Friday, February 22, 2008

The Soldier's Story

Kyle worked on the student newspaper in college and parlayed this into a full-time job as a staff writer for the local paper as soon as he graduated with his degree in Communications. After he had been hired, his first assignment was to drive down to Crown Point, Indiana, and find a story there concerning the funeral of a soldier who had been killed in action in Afghanistan. The assignment made him so nervous he felt sick to his stomach, and then sick in his throat as he drove the old, hot car through a shining green and blue, hot summer day. Go "find a story," he had been told. It was almost exactly what he had dreaded when he thought about going into newspaper work. He had dreaded being stuck in the mailroom or writing obituaries, which he had heard were the places where everyone started, but he had also dreaded having to interview the bereaved. And now here he went. Find the grief, find the people milling in the sun around tragedy and sacrifice, and "find a story" encased in that, the way a pit is encased in fruit.

Kyle parked his car in the courthouse square and noticed there were already people milling about, a lot of young people, and there were flags all around. He picked up his notebook and tape recorder from the front seat of the car, turned off the engine, and got out. He took his time locking up, looking all around as if he were an ordinary tourist or businessman, rehearsing again
in his mind what he intended to say. "You know I feel terrible to intrude on your grief, but if you’d care to ...." No, that wasn’t it. "I work for the Courier and my editor wants me to ...." No, that was worse. "Did anyone know the dead man?" Worse and worse, like a "dick" from an old black and white detective film. "Don’t worry," Karen, his editor, had actually said. "Once people know who you are, you’ll find generally they are delighted to talk to you." And she had smiled. "People love to tell their stories. Even when they’re sad. For you it’s the best part of the job."

He remembered he had brought his own digital camera with him, and took out his keys again and unlocked the car to get it. Finally turning out toward the world laden so, camera in a neat little black pack slung easily over one shoulder, notebook and tape recorder and pen balanced in one hand, the other hand shoving keys into his jeans pockets and nearly dislodging the little black pager at his hip as he did so, he had, even for the unpracticed eye of young men as young as himself, the look that screamed "reporter." Despite his nervousness he remembered to glance around for approaching cars before he crossed the street and walked toward a large group of milling people with flags. They no doubt saw that, too.

He was just about to say "Excuse me" to one middle aged lady among all the young – he loved middle aged ladies, they seemed so motherly, you could depend on them to take care of you if you threw up – when a middle aged man he had not noticed spoke up. "Can we help you?" he asked.

Kyle turned to him with relief. He smiled and spoke with an assurance that surprised him even as he listened to his own voice. Maybe I like this job, he thought wildly.
"My name’s Kyle Holleman, I’m a correspondent for the Courier," he said. "I saw all these crowds of people and wondered what was going on."
"It’s Sergeant Oake’s funeral this afternoon," the middle-aged man said.
Kyle nodded, took out his notebook, and clicked his pen. "I heard. Did you know him?"
"I was his high school weight lifting coach."
"Can I have your name?"
"Joe Johnson."
"How long were you his coach?"
"One semester. Great kid. I coached his sister here, too."

Kyle glanced over at a young woman dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, who appeared to be about nineteen or twenty. She was small and solid, and had the flat face and high cheekbones of a Maya carving. Knots formed in his stomach. "Oh, yes?" he answered pleasantly. "I’m sorry to hear about your brother. Do you want to talk about him at all?"

"Sure," she said, the practiced family spokesman already. "But he was in Special Forces. There’s not much we know. Except it was a roadside bomb. They’re good at that."
"Okay," Kyle said, scribbling. The crowd of people still pressed in around them; it seemed worse, and larger, than it actually was. He ignored them all and concentrated on the girl, his source. "Do you have time to go sit down somewhere?" he asked.
"There’s benches over there in the shade," she gestured. He noticed she had one strand of hair plastered, forgotten, to the side of her face. Plastered there by tears, he assumed.

