(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.)
Tikrit looks about the same from space as it does on the ground: dirty and desolate. I’ve been staring at our little icon on the Blue Force Tracker. It hasn’t moved in an hour and a half. Yet another day spent idling in the truck while the transition team meets with their Iraqi counterparts.
The radio beeps:
“Blue four, Blue four golf.”
We’re not allowed “Hollywood call signs” any more, so we’ve been forced to use our platoon’s color designator instead of Punisher, even on our own frequency.
“Blue four, go ahead.”
“I’ve got a FIPR from Red’s platoon sergeant. He wants to know how long we’re going to be here.”
“Roger. Let him know approximately two, two and a half hours.”
I had been holding out hope that it might be an early day. I bend my microphone down to my mouth.
“Yeah,” Pressley says.
First platoon is at another Iraqi FOB just on the other side of Tampa. Their little blue icons have been equally stationary on the satellite map. The grayscale photo reminds me of those thermal camera feeds of smart-bomb explosions they use to play over and over again on CNN during the first Gulf War. I keep hoping to see a white-hot flash on the screen, if only to break up the monotony. But even if we did blow up a building, it wouldn’t show on the monitor. It’s a static photo, not a live feed.
I’m working on about two hours of sleep, and I’ve been on mission or at a range every day for the past two weeks. Exhaustion is beginning to catch up with me, but I push it aside. However rough you think you’ve got it, there’s somebody else who’s got it worse. I think maybe out of everyone in the company, the mechanics have pulled the shortest straw. With all the maintenance and repairs on our hand-me-down vehicles, they seem to be working nearly round the clock. We had to swap out one of the rear tires on my MRAP the other day. It took us almost three hours, and that is one out of two dozen vehicles.
My ass is sore bordering on numb. I’ve been shifting positions in the seat every twenty to thirty seconds, but it’s no good. Since we arrived, there has not been a time when some part or other of my body was not damaged. The skin on my hands is gradually being flayed away through various mishaps. I acquired two gaping stigmata sores—one on each hand—from the pull-up bars in our outdoor gym. These are just healing. A knuckle on my left hand was sliced open when I removed the air filter for maintenance, and another on my right hand lost all the skin when it was pinched between a three-hundred-pound tire and the wheel well of the MRAP. On my right elbow is a burn blister caused by a scalding machinegun shell that found its way down my sleeve. And there is some kind of mild rash on my calves that I am hoping does not turn out to be a staph infection.
At this point, I’ve abandoned whatever misgivings I had and I’m smoking inside the cab of the truck, ashing in a spare water bottle. As they didn’t have my brand at the PX, I’m down to ultra-lights, and there is not enough nicotine. So I’m smoking more. If Iraq weren’t a dry zone, I’d probably be drinking myself silly as well. The official word from Command is that alcohol is off limits because its consumption is offensive to Muslim beliefs, but I’m pretty sure the true motivation behind the policy is to prevent a great deal of stupidity. This level of tedium would send a Mormon on a bender.
That new Cee Lo song is stuck in my head on a continuous loop, but I don’t know the lyrics. So my brain has been inventing a stream of gibberish to fill out the tune. It’s agonizing, but it’s also the only thing preventing me from passing out. It’s been said that war, for a soldier, consists of interminable stretches of boredom punctuated by brief moments of sheer terror. I’m beginning to think the boredom may prove far more harmful to my mental health than any intense combat experience.
I shift around again, trying to prop my foot up on the center console, and light another cigarette.
* * *
The various components of the toilet tank are spread out around me on the tile. For months, a persistent high-pitched whine has issued from my downstairs bathroom, caused by some pinhole leak in the tank or bowl that I’ve been unable to locate. My stopgap solution was to simply shut off the water valve. But at last, whether compelled by impulse or restlessness, I have resolved to fix the problem.
Baron’s head appears around the edge of the doorframe. He croons one of his low, guttural phrases that sound like Chewbacca.
“What’s up, dude?”
He pads into the bathroom and sniffs around the toilet parts on the floor, then presses his nose against my leg. I give him a good scratch behind the ears. He will usually take this opportunity to roll over on his back, the signal that I am supposed to rub his belly, but instead he trots back out of the bathroom. I hear a flump from the living room as he settles into his spot on the couch.
