28. SLIM THE DICTATOR
It felt like a lifetime since our platoon sergeant was whisked away from us by a medical helicopter. Even though the vast majority of us hated Gunny’s guts, we loved him as a leader. He made our lives a living hell. He ran us ragged with endless missions, tower guard shifts, and made us carry untold pounds of shit we didn’t think we needed. At the same time, we were his. He didn’t let anyone else screw with us, Afghans included.
It should go without saying we all loved and respected Slim. He was trying his hardest to fill the void that Gunny left behind. Command-wise he was more than capable. Slim was a combat leader through and through. The real problem was, without Gunny there to calm down Slim’s more psychopathic tendencies, things had started to fly off the rails.
One night I was tossing and turning restlessly on my shitty cot when Slim barged into the shower bay. “Second Squad, wake the fuck up! Wake up,” Slim slammed a baseball bat on the tile floor, creating an ear-splitting cracking sound. I thought we were under attack.
We rolled out of our cots and stumbled into the open area of the bay. None of us had any idea what was going on.
“Which one of you pieces of shit left garbage in the fucking guard towers?” Slim screamed.
We all exchanged confused glances.
“Um, what?” I managed to get out.
“Shut the fuck up,” Slim yelled in my face.
I balled up my fists and bit my lip. I wanted to punch the crazy asshole in the fucking mouth.
“Get the fuck outside!” Slim screamed so loud his voice cracked. “Go!”
We all slowly walked outside, still unsure of what was going on. We lined up in the motor pool next to where our trucks were parked. Slim and Tooth paced back and forth in front of us.
“You think you assholes can just destroy this place?” Slim growled. He was asking us questions, but wouldn’t let us get a word in edgewise. “So we’re going to make sure we get right,” Slim continued. “Start sprinting!”
We started running half-assed across the massive boulders that covered the motor pool. All army bases were covered in gravel to keep the ever-present dust storms of Afghanistan under control. For some reason, Spartan was covered in massive ankle-breaking boulders instead of gravel. While running, it took every bit of control and focus not to roll your ankle. Not that Tooth or Slim cared; they just stood there screaming at us.
Poor Oldies went down first. His old joints just couldn’t hold up to the abuse. Not that it mattered.
“Why the fuck are you stopping, Oldies?” Slim screamed.
Without a word, Oldies hobbled along, knowing any complaint wouldn’t do any good.
“Fuck!” Nan screamed as he went down next. He’d been hiding an ankle injury for months. He had been wrapping it in layers of tape before going on foot patrols and taking insanely unhealthy levels of painkillers so he could keep up with us on missions. The wind sprints on the boulders were just a bit too much for him.
Cali and I helped him up and he limped along behind us.
The boulders were wreaking havoc on my back. At some point in the last few months, I had started getting shooting pains going down my ass and into my left leg. At best it felt like someone was stabbing me in the lower back. At worst it would make me unable to get out of my own bed. The pain made it hard to do anything, especially sleep.
I self-medicated with pills Gong gave me that did nothing to dull the pain. I was worried I was going to end up like Grandpa. I didn’t want to get sent home to some army medical butchers to make it even worse with some botched surgery. I was afraid to tell anyone about the chronic pain for fear of sounding weak.
Each step across the boulders sent lightning bolts up my leg and into my back. I openly screamed curses and insults at Slim and Tooth. “You fucking crazy asshole!” I snarled as I tripped over another boulder.
“You want to go, mother fucker?” Slim yelled at me. “I’ll take my rank off, and we can go!” He rushed at me and got in my face. He knew as well as I did, I wasn’t going to swing at him. If he thought I would, he wouldn’t have come near me. I was about two times his size and had a mostly undeserved reputation for being a fighter back in the U.S. And no matter how pissed I was at Slim, and even though I really wanted to sometimes, I would never lay a hand on him.
“Fucking low crawl,” Slim commanded. A low crawl is also known as an army crawl. You lie down and drag yourself along with your arms with your face on the ground. He wanted us to do that on massive goddamn boulders.
“You got to be shitting me,” Nan said with a look of concern on his face. “He’s finally fucking lost it.”
“He never fucking had it, man.” I shook my head. We were waiting for him to change his mind, but it never happened. We slowly laid down on the jagged rocks only for him to yell at us again.
“Stand the fuck back up! Stand up!”
We all jumped back up to our feet.
“Get the fuck out of my sight,” Slim barked at us, and we all scampered back to the relative safety of the shower bay.
