Please read the beginning of this story as shown within the “Afghanistan Story” tab above.
Afghanistan, September 2010, Somewhere in the Afghanistan sky
The helicopter whirred into the air. The smell of JP-8 surrounded the cabin and seeped into my nostrils as I laid my head down. The noise was overwhelmingly loud and the helo seemed to creak and rattle as if all of the bolts were purposefully loosened to allow parts to easily shift. As we reached altitude, we began to bob up and down in the air like a ship riding tumultuous waves. Up, up, up, I would be pressed down into my seat until we reached the apex of the lift and we would drop rapidly back down. My body would lift slightly out of the seat with each drop. Press down, lift, press down, lift…
Bobbing like a fucking bottle in the ocean. I’m going to hurl.
The mixture of the smell and the bobbing caused my stomach to clench and toss. One particular drop of the helo lifted my head from my pack and I looked around to awkwardly cover the fact that I was being tossed up and down. The Marine next to me looked at my face warily.
“If you have to hurl, don’t get it on my shit.”
He was shouting to be heard over the props. I arranged my kevlar helmet facing up on top of my pack and placed my face into it. If I threw up, the splashback would hopefully be contained. It was uncomfortable to press my face into my helmet but the smell of my own stale sweat embedded in the kevlar’s gray interior pads was better than the smell of the gas. Your own stench is bearable, sometimes a little enjoyable.
One more drop brought my head up again rapidly. Looking around again, I attempted to pass the time by gazing at the helo’s interior. There was a pipe running vertically up the bulkhead…and it was leaking black stuff.
Starting to panic, I tried to catch the eye of the Marine who told me not to vomit on him. He was dead asleep with his head back and mouth wide open.
Turning to my other side, I poked the shoulder of the Marine to my left to grab his attention. I motioned to the wall questioningly, where the black stuff was profusely pouring down. The Marine leaned over and stuck his mouth directly over my ear to scream into it.
I questioned him with a “And that’s okay?” look on my face. He leaned back over, exasperated.
“IF IT ISN’T LEAKING, THAT’S WHEN WE DIE.”
I sarcastically gave him a thumbs up and went back to suppressing my vomit.
Camp Leatherneck, September 2010
When the helo landed, it was completely dark. Huge flood lights cut the darkness and blotted out the stars that I would’ve been able to see on Delaram. Instead of a quiet base, Camp Leatherneck was a clusterfuck of noise and light.
One of the flood lights was directly next to a fence that seemed to lead inside Camp Leatherneck’s flight terminal hanger.
So…what now? Where do I go? I have no fucking idea where my unit physically is. Maybe if I start walking left??? I’ll end up walking in an area I recognize.
I started to lug my stuff in the direction that the crowd was moving when my arm was gently tugged.
I whirled around, the weight of my equipment swinging me further than I had expected to go and stumbled. Regaining my balance, I tried to adjust my eyes to the brightness situated directly behind the individual who was speaking to me. His face was darkened by the shadows and my eyes took a few seconds to realize my old unit’s commanding officer was standing in front of me.
“Sir. What are you doing here?”
“Picking you up, Marine.”
This commanding officer was the nicest officer I had ever met. He was a Major; well-educated and soft-spoken, and he treated everyone like a person, which is rare in the Marine Corps. One time while I was setting up his Afghanistan computer for the first time in March, I had seen something gold and shiny on his desk. He saw me studying it and picked it up, handing it to me to study.
“It’s a sextant.”
“Whoa, cool, like the ones in the books?”
He had laughed good-naturedly.
“Yes, like the ones in the books.”
“That’s so cool! I’ve never seen one before; I only know how they are described in books. Does it work?”
He had led me outside into the night and we stood on the back steps of the command building for an hour or so while he showed me how to use the sextant to focus on the stars. I was clumsy and discovered that I had the nautical navigational skills of a rock.
He gave up eventually and held the sextant in his hands while we discussed astronomy and the impact of light pollution and GPS on the deteriorating ability of humans to navigate the earth. We had parted ways after that, and today was the next time I had seen the major.
He was short in stature; his shoulders bent forward. He had the leathery look of all Marines over the age of 30, and he looked…sad.
I knew he was here because he had been dragged into the General’s office regarding me. My face turned red with embarrassment that he was here.
“Corporal, this is Chaplin Reed, and this is Lieutenant Smith.”
He gestured at the two individuals hanging behind him. There was a tall Naval chaplain and a short female Marine looking at me anxiously.
“Good evening, sir, ma’am.”
The two creeped me out. Naval chaplains are known in the Marine Corps for being creepy and a little too friendly with the male Marines. That female was looking entirely too eager to be here and practically leapt forward when she was introduced. I stepped back and warily eyed the trio. The Major leaned forward to take my flight bag.
“No, sir, I’ve got it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, we have a vehicle right here.”
And there was. They loaded my bags into a white SUV for me while I stood awkwardly next to it. When we climbed in, the Chaplin sat next to me in the back while the LT drove and the Major rode shotgun. We rode in silence for awhile until the Chaplain spoke.
“So how are you?”
He looked like he wanted to keep talking but I pointedly looked out the window and ignored him.
This fucking stranger better not act like I’m his fucking friend. Clearly he’s only here because I’m “suicidal”.
I even made the quotation marks in my head when I thought that.
I’m not suicidal, I guess. I mean, I wouldn’t mind dying; in fact, I would welcome it. But is that being suicidal? Nah. It’s morbid opportunism.
I almost laughed at my reflection in the SUV’s back window.
The major tried next.
“So how was it out there?”
“Oh you know, sir…it was a war.”
I laughed loudly for a few seconds before I realized I was laughing alone. I quickly trailed off while the LT shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Silence permeated for another five minutes or so.
I have fucking lost my marbles. Or maybe their sense of humor just sucks.
“We are going to take you to get medically cleared.”
All I wanted was a shower and to sleep. I hadn’t taken a shower in over 48 hours or slept in just as long. I could feel the blood beginning to soak my thighs again.
Suddenly, I was very scared. I was a terrible liar, and I had no idea what to tell the Naval doc if he would be able to notice my physical, fuck, or mental, state.
The SUV pulled up to some large tan tents and everyone exited the vehicle and walked towards the tent flaps. The Major opened them and motioned for me to enter first. I ducked my head and walked in.