A scene that has stayed with me is one in which I look out from a balcony to a dirt road. Each morning, I would grab some coffee and go to the balcony to smoke a cigarette. For some reason, I looked left. I don’t know why; it was my routine. The scene in my memory, the one that stuck, is because it was all wrong.
It’s taken a long time for me to get to a point where I could tell the following story. A long time coming. Maybe too long.
Perhaps I needed the time to gather my thoughts, mull over memories and distort them enough to make sense out of the mess my mind has made of them. Maybe the time has allowed me to glean some kind of lesson from my previous and follow-up experiences and withdrawn perspective.
George Santayana wrote, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
Perhaps the lesson through the learning is that there is nothing to learn.
Despite what many believe, most of us were not, are not, heroes. There is no heroism in following orders or keeping your word. One may argue this point, swear that all Service Members: Sailors, Soldiers, Airmen and Marines, are heroes, but it would only be a semantic argument. Is an act devoid of choice, heroic? Is there bravery without fear?
There are powerful people in the world who daily make decisions which directly impact the lives of others with whom they will never meet or share experiences. It’s always been this way and will likely always remain so. You can politicize or personalize it. One can rebel and rage against it, or quietly condemn it. The system of the world doesn’t care. It doesn’t matter. Though its form may change, its function will stay the same.
I can honestly say, beyond my family, I am a hero to no one and I don’t wish to be. As Charles Barkley once said, “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.” I was a Soldier and my court was the battlefield.
Now, let me clear the air; there are heroes. Some are big and deserve widespread acknowledgment and praise. Streets and schools will receive their names; monuments will be erected; movies and books will be written and produced. Other heroes are small and personal, no one, except those who matter, will ever know. The rest of us are just men and women in uniform keeping a pledge and ready to visit violence on those who would do us harm while others sleep soundly in their beds. In other words, just doing our jobs.
The world needs us all: heroes, Soldiers and individuals. Just as our society needs those willing to serve as the war-fighting men and women, it also needs those protesting against the war-fighting.
Make no mistake, we are a part of something different and awesome. This Army with all its regulations and order and even its fuckups. It’s a club like no other. I’ve heard it called, “the Cult of the Army.” Fascinating and grotesque and amazing and frightening and heartbreaking. The experience is something you get nowhere else. Google has nothing on it. No sport team can boast what this thing called military has. And I’m just talking about the day to day, combat is even harder to comprehend unless you’ve been there. Fantastic and, to a degree, unbelievable. It’s why my Drill Instructor at Basic used to refer to Soldiers telling stories as ‘Telling lies.’
“There I was…”
Going into a combat theater is a total pulling out of existence. It’s simply not something an outsider can understand; no matter how many books one’s read or movies one’s seen. I’m not trying to condescend; truly, I can’t fully understand what my fellow Soldiers went through, but I can at least empathize an nth degree more than those who have no frame of reference. See, even within the military there are a million variations.
What I know is that I, personally, am forever damaged and strengthened by my experience; however, what doesn’t kill you doesn’t always make you stronger. That bullshit just doesn’t always apply. There are plenty who have survived and were made weaker. No one wants to believe it, especially concerning our “Heroes”. And if they do believe it, they don’t want to think about it. It’s one of the many tragedies facing our military members and their families.
Imagine what it must be like for those living in that shit. What grounding on reality can a child have growing up surrounded by war?
I would like to say, “Let’s just get this out of the way at the start,” but I’ve already started and, besides, you might consider me trite. (Sorry, you’ll find, though I try to limit them as much as possible, I have a lot of verbal shortcomings.) Unfortunately, I can be trite at times; I use clichés and bad allusions and equally bad metaphors and similes. It’s really sad actually. I can’t break myself of them. I got accused of understatement once. There were three of us: Sergeant Jack, Specialist McNeary and myself. We were eating breakfast after our morning physical training and I made the statement, “I wouldn’t say that I love the Army.” This isn’t a secret from anyone or anything, and when I said it, Sgt Jack went into such an epileptic bout of laughter I thought he would choke on his muffin. Seriously, we were five seconds from having had a coffee shower. So, let’s just get this out of the way. If you want to hear some patriotic piece of fluff about honor and courage and all the God and country stuff, go rent a John Wayne movie. This isn’t that kind of story. This one’s more on the selfish side. Now, don’t get me wrong before I get going; it’s not that I hated the Army. When I’m honest about it, I find that I must admit this. There are many great aspects to being in the military. I’m simply saying, the Army took every little piece it could from me. Its okay, though, really; I don’t blame it, because, after all, I used the Army to the best of my ability too. I’m just not getting into any of the particulars; however, so don’t expect any of that crap. I don’t intend to berate the Army or boo-hoo about the way I was treated. This is also not that kind of story.
