DemonCampcoverimageA BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DISORDERLY CONDUCT OF THE HEART

Sergeant Caleb Daniels wanted to save all the veterans from killing themselves. A machine gunner three years out of the 160th Special Operations Regiment, 3rd Battalion, he’d tried to kill himself, four or five times, but he was interrupted each time—once by his dead buddy Kip Jacoby; once by his girlfriend Krissy, whom he met at a strip club; once on a lake by his house in his canoe when the rain stopped and he saw the moon; and once when the demon called the Black Thing came into his bedroom in Savannah and said, “I will kill you if you proceed,” and Caleb said, “No you won’t, asshole, because I’m going to do it myself.”

(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.)

 

Bagpipes

The sun is going down as Sergeant Valdez pulls up in the F150 and drops the gate. We offload the ammo and pack it in the back of the MRAP. Fifteen thousand rounds of 7.62mm ammunition for the Iraqis. I try to stack the boxes so they will have the least chance of toppling when the truck is in motion. Tomorrow we will drop off the ammo at the IA compound while out on patrol. I raise the back ramp, lock up the truck, and walk back to the CHU.

“Is everything okay?” Raneo asks as I drop my rifle in the corner.

“No, it isn’t.”

“What happened?”

“What happened? There is no purpose to life, and the Universe is an empty, meaningless wasteland. That’s what happened.”

I’m halfway through reading Cat’s Cradle for about the fourth or fifth time. This is more than likely the source of inspiration for my feigned tantrum, as opposed to any particular or immediate existential dilemma, along with my chronic compulsion to answer every question with a smart-assed remark or to befuddle people with my nonsensical grandiloquence.

“Where?” says Mies. They’re smiling now.

“Everywhere.”

* * *

The interior of Club Rodeo is a mixture of industrial warehouse and country barn. Sawdust on concrete slab, wood beams, murky lighting. A large dance floor takes up the majority of the room. In one corner, there is a small western-wear shop where one can purchase cowboy hats and boots, jeans, flannel shirts, and enormous belt buckles. This exact combination of attire, incidentally, is the uniform for roughly seventy-five percent of the clientele. Catherman hands me a Budweiser, and the two of us sit at the perimeter of the dance floor, behind a wood railing, and survey the crowd. I’m feeling distinctly out of place and underdressed in Oxford, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. The music alternates from country to pop country to vanilla hip-hop. I finish my beer altogether too quickly and step back to the bar.

The bartendress is clad in Daisy Dukes and a plaid shirt knotted above the belly button. She has never heard of Jameson. I order two more Budweisers and two shots of Jack Daniels. I drink both shots myself and return to Catherman with the beers. In my absence, four more people have materialized at our table. Gardner is evidently another member of our company; I am still too new to recognize every soldier in the unit. The others are Gardner’s girlfriend and two of her tagalong pals.

Catherman is easy at conversation. He has no trouble moderating small talk around the table, despite the oppressive twangy din. I rely on him to entertain while I thoughtfully measure the precise interval between sips that is necessary to appear pleasant and carefree. Every ten to fifteen minutes I rotate to the bar or restroom. Catherman disappears somewhere, and I start to panic a little. I try to engage one of the girls in conversation.

“So do you live in Killeen?” I yell in her ear.

“No. I’m from Temple,” she looks at me for some sign of recognition.

“I have no idea where that is.”

She suddenly becomes very interested in her drink and turns away. I pretend to be fascinated by the spectacle on the dance floor. About two-dozen people have begun to dance in unison, some convulsive mutation of a square dance and a Broadway musical that is completely foreign to me.

Eventually, Catherman reappears with the third girl, wearing an ear-to-ear grin. He leans in.

“I just got a handjob in the bathroom,” he says.

“Seriously?”

He nods, glancing at girl number three.

Four or five beers later, I drive us back to the barracks and pass out.

It’s taking a considerable amount of effort to fight my natural anti-social impulses and go out drinking every week with the younger guys. My body does not recover as quickly as it did when I was in college. Hangovers are a two-day affair. I suspect I am not as much fun to be around. I feel boring, like I am sucking the cheer out of the room, radiating bad vibes. And any desire to chase women has abandoned me.

The next Saturday, I wake up hung over around thirteen hundred. This time, thankfully, I had the wherewithal to take a cab home. I throw on some clothes and shuffle down to Specialist Lindsey’s room. He comes to the door groggy and disheveled.

“Dude, I left my car at Ernie’s last night. Can you take me to go get it?”

“Yeah. Hang on a minute.” He can’t really turn me down, as I did him the same favor last week.

We’re in the car ten minutes later, on our way to Harker Heights. Lindsey is a chatterbox, so I let him talk and I stare out the window and try to suppress my migraine.

“You want to go to Houston tonight?” he says.

“I’m not sure I would survive. I’m still getting over last night.”

“Aw, come on. I’ll drive.”

“What’s in Houston?”

“These two girls.”

“Okay.”

“I’m trying to fuck one of them, and I need somebody to keep the other one busy.”

“Naturally.”

“They’re kind of big,” Lindsey says. “I’m not saying they’re fat, just curvy, you know?” He fumbles in his pocket and produces his phone, then, completely ignoring the road, scrolls through his photos.

“Here,” he says, handing me the phone. “That’s the one I’m trying to hook up with.”

A husky blonde is gazing up at me from Lindsey’s phone, smiling coyly. It’s a self-taken picture, probably captured for the sole purpose of luring Lindsey to Houston. I suppose she is pretty.

“Okay.”

Lindsey reaches over and taps a button on the phone. Another girl appears, this one with dark brown hair. Her pose, while not identical to the last, is definitely in the same vein. She is thick as well, though not unattractive.

“That’s her friend,” he says.

“I see.”

“She’ll definitely fuck you.”

“Okay.”

“She’s pretty cool, but you might have to put up with some drama.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know, man. She’s just drama sometimes. But she’s a lot of fun, when she’s not talking about her ex or whatever.”

“Okay.”

“So the plan is to get a hotel room and party. Maybe go out to some bars. You in?”

“I don’t know, dude.”

“Come on. I guarantee you get laid.”

“I’m just not feeling Houston tonight. I feel like shit.”

I can’t think of a good reason not to go. I’m racking my brain for a solid excuse, some previous commitment or obligation or something. But I’ve got nothing. I should say yes, but I’m filled with the urge to retreat to my room and order Chinese food.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Suit yourself.”

“Raincheck, though.”

“It’s cool. You think Catherman would want to roll?”

“Probably.”

Lindsey drops me off at Ernie’s Bar, and I drive back to the barracks with a guilty, nagging sensation that I’ve forgotten something important. I dial Hunan Palace and fall asleep.

In August, my platoon sergeant informs me that I’ve been reassigned to headquarters. After seeing my test scores, the CO and First Sergeant have decided that I am needed in Supply. My protests are ignored. The XO assures me that it is a temporary situation, that I will only be there for a few months, and that I will continue to participate in training exercises. I do not believe him. I abandoned my home in California and my mind-numbing corporate existence to experience something out of the ordinary. I joined to become an elite paratrooper, and now I am a supply clerk in the armpit of Central Texas. If there is some mystical power at work in the cosmos, then it is surely having it’s way with me for cheap thrills.

