by Chris Whitehead
April 2, 2009
Day 223. Here’s how bored I am: a few minutes ago I busied myself by repeatedly banging my head against the metal frame of my bunk bed. I wasn’t slamming my head into it or anything like that, just settling into a rhythm, lulling myself into a pleasant state of detachment. This lasted thirty-one seconds. Then I crawled back on my sweaty, plastic-covered mattress. At least I’m on bottom.
We’re still in the communal wooden hut on FOB Warhorse, the one with air conditioners that blow air slightly less hot than the air outside. This didn’t seem like a big deal when we first moved here in February, but right now it’s seven at night, the sun just set, and it’s 105 degrees outside. I could’ve sworn five years of being in the Army had long since erased whatever memory I once had of common sense, but apparently it hasn’t. I’m sitting here watching the sweat from my nose drip all over this fucking keyboard, thinking yet again how fucking goddamn stupid the Army is. They want us to be “alert and vigilant” during patrols. They simultaneously expect us to fall soundly asleep at night whilst crammed into overfilled wooden huts with shitty air conditioners, in a desert climate in the summer. Am I wrong for wanting to be awake enough to possibly see the bomb that might disintegrate me? Trying to fall asleep in a pool of my own filthy sweat, combined with thirty dudes setting their alarm clocks to ring at different times, beginning at 0430, equals maybe three hours of sleep, if the snoring and sleep-talking is limited.
Tonight’s dinner was something the cooks chose to label “beef brisket.” We get a variation of this meal about once every three days – the variation being the name. If it’s not “beef brisket,” it’s either “roast beef” or just “beef” (the latter being the name I prefer, as it is defiant, not pretending to be anything it isn’t.) Mercifully, the cooks slather this thing in enough barbecue sauce to prevent us from tasting anything else. We also get a clump of hard, dried-up mashed potatoes, and fresh-from-the-freezer string beans. Today’s meal was especially disheartening because I have another 142 days before I’m back in civilization. The highlight of my day, nudging out the frosted blueberry pop-tarts we got for dessert, will be the DVD I’m saving to watch on my laptop later tonight: Groundhog Day. I’m watching it again.
My head hurts.
I’ve been suffering from a lack of oomph in general today, or at least since we got back from patrol. It took me twenty unsettling minutes of listening to the midget porno Wiggins is watching on the top bunk, twenty minutes of imagining the body movements of those shrieking midgets, before I could gather the motivation to pull out my laptop and cover my ears with headphones. This led me to my music, which stimulated me enough to do a journal entry. Right now Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” is playing on my iTunes. Thank you, Led Zeppelin, for rescuing me from my funk.
I’m gonna write about today, but first I need to write about my squad leader, who has a pissing problem, and this dude who rides in our truck, Herschmuller. Right now my squad leader is three bunks over, belly down, his feet kicked up behind him, reading one of his Muscle & Fitness magazines. His lips are moving.
Sergeant Barnaby has this problem: he thinks it’s physically impossible for him to hold his piss. I have a theory it’s because, in his words, he “did mad steroids back in high school.” Steroids supposedly shrink your balls; it seems reasonable to me that they might also distort other organs, such as your bladder. Perhaps, in a sick, Monkey’s Paw twist of fate, the big muscles only precede the balls of a prepubescent boy and the bladder of an eighty-five-year-old woman. What I’m saying is that there’s gotta be some explanation for Barnaby’s problem. Barnaby, a massive hog of a man, a former high school wrestler who arm curls sixty pound dumbbells and brags about his supposed Harley Davidson and even more supposed former-model wife, holds his piss about as well as a grandmother drifting aimlessly around a nursing home in her diaper and fluffy slippers. The characterization is just too incongruent. Plus, I’m embarrassed for him.
This wouldn’t be so much of a problem except that it’s Iraq. Over here, we get trapped in Humvees during long-ass patrols. On a long-ass patrol, there’s no such thing as just stopping, getting out and taking a whiz whenever we feel like it. Nope, we gotta “man up” and “drive the fuck on.” We either piss in bottles or hold it till the next dismount, which could come in five minutes or five hours. It all depends on the mission. The mission comes first. Personal needs don’t exist on a combat patrol. Fortunately, I’ve learned to distract myself from the agony of having to piss by focusing on the agony of suffocating, triple-digit heat.
