We land in Baghdad. The brakes grind and the pitch-black cargo bay fills with the smell of burning metal. From the last jump seat, I lurch into Gortney, Gortney lurches into Bell, Bell lurches into Kramer, and so on. The propellers reverse thrust and we slow to taxi speed. It’s after midnight.
The C-130’s loadmasters scale the sides of the cargo bay with flashlights between their teeth. They check hydraulic lines and cables. One of them lifts the lid to a can on a shelf and looks inside. Another finds a lever in the fireproof batting and pulls it. The loading ramp cracks open. Out goes the smell of brakes and in comes the smell of rain.
We park and shut down. As the propellers slow, their vibration increases, then everything is still. Raindrops tap against the aluminum hull.
My fellow passengers stand, but I stay seated, for fear of triggering another coughing jag. I’ve had two on the flight over, and both ended in dry heaves. I think there are piles of sand at the bottom of my lungs, thanks to yesterday’s sandstorm. Any move on my part will disturb these piles. Meanwhile, everybody is moving and my stillness draws attention.
“You OK?” Gortney asks me.
“I’m fine,” I say.
Every platoon has a cheerleader, someone who feels responsible for everyone else’s happiness. Gortney is ours. In fact, we made it official.
It went like this: One morning, back in the States, while we stood in formation waiting for daybreak, our neighboring platoon awarded one of its soldiers the title of Mr. Positive Mental Attitude. The honored soldier had earned this distinction for coining the phrase “Least it ain’t goat!” What was born as this man’s response to Meal Ready to Eat #7, aka Ham Slice with Natural Juices, had become that platoon’s rally cry against everything that sucked, including cold, darkness, and the apparent failure of the sun to rise.
As our platoon looked on, the newly crowned Mr. PMA received robust bleating and applause from his platoon. Eventually their mirth waned and we rode the earth in silence, together, until Gortney dropped his rifle and fell to the ground.
Someone fetched the drill sergeant, who summoned an ambulance. A minute later, the ambulance arrived to take Gortney to the hospital. As Gortney was loaded aboard, he said, “Don’t worry about me.”
When the sun finally came up, it was qualification day, which we spent at a target range deep in the Carolina woods. I didn’t worry about Gortney the entire day, nor, as far as I could tell, did anyone else. We were way too concerned about hitting as many targets as possible.
Hitting those targets required concentration on the three fundamentals: body position, breathing, and aim. We were taught the three fundamentals from the beginning, often practicing them in an open field with imaginary bullets and imaginary targets. After a range or two with real bullets and real targets, it became apparent that there was a fourth and more elusive fundamental. Call it mood.
That evening, we rode a bus back to the barracks. The sun went down as we cleaned our rifles. At lights out, we fell asleep.
The next morning we woke to Gortney singing while scrubbing the barracks toilets. Jenkins, our senior guy, entered the latrine first.
“Let me help you,” he said to Gortney.
“No! I got it!” hollered Gortney. “My wife makes me do this at home! Really! I’m just homesick!”
The rest of us tiptoed around Gortney as he mopped. We showered while he scraped hair from the drains. We shaved while he cleaned the mirrors. As we hurried out of the barracks to breakfast, Gortney called after us.
“You guys are just like my five boys!” he said. “Just wait till my wife gets ahold of you!”
For breakfast we ate French toast with powdered sugar, drawing from the gleaming vats of melted butter and warm syrup that Gortney was so fond of.
Afterward, Gortney met us in formation and Jenkins sent him to HQ with the head count. When he was out of earshot, Jenkins stood in front of us and said, “We’ve got to do something for Gortney. He’s done so much for us.”
“I think we should do something for Tull instead. Tull is at least funny,” said Adams.
Tull, our platoon’s obligatory movie-quote guy, was in ranks. “Show me the money!” he said.
“OK, let’s vote,” said Jenkins.
Adams and I voted for Tull. Everyone else voted for Gortney. Meanwhile, Gortney came trotting back from HQ.
