Combat Camera

by Merrell Michael

The pogue bit it in the first week of Helmand. We hated the pogue, as all he managed to do was whine that he was supposed to deploy to Japan instead of here. The pogue’s death was appropriate in that he died outside the porta-shitter without wearing his helmet or plate carrier, and we were all subject to the lecture afterwards from the major about how proper protective equipment and how complacency killed. The pogue was given a standard death marker during the Chaplain’s ceremony with rifle boots and dog tag, only without the helmet because Jimmy Dickweed had it in his seabag. Gear adrift was a gift and no one felt sorry for the pogue, who left his shit out long enough to get it stolen. Looking back on in now it was pretty shitty, dying like that only to become the subject of a lecture.

It was a fluke shot, anyway. The mountains overlooked us and the haajis propped up rockets or mortars in our general direction to go forth and do good. Usually they managed to hit a hesco or nothing at all, and this time they managed to hit the pogue coming out of the porta-shitter. The pogue’s name was Johnson or Smith or something. Something generic and bland like the poor kid was, with close cropped blond hair and mild acne pock marks over the bridge of his nose.

It was a couple of weeks later when I saw Jimmy Dickweed with the camera.

There’s a certain way to walk on patrol, you don’t just look forward and walk, you turn around every few steps so that you see the man to your left or behind you in formation, and to make sure that hand and arm signals can be passed off. Both hands on your rifle, just walking and looking waiting for whatever the hell was coming next.

That’s how I saw him, Jimmy Dickweed had the camera in his hands and was whirr clicking it with that shutter sound. I looked forward, and back again, and Dickweed was putting the camera back in a pouch and walking. I wasn’t going to snitch him out. I was a corporal and Dickweed was a lance, but we were both senior, anyway. I was a little annoyed. There was probably a serial number or something on the fucking thing, and if Dickweed got caught he was going to get busted down again.

“I won’t get caught.” Dickweed said when I told him that. “And anyway, look at this.”

There was one of those displays on the camera. Looking back on it now I can tell that it was a digital SLR and probably cost the Corps a few hundred bucks. On the screen was a nice looking woman butt assed naked, tits out and all.

“It’s one of the whores from Malta.” Dickweed said. “I recognize the furniture.”

Of course there was no furniture to speak of in the photograph, simply a bed for the prostitute to sit up on, a full-length mirror behind her, and plain white walls throughout. I knew what he meant and let it go. I never corrected Jimmy Dickweed. He was often wrong, in that he said one thing and meant another, but I knew that he hated it when he was. It made him feel bad.

“I’m going to rub one out later.” Dickweed said, and when I told him to wear his PPE we both laughed.

That night we had patrol. It was cool in the evenings in Helmand, with the sort of dryness in the air that reminded me of Northern Arizona. The night was pitch black in my right eye and bright green through the night vision over my left. In the distance an unknown gunship was illuminating the horizon beyond the mountains with soft thunder.

There was a sudden snap, then a pop.

Someone in the patrol said “contact.” It was repeated once, while in the front of my mind I was already thinking that the bullets coming at us were close enough to crack and not whizz past, which made them close enough to easily kill. The haajis were close and the boots were unsure of themselves. I saw a speck of light on a hut nearby and let off three rounds. Dickweed joined me on the SAW with a longer burst. We lay there with our weapons speaking to each other with the smell of cordite starting to rise in my nostrils and hot brass stinging the back of my hand. There was a squealing noise coming from behind me and I eventually processed that it was the LT telling us to cease fire.

When the shooting stopped, we waited.

The LT came right next to me, leaning in close. There was the stench of something foul on his breath. “Did you fire?” He said.

“We saw a muzzle flash, sir.” Dickweed replied. The LT said nothing but walked back chattering into the radio. In what seemed like an eternity later we picked up and continued the movement, with nothing of significance occurring between us and the hooches. When the gear was stripped off I wanted to sleep but needed a cigarette so I came back behind the hooch and was blinded by the flash of Dickweed’s camera. My fist balled on its own and I was moving quickly up to him for what purpose but as I did he turned the thing around so I could see the screen.

There was a surprise health and comfort inspection two weeks later. Our lockers and seabags were torn apart by the platoon sergeants, all our gear stripped out and lying around. They found a few small baggies of hashish from the haajis, and an illicit weapon. The LT found the camera. He knew exactly where to go, because it was on the note I left for him. Dickweed and the two guys that popped for drugs got shipped out of Helmand extra early. I never found out exactly what happened to them.

And I’ve never told anyone else this. There’s no way else to tell it. But something about that camera, that picture he showed me- man, it was just something I didn’t want to fucking see. Like some sort of deep ugliness. And I’ve reasoned the whole thing out, I mean, fuck him, he never should have stolen it from the dead pogue. I know he can’t find me wherever the hell he is anyway, and I stay off of facespace or whatever just in case. Look, I don’t even think about those days, the military days, anymore.

I got out, alright?