The Marine Corps continued to impress him with its differences, both subtle and non, from his previously held expectations.
He had imagined bording the plane for his first deployment to Iraq to be a memorable occasion. He would enter the airport with his green sea bag in uniform, and people would shake his hand and congratulate him. Thank him for his service. The stewardess would give him free drinks the whole way, maybe even a handie-jay in the back bathroom if he was lucky. Finally he would launch himself off the plane, into a sort of waiting area with the rest of the members of his unit, who were all waiting for him. A timer would count down, and at the end it would be time to go to war, to seek out the terrorists and shoot them hopefully in the head. None of this turned out to be the case.
The airplane that took him overseas was a civilian model, a Boing 737 to be precisem but it did not leave from a civilian airport. It left from a Marine Corps air station, that happened to be just down the road from Camp Lejuene. One of the many disadvantages being, there were no baggage handlers around to load on the gear. That left a working party.
James Conner had entered the Marine Corps a Private First Class, which made him a non-NCO, otherwise known as a non-rate, otherwise known as a boot. Boots were often used for working parties. There seemed an endless amount of things to unload and load and clean in the Marine Corps, and Conner seemed to be heading into all of it. This working party was particularly painful, the packs were heavy, as well as some of the heavier gear, and hoisting it all into the plane was sweaty work.
After it was done Conner took his seat next to Ryan Sawyer. Sawyer was a boot who had started in the platoon one month before Conner. He was from Tampa, which sounded like somewhere exotic and fun to Conner, considering his years in Virginia. He wore floral print shirts a lot. His favorite euphamism was "Whatever, dude."
Sawyer was also a boot, but he was somehow more at ease with his boot status. He seemed more at ease with himself, with the military. He already had a name other than "boot", Jon Odle had christened him "Rush" While listening to Tom Sawyer as loud as the barracks stereo would play it. Odle had almost done the same thing for him, mumbling "Cum vith me if yoo vant to livv!" and called him Term, as in Terminator. That had changed to boot soon enough.
Jon Odle was a only a Lance Corporal, E-3, but he was a Salt Dog. He had been with the Platoon during its previous deployment to Iraq. This was a division Conner had never forseen, between Salt Dog and Boot. The Marine Corps was a branch of divisions, between Grunt and Pogue, or Fobbit, between one Battalion and the next, and then company, and platoon. All this seemed to foster something else Conner had not thought of, a general sense of ill will, and discontent. Marines seemed to hate being Marines.
All the Salt Dogs seemed to talk about was when they could get the fuck out. The date of the end of their active service, or EAS. They spoke about it in loud voices, at night in the barracks, over bottles of whiskey and cans of beer. They spoke about it in low murmers, in days in formation, as they waited to hear word about something or the other. That was a new reality- the waiting. There seemed to be much of it, more even than boot camp. Days were spent standing around wondering what would happen next.
The boots in Chosin Company talked much less frequently, and in lower tones than the Salt Dogs. Some of them shared stories of home, of earlier lives. Others talked about things they hoped to accomplish, during their time in the Marines. Even if the lack of morale was somewhat shocking, to Boots who had been used to Parris Island, where the Corps itself was an object of veneration, these Boots reasoned that the Salt Dogs were only a few bad apples. Maybe Chosin Company itself was a bad unit, and another one could be different, or change things around. The gear they wore looked cool enough, straight out of Call of Duty, even if a real ACOG sight did not always stay firmly attached to a real M16. Even if a real ballistic vest was over fifty pounds, with kevlar plates inserted. Even if a real helicopter was over fifty years old, not a sleek looking blackhawk or a mean looking osprey. This was still the actual Marine Corps.
But the third group of boots had decided that the Salt Dogs were right. They had made a horrible mistake, that day in the recruiters office, and that other day, boarding the bus or plane to boot camp. A number of this group had been drunk or stoned at the time, or reasoned that, their decision was so poor that they might as well have been under the influence or narcotics. Ryan Sawyer was firmly in that number. He hated the Marine Corps, hated rank and its privilege, hated working parties.
"How can you know?" Conner would argue. "You havent been deployed yet."
"What do you think deployment is?" Sawyer would say. "Its the same old dumb shit. Its working parties and fire watch and being cold and fucking miserable in the field, except people die."
"You get to kill people."
"Ask the Salt Dogs if they killed anybody." Sawyer laughed.
And that killed the conversation. The Salt Dogs would never talk about their previous deployment. The one time Conner had tried, a simple question to his squad leader, Sergeant Lazirko, what was Iraq like?
Lazirko had laughed. "Your going to die, you fucking boot!" He said. "Get ready!"
