By Matthew Burrell
Isom stood six foot two with arctic blue eyes. He carried seven point six two millimeter non regulation high caliber rounds. Regulation was five five six but regulation had a habit of pinholing ribcages without settling on vital organs.
It was why he carried an old M-1 rifle with a wood stock, steel sight and duct tape where the barrel met stock. Young soldiers would always stop him and say, “Whaddya gonna do with that, old sergeant?” Isom would smile and begin to tell them how Saudi sandstorms dropped visibility to zero and carbines did not jam like a M-16 did, but the soldiers always moved on, laughing and punching each other on the way to the dining facility on Eagle Base.
Bosnia was no place to learn how to navigate the battlefield, since all that was left of the conflict were the tens of thousands of unexploded mines and ordnance that mottled the roads and countryside, and the only learning you could do might get you dead. And the remnants of war killed as effectively as war itself, and complacency, twice as quick.
It was why they told you to stay frosty, keep that ice deep in you, for the colder your blood ran the less likely you’d slip. Bosnia was no desert, some winters so cold it was hard to keep the ice out of your veins. Long hours of doing nothing dulled the senses and loneliness veiled the mind.
Still, Isom understood Bosnia was where he belonged. Back in the world, the military bases were full of warm bloods, they littered the field with spent casings, candy wrappers and soda cans. He hated peacetime because of what it did to soldiers and because of what it did to him. His blood never ran all the way warm, but the static, easy routine of garrison life warmed it some and drinking warmed it some more. When the rotation to Bosnia came up, Isom decided that even peacekeeping was better than the rear.
It was January. Each day was darker than the last but the cold was staved off by the cloudless sky and an uncommon lack of precipitation. The base was located in the foothills of the Balkan countryside, nestled between pine crusted mountain tops and deep, white rivers. Light snow covered the roads and hills in patches that melted during the day and froze again at night. Last year, snow piled up six feet high and special tractor plows had to be brought in from Tuzla to clear it.
Isom found Calvert and Davenport near the vehicles in the grey of morning, smoking Cuban cigars they’d purchased at the Bosnian shop. Back in the States the Cubans would be illegal, but they were stationed at an international base, and due to the circumstances – boredom being chief among them – higher ups granted certain exceptions. Too many exceptions, if you asked Isom.
“What’d I tell y’all about that?” Isom drawled, spitting dark tobacco out the side of his mouth.
Davenport and Calvert stood before him, M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders, pimple smattered faces, chock full of bravado and contempt and the confidence of youth. They looked at him but said nothing.
“Don’t play stupid.” Isom walked over to the two hundred gallon drums of fuel and kicked one with his boot. “This here is enough fuel to take out an entire company. That is, of course, if someone were to light it. But that’d be pretty dumb.”
“Oh,” Calvert said, snubbing out the cigar he’d been smoking on the gravel. “Sorry, sergeant.”
“You ought to be sorry. The chewing kind might make a half-assed soldier of you yet.” Isom turned to Davenport. “What’s your sorryass excuse?”
Fresh out of infantry basic at Benning, Private Billy Davenport was stationed at Fort Stewart only a month before rotating to Bosnia with the rest of the 3rd Infantry Division.
“I ain’t got one, sergeant,” he said sheepishly.
Isom walked around the vehicle, looking under the wheels and axle. He stopped and opened the hood. The Humvee weighed almost two tons. It could maneuver any terrain, from mountain rocks to switchbacks, highways to riverbeds to rivers themselves. It was said that the driver of the vehicle would drown before the engine shut off. “You did a good job PMCS’ing this, Davenport,” Isom said, “I don’t want no more smoking in the motor pool. Only mouthbreathers smoke.”
“Yes, sergeant,” they said in unison.
Isom turned his attention from the vehicle to the equipment stacked on the hood. Two Kevlar helmets, several canteens, medical pressure bandages, three ammunition bandoliers.
“You soldiers got your combat load?”
“Two hundred and ten rounds, sergeant.”
Isom looked at them. “You best not be lying.”
Last night, Isom had seen Calvert and Davenport at the base enlisted club shooting pool. They were just a couple of teenagers displaced in war. Now in his late thirties, Isom understood; the Army was paradoxical. It needed youth, it destroyed youth.
But it was paradoxical in another way too. It gave boys who probably didn’t deserve second chances, second chances, and sometimes third, and fourth chances. He remembered the day he stood in a courtroom in front of the judge. Choices. You could go one way or you could go the other. Either way, there was no turning back.
Isom ordered the soldiers to get Riyad. They immediately began cursing under their breath. Davenport muttered about how Bosnians were always late and Calvert said something about the fact that Riyad rarely showered, thereby prolonging the security check at the gate.
“Don’t give me no shit,” Isom said. “Just do it.”
Riyad, the company interpreter, was in his forties, smoked thin European style cigarettes, and wore spectacles. He was at least three days without a shave. His uniform disheveled. The younger soldiers looked upon him with derision, as they would most civilians, but something about Riyad particularly set them off. He’d studied in America, for one. He was well paid, for another, it was said he earned as much as a Bosnian lawyer working for the US Army. Then there was that annoying limp, which was supposedly the result of being shot with a .22 caliber round from a sniper. Davenport and Calvert had complained to Isom on more than one occasion what they thought the limp really was – an excuse to get out of missions. But Isom remembered sniper fire and a time no so long ago, when fear was preceded by gunfire and shrapnel.
By ten in the morning, they were on the highways of the Balkan countryside. As the Humvee crossed from highway to mountain switchback, the signs of a war ravaged country stippled the small agrarian towns they drove through. There were places where not a single house stood intact — ghost towns, more or less, foundations of bricks and rocks where one could imagine buildings that once stood. Other places large piles of rubble outlined the fields and farmland. And still others seemed untouched by conflict. It was hard to pinpoint the indiscriminate nature of war.
Calvert drove and Davenport rode shotgun. Davenport stared out the window, watching the land tick by like a reel of film. Isom wondered what the land looked like to Davenport, who’d never left the state of Iowa. It was farmland, but instead of tractors people used ox drawn plows. They kept few livestock and even smaller barns. It must feel like traveling through an ancient civilization, Isom decided.
Isom turned to Calvert. “Heard you went to Captain Jack’s.”
Calvert pulled a smoke from his blouse pocket. “Got a light, sergeant?”
Reaching between the two of them, Isom passed forward a lighter.
“Is it true what they say?” Davenport asked.
“Depends on who you ask.”
Captain Jack’s was a whorehouse located in Budapest, Hungary. Rumors about the place ranged from under the table contracts to the Department of Defense outright owning it through a proxy company, ensuring the girls a clean bill of health and an environment in which inebriated soldiers wouldn’t get rolled. Isom knew there were but two certainties when it came to soldiers. One, any Joe worth his salt had an innate ability to find women and booze. Two, they will find women and booze. Perhaps serving women and booze on their terms was the lesser of two evils in the Department’s eyes.
“C’mon,” Davenport pleaded. “They got like a thousand whores there or what?”
Calvert cracked a sardonic grin. “I wouldn’t wanna give you a hard on. You might trip and stab yourself.”
They drove in silence for a few minutes. “Okay,” Calvert finally said, “what do you wanna know? It’s not like anything I tell you is going to give you an edge.” He looked at Davenport. “You won’t beat me.”
Calvert and Davenport were in habitual competition. All the dumb bells in the weight room had proved insufficient. They were in search of something epic. One day after finding the motorpool smoke deck devoid of soldiers, Calvert had an idea, and not just any idea, one that took competition to new heights, all while keeping that soldierly dictum – women, booze, porn. The first two were unattainable on Eagle Base, but not the third.
So Calvert and Davenport would find out, once and for all, who was the Masturbation King. After several weeks of ensuing competition, and the swelling of muscled forearms, they’d both done the motorpool, the laundry facilities, the chow hall, the gym, the post lounge, and barrack’s row. It was a war of attrition. And it was not without risk. While masturbation was an unwritten soldier’s creed, it was not viewed with that same ambivalence by the higher ups, nor the Uniform Code of Military Justice, with its strict policies under General Order No. 1 against fornication, including fornication with oneself. If caught they’d face UCMJ action for certain, but no more than a few weeks of extra duty, and garnished wages, nothing, really, when compared to the title of Masturbation King of Eagle Base.
“I was just thinking,” Calvert said. “You got duty in the Commander’s office once a week.”
“I do. But I don’t see what that has to do with Captain Jack’s.”
