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IOUs from Baghdad

IOUs from Baghdad

 

Image by Chloe Firetto Toomey

 

 

The day Sergeant Cartwright’s Humvee rolled over an improvised explosive device (IED) and detonated on notorious Route Irish, we returned to the outpost to learn that Stinky, our goat, was inside bleeding, and screaming. The outpost was an abandoned school in the center of Bagdad. A large, concrete structure with echoing halls, two guard towers and a barbed wire perimeter. We lived in what was once the gym, our cots lined up like dominos; ammo, rifles, body armor and pads crowding the slim walkways between beds. I was in the yard, holding the hose for Doc Rafter, watching him frantically scrub his hands with a stained nail brush. My ears rang from gunfire. The stench of singed hair and burnt copper clung to my nostrils.

“I can’t get rid of the smell,” he repeated, soaping his hands, again.

I didn’t know what to say, so I lit up a cigarette.

First Sergeant Amos lumbered towards us: “Doc. We need you inside. Something’s up with Stinky.  You too, Frost.”

The moment the words registered, I flicked my smoke. Doc shook the suds from his hands, and we marched into the outpost. Stinky’s bleating echoed down the narrow hall, getting louder as we approached the auditorium.

In the back corner, behind rows of bunks, Stinky was bleeding out on Amos’s sleeping bag. She must have snagged it from his bottom bunk.

“What the fuck’s wrong?” I asked. There was so much blood. A tiny hoof was visible in the shadow between Stinky’s legs.

“She’s in labor,” said Doc.

“Fuck,” I said stupidly. I hadn’t noticed she was pregnant. Or ever given much thought to the goat’s gender.

“What do we do, Doc?” Amos asked, running his fingers through his hair.

A second hoof tried to kick through, as though stretching through a balloon.

“Grab her right legs, above the hooves. Frost take left.”

I did as I was told and gripped her legs. Her brown and white fur felt like wet paint brushes.

“Above the hooves, Frost,” said Doc.

I corrected my stance and tightened my grip on Stinky’s ankles.

Doc was intent, a fixed expression on his face. He dropped to his knees, took off his shirt and took a deep breath. Stinky wailed as Doc wrenched his arms, elbow deep, into the screaming goat. We heard a long, slow rip, the tearing of skin.

Sergeant Brydon, my squad leader, and Lieutenant Powell, in charge of tactical operations, and a bunch of infantry boys, filtered in to see what was going on.

“Come on, you slimy little bastard.” The veins in Doc’s neck protruded.

Stinky exalted a long, excruciating cry.

Doc withdrew his arms, and out slid a little goat, milky with afterbirth. He crouched there for a moment, with the kid on his chest. A firefight poppled in the distance.

We named him Coocoo.

**********

“Good morning, ladies,” said Sergeant Brydon, sitting opposite us at a long table. Stinky and Coocoo had followed Doc, Amos and I to the chow-hall. A few weeks old, Coocoo’s hooves were still too wide for his legs and you could hear him clobbering the tiles, trying to keep up with Stinky. The pair liked to circle the long tables that cut through the chow-hall, scavenging. Once a cafeteria, the hall could comfortably seat up to a hundred men but frequently stretched its capacity. We were devouring beansand something that resembled meat, eating fast and swallowing hard. It was a skill.

“Sergeant,” we replied in unison.

Coocoo was next to me, jumping around sporadically with arbitrary focus. His small, white head appeared and disappeared, bouncing and glimpsing the table. Stinky watched us from across the room. Soldiers ruffled her fur, fed her scraps of MREs. Despite the attention, she focused on Coocoo.

“Those fucking goats,” said Brydon. His face was sun-scorched, save for the pale wrinkles around his eyes. “You know how sick I am of living with a hundred-and fifty soldiers and two fucking goats.”

Brydon had been deployed for eighteen months straight. Next to him, I felt like a pussy, but the night before, I’d seen him sleeping in a chair outside the guard tower, his rifle slung over his shoulder, Coocoo on his lap, and Stinky by his feet. I didn’t mention it, but felt secure picking up Coocoo and placing him on the table.

