The Last Deployment
How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq
By Bronson Lemer
The University of Wisconsin Press
Copyright © 2011 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.
Chapter One Olympic Hopefuls
Soldiers are erasing Saddam Hussein from Iraq. They start in Firdos Square on April 9, 2003, helping an ecstatic group of Iraqi citizens topple a twenty-foot statue of Saddam constructed for the ruler's sixty-fifth birthday. The Iraqi men have been throwing shoes at the statue—a great insult in the Arab world. Marines come along, attach a chain to Saddam's ankles, and tug. They pull the statue diagonally. Saddam's erect hand—held out as if he were saluting the moon—swivels from sky to ground. With one last tug the statue tips forward, its legs snapping in half, sending Saddam crashing down to the swarm of Iraqi men waiting below.
The Iraqi citizens pounce on the toppled ruler. They tear the statue apart, first taking a head, dragging it through the streets as children throw shoes and shout in joy. The men offer several swift rib kicks to the statue, which now lies face down in the rubble. Saddam doesn't moan; he lies there and takes it. The soldiers and men find other symbols of Saddam and pull at their seams until the monuments give way, falling like old farmhouse chimneys, backbones no longer strong enough to support the weight of a crumbling country. At billboards, soldiers erase Saddam's image from Iraq as they whitewash them clean, children gleefully wiping away the former leader.
On May 25 we pull up to a soccer stadium in Baghdad and notice a bronze statue of a young boy in soccer garb, one cleated foot holding down a dirty, white, cement soccer ball. The bronze boy has a painted yellow jersey and matching knee-high socks. He stands on a slab of cinder blocks and mortar, facing the soccer stadium, a welcoming symbol of this country's fondness for soccer.
We file from the truck—our weapons in hand—and out onto the parking lot in front of the stadium. I stretch, my back bowing, arms still holding my rifle as I push the weapon into the sky. My body aches from the trip—miles through the half-dark streets of Baghdad, the city still encased in morning light. We've been conducting Task Force Neighborhood missions for almost a week, traveling into the city to repair schools, hospitals, and now soccer stadiums. The city streets look the same, but the people always change.
The missions are more menial than I imagined. The tasks are simple: repair three dozen wooden school desks, build a brick wall at a hospital, rewire the electricity for a fire station. But the people are what drain me. It's a numbers thing—there are always so many more of them than of us. They follow us as we walk around their neighborhoods; millions of eyes are watching us all the time. I can't get past the fact that I am the stranger here. I am the one walking into their homes, their schools, down their streets. They should be able to watch me, but I still get uneasy seeing them standing on street corners, watching us stretch and grumble about another mission in this miserable place.
Our vehicles have formed a horseshoe in the lot. At the edge of the horseshoe, children and men have started to appear, tan faces with curious eyes. I look over to the entrance of the stadium and notice a herd of U.S. military officers—captains, lieutenants, sergeant majors—talking to an Iraqi man, pointing into the stadium. Next to the officers is the boy, the bronze boy, poised in front of the stadium. He stands ready, his arms folded behind his back, his proud chin up, his eyes a dull, muted gray. His jersey is streaked with white bird shit, yet he remains tall, a survivor against his hardships.
Newman, my squad leader, stares at me.
"You and Jones stay with the vehicles for now," he says, before leading the rest of the squad toward the stadium.
"Shit," I say under my breath as I walk back to the truck, deflated from having to do guard duty.
Jones doesn't seem to mind. He sits in the back of the truck and drinks from his canteen. I lean against the tailgate and stare off into the crowd forming at the perimeter. These missions always garner masses of Iraqi citizens—mostly curious kids and men without jobs. For a while the children walk by as if nothing has changed, ignoring us. But soon curiosity strikes, and they look at Jones and me with inquisitive eyes. Most of them are barefoot. Some wander by in loose sandals. They eyeball our weapons. An older boy rides by on his bike, watching us sip water from our canteens. He nearly crashes into a group of men standing at the curb across the street. The boy circles around and makes another pass, again gazing at us, our weapons, the MREs (Meals-Ready-to-Eat) we have in the back of the truck. He doesn't stop. Instead, he turns away and disappears down the road.
