The Desert

by Patrick Mondaca

Imagine there’s a point when it’s just so damn hot in that gas mask, and that cool, sweet-tasting crevice of air is so close, and the pitch-black sky is so full of countless stars that after a while, when the Scud sirens started wailing, you just stop giving a shit. Instead, you remember the Patriot missile batteries you saw at the airport coming in, and the reports on CNN showing those comforting, arcing projectiles hurtling into the air at Saddam’s Scuds, and you start weighing the odds in your head, betting it all on the Patriot batteries, inching that mask just a bit higher off your mouth and nose.

As the minutes tick by – ten hours left on your twelve-hour shift – you feel like you’re literally melting, your skin sloughing off your bones like you’ve been dipped in white phosphorus. And then you remind yourself that you are just sweating so profusely within your charcoal lined mission-oriented protective posture (MOPP) suit and gas mask that you can’t tell the difference between the sweat pouring off your face and brow and the condensation fogging up your mask as your breaths grow faster and shorter and you try not to think about passing out.

So, you force yourself to think about other things, like what you will do in the event your skin starts to boil if those Patriot teams miss and one of those Scuds actually lands. You check your gas mask case strapped to your leg for the umpteenth time, feeling around in the dark with your fingers, for your Nerve Agent Antidote Kit (NAAK). You vaguely remember that two anti-nerve agent drugs—atropine sulfate and pralidoxime chloride—each in injectable form, constitute the kit, and that in the event of a chemical or biological attack, you will pop the caps off your auto injector pens and jam the needles through your MOPP suit bottoms and battle dress uniform (BDU) trousers into your thigh. After that you’re supposed to hope for the best, I guess, while maintaining 360-degree security of your perimeter.

That thought kills a minute or so. By then it’s so foggy inside your mask that you can’t see out your lenses anyway. And you debate maybe just lifting it up over your parched, dry lips and sucking in some of that cool, delicious air and maybe stealing a quick sip of your warm plastic tasting water for a few more minutes. And then you do it. It’s glorious and the air is just fine and smells like burnt desert and not sweet like you imagine the gas would smell like. The condensation begins to clear just enough to see a little and you hope no one is about to come over that berm and shoot at you because you know that then, without a doubt, you would be a casualty of war. Probably before you could even get a shot off.

You would die right then and there with your foggy mask on and your Vietnam War era flak vest because Connecticut sent you to war with no body armor and then it occurs to you that you’re in the National Guard for Christ’s sake. You grew up in East Hartford. And now you’re here in Kuwait on the southern border of Iraq waiting, guarding a fence against an enemy you can’t see or hear or shoot if you had to listening to Scud missile warning sirens. And so you choose. You choose to tilt that mask up over your mouth and nose and breathe in that cool, nighttime desert air. You haven’t seen a Scud or Patriot fired overhead yet. Not a tracer round or aircraft or anything anywhere. Nothing but miles of endless empty desert. The invasion was wrapping up, though you wouldn’t think so with the alarms going off day and night. One could never be too sure what was a drill or if Saddam was pulling a Hail Mary of WMDs. And you think, I might just actually live through this. Just eight more hours to go. And then only a year to go. One minute at a time.

These are the things you think about on the eve of your war. When your mettle is finally going to be tested, after nearly a month of sweating in the Kuwaiti desert. Last week the platoon went down to the port to retrieve the trucks from the motor pool. Dozens of US Army Humvees, dump trucks, ambulances, fuel trucks, and water purification vehicles were parked in long rows and awaiting their drivers. The platoon’s drivers and company mechanics worked quickly in the heat to crank up stalled engines. Gunners, team leaders and medics stalked through the motor pool, scavenging anything not nailed down that might be useful.

The motor pool is a frenzy. Units coming in, units going out. Brits, Australians, Americans, Italians, Romanians, Estonians all queuing around, stacks of parts, boxes of ammunition, water and food rations. Countries you didn’t even know still had armies. Everyone wanted a piece of this war.

It is like the Serengeti with us stalking herds of dumb trucks. We pick them apart and scatter gear and empty containers like flesh and bones. Need a spare starter? The mechanics are in heaven. Rip one out of a brand-new truck and leave the carcass. Take everything and anything Connecticut never gave you.

Brand new portable generator? Grab one! Need a tire? Missing a door? Rip it off another and throw it in. Cannibalize it. Take it. Expropriate. Reapportion. Whatever. Anything is for the taking. Whole units of trucks and gear left behind in the dust. Brand new gear. Nothing like your old National Guard gear.

You decide that you should be doing something to prepare your station. You’re the gunner, so you will do gunnerly things. You decide to grease up your turret till it glides back and forth silently and deadly without a hint of resistance. You lubricate those rusty ball bearings and pintles and joints and hinges and swivels and rock back and forth, left turn, right turn, 180 degrees, 360 degrees, you spin. You make circles in your turret. You slam it, lock it down, move it like it is 1989 and new off the lot. It occurs to you that this piece of shit was probably here for the first Gulf War. That this truck was here and you were probably nine or ten. You say welcome back then, truck. We ride again. And you continue to spin.

You make mental calculations about your spin radius. You decide you will wear everything above the waist. You will ditch your gas mask and keep it at your feet. You will strap your pistol holster to your chest. You will ditch your M-16 rifle for the 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun and lay that across the turret hatch’s folded cover.

You will trade your M-9 bayonet to a British “sapper” for a bottle of wine because you know that you won’t see wine in Baghdad, and you won’t use the bayonet. The bayonet is heavy. It will weigh you down in the turret. It is bulky and you want to be light. You want to spin freely and quickly and you have two other knives, a serrated combat folder and another some sort of cool looking dagger you bought at the PX. You don’t need another knife.

