The call to morning prayer coincided with the convoy brief. They called the speakers mounted on the mosque minaret electronic ayatollahs. The house of worship was several kilometers from the convoy staging area, but the wind and direction allowed the sound to travel much further than a map would have suggested. The sound was a sad song, the singer bared his heart to the cruel desert; like only the black keys of a piano being played. The breeze also brought the smell of burning trash, diesel, and human waste. I leaned back on the hood of the Hummer, taking a rest from the weight all the gear added to my body. I lifted the ceramic armor plate that usually crushes my small breasts and let evaporated sweat steam up my collar. The rest of the Marines lounged in all manner of ways, flak jackets open and helmets off, around the up-armored gun truck.A fully geared up Ramirez returned from the convoy brief. He said, “God damn fucking haji and their fucking ayatollah.”
I didn’t bother to correct Staff Sergeant Ramirez the term haji was an honorific. I also didn’t tell Ramirez ayatollahs are a Shia title, nor did I remind him we’re smack in the middle of Sunni country: Ramadi, Anbar Province, Iraq. It would have done me no good to try and teach an angry man to be mindful of his words. Besides, I’m a Lance Corporal, POG, and a woman; my opinion is neither wanted or valued. I picked only the fights I could win. Our convoy was made up of five Hummers and two seven-ton trucks. We were staged in a base called Junction City. The crew of my vehicle stood in front of the truck to hear the brief. The rest of the fire team were a bunch of grunts: Lance Corporal Watt, PFC Wallace, Lance Corporal Hicks, and of course the vehicle commander Staff Sergeant Ramirez.
Ramirez, a stocky Hispanic man with a thick neck you could never choke, planted his legs in a wide stance and briefed his Marines. “All right, killers. Simple run. Just like yesterday and the rest of this last week,” Ramirez paused to spit chewing tobacco on the gravel, “we are going to provide security for this supply run to Hurricane Point. Short drive, maybe half an hour. Then from there, we go to Blue Diamond. And then…” he paused to consult his green notebook. His hands were a community of callouses and scars.
“Staff Sergeant.” Hicks interrupted, “can we make a PX run at Blue Diamond?”
Wallace interjected, “We can get bootleg movies!”
“I wanna see the Kill Bill sequel,” Watt said.
Ramirez looked up from his notes, “Shut the fuck up. Then, after Blue Diamond, we head to Rock ASP to pick up more bullets. We sleep there and wait for orders. Chow will be MREs. No PX runs, so if you did not bring enough tobacco, or Tang, or whatever bullshit DVD you need to keep your head straight, I don’t give a rat’s fuck.” The green notebook went inside the flap of his flak jacket. “Now let’s do a quick gear inspection. Just line up.”
We acknowledged the command with an “err”, like we were dogs. I shuffled into the single column that was taking shape. We had been doing this routine convoy during the last few months, off and on since the Battle of Fallujah was halted. If I could have seen the big picture, I would have known First Marine Division was stocking up for a big operation, but I only saw long stretches of desert road, ruined towns, and endless opportunities to get blown up by an IED every mile.
The females in my unit had been told by our First Sergeant, Division was looking for volunteer WMs, Women Marines. They thought a female would be useful to have on hand, in case a unit had to interact with Iraqi women. This was a pilot program to prove to the Iraqis the US was culturally sensitive and willing to respect its ways.
I volunteered quickly to leave my supply unit and to go on ops outside the wire, because I didn’t sign up to kick boxes in a warehouse and fill out paperwork. I was top ten percent of my graduating class and had an athletic scholarship to Mizzou, but I put that on hold to become part of the best. But the needs of the Marine Corps came first, and I reported to Camp Johnson to learn how to count boxes. I knew grunts think WM stands for Worthless Marine, but I wanted to prove them wrong.
“Wallace, your rifle looks like shit,” Ramirez tossed the weapon back to him.
Wallace was a tall rangy Marine with a foul mouth and no work ethic. He always smelled like onions because he has some superstition about wearing the same pants whenever he’s on mission.
He made excuses, “But Staff Sergeant, I can’t help it. There was a sand storm and…”
Ramirez interrupted, “You’re on the turret today. The two-forty-golf better be cleaner than this rifle.”
