by Ash Bittner
To keep a secret, it is important to have a secret that is worth keeping. If you don’t have any, a good place to start is to join the military. Movies always talk about the stories that military personnel don’t share with their family back home. Perhaps the Marine Corps, just to really show off.
To start, go to boot camp. Go alone. None of your friends will want to join, so you have no choice. You’ll make new friends, probably; friends who know what honor and sacrifice means. The bus will be crowded the night you arrive, lots of children who think they know what they’re getting into, who have been memorizing things for weeks. It’ll be painfully late, or painfully early, they’re close to the same at that time of night. The halogen lights on the road will gleam with a haze from the sticky late-summer humidity; it will make your flesh cling to the bus seats as the vehicle slows down.
They’ll come on then, the men in uniform, screaming with the voices of large, angry frogs who discovered the secret of speech. They’ll rush you off the bus at Paris Island, hurry you to stand on yellow footprints painted on the ground. There will be the other recruits beside you, behind you, in front of you. Their eyes will show the same confusion and fear, realizing they made a mistake. You will have realized this only a moment before yourself. The broad hats these angry men wear will hide their faces under the garish streetlights. When they scream at you — and they will scream — it will be like the voice comes from the black void of something only pretending to be human. They don’t feel exhaustion. Or compassion. One spits in your face that this is the biggest mistake of your life. He will be half-right.
This will start three months of varying levels of misery, confusion, and discontent. Experience the haze of time that only prisoners usually know. A world without clocks or calendars. Feel how every day seems to last forever, but the weeks fuzz on by simply because there’s nothing to separate one day from the next. Get yelled at for using the words ‘I’ or ‘me.’ ‘This recruit’ is who is at boot camp.
Learn to shoot a rifle.
In fact, enjoy learning to shoot a rifle. The first time you use it will be a beautiful day, blue sky and yellow sun, that early fall day which pretends to be summer. You will have handled the rifle for two weeks already, learning the little mnemonic devices to remember the step-by-step of getting the rifle in place. Two weeks of handling before you are given a single live round.
Lay down on the hardball. Remember the string of commands that bring the weapon into place: thumbscrew, high pocket of shoulder, reach out grab air, high firm pistol grip, stock weld, eye relief, adjust. This puts everything in the right place, your cheek will be pressed to the smooth black buttstock, hot from resting in the sun.
‘Slingshot.’ The last mnemonic. It is for grabbing the charging handle. Yank it back hard, then release, just like firing a slingshot. Don’t guide it in—just yank, release. Slingshot. A round will be in chambered, ready to fire. Realize the rifle wasn’t a weapon before now. Just an uncomfortable metal rod you had to carry around. Think of how funny it is that such a childish word separates a useless piece of metal from a thing that ends lives.
Fire that first round. See the target rock with the impact. Understand why so many Americans love rifles. Find that you’re pretty good with a rifle. Oh, sure, you won’t be a sniper, but you’ll be pretty good for someone who has never touched a gun before.
Finish out boot camp. Survive the final trial, the Crucible. After three days with only two real meals, six hours of good sleep, and more miles marched, run, or crawled in boots than you know how to count, you’ll get to march one last hike. Autumn will have made the pre-dawn air bitingly cold. The men marching beside you will chant cadence with the drill instructor. It feels like a dream to be marching back, fog swirling around your ankles, everyone else in perfect step, perfect tone. You will feel out of place. Wonder if everyone does. Be afraid to ask.
Get lucky, be standing in the rank where the senior drill instructor is passing out the tokens. Keep your bearing as he hands you the symbol of completion, the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor. He’ll tell you that you’ve earned this. Wonder why you are crying as he shakes your hand and moves on to the next person.
Go home on leave. Enjoy the seven days back home by forgetting you have to leave at the end of it. Consider how easy it would be to simply not return. Cry at night each time you remember that you have to go back. Tell people it’s the proudest thing you’ve ever done.
Return to the military. Complete more training. Go to the Marine Combat Training course. Another month. Spend Christmas Eve in a three-foot hole you dug with a shovel. The shovel will only be three feet long, too. You will have to figure out how to make that work. Fight with the snowfall that keeps trying to tumble into your hole and soak your feet all night.
Fire more rounds than you thought possible. Mutter ‘slingshot’ every time you get to do a firing range. Use your rifle, use fixed machine guns, realize that trees at the far end of the rifle range are bare year-round and winter has nothing to do with it.
Feel embarrassed when you admit to being terrified of having to throw a live hand grenade. Feel consoled when Staff Sergeant calls you the only honest person in the room for admitting it. Feel relieved when you don’t screw up the actual throw.
