A part in war
I arrived at Fort Bragg on a C-5 Galaxy from Fort Benning, and within two days I had been given every vaccination and preventive medication known to the army in an endless series of shots and pills, and they gave us an experimental pill to prevent certain death from nerve agent and reduce it to a something that would be horrible but we’d probably survive long enough to feel more of the pain and misery before being less likely to die; it was pyridostigmine bromide, though I couldn’t pronounce it then and couldn’t recall the name and would have to look it up when writing this, unlike the other injections that I’d get every six months, like the thick and viscous gammu globulin injected into our butt cheeks that took a half hour to dissipate, and the barrage of tetnis, yellow fever, malaria, and other international diseases that America’s Quick Reaction Force regularly received, just in case. The gammu globulin was an immune booster given every six months and was a thick, viscous gel kept refrigerated until injected into our buttocks and made us sit angled for the half hour it took to disolve, so I knew it well. Butt, pun intended, we were never given pyridostigmine bromide again.
After 10,000 shots, pills, mists, and probes into orafices, they gave us chemical warfare suits and masks that covered all of our bodies and barely left room to see or breath, and offered advice on how to fight when you could barely move and were being bombed by SCUD missiles armed with nerve agent. As an extra precaution, they gave us atropine injectors to plunge through our chemical suits and into our thighs and release adrenline and hopefully prolong our suffering a bit longer until we could die somewhere more convenient. The 504th was gone, so the 82nd headquarters took my personal belongings except for the few things I could keep: the bible Mrs. Abrams had embroidered for me, a disposable camera with 24 exposures I had bought at the Post Exchange, an inexpensive and ubiquitous digital watch, a deck of cards, and four half dollars. They took my jungle fatigues and issued desert camoflauge, but were out of my size and only had extra large remaining, and I had to roll up my sleeves and tuck my pants deep into my boots, which were the rare and coveted tan suede leather desert boots and in my size, 12. We walked to the 504th and tucked my belongings into the armory with a note that they were for me, and everyone laughed politely and said I looked just like a Devil in Baggy Pants and wished me good luck and I boarded another C5 with only a dozen other soldiers and they told us we were the last resupply of replacements before the war would begin, and we wished they would stop using that word, “replacements,” because it was a persistent reminder of where we were going.
I arrived in Saudi Arabia 17 hours later and joined another soldier returning headed for the 82nd at the front line, an E4 with a combat patch and mustard seed on his wings, and I rightfully assumed a veteran of the Panama invasion. We were placed on a pile of mail in the back of a deuce and a half truck and we began a long and bumpy ride down what looked like a dirt road in the middle of a infinite desert, and every stop the temporary bases became more spare and Spartan and the piles of mail in the duece and a half got smaller and with fewer and fewer of the care packages caring Americans had been sending to soldiers with books and batteries and snacks and letters wishing us well, and every time I thought that we must be at the front line I was told no and that the 504th was at the very, very front. We slept at the temporary bases and shared their food and left early each morning with more space to move around in the back of the truck. All along the way, I smiled and silently recalled sitting on top of Yellow Pages and in the back nook of Mike’s two seater corvette, and I couldn’t stop feeling this wasn’t a scary situation, it was a larger but similar fractal of my life before, and the beginning of a grand adventure. I was by no means cocky or arrogant; I had surrendered after my first jump in airborne school, and I had no doubt that I’d move forward and was unconcerned about what would happen next. Along the way, the other soldier exemplified kindness and courtesy and respectful silence.
He had asked why my uniform was so baggy and why I didn’t have an 82nd patch, and I told him that was all supply had back at Bragg, and he paused and thought for a moment and took out his pocket knife and deftly removed the 82nd combat patch on his right shoulder and handed it to me.
“Here. I’ve got another.” I assumed he meant the unit patch on his left arm or a spare tan unit patch in his bag, and I accepted it. But, I told him I didn’t have a needle and thread to sew it on.
“Hold on,” he said, and he rummaged through his ruck sack for a minute and pulled out a needle and a few bunches of thread in a small, plastic kit.
“Here.” He handed it to me. “I have another in our deuce.” He was an 11B and slept on the ground with a few dozen men who kept their ruck sacks and a duffle bag in deuce’s assigned to each platoon.
“If you run out of thread, use dental floss. It’s stronger, anyway, and it won’t rot because it’s not cotton, it’s nylon.”
I thanked him and we joked about the Rambo movies where Sylvester Stalone was a green beret and used his needle an thread to sew up a cut in his arm. But, the soldier laughed and said, in the real world we need to sew on patches and repair ruck sacks, and we have a Doc to sew us up.” He shared that he, too, had watched too many war movies, and that what he kept calling “the real world” was much different.
I don’t recall his name. I was meeting a lot of people, and I rarely recognized those who influenced me until years later. Usually, it wasn’t the person I recalled, but what I learned from them, especially when I’d use those lessons again and again. And he had a good way of doing it for how I learned. He rarely told answers or disagreed with my observations, and he always seemed to answer with the equivalent of improv actings golden rule of saying, “yes, and…”
“Over there,” he said one day on a break, when the deuce and a half drivers were so tired of bouncing in their front seats that they stopped for a cigarette break and we crawled out of the deuce and stretched and looked around. He was pointing to the horizon.
“What do you see?”
I said I saw dust in the distance; over the previous three days, that would have almost always been the answer, because the desert is a windy and dusty place.
“Yes, and what do you think is causing it?”
I paused and didn’t say “wind,” because over the past few days the deeper answer was usually more than what I first said.
“Wind?” I offered.
He scanned the horizon and pointed elsewhere, and said, “Yes, and over there is a dust cloud, too. What do you see is different?”
