A World of Hurt
By JP Miller
“You didn't feel there was anything you ever could enjoy again because you really were immersed in death.
Other people seemed shallow. You felt a strong allegiance to the dead.”
Here I am taking point on a “Recon” while the walking sandbags behind me stare upwards at nothing in particular except the goddamn sun. A sniper with an AK and a couple of RPGs were reported in this area, just south of Baghdad proper, by some butter bar. The whole situation steamrolls into a hunt for ghostly insurgents and a hunt for a weapons cache by the Colonel who is aching to get his star. So, they wake me up from a perfectly good fuck dream and say they need a forward observer to call in the Kiowas, Arty and Apaches. And I’m so short that I can taste the disgusting MAC flight chow. I’ve got eight days and a wake up till I board that freedom bird and get back to the world. I should be in the “green zone” jerking off, but I’m the only 13Foxtrot on TDY with these “boots” and the officers are all trigger happy since the “surge” began. My unit from Ft. Polk was all too happy to loan me out. Our Captain barely knew of my existence, even in such a small unit, and when he was called upon to volunteer someone for this mission, I was just unlucky. When he pointed at me and read my name from a list, I knew I was fucked.
I have been in country now for 11 months, dodging IED’s, insurgents, snipers and officers. I don’t know which is worse. This is my second tour in Iraq, so I figure I should get some down time before my departure. But the brass wants to play soldier—so I’m stuck with these ghosts and trying to stay alive these last few days I have here. I’m trying to lead them through a neighborhood, which is totally ate-up, and complete this dumbass mission without losing anyone. These guys are all semi-green except Perez, who I have known since I rolled into this dusty clusterfuck. We have both done back to back tours, after a couple of months in the world, sandwiched between the deployments. Perez is tail-end Charlie on this mission because he’s the only one I trust to cover my six. He’s a short-timer like me and talks about this family back in the states, all the time. He just sighs when I tell him to shut his face and not to show me the pics on his phone. His family is butt-ugly and I have told him so, but he just laughs it off. He’s as close to a friend as I’ve got, given that over here you don’t make friends. It’s because they just disappear one day and fly back to the world in a shiny new aluminum coffin with the red, white and blue covering them like a thin blanket.
The day is hot and dusty just like yesterday and the day before. The maze of buildings in this neighborhood has me nervous. I keep a radio beside me constantly in case I need ARTY or the birds. I remind the squad to save as much water as possible in their camels. It’s going to be a long one, dancing around a maze of ragged streets and rushing through tight alley ways—going around in a great big figure-eight. I’ve got to give it some time so the officers sitting in the air-conditioned operational units will be satisfied.
Before I can scoot the squad across a wide open crossroad, and into some cover, I hear an AK open-up to my six. Immediately, I tell the boots to drop and hug the mud and brick walls of the alley. I take a Private with me (don’t know his name yet), and tell the rest of the crew to wait five then cross the street one at a time and take cover behind the largest walled-in house. If we don’t return in five minutes, call in the Kiowas to give us cover. I grab the kid to cover my six and we rush back We rush back down the alley with our M-4s scoping out the roof tops to see if there are casualties. I can hear the sound of the AK popping from one of the roofs and the quick answer from a SAW. Eventually, I see Perez moving toward me in a crabwalk, trying to stay under the range of the fire from above. I turn toward the kid in order to get him to give me cover fire as I go after Perez but he’s not there. I can just see his boots moving away from me, the dust kicked up and obscuring my view. I have no choice but to go after Perez alone
After a few more steps around the curve in the alleyway, I see Perez running towards me as fast as he can, the dust flying. His SAW is smoking hot from firing. Then I spot the sniper at the top of the last house down this Death Valley. He is just into my view and I pour on the fire. I go through two magazines until Perez gets to me. I grab him by his arm and we both go towards the cross road. The AK is still clattering away but the fire is above our heads and its getting farther away. When we get to the crossroads, I can see the rest of the squad squatting against a dirt wall right beside an entrance to a courtyard. I’m mad as hell and scared to death. The adrenaline is pumping and I nearly push Perez into the wall. We soon take cover behind a blue metal gate that opens into a courtyard of a rather large walled compound. We scope out the courtyard and the rest of the squad follows us inside. “Check out the house, now” I say and four of my crew are on this. The new private is catatonic and I have to pull him inside the courtyard. I look at the kid and his name tag says “Wilson”.
“Wilson, what the fuck is wrong with you. You are all ate-up, man.”
I can see that wildness in his eyes that newbies get on their first firefight. Then like the inevitable roll of the dice, he takes one to the neck. Everyone opens up at every direction and I have to scream and beg for them to cease fire and move towards cover in the house. Perez and I pull Wilson into the house and I know he is already dead. He is taking gulps of air but it never reaches his lungs. We put a pressure bandage on his neck but the blood is bright red and squirting up into our faces. The radioman, who we call Tex because he used to ride bulls in competition, calls in a dust-off. We all know it’s too late for that shit but we have to do it anyway. We lean over him and lie to him. We tell him “it’s nothing” and “you’re going to be all right.” That’s my favorite one. Lying to the dying is now such an easy thing for me to do. If I freaked out every time someone was wasted all of us might as well be prone and cold, leaking red rivulets of life. Lying to the command has become an art form. Lying to my boys is just Standard Operating Procedure. There is a hierarchy of lies. The government lies to the people. The military lies to the soldiers. The soldiers lie to themselves. We all know we lie to each other. It’s a perfectly acceptable and advantageous social charm to be able to lie well here.
“Alright, calm the fuck down. We are going to go around this Hajji. In case he is not alone we will move back the way we came and give the Apaches a chance to level the place. Now spread out and keep an eye out for this bastard. He was sitting on top of the roof of the tall slim house just south of the minaret on top of the mosque”
I get on the radio and call in support from our command. They refuse to send out anymore support in APCs or Humvees but give me air support because I tell them that the enemy strength is twenty. It’s just another lie to get a little support from the rear. Then they inflate the whole situation and send the Apaches. I ask where the choppers, the Kiowas and Blackhawks, are and they tell me “en route.” I tell them we have one man down and to hurry.
We clear the house and stay in the courtyard. There is sporadic fire from rooftops and I can hear at least two AK searching out targets. A couple of shots ring the gate like a bell and I know they know where we are now. “Where the hell are those Kiowas?”
“OK. Fuck this shit. We are not going to just sit here and get our asses shot off. Perez, try and get those Kiowas here before the dust-off comes because you know they will not take you unless they have some cover. Here, take my radio. The rest of you are coming with me. Look at me. We are going to go back around to where we came into that alley. Hajji is sitting right on top of that minaret with the wide roof and he is directing fire from other buildings. We are going to avoid that mosque but fire on anyone who shows themselves near that tower.”
All they could do was nod their heads in unison. All I could hear was that freedom bird calling my name. “I’m too short for this shit, man.” This I said aloud.
Perez nodded his head and said: “Me too, Coop.”
Now some small arms fire opens up from the roof of this house. It sounds like one AK and a 9mm pistol but then another AK joins the party. Now I know they are shooting at the birds we need so desperately. How did we miss them when we cleared the house? Sneaky fucks. We toss some frags over the roof edge. We then pop a couple of red smokes and toss one over on the roof and leave one in the courtyard to obscure our retreat.
When the Birds arrive and we are halfway back down the alley, Tex tells the Apaches to open up on the smoke. The Kiowas follow us and cover until we can get far enough away from the AK fire. Then the alley opens up into a small open field. There is no incoming fire from anywhere now and I am thankful for that. Perez is holding Wilson on his back as the Dust-off arrives. The Kiowas stand picket while we load into the Blackhawks and lift away. We all ride with our feet on the skids and rifles pointed downward. Well, all of us except Wilson who is lying on his back with wide open eyes filled with terror. As we ascend I can see the Apaches are pouring out the rounds, tearing up the wrong house and the wrong courtyard and anything else they can target. There is some cooking smoke rising above the modest home they are tearing apart. Some adults rush out of the house carrying some small kids and a dog follows them. I am just about to tell the pilot to radio over to the Apaches and tell them to cease fire when I see the family go down into a bloody mass from mini-gun fire. It’s over. Forget it now.
