Forward Operating Base
A fight broke out on the far side of the dining facility, over by the milk. A fridge door slapped shut, followed by sounds of shoving and punches being thrown. Soldiers dodged out of the way before a few brave souls went in to break it up. There were noises of slipped holds and flail, of tables and chairs scraping across the concrete floor. Then Digger’s voice rang out—I’ll kill you!—and for a moment it seemed like this night, a Friday, was about to transcend all its false promises.
Every Friday was rib night at this D-fac. Soldiers spent all day making the sauce, marinating the ribs, and stoking mesquite embers in split oil drums. They baked a cake the size of a garage door. They decorated the D-fac—a giant white tent—with balloons and streamers. They went to all this trouble, I knew, with good intentions. They wanted us to feel appreciated, and to give us a taste of home. They wanted us to enjoy, at least, the illusion of a party—as if this were a real Friday night, with an actual weekend to follow, and we might find it within ourselves to break a few weekday rules. Fighting, however, was prohibited.
Tables and chairs were being moved back to where they belonged, and a new line was forming for the milk. Digger walked over to where Hal and I sat, where we always sat, by the Jell-O cart.
“No one waits their goddamn turn anymore,” Digger said. The collar of his T-shirt appeared to have been balled up and jerked around. Bright-pink scratches swelled on his neck. His eyes were red and bleary because he hadn’t slept.
“You all right?,” Hal, our troop chief, asked.
“I’m fine,” Digger said.
Digger set a partially crushed carton of chocolate milk on the table. He laid down his cardboard tray, scattered with a few ribs he must’ve salvaged off the floor. He sat across from me, and flies settled on his salvaged ribs.
“I can’t eat this,” Digger said.
I’d tripled up on trays to prevent rib grease from soaking through. I separated the bottom tray and loaded it with half my ribs. Hal gave half his ribs, too. Digger—on the backside of the adrenaline rush that had fueled his fistfight—was staring off into nowhere, so I reached across the table and slid his old tray aside. The flies lifted off those ribs and spun their little orbits. Digger tilted a bit in his seat. As I pushed the new tray in front of him, his mouth dropped open and his eyes closed.
The D-fac was packed with soldiers who’d spent all day in the summer sun. Their faces were shiny with sweat, their eyes wild with heat exhaustion. Their laughter bounced off the tent’s taut skin, reverberated in its aluminum frame, and rattled the turnbuckles, S-hooks, and galvanized wire that held the whole thing together. Hal dropped one clean bone after another on the center of the table. Flies walked across Digger’s face to drink from the corners of his mouth. He’d been up all night, on that mission out in Wardak, then up all day wrestling demons in the heat. Tired as he was, he’d fought that poor guy over by the milk.
Digger appeared to skip the early stages of sleep—in which his body would’ve cooled, his heart rate slowed—and plunged directly into REM. His eyes shifted as he began to dream. I watched them draw triangles under their lids.
Around 2 o’clock that morning, during the raid on a compound out in Wardak, Digger had killed three men in a room. They were sleeping in three corners, with an AK-47 resting on the floor in the center of the room, when Digger crept in. The man in the first corner woke and reached for the AK, and Digger shot him. The man in the next corner reached, and Digger shot him, too. The third man’s fingers were almost touching the weapon when he died.
I heard the shots from where I stood, outside the walls of that compound, with Hal. Each shot sounded like when you walk into a dark room and flip a switch, and the filament in the bulb pops. I went into the room after the fact. Seeing the men reaching out for that AK in death, I figured there had to have been some sort of conversation among them. Like, who would sleep in which corner, and where would they put their only weapon, the muzzle of which had been wrapped in orange wire, in what seemed to me a superstitious way. As though the wire had transformed the AK into a good-luck charm, and the men had seen fit to leave it in the center of the room, beyond arm’s length of any one of them, so that the good luck might extend to them equally. Yet they’d all reached for the AK when Digger had snuck into the room.
