Chapter 31

HOW’S YOUR PLATOON, Nate?” The captain’s eyes were red. He asked the question with reservation, as if he already knew the answer.

“Licking its wounds, sir. Two Marines shot. Thirty holes in my trucks. And that’s just what I can see. The Marines are starting to wonder who’s calling the shots here. Hell, I’m starting to wonder who’s calling the shots.” Keeping a stoic face for the platoon sometimes meant unloading on my commander. “That attack was fucking kindergarten tactics. We all knew it, and no one said a goddamn thing about it. And how am I supposed to keep my Marines on their game when officers are pulling stunts like that photo op this morning?”

The captain cut me off. “All right. We’re all sorry about what happened to Sergeant Patrick. This is a war. Direct your frustration at the people who deserve it — the Iraqis.” With that phase of the discussion over, he moved on to the day’s plan while I seethed. Now I had to focus on getting from myself what I always expected from my troops: attention to the task at hand. What’s past is past, but the present and future will kill you.

The plan called for us to move south to Al Hayy, recross the bridge we had crossed two days before, and attack into Muwaffiqiya with the Third Battalion, First Marines. In training, the order for a multibattalion attack into an occupied town would have taken half a day. Here, it was a sentence.

Gunny Wynn, Colbert, Lovell, and Reyes stood around the Humvee hood. The team leaders were laughing, and tried to quiet down as I approached. I spread my map on the hood and began to lay out the day’s plan, but the guys couldn’t let go of the joke I’d interrupted. When Reyes and Lovell kept chuckling, I paused. Goddammit. Didn’t they know how serious this was? Didn’t they remember we’d lost Sergeant Patrick only a few hours earlier? Couldn’t they see that I carried their lives on my shoulders? I started to speak and stopped myself. I’d nearly repeated what Captain Whitmer had told us in the Peleliu hangar bay eighteen months before: “If any of you get a Marine killed today, I’ll shoot you myself.”

I finally understood why Whitmer had threatened us that night. Commanders always bear the heaviest responsibility. When you’re tired and under stress, your efforts to convey that gravitas can come out all wrong. The Marines must have seen my frustration, because they shut up and let me finish running through the plan. When I was done, they nodded and went off to brief their teams. They knew this wasn’t the time for questions or arguments, and I was grateful for that.

Our lives were in free fall, spinning so completely out of our control that all we could do was hang on and try to keep up. That was when mistakes happened. Without time to plan or process or recover, we were at the mercy of fate — or worse, of other people. As a commander, taking full responsibility for my own decisions was one thing; taking it for other people’s decisions was something else. The weight pressed down on me. I sat in my Humvee, studying the map, until Christeson fired up the engine.

We swung south to Al Hayy and into a world transformed. Of course, the weather had changed. Gloomy, dusty skies gave way to brilliant blue. All along the road, people waved and cheered. Girls in purple and yellow dresses smiled shyly while their brothers sprinted along the road’s edge, slapping high-fives and giving the thumbs-up. Shutters and gates, once closed, were thrown open, and laundry fluttered in the breeze on lines above the streets. Traffic darted back and forth through the city, but despite our best attempts at watchfulness, we could see none of it as a threat. The desolate lot we’d raced through two days before was half soccer field, half open-air market. All foreboding had vanished. The only thing missing as we crawled through crowds of cheering Iraqis were streams of ticker tape from above. For the first time, we saw the meaning of liberation and felt the release of pure joy from ordinary lives. It was the best fifteen minutes of our week.

After crossing the bridge, we turned north and followed the river on the road we’d been watching two nights before. Craters pocked the roadside, and telephone poles were canted at odd angles, their wires severed and snaking along the ground — results of the artillery we’d dropped on escaping fedayeen. We stopped just south of Muwaffiqiya. Third Battalion, First Marines was halted ahead of us, waiting while its psychological operations teams blared surrender messages from loudspeakers into the town. I punched two-man observation teams out to our flanks and had the snipers begin scanning through their scopes. This area had been nothing but trouble for us.

As the teams rotated through security, maintenance, and rest, Gunny Wynn and I walked around to check the platoon’s pulse. I wanted to see how Team Two was doing without Sergeant Patrick. Every man in the team had stepped up a level — Reyes to team leader and the other guys to a greater share of the collective responsibility now that they were down a man. Reyes knelt on his hands and knees next to his Humvee, scrubbing, while Jacks stood post behind the Mark-19.

“What are you doing, Rudy?”