That sort of thing became routine for Slim and Tooth. Even when Slim didn’t do it, his insanity emboldened the other team leaders. Kitty was the worst of the group. Mostly because she wouldn’t lift a single solitary finger to help anyone work, but would flip out on her team if her gear wasn’t all nice and set up for her whenever she needed it. Tooth dubbed these little punishment sessions “The Gun Line.”
Being unoriginal, he stole the name from the Eddie Murphy movie Life. In the movie, a prison guard, nearly as redneck as Tooth himself, declares that if anyone crosses “The Gun Line” they will be shot. It really spoke volumes about what he thought about the soldiers in his charge.
Another night we were standing out in the rocks, my back was on fire, and I hadn’t slept in what felt like days. We stood with the same weapons we had with us on that night’s patrol and because I was Slim’s gunner, I had an M240B machine gun in my hands. Kitty was screaming at us alongside Perro and Tooth.
“Down!” Perro yelled. At that command, we were supposed to drop down to the push-up position, weapon and all. We all smacked into the rocks, our weapons clattering against the ground, and grunted with pain.
“Up!” We were supposed to leap back to our feet. By then, pulling myself to my feet required an intense amount of effort.
“Go!” Then we were supposed to run in place with our weapons held out in front of us. Slim repeated this process so many times I lost count.
Finally, after three solid hours of this, Perro stopped and Kitty stepped forward. “Weapons out!” she screamed, and we held them out. She started walking down the line looking at them for cleanliness. Obviously, that was a test we couldn’t pass. We had just spent hours slamming our weapons onto dusty rocks. She stepped in front of me and took one look at the dust-coated machine gun in my hands. “What the fuck is this shit, Kassabian?” she yelled in my face.
I stared into her eyes not saying a word. My blood was boiling, and it was taking everything in my power not to strangle the life out of her.
“You’re just going to stand there like a retard?” she snarled at me.
I shook with anger, and I wanted to smash her across the face with my machine gun. Instead, I just turned around and walked away.
“Get back here, you piece of shit!” Kitty yelled. I heard Perro and Tooth saying something about leaving me alone, but she obviously didn’t listen.
I walked away before I punched her. I knew if I stayed, I wasn’t going to be able to control myself. M240 in hand, I walked across the rocks trying to control my racing heart. I fumbled with a pack of cigarettes and stuffed one in my lips and lit it after a few attempts. I could still hear Kitty throwing abuse my way from somewhere behind me.
I heard feet stomping across rocks, and I turned around to see Kitty storming toward me. “Get back here, you fucking pussy!” She cried.
I ran at her. I cocked the M240 in my arms as if it was a football and sent it flying in her direction. It slammed into the rocks right in front of her feet. “That’s it, mother fucker!” I roared at her. Fists balled, I advanced on her. I saw the look in her eyes change from anger to sheer terror.
Suddenly, I was stopped dead in my tracks. It was as if I’d hit a cement wall. I looked down and saw Casey’s short, stocky figure standing in front of me.
Casey was a team leader in the commander’s personal security detachment. He was a semi-professional mixed martial arts fighter, and everyone knew not to fuck with him. Casey and I used to spar and fight in Texas before we deployed, and we were good friends. “Be cool, Joe. Bitch isn’t worth it,” he said in his deep, gravelly voice.
Kitty didn’t see a friend looking out for me, she saw a fellow NCO sticking up for her and once again advanced on me, screaming insults and abuse.
Casey turned to her. “Look, bitch, I’m doing this for him. If you don’t back the fuck off, I’ll let him go.”
She stopped dead in her tracks, turned, and quickly escaped the area.
Casey guided me over to a bench and sat down with me. “You all right, brother?”
“I…just snapped.” I shook my head.
“It happens, man. Sometimes you just have to let them know you aren’t to be fucked with.” He slapped me on the shoulder. He offered me a pack of cigarettes. I took one and lit it.
“I think I broke my M240.”
“I saw that. Good distance. Your form could use some work, though.”
I couldn’t help breaking out into nervous laughter.
Slim came out from his tent with Perro, both of them were laughing. They had watched the whole thing. “You all right, Joe?” Slim asked. He sat down next to me. I was still shaking, and he saw that. “You gonna shoot me?” he asked, grinning.
As much as I wanted to punch him in the face, I couldn’t hate him. He had created a monster he couldn’t control. “Thinking about it.” I smiled.
“Hey man, I don’t care that you put that bitch in her place, but don’t throw your weapon like it’s a javelin again, all right?” He laughed a little and put his arms around me.
