While nothing short of being here satisfactorily describes what it’s like in Iraq, conversations do provide a good window into the hearts and minds of troops. The following recounts the topics of discussion between four Soldiers as they waited for their shift on truck watch to end.
Initially, the debate was over which brand of baby wipes is the most comfortable and effective. On small outpost like this, where bathroom facilities aren’t the best, baby wipes are still preferred over toilet paper. One Soldier enthusiastically stated that his Sesame Street Elmo wipes were the best. Another believed his Looney Tunes brand wipes were softer and less scratchy. A third Soldier preferred his Sam’s Club generic wipes, but the fourth insisted that this Charmin Ultras beat them all. “They’re like soapy quilts,” he assured us. They were all better than the brand a fifth Soldier was using, which he described as too dry, scratchy, and deceptively ineffective. Baby wipes as a medium wouldn’t be so popular if it weren’t for the food, which was the next complaint.
With bases throughout Iraq contracting food services to third parties, the food is generally good. But on this outpost, military cooks still boil “UGRA rats” (military rations), tear open the bag, and serve it to the Soldiers. According to those present, portions are too small and the snacks are too unhealthy to be considered a viable augment to their diet, so most get by with protein shakes or Gatorade. They’re desperate to get real food in care packages, like tuna, canned chicken, etc. They’re all sick of unhealthy snacks and hard candy. One Soldier was irritated that somebody sent him a bag of coughdrops in the middle of summer. Out of hunger, he ate them anyway.
One remarked that he couldn’t wait to get home to buy his new gun. After carefully researching the best brand and make, he’s reached his decision. When he goes home on R&R, he’s looking forward to purchasing it and taking it to the range. It’ll make a fine addition to his collection.
Another commented that his girlfriend loves it when he buys guns, so he’s never had problems with her thinking it a poor use of his money. Seeing as she’s a gun lover like him, and undoubtedly for a host of other reasons, he considers her a keeper. A third remarked that his wife is still nervous about firearms, but willing to learn. He’ll either find her a professional gun safety course when he gets back, or simply teach her himself. Gun safety is paramount to him, and he doesn’t want to see any more “accidents.” He’s already lost one friend in an incident that was listed as accidental, but everybody involved is fairly certain that the friend took his own life. “Nobody accidentally shoots themselves in the temple,” he said, which began a discussion about troops killing themselves. Few here understand how they can do that. After dead air for a bit, the conversation turned to entertainment.
One Soldier is an avid reader, immersing himself in what he describes as “war books;” stories about troops showing courage under fire and surviving insurmountable odds. He’s read several out here already, and one three times because it was so impactful. Another likes novels and sci-fi. Others prefer movies.
The Soldiers’ truck watch interrupted a movie that two were watching, and in deference to the plot, the other two elected not to talk about it, even though they thought it was a great movie and wanted to share their comments on it. Questions went back and forth over who has the more interesting movies, which ones showed so-and-so’s breasts, and if anybody had it so they could watch that one next. When they heard that one of their fellow Soldiers is a big fan of a particular film, they all swore not to watch it. None of them likes him and they presume he has bad taste.
And on that note, there are a few guys in the unit they don’t like for a variety of reasons. Some appear to be incompetent or spineless, and a few others they aren’t certain will perform well under fire. With some of the newer men, they’re concerned that they’ll either lose their cool in a firefight or break down soon after. What they might find great, purposeful, and the closest thing they’ve seen to doing their jobs, these newer guys might find horrifying or traumatizing. They wish they could trust the new guys. Trust that they’ll point their weapons the right direction, hit their targets, and cover their sectors. Nobody will really know for certain until they’re getting fired upon, and nobody likes the uncertainty.
One Soldier remarked that he absolutely hates using his military ID anywhere. He had done so recently to buy beer since his driver’s license had expired. The cashier looked at military ID, looked at him, and blurted out, “so what’s it like to kill people?” The Soldier responded in anger.
“Who the hell are you, man? I don’t even KNOW you.”
When one Soldier was stationed in Germany, the Germans, upon seeing his military ID, would always ask, “so what’s your opinion of George Bush?” which also received an irritated response.
“I have my opinions, but I keep them to myself; I just follow orders. I’m in the Army.”
One trooper’s wife likes it when he uses his mil ID because she likes the military discounts. He still prefers not to use it, though he admits he really ought to take advantage of the benefit while he can. He’ll be getting out before too long.
Wives. There’s always conjecture that “Jody” is back home with their wives or girlfriends right now. Two are confident it’s not happening; he just likes to joke about it. Another isn’t sure. The fourth withholds his thoughts and recounts the Soldier they heard about who came home to find his wife in bed with another man. According to what they’d heard, he shot them both with a shotgun. For the most part, they don’t worry about it out here. One will be taking leave early to finalize his divorce. Before he gets there, he intends to have his girlfriend serve the papers to his wife.
Many of the Soldiers here don’t particularly like the interpreters, not because they’re incompetent, but because they ask irritating questions about the US or girls, or constantly ask the troops to give them things – issued items they’re not allowed to hand over even if they wanted to. They also dislike that the “terps” are authorized to wear the same uniforms as they do. The Soldiers worked for theirs, but the terps were simply handed them.
As a whole, they much prefer the Ugandans (the Triple Canopy personnel that guard every entry control point and the base perimeter). Not only are they extremely friendly and typically speak decent English, but they either ask interesting questions about the United States or simply invite the Soldiers to come visit Uganda, which they all love and speak of highly.
Watches are long out here, and even longer in the states – when they’re mostly notional and unessential. The Soldiers swap stories about catching people asleep on watch, or standing watch in their sleeping bags. On stateside watches, somebody always falls asleep and half the guys never stand their posts. Nobody ever woke them up. They can’t wait for their watch shift to end this evening. They have games to play, movies to watch, and a couple would like to catch up on sleep.
They’re all waiting for something. For the watch to end. For their shift on Quick Reaction Force to end. For the holidays to come and go. For R&R leave. A few can’t wait to get out. They all can’t wait to go home.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved