by Kevin Neirbo
Jake reached up and pulled his headphones off. The flight stewardess was walking down the aisle, waking everyone.
“Sir, table trays and seat backs up, please.”
Jake acknowledged the kind woman with a nod and a smile. He thought to himself that this was probably the last time he will see a woman for a long time. He could feel her comforting presence slipping away. As the plane screeched to a halt on the runway, Jake peered out the window. It looked hot, and he hadn’t even stepped off the plane yet. The usual antics of a large group of Marines began. People shouting, joking, talking, the noise rising steadily, until the fearsome First Sergeant’s commanding voice took charge.
“Everyone shut up, grab your trash, and give me a twenty-man working party.”
“Yes, First Sergeant”, every marine answered in a somewhat unanimous grumble.
Part of the perks of being a junior man was that you were automatically selected for every working party, on your way to working for seven months straight. As salty twenty-something year old NCO’s started screaming to hurry and run, Jake quickly grabbed his semi-automatic rifle and daypack, and made his way to the front of the plane. As he exited the hatch, it felt like walking into a giant hot air blower dryer. The sun was scorching, and a mirage rose off the cement flight line. Jake’s current task was to go under the plane, and unload the entire company’s sea bags, with 19 other unfortunate souls. The twenty-man working party lined up outside and placed their rifles in neat little stacks. All about eighteen years old, they naively held these tools of deaths in their young hands, too big for their recently muscled frames. Their baggy uniforms hung loosely on their bodies, a man’s uniform, something to grow into. Jake remembered his mother crying when she saw his bootcamp photo, feeling helpless that her son’s fate was no longer under her control. His stomach wrenched as he realized he could no longer just go and talk to her when he felt anxious or scared, he was all in. Mom was no longer just a phone call away. Jake felt a lump in his throat rising, he quickly refocused on the task at hand to forget his anxiety. He looked around at the man barking orders at him, an old school Marine, happy to leave his family, happy to be headed into a combat zone, this was his element. Jake worried he could never be like that. Was he in over his head? Was he a Momma’s boy? Could he handle this? The working party sweated profusely in the sweltering belly of the plane, a chain of boys throwing hundreds of sea bags down to the truck below. Jake hoped the guys next to him were feeling the same loneliness he was.
The next few days were a blur. The company moved from one airport hangar to the next, cat napping on their packs on the flight line, until finally making it to their company headquarters at a forward operating base. From there, they rode trucks out to different patrol bases. The Marines never actually went to bed, they just napped on planes and trucks for four days until they arrived at their destination. Jake was exhausted, but his anxiousness kept him awake as they rode the truck through the sprawling city they were to work in. He had never seen anything like this, the cement tenements of the city were riddled with bullets and bomb blasts. The smell was distinct, a potent mix of dirt and sewage. He watched the people on the street glare at the convoy as it moved mechanically through the crowded and littered streets. Jake could feel the animosity, and it made him a little nervous, no one had ever wanted to kill him before. Every piece of trash they drove by raised Jake’s heart rate. In his pre-deployment classes, he had learned of the devastating effects of the roadside bombs, and decidedly did not want to experience that.
Before long, routine had set in. The loneliness Jake felt earlier had faded, as he and his buddies found comfort in each other. Teenage bravado and games provided a mask for their inner anxiety. The boys patrolled day and night as directed, taking orders from their team leaders and squad leaders, experienced young men usually around the age of twenty-one to twenty-three. Jake, the new guy, or “boot”, was to follow his team leader to hell and back, without question. His team leader, a combat veteran, tried to warn Jake of the inevitable, and they repeatedly drilled actions on enemy contact. Jake was confident, but still worried how he would react in his first firefight.
Jake walked carefully in the footsteps of the man in front of him, mindful of the possibility of pressure plate bombs; nasty things. The first thing he saw were little plumes of dirt kicking up around him. Stay away from those. The sound came after, for a second it was loud, real loud. As the battle intensified, the gunshots became muffled, almost silent. He could only hear himself breathing heavily, as his vision narrowed. Dropping to a knee, he instinctively raised his weapon, and fired at the bright flashes of light coming from the muzzles of the men trying to kill him. The fighting went on for only minutes, but felt like an eternity. Jake wondered what the enemy men looked like, he wondered what they were thinking about before the firefight. He wondered, if they too, were hoping to go home to a girl they liked, Jake wondered if she was pretty. After the exchange, the men went back to the base and bragged and boasted, sharing in a sense of elation from their adrenaline rush. They all kept the terror they felt to themselves, unwilling to show any weakness in front of their brothers. Next time, they won’t be as scared; they hoped.
As it goes, firefights weren’t always inconsequential. When one of the Marines were hurt or killed, things were much more serious back at base. One of Jake’s friends didn’t come home from a patrol one day. As if he had just gone home, Lane was no longer there. His name was simply crossed off the list. The finality of death felt surreal to Jake, he wondered about Lane’s family back home. His girlfriend, who will forever grieve the loss of her high school sweet heart. Will she ever move on? His mother, who’s son will never come home again, helpless to protect him. How will she deal with this? Jake didn’t know how to react, so he didn’t. He would deal with that when he got back. All he could do was keep putting one foot in front of the other, this is what he signed up for, after all.
One night Jake and his team set up along a path in the reeds, by a river. They had good intelligence that this was the location the enemy had been rocketing and bombing the base from, so the five men quietly moved into position late at night and set up for a 48-hour mission. Like patient hunters, they sat quietly, talking in low voices as they scouted the road and river from their concealed position. The silent night was eerie, but Jake felt secure with his teammates. Just after dusk on the first day, four enemy fighters approached the trailhead by rowboat. The team surprised them with a barrage of gunfire and a couple grenades. The sound of the men dying in their watery graves was permanently engraved in Jake’s memories. The horrible gasps and gurgles, do they even know what just happened to them? He felt good to have accomplished a mission, but it was short-lived as he wondered about the lives of the men they had just killed. What did they have for dinner? Did they have children? Did their mother’s love them? Was this their first patrol? He asked himself all these questions and more, but decided it wasn’t the time to think. He could deal with that later.
The deployment went on, more men were maimed and died on both sides. Jake observed, and moved on. One foot in front of the other, the time to think about things was later. The men found comfort in each other, playing cards, practical jokes, and general mischief. They killed time, and before they knew it, they were talking about the first meal they were going to have when they got home. They talked about beer and how much they missed it. They talked about their girlfriends back home, and wondered if they were someone else’s girlfriends now. Before they knew it, the time had come. It was only memories now, what harm could they do?
Jake sat in his barracks room, thinking about his deployment. The warm Carolina breeze blew in through his open window. A combat deployment was sure to make him a man, right? He couldn’t, however, convince himself that he felt any different. Jake wanted to feel the transformation, he thought he should feel ready to take on the world. But he still just wanted to go to the movies, meet girls, drink beer, just like any other teenager. The only difference were the questions that remained unanswered, but Jake just guessed he could deal with that later.
Kevin Neirbo is a Marine Infantryman who did two tours to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. He mainly writes fiction based on true events to tell the stories of the present day servicemen and women.