“Tell you what. You do a combat jerk in the commander’s latrine I’ll give you my pass to Budapest.”
Isom reached up and put his hand on Calvert’s shoulders. “I shouldn’t be hearing this.”
Calvert turned around. “Don’t worry, sergeant. He’s too much of a pussy to do it.”
“Fuck you,” Davenport said.
They passed a broken down car on the side of the road. The hood of the car, one of those small Eastern European two seaters, was propped up and smoke came from the engine. A man wearing a grey fleece waved frantically at them to stop.
“Should we help him, sergeant?”
Isom thought about it. “No,” he ordered, remembering the rules of insurgency differed from those of a conventional war. How many good soldiers had died trying to do the decent thing? Too many to count.
“Keep driving,” he ordered.
Isom had seen good soldiers die of stupidity. Way back when he was a buck sergeant, after their Bradley Armored Carrier passed the 27th parallel in Saudi Arabia, a Private named Stewart stood up without his grenade pin. They called it Rambo’ing the grenades, which meant removing the first safety mechanism – the pins – in order to throw the grenades Hollywood quick. It also meant the grenade’s second safety mechanism – the grenade clip – was likely to peel off when it caught on something. In Stewart’s case his cartridge belt.
Afterwards, while they waited for the medevac to arrive, Isom wondered how he’d been so lucky. A fragmentation grenade would’ve surely killed every soldier in the vehicle. But Stewart had Rambo’ed his smoke grenades, not his frags. So when the clip peeled off, one thousand degrees of incendiary smoke scorched Stewart’s face, while the other soldiers dropped to the floor, avoiding the heat and coming out of the incident relatively unharmed. Two weeks later, Stewart died on a hospital bed in Ramstein Air Force Base from third degree burns covering most of his upper body. It was the first soldier Isom had served with that had been killed. Officially, Stewart was documented as KIA – Killed In Action. But Isom and the others knew the truth. Stewart didn’t die from the grenade or his burns. He died from stupidity.
Isom felt no pity for Stewart. It was the kind of immutable stupidity, the kind there’s no forgiving from because you’re dead. Over the years, he’d see it play out over and over again, as soldiers died from accidental discharges, helo crashes in perfect weather, being run over by tanks during training exercises, killed by tripping on their bayonets. Isom had seen it all, but Stewart getting killed was different, because he had been a competent soldier, a cold blood. If even a cold blood could make a mistake like that it could happen to anyone. One mistake, yes, and you end up dead. But Stewart’s death also set forth a resolve within Isom. For as long as he was a non-commissioned officer, Isom would do everything in his power to ensure his soldiers never did anything stupid enough to warrant death.
They arrived in Tuzla around noon. There was a mist that shrouded the city and killed off visibility after a few hundred feet. Buildings sprouted up from the mist from seemingly nowhere, only to disappear again in the clouded haze. As they got closer, Isom saw that many of the buildings had suffered structural damage from artillery or mortar attacks. Rockets had carved ornate fissures in the concrete. There were corners of foundations crushed and pulverized. Some of the buildings had entire floors blown out, and remnants of destroyed office equipment occupied the empty space.
Still, despite the damage, the Tuzlans went about their daily business as if nothing were amiss. Office workers worked in windowless buildings and trucks of sat outside loading docks awaiting to be loaded or else relieved of their contents. There were few cars on the streets, but they passed men riding bicycles or walking donkeys with regularity.
“Welcome to Tuzla,” said Riyad.
Calvert turned the vehicle down one of the side streets and parked it next to a grey concrete building with no windows. He’d only been downtown once before, this being an unfamiliar environment for Davenport and Calvert.
“Should I park here, sergeant?” he asked uneasily.
Isom looked around.
“What do you see, soldier?”
Calvert followed Isom’s line of sight. They were off the main street by a few hundred feet on a frontage road. The road narrowed further down then ended. He stared at the concrete wall of the building that sprouted up at the end of the road. There was no way getting around that.
Isom nodded. Calvert pulled the vehicle around and they parked on the cobblestone main street near one of the office buildings. They unloaded their gear from the back of the Humvee, strapping on load bearing equipment and shoving extra magazines in ammo pouches. They were armed with M-16 rifles, two hundred and ten high caliber rounds, and Cuban cigars. Calvert doubled back for packs of Meal Ready to Eats and stuffed them in his ruck sack.
