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(DV) Jacobs: Interview With Sholom Keller







Interview With Sholom Keller, 24-Year-Old Veteran
of Iraq and Afghanistan 

by Sarah Ruth Jacobs
October 11, 2006

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For 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 looping soundtrack.  

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 regrets?  
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 it?  
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 unit changed?  
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 civilians? 

SK: 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 disrupted.  
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, LEFTRIGHTLEFTRIGHTLEFTRIGHTKILL!!  

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.