30 May, 2010.
The flashlight. The uniforms. The vest. The Kevlar. The extra sets of identification tags. The books to act as blinders snuffing out a world that will feverishly breathe and swell just beyond the comforts of fiction. The boots orange with Hawaiian clay from too many field exercises—boots that will soon, once the sand has had its say, become pale as a man approaching the gallows. The photographs of a courtship, a wedding, a honeymoon, one goodbye too many.
You are not in those photographs.
And I pack it all away, daunted by the weight of these things as the fog of Waianae rolls in off the mountains and the ocean is like mercury thirteen stories below our lodging in the Makaha Valley Towers. My husband helps to push the layers of accumulated necessities down further and tighter into the duffel bag. The apartment is bereft of words. We stopped laughing when the sun rose and slit wide our last day together before we would face, with such sorrow, three hundred and sixty-five apart.
When the bags have been packed, we haul them down to an elevator that smells of old water. We drag them against the black asphalt toward the car, and I find that I am greedily absorbing every color of this island: the burnt umber of the grassy hills behind the Towers, the aggressive pink of hibiscus that night will snuff out entirely. I soak those colors up, fully aware that my future is beige and beige alone.
We listen to the wind wailing through the sliding-glass windows and the rain that pelts the door, and eat a dinner that tastes of ash. We start the ritual of stripping the apartment; my husband cannot stay on Oahu alone with its veneer of an aloha never returned. Once everything is bare of any evidence of our rented cohabitation—the walls, the tables, the closets and dressers—I can start pretending to sleep.
I stare at the phone on the nightstand and know on some instinctual level, some wordless understanding of the blood I did not choose and the man responsible for the invention of that blood, that you will not call. Even still, I have invented the scenarios of that conversation, the words transmuting with each rendition. I have imagined that you might confess to not agree with who I am or with the husband whose name I chose to carry forever. I have imagined you saying that, in spite of these things, you could not stomach the thought of your daughter going to a country that might be her end without telling her that you hope she will survive and have children of her own. That you hope she will return safely to once more see the town where she was born and will hold the remaining generations of Mangan and Smith in her arms again. I imagine your voice—choked, yet still stubbornly holding on to that ice-covered politeness—begrudgingly admitting that you could not bear the thought of letting your youngest child travel to a hostile desert that is hungry for her bones without her hearing first-hand that you love her.
What would I even say if I was to answer that long-awaited phone call? Would the light of forgiveness carry me fearlessly into tomorrow? After all this time, I am still the genuflecting child waiting for your approval. Waiting for you to look up from your life for the most fleeting of seconds and acknowledge my own.
But the hours pass, and I am left with the rancid pit of a two-year silence you do not breach. I do not delude myself into thinking that you will lose sleep on this night, as my husband and I will lose it and never get it back.
The last day together climbs into its urn. Day zero is born, day of goodbye, day of the long desert-bound road. I hear the television that my husband stares at but does not watch. He waits for the chirp of the 0300 alarm to sound. He will make a fresh pot of Kona and he will drive me, with his hand gripping mine so firmly that I cannot tell which one trembles, to the bus that will take me away. As is his custom, he will not cry until I am no longer there to see it.
23 June, 2010.
We are so many fatherless children, here. I cannot claim singularity in that standing. On this side of the wall and the other, it seems we are a generational trend. The majority of my friends in uniform either come from families that were the inevitable splintered outcome of too-young marriages and mid-life crises, or they come from households where the intended patriarch abandoned ship long before the word “family” could ever be whispered at all.
The other side of Forward Operating Base Warhorse’s barriers exhibits a war-torn variation on the theme: by the time we are no longer walking these dunes, Iraq will have lost some 110,000 nationals to the coalition forces, to ethnic cleansing amongst the Sunni and the Shi’a, and to the radicals who did not concern themselves with who should have been the successor to Muhammad. Around 81% of those buried will be men.
I find some universalism among that grief. A commonness of having been orphaned in one way or another.
On my first convoy, traveling five hours to supply food and water to a smaller FOB, I feel like this foreign land is undressing itself for me, and once it is undressed, it takes to peeling its skin away and smiling all the while. I look upon the sun-hardened faces of children who run naked through the ruins of burned orchards, upon the rotting date seeds that the hooded crows pick at and carry away. I watch the children fearlessly run toward our juggernaut vehicles. I cannot tell if the joy on their faces is the joy that comes before a harsh suicide, or if they are only wearing masks of affability so that we might throw candy or bottled water or small plush toys from the turrets.
Yesterday brought the vermillion of sandstorm, but there are no clouds today. The dust layers the palms, forces them to submit their vibrancy under the reign of beige that seems to characterize all of Baqubah, save for the few daring houses painted in blinding hues of tangerine or plum. The donkeys traveling beside the roads bear too much weight, and all around are banners of white-bearded men riding lions. Farmers till the unproductive and littered land, bent crooked over their grub hoes and watching us pass with something like solemn resignation on their faces.