But, I digress. (That might happen a lot coming up.) The reason I’m here now is; it seems that anyone considered “important” gets their story held up for the world to behold in technicolor and hyperbole. Well, why not mine? True, I’m no hero, no medal of anything winner, that’s true. I can’t tell you about my career to the top – a ghost written tome by some hired pen while the real specter takes center stage -and I don’t have an inspiring story about a dog, though a dog does have a brief walk-on part. I just want to tell you my story, one year of it to be precise. So, realize that, in the interest of condensation, some experiences, good and bad, by necessity, must be left out. And, oh by the way, don’t come expecting any true-to-life memoir or oh-my-God, confessionals. This isn’t that kind of story either. To tell you the truth, this is all just one big lie.
It begins with me watching my newborn son sleeping, kissing my wife goodbye and closing the door behind me.
So there I was holding my wife’s hand, peering into the crib where my six-month lay. I wanted to cement the sight of my son sleeping, the sound of his breathing, into my mind before I left since I might not see him for another year or more. I had grown increasingly numb in the preceding days. Now that I was actually leaving, it was hard for me to feel much more than a type of remove.
I bent over the rail and breathed him in. I couldn’t help but think of a mother dog sniffing her pup. I wanted to lick him and keep his taste too. I straightened, avoiding my wife’s eyes, which I could sense on me and stepped into the hallway. Alison felt this oncoming separation enough for the both of us and so she released some of it in a tight hug before I could grab my backpack. Once she let go, I took the bag from the corner and moved to the door. This time I took her into my arms and kissed her hair and her face and finally her lips. By God, at least I would keep her taste.
“You be safe, okay?” she said.
“Of course.” I stood outside the door at this point. The jamb and my personal wall, building itself thicker and thicker by the moment, stood between us.
“I’ll see you soon.”
“Yes,” I pulled her face across and kissed her once more. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Close the door.”
“Okay,” she lingered. “I love you. Be safe.”
“I love you, too. I will.” I pulled the door shut and turned away.
Imagine, if you will, a February morning. Put yourself there. It doesn’t matter where in the world you are, any February morning will do. You’re thinking dawn, aren’t you? That pink world where there’s a hint of warmth with the oncoming light though the chill seems even more brisk. That’s okay. It’s natural to think of the pleasant, the refreshing moments. These are the places we all want be. So let’s establish ourselves there in the comfort of those early hours. Ready? Now turn the time all the way back to two o’clock. It changes things just a little, doesn’t it? Walk down the road. It’s dark, but you can see the two buildings, one on either side of the road. Fields open up on your right and left, giving you a sense of vastness. A river trickles behind you now that you have crossed over the bridge. There are no cars here, but you can hear them on the distant highway. There’s a slight breeze which carries various dog conversations, but you don’t feel the cold that should also be with it anywhere but in your fingertips. The smell of moist earth fills your nose.
Can you imagine all of this? Good. Now add what I’ve already told you to the scene. You’ve just walked away from your wife and child. You will return home sometime within the next year if you get the chance for a vacation; otherwise, you will see them again after the coming year is over. Unless you don’t come home. Unless you die. What do you think about?
Okay, now tell me because I had no idea.
I lit a cigarette and smoked.
I had been a medic with A Company for about two and a half years, give or take. I started out as a driver for my first team leader, a pleasant guy who instilled in me a certain sense of pride in the company that I served. I moved up into the position of platoon medic where I served under another great Noncommissioned Officer, a platoon sergeant who made all other leaders pale in comparison. My second team leader, while being good to the medics under his authority, was sometimes too timid with the higher echelons. Once he left, I put the responsibility on myself to make the plunge and take the reigns as team leader. I passed the board, got my Sergeant stripes and became the one I hoped my soldiers would like and respect.
I had witnessed guys fall on their heads from fifteen feet off an obstacle and walk away with nothing more than a blush. I saw them push themselves through squad competitions. I covered them at firing ranges and squad movement lanes. I helped take care of their nasty feet. I bandaged their cuts and scrapes. I listened to their aches and pains, and to their gripes and complaints. I slept in the rain with them. I froze in the snow with them. I sweated in the heat with them. I deployed on one six month peace keeping mission and too many training missions to count. When the planes hit the twin towers, I didn’t go to the medical platoon; I went to guard the gates of our base with the men of A Company.
I flew in Black Hawks with them and found out who was scared and who wasn’t; who barfed and who didn’t. They let me shoot the big guns sometimes, and let me tell you, there is something special about an explosion of three Mark 19 rounds hitting a cavern wall at five hundred meters that only a child or someone there can truly appreciate. I took pride in their accomplishments and I was disappointed when they let themselves down. All told, the infantry soldiers of A Company were my true military brothers.
Yet, I always kept myself at a certain professional remove so that if anything catastrophic were to happen, I could take care of them. Now we were headed for a war zone.
