Sunday, May 28, 2017

A different kind of war

A Different Kind of War

My tours in Iraq were
softer than they
could have been,
a fact which has left
it’s own indelible mark.

Perhaps it’s all the talk about
tough guys being hard,
tough tours being hard,
in the context that being hard
is a positive male attribute,
that’s made my soft tours
embarrassing.
Well, I didn’t pick my tours,
didn’t pick to be in the HQ
rather than on the front line,
didn’t pick to be clearing
calls for artillery
rather than calling for it myself,
didn’t pick to be a kilometer
from the heaviest fighting in Baghdad
rather than in the midst of it.

And though my commander was killed
I wasn’t there when it happened,
when the rocket propelled grenade
struck his truck or his person,
I only heard the story of his
torso sitting on the hood when
his truck drove back on base.
I’d only worked fourteen to
eighteen hour days with him,
seven days a week in the run-up
for war. Me in the arms room
making triple sure all the equipment worked,
he in his office around the corner.
Who’s going for Popeye’s tonight?
Hey sir, I need your signature on this
    parts request, this service order,
    this deadline report.
I, a staff sergeant, convalescing from a
motorcycle accident, he a Captain,
getting ready for the war that would
unexpectedly kill him.

But I wasn’t on the front.
I only heard a bullet whiz by once.
I never saw the elephant.

I remember one conversation we had
early on, before the orders for war were
official. Our division had been given
the warning orders, it was probably
November of 2002. President Bush
was trying to sell the war to the nation and
I’d been following the news closely.
Personally, I didn’t think America
was gonna buy it. The pitch
stunk to my nose.

So when, in the weekly leadership meeting,
Captain Aitken said we need to have all our shit
ready to deploy soon, I said something like,
“Why are we taking this seriously?
There’s no way this war is
really going to happen,”
because that’s what I thought.

Maybe it was a necessary moment, because
he put his foot right down;
I don’t remember the words he used, but
I remember getting the point:
Whether or not America chooses war,
the President said “Get ready for it,”
so we need to fucking get ready.

Still, I didn’t take it really seriously until
I saw on CNN that the 3d Infantry Division,
my unit,
had been issued orders to deploy to Kuwait
just in case war was chosen.

Then in Kuwait, I bunked next to him.
He let me read a book he had on his bedside table,
or rather, his cot-side Meal Ready-to-Eat box—
On Killing, by Dave Grossman, an academic
text documenting the research Grossman did
on the effects that killing the enemy has on soldiers.
Of course he found that
killing the enemy
haunts soldiers.
Of course I read this
just before invading Iraq.

Then I got transferred to the Infantry HQ
and the war started.
Captain Aitken made it all the way
to Baghdad before he got shot
by a rocket propelled grenade that
severed his torso from the rest of his body
and set it on the hood of his truck,
a fact that I did not witness first hand but
received from the communications sergeant,
and the look in his eyes when he told me
the story informed me that he had seen it,
that he was at the gate when the
truck rolled in.
Torso on the hood.
He was a friend of mine.
The driver, another friend of mine, couldn’t
put the torso back inside the truck
because his arm had been blown off
by the blast.
I got all of the news second hand.
I still have both of my hands.
And a solid case of soft-tour guilt.

Most of the men I called brothers
had hard tours. I would’ve too
but for a motorcycle accident a
year before. But I had the accident,
and follow up surgeries, so I wasn’t fit
for the front line.
So I get the soft-tour guilt.

It’s similar perhaps to survivor’s guilt,
just a little different.
Basically I’ve been stuck in the belief
that I’m less-than because I had two
soft tours. Because I never saw
that elephant.
When the mortar rounds that were
aimed at me and my men landed,
they were four hundred meters away.
Not even close.
When I had to go duckwalking into
a vineyard looking for a man that
had fired shots at our trucks as
we drove, each hill and furrow I climbed
—what, a dozen of them? Twenty?—
wondering, is this next one the one
where he's hiding waiting for me,
the one where I get shot, or
the one where I have to shoot someone?
He wasn’t there.
When the sniper shot my gunner,
he hit him in the shoulder and
didn’t stick around to shoot again,
or to shoot at me when I jumped out
of the truck searching for the threat.
And my young soldier only almost
died of blood loss, he didn’t
actually die.
I spent sixteen months in Iraq.I spent five months on patrols.
I never got hit by an IED.
I never got in a firefight.
I never saw the elephant and
I’ve never been able to be
okay with that.
For ten years I’ve been nervous to look another
combat vet in the eye out of
fear of being found out for a fraud,
for calling myself a combat veteran when
I believed that the action I saw could
barely count for combat.

