I was a soldier once. I can almost hear myself telling that to my grandchildren with a shameful exhortation and a need to feel important to the ones I love. I sometimes wonder what stories I will end up telling them. “Everyone thought I was a hero!” Which is true. Besides the letters saying so from my family, I received letters and packages from complete strangers telling me so. I often felt a little guilty. I wondered if they knew what I did all day in Iraq. I wondered if I would still be a hero if they knew I spent my working hours during the actual war reading Karl Marx’s “Capital.” Sometimes I felt like taking those letters and packages to a tanker or infantryman and saying, “Here, these people think you are a hero, I just make maps.”

But I don’t know if my grandkids would like stories like that. If they are anything like I was when I was a kid, they will want to know how many people I killed, or about the time I shot an Iraqi. “Well Billy,” I’ll say, “I never shot my weapon in Iraq, but I learned quite a bit.” Maybe not what they expect, but I am sure their curiosities will be piqued by my hint of a story. “Tell us what you learned, grandpa.”

I am sure their young minds won’t comprehend the actual things I learned. Things like what I learned from Lenin and Marx out there. Or how I learned that difficult times will make best friends out of the most opposite of people. How loneliness and boredom can either damn near drive a man crazy, or just make him a more intelligent, productive human being. But intellectual nuggets like these will have to wait till they are older and asking more difficult questions like, “Why does man kill man?” or, “Why don’t humans use technology to advance ideas of mutual cooperation instead of using it to exploit one another?” Yeah, that last one was mine, but it would sure be neat to hear that come out of one of my grandchildren’s mouths. A little hope for the future I guess.

So, instead of doing the right thing and trying to teach them something valuable, I will go for the gritty, war hero lesson: “I’ll tell ya what I learned. I learned you never expect it!” At this, (purely for effect) I will give that 100-yard stare so prevalent in the real veterans, who were in the shit. I’ll tell them about the only time I saw a dead person. A dead soldier. A dead soldier in a box.

To my knowledge, he was the first person to die from a roadside bomb in our battalion. I remember it was bad for a lot of reasons. First of all, of course, the loss of life. I wonder if he believed in what he died for. This is the real hero. Regardless of whether or not what we were doing over there was right — just like all the dead Iraqi soldiers and civilians — what made him and the others heroes wasn’t just about what they all did, but more about what has happened to them. About how sad and tragic it all was — sad and tragic. There seems to be something beautiful in that sadness that we all want to remember and glorify.

For a lot of us, this was the moment that made it real. I remember only thinking two things at this time: “Oh shit, I am in a war!” and “Poor bastard, never expected it.” I guess you never really expect it, but there are certain times when you should expect it more than other times. War being one of them. But it is hard when you spend most of your time reading and playing video games and making maps. “Ya never expect it.”

By this time I expect the grandkids will be finding out what was apparent to me all along. “Grandpa,” I would expect them to say, “You weren’t much of a soldier or a hero.” And I won’t be upset. I’ll just smile and nod, and say, “Nope, I guess I wasn’t cut out for that life,” and pretend to nap.

Soldier Sal served in Iraq in 2003. He is currently working and attending college in Texas.