We had all seen what was going on over there like everyone else, yet we didn’t really know what to expect. Things were changing all the time, and it created a sense of chaos. You throw in all the personal questions and you’ve got a lot of unease. Would I be able to do my job if called to do so? Would these young men? After all, aren’t they the ones we think of? Sure, in the movies, we see the battle tested leaders up front, but isn’t it the young ones who concern us most when we think of war? Wasn’t the story of Jessica Lynch that much more harrowing because she and the others taken captive were still young? Did you hear about the Sergeant Major and his driver who were pulled from their vehicle, killed and drug through the city? What about the Sergeant First Class and his soldier disappearing from their guard tower, their bodies found three days later? Probably not, right? Still tragic though, isn’t it?
Our unit had already gone to the Balkans and done well there. It was a peacekeeping mission for six months, but you still had the constant rigors of deployment. Along with the slide show presentation that the commander had given to us and our spouses; what lovely living conditions we would have, and what decent dining facilities there were, and oh look at the amenities like the showers and exercise areas and computers and phones, we felt we would do fine, but there’s always that uncertainty that lingers in the back of your mind and the pit of your gut. After all, what weren’t we being told.
The chain that my dog tags are attached has been threaded through a gutted 550 cord so that it doesn’t irritate my neck. My dog tags have rubber wrapped around them to make them silent and it also prevents the tags from pulling my chest hair. On the same chain I have my house key. It is a typical German housing key, thick and large with sharp teeth. It digs into my sternum when I wear my IBA. I don’t mind because it reminds me of who and what’re not with me. Along with my ID chain I have a St. Christopher to keep me safe. I am not Catholic. I don’t understand why anyone believes in Saints. A friend gave me a military leadership coin and it stays in my left breast pocket. It could stop a bullet if I were shot within its inch and half diameter. I have a small teddy bear that my wife bought for me five years earlier with which I sleep. It’s yellow. It’s kinda dirty now. I can’t sleep without it.
I was lucky. I had been home when my wife was pregnant. I got to witness it all, I was there for food cravings and aversions and mood swings and the rollercoaster sex drive; the swell of her breasts and the growth of her belly; I felt the baby move beneath her skin like a serpent swimming in his own little pink sea. I watched as her skin changed and her feet filled with the blood of our child, and I got to hear the complaints of the pregnancy, and I got to hear the joy she expressed at the life inside her.
My wife was determined in her endeavors and exercised daily. She had started with pregnancy aerobics videos, but eventually took to walking as being her only athletic outlet; but even so would tackle hills and paths, sometimes leaving me panting as I kept pace with her, as if they were opponents she could not let herself fail against since failing meant she would fail our baby.
I ate at the same table as she gobbled up the food on her plate. She breathed in fruits, which she didn’t much like, an endless array of vegetables, which she did, and drank water and milk as if they would shut off the plumbing, both in the house and the cows, the next day. Her appetite was ravenous; I was amazed, but she never over indulged, I was weak.
At night, in bed I sweated as she sweated; tossed as she tossed, trying to find that ever elusive position of comfort. No, actually, I wish it were true but it’s not. Always having been a troubled sleeper, I couldn’t even share her experience in that; I didn’t toss or turn or lose any sleep at all at the time. As a matter of fact, I slept like a baby next to his mother.
See, as the months progressed, she had come, for me, to encompass every woman; wife, mother, daughter, and sister. Alison became bigger than life itself. She was the elements; she was earth, wind, fire and especially water. She was emotion incarnate; on any given day she could be stoic, sad, wrathful or loving. In developing this omnipotence, she was God. And I worshipped her; this life-giver, this Creator. How could it be any other way? Carrying the child, by the mere gestation of months, she surpassed me and any possible achievement I may make. I would forever be beneath her.
Then I was there to experience the true epiphany. The birth, that bloody show, with its soundtrack of control breathes and grunts, its orchestration of pushes and relaxations. My once benign lover had become a formidable warrior. She received her pain and redirected it to the battle between her sweating thighs. She never once complained or blamed only a single “fuck”, whispered, her eyes closed.
I was lucky. I got to hold my child when he was still angry and resentful for being cast out of his Eden, and to kiss my wife before she fell into the afterbirth doze.
I was lucky. I got see my wife become a mother in the months after bringing our son into the world.
I was lucky. I got to become a father. For six months I got to feed him, change his diapers, and bath him. I was the one who found out that the first sound he liked was Bu-bu-bu. I danced with him in my arms to the soundtrack of a French movie I enjoyed. I calmed him when he cried and I played with him until he screeched. I put him to bed at night and woke him on weekend mornings to let my wife sleep late. I got to see him grow and change.
Others weren’t so lucky. They were here through all of it. Because of missions being run, they discovered the births from friends or through Red Cross messages before their spouses and girlfriends were able to get a hold of them. They saw pictures on the internet, talked on the phone. Most were able to travel home immediately after and spend two whole weeks with their loved ones but some had to wait. I don’t think that I ever heard them complain. They anxiously awaited their chance to go home. And these men, the newly christened fathers and those who had been down the path before, returned to us, their military family in the desert, their brothers in arms, pictures were shared, smiles spread, hands shook and backs patted. We smoked cigarettes instead of cigars, toasted with water instead of beer or whiskey; glad they were back safely, sorry they were back.
Something to Think About
How does one get through things like this? There is the AA philosophy of “Take one day at a time.” And there is the banal idea of, “Live every day as if it were your last.” Unfortunately, these are at odds with one another like free-will and predestination. First, you can’t help but go one day at a time, that I suppose is obvious and is probably the most frustrating aspect to your average alcoholic/junkie, but I find that when your routine consists of patrol, patrol, sleep, eat, patrol and unlike said addict, there is an end in sight, a goal to reach, a date (as uncertain as it may be to those deployed) to mark on the calendar. It’s not waiting for things to get better or finding a way to cope; it’s not a factor of making a routine that works for you. I’m not speaking figuratively here. It is quite literally a matter of getting through it all with your life, parts and sanity intact.
Then to live like each day could be your last is first a very good possibility in regards to your last and an impossibility in regards to “living”. One does not Live in combat theaters, one survives. Living and “Living” are for home.
I was very much under the impression that that was were I should be.
It happened just like this, okay? Moffet and I were out on the patio smoking, talking about the flies most likely, right, because what else was there to talk about. It was still early but the flies had already started to party, see? There really wasn’t anything else, just flies and sand. So, anyway, Banner comes over pulling Private Jackson. “Hey Doc. You gotta see this.” He’s practically dragging this kid to us, okay? “Show’em.”
“Naw man,” Jackson says, trying to get away.
“Come on,” he pleads. “Just show’em. They’ll know what to do.” Banner looks like he’s about to piss himself, he’s so excited.
“What’s up, Jackson?” I ask. Moffet’s not even looking at the kid, see? He’s still swatting at the flies.
“It’s nothing, Doc, really.” this kid can’t wait to get away.
“What is it?” asks Moffet.
“He sat on a fuckin’ nail, Doc.” Banner can’t hold it in any more, right? He’s practically jumping up and down now.
“You sat on a nail?”
“And it broke off in his ass!” Banner can’t contain himself. “Show’em, man, show’em!”
“How did you break a nail off in your butt?” Moffet asks, starting to smile.
“It was the way he sat down. Just show’em, Jackson.”
Jackson’s blushing at his buddy’s insistence by this point, okay? “Alright, man. Just shut up. Shit!” So Jackson turns around, mumbling and everything, but he’s gonna show us, right. Moffet and I, we step over. We’re waiting to look at the nail in this kid’s butt, right? All these flies are buzzing around, and we’re standing there anticipating a good old gander at Jackson’s pierced ass.
Banner’s bouncing around. “You’re gonna love this.” He can’t contain himself. Jackson unbuckles and starts lowering his pants. I blow some smoke out and lean in. And right there, sure enough, written in permanent marker, is APRIL FOOL’S SUCKER!
First Sergeant walks out onto the patio, and without a beat, Moffet says, “First Sergeant. You’ve gotta see this. Jackson sat on a nail.” Moffet and I left to get away from the flies.
The heat was beginning to build up. The mornings were still bearable, well anything was bearable, but the afternoons were just now really hinting at what was to come. In addition, this was the high time for gastronomical complications. Mix the two together and you get a pretty nasty period. How many times did we see someone rush out the door, stilling closing up their vest, on their way to the porta johns? Must have been hundreds. Most made it but occasionally you would see the person suddenly slow their pace and start moving funny. “Oh, so close,” someone might say, not mocking only stating the obvious. You only joked when you were discussing your own trials of the screaming shits.
“I woke up this morning, needing to shit so bad,” Specialist McLeary said one day. “I don’t think I’ve ever dressed that quick. The whole time running down the steps I thought it was just going to blow out. I ran across to the john, threw my gear down and made it just in time to piss out my butt as the seat branded my ass because they’re so fucking hot.”
“At least you made it to the latrine,” Connell said. Several others assented. “I woke up and thought I had gas, but when I went to fart, I shit my bed. I was so tired that I almost said ‘fuck it,’ and just stayed there.” This brought on some laughter.
Our bodies were still adjusting to the oncoming heat, the poor hygiene and chow and whatever that dirty country had all around us that made us vomit and shit water and bend over with cramps. The thing was, we were lucky. As with everything else, we had it better than the previous rotation. At least we had porta john. There were some places where the soldiers still had to burn their shit in barrels. But even so, it wasn’t like the field where you could just drop down about anywhere if you were called to do so. So mostly you just prayed to make it to somewhere that had a porta john or if you were lucky a real bathroom.
The month passed by and the sun came up earlier and earlier, getting hotter and hotter. The world was becoming a silver glare. Even a trip to the MWR room would cause a soldier to be drenched in perspiration. The generators were working overtime to keep us lit and cool, and as the days stumbled over one another, they began to fail more often. If you worked on a night rotation, you might wake up during the day in the dark covered in a full body sweat.
Our leaders talked about fewer day missions and about concentrating on the night, but whether it was simply misperception or whatever, it sure didn’t seem like anything changed. We went out on patrols. We set up traffic control points. We looked for, and sometimes even caught, the bad guys. Mostly though we sweated our nuts off.
The barber quit. He was threatened with death to himself and his family. It was too bad; the guy who replaced him must have been a sheep herder.
The heat increased, summer was truly upon us. The heat was something unrecognizable in my experience. It was as intense as an oven, the sun like a heat lamp and the wind like a blow-dryer. Everything, as the vegetation went into hibernation, was silver. You would walk outside and sun wasn’t just blinding, it was deafening. It climbed into you and course through your body like mercury in the veins, heavy and deadly. You wanted to take off all your clothes but the sunlight burned your skin. Guys darkened from the neck up and the wrists out. This was no farmer’s tan. This was desert tattooing.
We drank water to combat the temperature, boiling gallons of it through our pores. Our vests and belts and elbow pads held in the moisture, not letting any air flow over our skin. Soldiers would have rippled salt stains on their uniforms like silt on a shore and rivulets down their darkened faces. The fine dust of the desert clung to our sweaty palms.
Our weapons got so hot that some wore gloves, opting for the additional clothing over blistering their fingers. If you stopped your truck for any amount of time, it become a furnace. The breeze while you drove was only slightly better.
Two things that hope to never hear again: it’s a dry heat and it was so hot, it took my breath away. Well, let me tell you, dry or not, a pizza oven is not good place to crawl into either and in that place didn’t so much as take your breath as turn you into jerky. Your eyes dried, your tongue stuck to roof of your mouth and your lips shriveled as your face felt tightened. So don’t talk to me about heat. I mean, why would anyone live here much less fight for the shithole?
I had a dream one night, this must have been around mid June, where I was walking down one of the streets of Iraq. It could have been any street of any of the smaller towns, it didn’t matter. The houses were all the same; stone, walls all around and gates in front. There was trash in the streets and power lines hanging low over them. I could tell the power was out because there were no lights on anywhere, inside or out. I heard some of the dogs stir and bark as I passed, but other than that just the hum of the desert.
I started running and found myself in a downward sloping forest. I couldn’t remember entering the woods; I was just there with the knowledge of where I had come. It was like I had blacked out for a few minutes. I continued running, beginning to leap, jumping distances that carried me over some of the shorter trees. Then I didn’t even touch the ground, just glided around everything in my path and occasionally bounding over the forest entirely as I picked up speed, everything blurring. The hillside grew thick with bushes and vines and trees but nothing slowed me down. Then as quickly as I had begun, I stopped. There was a cliff before me. I looked out onto a single building, situated in a cul-de-sac, sitting immediately to my front and a road trailing gently down the slope behind and towards the city, a light morning haze floated over the city and the sun reflected off glass and metal. I could make out the ocean through the haze and beyond.
I made one last leap down onto the lawn around the cul-de-sac and stepped lightly toward the building. It appeared abandoned but I could hear voices from within and saw that a side door was propped open. I entered and sneezed from the dust stirred up by my footsteps. On the far side of the vast foyer was a table surrounded by some jovial elderly women. I knew without asking that they were in a Daughters of the Republic meeting, for all the good that did me. They drank from an expensive and delicate looking tea set on a table so coated with dust that there were gashes wiped clean in it from the women’s sleeves as they reached for their cups and which I could see from my position fifty feet away. The Daughters either didn’t notice or didn’t care that their flowery and lace trimmed dresses were getting filthy.
I was slightly startled to see one of the women looking at me. She was on the far side of the table and I hadn’t noticed her at first. She wore old sun bonnet though the room was dim in the coming dawn. Her high necked dress was covered in a rose print. She held her tea cup and saucer up close to her face and peered over it with age bleached eyes, laugh lines crinkling at their edges.
The woman rose from her seat and walked over to me, her cup and saucer still in her hands. “Did you come for the instruments?” she asked, nodding to a corner behind my left shoulder. I turned and saw a bookshelf and some dust covered violins. “You can have whatever you like. They would make a good present for a child to learn on, wouldn’t they?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you play?”