It was almost like waiting for an airplane to take off at an airport, except you knew everyone on board, and they were all carrying assault rifles. Or in Conner's case, a machine gun. The M249 Squad Automatic Weapon, which shot the same size bullets as an M16, but much faster and farther. the sight was covered by a black sock. Another detail the video games neglected. Everyone was sitting and waiting and laughing to each other. Sawyer had one of the new Ipods with a color screen.
"What are you listening too?" Conner asked.
"You like that emo crap."
"So do you."
"You like Green Day."
"Green Day is not emo."
"What are they?"
"Their punk- I mean, not really punk. More like alternative."
"Fine. So lets call Bright Eyes that then. Why dont you listen to your music?"
"All my music is on my PSP."
Sawyer laughed. "And Odles still got that shit?"
It had been nearly a month ago now. Jon Odle had asked to borrow Conner's Playstation Portable. Conner had been eager to please, and then the thing had never been returned. If the subject was broached, the response had always been "I'm almost at the next level." or "Your such a fucking boot". Either way, Conner did not know what to do.
"Hey look." Sawyer pointed. "He's playing it right now."
Conner cocked his head to see up the rows of seats. Odle was playing the PSP, showing off a level where Kratos fought an enourmous bare-tittied female monster. Sawyer laughed.
"Fuck dude." He said. "Dont be such a pussy about it. Just go up there and tell him to hand you back your shit."
"Why not? Its your stuff. Get it back."
Conner looked down, in defeat.
"I'll tell you why not." Sawyer said. "Its because Odle is friends with Lazirko, your squad leader, and Zerko will tell you to get back in your seat. Odle will say something about giving it back later, which is total bullshit. The Marine Corps has stolen your PSP and given it to a crackhead."
It was true. Jon Odle had freebased cocaine twice that year with Cory Hunter. Everyone knew about it. The rumor was that Odle had a friend to Co-Ordinate the Piss Test, and to arrange for him not to pop. The Salt Dogs looked out for each other. Conner stared at him, at the back of his head, which was much fuller of hair than Conner's own. There was another division, in the hidden Marine Corps Salt Dog/Boot split, having a lower regulation haircut. Conner missed his hair.
The flight started when Conner was dozing off, in and out of looking at old pictures on his cell phone. Him and Lila, him and his mother. Some friends from school. Finally a pic of him in dress blues after boot camp, at his mothers church. Standing straight and proud. The dress blues were not issued to him after boot camp, as he had imagined. They had cost him three hundred dollars. The only place he could think to wear them without feeling rediculous was at the church. Putting it out of his mind, Conner turned his attention back to the flight.He had gotten a window seat, out of pure luck. He remembered flying to visit his aunt in California, a long time ago. How excited he was.
The flight went on and on. It was no small thing to fly across the Atlantic ocean. There were two in flight movies, a romantic comedy with Hugh Grant, and a computer animated movie that managed to bastardize a beloved Dr. Suess fable. Conner watched movies on Sawyer's laptop instead, Sin City, and Revenge of the Sith. Sawyer had a carefully kept binder of DVD's which he never lent out. A pretty flight attendant with an english accent asked him if he wanted something to eat. He instantly felt sorry for her. Bouncing from Marine to Marine, one bad pick-up line after another. None of them standing a chance. Him especially not. A game of ratio, 1:200 being decidedly out of favor for Conner. He wondered how many guys were in Lila's college. University of Richmond.
Eight hours in and he saw that Odle was in a dead sleep. He got up and carefully picked the PSP out of his lap. Lazirko saw him and gave him a broad wink.
Camp Fallujah was uglier than he expected.
The buildings consisted of those connex containers that were towed across the country by tractor trailers. They had been decorated by roofing of sandbags. Sandbags were applied liberally to almost everywhere Conner could see.
There were several perimeters of large wire containers filled with rocks, called hesco barriers. These were stacked sometimes two stories high. Everywhere was constant activity, tan humvee's, AMRAP's, and even tan tanks moving around.
The civilian plane had taken Conner and Chosin company as far as Saudi. From there a C-130 had taken them across the border into Iraq. It was much less comfortable on the C-130. Conner was in full battle gear for the flight, ballistic vest and helmet. The cargo aircraft roared on lazily, and was cold at full altitude. Conner felt like a sardine, trapped next to everyone else in the platoon. Anonymous. He took a picture with his phone, for lack of anything better to do. After a nap he awoke with a pounding headache, and the need to empty his bladder, but found he could not move. Instead he jerked an empty water bottle from his daypack and filled it with piss.
