While we lost Carson and Leza and Niles and Aldrich and too many others all throughout August, America focused on something completely incomprehensible to us—the 2004 Summer Olympics, held in Greece. Apparently, the games began sometime in mid-August and continued through the month’s end. Even as we patrolled the dirty, violent streets of Ramadi, competing grimly in the ultimate game, much of the rest of the world watched genteel athletic events in the comfort of their own homes, athletic events, by the way, that had their earliest origins in our world. For us, though, these watered-down games and their associated watered-down medals seemed so distant from our lives, so totally irrelevant to the unglamorous, messy fighting playing out every day in the alleys and buildings of Ramadi, that we couldn’t be bothered to keep up with them.
But they managed to creep into our lives anyway. During the second week of the games, the soccer portion of them began, and when this event kicked off, the Iraqi national team took the field. They may very well have been the only true heroes to grace the Olympic screen that summer, for despite a horrendous training environment, terrible funding, and the uncertain future of the land they called home, this mixed-ethnicity team had nevertheless managed to qualify for the Olympics. During each game, every citizen of Ramadi, it seemed, sat glued to their satellite televisions. As they watched, their national team inevitably scored a goal or two, and when each goal was scored, the rapt people of Ramadi celebrated as only they could—by walking outside and firing their machine guns in unison into the air.
The first time this new phenomenon occurred, Marine units throughout the city took cover and called in terse reports of massive enemy ambushes. When the citywide gunfire cut off nearly as suddenly as it started, the entire battalion was perplexed, but eventually someone put two and two together and ferreted out the connection between Olympic soccer goals and widespread random gunfire. From that day forward, before each patrol left the wire, it received an Olympic soccer schedule update along with its regular intelligence briefing. So, those of us in Ramadi shared something in common with the folks back home after all: an intense preoccupation with international athletic competition. But while the Iraqi soccer team, the Cinderella story of the 2004 games, brought entertainment and maybe some hope to Iraq and America alike, to us each of its unlikely victories simply meant a greater chance of being killed by random, pointless gunfire.
At the very end of August, Joker One was itself caught in one of these insanely dangerous celebrations. Unsurprisingly, we were securing the Government Center at the time, and midnight found me, as usual, dozing on the roof of the compound, lying on my back next to a waist-high pile of sandbags sheltering a radio. Suddenly the city erupted in gunfire, and a few seconds later one of my Marines, Lance Corporal Anderson, was shaking me awake.
“Sir, sir, sir. There’s shooting all around, sir. You’d better take a look, sir.”
I didn’t bother to sit up. Instead I simply opened my eyes, and, still lying on my back, I looked up at the sky. Sure enough, the tracer laser light show streaked straight up into the air all around us. Without moving, I asked Anderson the straightforward follow-up question.
“Is the shooting at us?”
Anderson looked puzzled for a moment, and he paused and cocked his head, listening for the unmistakable sounds of bullets cracking nearby. He didn’t hear any.
“No, sir. I don’t think it’s at us.” I nodded. “Well, Anderson, just wake me up then when they start shooting at us,” I replied. Then I closed my eyes again and focused on getting back to sleep. The gunfire and the light show continued for a few moments, and Anderson walked unconcernedly back to his bunker while I slowly slipped back into my light doze. We had come a long way from those first skittish days in Ramadi.
When September opened, Corporal Brooks came down with a weeklong case of dysentery from which he recovered exceptionally slowly—too slowly. When I finally asked him about the malingering, his excuse was honest and surprising: My team leader couldn’t get the image of the injured little girl from May 27 out of his head. Again and again, he pictured his own daughter in her place—they were roughly the same age—and as the days passed, that macabre mental picture loomed larger and larger in his head until he felt that he couldn’t continue without some sort of rest.
Just a few days later, Noriel snapped and threw a light machine gun at one of Bowen’s Marines. The fury was out of proportion to the minor offense, and a large portion of the platoon was stunned by the outburst. Noriel later apologized, but it was too late. The incident had cost him some hard-won credibility, and it temporarily strained relations between my first-and third-squad leaders.
Even Bowen was affected by the strain—the very next day, I noticed him half jogging out of the hangar bay. When I intercepted him, he was openly weeping. Being Bowen, he apologized for his unmanly display, and, still crying, he turned to leave, promising me that the next time he saw me, he’d be fine. Without thinking, I grabbed my squad leader and wrapped my arms around him. He pushed me away for a bit, but soon enough the sobs got louder, and Bowen stopped pushing. There we stood, chest to chest for who knows how long, hugging each other through weapons and body armor and grenades and all the other bits of gear hanging off our chests. When the sobs slowed and he was finally able to speak again, Bowen told me how every day Staff Sergeant and the Gunny took advantage of his competence (he didn’t say exactly that, but I read between the lines). Every day, he found himself overtasked because every task he did, he performed to near perfection. And every time he fell a little short, Staff Sergeant or the Gunny chewed him out with no regard for his constant commitment to go above and beyond his regular duties, ones that were weighty enough for two men.
Hearing the story, I realized that I had failed him—Bowen was my squad leader, my responsibility, and it was my job to protect him from everyone who would misuse him. Once again, I didn’t know how to respond, so I simply asked Bowen to come to me every time someone other than me tasked him with something. Then I told him that I thought he was the best Marine in the whole damned battalion.
Leza probably would have been affected as well, but in early September he was in a stateside hospital having a metal rod put into his snapped lower leg. His absence hit me hard sometimes—when I walked into the platoon house and didn’t see him, or when I turned to find him on a mission and he wasn’t there, or when I issued an order only to hear a strange voice reply, “Roger that, sir.”
All of the absences hit me hard by now, and it had become nearly impossible to sleep. During the days, I obsessed about the insomnia. During the nights, I obsessed about the missing, especially Bolding and Aldrich. To my dismay, the CO eventually had to pull me aside and refocus my attention on doing my job, not on avoiding casualties, for my men were starting to be affected by my reluctance to leave the base. As September continued, I became less and less effective as a combat leader.