Well, whatever. It is what it is.
The insecurity still lives in my body
for now, but so what.
Today I have the air flowing in and
out of my nose and lungs and
the opportunity to say,
I saw a lot.
In this moment,
everything as it is
is enough.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Spilled

It’s 2330 in Iraq and the radios come to life with a beep.
       “Chaos X-ray this is Blue Six over.” The pitch of the platoon leader’s voice is elevated and there is a twinge of urgency that let me know this isn’t just a late night radio check. The sector is usually quiet at this hour as I sit in the Charlie company TOC, the tactical operations center, the little office on the base that houses radios and maps and is the company’s headquarters. I am Chaos X-ray, the call sign designating the company radio operator, a dispatcher. I am a fobbit on this night in late September, a less-than soldier that stays on the FOB, the Forward Operating Base, who doesn’t leave the wire, but stays in, manning the radios on the night shift while other men from my company are patrolling a ten-mile stretch of Iraq’s Highway 1 near Samarra, looking for insurgents planting bombs that will grow into clouds of shrapnel and death on the side of the highway when detonated on us or on logistical convoys in the morning.
       “This is Chaos X-ray, over,” I reply.
       “Roger X-ray, we just found the bodies of four locals dumped on the side of the road, they’ve been bound and shot execution style, over.”
       My first response to calls like this is to panic a little bit. I am mostly impotent in the situation, all I can do is radio the battalion X-ray and relay the information given me, and while my instinct is to do more, there is nothing more I can do.
       “Roger,” I reply, “tell me your location and I’ll alert higher, over.”
       He gives me the coordinates to where they are, and as I’m preparing to call battalion, Blue six comes back on the radio.
       “X-ray, Blue six, tell them to hurry, we’ve just discovered that two of the men are still breathing, over.”
       “Oh, shit. Roger, over.”
       “Power X-ray this is Chaos X-ray,” I say into the radio that is set up to talk to the battalion headquarters.
       “Chaos X-ray this is Power X-ray.”
       “My blue element on patrol has come across four local men dumped on the side of the road, bound and shot, but two are still alive and need emergency medical assistance, over.”
       “Uhhh, roger, over,” they respond, and I start waiting to hear the details of what’s being done. A minute later Blue six calls me again.
       “Chaos X-ray this is Blue six, we just discovered a letter with the bodies, our interpreter read it and it says that these men were working to help the American forces and were killed to make an example of them. Tell Power to fucking hurry, these guys aren’t doing well at all, they’re barely breathing at this point and I don’t know how much longer they’re going to make it without serious medical attention.”
       “Roger, I’ll relay that information up, over” I say, and I do, and they say “Roger, over” back, and I waited. And kept waiting.
       Five minutes later, growing impatient, Blue six calls back asking for the status on the medevac, the medical evacuation.
       “I haven’t heard anything back from them, I’ll call again and ask, over.”
       “Power X-ray, chaos X-ray, what’s the status on that medevac, over”
       “Chaos X-ray this is Power X-ray, we’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to handle the situation, over.”
       I relay this to Blue six, and he blows up.
       “What the fuck! Tell them to hurry the fuck up! These men were shot for helping us, this shit is serious! They’re going to fucking die if we don’t help them, what the fuck is their problem!? We need a fucking medevac now! There’s nothing to figure out, send a medevac!”
       I’m just a small fry in the battalion power structure, a staff sergeant, a company dispatch, and the decision makers are all officers in the battalion headquarters. There’s not much I can do, sitting in my little shipping container modified into an office—it’s been run for electricity, a couple of windows and a door installed, an industrial florescent light fixture mounted to the ceiling, maps of sector and a large dry-erase board hung on the wall. I'm sitting in air conditioning at a plastic folding table set up with radios on it. All I can do is sit there in my little box and relay Blue six’s sense of urgency, minus the cursing, since I am the small fry. Power X-ray is going to take whatever action at whatever speed they deem fit, and from what I can tell, they are not very impressed by the situation.