“Hey, sir. I’m scrubbing Pappy’s blood off our vehicle. Bad for our chi.”

“Your what?”

“Chi — spiritual energy. It’s the life force that influences everything we do. The old man bled a lot before we got him out of the truck, and I’m just trying to clean up a bit while we have the time.”

I knelt next to Rudy and ran my finger across the jagged hole where the AK-47 bullet had pierced the Humvee’s frame. The bullet had been traveling upward when it hit. I remembered those machine gun rounds sparking as they ricocheted off the road. It was reassuring to know that my snap judgment at the bridge had been right. “Did you find the bullet?”

Rudy smiled and reached into a pouch in his vest. “I’m saving it for Pappy.” He held up a shiny 7.62 mm rifle bullet. It was hardly deformed at all. Thankfully. Had it tumbled or mushroomed after hitting the Humvee, it would have torn a ragged chunk from Sergeant Patrick rather than passing cleanly through. I took it in my hand — it was heavy — then gave it back.

“The sacred geometry of chance, sir.”

“I like that.”

“Espera and I talked about it earlier. We can do a lot to influence the outcome, but sometimes it’s out of our hands,” Rudy said, then mimed firing a rifle. “A running man shoots a burst into a moving Humvee. Why do some miss? Why do some hit? Why a flesh wound and not a femoral artery? Aim and skill have nothing to do with it. The difference between life and death out here is seconds and millimeters — the sacred geometry of chance.” He looked down at the AK bullet in his hand. “Pappy’s time came. He was in Somalia and Afghanistan before this. You can only dodge for so long.”

“How are you and the team, Rudy? Let Gunny Wynn and I know what you need, and we’ll shuffle things around to support you.”

“We’ll be fine, sir. They’re all good guys, and Pappy trained ’em right — they can go on without him. I just can’t believe he’s not here. I miss him already.”

“Me too.” I stood to leave, then stuck out my hand. Rudy took it. “You’re the team leader now, Sergeant Reyes. I know you’re up to it.”

The infantry battalion pushed through Muwaffiqiya without resistance. Any foreign fighters and fedayeen in the town had simply melted away. We followed behind the grunts, crawling along a road paralleling the river. Ornate masonry walls surrounded waterfront parks, and wide sidewalks swept along the roadside. Shuttered storefronts lined the stone buildings, clearly a holdover from some earlier, more prosperous era in that part of Iraq. A dedicated afternoon of trash collecting and whitewashing could have vaulted the place into respectability, but that afternoon had never happened.

“Jesus, Gunny, look over there,” I said. To our right, across the river, stood a clump of trees by the side of a small bridge — the site of our ambush the night before. The trees, buildings, and bridge were just as I remembered them. We could even see the pile of debris dragged into the road by the Syrians. It was eerie, seeing the scene from the enemy’s perspective.

“That machine gun must have been set up right here.” I looked around for a telltale pile of brass shell casings but saw nothing. The buildings along the river had been on the receiving end of our heaviest fire — artillery, Cobras, and tanks. Rubble spilled into the street. Whole city blocks had been replaced with piles of shattered bricks. Explosions had cleaved some rooms in half, leaving their intact remnants visible where walls once stood. Furniture still filled the rooms, and pictures hung on the walls. I caught fleeting glimpses of people peeking at us from the ruins. Sympathy was tempered by the knowledge that a handful of foreign fighters could not have remained there to ambush us without the approval, or at least the indifference, of the villagers. And yet children surely lived there, and we had blown their homes to pieces.

“Cars are driving next to us a few blocks that way.” Wynn pointed to our left, deeper into Muwaffiqiya. “Creeping along like they’re casing us.”

I looked and saw a blue sedan, its passengers staring at me as I was at them. A block later, it passed another cross street, still keeping pace with us.

“Hitman Two, halt in place while Alpha moves forward to investigate an arms cache.” The CO interrupted our observation with the order to stop, while Alpha Company pushed ahead.

Except for the drivers and turret gunners, we all moved away from the Humvees — juicy targets in the close confines of a city street. I took my rifle and radio and knelt in the alcove doorway of a store, scanning the rooftops and windows across the street. Up and down the road, the platoon melted into shadows. Teams alternated sides of the street, so each could see the windows and roofs above the other. Watching Marines crouched in the rubble reminded me of pictures of the battle for Hue City during the Tet offensive. If Vietnam still grips the nation’s consciousness, its memory is doubly strong in the Marine Corps. When officers and staff NCOs in Iraq turned their backs, Marines were apt to slip an ace of spades into their helmet bands or write slogans on their flak jackets. “Born to Kill.” “George Bush’s Hired Gun.” I heard Iraqis referred to as “gooks” or “Charlie,” only half jokingly. Vietnam Marines are still the archetypal Marines.