Wallace started to speak, but Ramirez ignored him and moved on to inspect Hicks. A dark green Marine, as we were taught everyone is green in the Corps, he always had a dimpled smile and a joke on his lips. He was nice to me, never asked for anything in return. Ramirez lifted the ammo tray of his SAW. He proceeded to pull and tug on the accessories clipped to his armor: first aid kit, drop pouch, magazine pouches, and grenade pouches all secure. Hick’s water source, an empty Camelback, didn’t pass muster.
Ramirez let out a long sigh. He said, “It’s going to get to a hundred and ten in the shade today. Get some fucking water in there. I don’t want to have to tell Doc to put a silver bullet in your ass, in the middle of a firefight. Idiot.”
Hicks went behind the Hummer to get a bottle of water with Arabic lettering from the case they had for emergencies.
Watt presented Ramirez his rifle. He was a smart guy, seemed to know a lot of random topics. He had eyes the color of the sky and ears like Dumbo. After inspecting the weapon Ramirez repeated the same pattern on Watt, tugging all his accessories and checking his water. He found a small but thick book inside Watt’s dump pouch.
Ramirez read aloud the title. “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Is this like Dungeons and Dragons Watt?”
Hicks returned from the back of the gun truck with a full Camelback bladder in his hands. “At least it’s better than the romance novels Wallace reads.”
My chapped lips cracked from laughter. Watt and Hicks bellowed like hyenas.
Wallace blushed. “Hey Hicks, better than the fat girl porn you have,” he retorted.
“Enough,” Ramirez smiled, a rare sight in the last few weeks since I have been with the team.
Hicks had once told me when I checked in Ramirez was always rarely smiling.
“Your dump pouch is not for books or food or smut magazines,” Ramirez glanced at Hicks, “only empty ammunition magazines.”
Watt nodded, and Ramirez tossed the book on the hood of the Hummer behind him.
Ramirez approached me. I cleared my rifle smartly and presented it to him, as if I was still on the parade deck in Parris Island. He snatched the weapon and proceeded to turn it over in his hands. He put a finger in the chamber and it came away clean.
“You have not fired your weapon,” Ramirez stated.
I stared at a point in the air behind Ramirez’s head and replied, “Not yet Staff Sergeant.” I knew everyone else had all been in firefights before and I knew in their minds I had yet to prove myself. This was to be expected, I had been once told by my Drill Instructor. I had also been told by my recruiter, before the day I stepped on the yellow footprints in boot camp, women in the Marines had to prove themselves every day. I had accepted this as a small price to pay to be one of the world’s finest. As my time in service lengthened, however, I’d grown tired of the whispers and double standards.
Ramirez returned the weapon and inspected my gear in the same manner as the others.
I knew I was good to go. I had been the honor graduate in boot camp, a squad leader in the all-female Marine Combat Training platoon, finished top of my class in MOS school, and was a model Marine in the fleet. I had even been nominated as Marine of the Quarter in my first year in the fleet. I had always remembered something my senior drill instructor said on graduation day, Don’t date males in your unit, don’t fall out of formation runs, and don’t get pregnant. If you do, the boys will say you’re a whore, weak, and shirking your duties. In that order. If you can’t remember that, just remember to be a bad bitch. I accepted her advice because the seasoned drill instructor had been a woman in the Corps for ten years. She had been proven correct so far: respect from her brothers seemed never to come.
Ramirez looked me over and said, “Your gear is clean.”
In my mind, he said I was not willing to get dirty. He had treated me with indifference since I arrived. I wasn’t sure if that meant he didn’t like me or he didn’t like me being there.
Ramirez checked his time piece, which he wore upside down, “We leave in fifteen. Mount up. I’m going to give the thumbs up to the lieutenant.” He walked away towards the head of the convoy.
When Ramirez was out of earshot Wallace said, “Of course her gear is clean.”
I said, “Maybe if you weren’t such a bag of ass, your gear would pass inspection Wally.”
Hicks laughed at the nickname I gave Wallace; he did not.
“What do you know wookie? Fucking POG,” Wallace retorted.
Watt said, “Come on. Don’t get butt hurt Wallace. You are a nasty shit bag.”
