Near the end we were short timers. Our attitudes had gone through the arc veteran Marines predicted. In the beginning every piece of garbage on the road was a possible IED and every silhouette in a window a sniper. In the middle the fear gave way to boredom, even when operations were dangerous; war wore us down and stretched us thin, making Marines wish they'd get hit so they'd either die or get sent home. But as Echo Company neared the end of its second deployment Marines became hyper vigilant of any threat, avoided going outside the wire as much as possible. I wasn't sure what the rest of the company was doing since Weapons Platoon had been left at Camp Habbaniyah, near the center of Iraq, as Battalion Quick Reaction Force, while the rest of the Company went north to a big lake to do God only knew what. How the rest of Echo handled it I don't know, but the Marines in Weapons Platoon that didn't have wives and children back home did their best to fill in for those who did when we got slated to go outside the wire. But sometimes it couldn't be helped, like when the Quick Reaction Force got called out.
“I'm not going back outside the wire,” Gunther said. “I stripped all the gear off my flack jacket, took the Sapi plates out and packed everything in my sea bag.”
Gunther was a Sergeant in Golf Company. Earlier in the deployment he'd lost three guys to an IED, two of them vets of the first deployment. Their Humvee had flipped upside down and caught on fire, killing the turret gunner instantly. The patrol listened to them scream while they cooked, unable to pry open the heavy, armored doors. He looked liked he hadn't slept in weeks, dark bags sagging under his eyes. His skin was yellowish, waxy.
“I'm telling my LT when I get back to the barracks, 'No more,'” he said. “What the fuck are we going outside the wire for anyway? I'm not getting blown up this close to getting back. Fuck that.”
I took a long drag of my cigarette and kicked rocks with the toe of my boot. When I looked up Gunther had the expression I'd grown so accustomed, the infamous 1,000-yard stare.
“I've got a wife and kids,” he said, but not to me. Not to anyone.
“I've got a wife and kids,” he repeated. “And ain't nothing going to bring me back if I cross over. And for what? What did Rodriguez die for?”
The three men he'd lost had died when Golf CO had decided their Mortarmen needed targets set up for practice. A few vehicles had been tasked to take the targets downrange on a road that hadn't been swept for IEDs in a few years. The MRAP didn't trigger the IED, its enormous weight evenly distributed in a freak act of physics so that it passed over unscathed. The second vehicle was a Humvee that wasn't so lucky. Unlucky to have been tasked to go down a road that was listed as “red” because it hadn't been swept in ages. Unlucky that the MRAP, a vehicle that would have survived the blast, drove over the IED in one in a million way and the bomb didn't blow. Unlucky to flip upside down and catch on fire instead of killing them all instantly. Unlucky to burn to death, the last moments of their lives a screaming delirium of pain. Bad luck. And Gunther had listened to the two that survived the roll over, watched them thrash, clawing at the windows as their skin charred and sloughed off. I'd heard one of the turret gunners in the third vehicle had come to the rescue and tried to wrench the driver’s door open, that Marines had pulled him off the vehicle, his gloves smoking.
Had it been Gunther to pull the young Marine back to safety from the ensuing eruption of diesel in the trucks fuel tank? I'd never asked him. I didn't really know him, except from seeing him around Camp Habbaniyah sometimes. I kept quiet as he muttered again and again that he wasn't going back outside the wire, lighting his next cigarette with the dying ember of the last. After he repeated the process five times he calmed down. The muttering stopped. He ground the last butt under his boot heel and walked away. The deployment had been rough on Golf, and especially rough on Gunther's platoon. They'd been hit by suicide bombers early in the deployment, before the IED, and some of the guys hadn't recovered psychologically. One Marine in particular couldn't sleep and didn't socialize with others, instead sitting by himself and staring off at the horizon. I'd made the mistake of asking him why he couldn't sleep and he'd described the attack, suicide bombers’ heads flying through the air like dandelions heads thumbed from the stem.
