“American paratroopers – devils in baggy pants – are less than 100 meters from my outpost line. I can’t sleep at night; they pop up from nowhere and we never know when or how they will strike next. Seems like the black-hearted devils are everywhere…”From a captured WWII German officer’s journal
I was slightly buzzed and dozing off and a thought popped in my head: what would my war movie look like?
Who would play me? My dad? I hoped Jason Mimoa; he looked a lot like my dad, and had a scar across his face similar to mine. I had just bumped into him and shared cheesecake and a smoothie in Joshua Tree, where he lives and I sometimes guide; the funny thing is that I didn’t recognize him until someone knocked over his motorcycle and I grabbed a first aide kit and helped out. He was smaller in real life than as Aquaman and the Dothraki King.
“He’d have to buff up first…” I mumbled jokingly to Cristi, though she’d say the next day that she was sleeping so soundly that she hadn’t heard a thing.
“Maybe we could get Brian Dennehy to play my grandfather again…” I said, softly, “But he’d have to apologize for lying about being a vet…” and I dozed off.
“What the fuck you wearin’?” I heard in April of 1991, and I snapped my head around to see who had shouted at me from across the common area of the 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
I saw The Sergeant Major and quickly went to attention and waited for him to walk close enough to talk without shouting back at him. He stopped in front of me and put a half smoked and unlit cigar into his mouth and looked me up and down for a moment, removed his cigar, and said in a loud but calm voice, “I asked what the fuck you wearin’, Private.”
I was wearing my old green jungle fatigues because the post commander had ordered everyone to stop wearing tan desert fatigues and switch to standard uniforms as soon as we returned. My green fatigues were from basic training, and didn’t have the 82nd Airborne patch yet, or airborne wings or anything other than my name and rank, Partin, Private E2. The pants were too short for my legs and the ends ended above my boots and couldn’t be tucked in like regulations required. I had tightened the draw strings, but my legs would have flashed while I was walking, especially because I was lost in thought and my strides were long and exposed my socks and boots with every step. And the pants were comically tight on me, more like spandex or yoga pants or panty hose than the pants that had given our unit our nickname, The Devils in Baggy Pants, a name given to us by a German officer when the 504th Parachute Infantry Battallion first began dropping in by parachute in WWII, when our pants were baggy to hold extra ammunition and water; I doubt that seeing devils in yoga pants would have had the same impact or become our moniker.
The overshirt was so tight on me that I couldn’t button the top few buttons, and my skin tight undershirt was pressed against my chest. My dog tag chain and tags could be seen pressing through the brown understhirt, and the unauthorized but tolerated cross I wore was seen pressed against the shirt under my dog tags. It was a warm spring day in North Carolina, and the post commander had ordered sleeves rolled up, but I could only make one fold in my sleeves before reaching my elbow instead of the required two, and the edges of my sleeve flapped near my elbow when I walked.
I was unsure how to answer his rhetorical question, so I answered obliquely and said, “I grew in Iraq, Sergeant Major.”
He paused and chewed on his cigar butt for a few moments and said, with a clarity that implied he frequently spoke with a cigar between his lips, “At ease, private.”
I moved my legs to shoulder width and folded my right arm behind my back and held my boxes in my left arm, and he looked me up and down again, and I had time to get a good look at him.
His uniform was within regulations without being ostentatious; it was ironed, but not starched. His boots were shined, but not with the glassy polish of people who spent hours spit shining their boots, or paid to have one of the civilian shops that surrounded Fort Bragg do it for them. Those shops also pressed and starched uniforms, and most high ranking soldiers who lived off post kept the civilian shops busy, but something about The Sergeant Major’s uniform seemed like it had been done by a hand iron and was just fine, which seemed to me more respectable than people who tried too hard. His maroon beret was tilted slightly off kilter on his head, and though most of us intentionally wore ours slightly cocked, because it looked better, but The Sergeant Major’s beret seemed hap hazard, as looking better were the least of his concerns. He was of average height and average build and had a slightly pudgy belly and the confidence to not suck it in. Everything about him radiated sufficiency and being unrushed.
