Monday, May 10, 2010

Dispatch From a War Zone (an excerpt)

Speaking of mothers, here's an excerpt from one of many e-mails Lt. Col. Harkleroad (the ultimate Mama's Boy) sends to his mother during the course of the novel:

Subject: Dispatch from a War Zone, Day 183

First of all, THANKS for the care package!  The mixed nuts, foot powder, dried apricots and church bulletins were most appreciated.  Unfortunately, the GooGoo Clusters did not make it through the Iraqi heat so well.  But I put them to good use anyway!  I gave them to our translator, Hussein (no, he’s no relation to Saddam!) who had never tasted GooGoo Clusters before.  Hussein’s family is quite poor even though they are considered middle class here in Baghdad.  How poor are they, you ask?  Well, do you remember the Borsippies who used to live up the road from the Macklins before the mill shut down and they (the Borsippies) had to move all the way up to Pittsburgh?  Well, Hussein and his wife and their five children (and Hussein’s wife’s father, two cousins and their wives and children—all crammed into one three-bedroom apartment) are worse off than the Borsippies.  For instance, they (the Husseins, not the Borsippies) did not even own a TV until last year and when at last they got one you would have thought it was a national holiday—or so Hussein tells me.  Now, I cannot get him to shut up about “Two and a Half Men.”

Speaking of which, I hope you are still taping “Survivor” for me.  And DO NOT under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES tell me who gets voted off!  I want to be surprised when I come home for my R&R leave next month.

Speaking of which, are you as excited as I am?  I cannot wait to get back to Murfreesboro and out of this combat zone, even if it is only for two weeks.  Two weeks of clean sheets, driving on the right side of the road, and your Corn-Flake-crusted meatloaf will do me worlds of good, I believe.

The truth is, I am wrung dry inside and out with the daily cycle of activities over here.  I do not want to burden you with too much in the way of worry, but you’ve heard that old expression “War is hell”?  Well, hell has nothing on this place, let me tell you!  I am kept awake each night by the scream of mortars streaking across the sky.  It is worse than the semis on I-24.  Last week, the enemy finally got lucky and one of the rockets landed on FOB Triumph.  You may not have heard about it on the five o’clock news on WSMV because we try to keep a lid on those kind of tragic incidents over here--my boss is a big one on “good news” and besides, there’s only so much we should burden the American public with, right?   But, yes, a rocket did fall—smack dab in the middle of the post exchange courtyard in the smack-dab middle of the day.  And guess who happened to be there at the time at one of the little shops run by the local Iraqi merchants who sell rugs and jewelry and discount copies of the latest DVD movies?  Yes, yours truly.  DO NOT WORRY, MOTHER—I am not writing this to you from the hospital—I was not at the site of impact, but was on the other side of the courtyard paying for my purchase from a friendly little rug merchant named Benzir (by the way, I will be shipping back a nice surprise to you—and just to confirm, the dimensions of the living room floor are such that they will accommodate something that is, oh say, 18 by 24 feet?).

The explosion knocked me forward into the arms of Benzir and after we had dusted each other off and he had given me my change, I rushed directly over to the smoking crater to see what I could do to help.  Would you believe that no one else was running toward the impact zone?  That’s right, everyone else was running away and it turned out that your son was the only one to move forward to give comfort and aid to the wounded.  I could hear many others yelling at me to take cover and save myself, but I put my hearing loss to good use and just continued to walk toward what I could immediately tell was a very bad scene.  I will spare you all the horrific details but do you remember that movie we once watched, the one with Brad Pitt and the serial killer and you had to cover your eyes during that one scene until I told you it was okay to look again?  Well, what I saw there in that PX courtyard was five times worse.  Maybe even eleven times worse!  I could right away see that at least one, maybe even two, of the soldiers who had been sitting at the picnic table eating their Burger King sandwiches were goners—and not just goners, but completely gone—disintegrated, if you will.   I knelt and said a brief prayer for their departed souls and then I brushed aside whatever feelings were welling up in me and hurried to give aid and comfort to the rest of the wounded.  I felt a little like Clara Barton on the battlefield (or was that Molly Pitcher?) and as I said, no one else was coming out from behind the protective concrete barriers to help, so I had to do the best I could all by myself.

I will spare you the burden of knowing what all the specific wounds I treated were like, but many of those poor soldiers turned out to be so bad off they had to be shipped out of Iraq, back to Germany and then all the way back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in our nation’s capitol where they will have to undergo months of recovery and rehabilitation.   So, there I was, moving from victim to victim, dressing wounds and stopping the bleeding with tourniquets and, in one case, performing CPR to bring one young girl back to life!   It was a real mess and suffice to say, the uniform I was wearing that day is no good anymore and I had to toss it away.

In anticipation of what I know you will ask, No, I do not know if I will get a commendation or medal of some kind for my actions that day.  I do know that the Chief of Staff, Colonel Birt, is quite proud of me and even the commanding general himself interrupted yesterday’s staff meeting to make mention of what he called my “unselfish act of courage.”   I tend to think that I won’t receive any specific award for what I did—not because they think I don’t deserve it but because, like so much of what we do here, we’re trying to keep all this on the hush-hush and down low.  It would only give comfort and aid to the enemy if they knew they succeeded in a bull’s eye hit on our PX at FOB Triumph.  So, that is why you won’t see me on the evening news or in The Daily Tennessean.  In fact, there was a Stars and Stripes reporter who happened to be on the scene when the rocket hit, but I ordered her to delete the photos on her digital camera and hold the story until given approval by division headquarters (which—ha, ha, joke’s on her—is me, the PAO).

As I said, I don’t want to burden you with all my horror stories, but I thought you should know what your son is doing over here in the name of democracy and freedom.  Because this is TOP SECRET information I am telling you, I ask that you do not contact Frank McNee down at The Weekly Freesboro Journal and blab about all your son’s accomplishments and heroism over here in Iraq, though I understand how you must be longing to do so--as you would say, “fairly bursting the buttons with pride and joy.”  No, Mother, we must keep this between ourselves.

I suppose if you want to share it with the other ladies in your Sunday circle, then I would understand, but they must UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES tell their husbands!

Well, Mother, I have rambled on long enough and you are probably tired of staring at the computer screen, so I will sign off now.

By the way, if you could see fit to slip a couple pairs of black socks, the over-the-calf variety, into your next care package, they would not go unappreciated.  Also, some more dried apricots.

Your ever-loving son,

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