I'd heard the story about the IED from Blaker just after walking in from a long night patrol, the 240 Golf medium machine gun hanging heavy in my hands. Then I'd shrugged off Blaker's manic recount of what he had heard from the higher ups about what had happened— dying is part of what Marines do. But now, watching Gunther walk away from me with his shoulders sagging like he bore a heavy weight, I wondered if he was right. What were we doing going outside the wire still? If I asked someone new to country or some boot LT they'd belt out the tired slogans. “Winning the hearts and minds,” or “Taking the fight to the enemy,” or maybe I'd even hear, “Boots on the deck, good to go?”
I ground my cigarette out with my boot and headed back towards the barracks. I wondered what would happen if Gunther refused orders to gear up and lead his squad out the gate. Cowardice in the face of the enemy was punishable by death, and everyone knew it. And it wasn't like sitting on the base meant you'd be safe. Just recently Camp Habbaniyah and Al Taqaddum, the plush air force base across the interstate, had been targeted with rocket attacks. It wasn't just death from above that could get you inside the wire because the wire itself wasn't exactly an impermeable membrane. Insurgents had figured out where they could make a few snips and crawl in, under the cover of night. So far only one IED had been found inside the base, but it was enough to keep everyone on edge. No one trusted anybody anymore. Marines had started walking the small desert base with multiple magazines of ammunition instead of the standard one. My pistol was always condition one—magazine inserted, round in the chamber, safety on—no matter where I went. If the Ugandans that guarded the chow hall or dusty internet center looked like they were going to say anything to me about it I'd walk by staring daggers. They understood the way few people could, their own country being war torn.
“They're sending an element to Ramadi,” Schluer said. He stood in the smoke pit by the barracks sucking on a cigarette in earnest.
He paused to take a drag. If I never saw another smoke pit again after deployment it would be too soon. I was getting sick of fitting in my conversations around drags of cigarettes, but there was no way to quit in country.
“Prockop's taking names for who's going,” Schluer continued. “God, I hope he doesn't pick me. This is exactly the kind of dumb fuck thing that would get me killed.”
“What's the mission?” I asked.
I'd never heard of our battalion doing any operations that far west. I remembered everything I'd heard about Ramadi before deployment, none of it good.
“We're supposed to be showing the guys replacing us where it is,” Schluer said. “Because I guess seeing it on a fucking map isn't enough.”
I wanted to go. The deployment would be over in a few weeks and I wanted to be able to ay that I'd been to Ramadi. I knew it was stupid, and I hesitated to tell Schluer.
“What is it, Big Head?” he asked me, using my call sign.
“I want to go,” I said.
“What the fuck,” Schluer said. “You have lost your fucking mind Marine. Why the fuck would you want to go to that shit hole and risk getting blown up this close to going home? After all the shit we've been through? Seeing Fallujah just isn't enough for you, eh? You're a fucking war tourist.”
Schluer cackled and shook his head. “
Well, take my fucking spot then,” he said. “I'm pretty sure they're going to make me drive the lead Humvee.”
In the squad bay Prockop was on the prowl, looking for Marines to send to Ramadi.
“Flemming,” Prockop said. “You're going to Ramadi.”
Flemming sat up in his rack, rubbing sleep from his eyes. Many Marines had post in the radio room during the night, watching the battalion network for news from higher and listening in case we got called out to help a downed vehicle or put the fear of God in Iraqis. Flemming was one of those Marines so he spent the day sleeping. Most Marines did as the heat index during the day soared to around one hundred and forty degrees.
“Ramadi,” Flemming said. “I've only been asleep two hours I don't know if I could--”
Prockop cut him off.
“Sounds great Flemming. I knew you'd be up for it.”
Prockop turned and looked me, smirk on his face.
“I'm volunteering,” I said. “I want to take Schluer’s place.”
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” Prockop said.
I stood stunned. I hadn't expected any resistance. I chided myself for forgetting about Prockop's twisted leadership style, if it could be called leadership.