“No, I’ve never been able to. I’ve always wanted to learn.”
“Children grow so quickly,” she said. “If you don’t pay attention, they pass you by, so you don’t want to miss a moment.” She touched my arm and then turned to rejoin her friends who had begun gathering their things to leave.
I stepped over to the corner and crouched down. The dust was so deep that when I pick up the first violin it left a discernable indentation. The violin was in surprisingly good shape as though the arid conditions had preserved the wood. When I strummed the strings, the notes were clean and clear despite the flurry of dust created. The women were giggling about something behind me and I looked around; seeing them as they exited a door in the rear, the woman who had approached me earlier was again in my direction. She waved as she stepped outside.
I stood, still holding the violin. I was the only one left in the room now and I began to feel uneasy for the first time. There were wide spaced stairs to the right of the room, the floor above a blackened hole at the top. I thought I noticed movement at the top but the more I watched for it again the less I could make out. The sun was rising outside but though the first floor brightened, the second floor seemed to grow darker. I walked across the room to where the women and been having their Republican tea party, keeping my eye to the unseen landing, only turning from it once I reached the table. I saw that the serving set had not only dust but also mold covering. Gray fur sprouted from the sugar cubes and ladyfingers and floated in half full tea cups.
Cpt Jason Merkell
Cpt Jason Merkell was 32 years old. He had a wife name Lauren and two children, a boy and a girl. He liked golf and baseball, but he didn’t really care for football. He liked wine more than beer, but could appreciate a good beer with the right friends. Lauren preferred beer; it was something she discovered in college where the two had met. Cpt Merkell had already lost three men by July. He didn’t cry for any of them, though he prayed for their families and wished that he could have been the one to inform them of their losses. He kept their names written down in a notebook that he shared with no one. He never mentioned any of this to his wife; Lauren knew her husband well enough that when she heard the news of the deaths, she figured he might do something like that.
The first time that Jason Merkell, CPT, Bco commanding ever fired his weapon, it was point blank. A known insurgent had come through Cpt Merkell’s area of responsibility and failed to yield at a control point. Cpt Merkell’s men had open fired as ordered on the vehicle. The man crashed into a wall, the vehicle stalled, no movement was noted. Cpt Merkell, followed by Spc Hamett, a medic, approached the car to check the casualty. The insurgent lived but was badly wounded. Spc Hamett didn’t think he would survive long enough to reach a higher level of medical care. Cpt Jason Merkell shot him in the chest twice. Criminal charges have been placed on Cpt Merkell.
PFC Garner was a psychopath. Well, not really. He wasn’t particularly violent or boastful about his job as gunner, but there was something sadistically cold about him. His soul may have been disconnected from the rest of him and sometimes you could see it in his eyes.
A patrol turned the corner on some unsuspecting suspects and they jumped and began firing. Garner returned fired as he was supposed to. One armed man went down, not moving, another was wounded and began crawling for cover and the third reached the corner and darted out of sight. The lead vehicle pursued, hitting a patch of loose dirt that left behind a cloud of sand.
Four soldiers dismounted to inspect the wounded insurgents, PFC Garner remained in the turret of his vehicle. As the four approached they had their weapons at the ready, prepared to respond to any sudden Lazarus events or attempts at martyrdom, but once upon the two figures in the sand, they called back. “They’re both dead.” Someone muttered, “I could have sworn that one guy was just hit in the leg.”
I heard Garner say, “Of course they are, I shot’em.”
No one ever found out. And I didn’t say anything.
I have always had what I think of as a healthy libido. It is now virtually non –existent. I have no enjoyment in masturbation, though I still do it often to go to sleep. I wonder if it will not return. I worry that it may come back to me with a vengeance. How will it show itself again? Will I become a satre, harassing my wife all day for some action?
I walk around hoping to catch a glimpse of breast. I am a breast man, but lately even my interest in pussy has become heightened. No longer is that simply the site of penetration for me and something to deal with for the purpose of “taking care of her” first and me second. It is now a being in and of itself. As my wife drives down the road I caress her arm, run my fingers through the hair falling over her shoulder. Tender acts. I want to feel the warmth of her pubis, press her labia, flick her clitoris. I want to slide my finger into her wetness. So I take my fingers from her holding hand and unfasten her jeans. I tell her to rock her pelvis so that I can reach my target. She lets me. She’s taken back by the act and aroused. “If I could, I would lick you,” I tell her.
Maybe I will go back to school once I am released from service. Will I be able to concentrate on my studies knowing young women surround me? Young women with young bodies, young breasts, and young pussy. What kind of hyper-alertness will show itself in the midst of these tits and asses? Embarrassing exchanges as I try to make light of what I am seeing or hoping to see. Whiplash.
