People forget what a tremendous success the invasion was. It took twenty-one days from the time we crossed the berm in Kuwait until the regime collapsed in Baghdad. Just twenty-one days. On the big push north, most of the Iraqis we met were grateful. People forget that too.
Because we could, our battalion commandeered a row of palaces from the Republican Guard near this pristine, manmade lake with a stock of wild trout, pathways lined by willow trees, and an island in the middle that housed a bombed-out cinema resembling the Lincoln Memorial. We set up our aid station in the villa opposite, and our triage room had a bay window that opened up onto the crumbled façade. There were no access roads to the cinema. You had to row out to it, which we did in a wooden rowboat we salvaged on the shore. An eerie fucking place, with murals of Saddam in each of its theaters: Saddam as victorious field marshal and Saddam as martyr of the faith and Saddam as a suave mafia don. It was striking how many of the portraits featured children.
We liberated a puppy and tried to tame him by feeding him peanut butter and Easy Cheese. We kicked back, played Spades, and slept in ballrooms with marble floors and crystal chandeliers. We pissed in gilded bidets. Truth is, it was all a bunch of cheap junk. Saddam couldn’t have planned a better revenge—every velour-cushioned throne had legs like matchsticks.
But we didn’t mind. Those weeks after the invasion were what we imagined old-timey frontier life to be like, living off the land. When we had no running water in the toilets we became plumbers, and when we needed to nail the windows shut to keep out the sandstorms we became carpenters, and when the breaker box caught fire we became electricians. From the ruins of a palace, we built a doghouse.
On the rooftop, we constructed a gravity-fed shower from an abandoned water tank, some PVC pipe, and chicken wire. We strung our ponchos up for curtains and stripped naked in the sunlight, our bodies white and soft and new in the lukewarm water. Attack helicopters flew overhead. Palm trees swayed in the breeze. Never had we felt so alive.
The line platoons set out on safari, bagging gazelle, ibex, and wild boar. At night, when we had glutted ourselves on game slow-cooked on a spit, we smoked cigars and sat out on the marble stairs leading down to the lake, our mascot curled at our feet. Tracers crisscrossed the sky in IMAX.
We never knew who was shooting, or who they were shooting at, or why, and we didn’t care. Because we’d won. We belonged to history now.
Corporal Holt, who was at least nominally in charge, didn’t want to invite trouble. He could hardly look at the dog, let alone give him a name. So we called him Havoc, partly because we thought the name fit but mostly so that we could talk about him in code: as battalion medics, we belonged to Headquarters Company, and Havoc was our call-sign on the radio. We weren’t supposed to have mascots. Or contraband. Or booze. Or war trophies. Top, the company first sergeant, normally went ape-shit if he ever found any of the aforementioned items, which of course, he always did. Booze and drugs we could understand as being “prejudicial to good order”—but a dog?
Standing in the doorway to the trauma room, Holt crossed his arms and cleared his throat in what must have been his idea of confrontation. “You guys,” he said. And because he couldn’t think of anything else to say, he nodded at the dog.
We nodded back.
For weeks we’d watched the locals parading their stolen wares through the streets, wide-eyed with a mixture of gall and envy as they lifted eggs from a henhouse, television sets from an electronics store, a private collection of erotic paintings from Uday Hussein’s house, empty shell casings from a munitions factory, stone tablets from a museum of antiquities, and an entire parking lot full of Mercedes sedans. The locals drove them until they ran out of gas, until the tires popped, until the transmissions blew out and the suspensions were shot, and the car frames had to be hauled by donkeys down the highways like broken chariots, sparks grinding out of the axles.
When we’d asked if we should intervene, Top instructed us to stand down. “It’s their country now,” he said.
We weren’t there for law and order—none of us, not even the grunts. Our first day in the compound of Republican Guard palaces, Top held a company formation and told us that follow-on forces would handle any transition to civil authority, that they always shipped the initial entry troops home early. Door kickers don’t do crowd control, he said. Or they shouldn’t, anyways.