I did not care he called me POG, Person Other than Grunt, but I never backed down from being called a wookie, “You think if I was sucking dick, I’d be here with your sorry ass?”
Hicks told Wallace, “She’s got a point. Say sorry.”
Wallace ignored us and climbed up the hood of the vehicle and into the O-ring turret.
“Don’t worry about him, Val,” Hicks said, “he’s a superstitious asshole and he don’t like new people,” he walked towards the Hummer.
I took my coyote colored bandana and wrapped around my head. I checked with the side view mirror to make sure all my strawberry blonde locks are tucked away. It was easier to conceal my gender from everyone outside this unit, because I discovered Iraqi men find tall pale blonde women exotic. Thanks to my flat chest, so long as I covered my hair I looked like an average pretty boy.
Watt sat in the driver’s seat and placed his rifle, muzzle outboard, on the dashboard. Hicks sat behind him and complained about the kevlar seat cushions ruining his back. I sat behind the passenger front seat. I attempted to close the armored door, a quarter inch thick of steel bolted on to large hinges. The damn latch had problems catching. It closed on the third try.
The Hummer interior was both efficient and inelegant. The turret man, Wallace, sat on a cargo strap between the two-rear crew. Me and Hicks both hated Wallace’s habit of bouncing his knee while sitting idly. The VRC-91 communications gear was mounted in the middle between Watt and Ramirez, beeped as each vehicle crew performed radio-checks. The dials and display of the radio permanently wore a coat of sand.
Watt was unsuccessfully attaching a handset to the gear.
I asked, “Don’t you remember?”
Watt turned from the dirty adapter. “What’s that Val?”
“Lick it before you stick it,” I said. I had learned dirty jokes were good at disarming the guys long ago.
Hicks laughed and Watt smiled, his teeth coated with sand.
Wallace yelled, “What’s so funny?”
“Val here just schooled Watt on the radio,” Hicks answered.
“Sometimes guys forget to lick it,” Wallace said, even more laughter filled the armored vehicle.
Watt licked the plug of the handset adapter and this time the connection was made. He pushed the transmit. “Any station on this net, this is Outlaw one. Radio-check, over.”
“Outlaw one, this is Outlaw five. Lima Charlie,” replied the other vehicle through the speaker.
Watt turned over the engine and the cabin was filled with the hum of a diesel engine running on jet fuel. I could feel the judder through my boots. I opened the window, a sliding bullet proof glass. Sweat was already falling down my face.
Hicks said, “I heard the Army has Hummers with air conditioning.”
Watt said, “I heard the British MREs have beer.”
“That’s bullshit man,” Hicks replied.
I said, “Cold weather MREs are where it’s at man.”
Watt scoffed, “How do you know?”
“Dude, Val’s MOS is supply,” Hicks said.
I shook my head. “Yeah, but I don’t work class one supply. Where they keep the MREs. I went to Bridgeport for cold weather training.”
Wallace interrupted, “Yeah, that school was easy. Try jungle training in Oki. Ever had snakes?”
One upper, I thought. I knew continuing to antagonize Wallace was pointless, and he never have missed an opportunity to belittle me.
Ramirez sat in the Hummer and slammed the door, “Wallace had the shits in jungle warfare. Blew his O-ring during a hike and got in the broke-dick vehicle.”
Once more laughter erupted in the cramped steel-reinforced truck.
We quit our joking and fell back into ourselves as we waited for the command to move out.
I hated those moments of quiet. Hurry up and wait. This was a dangerous time for me, all the doubts and fears mixed into my thoughts to create a hurricane of negativity. What am I doing here? I’d ask myself. I’m not wanted, not needed, and not sure I can do this. Thoughts of home resurfaced, and I wondered what my dad would think of me volunteering with guys like this. He would think I’ve watched too many movies and blame himself.
Bleep. “We’re rolling,” came the voice from the radio.
The vehicles moved in their formation; two Hummers in the front, a seven-ton, a Hummer carrying dismounts, a seven-ton, and the remaining two Hummers in the rear. I saw they had switched up the order of march, putting us behind the last seven-ton and in front of the rear-guard.
