24. BLOOD AND RAIN
The rough Afghanistan winter brought driving rainstorms. It turned the fine dust-like sand into a slurry of relentless sucking mud. The clay worked its way into every single nook and cranny of everything you owned. Slim would scream at us constantly for not keeping our areas clean because we eventually gave up and submitted to our new, muddy overlord.
Unfortunately, this time of year also had us saying goodbye to another person from our squad. Sal wasn’t technically in our unit but was on loan from a medical unit on Kandahar Airfield. His unit requested we give him back because they had taken over responsibility for the main emergency room on the airfield.
It was hard watching someone who had become one of my best friends go. It was even harder watching the best medic I’d ever worked with leave. I always knew that if I got hurt and it was something serious, having Sal nearby gave me the best possible chance of pulling through.
Sal and I hugged it out before he climbed into an outgoing truck that would take him back to the airfield. Sal was a different guy when he left than when he first arrived. His hair was thinning, he had deep-set wrinkles creasing his face, and he had the ever-present blackness surrounding his eyes from sleep deprivation.
“It’s going to be hard dealing with all of those hot meals and showers.” I laughed at him.
“Fuck you, man. You know I don’t want to go back.” He shook his head. The last thing he wanted to do was go back and work in a hospital. He honestly wanted to stay at that shitty outpost in the middle of the war zone with us. He was part of the Hooligan family, even if he didn’t start that way.
“I know.” We hugged again, and he got on the truck.
The move back to the airfield was also his first step on his way home to his wife and kid. He had deployed a few months before us with his unit, so he was only a few months away from leaving. It made me feel better that my friend would be able to ride out the rest of his time in the safety of the airfield.
In his place we received two new soldiers. One was a short, fat little Thai medic named Kham who had a perpetual shit-eating grin plastered across his face. Alongside him was a tall blonde girl named Pip. She was brand new to the army and looked terrified of everything. She had that annoying overeagerness that every new soldier had.
Kham had never deployed before and came from a background of intelligence and privilege. He talked about how he drove a BMW and drank Voss bottled water while riding out his army contract stateside. He ended up getting snatched up as a replacement a few months before the end of his service.
Slim was not friendly to new people. “This little fucker is yours, Joe,” Slim snapped at me when Kham showed up outside the shower bay, bags in hand. “Make sure he doesn’t kill himself by accident before we get some use out of him.”
I sat up on my cot and nodded at Slim without paying much attention.
Kham dropped his bags and gave a little laugh. “Is he always like that?” Apparently Slim’s tough-guy act failed to impress the little medic.
“Mostly, yeah.” I shrugged.
“Great, I found the squad leader with something to prove. Fuck, I always end up in that guy’s squad.”
“No, he doesn’t have anything to prove,” I corrected. “He’s just insane.”
“Is that better?” Kham asked.
“No,” I laughed. I noticed Kham didn’t have a weapon. “Where’s your rifle?” I asked.
“They never gave me one,” Kham said.
“Wait, what?” You always deployed with your own weapons. We certainly didn’t have any extras lying around.
“They said you guys would give me one when I got here,” Kham said.
“Do you see any extra weapons lying around this shit hole?” I asked. I was beyond frustrated with our Rear Detachment or Rear D.
Rear D is the unit in charge of setting things up for us when we got back home, training, deploying replacements, and most important, outfitting said fucking replacements. Every single Rear D I had ever had in my career had been fairly useless. Though they had at least given soldiers weapons before sending them into a war zone.
“Rear D is a fucking joke,” Kham said. “They never even sent me to my pre-deployment medical training.”
I didn’t have anything to say to that. I just reached over and put a wad of dip in my lip. I got up, leaving the new medic behind, and walked into the TOC (Tactical Operations Center). There I saw Gunny and Slim seated behind a desk studying maps. “I have a problem with the new medic,” I said sitting down next to them.
“I know Sal was your friend, Kassabian, but he isn’t coming back,” Gunny said sharply.
“No, Sergeant, not that. Rear D didn’t give him a weapon,” I muttered.
“You’re fucking with me, right?” Slim laughed.
Gunny shot him an angry look for daring to laugh. “I’ll handle it,” he said matter-of-factly.
I looked at Slim, and he shrugged at our platoon sergeant’s words. “Yes, Sergeant,” I said and quickly exited the TOC. I had no idea where Gunny was going to get another rifle, though I had no doubt he would find one.
I retreated out of the rain back into the shower stall where Machete and Cali were mopping the tile floor for about the ninth time that day. I walked in and re-tracked in a fine slurry of mud and pebbles that stuck to everything. Cali dropped his mop in defeat and sat down. In the back corner of the shower stalls, Guapo and Walrus listened to some god-awful rap song.
Cali sat down next to me in my stall. He reached into my pocket without any words, took out my dip can and stole a pinch. “I hate the fucking winter,” Cali said. “It’s nothing but rain and mud.”
“And cold as hell,” I added. “I wish someone would attack us.”
“Me too.” Cali spat into the mop bucket. “We need to give the Taliban winter clothes so they can hang with us year ‘round.”
“For only one dollar a day, you too can support international terror,” I mocked. “A whole bunch of bearded cave people running around in Patagonia jackets and Danner boots.”
We both laughed.
“We really need more reliable internet.” Cali shook his head.
“Why? Running out of porn?” I asked.
“No, I don’t think that’s possible. Walrus has been listening to the same five fucking songs for weeks,” Cali said.
“Fuck off!” Walrus yelled at us from the back. “It’s better than that cousin-fucking country bullshit you listen to!”
Cali tossed a bottle full of dip spit toward the back of the room.
“Lil Wayne’s music sounds like two fax machines fucking!” I yelled at him.
“And he looks like a Gremlin with a coke problem!” Guapo’s laugh filled the shower stalls. It was more of a high-pitched cackle than a laugh. One of those laughs that forces an entire room of people to laugh along with it.
The shower bay door slammed open and Gunny’s soaking wet form stepped through. He was holding a rifle and six magazines full of ammunition. “Kham,” he said calmly.
Kham peeked out of his stall, headphones around his head.
“This is your rifle,” Gunny said, thrusting it at him.
Kham took it . “There are many like it, but this one is mine?” he asked.
Gunny grimaced at the little medic’s joke.
“I mean, thank you, Sergeant!”
Gunny spun around and walked back out of the bay.
“What’s his problem?” Kham asked us.
“He only feels anger,” Cali said.
“And hatred,” I added. “Slim swears he saw him smile once, but we don’t believe him.”
“This place keeps getting better,” Kham sighed.
“It does get better,” Nan piped in from his cot.
“When?” Kham asked.
“After I got my brain injury, everything started to come around,” Nan replied.
That evening, we all gathered around in the shower bay like any other night. Slim had a large map on the wall and a roster of names written next to it. Each truck commander had three or four names scribbled down next to his in various positions. My name was next to Slim’s as a “dismount,” or extra soldier who rides in the back of the truck.
“We are going out with a few ANPs, visiting some checkpoints and making sure their stupid asses didn’t freeze to death yet and to make sure they’re still working,” Slim said. “Should be there and back in a few hours.”
When he was finished, no one had any questions or comments. Another meandering winter mission with a seemingly random objective. There wasn’t much of a real concern that the ANPs would vanish. Winter was one of the few times of year they actually went to work. The threat of a Taliban attack was almost nonexistent.
I wrapped my face in a scarf and trudged outside to the trucks. It was one of the few dry nights of the winter so far. The wind was still biting, though.
I climbed into the back of Slim’s truck. For some reason, at the last minute Slim decided he wanted to be a gunner on the mission.
Gunny decided he was going to roll out with us and took overall command of the squad away from Slim.
An ANP climbed in our truck. He filled in the empty seat we had. He didn’t look happy for having been made to go with us. Oldies climbed behind the steering wheel and before long we were out of the gate and driving off into the night.
Even with the cutting wind, the streets were packed with people shuffling around the bazaars and markets. Scooters zoomed by, piled high with people. Some of them were still wearing flip-flops and man-dresses.
“I don’t think they realize it’s cold as shit out,” Slim said, hiding behind the turret shield to protect himself from the wind.
“I get it,” I laughed. “In Michigan, if it’s over thirty degrees, it’s pretty much shorts weather. This probably isn’t that cold to them yet.”
“That’s because you Yankee fucks have brain damage from all the factory fumes,” Slim quipped.
“I’d rather have that than a family tree that doesn’t branch, you white trash bitch.”
“How’s your dad’s Ford job treating him?” Slim joked.
“My dad’s dead, you asshole!” I yelled.
Our convoy pulled up outside our first stop of the night. We all climbed out, minus Slim, who stayed up on his turret. We automatically started setting up a traffic control point to slow the volume of traffic and start searches. I ended up near the front of the control point with Oldies, Perro, and our ANP. Gunny, Walrus, Guapo, and Bama took up the rear of the control point, and it was their job to actually check on the ANPs in the checkpoint.
