In honor of Veterans Day I am sharing an excerpt from my work in progress, titled A Soldiers Son by Jack Estes.
It is early morning as a flash of pink rises over the horizon. The Marine convoy has been on the road for two hours, barreling along a rugged stretch of desert in southern Iraq. Jake, Griff, Blueberry and twenty other replacements for 3/9 are in the second troop truck back. Following them are Humvees, another troop truck, a Stryker armed with machine guns, TOW missiles, and six troops inside. They are headed north toward Basra. There British and American troops have established a base with truck refueling, a supply depot, an ammo dump, and a twelve hundred meter long airstrip. After they pick up more supply trucks and combat vehicles they will travel four hundred miles north to Camp Bravo, their battalion headquarters, one hundred miles south of Baghdad
The early morning air feels cooler in the back of the truck. The metal bed is slightly cold to the touch and the sounds of the wood railing creaking and the truck shaking is muffled slightly by the sandbags underneath the soldier’s feet. Packs are spread out across the bags and some Marines are stretched out or have fallen asleep sitting up, despite the roar of truck engines and gears shifting. The truck bangs as it rolls over potholes and bad roads. The convoy stretches for over a mile with Stryker’s, armored personnel carriers, trucks and Humvees. One giant trailer truck carries two Abrams tanks. Humvees carry riflemen, and officers or special agents. Other Humvees are mounted with .50 caliber machine guns or belt fed Mark 19 grenade launchers with gunners who stand in the back seat area exposed through a roof turret. The troop carriers have drum fed .50 cal’s or lighter .240’s machineguns mounted on top of the cabs, while Marines stand behind their weapons wearing sunglasses or goggles. They present an imposing sight with their guns that can cut through steel and destroy humans with a single round. Interspersed with combat vehicles are huge, white Mercedes trucks. These monster eight wheelers are driven by Kenyans hired by contractors from KBR. They carry food, water, trailers, flat screens, air conditioners, and every other kind of supply or tool needed to run a war. Each truck also has an armed Marine shooter riding shotgun.
As the sun rises the road turns to packed dirt, dust thickens and forms a layer on the Marines faces, helmets, body armor, packs and weapons. Now every Marine wears goggles. Some wrap small green towels or green tee shirts or white hankies over their mouths to filter out the brown and red clay dirt that engulfs them.
Jake and Griff sit opposite one another on flat bench seats, mouths covered with green cloth masks Mike sent them. They’re hypnotized by the monotony of the barren landscape. Desert and rock and occasional flat roofed brick and adobe homes and buildings and shacks are scattered across the countryside. Some three or four house hovels have donkeys and carts out front where stray dogs, nose to the ground, scour the dirt for scraps of food. Kids play soccer in the dirt or stand and stare as the convoy passes, perhaps numbed by the terror it might bring. Women dressed in black burkhas or headscarves feed chickens or beat ragged rugs draped over sagging clotheslines. Some of the scant villages look abandoned, discarded, and left with nothing but despair. Occasionally, a cluster of palm trees pops up around the desolate villages, and a beaten car or worn-out truck sits idly by. Then the road is empty and there is nothing but desert or bombed out trucks and tanks pushed to the side of the road.
“Eastern Oregon,” Griff shouts to Jake across the sandbags.
“What?” Jake asks over the low roar of tires turning and the truck shaking.
“I said this looks like Eastern Oregon, high desert but scrubbier.’
“It’s Mad Max,” Jake replies thinking of the Road Warrior movies he and his dad watched, full of machine-gun mounted old Chevys and torn-up Harleys loaded with guns, and shooting rockets from their handlebars.
“Yeah boot,” another Marine replies. “Just wait till the costume freaks arrive.”
Jakes nods off under a blistering sun and dreams about Meg. In the dream he starts flying near the railroad trestle where they use to go diving toward the water. But he’s jarred awake by the sounds of horns blaring.
Now the road is paved and runs through a populated area, picking up traffic as more vehicles line the road going in the opposite direction. There are military vehicles or empty KBR supply trucks with Turkish drivers. Beat up Russian cars and new black Chevy Suburban’s with dark tinted windows escorting luxury Mercedes Benz’s speed by.