The convoy filed from the gravel lot to the hardball road. We passed lots filled with shipping containers of all sizes. Inside them were the necessities, as well as the unnecessities of war. Those with built-in air-conditioners had been converted to offices or living spaces by the Marines and soldiers. Here and there were brown port-a-johns filled with graffiti and poetry.
A perimeter berm with concertina wire separated Iraq from the base. The entry control point had low concrete barriers arranged in a serpentine through the gate. After Watt cleared the last curve at a high speed, I inserted a magazine into my rifle and slingshot the charging handle to chamber a round.
The convoy slowed down as we entered urban terrain. I rested my weapon on the lip of the window. I peered through the optics, looked close and far for trouble.
I studied the world around at ten miles an hour. There were children on the streets, and I remembered this was a good sign. Intelligence had told us insurgents were more likely detonate IEDs and attack when children weren’t around. Women were nearby, some in hijabs and some not. Old men were gathered on street corners.
Hicks asked, “You’re from KC, right Val?”
“Is it true they got the best barbecue there?”
“Nah,” said Watt. “North Carolina, vinegar-based sauces are best.”
“I’m not really into barbecue, but I guess some people really like KC stuff,” I kept my reply neutral, having learned in previous convoys Hicks and Watt enjoyed debating every topic, ranging from food to porn stars.
Wallace overheard from the turret and said, “New Orleans has the best everything with food.”
“Their football team sucks,” hollered Ramirez, ending the conversation.
I noticed every time Ramirez added his voice to these pointless debates, his Marines would know to stop. It did not seem disrespectful, like I had first thought, but rather it was a signal playtime was over.
There was heavy traffic. Bongo trucks, buses, and dump trucks moved. It almost seemed like this city wasn’t at war. But the pot holes were craters from explosives, street trash could be a bomb, and brass casings littered the sidewalk. Store fronts had bullet holes in their walls. People did not look at us.
A squad of Marines on foot near a traffic circle redirected the convoy to pass through unimpeded. The appearance of the infantrymen was haggard. I wondered how I would fare, in their boots. Twelve Marines surrounded by a city full of people, facing an enemy who looks like anyone. A road guard gave a hand signal to me. A peace sign. I returned the gesture.
Wallace shouted to someone, “Get some.”
Shortly after the traffic circle, we passed through another concrete serpentine and entered Hurricane Point. The two seven-ton trucks loaded with supplies separated and drove to an area where a forklift was staged.
The remainder of the vehicles circled in a gravel lot and parked. Watt shut off the engine and let out a long sigh.
Ramirez dismounted, “We leave as soon as they’re are offloaded,” and went to the lead vehicle.
I successfully opened my shitty door after the second try and stood in the morning heat. My helmet was tossed onto the kevlar seat with my gloves. I opened my flak jacket, let my rifle hang limp, and I sipped water. My bandana was wet, a darker shade of brown now. I adjusted the sports bra through the front of my shirt, to let my breasts air out. Wallace was doing the same with his boys on top of the vehicle.
“That door latch always sticks,” Hicks said.
“Why doesn’t it get fixed?”
Wallace said, “Why don’t you fix it instead of relying on someone else to do it for you?”
I walked over to where Watt was standing and reached behind him to his belt.
Watt didn’t move, “Hey, I’m married.”
“I want your multi-tool.”
“Ah, typical woman. Just wants my stuff,” Watt smiled.
I used the pliers to move the door bolt in and through. Using the pliers again I opened the compartment in the buttstock of my M16 and pulled out a small plastic bottle of lubricant from the rifle cleaning kit. I dabbed the gun oil on my fingertips and coated the bolt of the door. The door opened and closed easily now.
“That was dumb. Now sand will stick to the…” Wallace started to say.
I interrupted him. “And I’ll have to keep cleaning the bolt. No shit, Wally. I’m not lazy like you.”
Wallace waived his hand dismissively. Hummer engines began to come alive.
Ramirez approached. “Mount up.”
I slipped my gloves on and adjusted the helmet. I sat down and loudly slammed the hundred-pound door on the first try. Hicks chuckled.
The vehicles moved into formation. There were signs posted in the rear and front vehicles to warn civilians from driving too closely or aggressively. I had pointed out to Ramirez literacy rates in Anbar were not like America, but his only reply was a nod.
