The trip to Fallujah was not an incredibly long one, as the Marines had only been brought there to supplement the forces needed for Operation Phantom Fury.At the end of the deployment the Marines of Chosin Company boarded helicopters and flew out over the ocean where the USS Bataan was waiting with in the Persian Gulf, for just such a purpose.
The USS Bataan was an LHD, a Landing Helicopter Deck, which was similiar to an Aircraft carrier, but without a runway for takeoff. It was larger than a small ship, at any rate, which made all the difference in the world in terms of living conditions. In the Navy, the smaller a ship was, the more cramped and crowded it was going to be, with the worst living spaces reserved for the human potted meat on board submarines. The Bataan was larger than that, and it had very specific conditions on board for hauling around Marines.
It was a new experience for Conner, flying over the water like this. Before flight the crew chief had passed out a sort of grey life vest for everyone to wear around their neck, as what Conner imagined a good luck charm. He was still weighed down with fifty pounds of gear, and his weapon. Not to mention the fact that the helicopter, when it hit the water, would sink like a stone. If it didnt explode first. Still he wore it, as ordered, for the reasoning of uniformity that everyone else in the platoon was doing the same. When the helicopters pulled around, circling the ships, small and grey in a postcard-blue ocean, Conner wished for the first time that he had brought a camera along.
On the ship the Marines filed past sailors that seemed mildly annoyed, or somewhat curious. The Navy service uniform was digital blue and grey, with black boots, but more than a few of the sailors seemed to wear other uniforms, or parts of a uniform. It was a different world than Chosin company had seen before. They marched right through it, squeezing into the berthing area home.
Once all the packs and gear were stowed, and the rifles and SAW's and additional weapons put away into a small area reserved as an Armory, the berthing area was not altogether uncomfortable. It mostly served as rows of bunks, stacked three high. For each bunk the top came up to make what was reffered to as a coffin locker, where clothing or personal items could be stored. There was also an amusing pastime known as "rack-jacking", that was exposed a key flaw in the beds design. The coffin locker was secured by a combination lock. But if left unsecured, an able bodied Marine could lift it up, while his comrade was asleep in the bunk adorning its lid. A brace would come out and prop the locker open, and the Marine being pranked would flail, plead, curse, or threaten, while his colleagues laughed and took pictures. Or video. On two occasions Conner found that Odle had rack-jacked him, and on both instances he simply sat there and tried not to feel claustrophobic, until someone passed by with pity and let him down.
Life on board a ship turned out to be a sort of holding pattern for Chosin company. There was a gym on board you could PT at-if you wanted to. There was a chow hall you could eat it- if you wanted to. There was a library full of crappy paperbacks and outdated computers for e-mailing home you could use-if you wanted to. There was also a bunk that you could sleep in for twenty hour stretches at a time-if that was more your speed. In fact, the only actual responsibilities you had at all, was to shave, wash your ass, and get a haircut once a week. Everything else was optional.
One of the best options was the smoke deck. There were two actual smoke decks. One was the ramp that led down to the ships storage area, full of pallets and conex's with gear and supplies. The other, better option, was on one of the walkways outside the ship itself. So you could gaze out at the ocean, or underneath, at the ships movement, and feel like a king with all that white churning froth below. After you finished your smoke, you could cast it into the eternal endless ashtray of the ocean, and watch the dolphins that followed the ship, or the seagulls that came in if you were close enough to shore. It was all sort of majestic and proper, and it was here that Conner met Logan.
"Hello." She introduced herself. "My name is Logan, and I'm a lesbian."
"Uh." Conner responded, "Hey. I'm lance corporal Conner."
"What rank is that?"
"E-three. Our E-3 is Seaman apprentice."
"I mean, what the fuck is that? I'm a women, and I dont have any semens. On top of that I'm a lesbian, and I dont want any. Some old bullshit."
Conner took in the pair. Logan the lesbian was petite and thin, with short cropped brown hair and light blue eyes. Small breasts and narrow hips. He thought she could pass for Peter Pan in a musical. Her friend was nearly opposite, wide-hipped and assed, with pendulous breasts that strained underneath her uniform. Even her haircut was different, more butch somehow. She looked the more realistically gay of the two, although she had not introduced herself with her sexual orientation, the way Logan had. In public she would have been pegged as nothing less.
"I dont know." Conner said. "I guess it sounds better. It still doesnt rate anything."
"This is Denise." Logan said, and Conner shook hands. "Anyway, the reason why we stopped over is to let you know you have a great face for a chick."
"I mean, your facial structure. You have nice cheekbones. And lips."
"Is this how you talk to people?"
"A dont talk to people, that much."
"When you say people, you mean Marines."
"I heard sailors hate Marines."
"Most sailors do. A lot of them dont like queers either. I dont give a shit either way."
"Just thought you should know."
