Nick gnawed rubbery chicken and mushed soggy green beans in the chow hall in Iraq, a country that was hot in a way that could break the stoutest of men. The climate was unforgiving, and so was the chow. The food in the D-Fac was either leathery straps of meat or slop spatulated on his Styrofoam tray, a far cry from the succulent oysters bathed in briny cold liquid he once slurped out of rocky shells in Paris, or the warm, meaty pasties he wolfed down as a boy in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Some food gave delight, while other meals were truly lost, just a way to shovel nutrition into the maw.
Nick gnashed the tough strands of chicken and deposited stripped bones back on the disposable tray, which he ultimately cast off as one would toss the rib cage of a deboned marlin. He nearly gagged on the sour broth of the day’s soup, wished he had a strong drink to wash down the tasteless mash of the watery green beans. But when the chow was gone, it was gone, like any other meal.
Dusty and sweaty after a long hike on patrol, Nick would enter the D-Fac after clearing his M-4 carbine in a burn barrel. He’d file into the long chow hall line, mechanically request the standard ration of protein, carbohydrates and vegetables, and make his way to an empty seat at an isolated table in the great circus tent where the soldiers congregated for chow.
Nick spent his days marching on patrol through the dust-swept streets of Iraq, past crowds of stern-faced men in sweat-stained dishdashas and steely-eyed women in gravely driveways. They strode past glowering young men camped out in Opels, trying to earn a living as taxi drivers with no fares in sight. No one seemed to want these American interlopers there. The unwelcome soldiers strode past all the scowling and resentment, hoping no one would start taking potshots from a distant rooftop.
Bedraggled under a scorching sun that left the land arid, the men just wanted to return to the relative safety of post, where they had gyms and shops and computer labs and all the approximate comforts of home. But the work there could be long and grueling too. Nick drove a flimsy e-tool into the earth to fill sandbags, cinched them and chucked them onto the pile until his back spasmed and his arms noodled. He sat in a guard tower through the wee hours of the night until his eyes weakened and eyelids sagged, dipping tobacco and instant coffee to try to keep them aloft. He worked midnight shifts guarding detainees, fighting off sleepiness, repeating mantras like ‘Stay alert, stay alive’.
Nada, nada, nada. All for nada.
The harder he fought, the less his efforts yielded.
The deployment was an unending blur. Nick was a man in a foreign country that did not want him, had no place for him. He pined for something as simple as casting a line into a clear pond, watching a sinewy boxer’s glove slap into an opponent’s jaw, or biting down into a freshly grilled burger.
The chow hall was a clean, well-lit place that evoked warm memories of home, or his occasional sojourns to Europe. It was a respite in a distant desert, at least until it wasn’t.
One day, a blast tore through the tent, submerging everything in thick black smoke that blotted everything out. Nick’s heart jackhammered, and he couldn’t breathe right. He could hear. That was it. That was all that was left of his senses. The screaming would haunt him. Nick heard pain and wailing as he flailed about.
The third-world nationals KBR shipped in to Iraq to spoon out overcooked food, they were the ones who bore the brunt of the explosion. It was quick and brutal and senseless.
Nick staggered through the smoke, plodding a step at a time, plowing into chairs and tables. Having cleared his weapon before entering the chow hall, a safe space where soldiers faced a greater risk from an accidental misfire than from the enemy, Nick fumbled around with a pouch on a flak vest and eventually extricated a magazine that he jammed into the rifle. He slid back the charging handle, chambering a round.
His heart palpitating, he held the carbine at the ready, as he had been trained by drill sergeants back in basic training on that red Georgia soil, and stepped forward into the blackness that enveloped everything. He trained the gun ahead of him and moved toward the screaming.
Nick slipped on blood underfoot, came crashing down on a fallen cafeteria worker. The man was pale and wheezing and bleeding profusely out of his thigh. The man needed help. He could die within minutes if his femoral artery bled out.
After wheeling around, scanning for threats, Nick thumbed the safety on his rifle and cast it down so it clattered on the concrete floor. He fiddled with the cargo pants, pulled out his gloves and pressed them into the gaping wound, applying as much pressure as he could muster to staunch the wound.
‘Medic!’ he called. ‘Medic!’
No medic emerged from the ashen haze.
He hunched down toward the man, keeping pressure on the shrapnel wound, whispering that he would be okay, everything would be okay, they were going to take care of him and make sure he would get home. He would be okay; he would make it.
‘Where do you come from?’
‘Myanmar,’ the man coughed. ‘Myanmar.’
Blood trickled from the man’s lips, streaked down his cheek. Colour drained from his ashen face as he shuddered. His clammy skin was all gooseflesh and flopsweat. Nick moved aside when the medic arrived so he could see and assess. He grabbed his rifle and swept around again.
‘What the hell happened?’
‘Suicide bomber, posing as an Iraq policeman. Damn, put pressure back on that wound.’
Nick grabbed his bloodied gloves, pressing them back into the oozing puncture. The medic readied a bandage, affixed it and started tying a tourniquet. He twisted the stick around to stop the hemorrhaging.
The air suddenly wafted with the pungent scent of manure. The dead man’s intestines emptied themselves as the last vestige of colouring blanched away from his waxen flesh. It was all for naught, all their hustle, all their effort. He was gone. He would never return to his wife’s embrace, to his children’s clingy hugs.
‘You can be destroyed,’ Nick said, genuflecting and saying a quiet prayer over the dead man, ‘but you cannot be defeated.’
Nick later realized the man was never defeated, but only in the sense that he had never been fighting for anything in the first place. As Nick rested in a plush library chair one brisk fall day, it occurred to him all that bluster and bravado led to young men, bystanders really, bleeding out in puddles where they had dished out mashed potatoes. There was nothing to romanticize. There was no nobility in scooping mashed potatoes for soldiers of another country, and there was certainly no nobility in such a senseless death.
He could hear his dying platoon sergeant later telling him only a fool would believe you couldn’t die if you didn’t give up, which was the best bulldung he could come up with while trying to comfort the bloodied, bullet-ridden man.
The epiphany that they all died for little purpose still hit Nick in the gut even though it occurred many years after he returned home, married in an old barn and sired children of his own, who grew up strong and sturdy like tree trunks, went on to study law and medicine. He made a career for himself, strolled the leafy streets of Oak Park, and dined on pan-seared trout at white-tablecloth restaurants that prided themselves on elegant continental cuisine.
He renovated his stately brick home several times, and one morning, while stepping out of the glass shower, collapsed onto the bed with a brain hemorrhage.
In his dying moments, he thought not of his wife, his daughters or his son, but of that dying man he failed to save in the chow hall. He wished he could have tried harder, got there faster, pressed harder, done something differently. He wished the medic had been more skilled or that the chow hall bomber struck at a different hour, when he was out on patrol. He wished he had never seen that man’s glassy eyes, which haunted him for years in the ash ends of late nights when he was dulled by drink. He wished it had been him instead of the thirteen who died that day, but then figured that in the end the relentless crush of time defeats every man. Whether you stalked through sandy streets with a belt-fed machine gun or helped your child build a rudimentary castle in a sandbox, time would destroy you just the same in the end.