I looked back and forth, and I began to see a difference that I couldn’t articulate. I described the difference, and he said, “Yes! And what are some things could cause that difference?”
Another deuce bounced by us and kicked up a thick wall of dust that choked us, so we stopped talking and moved behind our truck and hid our faces until the wind dispersed the dust. We the dust settled, he smiled and looked at me and waited for an answer, and I looked back at the two spots on the horizon and said, “That’s from trucks.”
“Yes. Or tanks or cars or something big moving and kicking up dust that’s then carried by the wind. Pay attention, and you won’t know if it’s friend of enemy, but at least you’ll know something is there.”
Our days had been filled with lessons like that, but many are lost to memory or blended in with other memories, but the dust settling was the most memorable because it was so obvious in hindsight, and I instantly I began noticing dust in the horizon and identifying what was just wind and what was something else. Instantly, I stopped assuming anything was as it seemed at first. I began observing more and differing judgement, and then I noticed how few other people did that, and I began to trust myself and the soldier more than other people, regardless of their rank.
That evening, we stopped at a temporary base and distributed the last of the care packages and ate dinner. The E4 and I would be parting ways the next day, he said, because he was in the 505th and we’d change trucks at the 82nd headquarters and I’d go to the 504th. That night, we were given two bunks in a crowded tent of soldiers sleeping side by side. This was so deep into Saudi Arabia that we were approaching Iraq and within SCUD range, and this would be the first base that enforced stand-up and stand-down, dressing in full chemical combat gear at dawn and sunset, when wind died down because temperatures were equalizing as the sun went up on the cool desert or set on the hot desert, and for about an hour at sunrise and sunset would be the ideal time for a SCUD missile to be launched and chemical weapons to be released without wind to blow them away. If unprepared, the nerve agent would linger and kill more people; and, closer to the front, that would be when Iraq tanks would quickly follow and kill everyone scrambling around to gear up. To prepare, front line units practiced stand-up and stand-down, dressing in chemo gear and arming themselves and assuming that SCUDs would fall and people would die and the world’s largest fleet of tanks would soon roll in.
But, we never practiced stand-down because a SCUD had been launched and sirens were sounding and everyone was shouting that this was not a drill, and soldiers scrambled to put on their chemo suits and load full magazines into their M16’s and sit behind the M60’s mounted on Humvees and duece and a halves, and I thought that was the most well armed mailmen on earth and smiled as I donned my suit and loaded a full metal jacket.
They were not calm. They seemed undisciplined and reactionary. A few injected their legs with atropine injectors, and two hid under their bunks and seemed to be crying. Most followed procedures like the drills they had done daily for months and took their defense stations, but we were new and didn’t know where to go, and after the soldier donned his gear and loaded his M16 he looked me up and down and we simply looked around and tried to access the situation. We moved outside the tent and kneeled by the tires of a deuce and waited.
The SCUD hit far enough away that we heard it but did not see the explosion; they were notoriously inaccurate, presumably because rocket science is challenging. After all, back then I couldn’t design a rocket that would fly 100 miles and hit a small army base. We knew that, but sometimes intellectual knowledge doesn’t calm emotions, and, when I heard the explosion, my heart beat rose and I felt a hint of fear for the first time. It’s likely that all the news and education about the horros of dying from chemical weapons had settled deep inside me and created fears that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. Regardless of the reason, I was simply aware of my fear, and I stopped smiling and, for reasons I don’t understand, stopped being afraid.
We kneeled in masks and chemical suits with our M16’s pointed east, towards Iraq and the possible fleet of tanks that we would be helpless against, and we waited.
Most of the soldiers stayed in place, including the two under their bunks, whom we’d see still there later that evening. A few ran around, panicing by every definition of panicing. I wondered if seeing them panic was helping quench my fears, as if I didn’t want to be that. I felt that someone had to be calm and prepared, and it might as well be me. The soldier looked at me through the constricted view of a chem mask and nodded, and I nodded back, and we looked forward with our M16’s ready to shoot tanks uselessly before they drove over us.
The siren stopped and a voice over a bullhorn said to go to stand-down, and the base transitioned to their routine and we remained kneeling by the deuce. A half hour after sunset, the bullhorn blared that stand-down was over, and everyone removed their chem suits and talked about nothing other than the SCUD, except for the soldier and me.
I don’t recall exactly what was said, but he complimented me on remaining calm and we discussed what we had seen other people do and what we would have done had the SCUD hit or tanks rolled in, and I told him what I felt at the time. He asked where I learned that, and I briefly and without deep conviciont told him about Coach’s statement from only a few months before about his time in Olympic trials.
“You wrestled!” he exclaimed. “Of course!” He wrestled at 160-something in high school, long enough before me that the weight classes were different. We chatted a bit about remaining calm in chaos and likening it to being in the middle of a match and trying to listen to our coaches and peers but mostly focused on what we struggled to define then, but was essentially our essence, or being, whatever it was that allowed us to observe our situation and our thoughts and feelings.
The soldiers under their bunks came out and complained about having joined the naional guard, not the army, and we ignored them and fell asleep and I slept peacefully and without remembering if I dreamed. We awoke to a bullhorn and stand-up and used a dry razor to scrape our faces smooth – it was easier for me, because I back then I could go a couple of days without someone noticing I hadn’t shaved – and donned our chemical suits that still smelled of sweat from the day before. Nothing happenened, and after we repacked our chem gear we ate breakfast from a small table of thermal containers, and the soldier laughed and said I should enjoy my last hot meal before arriving at the front, because it would be all packaged MRE’s after that: Meals, Ready to Eat, with a shelf life of at least ten years and packaging tested to withstand chemical attack, and food that somehow would survive radiation from a nuclear attack. We joked that MRE sounded like ‘Mr. E,’ and it was a ‘mystery’ at how it survived so long, and why couldn’t we just make our chem suits out of the thick plastic packaging and gooey textureless food that was apparently impervious to chemical and nuclear weapons.
