29. TAKING A BREATHER
My total inability to sleep was starting to take its toll. Sometimes I would go several days only getting a few minutes of sleep at a time. I would blank out momentarily in the middle of something like eating, walking on a patrol, or taking a dump. I’d wake up with a start, not entirely sure what was going on around me.
No matter what I tried, I couldn’t sleep. Nan gave me some of the pills he was prescribed, but they had no effect. I would lie on my cot half-drunk and high from sleeping pills. Sleep would still elude me.
I thought no one caught on that I was actively putting their lives in danger. I was never caught with my eyes closed when it mattered. I assumed most people just thought I had the mid-deployment malaise that everyone else had.
I should have known better. One day, while in the middle of what seemed like an endless string of cigarettes, Slim and Gunny approached me. “How are things going?” Slim asked with genuine kindness. I could tell he was legitimately worried about me. That made me feel even worse.
“I’m good,” I answered.
“We can see that you’re hurting,” Slim pointed out. I guess I wasn’t as good as faking it as I thought.
“You look like a corpse,” Gunny added helpfully. He was right, my eyes and face were more sunken than normal. When you’re moving through the world half asleep, you kind of forget to eat. I was surviving off mostly caffeine and nicotine.
“Thanks.” I gave a weak smile.
“Seriously, you look terrible even for you,” Gunny continued. “We’re sending you and a few other people to FOB Walton to relax for a few days.”
I gave him a weird look. “Relax?” I asked. “I…don’t understand.”
“There’s a little camp inside Walton for people…” Slim began.
“I don’t need a day off. I’m not a pussy,” I interrupted.
“Well,” Slim smiled and put his hand on my shoulder, “you don’t have a choice. You, Nan, Kitty, Machete, and Perro are leaving today. Pack enough shit for three days.”
I groaned and stomped away to pack my bags. Maybe because they were making a few other people go, they weren’t really onto me falling apart yet. Or maybe we were all going crazy at the same time. I knew why they were sending Nan. The dude had lost his mind when he was blown up by a grenade. Something in his head got scrambled.
As for Kitty and Perro, I could only guess Kitty was going because whenever there was an easy duty or a way to get out of work, she would be there. I didn’t really understand why Machete was going. Maybe they hoped he would finally take a shower.
I ducked into my little shower stall and started shoving things into my backpack without really looking. I slapped my combat gear on and awkwardly waddled outside trying to balance my bag, rifle, and my helmet in my hands. The others who were picked for our wonderful retreat to the base were down the street, ready and waiting for our ride.
I plopped down in the rocks next to Nan.
“This is fucking stupid.” Nan said.
“Why would they send us to Walton to relax? It’s down the fucking street!” I added.
“Remember, before you get too pissed, people actually live full-time at the place we are being sent to for relaxation.” Nan gave a little smile and adjusted his glasses.
“Mother fucker.” I cursed.
“Look at it this way, they have the internet there. We can load up on new porn,” Nan said, fumbling around in his pocket for a pack of cigarettes.
“I don’t know man. I prefer the old standbys. They’ve been good to me.”
“There’s plenty of fish in the sea, bro,” Nan said, lighting his cigarette.
First Squad had finally climbed into their trucks and pulled them out for us to get in for the ten-minute drive to FOB Walton.
As we drove through the gates of FOB Walton, I watched the gate guards scramble around and pull the security gate out of the way as if we had Taliban hot on our heels or something. Most of them were wearing more gear than any of us in the trucks. It was hard not to notice that their gear still looked brand new. Mine was a shit-brown color highlighted by splashes of blood and dip spit. I looked like a modern art masterpiece.
The trucks pulled up next to a compound hidden away behind another wall of Hesco baskets. Hanging over the gate was a little sign that read “The Oasis.”
“That’s the name they’re going with?” Nan laughed as we climbed out of the trucks.
“Doesn’t that imply some kind of body of water?” I pointed out, shrugging.
We walked through the doors and into a small tent. The tent’s air conditioning was the best thing I had felt in a long time. We had air conditioners back at Spartan, but they were so overworked and choked with dust they struggled just to make our areas livable.
A fat guy sat behind a little desk and welcomed us to The Oasis. “Hey, guys!” he chirped. He was way too happy. I glared at him. “Go ahead and sign in.” He pushed a little clipboard toward us. “And we’ll go around back and turn in your weapons for your stay.”
Our eyes all got wide.
“Turn our weapons in?” Nan stuttered a little. “What if we get attacked?”
“Come on man, you’re at Walton. You’re safe here.” The fat guy smiled. “I want you to think of this place as a safety zone,” he began.
I stopped him. “I’ll give you my weapons if you don’t finish that sentence.” I groaned, signed my name, and walked through to the other side of the tent.
The Oasis was a big area with tents set up in nice neat rows. It had a little seating area in the middle, with nice picnic tables flawlessly lined up. It all looked just a little too groomed for being in the middle of Kandahar.
“Your weapons, please?” the fat guy asked me with his hands out. I handed over my rifle, grenade launcher, and pistol. The fat guy fumbled with all my weapons but eventually put them all into a locker. One by one, we each handed over the one constant we had had in Afghanistan.