Perro and I started slowly searching cars and people to pass the time. Gunny was incredibly long-winded whenever he visited ANP checkpoints. He was one of the few people who really thought the ANPs could be turned into an effective fighting force against the Taliban because, as he said, “Someone turned Machete into a soldier–anything is possible.” He was one of the few true believers in the cause.
“Shit, could he go any slower?” Slim complained from on high, perched up in his turret.
“At least you have heat, you dick,” Perro yelled at him.
“Don’t you hate it when people do their job?” I asked sarcastically.
“Go to hell, Joe. Go grab me an energy drink,” Slim called out to me.
I sighed, walked over and climbed up the side of the truck to grab some cash from him. Afghan energy drinks were strange. Even if they carried the same name as their American equivalent, they were never the same. They generally came in short, stubby cans and their telltale logos always looked odd. All the writing was in Chinese. The Afghan merchants tried to pass them off as the real thing anyway.
I turned to walk back to Perro when two massive explosions tore through the night. Their blasts lit up the sky, and for a few seconds, I could clearly see down the road toward the rear of the convoy.
“The fuck was that?” Slim yelled over his radio. No one answered.
“Medic!” a voice cried in the night. “Medic!”
I looked over at Perro, and he looked at me. “Let’s go!” I yelled at him, and we took off running down the road into the night. I was wearing over fifty pounds of combat gear, but it felt light as a feather as we sprinted.
Muzzle flashes ripped to life from the rooftops on the sides of the road. Bullets smashed into the road around Perro and me. We could hear the cracks and whistles of the bullets as they passed by our heads. I heard the ANP cry out in pain somewhere beside me. My body was telling me to get behind something. Hide from the incoming fire. Protect yourself. I didn’t care. Someone out there wanted to hurt my brothers and it was going to take a whole lot more than some fucking bullets to stop me from helping them.
“Contact left!” Perro screamed. He fired his shotgun over my shoulder at the rooftops. I raised my rifle and started hammering out rounds at the unseen enemy. I wasn’t aiming. I was running as hard and fast as I could to get to whoever was hurt.
I dropped the empty magazine from my rifle when it ran dry and slammed in another one. I fired and fired. It suddenly felt like every Taliban fighter in Kandahar was on top of us. Muzzle flashes were all along the rooftops like a string of Christmas lights.
Another explosion ripped through the night, lighting up the street like dawn. We didn’t slow down. A face appeared over the roof ledge. It had a thick brown beard. An AK-47 was in the man’s hands, pointed directly at me.
Perro’s shotgun boomed again and in a spray of dust and debris the bearded man vanished. I don’t know if Perro killed him, but we didn’t get shot at from that angle again.
The first thing I saw was Gunny. He was sitting in a pool of his own blood and leaning against the tire of his truck. Gunny was as stoic and calm as ever. The polar opposite of me. “We are going to have to evac’ to Camp Nathan Smith,” he said.
“Where’re you hit?” I asked him. Blood was all over his face, arms, and legs. It was impossible to tell where it was all coming from.
Perro blasted off another shotgun round at something in the night. Rounds were impacting all around us, but Gunny didn’t seem to notice or care. Crew-served heavy machine guns ripped into the night. They sent torrents of lead at the rooftops. Their tracers cut through the night air like laser beams.
I was pushed aside by someone. I looked over to see Kham unslinging his medical bag and start working on Gunny. “I got him, look to the others,” Kham said calmly.
“Others?” I asked.
“Walrus, Bama, and Guapo are all hit. Not as bad, though. Go cover them.”
I didn’t say anything I just ran toward the back of the truck. As I crossed an alleyway, a burst of gunfire tore up the road at my feet. I stumbled back and nearly fell over, I fired a few shots and took cover behind the truck. I reached into a pouch on my vest and pulled out a hand grenade. I ripped the pin out, took a few steps toward the alley, and chucked that little thing has hard as I could. It exploded down the lane with a dull thump. The gunfire from the alley stopped.
“Get the fucking wounded in the trucks!” Gunny called out. He was being propped up by Kham.
Bama, Guapo, and Walrus were all helped back into the trucks. Perro and I started the run back to the head of the convoy. Random gunfire snapped out at Perro and me as we ran back. It was a lot less accurate that time around.
Slim had switched with Oldies, jumping out of the truck to try to direct the fighting on the ground. Oldies fired his machine gun at multiple enemies in the darkness.
“Let’s fucking go! You’re driving!” Slim yelled at me.
The truck was combat locked. As a rule, we locked our doors from the inside when we were conducting traffic control points to ensure no one tried to pop a door open and throw a grenade inside. It required a wrench to unlock from the outside. Oldies tossed one down to me.