“Hitman Two, be advised that radio intercepts indicate fedayeen regrouping in the city and preparing to launch suicide car bomb attacks against us. No further information.”

This announcement from company headquarters was big news. We had never received a warning about a specific threat in a specific place from the signals intelligence team riding with the battalion. Their Arabic linguists scanned local Iraqi radio traffic, so I took the threat seriously and passed it on to the teams. The Marines calmly acknowledged the news, but their hands tightened on pistol grips, and their eyes darted more quickly up alleys and roads. I thought back to the car that had seemed to be shadowing us. Instantly, the sunny afternoon turned tense. I felt a charge in the air like that before a thunderstorm. Even my memory of those moments is in black and white, the very recollection thrown into shadowy high relief.

Moving forward, we drove slowly, looking for the rear of Alpha Company. Near the northern edge of Muwaffiqiya, we linked up. Their lead vehicles turned left at a grassy park and drove away from the river. It seemed odd that we’d be driving deeper into the town instead of continuing north into the open fields I could barely see through thinning buildings. As my platoon reached the turn, Major Whitmer jumped from his Humvee, which was parked at the side of the road.

“Nate, keep going straight. Alpha made a wrong turn. You’re on battalion point now. Pull forward a few hundred meters and halt so we can get this unfucked.”

Colbert and Espera pulled their vehicles abreast and set up a rolling roadblock to keep any oncoming traffic from running into the battalion as it untwisted itself. We snaked around the park and began to roll slowly past a row of low-slung industrial buildings.

“Vehicle from the front. Blue sedan. Three or four passengers.” Colbert’s report was terse, spoken in the clipped tones of a guy juggling rifle, binoculars, and a radio handset while reporting to his commander, giving orders to his subordinates, and planning his next move. If anyone could manage this balancing act, it was Brad Colbert. He’d been named the battalion’s Team Leader of the Year, and I had boundless confidence in him.

“Roger. Escalation of force. Don’t let him pass,” I said. But I thought, Blue sedan? Fuck, I knew it. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Just as we move to the front of the battalion, too. All right, Brad, you were Team Leader of the Year. Do the right thing, my man.

Since Colbert’s first radio call, perhaps five seconds had elapsed. I heard the single pop of an M203 grenade launcher and knew a warning round of colored smoke had been fired at the car. Then I saw it, moving very fast. The two Humvees stopped in the road and their goggled turret gunners aimed in.

A short, zapping burst of fire rattled down the street, echoing off buildings. I was so expecting a heavy machine gun’s roar that I first thought this lighter chatter was incoming fire. Seeing the blue car veer off the road to the left, I realized the shooting was ours. Two men jumped from the sedan and disappeared in a blur of billowing robes and flapping sandals. The car’s drift to a halt, its opening doors, and the occupants’ sprint down the street seemed to unfold in one fluid sequence. I was briefly jubilant that the platoon had stopped it with minimum force, protecting the battalion without hurting anyone. Then I trained my binoculars on the car.

A still figure sat behind the steering wheel with his head thrown back against the seat. A red stain spread down the front of his white robe.

“What’s that firing? What are you shooting at?” Some disembodied voice on the radio, surely with more rank on his collar than me, started lobbing questions from farther back in the battalion column.

“Hitman Two just engaged a car that wouldn’t stop. We’re moving up to investigate. Stand by.” Still afraid of a trunk packed with TNT, we inched toward the car. Just as we got close, an order came over the radio to pass it by. We were told to advance half a kilometer up the road and set up another roadblock while the battalion continued to extricate itself from Muwaffiqiya.

I stared at the driver of the car as we passed. He breathed in rough, wheezy gasps. At least one bullet had punched through his face and exited through the top of his skull. God help us, I thought, and God help him.

A couple of hours before sunset, long shadows fell across fields of crops that stretched for miles in every direction. Up until then, we had seen only the small plots of subsistence farmers. This landscape looked more like the American Midwest. An occasional silo or irrigation pipe completed the effect. I relaxed outside the towns. There we could see, and any threat would have to expose itself to our superior firepower. I fiddled with my shortwave radio and propped it on the dashboard, where the voice of the BBC news anchor could compete with the Humvee’s engine and the wind rushing past. From London, she told Gunny Wynn and me what we were doing. The Army’s Third Infantry Division was closing in on Baghdad, with reports of fighting near Saddam International Airport. Marines were reported to hold a bridge over the Tigris at An Numaniyah, preparing to assault Baghdad from the southeast.