Now, I’m writing this 11 years after it happened, and to be honest, I don’t remember what happened next. I don’t remember how it resolved. I remember Blue six coming in at the end of his patrol shift griping—no, not griping; expressing profound frustration, anger, and sadness—that it took so long. Twenty five minutes? Thirty? It was something like that.
       Did the two men survive? I don’t know. We didn’t get details on things like that. We did our jobs in the moment and the next day we did what the next day demanded of us. We were the first responders—or rather, the men on patrol were the first responders and I was just a dispatcher, once removed. We responded, but then someone else took over.
       I was never informed of where the Iraqi men were taken, what happened to them, how their families were informed, whether the two men that were still alive when Blue six found them survived, what the surgeons went through when they were brought in, if they were even brought in somewhere. Word came in, I passed it up, waited for someone else to determine what was to be done, relayed information, and then went on with my daily responsibilities as though it never happened. As though I wasn’t involved in the lives and deaths of these two or four men.
       Did they have children? Why had they chosen to work with us? Did they know it could cost them their lives? Did they know that working with American soldiers could lead to them lying on the side of the road with their hands bound and a bullet in their heads? Did they know that helping us could lead to being abducted from wherever they were, maybe sitting around after dinner with their family? Did they consider that at some point, because they chose to help us, it was likely that armed men would burst into their home, yelling, taking them by force, tying their hands, maybe—probably—assaulting, punching, kicking, spitting on them as the abductors threw them into a car or truck or van and drove them to a lonely spot of empty highway? Did they know that helping us could lead to being forced to their knees in the sand in the dark as other men with guns, men that spoke their language, called them traitors and held guns to their heads? Did they believe so strongly that we were on the side of righteousness that they were willing to experience the panic of the moments between being put on their knees and the moment the bullet—the bullet with their name on it—was shot from the executioners gun into their skull? Did they think we could protect them? Did they think they could hide their identity? Our interpreters always wore masks and used an alias with us to protect themselves, did these men do something like that but were found out anyway? Did someone snitch on them? Did someone they knew and trusted betray them?
       And what came of their families? I don’t know how old the men were; I know that in Iraq families are usually large, and that extended families often live together or at least in close proximity. These men had brothers, cousins, sisters, mothers, fathers, uncles and aunts, grandparents and quite possibly children of their own, children who would grow up without a father now because the men who hated Americans chose to make an example of these four who had chosen to help us rather than their own countrymen or fellow Muslims.
       What was the thought process behind their choice to help us? They had to have known that this end was a possibility. When I was on patrol I often encountered people that would tell us nothing, always saying “They will kill me if they find out I told you anything.” Before we even deployed, still at Fort Stewart, near Savannah, Georgia, the battalion commander called a formation and told us that we were going to a place where the enemy was real. He told us that the insurgents had recently killed the family of the Samarra police chief in his front yard, leaving him alive, as an example, to send a message: You help the Americans, you’re going to pay an enormous price.
       These four men helped us anyway. Were they that courageous? Or just stupid? Should we laud them as heroes and martyrs to our cause? Or write them off as ignorant fools that deserved what they got for being so dumb? How many American lives did the information or help they gave us save? Was our cause worth the horror they experienced in their last hour? Was it worth the agony and grief of their families? Was it worth the pain and hardship of their children now growing up without fathers? Do we even know what our cause was? Truly? We found no weapons of mass destruction, the evidence that Saddam had anything to do with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is shaky and questionable at best, fabricated at worst, and our efforts to make the Middle East more safe, democratic, and free seem not only to have failed completely, but also to have birthed ISIS, an even more brutal and despotic group of Islamic extremists than those of al-Qaeda. I don’t know truly what our cause was, save for my personal cause to do my best to protect my men and to avoid causing any unnecessary pain for the Iraqi people. Personally, and you can think and believe whatever you want, I’m not trying to convince you of anything, I’m just telling you that for me personally the reasons that President George W. Bush gave to convince America that war with the people of Iraq was necessary and justified were not actually worth the pain, lives lost, bodies destroyed, families torn apart, and terror inflicted upon the people of the Middle East that have come as a result. I know that President Bush believed that the war would make us safer and more secure, but it is becoming more and more clear—to me, at least, and please feel free to continue to see it or think however you want—that the wars have not had that effect, and that they have instead destabilized the region and created a generation of youth who have only known war and loss and terror and trauma, and can only see us as the source of it, for we are the ones there on the ground with our tanks and armored trucks and planes dropping bombs and drones shooting hellfire missiles and infantrymen getting into firefights with their older cousins and neighbors and brothers. Violence begets violence and we have deployed tremendous violence upon the people of the Middle East since 2001.