Bullets rained down on Slim and me as we tried to get into the truck. I crawled underneath the truck to slide Slim the wrench. He quickly unlocked his door and slid it back to me. I crawled back out and was met by a burst of gunfire that hit the driver’s side door all around me. One of Oldies’s bursts must have finally met its mark. After a long rip of gunfire at the rooftops, all firing at me stopped. I jumped into the truck and stomped on the gas.
I sped off so fast I never even turned the truck’s headlights on. Slim was on the radio screaming status updates back to the TOC. He leaned over, smacked me, and pointed to his eyes. The signal to turn on the damn headlights. I felt at the control switches next to the steering wheel blindly and fumbled with them until the lights turned on. I’m not sure how fast the Oshkosh MATV was rated to go, but I know I had the needle buried.
The engine screamed, and the surroundings whipped past us faster than I could recognize them.
“Next right!” Slim yelled. An Afghan police checkpoint was up ahead. Concertina wire was pulled across the road blocking it off. Several Afghan police milled about with rifles slung on their backs not paying attention to the convoy that was flying toward them.
I laid on the truck’s horn, but the police didn’t move. I wasn’t going to slow down. I had no idea how severely wounded everyone was, and nothing was going to stop me from getting them the help they needed.
“Run it!” Slim yelled. The police dove out of the way at the last second. The concertina wire caught on the hood of the truck and snapped in half, sending shards of razor-sharp metal flying into the air. I ripped the steering wheel to the right, and barely managed to keep the truck upright as it bounced around the corner and smacked into an unmanned fruit stall.
I could see the lights from Camp Nathan Smith down the street. Slim had radioed ahead to tell the camp we had multiple wounded soldiers so they could be ready. No one had told the Afghan police outside the camp to clear the road. We blew through two more checkpoints. I took the bumper off one of their trucks and sent several more police diving for safety.
The camp’s gate was closed. A rickety, metal pole swung down to lock in place and was manned by two Afghans. The Afghans at the gate saw us plow through the other checkpoints and quickly started pulling the gate up. It bounced off our antennas as we rushed through. We pulled our convoy across the threshold and were met by a large crowd of people.
We jumped out of the truck and were immediately assaulted by an incredibly loud siren yelling in a British accent, “Mass casualty event! Mass casualty event! All medical personnel report to your stations!”
Slim and I ran back to the second truck in the convoy where Gunny was sitting. We had to push through crowds of medical personnel that had rushed to our trucks. They were standing around holding bags of gear and not doing anything. I violently shoved a few out of my way.
Gunny had opened the passenger door and was trying to climb out under his own strength. I helped him down using his good arm; the other was completely soaked in blood. I glanced inside the truck and saw that the area he sat in looked like a horror show. Blood was everywhere.
Two people carrying a backboard and a medical bag rushed up to Gunny and me. “Put him on the backboard!” One of them yelled at me.
“Fuck you, I’m walking,” Gunny growled.
“Then let us help you,” the same one said. He tried to grab Gunny’s shredded arm, and Gunny kicked him away.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” he snapped at them. Out of the entire situation, that was the only time I heard Gunny lose his cool. We hobbled on through the crowd and toward the aid station, leaving a trail of blood behind us.
The aid station was crowded with people. Several people were waiting outside wearing camo-patterned scrubs, and I handed Gunny over to them. They laid Gunny down on a stretcher in a row beside Bama, Walrus, and Guapo. The medics pushed me out of the aid station and slammed the door. Slim, Perro, and I paced around outside the station absolutely furious that they wouldn’t let us in to see our wounded friends.
“This is fucking bullshit!” Slim screamed at the medics. “What is going on?”
“Let us the fuck in!” I yelled. We heard someone in the aid station call for a helicopter evacuation.
“Tell us what’s happening!” Slim yelled, rushing the door. Several medics forced him back. Perro and I joined in trying to push past them to see what was happening with our friends.
A large black guy wearing the rank of a first sergeant appeared behind the line of medics. “At ease, Sergeant!” he yelled at Slim. “You cannot come in here!”
“Fuck off, you fat prick!” I yelled back. “We need to see them!”
“Excuse me, Specialist?” he shot back at me.
“Move your fat ass!” Slim yelled at him and stiff-armed the first sergeant in the chest.
The first sergeant stumbled back, and we had an opening. We tried to rush inside the aid station.
“What the hell is going on?” asked the calm voice of Rocky, who had arrived at the camp at some point. We stopped what we were doing and slowly turned to look at him.
“They won’t let us in to see our brothers!” Slim half screamed, half whined.
