A Short Story
By Dan Sukman
The voice got louder, and I looked around the terminal to see who was calling for me.
“Captain Mailer, how was your leave?”
I turned around and saw Staff Sergeant Mario Washington walking towards me. He was hard to miss, standing just over six feet tall, with the frame you expect on someone who spends every free moment in the gym.
“I enjoyed the down time,” I answered. “How was your two week vacation?”
“We had our little girl,” he responded with a shining grin. “We were lucky; I made it to Chicago with one day to spare.”
“So you had some quality time with your daughter then. I’m thrilled for you.”
“Thanks, Sir. What seat are you in?”
“I got 15 A. Assuming they leave an open seat in each row again, looks like we’ll be sitting together again.”
Two weeks prior, Mario and I sat next to each other on the 16-hour flight from Kuwait to Atlanta, with the requisite stops in Germany and Ireland to refuel the airplane. We talked a little, but mostly spent our time watching movies and trying to get some sleep. In the conversations we had, Mario told me about the upcoming birth of his first child. He planned his mid-tour leave to make it home in time to see her birth.
“Indeed we will,” I said. “I’d buy you a drink, but we’re in uniform, and it’s 10 in the morning. Can I buy you a coffee instead?”
“Absolutely,” Mario answered. “Grande Vanilla Latte, extra hot please. They started boarding, I’ll see you on the plane.”
“Roger that.” I walked over to the Starbucks and ordered the latte for Mario and a black coffee for myself. I boarded the plane, walked up to our row, handed Mario his latte and squeezed my backpack into the overhead compartment.
“This coffee is going to keep me up for a while,” I said, hoping to spark a conversation.
“Meh, don’t think I was going to get to sleep anytime soon anyway,” Mario answered.
“NCOs always are.”
“Touché. So, let’s see her; you have pictures right?”
“Of course I do. First thing I did was print out wallet-sized shots. Got a couple of those to carry around, and enough to hang up in my tent. I even taped one on the inside of my hat.”
“I would have never thought of that.”
“What pictures do you carry with you?”
“I don’t have any,” I said. “Still single and enjoying life.”
“You don’t get it yet do you?” Mario looked at me intensely, as if I just insulted his entire being. Then after an uncomfortable moment of silence he smirked and said, “No worries captain, I didn’t get it until two weeks ago either. If you don’t mind, I’m going to put on my headphones and listen to some music before we take off.”
I thought I may have offended him in some way, and thought about pressing the conversation, but decided to let it go for the moment. Mario donned his headphones and disappeared into his own thoughts. I grabbed The Forgotten Soldier from my bag, turned on the overhead light, and joined the Eastern Front.
About two hours in, the flight attendants began the first meal service. We both opened our trays, and continued the conversation.
“What did you do with your time off?” Mario asked.
“I did a whole lot of nothing.” I tilted my head back and to the side to look at him, and to take myself back to my mid-tour leave.
“You did more than nothing,” Mario prodded.
“You’re right, I did. I flew back to New York and spent time seeing my family. Most nights I ate out, different restaurants almost every day for lunch and dinner. I probably had one or two drinks with every meal. But I did nothing of consequence, nothing life changing. For two weeks I had no responsibilities except to make sure I was on this plane flying back. I think ten or twenty years from now, or when I’m laying down on my deathbed, I will look back on times where I had nothing to do, and accomplished even less as some of the best times of my life.”
“So you got fat.”
“I suppose I did, but whatever I put on I’ll lose in the first month back in country. Two weeks without responsibilities, and I let myself go.”
“So what else did you do? How did you feel about being home?”
I took a moment to think about it. Mario looked at me, as if he was expecting a profound insight into the meaning of life. I offered up my thoughts. “It was a strange feeling coming home. When we landed in Atlanta, I had a three hour layover before my flight to LaGuardia. I’m still in my uniform, and some guy walks up to me and says ‘thank you for your service.’”
“Yeah, but that’s when it got weird. He shakes my hand and palms me a twenty. I’m a captain, I make a good living, and I have no idea what to do. I try handing it back to him, but he insists that I keep it. He turns to his two young kids and says ‘this is one of the men who protects your freedom.’ Then he turns to me and says go buy yourself a drink.” It’s been a long flight, but it’s ten in the morning.
Mario chuckled and said, “I’ve had some similar experiences. I think whoever that guy was, he had some good intentions, but didn’t know how best to express them. It’s a disconnect…and, to be fair, I think we have trouble relating too.”
