No Man's War_FINALCurrahee

 Three months before my disoriented search for my other green Croc in the middle of the night, my front door has another reason to open in the wee hours. Each time Jack and I plan the good-bye scenario for a deployment, we think we’ve come up with a magical way to make the process of good-bye anything less than brutal and horrific. Even if we keep the brutal and horrific under the guise of a scripted scene, with firm hugs and confident words, the wailing agony is right under the surface. Every single time. This time he needs to be at the brigade headquarters in the middle of the night to manifest and draw his weapon, so he arranges for someone to pick him up from the house, sparing me a drive in the middle of the night. He has considered driving his Jeep and just leaving it in his office parking lot for me to pick up later, but we are so new to Fort Campbell, and my unfamiliarity with the straggly and spindly layout of this post takes that option off the table. Navigating my way to his office seems overwhelming; it’s the small things that overwhelm at these times, so Jack knows arranging a pickup is best. This plan will be a piece of cake. He can tuck the kids into bed, then sleep a few hours before he has to go. His rucksack waits packed by the door. His uniform is draped over the closet door.

Angie Ricketts author photo

Let’s get this out of the way first. You make it clear that you love music, especially Dave Matthews and Tori Amos. Tell me about that.

It’s that obvious? Good! Actually we had to cut an awful lot of the lyrics I wanted to use from the manuscript because of copyright laws, so what remained is the toned-down version. Music and lyrics have always wiggled their way into my conscious and unconscious mind, so writing a memoir without them as a backdrop didn’t feel genuine. I also hold out hope that Dave or Tori will hear about my book and call me up on stage with a spotlight shining into the audience or something crazy like that. I haven’t evolved past 8th grade with my sappy groupie fantasies.

(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)

 

Gunfight

King is dead in the back of the truck. He’s strapped to the litter with a foil blanket draped over top and tucked underneath his legs. It’s just me and him. The wounded are piled into the back of the other CasEvac humvee so that they don’t have to ride in the same vehicle as the KIAs. This is standard operating procedure. I’ve got the engine running so the heater will blow air into the back. King won’t shut up.

“What’s taking so long?” he says.

“We’re waiting on our security element.”

“Will you get me some Apple Jacks?”

“No.”

“Please.”

“You can have Apple Jacks in hell.”

“I’m hungry, man.”

“You are the whiniest dead guy I’ve ever met.”

He makes a noise somewhere between a groan and a whimper and finally stops talking.

This is how it goes—a mad scramble to get ready, and then sit and wait forever. We’re waiting for Green Platoon to return from patrol to provide security for our convoy as we evacuate casualties to the rear. It has to have been over an hour, but I’m not sure, not wearing my watch. There was still light out when we spun up, and now it is full dark. My legs are starting to get stiff. I strip off my gloves and set them on the dash to warm up, un-strap my k-pot and place it next to the seat. The gravel sends a tingle up my shin as I step out of the truck and wobble my legs to get the feeling back.

Combat Outpost Wilderness is a square box, maybe one hundred meters per side, a small guard tower in each corner. The outer walls are made of wood, ten feet high, topped with concertina wire. Four pre-fab aluminum hooches and a series of ply-board shacks are spaced along the inside of the wall, leaving an open area in the center to stage vehicles. In terms of withstanding an attack, it’s about as safe as an eight-year-old’s tree house.

A few people are dashing from one building to another. I can’t tell who they are in the dark. I light a cigarette and lean against the hood of the humvee. The staccato whisper of small-arms fire carries down the road, from Jabr Nahr, or further. Red Platoon is out there, and Green. And Geronimo is out there somewhere, wreaking havoc and attrition on our patrols as they attempt to clear the village and surrounding area. Every patrol has returned with casualties. We’re on our way to becoming combat ineffective.

Green finally arrives, their string of gun trucks thundering through the gate and skidding to a stop in the gravel outside the TOC. Soldiers are climbing out, shouting a flurry of instructions back and forth, dumping brass out of the turrets, grabbing more ammo. Two more wounded are hoisted out of the trucks and carried to the casualty collection point. There are no KIAs.

I flick my butt on the ground and climb behind the wheel, strapping on my helmet.

“What’s going on?” croaks King.

“Shut up.”

There’s more shouting and scuffling outside. Green Platoon mounts up again. The passenger door opens and First Sergeant slides in.

“Let’s go,” he says.

“Roger.”

“We’re going to be second, right behind the first gun truck.”