When we buzz by, I can see the man on the minaret. He just stands there filming the whole thing with some kind of small mini-cam. I point my M-4 at him and let out a single round but he just stands there and then waves. Wilson finally expires with a gurgle. He is still now with his arms hugging himself like he is taking an afternoon nap.
Things become surreal as we approach the Green zone. We pass over black smoke that curls around our bird like small tunnels. There are groups of screaming people pointing this way and that. There are APCs, Humvees, some jarheads, and a lot of twisted bodies that hadn’t been there ten minutes ago. I let all this pass me by. I have learned there is no use in feeling. Empathy and sympathy are the enemy. But I can’t help myself sometimes. I look at the lifeless body of Wilson and wonder what his parents are doing at the time. Are they sleeping? Are they watching TV or shopping or fucking in some giant king-sized bed? I want to lie beside Wilson and sleep. But I just stare at the chaos below feeling nothing more than a little relief. We bank sharply into the green zone and lay down with a bounce.
The Green Zone is supposed to be a haven for our troops but it’s just another disaster erected in this desert holy land. The hotel and guard posts are targeted nightly by who knows. Perez and I share a room at what’s left of the Hilton and nail plywood to the windows. We drink the better of a bottle of Crown Royal and trade punches, laughing, and pounding each other’s guts out until we pass out. We beat each other mercilessly in a drunken ritual that is meant to be some sort of atonement.
Every night the small arms fire seeks out our rooms and the occasional RPG blasts a hole in our defenses. Perez and I have learned to sleep through most of this nonsense. The sound of incoming small arms fire work like a lullaby, comfortable and bringing on the sleep.
The morning only brings sounds of helicopters and the smell of burning tires. Perez is still trying to sleep but I am awake and racked with a headache. My side and stomach hurt from the punching. I start to climb into my gear and shake Perez. When he awakes, we look at each other and say “seven days and a wake-up, man”. Perez starts getting dressed and opens a bottle of scotch which he pours into his canteen. He gives me the rest of the scotch and I do the same after taking a swallow. We fill our camels with water.
“So what the fuck are we doing today, Coop?”
He asks me this and I just shrug my shoulders. “Who knows?”
We both start cleaning our weapons when a private with a starched and clean set of BDU’s comes in our room.
“What the fuck do you want, private?”
The private stammers and hands us two pieces of paper. I take the thin sheets and then give them to Perez. Perez reads the short one and then the long one and laughs. The private leaves quietly. Then Perez takes a swig of the scotch in his canteen. He hands me the orders and I see why he is laughing. The first paper is a recommendation for two bronze stars; one for Perez and one for me.
“Fuck. I don’t need this shit. I already have one. So do you. I need a plane ride.”
I read the second paper and just slump and sigh.
“Damn. Again? Really? We are going back to the same spot we were yesterday. What the fuck? There is nothing there but a couple of Hajjis taking shots at dogs and cats. There is no weapons cache there. We just happen to be there when they were. The Apaches took down the wrong house. That’s not our fault. Goddamn officers. Idiots, all of them.”
When I think my hangover couldn’t get any worse, someone knocks on the door. I’m cleaning my rifle and just grunt “Come”.
When I see that it’s the new Chaplain all I can do is wonder what fucking thing I did to get me this karmic nightmare. The Captain is perfectly adorned with creased BDUs that have never been worn before. His Captains bars shine. They are perfect. Pristine. The Chaplain has only been in country a week and they never go out in the shit. What would he want from us?