His left shoulder wore the 82nd Airborne patch with the classic AA letters for “All American” and topped with Airborne tab; above that was a Ranger tab. His chest was a mass of badges that would impress anyone I knew. He had the long rifle with wings of the Combat Infantry Badge that I knew I’d soon be awarded, and of course he was airborne. But, his parachute wings had the elaborate wreath on top that signified a Master Blaster, a high ranking jump master able to inspect other jumpers, and he had three mustard seeds, tiny bronze oak leaves on his parachute that said he had parachuted into combat at least three times that we knew of. He had air assault wings, the helicopter synonymous with the 101st Airborne and their motto, “This We’ll Defend,” and a pathfinder badge, the elite teams that parachuted into trees and blew up enough trees to create a drop zone for a mass tach parachute assault; their logo was “First In, Last Out.” There was no more space for badges to be sewn on his chest, but I sensed he had more to choose from and could select them like Uncle Bob used to select which cuff links to wear each day.
His right shoulder wore the legendary Sky Soldiers combat patch. I had heard that he had four combat patches, including one of the special forces groups and from undisclosed missions. Everyone in the 504th had heard that in Vietnam or Laos or Cambodia – the rumors varied – he was the first American to successfully complete a skyhook extraction from deep within enemy territory with General Stormin’ Norman Swartchcoff himself, the four star general who had just led all Allied forces to victory in only nine months of buildup in Desert Shield and war in Desert Storm, and rumors of what our leaders did in previous wars were common topics of conversation as we cleaned our weapons and returned home. The Seargent Major had been a prisoner in Vietnam and kept in a small metal box for months before being rescued by one of President Kennedy’s early Special Forces teams; allegedly, when they opened his box he stood up and laughed and said, “Thank you, Huah! Any of you mother fuckers got a cigar?” And then he fought with them as all men tried to extract themselves from deep within Vietnamese territory, and that’s why he could wear a Special Forces combat patch without having been through SF school or assigned to an SF team.
By every definition I knew, The Sergeant Major was a stark raving badass, a man not to be triffled with who was unafraid of anything. I had heard him speak once a few months before, just before we crossed the border and began the war, and even from the back of a crowd I had trusted him and sensed that everyone around did, too. He was respected regardless of his badges.
A cherry lieutenant approached nearby and The Sergeant Major and I came to attention and he removed his cigar and we both saluted.
“Strike Hold, sir!” The Sergeat Major. In airborne school, we said, “All the way,” but in the 82nd we said our unit’s motto. The 504th Parachute Infantry regiment’s was “Strike Hold,” a reference to our WWII days of parachuting deep into combat and holding an area until slower units with heavier equipment could catch up. Not much had changed in 50 years.
The LT saluted back and we lowered our salutes and he slowed his walk and looked me up and down and smirked and nodded to The Sergeant Major as if glad the old man was taking care of such a young and undisciplined private. The cherry’s uniform was starched and his boots were so shiny that they reflected sunlight. He had the obligatory basic airborne wings and a Ranger tab, but no combat patch. He had probably just returned from officer training school and had obtained a slot in Ranger school and the 82nd was his first duty assignment. He stopped, perhaps imagining he was taking control of the situation with his facial expression, which, to me, seemed like an actor trying to appear like a commander in control. He looked me up and down again and seemed like he’d say something, but before he could speak The Sergeant Major began patting his pockets and he interrupted and asked the LT if he wanted a cigar. The LT looked at him and his eyes briefly locked on to The Sergeant Major’s chest badges and he said no thank you and told us to carry on, confident that everything was in control. The Sergeant Major nodded and said, “Huah! Sir!” and the LT walked away and we returned to being at ease and doing what we were doing.
He replaced his cigar but and moved it like a part of his body, swinging it to the corner of his lips. He said, “You grew? Well, shit, Private. Ain’t they got another uniform for you?”
“No, Sergeant Major. Supply is out of jungle fatigues.”
“Well, shit, Huah. Ain’t you got money saved after wankin’ your meat in Iraq all this time? Or did you already spend it in the War Zone?”