I could give them names that only I know. They would have names like Naomi and Angelina if they looked like celebrity babes or maybe I could base it off their actions or presentation. There would be “itchy girl” and “wet head”. They’d get labels like sporty spice or hottie hot hot or chunky monkey. I could read Bret Easton Ellis and think myself as sick and hip as I blankly watch people pass by. I would envision experimental sex lives for them and what face they made when they came or I could simply imagine how their different mouths, plump down to chicken-lipped would look wrapped around my dick.
There are questions on psychology tests I have taken that ask, “Do you have perverted thoughts?” and “Have you ever partaken in perverted sex acts?” How do you answer these? You’re screwed either way. “Yes” means you have a guilty conscience concerning your sexuality. “No” means that you’re inhibited or an eunuch.
What if I can’t leave the house?
Or maybe it never comes back. Maybe my cock never shows any interest in anything, simply a hose to pass piss, a little ejaculate when pressured to do so. Maybe it will become resentful of me as I will of it. What if it decides to shrink up. “See what you can do with me now, Big Man,” it will taunt. “I will make a joke of you. You thought you had me? I will show you who has whom. You will hate me like you hate yourself. You will not be able to look in the mirror for fear of catching a glimpse of your diminishing manhood. Cock? Chick is more like it. Chick. Your son’s little dingle would be a sword to your dagger. Did I say dagger? There will be no point with you. To you. How can you be a husband without a cock? What will you do for your wife? She’ll have needs that you will not be able to fill. You will feel nothing but shame. You will feel empty always.”
Of course, I must ask myself, “What the fuck are you thinking about?”
I was hollowed out. My soul sucked each time I dealt with someone like that. It was a waste of my time and my life and I couldn’t accept that I was missing time with my wife and missing the growth of my son for the sonovabitch. I knew that I could last through the deployment, but why would I? What point was there for the whole fucking thing? The people didn’t want us there, we didn’t want to be there. Unlike a peace keeping mission where you keep two opposing groups from fighting, here we were “helping” people who only wanted us gone.
I felt the bond with my wife loosening, the one with my son imagined. Would it hold? Could I keep it long enough to get home, to reassimilate? What must my wife be feeling? I need to get back there and reassert myself. My an impact unlike the nothingness of this place. Where am I anyway?
It was the end of July. The night was as hot as it gets during the day back home and we were moving to conduct a raid. That day had been a particularly unpleasant one for me. The sun had beat down on us like a fist and the wind made your face feel mummified. You couldn’t drink enough water to quench your thirst.
In addition, I was homesick as hell, missing my wife and child. I had talked with Alison earlier and she told me about her day and another of the many new developments with the boy. “I thought I heard him say ‘all gone’,” she had said, “but I figured it was just the anxious mind of a new mother. But later when we were over at Lauren’s, he said it again and she asked if Michael had said ‘all gone’. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, you heard it too?’” Alison used “all gone” after every meal as a way of getting the little pup to accept that his distended stomach suggested that he had probably eaten enough and that the feeding session was over with. Now he was starting to use the phrase, saying like it was a single word, “allgone”, like a parrot, disconnected and proclaimed to the void mostly. But sometimes he was able to use it as a form of finality or completion.
I was able to hear Michael’s babbling voice in the background when I talked with Alison, and I thought I heard the phrase then. Later, while driving to our target, his high, baby voice filled my mind. I watched out my window and into the darkness, scanning the field and what road I could see through the small opening with my night vision, looking for movement or out of place objects. The green, monochrome of the lonely landscape depressed me. It was a sickly color and I had never realized just how much so until then.
I was cramped and uncomfortable as usual but tonight it made me fidgety. I wanted to move around, but couldn’t. The straps to my knee pads were cutting off the circulation to my legs and I readjusted as much as the space allowed. I waited impatiently to arrive so I would be out of the truck and able to stretch, hoping that there would be enough light to remove my goggles.
The radio squelched to life. “Green 3 this is Green 7. We’re making a left on the objective.” The convoy followed the lead vehicles; the various elements moving into position. The cordon was set. The opsked was called to higher. The soldiers dismounted their vehicles and prepared their assault.
With everyone in place, the soldiers did what they do. They pushed in gates, knocked on or knocked in doors. They cleared and secured the houses. They questioned the inhabitants. “Where is…? Do you have any weapons? How many people live here? How many are here?”
Where are the men?
They couldn’t find the targets. We asked where they were. The people claimed ignorance. Or they lied outright. Through our interpreters, we discovered that everyone we searched for was in Baghdad. “Must be a happening place,” one solider said.
We took everyone.
Any male over the age of eighteen on that street was a suspect. What else should we do? Sorry for barging in in the middle of the night? Guess we’ll just come back later?
