The guy was on fire. His whole body was so engulfed in flames that when the men got to him, they couldn’t tell if the burning man was American or not.
Ben jumped down out of the truck, then ran around to the back of the vehicle. He yanked out an olive green wool blanket and threw it over the burning man. Porky tried to help smother the flames.
It was over in a matter of seconds. The guy was cooked, and Mike, Ben, and Porky stood, trying to get their brains to register what they’d just witnessed.
Porky looked out over the horizon through his Buddy Holly-style glasses with no expression on his face, eyes squinted, constantly sweeping the perimeter. His scalp was white from where he’d shaved his head just the day before, but his neck was the color of dark leather. Porky had a gaunt face, and his lower jawbone jutted out. In the blinding sunlight, you could almost mistake him for a skeleton.
The men stood anchored in place as if the bottoms of their boots had sunk in wet cement and dried there. The average temperature as of late was hovering around 110 degrees in the sandbox. The only relief came at night after the sun went down, although the word relief didn’t belong in a place like this and what they were standing in wasn’t cement. What lay beneath their boots was the filthy sand of Bagdad.
“Fuck this place,” Ben said, still staring down at the burning man.
Typically, Ben didn’t think about what was happening. He’d concentrate on his orders and then get his ass back on the FOB before getting shot. Occasionally, he allowed himself a few seconds to engage in the grim fantasy of wondering who was out there and what they had for a weapon. Ben would try to visualize where the enemy was located and how well they could see him. But those thoughts usually came later. After. At night. Ben knew that overthinking in a place like this gets men killed. He’d witnessed it enough to know.
The gun trucks pulling security idled ahead and behind their vehicle. The low rumbling sound usually gave Ben a sense of security, but lately, this place felt more like the wild west. Red Zone, Green Zone, it didn’t matter. No place felt safe.
The burning man rattled Ben the most. Seeing a guy bleed out or getting blown to shreds is one thing. Seeing a burning man is another. None of them had observed anything like this on their other deployments. Ben, normally tall and commanding with strikingly dark, handsome features, now looked like an awkward teenage boy, shoulders slumped, unsure of what to do next. He leaned down with shaking hands and poured some water on the burning man’s face to try to give him some relief. “There you go, Buddy.”
The burning man made a noise that wasn’t human. It was a primitive animal sound. It was the first noise he’d made since they got to him.
Porky pulled out a smoke from his chest pocket. He placed the cigarette between his lips, pulled out his lighter, and flicked the wheel. He stood with the zippo, issuing its flame an inch from the cigarette. He couldn’t seem to find a way to put the cigarette and lighter together.
Porky was the most mellow guy in Baghdad. The Iraqi’s had all sorts of contraband that you could get your hands on— pirated videos, porn, and soda, but nothing heavy duty. The good stuff was smuggled in by other soldiers in the American supply chain. You could get weed or pills— anything, really. Soldiers did what they had to do to get by here, and Porky’s choice of poison was a cocktail of cough syrup and sleeping pills. The cough syrup came from a supply guy in the unit. The FOBs mental health counselors handed out sleeping aids like Tic Tacs. Porky was thin and wiry, so you’d expect him to be more like a live wire, but he’d take a haul off that bottle, wash it down with a pill or two, and became as serene as a Buddhist monk. Things got especially interesting on the nights when Porky got his hands on some quality heroin or hash.
With the unlit cigarette still pursed between his lips, Porky said, “Th-th-th- that’s all, folks.” This catchphrase of his was the signal for the men to get moving. Without meaning to, he had patented that saying during their last deployment. The first time the wheels of the C130 lifted off the runway in Kuwait, Porky said, “Th-th-th- that’s all, folks,” and it stuck. Nobody laughed when he said it, and Porky hadn’t meant for it to be funny.
Ben yanked the top of his t-shirt up over his nose. He was used to the familiar smell of burning trash, sewage, and diesel, but if there’s one smell that can overpower all of that, it’s cooked meat. With his free hand, he dragged the olive drab wool blanket up to the burning man’s neck. The man’s eyes were open, but the skin around the eye sockets looked like melted red and orange crayons.
“Now what?” Mike asked.
“We’re bringing him on base,” Ben said.
“Shit. The guy’s probably not even ours. Besides, he’s toast anyway.” Mike shuffled his feet then spat on the ground.
The burning man coughed, and blood and yellow liquid frothed from his mouth and ran down his chin. His entire body heaved then more came spilling out as if he’d been boiled alive from the inside out.
“Did you see that? Holy shit!” Mike’s eyes were aglow.
Ben leaned down and picked up the edge of the blanket, and gave the guy one more look over. He grabbed at a piece of charred fabric on the man’s chest that’d probably once been his uniform. “We’re taking him on base. You know why? Because fuck this place.”
