Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Death-Virgin Meets the Grim Reaper

In February 2005, I was a death-virgin.  I'd deployed to the Middle East with the 3rd Infantry Division as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  As a nation, we were young in the war.  Within the unit, some of us were also infants when it came to the business of bullets and bloodshed.  A minority population of the division was untested in combat while the rest of the nearly 3,000 soldiers were on their second tour of duty to Iraq.  They'd been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

By this point, I'd served in the active-duty Army for seventeen years, but I'd never "gone to war."  Panama, Desert Storm, Bosnia, and Afghanistan had all carried on without me (though I did come close to deploying in 2003--even received orders to report to Fort Benning, Georgia for overseas processing, but a previously-undiagnosed hernia kept me stateside).  Now, however, the time had come and I had to go.

In January, I flew to Kuwait with a duffel bag stuffed with three sets of uniforms, a bag of toiletries, my memory-foam contour pillow, a framed photo of my wife and I on our wedding day, and The Complete Works of Charles Dickens.  I thought I was ready to for a year-long camping trip to the desert but, as it turns out, I wasn't prepared for the daily barrage of death.  I was unwise to the ways of the Grim Reaper who, I was soon to learn, tirelessly walked the streets of Baghdad, his awful face hidden in shadows beneath the black hood, his blood-specked scythe swinging through the air non-stop.  I didn't know he'd soon be following me everywhere, sitting with me in my office cubicle as I typed press releases, walking beside me as I returned to my hooch, eating with me, showering with me.  He was my uncomfortable companion and I resented him for even being there in the first place.  And yet, I had no say-so in the matter.  Death will go where he wants to, and to hell with anyone who tries to stop him.

IED in Baghdad, 2005

Since I was part of the division's "advance party," I remained in Kuwait as the staggered waves of incoming soldiers, who arrived in flights known as "chalks," spent a couple of weeks training and getting acclimated to the sand and heat before heading north to the urban battle of Baghdad.  I worked out of a large tent whose canvas walls were buffeted by desert winds.  The two dozen of us who sat at the folding metal desks in the room found our sanity eaten away every day by the non-stop soundtrack of hiss, moan, whistle, hiss, boom, pop.  It's as if we sat inside the billowing sails of a clipper ship rocked by trade winds.  There was no relief.

As the 3rd Infantry Division soldiers flowed north into Iraq, I soon found there was little relief from the death reports sent back to us by those who were setting up the division's headquarters at Camp Liberty.  It started as a trickle, then became a stream, and turned into a river long before summer arrived.  Eventually, the terms KIA (Killed in Action) and WIA (Wounded in Action) would become part of my lexicon, the three callous letters slipping too easily from my tongue in conversation, stripped of all meaning and certainly bearing no connection to soldiers whose bodies had been shredded by bombs.

Several times a day, I pulled out a little green book in which I made notes for the daily journal I was keeping--scribbled diary entries which would later be transmogrified into the fiction of Fobbit.  I watched, I listened, I absorbed.  As the canvas walls of my temporary office in Kuwait moaned and popped, I--the death-virgin--was keenly open to all these new, raw experiences.

Years later, when it came time to write it all down, I chose fiction as my avenue of approach.  It allowed me to stuff the truth into a sack which flexed and grew, even as it condensed and thickened.  I could use my imagination to make my point sharper and clearer.  The result--the 350-page book now known as Fobbit--is a satire, a wild exaggeration of events, a dark cartoon that, I hope, is somehow more truthful than any memoir I could ever write.

And yet, many of the notes I took down in 2005 remain in Fobbit, some transcribed almost verbatim.  Here, for instance, is a scene from early in the novel where Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. is working out of the Division Tactical Operations tent in Kuwait and gets some bad news.  Gooding is a public affairs soldier (PAO) and, like me, he is a death-virgin, a late-career non-commissioned officer on his first combat tour of duty.  These are words which started out as journal notes, but were later pumped full of fiction steroids....

from Fobbit

Once, when Gooding was still down in Kuwait, waiting to deploy north to Iraq and join the rest of the division which had already been in-country for three weeks, a captain from the G-2 Intelligence section walked up to him in the makeshift Tactical Operations Center and said, “You PAO?”

