A Break From the War

This story, first published in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Vol. 5, is about the pride of the infantryman. Have you ever seen a war movie about a cook or a finance clerk?

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Generation after generation, infantry soldiers have fought in the worst of conditions, often undermanned, poorly fed and equipped, and most certainly under-rested. While many soldiers with “soft-skills” have looked down upon infantry soldiers as dumb grunts, bullet stoppers, ground pounders, dirty nasty legs, dog faces, or any number of other names, infantrymen have worn those titles with pride. We have prepared for and expected the worst. We have faced our enemies, pushed forward under fire, climbed mountains, trekked across deserts, walked asleep while our feet bled and our bodies ached from the weight of our new and improved lightweight gear. We have punished our bodies, destroyed knees, ankles, backs, and shoulders, and we have kept going. Our humor is crude and vulgar. I was once called a walking EO complaint and told I couldn’t have the comedic role at a dining-in, because I couldn’t “keep it clean”. Infantrymen talk about sex, death, shit, fumunda cheese, and everything else that shouldn’t be included in polite conversation. We share stories, and we laugh about all of it. We use racial slurs, but call everyone wearing crossed-rifles, brother. We joke, but we all know that the only colors we really see are green and infantry blue. We are dirty. We are nasty. We are grunts.

We, too, have judged our fellow soldiers. Tom Hanks did a great job of showing it in Saving Private Ryan, when he went to find a clerk who spoke French and German. While his men recovered from fighting their way onto the beaches, Tom Hanks’ character stood watching the headquarters soldiers shaving with hot water and shaving cream. Another soldier had a sandwich on a plate that was overloaded with meat. Tom Hanks had a look of surprise and disgust on his face. It is the same look a grunt gets when he hears soldiers complaining about the lack of internet, the line for a phone call, or the shortage of DVDs at the PX on any FOB. “Soft-skilled” soldiers have been called POGUEs (Person other than grunt) or REMFs (Rear Echelon Motherfuckers). I’m sure that there are many more.

This story tells of my platoon’s run-in with a senior NCO, who was not an infantryman. While I have added some color to this story and filled in some gaps, most of it happened just as it says below.

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“A Break From the War”

We turned off of Iraq’s Highway 1 just as the sun was dropping behind the groves of tall dust-coated palm trees to the west. Home sweet home, I thought as we pulled through the checkpoint into Camp Taji. I felt relieved, but I knew we would only be here long enough to get our vehicles patched up, grab some ammo, and throw on a clean uniform.

We had been out for days, living in our Strykers and fighting in the streets of Sadr City. The armor on our vehicles was scraped and pockmarked by bullets and shrapnel. The camo nets that hung over our trucks on welded rebar frames were torn and ragged. My slat armor was bent and broken, and the lens on our thermal machine gun sight had been shattered by a skilled sniper’s bullet. Cans for spare water and fuel that rested on the backs of our trucks were filled with bullet holes and no longer useful. Two of our vehicles were limping on flattened tires.

We were a sad-looking bunch, and soldiers and civilian contractors stopped what they were doing and stared as we passed by.

Sergeant First Class Arambula called our platoon leader on the radio, “Maggot 6, this is Maggot 7, over.”

“Go ahead, 7,” came his reply.

“Hey, Sir, the chow hall stops serving in about 12 mikes, let’s get the boys some hot chow.”

“Roger that.”

Our lead vehicle turned toward Taji’s main chow hall. We hadn’t gotten a hot meal, a shower, or even a change of clothes in over a week. I looked down from my squad leader’s hatch and told the men in my vehicle, “Hey, change of plans. Maggot 7 says we are getting chow before we do anything else.”

“Fuck yeah!” one of my team leaders shouted back.

Outside the chow hall, my gunner, Sergeant Taaga, lowered the ramp, and we poured out of the vehicle. We removed our body armor, and stretched, feeling light and airy after dropping the weight. Our shirts were sweat-soaked under our heavy vests, and there were white salt rings around our sleeves and just below our belts. Once all of our gear was back inside the Stryker, we grabbed our weapons and walked inside.

As the first soldiers from the platoon moved toward the stack of trays at the start of the serving line, a master sergeant stood up from his seat in front of a large flat-screen TV. With a steaming cup of coffee in his hand and a disapproving look on his face, he approached a few of the men in my platoon. His desert boots were free of mud, and his uniform looked clean and new. He was clean-shaven and had hair clippings in his ears, as he had come straight from the base barber shop before dinner.

“Who is in charge here? You guys can’t be coming into the DFAC like this,” he protested.

Specialist Haney, a 6’ 4” black kid from Kansas, with a dusty face that made his complexion look a few shades lighter than it actually was and wearing a torn combat t-shirt, looked up as he grabbed a tray. Ignoring the usual military customs and courtesies, he nodded his toward the back of the line and said in a deep bass, “Back there, Sar’nt.” He turned toward the food before the angry master sergeant could even respond.

As the men of my platoon started grabbing trays and moving through the line to get a hot meal, the angry master sergeant stomped toward the back of the line, his eyes squinted and brow furrowed; his face and freshly buzzed head growing deeper red with each step. “Who’s the platoon sergeant?” he shouted.

