When I was a Specialist

We were on convoy to Mosul from our home, LSA Anaconda, Balad, Iraq.  It was nearly summer, and although it was not yet as hot as it was going to get, it was scorching nonetheless.  The only thing I could do about it was drink water, lots of water.  You can imagine the predicament when the only definite stop would be a quick, tactical refuel of the gun trucks on the side of the road.  Stopping for any other reason was never a good thing.  In fact, at one point I didn’t think I could make it to our refuel point, so I cut off the top of a two liter water bottle, dropped my drawers and said, “Okay Bero…SING!”

I could see the thought flash across his eyes – Oh, no this isn’t happening – but it certainly was, and he started despite the awful awkwardness:

“My country ’tis of the thee, sweet land…”

“LOUDER!”

“OF LIIIIIIIIBERTYYYY, OF THEE I SING….”

But I couldn’t do it.  Stage fright, you know.  Thankfully, we stopped to refuel not too long after that, and we made it to camp in one piece, my bladder intact.

We made the usual rounds.  Shopped at the PX even though it had the same exact stuff as every other PX in Iraq.  Ate at the chow hall, comparing it to every other chow hall we’d been to.  It was always the same thing, day in, day out.  The same conversations hashed and rehashed a thousand times.  You were either bored or getting blown up.  The two extremes we were perpetually in were all so routine, and we were all so desensitized because there was nothing but boredom and mortar fire, road hypnotism and IEDs, the same old, same old…possible death by the hands of an enemy we never saw.

So we ate chow and bought stuff we didn’t need, in hopes that we could satisfy our one true desire to feel like the normal people we used to be.  I, myself, bought a bag of lollipops.  I would be ready this time.  We all went back to our billets – the usual, good ol’ tent city.  While there, some stayed up and watched DVDs on their portable players or listened to CDs.  Some played bones, some played spades.  Others merely slept.  Nothing changed but the day.

We woke up the next day, early I’m sure.  Ate breakfast.  (“Anaconda has much better breakfast…)  We rolled out.  It was just beginning to get too hot to breathe.  But I didn’t care, I was ready.  I had the bag of lollipops on my lap, underneath my M16.

The convoy made it through the gate with the usual hassle of the guards making sure wer were supposed to be leaving and at the right time and that we had enough gun trucks and commo and whatever else it is that was required to go outside the wire.  The village was right outside the camp.  And just like when we had driven through the day before, barefoot children in rags were lined up on either side of the road.

“You know you aren’t supposed to do that, ” said SSG Bero as I opened the bag of candy.

“Yeah, well, I’m going to anyways.”

And I began tossing out lollipop after lollipop, watching the kids scramble over each other, and others still running out of their crumbling homes to get everything they could from the soldiers who were giving them candy and food and all the other things we weren’t supposed to.  I laughed and smiled, probably blew a kiss or two, and continued to throw out candy.  Eventually, of course, I ran out.  And yet the children kept advancing, tens, hundreds, thousands, millions, and I just didn’t have enough lollipops.  I could never have enough lollipops.  The feeling of helplessness was immediate and suffocating.  I fought to choke back tears.  I’m a soldier.

“Christ Rodgers, what’s wrong?!?!” SSG Bero asked.

“Look at all this, these people, this town, this country.  This isn’t just the poor section of town, this is poverty, and it’s the MAJORITY.  And I can’t do a thing, not one damn thing about it, Bero,” I said with a sweeping hand, my face all hot with tears, wanting him, needing him to understand just how powerless I felt at that moment.

I saw his jaw flex as if he did indeed understand me, and then he said, quite quietly, “But you are doing something.”

I was silent for a moment, and then replied, just as quietly, “Yeah, I guess I am.”