“That must be RCT-5 and RCT-7,” Wynn yelled over the engine. “So how’d we go from being in the lead to being way behind?”

“They swung west through open desert while we shot our way through every shitty little town in central Iraq,” I said. “You complaining that someone else is up there to beat on the Republican Guard for us?”

He smiled. “Nope. Just wondering how we got so lucky. Every time we get lucky, something bad happens to even the score.”

By piecing together news reports, official intelligence, and what we saw with our own eyes, we could usually figure out where we fit in the bigger picture. The Army and Marines would launch a two-pronged attack on Baghdad in the coming days. While the rest of the division crossed the Tigris at An Numaniyah, we would attack into Al Kut to fix in place a Republican Guard armored division garrisoned there, keeping it from hitting the flank or rear of the force near Baghdad. Al Kut was one of the largest cities in Iraq. I found it hard to believe we’d actually attack into a city that big but had learned in the past couple of weeks to reframe how I thought about risk. Yes, it would be completely insane, and yes, we may well do it.

The countryside was so bucolic and the evening so beautiful that the war faded a bit, and I began to fantasize about a warm meal and a clean bed waiting at our destination. I knew, though, that there would be only a muddy field and a cold MRE. Around dusk, the horizon ahead of us flickered with explosions. They only increased my feeling of normalcy, as if they were summer thunderstorms over Kansas, not jets pounding Republican Guard positions around Al Kut. We drove on through the first hour of darkness. As we got closer, we saw the explosions beneath the flashes. Their low rumble rolled across the fields, audible even over the roaring diesels.

We pulled off the road, and the Humvees strained through deep mud, their tires flinging clay over everything. I slipped and slid from vehicle to vehicle, emplacing the heavy machine guns in my little piece of the battalion perimeter. The night was so dark I had to use my night vision goggles just to see the next truck as I walked the lines. The Marines were exhausted, and we planned to leave at first light, so I considered giving the order to skip digging holes. This mud would absorb mortar shrapnel like a huge, leaden sponge. Remembering the terror of our bombardment near Qalat Sukkar, I thought better of it, and we spent the next forty-five minutes carving ranger graves in the wet clay. Colonel Ferrando was right: combat is unforgiving, and hard work trumps hope and luck combined.

My exhaustion had become insomnia, and I volunteered for radio watch while the other guys slept. Snores rose from sleeping bags as I sat in the passenger seat, staring into the darkness, thinking of home. What was my family doing? It was early afternoon on the East Coast, Wednesday, April 2, 2003. My sisters were in class. My parents were at work. Were they worrying about me? I hoped not. At any given time, I knew how much danger I was in. Usually, it didn’t seem like much. They had to assume the worst, and imaginations run wild without hard information. I wished I could tell them I was fine and put them at ease.

Through the Humvee’s dusty windshield, I watched flares popping in the distance, not knowing whether they were ours or the enemy’s. Each one burned brightly for thirty seconds, swinging in its parachute and silhouetting buildings and palm trees. The radio warned of Iraqi tanks in the area, and a machine gun fired somewhere in the dark. Night radio watch always made me philosophical, and I debated whether the war was more dangerous than I thought. Maybe my family’s concerns were justified. Maybe my sense of safety had become skewed. A massive explosion nearby seemed to confirm the thought. I turned away to preserve my night vision from the sudden light and waited for the flames to die down. After a few hours of listening to the radio’s soothing hiss, I woke Gunny Wynn and slept fitfully till dawn.

“Balls out. Damn, they’re really lighting into them,” Sergeant Colbert said. Half the platoon clustered around his Blue Force Tracker, watching a battle unfold a few kilometers to our north. Marine vehicle icons clustered on the bridge into Al Kut, and we could hear them shooting. LAVs, mainly, pumping 25 mm shells and ripping their chain guns. Interspersed with the lighter fire were the occasional explosions of a tank’s main gun. Suddenly, just as we expected the Marines to move into the city, they backed off the bridge and raced south down the highway, passing us without a glance. When the vehicles faded from sight, we continued to watch their icons falling off our map screen to the south at a steady clip.

