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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