What the hell was a medic supposed to do about the hundreds, maybe thousands of looters roaming the city?
What does any medic do in a war zone when not being a medic?
Sick call, that’s what. Round the clock shifts in the battalion aid station. But since nobody showed up, we napped all day, our feet dangling from the litter stands. Without TV, without any books or video games, weeks passed as we waited for word of our replacements. We stared at the ceiling, at each other, like a bunch of mouth breathers. We dug piss tubes for the line companies. We sanitized the four-hundred-gallon water buffalo trailers. Inventories; radio watch; guard duty.
There were fewer sandstorms at the start of that summer but more problems from the heat. Our water supply smelled of chlorine and left us nauseous half the day. First the 3k and then the 5k generators fried when left in the sun. At night, we sweated ourselves to sleep and in the morning peeled ourselves off our cots where the salt from our skin hardened like a chalk outline. The trauma room remained empty. If the grunts got hurt, it was minor—a twisted ankle, a wrenched knee from a pothole, lower back strain from horsing around; stupid shit. If the Iraqis got hurt, they went elsewhere.
Getting an outside dog accustomed to the indoors, away from the swelter, proved more difficult than anticipated. Despite our constant attention, Havoc could be haughty and indifferent. High strung. High maintenance. The more he roamed the compound, the more difficult it became to conceal him from Top. And the more he strayed outside, the harder it became to cover his tracks. Sometimes he’d be gone for days, and although we could never be sure what he was into, we were pretty sure it was conspicuous. Once he returned with gashes on his muzzle. Once he came back with the tip of an ear missing. There was the time he trotted back through the front door of the aid station after a week’s absence with a child’s doll clutched in his jaws, blood stains on the clothing, as if he’d rooted it out of the ground and throttled it to death.
When we dared risk it, we took turns strolling him around the lake in between shifts at the aid station. We played fetch. Instead of the stick, he brought back decomposing fish heads that left his breath rancid.
Twice a week, before the sun went down we tossed Havoc into the lake. He hated the water: a small dog with no form and no grace, he flailed like a frightened child falling off a high dive. We loved to watch him, the way he stretched his paws out as though searching for the water’s surface in slow motion, that look of betrayal in his eyes. Not once did he try to swim away. We waited for him on the shore and wrapped him in an old OD wool blanket, then held him as he shivered.
“You understand we could be court-martialed?” Corporal Holt said. We were in the den practicing nasopharyngeal intubations on each other when he said it, and Riley gagged on the plastic tube halfway down his throat.
What he meant to say was, it’s my ass on the line, guys. Which is not the same thing as protecting us, or attempting to cultivate our trust, or even prodding us by insinuating that the means by which an army of invasion becomes an army of occupation are both subtle and insidious. So, you know, watch your ass.
“At least teach the little shit a few tricks, would you?” he said.
We tried, sort of. Havoc used to steal anything that wasn’t nailed down: those Meals-Ready-to-Eat the grunts all called “mysteries,” rolls of toilet paper, dried coffee grounds, matches, gum, dog tags, and old socks. Once he ate a tin of Copenhagen, then shit worms for three days. He scratched out shallow holes and buried the stolen goods by the lake. Then he’d waltz back inside and pass out underneath the one ceiling fan we’d managed to get operational and lay there motionless on his back with his paws in the air and his tongue out. Like he’d been shot.
More and more, we got pulled out for missions into the city, which was fine by us because it staved off the boredom. Most of the patrols were ride-alongs with the platoons through Baghdad, and nobody cared if we brought Havoc. He loved it. We climbed into our ragtop Humvee or the old Deuce and a Half, and Havoc panted out the window as we rolled down Haifa Street past the Hands of Victory, past all the ministries, the Assassin’s Gate, and the mosques with their domes like teal onions.
You see, in the beginning there was no insurgency. There was no wire. If you needed to roll, you made sure you had a map and a working radio, and then you went.