Having made the trip to Rock ASP before, I knew the route went through a crowded road. Predictably, the convoy slowed down. There were children playing soccer in a dirt parking lot next to an empty gas station. Women and men were going about their business. No one looked at our convoy, nor waved a curse.
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
A daisy-chained IED exploded in the middle of the convoy. The lead seven-ton was on its side and the one in front of her had all the rear-right tires shredded from the explosion. Weapons fire erupted from the Hummer in the middle.
Ramirez yelled into the radio handset, “This is Outlaw five. Outlaw three, come in, over.” He spoke to Watt, “Pull us around and park there.” He pointed to the field the kids had been playing in.
Up top Wallace began firing his crew served machine gun. I was looking for a target, but all I saw were people running away. Kids, women, and men.
Bleep. “Outlaw five, this is Outlaw actual. Set up a perimeter around the downed vics.”
“No shit sir,” muttered Ramirez off the radio.
The gun truck parked on the dirt and Ramirez dismounted. Hicks and I followed him to the relative safety behind the gun truck. A deflated soccer ball lay in the field next to a sandal.
“Establish a perimeter,” hollered Ramirez. He sprinted towards the damaged civilian vehicles.
It was all very confusing. There was shooting everywhere, but I couldn’t see any targets. My mouth felt like it had been stuffed with cotton. I was lost and the only thing in my world was these two guys. I took a sip of water and ran after him.
I was running, pumping my legs as fast as I could. The armor plates were slamming on my chest, slowing down my stride. There were casualties, both Marine and civilian.
I was frustrated trying to keep up with Ramirez and Hicks. I hated the Iraqis. I thought it wasn’t fair, we’re here to help.
I remembered thinking about the time my dad asked why I wanted to join the Corps. I had said I wanted to help people. I didn’t tell him I wanted to be a hero. I finally reached an abandoned Mercedes sedan decorated with bullet holes.
Ramirez pointed to a dump truck a few feet away. Barely visible through the cracked windshield was a man holding his belly, blood flowing through his fingers.
“He’s bleeding out,” Ramirez said.
I yelled at the top of my voice for a corpsman, but he was in the lead vehicle with the convoy commander.
“Doc is busy,” Ramirez said. “Are you going to use your first aid kit?”
I crouched low and moved a few paces towards the man in the cab. He was yelling in Arabic. His eyes were angry and hurt. I stopped in the open. Standard operating procedure says this first aid kit I carry is to save my life.
This was a test like everything in this life was a test, I was sure. I turned away from the man but faltered. Hesitation kills. “Fuck him,” I finally said and moved back to cover.
Ramirez gave no sign of hearing me or seeing what just happened. He raised his rifle and fired measured shots at a second story window a few blocks down. The muzzle flash from the dark shadow of the building was visible and followed by cracks of bullets flying overhead.
The man in the dump truck was screaming. I brought my weapon to my cheek and sighted in. I started with slow and steady squeezes of the trigger, but after five shots I began to increase the rate of fire. I was no longer able to hear the dying Iraqi man and could make out no more than a high-pitched whistles and pops.
I kept focus on the red chevron in the scope and fired. Every shot made me feel alive and powerful. Every recoil reminded me there was no soft touch in the Marine Corps. The smell of gunpowder intoxicated me. I reloaded my weapon. Whoever I was shooting at was no longer firing back.
Ramirez smacked the back of my helmet, “Fire discipline! The fucking haji is probably dead, Marine.”
Hicks was prone behind a low wall across the street. Watt had moved up the truck and Wallace had ceased firing. Slowly, I was able to hear again. The dying man no longer made a sound.
“Staff Sergeant,” Watt yelled from the Hummer. “QRF is inbound. We’re getting escort back to Hurricane Point.”
Ramirez mounted the truck, “Casualties?”
Watt said, “Two KIA, six wounded walking.”
I got in and asked, “What about civilians?”
“They take care of their own,” Watt replied.
The man in the Iraqi dump truck sat still in his cab. I wanted to see. I dismounted and moved towards him. He was dead. Inside his cab, taped to the shattered windshield, was a picture of his little girl I guessed.
