Sunday, December 31, 2006


The papers here still set Saddam Hussein's execution for three days ago. The man has been dead for a weekend already, and still the most recent copy of Stars and Stripes writes about him as if he were present tense.

Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti is dead, and yet the people of the United States, an ocean away, knew about it before I did. Already, people have messaged me, asking about the local response to Hussein's hanging. Not being on a mission presently, of course, I can't honestly say. The last few nights of tower guard have been filled with the sounds of distant gunfire and exploding mortar shells, but then again, that's every night in this place. But I digress.

So Saddam Hussein is dead, and how do I feel? Honestly, I'm still not sure. On the one hand, I look at the images of cheering Iraqi Shiites, and think that this has helped them heal; and yet on the other, I am simultaneously disappointed and disgusted by this turn of events. Answer me this: who was really punished by Saddam Hussein's hanging? Was it Saddam Hussein? I doubt it. The victim rests now among the graceful dead; bouyed even in his final moments by, it is said, an unswerving conviction in choices made without regret. Murderer, despot, madman; call him what one will, based on the reports I've seen, Saddam Hussein faced his own death like a man.

So who, then, is punished by Saddam Hussein's hanging? Is it the Sunni minority he represented in Iraq? It was, after all, the Sunnis under Saddam who prospered most greatly, and the Sunnis who first embraced violent resistance at Saddam's instruction. Could it be that Saddam's death was meant to be effigiac in nature; a warning of vengeance by a long-oppressed Shiite majority? It's possible. After all, the former dictator was fond of bold statements to his rivals, so such a statement from a largely Shiite court shouldn't come as surprising.

Who is punished by the death of Saddam Hussein? Is it the Bush Administration? This war was their idea, and to an extent this execution then rests upon them, puppet courts be damned. This trial, and the sentence carried with it, have seemed to be a focus of the Administration's plan from day one. Indeed, watching the trial in the months before my deployment, I couldn't shake the feeling that the entire proceeding seemed to be terribly inauthentic, as if justice had been confused for retribution. Not once have I seen the images and been able to feel that Justice, in any sense, was being served by this trial.

And why would that be? I'm not a conspiracy theorist, by any means, so what am I say to these shadowy doubts in the court created by my commander-in-chief, built to try and convict said Administrations' longtime rival? How am I to hear the talk of Justice served, when I see none? Where is the fair trial, where is the serious legal discourse here? Is there any to see here? Was there any to begin with? I don't honestly know that there was, and truthfully when dealing with questions of justice in this trial, I have to confess I don't really see any. I don't anyone behind this decision was ever really interested in Justice.

Why else would we silently endorse an execution for one crime before another ever gets to see court? Why would we violate U.N. policy by insisting Saddam be tried by his own victims, rather than hauled in cuffs to a war crimes tribunal in The Hague? Why hang him and make a show of rejoicing in his death, when we could have let him die in a Belgian jail cell? Would such a thing have been any less Justice served? Would such a simple show of mercy have been such a terrible price for a shred of restored honor? Apparently, the people in power seem to think so.

What is justice? Is it hanging an aging murderer, giving him a last shot of publicity before touting his death as an Administration victory? Is it encouraging the people of this shattered country to forsake violence, and then saying nothing when they slake their thirst with the blood of their former oppressor? Is that what we, a predominantly Christian-influenced society,
should want? Is that what Christ would have wanted?

I've long since concluded that no civilized society can ethically support the death penalty, no matter how egregious the crime. But this execution offends more than my moral sensibilities. It offends my sense of duty; only exacerbates the sense that this effort at reparation is nothing but a trophy hunt, another cheap stuffed head to be mounted on the wall of Bush's legacy. Where is the Justice in any of this? At best, we've made hypocrites of ourselves; at worse, we've ensured that the violence and death will only continue.

This has not been Justice. Justice wouldn't force us to compromise our own morals in order to enforce it. Justice wouldn't bend itself to support our interests. Justice wouldn't need to spill blood to make amends. True Justice would be more that just skin deep.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tower Guard

We're on guard-tower duty this afternoon, me and Specialist Timms. Timms is a cook, and thus part of a different platoon, but our wives are friends back in garrison. We know each other well enough. The day has been cold, but bright, and fairly uneventful.

