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Toilet Paper Bandits

By Molly Martin

The American Regional Embassy Office, called the REO (pronounced Río), in Kirkuk huddles near Chemical Ali’s former palace. We navigate the maze of barriers and gates under the high dome of the hot, pale blue and cloudless sky. I relax, turn the SAW heavenward and sit back in the turret sling as we roll through the last gate. Once in it’s my job to clamber out of the turret and guide the vehicle to its parking spot in the little gravel lot. I hitch up my gear. It weighs a mere 29 lbs. As I hope heavily down from the hood, I hold my wobbly helmet. It’s still missing the bolts in the back, so it’s held together by twists of 550 cord.

Considering that we can’t get re-supplied on toilet paper, the specialized bolts I need to make me combat ready are not forthcoming any time soon. Never mind that one of my two pairs of issued desert boots is the wrong size.

“Don’t worry. You can switch them out at Supply in Kuwait,” Sherrice tells when I complain as I sign for my pre-deployment gear. She taps her long nails, each painted with a different scenes of a Hawaiian vacation.

Ha ha ha, Sherrice! Now, months later, still boltless and with only one pair of right-sized boots, I face a problem more grim; more dire; much more immediate: Our team is running low on toilet paper. Our leaders’ advice is simple and impossible. “Find some.”

I grin and wave at the interior gate guards as we strip off our body armor and stack it in the vehicles. I signal BK that I’ll stay with the vehicles so he can shepherd the rest of our team into the air-conditioned oasis of the REO dining hall.

Climbing back onto the hood of the vehicle, I lean against the bulletproof windshield and sip water from one of the cold bottles. We stash them in coolers in the back where they rattle around next to our go-bags and extra ammo cans. I scan the rooftops, more out of habit than any real concern for snipers. We’re in a Kurdish neighborhood. Around me, numerous little brownish birds sing and chirp, fluttering about in the earnest pursuit of their birdy business. After a few minutes I slid down and head over to gossip with the guards.

Today it’s two Colombians, short, hard and what we would call Indigenos in Paraguay. Normally they glare out at the world, projecting every inch the mercenary image civilians believe them to be. They see me approach and their faces break into wide grins.  They love the curiosity of meeting a blonde, blue eyed, white woman who speaks Spanish in Iraq.

We chat about their families, about mine, largely fictitious. Another convoy arrives and they return to their business. I retreat to the shade of our vehicles. Eventually, Amy comes out to relieve me.

I stop at the hand washing station outside the dining hall. The soap is creamy and almond scented, the water pleasantly cool. Inside, I raid the beverage cooler, bypassing the shelf-stable Parmalat milk from Europe in favor of the cherry nectar drink boxes. It is a dark miracle of a drink, sweet, thick but not syrupy. Today I only took two. I’m saving my cargo pocket space.

Inside, the chefs, not cooks, shine in their white uniforms, kitchen camouflage in this gleaming white environment. They wait with professional smiles to serve us. The plates are glass, not paper, the silverware metal, not plastic. Food in hand, I adjourn to the patio to watch a few of the reporters and various diplomat types play a lazy game of volley ball. It’s surreal here in this war zone.

My radio squeaks as BK informs me we are rallying the troops to head for our second meet of the day. Figures. Enough time has passed to dry the sweat on my uniform into salty rings around my collar and under my arms. Time to put the gear back on and time for Operation TP.

The latrines at the REO are spacious and cool, the cans for waste paper decorous, not the aluminum trash can we have back on the FOB. The toilet paper is soft, 2 ply, and shorter than our standard Scott rolls. This is good, because these fancy, fluffy, Europeany rolls of TP will fit, one each, into a cargo pocket.

We roll out the gate, back into the convection oven heat of an Iraqi summer afternoon. To the east, the Eternal Stinky Flame dances from its pipe on the hills where the oil company headquarters sprawls.

“Mission success,” I tell Mike and Amy as I settle into the turret and swing the SAW out to cover my sector. We plunge into traffic, me waving the cars away, keeping an eye on the bridges and shoulders, the light posts, and dead dog corpses by the side of the road, and always the piles of trash. Any of these could hide an IED, but we’re grinning regardless.

Tonight we will poo without resorting to napkins stolen by the handful from the chow hall, or making the two block trek to the nearest port-o-potty. For the moment, we enjoy our little victory.

Molly Martin served two combat tours, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. After getting out of the service, she worked as a DoD consultant before fleeing D.C. for the West Coast, where she now lives her fellow-veteran husband and obligatory cats. These days she focuses on speculative fiction and short stories.

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