"Nice to meet you, Logan the lesbian."
With that introduction, Conner assumed he had met one of many colorful individuals that had peppered his military career thus far. They would pop up, make some noise, and then return to their own situations, leaving him in relative peace and quiet. This did not turn out to be the case. Logan was a cook , and the following Tuesday Conner was assigned to chow hall duty.
The Bataan's chow hall was a center of activity during meal time, and one of the few common areas to the ship, besides the berthing or smoke deck. Mysteriously the floors of the chow hall were speckled blue and white metal laminate, which made it uglier than it otherwise would have been. The benches and tables were secured to that floor in a sort of fast food style.
You went through the line first, which could stretch almost the length of the ship on a good day. You grabbed the food buffet style, unless it was a rare treat like lobster or steak, in which case a cook would hand you the item to your tray with a pair of tongs. There was a juice dispenser, a coffee pot, and a cappucino machine. Finally there was a slot where you deposited your empty tray, to a washroom.
Behind the scenes the kitchen worked hard enough, which Conner got a free pass to stay out of, due to his proffesed lack of cooking skills. Jerel Swinney didnt get such a pass, and had to stay with the food prep all night, until he came back to the berthing area stinking like the insides of a refrigerator. That was the shift they were all on, nights, from ten AM to six in the morning.
At midnight there was a meal, for all the sailors on overnight shift, and a few Marines that liked to stay up late and had nothing better to do. Conner wiped down tables and mopped floors when chow was over, or stayed in the dishroom. The dishroom was a sort of purgatory with a never-ending flow of cups, trays, and silverware, and the occasional NCO complaining about the cleanliness of one thing or another. It was monotony that made the time go by, but made you stink worse than the kitchen. Only two people could fit inside the dishroom at a time.
Finally there was the garbage compactor. It was a hungry sort of mouth with a rubber cover, that would eat anything. All sorts of leftover food went into it, as well as the ships garbage. The ship managed to generate a ton of garbage bags, tin soda cans, plastic soda bottles, old magazines, old clothing. A societies amount of refuse. One night Logan showed him where it all went.
There was a small hatch by the side of the garbage compactor area that led to a tiny walkway. Outside the darkness of the open sea was absolute, and the stars overhead were as clear as tiny pinpricks of heaven. Conner and Logan worked as a team, forming a sort of chain. They took each bag, full of plastics, food waste, metal, or whatever, that the compactor had just shredded, and pitched it all into the ocean. After it flew from his hands Conner realized that he could hear the actual impact on the water below, and see the spray, once his eyes adjusted to the light. It was faint but there. Afterwards Logan gave him a cigarette, and the two of them enjoyed watching the red embers illuminate a friendly face, of only a little.
"We cant do this in American waters." Logan said.
"Toss this shit overboard. If were within a hundred miles of American waters, we can only dump organic waste. Food shit. We have to bag everything else up, like, can with cans."
"Nope. We never recycle anything."
"The captain always makes sure we get over a hundred miles from American waters, so we can dump shit." She smiles, ghostly in the light of her smoke. "Can you imagine if the recycling people found out about this? All those ships, across the world, pitching shit into the oceans."
"There's a patch of trash outside in the ocean." Conner said. "I read that somewhere. Its supposed to be the size of Texas. In the Pacific."
"I mean." Logan said, "We have to assume that all the ships do this. Shitting their way across the ocean. But, yeah, with all the PC shit that's out there," Logan assumed a mocking recruiters tone, "Navy-accelerate your life! Dump shit in the ocean!"
"They dont tell you about that stuff." Conner says. "At the recruiter. They just have the cool shit on display."
"For sure." Logan says. "Except for you guys. I mean, the Marines dont try to sell the cool shit, right? They let you know whats going to suck."
Conner shook his head. "Nope." He said. "Thats what everyone thinks. But even when the Marines show you the recruiting videos of Marines at war, its still bullshit, because war isnt really like that."
"Well." Logan says. "Fuck."
"And besides, they always show you the Marine in dress blues with a sword. Do you know they dont issue dress blues in boot camp?"
"Really? Why not?"
"Its really expensive. I mean, the main part of it, the coat, is a little over five hundred bucks."
"So how do all you guys have it?"
"Most of us dont have it. When you see a picture of a Marine- because he got killed in Iraq, or whatever, and he's in his dress blues, he's not in his dress blues."
"Okay, so halfway through boot camp, they have you take this picture. And its a head and shoulders shot, the dress blues picture. Only instead of dress blues, your only wearing the head and shoulders part of the uniform. With the white cap. Which you dont get to keep, and everyone stands in line, takes a picture, and then the next guy puts it on."
"Yeah. Its basically an optional uniform."
"Thats fucked up. I mean, people probably enlist, so they can wear that uniform. And then they have to spend an entire paycheck to buy it."