Please read the beginning of this story as shown within the “Afghanistan Story” tab above.
Afghanistan, June 2010, AUP Station in the Town of Delaram
As everyone began to break off to head to their racks to sleep, I yawned and Sgt P glanced at me.
“Ready to sleep?”
“Always. I guess I’ll head to the roof.”
“Nah, I got some of the guys to set up a tent for you after the GBOSS incident last time.”
“Aw, really? You didn’t have to do that.”
“I know I didn’t have to. Let the other guys sleep on the roof.”
He walked me to the back of the General’s building and showed me my personal tent. It was large enough for a cot or two, and I placed my flak and Kevlar down on the floor. Virkler had followed me to see the sweet digs.
“Fuck no, sleeping on the roof is great.”
“Thank you, Sgt P. So much.”
We stood silently in the tent in the dark. Sgt P didn’t want to leave and I didn’t want him to go.
“Want to watch a movie?”
We walked over to his tent. When I entered, I saw a well lived-in area where he and the Gunnery Sergeant and a few others lived. The lower ranks slept in the large and smelly tents. Sgt P got a smaller tent to share with less people. There was a rug on the ground, and various home-y paraphernalia about the area where he slept. Sgt P grabbed his laptop and brought it back to my tent.
The three of us sat on the small green cot that one of the Marines had grabbed for me. I sat between Virkler and P and we began to watch a movie. In hindsight, I can’t remember the name of the movie or what occurred in it. I wasn’t paying attention to the movie. I was noticing how close Sgt. P was to me. Our thighs were touching as our trio gathered close enough to see the laptop’s screen as I held it on my lap. His arm would occasionally brush against mine.
Virkler suddenly stood up.
“I’m going to go to bed.”
P and I mumbled our goodbyes and Virkler left us alone in my tent. Sgt P and I continued watching the movie, neither of us willing to break the silence. Some of the light from outside spilled into the tent through the tent’s window that was above our heads. I could see his tattooed arms in the dim light, his sleeves rolled up to the elbows. I could feel the energy flowing between us, almost sparking.
I started to nod off. I was exhausted and even the spark couldn’t keep me awake. Sgt P glanced over at me and leapt up.
“I’ll let you get some sleep.”
“No, I’m fine. Let’s finish the movie.”
“Well at least lay down.”
Sgt P sat on the floor, back leaning against the cot that I laid out on. He held the laptop on his lap and I watched the movie over his shoulder. I studied his face intently when I knew he wasn’t looking at me, wondering about this man and how he was so strong and in charge without verbally demanding it, someone who would throw himself in front of a bullet to protect me. Slowly, I drifted off.
As I slept, I felt him get up, gently touch my shoulder, and say “goodnight.”
The bright sun tore through the window in the tent and woke me harshly. The compound was beginning to stir with the sounds of people cleaning their weapons and packing things.
Once I had readied myself, which meant I put my boots back on and ensured that my hair was still somewhat in a bun, I ventured out to the tiny courtyard.
“Good morning! Ready to go back to Delaram? We want to drop y’all on the way up the highway.”
Sgt P called out to me while was moving about, telling people to get ready for a run to Delaram to drop Virkler and I off. Virkler and I grabbed our stuff and met the team next to the vics. I went directly to Sgt. P’s lead vic with Dumaw and Owens.
“What’s up the highway?”
“We do patrols there occasionally.”
“Let us go.”
Sgt P said no immediately.
“It’s too dangerous.”
“Fuck. Am I driving again?”
Owens almost paled. Owens was one of the good ‘ol boys from Tennessee who you could just imagine hunting and fishing back home. His look of shock and fear was practically laughable.
“No! You practically murdered me up there.”
Dumaw laughed and told Owens to stop being a pussy.
“Why don’t you be the gunner this time?”
Everyone looked at me.
“Uh…if you guys trust me with that.”
“You know how to fire the 240, right?”
“Yeah, they taught us how to shoot that at MCT.”
“Then you’re good.”
I climbed up into the turret. Standing between MATV’s two front seats, I couldn’t see out of the turret.
“Uh, guys? I can’t see shit.”
Dumaw grabbed a box and put it under my feet.
“Better, short stuff?”
Sgt P climbed into the vehicle.
“Ah, Cannon’s gunner?”
“Now that she can see with her short ass self.”
I aimed a kick wildly into the vehicle’s cab and connected with someone’s shoulder. Sgt P laughed and grabbed my calf, squeezing gently.
“Right on. Cannon, Condition 1.”