They left the crowd and walked across the street to sit in the shade of the trees, which were themselves in the shade of the big red brick courthouse building. He saw that the cornerstone of the courthouse had been laid in 1910. On the four sides of the square stood shops and restaurants and lawyers’ and dentists’ offices, all occupying two- or three-storey brick buildings with decorative crenelations atop their walls, or old forgotten businesses’ names carved above the second floor windows. At a stoplight on his drive into town Kyle had noticed a Carnegie library, another handsome solid red brick building, now given over to some other use. The bronze plaque embedded in a rock outside announced that it had been dedicated in 1903. Here he was, interviewing the sister of a dead soldier. Except for the modern traffic and the modern clothes, this might have been Crown Point, Indiana in 1903, or 1910. She would be wearing buttoned black silk in another era, and he would be wearing some sort of hot, itchy suit and a straw boater. They would be talking about ... what? Cuba, or the Phillippines? Central America? A case of measles in an army camp in Oklahoma somewhere? A few years later, and they would be talking about France, and the Western front.

They sat down and he asked if she minded if he used a tape recorder. She said she did not mind. Rather than risk her crying again, Kyle decided to venture right in without preliminaries.

"So how can you not know what happened? What’s the deal with Special Forces?"
"We only ever knew what he was doing after the fact. He’d come home after weeks or months on duty and tell us he’d been in Afghanistan or something. One time he was in Africa. That’s the way that job is."
He nodded. "So – a roadside bomb?"
"Yep. He used to say he could talk when he retired." Her lower lip began to pull down, helplessly, as if it were being controlled by an unseen hand, or a medicine too powerful to resist. He knew the feeling.

"What made him choose Special Forces? He must have been in good shape, that’s a pretty elite unit, isn’t it?"
"Oh yeah. They’ll put you in good shape if you weren’t before. I think he chose it – kind of – to prove he could. He was the skinny kid that everybody laughed at. He’s like me. We’re half-Irish, half-Mexican, we don’t like to be laughed at. I went into the army because people thought I wouldn’t be able to take it."
"Really. You’re in now?"
"I’m done. Six years. I’m in college."
Cripes. That made her twenty-four. "Really. What made you – "
"People thought I couldn’t. Because I’m a girl. I made up my mind in seventh grade and everybody laughed. So I did it."
"That’s kind of young to know. What happened?"
"An army recruiter came to our school and asked for a show of hands of how many people thought they might like to go into the military for a career. This was after he made his speech. I wasn’t even listening but nobody else put their hand up so I did. And everybody laughed and said I would never stick with it. So I did."
"No kidding. When did you go?"
"I enlisted in the December before my high school graduation. I was their dream recruit – an ethnic woman."
Kyle looked up sharply, almost grinning. She shrugged.
"They say they don’t have quotas, but they do. In DEP they start getting you ready the summer before your senior year."
"Delayed Entrance Program. You go to parks and do push-ups and rifle practice. I was on the bus to Chicago MEPS two days after my graduation party. My graduation party was on a Saturday night, the recruiter was at my parents’ house before dawn Sunday and I was on the bus at two in the morning on Monday. That was it. Never looked back."
"Wow. MEPS, what’s that?"
"Military Entrance Processing Station," she said. "They measure you, tape your neck, your upper arm, your thigh, they get your height and weight and body mass index and stuff. They test you for color blindness, they test the women for pregnancy. You squat-walk across the floor, and they i.d. you in case of death."
Kyle was scribbling furiously. "They i.d. you, how?"
"Birthmarks, anything weird about you. It’s kind of eerie."
"I’ll bet. So then what?"
"From MEPS I went to the airport. I was put in charge of 7 guys and told to get them to O’Hare, find the gate, and get them to OSUT at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri."
"One Station Unit Training. They train everybody in one place for six weeks – engineers, MPs, people going into chemical or biological warfare. I did it. I got ‘em there. Pretty soon there were forty of us on a cattle truck in Missouri, holding our duffel bags in front of our faces and singing the Star Spangled Banner. We had no clue where we were. Shakedown."
"What does that mean?"
"You arrive and your drill sergeant is screaming at you. I got put with the men by mistake because we all had haircuts by then. They make you drink so much water you throw up. I puked on the drill sergeant’s boots before anybody realized I was in the wrong place. He said ‘you’re in.’"
"So this was boot camp."
"This was boot camp."
"What goes on? Did you stay with the men?"
"No, I was with a six-female unit. They separate you for the showers. I was going for combat engineer. Women can’t get into artillery, infantry, or Special Forces, but engineering was opened to women in ‘96. I wanted to be somewhere near combat, and being an engineer is basically a combat position. When I was building bridges in Iraq, my life expectancy was twelve seconds. The recruiter didn’t tell my parents that."
"I’ll bet. Why the desire to be near combat?"
"I just wanted to be where the action was. So did my brother."