“Schluer thinks he can get out of this?” Prockop said. “Fuck no. If I have to go get blown up on some fucked up mission he does too.”
“Should I get geared up? When are we rolling out?”
“Why do you want to go? You realize this is a bullshit mission, right?” Prockop said.
“I want to see Ramadi,” I said. “This will be my only chance.”
“Oh so you want to have another little war story to tell the girls back home,” Prockop said. “Not a fucking chance. You aren't going. Fuck you. But Flemming, you are for sure going so get the fuck out of the rack.”
“Roger that, Sergeant,” Flemming said. He sounded like Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh.
Prockop tried to walk past me but I blocked his way.
“You won't let me go because I want to?”
“Yes,” Prockop said. Then laughed.
“That's fucking stupid,” I said.
“Excuse me?” Prockop said. “Are you questioning my leadership?”
“You fucking heard me,” I said. “And you don't know shit about leadership. And you can run and tell the Captain I said that.”
Prockop didn't know what to say so he just stared at me. He knew his constant boot licking of our Staff Sergeant and Captain had alienated him from the squad to the point where no one had his back anymore, if anyone ever did. I grudgingly stepped aside as he walked by, making a hasty retreat from the squad bay.
“Did I just hear that right?” Hawkins said.
He hopped down off of his top bunk.
“Fucking Prockop,” I said. “I should have killed him back in Sac when I had the chance.”
Hawkins held my gaze, spit chew into an empty bottle, and nodded. The night we colluded to murder Prockop if his negligence got any of us killed seemed like years ago, although it had only been six months. Whether or not we could have gotten away with it we'll never know, but I'd agreed to be the triggerman if the time ever came. Frustrations with Prockop's incompetence had reached a boiling point after a particularly dangerous and asinine night patrol in vehicles on narrow canal roads with plunging channels on each side. I tried not to be angry, tried not to think that maybe it would have been better to do the unthinkable, but the more I tried to push the thoughts away the more they seemed to propel my mind into a dark pit of ire. It wasn't fair to not allow me to go on a run to Ramadi simply because I wanted to go, and what kind of person used such logic to run a squad of Marines? Anger made my vision twist with my pulse. I started to feel dizzy. Lights flashed in front of my eyes. I wiped beaded sweat from my forehead and gripped a nearby bunk bed to steady myself.
“Are you all right, Big Head?”
I clenched my jaw and waited for my head to clear.
“This place is making me sick,” I said. “Fuck Prockop and his bullshit attitude.”
Hawkins nodded in agreement.
I paced back and forth in the squad bay as the five-vehicle convoy got ready to leave the wire. There wasn't a mission briefing, and I realized it had been many months since Weapons Platoon had any kind of mission brief or debrief. Being a Quick Reaction Force meant that we generally didn't have time for them, but when I thought back to our time at Forward Operating Base Riviera I knew that the briefs had stopped back then, in what now seemed like another world. I missed the FOB, and the town of Saqlawiyah. Back then when we left the wire I'd felt free, away from the confines of the small FOB's razor wire perimeter. Now when QRF left the wire instead of feeling free I felt chained to my turret, as if stuck in a grotesque ride at Disney Land. The more I thought about feeling trapped on Hob compared to Sac the more anger spiraled through me, up and up, until my hands shook and trembled. I watched Marines don gear from my squad bay door. Schluer looked over and saw how angry I was to be left behind.
“Don't be mad, Big Head,” Schluer said. “Just another story I'll have over you.”
He laughed. But I didn't return the laughter. I looked at him like I smelled dog shit as he left.
Suddenly the anger in me snapped taut as a cord and I had an idea. I knew how to get back at Schluer in a way that would really get under his skin. Something inside of me wanted to wipe the smile off Schluer's face. I went outside and when I rounded the back of the Humvee I found Schluer standing outside of the driver's door donning his helmet.
“Hey Schluer,” I said. “This is the patrol a mortar hits your Humvee. This is it. You're done for.”
