Nothing much had changed from the years I’d actually been in the military. Going out at night, ‘taking a walk’ beyond the safety of the perimeter, the corpsman handed out pills meant to keep everyone alert.
Now, like then, I never found the need for them.
The smallest noise not recognized would amp me up more than I could almost bear. And then I’d find myself hoping that I wasn’t the only one who had noticed it.
And should a couple of rounds be fired off in the distant dark, that same darkness would be there, kneeling on my chest. I had completely forgotten what my fear tasted like: bitter, metallic, guilty.
Back then, I carried a rifle. On this tour, I had only some pens, two notebooks, my elderly Canon AE-1 and 35 canisters of Kodak film.
There would be no killing for me on this tour. However, I knew I was a prime target and that didn’t leave me feeling any more comfortable.
This part of the world was familiar to me as I’d been here before. But it was also more deadly now then it had been, when I first touched boot to it.
Before my military escorts picked up me along with their four other guests, I found myself asleep in a smallish, dilapidated motel room that cost me ten-bucks American. That first night I was so exhausted that I simply dropped out.
The next morning following a cup of kahwah, some crisp pakora and a bowl of spicy lubya, I wandered around a three or four block area. It was a welcomed relief to see US forces populating the street corners, adding some sense of safety to my well-being.
That second night, amid sporadic small arms fire, I found I couldn’t sleep. So with my room window open and moonlight shining in, I studied the old map that hung above my narrow bed.
‘Old’ because while it was of the same country I’d once been a secret guest of, and again found myself in, it was in Cyrillic script . Though I couldn’t read the script, I knew it from my previous experience.
The universe has a way of rendering some persons safe, I’ve learned. That’s why this narrative is so short.
It is easy to catalog of bits and piece of overheard ‘before and after’ conversations:
“I can’t wait to get me some.”
“Shit, you’ll be too scared to even lift your weapon.”
“Fuck you and the horse you rode in on.”
“I was so scared I shit myself.”
“Yeah, and if that’s the worst thing either of us do, we can count ourselves luck.”
“You mean you were scared too?”
“No, I mean I shit myself too.”
But the hard thing is the memorializing life when the chips come down.
The four other and I rode in a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected light tactical vehicle or MRAP. And like so often is the case, military vehicle’s are subject to SNAFU’s and this one simply stopped running and we were forced to wait for another ride.
“Contact!” a Marine shouted as we were off-loading our gear.
Scrambling, I found the far side of the road and a thin strip of land strewn with small boulders. Where everyone else raced off to, I had no idea.
The flash was enormous, the sound deafening. So loud was the blast that it left my ears ringing for the next three days.
One killed, two injured, including one of the journalists. While I was sure I had a concussion, the reporter lost his thumb and the first three fingers to his right hand, leaving only his pinky intact.
As the Corpsman worked on the Marine, I tended my civilian counterpart. Once all hostilities had been squelched, I learned everything I’d brought with me had gone up in the ensuing blaze of the MRAP.
Within the hour, we were enroute to the FOB that we had left earlier in the evening and while the two more seriously injured were flighted to a larger, better equipped facility, I was taken to an uncomfortable gurney, given a medical once over, followed up by a full head-to-toe physical, two days later and shipped out of country.
What a bust. No story, no concussion, and only ringing of the ears, which had already subsided.
My days as an embedded reporter were finished and I found myself homeward bound. As I sat in the window seat of a commercial airline, crossing the blue-green expanse of Pacific ocean, I found myself daydreaming and wishing that I had ‘procured’ that old Soviet map, squirreling it away in my duffel bag as a memento of my failed adventure.