“They’re good for blood pressure,” said Doc to Brydon. “They keep the soldiers calm.”

I ate with one hand and held out a fist for Coocoo with the other. He liked to ram his head into my knuckles. It was a game of ours.

“Don’t get fucking soft on me,” said Brydon.

My fist was beginning to ache.

“You hear me, Frost?”

I put down my hand and paid attention.

“I’ve got Jeshthamadh advancing from the west side. Two squads down. We need to clear every house along Route Irish.” Brydon shouted each sentence, which pissed off Stinky. She trotted up to him and bleated, but he didn’t notice.

“Locate the cache, roll up anybody in the house, put them in the Humvees and wait on the EOD.”

Stinky screamed like a human.

Then, Coocoo.

“For fuck sake,” said Brydon, straining to be heard. He slammed his fists on the table.

The goats fell silent.

**********

We returned to the outpost thirty hours later. The sun was up. I grabbed my sleeping bag, headphones, and an MRE and went up to the roof of the outpost. Stinky and Coocoo followed, their hooves tapping the tiles up the stairwell. I lay on my back and listened to Jimmy Buffet, pretended I was home in the Florida Keys, the Iraqi sky the same hue of blue. Coocoo rammed my knuckles for a bit, then settled down. I fed Stinky MRE scraps, and stroked her long, lumpy ears. She stared at me with her rectangular pupils, and we shared a knowing silence, then slept for a few hours.

**********

Baghdad time is like botanical time: months slide by quick but days drag into uncountable hours. It’d been six months since Sergeant Cartwright’s Humvee rolled over an IED on Route Irish. Coocoo was no longer nursing, I’d just had my nineteenth birthday. More men were stationed at our outpost and the chow-hall and gym stank of two-hundred men who hadn’t showered in months. I left the chow-hall and prepped for presence patrol as I did every evening. Loaded the Humvee with magazines and water, “Die Motherfucker Die” blaring from the speakers. Aggressive playlists were key– Van Halen, Manson, Slip Knot. Through the diamond-shaped slats in the wire fence, the sun shot oranges and reds into the dark ridges of the city, across uprooted palms, illuminating sandy flats.

A sixty-millimeter mortar round whizzed through the barbed fencing and detonated in the yard, a few feet from me and the outpost. The windows blew out, and shrapnel pierced the air, a volcano of glass and rubble.

Coocoo sprung from a dust cloud, galloping towards me, bleating.

A second mortar hit the space between us.

Coocoo vanished in an eruption of dust, smoke and embers. Bullets pinged the Humvee. I scrambled up to the gunner’s seat and positioned the 50 cal. I fired blindly. Hosing bullets, my body shuddering with the force of each kickback.

Guard Tower Two fired five AT-4s, decimating the city block before us. Dust lingered in the air, speckling the remaining light.

We searched for Coocoo. We searched for five soldiers. No bodies found.

**********

In the weeks that followed, Haji seemed to grow wise to our routes and tactics. They ambushed in daylight hours. Firefights intensified. Time slowed down when a bullet flew through Sergeant Brydon’s neck. The next day, I was promoted from Corporal to Sergeant. Three of my men went home on leave, then went AWOL. One got his wife to shoot him in the knee.

Fuck that, I thought. You don’t leave your boys. When my time for leave arrived, I refused it.

A month after Coocoo was blown up, I lay in my bunk, listening to Stinky bleat, calling for Coocoo. I recalled a time when I thought death was sacred. When I presumed souls peacefully ascend from the body. But what about Cartwright and Brydons’ souls, what of Coocoo’s? What happens in that flash, when the body is dismembered? When death is a swift puncture.

Stinky’s bleating echoed through the large hall, her hooves tapped the chipped tiles. She bit me when I tried to scratch her ear. But I respected her defiance, her endless and insatiable search.

**********

A month after Coocoo, and weeks after Sergeant Brydon, another mortar attack pounded  the outpost. I was on guard tower duty with Amos and James.

“We got Haji at three o’clock. Six men,” said James, radioing it in. He was wearing his lucky Starbucks apron over his combat gear. He faced the outpost, Amos covered front right, and I covered front left.

