Slow Nights on Watch II
Chapter 6: War is not all firefights, sometimes it’s the wives and women
War is not all firefights and IEDs (Improvised explosive devices). It is long nights on watch, staring out into the empty desert as the rest of the world moves on without you.
“You got a wife, Moore?” Miller said, not looking away from the empty stretch of desert on the other side of the wire.
It was the first words Miller had spoken to me all night.
“I thought you Corpsman were supposed to be smart.”
“No, we aint all smart,” I said, scratching the faint stubble that had grown on my chin, “Just smarter than Grunts like you.”
The Marine I shared my post with that night was a toe-headed country boy from Alabama. He had shortly buzzed hair, a large flat nose, and a constant squint that made him look like he had a constant bitter taste in his mouth. Of all the men I had been stuck with on fire watch, Lance Corporal Miller, was my least favorite.
He smelled of dried sweat and the black tar-like chewing tobacco he spat over the side of the small tower we shared. He had greeted me with an icy glare as I joined him at the post and ignored me for most of the watch. Up until he had not said a word. I had enjoyed the silence.
But it seemed that the good times were over.
“What you think she is doing right now. That wife of yours?” Miller spat a black glob of spit over the rail of the watchtower.
“It's Saturday night, back in country. I’m guessing she is, what, in her early twenties. Pretty little thing you picked up back home and took with you all the way to Hawaii. You really think she is at home right now? You think she just sitting around the house, knitting you a quilt or some shit.”
“You don’t knit quilts.”
“What?” He fixed me with that squint his eyes so narrowed I could barely make out the black beady stare underneath those thick neanderthal brows. “You don’t knit quilts.” I repeated, “You knit sweaters and mittens. Not quilts.”
“What the hell do you call it then?”
“That a stupid name for it.” Miller snapped, looking again over the barbed wire fence of the base. “Stupid seems to be a running theme in this conversation,” I said, flipping up the A-cog on rifle.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean!” Miller sneered. “Never mind.” I said, scanning the perimeter, “You wouldn’t get it.”
I could tell he was getting pissed and part of me wanted to see how far I could push him, but another part of me knew that Marines likes Miller could be dangerous if you worked them up. They were the type of grunts who joined the Corps not because they wanted to serve their country but because they weren’t smart enough to do anything else.
This wasn’t a trait with all infantry. I knew plenty of grunts who were smart and creative, some with even degrees and certifications well above my own. A lot of men joined the infantry because they felt a need to protect their country. Because they wanted to be heroes.
Miller just wasn’t one of them.
“Where were we? I think you were telling my wife is quilting me something?” I said, flipping the cover on my A-cog shut before looking back up at Millers squinted eyes,
“No, I am saying she aint.” Miller said, pounding a fist against his knee.
“Oh, well then what is she doing?” I said, scratching my chin as I stared off into the darkness past the perimeter of the base. “Is she baking? No, Leah was never really much of a baker?”
“She aint baking!”
“Is she making me a welcome home sign?”
“Your right. It's probably a banner. Damn, that woman loves me.”
“No!” Miller shouted, pushing himself off the rickety railing of the guard tower, so we were standing only inches apart. “She out at the club grinding on some Marine’s dick.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound like her at all.”
“She a woman, right? You think she different? You think she is special? No, she is like every other chick sitting back home while we bust our ass out here in the middle of some desert shit hole.”
Miller spat a hunk of black chew, the thick viscous string hitting the railing, rocking back and forth pendulum-like. He glared down at the string of spit, biting at every word as if the thought had to be chewed.
“Every. Girl. What makes you think your’s so special?”
“She doesn’t like clubs.” I said, “More of a dive bar girl, really.”
“Then she is screwing some guy she met in a dive bar.”
“Nah, bro. She aint.”
“How you know?”
“Because everyone knows your mother sucks off all the dive bars guys. Really monopolizes the dive bar bachelors. My girl can try but she don’t got a chance. Not with your mom's dick sucking skills.”
