by Brian Kerg
John Butler didn’t think he’d be asked to make such an unfair promise.
He didn’t know how to feel when he managed to keep it.
He was terrified when he was asked to make it again.
“Make sure he comes back safe,” Hannah said, her voice a whimper. Cramer’s wife clutched at John’s sleeve. They were with the rest of the battalion and their families on Camp Pendleton, next to the buses, getting ready to load up, make the drive to March Air Force Base, and fly to Afghanistan. “He’s going to be a father. You’re his fire team leader. You’re responsible.” Hannah glanced over at her husband, who had his back turned toward her as he rifled through his pack.
At first John couldn’t respond. He was a lance corporal, and senior to PFC Cramer, but they were the same age, and neither had deployed before. Most of John’s seniors had deployed to Iraq. They’d told him Afghanistan was a different kind of beast. John understood Afghanistan only as something deceptive and hungry, a mysterious, nightmare creature plotting to gobble him up. John was terrified, was unsure he’d be able to bring himself home, let alone his fire team.
“I don’t think-”, John began.
“Promise me,” Hannah said, gripping him harder. Her eyes were desperate. She looked as afraid as John felt.
“Okay,” he said, relenting. As soon as he spoke he felt like he’d crossed a grave line, broken some sacred taboo. His voice caught briefly as he felt his throat clenched by the dread that filled him. “Okay. I promise.”
By some miracle, or by the roll of the die, he kept that oath.
The battalion went to Garmsir District, in the notorious Helmand Province, and John’s platoon made itself a home out of a combat outpost they built themselves. The Marines fondly referred to it as Patrol Base Kardashian.
John, along with the rest of his squad, found themselves in a firefight on their first security patrol. They were five hundred meters beyond their entry control point and at the floor of the adjacent valley.
The poppies were in full bloom, pink and green and beautiful. Then the shots rang out like staccato fireworks. John’s first thoughts were of bottle rockets.
“Contact left! Contact left!” his squad leader screamed. John’s eyes widened and he threw himself to the ground, instinctively trying to bury his head in the dirt. He had to remind himself he had three men to look out for, felt a cringing, searing twitch at the thought of Cramer, and his wife. John forced himself to look around for the rest of his team.
Billings and Gregg were in the prone position, their weapons facing outboard, but their eyes looking, wide and expectant, at John.
He hesitated a moment, nonplussed by their stares.
“Oh,” he said to himself in a grunt. Then he shouted, “Shoot back, goddammit!”
The men nodded, looked at each other as though embarrassed, then complied.
John froze when he finally saw Cramer, who was propped up on one knee, his head the only obvious target exposed through the top of the poppies, turning his head rapidly like a bird.
“I can’t see ‘em, Butler!” Cramer said. He looked at John. Cramer’s eyes were nearly as wide as his face, his pupils dilated as his body attempted to take in every potential source of danger. “I can’t see a muzzle flash!”
Before John could respond, he heard a dull, sickening whack, and Cramer was knocked to the ground.
John swore, over and over, the curse word a mantra. His heart pounded as he low-crawled toward Cramer.
The camouflage cover of Cramer’s Kevlar helmet had been torn asunder, and the helmet itself had a gaping chip knocked out of it. The helmet beneath the cover was olive-drab green, and the cracked portion was bone-white, like a skull. Cramer moaned, lying on the ground.
John canted Cramer’s helmet, disbelieving. He stuck one hand underneath it, feeling along Cramer’s head, his fingers probing for any wound.
“Sweet Jesus,” John said, sighing, then panting. “You’re not hit.”
“I hurt,” Cramer whispered. “I think I’m going to puke.”
“You’re concussed,” John said, pulling his shaking hands away from Cramer. “Don’t fall asleep. Just stay the fuck down.” John turned his attentions back to Billings and Gregg, and returned to the fight.
After the patrol, John promptly walked to the latrine and threw up. That was the first day, he thought, wiping his mouth. Someone’s going to die out here. Cramer’s probably going to die out here.
But somehow Cramer didn’t. Later that week, wrapped up in the protective embrace of a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, John and his squad rolled along a different road, toward some unpronounceable village, where his lieutenant intended to speak with a town elder. Cramer stared outside the small port-hole at the passing, barren country-side. John glanced from Cramer to the cab, where the driver tapped on the wheel, all nonchalance.
The assistant driver in the passenger seat tapped on the driver’s shoulder, pointed out the windshield, shouted, “What’s that?”
They were answered by a boom. Everything went black. Jon felt the weight of the world crushing him. His ears rang, and he thought he was suffocating.
Oh God oh God am I blind am I deaf am I dead I can’t see why can’t I see why can’t I-
Mercifully the darkness vanished. Other Marines from his squad, those from the next vehicles back, were pulling the metal rubble of John’s vehicle off of him. They grabbed him beneath his shoulders and dragged him from the blast crater. John coughed, tried to fight up to his feet, but the Marines forced him down as they assessed him.
Ignoring them as they looked over his body, John stared as first Billings, then Gregg were also pulled from the crumpled remains of the vehicle. They’d struck an improvised exploding device, an IED. Their vic had deflected the force of the blast, and rather than attempt to hold together and consequently tear the contained troops to pieces as it was ripped asunder, it had simply fallen apart, as designed. All of the occupants walked away, shaken, bruised, probably concussed, but in one piece.
“Cramer?” John asked, his hearing coming back to him with a painful ringing. Anxiety welled up in him. There’s no way we all walk away from that, he thought.
He was immediately contradicted. Cramer was pulled from the wreckage as well. A twisted piece of the vehicle had torn at his combat shirt and cut his shoulder. They set him next to John as the corpsman rushed over to bandage Cramer’s wound.
Cramer looked from the blast, to his wound, and then to John. He looked like an excited boy. He’s enjoying this, John thought.
“You think this means I rate a purple heart?” Cramer asked.
John shoved Cramer over, then looked at the corpsman. “Make sure you amputate, Doc. At least then they’ll send this idiot home.”
That night, the event played itself out over and over in John’s head. He and his team, strapped into a metal box, powerless, just cargo, and then boom. John shook his head as sleep evaded him. Just waiting for his number to come up. It’s just a matter of time. The odds will get us. The odds will get him.
Instead, Cramer continued his trend of slipping past death’s scythe through the whole deployment.
Stacked up outside of a mud hut, clearing their tenth house, Cramer took his turn on point as Billings donkey-kicked the door in and leapt aside. Cramer stepped into the doorway, his rifle raised, took three shots to the chest and crumpled over. Greggs dragged Cramer away as John threw a grenade into the hut. It detonated, and John and Billings rushed in and cleared it. They made sure the insurgent was dead, and then John checked Cramer. All three shots had smacked into his body armor. Cramer’s chest was black and blue with bruising, but he hadn’t even cracked a rib.
In their next firefight, Cramer got tripped up in a ditch as the squad buddy-rushed across a field under heavy fire from an insurgent machine gun nest. John and the squad were safe behind a berm while Cramer clambered out of the ditch, then ran, without taking cover once, ignoring John’s warnings, across fifty yards of open terrain as the enemy team focused all their fire on him. Shots kicked up dirt all around him, and a shard of rock cut across his cheek. He dove and slid into place next to John. “Sorry I fell behind,” Cramer panted with a disarming smile.
On another patrol, Cramer brought up the rear of the squad, staring at his boots, completely disregarding his surroundings, and failing to take the regularly prescribed glances behind him to provide rear security. He heard the RPG’s swoosh and turned just as it flew harmlessly over his back, fired from the hillside he’d just passed and neglected to observe.
That time, Cramer laughed. It made John’s blood freeze. Cramer held his hands out at his side, palms open, letting his rifle dangle from his body, hanging to him only by its strap, and grinned from ear to ear. “We’re untouchable!” he said, triumphant.
John wanted to sock him in the jaw, knock him to the ground, and stand over him and hiss, No one’s untouchable. Instead he engaged the insurgent who’d fired the RPG, maneuvered toward the target, eliminating this latest attempt on Cramer’s life, enabling his illusion of invincibility.
When the deployment ended, John and his platoon boarded the C-130 that would fly them out of Bagram Air Field to Manas, Kyrgyzstan. Seated, Cramer was talking and laughing with another Marine. John stared at him, unblinking. God, is that really him? John finally reached over and seized Cramer’s camouflage blouse, gripping the material so tightly in his fingers that his knuckles turned white.
Cramer turned to him, his face fearful. “What’d I do?”
