|Jul/Aug 2019 Spotlight
Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman
Sergeant Gore was still running the show, months before the pressure in a spermatic vein began to build and throb—bad plumbing. Prockop had yet to take control, and Gore was still attempting to forge something resembling leadership in him. They were two of the three Marines in the MachineGuns section who remained from Echo Company's first deployment. Twenty Nine Palms, a Mojave Desert base often called "the stumps," scared off veterans still in the Corps having completed their contract without signing another. Once Marines turned into free agents, they usually stopped signing up for bitter ends.
Echo Company Marines' soldiering was rusty. Training at Fort Des Moines hadn't been sophisticated, and skill atrophied. At the start, before we'd lived for months in the Mojave Desert, we were soft. And although great for the civilian world, our bodies weren't conditioned to handle the stress yet. Heat trapped by looming walls turned the kill-house into a kiln. I lowered my chin to rest on my flak jacket's throat and tried to think of anything else.
"Hey, you! Marine!" one of the instructors shouted, pointing.
I'd squeezed my eyes shut a second too long, trying to stop the sting. The sounds of training—boots stomping, door frames shattering, rifles cracking—blew out his words, and the moment passed. Prockop turned to me.
"I wasn't sleeping."
"Keep quiet," Prockop said. "It's Fleet bullshit."
The Fleet differed greatly from the Reserves. Instead of living on a base, working for the Corps 24-7, Reservists juggled college, jobs, spouses, kids, and all the rest of real life. I got the impression active duty folks didn't feel the same way.
Prockop and I moved smoothly through the first room. It only had two dummies—nothing intricate. During our movement through the room, Prockop crossed in front of me, and I stopped shooting, starting again when he'd cleared my lane of fire.
"He crossed right in front of him," one of the instructors said. "He's going to get shot."
"Why would I shoot Prockop?" I asked. The instructors drifted away, not wanting to initiate an argument. I was glad because Prockop looked rattled, his lips pale and thin with no blood in his face.
The next room involved fragging and clearing. We chose each other to throw the grenade, and Prockop grudgingly took the role. So it was the same as before, except with the first-man fragging out.
Before I left Iowa for Colorado, I tried initiating the process to strike my name from the Des Moines VA clinic's rosters. Many facets of the VA functioned similarly enough to the military, I guessed procedures were in place for separation. During my last appointment, I decided there was no time like the present. But when I tried to process out with the administrative staff, they told me there were no such procedures, and I would simply transfer. Although I would've bet against it, I agreed and forgot about the entire thing.
The move to Denver went well; all of my scant few possessions, my car, my motorcycle, and my partner and her belongings, made it safely 1,000 miles west. Our apartment complex sported a small pool, marijuana had been legalized, and the summer was winding down without issue, save one thing: I had to become part of the Front Ranges VA system. The calls and emails from the Des Moines VA had only just begun.
The engine driving a Marine often has multiple cylinders. Many joined for the excellent health and dental insurance. Those with teeth viciously winnowed by meth repaired and replaced dental damaged from years of terrible life decisions. Some lusted after a hard life they romanticized and knew nothing about.
When Marines of my generation were kids, the Corps ran two recruiting ads on television. In the first, a Marine fought a lava monster and won, and in the second, the silent drill team stood on the peaks of a razorback jutting out of the ocean, tossing rifles back and forth to each other without looking. Both commercials featured a lot of ominous smoke and a color palette of mostly burnt umber. Fire. Many of the Corps' strange war words use it: hang fires, free fire zones, lanes of fire, fire for effect, rates of fire, enfilade fire, and fire from the defilade. When God spoke in the Bible of hungers which cannot be sated, he named fire among them. God hadn't created the Marine Corps then, and He didn't know how we hungered. Somehow, as we had become death, we had also become fire, and terror for the sake of screaming. I was no better than anyone—worse, even.
School Of Infantry instructors taught grenadier basics on a range designed expressly for that purpose. Nascent Marines lobbed blue bodied training grenades at mock bunkers. The human gaze only follows one thing at a time, so best practice was a dummy precursor to a fragmentation grenade; if possible, a flash-bang—a grenade using flash, noise, and concussion to disorient and incapacitate—was optimal. With a fuse of only a second and a half, a flash-bang would take the hands off of anyone attempting to play hot potato by tossing it back. The spent casings could be recharged and used again, or the shells could be used as decoys.