“Next time I’ll just shoot the fucker.”
“Please,” Perro added.
Somehow, nothing came of the incident. I got demoted for using Facebook, but not from threatening to kill an NCO and throwing a machine gun through the air. I wish my angry outburst had tempered the brewing insanity of my squad’s team leaders, but it didn’t.
Creep, someone we all hated, brought out the beast in Slim. Creep had never managed to figure out how to stay awake while on guard. He would set an alarm on his watch and then sleep right through it. He made whomever was on guard shift constantly ask where their relief was. Once he was awakened and pushed into a guard position, he would just fall asleep again.
Slim decided no matter what the commander said, Creep would have someone in the guard tower with him. That order effectively cut our already meager amounts of sleep in half and made us hate the little bastard even more.
To make things worse, Creep was an absolutely disgusting person. We rarely got more than one shower a week. But because most of us hated being covered in our own filth, we would wash ourselves with baby wipes or wet rags. Creep didn’t do either—he didn’t shower when he had the chance and he didn’t wipe off. I’m pretty confident the guy never owned a toothbrush. Sharing the tiny confines of a guard tower with the human embodiment of a Dumpster was something nobody wanted to do.
I was the lucky one to be chosen first to spend the night with him up in the godforsaken, frozen guard tower. I bundled myself up in every piece of winter clothing I had and trudged out into the cold Afghan night. The wind was piercing and cut right through our shoddy guard tower.
“My fiancée says once I make sergeant, we can afford to buy a house,” Creep said in his slow drawl. It was slow even for a redneck. He had been talking nonstop since the beginning of our guard shift.
I was pushed all the way against the side of the tower trying to escape his stink. I didn’t bother to cover the bright cherry of my cigarette in the night anymore. I was hoping a Taliban RPG gunner would end my misery.
“Is that so…” I said. I could hardly believe he’d actually found a woman willing to have sex with him and wondered if he was lying. He had to be lying. At that point, I was just trying to remember what it was like to be warm.
“Yeah. When we get back, we should do a double date.” He smiled. I was happy it was so dark I couldn’t see his rotting rows of brown teeth.
“I think I’d rather jerk off with a handful of broken glass,” I said, flicking the ash off the end of my cigarette. He finally got the hint that I didn’t want to talk to him and went silent. At least that’s what I thought. I turned to look at him and saw he was leaning against the tower, still standing, fast asleep.
I flicked my still-lit cigarette at him. It bounced off the side of his face, but he didn’t wake up. Finally, I turned and smacked him as hard as I could on top of the helmet. He woke up with a start and stared at me through his huge coke-bottle glasses as if he had no idea what he’d done wrong.
“The fuck are you doing? Wake up, shit-bird!” I screamed at him.
“I…” he stuttered. “I wasn’t asleep,” he said with a straight face.
“Are you fucking high?” I shouted. My breath clouded up in front of my face and mixed with the cigarette smoke. “You know what, just go tell Slim what you just did and I’ll finish this goddamn shift by myself.”
“But—” Creep started.
“Shut your cock holster and go before I fucking shoot you,” I yelled in his face. I pushed him toward the tower’s stairs with mitten-covered hands. He slowly turned and trudged down the stairs. If I had known what was going to happen next, I would have just kept my mouth shut and let the idiot sleep.
I finished my guard shift and was replaced by Lip from First Squad. I walked through the freezing night, my eyes watering from the blasting wind. I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sight of Second Squad soldiers filling sandbags by the shower bay.
They were all clad in various states of winter dress and filling up small, green sandbags up with handfuls of rocks. (Spartan had no actual sand.)
“The fuck is going on?” I asked Oldies, who was filling a bag nearby.
“Creep fell asleep on watch again,” he said, his fatigue showing on his face.
“Slim is making us build a fighting position in the bay; that way he isn’t too far from his bed.”
“No fucking way.” I shook my head. I walked past the toiling soldiers and stepped into the shower bay where I saw Slim, Perro, and Kitty standing. Next to them was the beginning stage of a sandbag bunker being formed in the middle of the bay.
I dropped my weapons on the cold tile floor, stripped off my body armor, and went outside to help everyone dig.
While we filled the bags, we could hear the team leaders listening to music and laughing.
“Fucking assholes,” I cursed.
“You used to be one of them,” Guapo giggled.
“Yeah, but I wasn’t that bad, was I?”