Perez and I look up from our rifles and at each other and roll our eyes. We don’t bother to stand. We are way beyond the reach of any fucking Army regulation. We are cold blooded killers in the best sense of the words.
“Yes Sir, Chaplain. What can we do for you?”
I can see the Chaplains name tag says “Stewart” but it doesn’t register. I have seen him once before in the chow hall with all the other officers.
“Well, I wanted to congratulate you on your citations. The Colonel is mightily impressed by you two. And, I wanted to ask a favor…I mean a request. The Colonel agrees that I should accompany you guys into the field. It’s really an order from command you see. Chaplains are to go with squads and platoons, with the troops, to provide moral support.”
Perez and I look at each other, hold our breaths, and then bust out into a thinly veiled and then gut busting laughter. We stop laughing gradually and wipe the tears from our eyes. This is the craziest shit I have ever seen over here. I have never even seen a Chaplain hold a rifle. The only thing I have ever seen them do is pray over dead bodies and cross themselves and the wasted soldier. Why the fuck do they even do that stupid shit. Are they sending his soul to heaven? Fuck, the dead are already better off than the rest of us. Leave them alone.
“Really, Padre? You want to ride shotgun on this stupid mission. Oh, I see. How else could you get a citation and promotion to Major? What do you think, Perez?”
Perez just shrugs his shoulders and continues cleaning his rifle.
“Ok, sir. You got it. Perez here says its ok with him and well I just don’t give a shit. But, you have to stay out of the way. If I am in a situation where I have to send one of my men to save your eminence then I will just cut you loose. You will be on your own. So stay close and don’t get those BDUs dirty. I don’t want the Colonel chewing my ass for getting you killed.”
The Chaplain was nervous and a little surprised by my tone but it was only the beginning for him.
“Sir, are you going to be carrying or are you just an observer?”
“Carrying?” Oh, you mean am I bringing a weapon. Well, I suppose I will bring my side arm.”
“Ok, sir. Just meet us at the motor pool at 0830. And, sir, wear your body armor.”
“Well, thank you for allowing me to tag along, Sergeant Cooper and…Specialist Perez.”
The Chaplain smiles and does an about face like he was fresh out of Officers Candidate School. When he closes the door behind him, Perez and I just continue to clean our weapons and then after a few minutes we break out in laughter again. Damn, it hurts my stomach.
At the motor pool, we lay the map on a Humvee and go through the operation. We will be dropped by the birds a little beyond the target point and snake our way from behind to the house with the courtyard and blue gate. This time we will be carrying heavier weapons like the M141—bunker defeat mechanism and a few M203 grenade launchers along with a couple of more SAWs. Since we will be going in Air Assault mode, we have no Humvees or APCs for support or retreat. The Kiowas and Apaches are for fire support and the Blackhawks will be personnel carriers, and dust-offs when needed.
The airlift into position was secure so we landed instead of roping out with the extra munition. The Blackhawks took off and went back to refuel. The Apaches went beyond the horizon until needed. The Kiowa can stay airborne for longer periods of time so they circled as we humped our way through somebody’s olive grove to the target. There were twelve of us and we passed the open ground quickly. We passed children tending some goats. They stared at us like we were aliens. I guess we are. I took point while Perez was tail-end Charlie again. I had a M4A1 with a 203 grenade launcher attached underneath. I was carrying my 9mm on my side and my tactical knife was strapped around my right leg. Perez carried a SAW and his 9mm and a shitload of ammo in his pack. The rest of the crew carried extra ammo and the man to my immediate six carried the SMAW in case I needed to use it quickly. That thing could blast a hole through eight inch walls. We could switch it to high explosive mode and delay the blast until it lands in a machine gun nest or sniper position. We all carried our personal shit like good luck charms – St. Christopher amulets, crosses, pieces of steel fragments that just missed, pictures of wives, girlfriends, mothers or kids. I carry a spent round on a chain around my neck like some voodoo charm. I have some extra frags and green and red smoke on a bandolier. I have a canteen filled with scotch (my other good luck charm) and some smokes.
