Archive for the ‘I Miss …’ Category

I Miss the Casual Absurdities of War

November 3, 2009

April 2007

One of the PSD teams had a near miss with an IED last week. In a very roundabout way they received an apology from the JAM (militia) yesterday: Sorry lads, we hit the wrong call sign. We meant to hit Armor Group; they did a deal with another tribe instead of dealing through us. We’d appreciate it if you don’t blow back on this, nothing personal.

(Ah, well, mistakes happen, eh?)

 

 

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I Miss Being Called Mister

November 2, 2009

So many Iraqis called me Mister.

Some thanked me, Sir.

Lady was used as a polite title of address in my favorite hajji shop. Yes, Lady, thank you, I have this one in blue colors for you.

There’s something enduringly charming in language mishaps that are repeated so often they become the private, intimate vocabulary of time and place.

***

I Miss Rockets

November 2, 2009

During the winter and spring of 2007, as the famous troop surge was allegedly calming things down up north, things heated up in the south. All those insurgents around Baghdad just picked up a toothbrush and drove on down to Basrah. The militias already rooted down south believed they’d be targeted by the surge and announced that they were going to take a more, well, let’s call it a more proactive approach to their interactions with us. We went from a couple of IEDs a week to a couple of IEDs a day. We went from three ill-aimed rockets landing on base every ten days or so, to five or six barrages of eight or ten or nineteen rockets apiece smacking down daily. As might be imagined, we read the US news reports trumpeting the success of the surge and fell off our chairs laughing.

I don’t remember exactly what month the incoming increased to multiple barrages each day. In my possibly faulty memory the frequency picked up significantly through November and December of 2006, and by December or January we were required to wear battle rattle outdoors at all times. Just after Christmas, I think, the barrages started coming at predictable intervals throughout the day. We’d start the day with a few rockets exploding between five and six a.m., a handy substitute for an alarm clock. About mid-morning we’d catch a few more, just about the time we all welcomed a little break from our computers. Just after lunch, between one and two p.m. they’d pop off a few more in our direction, letting some of us catch a few quick winks or trade some laughs under the desk (or making us drag our keyboards to the floor so we could make that deadline …). Between six and seven p.m. the next batch whistled in, often forcing us to eat dinner sitting on the floor of the DFAC (filthy greasy floor: yuk). Around nine or ten p.m. another six or eight explosions would rock the base, interrupting movie night or our back porch pow-wow. The final few rockets would arrive around one or two in the morning, a dead of night hour that guaranteed many of us would sleep right through the concussions.

The heavy incoming lasted through spring. We lived in our armor, and lost all sense of urgency in taking cover until one of the rockets landed within spitting distance of LTC Corviday’s office and the MWR (Rec Hall), smattering those trailers with shrapnel. LTC Crowsie was lucky enough to be on leave, and the PSD man walking past the spot was lucky enough to be on the back side of the angle of impact, escaping everything but some minor (?!) hearing loss. The only fatal casualties were the wide screen television, which sent the sports fans into a depression, and a three foot tall singing and dancing snowman toy: a dreadful loss, but worth it for the sick jokes that followed. After that most people no longer sauntered toward a comfortable hooch when the siren kicked off: we hunkered down or scooted toward the nearest bunker post haste. When I went on leave in March and the woman who picked me up at the airport in Kuwait told me that I could stash my body armor in the back for the forty-five minute drive to base, I hesitated. She gave me a funny look and said, Really, it’s ok. But I had to talk myself out of the armor, and chat with myself about where I was all the way through those long forty-five minutes. I felt naked, exposed. I felt lonely without my battle rattle.

When I returned from leave I worked a project that required me to visit the construction site every day. The PSD teams and I would joke that we were safer on the roads than on base. We’d hurry out the gates in the morning, trying to make it through before the mid-morning barrage locked down the gates. More than once we watched incoming rockets exploding on the airfield tarmac as we drove off across the open desert.

In May 2007 I was transferred to another base that got, at most, a rocket or two a month. Officers there drew out the drama of those single rockets, holding us in bunkers for hours while they self-importantly and uselessly ran around in circles, counting heads five or six times as if by drawing out the show they’d confirm to themselves that they were in the shit. It was a show steeped in ignorant overreaction and fobbit* foolishness that I had no patience for after the frequency of attacks I’d been living with for months.

But that was one night a month or one night in two months, those cluster fucks. The days between stray rockets blended together in a slow drift that lacked texture. For weeks I wandered restlessly around camp at odd times of day, feeling weightless and unanchored without being able to pinpoint what it was that made this base feel empty and the days feel randomly arranged.

Six weeks after my transfer, a friend from the south came up to take care of some business. We met up in the evening after he’d finished his errands, climbing up to the roof of our office building to stare out across the roofs of the base. The sun was a bright orange disk through the dust, and heat poured off the concrete roof tiles. It was just about time for the evening bombardment in Basrah.

I miss the rockets, my friend said. The days here lack definition.

My breath caught. With that one simple phrase, he so elegantly defined my restlessness and disorientation. The days here lack definition.

***

It’s been two and a half years since I lived with the predictable regularity of multiple barrages, yet I still often find myself drifting through days, feeling rootless and vaguely disoriented. My days here lack definition.

I still miss the rockets.

– November 2009

*fobbit: a nickname we had for what Viet Nam era soldiers called REMFs – rear echelon motherfuckers. People who never were in the shit.

I Miss My Battle Rattle

October 28, 2009

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