“That’s fair. But the awkwardness didn’t stop there. My third day back, I go with my brother and a couple of his friends to an Islander game. I’ve been a fan since I was a kid, and was really excited to go. We get to the Coliseum; I’m looking around and seeing people with their faces painted. Like Puddy in that episode of Seinfeld. Mind you, these weren’t little kids with their faces painted; these were adults, going crazy over a hockey game. I’m standing there with my mouth open thinking just a few days ago I was in Baghdad getting woken up by rockets landing in our motorpool. I’m looking around thinking either nobody knows about the war, even worse they know and don’t care.”
“I’ve had some of the same feelings. To go from a patrol base to the delivery room, then back to combat within three weeks. It’s a bit surreal. It forces you to compartmentalize different parts of your life. In one area of your brain, you focus on family; in another part you think about combat, patrolling, taking care of your soldiers. Mixing the two is like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters, you never want to do it.”
Mario paused for a moment of reflection, as if he never considered the implications of his thoughts. But what he said rang true to me. We live a double life. Before our moment of silence became awkward, I continued our talk.
“How’d you sleep at home? One of the things I looked forward to the most flying home was not sleeping next to an airfield with planes and helicopters taking off and landing all through the night.”
Mario nodded his head and replied, “It’s the generators I was happy to get away from. The first time I laid down the silence was uncomfortable at best, and disturbing at worst. I brought a fan into my bedroom, turned it on high just to have a constant hum in the background. I can’t sleep in silence anymore.”
“I would think the baby changed that for you too.”
“It did, and waking up every couple of hours wears on you. But when you know you are flying back to Iraq in two weeks, it makes it a little enjoyable. You savor every moment. I will say this, I sleep better on this deployment than the last one”
“Yeah, if you remember I was in third brigade, and we did six months over there. We all got anti-malaria pills to take before we went to sleep. Gave me the weirdest dreams.”
“No, not that kind of weird. Something about those pills made the dreams seem like real life. If a normal dream is watching a movie, those dreams were like being in one. Sometimes they seem so real that you confuse them with real life. The dreams become memories.”
“I’ve yet to experience that.”
“Just wait until you go somewhere where malaria and mosquitos are a part of your threat briefings. I mentioned I sleep better on this deployment. No weird and intense dreams this time. What I get now is nothing. Blackness. We get up early, patrol the routes in our area, Tampa, Caveman, and so forth. We get back late in the evening, write up patrol reports and get ready for the next day. Every night is complete exhaustion. I lay my head down on the pillow and next thing you know its morning. I don’t even wake up to piss.”
“Waking up to piss is overrated.” Again, I tried to levy some humor on the conversation. “Having to get up, get dressed, put on flip flops and walk two hundred meters in the darkness to the port-a-john isn’t my idea of a luxury. I’m in a tent with 7 other guys, so the piss bottle solution is a bit out of the question.”
Mario laughed, and I was glad to see that I could lighten the conversation just a bit.
The pilot interrupted our conversation and announced over the intercom that we would be making our first stop in Hahn, Germany. The airplane began its decent and we landed safely, despite the snow flurries on the ground. The flight crew let us all off the airplane and into a special terminal reserved for forces transiting through. It was a nice break, and an opportunity to stretch the legs. As we milled about the terminal, I saw Mario sitting in the corner, laptop opened and talking to his wife and daughter. Rather than interrupt him, I found my own spot on the floor, closed my eyes and napped until a women on a loudspeaker announced it was time to board the plane.
The plane accelerated down the runway, lifted off and made a subtle turn to the left. The next stop would be Kuwait, but it would be another eight hours until we landed. As soon as we hit cruising altitude, I turned to Mario to continue our conversation.
“Do you think she’ll joint the military? A future NCO, or heaven forbid an officer?”
“No, I hope not. This is my third deployment, and when I look at my daughter, I take pride that she knows nothing about this. Nothing about the daily patrols, nothing about the memorial ceremonies I go to every week, nothing about the empty cot twenty feet away from me that PFC Jones was sleeping on a week ago. She knows nothing of it, and I’m a successful dad if she never will.”
“Sooner or later she will know. I get that I’m not a parent yet, but kids grow up, they make their own choices, and sometimes they make them just to spite you. But I understand what you’re saying.”
“Do you? How old are you sir?”
“I’m twenty six.”
“So we’re about the same age. How many memorial ceremonies have you sat through on this deployment?”
“I kind of lost count. Twelve or so would be my estimate. Of course, some of them were for more than one soldier. If you remember back in October, the first one was for four soldiers.”
“I remember. That was a rough start to the deployment. That’s when we lost Lieutenant Britton” Mario paused for a second, ran his hand over his head in deep thought. Did you know him sir?”