We bounced in the back of the practically empty deuce and had somehow transitioned to a dynamic more like peers than mentor and cherry, and we chatted about wrestling and SCUD’s and T-54’s and people who panic or are otherwise intemperate. I learned that he was returning from a four day weekend pass on a ship in the Gulf of Arabia; a civilian cruise ship had offered to host soldiers for weekends of Rest and Relaxation, R&R. Most soldiers on R&R while he was there were REMF’s, Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers, but the soldier had been given the one pass offered to the 82nd. It was hard to get people from the front back and forth, and the soldier said that it was tempting to be upset at REMF’s but to remember that we had all volunteered and chosen our destinations, and, like me, he had chosen the 82nd because he wanted to be the best he could be. He had become a squad leader and was E4P, a rank called specialist and when E4P it meant you were almost a sergeant. He had been supporting his team when their first sergeant called a formation and asked for a volunteer, and no one in their right mind volunteers for anything in the army. But, after standing silently for about ten minutes, the soldier had volunteered just so his team could stop standing silently, and he was rewarded rather than punished and had been given the 505th’s only R&R pass. On the ship, he had access to showers for the first time in four mounths, and was able to wash clothes and sew on patches that they had forgone in the rush to deploy and find desert camos. That’s why his uniform was ironed and had decorations and stood out so much. I knew he had jumped into Panama, and we talked about that and my perception of it while I was in high school, and I wondered if I had seen him on television and asked him about the speakers around Noriega’s compound.
“Oh my god that was awesome!” he exclaimed, moving his body in excitement and also trying to remain upright on the bumpy ride. “I didn’t know people saw that!”
The 505 had returned from Panama and deployed on a long training mission and then were on call the night Iraq invaded Kuwait, August 3rd, the night Robert Downey Junior was on Late Night With David Letterman. He had been a part of Desert Shield since, and hand’t talked to many civilians or people who watched the news since last year. He had been gone a long time. He was a metal head, and was happy to chat about Van Halen’s 1984 album.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed. “Can you imagine better songs? Jump! Panama! Did you hear about Guns-N-Roses?”
I was unsure what he meant and I said of course I had heard of Guns-N-Roses, but he clarified and asked if I heard about it in Operation Just Cause. I said no.
“When we were flying 800 feet over the jungles of Panama and the doors opened, we felt the rush of hot air after spending the winter in North Carolina, and everyone was scared, like yesterday and the SCUD. You train all the time, but some things make it real. The hot air blowing though the 141’s and seeing the horizon as the sun was rising made it real. We were scared. I was scared. But then the pilot turned on the speakers and blared “Welcome to the Jungle,” and, man! we felt alive!” We simultaneously mimicked the irreplicable lead-up to Welcome to the Jungle, Axl Rose’s screeching voice and the almost inpercievable and prophetic “God, Jump” beginning, and we laughed at how a better song couldn’t have been planned. That evolved to a conversation about fate, and I admitted that I was concerned about killing someone. He was an athiest, but suggested that I discuss my thoughts with the chaplain.
“He’s a stark raving badass,” the solder said. I was unsure what he meant, but didn’t ask; I’m unsure why not, because my image of a stark raving badass chaplain must have been amusing.
We arrived at the 82nd HQ and parted ways and The Sergeant Major was waiting for me and slapped me on the arm and welcomed me to the war, and pointed to a Humbee and said that was my first sergeant and I carried my ruck sack and duffle bag over there.
The first sergeant was a tiny young man. I don’t recall anything about his driver, but on the thirty minute drive to the 504th he drove and the first sergeant and I talked. He welcomed me and told me a few basics and explained his youth as if used to explaining it. He was Hawaian, and the army had a policy to promote non commissioned officers at a percentage commensurate with the percentage of population you represented, and he had been one of the few Hawaians qualified to be promoted, and he was the youngest first sergeant in the 82nd and probably the army. I told him that my processing station had said I was likely the youngest soldier in the 500,000 American soldiers deployed, and we commensurated and I felt relaxed.
“The army had good and bad things,” he said. “But, it’ll take care of you if you take care of your team. Put them first, then no one will question whether you were given your rank or if you earned it. Earn it, and you’ll be fine.” He briefly mentioned the history of the army’s racial indoctrination, quoting a famous black American of jamaican descent, Colin Powel, who was known for his leadership and repeated statements that the army was integrated before American society, and that society could learn from that example; he would later become famous as the first black Joint Chiefs of Staff, but his reputation had proceeded him.
Foster said we were almost there, and we pulled into a ramshackle gathering of vehicles and radio antenas that was the 504th’s HQ. The first sergeant dropped me off with 4th platoon’s mail and said goodbye and they went to deliver mail to other platoons, merely sparse bungles of envelopes because all of the care packages had already been given away on my journey from the first temporary base only four days earlier, though it already seemed like a lifetime ago.
“What up?!?” shouted Foster, the platoon sergeant’s driver. He was a cheerful and chubby cherup, tall but pear shaped and not what I was expecting of battle hardened soldiers. I’d later learn that he had had a physical training waiver before Desert Shield, and Sgt. Weber had made him his driver because waivered people were asked to not handle the heavy machine guns.
“Throw your shit here,” he said, pointing to a hap hazzard pile of things in his Humvee. I tossed my shit randomly, and Foster said, “Perfect!” and Sgt. Weber waddled up and slapped me on the arm and enthusiastically said, “Welcome to the front, Partin!”