We searched the compound and found nothing. We took digital fingerprints of the dead men and beamed them back to Higher, which ran them through the database. The results were inconclusive. From the compound, we walked a mile through tall grass to where the helicopters would pick us up. An owl circled overhead in the twilight, until the helicopters dropped out of the sky and scared it away. Digger and I climbed into the same helo and sat across from each other in the cargo bay. The sunrise through the window behind me lit Digger’s stoic face as we flew back to Sharana.
It was already hot by the time we arrived at our compound, on the north end of the runway, where we lived in old shipping containers. Mine smelled as if it had been used to transport pepper. I stood my rifle in a corner and propped my armor against a wall. I closed the shipping container’s heavy metal door and lay down on my cot. I fell into as deep a sleep as the heat of the day would allow.
My dream went like this: We walked uphill into a village at night. A woman ran downhill, into our ranks, and searched the troop for me. I was the one wearing all the antennas. I was the one who’d talked to the plane that had shot up her house. I could see smoke rising from her house on the hill. Inside, in a corner of a room, a dead grandfather held his dead grandson. It was the daughter/mother who found me. It was she who insisted that I come inside her house to see what I’d done.
I’d brought the A-10 down for a 30-millimeter strafe on four enemies standing at the top of the hill. The attack had killed three and left the fourth severely wounded. The wounded man had been trying to drag himself to cover. He had been bleeding from an artery in his shattered leg. I could’ve done nothing, and he would’ve died soon enough. Rather, I’d brought the A-10 back for another strafe. Rounds had drifted into the house. They’d found the boy and his grandfather hiding in the corner. The woman had run out of the house to find me.
I didn’t want to go into the house, because I knew it wouldn’t do anyone any good, and I was right. But the woman’s grief was so profound, it resembled joy. I couldn’t ignore her, and I didn’t want to push her away. Nor did I want to threaten her, then be in a position where I might have to carry out those threats. So I followed her up the hill, through a disintegrated wall of her house, and into a clouded room. I walked over broken tiles toward the corner, where she pointed. There, I discovered the grandfather and grandson alive.
The grandfather brushed dust off his grandson’s shoulders. Can I help you? he asked, like stray 30 mike-mike blew through his house all the time. Then—bzzt!—the dream short-circuited, and we were walking uphill into the village again, and the woman was running downhill to meet us halfway.
Somewhere in there, Digger entered my shipping container, which woke me up. Light and heat streamed through the open door.
“What?,” I asked.
“I need a pill,” Digger said.
My duffel bag lay against the wall opposite my armor. From it, Digger removed my flannel shirt. He searched the pocket where I kept my sleeping pills.
“I don’t have any more,” I said.
“Bullshit,” Digger said. “Hal says he gave you, like, 20.”
Digger dumped the contents of my duffel bag onto the floor. Car keys clinked against the plywood. My wallet flopped open. Live 5.56- and 9-mm rounds rolled out the door and into the sun.
Some called the pills “time machines”; others called them “TKOs.” They were tiny blue ovals coated in shine. Standard-issue was 10 pills per man, and no more, because they were addictive. But the pills helped us get over the jet lag resulting from our long trip to Afghanistan. They eased our transition to the nocturnal schedule on which the success of our mission relied. And they rendered us comatose and dreamless when, for whatever reason, we couldn’t sleep.
Every time we deployed, a medic would issue these pills, in little plastic bags, as we boarded the cargo jet that would deliver us from our home base, in Virginia, to the war. We always left home around midnight. This last time, my fourth, it was March. Frost hung in the air. Stars tangled in the bare branches of the tallest oaks. Hal received his pills from the medic and stuffed them in his backpack. Digger tucked his plastic bag of pills into the front pocket of his jeans. I buttoned mine into the pocket of my flannel shirt, and when I looked up, there was Digger, looking back at me. “Here we go again,” he said, smiling. Together we climbed the stairs into the dimly lit cargo bay.
We took off, refueled high over the continental shelf, then drilled eastbound through the stratosphere. Halfway across the black Atlantic, as others slept on the cold metal floor, I stood at the starboard jump door, looking out its little round window at the night.