On ride-alongs we folded our vehicles safely into the middle of a column of tanks or Bradleys. Or we’d put together our own convoys and strike out for the local markets to buy supplies like mops or ammonia, maybe pick up some sugar or some flatbread. It was totally safe. Sometimes, in exchange for goods, we patched up the vendors or their kids. We gave away crutches, or passed out Band-Aids, checked for vital signs, and practiced our diagnoses. Everywhere we went, we brought Iraqis baggies full of Motrin.
Which gave us the idea to start doing MEDCAPs at local clinics. To see what supplies were short and how many doctors they had on staff and how much money it would take to fix those places up. The officers loved the idea. The battalion staff loved it too. The grunts hated it, but after two or three of these missions, they didn’t even bother to accompany us.
If Top had known that we were going out without an escort he would’ve said no. We thought, hey, we came here to help these people, right? So we provided our own security; we set Havoc loose. We thought it a nice touch. People like dogs. He made us approachable.
This one time, we pulled up outside the clinic in Yarmouk to follow up on a MEDCAP we’d done there a week prior. Despite having seen us before, the locals acted like we were the first Americans they’d ever encountered: while we were busy getting mobbed by their kids, a handful of parents stood watching us from the street corner. The whole thing wasn’t supposed to take long, maybe fifteen, twenty minutes. Crowding around the vehicles, the kids kept clowning around, kicking a ball. Some of them we’d seen before, and some we’d treated. A few scraped knees. A splint for a forearm. Eye drops for pink eye.
As the parents whispered to one another, a few more passersby stopped at the corner to point at us. There we were, playing with their children. So you’d think maybe one of them could manage a smile? We brought the kids together for a picture and tried to get them to pet Havoc, when one little girl reached out to touch him. That caused everybody on the corner to flip out, shouting at her until she backed away.
Havoc began to pace along the gutters, lapping up the runoff as more spectators emerged from their buildings. Some of the kids called out to their parents, but most were too busy harassing us for candy and money. A bunch of persistent little bastards; we got tired of it after about three minutes and tried to shoo them off. Rodriguez found one kid trying to gank food from the back of our truck. Another was whistling loudly down the street to his friends. And the next thing you know, Riley’s got another kid reaching into his back pocket.
So he turns around and grabs the boy’s wrist. Hard.
It was instinct. His rifle was slung over his shoulder, and Riley was afraid the boy might set it off by accident. Havoc’s ears perked up. In the next alley, we could hear metal pipes clanging against each other. The boy cried out.
Havoc started barking.
As he growled and bared his teeth, we looked up again only to find the parents and bystanders closing in. We did some quick math: there were five of us, thirty or forty of them. More people were coming outside. One of the men emerged from a garage with a tire iron. And maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised, or maybe we shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but we looked at the gathering crowd and then at each other and realized Riley was still holding that kid by the wrist.
“Somebody took the gear,” Jones shouted from behind the Deuce and a Half. He was in a tug-of-war over one of our kits. A gang of kids tried to run off with our morphine supply and our EpiPens, but Rodriguez grabbed one of them and hoisted him up by his soccer jersey. There had to be like eighty, maybe a hundred people now, more than we could count. Holt tried to hold out his hands, telling everyone in English to “stand back” and “remain calm.” Fumbling backwards, we could see bloodshot eyes; black teeth; nervous tics. Somebody threw a rock and hit Jones in the head so hard that he was dizzy and bleeding from a cut above his left eye. Over by the intersection, we could see people choking off the roads.
We were like, fuck that.
But for some idiotic reason we didn’t have any rounds chambered. Most of our weapons hadn’t been cleaned since Kuwait, and with all that sand and grit, we were unsure if they’d jam up. As the crowd encircled us, we tried to think straight, tried not to panic. We backed up slowly towards the trucks, trying to make ourselves look bigger like they tell you to do when you come across a bear in the woods. We raised our useless rifles in the air. Then we made a break for it.
From behind us, we heard the crowd shout, Y’allah!
