A flurry of sand blew past Mark, as he lowered his camera. He never could get used to the new digital ones the Times had issued. He was always waiting for that distinctive click of the shutter. It made him feel like, without it, the photo wasn’t quite done. Mark sighed, as he looked over at his subjects. Two tired soldiers leaning against a Humvee wheel. They looked so exhausted, worn about the edges. They weren’t exactly resting like someone in the world would. They were tense and alert, eyes continually assessing their surroundings. Yet, you could see a strange resignation in those eyes. Anyone could tell they anticipated an attack or ambush and were at a weary peace with it. Mark hoped he captured that look.
Mark had come to cover the war with all sorts of expectations. Over the long months, each of them was buried under the reality of this place. The soldiers Mark covered had told him, “Welcome to the suck,” when he arrived. He hadn’t understood it then, just had written it off to military bravado. Now he caught himself using it on cherry reporters when they came in country. The standard cliché was, that war changed you. Mark felt that it was the world that had changed, or that he could now see it with eyes brutally uncovered. Nothing was the same, and he wondered if he would recognize anything when he could make himself go home.
Soldiers in Photo
Sergeant Presas handed the canteen back to Specialist Beach. Whenever someone went looking for one of them, they would find the other close at hand. They were the only two remaining members of a ten medic detachment to this infantry unit. They had the replacements to bring them up to full strength, but they didn’t know any of the new guys. They didn’t trust them yet. Both men used to be famous for their sense of humor. The reprimands they received from the company were legendary. Neither of them laughed much now.
Presas had come to Iraq a visionary; he had believed that they were liberators. He had read everything he could on the Iraqi people, their history, their culture; he could even speak a little Farsi. It definitely helped him with the locals. They trusted him more than the other soldiers here. But, the loss of friends and constant mortar and RPG attacks had slowly burned away his crusader’s spirit. He wasn’t quite sure he believed in anything anymore.
Presas lied in his letters back home. He told his friends and family about all the great things he was doing here. The palaces they slept in and the happy villagers that they helped. People back home didn’t want to know the truth; they wanted a nice clean war that they could feel all warm and fuzzy about. Some units got to do the hearts and minds bit. Presas had been in one of them at the start. He had cursed the inaction, wanting to get into the fray with the rest of the army. He had never felt the full weight of the phrase, be careful what you wish for. Now, he would like to meet the man who came up with that saying and kick him in the teeth.
Beach grunted and nudged Presas in the shoulder. The unit was gathering up around the command tent. Presas knocked back the rest of his canteen and stood up. Beach walked with him to the tent, a solid presence by Presas’ side. Together they reached the milling medics and began barking platoon assignments. Presas wondered which ones would be hit this time.
Bystander Watching the Photo
Captain MacEntee watched Mark roaming through the encampment. This reporter was better than most. He had been with the unit for six months now. Most ditched out to the safety of the sane world after the first month. It was one thing for the talking heads to discuss the war over their nonfat lattes; it was quite another to be hip deep in the suck. Mac liked the young reporter; Mark was almost considered one of the boys by the rest of the unit as well.
The Captain looked over at the pair leaning against the Humvee tire, as Mark snapped their photo. Presas and Beach- those two used to be the biggest pain in Mac’s ass. He had often prayed that the two of them would be separated and sent to curse some other commander. Now, he just prayed they’d pull one of their old pranks. Mac chuckled, as he remembered the time they were caught stealing a potted palm tree from the Post General’s porch. Presas had tried to pass both of them off as a landscaping detail.
They were mere shadows of the former pranksters. Morale was low across the entire unit and Mac tried unsuccessfully to avoid the party line, “You’re doing great things for your country! I know it’s hard to see, but everything you do here helps the big picture.” Mac hated to spout that crap to his men. He usually shot straight with them, gave them the blunt facts. His men respected him for it. They recognized his frustration with resorting to the canned platitudes and didn’t hold it against him. He was thankful for that.
All the men had been hit hard this deployment. They were nine months into their rotation with another nine to go. Mac wondered how many of his original company he would have left by then, or if he would be around to go home with them. He had to separate Presas and Beach. They were his best docs, he assigned them to separate platoons. He knew if he lost one the other would just detach or lose his mind. There was just so much shit one could heap on a guy. Mac made a mental note to rotate them both to Kuwait for some R&R.
First Sergeant Archer came up beside him and nodded to the two reclining medics. “Don’t worry about those two, sir, they’re survivors.”
Mac nodded, “That they are, Top.” The two men stood silently beside each other, as they surveyed their troops. Over half of the company was cherry replacements. They huddled besides the veterans watching them in nervous awe. You could always tell the new ones by how much crap they tried to carry on patrol. Mac smirked, as he watched a burly infantry Sergeant go through his squad’s packs and sorting the worthless from the necessary.
Mac looked over at Archer and nodded, “Let’s form em up, Top. Time to earn our pay.” Archer grunted an assent and moved off through the troops, kicking them to their feet and shouting them into formation. Mac saw Presas and Beach slide upright and do the same to the medics. He appreciated how well his veterans ran his company. Sighing, he slid his Kevlar onto his head and strode toward his vehicle. It was gonna be another scorcher of a day.