Head to your MOS school after combat training. Learn that MOS means ‘military occupational specialty.’ Find it’s not actually that bad, since it’s like being in school, but with a weirder uniform. And a more rigorous PE class that happens every day in the morning. And the roommates are worse. And the free time is more limited. Assume it will all get better when you get to the fleet and become a ‘real’ Marine.
Join the fleet and become a ‘real’ Marine. Enjoy a twelve-hour plane ride to Okinawa. Look forward to engaging a new culture, to seeing what the fleet Marines are like. Be the only person from your class sent to this duty station. Arrive alone.
Meet Gunnery Sergeant Damasky. “I was looking over your scores from the school house. Pretty smart. Don’t unpack,” he says.
Ask him, “Gunnery Sergeant?”
He’ll say, “You’re on the manning doc for our deployment in November. You’ll be going to Mojave for desert warfare training in two weeks with the rest of the unit. So, save yourself some trouble and don’t unpack.”
Tolerate a twelve-hour plane ride on the way back to America. Spend a month in the Mojave Desert clinging to the shade and wondering how it can be triple digit heat under cover. Buy a new iPod at the exchange. Chisel the old one off the concrete it melted to.
Watch as the biggest crow you’ll have ever seen flies down. You and three others will watch the fat black bird walk over and pick up an entire MRE. “Are you fucking kidding? How does he even know there’s food in there?” Martinez will ask. He outranks everyone there, wears his rank as a way to be smug, to bully people who are smarter, who are in better shape, who are better people. But really he will use it to hide from his own fears about his marriage, worrying every day he’s away that his wife is cheating on him. You won’t help, since you will joke about his wife’s infidelities all the time.
Answer him, “He lives out here, he’s seen a thousand Marines open them up and get food out.”
“How’s he going to get the food?” Singer will ask. He’ll be older than you, he’ll have been in the military longer than you, but he’s not too bright. Good natured, sweet as hell, but not bright. Racist, too, but charming about it in a way that will make you wonder if you’re a bad person for liking him.
Don’t answer. Point in slack-jawed awe as the thing flies up on top of a hut, slicing the bag open with his beak to fish out the good stuff inside.
Start making bets on what parts he’ll eat and what he’ll throw aside. Watch him go through it like a picky child, ripping open everything, trying the bread, the cheese, the meatball marinara, but in the end tossing everything down into the sand except the bread. Martinez will make you clean up the trash before a staff NCO comes by and blames you.
Make friends with these guys. Ignore the sense of movie-like foreboding that arises when you realize you’re getting close to people about to go into a war zone. And that you became friends watching a damned carrion bird. That’s just chance. That’s not ominous at all. Tell yourself that. Tell yourself again.
Remember you’re about to go into a war zone. Freak out at night when nobody can see you. Try to console yourself with the low number of deaths in modern warfare. On our side anyway. Wonder how everyone else can be so unafraid. Wonder if they’re just hiding their fear like you are, if everyone here is just a frightened young man or woman pretending to be invulnerable. Hope it’s true.
Loathe a twelve-hour plane ride back to Okinawa. The novelty will have officially worn off.
Deploy to Afghanistan. Get sent out to a forward operating base in the Sangin province. Spend the next few months making new friends, sharing stores, and trading thumb drives full of pirated movies, stolen music, and pornography. Computer viruses, too. Fix things. Broken vehicles, broken generators, broken gear. Virus-riddled computers.
Your training will mean you don’t get sent out of the base often: too valuable to risk stepping on a land mine or getting shot by a sniper. This will soon feel like a dubious and cruel honor as other men do go out into the sand and the cold of the Afghan winter. Reply to their sarcastic quips about that by asking where the power to charge their laptops comes from.
Feel uncomfortable as the grunts joke about who they’d be willing to trade so they can continue to watch House, M.D. and The Walking Dead when they’re on R&R. Feel oddly amused by the comradery of it.
“Jimmerson. For sure that fat fuck can eat it before I lose out on my porn.”
“Martinez, too, I swear to god if he doesn’t stop speaking Spanish on patrol, I’m going to shoot him myself.”
“Dude, we’re not doing general bitching, we’re talking about who is worth less than a TV show.”
“Martinez, the greasy little turd.”
“Yeah, fuck you too.” Martinez will have lost his rank by now. His wife, too, but he’s much cooler now without either weighing on his mind.