The men are jobless. They stand in groups of three or four, some dressed casually in dark slacks and cast-off T-shirts with Coca-Cola slogans. They talk quietly, watching the American troops watching them. Their hungry eyes look out under bushy eyebrows. Now that we've run off their leader, they look to us for guidance, assistance, help. They point off into the distance, as if casting blame on the city itself. Instead of walking up to us, they hold their ground across the street and let the children be the curious ones.
Jones and I watch the military police draw the line. We follow the MPs as they set up police tape around the parking lot, looping it through our vehicles. They are putting up a barrier to separate us from them. They use their weapons to shoo back children, pointing at the boys' bare feet and ushering them behind the line. They direct three women, the only Iraqi women we've seen since we arrived in this country a little over a month ago, to take the long way around our vehicles, now looped together, forming a perimeter of steel truck bodies held together by plastic tape. We stand near the tape, resting on our truck.
Jones reaches into the back of the truck and pulls the box of MREs to the tail of the vehicle. He rifles through it, looking for the good meals: beef teriyaki, chicken Tetrazzini, Salisbury steak. When he finds the right one, he grabs hold of the sides of the package and pulls. I watch the heads of children snap up and look over in our direction. Instantly, the sound of bare feet slapping against concrete bounces off the trucks as the children come running our way.
This morning, while loading the truck, we made a sound I'll never forget. It was the sound of rubber soles slapping against steel as we climbed into the truck. It was our sound, the sound of sleepy-eyed soldiers going off to "battle," another day of missions in this city. It was the sound of purpose. The sound of work. When Jones pulled apart that MRE, the children made a similar sound, the quick slap of bare feet against cold pavement—the sound of feet on the move.
The children come sliding across the parking lot, pushing themselves against the security tape like hockey players shoved against glass. They bump and grind their way into each other, elbowing for a good position. Their small stomachs bump up against the tape, flexing the line to the limit. They push because they know they can; they know we aren't going to hurt them.
Then the hands come out, reaching into our perimeter. They reach for what they don't have. Their dirty fingers wiggle and point in our direction. Their bare toes creep under the line, sliding as far as their bodies will allow. They are closer than either Jones or I would like.
"Mee-sta, Mee-sta! Gimme!" they say, dirty hands making the universal sign for "feed me." They take their thumb and two fingers and move in and out of their mouths like bulimic women trying to purge.
"Mee-sta! Gimme, gimme! Mee-sta!"
I turn to Jones and smile. He's still holding the sides of the MRE. His face is frozen in amazement.
"You brought this on," I say, laughing.
They are all boys, some maybe teenagers. The youngest ones stand in front, their faces smooth and tan. They don't smile. Instead they look at us with the same eyes children use on fathers. The older boys tower over them, reaching. They look like old men, dirty faces with crease lines across their cheeks and dark circles under their eyes. They are more forceful with their questions, yet the young children certainly match their eagerness.
They stretch out the "e," drop the "r." For a moment, Jones and I wonder who they are talking to, looking behind us even, as if our neighbors or teachers—men we called mister—are standing there. Yet the only thing behind us is the high wall of the stadium.
One of the older boys grabs the security tape, pulls it over his head, and walks toward us.
"Back," I say, pointing my weapon at his feet.
He stops, looks at Jones and his MRE, then at my weapon, my boots, my pockets, the name tag on my chest, the magazine of ammunition I have slapped into my rifle. He slowly raises his eyes to mine. I look into his eyes, seeing the things he desires—food, money, recognition. He looks so old standing barefoot on the pavement. We stay that way for a moment, him looking at what I have, me looking into his sad eyes, his childish face worn down by a country at war. The boy turns nonchalantly, like it's no big deal, as if he's had soldiers point guns at him before, and walks back to the line and the other boys.
I don't like being this way—forceful. I don't like telling people they can't eat. But I must keep these boundaries for my own good and for the good of the men and women in my platoon. I hate to do it, but I need to draw the line. I never used to be like this. I don't remember the last time I was this forceful, and it actually scares me how instinctively I'll point my weapon at anyone who doesn't obey our rules. It's what the uniform has done to me. The uniform has given me power, power that, as a child, I wanted, but now I find myself in this country, pointing M16s at harmless children and shrugging at their eager requests, as if I don't even hear them.
Jones hops off the truck and walks over to where I am standing, a few feet from the vehicle. He knows they are already getting to me and it's only ten o'clock.
