October 01, 2011
He was walking down a street in Fallujah, Iraq. The power lines sagged and the light poles leaned at awkward angles. He was awkward. The catch for the door to the compartment on his rifle’s stock had broken, and the piece of plastic jangled loosely in the chilly winter breeze. The city looked like suburban Southern California, stucco-clad and uniform; every house had a gate, and most had rooftop access. The civilians had fled our sector but locked all of the doors behind them, which left empty houses that we spent the day breaking into. Every now and then a suicidal group of Jihadis would surprise the infantrymen like a jack in the box.
This had happened and third platoon was down a squad. He had not been there but had come to third platoon to help replace the wounded squad. By trade he was a machine gunner. He had not had to clear many houses before. That was the rifleman’s job, and after the house was cleared the machine gun would be placed on the rooftop to cover the riflemen on the ground level. Now he was a rifleman and that was alright with him. Everything was always alright with him. His haunting smile floats in dreams, a buddha, only speaking of his family and his girl back home, and always about going home.
The Captain had told the Lieutenant to tell the grunts that someone was going to die the next day. We sat next to each other on the tracked vehicle, which would vibrate violently for a few miles and come to an abrupt stop that would toss around the Marines on the benches. The back hatch would drop and the Marines would run out the hole, fresh into sunlight.
I would walk next to the Lieutenant and listen to my radio chatter. There was an argument between the leader of first platoon and my Lieutenant as to which platoon was going down which street. They switched streets and third platoon carried on down its new broken-down blown-out city route. I watched him as the Lieutenant and I followed another squad.
The power lines were sagging behind the leaning light poles and I wondered why he didn’t fix that damn catch and close that plastic door jangling awkwardly from his stock. He didn’t care, not about that or anything, he was going home. The suicidal Jihadis surprised him to death and startled the other Marines when they popped out of a house like a jack in the box.
We were sitting in front of the armory cleaning weapons in Okinawa, Japan. Fallujah was over; our days were easy as third platoon waited to finally go home. The base bugle sounded colors and we set our weapons down and snapped to the position of attention. The first song was the Japanese national anthem and base regulation mandated that we salute. I stood at attention with many others, refusing the salute. I felt guilty saluting a flag that had been captured by past and passed brothers, and felt the conquered blacktop beneath my boots. When our national anthem played the rest of us saluted.
After colors I turned in my clean weapon and traded it for another. The armory custodian handed me the new gun. He had been a machine gunner replacement for a wounded squad in third platoon during Fallujah. We smiled and we had that brother understanding. I returned to my weapon-cleaning. I broke the weapon down like I had been taught in bootcamp; I could have three rifles inspection-ready in an hour.
I moved from the rifle bore to the outer exterior, working my way down and never up, the dust and carbon flakes falling to the ground. I picked up the stock and the catch was broken. I inspected inside beyond the plastic door that swung loosely. Inside the compartment were skull fragments and dry blood. I swore and tossed the stock to the ground. The blood ran from my face. I had heard a rumor that the armory custodian might have shot him by accident. That story made sense when the accused requested I clean the weapon of the dead awkward man surprised to death by a jack in the box. I asked the custodian to check the serial number of the rifle's previous owner. He said his name and I handed him the weapon to finish cleaning.