So there I am, six days a week, bouncing around inside the Humvee as it slams over potholes, weighed down in what feels like medieval body armor (I swear, all I need is a fucking lance and one of those visor things to pull down over my face.) It’s occurred to me that I should be wincing in pain from having to piss so badly. If I did my job right, it means I pumped at least two liters of water into myself that morning and I’m working on my third.
Drinking large amounts of water throughout the day means I’m staying hydrated, another Army catchphrase. In the Army, staying hydrated is a euphemism for committing self-inflicted Japanese water-torture. Better to puke up a gut distended with liquid than go down as a dreaded “heat casualty.” A heat casualty – someone who, at some point in their history, has fainted due to heat exhaustion – is a euphemism for a humongous pussy. Heat casualties must bear a mark of shame, usually a stripe of red tape affixed to the front of their body armor vests. The tape, which we’re told is meant to alert medics to a soldier’s “predisposition,” ensures that wherever its bearer goes, any US Army soldiers in the vicinity will know that he fainted. In the Army, especially in a place as overflowing with testosterone as Iraq, a fainter is pretty much the worst thing you can be, other than dead.
Barnaby’s pissing problem is twofold – he’s got a weak bladder and he doesn’t like to piss in bottles. He’s done it a handful of times, but usually when he has to go and it’s an “emergency,” he orders our Humvee to stop. The gunner up in the turret swivels the machine gun around and pulls full-circle security while the rest of us peer out the two-inch thick windows for anything suspicious. Barnaby lumbers out of his passenger seat and relieves himself against the front passenger tire. When he finally finishes – this dude takes the longest pisses of anyone I have ever known – he drags out the production a little more by patiently shaking it off (we know he’s shaking it off because he updates us), then huffs his way back into the truck with a big, triumphant grin. “Sorry about that, guys,” he says. “I needed that like you wouldn’t believe.” The rest of us in the Humvee – me and Shank and Hershmuller – can tell he’s not really sorry about forcing the entire platoon to stop. He’s smiling. He makes a half-hearted attempt to cover the smile, but we see it. He wants us to see it. The jackass thinks it’s all a big fucking joke.
We continue on our route. When we return to the base, the platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Rivera, takes Barnaby far enough away that the rest of us can’t hear the verbal evisceration. At least, I hope Rivera’s eviscerating him. I’m starting to wonder. Rivera can be a ruthless son of a bitch, but it doesn’t seem like Barnaby is trying too hard to change.
As much as I want Barnaby to feel humiliated and worthless because of his condition, I don’t hate him. The mere sight of his face bores the everlasting shit out of me and makes me never want to see him again for the rest of my life, but I don’t hate him. A lot of guys in the platoon hate him, and I mean with a passion. They think that 1) he’s a big dumb meathead, which is true; 2) he gets his panties in a bunch too easily, also true; and 3) he micromanages anyone under him because he doesn’t trust them to do their jobs, which I find funny. If the job doesn’t involve heavy lifting or brute force, Barnaby’s not exactly Chuck Norris himself. The one time he rode as a gunner on patrol, he accidentally discharged the fifty-caliber machine gun less than fifty meters from an Iraqi Army highway checkpoint. Luckily, the muzzle was pointed into a field and no one got hurt. “Sorry guys, wasn’t paying attention,” he said. The platoon had to go through a full week of remedial weapons clearing classes, not to mention the weeklong 0200 wake-up/PT (Physical Training) sessions with the company commander, whose chiseled physique makes him look like he missed his calling as a gladiator on the 80s version of American Gladiators. Barnaby’s fatal flaw is that he sucks at Army skills: land navigation, rifle marksmanship, mounted and dismounted patrolling. Apparently, back in the States, he starched his uniform crisply enough and memorized enough procedure to get promoted to sergeant. Here in Iraq, outside the wire, the dude is lost in the sauce. Buried in it.
There’s nothing about Barnaby that makes me think he should be leading soldiers in combat; young Johnny Jihads here will sacrifice their mothers for the glimmer of a chance to lop off our heads and display them on TV. Still, his leadership shortcomings and character flaws don’t change my opinion of him: I believe Sergeant Barnaby is a decent guy. If our lives crossed paths under different circumstances, back in the civilian world, I’m sure I’d have no problem with him. He’s just a harmless doofus. Many things in this world are a lot worse than doofuses. Doofi, whatever.
Specialist Hershmuller definitely hates Barnaby – Hersh has confided to me that he wouldn’t care if Barnaby got waxed by an IED. The problem between them is what the Army would call a “personality conflict.” Whereas Barnaby is a buffoonish man-child, Hersh is one of the two or three most squared-away soldiers in the platoon. To say he’s never done drugs is an understatement; the other day we convinced him that white tic-tacs were “steroid pills.” He told us to “get them away” from him, his eyes full of hilarious urgency. He’s an absurdly sheltered, straight-arrow Mormon from Utah who claims he doesn’t drink coffee or jerk off. I tend to steer clear of guys who say they don’t jerk off, but I respect Hersh. He doesn’t act like he’s better than anyone else, even though he is. I’m pretty sure he had the high score on the last physical fitness test, he always qualifies expert on his weapons, and, most admirably, the motherfucker’s got ice in his veins. When Barnaby had his AD (Accidental Discharge) on the fifty-caliber and me and Shank were freaking the fuck out cause we thought we were getting attacked, Hersh was calmly reporting over the radio that there was no threat, that Barnaby had simply thought he’d seen something and made a mistake. I don’t think Hersh hates Barnaby as a person; he hates the fact that Barnaby’s stupidity could get others killed. Hersh is no doubt equally frustrated because Barnaby is superfluous, a necessity of a flawed system that requires a staff sergeant or higher to be in command of a gun truck. Everyone knows Hersh would easily make the better truck commander. In all honesty, the guy should probably be an officer.
Hersh’s weakness is that he suffers from a mild case of germophobia. He’s not quite obsessive about it – he can touch door handles with his bare hands and he won’t flip if one of us sneezes without covering up – but he does have quirks. If we’re eating in the mess hall and he needs to get up during the meal, he does this thing where he covers his food with layers of napkins so flies can’t “poop” on it. He brings a bottle of Lysol into the bathroom trailer to spray down the sink before he brushes his teeth or shaves. Strangest of all, Hersh refuses to drink the bottled waters we get from a U.S. water-processing plant in Baghdad. He claims that any water filtered from the Tigris River is still water from the Tigris River, one of the filthiest, most polluted rivers in the world. He equates drinking this water with ingesting “raw sewage” and says the concentration of bacteria is high enough to “destroy the lining of an intestinal wall by the end of a deployment.” In order to combat this imagined danger, Hersh drinks strictly Gatorade. He’s so devoted to his Gatorade that he hordes his favorite flavors (orange and red) in his foot locker, just to be sure no one snatches one when he’s not paying attention. If we ask him for one, he’ll probably give it to us, but we can tell from his pained expression that he’s doing it against his will.
There’s one other quirk to Hersh’s germophobia: Hersh cannot tolerate sitting in a Humvee with bottles of anyone’s piss. He uses the little influence he has as a specialist to order me and Shank not to ever relieve ourselves inside the truck. Unfortunately, he’s helpless against the higher-ranking Sergeant Barnaby. I don’t quite get what Hersh’s problem is. Maybe he’s worried we’ll hit a bump and the cap won’t be screwed on tight enough; the piss might splash and infect him with a deadly virus. Maybe he’s offended by having to be near anything freshly excreted from another man’s body. Whatever the reason, Hersh’s objection to standing urine leads me to believe that there’s a part of him that doesn’t mind Barnaby’s pit stops. Hersh would never admit it – he rails against Barnaby’s pissing problem as viciously as any of us – but that’s my hunch.
About a month ago, Barnaby dropped any pretense of apology for his weak bladder. Instead, he got cavalier about it.
“Better not hit any potholes today,” he’ll tell whoever is driving our truck. “If you hit a pothole, I’m gonna come around your side when it’s time for me to piss and piss all over your door handle.” He looks at the driver and then into the back of the Humvee, smiling, waiting for someone to start laughing with him. I guess he thinks we’ll like him more if he shows us his goofy side, that he doesn’t always have to be Sergeant Barnaby, the asshole who makes us do push-ups till we can’t move, who spits in our faces unintentionally when he’s screaming about someone forgetting to check the oil or pack extra ice. I’ll admit that his pissing problem was funny – at first. It did make him more likable. I laughed harder than anyone else the first time the patrol had to stop for him, but that was a lifetime ago. Now I’m just waiting for an RPG to come screaming through the open passenger door while Barnaby’s out there pressed against the tire, carrying on about how pissing is better than fucking his wife, or singing mock-prayers to Allah for giving him the opportunity to piss on Muslim holy land. I’m starting to feel that my life is unnecessarily at risk and there’s nothing I can do about it. None of us in the truck can tell him not to get out and piss – Shank and I are privates, Hershmuller is a specialist. The lieutenant obviously doesn’t have the balls to demote him or pawn him off on another unit. No one else would want the guy anyway. As a result, my entire little sand-and-dirt shithole of a world has been reduced to five months and two weeks—five months and two weeks until Iraq is nothing more than a headline on a webpage I’ll quickly learn to avoid. Until then, I’m left wondering whether a grown man’s ability to “hold it” is going to be the deciding factor in whether I ever get laid again.
Goddamn, I just popped off my headphones for a few seconds and those midgets above me are giving it to that poor woman hard. Judging from the amount of masculine grunting, it sounds like a good old-fashioned gangbang. I’m sure I’ll get a full report from Wiggins soon. I won’t be interested in hearing it, but that won’t stop Wiggins. His eyes will get real big too, like a little kid describing a Christmas present.
Ok, headphones back on. Now it’s David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” the song we like to blast from the iPod speakers inside the Humvee during patrols.
“Holy shit guys, holy fucking shit, I gotta piss. Bad. Oh man, I gotta piss…” This was Barnaby, of course. What I couldn’t understand is that he was telling us how bad he had to piss between chugs from the fifth one-liter water bottle he’d downed in the previous two hours. Given his problem, he normally doesn’t drink more than one or two bottles on a patrol, but today he was complaining about being dehydrated.
Hersh, who was driving, cast our squad leader a familiar look of disgust. Barnaby’s head was tilted as far back as his helmet would allow; he was chugging so desperately that some of the water was missing his mouth and dribbling down the sides of his chubby pink cheeks.
“Sergeant, maybe you should stop drinking so much water,” Hersh said.
Hersh could not have expected an answer, but I guess he felt something needed to be said. I glanced over at Shank and we smiled. We both derive great pleasure from the tension between Hersh and Barnaby.
Up front, between the driver and passenger seats, Barnaby’s spent water bottles – four of them, and counting – rolled back and forth over the top of the Humvee’s power distribution box. Barnaby was riding shotgun; Shank and I were in back. Our truck was leading the four-vehicle platoon convoy. We were out in a rural area called Hady al-Sadoon, navigating twisty little dirt trails in what is supposedly “the heart of an Al-Qaeda supply zone.” In six months of patrols, I’ve never seen any Al-Qaeda, either in a “supply zone” or anywhere else. I haven’t seen shit in these supply zones, nothing except field upon field of dirt/sand. The only variety to the landscape is the occasional grove of date trees, which basically look like palm trees and remind me of some hellish, post-Apocalyptic version of Florida. According to the battalion intelligence officer, there are lots of things buried in the dirt near Hady al-Sadoon that could kill us: AK-47s and mortar tubes and artillery rounds for IEDs. We’re told that Al-Qaeda goes out there at night and digs that shit up, uses it to attack downtown Baqubah, and then reburies it.
Armed with this knowledge, I carefully studied the ground as it flew past my small, thick window. No matter how hard I squinted, I couldn’t tell if the dirt had been disturbed. It just looked like regular, flat, undisturbed dirt, like it always does. Even if the dirt had looked disturbed, I question whether I would’ve noticed. I’ve gotten so numb to the monotony of my surroundings that nothing really stands out anymore. This thought actually brings me comfort. It makes me feel like my death, if it happens, is unpreventable. Preordained.
