By Jessica Ginet
You might have seen him on the cover of Newsweek or Soldier of Fortune; a 21-year-old George Aquiningoc shown with his platoon during the March 2003 preemptive invasion of Iraq.
“They tell you to kill people all day. When you’re done it’s hard to adjust,” said Aquiningoc, now 30.
That from a man who fought in the battles of Al-Nagaf, Karbalah, Baghdad and the firefight at Mosul that left Saddam Husien’s sons, Uday and Qusay, dead. Aquiningoc can make one promise based on his time on the battlefields of Iraq; nothing is the same after a combat deployment.
“One of the things that sucks is that your relationships go to s**t. My [now] ex-girlfriend would try to cheer me up, but I could never be the man she wanted me to be. That sucks,” Aquiningoc said.
Aquiningoc saw daily combat from March to September 2003, after spending three years of his life learning how to kill while keeping a level head and simultaneously jumping out of a helicopter into a “hot” landing zone. Aquiningoc served with the 3/327 INF 101st Airborne. He entered service through Seattle in 2000. Self-described as a punk that needed to make a choice, “I joined at 17 to get myself on a better path in life so I could be a better man; I thought joining the Airborne Infantry was the best choice to bring honor to myself, my family and my hometown,” he said. “I pushed my mental toughness beyond what I thought possible.”
He was an infantrymen, the backbone of armies. Infantry units have more physically demanding training than others, and place a greater emphasis on discipline, fitness, physical strength and aggression. Aquiningoc said the aggression was rampant. Drill Sergeant Turner, called George, “Skinny Cock” as a play on his last name.
“This guy fought in Panama, Desert Storm and Somalia. He would kill anything he saw,” Aquiningoc said. “He was giving us a brief and in the middle of it, killed a gecko while continuing to brief us, no pause, nothing.”
Aquiningoc acknowledges that the long term effect of intense training is that he would jump off a cliff with no hesitation if ordered to do so.
In a time when the Army experimented with low stress Basic Training, Aquiningoc described his infantry training as, “Intense homicidal training” and said it continued for three years before he deployed for the invasion at age 21. As his platoon crossed the border, all the training turned to reality.
“I learned that even though I was trained to kill without remorse the act of taking lives was still hard for me to bring myself to do so I turned my feelings off.”
To deal with the job at hand, Aquiningoc became methodical in his daily routine. Wake up, clean and oil his weapons, wash up and then chow. After he ate he would smoke one cigarette then settle in until he was needed for the day’s killing.
Sent home before he felt ready mentally to deal with his war, Aquiningoc described his mind then as holding a “black lock box.”
“It held things I did not want to remember, things I was ashamed of,” he said. “Things I never wanted to talk about. That box broke open when I returned home and all those things came flooding out, overwhelming me with guilt, grief and regret.”
Aquiningoc believes that he will never be able to let Iraq go. He realized this was part of his sacrifice for “freedom.”
“People can enjoy their ‘Wal-Mart freedom’ while vets like me sit in a dark house somewhere with memories that no man or woman should ever have,” Aquiningoc said.
Aquiningoc left the Army thinking that he would return home to Kitap County, find a good job in the Bremerton Shipyard and live in peace the rest of his life.
Just as in planning for war, planning for peace never quite follows the logistic plan. Aquiningoc’s return home was no different.
“I returned home to a system that treated me like I was scum, a community that would not rent to a veteran who was going through a divorce and coming off spending two years in Madigan med hold,” Aquiningoc said. “The VA and my government saved me and kept me safe with a roof over my head and food in my belly. The biggest problem I had as a vet since I went to war is not my government but the people it serves.”
Refusing to sit back and remain miserable, Aquiningoc credits the Veteran’s Affairs medical system with helping him through his tough times. He agrees that veterans must clear a lot of red tape, but believes the process is in order to weed out those faking post truamatic stress disorder.
“The VA has to deal with so many fake claims they have to test everyone who comes in the door to see if they are the real deal. I spent a whole year going back and forth to the Seattle VA for my PTSD. Every month it was a different doc and new meeds, but I stayed with the program because I needed help.”
If there is a margin of disconnected between this specific Iraq War veteran and civilians in his community, it’s rooted in completely different lifetime experiences.
“I have had to argue with civilians for benefits I earned in combat as my license plate and park pass to the extent of calling Olympia to get it fixed. I find the only civilians I can hang with are those who help vets,” he said. “I know that part of society is closed to me and I will never be a part of mainstream America.”
Finding it difficult to mingle in civilian society, Aquiningoc instead channels his energy into helping other vets by volunteering as a Service Officer with the VFW Post 2669 in Port Orchard.
“I will always be that soldier who helped liberate a nation and bring final justice to Iraq’s most evil sons. So I just stay on my side of the tracks.”