The decision wasn’t entirely Ben’s. When they saw the burning man in the road, Ben called it up to his commander over the radio and received orders to bring him on base. A chopper would meet them behind the wire if necessary to get the burning man to a hospital. When Ben had called it in, he still couldn’t tell if the burning man was American or Iraqi. It didn’t matter. When you got orders, you didn’t question them; you followed them.
Porky threw the unsmoked cigarette on the ground, then he and Ben reached down under and gently rolled what was left of the burning man onto the backboard. It looked like nearly every bone in his body was broken. He was jello.
Porky and Ben then lifted the backboard onto the back of the truck. “Fucking soup sandwich,” Mike said, standing off to the side.
The three men climbed into the vehicle without saying a word: Mikey in the driver’s seat, Porky in the middle, and Ben, the truck commander, rode shotgun.
They rolled along as the desert wind whipped sand around in little tornadoes. Ben took off his helmet, adjusted the small picture tucked up inside, then put it back on and stared out the window with his M4 slack at his side. Ben and Porky kept their eyes on the perimeter. This was IED territory, after all.
A few minutes passed, then Ben lifted his M4 and pointed it out the window at something in the distance. When Porky saw this, his hand went to his 9mm. With his other hand, he pushed his glasses higher up on his nose and sat up straight, his jaw rigid. Porky narrowed his eyes, and wrinkles appeared on the corners of his tan face, but then his body relaxed when he saw what Ben had seen.
Ben looked over at Mike. “Easy, okay?”
“Roger that.” A grin spread over Mike’s face, then he hammered down on the gas pedal, and the truck lurched forward.
“I said easy!” Ben’s face was now red, and sweat rolled down his temples.
Porky looked over his left shoulder to see if the burning man was still back there. He was. Ben hoisted himself up and leaned partway out the open window to get a better look. Mike glanced over and saw Ben hanging out the window, so he stomped down on the brake pedal, sending Ben flying forward, cracking his left side against the frame of the door. The burning man in the back of the truck rolled forward.
Ben swiveled in and pointed his M4 in Mike’s direction. “The fuck is wrong with you!”
“Jesus. Take it easy. I was just having a little fun,” Mike said. Sweat dripped down the sides of his wild eyes.
Porky continued to look straight ahead. He reached up with his index finger and pushed the tip of Ben’s M4 back toward the window. “Eye on the prize, man.”
Ben was still staring at Mike. Ben’s teeth showed, and his lips quivered like a rabid animal. His knuckles were white from gripping so tightly.
“Eye on the prize,” Porky repeated in the same monotone.
Ben spat out a quick, “Fuck you, Mike,” then leaned back out the window, pain racing up his left side.
As they got closer, Ben opened the door only slightly with the vehicle still rolling, looked down, and visually inspected the medium-sized mongrel mutt limping along. Ben’s dog, Chance, a black and white border collie, was eight time zones away, but he may as well have been on the moon. Ben left Chance with his girlfriend, Nikki, during this deployment instead of with his parents like he usually did. He hoped she was taking good care of his boy, but lately, Nikki didn’t answer when he tried calling her. She wasn’t available to Skype either. “You said you’re going to dump her ass anyway when you got back,” Mike said to Ben one night when Ben came into the barracks looking somber. “Stupid cooze could at least answer when you Skype to let you see your fucking dog.”
That was two weeks ago, and Ben hadn’t heard from Nikki since.
The convoy slowed to a stop. Lately, the Hajjis had taken to putting IEDs inside roadkill. Ben stared down at the broken dog. “He probably got hit by a truck in town and limped out here to die in friggin peace. Fuck this place.”
All of the men wondered if somewhere inside this dog was the end of them. But when the convoy got rolling again, and they passed the dog, nothing happened. Ben shook his head, then let the M4 rest on his leg. “Let’s go,” he said and stared straight ahead.
Mike pounded his fist down on the dashboard and said, “Ain’t we gonna do nothin? Let’s shoot it!” He had a maniacal look on his face.
“Enough,” Porky said, resting his hand on Mike’s arm, still staring forward.
Mike was gonzo. He said it was the heat getting to him, but man, the guy, was cracked. He hadn’t always been like this. It’s like the Mike they all spent time with on the last deployment switched brains with someone else. When they deployed here the first time, Mike had a girlfriend and a kid back in the states. When Mike returned stateside after that deployment, his girlfriend kept asking where her boyfriend was. She was scared of the stranger who’d come back from Iraq. Mikey was totally gone. Off the map. Somewhere along the way, Mikey’d lost Mikey. Ben had always wondered if Mike got in on a criminal waiver in the first place but never bothered to ask. Physical scars are always easier to detect than mental ones.
Mike’s smile faded, but his eyes remained wild. The men rode in silence except for the hum of the diesel engine. Ben’s entire left side was throbbing, but he wouldn’t give Mike the satisfaction of bitching even though he knew he’d cracked at least two ribs. Porky glanced over his shoulder at the burning man.
