After the battle subsided we packed up and left. The smells of that place became the only smells in Iraq to me. Diesel fuel, gun oil, burning tires, shit, piss, death. The smells soured my clothes and skin and I couldn’t wash them out.
About fifty of us convoyed back from that Heart of Darkness to the rear where all the pogues and wall charts were. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but there wasn’t much to look forward to those days. I sure as fuck didn’t want to stay in that city an hour longer, but out there at least I had some autonomy. Some purpose. A mission. When my CO would start giving me bullshit directives from the rear, it was simple enough to pretend the radio wasn’t working.
“Say again your last, over … Have you broken and unreadable, over … Nothing heard, over.”
The radio usually wasn’t working, so it wasn’t much of a stretch.
At one point he had ordered me to detach from the grunts and pull the team out of city, which would have been suicide. I couldn’t have pulled us out of there if I wanted to. Maybe with a lot of luck and perfect timing we could have pulled it off, six guys in two Humvees playing Escape from New York in a city of a million people who all wanted to kill you. But luck had long since been carted off the field in a body bag, and I wasn’t itching to be next. Just turn off the radio and it wasn’t insubordination, at least not that he could prove. But all that was coming to an end. The battle had wound down. There was nothing left to do but go back.
It was a moribund crew on that convoy. Nobody said a word the whole way. A trailer hauled those of our illustrious dead whose bodies we hadn’t been able to evacuate during the fight. Everybody had the thousand-yard stare. It had been a long, shitty month.
I was wearing the same set of cammies I had left wearing a month earlier and had a beard. We hadn’t thought we were going to be out more than a night at the most, and here we were thirty-two days later. My uniform was stiff like cardboard with dried sweat and filth, same as everybody else’s.
The FOB we were returning to, like many in Iraq, was an old Iraqi military base that had been abandoned after the invasion. A huge berm of earth had been pushed up around the perimeter by Army engineers to make the place defensible. It was maybe fifteen feet high and literally ran for miles. The main entrance was guarded by Marines with fifty cals. There were a bunch of concrete obstacles in the roadway leading up to the base designed to slow down the inevitable suicide bombers driving trucks of dynamite at us. At the end of the obstacles was the dismount area where returning patrols would clear their weapons before coming back in. We probably had ten negligent discharges during the process. The dudes were just out of it. And exhausted. And couldn’t remember why they were supposed to be shooting empty rifles into barrels full of sand.
We peeled off from the grunts as soon as we were through the berm and I went to check in with my captain, the fuckwad.
“Your uniform is in a sorry state of disrepair, sergeant.”
“Yeah, I know. See that? That’s somebody’s brains on my pants.”
“I want you back here tomorrow at 0800 for the morning brief.”
I walked back to my team’s tent. It was way off in an empty corner of the base, about half a mile from the command center. I walked past a Pepsi machine. Past some female Marine with big tits. Past a bunch of people in shorts and t-shirts playing volleyball. What the fuck? Did these people not know there was a war going on out there? That we had dead Marines in the back of a fucking trailer? I instantly realized why people have a hard time transitioning from war back to regular life.
Fuck. I was having a hard time transitioning just to a quieter part of the war.