Matt Sherman was in a hurry to get to Baghdad before the war ended, so he crammed the contents of his entire apartment in Rumson, N.J., into a climate-controlled storage shed.
It was 2003 and he had just quit his job with a big law firm for a position working for the American governing authority in Iraq.
Thirteen years later, almost all of that time spent working for the U.S. military and the State Department in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sherman, 44, was back at the shed. “This is my worst nightmare,” he said as he yanked open the door earlier this month. A dead bird stuck to the metal grate just over his head.
Above: Matt Sherman, center, and Gen. John Campbell leave a briefing last month in Afghanistan. Sherman, a civilian, worked for the U.S. military and the State Department in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Andrew Quilty for The Washington Post).
It was an uncertain end for a civilian who had served in the two war zones longer than virtually any other American. There was no big military celebration and no family waiting for him when he landed two days earlier with his four-star military boss at Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington. Still jet-lagged, Sherman had only the storage shed and questions: Where would he live? What kind of work would he do? How would he build a life that felt as meaningful as his years at war?
Everything felt strange. Sherman stared up at the hastily packed boxes stacked on top of one another — a teetering time capsule from a life abandoned.
“What’s in there, I have no idea,” he said.
The longest stretch of war in U.S. history has left the White House and presidential hopefuls struggling to satisfy an electorate that is both alarmed by the prospect of another terrorist attack and exhausted at the thought of any more fighting. And it has left thousands of Americans battling to restart interrupted lives.
Sherman had expected to be gone for only six months, the length of his first Iraq contract, so he had saved everything. There were 13-year-old bottles of salad dressing, 13-year-old cans of beans and a half-empty bottle of DayQuil that has crystallized into a brilliant orange. There were notebooks from his law firm filled with his neat script. At the top of one page he had written “Subcoordination Agreement” and on the next page he had been trying to teach himself Arabic, scribbling “Nam — yes, Lam — no” and “as-salaamu-lay-kum.”
There were suits and monogrammed shirts — still on the hangers — stuffed into boxes with the stereo from his apartment and old stationery from his law office desk. “It was a period in my life that I was making money and buying stuff I didn’t need and taking on debt,” he said. “I wasn’t happy.”
There were garbage bags of dress shoes and a talking George W. Bush doll — a gag gift from his mother, who died last year when Sherman was in Afghanistan.
Sherman tore into a box full of old copies of the Economist, New Republic and Foreign Affairs magazines. Before he left, he had been trying to read as much as he could on foreign policy, using all of his vacation time to work as a U.N. election observer in such places as Kosovo, Macedonia and Moldova.
“The Iraq thing was a way of getting rid of all this stuff and focusing on something else,” he said. “I wanted to do international affairs, and Iraq was the big thing at that time.”
He dug deeper, pulling out Christmas presents from 2002. There was an unopened shower radio and a bottle of wine, still in its wrapping paper, from “Michelle.” “I have no idea who this is,” he said.
Sherman and a couple of young men, hired to help him, separated his 2003 life into three piles: “trash,” “donate” and “keep.”
“You live around here?” one of the young men asked.
Sherman told him that he had spent most of the past 13 years in Iraq and more recently had been in Afghanistan.
“I just finished two days ago,” he said.
“That must have been just insane,” the young man replied. “Was it crazy hot over there?”
“It’s fine this time of year, because it’s winter,” Sherman said.
“They have winter in the desert?” the young man asked.
“Actually I was in Kabul, which is in the mountains,” Sherman said.
The young man asked the questions that people always ask: Had anyone ever shot at him? Had he seen anyone killed? Sherman told him that there had been gunshots and roadside bomb attacks. A friend who had been standing next to him got shot.
The young man grabbed an Economist from 2002 that was sitting in a box atop the trash pile and held it up for Sherman. On the cover, Marines crouched for safety behind a mud wall.
“Did you ever seen anything like this?” he asked.
[source:- The Washington Post]