"Memoir is a written expression of learning through living." - F. Scott Service
I’m finding that I wake up late, usually around 0300, almost every night now. Sometimes it’s from a bad dream, a dream with explosions pounding the walls of my skull, sweat breaking on my skin as I awaken with wide eyes and shaking hands. Sometimes it’s from a dream of Rita and our life together.
Normally I take a few moments to get my bearings and let the sensations recede. Restless and unable to go back to sleep, I wander outside to watch the stars glittering in the Kuwaiti night. I light a cigarette and revel in the peace of night—it’s my favorite time of day now. All is quiet, even in the warehouse, most people sleeping, the occasional snore or shift of a listless body immersed in a dream of home—of green fields or a lover’s arms.
A cough breaks the silence as I reach my bunk, pull off my boots, and slip into my sleeping bag, using my laser pen to guide my way. I pull my poncho down from where I tucked it under the edge of the mattress above me, closing the door to my makeshift sanctuary, the left side hanging limply like its partner—a blue bed sheet I had stolen from Anaconda.
I’m sealed in. I feel safe. I have my privacy.
I feel drowsy, yet I can’t sleep. My eyes close but soon they open again and I am wide awake. I hear explosions. I feel my bunk rattling. My heart pounds, my breath seizes up, and my eyes search the darkness, frantically attempting to find something solid for my sanity to grasp onto. A moment passes and I realize there were no bombs or explosions. There was no reason to be afraid. It was just another dream. I can hear the silence of Camp Doha. I wipe the sweat on my brow and close my eyes again, hoping not to dream.
The next thing I know it’s 0730. The sun has come up. I can hear the shuffle of flip-flops as men make their way to the shower trailers, scraping their way along the sandy concrete floor, fluorescent lighting from the ceiling lamps casting a cold glow upon pale skin. I hear the drowsy mumble of a waking soldier groaning with lack of desire to face another day. Deadpan looks of the lethargic killing time.
I hear the slam of a wall locker door. Life is brewing again, stubborn life, determined to endure the routine of another day, to get coffee, poke around the PX, buy things no one really needs or wants, the falsehoods of external stimulus emptying the spirit.
Who cares, it passes the day.
I sit up and pull my boots on. Hands clasped, forearms between my knees, I gaze vaguely at the floor, images passing before my eyes, my brain flooded with emotion and memory. I muse on the turns my life has made that I never would have dreamed of, the hardships I have endured, the good times, the traveling I have done. Something within me says it will be all right, that I was meant to survive this war, that I was meant to do something better than I had done before. But I am doubtful.
After gathering my necessities, I head to the shower trailer, over the gritty paved rough road and cracked sidewalk, past the leering red and white–striped smokestacks from the nearby power plant forever puking their dark smoke into the veil of Mother Earth, past the twin outdoor basketball courts with no nets, their backboards chipped by time and abuse, past a dilapidated gazebo with peeling white paint that sits at an angle to the rest of the base, the floor planks rotting from pools of water.
I am under a golden, lightly clouded sky, a cool breeze smelling vaguely of sewage and rotten vegetables from the mess hall as I stroll past a high-ranking officer’s mud-streaked SUV to the empty concrete lot, a few broken-down trailers in the middle looking lonely in all that space.
I walk up the black grated steel steps of the shower trailer and am greeted by the conflicting stench of day-old shit and shaving cream. The floor is somewhat clean today, someone, probably a Kuwaiti or Filipino worker, has at least attempted to mop. I find a stall with a yellowed shower curtain and soap-stained walls but it’s the best of the lot and I’m thankful for it.
I go to relieve myself and find a toilet overflowing with someone else’s meditations, discarded toilet paper rolls on the rotting wet linoleum. All the stalls are this way or worse. Someone’s dinner didn’t agree with them, evidenced by the smears and stains on the walls and floor.
I find a lone toilet in the corner that’s seemingly untouched by human foulness. The hunt for a roll of toilet paper begins, and just as I’m beginning to accept that I might have to hold it this morning, I find a scrap on a shelf, just a few sheets but enough to conduct my business.