But those four men, and countless others, believed in our cause, enough to put their lives on the line to help us. Enough to risk their children growing up without a father. Enough to inflict their families with the grief that their deaths would ultimately bring. Maybe they thought they wouldn’t be caught. Maybe they thought they could keep what they were doing hidden. Can you put yourself in their shoes? September 2005. The American army had been occupying their land for two and a half years, promising peace, support, help, and democracy, but so far we’d been almost totally unsuccessful. We’d build a school and the insurgents would blow it up. We’d try to repair a road or a park or whatever and the insurgents would attack the construction workers and demolish what had been done after the workers fled. Did the men help us because they believed in us? Or because they were sick of what the insurgents were doing? Are these questions turning your stomach? Will you hold them in your heart a little bit longer even though they are so difficult? The families of those four men—and the families of tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of other men, women, and children of Iraq, and thousands of Americans—will be holding the pain of the death of their loved ones for the rest of their lives. The least we can do is look honestly at the questions their deaths raise, and let our stomachs turn and our hearts ache. Whatever their motives, they helped us, and they were executed on the side of a dark desert highway for it. Did their families blame them for the pain that came in the wake of their deaths? Or did they blame us? Or did they too have faith in us and instead blame the insurgents that put guns to heads and pulled triggers?

Would the families ever learn that two of them were still alive when Blue six and his men found them on the side of the road bleeding from gunshots to the head? Did they learn that there might have been a chance of surviving had Power’s night-shift command staff moved faster, or considered their lives important enough for a quick response? How much rage would they feel if they learned our leaders considered the lives of their loved ones to be so inconsequential? How much rage would you feel if it was your father or brother? And what can we do to make it right?
       Can we try to understand the actions of ISIS as a demand for amends? As a sign that our actions in the Middle East for the last fifteen or thirty or seventy-five years have inflicted tremendous pain on countless innocent people, so much pain that their young men are standing up and fighting back with horrifying and deranged brutality in order to say “You have to stop treating our people this way!”? Can we begin to look honestly at what we as American, French, British, and other colonial powers have done in the world, and accept responsibility and try to make things right? And if not, what does that say about us?

Four men. Four human beings. With different skin color and language and holy book but still human, still with hearts, brains, intestines, families, friends, homes, and ancestors, just like you or me, shot in the head, bullets shattering skulls, spilling blood and brains on the sand, bodies crumpled, hands bound behind their backs, two of them still breathing, still holding on to life even after taking a bullet to the head, for us. For me and my men. For Blue six and Power X-ray. For George Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Humans. Human. Just like us. On our side. Left for dead, by the insurgents, and again by Power X-ray, as Blue six and his men stood there with them, with their crumpled and bleeding bodies and spilt brains, for half an hour waiting for someone to come who could help. They believed in us. Was their faith misplaced? I don’t have an answer.

An hour later, Blue six walks into my TOC.
       “I lost a lot of respect for Power tonight,” he says, shoulders slumped and spirit weary. “Those men were helping us and Power took thirty minutes to get a fucking ground ambulance on the scene to help them, they didn’t even send a helicopter, and we were only three miles south of the FOB. If Power cares so little about the people that help us, how can I believe they really give a fuck about me or my men?”

All these years later, I still have no answers. I have a few more questions though. Requests, really: Before we start any more wars, can we make amends for the damage and pain and death and destruction that we have wrought? Can we, as a nation, summon the strength and courage to listen to the people of the Middle East that have received so much violence and pain from our hands, choices, and actions, from our bombs, bullets, tanks, and apathy? And, can we listen to Ed Tick and soul healers like him who have learned what veterans and victims of combat actually need in order to feel whole, safe, and at home in their bodies and in the world again after something as horrific and profoundly life altering as combat? We need much more than jobs, we need periods of healing, integration, sense-making, spiritual cleansing, telling the stories, and more before we are ready to even think about "going back to normal." Requiring veterans to go back to a pre-combat normal is in itself a grave disservice. There is no going back to normal after being in a war. The beauty is, though, when post-combat needs are met and healing is provided, we can return to our people and life as more.

Please?
Please?

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Shattered

Over there it was flesh and bone,
bodies and lives.
Children, families.
Silence, pavement, buildings,
righteousness and
so many windows.
Infrastructure, innocence, armor, our boys,
and my faith in our nation's honor and ideals.

Back home, after,
it was dreams, beer bottles, dishes thrown,
furniture, hope for healing. Faith in
our nation's ability to really bring us home.
Children, women, families,
me.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Journalists and POWs

I can still remember what the guy from Reuters looked like even though it was just a few minutes in 2003 that I saw him. We stood near the circled vehicles of the battalion headquarters looking at a group of POWs one of the companies had just brought in, somewhere still a few days south of Baghdad in the remnants of the worst sandstorm Iraq had seen in a century. The sky was still dark brown-red but our faces were no longer being scoured. They were the first I’d seen, real live Prisoners of War.

