Outside of the tent, the wind was churning up the sand, something that happened for most of the day, almost every day, it seemed. The flapping sound of the wind against the canvas walls was a constant reminder of the conditions my men and I faced. I'd just reread my letter from Vivian, my wife, and was looking at the handprint that our one-year-old daughter had made on the second page. The edges of the letter were worn and tear stains smeared some of the words. My tears were quickly dried in the heat of the Iraqi landscape where we were based, many kilometers north of Bagdad. War may be hell, but the loneliness was far worse. My little angel, Stefanie, was growing up without me and it was crushing my heart. I still had six months left on this tour and never knew if I would be coming back from that hell or not, if I made it home at all.
I think I'd reread that letter every day, no, at least twice a day since I'd received it the week before. It was filled with life and love and sweet little tidbits about the cute things my little girl was doing and getting into. Vivian wrote that our angel would have to wait a long time to collect her wings at the rate that she was getting into things. I guess she was a real go-getter since she'd started walking.
I missed them so much, though I was fortunate enough to hold my girl a few times before I left for that godforsaken land of sand and heat and wind and death.
I'd just come out of a two hour debriefing following our last mission. We'd just returned from one of what seemed like daily missions behind enemy lines, if and when we could even find the enemy. I was exhausted, as was my whole team. I'd just started to unbutton my khaki blouse when I heard,
"Um, Sergeant, sir?"
I recognized his squeaky, very young voice. But I was always Gunny to the men. What was going on?
"Yes, Corporal. What is it? Come in out of the storm, man."
"Yes, sir," he said as the flap flew back from the rush of wind that quickly filled the small enclosure. He tried to grab the flap and finally held the flap down behind him as he stood semi-rigid in front of my cot, where I sat, while he looked straight ahead, over my head, at attention.
"Sir, you are wanted at HQ immediately. Seems the Chaplain's there and he needs to speak with you, sir."
"Relax, Jason. It's just me and you here. Now, what's this all about? I was just getting ready to shower."
"Um, okay, sir, but they said you should come now, or immediately was their very word, sir." Then he went to 'at ease' which caused the flap to get away from him again and he spent the next couple of minutes trying to grab it again. It was almost cartoon-like.
By then I'd realized I wasn't going to get my shower, though I needed one, more than before, with all the sand flying around.
"Oh, alright. Dammit. You'd think a man could get some rest around here. If it isn't the enemy disturbing my sleep, it's my allies!"
"Yes, sir," said the boy with a smirk on his face.
Nineteen-years-old, only a little over a year out of high school, skinny but strong enough to hold his own, and he was away from his family and friends in a place that was quickly teaching him about the worst part of life on this earth. Still, he was one of the most dedicated men in my squadron and I'd give my eye teeth for a dozen more like him. He never complained and almost always saw the good side of every situation. I felt a very strong responsibility to bring him home in one piece, so he could make more great Jason's that, hopefully, would never find out what their daddy meant when he talked about that hot place across the ocean.
"Shit, Jason, will you shake out my cot for me while I'm gone? I've got to get some sleep before our next mission. That last debriefing took up most of my sleep time and now I'm on my way to a church service, no doubt."
"Oh, yes, sir. Gladly, sir. I'm sure you'll be back in minutes and then I'll make sure all the guys let you rest, sir," he said smiling as he braced the flap closed behind him again.
See what I mean? Always saw the good in everything. He was a good kid.
I re-buttoned my blouse, grabbed a cover and left the tent, turning to see the boy grabbing at the damn flap again.
The HQ for our company was on the west side of our encampment. There was a stone wall left over from something that protected it on two sides and it actually had real walls, mostly.
The wind had begun to die down and it gave me time to obsess about why a Chaplain would have come out to our camp from Bagdad just to talk with me. But in the few minutes I'd had to consider some possibilities, I'd come up blank and, before long, I'd arrived at the door to HQ.
"I'll be out for a while, Captain Hennessey. Then I suspect Gunnery Sergeant McGill and I will need to talk some," said the captain as he slammed the door behind him, barely acknowledging my presence and leaving one other person in his office with me.
I was beginning to feel very uncomfortable. I had a queasy feeling building in my stomach that was quickly trying to escape through my throat.
"My boy," said the older man, dressed in the fatigues of an officer but with a patch indicating his role as our spiritual leader while away from home, "How have you been getting along on this, your second visit to this country?"
"Second, yes, sir. Getting along? How have I . . .? Um, okay I guess, sir. I'm just a little confused right now, is all."
"I see. Yes, of course, you're confused. Please," he said, indicating toward one of two chairs placed in front of the captain's desk, "Sit down. I, well, I need to tell you something."
That wasn't what I wanted to hear. I knew whatever the 'something' was, it couldn't be good. I was getting too nervous to sit still but I took it as a command and sat.
The Chaplain sat in the other chair and spent a few seconds looking at his hands in his lap before he raised his head to look me right in the eye.
"Son, I guess there's no easy way to say this. I just want you to know that I'll be here as long as you need me, that is, until such time as you and the commander resolve your status here."
I was really confused by that time and the feelings in my stomach weren't helping a bit.
"Sir, if you'd just tell me what's going on, I'm sure we can work out whatever it is. I'm sure there's just some mistake or . . ."
"Oh, no, my boy. It's not something you did, or anything like that. I'm afraid it's that . . ."
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar