Chasing Ghosts

An excerpt:

If you don’t like obscenity, you don’t like the truth. If you don’t like the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty. -Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

George Bush had better be fucking right.

That’s how I began my journal on April 3, 2003. Writing in pencil on an Army-issue notebook with mint green pages, leaning in on deliberate, hard letters, I underlined “better” and penciled over the words again and again until they wore through the tactically-colored paper.

On March 19, just two weeks earlier, the US had launched the first air strike of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Troops on the ground had invaded Iraq the next day. And now I was off to war for reasons that I feared were bullshit.

I reclined in the first-class section of a civilian 747 bound for Kuwait with an M-16 wedged between my legs and my gut firmly stuffed with all the Krispy Kreme doughnuts I could scarf down in twenty minutes, courtesy of the old Red Cross ladies who saw us off at Hunter Army Airfield, Fort Stewart, Georgia. It seemed a bad omen that the Red Cross was the last organization to see us off to war. The Red Cross sends emergency notifications to deployed soldiers when something urgent happens back home-like when someone is in a car accident or a grandmother dies. Everyone shuddered whenever word came that a Red Cross notification was on the way. It was the soldiers’ equivalent of the knock at the door.

Sitting in a cracked faux-leather seat with In Flight Magazine’s glossy pictures of Hawaii poking out the seat pocket in front of me, I considered the absurdity of the situation.

“Gentlemen, please ensure your seatbacks are in the upright position,” an older woman’s voice crackled over the PA system.

What? We were geared to the teeth with the essentials of combat. Bullets, grenades, rifles, knives, rucksacks, scowls, Copenhagen, cigarettes, hatred, the Penthouse March 2003 edition with Lilly Ann on the cover-the whole Army deal. I was cranked up and ready to run through hell, already bracing myself for incoming explosions, and going over indoctrinated checklists in my mind. And I had to worry about the seatback being upright?

I was going to war, with the greatest military force the world had ever seen, on a jet snagged from a recently bankrupted airline. I wondered if we’d get the little bag of peanuts.

I slid my CD headphones over my ears. I tried to shut out the endless cacophony of yelling, farting, gear rattling, spitting and snoring with headphones streaming System of a Down, Linkin Park and Jay Z. The emotional oasis of a temporary musical vacation helped all of us forget we were constantly surrounded by thirty-eight other men.

Funny. These headphones were just like every piece of equipment issued to my platoon: old and held together with nothing but hope and some twenty-mile-an-hour tape (green Army duct tape). I hoped these suckers wouldn’t break before we got there. I needed my music to keep me sane-to buffer me from the men, if only for a song or two. Where the hell do you get new headphones in Iraq?

My men and I were National Guardsmen, attached to First Brigade, Third Infantry Division, also known as 3ID. * Shouldered with the task of taking over a foreign country, yet disallowed from smoking in the lavatories of the plane. Since the days of Troy, soldiers have pushed the limits of what little they are allowed to do-especially in pursuit of a vice. The Army has a saying: “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission.” I was pretty sure that on this seventeen-hour flight one of the many chain-smokers in Third Platoon would test the FAA to see if it would really fine a soldier $1,000 for smoking a cigarette in a latrine on the way to die in Iraq. Sure it would be ironic, but not outside the realm of possibility.

I looked across the dimly-lit aisle at one of my SAW gunners. I’ll call him “Gunner.” Think the most Johnny-All-American-Homecoming-King kid you ever met. With a white-blond flat-top, blue eyes, perfect teeth, a chiseled jaw and about 5% body fat, Gunner was straight out of a recruiting commercial. Perfect uniform, immaculate weapon, and always followed orders without being told twice. He didn’t bitch, and maintained perfect military bearing.

Gunner was big on two things: God, and his beloved girlfriend. On the left side of his stomach, just above his kidney, was a meticulously scripted tattoo in flowing cursive letters: “Andrea.” He’d proposed to her just weeks before we left. He probably spent everything he had and then some to buy her the ring.

I thought of that tattoo as I glanced at him. It was buried beneath his BDU top now, but it stuck in my head. A lot of guys in the Army have tattoos around the same area-but a few inches higher, and in a much different design. Soldiers call them meat tags. A meat tag is a copy of the Army dog tag you wear around you neck, tattooed on your torso, just below your armpit. A meat tag isn’t just a hard-core status symbol. It’s a way to identify a body if the torso is all that remains after it’s blown apart. Name, social security number and religious preference (if any). Call it thinking ahead. Prep for combat. Another safety measure, like an extra pair of socks.

If you want to be in the running for a copy of Chasing Ghosts, be sure to send an email before tomorrow night. And keep watching this space — the weekly contest is going to be a regular feature for awhile, and I’ve got some great stuff lined up for the next few weeks.