Schluer looked down at me from his taller stature, his mouth open and eyes big.
“How the fuck could you say that?” he said.
I threw my head back and laughed, big guffaws racking my body.
“Dead man walkin'!” I shouted and pointed at him.
Schluer took his Kevlar helmet and slammed it hard against the Humvee door's ballistic glass window.
“What the fuck?” he bellowed.
Schluer started pacing frantically back and forth, his long legs almost going akimbo as he pivoted hard to turn around and go back the other direction. I knew I'd got him right where it hurt most, in the superstitious spot every Marine had. Mortars squad feared all the old taboos—they didn't eat the Charm candies in MREs, didn't ever ask if it was going to rain, and most certainly didn't joke about Marines getting killed—but Machine Guns didn't. The only thing we held sacred were the guns, and sometimes not even those. I smiled wide at Schluer before walking away from him, his face contorted in anger and frustration. Before I walked back into the barracks I turned and jeered at him one more time.
“You're a fucking dead man, do you hear me?” I said. “Flip upside down and burn to death, good to go?”
“It's so fucked up you would say that . . .” Schluer's voice faded into nothing as I walked back into the barracks.
I sat on my rack and seethed until I heard the truck's diesel engines start up and rumble away toward the front of the base. I didn't really want Schluer to die, nor did I think a mortar or IED would actually hit him. Death didn't come to us that easy. Not like how it came to my grandmother a few months before when the cancer in her liver finally overwhelmed her. She'd had years to prepare, a full life behind her, children who would outlive her, and a family by her bedside even though I'd been stuck here in Iraq. She went in her sleep, between two cool sheets beneath an IV drip of painkillers. It wasn't like that for us here. We didn't go quietly; none of us ever would. A lot of guys still had one bullet tucked away, just for them, just in case of imminent capture after all other rounds were expended. But most Marines had slid that single round into a magazine long ago after hearing from the other FOBs how the suicide bombers rushed the gate with no regard for their own life. Death wasn't going to slip through the night into our squad bays and silently slit our throats. Death came to us through the snaps of sniper fire and thunderous roll of high explosives going off, making the air ruckle and break. I didn't think Schluer would run into trouble because dying on some bullshit run to Ramadi was something that would have happened right at the start, maybe even the middle, but now I just couldn't see it happening. Sure it had all the tragic irony that made Schluer wary a dark omen would turn into self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe if he had been good looking, or charming, but Schluer was ugly and brutish like the rest of us, although more refined by experience. Being a working class guy that still believed in much of the political ideology that sent him over here, I figured that Schluer had many years of pain left in front of him.
Thinking of my grandmother who'd passed made me wish for home. Returning seemed more like a myth than a reality. People kept telling each other that we'd all go home in just a few weeks but there was a big part of me that was sure it was just the wishful thinking. During the middle of the deployment there had been talk that maybe we would get extended, but I'd heard that now that our return home as scheduled was date-time group locked in on command’s calendars. That time was soon approaching, but nothing was guaranteed. The Marines replacing us had already lost a man to vehicle roll over when a driver thought he saw an IED on the side of the road and tried driving an up-armored Humvee like he'd seen in the movies. That was their beginning, a man dead for no reason before they had officially had their AO turned over to them. Our ending as battalion Quick Reaction Force had been extremely stressful, causing the tenuous relationships in the squad to come near breaking point in the last few months, but we could be thankful that we'd made it and been spared having to kill anyone. Not that taking Iraqi lives hadn't been considered by all of us, especially myself, and not to say that there hadn't been close calls.
My thoughts became fuzzy as a voice pulled me out of my reverie. It was Rose trying to tell me something. My hearing wasn't as good as it used to be, the loud trucks and guns having deafened me over the course of the tour.
“Big Head, did you hear what Staff Sergeant said to the LT of the unit that's replacing us?”