Swells rose on the surface of the moonlit ocean. Silver clouds whispered by. I removed the plastic bag from my shirt pocket and shook out a sleeping pill. It appeared gray in the moonlight. I swallowed it, then stayed at the window, waiting for it to take effect.
Honeycombs, checkerboards, and cobwebs spun before my eyes. The moon set, the sun rose. Clouds vaporized, and the sea turned red. I saw the city of Atlantis, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the pyramids of Giza, all covered in the gold of sunrise. I saw the Tower of Babel, its top spiraling toward the heavens. I knew these things were real, because I could press my hand against the jump door and feel the cold sky pressing back.
I kept the remainder of the pills in the pocket of my flannel shirt, in my duffel bag, against the wall of my shipping container. Spring was mild at Sharana; the transition to sleeping days was easier than it would’ve been during summer. Every morning we returned to the compound, however, after both good nights and bad, the restlessness was the same. I’d sit on my cot and consider taking a pill, even though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stop. Even though I understood that after I ran out of pills, I wouldn’t be able to find any more. In the end, I would decide not to take one. And I would sleep well knowing that I had some in reserve.
Then came that night in April, out near Shkin, when I brought the A-10 down for a second strafe, and rounds drifted into that house. The noise arrived after the rounds hit. And the woman ran downhill into our ranks, her screams no different from laughter.
I saw her twisted face by starlight. I saw smoke rising from her house as an infrared blur on night vision. She reached out to me, which I shouldn’t have allowed, because she could’ve triggered my rifle, or pulled the pin on one of my grenades. Instead, she touched my arm, and her grief transferred wholesale. I sensed the absence of her father and son, and I felt her wish that I could bring them back. She might’ve felt me wishing the same thing, believing that if only I wished hard enough, it might happen. The A-10 was still in the sky. We were still walking uphill. Although I knew better, I followed the woman into her house.
Returning to my shipping container after sunrise that morning, I didn’t care about the ramifications. I intended to take a pill. I opened my duffel bag, dug out my flannel shirt, and discovered the pocket empty. Ditto for the other pocket of that shirt, and all the pockets of my other shirts. I thought that maybe, in a blind fit of self-preservation, I might’ve hidden the pills somewhere so perfect that even I couldn’t find them. Then I remembered Digger, in line to board the cargo jet back in Virginia, turning around.
I walked over to Digger’s shipping container and banged on its big orange door. He answered in his underwear. “Yeah?” he said.
“Did you take my pills?,” I asked.
Looking into Digger’s eyes, I saw sea-horse tails spinning clockwise.
“You know what,” I said.
Digger blinked, and those tails spun the other way.
“I get all I need from Hal,” Digger said. He shut his door and barred it from the inside.
I walked to Hal’s shipping container, which stood out in the wind. Blowing sand struck the broadside of it, making a noise like a finger circling the rim of a wineglass. The heavy door gonged when I knocked. Hal cracked it open just far enough to peek out. I explained my situation.
“I gave all my pills to Digger,” Hal said.
“I just need one,” I said.
On missions, Hal wore the same antennas as me. The woman who ran downhill into our ranks could’ve just as easily chosen him as the focus of her grief. She could’ve reached out and touched his arm.
“Hold on,” Hal said, and he shut the door.
Putting my ear to Hal’s door, I heard what sounded like Hal putting his ear to the other side of the door, wondering how long I’d wait. Meanwhile, the sun froze in the sky. The wind stopped blowing. The door popped open, I extended my hand, and Hal released a blue pill into my cupped palm.
Back in my shipping container, I sat on my cot with the pill in my hand. I envisioned the honeycombs and checkerboards. I imagined Alexander the Great, riding his elephant down from the mountains into battle. I considered what the next morning would be like, trying to fall asleep without a pill, and I wondered where I might find more. Tearing a piece of duct tape from a roll, I stuck the pill to the ceiling over my cot. The little blue capsule was perfectly hidden between the gray tape and the gray steel. As I drifted off to sleep, only I knew it was there.
