A walk in the sun.
Patrol in force.
Give it any name you want; it all means the same thing. You form all your vehicles up into a line and drive outside the wire. When you're outside the perimeter, you drive around waiting for someone to shoot at you, or to try blowing your vehicle up. It's all really rather simple when you look at it like that.
You are the fish and your Humvee is the barrel.
We draw the lucky slot of being the lead vehicle in the convoy. Someone has to lead off, so, it might as well be us.
We posse up five deep in our Humvee and put our game faces on.
Cholo, sitting in the rear driver's side seat, chews bubble gum.
Granger, standing up in the gun turret babysitting the fifty caliber machine gun, listens to Johnny Cash on his iPod.
Jansen, who was just transferred into the squad three days ago because Thompson had to go home for his mother's funeral, sits in the rear passenger seat playing Tetris on his game boy.
Grand Master Flash sits behind the wheel chain smoking.
I sit passenger, starring out the window, daydreaming about how I'd like to die.
"Nigga, fuck Chesty Puller." Grand Master Flash belts out.
I shake the daydream from my head and turn to face Grand Master Flash. "I'm sorry, what?"
Grand Master Flash lights another cigarette and spits out the window in one smooth motion. "I said fuck Chesty fuckin Puller, and Audie Murphy and any other motherfucker who ever made being a Marine look so effortless and cool. They're the reason I joined the crotch and the reason I'm stuck here now."
"Audie Murphy was in the Army, G.M.F." I say. "Not the Marines."
Grand Master Flash blows smoke in my face. "Nigga, fuck you, too."
It's hot. We've been lined up in formation waiting for the convoy to leave the perimeter for over an hour. The waiting and the heat have gotten Grand Master Flash's blood up. He's pissed off and he wants everyone to know it.
"Aren't you just acting like the stereotypical big, black Marine?" I say.
Grand Master Flash laughs at me. "I'm sick of all this waiting." He says.
"The fuck you care? You still get the same pay grade if you drive or not."
"I just want to do something, man. I'm ready to get it on."
Cholo pipes up from the back seat. "Sounds like you're in a hurry to die."
I shift my feet, trying to get comfortable. We piled two layers of sandbags into the wheel wells of the Humvee to guard against IED shrapnel. With the loss of leg room it feels more like you're squatting in the seat instead of sitting. "Is that it?" I say. "You've got your dick all hard and now you're ready to go out and kill something?
Jansen pauses his game. He's not comfortable enough to say anything sarcastic in front of us yet. He just wants to listen.
Grand Master Flash flicks his butt out the window. "I'm not saying I'm ready to die. I'm just ready to move. We've been sitting here for an hour already."
I agree. "Fair enough."
Granger is grooving to Johnny Cash. He starts belting out lyrics at the top of his lungs. "The taste of love is sweet when hearts like ours meet. I fell for you like a child. Oh, but the fire went wild."
I punch him in the knee and tell him to shut up.
Silence settles over the Humvee like a fog.
My mind wanders back to the daydream. In the dream, I'm a hero. Human waves of kill crazy Hajji's rush the base intent on spilling American blood. I stand atop a bunker firing a saw from the hip while waving the American flag with my free hand. The smoke from a hundred fires obscures my vision, but I keep on firing belt after belt of ammo. My ammunition is a scythe and the enemy is a field of wheat. I am Audie Murphy. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. Chesty Puller ain't got shit on me.
Eventually, Captain Lazarow comes over the horn and gives the convoy permission to move out. Grand Master Flash starts the Humvee up and we head outside the wire, making a right turn onto the main road.
We grind our way through the slums of the city reminding the Hajji's what the blinding power of American sunshine looks like.
The whole place smells worse than an Eighties era underground punk rock club on Staten Island. Everything litters the streets: piss, shit, garbage and dead animals (you've got to be mindful of those, because the Hajji's will fill the carcass' with explosives), pretty much any form of human waste is scattered about everywhere.
A little girl, no more than twelve years old, makes the mistake of waving at us as we drive by her. A group of young boys from across the street descend on her and begin pummeling her with anything they can get their hands on. Fists, rocks, garbage; nothing is beyond their malice.
