Thursday, August 11, 2011

From the Cutting-Room Floor: Pepperdink's Genuine Near-Death Combat Experience

Here's another chunk of Fobbit which was cut during the latest all-night, caffeine-fueled, floor-pacing session in which I wrestled words into submission.  Which is a long way of saying, "I kicked my novel's ass."

This particular section was one of the excerpts from Staff Sergeant Gooding's diary I removed to make the unwieldy manuscript slimmer and trimmer.

To learn more about Fobbit and to see other portions which were cut, click here.

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A bunch of us Fobbits were sitting around the cubicle talking about death and near-misses.

Pepperdink, a SMOG* technician from over in G-6 was saying, “I’m telling you, there but for the frigging grace of God go I."

He’d just got done describing the day he nearly got blown up while riding in a humvee out on Airport Road.  They were headed into the center of Baghdad for God knows what.  “It was a taxi packed with 350 pounds of nails and ball bearings and plastique and crap.  And then, when we were about a block past it, maybe only half a block—BOOM!  It was like a white light filled our windshield, then our hearing got knocked out for a little bit.  Some of the other guys got bruised up—a stiff neck here and there—but my squad came through okay.”  Pepperdink pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

We had a hard time believing Pepperdink.  First of all—I mean, look at him: pale and pasty like he hadn’t seen the sun in months, flinches at the sound of a paper jam in the printer, his flak vest still has that fresh-from-the-factory smell to it, and his boots?  That was no bloodstain splattered across the toe, we knew for a fact it was barbecue sauce dripped there during the Independence Day All-American Feast at the dining facility.  We knew because Pepperdink had come back to the palace that day bitching about how he’d never be able to scrub it out and now the boots were, like, totally ruined.

We also had to wonder what a SMOG geek from G-6 was doing outside the wire on Airport Road riding around with Grunts on Patrol.  When was the last time we saw something like that happen?  And who would have given him permission to leave his post in SMOG?  It didn’t hold water, as my grandmother used to say.

But Pepperdink said he had photos.  He trotted down to his cubicle and, sure enough, when he came back he had a file folder marked “Proof of Combat.”  Inside were a dozen pictures of Pepperdink with smoking rubble in the background.  At least half of them were self-portraits, Pepperdink cocking his head for the camera at the end of his arm.

We leafed through the snapshots—the plume of smoke, the charred skeleton of a Toyota, the Iraqis clasping their hands to the sides of their heads— Pepperdink with his newfound tough-guy grin in the foreground of all of them.  Computer geek or no computer geek, we were starting to see him in a whole new light.

“And here’s one—it’s a little blurry, but you get the idea.  This is some guy who just happened to be driving past the taxi when it went off.  Poor bastard—wrong place, wrong time."

The photo—no doubt blurry from Pepperdink’s trembling hands as he clicked the shutter—showed a tan Mercedes, doors and siding peppered with shrapnel, windows blown out as if they were made of spun sugar.  On the side of the road, three men in neatly-pressed short-sleeve shirts and khaki pants were splayed like starfish.  One had his knee bent skyward as if he was writhing when the shutter snapped; the other two were flat and appeared to be unmoving.

“We did what we could, giving them first aid,” Pepperdink said.  “Two of them were already goners but this guy here he had blood just pouring out the side of his head.  He died right after I took that photo—right there along the side of the road."

“You know what this means, right, Pepperdink?” said Newhouse from over in G-4.  “CAB for sure."

“Why do you think I’m keeping all these photos in this here folder?” Pepperdink said.  “I knew right away I was a shoo-in.  I even picked up a little souvenir from the site.”  He held up a piece of melted metal and plastic, the size of a dollar bill.  “CAB, here I come.”  He grinned like he’d just scratched a lottery ticket.  “Not like the rest of you poor bastards who have to sit around and wait for a mortar to land in your laps."

We’d been talking about all the mortar attacks which had landed on FOB Triumph since January.  Earlier this week, word had come down from on high the Pentagon was expanding the eligibility for the much-coveted Combat Action Badge.  Now, those who were within a certain, wider radius of any given blast area were able to apply for the CAB.  Before last week, you practically had to be standing right underneath the missile to qualify.  Plus, it used to be only those in infantry or direct-combat-related jobs were allowed to get them.

To Fobbits like us, this recent revision of eligibility was something of a miracle.  Now, even pasty-faced SMOG tinkerers like Pepperdink could pin one on their chest, given the right circumstances (and a half-ream of paperwork, which included three sworn statements from witnesses, related Sig Acts and applicable diagrams—but it appeared Pepperdink had that all sewn up in the bag).

Major Filipovich says he and some of the other PAO pukes working over at the Media Operations Center would qualify, thanks to the rocket which hit somewhere behind the MOC a couple of months ago.  Lately, he’s been spending his afternoons filling out forms and interviewing some of the contracted cleaning crew who were  in the MOC that day.

I, on the other hand, am not eligible because at the time the rocket hit, I was back in my room eating lunch, just outside the eligibility radius.  I won’t lie and say I’m not a little disappointed.

If only I’d eaten my lunch a little faster that day, didn’t linger over that “just one more” chapter of Don Quixote while listening to Bach cantatas in my room, then maybe I’d have been at the MOC and could have gotten the award without having to see so much as a splinter of shrapnel.

It didn’t help to have assholes like Pepperdink gloating over their alleged “combat action,” either.  Someday soon, we'll find him at Wet Willie's back in Savannah getting free drinks and lap dances thanks to his CAB and blurry photos.  There but for the distraction of Don Quixote go I.

*Secure Military Operations Grid, the computer network which links the military division's units in Iraq.

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