“It just won’t come out; I’ve put this truck through the wash racks three times now.”
“Yeah, it’s like it’s formed a bond with the metal or something. I guess that’s what happens when exploding chunks of flesh fly through the air like that.” Specialist Perry responded, almost too nonchalantly considering the gravity of the event.
“Well…it creeps me out. On maintenance day I’m gonna rub brake oil or bleach on it or something.” Specialist Kern was always particular about his Humvee, of course, and never a proponent of morbid irony. And indeed, the congealed fat had turned into multiple patches of grease, forming a leopard-spotted pattern on the Plexiglas hood and steel body of Kern’s truck, and like a stain, it would not come out.
It seemed as if the Cowboys had done static security missions at the PJCC for years, though they had only been downrange for four months now. One day was seldom different from another, except when they were allowed to buy falafels and a Pepsi from a local vendor. There was intel that some Iranian agents were poisoning soldiers buying drinks from local vendors, but hell, they were thirsty. If they ever got lucky, they would eventually find a real treat: a tall, cold bottle of Kirkuk Up. Dodd had found the wrapper amongst other trash at one of the IP stations, ever since, the Cowboys searched in vain to be the first to drink one. Otherwise, there was only the monotony and the heat, but never an enemy to be seen.
The insurgents would only poke around the edges of the battlefield: launching rocket attacks from a primitive ramp, setting a road-side IED in stages in the dead of night, maybe firing a sniper rifle from the trunk of a car (or better yet a mosque), or lobbing a grenade at a mounted patrol from the safety of a crowd of civilians. The Cowboys knew the enemy was all chicken shit; as long as the 2-300 held ground, no opposition would dare come. The only fear of direct attack came in the form of the suicide bomber. This person was usually just a kid that had his head filled with bad ideology from some petty Zarqawi type, or someone who was forced to kill himself because his family would be killed by insurgents if he didn’t. It was a terrifying thought that anyone, man or woman, wearing civilian or police clothes, or driving by in a random sedan, could be rigged to explode by the push of a button. But this event was a rarity, and almost never occurred while security was in American hands.
The occasional indirect attacks were spread out enough that tedium was the true enemy. Looking through the two-inch-thick armored windshield was not only their present duty, but their only defense against boredom and the ultimate soldier sin: falling asleep. Peering out the 1114 Uparmored, the young drivers and gunners of the 2-300 FA would keep a keen eye on a young girl that cleaned the lot that the Cowboys maintained security over. The Cowboys had few taboo conversations; they could make a lewd sexual remark, then discuss God and the Afterlife followed by a debate about China’s military and economic threat to the US, and wrap it all up with gross references to Brokeback Mountain. But kids were off limits, and the ‘Boys considered that little girl to be a living treasure. She was Mom’s apprentice, sweeping up all the trash left behind by the sluggish Iraqi Police. The little Christian girl, with her family one of the few Christians left in their ancestral homeland, was a diligent worker; she had to be with all the bottles and wrappers nonchalantly strewn about Kirkuk’s Provincial Government Center. Of course, it was not unusual to see young children at work rather than play; which was fitting since many of them were middle-aged before reaching adolescence.
The Cowboys, all raised in industrious homes, in an industrious country, held no collective faith in the Iraqi police as a whole. Some, including the girl’s father, were quite capable and brave, but many if not most of them were nothing more than scrawny bums in wrinkled blue shirts, incapable of keeping Iraq safe from thugs. But as long as the bandwidth stayed on, and the cell phone towers stayed up, and the marketplace continued to thrive, maybe, just maybe, they could go home. But it really wasn’t abstract thoughts of the economy and infrastructure that got the men through another mission. It was watching that little girl cleaning up her country’s shit, just like the Cowboys were doing. The men all swore her toothy smile had therapeutic qualities. And as long as she didn’t lose heart, but continued to skip from cup to wrapper to can with a grin, those big mean soldiers would find their gaze softened, if even for a moment. A collective thought would creep in, “Maybe if there are enough like her, we can leave this place in peace.”
Alvarez was in the most depressing of straights: returning from two weeks of leave with his pregnant fiancée. All must go through it: get a taste of the real world only to have it torn from them and then be tossed back into the world of madness. This is when soldiers were apt to get killed- not having their head on a swivel looking for danger because they were daydreaming of some girl back home during a mission. This was the condition in which ‘Rez found himself. He honestly tried to keep his eye on the entry point and an ear on the radio. He just couldn’t focus with all that pent up sadness. He tried to remember back some three weeks or so (which is an eternity in Iraq) to the familiar things on mission that got him through tough days before. A delightful thought sprung into focus, “the girl, where’s the girl; she always kept things in perspective. If I could just catch her eye and see that cute little shy Mona Lisa smile all would be right with the world. He thumbed the switch on his headset, keying on the VIC system to talk to Coug.
“Hey, where’s our little mascot,” Rez asked through his headset over the rumble of the diesel engine. A long pause the answer, he checked that the switch was still on and tried again.
“Where’s the –,”
“I heard you,” Spc. Cougan replied uncharacteristically curtly.
“OK, sorry dude…so?”
Alvarez didn’t care for the quiet, cryptic answer. But Cougan could’ve just had sand in his pussy to put him in such a mood, he reasoned, having heard much worse from cranky soldiers.
“Alright, be right back,” Alvi said not needing permission or a reply.
His mind wandered as he walked nervously to the next truck, trying to figure out why Kern had become the subject matter expert on the location of that bringer of smiles.
“Hey man, where is our little mascot? I need a pick-me-up.”
Kern didn’t look up, or so much as nod to acknowledge Jay’s presence. He just looked down at the floorboards, searching for an answer that could replace the one that couldn’t be said out loud.
Meekly and in hushed tones he finally forced out a murmured, “she’s not here anymore.”
An uneasy “what?” involuntarily left Rez’ parched, sun-cracked lips, hoping that further explanation would extinguish his worry.
“She Is Not Here Anymore.”
Dread, depression, and anger formed a callous on Spc Alvarez’ mind. There was nothing ambiguous about Kern’s second response. With his heart now truly hardened, he walked back to his post. Thoughts of home fluttered away; thoughts of killing to take their place. The symbol of innocence lost, Alvarez could be ALL soldier. What need was there for humanity? After all…
She is not here anymore.