The man from Reuters, or maybe it was the AP, was a skinny white guy in his late twenties or early thirties with sandy blond hair, wearing khaki pants and a white t-shirt under his kevlar vest. He'd been with our unit for a few days and I was curious about him, and he was standing near the POWs when I wandered up to them so I approached him. He asked me questions about the war, about my feelings towards it, towards being there. I wanted to feel validated, intelligent. I wanted him to see me as more than just some dumb grunt, so I tried to win him over with my knowledge of the situation. I told him that I couldn’t understand how we ended up here on such flimsy evidence. I can see now that a part of me felt a bit crazy in that confusion . My understanding of reality up until then had informed me that our government did things on the up and up, and that we wouldn’t invade a foreign country unless it were a real and significant risk to national security. But the evidence that had been presented in making that case didn’t feel convincing or compelling enough to justify a war, and yet there we were, in that sandstorm in the middle of Iraq, and it was a little bit insane, and I wanted this college-educated reporter to validate me on that. In some ways I felt more closely aligned with him than the soldiers around me who weren’t questioning, who were just going along and following orders. Of course, truth be told, I was going along and following orders too, I was just bewildered by the whole thing. Maybe I wanted this guy to explain it to me, but I think he was just as confused as I was.

It was among the most surreal moments of my life. In the middle of the desert at war, the sky darkened by floating dust particles that filtered out all hues of blue or green, a man from the international press beside me and some POWs just right over there. I was surrounded by people who didn’t feel like people. The journalist wasn’t just some dude, he was a conduit to the world, and my words might pass through that conduit. Did they? I have no idea. The POWs weren’t just dudes either, they were men that had been fighting us and now were our prisoners. We had to take care of them, but also we sort of hated them. The Iraqi soldiers had killed some of us by that point.

At a lull in the conversation I walked from the reporter up to the POWs, getting right up in the face of one of them. I stared at him, wanting to be intimidating. I snarled at him with my sunglasses on as I smoked my cigarette less than a foot from his face. I was surprised to see something like humanity in him—he was young, 18 or 19, soft looking and scared, with no idea what was going to happen to him, surrounded by American armored vehicles and with an American Staff Sergeant in his face trying to intimidate him. Even though I hadn't believed the war necessary, I'd still dehumanized the enemy, yet there he was. A trembling kid, standing arms bound behind him in flex-cuffs with a few of his buddies. Or maybe they didn’t know each other, but it just seemed that way because their skin color was the same different than mine. I backed away and, less intimidated myself, set aside the intimidation pose, but stayed looking at them, more curious now, like viewing animals in the zoo.

In the moments that followed I mostly felt confusion. What do we do with them? In our custody now, we were responsible for housing them, feeding them, giving them medical treatment, and keeping them safe, even though they were maybe trying to kill us just hours or days before. Almost six years in the army by that point, I’d spent untold hours, weeks, months in training, out in the field, studying, sitting in classes on tactics, maneuvers, skills, weapons, etc., but no one had ever once said what was to be done with POWs. Their existence was a sort of overwhelming uncertainty as I stood there before them, though I eventually realized that someone must know, someone must have realized that there would be POWs taken, that we would have to take care of them, and I wondered what the plan was.

Because we were still an invading army. We hadn’t yet made it to Baghdad. Saddam was still in power, and now, with who knows how many tens or hundred miles left to go, we have POWs to babysit. What the fuck do we do with these men? A thought had gone through my mind before I walked up to them, before I saw their humanity, it would’ve been a lot easier if we’d just shot them, but now it was clearer that of course you can’t do that. No, now their lives were our responsibility, like pets, and either we’d have to bring them with us somehow, I thought, or leave men behind to guard them. Who’s trucks would they ride in? Not mine! Or how would we link back up with the men who stayed behind? I shook my head. Not my problem to solve, maybe there's an MP unit that knows what to do and will take them off our hands for us.