The lead truck makes a wrong turn out the gate, and we have to swing the humvees around on the narrow dirt road, trying not to get stuck in the low ditch on the shoulder. It’s a twenty-minute trip to FOB Anvil on roads rutted out by rain and mud. We make it to the ECP without incident and wind our way past the DFAC and housing area to the combat support hospital. Medics swarm the trucks as we pull up, assisting the wounded inside. I climb in the back and help lift King’s litter out of the truck and over to the emergency entrance, where a medic grabs my end.

“See you later,” King says.

“Dead guys don’t talk.”

We move the vehicles out of the loading area and stage off to the side as the First Sergeant heads to the battalion TOC to get a sitrep.

I light a cigarette and wait.

First Sergeant emerges from the TOC after fifteen minutes, and we’re underway again.

West of Jabr Nahr, the road runs through a low gully before curving around to the south of the village. The shoulder slopes away on both sides to join a thick tree line. Our lead humvee is two hundred meters from the turn when the bomb goes off. A white flash and an ear-splitting pop erupt from the left-hand side of the road, and the truck is stopped dead. The crippled vehicle is blocking our movement. The entire convoy is at a standstill. I scan the tree line on my side of the road but can’t make out anything in the shadows.

We are trapped in the killzone.

“Get ready,” First Sergeant says, opening his door. “They’re coming.”

He dismounts and grabs his rifle, jogging ahead towards the disabled truck. I swing my rifle up and check the magazine. My NVGs are in the outer pocket of my vest, but they are out of batteries, and I gave my rhino mount to another soldier. In any case, the left iris is broken, allowing me only partial night vision at best. I open the door and angle my weapon at the woods, waiting for the ambush, scanning for moving shadows or flickers in the light breaks between trees.

Waiting.

A quick splutter and a burst of light from the woodline to our nine o’clock, not twenty-five meters away. The machinegun makes a noise like an angry woodpecker digging in your ear. Behind me, the gun truck answers with a long belch from the fifty cal. And suddenly the trees explode with rifle and machinegun fire. I jump out of the truck, firing a short burst toward the shadows, and scurry around the hood to the other side of the truck.

Our guns are thumping away now, but there doesn’t seem to be any decrease to the enemy’s rate of fire. I squat behind the right front tire and brace my rifle on the hood. I still can’t see any bodies, so I’m just firing at muzzle flashes, trying to talk my weapon with the bursts from the fifty.

When I crouch down to change magazines, it occurs to me how pointless this is. And I laugh. My MILES gear is malfunctioning. It has been screwy all day. And after the third time I had to have it reset, I decided to just switch it off. I can’t be “killed”, but neither can I hit anything, as the laser on my weapon isn’t sending out any signals. All I’m doing is making noise.

But who cares. This is the most fun I’ve had in weeks. I slap the magazine home and keep shooting.

After a few minutes, Geronimo breaks contact and retreats through the woods. They’ve scored several casualties on us. Who knows if we hit any of them. First Sergeant is conferring with the TM. They are performing a battle damage assessment and debrief on our reaction to contact. The stink of it is that many of our tactics and procedures are neutralized by the training environment. Our first response to a real IED attack, for example, would have been to immediately push out of the killzone. I would have gunned our vehicle and rammed the humvee in front of us to get it out of the area. But here, we have to stop so that the referee can assess the casualties to the downed truck, allowing Geronimo the perfect ambush opportunity. They know this, and they turn it to their advantage.

Back at COP Wilderness, we park the humvee in front of the CCP, and I head back to the hooch. Sergeant Harris, Specialist Rosas, and I are sharing a plywood shack no bigger than a walk-in closet. It has one electrical outlet, a single bare light bulb suspended from the low ceiling, and no heat. I strip off my vest and tuck it underneath my cot, and I lie down and close my eyes.

“What’s up?” Rosas says.

“Not much. Me and First Sergeant got into a gun fight.”

Winter at Fort Polk is wet and cold, at least by Central Texas standards. It doesn’t look the way I pictured Louisiana—no swamps or alligators—just acres and acres of dusty, low-rolling hills covered in swatches of some sort of pine tree with needles that turn bright orange. I think they’re pines. I don’t know much about trees.

Fort Polk is the location of the Joint Readiness Training Center, a massive range designed to simulate a realistic combat deployment scenario for brigade-sized units. Every combat brigade is required to complete a training rotation here, or at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, prior to going overseas. The Second Brigade Combat Team of First Cavalry Division has been at Polk for three weeks now, since early January 2011.

