I hated the sweat most. How, after collecting grime from my filthy helmet, it rolled down my forehead. It would not stop, and if by chance it did, I would start getting dizzy, feeling as if I were ready to pass out. The beads of sweat would use my eyebrows like an assembly area where they would prepare an assault on my eyes. My eyes squint together as the sting grows unbearable. It felt like my eyes were being attacked by one thousand bees, and every new drop of sweat felt like another bee joining in the assault. Keeping my damn eyes open was a war within itself. A claustrophobic feeling rose in my chest as my vision closed in. What little I could see was blurry, and that fucking sting was still there! Fuck!! My initial pangs of panic began to transform into anger. What the fuck am I doing? Why the fuck am I here? I have turned these questions around in my head almost every second in country, analyzing them from almost every possible angle. Who knows, maybe this time I’ll come up with an answer; probably not. I was always frustrated with this paradoxical thought because when I was home, I just wanted to be at war. When I was at war, I longed for my home. Nothing made sense anymore.
I shook my head to clear these thoughts so I could focus more on the patrol. No reason to start thinking of home right now. From the front of the formation, a wave of arms went up and down calling for a halt. Another wave went through the formation as everyone took a knee and faced outward. Probably another map check, I thought as I gave my gun team a sector of fire and took a knee behind them. I glanced back toward my platoon sergeant to see if the leadership was linking up. He was talking to the medic and laughing so I stayed where I was.
I considered the moment. My body armor felt stiffer and heavier than most days. I tried to adjust it by lifting it from the bottom, but it just slid right back down. Most of the weight had to be on the front and there was nothing I could do about it. My vest was my fighting platform, or, in other words, the desktop where my most important tools were organized. Six magazines, a one-quart canteen filled with water, and my night vision goggles filled the pouches, which helped to it weighed down the front of my vest. On my back was an ACIP radio, a poncho liner neatly rolled and stuffed into a long butt pack, and my medical kit. The rest of my important stuff was kept throughout my various pockets that were scattered about my uniform. It was mostly just my ranger handbook and some pre-filled reference cards I had made for myself. I didn’t carry an assault pack anymore because I thought we carried too much weight as it was. Body armor was mandatory, which was unfortunate because speed sometimes meant security. We were too heavy and the real soldiers all knew it. The soldiers who went out every day. Fucking leadership didn’t go out on daily patrols and face insurgents on motorcycles. Insurgents who only carried a few mags in their pockets. Through three years of war, I knew what the essentials were and I carried the bare minimum; we were fighting true believers.
The only pocket I cared about right now was my back left. I reached back, unbuttoned it, and pulled out my tin of Copenhagen Long Cut. My machine gunner looked over at me when he heard the snapping of the tin and watched me as I opened and sniffed it.
“Why do you do that?”, he asked.
“Pull security”, I replied, ignoring his question.
The truth was I loved the smell of it. I always took a whiff of the stuff whenever I opened a can. I didn’t really know what it reminded me of, maybe America, but it triggered something which made me nostalgic. Not all dip, only Copenhagen. I pulled open my bottom lip and put it in, packing it with my tongue. Relief washed over me. I felt better, more complete. It wasn’t just nostalgia that was triggered when I took a dip. It also calmed my nerves. “Want some?”, I asked reaching out the can to him. I knew to share it while I had it. Dip was rare overseas. What goes around comes around is as accurate a maxim as there could be in the Army. As he took a pinch, I pulled my OD (olive drab) green, one-quart canteen from its pouch. That was the downside of my treat, it tended to dehydrate me. As I opened the cap, I noticed a little tear on the side of the pouch from a mission in Iraq.
SNAP!! The crack of one rifle shot. The sound reverberates off buildings, trees, mountains, and anything else between you and your invisible adversary, echoing for an eternity. Everyone drops to the ground, waiting for the subsequent shots to follow, but they never come. Time slows to a standstill. People cease to move, or quite honestly, even exist. The animals stop chattering. The rain and wind appear to stop. For a few moments, nature itself seems to stand still. It grows colder, and the silence is thick and deafening. It weighs heavy on you. It is as though you can feel the weight of Death himself press down upon you as he passes by. The silence is suddenly pierced by the anguished cry of a soldier, “Oh shit, FUCK! Sergeant Anyman is hit! MEDIC!!” Now you know that Death has indeed appeared. He has brushed by you on his way to claim another life. Your fear turns to anger and you want to shoot someone, anyone. You rotate your safety leaver onto semi and look for a target, but you have no idea where the shot even came from. You see no targets, only buildings or mountains. Maybe you notice a palm tree swaying in the breeze.