The convoy slows. Canals run along both sides of the road, four foot wide and six foot deep. They feed the village and irrigate the fields with the same filthy water pulled from the Euphrates. Iraqis drink from it, bathe in it and their backyard slit trenches drain into it.
People of all ages walk along the side of the road carrying bunches of firewood on their head, wrapped in twine, baskets of chickens or plastic jugs of water. Some walk along side donkey pulled carts. Jake notices dozens of burned out vehicles with no wheels and doors missing. In the opposite direction, a pickup drives by, crammed with twenty Iraqis wearing black or red checkered head scarves, waving AK-47s. The hair on his neck rises and a wave of chills dances down his spine. “Insurgents. They’re Assholes,” The gunner shouts over his shoulder.
Jake wonders why they don’t engage the enemy? Are they the enemy?
More ancient busses pass them going in the opposite direction with baggage tied on top and people hanging from the windows.
It’s six in the morning and already hot as piss, as the convoy rumbles on the outskirts of Basra. Concrete blast walls are placed in several sections of the road and more bombed out Iraqi military and civilian vehicles are shoved on to the shoulders. A KBR sewage tanker truck had been blown up by an IED the day before and the ensuing stench of shit and body splatter is left cooking in the sun.
“Whew,” Griff says as they pass the stinking hull, trying to block the smell with his arm, “I never should have listened to you.”
“What are you talking about douche?
“Fuck you. I never should have listened to you. It was your idea to join, not mine. You thought we’d be heroes. What the hell were you thinking? Now we’re riding in the middle of this shit storm. “
“Quit complaining, bitch. You thought we’d look cool in dress blues. “
“You’re the bitch,” Griff shouts over the sand bags, his mask down and Marines still sleeping. I’ll put a foot up your ass, bitch.” Both of them laugh.
“Fuck both of you,” the gunner shouts. “You’re both too new to be saying shit!’
They pass Muslim temples with spirals, arches and columns and a line of men with beards, in robes and turbans waiting to get in. Around noon the trailer truck in back of them has a flat and the convoy pulls to the side of the road. Troops drop off the back and sides of the trucks and Humvee doors swing out as Marines unload. All of them carry their weapons and take a piss or a shit in the canal next to the road. They watch each side of the road and Jake’s senses jump up a notch. For fifteen minutes or so they fuck around with the flat tire with Gunny T bitching. Then he shouts “load em’ up” and the Marines are up and on their vehicles, pushing down the road.
Marines suck on tubes from their Camel bags, or water bottles or canteens. Riflemen watch each side of the road.
The convoy stalls around a curve, nearly slowing to a stop. The road has narrowed and Jake feels uncomfortable. On the right is a canal and a collection of villagers, including children milling around in front of some flat-roofed concrete homes. Off to the same side of the road, behind a small wall, on a stretch of green grass, is a well. Next to the well are four men dressed in flowing robes, kneeling on small prayer rugs kissing the ground, arms out stretched, palms up praying to Allah. A stack of AK- 47s is piled next to them.
The Marines in the back of the truck alert. ”Check it out. Look at those cocksuckers,” someone says as the column slows to a crawl. “What the fuck? We’re driving by? Lets light en’ up,” says another.
Jake feels his gut tighten and heart quicken as the truck moves slowly by.
“A couple diaper heads aren’t stopping this roll,” the gunner says. They’ll drop some shit on those punks from the air.”
A couple of kids run up to the back of the truck begging, and a man in Nike sweats jogs up to the side of the truck. His eyes are bright and his teeth are rotten as he smiles and shows long knives and pornography for sale. A booklet of ugly women with their legs spread.
“Got any ho’s fucking a dog?” The gunner laughs, cutting the edge Jake feels.
Jake and Griff look in their packs and throw hard candy, from home, to the kids as horns blast and a gaggle of kids fight for it in the dirt. For a moment Jake feels good, then the convoy speeds up and the village with the gun praying Iraqis slides out of sight. Soon a couple guys piss in plastic bottles and toss them away.
