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The Night Before Christmas

by Kyle Larkin

 I hear the five-ton engines rumbling before they pull up outside our building. “Chow trucks are here!” someone yells. We unload totes and cases of bottled water and mail and lukewarm green plastic mermite tubs full of food. The last box comes off the truck and the driver, freshly shaved and in a clean uniform, walks around back to make sure it’s empty.

“Looks like that’s it,” he says, and lights a cigarette. “You guys are the end of the line.” He slams the tailgate shut and locks it in place with two metal bolts. “Say, that dinner’s probably gone cold and soggy. You got a microwave here?”

“No, it’s fine,” I tell him.

He gets in the truck and yells, “Merry Christmas,” as they drive away.

The squad leaders unlatch the containers while the rest of us form into a receiving line. We pass around miniature bottles of hand sanitizer and crane our necks to see what’s in the tubs. Schroeder plops spoonfuls of ham and chalky potatoes and cranberry gelatin onto green and red Christmas-themed paper plates as the first guys file past. I try to brush the crusted sand from my uniform and then grab a plate. There are hardened dinner rolls, a vat of yellow-green corn, stuffing, and even cartons of ultra-high temperature pasteurized milk (no refrigeration necessary) in strawberry banana, chocolate or plain.

“No gravy tonight, boys,” Schroeder says. “They musta left it at the FOB, or at one of the other Patrol Bases, or something.”

“Did they forget the beer, too?” someone asks.

I grab a seat next to Lennie. His plastic fork has snapped in half, so he holds the meat with his bare hand, biting off chunks and shoveling potatoes with the stub end of his fork. He finishes and anxiously eyes up the serving line. “Think there’s enough for seconds?” he asks nobody in particular. And then under his breath, “There’s probably enough.”

After dinner, we clean the tables and organize the cases of bottled water and MREs and energy drinks. We separate the mail according to squad, each of us scanning the shipping labels for familiar addresses as we pass boxes down the line. Sergeant Eagen struts in, looking like a military caricature with his shiny bald head and thick mustache.

“Ay, listen up!” he says. “Not bad for our first real food in a few weeks, huh?” We nod, but focus only on the packages. “I know everyone is all goddamn excited about mail call, but this is how it’s gonna work: I’ll call out names and toss letters, but the boxes have to be opened up front. I’m not gonna dig through your shit, but I gotta check ‘em.”

People dive for letters as they’re flung into the crowd. Sergeant Eagen looks inside the first few packages, but then gives up and starts throwing them to us. “Fuck it, honor system,” he says.

Envelopes and cardboard boxes are torn open. Bateman’s mother has sent an enormous package of homemade cookies and some red, fuzzy Santa hats. He tosses Tupperware containers around the room, even though he can almost reach everyone with his long, skeletal arms, and then stashes a few under his bunk. We read letters while greedily eating gingerbread men, snicker doodles, and frosted, sprinkled sugar cookies shaped like snowmen and reindeer and candy canes and Christmas trees and candles and stars and wreaths and angels.

“Mrs. Bateman is a saint,” young Mueller declares, “no matter what anyone says about her.” He looks around to make sure that we all heard him, and then laughs at his own joke. Bateman doesn’t look up from his letter, but only casually mumbles something in reply about Mueller’s red ginger hair and lack of a soul.

Schroeder holds up a picture of his two boys wearing singlets and headgear. “Caleb’s at one forty-five, but if he grows into those big paws of his, I don’t see any reason he’s not at one fifty-two by next season.” He scans further down his letter. “And Luke’s got a shot at State,” he continues. “His only loss this season was to that Janske kid from Marshland, but now he’s out for the year, so it’s wide open.” He tacks the picture to the wall above his bunk.

