This is lightly fictionalized, but it's based closely on my brother's actual experiences in Iraq a couple of years ago. The words are largely his.
A Sunday Off
He hadn’t had a day off in two weeks. Two weeks he’d spent, working all hours of the day and night in the Commo center, handling signals, keeping up with equipment inventories, managing ammunition records, and whatever else the superiors had seen fit to throw his way. During those two weeks he had only been out from behind the wire on the FOB once. And that Iron Claw sweep he’d been out on then had not been much fun, to say the least.
Now he had Sunday off. Sort of, that is—he’d actually worked until the wee hours of the morning, then racked out until nearly noon. But this afternoon was his. Should he watch a movie? Read? No, he had to get out of the hooch and stretch his legs. This time it wasn’t going to be one of those jogs he fit in whenever he got the chance. He was going to take it easy.
First he went a few blocks down streets still muddy from the rainy season, past the artillery motor pool and acres of parked vehicles and concertina wire. He passed the little strip of trees where the coyotes—or something that looked and howled a lot like them, anyway—came to check him out when he walked to work at night. There were five of them, two males and three females. They would walk along with him in a kind of formation for a little way, never getting too close. He had found that they liked peanut butter and didn’t much care for egg rolls.
The tree-lined, little-used perimeter road beckoned. To get there he’d have to cross that nasty drainage ditch. It was shallow—but no way was he about to wade through that muck. About a half mile away he came to a water gate that spanned the canal. It was only a few inches wide. He’d have to be careful, especially with the weight of a SAW and a couple hundred rounds on his back. He made it over safely, glad nobody had been around to witness his balancing performance.
About a quarter-mile down the road he saw a break in the trees and dense reeds that separated the road from the canal that lay between it and the perimeter wall. He stepped off the road and down the bank.
It was only a few steps, and yet they took him into a different world. There was undergrowth here. Birds burst out of the reeds as he removed his gear and eased himself down to the ground. Startled black ducks skimmed across the canal’s surface for a way, then settled and paddled around. A breeze stirred the reeds. In a nearby tree a long-necked bird—an egret, perhaps?—perched. Songbirds lighted on the swaying reeds. All he heard was their song and the rustling of the breeze.
He filled a pipe and sat for a bit, listening. The canal had a kind of vaguely fishy, vaguely swampy smell to it. It smelled like the nearby Euphrates. The smell reminded him a lot of the fishing camps along the Little Missouri back home. It seemed odd that anything in the storied “Cradle of Civilization” could remind a small-town Arkansas boy of home. Down the Euphrates a way lay the ruins of Ur, the city from which God had called Abraham at the dawn of the Bible’s history. He had seen Ur on his previous deployment. If the area has been then much like it was now, God had not had to twist Father Abraham’s arm too much to call him away!
This place of reeds and cool water and bird song wasn’t a totally different world from the rest of the FOB. Just across the canal stood the perimeter wall. About a hundred meters away along the wall squatted a guard post covered with camo nets. The occupants had to have spotted him. No telling what they made of him sitting out there. But they left him alone.
Across the wall he heard children playing, laughing and yelling to each other. He couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying. They sounded pretty much the same as children playing anywhere. He had missed hearing that in recent months. A moment later he reflected that a mother’s warnings and disapproving sounds were also much the same in any language.
Had it really been only a few days ago that he had gone out on that Iron Claw sweep? It was a duty most soldiers in the unit pulled now and then. They had been cruising down the highway, eyes open for any signs of IEDs—mines, or old arty shells stuck on highway guard rails (most of which had been removed by now to prevent that tactic), or weird stuff like that bicycle IED one unit had found propped against a wall a while back. It wasn’t just themselves they were looking out for. The next scheduled convoy depended on the Iron Claw mission to clear the route for them.
And they didn’t see one in time.
It was an EFP—an improvised hollow charge made of pipe packed with explosives and capped with a shaped bit of copper. The whole thing was only a few inches long and hard to spot. When it went off the copper vaporized, turning into a poor man’s version of a HEAT round. The one they hit had blasted right into their vehicle’s engine compartment with an ear-ringing bang.
The vehicle had started burning…they’d piled out, hunkering down in the shelter of the burning wreck lest any bad guys were hiding nearby ready to light them up…counted noses…radioed for help. Everybody was all right. As the armored M1114s had rolled in to the rescue a second IED buried nearby to catch them as they bailed out went off. One guy—he didn’t know him personally—had taken a sliver in the leg from that one. They had thrown him into an HMMWV and patched him up while their vehicle burned out completely nearby.
No, it hadn’t been much fun, that particular trip out from behind the wire. Still, he got fed up hanging around on the FOB for weeks on end, with no way to see the country. You took your chances going anywhere in this country. You took your chances just staying here, what with the occasional mortar rounds or rockets or small arms rounds dropping in unexpectedly. The green hands spent a lot of time freaking out over every little bang, not knowing you were statistically about as safe in one place as in another.
After about half an hour he stood and geared up. The birds were startled again. One soiled his weapon as it fled. Good thing he carried a rag to clean it. He walked back onto the road and continued his journey around the base, past the odd little building with the heavy security, past the sentry sneaking an unauthorized cigarette, the vehicle repair yards, and all the rest.
By the time he got back he had been gone for about two and a half hours. They had been the most relaxing hours he had experienced in a long time. Back at the hooch, he watched a video, read his Bible a bit, wrote and sketched some, showered, and enjoyed Chinese for supper. Around 1000 hours he decided it was time to rack out. Next day, back to the old grind. But today had been a lovely day.
Love your enemies. Bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you and persecute you, that you may be the children of your Father who is in Heaven.