“Not really, but we still hated you,” Nan said, scooping up a handful of rocks.
“If it makes you guys feel any better, I hated me too,” I said.
“It does a little, actually,” Nan said with a smile.
I noticed Creep was nowhere to be found. “Where the hell is Creep?” I asked to no one in particular.
“Slim decided that punishing him didn’t work, so he’s going to punish us while Creep watches,” Nan said.
“That’s the dumbest shit I ever heard. How is that going to fix anything?”
“Maybe he’s hoping one of us will finally just shoot him.” Guapo shrugged, a pile of rocks in his hands.
A terrible rap song started playing over the speakers the team leaders had set up. It was just repeating one lyric over and over again.
“Who the hell is this?” I winced.
“It’s Tyga, man,” Guapo said. “This song is tight.”
“He’s just saying ‘Rack City Bitch’ like, a thousand times. How is this music?” Nan asked.
“What does that even mean?” I shook my head.
“Tits?” Nan quipped.
“Maybe. But a city of tits?”
“It’s got to be a strip club,” Cali offered. “He’s talking about money, too.”
“Ah, is that what ‘tens, tens, twenties, and fifties, bitch’ means?” I asked.
“Who throws tens at strippers? That’s just bad economics,” Nan said. “I don’t even throw singles.”
“You guys are retarded.” Guapo laughed.
“We’re retarded? You’re the one who likes this shit,” I said.
The song ended, and we worked in silence. I hefted a heavy bag of rocks onto my shoulder and followed Nan through the bay doors. The team leaders turned and looked at us.
“Could you be filling those bags any slower?” Kitty sneered.
Before I could make a smart-ass remark, Nan broke out into song. “Rack City, Bitch!” He shouted.
“Rack, Rack City, bitch!” I parroted after him.
The team leaders looked at us as if we’d lost it.
“Tens, tens, twenties on your titties, bitch!” Nan bellowed as he plopped down a sandbag. In the background, Guapo’s piercing witch-like cackle echoed off of the walls of the bay.
Creep sat at the edge of his cot not saying a word while we made what seemed like endless numbers of trips outside to fill sandbags. Finally, after a few hours, our shitty sandbag bunker was complete. Even though it was colder than a Michigan winter outside, we were soaked through with sweat and exhausted.
“Why are you relaxing?” Slim snarled at us as we sat down on the cold tile floor. “What kind of shitty fighting position is this? There’s no concertina wire, no weapon, no nothing!”
“You want us to set up concertina wire where we sleep?” I asked, shaking my head.
“You have five fucking minutes or you’ll be taking it all back outside and trying again,” Slim warned. He and the rest of the team leaders stomped outside.
“They want a fighting position?” Nan smiled. “Let’s fucking give them one.” He walked outside and a few minutes later came back with the explosives crate that was in one of the trucks and a roll of concertina wire. Guapo and Oldies started unrolling the shiny chrome wire in little zigzags through the bay. The razor-like tips of the wire kept getting caught on their clothes, making them speak only in curses.
Nan cracked open the explosive crate and produced a Claymore mine and several bricks of C-4 plastic explosive. He unspooled several feet of wire, propped the Claymore up by the door, and assembled it.
“Where the fuck did you get that?” I gasped. I hadn’t seen a Claymore since basic training.
“It was in Slim’s truck.” Nan laughed to himself as he played around with wires.
“Do you even know how to set that up?” I asked, watching him intently.
“No clue,” Nan giggled. He finished screwing in the wires and stood up. The only part of the mine that wasn’t set up was the actual detonator. At a glance, it looked primed and ready to go. Next, he pulled the strips off the back of the bricks of C-4 and stuck them all over the walls. Guapo got in on the insanity by grabbing one of our M240B machine guns, placing it in the bunker and loading it. He cackled some more when he ripped the charging handle back.
“This went from zero to sixty real mother fucking quick.” Oldies shook his head. He reminded me of Roger Murtaugh and how he was always “too old for this shit.” Right down to the bushy mustache and receding hairline.
“That’s the only way to do it, man.” I smiled at our explosive-laden madness.
“The loaded two-forty is a nice touch,” Machete noted. “But I have the cherry on top.” He ducked into his shower stall, a place that smelled so bad none of us dared to venture, and came out holding two rocket launchers.
“Should I even ask where you got those?” Oldies scratched his head.
“I stole them from those Dealer guys months ago,” Machete said. He leaned the two rocket launchers against the side of the position and sat down on a pile of ammo boxes.
