by Brooke King
Camp Liberty, Baghdad, Iraq
Across the aisle from my hooch, Private Ricky Sullivan sat on his stoop in full battle rattle clinging tightly to a set of dogtags that weren’t his. Rubbing them back and forth between his fingers, he gently wiped the blood from the name that lay stamped into its silver face. He lowered his head, the dogtags firmly in his palm. He pressed his closed hands to his forehead, the metal chain of the dogtags dangling down, almost touching the grated step. I didn’t say anything to him, not because I didn’t care or because I couldn’t find anything to say. I said nothing because nothing would’ve comforted him in the fact that he was holding the dogtags of a dead soldier, his friend.
We all knew the importance of giving each other space after missions. We used the time to comprehend, compartmentalize, and move on with whatever had happened that day outside the wire. As soldiers, we had sworn to a code of silence, never talking about the war we were fighting, never commenting on the dead, never speaking of the obvious disillusionment we felt. And it was this code of silence that shrouded us in isolation and cut us off from coping. We sat outside our hooches chain smoking as we tried to come to terms with whatever shit we’d gone through. Most of the time, this silence passed quickly and soon we were back to some kind of normal and ready to talk again. We would call out to those we knew who were walking by, shit talking and sharing the dirt on the street. But there were some of us who hadn’t transitioned back to normalcy. Some of us remained silent, sitting on the steps outside our hooches still trying to get our mind right- get over the shell shock. None of the silent ones were let out on mission until they were ready because they were dangerous, a liability to the survival of the rest of us. Yet, no one ever tried to help them. We just left them alone, hoping that they would get back to business as usual.
Ricky Sullivan wasn’t a quiet one. He loved the ladies too much to be quiet. He sat outside his hooch cat calling to every female soldier that walked by, his Jersey accent echoing down the aisle of hooches.
“Aw, come on. Why you being like that? You hurting my feeling running away.”
Most of us would walk past, flip him the bird, or tell him to fuck off, but he’d just lean up against his door with his wide white teeth smile grinning away, a toothpick poking out the side of his mouth. Then he would sit there and whistle the Rutgers fight song until the next pretty female soldier walked by.
“Hey there,” he’d start, “How you doing? That’s a pretty looking weapon you got.”
Sarge, Tina, Stafford, Sands, and I sat outside every night just to watch Ricky Sullivan work his magic on the ladies. Even after Stafford had left theater, we sat outside anyway because Ricky Sullivan was always good for a laugh, something that all of us needed just as much as breathing. Most times, he had us doubled over in laughter as we pointed at yet another one of his failed efforts to get laid. He pretended not to care that we rushed back from chow every night just so we could sit outside and laugh at him.
“Man forget you guys,” he’d say, pointing at us, “You watch, one of these days, I’m going to bag a desert fox, a real fine looking honey. You just wait and see.”
Sarge hollered back at him, “The only thing you’re going to catch is a bad case of crabs from one of the medics in Charlie Company.”
Ricky Sullivan would stomp up his stairs and slam his door shut in defeat as our laughter echoed down the corridor of hooches.
“What’s the matter, Sullivan? Where you going?” Sands would shout out. “Don’t tell me you’re already giving up.”
After Sands beat up Ricky Sullivan for talking shit about female soldiers playing hard to get, the guy almost feared going outside for his usual routine, but Sands always egged him on, begging him to give it his best shot. Ricky Sullivan was definitely not a quiet one, not until that day out on mission when something inside of him changed. He’d been through something that day and you could see it in the way he pinched his eyes closed, squeezing them together so nothing got out. Sitting across from him on stoop, I could hear him whispering, “Lord, you should’ve taken me instead.” Other soldiers in our platoon walked by, but only gave him a quick glance, trying not to pay attention to the fact that Ricky Sullivan had finally cracked, that he had become quiet. I shook my head. I was fucking glad it wasn’t me this time.
“Poor bastard,” I whispered, as I crushed the end of my cigarette on the side of the step, pulled out my pack and lit another one.