Sgt. Weber was a short, stocky, 36 year old E6 who had been born in the rural farmland of northern Florida and looked and sounded like a hard working southern boy turned into a man. He was married with two kids and had ten years of military experience and had just finished three years as a basic training drill sergeant but had only recently gone to airborne school, and his first airborne assignment had been with Anti-Tank Platoon #4 in D-1/504th Parachute Infantry Regiment only a few weeks before Saddam invaded Kuwait and Cindi Crawford advertised Pepsi on David Letterman.
He had never jumped outside of airborne school, so we both only had five relatively easy jumps. By 82nd definitions, we were both cherries. But, he was a dedicated soldier, and though he laughed easily and often he was stickler for details, and along the drive he peppered me with questions about our weapons, ensuring I knew what a TOW and a T54 and 55 could do and could not do, and the politics of the war, ensuring I knew what a Muslim Shite was compared to a Christian Caldean. He seemed impressed, and I had already forgotten the soldier who had helped me understand these things confidently, because like many young adults I didn’t see all the steps that got me where I was.
“Goddamn, Partin!” he exclaimed. “You know your shit. Welcome to AT4!”
His tone was slightly forced, as if he were an actor who had portrayed a drill sergeant and was now portraying a wartime sergeant. His quotes sounded like the famous Vietnam movie Full Metal Jacket and the real life marine drill sergeant that exaggerated the stereotype. He cursed eloquently, and radiated genuine concern for his soldiers. He and Foster bantered like a superior and mentor who had managed to cheerfully live together in a foxhole for four months.
I liked both of them.
Foster shouted over the roar of the engine and the rattling of his hastily packed cargo, and he said we were almost there. I looked, but all I saw was the top of one Humvee and three men looking at us. That was first squad of AT-4, 50 yards removed from the second squad to the south and 50 years from one of the squads of AT-3. That would be my home, Sgt. Weber said, and the dropped me off and made a few introductions and quickly took off to deliver mail to the other squads, because it was late afternoon and we’d have to suit up for stand-down soon.
A week later, I saw Foster driving Sgt. Weber to us for mail call. Foster wasn’t exuberant and cherub-like, something I had begun to expect from him, and Sgt. Weber looked angry. He jumped out of the Humvee before Foster had cut the engine, and he waddled over to me so quickly that dust kicked up behind his feet.
“Drop, Partin!” he shouted. I was surprised, and reacted to basic training out of habit, and dropped to a push up position with both arms extended and my back straight, something that looks like planking in yoga, but ungraceful and awkward when you’re wearing probably 20 pounds in water and ammunition and a helmet and chem gear strapped to your combat vest. The ammo pouches almost touched the ground, and I struggled to keep them out of the dirt and to keep my arms straight and eyes forward. Habits are hard to break, and for the three months leading to that moment I had been in traditional, movie-like training where people told you to drop without provocation or warning, just to remind you that you were in the army and to keep you always alert to the people around you.
“What the fuck, Dolly?” He had started calling me Dolly after a few people mumbled my name and made it sound like Parton. I had thought it was funny to go from being called Dolly as a middle school taunt to being called Dolly by America’s Guard of Honor, but deep down I felt awkard and embarassed by being called Dolly by a person standing over me and telling me what to do. I wasn’t upset, but I was surprised that I felt my body deflate as if nothing the previous four years had mattered.
He stood in front of me and thrust an airmail envelope towards my face. I saw the handwriting and instantly realized I was in trouble.
“The 82nd Air Bored? What the fuck, Dolly?”
I had signed my return address as “The 82nd Air Bored” as a joke that only the Abrams would get, and Sgt. Weber was holding my letter to them in my face. I’ll explain the letter in a moment, because I never explained it to him.
“You’ve been here a goddamned week and you’re bored? Well, Dolly, don’t be bored; push!”
I began doing pushups, dipping my ammo pouches into the fine grained sand and lifting them back up, surprised at how I was struggling with the added weight and clutter of my combat gear.
“Are you bored now, Dolly?” he said, bending over so that I could see his countenance in my periphery. He was not happy.
“What were you thinking?” he demanded as I pushed. I paused in plank position and said it had been a joke.
“A joke? Do you think it’s a fucking joke that the first sergeant saw this and radioed me to see it? Is it a fucking joke that your cherry ass has been here a week, but your team has been here four months without seeing their family? Families sort this mail and see it, and your cherry ass has the arrogance to tell them you’re bored? Wives are worried and miss their soldier sausage, and you want to tell them you’re bored? You want kids who believe their daddy’s a hero seeing a letter from the 82nd Air Fucking Bored? Push, Private, Push!!!”
I pushed for a while and he calmed down. He told me to stand at ease, and we talked. I briefly summarized why I had written that, and he accepted it but told me I was a dumb ass cherry who should know better next time. He said they couldn’t tell me what to write inside the letter, and technically shouldn’t remove the sealed envelope from the mail bag, but so many people hoped that their husbands were safe and doing good work that the first sergeant wouldn’t mail the letter until tomorrow and strongly suggested I repackage it in a respectably addressed envelope, which I promptly did and returned to Sgt. Weber.
The letter had been long and the envelope had been thick. I hadn’t planned on writing such a long letter, but there had been a surprising amount of down time my second week in Desert Shield and my first week with first squad of AT-4. Stand up and stand down took an hour each, and no one talked or moved then. We just breathed like Darth Vader in our masks and pointed our weapons east at the very real army of tanks before us. For the remaining 22 hours a day, we alternated guard shifts and cleaning weapons and didn’t talk much, and I spent nights sitting behind a TOW thermal sight and days sitting behind a optic sight, and in down time I either did push ups – the irony of being punished with pushups didn’t escape me – and thinking about our situation and writing a long letter to the Abrams family that they would understand. It was full of my observations and humor, which relied a lot on puns, like saying I was a small part in his story or Wendy saying she had been WARP’ed by marrying a Partin. My humor was how I deflected serious subjects, and I had wanted to convey the situation without adding worry to Mrs. Abrams, so I added a lot of puns and at the last minute set the stage for my closing remarks in the return address, an inside joke that came from Todd and me in Mrs. Techelia’s public speaking class, where she suggested “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”
I began with The 82nd Air Bored, and if they had opened the envelope they would have seen me describing my team the way 1980’s Vietnam conflict films and memoirs introduced the soldiers, but with words and descriptions meaningful to the Abrams in Baton Rouge.
