Military history

TWENTY-THREE

After the intense combat of early April, the insurgent presence in Ramadi declined dramatically, partly because our enemies lost so many fighters during the fierce, toe-to-toe battles and partly because many of the most committed terrorists had relocated to Fallujah after the Marine offensive there was halted on April 9. That embattled, cordoned-off city had become the front line in the war against America, so a good deal of the most dedicated insurgents left Ramadi for her smaller sister thirty miles east. During the last two weeks of April, the attacks on Golf Company nearly ceased. Ramadi was eerily quiet.

I enjoyed the calm, but I suspected that it wouldn’t last. We still had five months left in our deployment—five more months of constant fighting and five more months away from our wives and children. And all of the Joker platoon commanders had five more months of the lonely, ever-present burden of combat leadership, of the constant knowledge that forty lives rested on our every decision, of the wound-tight tension of never being able to really share our responsibilities with anyone, and of the sleepless nights that came with all these things.

So, during those few quiet weeks of late April, I visited the platoon’s house as often as my duties and officer-enlisted propriety permitted. Judging how much time to spend around the men, especially in the place where they live, is always a tricky business for a young officer. Spend too much time with them and you risk descending into micromanagement, learning things that you just don’t need to know, or convincing the men that you are their friend. Spend too much time away from them and you risk losing touch with their day-to-day concerns, becoming aloof and disconnected, and convincing the men that you don’t really care because you don’t sacrifice you own personal time. So I walked the thin line between too much and too little and checked on the men every time I could. Every time, I found something different, for, other than knowing that some would be watching movies and some would be writing letters, there was absolutely no way to predict what my Marines would be doing in their downtime. Nearly always, I loved the surprises.

One morning, I walked into the platoon’s courtyard and found, to my immense surprise, that the entire 300-square-foot space was taken up by a plastic children’s wading pool filled with water. Inside it were the extraordinarily pale and skinny Niles and Mahardy—with the exception of their sunburned faces and hands, they looked a lot like long, lean grubworms. Sitting around the pool, sunning themselves as if they were on the beach, were the stocky, tan or black Guzon, Bolding, and Raymond. Bared to the waist, Noriel was just walking out of his room when he spotted me and the obvious shock on my face. Of course, he started grinning from ear to ear.

I was speechless. We hadn’t showered for at least a week, and somehow my Marines had scavenged not only a pool but also the precious water with which to fill it. As it turned out, George the translator had bought the pool at their request during his last foray into town, and Teague had simply pulled over the Iraqi water-delivery truck on its way out of our base and asked it to pump its remaining cargo into our courtyard. (By now, the Ox had engaged an Iraqi company to fill up the two plastic fifty-gallon water reservoirs installed by Achmed the contractor. Thus Golf Company could all take showers roughly once every week.) The scheme had succeeded brilliantly, and now I had multiple Marines crammed into a child’s pool, brown faces and pale bodies pointed up at the sun.

For a minute I didn’t know what to say. Having a wading pool in the courtyard was not only a gigantic waste of water but also a recipe for injury—the more time the Marines spent without a solid roof over their heads, the higher the probability that they would be hit by one of the mortars that in mid-April had begun falling in and around the Outpost nearly every day. I looked at the men. Mahardy was trying to dunk another Marine, Lance Corporal Kepler. Niles was splashing Raymond, who was lying on his sleeping mat in the sun, trying to get a tan. I sighed. Maybe I should have made my Marines dump the water and ditch the pool, but I didn’t have the heart. There were so few things that they could truly enjoy over here, and if the pool was one of them, then I figured I’d let them have their fun for at least a few hours. Once the water became intolerably unsanitary, we’d dump it.

The following day, I walked into the courtyard unexpectedly and found Corporal Walter parading around it wearing only a pair of pantyhose and the little green hot pants, which he had somehow turned into a thong. I immediately about-faced, walked back out, and hoped that no one had seen me. I had no idea how Walter had managed to get his hands on a pair of panty hose, and I had no plans to find out. I didn’t need to know everything that the Marines were doing in their spare time.

Two days later, I warily peered around the courtyard’s entrance. Inside, I saw nine Marines trooping back and forth, all shirtless and covered in blood. I nearly fainted. I rushed through the entrance with my head on a swivel, frantically trying to get a handle on the situation. Noticing my sudden arrival, Bowen ran over, grinning like the Cheshire cat, and I accosted him with nervous questions. Why was everyone bleeding so badly? Why were empty IV bags everywhere? Why did the Marines all look so happy? Why, damn it? Answer me!

As I wound anxiously down, Bowen simply widened his grin and explained that all of the blood, all of the ghastly mess inside our courtyard, was just a part of some IV training he had set up with the docs. It was getting hotter, he said, and everyone needed to be prepared to rehydrate everyone else in the quickest and most effective manner possible: electrolytes straight to the bloodstream. Hearing this explanation, I stared wordlessly at Bowen and at the rest of the Marines, and I marveled. They had spent the last two hours alternately insulting one another and then jabbing one another with needles until everyone bled from at least four different places, all so that they would be better prepared to keep one another alive during combat.

By the day’s end, all of my men were covered in blood and smiling.

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