Once off the flightline in Camp Fallujah, he had seen his first explosion. A mortar had landed with a WHUMP, not two hundred feet away in the sand, sending up a cloud of dust. Odle yanked his arm, hard, and Conner fell down. "Put your hands under your body." Odle said. "And keep your mouth open, so the pressure doesnt shatter your teeth. Conner did as he was told. Someone called out all clear, and Odle helped him up, grinning and calling him a fucking boot. When he looked in his cargo pocket Conner could see that the PSP was missing.
The first trip was to the main building in the center of the Camp, where rounds were handed out. Conner received Six hundred rounds for his SAW, two drum boxes and one belt strip. Staff Sergeant glared at everyone. "I want to see plenty of weapons maintenance, squad leaders." He said. "And no negligent discharges. If anyone shoots off a round at anything other than a haaji, he's getting a page eleven."
Conner loaded the drum, and checked his sight. Another detail, the way you could see the front sight post even while looking through the ACOG. His arms and shoulders hurt. Why did they hurt already? He tried to calculate the weight he was carrying. Fifty pounds for the body armor, twenty-five for the weapon, fifty for the pack...in video games he saw Marines holding their weapons up and pointed outward, in first person view. He could tell that that much was impossible. Maybe for a much stronger man. Why had he thought he was strong enough, to be a Marine?
The platoon dropped its packs and gear off in the conex trailer, and left for its first patrol.
There was a way to walk on patrol that was different from walking normally. It consisted of turning and watching where you were going, what was around you, and the man behind you. You never bunched up on a patrol formation, always kept dispersion. That way a grenade or IED could only kill one person, supposedly. All of this Conner knew in a purely academic chest, and it caused his heart to beat near out of his chest.
Fallujah was an ugly city. City was being generous describing it, an ugly town. Trash littered the streets. Empty plastic bags blew freely in the wind, stopping only when caught on a corner, or a pile of garbage. The smell of refuse and excrement filled Conner's nostrils. As if the city was wearing a diaper that had not been changed. Between them the Striker quietly rolled. "Radio check." The lieutenant said, across Conner's headset, to no one in particular. "Lima- charlie." Conner said into the mic. The command came from up front, a raised fist. Freeze.
There was little to look at. The Marines in front of him and behind, the vehicle between. There had been no people on the road. Fewer still in the buildings, sometimes the barest hints of a face, behind an open window. The sun was very bright overhead. It made him squint. Looking ahead he could see Odle wearing his Oakleys. Sunglasses. Why hadnt he thought of that? Marines in the pictures were always wearing sunglasses. Why hadnt they told him anything.
Anger filled him, flooding into his gut. They wanted him to fail. He was set up to be a boot, not a warrior. Sergeant Lazirko was in on it with Staff Sergeant Kurre and even Lieutenant Easter. They wanted him to do poorly. Their hate for the Corps had spread out until they hated everyone that was coming into it.
"Its a dead dog." The radio said. "In the middle of the road. Somethings stuck under it."
"Its an IED." Staff Sergeant said. "Nobody touch the fucking thing."
A lone child came out of a doorway. It was barefoot in a blue shirt the color of clear sky and green shorts like thick grass. It waved at Conner and he could see the gap between its missing baby teeth.
"American." The child said. "Biscuit. Biscuit."
The shot hit the wall next to the door. It was a clear snap, of the bullet passing within inches of where Conner knelt. "CONTACT LEFT!" Someone shouted. Conner jerked around and his foot became entangled in the SAW sling. He fell on his stomach. another shot snapped pass, and he heard the child make a wet, meaty sound.
It was all happening in slow motion. he was in the prone position, somehow, the bipod legs had come forward and out when he fell with the SAW. When his foot had gotten caught in the sling the clasp had failed entirely. He was behind his weapon, staring out the optics. It was tight against his shoulder. Their was someone in the building he was looking at.
He fired a long burst. The SAW howled braaaaap and the rounds crunched along the bottom wall, underneath the man at the window. He seemed to see it all clearly, the way the clay or concrete or whatever material the building was composed of splintered under fire. He looked back, out from under his sights. The rest of the platoon was doing the same thing, firing. at the building. Every Marine seemed to want to get a piece of it now, firing up at the building. This continued for a minute or so, than the call rang out, "CEASE FIRE! CEASE FUCKING FIRE!" It was Staff Sergeant Kurre. "First squad, get in there and clear that building!"
First squad, Conner comprehended a moment later, that means me.