A commotion rises across the room near Owen—he’s received pictures of his son, born only a few weeks ago. Owen’s leave request was denied, so he cries seeing his boy for the first time. He passes around some photos from the delivery room, and Bronson holds up a shot of the baby’s first bath, shouting, “He’s hung like his Dad!” We crowd around and slap Owen’s narrow back and punch his shoulders and say things like, “He sure looks strong and healthy,” because most of us are barely out of high school and this is what we assume people are supposed to say to new fathers.

A few guys don the Santa hats and sing carols, but they trail off awkwardly during each one. Nobody knows all of the words to any songs. We laugh, but there’s something profoundly sad and pathetic about this.

Sergeant Eagen stomps into the room. “Ay, listen up! Put your dicks away. Briefing up in the foyer—ten minutes!” We carefully fold up our mail and pictures, drop big pinches of chew in our lips, and head upstairs.

Lieutenant Nelson is quietly talking with Sergeant Eagen near a large map on the wall. They could pass for father and son. We trickle in and gather around them, passing spitter bottles, and they start the briefing.

“This is tonight’s route,” the Lt begins, pointing to a red line that winds through the city. He assigns our positions, goes over contingencies, and finishes with, “Just a presence patrol tonight, so let’s take it easy.”

Eagen interrupts. “No raids or searches unless we see some shit going on that shouldn’t be going on.”

“We’re moving out at 2200,” Lieutenant Nelson continues, “so you got an hour to get yourselves squared away. Get weapons and radio checks done, and we’ll form up out front. Any questions?” He’s the same age as us, but, being in charge, his youth and inexperience stand out more than ours do, and he resembles a kid playing at lieutenant as he waits for our response. We spit in our bottles and look around, but there are no questions, so we file back downstairs.

The other two squads have tonight off, so they meander over to our bunks, curious about the mission. This is something we all do. There’s a twinge of guilt when your squad is off, even though it’s not your fault, so we ask questions to make ourselves feel better, as if doing this somehow vicariously includes us in the patrol.

“Where you guys headed?”

We put on knee pads, get our weapons and night vision ready, and tell them about the route. They help the gunners and guys with extra equipment get their packs on and, as we walk past, they pat us on the armor and tell us to be safe.

“You kids have fun,” one of them says.

We velcro our vests shut and trudge up the stairs. Someone behind us shouts, “Pick up some milk on your way home, honey!” and someone else, “Bateman, I’m going for your cookies!”

We walk out the front door into the cool, dark desert night and adjust our night vision devices, correcting the focus and fit, and then we click them off and light up cigarettes. The door swings open again, but in the bright light we only see a silhouette. It’s big Lennie with his radio pack, its tall antennas catching on the top of the doorframe, bending backward and then snapping back up into the air as he steps outside. Sergeant Eagen and Lt Nelson follow, yelling, “Form it up!” This command immediately triggers the unmistakable clicks and slaps and pops and cha-chunks of twenty men locking and loading.

We stamp out our cigarettes, put in dips of chew, and move toward the front gate. It’s not actually a gate, but just a small track vehicle next to a heavily sandbagged wooden shack, with three guys manning the guns. It’s too dark to see who’s in the shack, but one of them sings, “I seeeeee you,” as we walk past.

This city is a wasteland. Buildings are painted with bullet holes and graffiti, and some have even toppled into the streets, spilling bricks and exposing the rooms inside, with no plans for them to be cleaned up or rebuilt. People just walk around the rubble. Braided masses of tangled wires and cords and power lines hang low over the pockmarked streets that are covered with ruts and holes. The fetid stench of the city grows stronger with each step. Alleyways are the worst, with their flowing rivers of human waste that sometimes form deep pools of raw sewage along the sidewalks and roads. Massive trash heaps that have been burning all day sit smoldering. A pack of wild dogs barks and follows us as we pass the snarled strands of razor wire marking the end of our little Green Zone.