“Congratulations,” said Jenkins. “You’ve just been elected Mr. Positive Mental Attitude.”
Jenkins shook Gortney’s hand to anemic applause. Someone yelled, “Speech!”
“Wow. This is great,” said Gortney. He looked up at the sky, which remained dark.
“Training has been difficult on all of us,” he continued. “We’re struggling and I sense that. As much as I can take your minds off that struggle, I’m happy. I think of it as a blessing. Like serving our country. It helps that you appreciate my sense of humor, because, God knows, my wife sure doesn’t!”
In the weeks following Gortney’s election, he carried on his cheerleading duties with renewed purpose. Occasionally, in my opinion, he’d become prejudicial to good order and discipline.
One of those occasions happens right after we land in Baghdad, in the dark cargo bay of the C-130, where Gortney continues to harangue me about my well-being.
“Are you totally sure you’re OK?” Gortney asks again. “I thought I heard you coughing.”
“I’m fine,” I say again.
“Are you absolutely positively sure?” Gortney asks.
“Yes,” I say.
Gortney offers me a stick of bubblegum. I decline.
He offers again, saying, “Take it.”
“No,” I say.
Gortney tries to noogie me and I elbow him in the throat. He topples over gagging.
Jenkins steps forward and pounds on Gortney’s back until he recovers.
“Jeez,” says Gortney.
“That was not cool!” says Jenkins.
A giant forklift, arriving to unload our cargo, interrupts us. Its headlights wash out Gortney’s face. Its noise precludes discussion. I shut my eyes to salvage what’s left of my night vision.
Listening to the forklift, I recall a lesson from POW training. In it, we were taught guidelines for surviving captivity. These guidelines were drawn from real-life examples. In one such example, we were told the story of a POW who, in order to keep his mind sharp, unpacked and repacked his belongings every day. Every time he repacked, he tried to fit his stuff in less space. I realize this is exactly what we’ve done over the course of our training. Our cargo consists of everything we have accumulated to this point, all condensed into as little space as possible.
Despite the cargo’s overwhelming density, the forklift makes quick work of it. Now that our exit is clear, the C-130 crew wants us out. “Move!” they yell. “Let’s go!”
I step into the rain, where I’m surprised by a big willow tree at the center of the tarmac, growing straight out of the concrete. This willow is exactly like the one that stood in the parking lot of my old elementary school. I stop to reconcile the two trees. Meanwhile, the rest of my platoon walks single file toward the terminal.
When I catch up, I’m behind Gortney. We follow a blue string of taxiway lights to a daisy chain of wooden pallets. The pallets cross a territory of horrendous mud.
Ten yards into the daisy chain, Gortney breaks a pallet and falls in the mud. He lands on his back and a bunch of Werther’s Originals spill from his ammo pouch. His rifle lands next to him. Oblivious, the rest of the platoon keeps walking.
There’s a large sucking sound as I pull Gortney from the mud. When I pry out his rifle, there’s a pop. Left behind are perfect molds of Gortney and his M-16.
Both Gortney and his rifle are symmetrically separated into mud and nonmud. The line between them is as clear as day. As we hurry to catch up to our platoon, Gortney searches for the bright side.
“My wife pays $200 for a spa treatment like this!” he says.
Gortney and I follow the last man into a maze of tall jersey barriers called T-walls. Jersey barriers are concrete walls used to separate lanes of traffic. T-walls are 12-foot-high jersey barriers used to protect against mortars. T-walls encircle everything from post offices to porta-potties. They stay cool on hot days and warm on cold nights. What light they don’t absorb is deflected skyward.
The T-wall maze funnels us into the passenger terminal, where everything but the light bulbs is made of plywood. We stand on a plywood floor under a plywood roof. A plywood sign reads, “WELCOME TO BAGHDAD. THIS IS NOT A WAITING AREA.”
With our platoon assembled, Jenkins completes a head count. Meanwhile, Gortney regales us with his mud story.
“Now it’s official!” he says. “My name really is mud!”
