June 21, 2016
The convoy passed the Iraqi checkpoint in front of the base; from the turret the Iraqi Police looked cold as they tried to breathe warmth into cupped hands. All of the Marine posts on the perimeter of the base were manned, but there weren't any of the normal smoke trails from cigarettes or dim lights Marines used to read books. The MRAP came to a jerking stop in front of Forward Operating Base Riviera and everyone started to dismount. I heard something about “River City.”
“We're in River City. Did you hear what happened?”
“Fuck,” Kistler said. He stormed off to the smoke pit.
“Goddamn it,” a Marine said. “Who was it?”
I didn't stick around to find out what was going on. Hopping down from the top of the MRAP, I walked into the FOB without bothering to clear my weapon. Being a Lance Corporal made me a prime scapegoat for Corporals who didn't want to unload gear. I would have sprinted up the stairs to my room, but slowed when I saw Seals at the front desk labeled “Sergeant Of the Guard” (SOG) in bright yellow on red lettering. He had a look on his face that was serious, even for him.
“How was it out there, Big Head?” he asked me, using my call sign.
Seals was locked on with a no-nonsense attitude, the quintessential Marine Sergeant in almost every respect. His only deviation from regulation was fraternizing with MachineGuns in his downtime. MachineGuns had a reputation for telling people, sometimes regardless of rank, to go fuck themselves. We liked Seals though, mostly because he wanted to kill everything in sight. That kind of thinking made the war a lot less complicated. I liked Seals because he reminded me of the old Corps I'd been told about in boot camp, a Corps that existed when wars had been righteous.
“Fucking boring. Thought I was going to shoot two guys in a pickup truck,” I looked down at the ground. “But then Kistler said no. I'm pretty sure they were pacing the convoy to get an average speed or—”
Seals cut me off.
“You haven't heard?”
I froze like a deer in a poacher's spotlight. “What happened?” I asked.
“River City! How do you not know? Some guys over in Golf—” Seals was on his feet. The Company's Commanding Officer walked out of the wing of the building to the left of the SOG desk.
I moved to the stairs, and then up them, with a purpose—I didn't want to be underfoot of the Higher Ups. Behind me, I heard the CO talking to Seals in a serious, hushed tone. I couldn't make out what was being said as I rounded the first bend in the long flight of stairs that wound up the center of the Riv.
In the middle of the second floor, between the two wings of the building that flanked the staircase, was the “Internet cafe.” If there were a world record for the smallest and shittiest Internet cafe, the one at FOB Riviera would have held it. The cafe had a total of six computers that barely worked, two phones that only worked half the time, and enough dust to fill a small sandbox. Blaker and the Navy Chief paced in front of the cafes outer red wall. I stopped. The Chief wouldn't make eye contact.
“What the fuck happened, Blaker?” I asked.
“Three Marines from Golf Company got smoked,” Blaker said. His face was blank for the first time since I'd known him. His eyes weren't focused on me but past me, through the building.
“Wait. What?” I said. I ran my hand over my cropped hair. “Did Viking get hit?”
Viking was the FOB that Golf Company held, a few miles west of the Riv on the Main Supply Route. I thought they might have been hit hard with rockets and small arms fire, maybe even taken contact from a large insurgent force. The battle must have been pitched to leave three Marines on the deck—or had they fallen in the first few exchanges?
“It wasn't like you think,” Blaker said.
Whatever the reality of the situation was, it didn't sit so well with the normally energetic frat-boy persona of Blaker.
“Golf was out doing its monthly training to zero their weapons. The Mortar Section was going to fire, but their CO wanted them to practice on targets further away than a few hundred meters. He had three vehicles roll out to set up targets further out,” Blaker's voice held no inflection, like some monk chanting. “The first was an MRAP. It rolled over the IED without setting it off. The second was a Humvee. It triggered the pressure plate.”
I got the feeling if I had walked away, up the stairwell, Blaker would've stood and talked to whatever his eyes were focused on instead of me, while the Chief shuffled around the Internet cafe's door.
“Fuck,” was all I said.
The Chief's constant pacing was starting to put me on edge.
“Their Humvee flipped over and started on fire,” it kept pouring out of Blaker. “The green gear pinned them in the Humvee so they couldn't move. The doors wouldn't open. Their friends listened to them scream as they burned.”
Gravitas didn't hit me like a ton of bricks, like it evidently had Blaker. There had always been a part of me that thought Marines were being sent here to die for no reason, and this was just the curtain pulling back to reveal all of my suspicions were true. My stomach began to fill with lead.
Blaker pushed on. He wasn't going to stop until I had heard all of it. I realized he wouldn't have let me walk away. The bigger, more muscular Marine would have grabbed me by the throat, with that blank look on his face, and told me while I squirmed.
“The turret gunner of the third vehicle crawled out of the turret, tried to save them,” Blaker stuttered a half step toward me. “When they pulled him off of the driver side door, his gloves were smoking. That's how hot it was. His fucking gloves were smoking.”
Blaker blinked for a few seconds. Slowly I could see the spark he usually had in his eyes return, not all at once, but just a glimmer. “What are you doing standing here?” I asked.
“I want to call my family and tell them I'm all right,” the large black Chief said as quietly as I'd ever heard him talk. It surprised me that he could speak so softly. This was the same Chief that had boldly stood up to my Company First Sergeant, when the First Shirt violated his own rules and wore gym clothes into the Riv's dingy chow hall, the same Chief who didn't take shit from any Marine, a guy made of iron—now humbled.
Blaker didn't get a chance to answer as our First Sergeant walked out of the H&S wing to the left of the Internet cafe. He was looking down at some papers as he walked, but stopped just in front of our little group, as if sensing us all standing there.
