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The Line of Departure

by Jonathan Smith

It’s the waiting that kills. Just sitting there waiting in the dark. It was dark-dark, the kind of dark that doesn’t reveal itself, even under moonlight. For the night vision goggles (NVGs) to work we needed that kind of ambient light. All the gunners and drivers were using them, even though we’d been sitting there some two hours already. Thousands of Marines are sitting on the Line, waiting and thinking about what will happen when we cross; how it will happen, if it will happen. Some of us took a special kind of pride in the fact that we were about to cross The Line, as if we were all told a big secret no one else knew, special information the American public wasn’t going to hear until the break of dawn. This was the big news the President would deliver, explaining how we’re going to war and how they’re going to watch it and not know it. And then some of us came to the realization that we really didn’t care about this big secret because the closer we came to seeing it the more it scared the ever living shit out of us. Some of us simply prayed to God that we would live through it. Or if it had to happen, that we would be shot, superficially, the million-dollar wound. Not too much, not too little, but just right. Superficially.

But you had to have been there to really appreciate the sight of it all in that kind of light, a kind of blanket darkness that wraps your body, entering through your eyes and pressing down through your fingers. It was invisible light that hid everything, even the night sky. Sometimes you tried looking forward in the dark, at something or someone you knew once existed, that you’d seen before, but now couldn’t. Surrounding you were many things that had been tangible with the sun shining down on them like gifts from God. And you had to work with them using your tools of the trade, weapons of survival, bodies of mass and flesh and metal that could be heard and smelled and tasted and felt. But not seen. Nothing here could be seen because it was covered by dark. There was the low and steady rumble of tracks and Abrams, their diesel and jet engines consuming and pushing into more and more darkness, swallowing the darkness as the darkness would swallow them. The five-tons gurgled and lurched, their airbrakes creaking and groaning like an extinct dinosaur breathing alive again, once powerful but now dead then suddenly brought back to life. And of course, the screech of the squawk box, a device that would signal the course of action and enable us to cross the Line:

“Radio check, radio check…copy, over…hell copy.”

The squawk box startled everyone  because it sounded like one of us; human.

From an aerial view one might have seen a dark vein of mechanization sitting patiently before an attack that was sure to get the vein flowing. Tracks and LAVs, trucks and five-tons and highbacks, even a few deuce-and-a-halves. And leading the way at the Tip of the Spear were the tanks. Second was Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAAT Platoon), Weapons Company pushing Regimental Combat Team-5 (RCT-5) through the Line. Tracks carrying the crunchies followed in tow, then supply as usual bringing up the rear with their water buffalos and stacked pallets of MREs, plus any extra gear we’d given them in Kuwait, the country we were still technically in.

We were staged.

*****

“Smith,” Mendez asks me in the Border Patrol Nest (BP) two weeks earlier, “Are you a good gunner?”

Am I a good gunner? I thought that question a little weird. We’d both been in the Marine Corps for the same amount of time, and after two-and-a-half years practicing all the ways to kill people you damn well better be good at your job. We were also the same rank—Corporal—and knowledgeable with our weapon systems. He the Javelin. I the TOW. That made us anti-tank missile men.

“Yeah, Mendez” I told him, “I’m a pretty good gunner.”

“Good, ‘cause I don’t wanna die, Smith,” he said, looking up at me in the gun, “I don’t wanna die.”

On the morning of March 18th we began to wait some more in the dark. There were already rumors that RCT-1, the unit to cross the Line first, had encountered slight enemy resistance. Any resistance is ‘light’ against 120mm, thermal wrapped smoothbore barrels. Tank work, light work for CAAT.

So here’s how a CAAT platoon operates, in theory: A TOW Gunner spots a tank. He tells the machine gun vehicle to position himself and be ready to suppress the enemy as he fires his missile. The machine gunner opens up with a .50 cal. (SLAP rounds) while the TOW Gunner fires an anti-tank projectile. TOW missiles are guided by thin spools of wire—four thousand meters long—that are fired from the tops of Humvees. This wire is connected to a missile tube loaded into a traversing unit which sends electronic signals to the optical sight, enabling proper tracking, day or night. It is a phenomenal piece of machinery.