We pass a graveyard of metal, one thousand rusted vehicles and appliances destroyed by explosives that one side or the other are responsible for. We pass dunes where no man lives.
Fields full of non-degradable trash, crumbling mud-huts, tainted water sources, every new figurehead of local politics shuffling in line to be murdered and replaced. It’s a province of rubble, now, and it’s hard to believe it was ever anything but. There was a time when this was a profitable land. I try to picture it, try to see lush orange groves and coppices of figs and olive trees, try to see the medieval merchants transporting opulent silks from Baghdad to Khorasan. I try to see a place once considered a haven in The Great War, when the Assyrians crossed the Diyala river in search of a land where they were free to press their palms together in honor of the Nazarene.
The roads begin to empty as the call to prayer nears. Cars pull over on the unpaved shoulders, and the drivers take the prayer rugs from their passenger seats, holding them with the respect of sacred things. They carefully unroll their rugs and search for the cleanest place to kneel.
By the time Iqama sounds, the travelers are already crouched in wait for Dhuhr, the prayer that ripples over the hills when the sun is at its highest perch. They touch their foreheads to the earth and lift their eyes up again to stare at the sky as if doubtless that something past that cutting blue is staring back. The white muslin of their thawbs is luminous in the sun, and as they bow and rise and bow and rise they look like rows of fainting lilies.
15 August, 2010.
I am stricken most with the fact that he was born 6 days after me, on a near-blizzard January day in Palmyra, New Jersey. SGT Jamal Rhett was raised by his mother and his aunt, shuffling from New Jersey to Pennsylvania and back again. His mother calls him her “Knight.” In his obituary, his list of survivors does not include a father.
I had never met SGT Rhett before his death. We’d wandered different parts of Oahu, knowing nothing of each other and having no reason to cross paths; he lived in the barracks, I lived off-post with my husband. He was a medic attached to an Infantry unit, the kind who gets dragged through the dirt and is lovingly referred to by the Soldiers as “Doc.” I was a medic in the Brigade Support Battalion, surrounded by an entire company of medics, lab techs, mental health practitioners, radiologists and etcetera; all of us branded with the caduceus, all of us marked forever with the number 68.
When he arrives at the Teal Medical Facility, I am barely awake, groggy from the night shift. He is brought in on a blood-soaked litter as the brothers whose lives he’d saved tremble and shout what had happened through stutters and shock and half-swallowed sobs.
“I tried to shoot the motherfucker, but he just disappeared in the crowd,” the gunner numbly says of the stranger who lobbed a grenade in through the turret. “I looked him dead in the eyes. Then, just like ‘bam,’ fucking gone.”
I can sense in my bones that the kid blames himself for the grenade’s trajectory, and would replay the moment in all of his dreams to come; how it had bounced off the metal lip of the hatch, bumped against his thigh on its way into the Stryker, and rolled toward the rear corner of the vehicle, where SGT Rhett was sitting. The gunner can’t remember if he’d even had time to shout “Grenade!” before the thing spoke for itself.
“Five minutes from base. Should’ve been home free,” the driver repeats more than once.
I have nothing in the way of words that I can say to comfort them. I am silent, watching them as they crack their knuckles and look to me for answers I will never be able to supply. I cannot even form the shape of an apology in my mouth. I am your daughter, after all.
Like the lashes endured by the Savior, SGT Rhett’s back was stripped of the flesh that the sun once lingered on during summer days at the public pool. His ribs glossy and white. Eyes closed. A beautiful stranger whose hand I never got to shake in greeting. A young man loved deeply enough by his brothers in arms that the aid station has become humid with their tears, even as they attempt to stubbornly hold them back like boys who have decided they are now men, and are no longer allowed such luxuries.
“2009 has been a difficult year with much adversity,” SGT Rhett had written in a letter home on New Years of 2010. “God has been very good to me. He gave me strength to get past things that some people would have crumbled if they dealt with it. Faith in myself and faith in God was all I needed. 2010 is going to be a good year.”
Looking upon a face that is youthful in spite of its stubble, I cannot help but wonder what you are doing on this August day. Are you golfing with your corporate friends, the grass lush and orderly and free of scars or defects or anything else that might remind you of the unpleasantness of the world outside your Floridian microcosm? Are you at George Mangan Insurance in your old-fashioned mahogany office, where you’d replaced your framed photographs of me and my brother with ones of you and your fiancée? Are you staring up in prayer at the portrait of your father—the previous owner of the family business, the former Ocala City Mayor, the veteran of Normandy, George Mangan himself? Are you at a restaurant getting quietly and coldly upset with a waiter who has not yet replaced your empty glass of tea with a fresh glass beading with condensation? Are you staring at the phone and convincing yourself how right you are to still not call, to not apologize for the fact that you were not the one to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day and you were not the one to walk me to the bus that brought me here? Are you envisioning this terrifying and haunting and beautiful place where the wailing of Salat in the night burrows beneath the skin and will stay forever inside a person? Are you laughing at quaint anecdotes of the Historical District, a gilded and sandless world away, having never seen the emptiness overtaking our faces as the black body bag closes in around SGT Jamal Rhett?