Three boys kick a soccer ball down the road. They move around the ball, their skillful bare feet gently tapping it in one direction, then another. They don't smile or laugh. It's as if the act is so common that it no longer holds any pleasure. As they move closer, one boy notices our group. He grabs the ball and walks over to where we are standing.
Jones and I watch the new children approach. We discuss making them do tricks for us. We turn the game on them, asking them for something—entertainment.
"Can you do a trick?" I ask the crowd of boys. I first look at the boys down front, the little ones, then over at the kid with the ball. I look them all in the face, all of them except the boy who crossed the line.
"A trick," I say. I move my hands up and down, as if three invisible balls are softly floating between my hands.
For a moment I think they'll understand me. I think that maybe my imaginary juggling has sparked some kind of image in their minds. I wait for acknowledgment that we are all on the same page. I get blank stares and another chorus of "Mee-sta, Mee-sta!"
After five minutes of trying to get the children to do tricks, we give up. We walk back to the truck. The children stay where they are, leaning against the security tape, harder this time, more persistent. They'll stay that way all afternoon, until we feed them or shoo them away.
Roach comes back from inside the stadium. He grabs an MRE and sits on the tailgate. I am now free to go inside. As I walk to the entrance of the stadium, I see the crumbling building towering before me like an old man, fragile at the seams and ready to tumble to the ground. The high, cracked wall cups the field, an opening like a mouth at the center, ushering participants inside.
The bronze boy welcomes me at the entrance. When I walk in the front doors, to my left and right I see offices that have been looted and destroyed; pieces of the building lie across desks, filing cabinets, and tables. Further up the hall I see a door to what I assume is the locker room. At the end of the hall, a white light welcomes visitors out onto the field.
The field isn't in good shape. The grass is brown, with patchy splotches dotting the field. A group of Iraqi men help unearth a pipe near one of the goals, a soldier acting as foreman nearby. Once out on the field I notice the bleachers. A set of stairs on either side of the main corridor leads to the box seats, half of which are missing. From there, steel bleachers stretch out like wings, a wavy steel canopy covering the patrons who used to sit at the very top.
Near the main entrance a dozen Iraqi men talk with three military officers. Other men linger around the field. I notice Rainman staring off at the men working on the field.
"Can you believe that Saddam used to train Olympic athletes here?" Rainman says as I walk up.
He stares out at the field as if he's an archeologist trying to imagine what went on here.
In 2002, when Saddam Hussein announced plans to build a 100,000-seat stadium in Baghdad, the world knew what was coming—Saddam wanted to host the Olympics. Iraq had never been strong in the Olympic Games. In 1960 they won their first and only medal, a bronze in weightlifting. Since then Iraq's participation in the event has been in slow decline. In 1980 they sent forty-three athletes to the games; in 2000 they sent only four.
Yet Saddam was persistent in his desire to host the games, despite his star billing in President George W. Bush's "axis of evil." His son Uday was president of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee. Uday's wrath as leader of Iraqi athletics includes a number of horrible actions, cruelties that might have stemmed from watching his father torture people. He tortured athletes for losing games, sometimes just for fun. He placed athletes in prison for days or even months, beat them with iron bars, and caned the soles of their feet. He screamed at players during the halftimes of soccer matches, sometimes strong-arming coaches into making the changes he suggested. In 1997 the governing body for international soccer sent officials to Baghdad to investigate reports that members of the Iraq national team were imprisoned and had their feet caned. Uday denied the charges and so did the athletes, out of fear. The officials had nothing to hold Uday on.
I can't even fathom these sorts of actions, especially on athletes who are simply playing a game to entertain the masses. I grew up in a house full of brothers who were on the high school wrestling team. I know athletics is about more than just having fun. It is about winning. My brothers' methods of winning were always fair and, to me, ridiculous at the same time. Their torture was self inflicted—senseless liquid diets to slim down before matches, and hours upon hours of weight training and running. But they never complained about an angry coach who beat them after they lost a match or coaches who yelled incisively until they broke down in anger and fear.
I stand watching the Iraqi men pull up the pipe, thinking about Saddam, his sons, my brothers, and I wonder, when did sports become so much like war?
Excerpted from The Last Deployment by Bronson Lemer Copyright © 2011 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission of The University of Wisconsin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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