Jake and Griff eat dust in the back of the truck, bouncing around with the rest of the Marines. The convoy slows again as they cross over a sturdy bridge spanning a rushing canal and approach another village. The village is clean, with green brush and palm trees lining an oasis of single and two level well-kept buildings. A mosaic-tiled mosque is set back off the road. Its ornate domed roof and spirals, tower over the village and can be seen from several miles away. Goats and cows wander by the side of the road, heads down, chewing scrub grass. A few kids stare but do not shout or wave. As the long procession slows no one rushes the trucks. Jake thinks the people seem quiet, when the gunner turns and announces “Don’t feel right.” Blueberry who has been silent for hours says “Fucking A.”
Just outside the village on the right side of the road the desert grows from sand to rocks and forms the base of modest hills. The convoy slows to a crawl and stops. Jake has his mask down as he stands up near the gunner, and looks over the cab, the Stryker, trucks, and Humvees.
“What’s up? Griff asks.
“Looks like a car hit a donkey and turned over on its side and they’re blocking the road.”
“Fuckin’ rag heads, the Gunner says. They don’t know how to drive worth a shit.”
The lead Humvee moves slowly as it tries to go around the donkey when a huge explosion erupts, blowing the donkey apart and blasting the Humvee off the road. Marines jump from the trucks and Stryker, and then the car sitting in the middle of the narrow road blows up in a thundering explosion, spraying lethal pieces of engine, fenders, bumpers, and glass tearing into Marines and the front vehicles. The Marines in the front are decimated. Bones break, ear drums burst and shock waves rock the convoy. A plume of black smoke billows up into the sky.
“Incoming,” someone yells. More Marines jump from their trucks and fan out on both sides of the road. Jake and Griff dive from the truck into a culvert, their weapons pointing frantically toward the horizon. A couple Marines fire wildly. The convoy becomes a fury of officers screaming into headsets. Choppers are on the way. Back toward the village, maybe three hundred meters away, Jake can hear Iraqis cheering.
First Lieutenant Bittner, strapped with a .45, and wearing a head set and Gunny T are standing behind the truck’s open door.
“HOLD YOUR FIRE!” Bittner shouts. Hold your goddamn fire!” Bittner yells back down the line. “Gunny T. Get first squad and a Corpsman up there.” Gunny yells for his men, grabs his rifle and a first aid kit, and runs toward the explosion. Bittner turns his back and jogs down the convoy away from the explosion, shouting at Marines. Some of the troops are frozen in trucks or lay prone by the side of the road. He stops at a Marine who sits, his weapon pointed at the sky, slaps the back of his helmet, and points to the horizon.
“Shitbird! Point your weapon out there.”
And the Marine scrambles.
Captain O’Callahan, the company commander, walks up to Bittner chewing on a stub of a cigar. He’s been through this many times before. His face is pocked marked and he’s not much more than 5’6”. “What is this cluster fuck?”
“I-E-D,” Lt. Bittner says, “stuck up a donkey’s ass. Then they blow a car and we got some KIA’s and WIA’s. Got Gunny T and a squad checking it out.”
“Goddamn it! We’ve seen this kind of shit before,” the Captain says. “Who the fucks on point?”
“Butter bar just in. Some young guns. We warned them last night.”
“Yeah, yeah and we talked to all you officers about how shit happens, Lieutenant. Grab a couple more squads and move them up about three hundred yards in front of this mess and make sure there’s no other cocksuckers looking for us. And put another squad just off the road and secure an LZ. I’ll take care of the rear and hook up with a bird. I’ll headset you when it’s good to drop a smoke and mark the LZ.”
There’s no firing. Captain O’Callahan strides away and Lt. Bittner jogs back toward his truck, a corpsman following. Jake and Griff lie flat, their weapons trained on the empty desert fields. Bittner kicks Jake’s boot.
“You two go help the Gunny,” he orders. They jump up and hustle toward the front of the column.
Jake’s heart is racing as sweat drips under his sunglasses and into his eyes. His helmet and body armor shake as he runs and nearly stumbles. He feels no fear, but is awkward and unsure as he and Griff beat along. Smoke rises like a funnel and the smell of creosote fills the air. They press on to the wreckage of the Stryker, where Marines are staggering out, faces black, stunned, blood running out their ears. The Stryker is damaged in the front, the windshield blown out and a Marine sags lifeless in the turret.