“Is it weird I’m not even surprised by that?” I asked. Everyone just shook their heads.
Slim and the rest of the team leaders confidently walked into the bay and immediately stopped where they stood. Slim glanced down and saw the slightly curved figure of a Claymore mine pointed right up at him. He was so close he could read the “THIS SIDE TOWARD ENEMY” that was stamped on the mine’s plastic outer casing. His eyes slowly lifted away from the floor and followed the wires that were screwed into the top that led all the way back to Nan. He was holding the disconnected detonator in his hand.
“What…the…fuck..?” Slim stammered. He locked eyes with the barrel of the loaded machine gun pointed at him, manned by the cackling Guapo.
“Um, Slim?” Perro started pointing up at the blocks of C-4 that were all over the walls.
“You fuckers are nuts!” Slim yelled. First seriously, then he started to laugh so hard his pale face turned beet red and he doubled over. “I fucking love it!” The other team leaders started nervously laughing. “Where did you guys get those rocket launchers?”
“You don’t wanna know, boss.” Machete gave him a little finger-gun motion. Machete had a tendency to call everyone “boss.” A habit that drove me fucking insane.
“Noted,” Slim said. He walked over to the dry erase board we used to plan missions and organize tower guard. He picked up a marker and next to where it said “Tower One” and “Tower Two” he wrote “OP Creep.”
“You’ll be manning our new OP here throughout the night like it was a guard tower.” He smiled.
All of our faces dropped. We thought the punishment was building that stupid bunker in the middle of the freezing cold night. We never actually thought we would have to man it. To make matters worse, he wrote my name next to the first shift even though I had just gotten off one.
“Kassabian, you have first watch. Everyone get some sleep while you can,” Slim ordered and walked back out of the bay with the other team leaders in tow.
Everyone slowly shuffled back into their stalls to sleep. I walked back to where I’d dropped my gear and put it back on. I dragged my feet over to the bunker and sat down on a pile of uncomfortable rock-filled sandbags. I glanced down at my watch; it read 0330. “Fuck this,” I said to no one. I leaned my head against the side of the bunker and went to sleep.
A few weeks later, our squad was sent packing to FOB Walton to get our trucks worked on. Also to spend ungodly amounts of money on nicotine and energy drinks at the base’s store. The few hours we spent at Walton were dedicated to doing as much damage as humanly possible.
In their chow hall, we filled our pockets with stolen snacks. We broke into the showers that we weren’t allowed to use and used up all of their hot water. Most of the guys took the opportunity to trim their body hair and leave it all over the shower area. It got to the point where elements of our command structure started watching us like hawks while we were at the base.
“Second Squad!” Slim yelled at us. We were all in various stages of working on our trucks. Oldies was switching out his fifth or so windshield of our tour. The rest of us were trying to patch up the many leaks and cracks our trucks had accumulated over the last few weeks. “Go up to the company building and stand by,” Slim ordered and walked off.
I almost felt sorry for the soldiers of our company who were stuck at Walton. Our first sergeant, a few senior NCOs, communications soldiers, and our long-lost former First Squad leader, Olly, all lived here. There were about three mechanics who tried their best not to be seen or heard. None of them really had jobs.
We trudged across Walton’s gravel roads and made our way to our company building. It was a massive wooden shack that was clearly put together by people who had no idea what they were doing. It was still better than an Afghan shower bay, though. We walked up the building’s creaky stairs and went inside.
Standing in the room in front of us was Gunny. He had his ever-present crooked smile on his face and was wearing a brand-new uniform.
“Holy shit,” Nan said. “Shouldn’t you be in a hospital or something?”
“You really thought I was going to stay in a hospital?” Gunny smiled.
We all filed through and shook his hand. I couldn’t keep from hugging the bastard. Last time I’d seen him, he was dying on a road in a godforsaken part of Kandahar.
“You guys are making it seem like I was hurt badly or something.” Gunny chuckled.
“So you’re back? You’re going to be our platoon sergeant?” I asked with probably a little too much hope in my voice.
Slim stepped into the room followed by the team leaders. “Yep,” Slim smiled. “Thank fucking God for that.”
I looked around, and everyone looked happy for the first time in a long while. We weren’t happy that we would have to load that extra twenty pounds of shit Gunny always made us carry back into our bags. We weren’t happy we would start having to cut our hair and shave again. We were just happy everything was back to normal.
“So, I heard something about an OP Creep?” Gunny asked the room full of soldiers and we all started laughing.