Through crosshairs, I spotted six men armed with AKs, standing in a semicircle. One man was dictating, giving direction, talking with his hands. Haji always talked with their hands, gave their game away. The men split and dispersed. I glided my M4, took aim on moving targets, and fired three shots. One hit. Through my scope, I spotted a mortar aimed at the outpost. I shot my weapon, but a bullet pierced the south side of the tower, whistling past my ear. I dropped and took cover, unable to return fire, the room singing.

Amos emptied rounds, spraying chambers so loudly that I couldn’t hear. Metal shells clanking against stone walls.

A red trail arced across the sky and detonated inside the outpost. Dirt and stone rose and tumbled. The guard tower tremored. My ear was bleeding. I watched James, red-skinned, torrents of sweat wetting his face. Through a slit in tower’s stone, I saw Stinky, trotting the perimeter of the yard. Another mortar hit and Stinky evaporated in a cloud of dirt and flames.

“No,” I cried out, but I couldn’t hear my voice. I hurled a grenade and James and Amos emptied a parade of bullets.

**********

The day after Stinky was blown up, Lieutenant Powell got confirmation that Jalwad, our interpreter, a man we had lived with for the past eight months, was informing Jeshthamadh of our movements and tactics.

I began operating with a new mechanical clarity. I pushed my unit through the city, excavating it, hunting high value targets, detaining militants. I knocked men down with the butt of my M4 if they weren’t down already when I reached them. “If their neighbors are hiding weapons, we’ll find them. Any suspicion, detain them.” That was my motto. Pressing my boot into men’s faces, making sure to spit on them when I spoke. I purposely crashed Humvees into houses. I left behind IOUs, saying “Bush owes you a door. Bush owes you a house. Bush owes you a fucking city.” And when I got intel that ten targets occupied three buildings, I didn’t order a raid. I ordered the entire block be detonated. “Let’s watch the motherfuckers burn,” I said. And we did, from the guard tower. A strip mall and six high-rises fell and disintegrated, billowing black plumes ascending with licks of fire.

“For Stinky and Coocoo,” we chanted.

As the weeks pushed forward, patrols stretched up to seventy hours. Numbers dwindled and fluctuated. Some boys drank the mini bottles of Tabasco that came with our MREs to wake up. I’d bite my hand to stay awake, or stab my thigh with my hunting knife, needing the pain to sharpen, to hold my focus. My mind reduced to instinct, immediacy: Now I’m burning shit. Now I’m on patrol. Now I’m on a Kill Team mission. We did as we were told until ordered to stop.

**********

Three months after Stinky was blown up, I’d returned from a seventy-hour combat mission when Lieutenant Powell ordered me to sleep. I let my legs buckle, succumbed to the sixty pounds of gear on my back, and slid down the wall. I slept where I’d stood.

I woke to Amos shaking me.

“Wake up, Sergeant Frost. Wake up,” he shouted.

My neck was stiff, stuck to my chest, my hand limp on my M4.

“Lieutenant Powell wants to see you in the tactical operations room.”

I imagine it was once the principal’s office, a large room on the upper level of the school. All the windows were boarded up, and men of all ranks sat around a janky oval table, sweating under a useless ceiling fan. Lieutenant Powell stood at the head, in front of a satellite image of the city that ran the length of the wall.

“Happy you could join us, Sergeant Frost. I hope you got your beauty sleep because you’re fucking late,” said Powell. His voice rose to a shout at the end of each sentence.

I positioned myself next to a couple of second class privates and paid attention.

“Haji are here and here,” said Powell. “We’re here.” He used a laser pointer to illuminate the targets on a map.

“Sergeant Frost.”

“Yes, Sir,” I replied. The first surge of adrenaline buzzed my veins.

“Your squad will clear every house along the left side of Route Irish. We’ve got three UK hostages from the BBC somewhere in this area, and Jeshthamadh advancing from the west, over here.” His laser pointer darted between two red pins. It cut through the city and stretched ten miles, dividing the Sunni and Shia territories.