The War Zone was a civilian strip of bars, strip clubs, tattoo parlors, disguised but unambiguous brothels, used car lots, pawn shops, and drug dealers who knew what was and what was not detectable in the 82nd’s random drug tests. The War Zone also had at least a dozen army surplus stores, and most soldiers bought new uniforms there rather than waiting for the two free ones issued once a year.
“No, Sergeant Major. HQ can’t find my paychecks.” In 1991, pachchecks were pieces of paper you would have to take to a bank and request cash. Most soldiers were strongly encouraged to use direct deposit into a bank account to avoid loosing paychecks, but I had transitioned through Fort Bragg on my way to Desert Shield too quickly to establish a bank account. Not only could they not find my paychecks, they were unsure if there was evidence that I had existed outside of our shared memories from the previous few months in combat. My situation had become something of a joke around HQ, an example of how military bureaucracy created improbably situations. No one knew what do do about me, and by the army’s definition I didn’t exist, so they had told me to hurry up and wait and they’d get me squared away. I was sent away with a few chuckles about what would happen if an officer saw how I was dressed.
He asked my first sergeant’s name and I told him, and then he was silent for a few moments and rolled his cigar with his lips and alternated tucking it into either side of his mouth a few times while staring into my eyes. I couldn’t help it: I smiled slightly. I believe he saw my smile and then saw me differently.
“You that motha’ fucka’ who speaks sand nigga’ and does magic tricks and shit, ain’t ya?”
Just like with his first rhetorical question, I didn’t know what to say, but this time I remained silent and waited patiently. So did The Sgt. Major. He kept his eyes on me and moved his cigar around in his mouth slowly, as if giving his mouth something to do instead of talking.
He took out the cigar butt and smiled broadly and said, “I hear you’re good with a knife.”
“I am, Sgt. Major,” I replied as a matter of fact, even though he hand’t asked a question.
I had been the only one in the war with an old, Vietnam era bayonette, and I had used it when Skinny Foster and I captured 14 of Saddam’s Republican Guard, sort of like their equivalent of our Special Forces or the 82nd Airborne, America’s Guard of Honor. It had been a bunker protecting Khamisiyah Airport, and the fighting had been fierce for four days before we arrived to capture the airport and, had the war not ended, used the airport to parachute into Bhagdad and capture Saddam. The war ended, sort of, not unlike President George Bush would stand on an aircraft carrier ten years later and declare the war in Afghanistan and the second war against Iraq as over almost ten years and many deaths before we withdrew form there. D-Company of the 504th had spent two months in a few squirmishes with forces who didn’t know the war was over, and then we had joined the few hundred thousand soldiers holed up in Khobar Towers, cleaning Humvees and .50 cals and MK19’s all day for the flight home, and at Khobar Towers I had won a friendly battallion-wide game of Stretch.
In Stretch, a circle of two to ten soldiers with bayonettes or personal knives take turns throwing knives at each other’s feet. If you stick yours in the ground within a knife-length of one of their feet, they move that foot to touch the knife and then throw at whomever’s foot they choose. The winner is the last one standing, and that winner would compete against the winner of another circle. My Vietnam era bayonette gave me an advantage, because it was narrow and thin and made to pierce through light armor and between ribs – or to deflate enemy tires to quickly immobilize their transport – and the modern bayonettes copied from a marine style were thick, bulky, and unweildy; with a saw tooth back that made sticking things difficult if not impossible. They had been “improved” and were designed more for cutting consantina wire and, perhaps, sawing off a tree branch if you were attacked by a tree. My bayonette had pierced many tires and had served me well in the bunker against The Republican Guard, and then I used it in Khobar Towers to win a few games of Stretch. And, I was still relatively flexible after having just graduate high school and wrestling for two years, so I could stretch a bit farther than some and still throw my bayonette with a bit of accuracy. It was fun, like a Jean Cleade Van Dam flick, but in real life.