Turning on the shower, faintly odorous, mildly hot water sprays my tired body with decent pressure. I make sure to close my mouth, a habit from Iraq. To my surprise there is no water bubbling around my ankles today. That brings a wry smile to my face.
Thank God for small miracles.
I scrub vigorously as if I am scrubbing the past away, as if the scrubbing will cleanse me of this life, as if I am dirty in some way beyond the usual day-to-day grime. I want to wash away the stains of the year and something inside me believes that a bar of soap will do it but I’m afraid to close my eyes when I wash my face. I’m afraid that I’ll hear the mortars again if I do, that they’ll come back and finally get me.
Two other showers come on, sapping my water pressure. Now there’s only a forlorn dribble from a sorrowful faucet, just enough to rinse a few inches of my body at a time. I grimace. All pleasures are fleeting here. Just enough to torment you with their momentary embrace. It fuels anger—the stony glaring faces that walk by me every day as I roam Doha, myself glaring back.
Painstakingly, I rinse my body. The water pressure is rapidly decreasing. I’m afraid I’ll lose it all together so I rush in the most efficient manner I can. Efficiency and speed are a matter of habit now, routine.
I get the last few drops out of my shower, rubbing them over my body, using every molecule to finish the rinse, and towel off. Lightly padding back to my sanctuary, I change on my bunk, sheet and poncho closed—at last some privacy again.
Soon it’s time to complete the morning routine—coffee and a cigarette, probably one of the most satisfying aspects of my day. It’s a time to breathe and relax, a few moments of reflection before embarking on the day’s duties, whatever they may be.
It’s peaceful watching the new day dawn, a few scattered soldiers crossing the streets, SUVs filled with civilian contractors or other more important people driving by on some errand, the sun casting sharp rays on the camp between drifting marshmallow clouds, the warm morning breeze ruffling the leaves of the occasional palm tree, the smell of the sea mingling with the stench of the power plant and open sewers.
There aren’t many people out yet as the days often begin late at Camp Doha. My mind bends toward home again while I walk. I imagine the peace of the U.S., the freedom of being a regular Joe again, the warm embrace of loving arms, gentle laughter that floats on the breeze like a melody.
The Starbucks is crowded; it’s where everyone seems to be at this hour. I see eager faces, people pushing ahead, crowding one another in their rush to get what they want. Immediate gratification is the American way.
Push away anyone trying to cross the same finish line that you are. Heedlessly breathe down someone’s neck because you are what’s most important. Talk right in my ear, I don’t mind. I always wanted to know about the guy you were dating. It’s all about the “me” in America. I’m astonished at some people’s behavior yet I do it too.
I get my coffee and stroll back to the warehouse to find everyone awake now, towels slung over makeshift clothes lines, music playing from portable boom boxes. The younger guys are talking about the hot girl they could have had last night at the nightclub on base but they’ve always a convenient excuse for why they didn’t.
Obviously she was a bitch because who could ignore the brilliant one-liner they threw her way? They boast, they brag, tell stories… and lies. Everyone knows they’re telling tall tales but it’s all a part of the scene and the others smile and go along with it.
I go to my bunk and sit, a dry look of disgust inadvertently creeping across my face as I listen. I’ve heard it all before and have no desire to hear it again. So I read Stars and Stripes1and drink my coffee, shaking my head as the news is always grim and my horoscope never makes any sense. George Bush is in hot water again.
I consider taking a nap. Why not? There’s nothing else to do. I have no responsibilities right now and am thankful for that. But I’m so used to being under orders that a restlessness has formed within me that I can’t quite explain. I’m just used to the constant activity, forever on guard for the unexpected.
I keep listening for the sound of mortars and gunfire but they never come. It’s strange, this peaceful quiet. I’m left with a nagging feeling that there must be something I have to attend to. I consider sleeping but know I won’t be able to. I only get fleeting bits here and there now— nothing meaningful.
Rest is precious in the military. You learn to take advantage of it at any opportunity, in any spot. Usually you’re so exhausted that rest comes easily no matter the circumstances, but not here at Camp Doha. Here rest is not only a privilege, it’s almost a right. I lay down, gazing at the steel grate holding the mattress above mine at bay. I’m interrupted from my daydreaming by Derek rapping on my poncho and asking if I want to go to lunch. Lunch already? Wow, how the time passes when your mind drifts.
I give an apathetic shrug. “Sure.”
I haven’t really eaten since yesterday afternoon; my appetite just not what it once was. It’s partly because the food is so unhealthy, but it’s also due to how melancholy I feel.
So I prop myself up and walk with Derek to the mess hall. I get in the line for the main entrée, the same prepackaged, unidentifiable slice of meat. The sauce is supposed to resemble gravy but reminds me more of the stains I saw in the latrine. Canned vegetables are the side, all part of the mass production of feeding thousands. I go looking for my friends, crisscrossing my way through the crowd, my pile of meat steaming in the stuffy air.
As we silently scoop up forks of rice and beef, news headlines roll by on the 37-inch widescreens mounted on the stark walls. We watch images of violence in the world, an analysis of the war effort, and George Bush’s latest gaffe—which seems to affect his confidence not at all. He is proud of America’s fighting men and women. He’s proud we are defending democracy and liberty. We make snide remarks under our breath.
We don’t care for the dog and pony show any longer.
Everything’s provided for, my government once claimed. Your sons and daughters have everything they need to fight the enemy, yet I can’t even find a roll of toilet paper in the morning, to say nothing of larger issues such as no armor for our vehicles.
Dinner is a repeat of lunch. You’re thankful for another day ending—and frightened of the terrors the night will bring.
After I am finished writing this, I will be struggling to close my eyes, knowing another day has been ticked off the calendar.
I’m frightened because night is when the mortars come in.
Night is when I dream.
I used to love my dreams. Now I’m afraid of them, afraid I’ll wake to find that being here was just a dream and that I’m back at Camp Anaconda, in that hell on earth. I’m afraid if I go to sleep, the mortars will begin again, relentlessly marching nearer. It seems as if every night I wake up trembling, eyes wide in the dark, curling up in a ball on my side and rocking back and forth in my sweat until the sounds of explosions leave my rattled skull.
Sometimes I feel like there is something wrong with me. I don’t know what it is but I can feel something in me that’s growing, blooming. I’m scared because I don’t know who I am any more.
What is happening to me?
I have to have hope and faith. Hope for a chance to rebuild what I have lost and faith that I’ll have the wisdom and courage to do it.
It’s the only thing you can cling to when all else fails.
The first edition cover of Lines in the Sand: An American Soldier's Personal Journey in Iraq.
A hot, heavy, mid-summer day in New England. Stifling and oppressive, like the internet tent in Iraq.
I’m driving past the Mobil gas station down the street from where I grew up, at the intersection of the two main roads that wind through and around my hometown. A small, not quite dilapidated place with a convenience store I’ve been to a hundred times. Across the street, the same school bus parking lot. The same four-way traffic light, same left and right turn arrows emblazoned on the same sign.
A crossroads of eventuality.
As I pass by, I slow down the car and look inside.
Through the windows, I see the cashier behind the counter. A young woman. She’s slumped forward, resting on her elbows as if in prayer, head bowed to the countertop. She’s flipping the pages of a magazine.
Something has changed here. Even though I’ve been here before, it looks, feels altered. I can’t put my finger on it. Nothing tactile, just an impression of ambience.
The texture of sensation.
Or maybe it’s me. I don’t know yet, but it’s growing within. Yearning. Thirsting. I’m different now, somehow, after I watched those bullets spill onto the coffee table.
A peculiar variant of essential nature.
I think you know what ya gotta do, my boy. Take that chance. I didn’t get ya through that fuckin’ war for nothin’.
So many ghosts. Alive and dead at the same time.
Stepping on the gas, heading toward the Burger King and ultimately the levee where we took our walk so many years ago, I hear the chirp of a bird.
Light, cheerful, and peaceful.
But there’s gunfire on the perimeter.
The Hawk’s taking off, the winking, red tail light fading.
Whop, whop, whop go the rotor blades.
And the mortars are coming in.
Shock waves of fury.
I have on my Winnie the Pooh pajamas, but feel naked to the wrath.