My body armor and the strap of my machine gun pull my shoulders down and forward, so I lean back slightly as I walk. Sweat drips down my neck. The plastic ammo drum attached to my gun hits against the inside of my thigh every time I take a step, making metallic rattling and clinking noises that remind me of jingle bells. Step, jingle, step, jingle. Every few minutes we stop to take a knee and scan the area, but the dogs continue barking and following us. When we come to alleyways and roads and open areas, one man crosses and pulls security until the next man crosses and taps him. Then we continue down the road. I’m scanning the nearby rooftops and windows when Bateman shoulders into me saying, “This is gonna take for fucking ever.”

He’s right. The patrol is moving slowly. We approach one of the city’s main streets, full of run-down shops with fluorescent tube lights flickering above their closed awnings. This worries the Lt. He dashes up and down the columns, talks to squad leaders, argues with Sergeant Eagen, and then sends two guys to break some of the bulbs. The first lights are smashed, and the noise is so loud that young Mueller turns around with huge eyes, mouthing, “JESUS CHRIST.” Lieutenant Nelson realizes his mistake and tries to wave the men back, but they’re already halfway down the street and don’t see him. The shattering glass excites the dogs even more, and I hear the Lt say to Price, “Shut those dogs up.” A few seconds pass, and then the sound of a single shot explodes through the empty streets. The barking stops and the brass casing jingles to a rest on the pavement.

Lights flash on in a few of the upper-level rooms, but we continue walking. I look around at the tall buildings, and their thousands of windows all seem like eyes, as if the entire city is watching us. If anyone didn’t hear the glass breaking, they definitely heard the shot. We head further into the labyrinth of putrid alleyways, zigzagging around the city. Within minutes, a bullet smacks into the sandstone wall near the front of the patrol, sending up a little cloud of dust, and we hear the gun’s report ring out from somewhere in the distance a second or two later. We get down and another shot follows, but it’s impossible to tell where it’s coming from. There are too many windows. Lieutenant Nelson panics and keeps us halted, again dashing up and down the columns with Lennie in tow, who’s calling everything up on the radio. Sergeant Eagen jogs up and whisper-shouts, “We gotta keep moving!”

We clinch our assholes and scurry past the spot where the rounds hit, then we head further into the city. The buildings and alleys all start to blend into each other, creating a claustrophobic feeling that makes it seem like the city is swallowing us whole.

Tedious, uneventful hours drag by. Guys grow tired and begin to daydream and drag their feet, barely raising their rifles when we file past roads and open areas. Thoughts of lying in our bunks creep in; thoughts of home; thoughts of girlfriends and wives and families as we wonder about the time difference and what they might be doing at this exact moment, opening presents maybe, or what they would say if they could see what we see right now; thoughts about how we won’t take things for granted anymore once we get home, even though we know we eventually will; thoughts about starting to stretch more to get rid of this goddamn backache; thoughts about the number of days left in-country, wondering helplessly what is to come in those days. We continue to walk and watch the empty streets. When we stop, I lean back to ease the compression in my spine, and then we move again. I walk and the ammo jingles—step, jingle, step, jingle—I tap Mueller, he moves forward, I raise my gun, Bateman taps my shoulder, and I continue walking again—step, jingle.

We reach our turnaround point—the mosque in the center of the city. Its enormous golden teardrop bulb looks impressive at night, especially up close, and its minarets stretch into the sky with strands of green and white lights hanging between them. But then the speakers attached to those minarets click on, a man says something, and they click back off. We freeze for a moment. There isn’t an interpreter with us, but we don’t need one to realize that whatever was said was about us. Mueller looks back and whispers, “What the hell was that?”

We turn the corner and walk our columns down opposite sides of a wide street that’s lined with palm trees. The strap of my gun has rubbed my neck raw, and my feet ache. I look ahead at the deserted street, scan the rooftops and windows, and then notice some graffiti written on a sandstone wall across the road. I turn the dial on my night vision, trying to focus on the words, which seem to be in English for some reason, but the optic is foggy from sweat. I flip the device up on my helmet to get a better look when a monstrous explosion slams me onto my back.