As I turned, starting to head back towards the familiarity and relative certainty of my truck, my team, and my mission, the reporter asked, “What do you think about them?”
“Fuckin’ crazy shit, man,” I said, and walked away.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Twenty Days


It was a shame that Sergeant First Class Stevenson*—the platoon sergeant of the platoon I’d just been transferred to—didn’t like me. It wasn’t a mutual feeling. I had a lot of respect for him, at least in the beginning. It was November of 2005 and we’d been in Iraq since mid-January, so I’d heard a lot of stories about him in action by then. He had the biggest heart of the platoon sergeants from what I could tell, and he cared deeply about his men and put himself at risk before them whenever he could, not out of bravado, but out of love and respect. He would rather be hurt himself than have something happen to one of them.
But he chewed some ass, too. I’d long heard the guys in his platoon asking each other how things were with his girlfriend back homeit was their barometer to gauge how short he was going to be that day. When things were good with her, the platoon could do no wrong. When things were off, he screamed a lot.

At 4 am one cold November night as our HMMWV patrolled north on the highway we called MSR Tampa (MSR is army-speak for Main Supply Route), Private First Class Golden, my team’s gunner, told me he had to take a shit. MSR Tampa is Iraq’s Highway 1, one of the country’s main logistical arteries. Our company mission was to patrol a roughly ten-mile stretch of it adjacent to Samarra. 

Samarra was the capital of the Abbasid caliphate for much of the 9th century, and is the home of the Great Mosque of Samarra with it’s spiral minaret, built in 851 CE,

and the al-Askari Mosque, built in the year 944 CE and one of the most revered Shi’a holy sites anywhere, with its golden dome that was being restored and covered with scaffolds while we were there.

The al-Askari Mosque is the same Mosque whose destruction in February 2006, just two months after my unit got home, sparked the several-year-long period of gut-wrenching brutality between the Shia and Sunnis throughout Iraq.

Anyway. Taking a shit at 0400 when the sector was quiet wasn’t an unreasonable request, so when our patrol route brought us close to our Forward Operating Base (FOB) located just off the highway at the far north of our sector, I radioed SFC Stevenson, our wingman for the night, to ask for a pit stop.
Patrols stopped in at the FOB for things like that fairly regularly, but that night SFC Stevenson was in a foul mood and spent the next ten minutes screaming at us over the radio about being at war and that I was lacking as a leader for not ensuring my men had shit before patrol. It was the sort of ass chewing that you take with a sense of bewilderment and let go in one ear and out the other. It didn’t mean anything, I didn’t learn any valuable leadership skills, he didn’t convince me that I was a poor leader and that my men were substandard soldiers. He just made himself look temperamental. But since he outranked us we had to take it and say, “Roger, Sergeant,” when it was over.

We’d been on this new patrol schedule for about twenty days by this point, and were starting to get the swing of it pretty well, but we were also getting exhausted. Twelve hour patrols, seven days a week, with a few hours of vehicle, weapons, and equipment maintenance each afternoon upon arriving back at base—plus eating, showering, and a little bit of personal time—meant that we were putting in fourteen to sixteen hours a day and not getting nearly enough sleep to be perky and alert when we rolled out of the FOB at midnight.
Private Second Class De Wolf, our driver, was drinking Red Bull like water after the first week. The chow hall got pallets of them, and issued cases to anyone who asked. After a few weeks, when De Wolf was drinking eight of them by the time the sun came up, I started to worry that it might be negatively impacting his health and performance ability, but also, he was the driver, and he needed to be alert, and he drank them to stay awake. It was November and already pretty cold out, some nights it was in the 40’s when we left the gate, so I wasn’t concerned that he would overheat from drinking them, and decided to let him self-regulate his usage. I needed his eyes open.