We tried to turn the convoy around. The vehicles inched forward. One kid who a week earlier we’d treated for sores on his feet got down in front of the Deuce and a Half and then crab walked, daring us to run him over. Others came running up to the truck with wood blocks that they tried throwing under the tires. A few of the women pelted us with tomatoes and cucumbers. Not knowing what to do, Corporal Holt hid his head in his hands. Men began beating on our doors and windshields with their fists. Others tried to climb into our cabs. We could smell a faint whiff of gasoline. Hands thrust through the open windows of the Deuce and a Half, their fingers outstretched.
“Mister! Mister!” they shouted.
One of them grabbed Riley by the straps of his LBV and tried to pull him out through the window. Another tried to grab the muzzle of his rifle. We felt something under our tires like a speed bump, jarring us out of our seats.
And that’s when Havoc started biting. Leaping from between us off the bench seat, he sank his fangs into a hand, then a forearm, snapping his jaws near another’s throat. When he got hold of the man clutching Riley’s rifle, his teeth snagged into the man’s wrist.
A pair of Blackhawks flew by, the whine of their engines and the flat thump-thump-thump of the blades echoing in the streets. The crowd dissolved except for three bystanders attempting to pull the man’s arm clear of the window while Havoc heeled backwards and refused to release his grip. Blood began pooling in the floorboards. His face slick and desperate, the man attempted wriggling his arm free. He looked as though he might vomit and tried lifting Havoc, tried to pin him against the dash.
“Impshi,” he said to the onlookers.
When his knees buckled and he fell, he knocked one of Havoc’s incisors loose. We had to pull the dog back inside by the scruff of his neck. As we sped off, the scene receded in the rearview mirrors, and Havoc coughed up a hunk of flesh. He would not stop licking it.
Although we probably should have, we never filed an incident report. That would have drawn attention. We owed Havoc, and if we could have we’d have put him in for a Bronze Star; even Corporal Holt was on board with the idea, save for the paperwork. Everything took so much paperwork. Every day, higher handed down a new form or a new report. Which was yet another reason why the MEDCAPs curtailed after Yarmouk because, seriously, who needs a route overlay and a conplan and an intel debrief for a ten-minute trip to the local hospital? At every level, you could feel the bureaucracy creeping in, stifling initiative. We never did make it back to that clinic.
The contractors showed up next. Life got easier, the food started to improve. First they shipped hot chow out to our villa in mermites, and then there was a dining facility in a tent about a half-mile’s walk to the other side of the lake. They had French toast for breakfast and steak on Fridays. Not long after, they parked a phone bank in a trailer next to the DFAC tent, and every swinging dick spent hours waiting in line for a five-minute phone call home. We became comfortable with our routines.
Outside the compound, though, demonstrations were becoming a daily occurrence. The line companies had to send out roving patrols to check that protestors weren’t trying to climb over the walls, while at the front gate picketers led chants. Nothing violent, nothing lasting more than an hour or two, small at first, no more than thirty people, but still, the longer we stayed the more restless the locals grew. We couldn’t make sense of their demands but didn’t feel we could do anything about them, even if we knew what they were. Word on the street was that our movement order was coming soon.
We accelerated our own preparations by tearing down half of the trauma room, the triage, scaling back our sick-call hours, and by keeping our A-bags packed and ready. Discussions began about Havoc’s future.
How might we be able to bring him home with us? When Division sent down a veterinarian to determine if the lake needed to be sprayed for mosquitos, we managed to corner him and ask if it were a possibility. Theoretically, of course.
“Well,” he said, “it would need shots.”
Would he have to be quarantined? Would there need to be records? How long could a dog last in a crate inside one of those twenty-foot MILVAN shipping containers, if we left him enough food and water? Would it get too hot in there? Would he have enough air to make it all the way across the Atlantic?
“This is a hypothetical situation?” the vet asked.
We made house calls up to the battalion headquarters, the staff sequestered in marathon planning sessions, spinning up for something big. We looked for signs, remained observant. If you want to know what’s going on, don’t wait for the OPORDER and don’t listen to the scuttlebutt—walk around and collect facts and extrapolate. Have any new MILVANs showed up in Bravo Company’s assembly area? Have the platoons reduced their overall number of patrols? Have the supply sergeants made any new requisitions for replacement uniforms? Is the adjutant suddenly under a lot of pressure to push through citations and awards? You’d be surprised what people will tell a medic.