Its thunder echoes through the night and my ears ring as I roll over onto my stomach. Up ahead I see a tower of smoke that’s already much taller than all the buildings. The sand and dust and debris fall down on us like Christmas snow, and it seems to fall slowly, for a long time, making it difficult to see. Then we hear what nobody wants to hear.

“Medic!”

Lieutenant Nelson yells for a situation report as he and Lennie bound up the street. Doc shouts something about tourniquets, and the word makes our stomachs turn. I move up by Mueller and Bateman follows, out of breath and asking, “Who got hit?”

“I dunno. What the hell was that, a trip wire?”

“I don’t fucking know—IED probably?”

We make our way to the front and I take cover behind a palm tree. Schroeder is lying on the ground next to a big hole that’s still smoking. His legs are mangled. Doc has a tourniquet twisted on below one of Schroeder’s hips, but the other leg rhythmically spurts blood onto the sidewalk. His right arm is charred black. Lt Nelson talks to him, trying to keep him conscious as Doc works, but Schroeder can’t hear anything and doesn’t seem to know what’s going on. The sidewalk is black with his blood. He says something that sounds like, “Who was that?” but then only mumbles and moans incoherently.

Doc gets the other tourniquet on, and then puts an IV into Schroder’s arm as the response truck rumbles up the street toward us. “It’s gonna be OK, we’re gonna get you outta here,” Lieutenant Nelson says to Schroeder, holding his hand. We circle around and bend over to lift him onto the stretcher, and my fingers sink right through the torn flesh of his thigh until I touch bone. We load the stretcher into the back of the truck, and it speeds away.

Someone swears that they heard laughter coming from an open window, but the streets are still totally empty, and then Mueller says that he thinks he heard it too. Lieutenant Nelson, beside himself, gives us the order to shoot up the building, but Sergeant Eagen runs up shouting, “No! Do not shoot! Nobody shoot!” And then he grabs the Lt by his vest, “What the hell’s the matter with you, man?” He turns and yells to the rest of us, “Do not shoot! We’re heading back.” We form back into columns, our hearts thumping. “No alleys, straight down main roads, keep security, double-time, let’s move!” Before turning back, I look for the graffiti I noticed earlier. In bright red spray paint it says, in messy, childlike printing, “Have a Bloody Christmas and Misrable New Year.”

Everyone is exhausted and in different states of shock, which makes the run excruciating. A few blocks from our Green Zone, Lennie steps in a pothole and badly twists his knee, falling under the heavy weight of the radio. Bateman and I help Lennie up so he can use us as crutches, and Mueller grabs the radio. As we hobble up the driveway, someone at the front gate says, “What the hell happened out there?” But nobody responds.

We clear our weapons, Sergeant Eagen yells for a de-briefing in the dining room, and we head in through the doors where the chow trucks parked earlier. We walk in and drop our body armor and helmets and guns, and sit down, soaked in sweat. The guys who are off tonight have set out Christmas plates with leftover ham, probably just after we left on the patrol, but nobody touches them. I see the chunks of meat on the holiday plates and think of the graffiti, Bloody Christmas. We sit and wait for Sergeant Eagen, all of us staring at nothing, no one talking.

He walks in with Lieutenant Nelson, blood on their uniforms, and Sergeant Eagen says, “Schroeder’s gonna lose his legs, and his arm’s burned real bad.” Silence. “But he’s gonna live.” He paces for a few minutes, letting this sink in for both us and himself. “We reacted quick out there. Doc, you had the tourniquets on in time, great job with that, you got up there and did your job. That’s how it’s gotta be.”

Silence.

“Is anyone else hurt?” the Lt asks. “Check yourselves out, check each other out. Sometimes you can’t tell right away.”

We roll up our sleeves and pant legs and pat ourselves down, trying to figure out if the blood on our uniforms is our own or Schroeder’s. A few guys have ruptured ear drums, but nobody seems to be hurt. The room grows silent, and I think about Schroeder’s family, his boys in the picture tacked above his bunk, and I think about Schroeder without legs, spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. I think about how fast everything happened, how random it was, how it could have been any one of us. We sit for a long time. Nobody says anything except, now and then, “At least he’s gonna make it,” before trailing off and staring back at the ground.

