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He has had death and violence up close serving near Basra in Iraq. Now, seven years later, he is into the existential analysis of Being
In Iraq he wondered whether he would ever make it back alive. And it got him thinking. Seriously.
“You cannot ignore the chance, that you might not make it through this thing,” Mark Matienzo, a combat veteran and now student of Heidegger’s philosophy at the University of Copenhagen recalls from his time in the war zone.
After all, Mark found himself in some ‘dark places’, as he puts it.
”I remember at one point, I felt completely mentally and physically exhausted, and I had four months left. Everything you do and everywhere you go, you’re trenched in sweat, constantly. 24 hours a day. You have headaches, you vomit, you dehydrate and you know you have four months left, but you don’t see it. It is very fascinating, actually. But I didn’t find it that fascinating, when I was there.”
Mark’s base was in conjunction with Basra’s airfield making it a prominent target for ‘indirect’ attacks – using mortars, rockets and grenades launched from a safe distance in and around Basra, making it impossible to return fire.
”It is scary because you don’t know where it hits,” he says.
”When the mortar hits, the fragments go up. So in theory if you lie down they pass above you. But even when you get hit by a small piece it can cost you an arm because they have such high speed. So you just lie there and hope for the best. The attacks don’t discriminate; it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are – it’s simply a matter of luck.”
“I knew when I started in the army I would get back on track.”
The constant bombardments mean a lack of sleep and psychological and emotional stress. According to the United States National Institute of Health, around 20 per cent of the US army Iraq war veterans develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
”If the shells are far away you cope a bit better, but if you feel they are getting close it creates a lot of angst. We sleep in tents, so you can hear it pretty well. If you have one that hits 50 meters away you can’t sleep for the next two nights,” he says.
”And the militia, they know this, they didn’t do it to kill us, they did it to mess with our mind. This also sent a lot of people home, because they were traumatized. Sometimes, talking to a psychologist or a week in Kuwait helped, but often it was too much.”
Mark’s military history goes back to his school years. When he was 15, he did a one-week internship in the army. Despite being somewhat shocked by the experience, it was clear to him that he wanted to join.
”In my family we have many who have done military service, so I had a feeling, you know, that this was something everyone was supposed to do”.
Mark had got himself kicked out of two schools and ”turned into a thug,” he says. Joining the army seemed like a change of direction.
”I knew that the many times I got in trouble I let my mum down a lot. She had a tough time with me. I knew when I started in the army I would get back on track.”
“…they had prepared an ambush for us, because they knew that we, the reinforcements, were coming”.
When he finished school at 18, he had no clear expectations on what was going to happen after he enlisted.
”I knew one thing: the army would take me in. I would be completely absorbed in the army and they would control me. And that was a nice feeling,” he says.
Fast forward to 14 May, 2007.
Mark was fighting in the ”4th reconnaissance squadron”, designed for scouting, reconnaissance, and escort missions.
”It’s a very professional unit. As a ‘scout’’ you don’t have a lot of firepower or support. You are travelling light and fast and quiet and without much margin for error. The main task is surveillance and reconnaissance.”
One platoon of a Danish battalion had got pinned down in the slums of Basra. Mark’s reconnaissance unit and an escort of British tanks is sent in to rescue them from being overrun.
”On the way in, the tanks hit a couple of roadside bombs, and they had prepared an ambush for us, because they knew that we, the reinforcements, were coming,” he recounts. “We didn’t panic, but we were not completely cool either, because this was the first of our larger engagements.”
”It was tough. I was always the bad guy, complaining, correcting, putting up restrictions.”
For one of the Danish soldiers, the help came to late, but the rest of his team were saved. Mixed feelings of pride and sombreness remain from that day.
”That night, we got one beer, the only beer of the whole tour. We got to drink one half of the beer for the man they lost, and the other half of the beer was for executing our task perfectly,” Mark says and shares credit for the saving of the rest of his comrades with the British tanks.
When Mark returned, he stayed with the military for a while, teaching his experiences to the next group of soldiers that would be deployed, and going to sergeant’s school. But becoming sergeant still didn’t give enough intellectual stimulation, and he quit after almost four years of service, with plans to study history.
But in order to do so, he first had to get his high school (gymnasium) diploma.
”It was tough. I was always the bad guy, complaining, correcting, putting up restrictions. The others were late, didn’t do their homework and didn’t shut the door quietly, and so forth. So I had to cope with that, which took a lot of effort. Only a while later, a year maybe, I relaxed more and more.”
Mark’s dedication resulted in good grades, opening new doors for him. He opted for philosophy, a ”foundational” subject. His time in the army he credits for many of the philosophical considerations he now works with in his studies.
”I wrote my bachelors thesis on Heidegger, his phenomenological analysis of death, and his Being and Time.”
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