I couldn’t see a thing. It was too sunny. And I was coming out of the back of a dark airplane.
When we departed from Qatar to head into theater (that’s what they call a warzone, “theater”), they packed us in to the back of the cargo plane. There were only like ten of us on there. The rest of it was gear. I think we must have been all stragglers. I went overseas alone, without a unit. I’d sync up once I got over there.
The ride up to altitude was death-hot. Then at altitude it was freezing, and our clothes, soaked through with sweat, froze. The kid next to me — I never got his name — fell asleep, and then vomited all over himself when we made our corkscrew descent into Iraq. He kept his eyes closed during it all.
I grew up a middle-class kid in a suburb an hour outside of Boston. I got good grades in high school and went off to college. Three months earlier, I had been sitting in lecture in law school. Now I was here.
The sound of gunfire isn’t like it is in the movies. It’s like a popping sound. Even more disconcerting to me, because it seemed like any one of those pops could hurt me. Like it could weave through whatever was between it and me in the distance, and get me. If it had been louder, like an explosion, like it is in the movies, it would have seemed too big to really hurt me. Like in the way a thunderclap can’t really hurt you. But the little pops were there in the back of your mind, chalked up to things that are different now.
I grabbed my bags and headed over to “billeting.” I needed to find out where I was going. How to get to my unit. I didn’t know.
I met a Colonel in my first hour or so after landing. He looked bad in his uniform and was really out of shape. I latched on to him. I was a junior officer, but he pulled weight, and he was an Air Force guy like me. He got me into his high-ranking-officer-quarters for the night. We had A/C and I slept like the dead that night.
The next day, I almost took the wrong “bus into town,” to my unit. Thankfully, I took the right bus. Someone pointed me in the right direction before my mistake was complete. I was grateful for that guy that day. But I knew the ride was underway. Everything was so disorganized. Much more than I thought it would be.
I departed early in the morning before sunrise with a bunch of others I’d never met. This still was not my unit. We headed for the general area where I’d be living and working for the next several months. We took an armored vehicle.
On the ride over there, my shrapnel-proof eyewear fogged up completely, to the point that I couldn’t see any thing at all anymore. But I was the new guy, and I didn’t want to be the one dork who pulled off his glasses to wipe them down. No one else was doing that. So I just rode like that, blind. It was pitch black outside, anyway. Screw it.
I was an empty bucket sitting there. I wasn’t much of anything. Just a sweaty, blind man on a bus.
Ben Dunay lives and works in Cambridge, MA.