And, perhaps because I was tired after a bloody firefight when I finally arrived at Khobar Towers, I had branished my bayonette at a few generals and a handful of civilians who represented a defense contractor and raised my voice and told them that they should have thought of a lot of things before sending us into battle. I mean, really? .50 cals against tanks? No shotguns because they were “cruel” weapons? And why the fuck did we fight against American weapons? The Iraqi’s had our TOW-1 missile systems, for Christ’s sake! And don’t get me going on the TOW-2; $1.1 million for each missile, and in the 18 seconds it took to be guided towards a T-54 or T-55 tank, those tanks had fired six to seven rounds at us and almost killed us! For fuck’s sake! Think, goddamnit!
To this day, I still joke that when I’m tired I revert to my first language, cursing. I had learned to talk like that ever since I was a little kid, and old habits are hard to break.
He put his cigar back between his lips and stared at me for a brief a moment more, then he smiled broadly and the cigar moved as if an appendage and found a home in the corner of his mouth so he could smile and talk if necessary. Grinning, he shoved his right hand into his baggy pants pocket and fumbled around, obviously searching for something.
“Hey there, Huah! You want a cigar?” He didn’t wait for me to answer, but exaggerated his fumbling and smiled broadly and said, “I got one right here!” He yanked a few times but couldn’t get it out of his pocket, and suddenly he said loudly and with a playful tone, “Oh shit, Huah! That ain’t a cigar! It’s my dick! My big fat black dick!” He removed his hand and burst into laughter and slapped me on the arm with the hand that had just said was clutching his big fat black dick, and I tried not to react. Fortunately, I kept smiling and he kept laughing.
“All right, Huah. If Top don’t get you squared away with a paycheck and uniform this week, you come see me, okay?” I said ok, and he replaced his cigar and moved it to the corner of his mouth and we chatted about the war a bit and how I ended up there so small and so young, and what I wanted to do next. He dismissed me, and I continued across the common grounds and upstairs to the barracks for D-Co, the Delta Dawgs, and my room with a roommate in 4th platoon’s section of the long hallway on the third floor.
I returned from the War Zone with my new, large sized uniforms sewn with an 82nd patch on each shoulder, my parachute wings, Combat Infantry Badge, and new rank as a recently promoted Private First Class, a PFC, E3. My beret was new and still a bit puffy, but I had wet it and pulled it tightly on my head to hold its shape better and be less like a cherry’s beret. I was walking across the common ground with my uniforms when I heard a voice presumably shouting at me.
“Hey there Dolly!” Sergeant Walker shouted from near his office, smiling. I stopped and waited.
“What the fuck did you do now?”
I was unsure, and I remained silent.
“The Sergeant Major wants to see you,” he said, still smiling.
“Don’t fuck up,” he added. He always gave good advice, and not fucking up is a good thing to remember.
The battallion commander walked out of the Sergeant Major’s office, a full bird colonel whose name I don’t recall, and I snapped to attention and he chuckled and patted me on the arm and said, “At ease, Partin,” and walked away. The Sgt Major was still inside his office and saw me and beckoned me inside and said, “Goddamn, Huah! You don’t look lie a cherry no more.”
He offered me a cigar from the box of Nicaraguan cigars on his desk. I declined but felt myself relax, especially because being offered a cigar from a box was much nicer than his offer in our last encounter. Besides, I had seen him around the common area since we last spoke, and I had noticed that he pulled a cigar from his pocket when an officer or asshole said yes to his offer, and on those times he encouraged them to run their noses along it and appreciate what a fine cigar it was. From when they parachuted into the Dominican Republic, he’d say, and they’d sniff a few more times to whiff the aroma of Cuban tobacco planted in the Dominican Republic, and I saw him smile subtly and suspected that they were sniffing what he had told me was his big, fat, black dick.
He pulled a cigar from the box and poked it into his mouth but didn’t light it, and he leaned back and looked me up and down like he had a few weeks before. He tapped a folder with my name on it that had been open on his desk.
“Says here you were the youngest mother fucker in the war, Huah, out of 560,000 swingin’ dicks. How the fuck did that happen?”
“I was emancipated, Sgt. Major. Louisiana uses the Napoleonic law code, and I was able to join the 82nd at age 16.”
“Napoleonic code? What kinda backwoods hillbilly shit is that?”
