Even uttered in his father’s voice, the word hit Johnathan Duncan like a brick wall on a brisk October day in 2005.
The Kansas National Guard’s 161st Field Artillery, Duncan’s unit, had been called into service in Iraq.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m going to die,’” he said.
He would have to make good on his promise made as a 17-year-old looking to pay for college, when the second Iraq war was supposed to be a quick sequel to Operation Desert Storm.
“A lot of people said, ‘You could have gone to Canada,’” he said. “But I said I was going to do something, and just because I don’t agree with it, doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it.”
Service in Iraq
A year and a half later, Spc. Duncan rode in the back of a Humvee, manning an M240 machine gun. His job was to patrol near Convoy Support Center Scania, about 45 miles south of Baghdad.
“We would travel up and down the MSR (Major Supply Route), which is a four-lane highway, looking for IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” he said. “It was spotlighting and drinking all the Monster (energy drink) I could get my hands on so I wouldn’t die.”
Duncan said death had never left his mind, but at that point he had accepted the fact that he would die. “I was cool with that.”
It was a long way from taking business classes at Kansas University or growing up in Newton as a self-described “class clown.”
Militants fired Katyusha rockets at the Convoy Support Center. Duncan’s convoy of three Humvees rushed to respond, driving into a “textbook” ambush.
A chain of three IEDs exploded. Molten copper cut through the vehicle’s armor “like butter.”
The attack sent seven soldiers home from tour, one person missing a jaw, another a foot.
And it killed Duncan’s friend, Staff Sgt. David Berry, who was driving the Humvee in front of Duncan.
“After it was over I recounted all of their names, what happened to them and just said, ‘Why? Why did this have to happen? Why are we here?’”
Six years later, Duncan sits a world away in a Lawrence coffee shop. He’s wearing a Kansas City Monarchs baseball cap, a wool sweater and Adidas sneakers.
He bears no visible marks, but his easy-going smile vanishes when he recalls the event. He stops, wipes his glasses, then continues.
It’s a scar; it’s always going to be there,” he says. “That should have been my truck.”
Duncan said he returned to Kansas from his tour of duty, lacking any sense of purpose or a feeling of belonging. He never agreed with the war and the disillusionment set in.
“People would thank me for protecting their freedom,” he said. “I didn’t protect anybody’s freedom. The only thing I was looking out for was the person on my right and the person on my left so I didn’t die.”
He would get panic attacks in public. At bars he would often almost end up in fights. Bouts of paranoia and anxiety haunted him. He said he had trouble adjusting to a civilian world he could no longer relate to.
”It was weird to press play on your life again when you thought it was over,” he said.
Duncan eventually sought psychological treatment as well as the company of veterans through the College Veterans Association and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The other combat veterans got it. They hated war like he did, the ugliness of it, the senselessness, he explained.
They drank together, talked together and shared their burdens. He recalled the night he took a loaded .45 caliber handgun away from another veteran suffering from a flashback.
“He told me, ‘I wouldn’t be alive today if it hadn’t been for you and the CVA.’ That resonated with me, and from that point on I was like, ‘I need to do this. Who else is going to do this?’”
Duncan now tries to help other veterans by being involved in veterans’ issues or through service activities. If he can help others, he said, he can make good on the life he never thought he would have.
Today Duncan, 27, works as a sales manager at Lawrence Sign Up. He graduated from KU with an English degree. He will take over as junior vice commander at the Lawrence VFW Post 852 in July.
He will spend a quiet Memorial Day at the VFW hall. He doesn’t begrudge anyone for going to the lake or enjoying the day off. He said he doesn’t expect any thanks for his service. But he does have one wish he wanted to pass on.
“What people don’t think about is the cost of war,” he said. “You have all of these war veterans who have just seen the most horrible things you can imagine. If you took some time to think about the weight that people who have served carry and continue to carry, that would be good enough for me. They carry it silently. And they carry it with dignity.”