Many of my brothers and sisters were excited at the possibility of ‘combat action.’ I considered war a business, and I was employed to run missions for the company. The thought of taking a human life didn’t excite me, it wasn’t something I looked forward to doing. I wanted to do my job and go home. The possibilities of harming someone or killing would pop up, of that, I was sure. Twelve months in a warzone was a long time to go without doing either.
Not that it would take long to figure that out.
The two weeks we trained up, in hindsight I figured it was to get us acclimated to the extreme weather conditions. The heat was suffocating, and as hard as we trained under the brutal Texas sun, nothing could prepare us for the extreme temperatures we experienced. Between our scheduled training events, hours in the gym, and more training, I studied the language and tried to memorize phrases.
“Are you planning on betraying us, Freeman?”
Every time I studied; I got this question. Of course, I had no desire to betray my friends, my unit, nor my country. I found the people who inhabited these lands to be interesting, their history was engrossing. I wanted to learn as much as I could, for I felt it made me a more well-rounded soldier. Eventually, I got to where I could count to fifty, and could ask how folks were doing along with other phrases more pertinent to my job.
We spent hours, even days, firing weapons and cleaning them. I spent one whole day doing nothing but land mines. The more I studied and learned about my job, the more I fell in love with being a soldier. The Army seemed a natural fit for my lifestyle. I couldn’t wait to re-enlist.
As the two weeks drew to a close, our chain of command gave us a day off. We received word that we’d be rolling out that night. Sometime late in the evening, we boarded more buses, and they transported us to the border. Each unit had a sector for their vehicles. As we offloaded the bus, an angry sergeant stood at the base of the steps and barked out the following: “Go find your vehicle and perform your checks. Secure your gear and prepare for movement.”
I found my vehicle, loaded my bags into a tool box, and climbed into the driver’s seat. Information changed quickly, often without any heads up, and I was taken from my vehicle and put in charge of another. The runner who brought the information to me helped me move my gear to my new vehicle. I did a sloppy ‘look over’ and checked the engine fluid.
A burly shadow sat in the passenger seat. I climbed in and tried the air conditioner. The shadow grunted, it sounded like the dry rattle people get when they die. He cut his eyes over to me and gave me the look tankers reserve for anyone not a tanker.
“It doesn’t work.”
“Nice,” I grunted.
“Yeah. Who needs an A/C? We will open a window when we head out.”
“Yeah, that’s a no-go.”
“That figures. So, we just sit in this hot-box and hope for the best?”
“Yeah, man. It’ll be fine, I’m sure. My name’s Freeman,” I said as I extended my hand to him. He ignored it and muttered something under his breath. Wonderful, I get to cross Indian country with a curmudgeon.
I can’t remember his name, and just a shadow of what he looked like. He looked like the rest of us, scared out of our minds and facing God only knows what on the other side of the berm. I leaned back against my seat and tried to sleep. Violent dreams and the snoring of my ‘ride or die’ truck buddy made it impossible to rest.
I stepped from the truck, and took a step next to the gas tank. Fearful I would miss roll call, I squeezed between the tank and a side box that held my slave cables and a box of unopened MREs. I unbuttoned my fly, when I heard a racket at the back of my truck. Two legs stuck out from between my tires, and when I finished I walked back to the person underneath my truck.
“Excuse me. What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m peeing,”the woman snapped. “My commander informed me there’s no such thing as gender in a war zone.” I stared at the woman and retorted, “Then go pee on his truck. I don’t want your filth on mine.” I’d never been more tempted to pee on another person’s vehicle than I was that morning.
We left at daybreak.
The sun came up at my 11o’clock. I put my shades on and pulled my visor down. My dark Oakley’s blocked most of the sunlight. A stampede of military vehicles, not unlike buffalo running wild and free across the prairies, rushed across the berm and began swerving from one lane to another, which we hoped would confuse anyone looking to kill us.
Wide open and swerving, God help me if that didn’t sum up my life. I had few close friends I confided in, and even then I kept my fear close to my vest. None knew of my running from the calling God had placed on my life, and I wasn’t keen to share it with anyone.
Around ten or eleven we passed the crossed sabers. My riding buddy, the guy I can’t remember his name or appearance, he spoke to me for the first time. I had checked on him a time or two, he wasn’t asleep. He kept glancing in his mirror at the pallets of tank rounds on the back bed of the truck. Ever so often, I saw him swallow and close his eyes. When he caught me looking at him, he asked me: “Hey, Freeman. What would happen if a bullet hit anything in the bed of our truck?”
Even before I joined the military, I had a dark sense of humor. I didn’t even hesitate when he popped his question. I gave him a wry grin and chuckled.
“There’ll be a bright white flash followed by an earth-shattering explosion. You have nothing to fear though, brother. We won’t feel anything.”