Our First Sergeant walks in and pulls Sergeant Eagen and Lieutenant Nelson aside. They talk quietly and then the three of them walk out. After what seems like a very long time, they return.

“Gentlemen,” Sergeant Eagen says, and then takes a long pause, looking at us and thinking of what to say next. He crosses his arms, and then uncrosses them. “Schroeder’s dead.”

Silence.

“He died in the chopper on the way to FOB Python.” Guys cry quietly, some hug, some say, “No,” some stare at the floor.

“But I thought he was gonna be alright?” someone asks, uselessly.

The other squads come in, see the empty looks on our faces, and help us back to the bunks as they carry our gear. None of them asks what happened. Those of us who helped load the stretcher go outside to wash the ash and blood from our hands with bottles of water. It’s under my nails and dried in the crevices of my skin, and again I think, Bloody Christmas. We watch the brown, rusty-looking water drain into the sand, and then head back to the bunks. I untie my boots, still sticky with blood, and toss them on the floor along with my uniform, which is also ruined. I’ll throw it all into the burn pit tomorrow. Some blood has soaked through my clothes and left red-pink stains on my skin. I wait my turn for the only shower in the building—a pipe sticking out of the wall—turn it as hot as it goes, put my head under the water, and close my eyes.

When I come back, I don’t look near the empty bunk that lingers so heavily in the room. It’s quiet. Bateman gets up and we watch him take down the picture of Schroeder’s boys, then he hangs it near our whiteboard in the center of the room. I lie back and stare at the metal bars of the bunk above me.

For a few days, I keep thinking that I see Schroeder. Someone will be talking with their back toward me, or walking up ahead of me, and I think, there he is. But then they turn around. We all have dreams about him, dreams where he is alive and talking like before, but then we wake up and see the empty bunk.

Schroeder’s memorial is scheduled. Two platoons from our company, who are stationed at one of the larger bases, have arrived in the city. We haven’t heard from our brothers since we were split up, so we’re glad to see each other again, regardless of the circumstances. Right away, they start asking excited questions about the city, saying that they wish they were getting some action where they’re stationed, that they wish they were in the city with us, that they’ve been bored. We try to explain that they’re lucky to avoid “action,” that being here is terrible, that being bored is a good thing, but they insist, and we soon realize that the split has created a gulf between us. They seem like wide-eyed children. We would probably say the same things if we were in their position, but we are no longer in their position, never will be again, and we realize that we aren’t like them anymore. We feel sorry for them when we hug and shake hands.

The plan is for us to convoy to a small, nearby base for the ceremony. We get ready for the memorial, but instead of putting on suits and ties, polishing our shoes, and picking up some flowers, we put on our body armor and helmets, do weapons and radio checks, and load into our trucks, hoping we don’t get blown apart on the way there.

None of us knows what to expect from the service. We sat through a barrage of PowerPoint presentations before the deployment, but we were never given one about anything useful, such as the best method for filling sandbags, what to do when your interpreter barely speaks English, how to weld scrap metal onto an unarmored humvee, or what happens when one of us is killed. We arrive at the site for the memorial, a patch of flat, sandy ground next to some connexes.

I notice a young soldier setting everything up. He’s obviously done this before, and has a specific routine. He even looks bored as he brings out a dull green wooden stand that seems to have been built specifically for these memorials. Then he stacks MRE boxes on top of it, which are probably the same boxes used for each ceremony, and he covers this all with camouflage netting. He laces a brand new pair of boots and places them on the wooden stand in front of the boxes, adjusting them slightly until they are just right. He brings out a rifle and attaches a bayonet, clicking it into place. He turns the rifle upside down and sticks the bayonet into a pre-cut slot on one of the MRE boxes, confirming my guess that the same boxes are used each time. Then he pulls a set of dog tags out of his pocket and hangs them from the pistol grip of the rifle. A clean, new-looking helmet is placed on top of the stock. He walks away for a moment, and then comes back carrying a table with folded-up legs. He stands it up, sets a laptop on the surface, and attaches two small computer speakers with some wires. He looks at the screen, clicks a few times, and then walks away and lights up a cigarette.