The Humvee was blown to the opposite side of the road. The entire right side of the vehicle is totaled. All the glass is broken out and the passenger door caved in. The wood boxes filled with sand were useless. Blood is everywhere. In the front seat the passenger’s head is blown open in a mass of broken skull and brain matter. His shoulder and arm are mangled. Jake and Griff stare at the Gunny trying to pull out the driver.
“Shitheads. Get over here,” the Gunny shouts, calm in a moment of madness. “Help me get this boy out.”
Jake and Griff snap to and rush to the driver’s side of the Humvee. The Gunny works feverishly on the driver whose right arm is mostly missing and his face is covered with blood.
“Help me lift him. He’s still alive.”
There is the sound of choppers in the air as Jake and Griff pull the wounded Marine from the Humvee and place him on the ground. Griff turns his head away and pukes.
“Give me your canteen,” the Gunny barks.
Jake hands him the canteen and the Gunny pours water on the young man’s bloody face. “It’s Boner!” Jake says, horrified.
As Gunny T clears the blood away, an artery in the soldier’s neck is spurting blood. An eye is missing and the orbital rim is cracked like it was hit with a hatchet.
“HERE! HERE! Put your hand here,” Gunny demands,” pushing Jakes hand into the beating wound. Jaw tight and eyes focused, Jake kneels by the Marine. With each heartbeat blood oozes through Jake’s fingers.
Another Marine runs up to help and he and Griff pry open a twisted door and pull another body from the backseat. The dead man is not a Marine. He is dressed in a white short sleeve shirt, soaked with blood, and shredded khaki pants where the bottom of both legs used to be. A large shard of glass is driven into the side of his head.
“This is Robinson. He’s CIA,” the Marine says to Griff. “His buddy is riding with me.”
Griff is silent, staring at what is left of what once was a human being.
Jake continues to hold the bleeding wound with one hand and Boner’s hand with the other. Then Boner, the boy from a small town in Kansas gurgles, opens his eyes and looks up at Jake, searching and afraid.
“Hang in there Pal,” Jake says, trying to be brave. “You’re gonna’ be ok.”
Boner’s eyes begin to close as the Gunny searches through streams and pools of blood for an artery, and then he pinches it with a clip and works an IV into the dying Marine.
“YOU!” Gunny T yells at Griff. “Get the fuck over here.” He hands Griff the plasma bag and moves on to help two corpsman treat other wounded Marines. One is in shock, sitting up next to the front of a Hummer, smoking a cigarette, his legs crushed. Two others are bleeding from the face, thrashing at their eyes shouting, “I can’t see. Help me. Help me.”
“Hang on Pal. We got a chopper coming,” Jake says again to the dying young man. But no chopper will save this Marine. No modern medical miracle will keep his heart beating and lungs breathing, Jake thinks. Only God could save him and where was God five minutes ago?
Bittner sprints back to the wreckage. “Where is that fucking Medevac?” he screams into the headset. “We need it on the ground now”!
A man dressed in blue jeans and body armor jogs up, an assault rifle slung over his shoulder. He looks at Robinson in khakis, his legs gone and freezes. Suddenly his cell phone rings. It is long and loud and Jake is still trying to comfort Boner who is already dead and Griff is holding the empty bag and Bittner screams, “FUCK THIS!” And the cell phone rings again.
Bittner takes the cell phone from the civilian’s hand and yells at him to answer the motherfucker and he does. And he says yes into the phone and listens then explodes.
“We just got hit, asshole! No! No! I’m not fucking all right. Robinson is fucking dead. No! No! I don’t want to talk to Adams.” Then he snaps his phone shut and pulls a black flask from a front pocket on his vest. He unscrews the cap, never taking his eyes off his friend. Then he takes a long pull, throws the flask away and walks back down the line of the convoy.
A Medevac chopper lands, as gunships hover above. The dead and wounded are loaded and lifted away. Jake wipes the blood from his hands on his pants and body armor vest and takes a drink from his canteen. He feels stunned, speechless but the water is good as he swallows and for a moment he notices the water rush down his throat, cooling the heat in his stomach.
Griff picks up his rifle and they both jog back to the truck as a squad of Marines pushes the dead wreckage to the side of the road.
“Load ‘em up,” Bittner yells walking down the convoy line. Gunny T tosses his cigarette in the sand and pulls himself up into the cab, while Jake and Griff jump on board, the vehicles fill and the convoy moves on.