by Mark Manibusan
They loaded us up in cattle trucks.
Twenty deep along three wooden benches and the rest on the floor of the flatbed. Powdery dust quickly filled the air and crept into every open crevice. I wore tinted goggles and wrapped a torn tee shirt across my nose and mouth. Few talked; most slept. I nodded off, but woke occasionally to readjust my body armor or when we rolled over rough road.
We drove off-road for a while, and unsecured rifles clanked against helmets with dull thuds at every bump, and then we were there.
No one was giving any orders, and we had nothing to do until the ammo arrived, so we milled about on the packed sand surrounding the trucks: Two hundred identical green-gray uniforms against auburn dunes, pistols in holsters, some with rifles slung at the ready, and some not.
Set back against a jutting rock face, a wooden corral and a couple of trellises made of warped two-by-fours comprised the range. Black half-silhouettes dangled from the interlaced boards and flapped against the wind. Two days, maybe three, until we’d touch down on Iraqi dirt. This was the last hurdle, a final weapons check.
I ate my MRE because no one told me not to. Chili Mac for breakfast with jalapeno cheese and wheat bread. I traded my M&Ms for chocolate pound cake, but each bite crunched with sand and eventually I gave up.
Daniels shot-gunned his M16, separating the barrel from the butt-stock. I sat next to him to help block clouds of swirling sand from clogging his gutted rifle.
“You’re going to make it worse,” I said.
He shot a load of gun oil into the bolt and lubed the chamber with a ragged cloth.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
I agreed with him but didn’t say as much. Some were sleeping again, Kevlar vests for blankets, faces nuzzled into helmets. I extended the bipod on my machine gun and lay against it, watching as others posed for pictures. Rifles propped up on their shoulders, in full-battle-rattle they threw up peace signs, or middle fingers, or draped arms across one another. Others walked off into the desert to get a shot without the rest of us. The sun was halfway up the horizon and, even though it was just Kuwait, I had to admit: it made for a decent photo op.
Daniels and I played war but the wind carried off cards when we weren’t careful. Eventually we only had half of them left, so he buried them “for the next unit.”
Someone yelled “Formation” and we lined up by platoon, two-hundred strong. The range controllers pulled up in a white armored SUV. Two bearded civilians stepped out. “You’ll be firing your rounds, into those targets,” one said, and pointed to the corral, “and when the ammunition is expended you’ll collect the casings and convoy back to Camp Virginia. Any questions?”
Daniels raised his hand and asked about the likelihood of seeing a camel. Someone expressed interest in shooting one. My squad leader said, “I just wanna ride one.”
The civilians ignored us.
They lined up the machine-gunners first, each of us posted in front of a black silhouette. Belts of ammunition were broken down and divvied out. I raised the feed tray cover on my M249, gently lined up the thirteen-round belt with the open chamber and slammed down the cover, locking the rounds in place.
“Three to five round burst until all ammunition is expended,” one of the bearded men said. “Fire at will.”
The soldiers beside me didn’t hesitate, but I held tight and waited. The rat-tat-tat of their gunfire echoed as dull thuds against my plugged ears. I took aim at my black silhouette and tried to pretend it was a real person. I imagined him jumping up from behind the dune with an RPG, scoping me and the other gunners. I could see in his eyes a kind of certainty, the kind that wouldn’t hesitate like I did. I squeezed my trigger and shot him in the chest, again and again until I was spent. I had a vision of blood seeping out of the holes I put in him, and I was happy. Years and years of paper targets made me yearn to engage an enemy, to prove that it wasn’t all for nothing. I thought that time might actually come.
I cleared my weapon, stood, and walked off the range smiling with the thoughts of broken bodies and exploding trucks. I was delighted that my machine gun functioned like it was supposed to; all of those intricate parts singing in unison, sending rounds out in precisely timed succession wherever I pointed my muzzle.
Back at camp I disassembled my weapon and carefully cleaned the carbon and dust from every piece. We would enter the war soon, and I wanted all of my gear to be as ready as I was.
I would be issued six-hundred rounds that weighed heavily on me and my weapon. They spent a whole year strapped to my chest, accompanying me from camp to camp. I didn’t fire a single one. I thought I would regret it, but never have.
(Copyright 2015 Military Experience & the Arts, Inc.)