I called my squad sergeant Sgt. Shaq ater Shaquele O’neal, a humongous LSU basketball player who had recently dropped out of school to play professional basketball for. newly formed team called The Orlando Magic. His real name was Sgt. Caldwell, a 6’4″ African American with a Ranger tab who loved basketball and hip hop and had taken to me because I did push ups on my own. No one had formal physical training in four months, and many of the troops were becoming out of shape and, ironically, more lethargic as weeks passed stuck in their remote, three person stations. Sgt. Shaq was the squad leader, sitting in the passenger seat and holding the maps and secret codes that allowed us to know which radio frequency to use each day. His M16 had an M203 grenade launcher under the barrel, and his combat vest dangled with an improbably amount of grenades, ammo pouches, binoculars, water, a bayonette, and a flashlight with different colored lenses to signal or protect your night vision. He was huge, and he covered his body with as much gear as possible. He radiated being the type of soldier you’d want nearby in battle.
“I like you, Partin,” he had said. “You’re a PT freak, just like me!” He had shifted our guard duties so we could exercise together, and we’d disassemble our Humvee’s .50 caliber machine gun and use the 15 pound barrel as a weight bar and hang cans of .50 cal ammo off the ends and do curls. For pushups, usually we did them on our own, but sometimes for fun he’d get Hermie to sit on his shoulders, and though Hermie was diminutive I couldn’t do any pushups with him on my back and the bulky combat vest we wore almost 24 hours a day.
Hermie was Hernandez, a 19 years old latino from Las Angeles, California. Until I arrived, he was the lowest ranking person in AT-4 and was first squad’s Humvee drier. planned to use his college fund for pre-med and go to dental school, and his small stature and big ears had reminded me of Hermie, the elf in Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer who wanted to be a dentist and had removed the Abonimable Snowman’s sore tooth and stoped the snowman from rampaging. Like the elf, Hermie had a calm and pleasant demeaner, and the name made sense to me. He disliked it, so I only wrote it to the Abrams to help them envision my team. And because letters were private, I added that I was surprised at Hermie’s small size and thin arms and apathy towards PT, but enjoyed his humor. When I had arrived, he had the only mail package, a box from a well known cosmetics company.
“Sweet!” he had exclaimed. “They sent it!” He had written to a company with a high-end hand moisturizing lotion and told them that the desert was drying his hands and the hands of his platoon, and hoped they’d send everyone some lotion. He took his cache and hustled off to a privacy screen he had created by stretching his poncho over the front end of their Humvee, by his driver’s door, and we didn’t see him for half an hour.
He was funny, cheerful, and never exercised. He smoked while Sgt. Shaq and I exercised and quipped that we worked too hard. He had a kind heart, and kept a pet lizard practically as big as a small alligator that had been spray painted with a big letter V on it’s back, like all Humvee’s and tanks had V’s on their hoods to identify us to patroling aircraft. He said another platoon had probably spray painted it as a joke, not realizing spray paint was toxic to a lizard and that desert lizards depended on air flow across its skin to stay cool. He had named it Achmed The Lizard, and had tied a leash around its neck and let him ride on the hood of the Humvee in the center or our coil of constantine wire so that it would cool off when Hermie was driving, and because it was a huge lizard that hissed at everyone and tried to bite foolish people who tried to touch it. Hermie had a gentle touch and had wanted to be a veterinarian before considering dentistry. I was the only one who thought of him as Hermie; to everyone else, he was simply Hernandez.
His weapon was a Berretta 9mm semi automatic pistol, a new weapon for the U.S. that only recently replaced the older .45 caliber revolvers and the 1911 semi automatic. He was out of compliance; the army’s wisdom said he should have a M16 and that his gunner should have a pistol, but our Humee’s gunner thought that was silly because he had a MK19 grenade launcher that could send 200 grenades a minute up to a mile away, and each grenade could melt through two inches of armored steel of a personnel carrier truck and explode with a 5 meter kill radius and a 15 meter wound raidus, and, theoretically, if we were under attack a MK19 was more useful than a pistol, and the driver could hold a pistol with one hand and shoot out his window more easily than accessing a long and cumbersome M16. In the letter, I had referrenced something from recent news that we had discussed as teenagers, the April 11th, 1986 FBI shootout in Miami, where an army of FBI agents with newly issued 9mm’s were horrifically outgunned by a single gunman with minimal body armor. The 9mm was an effort to unify weapons of allied forces worldwide, to ensure ease in supplying each other and uniformity in training. Almost every soldier with whom I’d discuss weapons – in wartime that’s a lot of people – would express frustration at having to carry a 9mm, especially when many of our sergeants and officers reminiced about carrying a Good Ol’ American .45 that would have stopped the Miami shooter. In short: I expounded on my chagrin to the Powers That Be, and I was glad the Powers That Be protected Free Speech and the Right to Privacy.
I disliked the 9mm and lack of choice back then, like most of AT4.
