Editor’s Note: In the November issue of TBA, we ran a story titled “Remembering All Vets this Veteran’s Day,” about young veterans in America. Reporter Erin Gray talked to Stacey Barker, a Pocatello veteran of the Iraq war. While we didn’t have room in the paper for the whole interview, we wanted to share it with you on this Veteran’s Day.
by Erin Gray
Stacey Barker could be Thor’s body double. He’s a powerful man who says little and takes care of business. Upon meeting him during a hurling practice at Bartz field during the summer of 2011 I took notice. Dark glasses, Star Wars tattoos, thickly muscled calves, and a thick manly beard make Stacey a formidable countenance. He didn’t say anything to anyone for almost a month, but when he finally did he kept it short and sweet.
After a few months and a few beers he started to open up. He’s a veteran of the most recent ongoing war with Iraq and an emerging local artist. Despite my initial impression, Stacey Barker is a kind and generous man who makes few assumptions and demonstrates an almost boundless capacity for generosity, friendship, and grit.
When Kit Taylor, Pocatello’s Hurling Coach, broke Stacey’s rib during a casual practice, Stacey didn’t even lose his feet. After one soft grunt, he took a brief knee, stood on his own, deflected a torrent of sympathy and drove himself to the emergency room after saying, “It’s alright. It doesn’t even really hurt.” Rumor has it that Stacey eschewed pain killers, so if you get the chance to meet him you better step lightly. Stacey Barker is a man among boys. Check out his interview if you don’t believe me.
Erin Gray: Thanks for coming Stacy Barker. The whole point of talking to you is that you are a young veteran
and it’s not easy to find a young veteran’s voice. So, what war did you serve in?
Stacey Barker: The Iraq Conflict or Operation Iraqui Freedom, I guess.
EG: What did you do while you were serving?
SB: I served in the National Guard, basically, the army.
EG: When were you deployed?
SB: 2004. I was 22 years old. While I was over there, I sweeped a lot of floors, mopped a few as well. We watched a few radio towers, went on some convoys, guarded military personal working on the base. They’d have Iraqi’s come and work on the base and we’d watch them work, make sure they didn’t do anything. The first time, right when I got there actually, I was on the gate searching people for weapons and searching cars for bombs and shit.
EG: Oh. You actually had to search cars for bombs?
SB: It was fucking freaky. That was the main gate coming into the base. It was the first day I was there. I was like, what the hell.
EG: (a brief silence) How do you search a car for bombs?
SB: Basically, you look for anything that might be out of the ordinary. Stick a mirror under the car and look for fresh paint or wires poking out.
EG: Holy crap, Stacy. Did you ever find a bomb?
SB: No…thank God. It was terrifying. The freaky part…I remember the first time when we actually went to Iraq, we had to drive to our base, and it was a three day drive in these Humvees with no armor. That was fucking scary. We were just driving up the road next to all these cars and trucks that have been blown up. There’s debris everywhere. They weren’t dropping bombs on us, but they set off IEDs (improvised explosive devices) all the time. They’re really just homemade bombs set in the middle of the road. There are several ways to set them off. The bombers use their cell phones as remote
detonation devices. They’ll be sitting there out of sight waiting to press the button.
EG: And you were doing this without any body armor?
SB: Well, I had body armor, but the Humvee didn’t have any armor. A bomb could have destroyed the entire car. I bet you’ve seen footage of cars blown up on the side of the road. They played that footage a lot for awhile.
EG: What was the scariest moment?
SB: (A long pause) Well, they used to shoot rockets at our base all the time.
SB: Yeah. They had their own homemade weapons to shoot them off. They’d shoot these rockets at us. I think they knew where we lived, because the rockets would always come down in the right place, right where we lived. I remember the first day two guys were talking about what the rockets sounded like. He said, “If you hear a whistle, hit the ground. That means they’re coming at you.” Then I hear this whistle and I said, “What does that mean?” and he said, “Hit the ground.” And that was normal. That was constant every day. We were in Kirkuk, Iraq. It’s a big air base. It’s just north of Baghdad, close to the Iranian border. I was there for the year and in the Guard for six years, long enough. They’re paying for 70% of my education as long as I’m passing my classes. I wouldn’t go back to Iraq. I like living. Goingback would be like rolling the dice. You don’t know what can happen. There are people dying all the time. You just never know what’s going to happen. I never saw people die in person, but I was in the command center, so I saw the reports and pictures and everything.
EG: They didn’t show very many dead American soldiers on the news.
SB: It was shocking at first, but you get numb to it after long enough.
EG: Stacy, I have to ask you why did you get into the military.
