Sholom Keller, the boundaries between sleep and waking or past and present
are strained at best. His sleeping pattern is fitful -- he might doze
lightly for twenty minutes, then snap awake, eyes wide and painfully
alert, testing his surroundings. In nightmares the children he saw on tour
in Iraq reappear, an endlessly shuffling deck of small faces, angry or
inquisitive. Their call to the soldiers, "meesta, meesta!" supplies a
Sholom grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in
the Chabad Jewish community. Enlisting in the military was his way of
getting out. Going into Afghanistan and then into Iraq, Sholom was as
patriotic as any of the recruits. However, after a few months in Iraq, his
mind started to shift, eventually doing a 180-degree turn. Now Sholom, a
homeless veteran, identifies as queer and anarchist.
This interview was conducted using a digital
recorder between the hours of 12 and 2 am on July 21, 2006. Sholom and I
have edited it for length and content.
Sarah Ruth Jacobs: Do you have any
Sholom Keller: No regrets. No regrets. You can't be going through
life looking back over your shoulder. I'm a much better person for what
I've seen and what I've done, even though it was mad [messed] up and got
me all [messed up] in the head, but it gave me a much better perspective
than if I had have stayed in Crown Heights in the Chabad community.
SRJ: When you think back on your time in the army what experiences
stick out for you?
SK: Definitely the year I spent in Iraq, out of the whole army
experience. I changed so much. In February 2003, I gave an interview to
some hick newspaper somewhere down in Kentucky where I said some mad
stupid [stuff], something like it's about time we went back and finished
the job we started ten years ago, something to that effect. And over the
next year I saw so much and I taught myself so much, I learned so much
about myself and others . . . I realized that the whole war thing is a
load of crock . . . not just the war thing. I was brainwashed with the
whole wave the flag, hail the fuehrer, and all that other
ubernationalistic bull. And a year later I realized that there's a whole
other side to it and I also came back out to myself.
SRJ: What do you think shifted? When
did you start feeling different?
SK: About three or four months in, I experienced a shift of
attitude. And I can blame it in part on this one book I read out there
called Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do on the absurdity of
consensual crimes in a free society. It's a libertarian tract, and it
changed my attitude towards drug laws, and laws against prostitution, and
other victimless crimes. And along with that, with the help of my
then-girlfriend S, I came back out of the closet to myself. And then there
was this dude I was talking to via e-mail who sent me these care packages
with reading material, because I was craving intellectual stimulation. And
he pointed out a lot of stuff to me in those e-mails. It wasn't a one-day
phenomenon where I woke up and said "this world is bull."
SRJ: Was there anything happening locally [in Iraq] that started
SK: There was the people I was talking to on the base, and the
people I would see on convoy, it was lying on the side of the road during
a mortar attack. I could feel day by day how I was constantly changing,
and my opinions were forming. That was when I became Sholom, the guy who
babbles a [whole lot].
SRJ: Did you feel like the general consensus on the war among your
SK: For the most part, the attitude of the soldiers wasn't for war
or against war, the attitude was I just want to go home, drink a beer, and
get laid. Individually, people had a wide range of opinions.
SRJ: Talk about how you left the army.
SK: I should have just straight up, while I was in Iraq and I
realized the war was bull, I should have just put down my gun and said
[screw] this I ain't fighting this no more. But, I didn't. I got back in
February 2004. And by the time we got back from Iraq pretty much everyone
in the whole division knew I didn't care anymore. That I was just going to
avoid duty as much as possible, try to keep my nose clean until I got my
discharge, because my four years in the army was up, and they tried to get
me to reenlist, and I said, hell no I ain't reenlisting, I want to go back
to the civilian world. That'll be my rank from now on, PFC, Private
Fucking Civilian. Where you stationed? Fort Fucking Living Room. Or maybe
I'll go on a ship -- the U.S.S. Neversail. (laughter)
SRJ: What was your darkest time when you were over there?
SK: It wasn't a particular day. It was more a day to day, waking up
every morning or afternoon or evening depending on what shift you're
pulling and what your sleep schedule's like, but like, you wake up like
damn! another day of this, you know, bored off you’re ass, and stressed as
all hell, and then the shit comes down, mortar rounds be raining down on
your head. Man, there's [things] I don't even tell most of the time. I
really don't share this with people. But like, day to day routine, it
sucks. I mean, I was to the point that I was going through four and a half
packs of cigarettes a day, and a [great deal] of coffee too, I was just
trying to keep myself drugged so I don't, you know, go crazy, I was trying
to cope with it, really.
SRJ: Was there ever much interaction with your unit and Iraqi
Yeah, there was plenty, there were civilians we would meet when we were
out on patrol or convoy, and we always had civilians coming on post to
sell all different kinds of stuff, souvenirs, cigarettes, big blocks of
ice, soda and there were restaurants set up on post where you could get
kabobs, whole roasted chicken, burgers, pizza.
SRJ: You've said before that your mental and physical state is
SK: Big time. I'm actually kind of afraid to fall asleep, because
when I sleep is when the nightmares be coming, and also I'm so conditioned
to fight off sleep, like you know, stay awake, keep my eyes pried open,
that even now when I be super tired and want to lay down and let sleep
take me over, it won't and I'll be tired as hell and still fighting off
sleep 'cause I'm conditioned to do that. Like I go to sleep at 9 pm and
don't fall asleep until like 4 o'clock in the morning, so of course I
don't wake up in time to like go to work, so I can't hold down a regular
job, and I can't do schooling either cause that requires keeping a class
schedule, and I can't do that.
SRJ: How does that make you feel?
SK: Makes me feel like people who say "You should go to school and
use the GI bill or you should just go out and get a job, or try to blame
me for the way I am now -- homeless, jobless, schoolless -- don't know
what they're talking about.
SRJ: What is your mental state?
SK: Everywhere I go I'm always scanning rooftops and looking around
corners, cause you know, I don't know what be coming at me. I'll be riding
in a car with someone, always be looking out in the road for any pieces of
trash cause I'm worried there might be an IED [Improvised Explosive
Device]. I'm brainwashed with the whole killer thing so like I'll always
be seeing people, be seeing different situations, different places and
I'll be thinking of how to set up a defensive position, how to aim at this
body part or another, how to chuck a hand grenade to achieve maximum
casualties, stuff like that. Which is [messed] up because I don't want to
kill. I've been brainwashed into this killer mentality -- basic training,
you know, they have us singing cadences about killing little kids in the
playground and mommies in the supermarket and [stuff] like that, you know,
Sarah Ruth Jacobs is
a Cornell graduate (magna cum laude, Film and English) who works as the
Assistant Graduate Poetry Coordinator at the New School. Her writing has
received awards from The Cornell Council for the Arts, The New York
Times, and Poets & Writers. She has a background in nonfiction book
research as well as photography.