RUM AND COKE SPLASHED onto the tiled floor when I bent down to pick up a dress blues blouse. The midnightblue top, with its high-neck collar, red piping, and thick white cotton belt, had been tailored to fit snug around my trim body. Things had changed, though, primarily my waistline, and it would have taken some sort of divine intervention to get the anodized buttons anywhere close to their corresponding buttonholes. But that didn’t stop me from trying.
No luck. I threw the blouse in the corner, rooted through the rest of the uniform pile. A desert-patterned boonie cover with a faded Marine Corps emblem ironed on the front was one of the few items of clothing I knew I could still fit into. I found the floppy-rimmed hat tucked beneath a pair of gabardine trousers, and slid it onto my head before finishing what little remained of the watered-down rum and Coke. "You’re all fucked up," I said when I saw myself in the mirror. The baldheaded reflection staring back at me resembled the eighteenyear- old boy who’d showed up for training at Parris Island in 1997 more than it did the twenty-five-year-old sergeant who had commanded a section of amphibious assault vehicles during the initial invasion of Iraq. Sergeant Van Winkle, the Marine Corps martial arts instructor, had disappeared long ago and left behind an out-of-shape college student named Clint—a person I’d grown to dislike.
The first year home from war had not gone smoothly, and with the redeployment of my old unit imminent and my younger stepbrother Matt still a few months away from completing his first tour in Iraq with an Army Scout Cav unit, I couldn’t help butbelieve that I was letting everyone down by hiding out in a university classroom.
After pouring a fresh drink, I walked down a short hallway to the office and sat in a swivel chair. In the clutter on the desk lay a dusty Ziploc bag that contained an equally dusty notebook. Most Marines carried the same green notebooks. The small hardcover books were almost as important as rifles and ammunition. With so many "moving parts," relying on memory was a surefire way to fuck things up. I took the notebook from the bag, flipped through its weathered pages.
February 14, 2003: the first entry. Corporal Shawn Kipper was sandwiched between Staff Sergeant David Paxson and me, stuffed uncomfortably into the middle seat of a Boeing 777 that the U.S. government had chartered to fly our battalion to Kuwait. Rifles and pistols were stored haphazardly in the overhead bins, mixed in with pillows and kiddy-sized blankets. Deuce gear—war belt with canteens, first-aid kit, and butt pack full of miscellaneous supplies—lay tangled like a pile of spaghetti around boot-clad feet. Openmouthed, resembling a pair of oversized flytraps, Paxson and Kipper slept.
According to the onboard navigation screen on the bulkhead in front of us, the Celtic Sea was thousands of feet below. I looked out of the window, wondered if I would ever again get the chance to see the region. Only a few faint lights were visible from my vantage point, but looking at them sparkle made me think of what it would be like to be in a different situation: trolling in a fishing boat in the choppy water below, wrestling heavy nets of fish out of the sea. We were flying across the world to free a nation, but I only thought about our freedom. It was Valentine’s Day, but all I could envision was death.
"Welcome to Kuwait," the first sergeant said over the plane’s loudspeaker. Jet-lagged and stuffed full, we gathered our weapons, deuce gear, and gas masks and headed for the exit. Heat seemed to press against my body when I made it to the door, as if it were telling me to think long and hard before stepping out into the blazing sun. I squinted, took a deep breath of the dry air, and followed Kipper down the gangplank.
"Peace out, fools," Paxson said as soon as our boots made contact with the tarmac. He raised one of his heavily tattooed arms in the air, made a peace sign, then jogged toward Headquarters and Support (H&S) platoon. He had to get there fast, to help his platoon sergeant stave off any mutinous/illegal/ unethical activity and beat the unruly group of Marines into submission before they got anyone demoted, arrested, or killed. He would then have to take at least one head count, probably four, before the plane lifted off into the clear blue sky, to ensure that none of his H&S Marines had changed their minds and decided to ride the plane back to the States. It was unfortunate that a locked-on Marine like Paxson, who was respected by everybody, had to coexist with the H&S knuckleheads.