In the tower forty feet up, a stiff breeze blows intermittently, and both of us are dressed in heavy layers underneath our helmets and body armor. Tower guard is a week-long duty rotation, staffed by soldiers from local units. This week, it was our turn, so for the next few days, we'll be operating in six hour-shifts, which include briefings, inspections, and the guard duty itself. It's supposed to be four hours on, eight off, but as is to be expected in the army, time constraints serve really more as guidelines than as actual rules.

The sun is sinking in the late afternoon sky. We pass the time by talking of home, arguing about the best place stateside for pizza, and about the merits of muscle versus import tuner cars. We pass a set of binoculars between us as we talk, scanning the barren farmland for signs of suspicious activity or danger to U.S. assets. There are times, staring out at the endless expanse of Diyala province, when I find something beautiful in this place. The fields seem to stretch on forever, and but for the occasional palm tree, I could easily mistake the scenery for a view of the northern Midwest.

We basically play "I Spy" all afternoon, watching farmers tend to slow herds of cattle, or follow a trio of children--siblings, I suspect--as they lead a large gaggle of sheep out to feed. During my time with the binoculars, I notice that none of the children appears to be older than nine. The only boy, I also notice, walks barefoot, even in forty degree weather. More remarkable still, as he turns to make a joke to his older sister, I notice something else: the boy, as olive-skinned as the rest of his companions, possesses a thick shock of ruddy blond hair. The genetic makeup of the Middle East, I observe, is far more diverse than we realize. A female voice puts out a spot report over the radio. We hear her say she has visual confirmation of 'suspicious' behavior. When pressed for details by Tower Main, however, she becomes unable to provide an approximate distance or azimuth. Asked for the uniforms donned by her supposed terrorists, she merely responds "Man-dresses." Timms and I have to laugh. The radio goes silent for a few moments, and then a nearby tower reports in to complete the botched report. The two men she sees, it turns out, are burning garbage to stay warm.

Our conversation moves along to house music and then to our wives back home. We talk of how we met our spouses, and how military life has affected our marriages. On the other side of a ditch just below us, a boy of roughly ten pedals slowly past us on a bike too large for him by at least five years. He has to stand upright, all but straddling the support bar, just to keep control, and his sandals continually slip against the surface of the pedals. I point this scene out to my friend. He squints down. "Wonder where he's going," I say. Timms merely shrugs.

Five o'clock approaches, and with it evening. The breeze dies down, and as twilight draws near I decide to indulge in a smoke, before it gets too dark to do so inside the tower. I take out a Marlboro, offering my pack first to Timms-- "nah, I'm good" --and then pause to light myself up. I blow out a plume of grey smoke into the chill December air, and lean against the plywood countertop, listening in silence to the static-filled bursts of radio chatter from the other towers. A pair of Apache helicopters thuds away against the distant sunset.

After a moment, Timms speaks up again. "Damn, dude." He points out to the city outskirts
about a mile northwest of us. "Look at it." He hands me the binoculars.

"Looks like they got a storage shed over there," he says.

I nod. "Yep."

"I swear I saw a mini-mart out there, like a little haji-mart, ya know?" I cast him a sidelong glance at this use of terminology, handing him the binoculars back as I pluck the cigarette from between my lips. He laughs.

"Whaddaya wanna bet they got a friggin' McDonald's over there? Go out the wire, order myself a double cheeseburger, hey?"

I don't respond at first; I only exhale and stick my smoke back in my mouth. I fold my arms and lean against the bulkhead of the tower, staring out at the horizon.

"Something tells me," I say slowly, "that places like this don't really 'do' McDonald's." I flick a glance back at my partner. "Know what I mean?"

"Not really."

I shrug. "Call it a hunch." I continue my scan of the plains. Off in the distance, perhaps 10 miles out, a trio of charcoal smoke blooms have mushroomed into the air, and are quickly disippating eastward with the wind. We're too far away to have heard any explosions, but looking at these formations I can tell that their appearance is far too sudden, their blossoms far too neatly spaced to be anything besides the obvious. I point them out to Timms.

"Looks like someone's set off a daisy-chain."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Questions of Arithmetic

How many soldiers and civilians have to die to avenge the victims of September 11?

