Iraq and Afghanistan through the eyes of soldiers

“We left as soldiers, we came back as brothers.” These are the words that are etched into Kris Kraus’s skin and his memory forever.

Kris Pearson Kraus is 27, he’s a senior history major, has two full sleeves and looks like he should fight UFC heavyweight matches.

His teachers, including history professor Pam Vaughn Knaus, describes him as quiet and thoughtful. History is the subject that allowed him to study war and conflict academically, rather than just in practice.

He wears a silver memorial bracelet most days, but unless you read the engraving, you would probably never know what it means to him — you’d never know that he spent three years in Iraq working and living one of the most dangerous jobs the military has to offer.

Kris Kraus joined the infantry right out of high school. A native of North Carolina, he didn’t entertain any other options for his career.

“Seven is about the earliest age I can think that I wanted to do it,” Kris said.

He’d always been attracted to a rugged lifestyle. He thought that maybe one day he could become a cop.

Aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins pled and bribed Kris to stay out of the war. According to Kris, he had up about $12,000 in bribes at one point.

“I might have been offered a ride to Mexico once or twice,” Kris said.

In the end, his own zeal to fight for his country won over the appeal of money or American comfort. Kris deployed in 2006 to Mosul, Iraq. On an average day, he wore 80 pounds of gear in 140-degree heat.

“The wind felt like you opened an oven. It just washed over everything,” Kris said. “There’s nothing kind about (the desert).”

At any one time, Kris was laden with body armor, kneepads, ammo, a rifle, maybe a shotgun or a grenade launcher, a radio and a med pack. Kris compared his life to living in the desert from Star Wars — there were desert people, huts and occasional potshots coming from the canyons.

“It was like a camping trip with your best buds, but (someone) might try to kill you later,” Kris said. “At training, they said 20 percent will love you, 20 percent will hate you and 80 percent don’t care. That’s army math for you.”

Kris loved his job. Even now, he’d return if given the chance.

Life was dangerous. Life was also good, despite the rough days. Sometimes Kris would have the comforts of coffee shops and movie theaters, other nights he slept in a bombed out building. There were days when he took three showers and times he didn’t shower for three weeks.

“The rough living attracted me. I had fun,” Kris said.

Despite enjoying the rough life of being a soldier, the bad days, while few, still stick with him.

“I remember the first time I got shot at. I was 19. I’d been in the army for a year and a half and I’d never been shot at before. I’d never actually had my life on the line,” Kris said.

His first voyage into combat earned him the Combat Infantryman Badge, awarded to those who’d come face to face with the enemy. The badge is now tattooed on his leg, emblazoned with the words “We left as soldiers, we came back as brothers.”

But not every brother came back.

One day still stands out as the worst Kris can remember. On a hot day, a hundred pound IED that had been buried deep in the ground for several weeks blew up under his convoy. In seconds, five men were hit by the blast.

“No other memory is that clear. The smell, the sight, the touch. One eighth of my family killed instantly in front of my eyes,” Kris said. “No span of time can ever put that memory away.”

The silver bracelet that he often wears is his testament to their memory. It is a sobering reminder that war can be hell.

“What I’ll remember most was loading the coffins on the C130,” Kris said.

According to Kris, he can only remember maybe seven bad days in the army.

“I had more best days in the army than anything else. The days you see the sun rise and the sun set and you’ve been on the wire the whole time, that’s the best description of a good day,” Kris said.

The memories that remain are a mixture of good and bad. There are days when Kris turns to the men he works with, other veterans. The days that non-soldiers cannot fully understand are the days when they can reach out to each other.

Kris found that camaraderie with Dave Newman, another veteran of the same conflict. While their stories are different, they are inevitably linked to one another.

Dave, now a mechanical engineering major, served twice in Afghanistan in a completely opposite position from Kris. As a crew chief, gunner and mechanic for Blackhawk helicopters, it was Dave’s job to drop supplies and men into different areas of Afghanistan.

Much of what Dave did on a daily basis was what he called “heart and mind stuff.” He dropped food in villages, transported injured soldiers and locals alike, sometimes he even delivered toys or school supplies to children.

“The days when we brought food, bullets, or did medevac I could see the impact I was making,” Dave said.

Dave’s work focused on the people. He never fired his weapon while serving.

“I had one opportunity (to fire) and I chose not to,” Dave said. Shooting required certainty and an armed target, “That’s not what we were there to do.”

Being in the air didn’t spare Dave from the hard days.

Dave remembers days when he would pull fallen heroes from the ground and his team would not have the right number of body bags. He remembers trying to save a 16-year-old Afghani girl who’d been caught in a blast. Sometimes he worried that the men he trained would not have the skills to survive.

There were days when he saved men from dying. There were days when he pulled good friends from the field and handed out powdered milk and crackers to people who had nothing to eat.

Like Kris, Dave inked his memories on skin. His tattoo, located on his ribs, is the same design stenciled onto the Blackhawk engine compartments for his unit. The insignia is remnant of the logo originally painted on Huey helicopters from Vietnam. It is his daily reminder of who he will always be.

Serving in the military is something that sticks with you. It teaches you more than the classroom can.

“When I talk to him, I learn,” Vaughn Knaus said. “His presence, both as a veteran and non-traditional student, adds many positive dimensions to (the class).”

There are stories behind the eyes of both Kris and Dave that are untold. They have a different sort of determination and a rich history of brotherhood that comes with both the good and the bad.

“The same thing that drives a firefighter into a burning building, drives a soldier into combat,” Kris said. “It’s nothing we can try to relive. No matter how much you love it or hate it, it is your life. It affects everything.”

Collegian Senior Reporter Mariah Wenzel can be reached at news@collegian.com.