The steel walls of my shipping container turned to glass in my dream. I found myself alone on the barren steppe where Sharana once stood. The sun rolled backwards across the sky. Night fell, frost formed on the glass, and it began to snow. A glacier descended from the mountains to bury me in ice for an eon before the thaw delivered a millennium of floods and driving rain. Then, one day, the clouds broke and the sun shined down on a forest of petrified mulberries. That night, the harvest moon crashed into the Earth, smashing it to smithereens. I drifted in my glass box through space and time toward a tiny, oval-shaped star that shined blue in the distance.
And that was the pill Digger wanted, on that hot morning in June, after he’d killed three men out in Wardak.
Someone had gone to great lengths to find helium; then to inflate each red, white, or blue balloon; tie the nozzle; and knot the string. The other ends of the strings were tied to stones, the way you might tie a threatening note to a brick before throwing it through a window. The stones anchored the balloons to the tables. The balloons hovered over piles of bones. More soldiers entered the D-fac, and the heat coming off their fevered bodies threatened to lift the whole tent off the ground like an airship. All that commotion, and somehow Hal licking his fingers clean was what jolted Digger awake.
“Need anything?,” Hal offered, standing.
Digger shook his head. Once Hal was out of earshot, I asked him, “Did you find a pill this morning?”
“No,” he said.
“Who’d you ask?”
Earlier, Hal, Digger, and I had walked from our compound to the D-fac, whose opaque skin glowed amber in the night. Along the way, we’d passed two privates kissing in the moon shadow of a T-wall. We’d passed three colonels smoking cigars, and a gaggle of majors playing horseshoes. Sergeants, silhouetted by flame, had been grilling the ribs on the oil drums. Clouds of bittersweet smoke had flavored the night air. Before entering the D-fac, we’d each cleared our pistols into a barrel full of sand. We’d dropped our magazines, pulled back our slides, and caught the rounds that flipped out of the chambers. Hal and I had pushed our rounds back in our magazines, but Digger had thrown his out over the T-walls and into tent city, where all the daywalkers slept.
Inside the D-fac, at the steam table, Digger had just pointed at what he wanted. No please or thank you to the privates in their hairnets and aprons, holding their tongs and serving forks. No wishing them happy hunting, as was customary. From the steam table, Digger had set off for the milk.
A row of industrial-size refrigerators, each packed with hundreds of those grade-school boxes of milk, stood adjacent to the steam table. A muddled line of soldiers formed in front of each. Digger, I guessed, had picked his box of chocolate milk out from a distance. Maybe it had looked colder than the rest, or fresher. Maybe Digger had thought that, as a killer, he was entitled to whichever box he wanted. After all, he hadn’t spent his day making barbecue sauce, or stoking fires, or baking a fucking cake. He hadn’t blown up balloons or hung streamers. Someone must’ve cut in front of Digger and taken his box of milk.
Digger had probably drilled the guy in the jaw. That was his signature move, anyway, the jaw drill. I’d seen him do it under a streetlight in Virginia Beach, at a gas station in Salt Lake City, and on a bridge in Milwaukee. When Digger put his back into it, it was devastating. So whoever had taken Digger’s milk had probably hit the fridge door unconscious. And his tray of ribs had probably gone flying. Then had come the brave souls to break up the fight. At that point, it must’ve looked to Digger like the entire population of the D-fac was closing in, which might’ve made it seem like he was squaring off against the world. When he’d shouted I’ll kill you!, I figured that he’d meant everybody.
Hal returned to our table with an extra tray of ribs for Digger and me to share. I took all the burned ones, and Digger took all the rare. The three of us ate, and made a big mess of bones on the table.
A gray-haired master sergeant carrying a walkie-talkie appeared. He was followed by a skinny PFC with a widow’s peak and sleeves too long for his arms. The master sergeant pointed at Digger with the antenna of his walkie-talkie.
“This the guy?” he asked the PFC.
“Yeah,” the PFC said.
“You need to come with me,” the master sergeant said to Digger.
“I don’t need to do shit,” Digger said.
“That’s how you want to handle this?” the master sergeant asked.