It occurs to me that this might be his actual job. I want to ask him if there’s a closet where they store all of this stuff—a dead guy closet; I want to ask him how it is that he got stuck doing this; if maybe he got suckered into the first couple ceremonies, but then they decided to just keep tasking it to him since he already knew how to do everything. I want to ask him how often he does this, if he wakes up and looks at his schedule and says, “Son of a bitch. Five memorials this week.”

They call us into formation and the ceremony begins. Our company commander and Lieutenant Nelson say some things about Schroeder, but it’s obvious that the higher-ranking officers in attendance are rushing them along to avoid sentimentality. Then our First Sergeant walks out and stands in front of our company, facing us, and calls out the names of a few soldiers, waiting after each name until they reply, “Here, First Sergeant!” He only calls the names of people in my squad, and I can feel the rest of the company looking at us, looking at what’s left of our squad.

“Sergeant Schroeder!” he yells. There’s a violent flinch from most of the guys in our platoon.

He waits a few moments and then yells again, “Sergeant James Schroeder!”

Silence.

“Staff Sergeant James R. Schroeder!” he shouts at the top of his lungs.

Silence.

The young soldier who set everything up is back behind the laptop. He clicks a few things on the computer, but then, with a confused look, waves another soldier over. The second guy clicks a few more things, and “Taps” begins playing over the small computer speakers. It finishes and a high-ranking officer, whom none of us has seen before, steps in front of the formation. He says some things about how difficult it is to lose a fellow soldier, especially this early into a deployment, and that he understands our anger and pain. He describes Schroeder’s sacrifice and unquestionable courage and dedication to our country, even though they never met, but then he reminds us that we are part of a larger mission, that the deployment is still young, that we have a lot of hard work ahead of us, and so on, and so on.

After his speech, we file past the memorial one at a time, each stopping for a moment the way people pause in front of the casket during a wake—except there is no casket, and no body. I approach the makeshift stand and turn Schroeder’s dog tags over in my hand a few times, not knowing what else to do. I walk off, giving the next person their turn, and join the group of soldiers doing what soldiers are always doing when they don’t have to be in formation—standing around in a semi-circle smoking cigarettes. We don’t speak, some guys cry, and we wait for everyone else to file through. Young Mueller finally asks, “Why’d he have to call out Schroeder’s name like that?” Nobody knows why, though.

The kid who set everything up walks over by us and asks to bum a cigarette. Bateman, thinking what we all must be thinking, asks, “So, you do all these?”

“Usually,” he says, and we all smoke and think about this.

“How often?”

“I dunno. Pretty regular, I guess,” he says, exhaling a big cloud of smoke. “Got another one at 1630, but Sergeant Major makes me take all this shit down in between and set it back up later. He says it’s bad for morale to leave everything sitting out in the open like that. Just a negative fuckin’ reminder, I guess.” We are all quiet for a while again, and then he says, mechanically, “Sorry ‘bout your friend,” and walks away. I see him standing off to the side, watching us the way a bartender watches everyone after last call, annoyed, just waiting for us to leave so he can clean up.

We say goodbye to the guys from our company, uncertain when we’ll see them again and wondering if they’ll change by then, too. We put on our armor and helmets, do weapons and radio checks, and load the trucks to drive back to the city, hoping we don’t get blown apart on the way there. We trudge into the building and everyone heads straight downstairs. I peel off my gear and slump down onto my bunk. I lie back, looking toward the picture of Schroeder’s kids on the wall next to the whiteboard, where we keep a tally—three hundred and forty-two days left in-country.