“Hitman Two, stand by to move in ten mikes.” The captain interrupted our voyeurism, and we began to throw gear into the Humvees, top off oil, wash windshields, and lube machine guns. The CO came over to fill us in.

“That was RCT-1 in Al Kut. They got right up on the bridge and put on a show. RCT-5 and RCT-7 are north of the Tigris and moving on Baghdad. We’re heading south right now, back the way we came, and then eventually we’ll swing around and cross the Tigris in An Numaniyah.”

I couldn’t believe it. “You mean this whole thing was a feint? Everything we’ve done since leaving Qalat Sukkar was to put on a show in Al Kut?”

The captain nodded. “Looks that way.”

It’s not that I felt cheated. I knew that every main effort needs supporting efforts, and we’d been the main effort for long enough. It just seemed funny that in the twenty-first century, a feint still meant getting right up on the bridge and pretending to attack a town. I thought of my buddies with RCT-5 and hoped they appreciated our efforts on their behalf.

We spun through the mud and up onto the highway. Driving south felt like an anticlimax. Each previous mile had been closer to Baghdad, closer to victory, the end of the war, and home. Driving south was depressing. I worked hard to stay vigilant. It takes only minutes to set up an ambush, and the fact that we’d driven past the day before meant nothing outside our own minds.

Refugees filled the road. Thousands of them. Young couples with children, old women in black, men our age watching us self-consciously. They trudged south carrying water bottles, bundles of clothes, bags of bread, and one another. We drove past them for two hours. I was hungry but embarrassed to eat in front of people whose lives had been reduced to what they could carry in plastic shopping bags. We had barely enough food for ourselves. Marines who had eaten only one meal each day for the past week gave their MREs to the fleeing Iraqis. I couldn’t bring myself to stop them. The worst were the children. Babies could be carried, and adults can fend for themselves, but five- and six-year-olds walked next to their parents. Some limped and some cried, but all kept walking south. Away from the bombing. Away from the coming fight.

We stopped on the side of the highway to await our orders. At four in the afternoon, they came: leave immediately and drive to the Tigris River bridge at An Numaniyah. Be there by morning. Gunny Wynn and I spread maps on the hood. Sheet after sheet after sheet. I whistled.

“Christ, that’s almost two hundred miles. We have to go south through Al Hayy to Qalat Sukkar, then swing west through Afak and north again all the way to the Tigris. What do you think?”

“I think we’d better stop dicking around and drive.”

Sometimes I felt like a long-distance trucker, living my life in the cab of the Humvee, talking on the radio, and eating meals on the road. At my feet sat a two-liter water bottle to which I’d added six packets of MRE instant coffee, six creamers, a packet of cocoa powder, and two crushed No-Doz tablets. I had to be careful to sip the brew slowly to avoid peaking and crashing before midnight.

By sunset, we’d passed through Al Hayy and by the intersection where Iraqi artillery had nearly hit us three nights and several lifetimes earlier. We turned west on Highway 17 and accelerated into the fading twilight on a narrow macadam road. Our speed stayed high as we crested a series of small hills, passing farmhouses set back from the highway. Lights shone in some of them, and again I was struck by the peaceful countryside. A video filmed from my seat that evening would have looked like any one of a thousand hardscrabble farming towns in the American Southwest.

We raced through Afak without incident and turned north on Highway 1. Its six lanes of pavement had been in our dreams since south of Nasiriyah, when we’d last traveled them before cutting north on Highway 7 with RCT-1. The Army and the other RCTs had remained on Highway 1, swinging west of Iraq’s population centers to speed toward Baghdad. Now we joined the pell-mell rush. Traffic on the highway was thick and eclectic — Humvees, Patriot missile batteries, tanks on trucks, tanks clanking along on their own, hundreds of contracted tankers carrying fuel for the invaders. In the southbound lanes, empty trucks roared toward Kuwait for another load. I watched the massive logistical orchestra and thought of all those nights we’d felt so alone, a few teeth far away from this immense tail. We merged into the flow and relaxed, feeling the false safety of numbers.

Tracking our progress on the maps folded in my lap, I led the platoon off an exit ramp to Highway 27 for the final few miles to An Numaniyah. We arrived in the dead hours between midnight and dawn, joining a queue of Marines assembling to cross the bridge in the morning. I thought a tank might crush me if I slept next to the Humvee, so I crawled beneath it. My eyes closed, but sleep would not come.

