Car bombs, rockets and scented candles
After I completed my guard shift last night, I changed into pajamas – red and black checkered bottoms with my Army-issued brown T-shirt. I was very tired and quite anxious to crawl into bed. I turned the radio dial to 107.3, TFO Radio, and was disappointed to hear Britney Spears – while she’s great to look at, I’d rather pull latrine duty than listen to her. So, I curled up in my sleeping bag and softly whispered my nightly prayer: “God, please forgive me for my sins. Watch over my family. And protect our soldiers. Amen.”
Then, I heard the distinct sound of the AK-47. This was followed by .50 caliber, M249, M4 and M240 gunfire. It was about 2 a.m., and the fighting was close by, which meant the enemy was attacking the camp or somebody has a really bad sense of humor. I jumped out of bed; my body gearing up as it had before: a tingling sensation, hairs curling up on the back of my neck and an overwhelming eagerness for the gunfire to stop while at the same time desiring to get right in the middle of it. I grabbed my M-16 and met my captain in the foyer of the palace. In my haste, I forgot that I was still in pajamas. Even when tracers were lighting up the sky, the only thing I could think about was “Man, I hope a sergeant major doesn’t walk in right now and see me in pajamas.” Boy, why aren’t you in uniform? Luckily, my captain was in similar garb, so I didn’t feel so bad.
At that moment, my captain and I were the two most heavily armed men in the world wearing pajamas. We never locked and loaded our weapons. After all, we were inside the palace and there’s no way the enemy is getting through that wall of .50 cal gunfire. But should they breach the perimeter, we were ready to defend the Alamo. The fighting subsided after a few minutes and the last weapon fired was held by an American soldier, so I think you know who won.
Turns out, the fighting was quite a bit further away than we thought. I felt pretty dumb after I learned how far. So, it was back to bed… I said my prayers (again), this time I added a special thank you, and thought about the day’s events.
Earlier in the day, fighter jets lit up a large pocket of insurgents as our ground troops moved in, eliminating more than 20 terrorists. Also, a suicide bomber driving a truck loaded with more than 1,000 pounds of explosives attempted to run into one of our bases. He was unsuccessful. Soldiers saw the truck closing in on the gate and opened fire. The bomb prematurely detonated, killing the bomber and an American soldier. I focused on this soldier during my prayer. While I didn’t know the soldier, my heart was filled with pain. Each time one of us dies, I pray he or she is the last one.
Of course, every day for the past year, I have prayed specifically for the soldiers in my unit – a National Guard Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. Today, I was worried that for the first time this prayer was unanswered. Rockets hit the camp and we had everybody accounted for, except for one.
I’ll call him “Tommy.” Tommy’s the kind of guy who if you were barefooted in a sticker patch, he’d give you his shoes and suffer the prickly thorns puncturing the bottoms of his feet. He smokes more cigarettes than Larry King did back in the day, and he has that good-old American soldier sense of humor (if you’ve ever served, you know what I’m talking about). Great guy and he’s coming home with us!
I looked in the dining facility. Not there. Looked in the motor pool. Not there. Looked in the mail room. Not there. Looked in the MWR facility. Not there. And the last place I looked was last for a reason. The aid station. I’d been in this building before after an indirect fire attack and watched our medics save lives. I’ve also seen them pound their fists in anger after they did every thing they could to resuscitate a soldier. This time, the room was empty. Although I was quite relieved that Tommy was not on a stretcher, I was still frustrated. Where is he?
Then, from a distance, I saw him walk into the palace. I quickly followed from behind and when I caught up to him, “Tommy where the hell have you been?” I didn’t ask; I barked. Always respectful and showing military bearing, Tommy stood at parade rest (the modified position of attention and proper stance when addressing senior NCOs). “Sergeant, I dropped off my laundry.” Why didn’t I think of looking there?! “Oh, well, we were worried about you. Did you hear the impact?” He shook his head.
Just thankful he was OK, I wanted to give him a big hug at which point I realized I’ve been here too long… I’m wearing pajamas to bed and feeling the need to hug another man. War is supposed to make people tough, not sensitive. Next thing you know, I’ll be reading Cosmopolitan and asking people to send me scented candles in care packages. I pray this never happens.