And what percentage of that loss can my own death--or that of any of my friends--be expected to redeem?

Can anyone tell me?

Does anyone even know?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Day

Another day in the ruins of Eden, and a rare two-day respite from work.

Christmas has come and gone with little fanfare. The unit received holiday care packages from stateside well-wishers, and in the morning I opened presents over webcam with my wife. Nice, until the generator cut out. By the time the power was back up, she had gone. Christmas brunch date with some friends of ours in the JAG.

My day was uneventful-- I read a little bit, passed the time with some Half-Life 2. In the afternoon, I caved and walked alone to the PX for a haircut. I consoled myself with the guilty purchase of "Superman Returns" on DVD. Decent movie. Spent the evening watching that; caught up with my wife and mother again online. My mother asked me to call her down at my Aunt Bonnie's, but with the time difference, the lines, and work tomorrow, I don't think that's going to happen.

I polished off the last of my wife's cookies, and later in the evening I went up to the chow hall. Figured I'd get myself a piece of this famous Christmas dinner everyone talks about. Say what one will about Army food, the DFAC guys really go all-out for the holidays. Turkey breast, yams, mashed potatoes and pecan pie--all washed down with some V8 and chocolate milk. It wasn't Anne's cooking, but it wasn't bad.

I ended up getting a to-go plate; these days I rarely waste my precious free time in the chow hall. I ate alone in my trailer and paged through the most recent copy of Stars and Stripes. "SENIOR TALIBAN LEADER KILLED," the headline said. The byline: "U.S. military calls man a close associate of bin Laden."

Right, I thought to myself. Him and the last eight guys.

You can't fool all of the people all of the time, I've learned, but you can damned sure fool enough for it not to matter. If the American people really wanted us home, I think, they'd be flooding the streets like Hispanic-Americans did in California this last year. They'd be standing up en masse, demanding action, not sending me another box filled with hotel-room hygiene products. I'm grateful for the support, make no mistake; I just have a hard time understanding what a country-music concert and a crossword book in the mail are going to do for my morale. Facts are, I'm three thousand miles away from my wife; I'm unhappy in my job; I don't feel I contribute anything valuable to the unit; and I don't really have any friends here. Not that I'm bitter.

Two days of rest, in celebration of the holiday, and I find that I really don't feel all that rested. I'm reading an article on MSNBC about Christmas celebrations by Christian Iraqis. Happy holidays, America. Go easy on the eggnog.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Man In Between

I haven't written in a little while, and I apologize for that. I have been in something of a creative rut. I am also fairly limited for the moment, in terms of what I can afford to write about, but hopefully this condition will resolve itself within the next month or so. More will follow.

Oz is leaving. He's on R&R for the moment; after which he'll be reassigned to another platoon. This saddens me--Oz is one of the only real friends I have. Relations with my fellow soldiers have been strained lately; I increasingly find that I have little in common with most of my peers. Too often, I'm left feeling like "the smartest guy in the room." It may be true to a certain extent, but such knowledge only serves to foster in me a sense of intense alienation.

I just finished reading an article about a young female soldier's Bronze Star, and found that I could barely stomach it. Make no mistake--the article itself is very nice. However, I find that, as the months stretch on, I have less desire to see, read, or hear anything else regarding this war. My identity is overshadowed constantly by this uniform, these combat boots. To my superiors I'm a pawn; to my fellow Americans a god unwarranted. I am alternately least and greatest within our societal framework, and I find that such dichotomy leaves little room for the man in between. I am growing tired of the role I play.

A rare positive note: As of next week, I've been selected by my battalion to undergo language training in Arabic. I'm the only soldier from my unit to be receiving the training, and it's a six-week course, so needless to say I am pleased to have been chosen for the slot. Perhaps this will entail for me a slightly different role within the unit. Time will tell.

Yesterday marked the passage of the winter solstice. The days have been cold, and shrouded in dense fog. The holidays are upon us, and the year is drawing to a close. This Sunday, I will make tea and smoke a pipe. I plan to catch up on my reading; perhaps take an opportunity to spend some rare time alone. My line of work doesn't allow for much reflection, so I am inclined to seize upon such chances as they come.