Being reserved to the base won’t mean no combat-like duties, though. And every time, with that hunk of metal. Slingshot. That weapon. Stand post, since guard posts still need manned, and there’s never enough people. Slingshot. Occasionally go out in the back of a vehicle to one of the patrol bases. Slingshot. Fix things out there, but without ever leaving the fortress-like confines of an AMRAP or HESCO PB. Slingshot. Even when you don’t need it, since the country is still terrifying to you. Slingshot.
Guard the prisoner they brought in after the ambush in March, where Singer died.
Remember Singer as you sit in a crude chair staring at the bruised, restrained prisoner. Think about how he used to joke that he was worth more dead than alive. That his family would get near half a million if he died here, but his yearly pay wasn’t even twenty thousand. Wonder how his mother will take the news that she gets that money.
Martinez will be on guard duty with you. He’ll look over as you put a round into the chamber. He’ll see the expression on your face, what you’ll hope is seething anger. It won’t be. He’ll look away. He won’t be angry enough (or is it man enough?) to shoot the prisoner himself. But he won’t stop you.
Think of a story. What you’ll tell the CO when he comes to find out why there was a shot on the base. Decide you could tell him the prisoner made a run on the cage. You helped build it out of chicken wire and spare wood, you know someone who tried could get through it. It only holds prisoners because of the guards. He rushed the cage, you’ll think to say, so you had to shoot him.
The prisoner will be looking at you. The sound of a round being chambered is unmistakable. His eyes will be wide.
Realize that you’re standing already. The rifle will be at your shoulder, but you won’t remember when it got there. The man in the cage will have slumped to his knees, rambling something in Pashto.
No, not Pashto. Realize it’s Arabic, that it’s a prayer.
At this range, the scope will be pointless. Use it anyway. Get a good, close look at him before you murder him. A bruise as ugly as your heart will cover the right side of his face. Jimmerson won’t talk about the ambush, or how he’d gotten into a position to take a man down alive. He will only ever tell you he wished he’d had one more round in the mag.
Think about how you can fix that for him.
Look at the prisoner’s face. Past the bruise, past the eye swollen shut, he looks so young. The straggling starts of a beard. A face unmarked by wrinkles despite the withering Afghan sun and ceaseless wind. Decide he can’t be more than fifteen. Sixteen tops. Realize you’re only nineteen, but you feel so much older than that. Feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. Ask yourself when you got so old, and when the world got so terrible.
Stare at the boy. Lower the rifle. Return to your seat. Remove the magazine from the rifle. Notice your hands are trembling. Put the magazine on the table. Feel the tears streak down your cheeks.
Slingshot. Without a magazine inserted, it should eject the round in the chamber, toss it onto the hard-packed earth. It should make the weapon into just a piece of metal again. But it won’t. You will screw it up because of how badly your hands are trembling.
Try again. Slingshot. Your fingers will slip off the grip, you’ll smack yourself in the face with the back of your hand.
Martinez will take your rifle, remove the round for you. Try to read his expression. Relief? Disappointment? Anger? His face will be blank. He’ll never talk to you about what happened here. He’ll never tell anyone else about it, either. If you never tell anyone, the moment will have never happened.
Cry later in the night. Cry for being a monster who wanted to shoot prisoner, a child. Cry for not being man enough to do it and avenge your fallen brother. Cry for not knowing which you should be. Cry for Singer.
Return to Okinawa dark and cynical. Just like everyone else.
Never see Martinez again. He’ll be transferred to a base in America, and after what happened, you won’t message him on Facebook or anything. Never see Jimmerson, who goes back to his unit elsewhere on the island. Within a few months, never see any of them again. (Never see Singer again.) Seven months of brotherhood in the face of mortal peril will seem unreal after. Decide it was all like a dream, that you can forget about it like any other dream. Tell that to yourself.
Tell that to your therapist.
Endure one last twelve-hour flight. Then a four-hour flight. Then a one-hour flight.
Land at your hometown airport. Leave the airplane wearing your service uniform. Free now, but wanting to see if maybe now, after four years and eternity, you’ll feel strong when you wear it.
Your family will greet you at the airport. They’ll smile, hold flags and balloons and signs. Even people who haven’t been in the same room together for years will be there. They will crowd around. You’ll smile, tell them how good it is to be home.
You’ll have so many stories of Marines to tell them. You’ll talk about your amazing friends, and the incredible wind and cold of the Afghanistan winter. Drunk Marines in Okinawa punching out cab drivers in a fit of rage, or entirely sober Marines who would go outside of the barracks during a typhoon to get a smoke. Stories of cheating husbands and wives, open marriages, drugs and alcohol.
You’ll have the stories you will only tell the therapist.
You’ll have the story you don’t tell anyone.