Hours later, and past the mid-day sun, I stepped out of the Hummer and on to the gravel back at Hurricane Point. The mission was canceled now that we had no seven-tons. I stripped the armor off my sore body and placed it neatly on the seat. My rifle was leaned against the vehicle. I left my helmet on and banged my head against the Hummer. I had decided on the road to return to my supply unit after this mission.
Watt, Wallace, and Hicks were in high spirits. They had congratulated me on, as Hicks put it, popping my combat cherry. Wallace jumped off the hood and came for me.
“Turtle fucking.” Wallace head-butt his helmet on my helmet, creating a loud pop.
I lost my shit and grabbed him by his flak jacket and pushed him. “What the fuck man? What the fuck?” My voice was at a high pitch and my hands were shaking. I pushed him again and pushed his head away when he started laughing.
I took off my helmet and threw it at Wallace as hard as I could. It bounced off his armor. “Fuck you. Fuck you,” I screamed. I stopped after a while.
All the other Marines in the convoy were ignoring the exchange and heading towards the chow hall. Watt and Hicks stood next to the rear of the truck to see what I did next. Ramirez sat in the Hummer writing something in his green notebook.
Then Wallace took off his helmet and gear. He said, “I’ve been a piece of shit. But I was wrong about you. You definitely aren’t a WM, you’re a Marine.”
I closed the distance to Wallace in a skip and jabbed in him the mouth.
Wallace staggered back and cursed. Blood ran down his chin from a split lip. Hicks doubled over laughing and Watt rushed to get in between us. Ramirez cocked an eyebrow at me.
“He had that coming.” I said.
“Ok, I’m Ok.” Wallace took a step towards me and offered a fist.
Bloody knuckles met dirty knuckles.
“You better go get chow,” Ramirez said.
The Marines put their armor back on and carried their rifles, discussing my flawless jab technique. I stayed behind.
I stood in front of Ramirez at parade rest. “Staff Sergeant, I want to request permission to return to my parent command.”
Ramirez stared at me and said nothing. I thought maybe he didn’t hear me. After several breathes he said, “You did the right thing.”
I started to say, “I know; I’m not cut out for this. I’m…”
“No. That’s not what I’m talking about.” Ramirez said.
“I know, I screwed up. I failed. The wounded man, the bullets wasted, and Wallace.” My voice caught. I took a deep breath. “I know I’m not wanted here.”
“Wallace is a loud-mouthed asshole. You handled him.” Ramirez stood. “Everyone gets trigger happy the first firefight,” he took a deep breath, “and you did the right thing with the wounded civilian. You followed SOP.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat and hoped he did not notice it. “I feel like I failed.”
Ramirez sat back down, “Look Val, this isn’t a test,” He waved his hand over the Hummer, “this is the life in the Marine Corps. It was a shitty position for a twenty-year-old kid to be in. But you’re here because you want to be here. This is the hard truth: there is no right or wrong in combat. Only what you do and don’t do. Being a good Marine means that you will live with the consequences, not run from them.”
“Still, I should have done something.”
“Did you see me run in there and plug him up?”
“Then why did you ask me if I was going to do something about it?”
“I wanted to make sure you wouldn’t do it.”
I understood then why this man commanded loyalty from his Marines.
“Don’t take it the wrong way. I’d do it for any Marine. You are going to have to learn to live with this.” Ramirez stood, put on his armor and grabbed his rifle. “Still wanna go back to kicking boxes with your supply unit?”
I shook my head.
“Alright. I’m going to the CP and report. Good thing we don’t dock pay for wasted bullets,” Ramirez smirked. “You’re gear watch.” He walked off.
I sat in the driver’s seat and replayed the day.
My chest was heavy; like I was still wearing armor. My sobs were quiet and when I opened my mouth to cry I made no sound. Sweat mixed with tears. I got everything I wanted: I shot someone, earned respect from my peers, and made the hard choices. All it costed was dead Iraqis and bullets. I wiped my face and mud came away.
On the hood of the vehicle I broke my weapon down to its component parts. Methodically, and with precision, carbon was removed from the bolt and upper receiver. This rifle will be ready for the next time.