The majority of my time here has been spent doing inventory and signing out MILES and other training equipment to the line platoons. Now that the company has moved from the rear to COP Wilderness, my primary occupation is ladle jockey, as Supply does not have much to do other than serve chow. I try to play it off, joking with the guys that I’ve started a new MOS—Eleven Lima Lima, Infantry Lunch Lady. But I’m miserable. The other infantrymen get to play in the woods and kick down doors, while I’m stuck scooping mushy eggs out of mermites. I jump at every chance to drive for the First Sergeant, as menial a task as it might be.

After six days at the COP, the main exercise concludes, and we relocate to FOB Anvil to begin preparations for leaving JRTC. All the vehicles, radios, MILES gear, and other assorted equipment on loan from Fort Polk have to be collected and turned in. We’ve got three days to do this, whereas it took three weeks to issue out. Luckily, apart from a few damaged items that require some additional paperwork, we manage to get everything sorted out with minimal trouble. We board up on coach buses and make the trip back to Hood.

 

(DISCLAIMER: The thoughts, opinions, and comments contained in this narrative in no way represent the views of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.)

Memento Mori

Much to my chagrin, my roommates have renewed their fascination with Jersey Shore. Along with Rivera and Morales, they have been watching a string of successive episodes for the last couple of hours. I am not certain why this show evokes such a distinct sense of disgust. Perhaps it is because the cast is paid to do nothing but get drunk and engage in inane, operatic altercations. There is no message or value of any kind, and I am worried that this behavior is indicative of an entire generation. This must be the old man in me emerging. Soon I’ll be shaking my fist and yelling at teenagers to turn down their music and get off my lawn. If I had a lawn. Currently, two of the black-haired, big-breasted girls are sitting in a confessional and bitching about one of the other black-haired, big-breasted girls in their aggravating, nasal Long-Island accents.

“I want to chop both of their heads off,” I say.

“Why?” Rivera asks.

“Because they are annoying and serve no purpose.”

“Yeah?”

“I don’t want to chop their heads off with a machete. That would be too messy, take too long. I want to do it with a sword, like a katana.”

Rivera is smiling. Morales looks at me with a blank expression. Raneo and Mies aren’t paying attention; they are fixated on the television.

“And not just any katana, but like the best katana ever made,” I continue. “I’ll fly to Japan and meet with the Swordmaster. We’re dressed in those ceremonial robes, and while he’s pounding the steel over the forge, I am meditating with my legs crossed. He hands me the sword in a solemn, ritual manner. We bow to each other. Then I come from out of nowhere, like fall from the sky, and cut their heads off with one swift stroke.”

I pantomime swinging the sword and make a ninja battle noise.

“Shit,” Rivera says.

My dreams are lucid in the desert. Though I still can’t remember them. I have rarely been able to recall my dreams. Normally, I wake up with the awareness of a person or place, or with the sense of an emotional response. I read online that you have to consciously make an effort to remember the contents of your dreams. One website suggests vocalizing your intention to remember and keeping a journal nearby so that you can write everything down the instant you wake up. I try this without success.

I wake with the impression of a woman. I know her in the dream, but awake I am not sure who she is. There is no image, just the inkling of her.

I’ve slept until fourteen hundred. There is nothing going on today, but I still feel like a piece of shit. I start to tidy up my area, folding clothes, sorting dirty laundry. Raneo is packing his duffel bag and calling out each item for Mies to write down. We have until the twentieth to pack our B bags and turn them in to be loaded into the conex before it is sealed and shipped. Nobody is sure if it is going to Kuwait or back to Hood ahead of us. We’re only allowed to keep our ruck, assault pack, and one duffel.

“Boonie cap,” Raneo says.

“Check,” says Mies.

“Gore-Tex and wet weather gear.”

“You know, it might rain in Kuwait,” I say.

“So?”

“So you might need that.”

“We don’t wear wet weather gear.”

“I’m just saying.”

“You know why we don’t wear wet weather gear?” Mies says.

“Because you’re a punk-ass bitch if you do,” I say.

“Close enough. I was going to say because we’re hard.”

“Right. We’re fucking hard,” I say. “And we’re water resistant like mallards. Like angry, belligerent mallards.”

Mies has no reply to this. Raneo keeps packing.

“A mallard is a duck.”

“I know.”

“I thought you would, because you probably shoot them.”

“Yeah.”

