1. A GOODBYE OF SORTS
I was lying on my back under the hot Texas sun with a cheap cigarette in my mouth waiting for a massive convoy of school buses. That was how the army chose to shuttle us to the airport. All around me, young soldiers were yapping, excited about getting to go fight in a war, but a lot of it was uncertainty and fear.
I call them young, but I was only twenty-two. When you’ve been in the army since you were seventeen and have spent your formative years bouncing around the world, you tend to age fast. Soldiers joked that we aged in dog years. My aching joints didn’t make it feel like much of a joke, though.
We were waiting in an expansive field with our bags piled up in front of us. Soldiers’ families milled about, hanging off their kid, husband, or whoever was about to go to Afghanistan. My family wasn’t there. I didn’t want them to be. It all just seemed so weird and awkward.
We all stood around baking in the hot sun. Never mind that the only reason we were there so early was that no one in our chain of command knew when the buses were supposed to show up.
God forbid a group of leaders who were expected to take this unit into combat could figure out how to wrangle a few fucking school buses together on time. So the soldiers and their families just sat there waiting. What are you supposed to talk about in that hours-long span while you wait to be shipped away?
“I really hope you don’t die, son.”
“Aw, thanks, Pa.”
The married men held on to their women for dear life. Army wives were notorious cheaters. The men knew as soon as they let go, as soon as they got onto those buses, their women would run into someone else’s arms. Even if it weren’t true, it would be the only thing the deployed soldiers would be thinking about over the next year.
It was around this time the tall, gangly figure of my squad leader, Slim, sat down next to me. His family wasn’t there either. A few weeks earlier he’d sent his wife and kid back to Florida so he could spend his last couple of weeks in the States getting shitfaced with me and a couple of the others in our squad.
“Did you call your mom yet, fool?” he asked.
You would think that was something a decent person would have done months ago. It turned out I was not a decent person. That wasn’t a shock to me anymore, though. Still, Slim always found a way to make me feel guilty about it.
There I was a few hours away from deploying and I hadn’t even told my mom.
I tossed my cigarette into the grass and pulled out my phone. As soon as I started dialing, I realized she was at work. I left a voicemail. I’m sure that learning through voicemail that your youngest son is going off to war yet again isn’t the best thing to hear when you get home from a long day at work.
Slim and I wandered over to where our soldiers were hanging out. None of their families were there either. Our squad always had an outcast aura. It was something Slim and I embraced.
Slim was our squad leader: a man who nearly finished his college degree in radiological sciences and whose every other word was “fuck.”
One day he woke up and decided he was through with school—or as he put it, “Fuck that book learning shit, I wanted to kill terrorists”—and enlisted. I served with him during my last deployment to Afghanistan where I learned he was bat-shit insane but also the best combat leader a soldier could want. He was the one who tagged us the Hooligans in the first place.
After taking over our squad from some totally incompetent jackass, he quickly saw the only thing we were good at was shooting at shit and getting arrested. “Y’all mother fuckers are some hooligans.” The name just stuck after that.
My team, Charlie Team, was composed of me and two teenagers, Dirty and Urkel. Both were fresh out of basic training and both were married. And in true military fashion, both were already headed to their first divorces.
Dirty was a goofy kid from Florida who wore skinny jeans and was covered in tattoos. Urkel was a tiny black kid from Georgia who wore glasses that were nearly as big as his face. He called the death metal that Dirty and I played “crazy white people music.”
They were the first soldiers I had ever been put in charge of for anything serious. They looked up to me for guidance and leadership, and I sincerely felt sorry for them.
Alpha Team was led by Grandpa, the oldest guy in the squad and the closest thing we had to a voice of reason. His soldiers were Cali and Machete. Cali was young and generally way too serious about everything. He was also the only guy in the squad—or possibly the entire goddamn U.S. Army—who really believed in our mission in Afghanistan anymore. He was the kind of guy who would wave an American flag and blast country music from his lifted pickup truck on his way to Wal-Mart.
Machete was a massive bag of shit. His uniforms always looked as if he’d stolen them off a homeless guy. For some reason, his hands were always covered with mysterious stains, and his fingernails were brown. No one liked Machete. We actually decided whose team he would be on by a game of rock, paper, scissors. Grandpa lost.
Bravo team was led by Kitty, the only female in the platoon and a lesbian with a receding hairline from years of pulling her hair back into a tight bun. She was a joke of a leader.
Her soldier Perro—an older guy who left a job that made him hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to enlist—did nearly everything for her. I considered Perro one of the best soldiers in the whole platoon. He was supposed to be my gunner, but because she outranked me, Kitty was able to steal him.
Her gunner, Guapo, so named because he was so overly groomed and because he could pull massive amounts of ass even though he was married, was only added to our squad about a month before deployment.
Kitty had an extra soldier named Nan who’d spent a few years as a firefighter in some middle-of-nowhere town in Iowa and seemed way too smart to be in the army. One second he would be talking about how the repercussions of the invasion of Iraq affected national security and the next giggling at a dick joke.
Slim’s team consisted of Oldies, a guy who had managed to be in the army as long as Grandpa but had never been promoted past the rank of Specialist, and a guy named Memphis. Memphis was the most redneck man I had ever met in my life. And he had the hygienic self-discipline of a third-world slum dweller. He was friendly enough and a hard worker so we all just kind of ignored the fact that he smelled like a dead body.
Being on Slim’s team also meant you had to deal with having his unrelenting rage directed at you for no reason whatsoever. Memphis and Oldies excelled at keeping their mouths shut and absorbing an immense amount of abuse. They were the abused spouses of the squad.
So there we were: all sitting in the Texas sun smoking and dodging work. Our glorious leaders kept coming up with pointless tasks for us to do to burn the time. Things like wandering around the parking lot picking up trash with our hands or sweeping the sidewalk. We managed not to do a single one of them. The other squads in our platoon kept giving us dirty looks for not acting like “part of the team.”
They were huge about that: acting like we were in the whole thing together. Generally, outside of our squad, we hated everyone, and unless they were actively in the process of being murdered by the Taliban, we weren’t going to lift a finger to help them.
Finally, the buses showed up. There were tearful goodbyes all around, and people clutched their loved ones. That part always seemed to me as if it made the goodbye that much worse. Watching your loved ones slowly file onto buses and pull away over the horizon, wondering if it would be the last time you saw them alive.
Why would anyone ever subject themselves to that? It suddenly dawned on me that not understanding these basic human feelings might have something to do with why I was single and why I had failed to call my mom.
At last, we got to the airport, a ramshackle pile of shit. Like most things in the city of Killeen, it was run-down and dirty. The airport was originally built to give military aircraft a place to go, and like most things the military makes, it was pretty bare bones.
Someone had the bright idea to make it both a military and civilian airport and out sprang a terminal. So, tiny planes that may or may not be certified to fly zoom around next to multi-million-dollar military jets and helicopters.
Like any other passengers, we had to go through security. I should mention that we were all carrying the weapons we would soon be using in Afghanistan. I had an M-4 carbine, an M203 grenade launcher, night vision goggles, and an M9 pistol on me. Several people in my squad were carrying belt-fed machine guns. There we stood, all this weaponry hanging from our bodies, waiting to be searched by TSA.
A fat TSA guy confiscated my fingernail clippers. He grabbed my crinkled-up water bottle, too. “Due to heightened security posture, you can’t take this on the plane, sir,” he drawled through puffy lips. I think the act of speaking made him out of breath.
“Funny, due to heightened security posture, I’m pretty sure I’m being sent to Afghanistan,” I said. He didn’t look entertained. I grabbed my unzipped backpack and stuffed my molested belongings back inside and shuffled down the line.
We all got through security and squeezed onto a chartered flight, courtesy of Ryanair. It’s one of the worst reviewed airlines in the world. The military tends to do everything on a budget for its service members but loves to lavish attention on its civilians. To drive this point home, six civilians slid past us and disappeared behind a curtain labeled “First Class.” They had the whole area to themselves. Meanwhile, we were so packed into coach that if I were seated that close to someone on a civilian flight, I would have been arrested for sexual harassment.
It seemed we got the Ryanair B-Team of flight attendants because we started to take off before they bothered with the in-flight safety briefing. An older woman with ratty blonde hair and a smoker’s growl eventually started on it. She struggled mightily with the words on the pamphlet, her thick eastern European accent making each word nearly indecipherable.
“Show us your tits!” a voice yelled from the back of the plane.
Everyone cheered. I'm not sure why, because she looked to be on the wrong side of fifty and as if she’d been just a tad too close to the Chernobyl disaster.
I looked at the back of the plane and saw it was Walrus who’s screamed at her. Walrus was a chubby little guy who prided himself on being the loudest prick in the platoon. I’d deployed with him before, and during the first six hours of that flight, he ran around the cabin yelling, “Where’s Ashton? Are we getting punked?” over and over. He was like one of those kids who will throw tantrums all day long unless you ignore him. If he wasn’t getting the attention, he wasn’t enjoying himself, and even though I hated feeding his never-ending torrent of bullshit, he was pretty damn funny.
After booing the poor woman who was just trying to do her job got boring, we all settled in for the long flight. Beneath us, Texas vanished from view and was replaced with a cloudy blue sky. Probably the last relaxing thing I would see in a long time.
“Where’s Ashton? Are we getting punked?” I heard someone scream at the back of the plane.