It was cold. Desert cold. Probably in the low 70’s, but after a day near 100 in the shade, it was cold. Some wore their uniform to the shower, some went in PT’s. Almost all went wearing flip-flops.
There is no light (light discipline, don’t you know?). You cannot see. You’ve been this route so many times before you could do it with your eyes closed, so it doesn’t really matter. Your body is on auto-pilot anyway, counting the steps without you, and then up the stairs of the trailer (you’re lucky; on this FOB you have a trailer). Your arm reaches up, your hand turns the knob and FLASH! You’re blinded by the light.
The trailer is air conditioned. You freeze. Shivering, you wait for the water to warm up. It never does. You suck it up, quickly poking in, and then out of the water. You soap up. Liquid ice rinses you off . . . until: “Hey, that’s not cold.” “Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!!!!!”
The scalded parts of your body are red. As you stumble out of the trailer, and the door self-closes behind you, you almost fall down the stairs because now you are completely blind. The large gravel hurts under your flimsy .99 cent PX flip-flops. The siren goes off. You run to the bunker, losing a flip-flop on the way. Now the gravel REALLY hurts.
The mortars fly in. One here. One there. You feel the WHOOSH of the concussion, and the sound is right next to you, but it could be a mile away. You’re either dead, or you’re not. You remember your first “incoming” in-country. You waited for the all-clear. And you waited. Until it occurred to you that there was no such thing as “all clear” in-country. It’s never safe.
You make it back to your hooch. Fall into your bed (you have a BED, not a cot in a tent, like you had for six months out THERE). It’s so soft. Your head hits your pillow, or does it?
Your mind wanders. Instantly you are alone, in a space craft, small as an Indy car, tight, but cozy. You’re warm now, and it’s dark, but you see the stars through your canopy, some rushing by, some so far away they look still, very still. You focus on one, one far away, and it’s blue, and green, and white.
You are getting sleepy in your dream.
You feel a warm tingle, an excitement almost. You know . . . you are going home. And you weep. You weep as only you can when you’re alone, and feeling alone, amidst a billion stars.
As you remember having set the auto-pilot, cryogenics takes over. You feel safe, and warm, and good. Home. You’re going home.
“Who said that?” You whisper a scream. You keep your eyes closed, because you know if you open them, well, it won’t be good.
“Captain!” The drill sergeant-like voice roars.
You know who said it now. And you still don’t want to open your eyes.
The fist of the drill sergeant-like voice is now pounding on the door of your hooch.
You know they know you know.
“Damn!” What did I forget now?
“Mail.” The voice is sane now.
You fly out of bed, open the door and snatch the letter. “Letter?” It’s smooth. It’s cool. The blast of heat from outside says it’s nearly midday. You slept. You slept hard, for the first time since . . . .
You don’t have to read the return address. The smell tells you who it is and you just sniff it. The envelope flies off the folded page inside, and there it is: Cursive, perfect, writing. Curled and curved beautifully; and slanted just so. The words don’t even matter. You crumble around it, pressing it to your nose and face, letting it become part of you, tears staining the page.
“I Love You,” it said. “I Love You,” you say.
It’s so hot it hurts to hold your 16. You hate wearing the Nomex gloves because, well, damnit, because it’s just too damn suffocating is all. If you’re not in a fire-fight . . . you’re not in a fire-fight. You’re back on the FOB, how long now, weeks? Out THERE.
You have to take a convoy in to Anaconda to coordinate some psych services for the boys who saw their buddy die yesterday. You need a ”Team” or a member of a team. You could do it yourself, but you know you’re not a professional at it. But you could do it. Sit there, looking at them looking at you. Blank stares, but stares full of . . . full of a lifetime, or at least a life. A life taken, snatched; kidnapped under fire, under explosion, under blood.
The trip takes four weeks, or an hour, or somewhere in between. It doesn’t matter because you’re there now.
You walk around aimlessly, but find who you’re looking for. Tell them what you need to tell them, and then walk into the MWR. It has the feel of a renovated airplane hangar. The inner room is a theater, pitch as a moonless night. Outside the room, sit/lay grunts. They are dusty, dirty, sweaty. They are toast, from the toaster of the bright orange heat tab in the sky. You know that “tired.” You have been that tired. You are that tired. You go into the theater and seek refuge. You seek protection.
It is pitch as a moonless night. Quiet as a mouse, except for the voices coming from the screen, and the soft gentle chorus of snores. There are no seats left, and everyone is . . . asleep.