In this moment I feel that I am a fraud for grieving this stranger, for shedding tears over some lost innocence I’d never really possessed to begin with, for being so forever changed by the death of a man whose life I had not even been conscious of until August 15th of 2010. This man who was only six days younger than me, born under the same winter’s moon.
It will take me many years to forgive myself the indulgence of having grieved, and to understand that I am mourning the man as a long-lost brother to this uniformed, digital-patterned family that has come to mean more to me than my blood. It will take me many years to understand that they are why I do this, that there is no other justification wanted or needed than my love for them. It will take many years to see that those who knew me well enough to hear this story in the low graveside hush of my voice (those friends of the desert and the family I chose for myself and the one whose ring I accepted as he humbly knelt), they are the thing I mourned—mourned before I have even lost them. They are the thing my heart has starved for all these years in the utter absence of you.
15 June, 2011.
On those first few nights back I wake around 0100, waiting for the sounds of Isha to echo sourceless through the desert. All that lamentation over lost prophets.
I wake from dreams of a childhood that seems so far away, the curly-haired girl running in the grass who could not shake the idea that the sun was following her. The girl sitting in your lap and scribbling on the inner linings of books with every color of crayon, who would later leave a fistful of those crayons in the passenger seat of your car to melt into a multi-hued scab of wax under the unforgiving Florida sun. Dreams where I was the child smiling at the MRAPs roaring by and kicking up clouds of chalk that line my mouth, waiting for water to be thrown my way. I wake and I feel that it is all a past worth letting go of.
We have taken lodging as guests in someone else’s home, renting a room so that silence does not start chewing on us again. In a friendlier part of the island, a part bereft of air-conditioning and bereft of trade winds, so that the air is clammy and blunt. The colors of the island hurt my eyes, feel like I am being bludgeoned with their over-saturation. Night is forgivingly monochromatic, night is when I feel safe enough to look.
The sand is still within me. I want to tell my husband this as we lay in bed at night, sticky in the tepid Hawaiian summer. I want to point at my chest where I feel the grains circling. I want to confess that it’s still within me and I don’t know if it’ll turn to shards of glass or into a pearl but it will kill me either way, it will kill me either way.
I don’t say these words, never quite understanding them myself.
12 December, 2012.
I fight off the nerves of impending Afghanistan by running in the night, the altitude and the dry cold wind of El Paso crystallizing in my lungs. I watch the city lights scintillating in the distance and I run as if they are my destination, something that is always just out of reach. After seven miles, I stop and stand in the road that dusk has emptied of its usual Ft. Bliss traffic. The darkness seems to be closing in. Whether it is suffocating me or enshrouding me has been and will always be dependent upon how I choose to greet it.
I am alone this time around. My husband is in Florida, still reeling from the realization that I am disappearing from him, all over again. A new unit. A new slab of rock. A new sarcophagus.
I stare at the canyons in a desert that almost feels like home. As if I have been here before, or have never left.
My brother tells me that you took him to the Elk’s Club for lunch to celebrate his 30th birthday. He says that he informed you that I was deploying again, this time to a land even more untamed than Iraq. He says that you stared down at your plate of watery salad for a very long time, and you suddenly looked very old, a man whose face has become as gray as his hair. And once you finally did have something to say over the matter, you told him “Well, I wish her the best,” without seeming to grasp the emptiness of the words when they’re spoken to a proxy.
The wind now is like the sigh that follows last words, and I am afraid of the black bag, of the folded flag, of dying so far from home. I am also afraid of never seeing the place again, and being left to question whether such a desert had ever been real at all. I am afraid of how cold I have become, my father’s daughter. I am afraid that the only true war story is one that never ends.
Like a talisman, I hear the words spoken by a man I did not know but miss all the same: 2013 is going to be a good year.
I run back through the empty roads and I make it to my temporary barracks a few hours before day zero comes to take me away. I bathe with my headphones still in to usher the silence out of the room, to show it that it has no dominion here. I call my husband while I’m still drying off, feeling the light of the laughter he has somehow found for my sake as it travels through all the copper wires and airwaves, keeping the sand from condensing in my heart. I say I will love him for as long as there is blood in my veins and for as long as there is someone and something in this world worth spilling it for. I tell him that he is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I tell him to not be afraid: I will come home to him.
Flashlight. Uniforms. Vest. Kevlar. Every hoarded photograph and memory of unrepeatable moments in an unrepeatable life. Pack it all away.
I will carry the weight and grow stronger for bearing it. I will appreciate every pound.
I wonder if sleep escapes you, for once. I wonder if you have noticed that I am no longer kneeling before you, awaiting the approbation that will never come. I am standing, now, my blood and my bones are my own, my name belongs to another and I wear it every day on the right side of my chest as a reminder of who I am, who I have come to be.
I will sleep, no longer waiting for your call that is several years too late, with the realization that I have forgotten the sound of your voice.