I walk to the gym to feel productive. Someone’s dog is running on the treadmill. Everyone seems very entertained. I put in forty-five minutes on the stationary bike, glancing over at the dog every now and then. Every time I see a dog over here, it reminds me of Baron, and I feel a twinge of guilt. The dog is clearly having a great time, but she’s panting heavily and her tongue is distended. I wave at the clerk sitting at the front desk, make a motion with my hand like drinking water, and point at the dog. The clerk just smiles and gives me a thumbs-up. I try again, holding up my water bottle. I point at the water bottle and then point at the dog. The clerk smiles again and nods his head, then goes back to his magazine. Asshole.

I finish up, head back to the CHU, and take a shower. I’m sitting on my bunk when the door flies open and Feakes barges into the room.

“What’s your stance on abortion?” he says.

For a beat, I’m unable to respond. This is not a question you expect to be thrown at you whilst casually checking your email.

“I don’t give a shit.”

“So . . . you’re pro choice?”

“I suppose so.”

Feakes stands motionless for several seconds, by all appearances deep in thought.

“Why do you ask?”

“My brother is doing a life walk and—” he trails off mid sentence, pursing his lips. He turns to go, turns back, then turns to go again, finally deciding on a direction.

* * *

We arrive at Fort Hood in late June 2010. There are six of us from Airborne Holdover, including Catherman, who was in my Basic Training company at Benning. A soldier from Reception Battalion picks us up at the Killeen Airport and drives us to the Copeland Soldier Center to sign in, then to the reception barracks. It’s Thursday evening before a four-day weekend, and we won’t begin in-processing until Tuesday. We drop our gear in our assigned rooms and walk together to the Burger King.

Some of the other guys have friends or relatives in central Texas that they link up with for the weekend, but I spend the four days cloistered in my barracks room. The only excursions I make outside are to the shopette and to the AT&T store in Killeen—a forty-dollar cab ride each way—to replace my phone that was destroyed during a thunderstorm at Benning. I play backgammon on my new phone, repeatedly watch the same eight or nine movies on my portable dvd player, and sleep. My diet consists of the healthiest food I can find at the shopette, primarily pop tarts, pretzels, and heat-lamp chicken sandwiches.

Tuesday morning we begin in-processing: a week-long series of finance and housing briefs, medical screenings, and a variety of mundane paperwork. The end of each day is punctuated by the First Sergeant’s safety brief. It is not brief. He has it honed down to a precise routine, revised and refined, no doubt, over several years of delivery. He puffs out his chest and strides up and down the aisle, pausing deliberately after each corny joke or one-liner. A typical safety brief involves a slew of warnings against bad behavior that most people would consider common sense, but with which many soldiers apparently have difficulty. Don’t drive under the influence. Don’t beat your spouse. Don’t beat your children. Don’t do drugs. Don’t have unprotected sex.

“Wear a vest,” First Sergeant says. “You don’t want that gonaherpesyphilaids.”

This is definitely one facet of the Army that I can do without: being treated like a mentally-retarded child. There is a balding and bespectacled Sergeant First Class who walks the reception barracks nightly, checking doors to make certain they are locked. He finds our door unlocked at least twice.

“What’s wrong with this picture, Specialist?” he snaps at me.

“I don’t know, Sergeant.”

“This door is unsecured. What’s to stop me from coming in here and raping you?”

“Umm.”

He proceeds to relate a disturbing and supposedly recent story about a soldier getting raped in his barracks room, not far from the exact spot on which we are currently standing. Evidently, male-on-male rape is a rampant concern at Fort Hood.

“You make sure this door is secure at all times.”

“Roger, Sergeant.”

Paperwork complete, we spend Friday waiting to be picked up by our respective units. A van arrives around fifteen hundred and shuttles us to Second Brigade headquarters, where we learn we are to be assigned to First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment. At Battalion, five of us are split between the two infantry companies. Catherman and I go to Bravo. The other guys go to Alpha. It’s nearly seventeen hundred before we are standing at parade rest outside the Bravo Company CP. The training room NCOs are not pleased. They were about to go home for the weekend, and now they have two new joes that need sorting out. I explain that we have been sitting around all day, and brigade did not come to get us until late afternoon. But somehow we are still blamed for our late arrival. They tell us we will both be joining second platoon, then drive us to barracks management to receive our housing assignments. First call on Monday, we are told, is zero one hundred hours. Bravo Company is going to the field for a week.

At zero one thirty on Monday morning, I am sorting through a pile of field equipment on loan from Staff Sergeant Dotson, one of the second platoon squad leaders. Due to the fact Catherman and I are newly arrived, we have not made it to the Central Issue Facility to sign for our basic load equipment. I stuff Sergeant Dotson’s gear into a borrowed ruck and line up at the armsroom to check out my weapon. Before long, we’re packing into school buses and bound for Owl Creek Assault Course, a training range on north Fort Hood Reservation.