All that sniffing around was beginning to make Top suspicious. “Mind yer own fuckin’ lane,” he told us. One evening, we returned from the DFAC only to find Top snooping around the aid station. There’d been rumors. Someone or “someones,” he said, kept a goddamn dog.
Why else would our villa smell like a kennel? Top wanted to know why we’d constructed such a small “storage shed” out back, why he kept finding burial mounds of perfectly functional government property, why there were hairs in our Humvee. “Men,” he said, “consider this an amnesty period. No harm, no foul.” When he gave Holt the once-over, the corporal gulped.
We pretended like we didn’t know what he was talking about.
“You know,” Top said.
To make his point, he started sending us out to augment the patrols around the compound’s perimeter at night. We rolled out barbed wire, razor wire, triple strand concertina. We fashioned knife rest obstacles. During the day, we took shifts out by the front gate during peak protest hours. A bit rowdier each day, doubling their numbers, the protestors carried banners and burned straw figures of American soldiers in effigy. Twice they threw glass bottles, shattering against the iron gate. A private from Alpha Company needed three stitches.
“Go home,” they shouted in broken English.
“We’re trying to,” we mumbled back.
Unlike before, the grunts weren’t eager to have Havoc tag along. He’d been making trouble for them lately. For starters, there was the twenty-four-hour, battalion-wide lockdown after the Recon Platoon lost some of its smaller radio equipment. They found it buried by the lake. And when the battalion mortars wondered why some of their 120-mm rounds had begun swelling up, they initially blamed the heat but then found Havoc urinating in their ammo pit. One morning the Battalion Commander awoke to find his boots chewed through.
Meanwhile, back in the aid station, we grew testy with one another. All that time together with no privacy, no personal space. Corporal Holt suggested that we were letting our feelings about Havoc get in the way of our judgment, that we’d lost our ability to be pragmatic. Rodriguez told him to shove it up his ass, but Riley wasn’t so sure anymore. As we argued, Havoc hopped down from his litter and started humping Holt’s leg.
“He made you his bitch!” we laughed.
A nervous laugh. Havoc knew what he was doing; he was a survivor. In that country you had to be. We admired that about him.
A few days later Top pulled up to the aid station in his Humvee before dawn and cut the headlights. “Health and welfare, shit birds!” he announced in the foyer. Something like half an hour passed while we ran around like rodeo clowns and assembled outside into formation. Top savored every minute of it. The situation at the front gate and for the patrols out in the city was rapidly deteriorating, he informed us. The locals were building hasty barricades all over Baghdad and had begun throwing bricks. Only the evening prior, a man had been detained in Yarmouk with a Molotov cocktail and a festering bandage on his right wrist. There’d been certain accusations during the man’s questioning; depositions were made, sworn statements. We stood there in the bright morning sun trying not to squirm, squinting and shifting our weight from one foot to the next.
“Y’all’re making a mistake,” Top said.
Since Havoc was on one of his walkabouts, we kept our mouths shut. We laid out all our equipment and emptied our rucksacks onto the ground while he sifted through our laundry with rubber gloves. He searched our cots, dug through the footlockers and tough chests, and scattered our lifesaver bags on the lawn. Top knew he wouldn’t find him, but he shook us down anyway. Finding him wasn’t the point.
“Dogs, children, and soldiers all learn the same way,” he lectured. “Through pain, humiliation, and repetition.”
He said, “See, that there’s an Iraqi dog, and I don’t care how hard you try, you ain’t gonna change that.” He told us, Y’all’re gonna do the right thing. Like we knew what that was.
If we were being honest with ourselves, though, we knew. When Havoc returned that evening and tried to coax us outside to play, we stood around him in a circle, and he looked up at us with his head cocked to one side, ears half-bent, as if he’d only just realized that he’d sauntered into an ambush.
