26. THE HOOLIGANS WITHOUT SLIM
With Gunny sidelined back in the States with severe injuries, the leadership of Second Platoon fell to Slim. As happy as I was to see my good friend get elevated to a higher position, I was scared to see where that would leave us. Slim was the heart and soul of our squad, and without him we were just misbehaved soldiers with drinking problems. Slim gave us our identity. Without him, we were doomed.
“I hear they’re going to disband us. Make us fall in with First Squad,” Nan said. The way he was smoking his cigarette made me think he was angry at it.
“That would never happen,” I snapped at him.
“Yeah?” Nan gesticulated wildly with his arms. “Who else could be our squad leader?”
He made a good point. Outside of myself, only Perro and Kitty were technically leaders. And I had already been demoted. None of us were ready to lead an entire squad. With Grandpa being forced to go home early, we had no one with any real leadership experience. Suddenly Nan’s bullshit made sense.
“If they disband us, who are they going to have do their dirty work?” Cali asked.
“Maybe we don’t want any more dirty work.” Guapo shook his head, his wounds still fresh in his body.
“Man, fuck that,” I said.
“I don’t give a fuck who they put in charge of us,” Perro said cleaning his rifle. “We are still going to be the goddamn Hooligans.”
We all tried to boost ourselves up about what would happen next. We talked about a rumor that I was going to get a battlefield promotion to sergeant for capturing the third most wanted man in Kandahar. As cool as I thought it would be, I didn’t believe it for a second.
A battlefield promotion is a promotion to the next rank that went around all of the usual paperwork and bullshit that came with trying to further your military career. A battlefield promotion came via a direct order from a general. Normally, these were based on battlefield merit or courage or something. Literally nothing I did fell under those two categories. I kicked in that guy’s door totally by chance and didn’t fire a shot. None of that took courage or battlefield merit. The promotion never came. But a squad leader did.
Tooth, an older guy from First Squad, became our squad leader. He earned his nickname by having a large majority of his teeth knocked out by an exploding fire extinguisher early in his Army career. Tooth was a nice guy, though he was the only person who could give Memphis a run for his money when it came to being the most redneck soldier in the platoon. He didn’t have any squad leader experience but had been in the army for about a decade. Tooth got along with the Hooligans and none of us were worried about him taking over. While we were obviously going to miss Slim’s uncontrolled insanity, we thought we were in good hands.
Our first mission came upon us without warning. Bama had crashed his stupid drone into a field, and we rallied together to go grab it. God forbid the Taliban steal his retarded RC plane.
Bama apologized to us as we climbed into our trucks and drove out in the middle of the night. Nothing felt right driving out without Slim leading the circus he’d created.
We flew down the road as fast as we could while Tooth frantically called over the radio for us to slow down.
“You hear something?” Cali asked me.
“I think he said to go faster,” I said. We drove on, ignoring his orders, and quickly approached the area where Bama’s plane went down. It was a dry, cracked, and barren field. No doubt someone’s bountiful harvest.
One shack stood in the middle of the field, crumbling and falling apart. An angry old man stood outside screaming obscenities at us as we pulled our massive trucks onto his farmland. The man stood outside my door and screamed at me as I got out.
“You must be mistaking me for someone who gives a fuck,” I said to him. Not that he understood anything I said. He screamed something back at me.
Machete palmed the man’s face and pushed him back through the open door of his shack. He drew out a massive, foot-long machete—his namesake—from the back of his vest and pointed it in the man’s face. “Fuck you, mother fucker!” Machete screamed at the man.
“Hey, Joe, you think you should call him off?” Cali asked me.
“I’m curious to see where this is going,” I said.
Machete kept waiving that blade around like a goddamn madman and screaming curses at the old guy.
“You yell at my boss again, I’ll skin your ass and wear you like a cape!”
Cali and I laughed at the stupid shit Machete was spouting.
Tooth came running over to where our truck was parked. “Where is your third guy, Kassabian?” he yelled at me. He looked equal parts confused and scared. I smiled and pointed over to where Machete was threatening the local farmer with a large-bladed weapon.
“What? Why the fuck does he have a machete?”
“He thought it might come in handy,” I said simply.
“And so far, he’s kind of right,” Cali said.
We all absolutely hated Machete as a soldier. He never showered, even when getting a shower was a possibility. He had somehow managed to get even fatter while in Afghanistan and consistently fell asleep while on duty. But we would be goddamned if we let some guy from First Squad talk shit about him. That was our job.
“Slim never had a problem with it,” I said.
“Well, Slim isn’t your goddamn squad leader anymore!” Tooth yelled at me. “Now get your people spread out and secure this fucking field!”
“It’s like a mile wide, dude,” Cali smiled a little and splayed his arms out to show how broad the area was. “We can’t secure the area with three people.”