We were in the dirt – off the shoddily-paved roads – because we were looking for the dismount team we’d dropped off with an Iraqi Army patrol that morning. We’d lost radio communication with the dismounts and didn’t know where they were. It wasn’t a good start to our first joint patrol with an Iraqi unit. The Iraqis are the ones who are supposed to be fucked up, not us. American soldiers don’t lose communications. To make matters worse, we couldn’t stop for my squad leader to purge his old woman bladder because the platoon was following an Iraqi general’s Nissan pickup. We’d been told he was leading us to the dismounts. The general, whose name I think is Saddaam – no shit – never stopped for longer than it took him to hop out and pose for a picture with the Iraqi soldiers who were combing the dirt fields for buried weapons. It didn’t seem to bother General Saddaam that the pictures would look laughably staged; in each one, he wore expensive sunglasses, no combat equipment, and pointed self-importantly into the distance, at nothing.
“I can’t stop drinking,” Barnaby said. “If I stop drinking, I’m gonna pass out. You know my body doesn’t retain water well. I already got a headache, there’s no fucking way I’m passing out.” Barnaby shoved the bottle back into his mouth. Again, much of the water missed its target. He stopped the chug when he needed to catch his breath. “Phewww. God DAMN I gotta piss. It’s bad, man, it’s bad.” His face had gone from pink to red and he was wincing. He moved his free hand under his groin protector flap, pressed on his crotch. He was pressing down with such zeal that it looked like he was staunching a blood flow.
I felt kind of bad for Hersh. He didn’t need the distraction. He doesn’t usually drive, but Barnaby felt like rotating us today. Hersh was dealing with off-road terrain more suited to camels than up-armored Humvees—rickety wooden bridges over culverts, sinkholes, mud pits, steep drop-offs on either side of a very narrow trail. He also needed to avoid slamming into any oblivious Iraqi soldiers, not to mention anti-tank mines left over from the first Gulf War. He needed concentration, vigilance and luck. He didn’t need Sergeant Barnaby whining about having to piss like a “seven dick dinosaur.”
“Whoa, easy there,” Barnaby said as Hersh crashed through a ditch with enough force to bounce our asses a foot out of our seats. “You’re gonna make me piss myself.”
“Sergeant, seriously, could you just hold it for a little? If we stop we’re gonna lose the general.” Hersh swerved to avoid the next deep rut.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Barnaby said. “We can’t stop.”
My heart sank. I wanted Barnaby to fight back, to push the conflict to its limit. Listening to them was a zillion times more interesting than staring at dirt.
“Fuck it,” Barnaby continued. “I’m just gonna piss in this bottle here.” He reached down for one of the empty water bottles. I was riveted once again. Come on, Hersh, don’t take that shit, don’t take that –
“Sergeant, are you sure?” Hersh said. “If you go really quick you can probably get out the next time the general stops.”
So fucking polite. Hersh was always so fucking polite. That was his real problem.
“No can do, Specialist Hershmuller. It’s time.” He giggled. “I sound like I’m about to give birth or something, right? Anyway, try not to look. That might be hard since it’s so huge.”
I turned to Shank and rolled my eyes. I wondered if he wanted to toss Barnaby out the Humvee as much as I did.
In a surprising show of modesty, Barnaby shifted in his seat so he was facing the passenger door. He started unbuttoning his trousers. Hersh angled his body the other way, toward the driver door, as if to gain every last possible centimeter of separation from Barnaby’s exposed appendage.
An awkward minute or so passed. I turned up the volume on my CVC headset and focused on listening to radio traffic; Iraqi soldiers had discovered a small enemy weapons cache of mortar tubes a few kilometers away, inside one of the date tree groves.
“You done yet, sergeant?” Hersh finally asked.
“I can’t use this,” Barnaby said, still hunched against the passenger door. “You suck at driving, Hershmuller. The ride’s too bumpy and the opening’s not big enough. I’m gonna piss all over myself. I need something with a wider lip.” He looked up at the ceiling. “Is there an empty Gatorade bottle back there?” he called out over the roar of the engine. Usually a few of Hersh’s old, empty bottles are rolling around somewhere in the truck, but there were none today. Barnaby had ordered Shank and me to clean out the inside of the humvee after yesterday’s patrol.
“No Gatorade bottles back here, sergeant,” Shank called gleefully.
“Fuck. What about up here? We got anything?” Barnaby began rummaging through the cabin. I prayed that he’d spot the thermos filled with Gatorade Hersh had wedged between his left leg and the door. It was Hersh’s “special thermos;” in a private moment, he’d disclosed to me how his mom had used it to serve him juice or milk or whatever the hell else he drank as kid. It had a gorilla on it, and gorillas had been his favorite animal. I guess he considered it some sort of talisman. He didn’t bring it along on every patrol, only when he sensed he’d need it.
“What about that? Is that a thermos you’ve got there?”
“Uh . . .” Hersh shifted about in his seat, as if to block Barnaby’s view of the thermos.
“Yes! It is! That’ll work! Here, let me see that.” Barnaby stuck out his hand.
“Uh, sergeant, I’m actually still drinking it.”
“Don’t worry about it, you can have one of my waters. I need something with that kind of opening.”
For a moment, Barnaby’s sheer ridiculousness managed to pierce the situation and remind me, once again, how easy it is to see this war, this life, as a giant, asinine game played by a bunch of clowns. It’s the running theme behind all my journal entries. It’s how I deal. Oh well, I died in a ridiculously elaborate joke that had way too long a setup. I didn’t achieve this clarity until I came to a place where I understood my life could end.
Hersh shook his head. “Sergeant, I don’t—”
“Come on, give it to me,” Barnaby said. “I need it more than you, believe me.”
Looking at Barnaby’s stubby, beckoning fingers, I suddenly felt Hersh’s attachment to his childhood thermos as if it were my own. That thermos was his, an extension of him. It reminded him of home, of a faraway, better life, one in which he possessed at least the illusion of control. He needed to nurture and protect that life, that illusion. He couldn’t allow a beast like Sergeant Barnaby to violate it.
Hersh took his eyes off the trail to look directly at Barnaby. “Sergeant, I get it, but—”
“Listen up specialist, I’m not asking. Give me the fucking thermos.”
Barnaby’s stinging tone caught me by surprise. I felt like I’d been smacked in the back of the head. I hated that he’d resorted to rank, to intimidation. It wasn’t right.
“Let him keep his thermos,” I said.
“You heard me?” Barnaby said, still talking to Hersh.
“Sergeant, let him have the thermos,” I said again, louder.
Barnaby twisted around in his seat. He looked like Medusa in sunglasses; tendril-like cables sprouted haphazardly from his CVC helmet. His mouth puckered into an ugly little snarl. “So now you’re gonna tell me what I can and can’t do? You’re gonna fucking tell me?!” And then the fight just didn’t seem worth it. It wasn’t that Barnaby in any way deserved the thermos; it was that he had the power to make our lives miserable if he didn’t get it. My life was already miserable. Iraq sucked. I missed home. The satisfaction I might have gleaned from standing up to him would be erased quickly by a week’s worth of early-morning PT sessions. Or so I told myself.
“Negative, sergeant,” I muttered.
Barnaby turned back to Hersh and held out his hand. Hersh surrendered his thermos.
“Aaahhh YES, this is PERFECT!” Barnaby popped the lid and ran his finger along the wide circular opening. “What’s this on here? A gorilla? Aw, Hersh, how cute. Your mommy get this for you?” Barnaby laughed, turned to face his door. Hersh’s bottle disappeared under his groin protector flap. Several seconds passed.
“So?” Shank asked.
Barnaby shook himself off, buttoned up and handed the thermos back to Hersh. I imagined the bright orange Gatorade now dull, the color of pale flesh. “Look Hersh, I made you a new flavor,” Barnaby said. “It’s called piss.”
(Copyright 2015 Military Experience & the Arts, Inc.)