A few minutes after the ass chewing completed, we pulled off the highway to sit overwatch and rest.
“Man, these isotoner gloves my wife sent me are awesome,” Golden said in the quiet that replaced the din of the diesel engine. “I can’t get over how soft they are, it’s like sheepskin or something. My hands haven’t been this warm on patrol since summer.”
“You’re a pussy,” De Wolf said, laughing, “you need to just get used to the cold and be a man about it.”
“Fuck you, asshole!” Golden said, “That’s real easy for you to say when you’re inside and have the heater vents blowing on you, you piece of shit! And who are you to talk about being a man when you don’t even know your left from your right? Sergeant Wallner says go left and you go right, you fucking moron! You better not ever do that in a firefight or something, or we’ll all be dead because of you!”
They carry on like this for hours some nights, but tonight it’s cut short when Golden drops his new pocket knife, another recent care package item from his wife. It lands in De Wolf’s lap and he picks it up admiringly, and makes no move to give it back.
“Hey, give me my knife, asshole!”
“No way, man, this is a nice knife! I’d just been thinking of how I needed a good blade, and then out of the blue one drops in my lap. It’s like a gift from the gods or something. I’m keeping it.”
“Hey man, you don’t know my wife, she’ll kill me if I lose that. Give it back!”
“Uh-uh man, finders keepers. Possession is nine tenths of the law, you know. It’s my knife now.”
“Fuck you, you little piece of shit! That’s my knife, you saw me playing with it, and I just dropped it and asked for it back, so don’t give me that ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’ bullshit, and besides, Sergeant Wallner saw it all happen so you can’t pull that! Now give me back my knife!”
“No, I think I’m going to keep it. I like it.”
“Dude, you’re so dead when my wife hears about this. She can kick your ass and she’s going to when she sees you. I’m gonna tell her you took it and she’s going to destroy you, asshole!”
“I’m not afraid of your wife,he says, unfazed, I’ve got a knife!” 
I start laughing so hard the bickering stops.
Golden, grumbling, gets out of the turret to piss. It’s still dark out so I scan the sector with the night vision goggles.
“That was some crazy shit,” De Wolf says, “I can’t believe he just threatened to have his wife kick my ass.”
“Yeah, that was the funniest shit I’ve heard in a long time,” I say. 
The sector is all dark this morning, the power must be out again.
“I can’t believe it’s not even five am,” De Wolf says, “It feels like we’ve been out here forever already.”
“Yeah,” I respond, “Seven more hours of patrol and the sun still isn’t even close to the horizon.”
De Wolf takes another long sip of his energy drink.
“Man, these generic energy drinks they’ve been getting lately taste like shit!
“You keep drinking an assload of them though, don’t you?”
“Eh, what are you gonna do?”
We hear a strange sort of barking noise from outside. We both start scanning to find the source, and I don’t see anything, but De Wolf notices SFC Stevenson yelling at Golden in his rear view mirror. Sighing, I get out and approach them.
“Come‘ere, Sergeant!” he screams, as though I wasn’t already on my way.
“It’s been twenty goddamn days since we’ve had an incident in sector you motherfucker, and your shithead troop here is out on the ground smoking a fucking cigarette without his goddamn weapon, leaving no one in the turret in the middle of sector. They’re fucking out here and they’re going to hit us soon and you motherfuckers are fucking smoking and joking and not paying a goddamn bit of attention to what’s going on and it’s going to end up getting someone fucking killed, goddamnit!”
There’s nothing to say but roger.
“Roger, Sergeant,” I say, mostly ignoring him. I knew it wasn’t true, Golden had his nine-mil handgun on him, and hadn’t been on the ground long enough to be bullshitting. He got down to piss and lit a cigarette. His damn bodily functions are just pushing all of SFC Stevenson’s buttons this morning.
We get back into the truck and Golden goes off.
“Jesus Christ! I’m sorry I keep getting you yelled at sergeant, but that guy is just an asshole this morning! I took a piss and lit a cigarette and was about to climb back up onto the truck when I saw him running over towards me screaming that bullshit about it being twenty days since Lieutenant Briant* got his arm blown off, like the insurgents are keeping a fucking calendar or something!”
“Yeah, that was some bullshit. He’s still pissed at me about some old shit though and is taking any excuse he can find to yell at us. Don’t worry about it. I’m not mad at you for having to piss, man, you’re still alright in my book,” I say.
“What’s this twenty days stuff?” De Wolf asks.
“He said LT Briant got hit on October 19,” Golden said, and it’s been twenty days without any contact and we’re fucking due for it now, and for some reason he thinks they’re going to run over us just because I got down to piss and left the turret empty for thirty seconds.”
“That’s just crazy talk,” De Wolf said, “And besides, aren’t we much more vulnerable when he’s got you two locked up at parade rest screaming at you?”
“The man has a fucking point, sergeant!” Golden says to me.
“I know, I know,” I say. I agree with them, but I’m the Staff Sergeant in the truck, and Non-Commissioned Officers aren’t supposed to let soldiers talk shit about other NCO’s, so I’m starting to feel the conversation is getting inappropriate for me to be involved in. “Fuck it, it’s done now and maybe he has a point. I don’t want you leaving the turret empty again, Golden. You have to piss, you let us know and De Wolf will jump in the turret. For now, get that L-Rass fired up and scan the sector again.”
He stops griping and starts fiddling with the night scope. Our truck is mounted with an LRSSS, the Long Range Scout Surveillance System. A two-foot square box that weighs one hundred pounds, it can see by amplifying the ambient light like our smaller night vision goggles, but with an outrageous optical zoom capability. Its real talent, though, is that it can also scan for thermal signatures, so it can pick up body heat against the cool desert floor. Using one in Kosovo I saw a donkey fart on a ridgeline four kilometers away. They’re fucking impressive. In Iraq at this hour, pretty much the only thing we see moving are rodents.
There is a lot that’s good about it, but also it’s cumbersome. It's a huge box mounted on top of the truck,