Kipper and I took our places in first platoon, an assemblage that made H&S look like a Girl Scout troop. Seeing Kipper standing diagonally in front of me, I realized that his squared-away uniform contradicted the plump body it covered. Out of shape and about twenty pounds away from being within Marine Corps height-weight standards, his physique didn’t fit the description of a Marine. If you went by personal appearance alone, you might have concluded, incorrectly, that he was a dirtbag Marine or maybe even a mean-looking sailor—a hard-charging corpsman or crusty Seabee. But unlike Paxson, Gunnery Sergeant Yates, and me, all active-duty Marines, Kipper didn’t have to be in Kuwait or anywhere near the place. He could’ve stayed home and watched the war on television like the rest of America, slapped a "Support the Troops" magnet on the back of his lifted truck, and called it a day. We wouldn’t have thought any less of him had he decided to stay home with his new wife; he’d already done his time. But he wasn’t that kind of guy, and when Paxson informed him that the unit had received the warning order to deploy, Kipper didn’t give it a second thought. He knew what he had to do.
"There goes our freedom bird," I said to Kipper.
"Regret your decision yet?"
"Ask me in a few months."
I stepped out of formation, looked down the row of Marines I was in charge of leading. Besides boot camp and MOS (military occupational specialty) school, none of my third-section Marines had ever been on active duty. They’d done the one weekend a month, two weeks a year routine up until that point. Even my active-duty experience was questionable. Neither a reservist nor a "regular" active-duty Marine, but a hybrid of the two and the bastard child of both, I’d spent three years in the reserves before signing a three-year active-duty contract to work as a member of the Inspector- Instructor staff at the very same Norfolk, Virginia, reserve unit. So, while the Marine Corps had been my full-time job, I’d never been in the fleet.
"Third section," I yelled.
"Yes, Sergeant," they replied in unison.
"Weapons in the air."
Twelve M16A2 service rifles. All present and accounted for, I stepped back into formation, jotted down the number in the front of my green notebook. Staff Sergeant Sterlachini, the platoon’s senior section leader, called the platoon to attention, then put us at rest. "Weapons high in the sky," he ordered. I raised my Beretta M9 pistol. He walked through the ranks, counted the number of weapons aloud, called everyone he passed a "cocksucker," and threatened to skull-fuck the entire platoon if we didn’t keep our goddamned mouths shut. We could never tell whether Sterlachini would really do the things he threatened or if it was all lip. A crazy, unhinged look gave us the impression that the wiry staff sergeant was capable of just about anything.
I’d been in the Corps long enough to know that we would have to count weapons at least two more times before we were given permission to walk over to the ammo crates to collect ammo. Gunny Yates would get his count, then the first sergeant. After counting and recounting, a senior enlisted Marine would step in front of the battalion formation and point out the obvious in a lengthy safety brief. An anecdotal story or two about Marines who had done dumb things with live ammo would certainly follow the brief. I wasn’t disappointed.
"Section leaders," Gunny yelled. "Take the boys to the ammo." The three section leaders posted behind the ammo crates. We doled out rounds to our Marines, ensured that each man received his exact allotment—thirty rounds of 9-mil for pistol carriers and sixty rounds of 5.56 for the Marines with M16s—and not a single round more. I fingered the smooth tips of the 9mm rounds when I finally got mine, slid fifteen of them into each of my two magazines. Receiving the ammo meant the operation we were about to embark on was real, not another training mission. No more shooting at paper targets or charging through the woods with blanks. We were going live. So I savored the rounds as they clicked into place, dreamt about all the things I might get to do.
A line of small white buses stopped behind our formation, sent a cloud of dust in the air that momentarily blocked out the sun.
"Sterlachini," Gunny yelled.
"Yes, Gunny," he answered.
"Get a head count and get ’em loaded."
"That one." Gunny pointed to the bus at the end of the column.
All thirty-eight Marines of First Platoon, along with our flak jackets, Kevlar helmets, two canteens, weapons, magazines, boxes of MREs, and crates of extra ammo, were expected to cram into a single "short bus" that wouldn’t have been big enough to carry a class of kindergartners to the zoo. I stowed my green notebook in the back of my flak jacket, where the armor plate would’ve been inserted had it been issued to me, and flopped into the cumbersome piece of gear before trekking over to the bus.