Three months down. Only nine more to go.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Leaves of Oak

When I squint my eyes,
I can see the sunlight play
Across the tattered beige
Of the camouflage nets
And imagine frost-etched
Leaves of oak,
Clinging to branches unshed.

So if I close my eyes, then
Maybe I can imagine this
As nothing more than a walk
Through the forests of Hiawatha,
December stinging my skin

Monday, December 11, 2006

Snow-Dusted Sidewalks

I dreamt last night that I was back in Germany, walking with my wife.

We were in Heidelberg for the holidays, crowded and baroque, with its cobbled streets and alleyways lined with shops. We were bundled up against the cold, and as we walked down the snow-dusted sidewalks our breaths formed mist in the evening air. We talked gaily of art and music and politics, detouring at one point into a coffee shop for cappucino. We smiled at the clerk and placed our requests in German, and after paying with a few euro coins, fished from our pockets, we switched back into English, walking out of the shop and staring at the brightly-lit window displays. The warm drinks were soothing, and they only seemed to enhance the rosy glow in Anne's cheeks as she spoke.

It was snowing out, and in Heidelberg's Old Town the Weinachtmarkten--Winter Night Markets--were out in their full holiday bustle. Christmas trees, glowing bright, lined the red-brick courtyards, and in front of the Old City Hall a live band had set up shop, performing jazz renditions of old Christmas classics. A young Turkish woman in a stunning red dress sang smokily in English of sleigh bells ringing. The benches surrounding the impromptu stage were nearly full, so we decided to take seats near the edge of the yard. Giving in to our impulses, we elected to stop at yet another vendor's booth; this time for potato-bacon soup and mugs of hot gluhwein.

Turning to find ourselves a bench, my wife stopped me and laughed. She smiled warmly. What, I asked her. Nothing, she said, you're cute, and brushed snow out of my spiked-up hair. I wrinkled my nose and grinned as the wet droplets landed across my cheeks and nose, and after I stole a kiss we sat down, finding a seat next to a group of middle-aged Germans, who paused briefly to make room for us before returning to their conversations. One thing about Germans, I thought to myself, they're both less private and yet more respectful of other people's privacy.

We spent a few minutes in silence, content to simply enjoy our soup and let the strong German wine soften the edges of our perceptions. After a time, we got to talking of family, and home, and I listened for a few moments as Anne filled me in on her parents' plans for the holiday season. The restaurant, she told me, has really been picking up lately, what with all the snowmobilers.

"Mom," she said, keeps complaining that if the place doesn't find a buyer soon, Dad's gonna be trapped in the kitchen for the next Christmas too."

She laughed, and I laughed with her, knowing how much her father despises kitchen work after some twenty years as a carpenter. Honestly, I felt bad for the poor guy, and yet envied her family's wanderlust; buying businesses and home across the Upper Peninsula, fixing them up for a few years, and then pulling up roots again when their restlessness overtakes them.

"I don't know," I told her, "why your dad insists on bitching so much. He's got the perfect situation, makes money hand over fist, gets to run his dogs whenever he wants. Matt and Jessie follow them everywhere. Honestly, I'd kill for your parents to be us when we get that age."

"What," she asked me, "you don't wanna be teaching English back at Northern when you're forty?"

"I didn't say that," I replied. "I just said I wish I could have that kind of flexibility."

"You will," she assured me, "you will. Now drink your wine, you. It's gonna go cold."

"I am, I am." I shivered a bit and took another sip of my gluhwein. The heat and cinnamon burned a bit in my throat, and I remember the strong tartness of the plums. The band changed tunes at this point, moving onto a sultry rendition of Bing Crosby. The woman leading the band smiled and crooned with a voice that would have made Ella or Billie a tad jealous, and the rose-red of her lips glistened invitingly under the stage lights.

"That poor girl," my wife said. "I mean, don't get me wrong, she's beautiful, and that's a lovely dress. But how is she not freezing?"

I shrugged. "You never know," I responded. I craned my neck over my wife's shoulder, feigning an attempt to get a better look. I smirked.

"She doesn't LOOK happy to see me, but hey."

"Milo!" She slapped my arm, just hard enough to sting. She feigned outrage, but returned my smirk coyly.