As the machine gunner suppresses his target from a defilade—suppression and distraction—a TOW missile is fired by an anti-tank missile man, such as Quintero, or Mendez with his Javelin.

Quintero… who wouldn’t think twice about shooting a missile, who would react, who would need no telling on what to do. Exceptional

“TOW on the wire!” the gunner says.

“Back blast area all clear!” he says before that.

“Fire in the hole!” The finale.

Pop, whiz, bang…Impact! Pucket had taken the shot. God Damn Pucket pulled Quintero out of the gunner’s seat for the first kill of the Iraq War, which was a dead tank. We had killed an abandoned tank on the eve of the Iraq War, with extreme prejudice.

Two hours earlier we had been quiet like kids after a day at Disney Land. Everyone listened to the traffic on the net, its short static bursts and homely voices. We watched Arty send up 105s miles behind us in safe little positions far away from the front. With our NVGs turned on and working their misty green magic the sky went from pitch black to light green to excited neon fuzz. Small green and white dots swarmed our vision, buzzing like fireflies with little moonlight, finding peace of mind in bright light. And with enough moonlight you can see anything through NVGs. Arty began painting the canvas for us, brush strokes containing hundreds of thin white and green arches streaming across the horizon, some disappearing into the dark, others a meteor shower of a thousand comets rising from the ground, volleying towards The Line, then past it, burning into already burning oil fields.

Destination, Baghdad.

With all the noise there came silence. Still silence. Pounding in your eardrums silence. Crunchies are sweating it out in the back of tracks. Some hold rosaries linked by soft wooden beads, crosses sway under their grip, carved faux-ivory painted black, blood design ink pressed into bone. Here we are, sitting, waiting, anticipating. Catholics, Mexicans, Filipinos, Southerners, Racists, West Coast liberals…Marines clearing their bad list with the All Mighty, forgiving others and themselves. Repeating their chants, their combat prayer:

Oh please God I don’t wanna die! I don’t wanna die! Oh please God don’t let me die! Please don’t let me die I promise I’ll do everything you say.

Those who are not religious pray anyway, they pray for all and any type of divine intervention to strike down and smote thy enemy with Hellfire and indirect.

In the beginning, before we crossed, there would be nothing but shallow breaths rising beneath our flak jackets, quick puffs of the life lifting and leaving under SAPPI plates. Rising, lowering, rising. Under the flak jackets we wore mission-oriented protective posture (MOPP) suits. They protect us against nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks, if donned properly. The third layer, what lay between us and the elements and the enemy, is nothing more than metals and hard plastics: kevlar, depleted uranium, .50 cal. ammunition that will go the cyclic rate, 81s and 500-pounders cracking the strata so deep that nothing could or would want to walk away from that kind of display of firepower. What a fucking show! Why, with the Abrams and the Cobras and the mother of them all, the A-fucking-10-Warthog, bringing it down in a fiery, rainy mess…There would be no contest. No contest, bitches.

CAAT platoon. Stuck in her trucks. Seated uncomfortably beneath fiberglass shells providing the protection for seven TOW missiles under the hatch. Machine gun vehicles weighed down by 40-Mike-Mikes to feed the Mark, cases of SLAP for the .50…

The precious .50…and thousands of yards of belted 7.62, food for the goat. We sleep next to our munitions for days, weeks, months.

The night was surprisingly cool for the desert. It was still winter, and breathing air through your nostrils sends chills to your brain. The air was thin and crisp and refreshing despite the strong smell of JP8 rising from the mufflers. Gas surrounds us, it lingers as toxins do, invading and penetrating the protective suits. Things in the vehicle seemed to take on a strange shape. The steering wheel feels extra thin, bone thin, lined by small ridges rising on the backside, absorbing your fingers like a dragon’s tail, or a spinal column laid down to stretch on the rack. You are the driver and you are in control and you curl your fingers around the plastic steering wheel and it feels cheap. Trashy.