I told him, and he said, “Holy shit, Huah! You a smart mother fucker. Why’d you pick the 82nd?”
“An ROTC instructor at my high school served in the 82nd during Vietnam,” I said, “and he was a good man and I admired him.”
“I said why, not how. Why? Especially with a war goin’ on.”
I thought about that for a moment. I knew the answer, but it was too long. Big Head Ben Abrams and I had discussed it a lot on our graduation road trip, and Mrs. Abrams and I had spoken about it daily for the two weeks that I lived with her and the Abrams brothers before the dropped me off at the New Orleans in-processing station. And I had been given multiple opportunities to change my mind before having my head shaved at Ft. Benning, and another opportunity to change my mind and decline Airborne School, and, finally, I had been offered a chance to remain in Ft. Bragg as a REMF. I had been thinking of why I joined before my senior year of high school and why I continued down that same path.
“I saw y’all in Panama, on television over Christmas break.” I said, at last. It had almost been an awkward silence as I tried to give a concise answer; I tended to be a loquatious story teller, like Ben. “When y’all played Van Halen’s Panama! and Jump! to deprive Noriega of sleep. I thought that was interesting, and I had researched that if I wanted to test myself then the 82nd was the best place, because y’all are on call from the president, and Sarge at my high school told me about y’all going to a lot of places to rescue dignataries: The Dominican Republic, Honduras, Grenada.”
I hesitated, but went ahead and paraphrased the army recruiting line I disliked hearing, yet was accurate for me: “And I want to be the best I can, Sgt. Major.”
He chewed on that a while and moved his cigar around meticulously, and then leaned forwards and tapped the folder on his desk again.
“How is it you got your EIB when 200 other swingin’ dicks didn’t?
The EIB is the Expert Infantry Badge. It’s not hard to get. It’s only two days of tests on a battery of weapons, including disassembling and reassembling a few dozen different ones and scoring expert marksmanship with an M16 rifle, above average on a physical fitness test that, coincidentally, required 82 pushups to max; I had maxed pushups, situps, and almost the run. It finished with a 12 mile ruck sack march in full combat gear with a 45 pound backpack in under three hours. 183 soldiers had attempted it immediately after the war, mostly because so many cherries had been arriving as “replacements” in case the war had gone against our favor. The cherries were, well, cherries; and the soldiers returning from war had been given Combat Infantry Badges and may not have cared as much as I had, or had been too hung over from celebrating in The War Zone to do as well on tests. The joke was that the AA on our patches didn’t stand for All American as much as it did for Alcohol Anonymous, and that the 82nd was a drinking force with a parachuting habit. In all that joking, few of the Devils in Baggy Pants had passed the EIB, and I was one of only three who had.
“I studied, Sgt. Major. My squad helped. Sgt Weber asked Skinny…” I paused briefly, catching my mistake, “I mean Specialist Foster worked with me. I learn better speaking out loud. And a platoon from Bravo Company I met in Khobar Towers asked me to train with them, and they had weapons I hadn’t used before and taught them to me what I didn’t know.” Embarassingly, I couldn’t recall which platoon name; I had met so many people the past two weeks of cleaning equipment in Khobar Towers before coming home that I sometimes felt overwhelmed with all of the new names, units, and acronyms. But, I had gotten a lot of practice cleaning weapons, and I had learned to shoot well from my dad.
“Yeah, I heard,” he said. “I wanted to know how you’d answer. That’s good initiative. Where’d you learn to throw a bayonet, Huah?”
“My best friend in high school ran a knife throwing club,” I said. I didn’t think he wanted the longer answer about Magik and Mace’s Mystical Mischief and Meatcleaving Mahem. “And my dad and grandfather always carried knifes for deer hunting, and I guess I just picked it up from all of them.” I also didn’t think it was the best time to discuss how I knew how to gut a man. Besides, I’m sure the Sgt. Major knew all about that already.
He looked down at the folder and tapped it absent mindedly for a few moments before looking back up at me.
“The colonel said you was good at talkin’ to civilians and don’t tell no bullshit.”
