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One Year

by Jesse Frewerd

This is just wonderful, absolutely wonderful, just hang on a little while longer, man. Can you believe they fucking extended us for another three months when we are already a year into this deployment? We were in Kuwait, for Christ’s sake; washing our trucks of the desert’s paint and just a couple days from going home. It’s the equivalent of being on the verge of climax only to find out it was just a dream, and you’re alone, on a shitty cot, in a room with ten other guys.… I would have just preferred the damn orders before we got to Kuwait. Extend us while we were still in Baghdad, not with every bag packed ready to go home.

I cannot believe I have been in this godforsaken desert for over a year already! Why anyone would choose to live here is beyond me. I mean, you do get used to the awfully dry heat, even in week-old sweat stained BDU’s (short for battle dress uniform). It’s funny because it is actually what most of us used as an indication when it was time to do the wash. I playfully think to myself in the best drill sergeant voice I can muster, “Alright, Privates, when you see the white lines forming on your uniform, it’s fucking time to wash them.” But you do get used to it, much like getting used to the sound of gunfire. Let me rephrase that. “Get used to it” is a pivotal axiom of the Army, and when I say get used to it, I actually mean endure it, and by endure it, I just mean survive.

The first two weeks in country you hear every shot go off. From the short iconic bursts of AK-47 fire, to the distant echoes of a pop shot taken a half mile away, our training assures we catch it all. Then much like the young child who binge plays their new video game into tedium, the enchanting captivation wears off and you only notice the sound when it is dangerously close to you or your platoon. It is similar to the way your brain chooses to ignore the sight of your nose; you see it always, or in this case hear it, but you just start to ignore it.

***

“Frewerd, get your shit on. We’re rolling in five minutes!” screams Sergeant Jefferson, pulling me away from my uneventful downtime spent daydreaming on my cot. It’s my best friend Hall’s and my favorite pastime; talking and daydreaming about all the cool shit we are going to do when we get back stateside. Extravagant two-week mountain excursions, maybe a huge Euro trip, traversing the entire globe, or maybe just sit on a beach though preferably in a much more mild climate.

“Yes, Sergeant!” comes my wry but assertive reply as I grudgingly start putting on my equipment to head out on tonight’s patrol.

Fake it, always fake it. Give loud, emphatic responses. It does show respect in twisted Army logic, but more importantly it keeps morale up. No one gives a shit about your complaints. Wouldn’t want to rain on anyone’s dry day desert parade, especially since no one wants to be here in the first place; it’s just better to keep the spiteful displeasure to yourself. Well, mainly to yourself. Luckily I still have Hall to keep me sane when I really do need to vent about something. Specifically about the ridiculously long night guards, compound patrols, and shit burning detail.

Speaking of burning shit, one of the things your mind tries to ignore here in Iraq is the intense smell of burning garbage. You see it everywhere on the patrols because unfortunately Iraq doesn’t have a standardized garbage pickup like we do in the states. Well not in the poor districts anyway; Saddam’s towering palaces of decadence probably had servants picking up single grains of sand with their bare hands. We wouldn’t want to scuff the spotless marble floors. Got to see a couple of them first hand, seriously puts any notions you have about the Hampton’s to shame. Extensive poolside oases decked out with lofty patio areas, beautifully placed palm trees, fully equipped bars and soaring high-dives. That’s not even mentioning the inside. Anyways, not here, the stench is awful and so is the defeated landscape. Rotting garbage piled on top of last week’s rotting decay fills your nostrils with the most downright horrible stench. It smells so bad it is even starting to invade our delightful “meals ready to eat,” or MREs in army nomenclature. They are essentially calories stuffed in a bag; there is little room left for any sort of taste. Would you care for the beef stew with the side of rotting bananas, or the spaghetti with the rotting milk for desert? Choices, so many choices.

But here I am, on another patrol, morale at an all-time low, pissed as hell, and about to internally explode. I even blew up at my company’s XO last week. Ok, so short story shorter, all my BDU’s were dirty, but I wasn’t supposed to go on patrol that day so I decided to wash them all. No dryers here in paradise. Fuck, they only need to sit in the sun for an hour before they are dry anyway. But sure as shit, I get called on patrol, while everything is soaking wet. A little exchange or words ensued, and I might have said something along the lines of “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT ME TO DO?” This happened a little while after we got word of the extension. All over something stupid and small, but the tension coupled with the extension orders was bringing me, among many others to a breaking point. It was completely uncharacteristic for me and I luckily just ended up doing 100 pushups for the outburst; like I give a fuck. I could do push-ups all day and still not be fazed, but when I of all people start to get angry, over stupid shit at that, it’s not a good sign at all.

I still don’t understand what the hell we are doing here in the first place! It’s not our job to police the damn planet. If Bin Laden is in Afghanistan, why the fuck are the majority of our troops here in Iraq? We found no weapons of mass destruction, and now they are having the US Army act as a “peaceful” occupying force to help institute a working government. Seems legit. I have my opinions, but I know better than to debate something I will never truly know the answer to anyway. I am just a Specialist: what do I know, right?

