Our misson in Iraq was simple: shoot anyone or anything that crossed the camp’s fenced barriers. On 24 hour duty patrol, our weapons were drawn, safeties off, and our triggers were held slightly under the grasp of moist and shaking fingers. Sometimes during the day, the sand would scatter into the air with every step and expose a new vermin. Every once in a while, I would laugh at Darren because he would pause at the sight of every camel spider and hold up patrol or jump when a scorpion crossed his path. I would notice how each one was unique as it scampered over my boot and have to remind him constantly, “Only the black ones,” then he would return to his normal composure.
Although darkness was a cool tag along, this night didn’t seem to be extraordinary. I had become rather accustomed to befriending fear night after night. My stomach cramps, that were the result of being homesick, were less severe since I finally made it to the mail roll and the constant thoughts of how many ways I could die and never be found were running a little low. In retrospect, I wish that way to die number 849 would have been in my mind because it almost happened.
As my eyes shifted from Darren to Justyn, low and behold I saw a group of Iraqi insurgents jumping over the fence. I glanced at Justyn and then at Darren, but they were still hypnotized with thoughts of freedom, college, partying, and street racing. However the men jumping over the fence didn’t fit the description of savage killers. I paused. The Iraqi’s appearance held no intimidation.
We were briefed on combating gruesome killers that would attempt to destroy our entire compound. I expected to encounter heartless, stone-faced killers that would have blown up the World Trade Center and be responsible for murdering thousands of innocent American citizens. Their clothes were tattered and hung from their bodies like clothes hung on a line to dry. The insurgents didn’t move with any aggressiveness or assertiveness. Their body language was unemotional, resembling a character in a Nintendo game. Their faces were unaffected by the harshness of time and were fixed awkwardly like a child being scolded by his parents.
The more I observed, the more I noticed. My mind was lost and confused. I couldn’t remember my training, nor could I retain enough air to signal Darren and Justyn. I was helpless and time was standing still as I felt the gentle prick of each hair on my arms rising to full attention like they were saluting the President. Time was lost. I only remember the sounds. My life and family filled my thoughts and mind; I could see my sisters playing on my grandmother’s swing during my going away party. I could feel the gentle warmth and sweetness of my mother’s lips pressed against my cheek and the cold chill of her tears on my neck before I boarded the plane.
The jerk of my rifle against my shoulder awoke me abruptly out of my paradise. I could see my round traveling through the air and I could see where it landed. Darren and Justyn, my comrades in arms, roommates, and friends for life, seemed surprised as they fell onto the powder-covered earth. Then another and another, my shoulder was constantly jerking as my mind raced and crashed into an impermeable wall of illogical reasons searching for answers that would explain why I was shooting and killing the men jumping over the fence.
Throughout the game of freeze tag that my senses were playing, I could hear the mechanical chorus of M-16’s and AK47’s. Simultaneously, all my logic and sensory nerves came to be a single unit again, and I realized what my hands were doing while they were welded upon my weapon’s trigger. The blood from the round that grazed Darren’s shoulder was trickling onto my leg. I remember the look upon his face when I asked him how it felt, and he replied, “It felt like when you burned me with the iron.” I laughed as his eyes playfully rolled in the back of his head and he rested his neck back against my arm.
The three of us had become soldiers in the US Army Reserve for the extra pocket change, but I longed for a Nintendo joystick so I could press pause or reset. I still remember Justyn’s voice as he cursed under his breath about our Commander taking our HUMVEE As the three of us sat huddled in the desert, bonded by friendship, time, and experience, my mind began to wander, searching for visual images about the previous event. My eyes were burning and swollen from the mixture of sand and tears and I reviewed my life over and over. We sat speechless for hours. I thought about how we had always been so close we could finish each other’s sentences. I thought about how time is the most valuable commodity in the world and I asked and answered questions about my immaturity and we all three sat there together that night in the sand in the middle of the Iraqi desert and cried over the many blessings we’d never counted.