BABIL PROVINCE IRAQ. 2008. 0253 HRS.
I stuffed an extra couple of Ripits in my left cargo pocket and cinched the drawstring closed. In my right pocket were a blueberry muffin, a honey bun, and a bag of trail mix some Baptists in Kenosha had mailed us the week before. Slinging my dusty m-4 over my shoulder I put my ACH on, grabbed my half-crushed pack of Pines and lighter off the desk and made my way through the plywood door that functioned as the entrance to our ECP. Once outside, the door slammed shut behind me under the weight of several stagnant water bottles suspended from 550 cord that had been rigged up with a series of eye hooks to ensure it closed.
The early morning air was heavy- still super-heated from the previous day, the unmistakable smell of the massive burn pit nearly 1000 meters away tickling my nose as I headed across the sand and gravel. There was no need to put my NVGs down, the illume was great and I could see my destination, the North ECP Tower, clear as day about 30 meters ahead. Somewhere off in the distance a couple of feral dogs were barking, most likely at each other but other than that it was totally tranquil, the sound of insects and the crunching of rocks under my boots the only things disturbing the quiet.
Looking up as I neared the tower I could see the barrel of the 240 protruding from the wind-torn cammo netting that lined the window, as well as SPC Austin who was leaning out to greet me, middle-finger fully extended.
‘Sup, fucker?’ he yelled down as I neared the small metal door at the base of the 20-ft tower.
‘Not shit, lower the line’ I replied as I crouched down to get inside.
Inside the dingy concrete cylinder that functioned as the base of the tower I waited as Austin lifted the diamond-plate panel on the floor and began to lower a rope with a d-ring attached to the end down to me. I clipped my weapon, my helmet, and my assault pack to the d-ring and Austin began to hoist it up as I grabbed onto the corroded metal ladder to begin my climb.
By the fourth rung a drop of liquid hit the small of my neck and ran down my back. ‘That better not be a tipped over piss bottle’ I said as I neared the top. Austin laughed.
I popped up inside the tower like a prairie dog from the hole in the floor and Austin extended his hand to pull me the rest of the way up inside. He’d already un-clipped my gear and set it over along the wall by his stuff which was packed up and ready to go.
‘Who’s pulling guard down there?’ he asked.
‘Suarez is up, SSG Mixson is racked the fuck out on the cot, snoring his ass off’ I replied.
‘Shocking’ Austin said as he began to clip his gear to the line.
‘Want me to leave my Maxim?’ he asked as he waved the rolled up, well-used issue he’d found on the floor of one of the shitters weeks ago in my face, ‘Elisha Cuthbert, dude….hottttt’
‘Pass’. She was definitely hot, but Austin had a reputation for going above and beyond when it came to ‘killing time’, and I didn’t see any hand sanitizer laying around.
‘Whatever man, just make sure you use the corner’ he said, referencing the platoon-designated area everyone was briefed would be for ‘time passing’ while on guard.
Not wanting to think about how overworked the corner was after spending the last three hours alone with Austin and Elisha, I cracked a Ripit and stared out into the Iraqi night. Three hours moved pretty damn slow in this place.
‘Alright dude, I’m outta here’ said Austin as he sat down and dangled his feet towards the ladder, ‘lower my shit down’.
As I moved to pick up his gear, something fell out of his assault pack and hit the floor. Reaching for the rogue item in the darkness I grabbed hold of what I immediately recognized as hair clippers.
‘You working on that fade in the dark?’ I asked as I placed them in the front pouch and zipped it closed.
‘What?’ he said from 3 rungs down.
‘The clippers, cutting your hair in the dark?’
‘Oh’ he said in a sadistic sort of way ‘something like that…gotta pass the time somehow, you know?’
‘Right’ I said as I clipped his gear on and began to lower the line down above him.
At the base of the ladder Austin gathered up his stuff, yelled up ‘I’m out!’ and then moved through the exit and out into the open night below.
‘Have fun, dude!’ he yelled as he made his way back to the main ECP building.
Returning my gaze out onto the lights of the villages on the horizon as they wavered and danced in the heat I took another swig of my Ripit and officially began my three-hour shift, starting with checking things out. There was enough moonlight to see everything near the front of the tower: 240 looked good, ammo was where it needed to be, radio was on. That was it. I had managed to pass an entire 43 seconds.
Grabbing the hand-mike for the radio I keyed it, waited for the beep, and called in my first radio check: ‘North ECP, this is North Tower, radio check, over’. A second or two passed before the speaker cackled to life: ‘North Tower, North ECP, roger.’
I was now a full ninety-seconds into my shift, and bored out of my mind.
I picked up the CLU laying at my feet and fired it up, hoping a scan of the horizon with the thermal site would give me something interesting to look at. It eventually clicked on and I held it up to my eyes sweeping the horizon from my left to right limits. Just a couple of donkeys out in a field with their feet tied together so they wouldn’t run away.
Assholes I thought, feeling bad for basically any animal that had to live in this shithole.
I powered the CLU down and returned it to its spot on the ground well-clear of the corner (which, since the space was round, wasn’t technically a corner at all, more like an area) and returned to staring out into the night.
After pulling tower guard during our base defense rotations every few weeks or so on and off over the last 6 months I had pretty much settled on a pattern of how I made it through. Way I figured, the best way to work on getting my raw push-up and sit-up scores up was to knock out as many reps as I could while still of course keeping an eye over the area. I tried to do at least 200 of each push-ups and sit-ups in as few sets as possible each day that we were on 12-hour shifts. Feeling confident that there wasn’t a VBIED barreling down MSR Tampa at a high rate of speed at this particular moment, I dropped down into the front-leaning rest, in full kit, and started knocking out my first set.
The thing about doing any sort of activity in Iraq at even three o’clock in the morning is that you start sweating profusely pretty darned fast, and as I knocked out the first couple of sets I started raining beads of sweat down off my face onto the dark floor below. I remained in the front leaning rest between sets for as long as I could, but the sand, dirt, or whatever on the floor was all over my hands so I had to keep reaching them back to wipe them off on my pants. It was an annoyance but I kept moving onto my next set until my arms started shaking so bad I could no longer support myself and I had to go to my knees.
Sitting back on my heels for a moment to take a break I wiped my forehead with my left hand and immediately felt something sticking to my face (If you’ve ever walked into a spider web you know the feeling, like tiny little fibers sticking all over). Panicking a bit I began rubbing my face with both hands which not only didn’t seem to be helping, it made things much, much worse. Standing up, I fumbled for my assault pack to try to find something to wipe my face with, eventually locating my bag of baby wipes. I furiously wiped my face, blowing out from my lower-lip up towards my nose to try and help get rid of the fibers.
After getting my hands wiped down I grabbed my headlamp and turned on the red light, shining it on my hands…they were covered in hair?
I flicked up the red cap with my thumb to use the white light and shined it down on the spot where I had been on the floor. It was completely covered in thin, brown hairs that had been swished about, mixed with sweat, and rolled up into little piles where my hands and knees had just been. What the fuck! I yelled out to nobody as I dove back into the baby wipes to continue trying to clean myself up. Dammit Austin! Clean that shit up you nasty fuck! I continued to yell at the corner.
Once I had removed as much of the hair as I could off of myself I grabbed the hand-mike and called down to the ECP: ‘North ECP, North Tower, over’…….nobody answered.
‘North ECP, this is North Tower, OVER’…still nothing.
Just as I was about to try for the third time, the radio sprung to life: ‘Tower, ECP, what’s up?’
Recognizing that the voice on the other end was that of one Specialist Jesse Austin, I keyed the mike: ‘Hey, next time you shave your head up in the tower, do us all a favor and clean that shit up! Over.’
There was a pause before the radio beeped again.
Down in the ECP I could hear somebody else in the backgrounding laughing as Austin replied: ‘Uh, I didn’t shave my head, over.’
‘Bullsh-‘ I started to reply before it dawned on me that he had put emphasis on the word ‘head’.
Feeling the remnants of last night’s Beef Stew MRE begin to awaken from their slumber in pits of my stomach to rise once again, I shined my white light back down on the floor for another look. And there it was. Austin wasn’t lying, he didn’t shave his head. Not unless his suddenly wavy and incredibly wispy hair had been growing way out of reg’s for quite some time now.
‘You nasty bastard.’ I said calmly into the mike as I entered some form of shock at the realization to what had just happened.
‘Hey, curtains match the drapes now, boy! If you know what I mean!’ he replied, laughing hysterically into the mike.
I hate this place I thought as I set the hand-mike down on top of the radio, I really really do….