Monday, May 27, 2019

A Birthday in a War Zone

Happy Friggin’ Birthday to me.

When it’s your birthday and you’re in a war zone, the day is just another day in the year’s long trudge of days. Unless you really work hard at it, in a selfish manner, there is nothing special about your “combat birthday.” No mother is there, just outside the door of your hootch, waiting for the lights to dim and everyone to fall silent before she enters bearing the candlelit cake while starting the group singing with a slow drawled “Haaaaa-ppy Biiiirthday to you...” There is no son or daughter to climb into your lap to hand you a clumsily-wrapped mess of a present. There is no wife to call you at work and mysteriously insist you cancel the rest of the day’s appointments because she has a surprise for you.

No, when you’re at war in the desert, it’s just you and the sand and the heat and the distant thud of falling mortars. No one notices you. No one pays attention to the day, your day. It’s not like the big red-letter holidays of Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter where they go apeshit filling the dining facility with cardboard decorations, ice sculptures and floral centerpieces. When you grab lunch on your birthday, there are no streamers or balloons or conical hats with rubberband straps for you to wear while you eat. No, it’s just “Here’s your chili-mac, now move along, bub.”

In 2005, I “celebrated” my birthday in a war zone. On May 27, I was in my fourth month of living at Camp Liberty, our home away from home at the edge of Baghdad, where I served with the Third Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Georgia. My wife and three children were all back there at our home tucked among the trees just south of Savannah; I wouldn’t see them for another six months. So, yes, a certain trace of bitterness crept into my journal entry for that day...

May 27, 2005: Happy Friggin’ Birthday to me.

Worked my ass off all day long—answering e-mail, updating the Media Release log and the weekly Video News reports—and hoped to let myself get off early because, well you know, it’s my friggin’ birthday. But no, I’m my own worst enemy and made myself stay until 7:30 at night, as is my usual workaholic custom. I brought dinner back to my hootch—a cheeseburger, potato chips and a slab of cement-colored cake (I pretended it was a birthday cake, but it didn’t quite come close). Then I pulled out my laptop and watched one of my favorite movies, Days of Heaven. I’d been saving it for a special occasion and I guess my friggin’ birthday was the best time as any. The movie filled me with equal parts joy and melancholy, as always. It was the perfect cocktail of emotion on this strange day.

Earlier in the day, during a break from work when there was a lull in the action around headquarters, I walked to the other side of the Forward Operating Base to get some so-called “casual pay.” Getting money from the Army while you’re over here at war is a simple matter of going over to the Finance Office (located two miles from where I live, over by the Camp and prayer, side by side). There, you fill out a form with your name, rank, unit, social security number, and how much you want to “withdraw” (up to $300 per month). At that moment, I just wanted to have the lumpy feel of tightly-rolled dollar bills in my pocket. It would be tangible proof of what I was doing over here: wages for my work. Green money, red money, blood money for oil—it all spends the same at the PX. Call me cynical, but it’s my birthday and I’m at war and I’ve earned the right to be bitter.

I drove over to Finance, filled out my form, then took a seat against the wall to wait for my turn at the window. Two guys, apparent strangers to each other, sat down next to me and started up a conversation. I listened.


“Hey, how are you?”

“Good. You?”



“You live here at Liberty?”

“Been here about three weeks cuz I had medical problems. I came here from Balad. You like it here?”

“This place ain’t so bad. I hear they got three swimming pools.”

“Man, you ever been to Balad?”

“No. Why? Izzit better?”

The Balad guy blew out a “hell yeah” hiss of breath between his teeth. “They got everything this place has got, only it’s all squished together. Everything’s within walking distance—the PX, the gym, the dining facility. Their rec center up there is in an old airplane hangar—it’s huge. They got hundreds of X-Boxes. When I was there, about 150 guys were having a Halo tournament. It was crazy, man.”


The other guy said, “Still, this is a whole helluva lot better than it was the first time around.”

“You were here in 2003?”

“Yeah. You?”


“So you know what I’m talking about. Now they got so many amenities here, it almost makes you want to come back. Or never leave.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Depends on what you do.”

“Yeah, that’s true. I should say, if you’ve got a support job in the Army and never go outside the wire, if you’re one of them Fobbits, then you’ve got life good. Some dudes nowadays, they stay inside buildings all day long. They just go from air conditioning to air conditioning. It’s all inside the wire for those motherfuckers, man.”

Sitting next to them, I stayed very, very quiet.

“Back in the day, there was no wire.”

“Yeah, everything was outside the wire. No matter what your job, you were out in the shit.”


“So, what do you do?”

“Bradley gunner.”

A low whistle of commiseration/admiration.

“Yeah, I’m going outside the wire every day—especially now that we’ve got so many guys on leave. We’re doing 12 out, 12 in.”

“They won’t let my unit take our Bradleys out anymore. They say the Bradleys tear up the streets too much.”

“Yeah, I suppose. We’ve got to change tracks like once a month. But we’ve gotta go out, all on account of we had an M1114 get blown up a few weeks back. Got hit with a big IED. Blew that fucking humvee completely upside down. Landed on its roof. Killed the gunner.”

“That’s all? Nobody else was hurt?”

“The driver and the TC walked away from it. I should say, they crawled away. Pretty extensive burns all over their bodies. They’re back in the rear now. Lucky bastards. Ever since that, though, there are no M1114s allowed outside the wire.”

My number was called and I reluctantly left my eavesdropping to go to the counter for the casual pay. I couldn’t shake the image of those two guys from the flipped humvee, bodies aflame, skin crackling and turning black, lungs searing, uniforms shredding off their bodies, pulling themselves across the road with their arms and elbows. As I tucked my hard roll of money into my pocket, I thought to myself, “Holy crap, am I one lucky son of a bitch or what?”

Later, my mother emailed me from oceans and time zones away and it was my last, best gift of the day:

       I remember this day 42 years ago very well. It was my due date—I had no idea if you were a boy or girl but I was kind of hoping for a boy for our first and maybe only child. It took almost six years before you were conceived and we had just about given up hope. I went to the hospital around 10 a.m. —no labor pains, no water broke, I was to be induced and was already beginning to dilate. They broke my water and labor started. I said goodbye to your Dad at the admitting desk and didn’t see him again until after you were born at 11:19 p.m. It was a long labor—the cord was around your neck and it kept pulling you back. I had a local, saddle block anesthesia but at the end they had to knock me out so I was not awake for your birth. Things are quite different today—that’s how it was in the 60’s. You came into this world screaming and did a lot of it until you were 7 months old—but YOU WERE WORTH IT!!!! I love you so much! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

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