Miller whirled on me and for a moment I thought he was going to knock my block off right then and there. But he didn’t. He stood there, his lips curled in a vicious snarl. His breath heaving and his fists clenched but he didn’t move. I stared into those narrowed eyes for a long time, swearing to myself that if he moved another inch, I would throw him off the watchtower, but instead, his shoulders slumped and he only shook his head.
“Whatever.” Miller scoffed, turning his back on me. “Go fuck yourself, Moore.”
I stared for a long while at the dangling strand of spit, enjoying the silence for what little it lasted.
You never got to choose who you stood watch with.
Some nights were filled with jokes and laughter. Others, uncomfortable silence. Sometimes people brought nothing to the watch besides their rifles and another set of eyes to keep watch.
Sometimes people brought more. Some brought stories from beyond the wire. Some brought stories from back home. Some rumors. Some gossip about who was hooking up with who on base.
At war, the world shrunk to only what you could control. To the men you served with. To those brothers in arms.
Yet beyond the world, it never stopped spinning. We had loved ones back home. Wives. Husbands. Children. Their lives moved on without us, while ours stayed stagnant. They grew and developed while we stayed arrested in the narrowed scope of war.
“What happened?” I asked, “What happened to make you so pissed off.”
Miller shifted uncomfortably, his eyes never leaving the vacant desert around us. For a while, I didn’t think he would respond. I was just about to give up, to embrace the long six hours of silence spent on the post, when Miller turned toward me, fishing out the clump of chew in his mouth with a finger before packing in a fresh wad.
“My wife left.”
He said, his voice barely above a whisper, “She didn’t even wait to tell me over the phone or video. She sent a fucking email.”
“That sucks, man.”
I didn’t know what else to say.
“Yeah.” He sighed, “She cleared out our house, took our kid, and moved to her mom's.”
Miller seemed to shrink as if a sudden weight had pressed down on the whole of his person. He braced himself against the metal rail, his eyes toward the ground. I looked out toward the desert. It was uncomfortable to see a man so vulnerable, so exposed. A pair of headlights crossed a road on the far side of the base and I called out the contact over the radio. Probably nothing more than a kid on a moped, but it was something to break up the silence.
“It aint her fault you know.” Miller said, through clenched teeth, “I screwed up. I screwed up a lot.”
Part of me didn’t want to ask. Part of me knew I had to. No matter how different I was from Miller, We were out here alone. Both of us, reluctant brother in arms.
“I cheated.” Miller said, “Right before deployment. Me and the wife were fighting and I went out to that bar just outside of base. You know the place, the one with the Tiki torches and the foosball tables.”
“Yeah. That’s the one.” Miller said,
“Picked me up a waitress that night. Fine little thing, too. Sweet girl, giving a guy with an ugly mug like mine a chance. I didn’t come back that entire weekend. The last weekend before I left. The one weekend I should have spent with my wife and kid. Instead, I chose to spend it curled up in some random apartment in Kailua with some bar girl and a bottle of whiskey. Getting drunk and getting fucked.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I simply said nothing at all. I thought of that last weekend I had spent with my girl. We had only been stationed at Kaneohe Marine Corps base for six months before I had been given my deployment orders.
I had spent those six months unpacking our belongings into our small condo just off base. She had spent the time looking for a job. Neither of us had bothered to explore the island paradise that had become our home. We always told ourselves we would have four years to see everything there was to see on the small island.
We were wrong.
That last weekend was packed with every activity we had put off. We watched the sunset at Sunset Beach. We drank Lava flows in Waikiki. We hiked every mountain and swam at every beach. And on the last day, we spent the who day in bed. We made love, slept, ordered food in, and made love again. I couldn’t imagine it any other way. I couldn’t imagine spending those last days anywhere but with my wife.
“Yeah.” Miller said, “ I fucked up.”
I don’t know if he was admitting it to me or more to himself.