SB: Good question. I was only 19 when I started looking for a job and I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. My grandpa and my dad had both been in the military, so I wanted to live up to the family name. They expected me to be a man, so I figured what the hell I’ll give it a shot.
EG: What would you say to a 21 year old man going into the military today?
SB: l think it’s a good experience. Hell, I think it helped me appreciate life. It’s not for everybody, but I think it gives you discipline. There are some little kids out there that want everything handed to them on a platter and will never work a day in their whole life. While I was there and people were dying I thought about everything that I would want to do if I survived. I thought about all the things that I hadn’t done.
EG: What did you do differently when you made it back?
SB: I talked to a couple of people that were really good friends with me before I went to war and they all say I’m completely different. I guess I just . . . I don’t know what to say. I guess I just appreciate things more.
EG: You’re an artist as well a veteran. What kind of art do you like to make?
SB: Right now. I don’t know.
EG: I guess, I didn’t want to paint you solely as a soldier. If art is something that’s in your soul I just wanted to give you a chance to talk about it.
SB: I just did this big still life for my painting class. Picasso is a big inspiration. I’m definitely interested in pulling aspects, perspectives, and angles out of his work into mine. The colors I use are usually representational of the emotion that I want to convey, but I want to leave the images abstract at the same time. Coffee and beer both influence my art. I guess I like to have the simple pleasures. (Here he smiles big enough to hear it in his voice and suddenly lets out a big warm laugh).
EG: You’re so down to earth, Stacey.
SB: I like my vices. (We both laugh).
EG: What’s your favorite vice?
SB: Music. I used to love just punk and metal, but now I listen to almost anything. I’ve been listening to a lot of country and blue grass. A lot of people think I’m some big Star Wars nerd. I’ve got a nice tie-fighter tattoo. It was one of my favorite movies as a kid. So sometimes I just watch it and more or less it just reminds me of a simpler time. I’m not sure if that’s a vice or not, but whatever works. When you’re a kid you don’t care about anything, you can just live in a fantasy world.
EG: I definitely pretended to fight Darth Vader in my backyard as a kid.
SB: Star Wars reminds me of childhood innocence. It reminds me of when I didn’t have to worry about my health or a job, or car insurance. My family always helped me out. They’ve always been behind me. I want to thank them. They kind of persuaded me to go into the military and then they were terrified when I was actually there. They definitely supported my decision to never go back. This unit I was in just went back to Iraq a year ago. I think they just returned. A couple people got hurt. The brigade is a big entity. You’re bound to have someone die at some point.
EG: I’m so sorry. So, is there one story that defines your experience in Iraq.
SB: I was really defiant. The whole “Army of One” campaign made everyone feel like they needed to stand out, so I tended to not follow the rules. I was never supposed to wear a hat inside, but when we were getting shelled by rockets I would keep my helmet on at all times; inside or out. I remember one time this meathead was screaming at me to take my helmet off and my Kevlar off and I said, “You better take it off for me then, because I’m not going to.” He outranked me by two ranks, but I didn’t take it off. There are a lot of stories like that. We had this little bunker that we were supposed to hide
in if the rockets started dropping. They’d come on the intercom and tell you when it was safe to come out. I remember towards the end, there were all these new guys hiding in there and they asked if it was ok to come out. I looked at him and I said, “You can come out whenever you want, we don’t even go in there anymore. If you’re alive it means you’re ok.” These rockets were coming down all the time. I remember we had these little trailers called chews and one guy was sitting in there watching a movie on his laptop and a piece of shrapnel came down through the roof, through the laptop and into his leg. We were getting ready for bed and the next thing you know people were screaming for the medic.
EG: You’re a brave man. Thank you for serving our country.
SB: Sure. Ok. Here’s a good one. The Humvees didn’t have a key. It was more like a bike lock almost.
So if someone hops in and trys to drive it the vehicle will only go in a circle. But I found this Humvee and the guy had left his wheel straight, so I just got in and drove it for a few miles in a straight line. Then I just got out and walked away. I never told him about it. The Kirkuk Airbase was at least 15 miles long. It was funny to watch him scratch his head and try to figure out what the hell was going on. We had to find ways to relieve the stress. This guy used to always say that if I didn’t clean out my Humvee, that he was going to send me home. So, I found a big garbage can and dumped it in. I filled the truck full of trash and then I walked up to him and I said, “Are you going to send me home or what?”
EG: Thank you so much Stacey. Those were some amazing stories.
After talking with Stacey, I realized that I’m lucky to count him as a friend. His calm amongst chaos is laudable, but his fearless gaze when faced with an uncertain death is downright heroic. This man lives among you so humbly that you may not have even noticed, until now. If you see him, buy him a coffee or a beer; thank him for protecting our sleepy little railroad town, and then ask him a question. He’s sure to know the answer.