“I did. He came up to the brigade headquarters a couple of times to brief us on his patrols. He liked to talk football too, was a big Giants fan. He was single, no wife and no kids, but I think that can be just as tragic”
“How do you mean?”
“I think one of the greatest tragedies of this war, or any war is the future that never happens. Young lieutenants like Britton, or young privates who perish in an IED, or even on the battlefields of Verdun back in the First World War. They never had a chance to live life. To find a soul mate. To have kids, grandkids, and to leave a family legacy. The lieutenant who could have been a general, or a doctor, or a scientist who discovers the cure for cancer. We will never know. War takes away the future, it takes away our dreams.”
Mario paused to take it in. “I can’t disagree with that. While we are on the topic of death, let me ask you this, outside of this deployment, outside of the military, how many funerals have you attended?”
“Just my grandparents”
“Exactly. This ain’t normal.” Mario took a deep breath, turned to me in his seat and explained; “This is what separates us from the rest. It’s not our service, it’s not love of country; hell, everyone I know loves his country. What separates us is our closeness to death. We’re next to it every day. I’ll go even further, it’s the pressure to get past it. When your parents, or grandparents pass away, you have time to reflect, you miss them forever. But here, that empty rack where Specialist Carey slept before he was blown into fifty pieces by an IED…some new guy is sleeping there three days later. We don’t get time for reflection, we don’t get time to think about them. We still have a job to do. In a sense, getting time to reflect on all this was the hardest part of mid-tour leave. But I’m lucky; I only had the time to do that while my baby was sleeping.”
“What do you think of the ceremonies? You’re right, it’s not normal to attend so many, but I think they help us cope in some way.”
“They do what they’re supposed to do. But they have unintended consequences.”
“Everyone shows up to them. Battalion leadership, Brigade leadership, then the generals and sergeant majors from division and corps show up. Honestly, I get the battalion and brigade commander showing up, but all those stars can be a bit over the top. They come down to our area for a ceremony at least once a week. Think about how many brigades are in Baghdad. A memorial ceremony must be a nightly event.”
“You don’t think it’s important for senior leaders to be there? I think it’s absolutely necessary. Every single time a soldier dies, it’s important to remind the generals of it. They need to see the effects, the raw emotion of the dead soldier’s squad, and the dead soldier’s friends.”
“They should make some. After a while, I have to believe they become numb to it. The first time you lose one of your men, it is devastating. Later, as more are blown up, lose a limb, or die, it becomes underwhelming. Some two star general showing up for taps does nothing, not for him, and not for his subordinates. Do you think attending a ceremony ever changed anything? Have our tactics changed? How about the war strategy? Nothing changes. The orders and missions the day after a ceremony are the same as the day before. I would rather they spend the two hours thinking about how to fight the war differently. That’s the unintended consequence, all the junior soldiers are there because they know Specialist Carey, they know Lieutenant Britton. And somehow generals become the center of attention. We see them sitting in the front row, handing out coins. Attending a funeral and handing out coins never won a war”
A feeling of guilt passed over me. There is a feeling that no matter how tough or isolated you are on a deployment, someone else has it harder. Some people work at a corps or division headquarters, they spend a year away from their family, and every so often a mortar or rocket lands near them. Further down the line you have those working on brigade or battalion staffs, away from their family for the year, but closer to the fight. Those at brigade and battalion, unlike those at division and higher, will occasionally venture outside the relative safety of their operating base, but the kids in companies, platoons, and squads look down them. They are the ones manning checkpoints, patrolling neighborhoods, standing watch in a fighting position at two in the morning. Even among soldiers at the squad level, there is an unspoken competition for whose deployment is tougher, more dangerous, more likely to get you killed.
Mario continued, “Think about what I have to do. My friend gets killed but the mission doesn’t stop. I got a patrol the next day, and got to be damned sure I’m on my game.”
I thought about that for a moment, and tried to settle the conversation with some levity, “It’s like a quarterback who throws an interception; he can’t dwell on it. He’s got to think about the game in front of him.”
“I suppose you’re right with that analogy. Probably why athletes are always saying they don’t want to talk about the past, or something like that.” He then thought for a moment and said, “Having a kid changes the equation. I can’t dwell on the past, but now I have to think about the future. I still plan patrols, but as I go back, I worry that I will be hesitant to take some risk. Where I once worried about my soldiers, now I have to worry about my daughter. The last thing I want to do is leave her alone because I did something stupid. At the same time, what if I do exactly what I need to do, but still end up leaving her alone?”
“I really don’t know how to answer that,” I said.
“You don’t have to, Sir. Take it as it comes.”