"Oh come on now," I said to her. "The punchline was there! Don't tell me you wouldn't have taken the shot."

Now it was her turn to go on the defensive. "I didn't say that", she grinned, pursing her lips and raising her eyebrow at me in a way that even now never fails to get me riled up. We stared at each other smugly for a moment before our mutual resolve finally broke. She laughed openly, kissing her thumb and planting it on my lips. I returned the gesture. She grinned shyly, cocking her head and brushing that errant lock of blond hair out of her face.

"You're horrible."

"I know." I shrugged.

"But I love you."

"I love you more."

"And I'm so lucky to have you here with me."

"I'm the lucky one."


She shook her head and stared at her hands. She was just sliding over into tipsy, and I gazed in admiration at the way it softened her mannerisms; raised the pitch of her voice ever so gently. She looked back up at me after a moment, smiling, and as she did leaned across the table to kiss me full on the mouth. I savored the momentary mingling of lips and tongues, and as she pulled away she grinned again, slowly, a hint of lust just peeking out from out the corner of her mouth.

"It's good to be your wife," she told me.

"It's even better to be your husband."

"Merry Christmas, baby."

"Merry Christmas, love." We kissed again, rubbing noses as we pulled back, grinning. The young woman on stage continued to sing with her dusky alto. "I'll be home for Christmas," she breathed sensuously.

"If only in my dreams."

And then the alarm clock buzzed.

0530, just in time for morning PT. For a second, I refused to lift myself out of bed, but after a few moments the nagging whisper of obligation forced me to throw back the covers. I fumbled for my glasses and began to squeeze my feet into my running shoes. For a few moments, the dreamtime smells of hot plum wine and pine needles lingered in my nostrils, but by the time I reached for my ID and weapon, they were gone.

Every morning starts to feel the same; brief nights remembering the person I am Back in the World; being able for once to just drop the Soldier Thing. Then, of course, comes the sudden rasp of the morning alarm and after that it's just another day's numbing dullness; another day's reminders of how lonely I am here. My only only real friend is over four thousand miles away, and the only things I can smell anymore are the stench of diesel and the moldy-paper odor of Iraqi dust. That smells stains my clothes and fingers, now, and no amount of showering will rid me of it.

God, I miss Anne.

Saturday, December 09, 2006


We're standing outside the smoke shack this morning, before work. The day is bright and chill, and as we huddle together under the camo-net gazebo as a crew of civilian contractors pulls up in white pickup trucks.

There are a couple of Americans in the group, of varying ages and ethnicities, as well as a long-haired Filipino. The rest-- about half a dozen--are dark-skinned men of Hindustani origin. These latter talk quietly amongst themselves in their native tongues, and shiver violently in spite of the thick parkas and balaclavas they wear. A few of them cast quizzical glances at us, but for the most part we are ignored.

Hedley and the tomboy, Fye, are standing close to each other, smoking cigarettes and gossiping about God knows what. I see them cast wary eyes over at the foreign nationals, and after a moment Hedley speaks up.

"Hey," she says to me, "shouldn't somebody be watching them?" She means the Hindustanis.

"Nah." I shake my head. "They're not even Iraqi. They're Indian."

"Contractors," pipes up LaHaye. "With KBR."

"Thank you." I turn back to the women. "They're harmless. They're not a threat to us. Hell, they're probably not even the right religion. Hindus and Sikhs, most of them."

"I don't care where the hell they're from," says Hedly. "I don't trust 'em.

"Yeah" drawls Fye. "Someone should be watchin'em." Fye affects a southern country disposition, but she's from Washington State. I grin at her and shake my head, my thin smirk barely disguising my disgust.

"Dude," I press on, "They're not even FROM here."

"So?" Says Hedley. "They're all the same to me."

Jesus Christ, I think to myself. "What," I respond, trying to remain jovial, "'They're all just brown to me, and I'm threatened by that?' Is that what you're saying?"

The girls laugh. "Yeah," says Hedley, grinning and brushing it off. "I am. That a problem?"

I can't believe I'm hearing this. "What are you, kidding me? This is exactly why we're fuckin' in the situation we're in over here. We can't be bothered to understand the local culture, but we don't mind blowing it to shit, now do we?"