Ben’s stomach churned whenever they rolled out of the wire. That anxious feeling was replaced by relief when they rolled back up on the FOB gates because Ben knew he would soon be behind the false sense of security the blast walls provided. There was always tight security at the gate. MP’s and field artillery soldiers guarded the gate and operated the towers. The guys with machine guns manning the towers, the concrete barriers, and the sight of an Abrams tank allowed Ben to breathe easier every time, especially today.
Johnson was the new MP on duty. He was young and eager, not a stain on his uniform. Poor kid hadn’t even been here a couple of weeks. The skin on his neck and the tops of his hands were bright red with sunburn. He hadn’t yet put in enough hours or seen enough friends blown to bits to get that hooded look in his eyes like the rest of the guys. Johnson leaned his head in the open window of the vehicle. “Hey, guys. I heard you’re coming in hot. Let’s get you in quickly.”
Porky jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the burning man in the back of the truck. Johnson walked around the back of the vehicle and picked up a corner of the blanket now soaked with patches of dark liquid. He began to say something about this not being Standard Operating Procedure but immediately covered his nose, bowed like an actor during curtain call, and threw up. Johnson was on empty, so nothing but bile and spit were coming up. He kept retching. Mike put the truck in gear when he got the nod from the second MP and tapped on the gas gently, leaving Johnson, bent over in a cloud of sand, gun slack in one hand, heaving in the hot afternoon sun.
To dial back the adrenaline pulsing through his veins, Ben reminded himself that in only three weeks, he would be on solid ground again in the states. Twenty-one days, and this would be all over. “The first thing I’m going to do when I get back is take Chance for a walk to the boat landing. Maybe throw in a line and see what we can catch.”
Porky nodded. “He’s a good old boy.”
Porky and Ben were like brothers. After their first deployment to the sandbox, the two men got together but talked only about everyday things over a couple of beers. They never once spoke about what went on there. Neither man could find the words.
Ben and Porky jumped out to get the burning man inside as the truck slowed to a stop. He wasn’t moving at all. He probably died before they even got back on base. “Good guy or bad guy, no one deserved to suffer like that,” Porky said, touching the burning man’s foot reverently. “We had to try.”
Ben and Porky picked the backboard up, and then both men looked instinctively up toward the sky when they heard a familiar high-pitched squealing. Mike was standing off to the side, shielding his eyes with one hand. Then it started to rain- the only kind of rain that happens in a shithole like this: what was pouring down from the sky was destruction. Mortar attack. No time to get inside. Mike and Porky looked to Ben for guidance. Normally in a situation like this, when mortars rained down, you just kept walking, but then the siren sounded, and all three men dove under the truck in a big damn hurry. The dirt was kicking up all around the vehicle, making it hard to see.
“Fucking-A, man!” Mike was yelling. He had a wild look in his eyes. Ben made a mental note to have a Combat Stress Specialist pay Mike a visit. Hell, he could probably use a visit from them himself. The other night, someone dropped a tray at the mess hall, and when Ben heard the clatter, he jumped out of his seat and hit the floor. There’d been a lot of sniper fire the week before, and Ben hadn’t been able to unclench his fists since.
Under the truck, Ben began thinking about all the nights, huddled behind the safety of the blast walls, praying to God to let him live one more day. He was raised in the Baptist church but got out as soon as he could. Ben didn’t believe in all the religious bullshit, and yet, the first time hell rained down, he cried out to God to make it stop and to let him live. What’s that old saying, “There’s no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole?”
“Shit. If we hadn’t stopped, we’d be back in the barracks by now.” Ben’s face looked like stone.
“The guy could’ve been one of us. We had to try. Those are the consequences of war, man. Consequences.” Porky said this in a relaxed tone as if they weren’t taking shelter under a truck during a surprise attack.
A few feet from Ben, the burning man lay on the ground, his sunken eyes and face now dusty with brown dirt.
Ben reached out, yanked at the edge of the backboard, and pulled the burning man closer to the safety of the truck. He put his hand on the man’s chest and said, “I’m sorry.”
But it wasn’t the burning man that Ben was thinking about. It was Chance. He longed to be back with him, up at camp, playing fetch and chasing the birds through the cool, crisp autumn leaves. Three weeks. Only three more weeks in this shithole, and then Ben would be home.
The mortars plummeted down all around the men. Porky cleared the dust from the lenses of his black-rimmed glasses with his dirty thumb and forefinger. He looked at Ben’s hand resting on the burning man’s chest and reached for Ben’s arm.
“Fuck this place,” Ben said, and he half expected Porky to follow it up with, “Th-Th-Th That’s all, folks,” but his mind wandered back to the states once more. It was nearly morning in Maine, and Chance had to be hungry by now. Ben wondered if Nikki had fed him his breakfast yet. A smile spread across Ben’s face thinking about going home to Chance just as a rocket came down and exploded where the burning man had been, only moments before.