Goddamn it, what the fucking shit, you think. You cannot begin to explain how frustrated you are because there are no words, but you calm yourself because you have no other options as you wait for the enemy to attack again. Not only do you have zero targets to aim at, but you have absolutely no idea in which direction the bullet even came from. No, you rarely here the bark of the AK-47 or Dragonov. If you do than it is not aiming at you. Rather you hear the crack of the bullet as it speeds past you. It is terrifying and invigorating at the same time. You hate it and love it…and you wonder where the fuck the targets are as you peer through your sights to kill your enemy. Training always taught you they would be popping up soon…but the targets never appear. You treat the casualty, call a MEDEVAC and then go back to your routine, dumbfounded. You don’t seem to be fighting people anymore. Rather, it begins to feel as though you are fighting the cities and mountains themselves. I started calling our invisible adversary the shadow people.
The shadow people exist, and yet, somehow, they don’t exist. They operate out of the shadows. No, they are the shadows. Whether you are in the mountains, the woods, the cities, it doesn’t matter. You will only catch a glimpse of the shadow people from the peripherals of your eyes. By the time you turn to focus, they are gone. There is no rank in the shadows; everyone is a leader and no one is a leader. It is like trying to grasp and hold onto water; the tighter you clench your fist, the faster it disappears. The shadow people live by the maxim “silence, violence, silence.” This means that you who fight against them grow complacent only to be awed by the sudden and extreme violence that occurs when you least expect it. When you finally act, they are gone, disappearing back into the shadows of the city or mountains where they came from. Sometimes they offer up one of their own to sacrifice to appease their shadow gods and to make you think you might defeat them, but you’ll never defeat them. Not while they fight within of their shadows. Their shadows are too familiar to them; to unfamiliar to you. Finally, the shadow people have absolute conviction in their cause.
Americans used to understand this. We defeated the British, utilizing the shadows to gain our independence. From the swampland of South Carolina, to the snow-covered, pine mountains of Northern New England, we would appear and disappear at will, frustrating our enemy into overreacting. It is ironic that their own aggressive tactics would gain more recruits for the American cause. Today, we are the imperials marching forward, though we learn more from the shadow people every day. Perhaps that is why our own government fears the veterans it creates; we have seen and experienced firsthand how to defeat the military through the shadow people we fight.
Stunned and confused, I looked down at the gun team calling my name. The confusion must have been visible on my face by the concerned looks on their faces. The assistant gunner was holding out the can of dip I had given them.
“Fuck, where did you go, Sergeant? You looked like you weren’t here for a few minutes.” My assistant gunner asked as I took my can of Copenhagen back.
I felt like shit. I had been lost on another tour while on mission. Without even realizing it, I had slipped through time and space to an incident from the past. I did not like to lose focus at all, especially in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. Now, two of my soldiers had seen me faze out. I promised myself that I wouldn’t lose focus again. Not here, not now. Hopefully this would be my last tour. Sometimes I felt as though I was losing my sanity.
“I didn’t go anywhere, now pay attention you two, shit could hit the fan at any time.” I said. I was now completely back. The venture to another tour had stunned me, but I wouldn’t let it happen again. I was in complete control of everything now, or so I thought. I got up to check on my other gun team and see why this halt was taking so long.
“Hey, Sergeant, before you leave, perhaps you could settle a disagreement that me and my AG (assistant gunner) are having right now” my Gunner asked coyly.
“Yeah? What’s that?” I replied. I knew this would be good. I spit a good amount of Copenhagen out of my mouth. It was odd how much I missed it. My last dip was only about an hour ago.
“If you traveled back in time and gave yourself a hand job, would that make you gay? He says it would because it would still be with another man, even if that other man was yourself. I think that it would be the same as masturbation. I don’t think it would be gay because it would be the same as jerking off.” He asked as he looked at me and grinned.
I shook my head, stood up, and walked away. I glanced over at the mountain peak in the distance. The fireworks would begin soon. I was sure of it.