“What has helped you to cope? You talk about the empty bunks, how do you get past that? When I was in school, we had a cadet kill himself in the dorms. Anyway, everyone who lived on his floor was convinced the building was haunted after that. I thought it was just there way of dealing with death.”
Mario paused for a few uncomfortable seconds, then spoke up. “I’ve seen ghosts, and I’ve talked to ghosts.”
In our tent, sometimes late at night. Other times in the middle of the day. Usually when I’m alone.
“What do they say to you?”
“Nothing. They just stand there and stare at me. When you talk to a ghost it’s a one way conversation.”
“So your tent is haunted?”
“No. My tent’s not haunted, I am. The barracks where your friend killed himself weren’t haunted either, the other kids who lived on his floor were. Inanimate objects have no feelings about life or death. Building’s don’t reflect on their past conversations or bad decisions. People do.”
With that, we both turned back to the screen on the seat in front of us. I peeked over at Mario’s screen to see he was watching Kill Bill. I flipped through the movies and decided to watch The Big Lebowski for the 100th time.
About the time the credits began scrolling on the screen, the flight attendants began serving us a meal. I figured now would be a good time to press Mario on an earlier subject. “So what don’t I get?” I asked. “You mentioned earlier in the flight that I just don’t get it.”
“You have fun, but enjoying life is about more than going out, drinking, and getting laid,” he answered. You do that stuff in your youth. Enjoyment of life comes after youth, when you can appreciate what’s going on; when you realize life is more than self-actualization. Having a kid takes you there.
“You and I are the same age.” My tone was a bit more serious, as the conversation held a bit of tension.
“Youth has nothing to do with age.” Mario stopped cutting his chicken, put the plastic knife and fork down, reflected for a moment, and continued. The two of us might be the same age, but the moment I saw my daughter is the moment I lost my youth.
“So having a kid means losing youth?
“No, but that’s what did it for me. Every one of us will have a life-changing event where you let go of it. For me, it was having my daughter. For those 18- and 19-year-old kids fighting in the Triangle of Death, it might be a moment of intense combat. I have a cousin whose parents died when she was fifteen. That was it for her.
“We all try to get it back. Ever see a bunch of colonels sitting around? They will act like fools the same way a group of teenagers will. They want a moment of freedom; freedom from responsibility, freedom from fear, just for a moment so they can feel like kids again. Then their boss or someone who works for one of them walks in the room, and it’s back to the formalities of life. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
The captain of the plane came over the loudspeaker and told the flight attendants to get ready for the landing. We moved our seats forward 6 inches into the upright position. Mario looked at me and said, “I appreciate the conversation, Sir. It helped make the flight go by faster. I’ve been trying to put into words what I have been thinking about over the past week, since my daughter was born. Our talks did that for me.”
“I appreciate it to. I’ll savor my youth until it leaves me.”
“You will see it again when you have kids, Captain. And you will take more joy in it when you do.”
“I hope so. What else has having a daughter changed about you?”
“I think it changed my goals, and what I want out of life. I wanted to spend every last second with her. And I did up until I got on the airplane in Chicago. It’s our job, it’s our duty to come back here, and I am proud of it, and instead of spending time watching movies after a patrol, I’ll be on skype talking to her, even though she can’t talk back yet. When this deployment is over I want to spend all my time with her, watch her grow up, get married, have my grandkids. I want what every parent wants, the knowledge that my daughter is ok. I want to be there for her, for her entire life.
“You know that won’t happen. Parents go before their kids.”
“Well I want to live forever.”
The plane landed with a jolt at Kuwait International Airport. We stood up to get our bags from the overhead compartments and I looked at Mario. My entire worldview of him changed in the 14 hours since we took off. No longer did I see the hard NCO, the leader of men, the hardened combat veteran; all of which he was. I saw a father.
Four days later, I walked into our brigade operations center for the evening update to the commander. My attendance wasn’t required, but it was a good way to see what was going on across the battlefield. At precisely eight o’clock, the battle captain began his brief.
“Sir, last night one of our patrols from first battalion was struck by an IED. This resulted in one friendly KIA.”
“Do we know who it was?” the commander asked.
“Staff Sergeant Mario Washington, Sir.”
“Dammit,” I blurted out. A couple of the staff officers and NCOs looked back at me, but the battle captain stoically continued his update.
“Sir, the patrol departed their operating base at 1530 en route to monitor and supply some of the checkpoints in their sector…”
The battle captain’s voice faded into the background. I sat down on an empty chair in the back of the room. My best friend on the staff walked over to me to ask if I was all right. I nodded my head, stood up and walked outside, alone in the darkness with the knowledge I would never speak to Mario again.