I Miss My Battle Rattle

I miss body armor. It had a nice heft to it. Thirty-two pounds of steel has a substantive, worthy feel. If I’d been asked while in Iraq what I would miss when I’d gone, armor wouldn’t have made the list but there you have it.

My three year old second cousin has a blanket that she carries with her everywhere. No one is allowed to wash it. She says it smells like home: two dogs, the flower garden, her daddy, orange blossoms, three cats, herself. Stained with the sweat of four hundred thirty-seven desert-hot days, hundreds of desert-hot field missions, hours of war-hot bunkers, my battle rattle smelled like home. Its scent was memorably warm, vaguely musky, a little peppery, pleasantly stale, with strong overtones of fresh dust. It smelled like what it was: hard-used and a little bit funky. Others probably thought it stunk. 

It takes time to break in good battle rattle. The collar scratches and rubs, wearing angry red welts on the neck and collarbone until fabric relents and reshapes under a relentless onslaught of sweat, sweat, sweat. Buckles stick and grab at all the wrong places, too tight, too loose, until straps wear into the soft pliability of old blue jeans. Velcro grabs hard until its overwrought attitude gets softened up by bits of stray fuzz, grains of sharp sand, overuse.

And it takes time to learn to cooperate with good battle rattle. The body’s balance argues with the uncomfortable weight and new top-heavy load for weeks, stressing hips, painting single small round black bruises at the point of each vertebra. One day armor and I wrestle and cuss each other, scratching like children; the next, we have inexplicably established an equilibrium. Armor has loosened around the neck, and ribs have learned to snuggle on up against metal plates. Spine and hips have discovered the balance point that negates armor’s awkward weight when walking, walking, walking down Assburn Road at midday in the searing sun. Finally it costs no more effort than wearing an extra shirt.

My body misses the intricate and effortless muscular trick of balance it takes to lift thirty-two pounds of steel, one hand, swinging in onto the shoulders, threading arms along the way. Frequent practice taught my body to look forward to that smooth and lovely orchestration required by the bulky weight, like a sport, like a dance.

Once in place and tugged closed, battle rattle’s thick metal plates supported my often exhausted body. I miss the coziness of its embrace. It cradled me while I slept in bunkers or in the back seat of armored vehicles beating their way down dirt tracks. Its stiff neck propped up my heavy head. Its thick plates were splints for my sagging spine.

At the beginning, way back there, steel plates burned against skin. That razor clear, relentlessly wicked, heart-breakingly beautiful Iraq heat: it breathes into armor. Sunlight, I’m told, weighs eight pounds per square mile. Not Iraq’s sun. Iraq’s sun weighs one hundred thirty degrees in the shade. It sears through digital cammo to heat steel plates with the focused concentration of a blowtorch. Fight it and lose. Surrender to it and endure. One day I let it bake my armor onto my back, fusing my body to metal with sweat. Then we were one. 

At the beginning I wore my armor under orders. I never expected it to protect me. Rocket shrapnel zips through one meter thick Hesco barriers. Hot shrapnel shreds generators, Snatches, Humvees … Please. I’m ninety percent water.

Now I’d wear it for fun. Every month nestled us more closely together. My battle rattle. Mine. Like a tough corset of helpful support. Like good boots.

Like a lover.

God, I miss my battle rattle.

me - incoming


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