Sergeant First Class Arambula stepped out from the back of the line, and said, “This is my platoon.”

“Hey sar’nt, you guys can’t be coming in here like this. Combat t-shirts aren’t allowed to be worn without body armor, and your guys are filthy. They can’t be in here where people are trying to eat. You need to get your men out of here.”

SFC Arambula glared at him. Struggling to remain calm, he said, “My guys haven’t had a hot meal in over a week, and the chow hall closes in a few minutes. You guys want to sit here in a combat zone with your internet, your hot showers, and your laundry service, and then you want to tell us that we can’t get a meal because we are too dirty. This is war, Sar’nt. We have been fighting for days, and my men are going to get a hot meal before we go back outside the wire while you sit here all safe and cushy calling home to mama every night and making sure you don’t miss taco Tuesday. Meanwhile, we are out there taking the fight to the enemy, dodging bullets and IEDs and RPGs. My men are going to sit down at a table, and they are going to have a hot meal and soak up some air conditioning.”

The master sergeant started to say something and then thought better of it. After stammering for a moment he finally asked, “Where are you guys coming from?”

SFC AB looked at him and replied, “Sadr City.”

The master sergeant looked surprised, and his expression changed. “Sadr City? No shit? Hey man, I didn’t know. Get your guys some chow, sar’nt. What’s it like down there?”

All he said was, “It’s combat,” then he turned to face the front of the line.

The master sergeant took the hint and walked back to his seat. He sounded like he’d met a celebrity when he told the major sitting next to him, “They’ve been in Sadr City.”

I followed my men through the chow line, and we all sat together at a long cafeteria table. It was the first time we had sat down in a safe place in over a week. We were free from the weight of our helmets, our weapons, and our body armor. There was no smoke, no explosions, no gunfire. We were dusty, and dirty, and exhausted, but we had hot food and a place to sit.

When we sat to eat, I noticed how exhausted my soldiers looked. I watched them glancing around the chow hall at the other soldiers, and I knew exactly what they were thinking. Fucking POGs; sitting here bitching about chow, trying to figure out what movie you’ll watch at the rec. center tonight. You have no fucking idea. Our older grunt brothers from Vietnam would have called them REMFs, or Rear Echelon Motherfuckers. I could see it on their dirty faces.

We were there in a chow hall, on a base where a lot of soldiers spend their entire deployment. It was a brief rest, and we needed it. We looked like hell. Our hands were shaky, and our eyes were circled by dark rings and carried heavy bags. Our backs hurt and our feet ached. We sat quietly, almost in a daze, eating our meals and replaying in our minds close calls from the last several days.

We remained at our table even after the serving line shut down, taking our time eating, and just enjoying the down time. Soldiers at nearby tables stared at us and made remarks about how dirty we were, how fucked up our uniforms were, how bad we smelled, and how we shouldn’t even be allowed in the chow hall.

The news spread one table at a time, “Those guys just came back from Sadr City,” someone whispered.

Then someone quietly informed another group of soldiers sitting nearby, “Holy shit. Those fucking guys were in Sadr City.”

“Damn, look at them,” another soldier said.

“Fuck that,” someone else said.

The stares changed. Now they looked at us in awe, like we were the real deal, warriors just returned from the battlefield.

I nudged one of my team leaders sitting next to me with my elbow, and nodded my head toward the flat screen TV on the wall near the end of our table. A CNN reporter was explaining that Sadr City was not under government control, and he said it was the most dangerous city in Iraq. The men at my table sat, staring at the screen, letting those words sink in, “the most dangerous city in Iraq.”

One of my guys at the end of the table said, “Fuck that place.”

The screen flashed from the news anchor to footage of a firefight. There on the news, we saw our unit patch on the sleeve of a soldier running past the camera. The cameraman turned the camera, and we saw two of our soldiers taking cover and firing their weapons, exchanging shots with enemy fighters. Some of the guys hooted and hollered. Someone shouted, “Hey Sergeant Fraleigh, look at that shit, you’re fucking famous.”

Some of the guys clapped and cheered, while others smacked him on the back. “Lookin’ good, Frolo,” one of the other sergeants said.

Another soldier shouted, “Why do they always get the ugliest motherfuckers on camera?”

Fraleigh laughed and replied, “Fuck you, motherfucker. They just didn’t get my good side.”

We all laughed. The soldiers at the tables around us just stared, unsure what to think.

After dinner our vehicles were patched up, and we cleaned our weapons and drew more ammunition. We took showers and put on clean uniforms, and some of the guys got an hour or so of sleep before meeting back at our Strykers in the wee hours of the morning. Once everyone was there, we double-checked our equipment, made sure our radios were functioning properly, and prepared to drive back into hell – a place that most soldiers will never really know.

The base was still as we drove through the dark streets headed toward the gate. Generators and air conditioners hummed as soldiers slumbered in their beds. By the time they were in line at the omelet bar, we would be back in the streets of Sadr City under enemy fire.

As we rolled through the gate, SGT Fraleigh called over the radio, “Let’s go get some, you Motherfuckers.”

And we did.

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