“Work with Delta Company and maintain contact with air assets,” said Powell. “Good luck, ladies. Don’t fucking die. Now get the fuck out of here.”

I alerted my squad, loaded magazines, ammo, water, med kits, all our gear into six Humvees. I went for a combat piss and shit, and ordered my boys to do the same. The combat piss and shit ensured you’d fight or die with dignity. Nobody wanted to unintentionally void their bowels or bladder. I always shat in the same place and pissed on the same wall. Fifteen minutes later, we were rolling out, chugging cans of Wild Tiger, pumped up, “Let the bodies hit the floor,” reverberating in the cramped, hot space.

We moved deliberately, cleared houses with a tight choreography of synchronized movements. The unspoken dialogue between six men: knock, then kick down the door if not answered immediately. Split like atoms into three pairs. Locate and consolidate inhabitants, clear the ground floor. One soldier guards the house from a concealed position, another watches the civilians, while the rest clear rooms in pairs, the basement, yard, and roof.

Mid-mission, we pounded on a blue door. It opened immediately, and we pushed our way in. The stairs ascended to my left, a small door under them. The living room to my right, stretched back to the kitchen and yard. And front right, in the living room, stood a girl about my age.

She watched us disperse. Like most of the younger women I’d seen on patrol, she wore a hijab, with black fabric wrapped around her neck, framing her face. She had a light complexion and dark, wide eyes. She seemed calm. Still. Just standing there, smiling at me in a black dressing gown, the sort of thing most women wore inside, when they weren’t expecting company.

“Is there anyone else here with you?” I asked. She didn’t answer.

“Are you alone?” I pressed.

Despite my curt tone and the fact that she was the only female in the room, she seemed completely relaxed. Unafraid to hold eye contact.

I kept my weapon up, scanning the room, searching for possible threats. I saw a few exposed cinder blocks and paint peeling from the corners of the walls.

She was the only occupant, so the squad pushed upstairs to gain vertical dominance and search the house. I cleared the kitchen, which opened to a yard with a fire pit, humming with flies, and the stench of rotting food. I kept the girl in sight, directed her from the kitchen back to the living room. She smiled at me the entire time, watching me search under the sofa and the thin mattress on the floor, through books and drawers. I had checked everything but one door under the stairs.

“Do you have the key?” I asked, rattling the door frame.

She smiled at me. A bright, broad smile.

I motioned a key with my finger to the door and twisted my wrist. “No key?”

She just kept smiling.

“I need the key to get in the door. I need to see what’s behind the door.”

I smiled back.

“Look,” I said. “I really need the key.”

I started to wonder how much I wanted to see what was behind the door. I didn’t want to be mean to her. I kept my hand on my weapon but dropped my guard, slightly. Before I knew it, I was mustering the words in Arabic, and saying “I think you’re pretty.”

She smiled, and took a couple steps toward me.

I stepped closer to her. There was only a couple of feet between us. I hadn’t been this close to a girl in almost a year. A new surge of adrenaline blasted my body. She could have a knife in her pocket, hidden in the dark folds of her clothes. She could stab me in the throat, multiple times, and get away with it. Nobody would notice a chick running through Baghdad. I’d bleed out right here. She smelled like almonds. What was behind the door? Why did she trust me not to kill her? Beneath the black fabric, the soft rise of her chest. I wanted to kiss her. I stepped forward, into the small distance between us. She didn’t step back. My muscles arrested, I didn’t care what was behind the door. I could see the fine creases on her lips. I imagined the heat of her lips. The inches between us felt like static electricity, alive. I lowered my weapon, my guard, and leaned in. I could feel her breath—

“All clear, Sergeant Frost,” Amos shouted, leading my squad and a thunder of boots downstairs, and out the door.

I was the last one out. I turned back one last time and saw her laughing, both hands over her mouth. Laughing at me, at the whole scene.

I thought about her every night until I made it back to the Florida Keys. Her skin, her face, so close. Maybe there was nothing on the other side of that door. Maybe she was trying to kill me. I knew nothing, but yearned for touch.