The suspects were rounded up and blindfolded and their hands bound, separated from one another and numbered by which house they had come from. There was no cruelty. There was no mounting scandal here. Let the prisons keep those. Some soldiers wanted to be more forceful than what was needed but I reminded them the uselessness of that. Detain. Catalogue. Guard. Escort. If there is no resistance, then nothing more is required.
I was at the detainee point. Each new house opened up to us, relinquished its men. Some, groggy, with sleep in their eyes, squinted in the yellow glow of the street lamps. We could have shot all of the lights out, but then we would have to replace them. Besides, our captives’ eyes would be covered shortly anyway. That was my job.
Some of the ones brought to me were mere boys, like our own warrior children. They had seen the news, too. A few shivered as I wrapped the blindfolds around. It was like we were playing a sick little version of Peekaboo!
And of course once that shit got into my head, it stuck. Fucking humor can come on at the most inopportune times.
“Shh. Nothing will happen to you…yet.” I tried to let the sound of my voice calm them. “You’re alright now.”
One individual began calling to me. He could hear me walking around behind him, talking with other soldiers. “Mister.” He spoke quietly, nervously. “Mister.” It was all he knew. With a few thrust of his hips, he pantomimed that he needed to pee.
“That’s you, Doc,” Delacroix said, slapping my shoulder.
I didn’t really care; I could have dealt with worse. So I lowered the front of the guy’s pajama pants and waited for the flow to stop. “Thank you, mister.” I guess he could speak more English. I guided the young man to another plot where the urine had not flowed and sat him back on the ground.
“The next one’s yours, Del,” I said, walking to where First Sergeant stood.
“No way, man,” I heard him say. “You’re the medic.”
First Sergeant called me over to the truck. He said something into the mic on his radio and then turned to me as the Commander’s voice came from the other end. “Take that guy back.” He pointed to an older man sitting close to the road and swept the hand distractedly down the street at a group of weeping girls. I knew what he meant without explicit instructions because the man had come from a home filled with women. Seven women, at least five daughters. We had all noticed the absence of males in his compound and felt some pity for the father. “We don’t need him,” First Sergeant added. He didn’t need to explain.
I went to the man and removed the ties from his wrists, looking at the number 24 on the backs of his hands. As the blindfold came off he turned to me and I motioned for him to stand. We walked back toward his gate, the women still crying. He raised his hand to them as if he were just returning from the store. The women stood back inside the compound and waited. Once he stepped through and into his yard, he looked back to me. He verified that he could go in and I nodded. The man turned to his household and opened his arms to an onslaught of female bodies. The daughters were all weeping and saying something so clearly meaning Papa that I remember it as that word. Maybe it was, I can’t say. My thoughts were on my missed child.
I returned to the truck and waited for First Sergeant to finish talking on the radio before asking if we had found our targets yet. He kinda laughed and said, “Afraid not.”
Stop me if you’ve heard this before.
A string walks into a bar. He goes right up to the bartender and says, “Give me a scotch on the rocks! And make it a double.”
“Hey, get out!” says the bartender. “We don’t serve strings here.”
So the string walks outside. He twists himself up in a knot and frays up his hair before reentering the joint. “Bartender,” he calls down the bar. “Give me a scotch on the rocks! And make it a double.”
“Hey,” yells the bartender. “Aren’t you that string who was just in here?’
“No,” says the string. “I’m a frayed knot.”
“It’s hot. I need a drink,” I said.
First Sergeant and I looked down the street at a couple of soldiers who were bringing more detainees. A woman behind them, another woman, the mother presumably, leaned out her gate. “Ali Baba! Ali Baba!” She was calling them thieves.
“Me too,” First Sergeant responded to me.
We don’t know who we’re looking for, men, so just take’em all. I understood, but it didn’t help. I had no love for those people. There was a little bit of empathy for what the families might be experiencing as these boys and men were stolen from them in the night, but it didn’t really make me care. Even so, I felt like a fucking Nazi.
Grabbing some blindfolds, I left the vehicle and went to collect my new charges, more boys, our biggest enemies. When I approached I realized how young. “Jesus, are these guys even twelve.”
“Who knows,” Delacroix said from beside me. “It’s hard to tell sometimes.”
“I hate this shit,” I said under my breath as I started tying on the first blindfold.
“You could walk away.”
So clear, I would have sworn that it was Delacroix, except there was no accent. I looked around and over my shoulder and finally at the boy I was binding. “Really, just drop your weapon and the other blindfolds and walk away.” I realized that the voice was in my head, but I understood with utter certainty that it was right. I unslung my rifle and laid it in the dirt. I knelt there for a moment that stretched on long enough for Delacroix to ask if I was alright.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m fine.” I let the blindfolds fall on top of the weapon and stood. As I walked out from under the glow of the street lamps, I heard Delacroix talking, his back turned to me. I don’t know what he said; my thoughts were on my wife and son. Their faces filled my mind. I entered the shadows.