The satellite phone was hot against my cheek. It was barely ten a.m. and already the temperature was soaring into the triple digits. On the fourth mechanical ring, a barely audible hello came through.
"Hey darling," I said in my sweetest voice, scarcely able to contain my excitement. I had been away from home for eight months, and no matter how many times I called, I always got shivers when my wife answered the phone.
"Oh hey." I could hear the tension in her voice, and I prepared myself for the worst.
"Is everything ok?" I realized I was holding my breath in anticipation. When all you have time to do is worry about what is going on at home, you start to imagine some terrible things.
"No." Melanie let out a long dramatic sigh and then continued.
"Murphy shit all over the house, ate the cushions on the sofa and a pair of my shoes, and I’ve only been gone for a couple hours."
I tried unsuccessfully to suppress a smile. She had bought that puppy against my advice, and over a year later it was still a monster.
"I’m sorry hon." I gave her my best sympathetic voice, but I think the facade was detected.
"Fuck, more piss!" My wife blurted out as she stumbled onto another sticky puddle.
"Well, it could be worse, I mean, I’d give anything to be at home cleaning up dog shit."
"What could be grosser than cleaning up a house full of dog shit?" The disgust in Melanie’s voice was apparent.
"Well, could be brains, that’s pretty damn nasty." I tried to catch the words and pull them back even as they left my mouth, but to no avail. It’s hard living with a bunch of soldiers and then trying to talk like a normal person to your family on the phone.
"When did you clean up brains? Tell me about it, I want to know." There was curiosity and naiveté in her voice, but the self-pity was gone. What can it hurt, I thought, so I told her about my day.
We had been the battalion’s quick reaction force for three uneventful days, and I was enjoying the time to myself, getting more than a full night’s sleep and relaxing.
"Wake up, we gotta go!" Sergeant Brunelle said as he stormed into our room, which was previously the Republican Guard officer’s club.
"What’s going on?" I groaned through half-closed eyes.
"Pohl’s squad got hit, get your shit on." With that Brunelle abruptly turned and left the room, heading back to his own bunk and his gear.
"Shit," was all I could muster, and that about summed it up. It took the squad less than five minutes to get on our gear and get in the humvees. I looked at my watch. It was 04:45 in the morning.
"You gotta love this job," I joked halfheartedly as we kicked up gravel while leaving the back gate.
Our destination was right around the corner and it only took a minute or so to get there. I clambered out of the vehicle, fighting against my weapon and body armor as gravity and sleepiness held me down. There was already a squad there and in between the hovering soldiers was a smoking tan BMW, the motor rattling in protest. On the rooftops of the dilapidated apartment buildings around us were underwear-clad Iraqi men watching the show.
"Hey Pohl, what’s going on?" I asked lazily as I walked up to the crowd. They parted, and I got my answer.
"We were on our way in and this fucker drives by with his lights off. When he sees us he hauls ass." Pohl’s voice continued, but I could scarcely hear it as I stared at the carnage.
"So we took off after them and this dick starts shooting at us. So Reeves lit their asses up. Only two shots, can you believe it?" I glanced up and Specialist Reeves, a slight-voiced country boy from South Georgia who looked more like a mechanic than a soldier. He was still struggling impotently with the Browning Mark II .50 caliber machine gun mounted on top of his humvee. He had only fired two shots because there was a malfunction, and time hadn’t yet permitted him to get the weapon back up.
On the ground were two blood-soaked Iraqi men. Both were on their faces with their hands zip-tied behind their backs. The skinnier one was crying, and with a nudge of his foot someone tried to shut him up.
"There’s no crying in baseball." We all giggled a little at that. The other guy was overweight and had a head full of curly hair. He was so drenched in blood and chunks of meat that I asked repeatedly if he was hit.
"I don’t think so," was the response. I contemplated reaching down and checking him for wounds, but I didn’t have any rubber gloves, and there was no way I was getting that shit all over me. He just stared straight ahead with eyes like saucers. Then I turned to the car.
A .50 caliber round is one hell of a big bullet. Built more for destroying light armored vehicles and aircraft, it is not intended to be used on people. In fact, it is technically against Geneva Conventions to fire a .50 caliber at "dismounts." Reeves may have fired only two shots, but at closer than fifty meters, his accuracy was never in question. The mechanic from Georgia had done his work well. The first round entered at the bumper and went through the trunk. It slammed into the left backseat passenger, the one with the rifle. His hip was transformed instantly into Jell-o. It was impossible to tell where his torso ended and his legs began. They were twisted over each other and bones were pointing in every possible direction. The bullet then continued forward, hitting the driver’s hand and cutting it in half before finally passing through the speedometer and embedding itself in the engine block.