"They're killing that poor girl." Granger screams at me. From his vantage point in the gun turret he has the best view.
"That's not our business" I tell him.
"It fucking should be." He screams back.
"What do you want me to do?" I ask Granger. "Lob a grenade at them?"
I'm not feeling very humanitarian today. That little girl, no matter how hard she may be getting pummeled, does not have my sympathy. She made the mistake. That is why you don't see gang bangers in Compton wave at the LAPD.
We pass a gas station being guarded by some Army pukes. The gas costs approximately five cents a gallon. The line of cars, which look like they just drove off the set of the newest Road Warrior film, stretches around the block and out of sight. People are honking their horns and screaming while they beat their raised fists on the roofs of their cars.
One of the Army guys snaps off a crisp salute while he flips us off with the other hand. "Fuck all you cheese-dick Marines." The Army puke shouts. God Bless inter-service rivalry.
Cholo reaches into his ruck and pulls out a strip of firecrackers. He lights the fuse and throws them at the soldier's feet as we drive by. It's funny to us to watch the other Army guys hit the deck like someone just opened up on them with a Kalashnikov.
Cholo laughs as he once again reaches into his rucksack. This time, he pulls out of those big red Staples buttons and slams his first down on it.
"THAT WAS EASY!" The button screams out.
The convoy approaches a bridge.
Bridges are bad.
They create a bottleneck.
Hell, I'm usually afraid that Hajji is going to blow the bridge when my vehicle is halfway across. Grand Master Flash looks at the bridge and then at me.
"Bridge" he says while motioning towards it with his head.
"Yeah, G.M.F." I say. "It sure is."
Grand Master Flash lights another cigarette. "I fucking hate bridges."
I radio into Captain Lazarow to tell him the convoy is nearing the bridge. He comes back on the horn and orders the convoy to come to a halt before crossing. This seems like a great idea to me. Who doesn't want to bring their convoy to a full stop out in the middle of Indian country? I just love feeling vulnerable.
As Grand Master Flash eases on the breaks he looks over at me again. "We're stopping? You gotta be shitting me."
"The man says stop. We stop." I say.
Cholo shift in his seat. "I don't like it."
Jansen fidgets. He cracks his knuckles. "Me neither."
Before I can say anything Captain Lazarow comes back on the horn and orders one of the Stryker armored vehicles behind us to take the lead in the convoy. The Stryker pulls in front of us and begins to cross the bridge. Grand Master Flash follows him and we're on the move again.
"Crossing the bridge, boss" He says to no one in particular.
Crossing the bridge is hairy. The feeling of exposure and helplessness you feel is indescribable. One good I.E.D. and all the architecture you've put your trust in can come crumbling down around you. You can not out drive a crumbling bridge. There is no fighting that. There is only dying. And, it would not be a good death. It would not be an honorable death. You can't take the enemy to hell with you when he shoots the road out from underneath you.
The convoy crosses the bridge without incident.
We drive through another neighborhood composed of two and three story buildings. This one is even worse than the last. It is just as dirty and smelly, but eerily devoid of human life; As if they Hajji's know to stay away from here.
We pass and old Iraqi man standing alone on a street corner watching us. As we pass him, he looks directly at me and slides his hand across his throat.
The road narrows.
Our maneuverability is severely restricted because there are steep curves and ditches on both sides of the road. Jansen leans forward in his seat and talks into my ear.
"This is where we've been hit before" he says.
He might as well have hit Cholo's easy button because that is how quickly the attack begins.
The Stryker in front of us hits an I.E.D and explodes into a brilliant ball of smoke and fire that pelts the front of our Humvee with a steel rain of shrapnel.
Grand Master Flash slams on the breaks. "Fuck." He screams.
Everything is silent.
Time stands still.
Suddenly, I'm back in my day dream; standing atop a bunker firing belt after belt of ammunition at the human waves of enemy soldiers as they overrun our base. My ammo runs out. The gun dry fires. The waves over take me. A Hajji cuts my heart out with a dull knife. He takes a bite of it as he watches my eyes glaze over. I die. "Allahu Akbar" he says as he wipes my blood off his chin with the American Flag.
I blink my eyes and I'm back in the real world just in time to see an RPG streak by the front of the Humvee and explode in the ditch off to the driver's side.
Insurgents appear from everywhere all at once. They're firing from every direction. Some even throw Molotov cocktails from rooftops.
Granger cuts loose with Ma Deuce and they start singing a one note opera. It is the most beautiful song I've ever heard.
Cholo fires a round from his 203. It flies through a second story window and explodes, literally, with a vengeance.
The radio is a mess of traffic.
Everyone is screaming at everyone trying to figure out what is going on.
The Stryker is blocking the road. It burns like a funeral pyre.
"Go" I scream at Grand Master Flash.
Grand Mater Flash steps on the gas and tries ramming his way around the Stryker. The Humvee ends up stuck halfway in the ditch beside the burning Stryker.
What should I do?
I take a breath and try to get my bearings. I'm scared. Today is not the day. I do not want to die. None of us do. It is not the end of the world as I know it. I feel fine.
"We're stuck" I say calmly into the radio.
The response that comes back is anything but calm. Someone, somewhere down the line, tells us that we had best un-fuck ourselves in a hurry because the rest of the convoy is also getting hit.
Granger spins around in the turret, firing in a smooth semi-circle. He is an angel; praying for death, as he watches over us.
Grand Master Flash hits the gas again and the tires of the Humvee bite dirt. We inch forward for a second until the Humvee gets full traction and we take off like a man with diarrhea in a hurry to get to the toilet. We blow past the burning Stryker and on to the clear road. Another RPG streaks past us and explodes on my side. A Molotov cocktail explodes on the back of the Humvee and the slant-back catches fire.
Granger stops firing his weapon and puts the fire out with an extinguisher.
Reverting to his native tongue, Cholo looses his cool. "Le odio los motherfuckers Del Hajji." He screams as he slams his fist down on his ruck setting off his staples button in the process.
"THAT WAS EASY!" the button screams out.
Post-ambush conversation. We stand around the burned Humvee in a loose circle smoking and sharing our versions of the story. Everyone talks about how John Wayne they were. It might as well be post-ambush show and tell because we're having what amounts to a glorified bullshit session.
Jansen tells us about how he was part of another convoy who got hit in the same place weeks ago. "It was a fuckin' blood bath." He says. "Seven guys died and we lost two Humvee's and a Stryker."
"Did everyone in your vehicle make out okay?" I ask.
Jansen tells me that, yes, everyone in his truck survived. I tell him that I now consider him a good luck charm because he's been through two attacks in a row and come out unscathed. Jansen blushes and tells me that's not true.
On the inside, I'm mad at myself. I never fired my weapon, and it makes me feel somewhat inadequate. What kind of Marine am I? Chesty Puller, wherever you are, I apologize. I am not worthy of your lineage.
I commend everyone on doing a good job and keeping a level head. Especially Granger, who, in my opinion, really saved our asses from the sling by being Johnny on the spot with the fifty cal.
Granger bums a cigarette from Grand Master Flash and smokes it like James Dean. He's enjoying being the talk of the squad. Who doesn't want to be hero for a day?
"It was fucking hairy up there." He says.
"Yeah?" Cholo asks.
"Yeah" Granger says. "I thought we were going to visit the big PX in the sky."
We talk endlessly about the ambush while smoking cigarettes. A war story is born. Our voices are harsh from living hero fantasies. As near as we can collectively figure our entire time in the zone was maybe forty-five seconds to a minute. It seemed like hours, but, in reality, it was over in the blink of an eye.
"I thought I was going to roll this bitch on its side." Grand Master Flash says as he kicks the Humvee.
Cholo slaps Grand Master Flash on the back and tells him that he did some damned good driving.
G.M.F tells us he learned how to drive like that doing drive-by's in Compton. We all know this is a lie. He is from Tennessee. He couldn't point Compton out on a map of LA if you were going to give him a hundred dollars as a prize for doing it correctly.
The crest of our self-congratulatory wave comes when a soldier approaches us from another Humvee that has just returned to base.
The soldier looks like one stone cold punk rocker. He has the words Social Distortion spelled out on his Kevlar in hundred mile an hour tape. This is the first graffiti I've seen on a uniform since I've been in sand country.
"You guys the ones who were behind the Stryker that got hit?" he asks.
I nod my head. "Yes"
He introduces himself as Rob and says he's from the explosive ordinance division. No wonder he gets away with writing shit on his uniform. Everyone knows those EOD guys are bat shit crazy.
Rob tells us about when a recovery crew was sent to tow back the burned out Stryker that one of the soldiers on the team noticed another I.E.D half buried in the ground next to the vehicle.
"They called us out to blow the charge in place, but I took one look at it and knew the thing was useless." He says. "The thing was shattered into million little pieces."
"I wonder how that happened?" I ask.
"My best guess is that you guys drove over it when you were stuck in the ditch. Looks like your tire gut hung up on top of it and spun the fucker into pieces."
"No shit." Grand Master Flash says.
"No shit." Rob grins. "You want to hear the cool part?"
The whole squad is hanging on his every word.
"What's that?" I say.
"I think they tried to blow it up when you guys were stuck on it." Rob says.
Jansen whistles. "Wow."
"Check this out" Rob says as he pulls something from the pocket of his Kevlar.
He hands it to Jansen who examines the item.
It's a Nokia cell phone. One of those cheap prepaid throw away jobs. The kind the insurgents use as detonating devices on I.E.Ds. The phone is falling apart. The casing is cracked as well as the screen. It is still powered on. The screen says one missed call on it.
"My guess is that either they didn't wire it up right. Or, you guys severed the connection when you drove over it. Either way, they tried calling that thing in to set the charge off."
I'm a bit flabbergasted. "That's a good one, huh?" I say.
"You're damned right." Rob says. "If that fucker had gone off while you guys were under it, you wouldn't be here right now."
The whole squad gets that feeling like someone just walked over their grave. This must be what it feels like when a condemned murderer who is strapped into the chair gets a stay of execution. In a way it is liberating. We feel like untouchable gods who can walk through the valley of death and come out on the other side whistling a tune.
Grand Master Flash sums up all our feelings.
"I'm just glad the little bastard didn't leave a voicemail." He says.
I awaken later that night drenched in sweat.
I've been dreaming bad dreams.
I'm back in the Humvee; stuck in the ditch, again.
This time I can hear the cheesy Nokia ring tone coming from underneath the Humvee as Grand Master Flash floors the gas pedal trying to get traction.
I sit up in bed and look around the darkened room. Grand Master Flash is still asleep. I get out of bed and steal one of his cigarettes. Going outside, I sit on the steps of our trailer and smoke.
My mind wanders.
I think about the heroes of the Marine Corps. Was Chesty Puller ever afraid? Was he ever taking cover in a shell crater on Peleliu when a Japanese stick grenade landed next to him that turned out to be a dud? Did David Hackworth ever encounter a crazed North Vietnamese soldier who turned out to have an empty clip in his AK-47?
Is it okay to be a Marine and be afraid? Is that a contradiction? Are we not trained to be fearless in the face of death? How can you suppress a basic human emotion, like fright, when you're in a situation as hairy as the one I was in earlier today?
My mind weighs heavy as I smoke the cigarette down to the filter.
Flicking the butt out into the darkness I decide that it is not a contradiction to be a Marine and be afraid. In fact, it is what defines us. Marines are always afraid.
We do scary shit.
That's our job.
The thing that makes us extraordinary is that we act out in spite of our fear.
We rush the machine gun nests on Tarawa. We hold the base at Khe Sahn despite overwhelming odds. We hold the line at the frozen Chosin. We blow the tunnels at Cu Chi. We raise the flag on Suribachi. We go on patrol in Iraq.
We are afraid constantly.
Fear is what helps us hold onto our humanity.
Without it, we would be lost. The dark side would overcome what Abraham Lincoln once called the better angels of our nature.
"Goodnight Chesty Puller, wherever you are." I say to the darkness as I go back inside the trailer to try and get some sleep.