“Yup,” Digger said.
The master sergeant radioed for security. The name Grimes was embroidered on his camouflaged blouse. The PFC looked at us like he didn’t know who we were or where we came from, but he wanted in.
“This guy’s mine,” Hal said to Grimes, while pointing at Digger. “How about you and me figure this out at our level.”
“How about you eat, and let me handle this,” Grimes said.
“I’m just trying to save us both some ass pain,” Hal said. “Incident reports, and all that bullshit.”
“Assault is not bullshit,” Grimes said.
This made Digger laugh, which made Hal laugh, too.
“You’re not helping,” Hal said.
Double doors swung open behind the steam table. Two soldiers backed into the tent, each supporting one corner of the gigantic cake that had been decorated to look like the American flag. Knowing the routine, birthday girls and boys stood up from their tables and made their way toward the stage.
“Go tell them to wait,” Grimes said to the PFC with the long sleeves, who walked off while shaking his head. Grimes turned to Digger. “You think you can just come in here and tune up one of my soldiers?”
“He started it,” Digger said.
“That’s not what I’m hearing,” Grimes said. He held his walkie-talkie up to his ear and fiddled with the volume.
“Whatever’s gonna happen, can you make it quick?,” Digger said. “I got shit to do.”
“Oh, it’ll be quick, all right,” Grimes said.
“How long you been doing this?,” Hal asked.
At that, Grimes smiled. He almost laughed. As a master sergeant, he had to have been in long enough to understand that nothing ever happened quick. Army, Navy—it didn’t matter which service. Try as you might, there was always that unbeatable thing pushing back. Grimes had to know. So when I saw him smile, I thought he was going to sit down with us, and he and Hal were going to work things out. Then we’d all shake our heads over how fucked up everything was, and how we’d almost gotten caught up in it, there, for a second.
A lieutenant with his own walkie-talkie appeared. He asked Grimes, “Are you ready for the cake, Master Sergeant?”
The cake, by then, was up onstage. Soldiers were sticking candles into it. A dozen birthday girls and boys, all way too young, stood around, waiting for those candles to be lit and for the lights to go out and for all of us to sing “Happy Birthday,” which happened every rib night.
“Does it look like I’m ready for the goddamn cake?,” Grimes said.
“I’m just asking,” the lieutenant said.
“If I was ready for the fucking cake, do you think I’d be down here and not up there?”
“Sorry, Master Sergeant,” the lieutenant said. “I didn’t know.”
The D-fac’s aluminum frame creaked gently against the wind, as if it were being held down by ropes. As if, absent those ropes, we’d float to a new and faraway place, where we might live by our own rules.
“Your attention please!” the lieutenant yelled from the stage. No one paid attention. Then Grimes whistled, and everybody shut up.
“We’re going to postpone the birthday celebration for a few minutes,” the lieutenant announced, “due to a problem that we need to take care of first.”
“That’s me!,” Digger shouted, climbing on top of our table. “I’m the problem!”
Soldiers booed and cheered. Digger held his arms open to them while turning in a slow circle. Soldiers beat their tables with their fists.
“Fuck you if you’re here to eat cake, and not to fight!,” Digger yelled.
There were more cheers than boos this time, as Digger climbed down from the table and returned to his seat.
“See, now, that’s where you and I agree,” Grimes said to Digger. “You think they had birthday cakes in ’Nam?”
“Exactly,” Digger said.
Grimes’s walkie-talkie squawked. He put the speaker to his ear while looking at the D-fac’s entrance, on the far side of the steam table. Finding no security there, Grimes turned to check the fire exit next to the stage. “I’m in the middle, by the Jell-O cart,” Grimes said into the mic. “Where are you?”
They could’ve been on the ground, surrounded by cut ropes, watching us float away. They could’ve been asking themselves where the hell we thought we were going.
I couldn’t speak for anybody else in the D-fac on rib night. But Digger, it was safe to say, had joined to fight. Hal had joined because if he hadn’t, the war would’ve never been the same. And as for me, I’d joined to see the world.