The machine gun, bucking against the first explosion, sent the second bullet higher. That one hit the unlucky fellow without the hips on the right side of his head, and a chunk the size of my open hand was missing. The bullet then continued, no longer flying straight but tumbling and impacted in the center of the driver’s neck, splitting it wide open in a gash that was easily six inches by and eight inches.
The driver now lay slumped over the seat, his spine hanging out of the wound, the blood slowing to all but a trickle onto the seat. His left hand still rested on the steering wheel, even in death trying to escape by making one last turn to get their car out of the sector. The gore itself was impressive enough and warranted a moment of notice, but it was what the man in back was doing that had all our hearts in our mouths. He was looking at us, both eyes perfectly focused despite the fact that half his brain was all over the car.
"Just nerves," I thought. His brain cells are going, and he’s already dead. But then his eyes shifted, first from me, then to Pohl, then back to me. They settled on me and he began to mumble in Arabic, holding my gaze, staring at me from the abyss. I could see halfway through this man’s head and he was looking at me, talking to me in an unknown language. His breath was coming in wheezing gasps, and the hole in his head glistened in the streetlight like fairy dust. The entire car was filled with brain fragments and shards of bone. Had that man gotten up that morning and thought, "I might die today?" What was he thinking now as he realized that his life was over? Was he simply saying the obvious, "Oh fuck, I have a hole the size of a softball in my head and I’m dying."
I couldn’t help but wonder if it was something else; if his jumbled words revealed the mysteries of the universe. Slowly his eyes dimmed, and his voice trailed away. The gasps ebbed and his life gave way. When he fell over onto the seat of the car, the rest of his brain became dislodged and slid onto the floor of the car leaving a slug’s trail behind it. The whole squad was standing there looking, unable to speak, and then it started.
"Hey Crawford, what do you think the last thing that went through his head was?" Sergeant Howell asked me with half a grin on his face. An overweight medic that had tagged along quoted a line from the movie Boondock Saints: "Hey buddy, where you goin’? ... Nowhere!"
"Hey man, we gotta turn off the car." I don’t know who said it, but I walked over to the driver’s side and leaned in the window. I couldn’t reach the keys without sticking my head all the way into the already reeking vehicle.
"Hey Sellers, you wanna turn off the car or what?" I called out in an attempt to get out of the inevitable.
"Fuck you, I’m not on brain detail." I looked again at the inside of the car and hesitated. The squat medic with the sense of humor saw the dilemma and arrived to save the day with his latex gloves.
The Iraqi police are never prompt, so after calling them, we sat back and waited, counting the minutes, hoping we would not miss breakfast.
"Hey, you think the cooks got off their lazy asses and even made something?"
"Fuck no, probably coffee and T-rat cake."
It would take over two hours for the Iraqi police to arrive and cleanup. In the meantime we buzzed about impatiently. The night was finished and the sun was peeking its way over the horizon, searching for us. For the time being however we were protected from its probing eye by the shade of nearby buildings. Before long the streets were busy with morning traffic and pedestrians, and half the neighborhood had seen the carnage. As they passed by we motioned them over in small groups to look closer and when in curiosity they turned to us, we would gesture to the bodies.
"No fucking Jerri-cans!" we would say, alluding to the common Iraqi practice of illegally re-selling gasoline out of buckets and jugs.
"Fucking Ali-Baba, watch out now." Ali Baba is the generic Arabic term for a thief. After the taunting grew old and it became apparent that we would miss breakfast chow, I sat on the hood of the BMW and ate a country captain chicken MRE while blood pooled underneath the car and trickled downhill.
"Hey Crawford, you got brains on your boot," Pohl said matter-of-factly in between bites of chocolate mint pound cake.
"I’ll be damned, I sure do," I answered. Attempting to shake it off proved futile. There was a flake of bone attached, and its sharpened edge was lodged firmly into the rubber sole of my boot. I flicked it off with the handle of my MRE spoon and took another bite of processed chicken in sauce.
There was silence on the other end of the phone, and I didn’t know if I should attribute it to the three-second delay that often plagues satellite phones.
"Hon, are you there?" I asked, mournful that I had shared something of myself from this shithole country.
"Oh my God, I didn’t know. That sounds terrible." Melanie’s voice was full of sympathy and longing, but she was right, she didn’t know. No one did and that was what made it worse, and better.
"What are you gonna do when you get back? I mean, are you going to be ok?"
"Oh yeah, I’ll be fine, I’m just tired." My voice was full of confidence, and I prayed that I was appeasing her worries. Either way, she wouldn’t complain about cleaning up dog shit anymore. I just wanted her to understand, to tell me it was ok. I needed reassurance. Waiting on the line, I shivered unconsciously despite the heat.
Spc. John Crawford returned to active duty with the 124th Infantry after two weeks of home leave.