“First Sergeant,” the Chief closed the space between himself and the First Shirt in two steps with his long legs. “Will the computer center be open at all? I want to call my family.”
The Chief’s voice held no trace of the thunder it usually carried.
“It's River City,” First Shirt said. He glanced up from his paperwork for half a second to look into the Chief’s eyes. “It will be for the rest of the night at least. I'm sorry. Nothing I can do.”
“Thank you, First Sergeant,” the Chief said. He turned and quietly walked back down the stairwell in the direction of medical. First Shirt was close on his heels, staring intently at the papers in his hands.
“River City?” I said questioningly, looking at Blaker.
“River City is when they lock all of the phones and computer centers down,” Blaker answered without missing a beat. “The Corps wants to contact next of kin before anyone else does. If they let a thousand or so Marines from our Battalion call home, word would get to the families.”
“I can't get into the computer center and call home? You fucking kidding me right now?” My voice quivered with anger.
I made an effort to call home every few days or so, even though the wait for a phone ranged from forty-five minutes to a few hours. It was one thing if the phones wouldn't work, which was half of the time, but it was another if I wasn't going to be allowed.
“It's locked,” Blaker said. Sure enough, when I glanced at the door I saw a huge padlock, hanging from the little latch that connected the flimsy particleboard door to the makeshift wall.
River City was something I wasn't briefed on before coming over to the sands. It became a strange ritual whenever someone got smoked: the Internet cafes locked down, satellite phones stowed away by Sergeants of the Guard at bases across the country. We couldn't plan around River City because there was no way to tell when someone was going to get blown up or bleed out. Sometimes it would be peak hours of use when the cafes shut down.
The rest of the convoy was starting to filter up the stairs from the trucks. The little lead I had managed to get from the Marines who lived in the same room as me was lost. I guessed it didn't matter because all the lead was really good for was getting a spot in line at the computer center ahead of them. I turned and filed up the stairs with Mundell and Ulrich, fellow Machine Gunners who'd been on the convoy along with Rose and I.
“Did you hear what happened?” I heard Blaker ask a Marine from his own platoon.
It worried me that Blaker was just standing in front of the Internet cafe, talking about the deaths of three Marines over and over again. Even if it was cathartic, it was strange to see him so hollow.
“I suppose Blaker filled you in on the Golf Guys getting hit?” Mundell asked without looking over at me as we trudged up two more flights of stairs.
“Something like that. He seems a little out of it right now. Not sure what's up,” I replied. We wound our way up the staircase, our boots kicking up clouds of dust with each stomp.
“Someone from third platoon told me the road they'd been sent down was one they shouldn't have been on. I guess Battalion keeps track of when roads get swept for IEDs, and the one they got blown up on hadn't been swept for a long time,” Mundell’s voice dropped low. “So, basically they got sent down a road that no one had checked for months to set up targets, and got killed.”
We fell silent as we neared our wing and formed a single file line, which shuffled through the entrance to our little corner of the Riv. Rose split off to his room across from ours, carrying the news with him, which the Machine Gunners sleeping there had yet to hear. I walked into my hooch, as rooms were sometimes called, behind Mundell, Ulrich behind me.
I was exhausted. I lay in bed instead of looking for cammies to wear that weren't soaked in sewage. Through the day’s convoy I had been wearing my flight suit. I'd been told actual pilots somewhere wore flight suits, but I doubted it. MachineGuns wore cammies on foot patrols, and we were slated for one tomorrow. I'd be wearing the same cammies for over a month straight. Sewage had turned the lower part of my trousers and boots black.
“What's all the hubbub about?” Larkin asked me as he walked in the room in underwear and a t-shirt. He must have been using a porta-john.
“Some of Golf's vics got hit,” I said, exhaustion creeping into my voice and sapping its strength. “A few guys didn't make it.”
“Is that what Blaker is going on about in front of the computer center?” Larkin stumbled over someone's boots trying to walk back to his rack in the dark.
Just before climbing up to his bunk he turned with a thoughtful expression on his face.
“I just saw Prockop down at the COC; the Captain was talking to him. You don't think we'll get called out to do some bullshit presence patrol?”
Mundell moaned and rolled over in his rack, “Fuck Marine, why do you have to say things like that?”
I sat up in bed with a resigned look on my face just as the door to our hooch flew open and smacked against the wall, so hard pieces of plaster pattered against the floor.
“Everyone get the fuck out of bed. Gear up and stage in front of the FOB in twenty minutes,” Prockop said. His voice sounded from behind a solid rectangle of light that my eyes hadn't adjusted to yet. “Highers in the COC want us to walk some diesel fuel down to the Marines at the Iraqi Police Station.”
My eyes slowly made out Prockop in full gear, standing underneath one of the lights in the hall. Behind him in the other room MachineGuns inhabited was Rose, standing as if to crawl up into his top rack. I couldn't make out his face in the dark, but his shoulders sagged so heavily I thought he would fall over. COC stood for Command and Control, and we were their instruments—no matter how badly we needed to be human.
“One or two of you load up a bunch of JP8 diesel from the pump outside, and stack the jugs in a Humvee. We'll all walk down with the Humvee to the station and then turn around and walk back.”
Prockop turned to look at Rose, then back at me, sitting naked in bed.
“That's your patrol brief,” Prockop said looking at his watch. “Nineteen minutes. Out front.”
Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He's earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Lunch Ticket, Chautauqua, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review (Push Cart nomination), Dirty Chai, Phoebe, Pithead Chapel, Brevity, and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Volume 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in The Florida Review. Jason lives in Denver, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote
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