Since it was nighttime we had the headlamps turned off. We didn’t even have our blackouts on. Everything but the engine sits quietly. Someone behind me opens an MRE. I can hear crackers breaking. Water is poured into a sulfuric heater. It bubbles and fizzes. Peanut butter spread oozes out. It is applied. M&Ms tumble and sprinkle onto brown paste. Pock, pock, pock. They leave dents, scarring the smooth surface with chocolate chip droppings. Fuckin’ Kerman and his peanut butter spread. Fuckin’ peanut butter spread and crackers. Fuckin’ M&Ms and the war. And where the hell’s the coffee? Or the smokes?

I put my head between my legs and touch the pedals with my dirty hands. There are two of them. It smells different down here. I touch my lips; they are so dry. I light a cigarette. The match sends smoke up my nose making my eyes water. It stings. I sit back up and slide deep into my seat to hide the glowing cherry. Smoking at night is prohibited, but I am careful and discrete about exposing the glowing cigarette. Besides, it is the eve of war.

Exhale.

I hold my breath. Head spinning. I fell nauseous. I smell the air and it tastes sweet. Rich diesel blows from the tracks staged to our left. They sound so old. I slouch even lower and take another drag. A Long drag. The cherry brightens, crackles. Glowing, burning, faster, I can see my nose, my visage. I can see more things, my hands. I see, I see…

“Put it out,” Pucket says, very matter-of-factly. Pucket, the vehicle commander, killer of dead tanks. Sergeant Pucket, call sign, Farmer John. Two kids and a wife and a father who’d just died back in the States, and because of that he got to go home for a week to attend the funeral. I curse him and hate him when he comes back to attend the war. He could have stayed home and watched it from the TV. We have many embedded reporters here. I hope they die in combat before we do.

Farmer John had the golden ticket and lost it, on purpose. But we all have a golden ticket, of some sort. If not golden then bronze, or onyx. An onyx ticket to tell our grandkids about.

“What was it like?” everybody asks Pucket, referring to back home.

“They all wanted to know what’s going on over here.”

So we ask, “What’s going on over here?”

“Nothing new, really…same ol’ same ol’.”

Wow, the States. Rumor has it that Jim Carrey’s dead. How in the hell did that happen? Now Farmer John is telling me to put out my smoke, my smoke, which could be my last smoke, my only smoke, and probably the best smoke of my life before we drive into a minefield, or AK fire, or a tank round.

“Light discipline, Smith…put it out.”  He slouches into the VC seat before turning his back and assuming the fetal position.

I turn my NVGs on and look up the turret to see if Quintero is wearing his. He is not. I turn around and look at every one else in the truck. The coast is clear.

Pucket, who in a week will survive the ambush,   still has his back turned to me, sleeping his old man sleep. He is wise. Kerman, who will kill ten Iraqis in seven days, is passed out with his mouth wide open, chin dotted with cracker crumbs. Boot. Quintero, who on the seventh day will survive an RPG to the stomach, is playing with his K-bar and staring off into the darkness, rubbing his thumb against the edge of the blade. Moto motherfucker. And then there’s Doc J, who will die on Tuesday morning. He’s trying to read his Bible in the dark, folding it open with welcoming hands, feeling the spine with searching fingers, head humbly bowed, shoulders slouched, knees knocked shut.

I turn the NVGs off and place them on the center column. It is safe. I reach into my pants with one hand, take out some MRE tissue with the other, and beat off in less than a minute. The process is fast but slow, one jerk after another. I get off and it feels great. No, I feel great. But worse, I can’t smoke.

An hour later and it’s 2335. There’s still a light show in the sky and traffic on the net is quiet, just a muffled beep here and there from the squawk box. Some of us went back to sleep, but all of us were silent when we crossed the Line. The sun wouldn’t rise for another three hours.