I report to Sergeant Harris and try to make the best of things. There is a good deal of driving around post, from one warehouse or agency to another, picking up new equipment here, dropping off old equipment there. We fill out an infinite array of forms and collect signatures from various bigshots at battalion, brigade, and division headquarters. The upside to working in Supply is that there is a lot less pointless screaming and running around. The downside is that my soul is rapidly eroding into a festering ruin of dust and desiccation.

If I believed in a soul, that is.

It might be more accurate to say that all the pleasant chemicals at play in my nervous system are going sour, transforming into bile, while the unpleasant chemicals are experiencing a population boom.

Months go by. I continue to dismiss invitations to go out, to socialize, to interact with humanity, until eventually they stop coming. I withdraw. I spend my free time shut up in my room, making periodic food runs to Walmart, where I glare hate bullets at fat Texans and their gallon jugs of maple syrup.

This is me reacting poorly to adverse circumstances.

October arrives. My cousin is getting married in Avalon, New Jersey. Both parents have separately sent emails insisting I wear my Class A uniform to the ceremony. Reluctantly, I pack my uniform into a cheap garment bag and fly to Philadelphia. From there we drive to the shore. The morning of the wedding, I am standing in front of a hotel mirror, trying with difficulty to squeeze into my greens. I suck in the gut I’ve acquired over the last three months of neglect and manage to get the buttons fastened. I have to sit very straight in the pew to avoid discomfort, and I am all too conscious of the looks from other guests. Overt attention makes me uneasy. I am a fraud. I have done little to earn this uniform.

After the wedding, I change into my suit, which is unadorned and much looser in the waist. The reception is festive. I don’t dance. I linger on the patio, smoking, drinking, politely brushing off the mechanical admiration of family acquaintances. I haven’t done anything, I tell them. They express concern for my impending deployment. I tell them there is no danger, unless I am crushed by a pile of cardboard boxes. I drink more.

A small contingent of friends and family proceeds from the reception to a lounge bar down the shore. My father has pizza delivered to the bar, a feat of unmatched brilliance. I endure further awkward gratitude and continue to drown my fraudulence in Jameson. The crowd dwindles. I am swaying as I stand at the bar and sign my tab. The bartender is a weathered woman in her mid to late forties, a divorcee, I surmise, slender, dirty-blonde hair showing streaks of grey. In an embarrassing fit of delusion, I persuade myself that she is attempting to seduce me by intentionally withholding my credit card. I play along, waiting patiently at the bar and smiling moronically every time she looks my way, until we are the only two left in the bar.

“Something I can do for you, hon?” she finally asks.

“I believe you still have my card,” I say stupidly.

“No, I gave it back to you already.”

I reach in my front pocket and feel the slim sheet of plastic.

“Ah,” I say.

I stagger outside and across the street, berating myself unmercifully, a vile and abusive monologue exploding in my head, stumbling up the steps, and expire face down on the floral-patterned sofa in my father’s hotel room.

Back at Hood, I return to my comfortable rut. I drink whiskey alone in a half-assed attempt at self-indulgent martyrdom. But I fail to make a habit of it. I can’t even summon the discipline required to be an alcoholic. I begin to wonder if I might be experiencing depression—not bummed-out, sorry-for-myself depression, but actual medically legitimate, Prozac depression. The Internet tells me the symptoms include fatigue, sleep and appetite problems, loss of joy or interest in social or entertainment activities, and so on. I conclude that I am suffering from Dysthymia, an idea that persists for about an hour or two, until I throw it aside. This is not genuine. This is a sideshow concocted by my chemicals to distract me.

This is merely self pity.

* * *

Funerals have always made me uncomfortable. It is not the whispers or somber tone. Nor is it the tangible proximity of death. It may be the religion. All the talk of faith and transcendence sets me on edge. I am an atheist. I believe that consciousness, what some might perceive as the soul, is nothing more than a complex pattern of electrical signals exchanged between synapses in our brain. When our meat machinery ceases to function, those signals stop firing, and the lights go out. I wish I could believe in a higher form of existence, but there has never been anything to convince me of this. I suppose that is the essence of faith, to trust in something without the need for validation, but it is a quality I lack.

Apart from two grandparents and my father’s eldest sister, I have never lost any family members or close friends, though I’ve seen my share of funerals. There is something disingenuous about the whole procession. Though maybe this is simply my own cynical filter at work. Are we there for the departed? They are gone. They have no further concerns or suffering. Or are we there to quiet the fear in ourselves? To say, look at this: when you are gone, you will be remembered. People will say nice things about you and drop roses on the ground. When I die, I want no talk of God, or for friends or family to sanctify my behavior with idle praise. I hope they will say I tried my best and leave it at that. Have a drink, tell a story, and toss my ashes in the sea.

The memorial service for Sergeant Altamirano is held on September Twentieth at the COB Speicher MWR. Members of Delta Company and Green Platoon speak fondly of their fallen brother, and the chaplain gives a benediction. We stand at attention as the final roll is called. The honor guard fires three volleys, and a solitary trumpet sounds Taps. It is an appropriate and dignified ceremony.

In twos and threes we march forward silently, the entire battalion, to the constant strains of Amazing Grace, and salute the altar where they have placed his rifle and boots and helmet.

There is one thing I do like about funerals, and that is bagpipes. The world needs more bagpipes. Few other sounds carry such bittersweet resonance.

It is twenty hundred, and I am reclining on my bunk, trapped in a curious limbo between agitation and inertia. I should go to the gym to work off all this annoying useless energy. At the same time, I don’t want to do a damn thing. I compromise and step outside the CHU for a smoke. Mies is burning assorted papers in an ammo can, staring at the fire with his arms crossed.

“Want to sing Kumbaya?” he says.

“No.”

“You never want to do anything fun.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun,” I say, leaning up against the Hesco. “And I don’t know the words.”

We watch the flames for a few minutes. Then I drop my butt in the ammo can and go back inside.

 

(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.

(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.)

Random

At fifteen hundred, joes are crowding around the mechanics as they emerge from the LSA and come walking towards the vehicle line. McElroy is already pulling Burks toward his truck. A few guys have got Duarte cornered. We’re all trying to get daily maintenance done quickly. The sooner a mechanic signs off on your MRAP, the sooner you can go back to sitting on your ass. I spot Jurek and hop down from my truck. Rivera and I get to him at the same time.

“I need you to do me a big favor.”

“What’s that?” Jurek has a wary look on his face.

“I’ve got to shit like nobody’s fucking business,” I say. “I need you to give me one of these so I can get out of here.” And I make an exaggerated sign of the cross in the air.

“You checked everything?”

“Fluids are good. My shit is smooth pimpin’.”

“It’s like this, son,” Rivera says, turning his patrol cap around backwards.

“No problems?”

“None.”

“Okay, you’re good.”

“You are a fantastic human being.”

I lock up the truck and head back to the CHU. In the room, Mies is playing Age of Empires with his gigantic headphones on. Raneo is on myyearbook.com, trolling for random chicks again. I swiftly drop my gear, change my shirt, and grab a pack of baby wipes.

“Gentlemen,” I say grandly, “‘Tis a far better poop that I poop than I have ever pooped. ‘Tis a far better latrine that I go to than I have ever known.”

In reality, our latrine is horrendous. The stalls are so cramped my knees butt up against the door. I’ve had digestive issues for the last few days, which is strange because I haven’t altered my diet. Probably some bug going around, or one of the cooks didn’t wash his hands properly.

Our operational tempo has been slowing down lately as we prepare to leave for Kuwait in a about a month and a half. People are starting to cycle through R&R, which has caused some grumbling as not everyone has been granted leave. Because I am childless and unmarried, I will not be getting leave. I could honestly care less. I imagine it would be harder to come back here after two weeks relaxing in California.

The Army screws everybody in equal proportion. And while being a soldier is akin to being an indentured servant, it liberates you from making pretty much any decision. With the right frame of mind, this can lead to a considerably Zen existence. You don’t have much to worry about because you have no control over where you go or what you do.

The grumbling is a bit greedy, in my opinion. We have no right to complain about anything. Soldiers and Marines in every previous war have had it far, far worse—the 101st Airborne at Bastogne, the First Marine Division at Guadalcanal, any of the fighting men humping through the jungles of Vietnam. We have air conditioning and hot chow. We have the goddamn Internet. But suffering is a relative experience, I suppose.

* * *

Failure is an unusual sensation. Today it feels like a hard bleacher seat and a knot in my stomach. It smells like a sticky-hot Georgia morning, looks like a charcoal thunderhead roiling on the horizon past those monolithic jump towers.

I look down and realize I’ve been rubbing my hands together compulsively. I sit on them to make myself stop. There are about fifty of us in the bleachers now. Most are staring at the ground or shaking their heads in disbelief. Sergeant Airborne strides up and barks at us.

“Hey, you know how many times I’ve fucked something up in the Army?” he says. “Plenty. There ain’t a soldier here who hasn’t fucked something up at some point in their career. Not one NCO. Not one officer. Get over it.”

His words aren’t comforting. We’re here because we were failed on our PT test, many would claim unjustly. Almost everyone in the stands is muttering some complaint, mainly that standard pushups and sit-ups were intentionally not counted. This is allegedly how the Black Hats trim the numbers in the class. We are all about to be dropped from Jump School.

“The CO is going to talk to you,” Sergeant Airborne says. “Stand fast.”

After a couple of minutes, the Battalion Commander arrives. He briefs us on how we will be out-processed, and he gives us a pep talk. There is a note of sympathy in his voice, but I wonder how many times he has given this speech. For him it is just another procedure: one more point on the Airborne School agenda to be crossed off. For many of us—for me—it’s the death of an ambition.

I won’t say dream. That would be melodramatic.

“How many of you think you were graded unfairly?” the Colonel asks. A few people raise their hands. “Does anyone want to appeal?” Only one guy has his hand up now. The Colonel instructs the soldier to see him afterwards, and then walks off to confer with some other cadre members. We are formed up and marched off the field.

The muttering continues. This will last for days. Sour grapes. Cries of foul play—this is, after all, how the Army screws you; who needs jump wings anyways?

I refuse to go to that place. I have never been a victim. To think along those lines makes the whole experience seem trivial and arbitrary. Crying about it solves nothing. I will not bitch. I will not moan. I will look inward for the problem and fix it. And I will come back for those wings. But for now I’m left with that knot in my stomach and too much time to think about it.

I wanted to step up to that door and jump out into nothing. I wanted to feel the rush of the slipstream and the snap-tug of the chute as it opens. I wanted to fall through the sky amidst that rain of canopies. I wanted to be a paratrooper.

For now, it is beyond my reach. So it goes.

It is early June 2010. Fort Benning. The enlisted Army personnel who are straight out of basic training, like me, are all reassigned to the Headquarters & Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 507th Infantry Regiment, commonly referred to as Airborne Holdover. The Black Hats don’t waste any time. We are marched directly from the PT field to the barracks, where we are instructed to pack up all our gear, turn in our Airborne-issued equipment, and move out to the HHC barracks. I suppose they don’t want us hanging around the remaining jump school recruits. It might affect morale.

Holdover is half labor camp and half summer camp. We have formations every morning, where most of the soldiers are selected for various details: mowing lawns, trash cleanup, the occasional loan-out detail to a civilian-run Army program, and Jump detail. Those who aren’t on a detail, or who finish early, usually hang out in the dayroom, watching movies or playing foosball or ping-pong. As long as you show up for formation and don’t ditch out on details, you’re free to do whatever you want. It takes a little getting used to after four months confined to a high-stress training environment where you can barely use the latrine without permission. But I grow into it. I wind up spending most of my free time walking the mile or so to the movie theater and library.

Every week, they post the new list of assignments on the bulletin board in the dayroom—names and duty stations. My name isn’t on the list the first week, which means I’m stuck here for at least one more.

For the infantrymen, this is our first extended interaction with soldiers from the support MOSs—non-combat soldiers. We call them POGs, perhaps unfairly. We start hearing horror stories about the limbo that is Airborne Holdover. Some have been recycled repetitively. Others have been stranded en route to their new post. One guy I talk to, a supply clerk, has been here for over two months, just waiting for a duty assignment. I’ve been contenting myself with the thought that my original, pre-Airborne assignment orders would stand. Those have me headed for Germany, an acceptable consolation prize given the circumstances. But the information I am piecing together casts severe doubt on that possibility. We are “needs of the Army” now. We go where they tell us. I start to imagine a huge, ludicrously-complex computer system that extrapolates the myriad openings across the global military commands and fills those slots accordingly based on the available candidates. My future now relies on some incomprehensible mathematical algorithm, and sheer luck.

I get picked for Jump detail one morning and sent to the flight line. The airfield at the Basic Airborne School consists of a wide runway and a few pre-fab aluminum buildings. The interior of one of these buildings is lined with big wooden benches where all the airborne recruits sit in their parachute rigs and wait to board the C-17. Our job is to wait outside this building, wearing reflective vests and earmuffs, and to offload the spent harnesses from the plane when it lands. We run up behind the plane as soon as it touches down and scoop all the lines into a big plastic bin, then run that bin over to the riggers’ shack so they can repack the chutes. This may be the closest I will ever get to jumping out of an airplane.

After lunch, one of the black hats stomps outside and looks hard at the four of us sitting along the edge of the tarmac.

“Give me one,” he says.

I follow him inside, and he hands me a cardboard box.

“I need you to hand these out,” he says.

Inside the box are several hundred sets of jump wings, black enamel still glossy, each wrapped in its own little plastic sleeve. I stifle my initial reflex, which is to throw the box in Sergeant Airborne’s face and tell him to go fuck himself. He mistakes the look of revulsion on my face for confusion.

“Just go up the line and hand one out to each person,” he says.

“Roger.”

As I work my way up the bench line, handing a set of wings to each soldier, I’m trying to remember a time when I’ve choked this hard on my own pride. This is a slap in the face after getting kicked in the balls.