He was up and running full tilt for the buildings door. The rest of his squad was there, Jon Odle, Lazirko, Sawyer, East, and Lopez. The sling was dangling loose, and he wrapped it around his arm while they stacked at the door. A random thought; how much did a new SAW sling cost? And then Odle was demonstrating the art of how to kick in a door, not in front, while standing in the fatal funnel of fire, but from the side, kicking back and through like a mule. From there Lazirko was the first man through, clearing the corner expertly. Conner noticed the carpet at the front door was suprisingly nice, seemingly woven from a rainbows worth of colors. He was midway through the stack, and the rest of the squad was peeling right and left, entering the room.
When it was his turn he was agressive about it, relying on what limited MOUT and CQB training Chosin Company had saw fit to bless him with before deployment. He was lifting his SAW in the ready position, staring through the ACOG, and noticed for the first time that it seemed light and efortless. His gear no longer seemed heavy. Everything was exciting and new, as if it were Christmas morning, and he had justed unwrapped a box marked War.
The first floor cleared, the squad moved their way up to the second. It was here in the middle that they found the shooter. He was wearing the black pajama tops that marked him as a haaji. There was no weapon in his hand, but an AK magazine spilling out its rounds. The blood around him was very red, almost neon, giving the entire scene the unreal drama of a cartoon.
"Find the weapon." Lazirko said.
Conner searched around the room. There seemed to be no real place to hide anything. The floor was bare concrete with no furniture, save a lone chair lacking a seat, unlike the furnished lower area. The rooms were equally barren. Cockroaches skittered in the corner, bringing up a twinge of memory for Conner, growing up their old dishwasher had been infested by a nest of cockroaches. They spent an in ordinate amount of time at the task. Finally the radio broke with Staff Sergeant Kurre's voice. "Pull out." He said. "Were going to use the Striker."
The devestation was a beautiful thing. The striker cried poom-poom-poom out the barrel of its gun, not as heavy as a tank, but glorious still. Conner watched the whole thing play out. Then noticed a side drama. Someone was down on the ground, clutching a bloody hand to his eye. Devening. Doc Finley was working on him frantically.
"I cant see." Devening was saying. "I cant see."
"Hold on." Doc was saying. He was wrapping a white bandage over his head.
"Easy, son." Kurre was saying. "What was it?"
"Looks like shrapnel."
"Did it get through the eyepro?"
"Where's your glasses?" Sergeant Lazirko asked.
"I dont have any glasses." Devening said. "Can I have something for the pain, doc? Its starting to hurt."
Kurre grew tight lipped. "After patrol I want to see the squad leaders in my hooch." He said. Lets finish up here."
But the patrol was finished up. Further progress down the street was blocked by the dogs-body IED. They stayed until the EOD arrived, to blow it, which turned out to by a dud. Afterwards they left, and night was starting to fall.
Back at the Camp the platoon had missed chow. The adrenaline had worn off and Conner was tired and hungry. He tore ravenously through his MRE. Jon Odle came up to him.
"Has anyone shown you how to make mac and cheese?"
"No." Conner said.
"Take the cheese spread and heat it up next to the butter noodles, and mix it together. Its not that bad."
"Save the tabasco for when you have to stand a long post, and dab a little bit in your eye."
"That sounds gross."
"I'm just trying to look out for you, boot. I was worried about you today."
"I saw you fall when the sniper shot that kid."
Conner's gut turned. "The kid was shot?"
"Yeah. It was nasty. We covered the body up with a poncho. I thought they were aimed at you and I thought, fuck, man. The boots gone."
"But instead it turned out to be a dead kid."
"Let me tell you, I was fucking relieved. Dead kids are easy to forget about. Dead boots haunt you."
"I mean, your never going to forget what happened to Devening."
"What did you learn today?"
"With Devening? He got hurt."
"Devening took shrapnel to his eye. Why wasnt he wearing his eyepro?"
Odle snapped his fingers. "Thank you." He said. "We have learned that boots are boots, and boots are too dumb to know what eyepro is. So when eyepro is put on the packing list, boots ignore it, instead of thinking, dur dur dur, go to commisary and buy a pair of glasses. And we have learned that, when these boots go out on patrol in Iraq, they lose their eyeballs."
The entire patrol played itself through Conner's mind. His eyes exposed. His unrealized fuck-up.
"Anyway." Odle said. "I have these Oakleys. And I have another set, if your interested."
"Yes, yeah. But its going to cost you."
Conner's heart sank. "Fine."
Odle reached into his seabag and pulled out a pair of black sunglasses. "These are real." He said. "Not fakeleys. Thats important. Real Oakleys are rated for much more of an impact than fakeleys. Try them on."
Conner did as he was told.
Odle gave him a thumbs up.
When the squad leaders returned from their ass-chewing with Staff Sergeant, clear eyepro glasses were passed out to the platoon, free of charge.