I opened the door to hear, “Stop! Don’t come in! I’m jacking off!” My roommate was leaving to go back to the States in thirty minutes, but apparently he felt the need to do it one last time before he left. And there he was, wearing nothing but a University of South Carolina Gamecocks hat, rolled onto his stomach in pure terror that I had caught him.
“You’ve got five minutes!” I said.
I shut the door and returned to the command post, where the business of war was conducted. Our priorities for running combat operations in the Middle East were as follows:
1. “Madden 2007” on Xbox. (We had a fantasy league going.)
2. Eating/sleeping. Basic stuff in order to survive.
3. Combat patrols.
My roommate came in ten minutes later with a grin on his face.
“You’re going to be in the States with your girlfriend in twelve hours. You couldn’t wait?”
“It doesn’t matter, I couldn’t finish.”
“What do you mean you couldn’t finish?”
“You ruined the aura, sir.”
“What aura? You were watching porn and jerking off. I don’t think there was anything spiritual in your hands at that moment. By the way, I hope you don’t mind, I told everyone.” I put down the Xbox controller and headed for the door.
“Sergeant Thomas?” said one of the soldiers. “Why were you only wearing a South Carolina hat?”
Two months into our deployment, the days were already running together. I had yet to experience the “war” that everyone kept telling me about. I was bored. That was about to change.
Later that day, the troops were preparing their trucks, and their platoon leader, a friend of mine, approached the commander.
“Is there a task and purpose for tonight?”
“You could go check to see if they opened the road again.”
“Can I leave a team behind to hit them if they try?”
“As long as the rest of your guys are nearby to help them if they need it.”
There was a road out there, a road that we’d tried to close many times before, but the barricades could always be moved with enough determination and the right equipment. The Iraqis had both.
With that, the plan was set and the men loaded their trucks.
The rest of us sat down to watch The Grudge. I like horror films (and Sarah Michelle Gellar), and was looking forward to having the shit scared out of me.
But before the movie got going, the radio blared: “… I can’t … we got hit … I can’t get to the truck … it’s on fire, rounds are cooking off at us and I think there are two guys still inside!”
The moments immediately after that are hard to recall. I don’t remember putting on my equipment. I don’t remember whose truck the commander and I commandeered to get us there. But I do remember hearing the words “anti-tank mine” and “pressure wire.” I remember screaming down a dirt road, wondering if we were going to be next. I remember seeing the truck in the distance, on fire, helpless. I remember the faces of some of the Iraqi police who helped me move pieces of the truck in which my friends were trapped. I remember working all night. I put two young men into body bags.
Three earlier trucks had missed the mine by five inches. Five inches was the distance between life and death. (I’ve since learned you can shave it even closer.) That night, and that arithmetic, would forever change the way I look at what I do. No matter what I do.