When we get back to the barracks, the new assignment list is up. I wait until the few people crowding around the bulletin board have dispersed. Then I scan the list for my name. It’s there. I slide my finger over to the duty assignment column. It reads Fort Hood.

* * *

Raneo, Mies, and Craddick are all huddled around the laptop in our room. They’ve discovered a website that allows you to video chat with random girls around the world, so for the last week or so they have been online nonstop, attempting to see as many indiscriminate breasts as possible. This new hobby tends to draw a crowd, and on most nights there will be as many as six or seven guys from our platoon in the room, all swarming around the computer. It can get rowdy—cheering, raucous laughter, dudes shouting, “let me see them nips”—but I don’t mind. It has, for the time being, distracted my roommates from their previous pastimes, which have included watching marathons of Jersey Shore and pestering me to tell them ghost stories.

The ghost story thing started one night when, as we were going to sleep, Raneo and Mies began repeatedly saying goodnight like a couple of third graders at a slumber party. Curmudgeon that I am, I said, “Are we going to start telling ghost stories now?” with all the grumpy tone in my voice I thought necessary to convey the sarcasm behind this suggestion. I immediately realized my mistake.

“Yeah, that’s happening now,” said Mies.

I googled “ghost stories” and found a website containing such prosaic titles as “Axe Murder Hollow”, “Death Waltz”, and “Don’t Turn on the Light,” and for a week running I read them a story every night before bed, until they became obsessed with random video chat.

Tonight they’re hitting on an eighteen-year-old, quasi-goth girl from Australia. She’s got a lip ring, a tongue stud, and has dyed her hair black. She’s a bit on the heavy side and seems enamored of the attention she is receiving from this trio of American soldiers, as offensive as they are. They’re shouting every stereotypical catch phrase imaginable involving kangaroos, dingoes, shrimps and barbies in the most horrific imitation of an Australian accent I’ve ever heard. Every third or fourth question uttered is aimed at convincing her to take her top off or move the webcam around so they can see her butt.
To these requests she keeps replying, “calm your farm,” which sounds like “com ya fom” and which, from the context, I gather means chill out. Mies begins saying this back to her continually.

McElroy enters the CHU, and Raneo grabs him by the shoulders and positions him in front of the camera.

“This is Buford,” Raneo says. “He’s our platoon mascot.”

“No, it’s Gilbert,” says Mies.

“Isn’t he cute?”

The Aussie lets loose an extended, multi-tonal “awwww.” I assume this is because McElroy bears a striking resemblance to a ten year old. They push McElroy aside and resume their hooting.

My roommates, like the majority of the company, are over a decade younger than I am. The generation gap is obvious to me, if not to them. Raneo is twenty-two, the “pretty boy” of the platoon, perpetually shirtless. Mies is twenty, a Midwestern redneck, racist, obnoxious, yet somehow endearing.

“On a real note,” Mies says to the internet girl, “why don’t you take your shirt off?”

“No.”

“Please?”

“Calm your farm.”

“We could die tomorrow. You might be the last woman we ever see.”

I find it amazing that she hasn’t disconnected them yet. I’m sitting on my bed in the corner, out of camera shot, trying hard to contain my laughter and making fun of Mies whenever he says something idiotic.

“Don’t ruin this for me, Groh!” When he is not doing his appalling impersonation of an Australian accent, Mies is using an extra-heavy southern drawl.

“So you’re from Indiana, right Mies?” I say.

“Yeah.”

“Then why do you have a giant Confederate flag?”

He sighs. “I don’t want to have that conversation right now.”

“Then you’re aware that Indiana was not a part of the Confederacy.”

“Northern raised, Southern ways. You ever heard that?”

“No, actually.”

They are on with her for hours, persistent in their attempts to get her naked. At one point, a Blackhawk flies directly overhead, causing the whole room to shake. Craddick and Raneo both jump up and grab their weapons, feigning some emergency for the Australian girl’s benefit. Apparently, she buys it.

I leave to go to the gym. When I get back an hour later, Mies is alone in the room.

“Want to see something?” he says. He proceeds to show me a series of still shots from the webcam of the Australian girl stripping and then masturbating, both manually and electrically assisted. Mies leans back in the chair and gives me a crooked grin. All I can do is shake my head.

The Internet is our lifeline. For most of us, growing up in the Information Age, it is as much a necessity as any other form of sustenance. I am developing an unhealthy Facebook habit. It is really my only connection to friends back home, as I am terrible at correspondence. I rarely pick up the phone to call a friend or family member just to see how they are doing, unless I have something specific to say. And I rarely have anything specific to say. I don’t even use Facebook to contact people directly. I usually just browse people’s status updates to find out what is going on in the real world. Every now and then I’ll post a random comment, normally a funny quote or some tongue-in-cheek nugget of information about what I’ve been up to.

These posts typically float without any comments from my friends list. This is a peculiar form of rejection I never imagined I would experience. Who knew my self-esteem was so reliant on digital validation? Receiving no response to a status update is like making a comment at a party that is completely ignored. Your audience looks away to avoid any awkwardness, takes a sip of wine to appear busy, and a nauseating surge of embarrassment rises up from your gut. You want to run out the door and shame-vomit in the bushes. This happens to me every time I feel inclined to update my Facebook status. I’ll post something I think is noteworthy or thought-provoking or just plain funny, and it’s virtual crickets. Meanwhile, some other guy gets fourteen unique comments on a post about a sandwich he ate.

The truth is it’s me. Facebook is a façade. It’s a showcase for smiles and congratulations and baby pictures. It’s a conduit for goodwill and happiness, or the semblance of it, or the outward display of it at least. Nobody likes a bummer. If you aren’t smiling and domesticated and tasting wine and attending engagement parties and dropping the odd liberal tidbit and smiling and running a 10k and posting compelling YouTube videos and photos of your trip to Costa Rica and the baked salmon you cooked for dinner . . . if you aren’t smiling smiling smiling, you are the pariah. There is no room for awkwardness or loneliness or sadness in the hip new age. To acknowledge the existence of these diseases is to allow the possibility of affliction.

The best thing to do, when you’re not having fun at the party, is to leave. Cancel the Facebook account. Put an effort into correspondence. Call your friends on the telephone. Fawn over their babies. Make sure to tell them how cute the babies are. Invite them over for board games and feed them cheese. Plan and execute elaborate weekend excursions, double dates, karaoke. Saturate yourself with their smiles and maybe it will catch.

Things are starting to wind down, though we’ve only been in theater four months. We have fewer security missions each week. A few days ago, we drove to a hospital and an orphanage to hand out back-to-school supplies to kids. The focus now is on our removal to Kuwait. There is talk of being home by Christmas. People’s attention is now drawn to what comes next—new assignments, staying in or getting out. My reenlistment window is approaching. The NCOs recently passed around a spreadsheet on which we were required to list our top three choices for reassignment. I listed every possible airborne duty station. But I’ve pretty much decided that I’m done with the Army, though I’ve still got a year remaining after the deployment. I need to figure out what I’m going to do with myself and how I’m going to be able to reoccupy my house. I need to figure out how I’m going to reintegrate with society.

(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.)

Gibberish

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.

“Fuuuuuck.”

“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.

“I’m sorry.”

“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.

(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.)

Bayji Blues

Word comes down that Charlie Company got hit. Charlie is stationed at the Bayji Oil Refinery, located north of Tikrit. On one of their patrols through the city, an RKG-3 struck an MRAP, wounding three soldiers. The driver’s status is urgent surgical, though no one was killed. Charlie’s commander wants a show of force in the city to illustrate to the populace that we’re not playing around. He’s asked for our platoon specifically, so we get the order to spin up and head to Bayji.

We leave Speicher around four in the morning and travel north on MSR Tampa in the dark. The mission means another day off down the toilet, and we’re bound to be out for a while, but the mood is reasonably upbeat. This is a legitimate infantry patrol and not another bodyguard detail. The likelihood of enemy contact is increased, and it seems almost everyone is just itching for the chance to kill.

It’s light out by the time we reach the refinery, a few wrong turns and switchbacks behind us. We pull the trucks in to Charlie’s small outpost and immediately refuel. Everyone dismounts for a quick briefing, and then we load up again and roll out.

No doubt there are insurgents watching us as we descend upon the city. I’m not sure if we look like a juicy target, or the reckoning: four combat platoons and a pair of Apache gunships overhead. The patrol splits in two after we pass the first major intersection. Charlie continues on toward the city center while we turn off into one of the main market streets. Normally, this place would be crawling, but it’s Ramadan. The only people on the street are a couple dudes picking up trash. We drop our dismount squads and begin to move through the market, stopping frequently as the Lieutenant and the interpreter talk to the few locals around about the attack. I stop the truck in front of a small alleyway to allow Specialist Pressley to cover it with his M240. First Squad is spread out on both sides of the street in front of us. Staff Sergeant Moore searches the trunk of a beat-up Corolla and finds an empty US ammo can.

It takes us an hour or so to cover the length of the market. Nobody attacks us. Nobody offers any useful information about the attack on Charlie Company. The dismounts climb back in the trucks and we turn around to head out. Once back on the main road, our air escort comes up on the radio.

“Blue One, Brimstone Zero Three.”

“This is Blue One.”

“Just an FYI, as you were leaving the market, a guy stepped out of one of the buildings and gave your convoy the finger.”

We all chuckle. The Apaches must be a thousand meters up.

Someone in the back of the truck suggests we should go grab up the offending Iraqi. A few years ago, that might have happened. He’d have been questioned, maybe even tuned up a little. But it’s a different war now. We keep on driving.

After chow, we’re sitting out at the trucks, waiting to hear whether we will conduct another patrol in Bayji after the sun goes down or return to COB Speicher. The fumes from the refinery are giving me a dull ache in my right temple. I don’t want to contemplate the amount of toxins that must be in the air. There are two smokestacks just outside the wall of the compound, burning perpetually and giving off a thick black smoke.

Eggleston, Craddick and Mies are relaxing on the rear ramp of Three-Two. Egg and Craddick are sitting on the top step, each with a leg propped up on one of Mies’ shoulders.

“This is teamwork,” Craddick says.

“Not only am I helping you guys,” say Mies, “but I’m also working my core.”

“Do some air squats,” I say.

Mies does a few labored squats with their legs on his shoulders, and then sits down again. “That hurts,” he says.

I light a cigarette.

“You’re an oil guy, right?” I ask Egg. “Maybe you can tell me what the boobs are for.”

“The what?”

“The boobs.” I point out at the series of spherical structures in the refinery to our south. There are six of them, in three pairs. To me, they resemble the reactors at the old San Onofre nuclear plant.

“To be honest, I have no idea. I worked in natural gas, and I never worked on a refinery.”

“Well, if you wanted another job, you could always go AWOL and hire on here.”

“Nah,” says Egg. “They’d find me. They couldn’t find Kenny Brown when he went AWOL in Texas, even though he was living two blocks off base. But with my luck, they’d find me.”

“I don’t think it was so much that they couldn’t find him as it was that they didn’t give a shit.”

“Still, they’d find me.”

Mies makes some remark about Leavenworth and anal rape that I don’t quite hear. My attention is drawn to the damaged MRAP parked in the far corner of the yard with a baseball-sized hole punched through the windshield. The last we’ve heard, the driver may lose his foot. All of the recent RKG-3 attacks have been to the windshield or passenger side, and the soldiers getting wounded or killed are always the TC and driver, which is my primary job. I think about losing a foot. I suppose it’s better than losing the whole leg, or a hand or arm. Better than having the contents of my skull sprayed across the interior of the crew cabin.

Egg is telling me about a job he had with the oil company in Colorado, where they had blown a drill underground and tried over and over again for days to fix the pipe or retrieve the drill bit or something. The technical details are lost on me.

“As shitty as that was,” he says, “the pay was worth it. Here, the pay is shit. And I have to work with a bunch of people that I hate. I hate you all.”

“You should avoid using the word hate,” I say. “What happens if you meet someone that you really really hate? You won’t have an adequate word to describe it.”

“I loathe you all.”

This is just Egg being Egg. It’s his standard demeanor. I’d be more concerned if he said he was happy about something.

“But here,” I make a sweeping gesture with my arms, “you get to serve your country.”

“It would be worth it if I got to shoot somebody. Even if it’s a little kid that I splatter across a wall with the fifty cal. That would make it all worthwhile.”

After a bit, I walk back to my truck and climb in the back to try and cool off in the AC. We wait around for another couple hours, until we get the word we’re going back to Speicher. We won’t have to do another patrol today.

It’s a few days after our trip to Bayji, and we’re back in Tikrit.

The three prisoners are shuffled into the building in single file. They are blindfolded with what look like strips of bed linens and their hands are bound behind their backs. There are no visible bruises or signs of mistreatment, but I’m sure their hosts haven’t handled them gently. They all look weak and docile, not the image of fierce insurgents I had in my head. The IPs put each of the prisoners in a separate corner of the room, facing the wall.

These are the men suspected of the RKG-3 attack on Charlie Company in Bayji. The Iraqi Police SWAT Team apprehended them a couple days ago and transported them to the provincial headquarters in Tikrit. We’re here today to collect their biometric and biographical data for our intelligence database. One by one, we take the prisoners into a back room so I can scan their fingerprints and irises. The Lieutenant asks questions while the interpreter translates. They all claim to be honest stiffs from Bayji, refinery and power plant workers. None of them resists or refuses to cooperate with the questioning or fingerprint collection. None of them seem to know why they were arrested.

I can’t tell if it’s the prisoner’s act, or if they actually might be innocent. The IPs have not been able to tell us what evidence led them to these men. And the Iraqi justice system cannot be described as precise.

One of the prisoners tells me his birthday is the thirty-first of November. I do some quick math in my head.

“Tell this dude there are only thirty days in November,” I say to the interpreter.

They chatter back and forth in Arabic for a moment.

“He says then his birthday is the thirtieth of November,” says the interpreter.

The Lieutenant shakes his head. “Just go with that,” he says.