Rose had a lopsided grin on his face, the kind that he got whenever he passed on gossip, or “gouge” as Marines called it, that he knew would get a reaction from the Marines around him.
Our Staff Sergeant was known to be a real “Blue Falcon,” or buddy fucker, going out of his way to whisper in officers' ears that we didn't need downtime, or that we could stand to miss a few meals. While both of those things were true since we'd rotated to Hob it didn't make any sense to make the war harder on grunts than it already was, and whenever the Marines of Weapons Platoon got wind of the Staff Sergeant being a sycophant instead of sticking up for us we became furious.
“He told the LT to tell his platoon not to buy our televisions from us since we can't take them back,” Rose said. “So basically he just fucked everybody. For no reason.”
Anger rippled through the Marines in the squad bay. For about week everyone had been trying to sell the televisions they'd bought to the Marines replacing us because we couldn't take them home or have them shipped back. For this reason, I'd never bought a television. Some Marines had been lucky to purchase their television second hand from the Marines we replaced at FOB Riviera, most had ended up blowing around three hundred dollars on a brand new television from the big PX across the MSR at TQ. Marines murmured about how asking fifty dollars for a three hundred dollar television was more than reasonable. It was Lowery who finally spoke what everyone was thinking.
“Fuck that. I'll break mine before I leave it for a bunch of stingy assholes,” he said.
“Let's take them all out and break them right now,” Rose said. “Before Staff Sergeant gets back from the chow hall with the other unit’s LT and tells us we can't.”
A frantic energy filled the air as every Marine that had a television they were trying to sell hastily unplugged it from the wall and lugged it to the side of the barracks. A few Marines brought cabinets they'd been trying to sell. For a moment I wondered if this was a wise move considering no one had even tried negotiating with the other Company's Marines, but then I thought why the hell not? I was in a foul mood and breaking things would cheer me up. From somewhere Mundell appeared with an axe just as a few stragglers arrived with chairs and a small table.
“Holy shit,” Rose said. “Look at all this stuff!”
All the television lined up, their screens gleaming in the sunlight. There had to be around a couple thousand dollars in electronics waiting to meet the axe's steel, along with couple hundred worth of furniture. What the Marines in the Company replacing us didn't understand was that it wasn't the cost of the items we were selling that was the real burden, it was convincing higher ups to let you carry leisure items with you on convoys back from the PX in TQ. The war didn't afford many opportunities for a Marine to go to TQ, buy a TV, and then have room aboard an MRAP to make sure it got back in one piece.
But the Marines replacing us didn't understand a lot of things, and we hated them for it. Right after they showed up steps on the shower trailer had been broken. Shortly after that a pair of boxer briefs was found by a toilet; the underwear had been soiled with excrement and a small mural had been finger painted with shit on the side of the bathroom stall above where they lay. Not to mention how the shitter trailer always smelled like piss now because the new Marines didn't care about anything but themselves. They were like children.
They didn't understand how hard material things were to come by in Iraq, how they needed to be cherished like something precious, not treated as if a replacement was standing by. We all hated them, the fools that had already gotten one of their own killed, and they knew it. While standing post one night I'd taken a Playboy and went through, page by page, and drawn dicks on every single woman: hairy dicks, long dicks, short dicks, dicks with warts, dicks that had loops like roller coasters, dicks of all kinds. When my shifted ended I'd taken it over to the new Marines barracks and handed it to a PFC walking in, told him to take it to his squad leader and tell him it was a gift from Echo. After that they all stayed away from us, wouldn't even talk to us in the chow hall line. Because they knew how we felt about them. But evidently they doubted our resolve.
We each took turns smashing the televisions. I don't remember who went first. I went third or fourth. I'd handled an axe before in my childhood, chopping wood for the furnace. Fine white cracks ran away from the blow I shattered into the black glass. I smiled real big. I looked around at the rest of the squad and they were smiling too. The second blow sundered the television in half, causing it to gape open like split teeth. People laughed and milled about, some taking pictures and others filming. Someone showed up with two other televisions when we were almost done with the rest of them and about to move on to the furniture. By the time we'd had our fill everything lay in pieces. Just as the dust settled I looked away to see our Staff Sergeant and the other unit’s LT walk into the barracks.