“Yeah. Sounds like you did.” I said, picking free a chip of dried white paint from the met a railing before flicking the jagged piece over the side. “Still don’t know what that has to do with my wife, though.”
“It doesn’t,” Miller said. “I’m sorry. I was just venting.”
“I get it.”
The rest of that watch was spent in silence. I want to say Miller’s words didn’t get to me. That I had enough faith in my marriage and my wife, that I didn’t doubt for a minute that she would wait for me to come back. I did trust her, I really did.
And yet when our relief finally arrived, I made myself to the Welfare tent. The Airman who manned the phone center, looked up sleepily from the book he was reading as I approached.
“Need to make a call?”
“Video chat actually.”
The airman looked toward the row of Airmen on the three computers in the back, most playing some video game or scrolling on social media. The Airman let out a sigh and turned back toward me.
“Computers are all in use.” He said, “Phone would be quicker.”
I gritted my teeth as I tried to keep my temper in check. The Airforce ran the Moral and welfare tent and their people got priority on everything inside from the Gaming consoles to the few computers the brass had deemed necessary for us to have.
“I need video chat. My wife is deaf.” I said, “How about we get the kid playing video games off. Sound good?”
“Can’t do, boss.” The airman smiled, “That kid signed up for an hour. Got a big raid with his clan. Should have-”
God damn Air force.
I sat in the chair in front of the computer an hour later. I took a moment to comb my fingers through my hair before placing the call. The screen blinked for a few nerve-racking seconds before opening up to the sleepy face of my beautiful lying in our bed. Alone. I waved at her, before swirling my fingers in front of my face.
She furrowed her brows slightly before signing back in a flurry of concern.
Is everything ok? What time is it over there? Are you safe?
I smiled at her concern before patting the air in front of me.
Calm down. Calm down. I am fine. I just missed you.
Leah ran a hand across her forehead and let out a breath as her panic subsided.
I miss you too. I am glad you are ok.
I’ll let you go back to sleep. I just wanted to say I love you.
Leah smiled and rested her head back on her pillow. Her blonde curls fell slightly in front of her face, gleaming like gold above her dark brown eyes. She blew me a kiss and told me to call her in the morning. I looked outside the tent, the first rays of sunlight just beginning to show through the cracks in canvas.
I nodded and formed an I and L with my left hand and a Y with my right before signing off -” I love you.”
As I walked back to my tent, I thought of Miller and the family that had moved on without him. Even if he had brought on the destruction himself, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. So many of us who went to war, barely more than kids ourselves, not understanding who we were ourselves let alone the consequences of our actions.
We get married young. We start families that we will leave for months at a time. Sometimes years. Sometimes for good. These are the actions of men who fear they will die young. Men who raised their hands before they could even legally buy their first beer and swore to give their lives for a country that will not even remember their names.
I had a Navy chief that once told me that the military was a single man's game. Maybe he was right.
It would be another six months before I saw my wife again. Six months before I would get to hold her small body against my own. Before I could smell the perfume of her hair and taste the salty taste of her skin.
For Miller, he would never again have that chance. He would die three days later on the same watch post we had manned together only nights before. I want to tell you that he was killed by a sniper or a terrorist with a bomb, But he wasn’t.
Miller took his own life. He killed himself while his battle buddy looked out for an unseen threat on an empty desert road. I want to tell you this never happens, but I don’t want to tell you a lie.
Suicide is all too common in the service. War is hell and hell burns inside all who fight.
Some Warriors fall in the field of battle. Some fall to the battle within ourselves. A battle of which has never stopped. Even on a slow night on watch.
More exciting reads —
Next Chapter 7: The War Story I
Previous Chapter 5: The Beat We Walk
For the sequel: Slow Nights on Watch III
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Merlin Troy writes fiction inspired based on his time as a police officer, paramedic, and veteran. He is working on his first novel which will be available for readers when published on Kindle. Expected release: July 2021
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