The roads in the center of Tuzla were cobblestone. Calvert and Davenport walked behind Riyad, scowling at the young children who ran up and asked for money and food. The strip was a maze of retail and clothing stores and people standing out front selling fruit, clothes, CDs and DVDs under a white awning held in place by wood poles. Bosnian children chased each other through the market and feral dogs lurked in the periphery. They walked past a large cement block building with hip hop music blaring from within.
“Hey Riyad,” Calvert called. “Let’s stop in here.”
They walked into the basement shop, marveling at the massive amount of crates full of CDs, DVDs, records and VHS tapes. The shop had no doors or windows. It didn’t even have a cash register. Everything was thrown together in a slapdash manner, as though someone erected a store in the quickest fashion possible, and could disassemble it in a matter of minutes too. An old woman with a row missing teeth tended the store, squinting her eyes and watching the soldiers as they browsed the CDs.
“Check this shit out,” Davenport said, picking one up and showing it to Calvert. “Jay-Z.”
“Fuck that gangster rap,” Calvert said, and pulled out a knock off AC/DC CD.
Riyad looked at some of the movies. He took out a cigarette and lit it in the store. There was something unpredictable about Calvert and Davenport that worried him. Soldiers worried him. Even American ones.
A ball bounced down the street and into the shop, followed closely by a group of young boys. It rolled down the steps into the shop. The group of boys came in shortly after the ball. When they saw the soldiers they stopped in their tracks. Then one of the boys made a run for the ball, which was deftly hidden in one of the stalls near the woman who ran the shop. He snatched it and ran quickly out of the shop. The other boys followed.
“Sergeant Isom tells me you studied in America,” Davenport nudged Riyad, “college and shit.”
Riyad acknowledged him. “I studied history at Michigan State.”
“Why’d you come back Riyad?” Calvert asked.
Riyad put down the DVD he was looking at. “Excuse me?”
Calvert fanned his arms wide as if gesturing to the world. “I mean, you were in the States. You’d escaped this shit. So why’d you come back? Don’t make no sense at all.”
“It’s true I might die here,” said Riyad. “But my family was never able to leave so I came back to be with them.”
Isom watched the three of them banter and observed Davenport slip one of the CDs into his cargo pocket when the old woman wasn’t looking. When Davenport realized Isom had seen him he quickly started to make up an excuse.
“C’mon Sergeant, this is a war zone. Aren’t we soldiers entitled to something? Geneva Law, right?”
Isom gave Davenport one of his ‘don’t fuck with me’ stares. “Put it back,” he said.
Davenport grinned sheepishly and dropped the CD back into the bin. Isom walked over to Davenport and patted down his other cargo pocket. “Don’t fuck with me, soldier.”
Davenport took out a DVD he’d had in his other pocket and dropped that in the bin, too.
“You ain’t been on this earth long enough to take, Davenport.”
He slapped Davenport on the back of his Kevlar sending him stumbling out of the shop. “You ought to finish up too, Calvert. I best not catch you stealing nothing either.”
Stewart had decided to remove the pins from his grenades because he had a momentary lapse of concentration. The ice in his veins had thawed. There was no one around to tell him how sorry they were about how fucked up everything was. Isom understood that sometimes they gave you no choice. Unexploded ordnance could detonate at your feet. Or you’d step on a tripwire. Snipers. Mortars. An accidental discharge. There one minute, dead the next. Not dumb dead. Just dead. Isom often thought of the scenarios that kill soldiers, but as much as he thought of soldiers killed, he thought about what happened to Stewart. Truth was, dying was avoidable most of the time. Even in war. You simply had to make the right choices. But how could you get young soldiers to make the right choices? How could you ensure their blood ran cold? You couldn’t force a soldier to do the right thing every time. There would be a time when they’d have to make the choice of their own volition and you hoped it would be the right one. That’s part of the reason Isom had taken Davenport and Calvert on mission today. It wasn’t his mission, nor was it the Army’s. It was Riyad who’d asked him to go to Tuzla. He hadn’t exactly explained why, but Isom trusted Riyad enough to take his word that it was important.