Now that we are toward the end of our deployment we rarely see anything anymore, unless there is a specific mission we are given, such as taking back a compound in Fallujah like we did a couple months ago. Had a nice little RPG fly about ten feet over my head while on night guard there. Well that and the mortar rounds we started taking fire from. I think one fell about twenty-five to fifty feet from us into this shitty little hut but didn’t go off, thank God. We certainly would have taken injuries from that, but the patrols are dead for the most part. The distinct clay houses are very quiet at night as the Iraqi civilians in this area are on a curfew starting at10:00 p.m. It’s hard to stay diligent in this environment. To be honest, we really didn’t need to most of the time. Regardless, I take a quick inventory of the surrounding rooftops. Nothing. Shifting my vision slightly right I look to the open field. Well it’s a field because there are no trees. The ground consists of mainly rocks and dirt, then some sparsely spaced patches of grass. And of course the garbage, but still I see nothing and it’s really quiet. Think I might catch a quick catnap.

***

The explosion completely shattered the windshield, peppering the glass with the intensity of the initial shock wave as well as the bomb’s harmful shrapnel, also lifting the Humvee about four feet off the ground. The IED’s powerfully persuasive flying pieces of metal completely shredded the tires and tore through the rest of the truck. Dust and debris blanketed the entire area; very disoriented, but Sergeant Jefferson and I were still calm. Well calm, as in the sense that we were not screaming but probably still very much in shock. Clinging to my 50-caliber machine gun (as the vehicle’s gunner) I started scanning the area as much as I… My ears are ringing, really fucking bad! I can hardly hear a thing!

           Johnson (our driver) steps out of the vehicle, the entire weight of the situation fell down on him like a hammer, beating his mind like a nail into pure anger and hatred; screaming obscenities and at the unknown and invisible assailants.

            “Johnson, get back in the vehicle!” screams Sergeant Jefferson, slapping us all back to the situation at hand. “We need to move now!” His confident command promptly pulling Johnson back into his driver seat.   Commanding the attention the situation required, and even while being somewhat deaf, his voice was what jerked us back to the present—we are in danger! Possible ambush?

            We slowly but purposely hobbled away on our wheels’ rims from the immediate area of danger. Stopping to scan the area around us, a couple minutes pass with everyone still on high alert, but we were starting to see no real threat left to deal with. They would have attacked by now if it was an ambush.

With composure slowly regaining its foothold, we soon starting questioning Iraqi civilians around the site where the bomb went off. According to the translator, they know nothing about a bomb, which is complete bullshit. You’re telling me there’s a huge bomb right next to your house, and you knew nothing about it? Bullshit!

Now I am starting to feel tired, even struggling to keep my eyes open while sitting down by the gun. I have to stand; my adrenaline is starting wearing off. The ominous reality of the situation is really starting to sink in as well. I decide to check myself one more time, looking for any injuries I might have missed on quick glance before. Nothing. Not a single scratch.

The surge of adrenaline did its job, and now that I’m back on base I realize I am tired as hell. I unzip the Velcro on my fifty-pound flak vest. I slide my arms out of it and stare at my armor in disbelief. It is equipped with two ammo pouches that hold three magazines each. Not much those would have helped today, but I’m also really debating putting back on the nut and throat guard to it. Where the hell did I put those again? There are also two Velcro slots for where you put heavy clay plates. They are held tightly in place inside the vest, except mine is still a little crooked from the last time I washed it and didn’t place all the padding back in the right place. It is these plates which give the vest most of its weight. Their sole purpose is to protect you from a straight on bullet, luckily I never had to put that to the test.

Making my way to my cot, it’s in a little room packed with fifteen other soldiers. Most are asleep since it is late at night. A couple men are up, I’m guessing because word of the IED started making its way back there. I didn’t care, I set the vest on the floor and my helmet on top of it. I pull the jacket of my battle dress uniform over my head, quickly untie and throw off my boots and sink into my cot. There’s no time for thoughts, no time to talk, I’m out in two.

***

What always got me was that we were all miraculously untouched. I mean other than being deaf for a couple days. Seriously, shrapnel cut through our entire truck. How the hell did not one of us get hit? I remember seeing one piece in the back of our truck; I think Johnson actually kept it as a souvenir, but anyways, it was about eight inches long and one inch wide. Thin, but still easily thick enough to do some pretty significant damage. It entered on the driver’s side, painting a pretty accurate silhouette on our vehicle’s exterior, then must have come within inches of chopping Johnson’s foot clean off. It then proceeded to ricochet under his seat until it somehow missed me on its prompt journey to the back of the HUMVEE. I was on the gun, a 50- caliber machine gun as I mentioned earlier. I still don’t know how it missed me to this day. Missed all of us. Fuck. One slightly different course of the metal’s trajectory and one of us is seriously injured, if not killed. I am not a mathematician, but I would say our odds of that ever happening like that again are pretty damn slim to none. Deaf for a couple of days, yeah, I can deal with that. But whoever was looking out for all of us that night, I’d like to thank him very much someday, but I’m sure they have already heard my prayers.

Jesse Frewerd has been published in Blue Nostalgia and the Woodland Patterns online blog. He is a Milwaukee native, US Army Veteran, MMA enthusiast, avid chess player, passionate musician, and developing poet and short story writer.  He now helps other Veterans at Dryhootch as the Site Manager/Peer Support Specialist, and Team RWB as the Veteran Engagement Director in the Milwaukee area.   

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