I enter his DOB as thirty November. Either this guy truly doesn’t know what day he was born—a possibility, since the Iraqis do not seem to attribute the same significance to dates as we do in the States—or we have to question all the information these men have given us. We are not trained in interrogation or human intelligence gathering. That’s what MI does.

We finish up and the prisoners are taken back to the jail facility. As we head back to the trucks, I say to the Lieutenant, “Sir, I’m pretty sure everything they just told us was bullshit.”

“Yup,” he says.

(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.)
 
 

Don’t Think Twice

 
McElroy looks like he’s about to tip over in his CVC and headset, like a Tootsie Pop trying to stand on end. Specialist Pressley says he reminds him of Dark Helmet from the movie Spaceballs.
 
“There are two sides to every Schwartz,” I say.
 
We try to get McElroy to do the Rick Moranis voice, but he doesn’t want to play along. We’re all choking on dust, and it’s a hundred and fuck you degrees out again. We’re spending one of our few days off patrol at the range to zero the main guns on our Bradleys. Everyone agrees this is almost entirely pointless, as we won’t likely ever take the Brads off the FOB. And if we do, we will never fire the Bushmaster chain gun due to the inevitability of extreme collateral damage. We’ve been told it will require division-level authorization to engage anything with the 25mm cannon. Given that our division headquarters is currently located in Afghanistan, the enemy would have enough time to drive home, praise Allah, and drink a glass of chai before we could get permission to kill him.
 
It’s my first time driving the M2A3, and the control panel reminds me of the old Star Wars arcade game. Driving a track vehicle is a bit different than a 5-speed, but I get the hang of it pretty quickly. I stall the engine three times, but succeed in not crushing anything or anyone. My job on the range is pretty simple: drive the track up to the firing line, then sit there and perspire while Specialist Pressley and the Lieutenant fire the 25mm and the machinegun and attempt to accurately adjust the sights.
 
Mercifully, it’s a short day. Once our rounds are complete, we’re told to drive back to the line. On the way off the range, another sandstorm kicks up and my visibility drops to about ten meters. I’m plodding along blindly for a minute or two until Sergeant Cote emerges from the dust cloud to guide us towards the other tracks. We make it back intact, though with the hatch open I manage to swallow about a pound of sand.
 
 
 
Monday, and I’m sitting in the back of the truck, just sweating and waiting for the mechanics to arrive for daily maintenance. Egg climbs up the back ramp and plops onto one of the seats.
 
“I’m going to hang out in here today since I’m not allowed to talk to my driver anymore,” he says in his signature monotone.
 
“Why’s that?”
 
“Apparently my attitude is bringing down the team. Do you feel brought down?”
 
“Sure, but it’s mostly me that’s bringing me down. What’s McElroy poopy about now?”
 
“He’s upset because I told him I hate him.”
 
“You hate everybody.”
 
“Almost everybody.”
 
“Right.”
 
“I tell him I hate him every day, first thing when I wake up and last thing before I go to sleep.” he says, shifting in the seat.
 
“That’s awesome.”
 
“But I’m not supposed to do that anymore.”
 
I nod. Egg stares at the floor.
 
“I can’t stop thinking about that money,” I say.
 
The day before, while we were out on mission, we witnessed a rather distressing event. Our VIPs were conducting a meeting with an ISF colonel while we stood guard in the hallway. Some workers began to unload these large nylon sacks from a pickup truck outside. The sacks were about the size of a large bag of cement, maybe twenty gallons or so. Nobody paid much attention at first, but as one of the workers walked past me, I noticed the corner of his bag was torn open. Inside were bundles of cash—U.S. currency—twenty-dollar bills banded together in stacks. I watched for another minute or so as they kept bringing in more and more bags. Then I stood up and walked across the hall to where some of the NCOs were standing.
 
“Are they fucking serious?” I said.
 
“What?”
 
“Those bags are filled with cash.”
 
“No.”
 
“American cash.”
 
Soon we were all murmuring. The Iraqis kept bringing in the bags. There must have been twenty or thirty at least. I tried to estimate how much it must have been. Millions. And here were twenty armed infantrymen in the hallway who make about two thousand dollars a month to languish in the desert. It was obscene. Looks were exchanged. We were all thinking the same thing: how easy it would be to murder these dudes and take all that money. Of course we didn’t. The meeting concluded, we walked to the trucks and drove back to the FOB. But the incident was the universal topic of conversation for most of the day. On the drive back, Specialist Pressley and I pieced together a hypothetical strategy for taking the money and transporting it out of the country. It became quite elaborate.
 
“Yeah,” Egg says now, staring wistfully at the floor of the MRAP.
 
“That was casino-heist money,” I say.
 
“Would you?”
 
“Fuck yeah, I would.”
 
 
 
The number one question I am asked is why I didn’t become an officer instead of a grunt. I am usually informed how much more money I could be making if I had. I try to explain that if I had cared about money, I would never have joined the army in the first place. Sometimes I try to describe my reasoning in more detail, but that soon becomes exhausting, so I shrug and let them shake their heads at me as if I am a fool.
 
The second most frequent question is why I joined at all. The answer changes depending on my mood. Boredom is my customary reply. I got tired of the yuppie lifestyle. I wanted to do something other than sit in an office and get fatter. I needed to experience a different way of life and challenge myself.
 
All of that rationale is bullshit. I was thirty years old, unemployed despite my best efforts to excel at the bland profession I had landed upon, youthful dreams of success and “happiness” all but abandoned, and self-evicted from the house I had felt compelled to purchase. My friends were all becoming securely domesticated; I had lost count of the endless deluge of wedding and baby announcements. I was sleeping on the couch in an upstairs room of my mother’s house, trying hard not to lapse into self pity, and no closer to finding romantic companionship than I was at seventeen, due no doubt to my inclination toward grumpiness, and shyness, and a self-diagnosed intimacy disorder that I am convinced stems back to somewhere in childhood.
 
As I grew older, I became more self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and self-destructive. I was prone to recurrent bouts of introspection, during which I came to the conclusion that every decision I had ever made was wrong. I deconstructed the entire framework of choices—conscious and unconscious, proactive and reactive—that had conveyed me to the present. It was laid out in front of me like some massive circulatory system of diverging pathways, each leading to undiscovered possibilities. I could pinpoint a specific node, a fork in the road, and find out where it all went to shit.
 
Retrospective self-awareness is worthless without a time machine.
 
There is an oft-repeated phrase in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five: “So it goes.” It is a philosophical refrain instantly recognizable to any Vonnegut disciple—three words that encapsulate the resigned acceptance of life’s pitfalls and tragedies. It can bridge the gap between despair and hope. It has become my mantra.
 
I decided to let go. I chose the path that would carry me as far away as possible, and I surrendered myself to the chaotic rhythms of the universe. So it goes.
 
 
 
Third platoon gathers between the CHUs in as tidy a formation as we can muster in that amount of space. We’re here to promote Trieu, Raneo, and Eggleston from Private First Class to Specialist. The Lieutenant calls everyone to attention and reads the standard spiel. Then the team leaders step forward, strip off their old rank and replace it with the new. The “Sham Shield” we call it.
 