Your laptop could break, your sleep could be interrupted, your wife or girlfriend could leave you, but you knew your weapon would always be there for you. I felt naked with my empty holster slapping against my hip as I walked. I turned around and started walking to the tent Nan and I had signed into.
“We are going to chow,” Kitty called out.
“Have fun.” I waved back at them.
“No, we are all going to chow as a squad,” Kitty insisted. Even though she rarely acted like it, she still technically outranked me. I didn’t care. Gunny sent me to Walton to relax and possibly even to sleep. Kitty wasn’t going to stop me from doing that.
“Nah, I’m good.” I kept walking.
Nan nudged me a little. “She could make our stay here a living hell. Just listen to her,” he said.
“I’m sick of that bitch. She thinks she’s in charge of our vacation? Fuck her,” I shot back a little too loud. She heard me say it. What I had meant to be just a bit of minor insubordination was about to get much more severe.
“What did you say?” Kitty screamed at me.
I went all in. “Fuck you!” She’d already heard me; might as well go for it. “Quit acting like your rank fucking means anything, you useless fuck!” I spat.
Nan took a little sidestep away from me.
“We’ll see what happens when Slim finds out about this,” Kitty said and stomped out of the compound toward the chow hall.
For some reason it was never explained to me why Slim would always humor her. Or at least he did to her face. He would hang out with us afterward and we would laugh about how badly we pissed her off but never got in trouble.
Nan laughed and offered me a cigarette. He must have seen that I was shaking with blind anger. I steadied the cigarette and put it in my mouth. Nan lit it for me. I heard laughing somewhere behind us. I turned and saw the fat guy locking his weapons locker.
“What’s so fucking funny?” I snarled, smoke coming from my mouth.
“Calm down, tiger.” The fat guy smiled. “That shit always happens once units get here.” He laughed a little harder. “Dickhead NCOs think they can micromanage the relaxation of soldiers who are already at their breaking point.” He walked back to his front office tent.
Nan started laughing. “You mean there’s more Kittys out there?”
“God, I hope not,” I said through clenched teeth.
Nan and I walked into our tent to find a surprise: the whole tent had been partitioned into individual rooms with pieces of wood. Inside each room, which all had locks on the doors, was a real bed. I sat down on my bed to find it felt like what dreams are made of. My ass sank into the cloud of a mattress. I laid back into the miracle mattress and let its incredible comfort engulf me.
My door opened and Nan came in and sat on my bed. “You want to check out their gym?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said, getting up.
We walked across the rocks and into another tent. It was the first time I had been in a purposefully-built gym in nearly a year. Machines were in gleaming rows with dumbbells all set in their own notches on a shiny new rack.
“It isn’t as good as what we have at Spartan,” I complained.
“You mean the rusty barbells, mismatched dumbbells, and broken treadmill? Or is working outside in the dirt under the blazing sun what you’re missing?” Nan said.
“It builds character.”
“It builds tetanus,” he said.
We decided to work out. We dragged their clean and pristine weights outside onto the rocks. A small Indian guy who was in charge of keeping the gym clean came out and yelled at us, but we ignored him.
Perro walked by as I dropped a barbell loaded with weights and it clanged off the rocks. “What, were you homesick?” he laughed.
“Something like that,” I panted.
After our workout, I went to the shower trailer. It was gleaming white and spotless. There were no masses of pubic hair clogging the drain or the sounds of anyone jerking off in the shower next to you. Absent were the six inches of standing water at the bottom that refused to drain. I turned the shower on and burning hot water came out of the chrome showerhead with enough pressure to make me step back.
I stepped into the shower, and even though the water was brutally hot, I stood there and let it scald me. It felt amazing. It was my first real shower in a few weeks. It was a nice contrast to the short, horribly cold ones with no water pressure we were forced to take at Spartan. I stayed in the shower until the water started to go cold on me. I had stained the pearly-white shower brown with the built-up filth from my body.
Nan and I met up to go to the chow hall. We were in a weird daze and not really sure of what to do. We had no patrol or guard shifts to get ready for. We had nothing to rush around for. Normally, we had to slam down food whenever we could get it, often at strange times. If we waited until after we got back from patrol, there wouldn’t be any food left. Being stuck at Walton, we had all the time in the world to eat and go back for seconds even though we weren’t supposed to.
We filled our pockets with energy drinks and snacks, even though we didn’t really need to steal them anymore. We were so used to stealing shit from Walton’s chow hall it just felt weird leaving without bulging pockets. The Hooligans used Walton as little more than a giant mark. Even though we had logistical and supply units from our company stationed at Walton, we could never get anything from them.
When Gunny took over, he unleashed us on Walton as if we were criminals. Like when we stole the air conditioner from Camp Nathan Smith. He always told us, “They have so much they won’t notice it’s missing.” I don’t know how much of that was true, but I know I didn’t care if they did notice. Gunny would tell us what Camp Spartan needed and let us loose on Walton to steal it.