John shook his head, his face expressionless. “Nothing,” he said, slumping back in his seat and letting go of Cramer. “You didn’t do anything.”
During his post-deployment leave, John went home, saw his family in Nebraska, spent his nights in the bedroom he’d grown up in as a boy. It was largely unchanged, and this gave John some sense of infantile comfort. But as he stared up at the plastic, glow-in-the-dark stars he’d put on his ceiling years ago, waiting for sleep to take him, he had to help it along with the handle of whiskey he kept under the bed. The slightest noise in the night brought him to full wakefulness, his heart hammering in his chest, and forced him to remain awake until dawn. Eating with his family at restaurants, he had to take a table with a wall at his back, where he could remain oriented to the door. He would have conversations with aunts, uncles, and old friends without really hearing a word, nodding and grunting at the appropriate times, while staring at the horizon. Gloom, hypervigilance, and insomnia ate at him slowly, while his family complained that he didn’t seem to be enjoying being home very much. He knew he should care about this observation, but couldn’t find the wherewithal to take umbrage with it.
Returning to base, he was immediately invited to Cramer’s home for a dinner party, along with some of Cramer’s friends. Cramer was loud, happy, boisterous, clinging to his perfect, newborn son with one arm and gripping a bottle of Coors Light in the other. His ease made John nauseous, and though he recognized his own sense of jealousy, it wasn’t accompanied by anger.
It’s like he didn’t even deploy, John thought.
Privately, Hannah cornered John and thanked him profusely. “I don’t know what you did but you did it,” she said, smiling and teary eyed. “He’s the same man that left. He’s in one piece, he’s still a good husband, and he’s a happy father.”
John shook his head and looked away, at the floor. “No. He, uh,” he said, looking up at Cramer, remembering his stumbling ineptitude, and almost total disregard for the unit’s training and standard operating procedures. Dumb, stupid luck, he thought, then said instead, “He did good. He’s a good a Marine. He knew how to take care of himself.”
“He told me,” Hannah said, “that every time things got hot, you were right there next to him. He called you his rabbit’s foot. As long as you were next to him, he knew he’d never get hurt.” She beamed at him.
John felt sick.
The battalion was notified of another deployment. John got promoted to corporal, and assigned as a squad leader. Cramer, Billings, and Gregg were still in the squad, with Billings picking up John’s old spot as team leader. John’s responsibility had tripled. He’d be watching over twelve lives instead of four. In addition to his old team, he now had Morgan, York, Martinez, and Dukes in second fire team, and Fraser, Trumbull, Yang, and Delano in third fire team. Some of the guys were hangers-on from the first pump, like John, but most of them were new joins, fresh from the school-house.
Every time he took his squad to the field to train, John felt a sense of vertigo. Leadership wasn’t natural to him, and he’d been given a team in the first place by virtue of being at the unit a couple of months longer than the other three guys below him. The squad, in turn, was given to him after the more senior NCO’s got orders someplace else or got out of the Corps when their contracts were up. He felt like an impostor. I barely scraped by with a team, he thought. How am I going to manage a whole squad? He ran the numbers in his head, came up with a loose approximation of an algorithm connecting time in service to an exponential increase in men under his charge. The thought made him dizzy, so he tried to discard it.
He was forced think about it again when the battalion was told where they’d be going: Sangin, in Helmand Province. “The deadliest place on earth,” his lieutenant had said. They were briefed on all the intelligence they could handle from the unit they were relieving, one of the hardest hit battalions in the war’s history: 19 dead, 63 wounded. Nearly a whole company made casualties.
Worse yet, some of the Marines were going to get pulled from each platoon to form an advisor team. They’d be embedded directly with counterparts in the Afghan National Army. “More likely to get shot in the back by your own Afghan soldier than shot in the face by an insurgent,” Billings muttered to John. “Count me out for that shit detail.”
John went back to the barracks after they got the news and drank himself to sleep. He awoke to a splitting headache, a dry tongue, and the incessant buzzing of his cell phone. He glanced at it, saw the incoming call: PFC Martinez.
John answered it, clearing his throat. “What the hell, Martinez! It’s late.”
“Is this Corporal Butler? John Butler?” A woman’s voice.
“Uh… yes, ma’am?” He said, his voice rising more in question than in answer.
“This is Julia Martinez. Miguel’s wife. PFC Martinez’s wife.”
