place that made me grow up.” He tries to choose his words more carefully but they seem to come of their own accord. “Bazra was crowded and dirty—no electricity, no running water. When I was there, I could tell we weren’t wanted. You could see it in the people’s faces, in the way they looked at us. Especially during Ramadan, when things got really crazy. Some of them would come in to do work inside the base, but I didn’t trust them. Not one of them. How did we know they didn’t go back outside and tell the enemy ‘you missed your target by a few yards—aim more to the left next time’. You couldn’t be certain they weren’t saying things like that.” He pauses only briefly. “I lost a lot of close friends in Bazra. I lost one of my closest friends there. You take it. You don’t have a choice to take it. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t stick with you. I wear a bracelet with my friend’s name on it every day. I’m always going to think about it.” The words begin to slow down. “When I came back, I couldn’t get used to not having my weapon. I couldn’t get used to doors slamming. Things like that. I didn’t trust anybody over there, and I have a hard time trusting back home. But I’d do it again. I went there a 19 year old kid who couldn’t even drink beer, and I came back a man. Absolutely, I’d do it again. But I’m always going to think about it. Probably for the rest of my life.”