All the gear weighed well over eighty pounds, but it didn’t matter to us how much anything weighed. We were amtrackers, operators of amphibious assault vehicles (AAVs or amphibious tractors/amtracs), and wouldn’t have to worry about humping anything anywhere once our platoon of tracked vehicles arrived in Kuwait. Each crew of three would hang their packs on the Gypsy Racks that ran along the sides of their assigned AAV, use cargo straps to secure even more gear to the top, and squirrel away the rest of their belongings in various places inside the cavernous troop compartment. The grunts (infantry) we would chauffeur into combat would be lucky to have as much room as on the short bus provided First Platoon. But a squad of them would scrunch into the back of each AAV and make the best of a situation none of us had any control over. Regardless of how much room the grunts were given, riding in the back of an amtrac was better than humping a pack through the desert or being transported around a war zone in a soft-sided, seven-ton truck.
Even though an AAV resembled a tank to many civilians, and looked menacing enough to take one on in a firefight, the boxy vehicle was more bark than bite. With just a .50-caliber machine gun and MK-19 40mm grenade launcher in each turret, it lacked the firepower to slug it out with an outdated Iraqi tank. Still, grunts were always thankful for whatever made their jobs easier, even if it was a platoon of lightly armored vehicles. They’d gladly sit on the three skinny benches in the troop compartment and choke on the exhaust fumes that would inevitably stream down through the two open cargo hatches. They would find ways to cope with being tossed around like a bunch of ball bearings in a spin cycle as the vehicles bumped their way through Iraq. The grunts would complain, but they’d still be thankful.
The "haji" bus driver smiled at me when I entered the bus, as he’d done for each Marine who had walked on before me. For him, a group of young U.S. Marines with loaded weapons, an elevated level of testosterone, and not the slightest clue on how to tell the difference between an Iraqi and Pakistani seemed enough to keep him jittery. Whatever his ethnicity, few of us knew it, which gave us enough reason not to trust him.
Sergeants and above commandeered the front. Corporals plunked down in the aisle seats. Everyone else squeezed their asses into whatever leftover space they could find. Gunnery Sergeant Yates, our platoon sergeant, stepped onto the bus. He refused to cram in next to anyone and stood in the doorway, to the right of the driver, literally riding shotgun. Gunny Yates had a first name, but nobody dared to utter it, afraid the all-knowing Gunny would somehow hear "Jerry," and then start wearing Marines out for blaspheming against him. To us, he was "The Gunny," and that was as personal as we were allowed to get with the former Parris Island drill instructor who had never fully left the drill field. Larger than life isn’t an adequate description of Gunny, who could easily have been a character in an action movie. With a voice reminiscent of Dirty Harry and a temperament that would have made Godzilla seem pleasant, it was easy to imagine the man living in a different era, holding up stagecoaches or robbing banks.
While we knew we’d suffer under his command—would train harder and endure more ass chewings than the other platoons— his hardness was comforting. Marines complained about him, but never about being in his platoon.
Gunny ordered us to pull the blue velvet curtains tight across the shut windows, which immediately transformed the cramped bus into a rolling sauna. Taking drags off the exhaust pipe would’ve been more refreshing. Now that we were all loaded, another weapons count was taken—still all present and accounted for. Gunny leaned out the door, gave a thumbs-up to the lead bus. "Shut the fucking door. We’re rolling," he told the driver. The driver looked puzzled and didn’t seem to understand what he was being ordered to do. He spoke English, somewhat, and probably understood three of the four words Gunny had barked at him. "Shut. The. Fucking. Door," Gunny repeated.
The caravan of buses crept forward. I peeked out of the curtains, watched the land pass by in clumps of indistinguishable shades of brown and tan. No trees, no desert bushes or cactus, just rolling hills of smooth sand. Sweat collected in the creases of my forehead, slimed around my helmet straps, down my neck, and into my olive drab skivvies shirt. Kuwaiti police cruisers drove erratically through our convoy, forced oncoming vehicles onto the shoulder of the road, ran others into the median. Kipper, who was seated behind me and apparently studying the strange land through his porthole, too, tapped my shoulder. "See that?" he asked. Five Bedouin men in long white robes and checkered head scarves walked into the desert. They appeared to glide over the ripples of sand as they moved away from the road, swinging long, skinny sticks at a herd of camels. The animals did what they were told and pushed deeper into the wasteland.
Excerpted from Soft Spots by Clint Van Winkle.
Copyright © 2009 by Clint Van Winkle..
Published in March 2009 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.