The following morning, we set Havoc in the rear right seat of the Humvee, behind the VC, and drove around the lake, stopping at the villa belonging to this National Guard Civil Affairs detachment recently arrived from Fort Bragg to see if anyone would be willing to take him. No dice—they all recited General Order Number 1, Paragraph 2, Subparagraph (j), prohibiting mascots in the CENTCOM AOR. “Thanks, but no thanks,” they all said. Not even the contractors would accept him.
So we kept driving. All day. Through the city, past vegetable carts and chop shops and tea stands, until we grew desperate and stopped along the highway outside the airstrip at Baghdad International. We could hardly face each other, let alone Havoc.
We were so wracked with guilt that we missed whatever triggered or preceded the gathering commotion across the divided highway. A mob of bearded men in dirty clothes with open shirt collars was rocking a car back and forth. Teenage boys were yelling and jumping on the hood and fenders of a Mercedes sedan. Having recently been the center of such attention, we were not eager to draw their notice; we realized that the mob had nothing to do with us and so felt like we could get away easy, until two of the men pulled a young woman from behind the wheel and ripped her headscarf off. Her hair fell over her face. Clawing her way back inside the car, she kicked and swatted as the men pulled her back onto the ground. Then they began beating her with the soles of their shoes.
Kif! we shouted. Stop! And as we began to cross the highway, they began dragging her off into the neighborhoods.
Where we dared not follow.
Should we have gotten involved? Could we have, had we been a little quicker, not so paralyzed by fear? Did our hesitation make us cowards? Maybe we should have gotten on the radio, called for backup.
And what would we have told them? What would they have done? They might’ve launched the QRF. Sent more helicopters to search for her with a spotlight. But how would that have played out in that neighborhood, given what we knew from Yarmouk? With our good intentions, we might just have made matters worse.
It’s their country now, Top said.
We stopped in the median. Riley was still calling after her, his hand cupped to his mouth. Cars whizzed by at sixty miles an hour. Craning their necks, the drivers puzzled at what we were doing there, unsure whether we would shoot or if they should floor it. A horn honked.
There was no more trace of the mob. We couldn’t leave our dog behind, not in a place like that, so although he was nosing through some garbage piles on the shoulder off the highway, we put him back in the Humvee and peeled off. When the engine kicked into high gear, you couldn’t hear anything over the motor, and Rodriguez stared straight ahead as if he were about to pull the steering wheel from the column.
He died, Havoc. The next day there was a honk in the driveway, and we went outside thinking there might actually be some sort of medical emergency we’d have to deal with, but this MP standing there next to his truck, all sheepish and guilty-looking, pointed with his thumb back over his shoulder at the road behind him. “I’m sorry,” he said. What was left of him resembled a pulped watermelon. Holt refused to help. “Your mess,” he said, “you clean it up.” We scooped up his remains with a shovel, double-bagged them, and laid them to rest in the bottom of some Iraqi colonel’s abandoned garden. Jones said a few words, but Rodriguez could not. Overhead, vapor trails from an F-16 cut gashes into the sky. There was a keyhole opening in the wall in the garden, and through the exposed rebar, we could spot a peacock strutting down Route Irish. It peered back at us through the hole, and it screamed.
We were disappointed when at last the battalion staff sent down the movement order and we discovered we were going to Fallujah instead of Fort Stewart, Georgia. Two days before we left Baghdad, Private Wilkins from Charlie Company took a 7.62 round to the neck just below the jawline. On guard shift at the front gate, he’d been checking the wire obstacles when thwack. The others at the gate were so shaken that it took three whole minutes before anyone reported it over the radio, and despite attempts by the battle captain to pull information, nobody could tell him for sure which direction the shooter had taken the shot from, or the distance.
For a long time we debated why Wilkins died before they could carry him to the villa—the bullet missed his jugular, barely nicked the carotid; there were no signs of spinal injury, and the bleeding seemed controlled. But when we laid him out and shined a tac light into his pupils, they were already fixed and dilated. The next day we dismantled the aid station and packed the trucks.