I looked down at this vaguely familiar weapon. Owens handed me the ammo up through the turret from a giant green ammo can. The rounds were 7.62 millimeters and linked together in a giant chain. Rapidly trying to remember how to load a weapon from when I did it once two years prior, I opened the feed tray.
“Rack it back first.”
Owens was looking up at me from between my legs.
I reach to pull back the charging handle. I pulled.
I pulled harder.
I pulled so hard that I was straining with both hands. I braced my back against the circular edge of the turret and drew my knees to my chest so I could place my boots on the other side of the circle and leverage my entire weight.
Owens was incredulously looking up at me.
“What’s wrong? Are you too weak to pull back a lever? Get out of the way.”
I dropped down the turret in embarrassment and knelt next to Sgt P’s left shoulder as Owens scrambled up and tried to rack back the charging handle. He pulled once, and hesitated before pulling the second time. With a giant grinding sound, the charging handle came back slowly, crushing the sand that had built up within the weapon.
Sgt P and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. Owens finished loading the weapon and climbed back down.
“You point it at what you want to shoot.”
“Hey, shut up. Maybe if you cleaned your weapon every once and awhile…”
We left the compound and headed out to the wadis.
As we drove along, I scoured the areas ahead of me while my right finger was straight and rigid next to the trigger of the fully loaded machine gun. It was difficult to brace my legs on the box that Dumaw had set up for me to stand on so when the MATV would hit a bump, my body would smash into the sides of the turret. My flak jacket protected my insides but my shoulders were still smashed. I couldn’t stumble and fall and leave the turret unoccupied and the guys unprotected so I started to anticipate the bumps and turns. Owens had been tall enough to sit down in the sling that dangled between two sides of the turret’s circle. The sling had protected him from hitting the sides except in the harshest of driving conditions. I began to get better at avoiding the edges of the turret.
Riding in the turret made me remember the HUMVEE rollover training my unit had taken prior to deployment. Four of us were stuffed into a tiny HUMVEE simulator and rolled in every direction, quickly and slowly, back and forth, to simulate a vehicle rollover. We would be randomly stopped with the vehicle flipped in a random direction and have to extract ourselves quickly. With each simulation, a fellow Marine named Ford and I would sing “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” as we tumbled through the air. One roll ended up with my side on the bottom and Ford was above me. He released his seatbelt and dropped onto me, crushing me with his 240 pounds of body and gear. On the next simulation, I was on top and I had to open the HUMVEE door outwards above me. I had released and dropped onto Ford. I couldn’t reach the door through the length of the HUMVEE cab. Ford had to use his legs to leg press my entire body and gear high enough for me to reach the door and start pushing the 300 pound door upwards. We strained and cursed and sweated and laughed. Rollovers are dangerous and a very real threat in Afghanistan because of the IEDs that would blow a vehicle into a wadi that could be filled with water. In the event of a rollover, we were told to yank the machine gunner down from the turret so their head wouldn’t be crushed by the rollover. During the training, Ford and I had laughed and joked while we acted like we yanked an imaginary person from the turret. Now that I was in Afghanistan, that person was no longer imaginary. It was me.
Suddenly, we hit a bump and I braced my body for the impact and dipped my head, making my body weightless so it wouldn’t resist the impact. Unfortunately, another giant bump in the road was immediate and the MATV’s direction changed abruptly. Not expecting the second hit, my face smashed into the buttstock of the M240G at a very high speed. Everything went black for a second but I immediately came to, still gripping the weapon. I had evidently yelped because Sgt P yelled at me concernedly.
“I’m good. Fucking hurt.”
I ran my fingers over my face and my tongue over my teeth, making sure each one was intact. When my tongue slid over my lips, I tasted copper…Blood was dripping from my nose and mouth. Owens was practically gleeful as I hocked a giant loogie and spit a bloody mess into the desert.
“Payback is a bitch!!!”
Wincing, I wiped the blood on my cammies and hoped the sand from the wind would stem the freely flowing blood before anyone noticed.
We pulled into Delaram and I hopped down from the turret.
“Fuck that shit.”
Owens laughed at my face. My stomach was still churning from the impact. I grabbed my stuff from the vehicle. I looked to Sgt P.
“When will I see you guys again?”
“Oh, we’re always around. Where do you work?”
I motioned to the compound.
“I’ll swing by when we do our trash and food runs if I can.”
“Awesome. I wish I could stay with y’all.”
“Yeah, it would be great, but you have a job here and we have a job out there.”
He motioned to the desert.
“Alright, I’ll see y’all around then. Have fun!”
Sgt P smiled at me.
“We always do.”
I waved to Owens and Dumaw. Owens grunted and Dumaw gave me a wave back.