Once a week, when I was deployed in Baghdad, I spent my evenings alone, several hundred yards outside of a small American run Forward Operating Base (FOB) inside a much large Iraqi FOB. I spent my night in a small radio room to provide backup to the larger Iraqi Army tactical operations center (TOC) in case anything of significance was to happen in their sector and they needed 'coalition' support.
It was not actually my duty to support the Iraqi Army directly, but I lived on a small FOB. When it came time to ensuring everyone had an equal chance for the kind of duty that if and when it goes horribly wrong, the people back home wonder how on earth the Army could be so dumb to get a soldier killed or kidnapped, everyone from Staff Sergeant to Captain got a chance.
Around 2 a.m., the radios would begin to drift off to static silence and the Iraqis on duty would fall asleep at their desks. I would retreat into what was supposedly a secure room where our radios were, close and bar the door, put a stretcher onto the floor, and cover up with a poncho liner for a few hours of sleep until my world blew back up around 530 am.
I was not, at this point in my life, a cat person.
My second night on duty, I had just arranged my 6'8", 275 pound self onto the 6 foot stretcher, and my poncho liner on top of me, when I heard the quiet padding of little feet come into the room. Somehow, I had missed seeing exactly how my visitor had come in. I would find out later it was a small corner panel of wall in the room that was easily pushed aside by a four-legged creature weighing about 12 pounds. Thanks engineers!
I stood up, turned the light on and tried to shoo what turned out to be a cat, away. I offered him an opportunity to leave out the front door, but instead, he sat and stared at me. I decided I would put aside my distaste and allergy for the night and lay back down on the stretcher. Within seconds, the cat had jumped from his corner on the floor to the desk and directly onto my chest. He splayed out in record time and nearly simultaneously began to purr as loudly as the large Iraqi guard who gave me lamb kebabs and was generally asleep by 7 p.m. at his duty desk.
Despite the conditions and the isolation, as well as a horrible sneezing cough that persisted for about an hour after I woke up, those nights with that random, scarred and often scabbed cat on my chest, were the best nights of sleep I ever got in Baghdad. Could the cat have reasonably protected me if the al Qaeda or JAM hordes attacked? Certainly not, but for a couple of hours one night a week, I was secure, safe and loved with 12 pounds of mangy Baghdad kitty on top of me.
A couple of nights ago, nearly six years removed from the last time I saw that cat, I lost my shit. It was one of those fist clenching, body shaking, nausea inducing kinds of unspeakable rage that sometimes happens. I couldn't stand. I couldn't sit. I wanted to throw things through windows and watch things break and burn. I held my fists to my side, fingernails digging in deep and veins bulging on my forearms. I got myself down into a chair and tried to exhale.
Our cat, a rescue named Odin waited until I sat down. I was stupefied in anger as he reached up with a little paw to say hello, then jumped into my lap.
Moments before I was ready to flip the whole kitchen table out the front of the house and then a 12 pound fur ball hopped on up and got me calm. I went right back to Baghdad and a place of safety and warmth: sleeping underneath a mangy, scabby cat with no cares in the world between the two of us.
I am, at this point in my life, a cat person.