Later a new battalion surgeon was assigned to us, and we asked him what he thought about the whole thing. He said, “Undetected heart murmur, probably missed it when he showed up for induction.” Could have been the heat, could have been the stress. “It’s not the bleeding that kills you,” he said. “It’s the shock.”
In Fallujah we occupied an abandoned primary school for two months. Three more times we moved, each time worse than the last. We drove west and then north and then further north before returning to Baghdad for redeployment. We drove all over that motherfucker. This was during the days when former Baathists started popping up everywhere, shooting RPGs and laying old Russian-made anti-tank mines in the roads. Riding down Highway 1, Jenkins, who arrived with the battalion surgeon, asked us why we never saw any cats. No strays, no pets, no litters of kittens. Where did they all go? Were they in hiding?
When we were passing this platoon of infantrymen from the 82nd on the highway, they asked if we wouldn’t mind looking after the mascot they’d adopted but couldn’t keep. What do you call him? we asked.
“I don’t know,” the paratrooper said, “beats the fuck out of me. Dog, I guess.”
So we looked after his basic needs, tried to play with him. If Top knew or suspected, he never bothered us about it. Part of him must have felt guilty for talking up the redeployment so early on. Part of him was never the same after Wilkins.
Jimenez, over in Bravo Company, got shot in a Fallujah market. Shakur from Alpha lost both legs to a rocket-propelled grenade that slammed through the canvas door of his Humvee. A whole m113 crew from Headquarters went up with the first roadside bomb we ever hit. After that, we hardly left base.
We argued more. We bickered about all those times Top had asked us to step aside. The casualties? They got Dustoff: Blackhawk helicopters that flew them to the new Corps Support Hospital before we could even arrive on site. Which left us manning a succession of lesser aid stations, an empty schoolroom in Fallujah and a dilapidated air hangar in Balad and a dusty DRASH tent in Tikrit. Going through the motions. Stand to. Fire watch. Fiddle-fucking with the generators. Riley disappeared into his letters home, Jones read about video games, and Rodriguez talked about becoming a chaplain’s assistant while Holt studied for his boards. Wide-eyed, Jenkins kept pestering us to show him the ropes: This can’t be all there is. Some days, all we did was throw a rubber ball out onto a long, flat farmer’s field of chalky soil and old hay for our new mutt to chase and bring back. Now whose fault was that?
And why were there no goddamn cats?
We never could think of a name for that dog, but we didn’t try all that hard either. We were surprised when he stayed around as long as he did, that he never wandered off during one of the moves. There was ample opportunity: more divisions got called in, and dozens of new outposts sprang up across the country, morphing into FOBs and Super FOBs, each one as big and boring as a state capital. What became of him after we passed him off to our replacements, we never bothered to find out.
Jenkins was the only one who’d coddle him, probably because he, like the dog, was late to the party and never really one of us to begin with. I pulled shit-burning detail with him the week before we left. Tied a bandana around my nose and mouth, carried two shovels and a five-gallon can of mogas down to the plywood shacks. All he brought was the dog, cradled in his arms. After I’d ignited the barrels and stood there stirring, adding a splash of fuel every few minutes, he watched the dog roll around in the dirt instead of lending a hand, and I thought his eyes were red from the smell or the smoke, but after a couple of minutes he just blurted out. He wanted to know what happened next. He meant the dog. I said we’d been over it. He said, “Don’t you think we have a duty of care here?”
Something inside the barrel popped. Look around, buddy, I said.
We just wanted to get out of there, go home. Forget everything. Forget the shamals and forget the Martian skies and forget the heat, the smells. The bloated animal carcasses. Smoldering trash. Fetid canals.
That sorry, no-name dog: the scent of that country must have driven him crazy. At dusk, riding down rubbled city streets that dissolved into desert he used to sit in the right rear seat of the Humvee, scratching at the window, claws clicking against the plastic, snout testing the air. Whiffing as though his life depended on it.