The best score we ever had was after Bugsy was out walking around having a smoke and noticed a massive shipping container full of mattresses. At the time, we were all sleeping on army-issue cots that were hard to distinguish from the concrete floor. Bugsy ran to Gunny and told him about what he saw. Gunny had us round up all our trucks and rush over to the container. We shoved mattresses anywhere they would fit. We strapped them to the sides of our trucks with rope and stacked them on top next to our gunners. Somehow we were never caught.
Now Nan and I walked around the base and stopped at the bazaar. The bazaar was a tiny shanty town built near the base’s wall and staffed by locals. In some failed attempt to bolster the local economy, they let a few Afghans sell whatever they could get their hands on to the soldiers that lived on the base.
That mostly meant buying badly bootlegged DVDs, purses, and clothes. If you talked to the right person, you could buy weed, booze, and old Soviet military gear. Nothing had a set price, and you could try to talk them down or threaten them with physical violence to get a better deal.
I only used the bazaar to stock up on the newest movies that were out in the U.S. It was a hit or miss type thing. Sometimes the bootlegs you bought were near perfect, other times the person videotaping the screen had only managed to get half the movie. Sometimes the damn DVDs were blank.
After we’d loaded up on bootleg DVDs, we retreated to our tents in the Oasis. I sank into my mattress, but I still couldn’t sleep. I stayed awake and stared at the ceiling of my tent as it rippled in the wind. Everything in my being was exhausted. I was so tired it physically hurt.
Everything ached, and I hadn’t slept in so long that everything kind of felt disconnected, as if I was staring out just above a bonfire. My eyes burned and were blood red. I started to think I might have to talk to someone. I got out of my bed and walked down the narrow plywood hallway to where Nan was staying. I knocked on his door.
“You awake?” I asked.
“Why?” He groaned.
“Um, I think I’m going crazy?” I mused.
“All right, I’m awake.”
I pushed his door open and saw him propped up half-naked in his bed. “Why do you think you’re going crazy?”
I went through everything that had been happening to me. The total lack of sleep, the nightmares when I did fall asleep, and the impact it had been having on me.
“Jesus, man, maybe you should talk to someone.”
“Can you imagine what people would say about me if I had to see a shrink?” I shook my head. “Gunny would take my team leader position in a heartbeat.”
“I thought you hated being a team leader.” Nan laughed. He popped a cigarette in his lips and lit it not seeming to care we were inside a tent.
“I do,” I assured him. “I hate everything about it and my soldiers are retarded. But if I get fired, I could get sent to First Squad or another platoon or something.”
“None of that will matter if you lose your fucking mind,” he pointed out.
“Fuck.” I knew he was making sense, but I didn’t want to hear it. We had always been told that if you needed help, no one would ever stop you and it would stay between you and your command. Everyone knew that was a bunch of shit. As much as I loved Slim, I knew he would eventually tell someone I was going crazy. It would trickle down to the soldiers, and none of them would ever respect me again. I would be called a pussy and a coward for it. I would lose my position and probably be kicked over to a different platoon. There was no way I could do it.
“I can’t.” I shook my head.
“I know.” Nan shrugged.
“You’re not going to tell anyone are you?” I asked.
“Hell no, dude. It’s not like you went running around telling people I threatened you with a grenade.”
“Or you that you stabbed me.”
“Or that I stabbed you.” Nan laughed, smoke escaping his mouth. “I’m going to go email Satan,” he said, getting up. Satan was the name he had given his wife. I had known Nan for over two years, and that was the only name I ever heard him call her. He insisted to everyone that he really did love her. “You try to get some sleep.” He patted me on the shoulder and walked out of the room. The sounds of his flip-flops echoed down the plywood hallway.
Back in my room I sank into my mattress. I stared up at the tan tent ceiling until I drifted off.
I awoke a short time later on the floor in a puddle of sweat. My heart was slamming in my chest, and I had an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. My room was trashed. My bags were thrown everywhere, and my clothes were scattered. I saw my cell phone shattered in pieces on the ground.
I panicked and ran outside. It felt like my world was closing in around me all of a sudden. I couldn’t sleep, I had nightmares, but I never thought I was actually crazy. At first, I tried to tell myself that someone had snuck into my room and wrecked it for reasons not known to me. But I knew that didn’t make any sense. Waking up on the floor in a trashed room really drove home what I was trying to dodge: I was losing my goddamn mind.
I lit a cigarette and paced. I was still exhausted, but there was no way I was going back in there. It was the scene of where my mind had finally snapped. I sucked down one cigarette and then another. Eventually, I did go back to my room. Somehow it seemed like even more of a mess than when I’d first woken up in the middle of it. I rummaged around in the piles of clothes and gear I had thrown everywhere and found a pill bottle. I popped it open and ate a few sleeping pills.
I walked outside and laid down on a bench in the smoking area. The edges of my world got foggy and the stars in the crystal clear night sky started blurring together. Whether I blacked out from the narcotics in my bloodstream or actually fell asleep, I don’t know. I slipped off into the first stress-free sleep I’d had in a very, very long time.