We set up our hooches in the woods, tying off ponchos to tree limbs to create what limited overhead cover we can. The exercise consists of numerous iterations of team and squad assaults on a fixed fortification, in this case a sandbag bunker on top of a low hill. Our task is to move under cover to the objective and assault up the hill using successive bounding. This means half the team provides suppressive fire while the other half moves forward, leapfrogging towards the target. Our team does a satisfactory job, considering half of us are brand new. I’m struggling the entire time with my k-pot. Sergeant Dotson is one of the few men in the company bigger than I am, and his extra-large helmet keeps slipping forward on my head and blocking my field of vision.

Every night it rains mercilessly. Every morning we wake up in an ocean of mud. And by eleven it is one hundred and fifteen degrees. I change my socks each day, but can’t keep my boots dry.

The company packs up late on Thursday, and we bus back to the CP. Before we can leave for the holiday weekend, we need to clean weapons. Without warning, a handful of NCOs are screaming at us to hurry up. I clean for about fifteen minutes, then a sergeant inspects my weapon and declares its state of cleanliness as dogshit. Then I’m outside getting frantically smoked in the mud—flutter kicks, sandbag pushups, low crawling and rolling in the sludge. Then it’s hurry the fuck up and get back inside and clean your weapon, which becomes progressively more difficult the more mud you have on your hands. Then I’m outside again. This goes on for hours.

It is after one in the morning when I finally get back to my room, every inch of me caked in slime and dirt. I drop my gear in a heap in the corner of the room and strip off by boots. Both feet are bloated and wrinkled, painful to the touch. I am half expecting the skin to just peel off in a single slab. My soles look like the rotting flesh of a cadaver that has been floating in seawater for days. Swollen, corpse-white, nibbled-on by sardines. I take a picture with my phone for posterity.

* * *

September 18th, 2011. I wake abruptly a few minutes after nine. Pressley is standing in the room. He tells me to get dressed quickly and meet behind the TOC for a company formation. As we make our way over from the LSA, he informs me that a soldier died this morning. Once we are formed up, the CO calls us in to a huddle and confirms the report. No one knows the full details yet, but word is that his weapon might have discharged due to a cook-off.

He was a member of Green Platoon from Delta Company. Green Platoon is attached to Bravo for the duration of the deployment. I did not know him personally.

We are advised not to discuss the matter until the family has been notified through proper military channels. The ramp ceremony will be sometime later in the day, so we are on standby for the time being. The company falls back in, and First Sergeant releases us back to our CHUs.

There is nothing. No emotional response that I can detect, though I try to summon it. I tell myself it would be different had we known each other. All I know is this: it is a stupid and senseless waste, further proof of the random tragic folly of the universe. We are one month away from escaping this shithole forever. The insurgents can’t kill us despite their best efforts. And this soldier dies because of an arbitrary mishap. Why him? Why anybody? He had a wife and five children. Why does chance opt to take this man instead of the childless, wifeless, joyless misanthrope?

Millersmith joins me outside the CHU for a cigarette. I guess he wants to talk about it. Millersmith likes to talk. He’s from Arkansas or Missouri, I think. He has some college. His parents are missionaries. He’s going on about what details he has heard from Green Platoon, about how the .50 cal round supposedly went through his vest and traveled up his chest plate and entered his neck. There is no telling at this point what is fact and what is rumor.

“It just sucks, man,” he says.

“It’s a shitty way to die, especially when we’re so close to getting out of here.”

“Yeah. It’s like with the MRAPs, all those corners and points. You’ve seen the bars that stick out on the driver side? If the vehicle rolls over, your face could go right into that, and then you’re done. For a soldier, it’s not right. We’re supposed to—”

“We’re supposed to die in battle,” I finish for him. And he nods.

“After this, I’m going to the chow hall to grab some to-go plates for the mechanics. They’re stuck at the motor pool cleaning blood out of the MRAP. You want to come?” Millersmith says after a pause.

“I’m good.”

“I just went through all this while I was on leave. Did I tell you about my friend?”

“A little, I think. He died in a car crash, right?”

“Leaving my house. That’s one reason I’m not looking forward to going home, seeing all that family again.”

I stub out my cigarette and toss it in the top of the Hesco.

“I gotta shave,” I say.

At dusk, we are lining the rampway of the airfield. The pallbearers march slowly between us, supporting the coffin, as the men and women of First Battalion, Fifth Cavalry Regiment raise their arms in salute.

And we watch in silence as the bird carries him away.