I dreamed of fire. The world was on fire, madness cackled from the flames.
Yellow sand was so thick you could hardly breathe, when I stepped from my hooch. I pulled my gatorneck up to my nose and tucked my head against the sand. In times past I had spent time on beaches, but this was ridiculous. Iraq was not a beach, it was a sandpit where your worst nightmares waited in the shadows for their chance to kill you. The canvas flap was down when I got to the truck. I climbed in the back and dropped the flap. My friends stared vacantly at the floor.
“If there ever was a look that screamed I want to go home, it’s here in the back of this truck.” We were halfway through our 15-month deployment to the sandpit. Yesterday we lost nine people. Nine souls vanquished into the darkness. Today, we hunt the people responsible.
It has never ceased to amaze me that after so many patrols and convoys; you developed a skill of knowing where you are, even when you had no visual landmarks to go by. The brakes squealed, and my best friend George looked at me.
“Mike gate,” he said. I nodded and checked my weapon. We remained silent. Usually, we would hear the gunners shout ‘test fire, test fire’ and then they would fire a 5-or-10 round burst with the machine gun. It was eerily silent, as if Death stood behind the gate.
“Hey, Corporal. They want you up front,” came a voice outside of the truck.
I dismounted and made my way up front. A group of soldiers stood in a gaggle; I made my way to them. When I got there, I saw why they stood together. On the ground were seven heads. The youngest was probably five.
“Looks like we found our interpreter,” the convoy leader said. “I hate this place.” None of us said anything. It was a sentiment that we all agreed with. Our interpreter, we called them terps, had gone missing for several weeks. We had not heard a word from him. His name was Rashad, (I think) and we figured he had quit.
“Looks like he didn’t quit,” one man muttered. Two men brought coolers, and we placed the severed heads in them. “They deserved better than that,” I thought. For seven months I fought to hold on to my humanity. It was becoming harder and harder to hold on to it. I walked back to the truck and climbed inside.
“What’s going on, Corp?” George studied my face. I struggled to keep my eyes dry. Some people gave themselves willingly to the madness that is war. I was trying to beat it back, but I slowly drowned in it. The more I struggled with it, the deeper I sank.
“We found the terp.”
“Oh. Is he alright?”
“Yeah.” I met George’s eyes. There was no way I could hide it from my friend. There were a couple of new guys in the back, replacements for the souls we had lost in combat. They stared at us. I forced a smile and nodded at the nearest one.
“Where are you from, Private?”
“Los Angeles, Corporal.”
“You’re a long way from home.”
“Yeah. I want some action.”
The tailgate dropped, and they shoved the coolers into the back. I laughed. “You want action. Okay. You may regret having said that.”
Everybody snickered at our conversation. Those of us who had survived to this point were not eager for action. We longed for quiet days. Quiet days were just as deadly as firefights and IEDS, though. Your thoughts could kill you as quickly as any man or bomb.
The private motioned at the coolers. “What’s in there? Rip-Its?” Rip-It are energy drinks that we drank when the sun drained us of our energy, or when you needed an artificial pick-me-up.
“No, private. Those are the severed heads of our terp and his family,” I answered. The kid turned pale. He laughed.
“I don’t like being called a liar, boy.” I gripped the lid and lifted. The new guys lost their lunch. I shut the lid and leaned back. The darkness encroached further in my mind, as we traveled to the next destination in a world full of madness.