Sullivan sobbed and whispered into his lap, scrunching his body tight on his stoop as he held the dogtags. After a minute, his sobbing turned to rage, the dogtags still in hands as he gripped his ACU pants, his fingers ripping and yanking on them as he bent over, his helmet pressed against his knees. I contemplated going over to help him, maybe sit with him, but decided that I needed to finish my smoke, buying me some time to work up enough nerve to break the wall of silence that separated us. I pulled deep drags from my cigarette, hoping the nicotine rush would give me the courage to get up and walk over to him. But Ricky Sullivan had already stopped whispering to himself and had opened his eyes before I got a chance to finish my smoke. He lifted his head and placed the dogtags that were in his hand around his neck. They dangled next to his own set. Then, looking me in the eyes, he took off his helmet and set it next to him on the step. From ten feet across the way, Sullivan’s hazel green eyes reflected the somber red light of the setting sun, transforming his irises to a soft shade of caramel brown. His auburn hair was smashed down flat from the weight of his helmet and matted together with sweat and dirt. The chinstrap of his helmet had left marks on his chin. His cheeks were covered with a thin layer of dirt, but a trickle of perspiration seemed to draw a line through it, leaving a translucent streak of sweat from his temples to his jawbone. With his right hand, he reached for his side pistol, an M9 Beretta – the magazine already loaded. His jaw muscles tensed, as he clenched down hard. I could hear his labored breathing, the raspy whistling inhales and hard huffing exhales of a man relinquishing himself to his own premeditated death. With a steady firm hand, he cocked the pistol, flicked the safety switch off, raised the service pistol to his head, and without flinching, shot one round into his right temple. Across the aisle from him, I had stood up and reached out to him, calling out his name as the echoing sound of the bullet reverberated off the hooch walls. I stood there, my mouth gapped open from shock, as Ricky Sullivan’s body slumped from the weight of his combat gear and fell sideways off the top step to the unforgiving ground below. Blood oozed as he lay drooped over on his side, his face mashed into the gravel.
Unmoved, I looked at Ricky Sullivan’s eyes – a glassy, wide-eyed empty stare fixed in the sockets. Pieces of brain matter and skull lay strewn across the grated steps and gravel below. Ricky Sullivan’s blood had splattered in an arterial spray on the T- barrier next to him and the white door behind him. I didn’t move. I couldn’t, even if I’d wanted to. Medics from the next row over came running to see what had happened. They rushed to Ricky Sullivan, but all they could do was roll him onto his back, pronounce him dead, and place someone’s dirty bed sheet over his body. Soldiers from 1st Cavalry that lived the next pad over came to see the soldier that shot himself. Soldiers from our company came, but only stayed long enough to see the body and confirm the rumor that they had heard about Sullivan. Tina had been in the latrine when Ricky Sullivan pulled the trigger, but now she stood at my side.
“What happened, Sarah?”
I pointed to Ricky.
“He shot himself?” she gasped.
In disbelief, Tina shook her head and said, “What for?”
I pointed to the dogtags that dangled from his neck.
“I don’t get it,” Tina said, but she did.
Every soldier there knew the reason why he’d done it, even if they didn’t want to believe it. It was something I’d contemplated over and over again after each mission, in the moments afterwards when I sat outside on the stoop, quietly waiting for the numbing feeling in my fingers to go away, for my pulse to slow down, and my mind to stop reeling the images of the mission over and over again. Tina sighed and looked at me, but I didn’t glance up. I just stared at the covered body of Ricky Sullivan.
“Are you okay, Sarah?”
I nodded, even though I wasn’t. I sat down on the stoop. Tina eased herself down and put her arm around me. A medic picked up Ricky’s helmet and laid it next to his body. Military Police came, questioned me about what had happened, why he had done it. I pointed to his body and said, “The dogtags.” I filled out a witness statement and signed it. Before she went inside our hooch, Tina asked me once more if I was okay. I smiled and said, “Yeah. I think I am.”
After Ricky Sullivan was placed in a black body bag and carted off in a Mortuary Affairs Humvee, I stayed outside until everyone else had left and I was alone. I thought about the dogtags and what they’d meant to Ricky Sullivan. He had shot himself over a set of dogtags. Then, I pulled out my dogtags from underneath my ACU’s. I rubbed my finger across my own name, my own serial number. I folded my fingers over the dogtags in my palm and glanced up at Ricky Sullivan’s front door.
The blood had dried.
Brooke King served in the U.S. Army, deploying to Iraq in 2006 as a wheel vehicle mechanic, machine gunner, and recovery specialist. Her work has been published in the Home of the Brave anthology, Prairie Schooner, and Sand Hill Review, and is forthcoming in University Nebraska Press’s war anthology Red, White, and True. Her chapbook Love in the Shape of a War Zone was released May 2013 by Green Rabbit Press. She works as a professor at Saint Leo University in Florida while she continues to finish her first novel and complete her PhD in Literature.