I had made that walk at least a hundred times before. The long and
arduous trek from the front gate back to our offices, humping fifty
pounds of body armor on my back with a heavy machine gun slung on my
side. The smell of sweat and dirt filled my nostrils as the Kevlar
collar pressed crooked up against my face. I walked with a
pseudo-limp because of the hot black steal barrel that always fell
uncomfortably up against my left calf. From afar I'm sure I looked
like a boy in a man's uniform, unfit and improperly sized for the
adult accoutrements with which I was adorned. I felt numb as I
usually did after a four hour watch in the heat of the day and,
although it was over and I was on my way back to the sanctuary of air
conditioning, the unpleasantness of it all still lingered.
Suddenly a wave of feeling ran over me and I stopped in my tracks.
No sound of alarm or internal worry gave reason for my halt but a pure
moment of existentialism washed over me and abruptly woke me from my
daze. I stood still for a second and stared up at the blazing sun
that I'm still sure to this day burns hotter there in F.O.B. Loyalty
than anywhere else in the world. I looked away and my vision was
filled with white fuzzy spots as my eyes scanned the ground around me.
The spots didn't seem out of place against the white and rocky earth
on which I stood. More so at that second than any of the months
before or the months that would follow I felt out of place; a
foreigner in a strange land without reason. I lost my identity for
only a moment and could see myself as others in ages past. I was sure
that other young men had stood near this exact spot and felt the same
way. They knew they were somewhere they didn't want to (and
rightfully shouldn't) be, because of reasons they couldn't understand.
I felt overwhelming pity for all living things both past and present.
I felt an anxiety for the future life forms that would stand in this
place and feel the way I did at that moment. For just a second I
forgot my conditioning, or rather this societal conditioning that has
taken many generations to cultivate failed me.
As I stood there, temporarily dumbfounded, a friendly helicopter sped
over me at a low enough altitude to blast me with air and a bit of
dust and debris. It wasn't a cooling relief as it felt more like a
giant hairdryer hovering above my head but it did awaken me from my
conscious slumber. I hunched back over and began moving forward again
like a dog pulling a sled, but my snow was sand and my sled was the
gear of war. My mind, however, continued to wander away, passing over
and analyzing what I had felt in that strange second. Perhaps it was
heat exhaustion or lack of food or lack of sleep or lack of any of the
other things that seemed to turn up short in my life during that time.
I got back to the office and plopped myself down in one of the cheap
leather chairs at the linguists' listening station. I sat for several
minutes just thinking or rather not thinking before a friend pointed
out that I was still wearing all my gear and hadn't off-loaded my
weapon. With a delayed response I told him that I thought I needed
some food, and so we headed out of the office and into the hall. I
traded my helmet and body armor for a soft-cap and uniform blouse. I
borrowed a sidearm from my commander so I didn't have to carry the
heavy on the walk to chow. We walked fast down the road and around
the corner toward the mess hall. My friend jokingly pointed out the
"pot holes" that covered the road.
"They are really letting these roads go to shit," he said.
I gave a laugh that sounded more like a sigh. I had heard it too many
times in the last few days -- the same joke about the craters from a
heavy shelling that our base in East Baghdad had been blessed with the
We brandished our IDs to the guard stationed at the outer perimeter
of the dining facility and continued to walk down the heavily
fortified corridor toward the actual entrance. At the washing station
(hand washing is mandatory), I cupped my hands together and let them
fill and overflow with the cold clean water. My face met my hands
half way, and I attempted to rub away the dirt and sweat and anything
else that still lingered on my face and in my mind. We grabbed some
fried food to-go and sat at a table near the exit chugging ice water
and sodas for a minute in preparation for the walk back to work. I
must have been staring off in a strange way because my friend asked me
if I was feeling all right. I hesitated to explain, unsure if I
wanted to open the Pandora's box that is the soldier's mind while away
at war. The genuine concern in his eyes got the best of me and so I
began to recount my walk back from guard shift that day. I tried to
convey the strangeness of that moment under the sun, stressing (and
possibly exaggerating) the meaning underneath it all. I could hear
myself going on and on and began to feel like a babbling patient on
the couch with a therapist. I wrapped up the story abruptly, feeling
a bit embarrassed and exposed by my gushing.
With a look of understanding, my friend nodded and looked away for a
second as if he was thinking of something similar, or at least
related, to what I had been saying.
"Lot's of weird stuff happens out here," he said. "I think it helps
to tell each other stories about it."
As we got up from the table and began heading back to the office, I
felt a strange sense of relief, a lightness. Not because I thought
that someone else understood what I had gone through, but perhaps
because someone else had listened and I had said it all aloud. The
walk back was less memorable and being received by the air
conditioning felt more natural. I traded in my sidearm for my heavy
and my soft cap for my helmet, but I left the body armor under the
desk. I wouldn't have that walk again until tomorrow.