Throwing a frag isn't the same as lobbing a water balloon. The M67 fragmentation grenade—not a sphere, but oblong—bounces at wonky angles. It weighs 14 OZ, housing 6.5 OZ of Composition B explosive. The M67 uses the M213 pyrotechnic delay: the pull-ring pin is removed from the fuse assembly, the spoon flips off—unless held in place by fingers or thumb—and the striker ignites the fuse, which burns for four or five seconds.
There is one part of the modern grenade nomenclature the movies rarely, if ever, mention. The thumb clip safety holds the spoon to the grenade at about its equator and is considered a secondary safety to the pull-ring pin. Forgetting to remove the thumb clip wasn't uncommon during training. Marines were pilloried for this, as it rendered ranges inoperable for hours.
Prockop reared his arm back at me, and I tossed a glance behind at the LT. Stacked in a three-man entry team on the door, the only one of our little trio who didn't look nervous was the greenhorn, as new as our cumbersome flack jackets. Still stiff and restrictive, Prockop had to wing the grenade instead of lofting it underhand into the dirt, unable to find the range of motion he needed.
Ostensibly, the three man stack's steady glide into the room would be mid-step, but still safely tucked behind the wall next to the door, when the grenade detonated. The first man through the door after the explosion had maximum cover the shrapnel provided from enemies. Prockop would finish his step through the door and pick a corner to clear, and I'd clear in the other direction. Except something went wrong.
VA hospitals exercise regional authority, similar to the area of operations from back in Iraq. When a veteran moves, there is intake processing, an appointment I'd missed by failing to arrive 15 minutes before half-an-hour before my scheduled time. A half-hour would have sufficed back in Des Moines, but not in Denver. So I'd been rescheduled for Saturday morning—the VA wasn't open during weekends, and the Doctor who addressed me in the waiting room looked less than enthusiastic.
"Did they call you in on the weekend?" I asked, following her lead.
"Just for you."
We sat in silence while she logged onto a computer. She was much taller than me, and built like a linebacker with shoulder-length hair the color of wet sand. Either prior service or at the VA so long she acted like it. I didn't bother to learn her name, and after reading mine from the computer screen, she forgot it.
"Did they tell you that you have AIDS?" she asked.
I can't recall why we stopped at one of the hamlets dotting our road back to our Forward Operating Base (FOB). It could have been another braindead survey about everything from the attitudes of Iraqis in the village to the price of goods at the market. The house we visited was particularly hospitable to coalition forces, which kept us coming back. In Saqlawia's slums, no one would talk; men spat and sat sullenly while women locked gates and shuttered windows. Convincing people to converse for any length of time was more difficult by the day, as conditions continued to deteriorate.
I told the mother to fetch some chai. It was hot, and I didn't want to go back to the FOB to stand post in squat towers. I left the courtyard and walked out to my vehicle, but didn't get in. Instead, I stood looking at the fence that ran throughout the hamlet, as if for the first time. It was woven palm branches. A considerable amount of collective effort from the hamlet had erected an organic barrier taller than me. The idea to light it on fire came out of nowhere, or maybe it had been there all along. I flicked my Zippo open, the lingering taste of chai bitter in my mouth around a cigarette.
Prockop began a crouched backward walk right into me. The LT grabbed Prockop by his flack jacket's collar and pulled. I moved past the doorway, unable to see inside, as the LT pushed Prockop down into a crouching position. Prockop looked sorry and panic-stricken, as if nearly remembering the words necessary to call back a lover just as they slip away.
I continued a few meters down the hall to a T. For a moment I considered leaving them behind. The LT crouched over Prockop, thin arms enveloping the larger enlisted man's body. He locked eyes with Prockop, who buried the pallor of his face against the LT's body armor—the LT's placid expression never broke.
"Is that a joke?" I asked.
If I had AIDS, my girlfriend did, too, and her insurance wasn't enough to save her. The VA would treat me, or at least make an attempt—I wasn't hopeful.
"Your HIV status is censored," she swiveled the monitor so I could see. "I don't have access. For whatever reason."
My eyes followed her finger to a blur, and my boiling indignation simmered to cold terror. We decided a full battery of tests be run—six vials of blood-work. Feeling my fallow flesh, I was suddenly aware of every itch and ache.
"Do you usually look this tired?" the Doctor asked.
"I don't usually wake up this early on a Saturday," I said.
"Who does," she said without asking.
"What're you doing."
Decker's voice surprised me.
"Did you get any chai?" I asked.
"I hate chai," Decker said. "Why are you always asking them for chai?"
"I guess because it makes it seem normal if—"
"What are you thinking about doing?"
I glanced at Ulrich in a nearby Humvee turret, who swiveled around to give us privacy.
"Lighting this thing on fire," I said.
"Why would you want to do that?" he asked, knowing there didn't need to be a reason.
"What?" I asked. "You're going to tell on me?"
"Do you really think they won't know who started the fire?"
"I'll tell them I flicked a cigare—"
"Negative," Decker said. "I'm ordering you not to start the fire."
I hesitated, Zippo hand hovering.
"I'll report you," he said. "I'm serious."
"Fine. Have it your way." I flipped the Zippo closed. "But all these little fuckers are dead as soon as we leave Iraq, and you know it."
Decker didn't flinch. A veteran of Echo Company's first deployment, he was no fool.
"There's nothing we can do."
Half-crouched where the hall T'd, I would have gone prone, face down in the dirt with the top of my Kevlar helmet facing the blast, once I had visual confirmation. But the grenade stopped just inside the threshold's edge; a quarter-inch closer and it would have struck the door jam and rebounded back to the room's center.
I didn't believe I had AIDS, but without proof, my gut instinct turned to anxiety. There was also the third person in my girlfriend's and my sometimes menage a trois. She was promiscuous, but the sort of person who neurotically screened for STIs, so much so that one of her doctors started to refuse. HIV could present a false negative on STI screens, making a negative screen only an idea of what could be. The more I thought about it, the more time I spent thinking about it, the more it became a plausible thought. The minutes turned to hours turned to days turned to weeks. I received a clean bill of health a month later and celebrated during quiet moments by myself.
Weeks later, Hulette didn't have an NCO there to stop him. Assaultmen have carried the flamethrower into battle for the Corps, and this role extended into the Iraqi theater when Echo torched a market due to insurgent activity by order of the battalion. That was years before Hulette was even eligible to join the Corps; I'll never know if he would have gotten it out of his system if he had gone on Echo's first deployment. Crawford, a tall man with tenor in his voice who was Assault's section leader wasn't having it. I'd just gotten back from a vehicle-mounted patrol, and walked around the back of the FOB by the porta-johns when I found them.
"Holy shit!" I exclaimed. "Why are you hazing Hulette?"
Hazing wasn't officially allowed in the Marine Corps, and neither was the way I spoke to Crawford, a Sergeant, as an equal. The Corps kept strict segregation between non-rates and non-commissioned officers in the enlisted ranks.
"I started a fire," Hulette said, from the pushup position.
"It started small, but got out of control," Crawford said.
"Did anyone get hurt?" I asked.
"We don't know," Crawford replied.
"I've thought about it," I said. "But didn't do it."
"Same here. I think most guys do," Crawford said, then laughed. "Hulette actually did it, though. What if the farmer reports us?"
"Thanks for checking in, Big Head," Hulette said to me, using my call sign.
Wishing him luck, I went up to the room I shared with eight other Marines with a lot on my mind. It could've been me down there, or in the brig charged with murder. A week later a squad from Third Platoon was flagged down by the farmer and the burned acres were reported to Third's squad, who told Crawford and no one else.
A beach ball-sized cough of dust flickered, warped, and spread to a standstill. The LT and Prockop were hunkered down together. I hadn't dropped to the ground, and now it was too late. Detonation ruckled the air, and as clear and crisp as it had all been, the storm of sand and soot was thick, but not like pitch. And so, death passed over.
After the LT unfurled himself from around Prockop, we headed outside to catch our breath. Prockop chain-smoked as Marines murmured about kill-house close calls.
"Thanks for sticking around back there," LT said.
"Figured you'd catch all the shrapnel," I replied.
We laughed. The Corps said death smiled at all men, but Marines smiled back. I wasn't sure. What rushed past us in the kill-house had all the humor of a hurricane. "It's the nature of the beast," Prockop said then, as he'd said before, and would say again.
"I loved that sound, leaving the wire," Sergeant Gore said. "Game time!"
We were walking out of the mock FOB the Combat Engineers had set up for us to play war games in during Mojave Viper. Gore usually hated everything about Marines and their Corps. Staff NCOs in Echo Company thought Gore turned peace-junkie; after the Company rotated back, he'd gone to college and become an accountant. Now he made 90 thousand dollars a year, and didn't take a pay cut by being away from his job as Marine on deployment—they paid the difference.
But Gore's deployment was not ours. He remained at Twenty Nine Palms to lead Echo's small platoon of Marines who were Temporarily Not Physically Qualified. The TNPQ Marines were waiting for evaluation. Marines couldn't be Not Physically Qualified and were administratively separated from the Marine Corps. This was called a medical separation, or med sep, and meant months, if not years, of standby.
But that wasn't all Hulette put to flame. When we rotated back to the real world, we were all disillusioned and disenfranchised, and it wasn't uncommon for Marines to deal with maladjustment with drinking and drugs. Unequipped to deal with issues, the Corps maintained its zero-tolerance policy for drugs.
As Reservists, we were drug tested once a year, and usually had a good idea when the tests would take place. The Corps used urinalysis to determine if drugs were present in a Marine. Hulette failed the first drug test when we got back. He didn't bother coming in next drill, and when Crawford called and asked him to come so he could be discharged due to the results of his drug screen, Hulette declined. The Corps never got its last ass-chewing, and Hulette never looked back.
Prockop's leadership inadequacy bloomed in Iraq, where we came close to the end of tolerance. After one dangerously run patrol, we huddled in the hall between rooms, and our wing of the FOB closed in on us. The lights cast shadows on our faces, blurring with the background of yellowing walls and half completed construction.
I said the time to act was now. We couldn't wait for someone to die for no reason, but what recourse was available to us? Two things were scarce in Iraq: justice, and second chances. Whatever we did, we had to do it for pride. In a war so wrongheaded, any attempt at doing the right thing was corrupted and doomed from the start.
"If he gets someone killed, stay out of my way. I'll run over to his Humvee and take care of him. We can say a sniper killed him or something. Out there, we can get away with anything."
When the day drew near for Echo Company to step on the buses that would start our journey to Iraq, Echo Company's Battalion Commander gave everyone a speech, which moved him.
"When your kids ask you where you're going, don't tell them you'll be back because you might not be. Don't make the last thing you say to them a lie," he said. "Tell them you're going to fight a dragon, and you don't know if you'll come back."
This stands in humble honesty in comparison to the flowery language politicians use about patriotism and sacrifice. No reasons and no lies, just grim words of braving what only exists inside the hearts of men. The construction of morality is especially telling when warped by fear. In nature, beings survive or perish. There may be cowardly matadors, but there are no cowardly bulls. Man alone can turn craven and crawl away from everything we hold dear.
In boot camp, Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant Stahl would laugh at recruits' notions of a fair fight.
"You boys don't want to fight unless it's fair?" Stahl said, voice starting normal and quickly rising to a yell. "The only fair fight is the one I just fucking won!"
Stahl had served in the invasion of Iraq and still talked about the men in his charge like a proud parent. But unlike most parents, Stahl would recount how the ones who didn't make it died with friends huddled around them as they screamed about the falling dark. That's how Marines learned from their fallen, by listening to out-to-pasture killers explain with quavering voices.
Been there, done that Marines didn't ever talk about hifalutin ideals. Marines died face down in the mud or on their backs bubbling blood, because that's what Marines did, and still do. Our wives and girlfriends cheated and left because life goes on without us. Marines never lose their sense of humor, because when death smiles, we smile back. Marines are called Devil Dogs because we never let go, and when we're crossed, there is hell to pay. No better friend, no worse enemy, and all we want to do is kill.
I've already forgotten the names of the Marines who didn't make it back with 2/24 Battalion. I'd seen them around a couple of times when the battalion's companies did shoots and hikes together. I can't tell you what they died for, or why we were in Iraq. If the dead are able to look back on life, I wonder if they ever regret leaving home to fight a dragon, and if we were inspired by the same commercials.