Saturday, February 18, 2012

In Which I Wear My M-16 Like Jewelry

For the entire year I was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I never went anywhere without my M-16 rifle.  As I write at the beginning of my novel, "All soldiers, including Fobbits, were required to carry their M-16s with them wherever they went: back and forth to work, when they took a shit, even if they were just stepping out onto their porch for a smoke."  Yes, even us non-combatant Fobbit-types became welded to our weapons.  They slept with us like cold metal lovers; they waited for us just outside the shower stall, ready to hand us a towel; they pulled up a chair and sat next to us in the chow hall; they clung to us like shadows.  Some of us, slowly losing our minds in the sand and wind of Iraq even held long, lively conversations with our rifles.

I was skimming back through my war journal the other day and came across this entry, written exactly seven years ago:

Feb. 18, 2005:  I carry my M-16 with me like I’m the father of a newborn baby.  If I set it down, I keep a watchful eye on it, worried that someone might come along and snatch it.  When I’m walking around camp, I sling it around my neck, muzzle pointing down at the ground, one arm and shoulder through the sling so that my hand can rest on the stock or trigger housing.  The middle of the rifle falls comfortably around my torso, so that it feels like a large piece of jewelry--or if I were a woman I suppose I'd say, like a purse.  If, for some reason, I were to wander off and leave it somewhere, I would feel like I’m walking around without any pants on.  It wouldn’t take long for me to notice the extra-breezy sensation and realize something was wrong.  I have only “left” my weapon once—when I was delivering the 3rd ID's Marne Express newspapers to 1st Brigade at Camp New York in Kuwait.  Staff Sergeant Mills and I were carting bundles from the non-tactical vehicle into the Brigade Tactical Operations Center.  I was in a hurry as I grabbed my bundle of papers and hustled into the TOC.  A few seconds later, here comes Staff Sergeant Mills carrying his bundle, plus two weapons.  He hands me mine without making a big deal out of it.

“Oh my God,” I whisper, “I can’t believe I just did that.” (Losing your weapon is grounds for an Article 15, by the way.)

“Yeah,” says Mills, “I saw you walking away and I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm….there’s something wrong with this picture.’”

Since then, I have coddled my baby, hugging it against me wherever I go.  It’s getting a bit dirty and grimy by now, the handgrips sticky from all my palm-dirt and sweat.  The sling is starting to dig a groove around the back of my neck.  And the tip of the barrel is starting to get scratched from all the times I’ve banged it against a doorway.  But, as I told Jean on the morning I left Fort Stewart, this is “my new best friend for the next year.”  I hope my rifle never lets me down.  I hope it never betrays me and just walks off like I did, leaving me sitting there defenseless in this hot, harsh country.

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