"Who cares," says Fye. "They're the ones trying to kill us."

God. I go back to my cigarette. I look over my shoulder, and see Spc. Gonzales. He slouches against the back of the gazebo, shades gleaming in the morning sun. I call out to him.

"Hey Gonzales," I say, smirking. "Better watch out. Fye and Hedley over here are gonna call Homeland Security on your ass. I don't think they can tell you're not a terrorist."

Gonzales grins. "They just hatin'," he says coolly, "on my natural tan."

It's a response both mature and funny. I laugh. I turn back, only to see that both of the girls have retreated back into their gossip. I decide to let the matter drop, but even now, I see the way they look over my shoulder, glaring harshly at the weathered Indian faces who are busy digging up our power lines. I wonder when the last time was Fye and Hedley did such work. I doubt they ever have; too busy being threatened by the Brown Menace, I suppose.

Later on in the day, around lunch, I return to the gazebo for another smoke, to see the Hindustanis still hard at work. A old-timer with the subtle body language of a retired vet is busy sitting down on the bench across from Fye. They're laughing as they smoke, and together they pause in their conversation periodically to shoot baleful glances over at the workers. I overhear snatches of the discussion as I smoke, though for the sake of my own sanity I try to ignore it.

"One day," says Fye. "I'm tellin' ya. It's just one more way for them to get at us inside the wire. Like they did in Mosul. My brother was supposed to be in that DFAC, ya know."

I shake my head. I roll my smoke between my fingers, stamping out the cherry as it hits the ground. I toss the butt in the trash, and walk away.

They hate us, I think, remembering the words of Bill Maher, because we don't even know WHY they hate us.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Bullets Scream To Me From Somewhere

I got shot at for the first time today.

We were in the motor pool, Oz and I, working to service his vehicle, when the disturbing whine of a passing bullet rang in my ears, maybe a dozen yards away. A second later, the air was filled with the songs of multiple live rounds in flight.

Most people who've never been to war expect that when something actually happens, one run the risk of just slipping into a catatonic state of panic; that one will just freeze up, time slowing down like the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan." That didn't happen today. We've been training for combat since the days we reported for Basic; drilled with the same hypothetical scenarios and responses over and over, until even tasks of mortal importance come to us like second nature. Though my heart rate shot through the roof upon hearing the noise, I don't actually remember being afraid. All I remember is dropping the grease gun I'd been using, leaping down from the trunk, and yelling for Oz to grab his weapon while securing my own. Everything after that was a blur of shouts and crunching footsteps; a tunnel-vision home video jittering as I sprinted like mad for the nearest bunker.

There are no John Wayne heroics to be found in this story. We did not engage. Our perimeters were unbreached, and for all we know it was just some inexperienced gunner on a .50 cal. getting stupid on the test-fire range. I suspect now that it was just a pack of indigent farm kids stirring up trouble with their father's Kalashnikovs, but whatever the case, we didn't let the sudden excitement faze us. We joked around and smoked cigarettes in the safety of the bunkers for about twenty minutes, and then went back about our business.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. After being here for a while, the realities of combat become more a nuisance than anything. Like it or not, being in the Army is still a job, just like any other, and regardless of whatever happens, any day that ends in the comfort of our living quarters is a good one. Today was yet another such day.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Job

Pfc. Hedley tells me that her fiance is dead.

We're in the motor pool, hauling sandbags for the First Sergeant detail, when she makes this statement. I stop in my tracks and halt my conversation with one of the other soldiers. I look at her, not sure how to react.

"Wait... what did you just say?"

She looks at me evenly, brow furrowed, and shrugs. "You heard me."

I shake my head. " I don't know what the hell I heard. All I heard You've gotta be shitting me."

I stop and rub at my right temple, chewing on my bottom lip.

"Come on," I say, pointing over to the parked five-ton. "Let's go over here." She follows me, saying nothing.

Once we get over to the truck, I pull out a cigarette and offer it to her. She shakes her head.

"I've already got one."

She goes to pull out a pack of Newports. Shrugging, I take the proffered Camel for myself, sticking it between my lips and lighting up. There is a pause as we each take our first drags, and with my first exhalation, I speak up again, quietly.

