Soldier’s ‘ghost’ story relates Iraq war experience

The night terrors started shortly after the holidays. Ryan Smithson’s engineering unit in the Army R

The night terrors started shortly after the holidays.

Ryan Smithson’s engineering unit in the Army Reserves had spent a year deployed in Iraq and the top brass wanted to deliver them home safe for the holidays. They spent a couple of weeks at Fort Bragg doing paperwork and debriefing, but none of it really sank in.

“We were so eager to get home that it sort of went in one ear and came out the other,” recalled the young veteran. “It was quick.”

An elated Smithson returned home just before Christmas. But like the holidays, his elation quickly passed.

Boredom set in. He was home among his friends and family but felt isolated: unable to talk with his wife, Heather; unable to relate to his former life.

Then one night he awoke suddenly in a panic. Fear set in.

He jumped out of bed and franticly checked all his apartment’s locks. He searched in vain for a weapon, terrified there was a malevolent force lurking somewhere in the darkness, something coming to kill him.

“I didn’t tell anyone,” he recalled. “I would quietly get out of bed and try to calm myself down.”

Several months later, his night terrors ended. Around the same time, his career as an author began.

Writing a memoir

Smithson, a graduate of Columbia High School in East Greenbush who enlisted in the military a year after the 9/11 attacks, recently published a memoir about his experiences as a reservist going off to war. The book, “Ghosts of War — The True Story of a 19-year-old G.I.” was released by HarperCollins in April and has already achieved modest acclaim from readers.

Publisher’s Weekly describes the book as a “raw and powerful memoir” about the life of a contemporary soldier. Kirkus Reviews characterizes it as a “deeply penetrating read that will compel teens to reflect on their own thoughts about duty, patriotism and sacrifice.”

But perhaps the most resounding endorsement of Smithson’s work comes through its appeal to its target audience: young adults. Last month, Glenbard South High School in the suburbs of Chicago adopted his book as part of their sophomore class curriculum.

Locally, the book has been a hit with students at Smithson’s former high school. Since “Ghosts of War” was published, he’s made several trips to the school and spoken before enraptured audiences who are already familiar with the book.

“It’s an extraordinary memoir not only about the war but also about coming back to the States and dealing with its memories as well,” said Fred Rudofsky, an English teacher at Columbia who first encouraged Smithson to write.

Aged by experience

Smithson rests back in a folding chair at a Barnes and Noble book signing in Colonie Center. He’s flanked by a pile of books bearing a picture of a machine-gun clutching soldier that somewhat bears his likeness: Same features, same piercing blue eyes, same upright posture.

In person, however, the slender 23-year-old writer looks far younger than his age — maybe too young to buy cigarettes or lottery tickets. He certainly doesn’t look like someone who spent the better part of a year in a combat zone.

Yet he speaks calmly, suggesting he’s comfortable in front of an audience. He speaks with the assurance of someone far older.

“I never thought I’d be a writer growing up,” he recalls. “I actually didn’t even like English.”

He admits his life in East Greenbush was extraordinarily normal, maybe even a bit mundane. He was on the wrestling team and worked part-time as a dishwasher at Denny’s. He had a steady girlfriend and liked to goof off at school.

But when the World Trade Center collapsed, Smithson found his “typical and predictable” world jarred. Like many of his peers, he pledged to join the military.

“I wanted to do something,” he said. “I wanted to serve in some way.”

Military path

He joined the reserves thinking he could earn money for college and possibly learn a life skill. He completed basic training and became a heavy machine operator.

By the time he completed his training, the United States was in a war involving an increasing number of guardsmen and reservists. In September 2004, Smithson was assigned to a unit in West Virginia and mobilized for deployment.

Three months later, he boarded a transport bound for Iraq. He was 19 years old and had only left the country once before, during a family cruise in the Caribbean.

Smithson’s unit was based in Camp Anaconda, but traveled throughout the war-torn country. He admits his work in country was fairly mundane: operating bulldozers and excavators or manning a dump truck.

“It wasn’t immediately rewarding,” he said.

This didn’t mean his missions weren’t difficult or dangerous. Long hours in full combat gear amid 130-degree temperatures were tough enough even without the omnipresent threat of mortar attacks or roadside bombs.

Still, he found value in the tasks his unit completed. Filling deep roadside craters prevented them from shielding deadly bombs or lining the outside of a base with gravel thwarted insurgents from planting mines.

“Not glamorous stuff, yet it felt important,” he said.

And like scores of other soldiers in Iraq, Smithson’s unit became a moving target. At times, he watched death nip at their heels, the flash of roadside explosions and the carnage they left.

“An orange bubble rises from the ground,” he wrote in his book. “It is a hundred yards away and growing bigger, higher, brighter. The sound catches up to it. A popping roar like a thousand synchronized fireworks. I feel the percussion blast in my head, in my chest, in my legs. The bottom of the orange bubble caves in on itself as the explosion turns into a black mushroom cloud. I see body parts flying through the air. Dismembered people.”

The visceral experience of Iraq — all of its poverty and death — left Smithson numb. So like many other troops, he tried to tune it out.

“You kind of shut off emotionally, or you try to anyway,” he said. “You get used to it, because you can’t get worried about every little thing that blows up.”

Coming Home

Smithson found returning to the United States after a year deployed even more culturally jarring than his arrival in Iraq. Walking freely through the streets seemed surreal after his experience in a combat zone.

“It’s like you’re seeing the country for the first time,” he said. “It’s like a dream for the first few days.”

Not wanting to stay idle, he enrolled at Hudson Valley Community College in 2006, just a few months after he returned from combat. He quickly found himself coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which seemed to abate somewhat as he acclimated back to life.

Around the same time, he began jotting down his experiences at war, an exercise that proved therapeutic. His writing started as a second-semester portfolio project in an English composition class but quickly grew into something much larger.

His essay was first noticed by Maria Pollack, an assistant professor of English at the college, who then urged him share it with the class. Both were left speechless by his work.

“I knew right away he had to do more,” she said. “From the beginning, I knew he had the talent and enough stories to write the book.”

Pollack first helped her student submit his essay to Webzine and then to a literary agent. At the same time, he wrote more.

Publishing houses initially passed over his manuscript, citing a market flooded with Iraq veteran memoirs. However, when HarperCollins received his manuscript, they saw in it a market among young adults and signed him to a book deal.

Several months later, Rudofsky bumped into his former pupil at a B.B. King concert in Albany. The student he hadn’t seen since he graduated in 2003 was excitedly talking about his book deal.

Time passed and Rudofsky forgot about the claim. That was until Smithson showed up at his classroom one day.

“He said, ‘Hey, I’m here to give you an advance copy of my book,’ ” he said. “I was stunned.”

Stunned to see Smithson again, he explained, but not stunned his former student had written a book. The teacher still keeps a copy of an essay Smithson wrote in his class during his senior year.

“Even then, he had such a high quality of writing,” he said. “You learned a lot about him from his writing.”

Since finishing the book, Smithson’s life has rapidly evolved. He earned his associate degree and is now working on his bachelor’s at Empire State College.

He bought a house in the High Bridge area of Rotterdam with Heather, the high school sweetheart he married just two weeks before he was deployed.

In between book signings, he works at the American Red Cross, helping to set up blood drives across the Capital Region. And when he’s not at work or school, he’s planning his next book.

“We’ll see,” he said. “At least now, I’ve got my foot in the door.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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