As we approached the section of the neighborhood where we were before, we waited, looking for position. I took a look behind and saw the Chaplain struggling along with his whole fucking pack of religious paraphernalia. Useless. I took out the binocs and called for Perez down the line to join me. We were covered by a slight berm on the outskirts of the town. I took a smoke and gave the Binocs to Perez and ask him what he thought. Perez scanned the area and halfway whispered to me.
“Well, there are definitely some sentinels atop that minaret to the left. They are holding cellphones and at least one has a weapon. I can see heads pop up occasionally from the house that we took fire from yesterday. My thought is they are holding the heaviest weapons like AKs and RPGs. I doubt they have mortars up there but you never know. Down the middle, on the street, are abandoned cars and piles of rocks, bricks and fallen walls from that house that got fucked by the Apaches yesterday. Looks different than yesterday. With the cellphones and that street debris, I would say they embedded some IEDs since yesterday. I would count their strength at below ten. It’s not an easy target.”
I took the glasses back and scanned as far as I could to each side of the position. Perez took a swallow of scotch and chased it with water from his camel. I did the same.
“OK. This is how it’s going down. We are going to circle back around to get behind that fucking house, blast a hole through it, enter and clear it from the bottom to the top. If the Colonel wants a prisoner let him come get it. Shoot first and don’t ask any questions. Then we will take the courtyard and exit through the front gate with cover from the birds. If El Haj is out there, we will shoot and scoot down the short end of the street, turn west for cover and regroup back here. I don’t care if we are not supposed to fire on the mosque. If we take fire from there, use the 203s and frags on it. Position the SAWs at the six to cover our retreat back here.”
The blast in the mud brick wall of the house almost took the back wall down. We tossed some frags on top then rushed in one by one and made short work of the Hajjis downstairs. They were sleeping mostly and caught unaware and far from their weapons. Three down. Then the upstairs erupted with AKs and pistols firing down the stairs. Then here come the grenades. They rolled them down the stairs like they were bowling and we got prone and hugged the walls. Three blasts in a row threw two of my guys up in the air. When they came down they were dead and in pieces. One of my guys starts to grab the body parts and rearrange them but he can’t tell which arm or leg belongs to which torso. Somebody slaps him until he looks into their eyes. My ears are ringing and I motioned for the SAWs to position beside the stairs and give us cover to get to the roof. We threw about four frags up the stairs, waited for the blasts, and rushed up firing everything we had. One of my crew with the shotgun sprays round after round up and around the mutilated stairs. We get to the roof and see that there were only two of them. One was a boy, blasted by the shotgun, who would never reach puberty. The other was a one legged man who had an iron grip on an RPG and held his prosthetic leg with the other hand. He had been killed by a frag to the head. From the roof we immediately spotted the guys that were watching from the minaret. One waved at us, knowing that the rules of engagement prevented us from firing on mosques.
“Fucking stupid rules. There are no rules here.”
“OK guys. Search every nook of this shithole and find me some weapons, ammo, papers, anything to give to the Colonel. And bring along the AK and RPG and rounds from up here. Bring along the two downstairs any way you can. Perez comes with me.”
Perez and I went down the stairs into the dust and smoke and looked out the front door into the courtyard. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the Chaplain holding mass. There, out in the open, was four of my crew kneeling in front of him while he read from the bible. Unbelievable. Religion and God have as much to do with this nightmare as do unicorns and fairy tales.
“Get the fuck up and take a post!"
I scream this and the Chaplain starts to clear away his shit, bumbling along, dropping things and looking for other things. My guys are all in the courtyard now and I look at Tex. He knows what I want. Call in the goddamn birds. Shoot this shit neighborhood to pieces. He shakes his head. Goddamn. They were retasked.
“Ok. We are going out this gate and turning left. Hug the wall around and make for the LZ where we were dropped. Chaplain, sir. Please leave all that stuff? It’s not going to help you stay alive out here. There is no God in the middle of this shit.”