Letters from kids are stapled to the plywood walls of the passenger terminal. These letters, addressed to “Any Soldier,” remain unclaimed because their drawings depict a miserable place where people have Xs for eyes and storm clouds for thoughts. One child writes, “Dear Soldier, Please don’t die.”
Backing away from this wall, I suffer a coughing jag. Every time I inhale I need to cough more. I go outside so I don’t cause a commotion. I bounce off some T-walls and wind up in a bed of crushed gravel. Cough after cough produces nothing but blinding white light. Willing it to stop is like jumping from a moving train. Damaged, I go back inside the terminal.
“Can I have your attention, please?” says a boy on a plywood box. This boy wears no rank. Because he is so junior and will promote so quickly, the Army saves him the hassle of sewing it on.
The boy holds up a thick binder. “I’m supposed to read from this,” he says. "But I’ll spare you and just cover the highlights.
“First, watch out for snipers. They know where your body armor doesn’t cover. Second, mortars. Take shelter and listen to Giant Voice. Third, watch out for jackals. They’re rabid. And last, make sure your name and blood type are written on everything.
There were none.
“OK then. Follow me.”
The boy takes us out back, where a flatbed idles behind an armored bus. Our cargo pallet is strapped to the flatbed. We get on the bus.
Dawn is approaching but it’s still dark. Regardless, we look out the windows to see what’s there. Gortney spots a jackal in a ditch. His report starts a chain reaction of jackal stories. So-and-so has a friend who knows a guy who was bitten by a jackal and got to go home. Et cetera. The armored bus has drapes. I close mine.
The bus takes us counterclockwise around the perimeter to a compound. Inside this compound are dozens of 40-man tents, each surrounded by T-walls. The T-walls surrounding the tents are connected by a labyrinth of T-walls, and it’s all surrounded by an outer ring of T-walls.
The moment the bus door opens, we scramble into the compound to choose our cots. I follow the ruckus to our tent. Since this is our fourth tent, we have an established code: a hat on a cot stakes claim. I pick one near the air conditioner.
I exit the tent to collect my bags but get lost in the T-walls. It’s frustrating because I can hear the idling stake truck. I can hear Jenkins organizing a brigade to unload the bags from the truck. “If you’re not helping, you’re wrong!” says Jenkins. I decide to retrace my steps back to my platoon’s tent and follow someone out. I take a wrong turn and wind up in a tent with a girl in curlers. Next, I’m in a tent without cots. Finally, I’m outside the compound on the far end of a field of mud.
The stake truck is at the other end of that field. A brigade has been established in the rain. Bags are handed off the truck and passed from person to person. The last person in line drops the bags in the mud. Jenkins walks around yelling, “If you’re not helping, you’re wrong!” People crush out their cigarettes to join the brigade. Halfway there, I yield to a coughing spree.
I lean against a damp T-wall to ride it out. Meanwhile, the bags are unloaded and the sorting begins. The platoon separates into beacons and seekers. Beacons hold on to bags and shout the names of the people to whom those bags belong. Seekers hear their names amid the cacophony and home in on the beacons. A light rain is falling. People slip and fall in the mud, and the people who try to help them are pulled down. Seekers link arms for stability. They use their rifles as canes. Together, they collect their bags and move them into the tent.
Leaning against my T-wall, I simultaneously cough, dry heave, and hiccup. This new low results in my feeling sorry for myself. Whenever I feel sorry for myself, I think Fuck everybody.
Just then Gortney appears, his arms locked with other seekers. “Let’s get you to medical,” he says. One of his fellow seekers offers to get my bags. Another lends me his hat.
Gortney and I shoulder our rifles and set off into a world of mud and light. All light, whether from surrounding Baghdad or from inside the base, is flung skyward by T-walls. Lost amid pillars of light, we climb a hill of mud. On top we find a soldier.
Gortney asks, “Where’s medical?”
“See that light?” says the soldier. He points over his shoulder toward a thousand lights.
“Which light?” asks Gortney.