At home, I would have gone downstairs and watched TV. Under the Humvee, all I could do was stare at the oil pan a few inches above my nose. I saw my father leaning against the kitchen counter as I told him of my decision to join the Corps. My girlfriend, sobbing beneath a blanket as I said goodbye in a hotel room in Coronado. Shattered windshields. Blood-spattered pavement. And that relentless voice on the scratchy recording: There’s no discharge in the war.

012

After sunrise, we continued our relentless push and crossed the second of Mesopotamia’s great rivers. Below the bridge, the Tigris sparkled in the morning sun. Fishermen poled skiffs through the shallows, and crowds gathered along the banks to bathe and draw water. A group of children waved from atop a burned-out Soviet tank. Others clambered onto an artillery cannon and sat, cheering, astride the barrel as if it were a hobbyhorse. Military equipment was everywhere. For the next hundred miles, all the way to the gates of Baghdad, every palm grove hid Iraqi armor, every field an artillery battery, and every alley an antiaircraft gun or surface-to-air missile launcher. But we never fired a shot. We saw the full effect of American airpower: every one of these fearsome weapons was a blackened hulk.

The division had fought its way through there the day before, and evidence of the battle was everywhere. We passed a Humvee, its windshield frosted with bullet holes. American sleeping bags and packs lay in the road. I wondered what had happened to their owners. Frequently, the pavement itself bore the starburst crater and radiating shrapnel scars of a mortar strike. All along the highway, buildings and underbrush smoldered. Smoke was thick in the air, burning diesel mixing sometimes with sweeter burning flesh. Wynn and I stared at a blackened and abandoned Abrams tank.

“I thought those things were indestructible,” I said. “How the hell did they manage to bag a fucking Abrams?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know, but let’s hope whoever did it is already dead.”

“Watch out.” I pointed at an object in the road, thinking it was a piece of unexploded ordnance. Then I saw it was a human head, slightly charred and staring placidly at the sky. A short distance away, dogs tore at the body.

Wynn and I were momentarily chastened but then had to laugh. “Can you believe this place?” he said. “Heads in the road. Dogs eating bodies. People at home bitch about cigarette butts on the beach.”

We drove through dusk and into the night before stopping along the edge of the road. The GPS told me where we were, but that was less important than what was out there. Nothing could tell me what was in the fields and palm groves just beyond our little circle. We had moved so quickly that there was no front anymore. Good guys and bad guys were all mixed up. I had slept three hours in three days.

“Gunny, I can’t think straight. I need a couple of hours in the bag,” I said. At that point, sleep wasn’t pleasant, just a mechanical necessity, like putting gas in a car.

To our left, a five-story factory burned in the dark. Flames leaped high into the sky. The fire didn’t crackle; it roared, sucking oxygen from the air around it. I wrapped myself in a poncho and lay on the gravel near the front tire to shield myself from the flickering light.

It was the sleep of the damned. I floated in a netherworld of dreams, memories, and sudden starts. Briefing the platoon. Fireballs. Ragged breathing. Take the shot. Blue cars. Tanks nearby. And the fire, burning, roaring, casting shadows across the palms.

Christeson shook me awake. “It’s been three hours, sir. The patrol’s on its way back in.”

I sat up and rubbed my head, shaking gravel from my hair. “What patrol?”

“Team Three, sir. They went to check out that tank.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

Down the road, near the platoon’s last Humvee, Sergeant Lovell and Doc Bryan were swearing softly in the darkness. Around them, the team sat on the pavement, stripping out of soaked, muddy boots and trousers. They looked as if they’d been wading in waist-deep water.

Stinetorf glanced up at me. “That fucking thing has probably been there ten years, sir. Couldn’t drive it out through that swamp if they wanted to.”

Slowly, I understood. Some of my dreams had not been dreams. The company operations chief, a senior enlisted man outside the platoon, had come to me and asked to send Lovell’s team out to investigate an Iraqi tank that had been spotted in a nearby palm grove. I pulled Sergeant Lovell aside and asked him what had happened.

“Ops chief came and told us to go look at some fucking tank out there in the grove. I told him half the fucking division rolled past it already and I only take orders from you and Gunny Wynn.”

I nodded, seeing where this was going.

“So he left and came back a couple minutes later. Said he talked to you and you OK’ed it. We mounted up and went out.”

I had given the order without even realizing it. “Sergeant Lovell, he came to me, but I was delirious and thought I was dreaming. I’m sorry.”

Gunny Wynn was sitting by the radio when I returned to the Humvee. “I’m losing my mind, Mike. Losing my fucking mind.”

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