“Oh, um. Okay. Is your husband alright?” He said, suddenly angry, but keeping his voice level. If she says he’s too sick to come into PT in the morning, I’m going to kick his door in and drag him here, he thought. I’m sick of married Marines hiding in their homes behind their wives. He looked around at his bare, sparse barracks room. He wanted to live off base. He felt a sudden and vicious desire for a home of his own, a wife who would hold him. The strength of this sudden desire made him want to weep.
“Miguel doesn’t know I’m calling,” she said. John’s ears burned. “He’d be mad if he found out. I know it’s not my business to interfere with… well, with his work life.”
John listened without responding, unsure of what to say. Julia hesitated, then continued.
“Miguel was worried when he came home today,” she said, her voice shaking a bit.
Oh, hell, John thought. “Oh, right. He must have told you where we’re going.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s not really what had him concerned.” She cleared her throat and struggled to get her voice under control. “He was worried about getting put on some Afghan team.”
“The advising team,” John said.
“Right, that,” she said. “He, well… he didn’t want to get taken out of his platoon. Out of his squad.”
“Okay,” John said, sighing. “That’s not entirely up to me. Frankly I don’t want to lose any of my guys.” He wanted to kick himself as soon as the words came out of his mouth. Phrasing, he thought.
“He just… he really doesn’t want to get taken away from you.” Her voice was shaking again. “He knows you’re experienced, a good leader. And you brought all your guys back last time. He heard some stories. He said it was like you made your guys dodge bullets.”
Fuck you, Cramer, he thought. “Believe me, I want every guy in my squad to stay with me.”
“I don’t know how it works, but I’m sure you can have some say in things,” Julia said. “Can you just… it’d mean a lot to me if you kept Miguel.”
John put his head in his hands.
“I’d feel safer if he was with you,” Julia prompted.
Goddammit, he thought.
“Okay,” he said.
“Because I know he’ll be safe, with you,” she said, her voice cracking.
John didn’t correct her. His shoulders slumped as if bearing a cold weight.
And one after another, the rest of the wives and girlfriends found John out, and extracted, in one form or another, an agreement from John to serve as ward, guardian, or good luck charm.
In line at the Commissary, where Morgan’s new bride had picked up work as a cashier: “I just couldn’t bear it if something happened to him,” she said, wiping away a tear and ruined mascara as she rang him up. “You’ll take care of him. Hannah said you’re good for it. You’re lucky.”
At a static weapons display during Jane Wayne Day, where York’s pregnant girlfriend broke down hysterically after handling a squad automatic weapon: “He’s all I’ve got,” she said, bawling, as a mortified York tried to comfort her, while John stepped in close to block her from onlookers and afford her some semblance of privacy. “You’ll bring him home. Won’t you? You’ll bring him home?”
And one last time, full circle now, John thought, standing by the busses, waiting to load up for the trip to March Air Force base, with John’s guts bubbling with anxiety, the looming dread of the long, idle patrols punctuated by the mauling teeth of bullets and bombs under the gaunt, voracious gaze of that dark, storied valley, Sangin, ‘the deadliest place on earth.’
As Cramer sat on his pack, bouncing his one year old boy on his knee and making goofy faces, as though he didn’t have a single worry, as though he wasn’t about to be thrust, again, into the gnashing teeth of Helmand province, Hannah managed to corner John once more.
“I don’t mean to ask again,” she said, biting her lip. “I know it’s selfish. I know the other girls asked the same.” She sobbed once. “But I don’t care what they asked for. We’re just so happy now. We’ve got plans. He’ll get out, after this. We’re going home. He’s going to use the GI Bill, and build a real life for us.”
The scene played itself out, in agonizing repetition, and John could only wait it out and taste the ash in his mouth.
“Promise me,” she whispered.
“Okay,” he said, and felt as though a rope had been cinched around his neck.
The battalion boarded the busses. As they drove away, John looked back out his window, at the women standing together, the wives and girlfriends, the better halves of his Marines. Their bodies wavered in the harsh, chill wind like dandelions. As they dwindled, John thought they looked first like little girls, and then like dolls, worry dolls he could hide under his pillow to take all his troubles away in the night. And then they looked like nothing at all.
Brian Kerg is an active duty Marine and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. His fiction has appeared in Line of Advance and his non-fiction has appeared in The Marine Corps Gazette.