and its weight makes traversing the turret quickly almost impossible, especially if we are on an incline, when it just seeks the lowest point on the turret ring and mostly ignores scrawny Golden’s attempts to have it point elsewhere. Too, there is no way to use it as a scope, which proved a major shortcoming at least once, when Golden saw in the thermals a man low-crawling through some reeds beside one of the irrigation canals cut from the Tigris. The man was moving towards one of our company’s stationary observation posts, and while his body heat was easily visible through LRSSS, Golden couldn’t find him in the ambient-light night-scope that was installed on the M240B machine gun we also had mounted on our turret. All we could do was alert the other OP and lay down a few rounds from the 240 in the general area, hoping for a hit at best but at least to let the guy know he had been seen, hopefully dissuading him from continuing towards the OP.

I always feel strange telling stories like that. Who knows what the guy was doing low-crawling in the reeds towards an OP at 3 am. He was most likely hoping to hurt or kill the Americans who were sitting out there, but we didn’t really know, and we shot at him anyway. There’s no due process at war, you know? No innocent until proven guilty, just somebody had to make a judgment call. Low crawling through reeds towards one of our OP’s. Yeah, probably an insurgent, probably on his way to inflict harm. Go ahead and shoot at him. 
There was a significant angle of deviation between the figure in the reeds and the OP, so it was safe for us to take some shots without endangering our own men, but we shot at a human with hopes of hitting him. It is the nature of war, of course we did that. I mention it only because I said that we shot at a man hoping for a hit as though it was the most natural thing in the world, and I didn’t feel that then and I don’t feel it now. Because he was a human being, and he had walked the earth for twenty or thirty or forty years and was maybe a father, was certainly a son, a grandson, a brother, and so was loved and cared for by other human beings who would be devastated by his death, just like our families would be by ours, and he had some relationship with God whom he addressed by a different name, was probably just as loved by God as we were, and we decided it was okay to try to kill him for maybe the same reason he thought it was okay to try to kill us. Dehumanized, the enemy becomes scum that must be eradicated.
But whatever dehumanization we do in our minds doesn’t change the fact that he was a human, and that fact makes being moral at war much more difficult. I wasn’t the one that decided to take the shots. We alerted the other OP and the company headquarters, where the company commander was woken from sleep to make the call on what to do. I had no better answer, but the whole thing made me uncomfortable. If it were possible I’d maybe have preferred to sit down with the man over coffee or hookah, talk about life and God and our families and all the things we were mad about, all the things we'd been hurt by, find common ground and common humanity and reasons to not try to kill each other.

Golden didn’t care, of course. He was nineteen and participating in a war and still held the idea of killing someone at war in a special light. He wanted it, so the chance to shoot at this man excited him and he was thrilled as he let loose the 240. I didn’t want it. There had been plenty of times in my life when I did, but never when I was at war and had the opportunity, and I thank God for that. Or Allah, or Randomness, or whatever name you like to refer to the unfathomable creative force that made a universe appear out of nothing and still seems to be mucking about with creation. I never shot a man at war, never killed anyone directly. I’m not sure how my conscience would have handled it if I had, but knowing me and how difficult finding my footing on American soil has been even without killing anyone, how incredibly tired I’ve been of the seemingly infinite challenges that reintegration has posed, and as close as I’ve come to suicide as it’s been, I’m grateful that that burden wasn’t part of my fate. I think it would have been too much, would have pushed me over.

SFC Stevenson comes over the radio. “Hey, let’s move out, patrolling north.”
“Roger, over,” I reply, turning to De Wolf and Golden to make sure they heard. Golden is shutting down the LRSSS and moving the turret back to center, and De Wolf is preparing to start the truck. We move out, driving our usual twenty miles an hour, watching the sides of the road as intently as humanly possible, looking for any disturbance in the dirt that might be a recently buried IED that some angry asshole emplaced in hopes of blowing us up.
Instead of turning around at our usual area, SFC Stevenson leads us back to the FOB and turns in, stopping at the porta-shitters.
“Tell your gunner that he has five minutes before we head back out, over,” he says to us on the radio.
“Roger that,” I say, “And thank you, over.”
(Photos by Harlan Wallner)
* Name changed.

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