Our gunner was Skinny Foster, an E4P from Colorado and the oldest one in our squad. He had graduated college with a history degree but no job, and had joined the 82nd for four years with plans on using that to become a smoke jumper fire fighter after serving. He had been scheduled to leave the army two weeks before Saddam invaded Kuwait, and all of our contracts emphasized that any wartime activities would invalidate our contracts and we’d remain in the army until Uncle Sam said otherwise. Skinny wasn’t bitter, and accepted his new role as the oldest person in our squad who should have been in bed with long hair and a beard and a girlfriend rather than an irritable lizard named Achmed. He would have been easily bored, but he used his time to repeatedly dismantle and reassemble our weapons, and because the MK19 was a new weapon given to the army from the marines and navy pilots and merchant marines who used it in Vietnam to randomly dessimate the jungles along Vietnamese rivers, Skinny had developed a reputation as a weapons expert. He had embraced that, and had suggested to Sgt. Webber that squad’s rotate MK19’s and .50 cal’s so that we were well rounded and proficient with all of D-Company’s weapons, which is why I could lift .50 cal weights with Sgt. Shaq one day and reassemble the snub nosed MK19 the next. Similarly, Skinny had suggested rearranging the assigned personal weapons of their vehicle to give Hernie the 9mm and him Hernie’s M16.
I had described Sgt. Weber as the drill sergeant in Stanely Kubrick’s 1987 film, Full Metal Jacket, starring Mathew Modine as “Joker,” a marine drafty and journalist who chronicals his transitions through hopefully hyperbolic basic training of the Vietnam-era and the horrors of combat; Mathew Modine was the main character of Vision Quest, the coming of age book and film about a high school wrestler, and a favorite film of mine and the Abrams, and I used a lot of references to other things we had discussed as a family, like The Hero’s Journey and Mathew Modine’s wrestler not having a mentor like in The Karate Kid or Rocky, but having an older girlfriend like I had with Princess Leah. After all, I was a kid writing to friends, not unlike an email or text, but with fewer opportunities to mail a letter and many, many nights to think about how to explain things to the only people who would read that letter, and I tried to relate everything to whatever we had already talked about or was shared pop culture.
I had written these descriptions in a missive reminessent of the films we had watched, and I analyzed my situation using the words we had used when watching those films. In all films, brave men were made to seem extraordinarily brave, and sometimes weak men were shown to rise to an occasion and prove themselves. But, I was was seeing things differently, and I saw that four months of spending time with the same two other people had made people complacent. They had heard all of each other’s stories, and had practiced assembling and disassembling the new weapons as much as they could tolerate without antagonism, and everyone was bored. But, they were ready to fight though no one expressed anger or anxiety or intensity, they had a calm conviction reminiscent of my feeling of no doubt that I’d jump from that plane. I finished the letter by saying that boredom leads to apathy, and apathy is easily mistaken for confidence. I had, I hoped, explained our conversations about the plethora of Vietnam conflict movies that showed 19 year old kids do heroic things despite being the same age as some of our friends who, frankly, were lazy and unreliable. I wrote that without overthinking it, writing from a calm state of mind on a boring day overlooking the same dozen miles of desert before the earth curved away, and aware that even after only a few days I was feeling bored, especially during the solitary hours sitting behind the TOW sites while others slept or reposed under their shade canopy with a box full of hand lotion. I signed the letter, “Your brotha’ from anotha’ motha’, Magik,” and put the folded sheets into an envelope and, at the last minute, set up the final lines of the letter by writing 82nd Air Bored as my return address.
I had written a letter to them every few days, and wasn’t looking forward to the next time Sgt. Weber came rushing at me and angrily waving an envelope.
I had also written to Wendy and my dad and Leah and a generalized letter to the Belaire Bengals wrestling team, but those were brief letters with perfunctery depth and phatic statements, like all was good and I was fine and I hope they were fine. Mrs. Abrams and I had always spoken deeply, and I found myself able to write to her and the boys with more vulnerability than anyone else.
The squad actually began to laugh at my envelope jokes and drawings; each one was sent with a quick sketch that looked something like Ronald Reagan wearing a kevlar helmet and desert fatigues. After a while, they almost felt badly for what they had done to me.
When first squad was told they had to make room for me, they also received a month’s worth of MRE’s for me. None of them had liked the chicken and rice MRE, so they had sorted through their rations for other options and stockpiled chicken and rice. When Sgt. Weber brought my rations, they replaced all of mine with chicken and rice. I had laughed at the coincidence of randomly grabbling a chicken and rice twice in a row the first day, but when I grabbed a third for dinner I became suspecious and inspected my box and saw nothing but a month’s worth of chicken and rice. I, too, disliked chicken and rice; and Hermie laughing about my dilemma at every meal made it worse. They almost felt badly, but it was still a funny diversion from the boredom they had felt before a replacement arrived with new stories to tell and virgin ears for the jokes they had told each other dozens of times.
I fell into a routine not unlike a wrestling team road trip to weekend tournaments, jovial yet practical on why we were there. The banter was fun, and I liked that people seemed to want to listen to anyone new with anything different to say than they had been hearing for four months.
“Partin, you’re loquacious,” said the gunner of fourth squad, AT3, who was 50 yards away and a former wrestler who would coordinate his off time to walk over and work out with Sgt. Shaq. He had been studying for the SAT college exam before Desert Shield, and had brought his study guide and was practicing using words from the vocabulary section, like loquacious.
“You talk nonstop about everything. You’re loquatious.” He had read that using a word a few times in unprompted conversations would imbed the word into your vocabulary and improve your SAT score and ensure you got into college. “It’s intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that you’re vociferous,” he said. “You flap your lips a lot. You’re garrulous.” I didn’t disagree.