“Jesus, how can you be so calm?”
“Does it make you feel better to worry about it?”
“There you, go.”
We rode in silence for a while. My words seemed to crush his spirit, for he kept his eyes out the window, and he tried to blink away the wetness in his eyes. We covered a few more miles, and my buddy laughed.
“So, we’ve got no worries.”
“None at all.”
It wasn’t much further and I noticed something hanging from the bridge. “Contact front!” Hanging from the overpass was a headless body. My buddy and I both gasped at the sight. “Eyes open,” I snapped. “The Hagi’s could still be around here.” We passed through unharmed and continued moving.
The radio squawked out this bit: “Jesus, God, did you see that?”
I resisted the urge to grab the mic and respond with, “Nothing to see here, bubba. Keep your pedal to the metal and we’ll get home fine.” I didn’t. My guts felt queasy, as if the ice cold hand of Death held my innards in one hand and squeezed.
It was the first of many headless bodies we’d encounter on our way to the Forward Operating Base we’d call home. Some said the bodies, what remained of them, belonged to former contractors for companies spread around the globe. Others just claimed they were unlucky souls whose time had run out. I had no theory one way or another, I just knew I didn’t want to end up swinging off a freaking bridge in this godforsaken desert.
We drove for miles and miles without any sign of life, but as we drew near to our destination, people stood on the sides of the road and cheered. Well, some cheered, the rest yelled for food. Soldiers would toss food out vehicles. As tough as we thought we were, seeing kids beg for food turned the hardest man into a big softie.
It took several hours, what with the swerving and dodging dead bodies, but we finally made it our home for the next year. The base sat at the end of a main route, next to a roundabout, and blown out buildings on the other side of the road. Tall fences, much of it in dire need of repair, surrounded the base. At an interval of 300-500 meters, towers with machine guns kept an eye on the locals. Heads turned in our direction when we pulled up at the entrance. After clearing our weapons and speaking to the guards, we drove into our home away from home. The guards had directed us to the ‘motor pool’ which was nothing other than a wide open space of empty sand.
Main supply routes ran between three bases and connected them with Baghdad International Airport. MSR#2 was closed. Most of our deployment took place on Route 1, but toward the end of our deployment, we got sent to open up Route 2. It was nightmarish. We pulled into Home and was directed to an open part of the base.
“Y’all can park there,” one of the guards had told us.
Everywhere we looked we saw insurgents. Some spread mortar on the crumbling walls, all were armed with AK-47s, and all of them seemed interested in the ‘new guys’. Our gunners swiveled around tracking targets, doors kicked open and soldiers deployed into various firing positions. The insurgents put their hands off, but I could hear safeties being switched from safe to fire. The tension in the air was thick, and I lined my sights on the bridge of a local’s nose, when a voice shouted in the distance.
“Hold fire, hold your fire!”
A fat colonel rushed toward us with half a donut in his right hand. He waved at us with his donut, and all eyes turned toward the fat, out of shape officer who raced toward us. One of our officers greeted him, and he dropped to one knee to capture his breath. No one dropped their weapons from the locals, and the fat officer stood up. He motioned to the locals, and they went back to work.
“We hired them to build the walls. This is how we win their hearts and minds,” he gasped, nearly collapsing in the heat. Apparently, not all of us had worked to get ourselves into ‘fighting shape.’ I felt disgust toward the out of shape officer as he jammed the remainder of his donut into his mouth. Our commander looked at him and responded, “We’re not here to win their hearts and minds. That’s not our job. We’re here to spill their blood and take their lives for those lost in New York.”
Up to that point, it’d been a rather boring trip. The locals kept slinging mud. We had formation and secured our gear. A couple of soldiers led us to our barracks. They were painted blood red, and it seemed fitting given what I’d seen in this godforsaken place. We stood in two columns as an NCO walked between the columns and counted five soldiers, then he postulated:
“The rooms are unfinished. So, you guys are gonna bunk up five to a room, plus your gear. We have no bed, no mattresses, you guys will sleep on your tuff boxes until rooms are opened.”
When my number was called, I grabbed my gear and followed my roommate into an open room at the end of the hall. Even all these years later, I can still smell the dirt from Iraq. It was everywhere in the room. The windows weren’t properly sealed, the entrances stayed open well into the night, and we had a steady influx of sand.
So, it went for a couple of weeks.
It’s funny, as I write this story I think of the various places I’ve slept. I have Reacher playing in the background, and he makes the comment, “I’ve slept in worst places.” So have I, but it ain’t no fun. In the weeks leading up to our rooms being opened, I slept on my tuff box, on the floor, and in the corner of the room sitting up. If you’re exhausted, you can sleep anywhere.
Good thing too, 2800 combat missions, some with a zero-survival rate, takes a lot out of a man.