Becoming an Adult After Deadly Combat

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Dave Dixon recounts a traumatic experience:

For me, pinpointing the day I became an adult is very simple. My transition to adulthood was a sudden, jarring occurrence. The day was 7 April 2004, and the place was Taji, Iraq.

My men and I had spent the last two days driving from Kuwait to just north of Baghdad and had arrived at Taji the previous night. It was too dark to move into our CHUs—the metal trailers we would live in for the next year—so we’d spent the previous night on our vehicles.

On the morning of the seventh, me and everybody else in the unit were unpacking our gear and moving it into our rooms. I was in a fellow lieutenant’s trailer, complaining about something insignificant that I can’t remember, when it happened: a whump that shook the ground and made all the metal walls flex. We poked our head out the trailer—just like everyone else in the unit—as if we couldn’t believe what we’d just heard. In retrospect, of course it was a rocket or a mortar, but even though we’d been relentlessly trained how to respond, the first time it happened, everyone just stared at each other in disbelief.  

For about three seconds.

When the next one landed—even closer this time—the ear splitting boom was accompanied by the zip-ping of shrapnel as it lanced through our metal trailers.  We all flinched, and then there was the sound of feet scurrying on gravel and shouts of “Incoming!  Incoming!”

I found myself—I don’t even remember running—in the middle of the low, U-shaped concrete bunker on the north side of our trailers, along with at least 20 other soldiers, pressed together in the sweat and heat and fear, staring at the whites of each other’s bulging eyes. At the east end, farthest from me, two medics were already crouched down whispering and cursing to each other, working on a soldier who was laying on his back in the gravel just inside the bunker entrance.  
A sergeant and a soldier dragged another soldier in to the west entrance, closest to me, and shouted “Medic! Medic, goddamn it, we need a medic!”

“I’m already down here, working on him!” came one of the medic’s shouted replies from the eastern end. There were so many people in the bunker and it was so low, the medic had no idea the soldiers nearest me were calling for help for a different soldier.  

“No, I need another one!”

The whole bunker went quiet while everybody processed what that meant. The second soldier they’d dragged in was a color of pale green I’d only seen described in books. I stood in the bunker, pressed among my men, with a dying man on my left and a dead one to my right.  

I was 23 and had never seen a man die.

It was there, that day in Iraq, that I became a man. It wasn’t the four years I’d spent at West Point, not being commissioned as a lieutenant, not my time in training, not even when I’d married my wife right before deployment. No, it was there when I really realized that life was a short, fragile thing, and that its end can come like lighting out of clear blue sky, whether in the US or in Iraq.

I understood that my charmed American life up to that point had been a blissful extended childhood compared to what was coming next. It was then that I was an adult, because in a flash I understood that what I had thought normal before was instead an aberration, and that violence and hate and blood was what the rest of the world lived on a daily basis. I entered the bunker a wide-eyed child and came out aged a 100 years.