The stars mezmerized me and I couldn’t stop talking about them. I had three nightime guard shifts every night, and always at the darkest times of night when starts were most visible. I was the lowest ranking person, and the tradition was to put the lowest ranking position in the least desirable guard shifts. A first shift let you transition from stand-down to being in full gear and behind a TOW sight seamlessly, but an 11pm shift meant you undressed and reposed under your shade or in your trench, like Skinny had dug, and then had to wake up early to redress into full gear. As a fourth person, I could take the burden of bad guard shifts – pay my dues, they said – and therefore I was always awake and alone at approximately 11pm and 1am and 4am; stand down and stand up depended on sunrise and sunset and was therefore changing, but I think you get the idea. I was awake when others were asleep, and for an hour I had to remain silent and motionless and scan the desert and stare at the stars. I’d begin with a radio check on that day’s frequency, ensuring the two adjustable dials were set correctly, 02 and 45 one day, 77 and 20 the next, and so on. At every guard shift, we’d check in with all other squad’s in a radio check, then we were alone for an hour.
At first, I diligently scanned the desert with our thermal site. I saw nothing but kangroo rats and a few predators, and I quickly adapted to looking only every five or ten minutes, especially once I realized that I could see any heat signature from as far away as the horizon would allow, and it would take ten minutes or so for any vehicle to get noticably closer. Any foot soldiers would walk all night before reaching us, and the American air superiority precluded an air attack. I quickly became bored with the multi million dollar futuristic technology in my hands, and I began experimenting with smaller gadgets, like our Night Observation Devices, NOD’s. They collected light too dim for us to see, converted the light to electrical signals and amplified them, like a stereo amplifier receives subtle sound signals and amplifies them for us to hear. The desert stars were already spectacular, much brighter in the middle of nowhere than anywhere near a city, and I had been amazed but then I looked skyward wearing NODS and felt what must have felt like the voice of God to born again Christians or people speaking in tongues at a Jimmy Swaggart rally. The experience defied explanation, and I felt so overwhelmed that I ripped off the NODS and looked at the sky and remarked to myself on the difference and then replaced them slowly, carefully, delicately; and I looked at the sky again and lost my breath to the infinite number of starts that suddenly appeared, and the continuous display of shooting stars that I couldn’t see with my naked eyes, and the blinking satellites and fuzzy areas that I would later read were entire galaxies and nebulas. I could see the milky way with my naked eyes, but through NODS I saw a dense bright web that practically blocked all dark sky, and though I had read that looking through the milky was was peering through an arm of our spiral galaxy I had never thought about it until I saw the stars illuminated so thickly that I finally began to see that there are more stars in the milky way than grains of sand on Earth, even in the sprawling desert in front of me. I felt small, and happy and delighted to see what few people had seen. A few may have looked skyward in areas away from cities, and a few may have had telescopes, but NODS were relatively new technology and I realized I was one of the only people on Earth to have looked into the sky and seen more than our eyes can see or most minds ponder. I dind’t have the words to describe how I felt, and I talked incessently about it.
Sgt. Shaq didn’t care about stars, Skinny dismissed it as commonplace because he had been doing the same thing for four months, and Hernie said he didn’t look anywere but his copy of Adam and Eve, a soft porn advertising magazine that somehow slipped past Saudi Arabia morality censors, perhaps because they thought it was purely religious as opposed to a company that expounded on the original sin and sent monthly magazines with beautiful people posing together with bedroom toys. My personal favorite involved a brunette with bright red lipstick and matching leingerie, holding something that I would have enthusiastically paid for with a month’s hazardous duty pay.
All of AT4 was uninterested in hearing my thoughts on the sky, and they hadn’t read the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy like I had, so perhaps they weren’t as open minded to humans being only two words in the galaxy’s guide, “Mostly Harmless,” nor did they care that Douglas Adams said we were like the monkeys we decended from and more enamored by digital watches than any developed species in the universe. We all wore digital watches, and made sure to wake up the next person on guard duty so we could get some sleep. I did, too, but in my three hours a night alone I used my thermal sites and NODS to explore the galaxy from the gunner seat atop our Humvee. I was a happy human, with my ubiquitous $10 Casio digital watch and its beeping alarm. Part of my thoughts were how useful that watch was, especially after everyone else’s watch had become useless, either electronically, because of dead batteries, or mechanically, because of the fine sand and dust that blew relentlessly, all day and all night, every day and night, all the time. Everyone used my Casio at night, passing it from person to person, and I couldn’t help but keep talking about how my cheap Casio was the only way a Humvee with dozens of millions of dollars of equipment and thermal imaging and NODS and missiles could function; it’s no wonder they were uninterested in hearing my thoughts on the sky.
I shared most of my thoughts with our chaplain on weekly Spiritual PT sessions. The Chaplain was a thin man of average height who smiled consistently and was humble and was, just as The Soldier had said, a stark raving badass. Every battalion has a chaplain divided among several companies, and The Chaplain dedicated time to each company once a week and held one opportunity per week for anyone in the battalion to commune. He was unabashed in his Christianity, but epitomized the neutrality and flexibility and humility of an All American chaplain; he didn’t hold every word of the bible to be true, and would often joke that keeping the Sabbath holy was tricky when the Devils in Baggy Pants kept deploying on random days and had even parachuted into Panama over Christmas. He had parachuted with them, unarmed, and had tried to uphold his conviction that all lives matter, and so did all souls, but he was there to listen and not to teach or preach. He had three mustard seeds on his jump wings, but no Ranger or Special Forces Tab, yet he epitomized what The Soldier felt was a stark raving badass.