In the living room, lying on my stomach, a frayed copy of The Crab with the Golden Claws by Hergé is before me on the thin, sand-colored carpeting.
And I hear her coming down the stairs.
Stomp, stomp, stomp . . . stomp.
My stomach jerks.
Turn the page.
Tintin, Captain Haddock, and Snowy, stranded in a lifeboat, are being shot at by an amphibian plane full of bad guys. Wicked grins as they hunch over the controls, pressing the trigger of their wing-mounted machine guns.
Rat, tat, tat . . . tat.
Thud. Her suitcase lands at the bottom. Thud. The other.
My lips quiver.
Turn the page.
Now, they’ve stolen the plane. Tintin surprised the bad guys, erupting from the churning sea after he brought them down with a lucky shot from his pistol. After he swam under the choppy surf to where they were checking the engine. After the Captain tied them up and they were stowed in the back.
A jingle of keys, then stuffed in a pocket. My mom yanks at the front door as my dad bursts in from the kitchen.
“Where are you going? When are you coming back?” he demands.
A sharp turn of her neck. “I don’t know, Fred. Maybe never.”
“Barbara, look . . . please, just don’t leave.”
My hands tremble.
Turn the page.
The spine of the book cracks.
They’ve crashed the plane. Broiling fire bulges through the cabin. Smoke billows from the crumpled fuselage as Tintin pulls the Captain and bad guys out. He can’t let any of them perish. And outside, under the white, hot sun, poor Snowy’s fur is blackened with soot. He barks, worried for their safety.
The suitcases go into the night with her. The door slams so hard it rattles the gold inset, wood-framed picture on the wall―two smiling faces cradling a chubby-faced newborn, five years ago. Silence now, except for an ornate, wooden pendulum clock hanging on the wall above me. A gable roof with a chimney tops it, mimicking a home. Below, the disc swings like a dream.
Smooth. An unblinking cyclops.
My shoulders tighten.
Flip the page.
The cooked wreck of the plane smolders behind them. Captain Haddock’s tapping his chin in wonder as their smudged faces look over endless, rippled dunes. And Snowy just found a bone from a dead camel.
My heroes are in a tight pinch. I hope they get out of it.
I look up. My dad is staring at the door. He looks worn, diminished.
He turns, and his eyes are engulfed with stabbing, furious fire. Without a word, he does an about face and marches upstairs. I don’t see him again until morning.
As for my mom? She leaves for a few days.
Am I in the way? Do I belong here? Do they want me here? Do they like me? Love me?
The unblinking cyclops is watching me.
Why don’t they like each other?
I bite my lip. Flap my fingers through the air.
Shy little boy. Alone.
But not in the book. In this museum of words and pictures and dreams, I can go anywhere by land or sea or air. Do anything, be anyone. I can voyage around the world, while wearing Tintin’s clothes, and my friends will always be with me.
Comfort. Assurance. They’ll never leave.
My stomach, lips, hands, and shoulders feel at ease.
Flip the page.
As I near the end, Tintin, Captain Haddock, Snowy, and I are triumphant. The bad guys beaten.
My teeth are brushed. The lights are out. I crawl into bed feeling like I want to hide under the covers from the shadows of my bedroom, the cavernous expanse of the house, the chilly, darkened street and sleeping town.
Warm. Covered and safe.
My eyes close and a flicker show of images streams before me. My whole body clutches and cradles them. Nothing could be more clear as I see myself in a car, a boat, a train, a plane, traveling to the Congo, the Sahara, to the Red Sea and Tibet. The moon and back.
Anywhere but here.
I want to make my own story, create a world and write about it. I want to make-believe with each peck at a letter that I’m a daredevil, a big gun beyond compare, taking on villains. Battling the forces of evil. And winning. I’m yearning with enthusiasm and infatuation as I sink into the celestial space of dreams, mind breathless with the endeavor of inkscape fancy while sitting at my synaptic typewriter.
I’m a blossoming creation.
An author and I’m going on my new adventure.
Hooray for heroes.
A lot of war stories begin with heroes.
The first edition cover of Playing Soldier.