Me during my military service, around 2008.
Today I thought I’d share a war story with you.
One of the things every soldier dreads hearing are two words that will kill whatever you had planned for the evening–duty roster. Yes, even on deployment, the military has duty rosters. They’re one of those things that everyone hates, but without which the military couldn’t function to march down the street. Everyone comes up on the roster, no one escapes. This is a story about one of the nights my number came up.
Picture Iraq just after the initial invasion, when the Army had just started to dig in and take up residence. There was just enough internet for you to wait in line all day to gain access to it, just to have it take forever to load your email. There were no “wet” toilets–meaning anything with plumbing. There were wet showers, and there was a brand new DFAC–dining facility for my civilian friends–but we lived in community tents. It was high summer when this happened, so needless to say it was blazing hot in the daylight, but a pleasant swelter during the night. Iraq was a place in which you truly felt you had no escape from the elements.
I had been assigned the night shift for motor pool guard, which is where the Army keeps all of the tactical vehicles. That’s right–I had to guard the trucks. The guard station consisted of a metal folding chair, a makeshift fighting position which was basically a run-down piece of concrete just sitting in the sand, and a portable toilet. You had to show up in what was lovingly referred to as “full battle rattle”, which meant armored vest, helmet, and load bearing equipment. There you sat, alone through the night with nothing else to keep you company. Falling asleep was the greatest sin on guard duty, so each soldier was expected to do whatever was necessary to stay alert and awake.
Me being me, I decided to take a book along and a headlamp with a red light filter, so I could read a little while I sat there. A few weeks before guard duty I had been part of a detail that cleaned out a tent which had been run by the MWR (morale, welfare, and recreation) and it had been full of donated books. They were being shipped off to other bases, so I nabbed a few while I was there. Incidentally it’s where I found my first copy of Game of Thrones, but that’s another story. I grabbed whatever was on top of the pile when I left my tent, and discovered when I got there that I had grabbed the infamous Skeleton Crew by Stephen King.
Now, the desert is damnably dark on most nights. You can see the stars and the moon, but the landscape is washed out in black like some insidious movie trick. I made my rounds every hour and kept an eye out for trouble, but while I sat there waiting until it was time to bust open the MRE I had grabbed for midnight chow, I dove into that book.
I’m a fast reader, and before long I was halfway through it, huddled in that fighting position with a red headlamp and my full battle gear on, sweating in the desert heat. King has way of drawing you into a story that makes you feel like the monsters are huddled nearby waiting for you to notice them. The night was mostly silent, save for when helicopters came in and out of the base, which wasn’t frequent at night during that stage of the war.
There was more than one occasion that I was deep into one of the stories when I’d hear some out of place noise that would cause me to click off my headlamp and freeze, knowing full well that if someone was out there they may have already seen my headlamp. What a feeling, let me tell you. If you’ve never frozen in terror because of some perceived or imagined threat, then I guess it might be hard to imagine. All at once I was afraid that fighters might be creeping up on my position (I don’t know why they’d want to attack the motor pool, but fear isn’t rational) but also a little nervous that a toy monkey might be nearby banging his cymbals together to herald my untimely death.
Of course, nothing happened and the night went by uneventfully. Uneventfully, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that it was smooth. By the time the sun began to peek over the horizon I was relieved to see it. There were no fighters, no toy monkeys, no mist creeping up on my position. Even in more tense situations, I never felt that creeping fear the way I did that night.
So thanks, Stephen King. I’ve heard that the measure of a song is how much emotion it pulls out of you. If the measure of a story is the same, then hats off to you, sir.
Full disclosure: The picture is from a later deployment. This story took place a few years before the picture was taken.