Archive for the ‘The Pauses’ Category

My Brothers

February 13, 2010

One of my favorite PSD guards, I’ll call him G, tracked me down five days ago. He sent a short, sweet email that catalyzed an excited flurry of communication. We compared injuries, traded photographs of our bombed out trucks, asked personal questions, sent each other love and kisses. He passed me on to another PSD friend, and another, who passed me onto yet another … my angels, my guns, my guards, my big brothers, my broken hearts, my strength, my baby brothers …  God, I miss them. I’m soaring on a flurry of sweetness and warm hearts.

G’s truck was blown up about a month prior to mine, and no one would tell me, at the time, how he was doing. “A broken back, other bad injuries, Seren, it’s not looking good. We don’t know.” OK, maybe. Or maybe they knew every detail. I never really figured out the secret rules of their secrets. Some things were off limits but I was never sure which, or when, or why.

I didn’t know any of the PSD men well, yet I knew some of them very well. We weren’t friends in the sense of sharing opinions or feelings, intimacies or life stories. We worked together in delicate harmony of respect: I told them where to take me and when, and they told me how we’d get there, how long we could stay.  I trusted them to protect me, and they trusted me to stay alert and follow orders. I was the reason they were employed, and I couldn’t do my job without them. We grew into a sort of deep but narrow, limited friendship by spending many hours together on the road, watching each other act and interact in a volatile environment. We grew to depend on each other, to trust each other in certain important ways.

Many of their clients treated PSD men like servants or adversaries. I tried to treat them like the experts they were. Some of their clients – my colleagues – argued about routes, time on the ground, the intel behind their decisions. I asked the men what they thought was best and trusted their decisions. Some of them had been living in war zones all over the world for two decades. I’m going to argue with that?

We got to know each other over hours and hours on the road together: sweating in hot little Land Cruisers, walking down roads under the relentless desert sun wearing thirty, fifty, eighty pounds of armor and ammo on our backs. We watched each other defuse hot situations involving guns or angry contractors, belligerent Oil Police or Port authorities. We watched each other squirm in uncomfortable situations, and brood heavily over problems and tensions. We shared deceptions, lying to colonels and generals in order to make our own lives easier, and pushing agendas on behalf of each others’ interests. We shared water and candy and sandwiches. We shared hours of silence, naps bumping down dusty tracks through empty desert, winks behind the boss’ back, cigarettes in the thin shade of ratty trailers.

Each PSD team developed a unique personality. G’s team was mature, solid, impossible to shake. Where another team might move-move-move at the rattle of SAF up the block, these men would step behind walls and wait it out, assessing, watching, thinking, sensing. To a man they were calm, friendly, curious about the history and people of Iraq, thoughtful about the reconstruction effort. They made friends with children, fed families along the frequently-traveled routes, wondered how land ownership worked, pondered Iraq’s future. They asked questions and engaged the answers with intelligence.

We got lost on the desert following a faint dirt track, finally laughing, wondering if we’d strayed all the way into Kuwait. G tapped me on the shoulder and politely tugged me back into a doorway when SAF rattled off down the street. One of G’s teammates was insulted on my behalf when an Iraqi asked my age. Another teammate winked when the port official finally signed turnover papers that I was sure he’d find an excuse not to sign; “Good day, eh Seren?” he said quietly when the official walked out the door. “You looked worried.” He touched my arm gently and smiled, giving me a little bit of his confidence and assurance. G stared out across the blue water of the port, lost in time, looking like his heart was worn out.

The experts, my eyes and ears. My guns, my guards, my big brothers.

And sometimes my little brothers, the pain in their eyes almost too much to bear, the bravado a little too thin. I wanted to hug them, each of them, hold them close and hum quietly, taking them somewhere gentle and serene. I wanted to erase their memories of pulling bloody friends from beneath trucks and saluting coffins disappearing into the back of C130s. I wanted to erase the deep sadness in their eyes when they watched little children begging for water. I still do.