During weekly Spiritual PT, The Chaplain invited anyone in D-Company to an hour repose from guard duty, as long as safety protocols were maintained. At first, I was surprised that so few of us were there; I was anxious for a change of view and a rare break of wearing only a t-shirt, unloading the heavy and bulky combat gear and removing our overshirts and thereby hiding our ranks, because no one had rank in Spiritual PT. Within half an hour, I realized why no one would come back to Spiritual PT; The Chaplain was a stark raving badass. The few of us there practically screamed at the heavens as we stared skyward with eyes squeezed shut and teeth clenched in extreme effort to keep up with The Chaplain’s pushup pace. We did pushups, situps, lunges, and leg raises until only The Chaplain was smiling and still able to breath and speak calmly.
The final fifteen minutes of Spiritual PT were an open forum where The Chaplain would listen and share knowledge. He was as proficient with different religious texts and psychology studies as we were with different firearms and vehicle manuals, and he spoke like an improv actor saying, “Yes, and…” and his and’s were followed by quotes from any religion or philosophy imaginable, and that was remarkable because of the handful of us at Spiritual PT, all professed to be Christians. I didn’t. I said I didn’t know what I believed, but that I trusted Mrs. Abrams and that the only thing she had ever asked of me was to keep an open mind to all religions. But, I always hesitated on discussing what I really wanted to understand: Thou Shall Not Kill. Even without jacket tops and rank, we all knew who each other were, and I felt awkward discussing my hesitation to kill with men who were authorized by the United States government to kill and could tell me to kill, too. The Chaplain sensed my hesitation and chatted with Sgt. Weber and I was allowed two days a week of Spiritual PT, once with D-Company and once on whichever day we could squeeze in a Sabbath for the entire battalion of Devils.
And that’s when I realized just how much of a badass he was, because I was exhausted from two days and only then realized he led Spiritual PT for four companies and another for a Sabbath. It was at one of those Sabbaths that the group of about 20 of us discussed what we were feeling in a more autonomous environment, relatively free from judgement. After all, some men were relying on each other to watch their back, and you’d hope that they’d have no doubt when it came to saving your life. Doubt erodes trust. Talking about it was good. We never reached a conclusion.
The Chaplain stopped me after one Sabbath and handed me a shiny aluminum cross with a hole the size of our dog-tag chain. I said I still didn’t know, and that I didn’t trust believing, and I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. He kept his calm countenance and tone and said he thought I’d like to have a choice one day. At the very least, he said, you’d have something to give someone else if they needed it.
He was right. Everything had been scarce on the front, and any item was something of value to someone. I accepted the cross and draped it around the smaller loop of my dog-tags, and later taped it to the lower tag to keep it from making noise from banging around in my loose shirt.
On the night of January __, word came that the war was beginning. In the morning, before we would have usually began Stand Up, D-Company and the French equivalent of us would lead the front; the 504th, technically, but because D-Company was the anti-armor company, we were leading the way. More than one soldier referenced the Infantry motto shouted by Iron Mike: Follow Me! Some were serious, some were sardonic, and surprisingly all were smiling.
A few hours before dawn, we were told, the American air force would lead with a barrage of bombs unlike the world had ever seen, and the French soldiers north of us would follow close behind and begin the ground invasion, and we’d follow a few hours later. On maps that we marked in pens, we were a spearhead, a point protruding through a weak spot in Iraq’s front line, and all other forces would follow us and expand laterally, like a spear penetrating an animal and spreading wider as it penetrated deeper. We were on a straight course across Iraq and to the Uphrates Valley, reputably The Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and on our way to Bagdhad. General Stormin’ Norman had ordered a blitzkrieg, and we were going forward. General “Ninja” Nix, the youngest general in the army at the time because of his stellar reputation, simply advised us that if we were attacked by chemical weapons we should take a deep breath and drive forward and be at peace. A few soldiers paraphrased Sir Winston Churchill, “When going through hell, don’t slow down!” I offered a reference few got, but most understood: “Damn the Torpedoes! Full steam ahead!” That had been a famous Louisiana saying, quoting the Navy captain on a steam ship who charged up the Mighty Mississippi to fight the British, and plowed through a mine field, called torpedos back then, bellowing his epitath to everyone. What we were all trying to do was remove doubt from each other that we were moving forward, and that the best thing to do when all else fails is to keep moving forward. We’d leave before stand-up.
It was almost stand-down, and we proceeded with our routines as usual. No changes to our routine of many months had to be made just because shit suddenly got real. That’s foresight, preparation, and habit; and, to an extent, apathy. Fear leads to doubt or hesitation, and doubt leads to fear or hesitation, and we needed to act without hesitation as a team. It’s not easy.
Surprisingly, we all slept well. I assume that’s a postive side effect of apathy. I had developed it, too, in my short month there, at least when it came to war. But, I was endlessly fascinated with the technology and the stars and how to make chicken and rice palatable by adding copious amounts of Tobasco sauce. I had been pleasantly surprised that the latest version of MRE’s included tiny bottles of Tobasco, an ubiquitous hot sauce I knew well because it had originated Avery Island, Louisiana, and the vinegar base augmented seafood and wild game splendidly, though it was marginally effective on a month’s worth of chicken and rice. And, though I disliked the meal, I was uncharacteristically hungry all the time and traded my dehyrated coffee packets for Tobasco and doused my meals with it and wanted more food and a way to make it taste better. I was apathetic about the world’s largest fleet of tanks in front of us, but obsessed with stars and technology and Tobasco and would smile and reminisce about the Cajun cooking I missed. Still smiling, I emptied a bottle into my last meal the night before we left, thought about Life, The Universe, and Everything; and I drifted off to sleep without any regrets.
I awoke to my digital watch and took my shift and performed a radio check and chatted with Achmed the Lizard about how we were about to be a part in war, though he didn’t appreciate my pun. My shift ended an hour later and I awoke Hermie and laid down on the sand and drifted off to sleep again. It was 3am, and in another hour the war would begin. I don’t recall if I dreamed, but I slept surprisingly well. I don’t know if Achmed did.
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