Gooding had looked up from the Dickens novel he was reading, then quickly got to his feet, heart pounding. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Thought you should know we just got word from up north.  Division took some fatalities earlier this afternoon.  A vehicle out on patrol rolled over into a canal in south Baghdad.  Two dead on impact.  Another one trapped in the wreckage.  Two other soldiers jumped in to rescue the vehicle crew, but they got swept away.  Monsoon season up there is a bitch, apparently.  Anyway, last I heard, we’ve got three dead and two missing.”

Gooding dog-eared a page in A Tale of Two Cities with trembling fingers and said in a hoarse voice, “Thanks, ma’am.  I appreciate you letting me know.”

Back then, he’d slumped against the wall, reeling from his first deaths as a public affairs soldier serving in his first war.  He pictured the humvee tipping, tumbling into the water, the two soldiers on the bank, shouting, acting on instinct, jumping into the water, misjudging the current and getting sucked down into the muddy swirl of the Euphrates (in his mind, the canal had become the mighty Euphrates), their mouths trying to snatch air, but filling instead with dirty water.  He pictured those two soldiers flailing against the pull of the water, soon losing all strength as their lungs filled with the Euphrates, and their limp bodies floated downstream, their personnel files quickly pulled from the division’s records and labeled “Killed In Action,” their ghosts quietly falling out of company formations, their names laser-etched on a memorial plaque back in Georgia.

Not many days and three U.S. KIAs later, Gooding had written in his diary:
February 13:  This is how a death is announced.  In the midst of the hum and buzz of idle boredom in the Division Tactical Operations Center, you hear one officer, bent over the back pages of The Stars and Stripes, ask another, “What did you get for 17 Across?”  Two people are arguing about which Matrix movie was the best.  Another soldier in his early 20s is surfing the Internet looking at engagement rings and wondering aloud what difference a half carat made in the quality and price and—most importantly—a chick’s response to the bling.  Then, like a blade swishing through the air comes a sudden sharp voice from the other side of the room, cutting through the growl-buzz of the generator and the fist-thump of wind against the tent walls.  You look over and an NCO is pressing a telephone receiver tighter against his ear and saying, “Repeat that last transmission.  What did you say?”  He waves his hand at another NCO to get him a pen, whereupon he scribbles on an index card.  Two or three others cluster near him, heads are pressed in a tight circle, one head pops up and catches the eye of the battle captain sitting in his leather office chair at the front of the room.  He rises from the chair—he’d been watching a NASCAR race on the TV—and walks over to the growing knot of huddled heads.  At this point, something like cold fear creeps around your heart like icy vines.  The information on the index card is read back into the phone for confirmation, then the battle captain grabs the card and strides to the front of the room, yelling, “ATTENTION IN THE DTOC!  ATTENTION IN THE DTOC!”  All sound and motion in the tent stops.  Someone mutes the NASCAR race.  The battle captain reads from the index card: “We have reports of one IED in the vicinity of Scania along the convoy route.  One KIA.  Battle-damage assessment still being made.  That is all.”  He reads it as carefully and dispassionately as someone quoting stock market prices, then he turns and writes the information on a large sheet of paper taped to the wall at the front of the room where all significant activities—the loss of an M-16, the arrival/departure of a convoy, the publication of an operations order—are recorded.  As you watch him write with the magic marker, the conversation-buzz of the room gradually returns to its former volume.  Some drop their heads in sorrow, shaking them back and forth as if that will counteract the loss and bring the KIA back to life, or at least change his status to WIA.  But the magic marker ink is permanent, seared there by the heat of an IED blast.  No wounds can be reversed.  The battle captain returns to his leather chair.  A couple of officers return to their crossword puzzle.  Someone turns up the volume on the TV and the NASCAR race resumes.

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