In this way we were friends: the whole world existed only in the present, and there we were.


Now we chatter through the ether, finding each other again. I’m excited; I’m touched that they worried for me – that they remember me.

My heart aches again for them, worries for them still in the zone, yet it soars and sings for them because they’re doing what they’re good at and they love what they do.

G wants me to call, day or night. I’m nervous. I’m scared now, of them, of G and of myself. Who are we now?



Mad Moments 4: Friendly Fire

November 23, 2009

Autumn 2006

Traveling has taken on a novel and ironic new danger lately. The fresh battalion that recently rotated in-country is shooting at us on the road, apparently mistaking our white Land Cruisers for suspicious Iraqis.

Normally when we see military convoys, we slow to follow them, happy to let them clear the road, whether by engineering feats of detection or by hitting the IEDs themselves. “Hey,” our PSD men mutter with shrugs and evil grins, “better them than us, yeah?”

Well … yeah. Cheers, guys.

Now we see a convoy off in the distance and go through drastic gyrations of route in order to stay far, far away from them. “Silly buggers,” our PSD men mutter with a look of mild disgust. “Get with the program.”

Wouldn’t that be sick to get into a firefight with MNFI troops? If no one died it would be hilarious, but somehow death by friendly fire seems stupendously empty, does it not? It doesn’t just leave a hole; it’s like creating a vacuum.



The Pauses – 6

November 23, 2009

Tonight at dinner Jeff asked if I was in the Reserves. Tom almost spit his drink all over the table.  “What?” Jeff said with a bewildered look at Tom. “I think she’d do well in the military!” 

“If someone took her under their wing and beat the crap out of her a few times,” Tom said with a bit of venom.

I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to snark him back.

“She doesn’t get along well with the military,” someone else said.

I called Colonel Jeep “sir” twice in one conversation last week, and two people stared at me with their mouths hanging open. Most colleagues have only seen me around LTC Slasher, so I guess they’re not aware that I don’t have a problem with the military per se; I have a problem with stupidity giving orders (Slasher personified).

“I almost joined the Coast Guard out of college,” I admitted to Tom when I’d gotten my laughter under control. I timed my delivery to coincide with him taking a big drink of his milk. Oops!




The Pauses – 5

November 23, 2009

Driving across the vast plain of desert down by The Tree (the only Tree) I saw two foxes. 

They must have heard us coming, because by the time we came over the curve of the earth they were already ripping across the land, leaving two trailing dust clouds hanging in the hot air.

They were running hard south toward nothing, just sand.


The Pauses – 4

November 23, 2009

Out on the endlessly flat, tan, hot, sandy desert next to one of the many beat-to-shit, single lane, supposedly paved roads, a forward operating base (FOB) is being built. I’m going to guess that it’s for the Iraqi Army. They man a roadblock nearby.

We drive this route about once a week. The construction site looks like a strangely bulky, outsized child’s building block set scattered in one discrete plot of an endless sandbox.

Three weeks ago the blocks were suddenly organized: concrete t-walls stood in tight rows with a few random outliers looking like lonely megaliths; concrete cylinders rested side by side in rows on the sand, sorted by size; conical peaked roofs of concrete sat in a row, waiting to top off guard towers; rectangular buildings, each of their four walls holding empty air, stood in rows on one side of the site.

Over the past few weeks, cranes have lifted these items one at a time, swiveling slowly to swing them into specific placements. Two weeks ago the dozen little rectangular buildings were set into two tidy rows. Last week the tall t-walls were lined up around the perimeter of the buildings, and down two sides of the compound perimeter. Today the cylinders are being stacked into tall towers at the four corners of the compound. Conical concrete roofs lie on the ground beside each future tower, ready to be placed.

On the vast desert, a monumental landscape that encourages a contemplation of the puny and superficial efforts of the small animals called humans, the building blocks of this FOB look oddly significant, almost precociously intrusive, yet completely inadequate to the objective of security.

The building blocks of a static war… stock in concrete might be a solid investment.