We go one at a time out the front gate and draw some distant fire. It’s too far away and we are in the clear. Then some Iraqi kid pops up and tries to get back over a wall out of range and he is wasted immediately. One of my guys pops him. Shoot first. While everyone except Perez and I are in the clear, I see the frigging Chaplain, last in line dragging some of his crap along, then drop it and rush over to the kid who is atop the wall still moving. What the hell. But no one fires at him. All the distant AK fire disappears as the Chaplain goes to try and grab the kid and bring him with us. I look up at the Minaret and the guy with the cellphone just watches, standing still and straight, waiting. Then Perez lays down his SAW and rushes over to help the Chaplain with the kid. I really can’t believe what I am seeing. Has everyone gone insane? I call for Perez to get back and leave them but he is already there and they are carrying the kid back towards me. I scream one more time.
“Drop him, Goddamnit. Get out of there.”
Then I see Perez with his hand around his ear like he can’t hear me. But he starts back towards me and out of the street. Before he can get far enough away the blast from an IED totally vaporizes the Chaplain and the kid. They rain back down to earth in a cloud of tiny bits of flesh and blood mixed with the dust and dirt. Perez gets tossed up and lands about fifty feet from me. I can see he is alive but missing his legs. When the dust settles down over the neighborhood there is a four foot deep crater in the road. Perez starts to crawl with his hands towards me.
“Fuck, man. I am not believing this shit. Seven days and a wake-up. Perez, you dumb fuck.”
I don’t even bother to look for the Chaplain. All he was, all he had, all he ever wanted, and all he ever wanted to be is gone like droplets of red rain. I pick up the SAW and go after Perez for no reason whatsoever. When I get to him, the AKs open up again. Perez doesn’t weigh much now and hence I drag what’s left of him behind me. I fire straight at the asshole on the Minaret but it’s no use. He is too far away. He just stands there recording all this shit—watching us like we were a goddamn John Wayne movie. I make it to the gate, go left and around the wall. I drop the SAW and put Perez on my back. I carry him as far as I can towards the olive grove when a sting catches me in the leg. In the background I can barely hear the roar of the mini-guns of the Apaches. Finally.
When I see the other guys coming towards me and hear the flapping of the dust-off, I look for Perez but can’t find him. I am tossed into the Blackhawk and then I see Perez. I am lying right beside him and his eyes are open. He is looking at me and I stare into his eyes. We both say “six days and a wake-up.” I close my eyes and go to sleep beside Perez. I feel nothing except the slow banking of the Blackhawk and my hand squeezing the hand of Perez.
When they roll Perez into the back of the C-130, there are nearly thirty other aluminum caskets, neatly arranged. I am hopping along with a crutch because of the neat through and through on my right leg. They place his aluminum box beside all the other aluminum boxes. While the airmen arrange things and strap things down for the ride back to the world. I struggle up the ramp and stand beside Perez and then I lay down beside him and between two of those shiny boxes. I talk to him.
“You fucking dumbass. Nobody liked you. You were a goddamn fuck-up. And, you family was as ugly as circus freaks. You drank too much. You ate chow like it was your last meal, spilling food out of your mouth, talking all the time. You were a lousy soldier and stupid to go after that kid. No one is going to miss you. I won’t miss you. I have already forgotten you. Goodbye, you asshole.”
I close my eyes and think of the guy on the minaret with the cell phone. I lay still until an airman stands over me.
“Sergeant? Sergeant? We have to close it up now. And, the Captain is coming along to inspect. Want some help?”
I get up on my crutch and hop along out of the bird. I watch as they close up the ramp and ready for take-off.
Just three days and a wake-up, I say to no one.
JP Miller is a disabled veteran, writer and journalist. His stories and essays have appeared in SouthernCrossReview, The Literary Yard, PIF Magazine, The Greanville Post, Pravda, Cyrano's journal and Countercurrents among others. He lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina beside the Atlantic Ocean. Contact