“The yellow one. Go that way.”
We walk toward that light with our arms locked. We cross a bridge over a babbling brook. We cross fields of ridiculous mud. Invisible helicopters pass overhead and thump my lungs. I lean against a dumpster to cough, startling a murder of crows.
“Man, you sound horrible,” says Gortney. The fact is, I sound fucking horrible, but Gortney doesn’t cuss.
We tiptoe, high-step, and twirl through the mud. We use the long, thin muscles in our legs reserved for ice skating. Mud cakes on the soles of our boots, then breaks off in uneven clumps. We hobble to a line of razor wire. Following that, we’re on a road.
Gortney waves down a Humvee. It squeals to a halt. Its headlights pulse with the alternator. Its cockpit pulses red. I’m looking right in the passenger-side window, through a thick pane of blastproof glass, at a soldier in full body armor. The glass is faceted like a lighthouse lens. Through it, the soldier appears small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. He’s trying to open the door.
I shout through the glass, “Where’s medical!”
The door pops open and red light spills out. The soldier is normal-sized. He points to the glowing horizon and says, “You see that light over there?”
Following his line of bearing, Gortney and I come to a helicopter landing zone. The LZ is a mound of gravel bordered by jersey barriers. Big signs say KEEP OUT. On the other side of the LZ is the hospital. I see a red cross painted on the eaves. Below that is a pair of swinging doors.
“I don’t think we should,” says Gortney.
Pretending I didn’t hear him, I hop a jersey barrier and walk toward the doors. Every step causes an avalanche of gravel. On the other end of the mound of gravel is a sign that says EXPECTANT. Behind this sign are the doors. I enter.
Two privates mopping the buckled linoleum floor stop to stare at me. Then in come the surgeons on the balls of their feet. They, too, stop and stare at me.
Gortney, still half mud, enters. “Good morning!” he says to the assembled staff. “Sorry for the intrusion! This gentleman here has a terrible cough. Maybe you can help him.”
Judging by the looks on the faces of the hospital staff, here’s what I expect them to say: Do you have any idea what happens here? Night after night? And you have a cough?
But the moppers politely ask to take my rifle, and one of the surgeons offers me a chair. “Tell me what’s wrong,” he says. After listening to my symptoms, he calls the pharmacist. “Upper respiratory infection,” he tells her. The pharmacist shows me a list of drugs.
“What would you like?” she asks.
I pick Zithromax and Robitussin With Codeine.
“Hawkins here will take your vitals,” she says.
Hawkins is one of the moppers. She takes my blood pressure. “Your blood pressure is excellent,” she says. She shines a penlight in my eyes. “And you are not in shock.”
She puts a digital thermometer under my tongue. As we wait for it to beep, I see that I’ve tracked in a ton of mud.
“Thorry about the mud,” I say.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says. “It turns to dust and we just sweep it away.”
Hawkins looks in one of my ears with her penlight. “We need to schedule you an ear cleaning,” she says.
“Quiet night?” I ask.
“We’re not supposed to talk about that,” she says.
Hawkins shines her flashlight in my other ear and whispers, “Last night, we had a soldier come in from a firefight. He walked through the same doors you did, and he ran out of blood right where you stood.”
When Hawkins is done with me I go to the pharmacist, who gives me my drugs in a brown paper bag. I feel better just holding them.
I exit the hospital the way I should have come in, through the waiting area. Wooden benches line the walls. Here and there are copies of People, Us, and Army Times. Gortney is asleep on a bench with both our rifles in his lap. I nudge him awake.
“What day is it?” he asks me.
“Sunday,” I say.
“Can you help me find the chapel?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say.
A helicopter passes over the hospital, low enough that I hear the grind of its bearings and the fire in its burner cans. I imagine da Vinci’s sketch of a helicopter and it appears to me without wonder. Even his dream of flight—"_You will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you long to return_"—is just a brief escape from the mud.
The helicopter shakes the waiting room. It knocks mud off Gortney’s shoulders, which turns to dust on its way to the floor.