The nightmares of a veteran of Iraq
|In the small campus apartment the young man slept, able through long practice to drop off almost instantly for twenty minutes, an hour, or six. As he slept they came for him again, as they had nearly every night for many months.
The soldier saw himself standing in a dusty compound surrounded by a bulldozed berm of desert sand, the sun shining with excruciating brilliance from a clear sky. A helicopter battered close overhead in an ungainly, nose-down attitude but strangely made no sound. His men milled languidly around him, smiling, without helmets or weapons. Here was Murdoch, his gunner; there was Berecek, who carried the SAW for second squad; and Forepaugh, the likable kid from the impossibly-named hamlet of Flat Gap, Kentucky, who could thunk a 40mm grenade through a window from 100 meters (Which window, sir? Left? Right?), first shot, every time.
The soldier moved among them with a cheap, lined notebook. "Give me your addresses. You have to get your name in the book. Everybody has to be in the book. So we can get together." They smiled at him, bemused, not understanding, as he wrote.
Flash. Now the soldier was on the porch of a shabby wooden house in some dismal mill town. Youngstown? Gary? He knocked at the door and a middle-aged, work-worn woman in cheap print dress answered, her arms folded across her chest, only dimly visible behind the dusty screen.
"Hello, I'm his lieutenant. From over there. Is he here?"
In a tone reserved for telemarketers or trashy ex-girl friends she replied, "No, he's not. He's not here."
He offered her a piece of paper from the notebook; she accepted it silently, uncomprehending. "Tell him to come. He has to be there. We're all going to be there."
Flash again, and now the soldier, wearing suit and tie, was entering the brightly-lit lobby of a luxury hotel under a huge crystal chandelier while well-dressed men and women walked purposefully about, nodding to one another. He saw an activities board, and on it the entry "B/1/504", an arcane inscription decipherable only by those who could understand: his people.
The soldier followed a darker, thickly carpeted hallway, heavy with wainscoting and muted pictures in ornate frames, to the meeting room and entered. He saw a buffet, a beverage table, chairs and tables all set. But no one was there, not a single, solitary soul. Only himself.
The young man awoke, anxiety thick in his chest. Memories started to crowd in, but he pushed them back, cursed silently and heaved himself out of bed. Walking to the bathroom for water, he looked into the mirror and saw pain. Back to bed, and he clenched his jaws, refused to think or remember and willed himself to sleep.
But they were not done with him yet, not by half, and in an hour or two his defenses relaxed and they came for him again.
This time the soldier was standing in the featureless desert, again surrounded by soldiers. The light was very poor; morning or evening nautical twilight. The unit was preparing for a mission: loading magazines and assault packs, slowly and deliberately shrugging on armored vests and utility harnesses, readying weapons; all the familiar activity. The men were helmeted and, oddly, wore sand goggles. They kept their faces averted from him, yet there was a strangeness about them that told the soldier these were not his men, not his unit.
He went from one man to another, anxious, trying to get their attention. "This isn't my unit", he tried to tell them. "I'm not supposed to be here. I don't belong here any longer. I'm not supposed to go with you."
No one acknowledged him; it was as if he did not exist for them. Slowly, silently, they began to form up and move off in the loose, shambling, open column of veteran infantry and the soldier realized that he would have to go as well, would have to go on thel mission. He bent to pick up his pack and rifle and turned to follow.
But the unit had vanished, and he was alone in the desert.
The young man woke again, feeling lonely and abandoned beyond measure. And now the images flooded in, could not be held back; real memories this time, a jumbled collage of unconnected events that had played and replayed in his mind for months. He saw again the huge brown, expanding blossoms of smoke and dirt, heard the terrific whump of explosions, felt the concussion that bounced his prone body almost free of the ground. The soldier saw bodies, and parts of bodies, lying in blackening stains; saw the angry faces of men and women shouting at him in a language none of them could understand. He saw his men running, stooped, shouting over a continuous crackle of gunfire; remembered hot shell casings tinkling on the ground beside him; heard the radio hissing calm, truncated phrases amid the chaos. He saw again the wide-eyed, panicked face, ridiculously small under its helmet, looking up at him and pleading, "What are we going to do now, lieutenant?"
The soldier felt again the stark terror he had felt that day when the fighter released its 500-pound load and the bomb wavered, then straightened into an arc he was certain would end on his own helmet. Unable to take his eyes from it, he had shouted curses at the pilot even after the bomb landed on the correct building after all, obliterating it and who knows how many bad guys with whom he strangely felt more kinship than he now felt for the visored, impersonal pilot.
And again, always, he was forced to replay The Incident. It was not an incident from The Big Fight, nor even the Al Baq'a Bash, nor any other of the scraps sufficiently significant to merit a nickname and a place in the unit folklore, but instead only a meaningless whackdown that earned barely three lines in the company Morning Report.
The platoon had been jogging in two files down the sidewalks of a street of flat-roofed cinder block homes, weapons at port, hurrying to establish a blocking position when they ran into a group of insurgents coming from a side street. Point men on both sides exchanged fire instantly and harmlessly, and as most of the hajis fled several others, in a fatal lapse of judgment, took cover in the nearest building and fired furiously from windows and doorway.
His first two squads deployed without command, like a machine. The soldier's mind clicked, assessed. Operating on automatic pilot, without fear or emotion, he sprinted forward as the return fire sputtered, then grew to a solid crackle. He saw dust spurts from the cinder blocks, a twinkle of answering fire, heard the sharp snap of an incoming round close overhead. He shouted "Grenades! Windows!" and ran through second squad, yelling "Follow me!" and without turning to see who followed dodged behind the fourth house from the target, cut back and kept running, canteen thumping on his hip.
Before he reached the target he heard the first loud crack of a 40mm grenade on or in the building and a moment later, as the soldier had foreseen, two of the hajis boiled out of a rear door with AKs. He had a clear recollection of angry, dark eyes and moustaches as his rifle came up, seemingly of its own will, and fired two aimed shots at each man.
The first seemed to trip and fell hard, headlong on the hardpan, weapon clattering, feet bouncing incongruously. The second man slowed, a hand reaching for his lower back. He stopped, turned slowly, rifle falling butt first to the ground. Bewildered, he sat heavily, cross-legged, and then fell back.
Wounded or very seriously dead, the soldier thought. Well, ishta to you, boys. He crouched, scanning for danger, saw none, heard familiar voices from inside the house: "Clear!" "Clear here!" The soldier moved cautiously to the downed hajis, vaguely registering the plaudits of the men behind him who, of course, had his back all along: "Way to be, El Tee!" "El Tee brought smoke on them mothers, that's what I'm talking about!"
But the soldier saw only the Poor Freaking Arab, who was barely alive. Their eyes locked; he could not look away. The haji looked up at the last face he would ever see and his lips moved silently. What are you trying to say, Abdul? A prayer? Screw you? They looked into one another's souls for long, long moments and then the soldier watched the light slowly fade from the man's eyes, and the face that would haunt him went slack.
The connection broke when the platoon sergeant came to report. "All clear, El Tee. One inside and two out here. Nobody hurt. It's all over."
But, apparently, it was not over. And perhaps not ever, not over.