After spending a few hours wandering in the marketplace, and several dark European espressos, they’d made their way to the fountain that sat in the center of the marketplace. The fountain was cracked and dry. Riyad stopped at the fountain and sat. He peered into the depths of the dry well and squinted his eyes. Then he took out a coin and tossed it in. The coin bounced clanged around in the bottom before settling.
“I wouldn’t count on luck out here,” Calvert said. “It doesn’t even have water.”
“This fountain has been here for over three hundred years,” Riyad said.
Isom sat on the concrete next to Riyad. He propped his rifle up against his shoulder and leaned on it.
“Is this the place?” Isom asked.
“No,” Riyad said, and pointed to a hill that rose above the town. “There.”
Isom looked at his watch. “Only got a few more hours of light. Better get a move on.”
It was getting late in the afternoon and there was a chill in the air. The grass was white with frost and with each step they kicked up moisture and their boots shimmered in the fading daylight. Near a large oak tree without leaves, slanted on the hillside at a ninety degree angle, wood and stone markings stood in neat rows. There were perhaps two hundred such markings.
Riyad walked up to one of the stones and kneeled. He removed his cap and closed his eyes and rested his head on his knees. The others did not approach the gravesite.
“Who’s it supposed to be?” Davenport whispered to Isom.
“Give him a moment. He wants to tell you. He asked me to bring you here.”
“Fuck it,” Calvert said, lighting up a cigarette.
The grave’s dim and grainy stone lacked craftsmanship. It looked untended. No flowers. There was a film of dirt and rot in the carved letters, and moss crawling up the edges. It was as though the earth were consuming it slowly, inch by inch, letter by letter.
Riyad walked over to Calvert and Davenport.
“She’s my girlfriend,” he said, then corrected. “Was my girlfriend.”
Davenport walked to the grave and ran his fingers over the rough stone. The markings on the grave were in Bosnian. “What was her name?” he asked.
“Her name was Natasha,” Riyad said. “She was Bosnian but she was not a Muslim. Tall, with long blond hair that was more brown than blond, and long thin limbs. They said it happened on a Sunday. That was three years ago today.”
He paused, reaching down to pluck one of the flowers from the grass, a daffodil, and placed it at the base of the grave.
“She was killed in a mortar attack on the market,” he explained. “Two hundred and twelve people died, all told. It happened during the busiest hours and the mortar landed in the middle of the market. That was the first mortar. More followed.”
“Fucking Serbs?” Calvert asked.
“Yes, fucking Serbs,” Riyad said.
“War is fucked,” Davenport said.
Riyad looked out over the town below the hills that lay in a saddle of the two hills. It was the place where the mortar had landed, in open part of the marketplace where the fountain still stood, as it had for centuries, unscathed by war. Everyone else was buried on the hillside.
“I said I loved her,” Riyad said. “But I never told her that. I never got the chance.”
Isom looked off in the distance at the marketplace and wondered how they didn’t see the mortars being set up. The mortar team had to have a clear line of sight to the target, meaning they had to be set up somewhere close. He scanned the hilltop. There was only one tree on the hillside, and the oak tree was big enough for line of sight and cover. There would be three of them. One to gauge the wind and distance, another to load the mortars, and a third to hold the mortar plate steady.
Isom knew where’d he’d set up the mortar team. From right here, the gravesite. It offered cover, a clear line of sight, this in a country with hillsides and farmland and a perpetual fog that shrouded everything. The fog made sense to Isom. He’d seen the things men did and how men justified killing through ideology and how he’d been complicit in it. It was never easy to explain the things he’d done, which was why he kept silent most of the time.
Riyad stood up and put his hat back on, then limped back to the others. The limp was more noticeable than before. “Okay,” he said. “We can go now.”
For a long time no one spoke on the ride in to post. It had been a long day. Calvert stared straight ahead while he drove, as the farms, cars and donkeys blurred past. Isom looked like he always did, like he knew something the others did not. And Riyad sat beside him with his cap pulled low, the scruff of an unshaven beard whispering out.
Davenport lit a Camel Turkish Gold, finally breaking the silence, “you can keep the pass to Captain Jack’s,” he said. “I don’t want it anymore.”
Matthew Burrell was an Army journalist from 1998 – 2004, and served in Bosnia and Iraq. He recently received his MFA from Converse College and lives with his wife in Washington, DC. He is currently working on a novel involving his experiences from the early days of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.