“I wonder what Staff Sergeant thought of that?” Rose asked.
“He did not look happy,” Lowery said.
“Who gives a fuck,” Mundell said.
Hawkins strode over from the other side of the shattered glass and splintered wood.
“Did you guys see that?” Hawkins said. “The LT was looking at Staff Sergeant like 'Are you going to stop this?' and he wouldn't look back at him, just kept his eyes locked straight ahead as they walked by.”
“What were they doing walking by?” I asked.
“Coming back from chow,” Lowery said, then he chuckled.
“We probably should have picked a better spot than right by the barracks,” Mundell said.
“I bet he bitches to Prockop about this.”
Rose told some of the Junior Marines to throw away the broken pieces and sweep up the glass and we all headed back inside. Just as I laid down on my rack I heard the element that went to Ramadi rumble back into the patch of desert nestled between bombed out buildings we called our parking lot. My pulse should have spiked but I found myself indifferent to the idea of Prockop being upset with me. I just didn't give a fuck anymore, and knew deep down that it had been a really long time since I'd given a fuck like a Marine who cared about doing his job well should have. If Prockop got mad what could he do? Maybe a group punishment or maybe haze a few of the senior Marines. It wouldn't matter to me either way. Marines had wanted help breaking their expensive electronics with an axe and I had been happy to oblige them. If that somehow didn't fall in line with the Staff Sergeant’s plans to see the Platoon's spoils of war be left behind and stolen by jackals, good. I hoped the Staff Sergeant had made a fool of himself, telling the LT how we would leave behind our things so there was no need for anyone to pay us the small amount of money asked. And I hoped as soon as Prockop walked back in from going to Ramadi that the Staff Sergeant filled his ear with bellyaching about how MachineGuns was a bunch of animals and he needed to get a muzzle on us. It was the end of the line, what the fuck were they going to do? We went home in a matter of weeks.
After the Marines from the convoy unloaded the trucks and dropped gear, the door to our squad bay opened, slapping the wall behind it.
“What the fuck happened while we were gone?”
It was Schluer. He wasn't mad anymore. From the smile on his face I know he'd already heard but wanted me to tell him anyway.
“Staff Sergeant told the LT not to let his guys buy our stuff since we can't take it with us or ship it home,” I said. “So we broke everything.”
Schluer let out a laugh that sounded like gravel in a blender.
“What did Staff Sergeant say?” he asked.
The door slapped the wall again as Mc Shane stuck his head in the room.
“Hey Schluer,” Mc Shane said. “Everyone from Mortars and Assault are hauling their shit outside to smash it. It's gonna be awesome!”
“What? Who said?” Schluer asked.
“Kistler and Crawford say it's good to go,” Mc Shane said. “They heard what Staff Sergeant said and everyone is freaking out.”
The two Mortarmen left in a hurry. A few minutes later Prockop came in and stared at me while I lay in my rack, hands behind my head and boots up, crossed on the footboard. He told me how Staff Sergeant was furious at me. I told him it didn't make any sense for Staff Sergeant to be angry at me since I didn't have a say in whether or not everyone wanted to break their televisions. Prockop tried giving me a stern talk, but I couldn't help but laugh when glass being smashed right outside the squad bay windows sounded like determined vandals in a car dealership. Prockop left, fuming. But I didn't give it any thought. It was somehow appropriate that Prockop, at the end of his second deployment, had decided that the time to rein it in was when we wanted to smash in televisions. Everything else we'd done, well, that was good to go as far as he was concerned. The drugs, the drinking, the violence. All of it.
As the destruction outside died down I started drifting off to sleep. I wasn't on QRF that day, or was I? It didn't matter anymore. I hoped when I woke up I'd be back home, far away from this place.