You decide that war is infinitely better than stateside Guard duty. War is practical. War makes sense. If you need something you take it. If it weighs you down, you leave it. There is an urgency and practicality and pragmatism to the wartime Army that gets lost in the minefields of its peacetime bureaucracy.

You resent the National Guard now. You recount the endless counting on drill weekends of crap gear in the platoon storage areas of the Hartford Armory. Hours upon hours of cleaning already spotless weapons, reorganizing equipment in the storage conexes, mind-numbing, useless labor that never made sense to you back home. Within the confines of the Guard there was always a palatable sense of astonishing futility amongst the lower ranks. Training, training, training, and for what? You’re from New England. You’ve spent the entirety of your enlistment wandering about the leafy woods and fertile loam of the Connecticut River Valley and very much not preparing for war in a fucking sandy desert.

You’re from a lower-class family and you joined at seventeen for the college money, all a bit of a blur. Now you’re twenty-two and you’re in the middle of a desert going to fight in the Mother of All Wars against Saddam’s legions. Road marching in four feet of snow in upstate New York to prepare for a war in the Middle East made no sense to you. Firing rifles at forest green plastic Ivans, knocking icicles off your front and rear sight apertures in -14 degrees Celsius, and learning how to treat cold-weather casualties made no sense to you. But this, this war in the desert, this makes perfect sense.

Now things are clear. You have heard about the rapes and the torture and the killings and the poison gas and the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Hussein regime and it angers you. You are happy to be part of this war now. There is a sense of embarking on the “great crusade” of your own generation, one of justice and peace and vengeance for what the Iraqi people have suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein and his sons. You feel for them. This is the thing you tell yourself as you feel yourself perspiring in the early morning sun. This is the thing you tell yourself when you look at those active-Army guys with their body armor and you look at your Vietnam War era flak vest. You will make do as others have before you in worse places.

You take comfort in the fact that you have brought your department-issued body armor from home where you are a police officer and you will wear this under your shitty Vietnam War era flak vest. You are a smart gunner. A Specialist gunner who has learned a few things and seen some things. You gave back your Corporal stripes when you came back from Italy at last year’s annual training. You didn’t want to lead a team, you said. You were happy on the gun, you said. And you were. Still, sitting in your fiberglass-skinned piece of shit with sandbags packed around the turret, you look at those active-Army MPs with their up-armored vehicles and you envy them and resent the Guard some more.

Still you decide that fighting a war in a fucking desert will be infinitely better than fighting a war in the woods. In the desert there are no extravagancies. There is an absence of fluff. The desert warfighter is stripped down. A bareknuckle fighter. A desert Army must adapt or die. And out of such necessity emerges a practicality and good sense that you have never before experienced back at home.

But problems remain. The MK 19 grenade launcher that you have devoted hours learning to clean, fire and disassemble will be of no use in the urban battlespace you are about to occupy. The MK 19’s 40mm round will take eighteen to thirty meters to arm once it is fired, which is utterly useless to you in most law-and-order operations. Eighteen to thirty meters translates to roughly sixty to one hundred feet. In Baghdad, you will be conducting tactical overwatch for military police teams performing crowd control and foot patrols in crowded market places. At those ranges a MK 19 would be a dead weight – all 99.6 glorious pounds of sheer teeth-chattering, soul-shaking American-forged death and steel. A mere human paper punch boring holes in flesh and steel and scattering high explosive well past its targets. Seems like someone should have thought of this dilemma long before deploying to Baghdad. The National Guard. Or the armorers at least. Or you for Christ’s sake. After all, you’re the fucking gunner. This is your livelihood, your bread and butter. You are the guardian angel for your team.

Instead you mount your driver’s M249, a light machine gun with which you are vaguely familiar. Now you will be stuck with this sand magnet of a weapon, fine desert powder lining every oily crevice and opening of its delicate ammunition feed and short barrel. You are insulted by this weapon, and you say a silent prayer to the gods of war that it will fire when you pull that trigger. You will be a gunner with a shotgun and a pistol in reserve. At least you know they will fire.

You will figure out this war stuff like you’ve figured out everything else though, right? War is just another problem to decipher. You will plan for everything, every contingency.

Insurgents right? Spin. Insurgents left? Spin. Rear and front? You’ve got it covered. You are feeling more confident now. You will communicate with the other gunners with small handheld Motorola Talkabout radios from the PX and hope the Iraqis are not listening in. You will sip water from the hydration system on your back. You will eat and sleep in your turret. It is your perch, your domain, your battle station, your fiefdom. When it is time to move out, you will be ready.

And then you are. You rack the bolt carrier assemblies back on your M249 Squad Automatic Weapon and your 9mm Beretta pistol strapped to your chest and inject live rounds into their chambers. You rack five Remington slugs into your Mossberg and you strap it to your turret hatch. Your water hydration system is full and you have pieces of your favorite MRE in your butt-pack in case you get hungry. You have your desert issue goggles and your Oakley sunglasses on and your Surefire tactical flashlight at the close ready for signaling. You do radio checks with the other gunners in the platoon and wish them Godspeed. You play U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind CD  in your portable CD player jammed into your Camelbak, and you’re ready.

The sun rises as bright and glorious and furious as it has every day since you’ve been in this desert. The morning air is still relatively cool with a slight breeze. The sky is a stunning shade of blue you had never bothered to  appreciate before. The vast openness of the desert sands seems far  softer and cleaner than when you first saw it.

The truck engines gurgle and sputter to life. Radios crackle. The familiar smell of engine exhaust and sweaty bodies permeates the air. You give your rear gunner the “rock and roll” hand sign and flash him a grin. Nervous bravado. And then you’re moving forward. Forward to the Iraqi border and the line of demarcation.