First Person / Having gone to war, I can’t enjoy a ball game anymore

Iraq follows me even into PNC Park

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Now that I’m a veteran of combat operations, a Major League Baseball game isn’t as enjoyable as it used to be.

As I sit here, top of the 3rd, I had the epiphany that it isn’t the muffled thump of fireworks launching after home runs or the chopping sounds of helicopters flying in and out of Allegheny General Hospital. It’s the actual crowd of people. It’s the drunks. I hate them, or should I say I hate how they make me feel. They make me more anxious and irate than an hour of P.O.O.s (Point of Origin sounds) of the fireworks launches and the bright flashes of light split seconds before the sounds of explosions.

It’s the kid in the throwback Pirates jersey who’s been up to the concession stand three times for a large Miller light because it is such a novelty for him to drink in public. It is the 40-year-old fool who can barely stand screaming non-printable comments at the pitcher. It is the 50-something men swaying and needlessly high-fiving after a good play. And it is probably 10,000 to 15,000 others who are not in full control of themselves.

Why? Lack of control of the variables.

When I was in an active AO (Area of Operations) in Iraq, there’s wasn’t a moment when security wasn’t the primary concern. At FOB (Forward Operating Base) Hit along the ancient, biblical Euphrates River in April 2005, we received incoming fire 27 out of 30 days, multiple times a day.

Marines and corpsmen were wounded, and killed, on our FOB. Every night brought the threat of insurgents overrunning the broken and gaping perimeter wire. It was an ever-present worry: How do you effectively protect your guys, not to mention yourself?

Now we come to this Pirates game on a hot, humid night in Pittsburgh. How do I effectively protect my wife and three kids in the midst of all this madness? The incalculable threats, real or perceived, haunt my every thought.

I’m uneasy. Uneasy without my weapons, more so without being accompanied by my fierce and beloved Marines.

I remember working a Pirates game in old Three Rivers Stadium in 1999 when I was a paramedic. I and another medic, Jay, sat in abandoned seats during the end-of-game fireworks.

We marveled at the initial pop and then thump of the launches. We even had some paper shrapnel fall on us. I thought, what could be better than getting paid to experience this?

That moment has stuck with me for a long time.

First, it was just a great work-related memory while performing a draining and often morbid job for the city of Pittsburgh.

Then came 9/​11, enlistment in the Navy Reserves as a corpsman and deployment with a Marine Corps rifle company that bore witness to 48 men killed in action and nearly 200 wounded, including two humbling experiences for myself.

Now, this night at PNC Park watching America’s pastime symbolizes a great change in me. I can no longer sit and enjoy such things because there will forever be a piece of me in Iraq. My fellow vets from Iraq and other conflicts no doubt find themselves captured by similar thought patterns, an endless loop of despair and guilt.

So, don’t be offended when we are distant or look at you like the irritant you may or may not be. My doctor gets cross with me when I say that I am damaged, but it is true. And so many of us for so many hundreds and thousands of years have come home wounded in this way.

For now, though, I’ll just watch the game uninterested while I try to work out every contingency in my mind to make sure my family gets out of here safely. I will try to look as normal as the loud drunk three seats down and two over.

James Sabo served in Iraq from April to October 2005. He sustained a concussion and shrapnel wounds from a mortar round that landed about 10 feet from him and, a month later, a second concussion when a rocket-propelled grenade hit a schoolhouse wall that he was standing behind. He is now on VA disability and living in Green Tree.

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