I heard or read somewhere that dogs are sensitive to their owners’ emotional states, even more so than people in some cases. I am worried that he might be reacting to my lethargy. Normally, he is obnoxiously energetic. I make a mental note to take him for a run later.
It’s September 2009, and I’ve been unemployed for nearly five months, moping about the house listlessly. The year began promising. Things were going well at work, despite the recession. After a frustrating year of searching and haggling and lengthy paperwork preparation, I was finally in escrow on a house and scheduled to move in at the end of January. On New Year’s Eve, I met a beautiful and charming woman, a friend of a friend. We hit it off, and I summoned the fortitude to ask for her phone number. I had high hopes.
We went on a few dates, and I gave it my best effort. I can be charming when I want to be. It appeared she wasn’t convinced. I have always been fairly clumsy where romance is concerned. When it comes to hooking up with a complete stranger in a bar or club, I seem to have no reservations. But someone with whom I might actually forge a meaningful relationship, someone who I might actually care about . . . there is always this intangible barrier in front of me. The gulf between intimacy and resignation becomes insurmountable.
In any case, it ended. She called me up—I was sitting on the floor of my mother’s foyer, still not completely moved in to the new house, attempting to assemble a new vacuum cleaner—and she explained that, while I was perfectly nice and funny and so on, she was looking for a long-term thing and did not see it working out. I told her I was disappointed, but that I understood and appreciated her straightforwardness. I was disappointed, though mainly with myself and my apparent inability to connect with anyone. I had no particularly strong feelings toward her. But it felt like another failure, another opportunity I’d let slip away through inaction and ineptitude.
I settled into the house. Weekends were spent at Target and Home Depot, an endless list of homemaking equipment to purchase and install.
Sometime in February or March, I found myself having dinner with Jennifer, my college girlfriend. I don’t remember quite how it came about, but she had called me. She was in town and wanted to catch up. We met at a restaurant in Laguna Beach and chatted awkwardly over pretentious California cuisine. Jenn talked about graduate school at Wharton, about living and working in London. She talked about the man she had been engaged to marry until the wedding was called off. She was as cheerful and animated as ever. I talked about my house and my dog and my parents’ divorce. She asked about my love life, and I described the sporadic and half-hearted dating that had filled the years since we had last seen each other.
Sitting at the table, I was seized by a wave of depressive nostalgia. I began to wonder where all my joy and energy and enthusiasm for the future had gone. Somewhere along the way I had lost it, but I couldn’t figure out when or why. I was just the husk of my younger self. Our dialogue underlined the growing realization that my significance in the lives of the people I cared about was steadily dwindling. I was stuck on idle, somehow swallowed up by a discontent that came from I don’t know where.
We parted with a long hug in the street outside, and I got in my car feeling strangely detached. I took PCH to Broadway and headed north to the toll road. About five minutes into the canyon, my phone rang. It was Jenn.
“It’s illegal for me to talk to you right now,” I answered. I didn’t know where this sudden gust of rudeness came from, but I immediately regretted it.
“What’s up, Jenn?”
“I wanted you to know how much you mean to me, and how grateful I am that you were there with me . . .” she started to say.
I didn’t want to hear this now, driving through the canyon in the dark. It was something she meant to say to me in person but hadn’t.
Jenn and I met on a fraternity beer bus to the Rose Bowl for the UCLA/Cal game in 1999. I was sitting in the back, still hung over from the night before, and spotted her across the rows of vinyl seatbacks. She was gorgeous. I couldn’t stop staring. She noticed. At some point, she sat down near me and we wound up talking. We ran into each other again at half time. It turned out we had mutual friends, and those friends subsequently conspired to play matchmaker. We were together for the remainder of college, and I was deeply in love. We were both goofballs. I could spend hours just being silly with her. I remember coming home after a summer abroad in England and meeting her at the house she was rooming at for the term. I was so overcome with excitement that my hands were shaking. My pulse must have shot up by eighty. I can’t recall ever feeling anything that strongly since. I think I was happy.
The latter half of our time together was overshadowed by tragedy. Jenn’s father was dying of brain and lung cancer. It was gut wrenching to stand by and watch someone who was by nature so intensely and effortlessly happy endure such excruciating sadness. Hers was an irretrievable loss, and I had nothing to give her worth a damn. Now she was thanking me, merely for having been present to witness her sorrow.
It sounded like goodbye.
“I know,” I said.
In early May, I came to work one day to find the office crowded with team leaders and managers from several other branches in the Southern California area. Our regional manager and his boss were there, and they had set up shop in the conference room. At first, this didn’t faze me. Our branch was somewhat centrally located, and they were frequently holding meetings there. I set to work reviewing my team’s inventory and checking on the status of yesterday’s workload. But as the morning crept on, I began to notice the tense mood in the office. The biggest indicator was that Julie, my boss, who was normally bouncing off the walls with energy, was oddly subdued. She hadn’t said a word all morning. The other managers were being called discreetly one by one into the conference room.
At lunchtime, I drove home to let the dog out to piss. And the thought suddenly struck me that I was about to be laid off. When I returned to the office, they called me into the conference room. It was purely a financial decision, corporate opting to flatten out the management hierarchy, no reflection on work performance, they explained. The recession was affecting everybody. They outlined the severance package. With my vacation time, it added up to about ten grand. Plus, the company was paying for the services of a career-counseling firm. My official end date would be in two weeks, but I was allowed to take that time to begin the new job search.
I walked out of there feeling strangely bemused. I went back to my desk and kept working, not knowing what else to do. After a while, we gathered everyone in Julie’s office and broke the news. The shock and disappointment from my team was comforting. It was nice to know I wasn’t superfluous.
I went home and fell asleep on the couch. I didn’t know what to do with myself. The next day, I slept in, watched TV, ate a horrendous amount of junk food, and fell asleep on the couch again. The rest of May followed the same pattern.
I knew I didn’t want to work in insurance anymore. Past that, I had no clue. I started tossing around ideas: grant writer, video-game designer, science-fiction novelist. In the back of my head, the idea of joining the military was lingering vaguely. It was something I had always wanted to try but that seemed unrealistic, especially now at age thirty.
In June, I finally got around to scheduling an appointment with the career counselor. He was helpful in getting the resume sharpened up and my networking skills polished. I started blanketing the market with my resume, but June and July slipped by and I didn’t receive a single reply. A bit humbled, I resorted to applying for insurance positions, but still failed to get any response. Admittedly, my attempts were less than enthusiastic. I wasn’t made for the corporate world, and the notion of dress shirts and cubicles, of struggling up the ladder again just to cling to a lifestyle that had lost appeal, was miserable.
I left for Australia in mid August, a trip I had booked and paid for prior to losing my job. I spent two weeks camping in the outback, then returned in early September to the full realization that if I did not find a job soon, I would lose my house. I became resolved to join the Army.
So I leave Baron with my mother, and I begin emptying the house of furniture and books and all the other unnecessary odds and ends. After a few weeks, I’ve collected about a dozen receipts from Goodwill. The only furniture I’ve decided to keep is the couch, which I deposit in my dad’s upstairs office, and my bed, which I cram above the rafters in my mother’s garage. I leave the refrigerator, washer, and dryer for the use of my prospective tenants. I hire a property management company and move into my mother’s empty bonus room with the few possessions I have left.
On November First, I call the Mission Viejo recruiting station and schedule an appointment with Sergeant Barnett. We meet the next morning in their cramped office space across the street from Saddleback College. I tell him I want Airborne Infantry.
* * *
In the early morning of August 15th, 2011, two men dressed in Iraqi Police uniforms and driving a red BMW bypass the main entry control point at FOB Danger, the largest Iraqi security installation in Tikrit. Both men wear suicide vests and are armed with small arms and grenades. They approach the headquarters of the IP counter-terrorism unit and succeed in penetrating through the security gate before one of the men is shot and killed by ISF. The other manages to throw a grenade inside the building, killing an Iraqi colonel and his personal security detail. Then he detonates his suicide vest. This is one of almost ninety coordinated attacks carried out by insurgents across the country.
A dozen klicks away on COB Speicher, Third Platoon is preparing for patrol when we are briefed on the incident. Our mission is scrubbed for the day. The building we were headed for this morning has been blown up.