“Excuse me?” Rocky marched up to the aid station. “Get out of my way!” he ordered. The medics parted like the Red Sea.
We started pushing our way inside when Rocky turned back to me. “Go back to the convoy and check on the younger soldiers. Make sure they aren’t going crazy.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. I hesitantly turned and left the aid station and started walking back to our trucks. I was stopped by a large civilian wearing a shirt that said “Paramedic” across the front. He patted me on the shoulder and handed me a pack of Marlboro cigarettes and a lighter.
“Thank you,” I said, nodding at him.
“You need more than me,” he said in an implacable eastern-European accent.
I reached into the pack and placed a cigarette between my lips, I flicked the lighter and took a deep drag. A cold rain started hitting my skin and before long it turned into a downpour. It chilled me to the bone.
I made it back to the convoy and found some of our younger soldiers frantically cleaning blood off the wounded guys’ weapons. I saw the young girl, Pip, scrubbing away at someone’s rifle. She wasn’t saying anything.
“Make sure the weapons are serviceable and ammo’s reloaded,” I said, smoke trailing out of my mouth.
“Joe, are you hurt?” Oldies asked me. He pointed down at my pants. I hadn’t noticed, but I was soaked in blood. I noticed Kham had rejoined the squad. The normally energetic medic sat away from the rest of the soldiers, smoking in silence.
“None of it is mine.” I shook my head. “Make sure we’re ready to go back out and fuck these dudes up.” I was so angry I was shaking. The rain finally soaked my cigarette through, and it fizzled out in my lips. I wanted to get back in our trucks. I wanted to go back out to that street. I wanted to just start shooting people. I didn’t care who. I just wanted them to feel the way I felt. I wanted to hurt someone they loved.
The unmistakable sound of a helicopter’s whirling blades filled the air and I watched the body of a Blackhawk take off. I noticed the large, red cross that was plastered on its side.
Slim, Rocky, and Perro reappeared by the trucks.
We all stopped what we were doing and turned to face them.
“Mount up, we are going back to Spartan,” Rocky said calmly. He was doing his best not to let everything that happened show on his face. He tried to be a rock his soldiers could rally around during the hard times.
“Sir, we aren’t going back out?” I asked.
“No, Joe,” he shook his head. “Your squad doesn’t have enough soldiers to run all of its trucks effectively, let alone carry out combat operations.”
“We’ll get them next time,” Slim said, rage boiling in his words. His eyes told me he was feeling the same way I was.
“How are they?” I asked.
“Gunny and Walrus are the most serious,” Slim said. “But everyone is going to be fine.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
We had to borrow a few soldiers from First Platoon to drive our vehicles back to Spartan. I climbed into the commander’s seat of Bama’s truck. His blood was caked to the cloth seat, Blue Force Tracker screen, and windshield. I tried to remind myself my friend was going to be okay as I sat down in abundant pools of his dried blood.
We arrived back at Spartan without having spoken a word. We were greeted by every living person on Spartan. They wanted us to know they were there for us. Several people approached me and wrapped me in big hugs. I saw Eastwood wrap his arms around Slim and say something into his ear. Everyone wanted to know what happened, but I couldn’t bring myself to put any of it into words.
I lit a cigarette and paced back and forth. I watched several soldiers clean the blood out of the trucks with water bottles and scrub brushes. Red water splashed onto the rocks and the truck’s running boards.
Ginger walked out of the TOC and met Slim, Perro, and me. “How are you guys doing?” he asked in a kind voice.
“Could be worse.” Perro made the slight joke, though none of us laughed.
“Gather up the squad in the shower bay, Rocky and I would like to talk to you guys,” Ginger ordered in a soft voice.
The squad gathered around in the shower bay a few minutes later. None of us were talking. I don’t think anyone had anything to say for the first time since we had been deployed. Rocky and Ginger walked into the bay. We all clambered to stand at attention—the prescribed way to stand when an officer enters the room.
“Cut it out.” Rocky waved at us. He never liked formalities. We all slowly sat back down. “You boys did good out there tonight,” he started. “We gave just as good as we got and I’m proud of you. Get some rest.” Rocky turned and walked out of the shower bay. Ginger followed at his heels.
We all filed into our shower stalls and dropped our gear off. It felt like a million pounds fell off of my back as my pack slammed into the tile floor. I retreated to Slim’s shower stall and found him sitting with Perro.
Perro was huddled around a small coffeemaker, adding grounds to a pearl-white filter. None of us were going to bother to try to sleep. We sat in silence, listening to the coffeemaker bubble and percolate. We weren’t sitting there for the conversation, but for the company.