All the privates file forward to shake their hands, while the older specialists and NCOs hang back. One by one, they step forward and punch each of the new specialists hard in the chest. This is the true promotion ritual. As Sergeant Cote cocks his huge arm back, Raneo does a little jig and squeals like Michael Jackson, just before his back is sent reeling into the Hesco barrier.
 
I refrain from hitting. I merely shake their hands and congratulate them. They’ve gotten it bad enough from the NCOs.
 
“You put the special in specialist,” I say to Egg.
 
 
 
Somehow we’ve got on the subject of Lady Gaga as we’re rolling out the front gate. I’m trying to ease over the speed bumps. The leaf-spring suspension in the MRAP, combined with a high center of gravity, makes the vehicle buck and bounce like a mechanical bull with the slightest bump in the road.
 
“Got to have my Poker Face while I’m working out,” Specialist Pressley is saying.
 
“I was listening to Kesha this morning while getting dressed,” says the Lieutenant.
 
“You both need some new music,” I say.
 
“Like what?”
 
“Don’t get me wrong,” Pressley says, “I love rock, like some eighties rock.”
 
“What, like The Cars or Talking Heads?”
 
“No, like Motley Crue.”
 
“Ah, hair metal.”
 
“Hell yeah. Have you heard Nikki Sixx’s new band? Sixx:A.M. They’ve got this song ‘Life is Beautiful.’ It’s amazing. I’m going to have them play that song at my funeral.”
 
“I think I’ll have them play ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ by Bob Dylan at my funeral,” I say. “Just to make people extra sad.”
 
“How many eighties rock songs do you have?”
 
“Not sure. Quite a bit, I think.”
 
“Like a hundred? A thousand?”
 
“Maybe a few hundred, at least. The majority of my hair metal collection was misplaced sometime around high school or college. I used to have everything.”
 
“You’ve got to let me download that shit.”
 
“If you can figure out how to get it off my iPod.”
 
The next hour of the patrol is spent discussing musical tastes and debating the most badass rock songs in history. My opinion: “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin. After that topic has run its course, we lapse into another long silence.
 
We’re about a week into Ramadan at this point, which is historically a period of heightened attacks on the part of the insurgent population. We have been ordered to be sensitive to the native religious beliefs, and so we are not supposed to smoke or dip or eat in front of the ISF. Even water consumption is to be performed discreetly. Most of us have all but ignored this directive.
 
Iraqis are typically surly during Ramadan, as they are not allowed to eat or drink during daylight hours. Today, though, they seem more bad-tempered than usual. Chatter over the radio net indicates that we are not to joke around today, that the IPs are upset about some sort of friendly-fire incident that occurred yesterday between US and Iraqi forces.
 
“You don’t think it was the pin flare?” says Pressley.
 
“I don’t know.”
 
Yesterday, as we were crossing the main intersection on the south side of Tikrit, a sedan cut off our vehicle. Specialist Pressley fired a pin flare at the car, which bounced off the asphalt and shot a few feet into the air, nearly missing an IA soldier who was directing traffic. It doesn’t seem likely that this would be enough to cause hostility, but who knows.
 
The meetings take a bit longer than usual, presumably because our officers are discussing the incident with the IP bigwigs. When the Lieutenant finally returns to the truck, he fills us in on the details as we prepare to move out. Apparently, some Iraqi civilians were killed during a raid targeted at capturing a High-Value Individual. Our information indicates that the raid was planned and executed by ISF, though there were allegedly some US Special Operations personnel present as observers. The Iraqis are blaming US Forces for the deaths and asked for compensation and an apology, which they were refused. The incident has produced a fair amount of anti-US sentiment in the area, and protests are being planned in Tikrit and some other nearby cities.
 
“You know what that means for us?” the Lieutenant asks.
 
“It means they’re going to try and light us up,” I say.
 
 

(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.)

 

 

BONGO

I’m staring out the windshield at a sea of dirt and trash and overgrown scrub. There are a few sickly palm trees scattered about, fronds mangled and sagging. I can see the banks of the Tigris off to our ten o’clock.

“Fuck my life,” Specialist Pressley grumbles his refrain over the intercom.

We’re waiting for our dismount troops to complete their engagement. The government building they are occupying looks like a half-assed Taj Mahal made out of brown brick. Most of the buildings around here look the same. This area used to be one of Saddam’s palatial compounds, and now it serves as an operating base for Tikrit’s law enforcement and military agencies.

“They need to pay some of these assholes to police up all this garbage,” I say. It looks as if a dump truck drove by with its back gate open. It looks like that everywhere in this country—years’ worth of discarded waste that’s been ignored and then redistributed by the desert wind. “There are enough people looking for work. Give them a couple bucks a day to walk around with a trash bag.”

“Yeah, that’ll never happen.”

“Probably not.”

“They don’t give a fuck. As soon as we leave, this country’s going down.”

“This place used to be the pinnacle of civilization a few thousand years ago. Now it’s a shithole,” I draw out the Oh sound for emphasis. “I call that regression.”

“Yup. I’m still saying we should’ve just took their oil and left them to fend for themselves.”

“I agree. What ever happened to good old-fashioned plunder? That’s how they financed warfare back in the old days.”

“Yup.”

From there, our conversation evolves into a dialogue of potential world-conflict scenarios. What would happen if Iran attacked us, if someone tried to nuke us, how would we respond, who would be on our side, what would be our strategy? By the end of it, we’ve hypothetically destroyed about ninety percent of the planet.

We do this every day.

Countless hours waiting in the truck, trying not to fall asleep. Sometimes we talk about future plans, sometimes we gripe. Sometimes we repeat conversations we’ve already had. Once we had a lengthy metaphysical discussion about the nature of the universe and the possibility of life on other planets. Sometimes we don’t say anything at all. Failing all that, we debate which female celebrities are the most desirable and why. Anything to kill the time and staunch the tide of crushing boredom.

 

 

It’s hot here. Not California-summer-heat-wave hot, but genuine cartoon-slide-whistle-thermometer-popping hot. Every molecule of dirt and air radiates heat. I have burns on my hands just from grabbing the door handle on the MRAP. One hundred and fifteen is a good day. One hundred and ten is a really good day. Within a month, it will be one thirty and above. The only grace is that there is no humidity. And the body adjusts. But the true master of this country is the dust. We are saturated by it—our clothes, skin and hair. Every structure and surface is shrouded by a layer of dust that never seems to recede. The wind carries it in immense coughing waves. When civilization finally succumbs, it will not take long for the desert to swallow this place and reclaim it to the sand.

 

 

Doc Blandino tells me I smoke too much. I give him my standard response: you’ve got to die of something. I do smoke too much. I’m almost at a pack a day. I’ve quit and relapsed so many times over the past ten years it’s hard to keep track. This whole cockamamie idea to join the army may all have been a ploy by my subconscious to resume the habit without feeling guilty. I need to quit, but it’s part of my routine.

Routine sustains us.

We get up early to prep the trucks, then stand around smoking while we complete radio checks and rehearse our procedures for reaction to contact and escalation of force. Our platoon’s job is to provide security for less-expendable officers from our battalion headquarters who liaise with local Iraqi police and military leaders. Essentially, we are glorified chauffeurs and bodyguards. We roll out the wire, sit in the trucks for a few hours, and then roll back. We grab chow and perform maintenance on the vehicles. Most days we get a few hours off in the afternoon, during which I normally fall asleep. I wake up around seventeen or eighteen hundred and then read or mess around on the internet until about nineteen hundred, when our team gathers to brief on the next day’s mission. I’m usually not hungry enough to walk to dinner chow. Maybe I’ll eat a Clif Bar or something. Around twenty hundred, Egg and I go to the gym and I do about forty-five minutes on the treadmill or elliptical machine. Then I head back to the CHU, shower, and lay down on my bunk. I think about walking over to the MWR center to call my family, but I realize I have nothing interesting to say. Maybe I’ll read some more or watch a movie on my laptop. After a while, I switch off the light and think about home as I try to get to sleep. I think about my dog, and about the strangers living in my house. I think about lost loves and bad decisions.

Around zero five thirty in the morning, I wake up to a series of carefully staggered alarms. I get dressed in the dark, shave and brush my teeth. Then I grab my rifle and my gear, and we do it all over again.

 

 

There is no fear, in a tangible sense. Not one of us seems truly afraid of being killed on patrol, though it may happen. In all likelihood, you might have a greater statistical probability of getting killed on your way to work in L.A. than a soldier does on any given day outside the wire in Iraq. Nowadays, anyway. After all, we have armor and a lot of very big guns. Though in the States, presumably, there are not throngs of angry young men proactively planning the violent demise of your average commuter.

Currently, the insurgents’ favorite thing to do is toss RKG-3 rounds at our convoys from the side of the road and then run like hell. The RKG-3 is a Russian anti-tank grenade that resembles an old-school German potato masher, only it has much more explosive yield and is designed to penetrate armored vehicles. About a month after we arrived in theater, two soldiers from our brigade were killed when an RKG-3 struck the passenger-side window of their MRAP.

This could happen to us at any time. Any corner in the city could be the one at which they decide to attack us. Any person out there might be the one with an RKG behind their back. Any car on the street could be packing a VBIED. But every day we roll out and nothing happens.

So far.

 

 

It’s another day, and I’m riding in the back of Three-Two as we bump south on Tampa, fourth in the order of march. There’s nothing remarkable about the desert scrolling by outside the narrow window slats, but I scan all the same. We’ve driven this route a hundred times and nothing much changes. A convoy of cargo trucks about two miles long is clogging the southbound lane, so we cut across the median and travel counter-flow. I’ve tuned out the conversation over the intercom, but words like “tits” and “snatch” pop out at me. They’re either talking about porn or previous lays, both frequent yet somehow inexhaustible topics of discussion. I’m starting to zone out when our driver, gunner and TC all shout “Whoa!” in unison.

“What happened?”

The radio crackles to life.

“All units, Punisher One. Everyone push past.”

“Anyone see any casualties?”

“This is Punisher Five, there’s at least one casualty.”

“That dude is fucked up.”

Up ahead, the other trucks in our convoy are starting to turn around.

“What the fuck happened?”

“A vehicle just hit Three-Six,” Sergeant Cote says,” let the Major know we’re turning the convoy around to assess the crash site.”

“Roger.”

I lean towards the Major so he can hear me over the noise of the vehicle.

“Sir, our lead truck had a collision with an Iraqi vehicle.”

“He didn’t have a collision, that dude straight ran into Three-Six,” Sergeant Tamayo says over the intercom.

“We’re turning around now to check out the crash,” I finish. The Major nods his understanding.

“Groh, I’m gonna need you to swap out with me so I can get on the ground,” says Sergeant Tamayo. He starts to climb out of the turret as we’re pulling to a stop on the perimeter of the crash. The ramp drops as I wiggle my way up into the gunner’s position.

I catch a brief glimpse of the scene as I traverse the turret to our six o’clock: dismounts pouring out of MRAPs, onlookers beginning to converge. There’s a man sprawled on the pavement with what looks like a nasty head wound. His arms and legs are twitching violently. And then I’m facing south towards all the northbound traffic beginning to stack up behind us. We are vulnerable here. If any of those cars gets too close or attempts to drive through our security perimeter, I will have to shoot them. I pull the charging handle back on the M2 and level the barrel towards our audience. And I wait.

About twenty minutes later, we’re wrapping up and headed back to the FOB. The platoon is excited because we’re done early today.

Later on, I will piece together the scenario from various accounts. The man on the ground was driving his dilapidated bongo truck west on a small crossroad to the highway. Instead of waiting for our convoy to pass, he decided to pull out in front of a fourteen-ton armored vehicle that was moving in excess of fifty miles per hour. Force equals mass times acceleration. And we do not slow down. This man’s cousin was driving a second bongo truck and following directly behind, so when Three-Six struck the passenger side of the first truck, it sent him spinning around to collide with the second. There were two small children in the cousin’s vehicle.

Fortunately, everyone survived. The kids were a little worse for wear, bloody mouths and noses, but they walked away from it. The twitching man suffered what appeared to be serious brain trauma. He was treated by our medic and evacuated by an Iraqi ambulance.

Six years in the auto insurance claims business, and I can tell you definitively that the Iraqi driver was one hundred percent at fault for failure to yield. But that will not stop them, and every other Iraqi who was there, from hating us a little bit more. Nor will they be grateful that we failed to do our job properly. If we had done the right thing, if we’d been paying better attention, if our convoluted rules of engagement didn’t have us so hesitant to pull the trigger, then those vehicles would not have gotten anywhere near us. Both trucks would have been riddled with several hundred rounds of 7.62mm ammunition the instant they tried to cut across us. And all four of those people, children included, would be very dead.

 

 

Make no mistake. Our job is to kill. All of our extensive training and indoctrination is designed to make us more precise and efficient killers. You may read about humanitarian efforts and winning hearts and minds, but an infantryman’s sole purpose is destruction. This task is not regarded solemnly. There is an ever-present bloodlust that is at the same time thrilling and deeply unsettling. “I can’t wait to shoot a motherfucker in the face,” is a remark I have heard on several occasions from more than one of my comrades. I may have even said it myself.

I’m thirty-two years old and I spent my life in the conservative, upper-middle-class suburbs of Southern California. I’ve never been hunting. I’ve never intentionally killed an animal, with the exception of a few squashed spiders and ants and a few fishing trips with my grandfathers when I was a kid. I once accidentally ran over a cottontail with my mustang and felt terrible about it for a couple of days. I am not sure what will happen if I have to kill a man. I do not have any doubts about my ability to do it. The training alone makes the action all but mechanical, and I’ve learned that I do not balk under stress. If anything, I become calmer. What sometimes worries me, though, is what will happen afterward. I may be tormented, or I may feel nothing at all. And both possibilities are disturbing.

My hope is that I’m never presented with the opportunity to find out. Some part of me may have wanted it, that fifteen-year-old boy in me that’s still chasing Hemingway’s ghost. But I know better now.

 

Soldier One: What did he say about honor?

Soldier Two: I’m not sure. His horse twisted him around a couple times.