EVENING REPAST |
December 13, 2006
It's that time again; time for the evening repast. I dread the 700-meter walk to the dining facility; the sun is down, a moonless, cloudless night, the chill wind blowing from the east, from Baghdad and Falluja. It will be so cold and dark; there is no external lighting on Camp Ramadi. Illumination is provided by the headlights of trucks and tanks, sparkling the mid-air dust that passes for sand, and by my small blue-lensed flashlight. In The Dogs of War, Frederick Forsyth wrote "The European soldier fights well in the dark as long as he has been well briefed on the terrain on which he will fight." Having made this trek over 100 times, I am well briefed.
I step outside, my black fleece pulled tight against me, thankful for the one sensible piece of uniform the Army has given me. As I expected, it is cold and dark; it matches my mood. I contemplate the events of the last week: the release of the ISG report; the death of the Major; the fallout from my blogpost; another ass chewing because one of my Lieutenants has come up with a different way to the fight the war, and some field grade officer does not approve.
Hunched over, I navigate down the wooden boardwalk my first platoon installed in order to avoid walking through the mud that forms instantaneously when the first bit of moisture appears. I drop off and take a short cut through the Texas barriers that surround our encampment. I snake through B Company's makeshift motorpool, and emerge near the Navy EOD tech vehicles. I briefly wonder about the Navy EOD officer who was evaced weeks ago, but I press on.
I reach the most dangerous part of my journey (aside from the eating of KBR food), a small depression marked off with Jersey barriers. Only experience and my close-in night vision save me from a twisted ankle. Having navigated that successfully I have only 100 meters to go to a road; it's a straight shot, but in the dark I still almost collide with Soldiers and Marines paying more attention to entertaining their buddies than to where they are going.
Now I am at the road; just as I get there I see a Soldier running by in PT uniform -- numerous reflective belts around the waist and over the shoulder. I shake my head, not knowing whether to admire the willingness to stay in shape, or the shear folly of running down the road in the dark, potential victim of an errant tank or up-armored vehicle.
A left and then a quick right, and now I am on the last stretch. Many vehicles and Soldiers, dust everywhere, Third Country Nationals. It is a testament to something, I don't know what, that people are not killed here everyday, in the chaos that it is.
Finally I arrive at the dining facility, the DFAC, the chow hall, the mess hall -- and a pile of dirt is there outside, indicating that Operation Jamestown is back in full swing. Work for your meal. Fill a sandbag before you can eat. The Marines in charge of this detail ensure that all comply, addressing the miscreants who fail to do their duty variously, according to rank: to the private,"Maggot get back there and fill a sandbag"; to the major, "Sir, excuse me.The Brigade Commander requires all personnel entering this facility to fill a sandbag prior to entry."
I charge to the top of Mt. Ramadi to grab a shovel. Filling a sandbag singlehandedly is difficult and I prefer to work with others, but my First Sergeant is on leave and my Lieutenants are all out on operations, so once again I am eating alone and have no one to assist me.
At the top of the hill I encounter Marines and a Navy Corpsman who invite me to join their team for this task. I thank them and point out that they should return with an American flag to recreate one of the most iconic of images. They consider this a capital idea, and decide to return later with the requisite flag.
Having fulfilled my sandbag obligation, I navigate down the long concrete corridors intended to protect hungry troops from incoming rounds. The darkness is made all the more extreme by the contrast when one emerges into the actual building, illuminated with the cold, bright glare of fluorescent lighting. I pull out my ID card and unzip my jacket, for the first time revealing my rank to various interlocutors who all of a sudden decide they need to stand at attention when addressing me. I thank them for their courtesy, and move to wash my hands while I peruse the menu.
Short Order? Main Line? I try to reserve Short Order for truly dire situations. Main Line has spaghetti with meat sauce or short ribs. Both are plausible dinners. I choose the spaghetti because they are offering garlic bread instead of the usual dinner roll.
Into the next room for drinks, salad, and dessert. Do they have any Beck's Non-alcoholic malt beverage? No. Diet 7-Up? No. Choices are limited. I settle for the regular 7-Up.
Salad? A good idea, but too much work.
Dessert? If I get ice cream, it may melt before I eat it. Who am I kidding? Sans conversation, I will shovel it all in too fast for the first drip to occur. My mother and wife would be so pleased. Vanilla, strawberries and nuts on top.
I move into the next room, a long hall where you cannot see the end for the mass of humanity. Where should I eat? The first two halls to the right have the news, but no one can never get close enough to really hear what the talking heads are saying. Besides, that is where I first met the Major. I will see her when I leave, no need to rush that. The first two halls to the left? AFN Sports, and try as I might I just no longer give a damn about professional sports. I decide to proceed to the end hall, where it should be quiet and I can have a moment of solitude.
I proceed down the hall. Navy SEALS to my left. I wonder if any of them were in the Discovery show I have watched numerous times. Blackwater and Aegis contractors to my right, all carrying guns I wish I had, and wearing goatees. But their contracts are tough. Nonetheless, the Soldier of Fortune is alive and well and I find some envy of them. SeaBees, Marines, Soldiers, and the ubiquitous TCNs fill the remainder of the hall.
Finally the last long hall on the left -- room for over 100, with fewer than 10 already there. Peace and quiet, just as I had hoped for.
With no one to talk to, my bland food disappears.The vanilla ice cream, made in Kuwait under license from Baskin Robbins, is the only thing of real quality. I contemplate how disapproving Badger Mom and Mrs. Badger 6 would be of my eating habits, but find myself unable to change them even for a moment. Eating is merely a necessity now, there is no enjoyment of an excellent meal well prepared and ready to be savored.
I am through so quickly that it is embarrassing. I should sit in repose for a few minutes; that is the decent thing to do, is it not? I wonder if I will be eating here for another 290 or so days. Will people start trying to wrap this deployment up in time for the 2008 election? Will we get extended to cover a final withdrawal? Will the Coalition pull out of Anbar?
Having given a decent interval, I get up and move quickly -- down the hall and to my right. I make the first left, and look at the news TV screen. They are discussing whether or not the driver of Princess Diana's car was intoxicated when he wrecked that car and killed her at the end of August, 1997. Over 9 years ago and we are still talking about this? With a war in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I quickly move on through, no time to dawdle. I am where I first met the Major back in October. I acknowledge her presence and move on. I push through the door into the cold air and empty my tray into a garbage bin. I have not eaten off of real china or silver since September. I pull my fleece back on and adjust my Patrol Cap for the walk back to Badger Main.