The Sgt. Major chuckled, and leaned back and rested his hands on his paunch and his cigar moved itself the corner of his mouth, and he asked, “You wanna meet the ambassador from Panama and a bunch of civilian politicians, Huah?”
I stared blankly, unsure what he was asking.
“We was gonna have a dinner with the Panama ambassador and a handful of senators and congressmen before we got called or Iraq, and none of those motherfuckers would have come to Iraq to meet us, so we gonna meet them here next month. We gonna talk about what happened in Panama and what we want the 82nd to do going forward, and we want a few enlisted men there to show them what the politicians call ‘the new soldier’ and shit.”
He paused and I nodded to show I was listening.
“But last year’s soldier of the year got caught doin’ drugs and is being demoted, and we can’t have an E1 who does drugs talkin’ to the Panama ambassador about why we invaded his country for the war on drugs.”
A few groups had been busted for taking acid, LSD, as soon as they returned. The 82nd has random piss tests for marijuana, and if you’re on DRF 1 through 3 and get caught with any alcohol in a breathalizer or blood test, you’re, as I had once overheard the Sgt. Major say, fucked. But, acid doesn’t come out in urine, so soldiers choose their drugs wisely. I had seen a group come home from the War Zone in Fayetteville with a drunk, passed out, heavy set girl that took a few to carry her to the third floor, and more than one of them had seemed so violent that no one stopped them from what should only be called rape, and a few guys said to not mess with the really big and angry ones, that they had been on acid during panama and had even taken hits from tiny pieces of paper during Desert Storm. The ones who raped the girl weren’t caught – I’d spend three more years with them in the barracks – but a group from HQ had gotten in a car accident driving back form the War Zone and the hospital had tested them for everything, and the previous year’s soldier of the year had been among them.
I saw the Sgt. Major’s point and smiled at the irony of the 82nd getting busted for drugs, and I smiled and began to see where he was going.
“You’d have to wear your dress greens and sit at a table with a table cloth and fancy plates. Don’t spit in your soup and shit. You OK with that, Huah?”
“Yes, Sgt. Major.”
We chatted about what would happen at the dinner and what I could say and should not mention, and I left his office feeling giddy and light headed and confident and anxious for the future.
For some reason that made sense at the time, I walked upstairs and past the room of the big guy on the post boxing team who had led raping the girl, and I went to my room and asked Skinny for his old EIB’s that he had saved after changing to CIB’s, and I opened my pocket knife and carefully cut away the CIB and replaced them with Skinny’s EIB’s. I felt I had earned the EIB, and had just been another one of the guys given a CIB. Perhaps it was seeing the girl raped and not stopping it, just like I hadn’t saved those little Kurdish girls in that bloody battle as Iraqi .51 cal machine guns given to them by the Soviets razed the unarmed Kurdish village as punishment for possibly helping Americans, or simply because they were a different sect of Islam. We had been under orders to not interfere unless fired upon, and the Iraqis knew that and spent all night killing the village as we watched their tracers and listened to the screams. I was behind a .50 cal then, and had proven myself a remarkable shot even in full machine gun mode, almost 1,800 rounds per minute with a good ammo bearer, and I watched and did nothing. We were allowed to go down and perform first aid, and I saw a grandfather with old, desert born cateracts obscuring his remarkably rare blue eyes, and he sobbed as he held his granddaughter. I had spoken with him only a few days before, being called up because, apparently, I had picked up Arabic better than most other guys, and he had begged us to help and then to give them weapons to defend themselves and then for food; which we did, because we’re not monsters. We were America’s Guard of Honor, and we shared our MRE’s and a few blankets and then watched most of them die, unarmed.
I wasn’t sure why I cared about all those girls, but I had answered truthfully when The Sgt. Major asked why I didn’t quit. I wanted to be the best I could. To me, that was more than what my dad and Coach had taught me, it was also what I had learned from Mrs. Abrams. And though “thou shall not rape” wasn’t a commandment, I was pretty sure that if God could iterate his commandments, he’d relax on things like keeping Sunday’s holy and include a few more guidelines about how to treat ladies respectfully, like my PawPaw had taught me only ten years before I earned my EIB when 180 swingin’ dicks had not.