"What happened?"

She bites her lip, staring up at the sky. It's cold this morning, as it has been every morning for the last month. She says nothing for a moment, but when she goes to speak again, she looks at me with a hard glare.

"Know that convoy I told you about?"


"Remember that fight we had about him taking the gunner position?"

"Uh huh." I already know where this is going.

She nods once, glancing down at her feet. "Thanksgiving. IED."

I close my eyes. I was afraid of this. The letters stand for Improvised Explosive Device, and are the technical military term for any manner of homemade roadside bomb. I let out a small sigh, involuntarily.

"Are you sure?"

She nods again. "I had to find out from his fucking mom." Her fiance was in another unit, elsewhere in Iraq, and not being married, Hedley couldn't be listed as Next of Kin. I don't even know what to say to this. I take another drag, watching a pair of Apache helicopters in the distance. I don't know whether to hug her or give her space, and so I simply choose to stay where I'm at.

"I'm so sorry," I tell her.

She gives me a bitter smile. "Don't be." She crosses her arms, looking back for hunched shoulders.

"He was in the turret. Chunk of shrapnel hit him beneath the kevlar. They kept pumping him full of blood, and he just kept bleeding. Then he went under, into a coma; his vitals just kind of shit out, and that was it."


She laughs harshly. "I know, right?" There's another long pause, and all I can do is look at her. After a moment, I ask her, "Have you been to the chaplain?"

She shakes her head. "No, but my platoon sergeant is making me go."

I nod. "Good. I'd be pissed off at your leadership if they weren't."

She shrugs. Another pause, and she looks up again.

"His mom wants to cremate him."

"And you don't."

"No." Hedley is a practicing Wiccan, and doesn't believe in cremation. That conversation will no doubt be very ugly. I shake my head, stamping out my smoke.

"I can't even imagine what you must be going through."

"It hasn't really hit me yet. I'm just trying to focus on work right now. It's the only thing I can do."

"You gonna go to the funeral?"

"Maybe," she says, "if they let me."

"God." I light up another smoke, and stare at her. I'm not sure what I'm searching for, but her eerie level of composure makes me nervous. I'm glad she keeps staring at her boots. I don't think I could hold her gaze right now.

"It's just," she speaks up suddenly. "What am I going to do? One day, I'm going to have teach our child about him." Tears suddenly start welling up in her eyes, and she blinks them away.

"How am I going to tell our son that his dad was...?" She trails off, taking a deep breath. Her jaw tightens, and I notice the slight twitch at the corner of her bottom lip.

"Come here," I say, pulling her into a hug. She doesn't break, but she sniffles a bit, and her breath catches.

"God, you have no idea how sorry I am." She whimpers, and I wish there were something other the same tired theme to retread. Nearly four years of college, and here my words fail me.

"No, it's fine."

Back in the rear, the death of a spouse would pretty much be one-way ticket to a hardship discharge. But Hedley and her partner weren't married, and especially being in the combat environment, all Hedley has to look forward to are a few sessions with the chaplain, before being declared Fit for Duty and sent right back out the wire. I'm reminded again of the novel "Catch-22," and the way the characters of that story were just endlessly ground into the dust, their humanity overlooked by the objective-oriented military bureacreacy. I know what awaits her, and I don't envy her.

"I'm so sorry," I tell her again. We're still embracing. She still refuses to cry. That's the one thing I hate about this line of work--there is no margin made within the ranks for human frailty.

We're supposed to be soldiers. We're not supposed to get depressed, or cry, or feel sorry for ourselves. We're just supposed to embrace our miserable lot, and anyone whose circumstances conflict with that lot are simply viewed as being weak. An hourlong memorial ceremony, a few sessions with the chaplain, and we're supposed to get right back out there. "Part of the job," people will say.

It's not even the command chain's fault, is the worst part. It's the fault of the other soldiers around us. It's all part of that jostling, "Born to Kill" mentality we're led to believe we should embrace, and frankly it makes me wish that there were more women in the Army. Out here, she's supported by her leadership, and maybe she'll be left alone for a little while, but the Job will still always be what matters most.

And this morning, on her behalf, I resent this Job more than anything.