“Do it!” Tooth ordered. We shrugged and meandered off into the distance. We knelt down in a ditch and stared off into the pitch-black night. Everyone wandered around trying to find all of the pieces of Bama’s plane.
I flipped down my night vision, and the countryside turned a sickly shade of green. I put a dip in my lip and waited. I heard footsteps behind me and spun around in the night to see Tooth running toward me.
“Is everything all right?” I asked. I double-checked my radio to ensure it was on and working properly. It was. I could hear every other team in the squad talking to each other.
“Yeah,” Tooth exhaled. His years as a smoker caught up too quickly. “Spread your team out down the western edge of the farm.”
“Um, okay,” I said. “Is your radio working?” I asked.
“Yeah, why?” he looked confused about why I would ask.
“You ran like a quarter of a mile over here to tell me that.”
“Yeah,” Tooth replied. As if nothing sounded weird about that. There was no reason to run around the dark countryside wearing almost half your body weight in combat gear unless someone was actively trying to kill you. Tooth apparently didn’t agree. He turned around and ran back the way he’d come.
“The fuck is he doing?” Cali asked.
“Maybe he needs some PT,” I said and chuckled.
We sat in the dark for what seemed like hours. We didn’t hear any update over the radio. I started nodding off and had to stand up. In the distance, I saw the lights from a few of the trucks turn on in the darkness. I grabbed my radio, wondering what was happening. “Hey, what’s going on?” I asked no one in particular.
“We found the pieces, and we’re getting ready to roll out,” Tooth answered.
I wanted to scream at him for being willing to leave without us. He was just going to leave us hanging out in that ditch. But devolving into profanity probably wasn’t the best first impression to give a new squad leader. I feigned calm. “Roger, we’re moving back to the trucks,” I said between gritted teeth.
We hoofed it back to the truck and climbed inside. We rumbled off into the night back toward Spartan but took a different route than we originally planned.
“Are we going across the Bridge of Doom?” Cali asked. The Bridge of Doom was a tiny mud bridge that crossed a massive ravine in the middle of a village. You had to perfectly position your vehicle on the bridge to fit, and even then your tires would hang over the edges by a few inches. We never crossed it at night. One wrong move and everyone in your truck would plummet to their death.
“Oh God, I think so,” I said. I immediately became scared. Rolling over in a vehicle was one of my biggest fears.
When I was eighteen and training at Fort Knox, the truck I was riding in rolled over three times and landed upside down. I wasn’t hurt, but the experience shook me to my core. Driving around in Afghanistan, that fear was always in the back of my mind. Right then, it came screaming to the forefront of my brain and I suddenly became aware that I was gripping my rifle so hard my hands hurt.
“Why are we going this way?” Perro asked the question we were all thinking.
“We have to switch up our routes,” Tooth answered. To an extent, he made sense. We never took the same route twice while out on a mission. If your travel habits became predictable, you became a target for a Taliban ambush. Rather than cross the Bridge of Doom at night, we usually took a different, much longer route back to Spartan.
We turned into the small bordering village. The buildings were so close, our mirrors almost scratched at the mud walls of the houses. We lined up at the mouth of the Bridge of Doom. The bridge was so rickety only one truck could cross at a time, and even then you prayed to all major and minor deities for it to hold.
Perro’s truck, driven by a scout named Kermit, was the first to cross. It hadn’t crawled across the bridge ten feet before they all nearly fell to their deaths.
The left front tire fell off the edge of the bridge and the truck’s axle slammed down onto the surface. The bridge shook, and rocks fell into the river below.
“Ah! Fuck!” Perro screamed over the radio. His voice was so loud it came across the radio as mostly feedback and static. I was about fifty percent sure I was about to watch four of my friends die. I lit a cigarette and stared hard into my night vision goggles.
In a normal situation, we would hook up tow cables to the stuck vehicle and pull it out. There was absolutely no way that bridge would hold two trucks at the same time. They would have to get themselves out. Or so we hoped.
Perro jumped out of the truck and ran behind it, lighting up the area with a flashlight and checking behind the truck to make sure the bridge itself didn’t break apart.
“Gun it back and to the left,” Perro ordered Kermit. Kermit slammed on the gas. The truck hopped back onto the bridge and stopped so fast that the truck rocked and shook with the force. Perro climbed around the side of the truck and back into his seat. They crawled forward again. That time without incident.
Cali gunned our truck across the bridge at about three times the speed he should have. With that, we were safe on the other side. We drove back the rest of the way in silence. I tried to ignore that our new leader had almost left us in a ditch. It was a little harder to forget that he made us cross a bridge we should never have been on.
Tooth was a new leader, and I gave him the benefit of the doubt. He was a good guy with good intentions. His biggest flaw was that he wasn’t Slim. And he would never be one of us.