By now the interview had so far ceased being about the brother that Kyle passed over her reference to him with what he hoped was a sturdy, sympathetic, professional look, and carried on learning about her.
"So after shakedown, then what’s next?"
"Learning UCMJ – "
"Uniform Code of Military Justice. The first stage of boot camp is ‘red.’ Sleep deprivation, no phones, no sweets, no mail, running every day, going into a tear gas chamber, getting your body fluids out, learning UCMJ. In ‘white’ you start learning to fire weapons and you can go to church and the PX. In ‘blue’ you do BRM – basic rifle marksmanship, obstacle courses, urban warfare. I spent eight weeks learning how to build bridges, how to handle the boats, learning explosives, mines, booby traps. Drownproofing. And in ‘blue’ you get personal time. You can go off base."
"Treading water for twenty minutes."
"Because you were going to be building bridges on rivers in Iraq."
"Or wherever. It’s just good to know."
"So what was your day like? I mean, what time did you get up, stuff like that?"
"Your day is from four a.m. till nine or ten at night. You rotate fire guard duty, from one a.m. to five. You shower twice a day, mandated, and the last thing at night, you line up at the toe line."
"What’s that?"
"The sergeant comes with a flashlight and inspects everybody’s toes."
"You’re kidding."
"Why would they care about your toes?"
"They don’t want anybody getting an ingrown toe nail."
"All that marching and running."

He nodded and kept on writing the most atrocious scribble, just trusting that he could decipher it later. She talked so fast. "So after boot camp, then what?"
"I had thirty days’ leave to go home and do some home town recruiting – "
" – oh yeah. And then I was off to Korea for a year."
"What did you do there?"
"Active duty. Maintenance, physical training. We were about twenty miles south of the DMZ – "
"Demilitarized zone."
" – right. I competed in Soldier of the Month."
"Some kind of contest?"
"Uh-huh. The Motivation Boards run it. You compete for Soldier of the Month, and Soldier of the Quarter and Soldier of the Year. I got every one."
"Really. What do you do for it?"
"Your physical training scores go into it, weapons scores, random knowledge."
"Random knowledge of – "
"All kinds of things. The five Fs of field sanitation." She counted them off on her fingers. "Fingers, flies, feces, food, and fluids. And then every night I was off duty and could use the phones and socialize like civilians."
"So do you have a rank?"
"I’m a sergeant, E-5."
"What does that mean?"
"Soldiers are either private, PV 2, PFC, or Specialist. The E ranks go from one to nine depending on what you know. So a private is an E-1. NCOs are Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, Sergeant First Class, Master Sergeant, First Sergeant, and Sergeant Major. So I’m the lowest rank of being an officer."

Kyle didn’t know what NCO meant. Nor could he translate ‘PX’ earlier. But he didn’t want to be ignorant about everything. His dad could decipher NCO for him, and he was pretty sure PX meant kitchen. He could check them both later. "But still an officer," he said. "You had guys under you."
"Yeah. I had six in my squad."
"What’s the E rank again?"
"It stands for your MOS."
"Which is?"
"Military Operations Specialty. I was a combat engineer."
"Life expectancy, twelve seconds."
"You got it."

She went on. She had gone from duty in Korea back to Ft. Hood, Texas, and had gotten married to another soldier. It didn’t work out. "Too much everything," she said, and Kyle didn’t press her on the subject. Then she had spent time trying to get herself stationed in Germany, and trying to get into West Point, a place which forbids its cadets to be married. She kept on learning to build bridges in Texas, and then she was sent to Kuwait for a month and then, in March of 2003, to Iraq. "The kitty litter countries," she called them. He looked blankly at her. "All that sand," she explained. Women sergeants, she said, were exceptionally hard on other women, because if the men are hard on women, they’re "sexist" – and the women soldiers have to learn the ropes from somebody. The men don’t like the women at all, and after witnessing their weakness, she learned not to like them either.

She went on, racing through a recital of her time in Iraq, and as he scribbled Kyle marveled at how little the public knew about any of this. Perhaps it was because a volunteer army didn’t touch the millions of lives that a draftee army used to do, and so people couldn’t know. Perhaps soldiers didn’t write letters as they used to do, and families didn’t pass them from hand to hand anymore. Perhaps it was because the Media had a Left Wing Bias – his grandfather was forever writing angry letters to the editor on just that theme – and journalists, even the "embedded" kind, weren’t interested in relaying G.I.s’ exploits, but only in reporting absurdity and failure and, with luck, atrocity. Battles didn’t have names anymore, why? Because not enough time had passed for Hollywood to absorb all this information and make movies about it? Because it’s hard to name another hill of sand? Or because to name a battle reflected some kind of orderliness on the events of war, and journalists didn’t like that? If battles have no names then war is all chaos, and thinking people can reassure themselves that "No one wins a war." To this girl battles, events had names, and one side won and one lost.

She raced through them all so fast. She and her fellow soldiers were among the first into Iraq, "task force Iron Horse." They built the longest combat assault float bridge across the Tigris River, and they built it on Saddam Hussein’s birthday and so called it the Birthday Bridge. They built four more, two in Tikrit and two in Mosul. If Kyle understood her correctly, it involved racing around the river in what amounted to armored speedboats, often at night and under a smoke cover. Naturally, exposed on a low-lying river they would have been easy targets without those precautions. Saddam was only one mile away some of the time. The heat was so extraordinary that the soldiers had to have their nostrils cauterized to prevent nosebleeds. They didn’t get mail for the first four or five months of their tour of duty. And there were roadside bombs, and instructions on what to do if their compound was attacked. "Get dressed, get to the perimeter with your ‘battle buddy,’" she said complacently. Later as Kyle looked over his notes he read "take bridges with you" here, but could not remember how she had explained that. It seemed incredible that it could mean what it seemed to mean.

Then there was R and R in Saddam’s palace, and boat rides on his ponds and swimming in his pools. Reading Stars and Stripes, absorbing greedily any dose they could of American culture. She and the other soldiers won home leave by lottery. She got two weeks one Christmas. After a year and a month in Iraq, she was back in Texas, "waiting for her stuff." Then discharge, with a promise to be available for re-enlistment for two years if needed. (You sign on for that right away, when you are eighteen and the recruiter sits with you at your mother’s kitchen table.) They give you a few last medical tests, and a phone number to call and a place to go "if you’re going crazy or think you are." She was discharged in January of 2005, six years after signing up, with $50,000 at her disposal for college. Kyle couldn’t know that in class she wore gray t-shirts proudly emblazoned ARMY. When other students asked her timorously, as they inevitably did, "Did you get shot at?" she answered "Yes." When they asked, "Did you shoot?" she said "Yes."

The entire interview had taken about forty-five minutes. Toward the end she seemed impatient, as if she was tired of talking to a child who didn’t understand. Kyle had forgotten his nervousness, as well as whatever physical attraction he had first felt for this girl. Far from feeling childlike, he felt instead like a middle-aged reporter; he would not have been surprised to look down and see a respectable pot belly, or to catch a glimpse of himself, balding and pasty, in a large, sunny store window. He wanted to sit and think, chin in hand, and he wanted her to stay with him while he did so. There was something comforting about her. The breeze played over them, lifting their hair. Traffic and people moved all around, and the trees shook softly in the wind. It was a beautiful day. The crowds with flags had dispersed. In a moment of panic he wondered if he had kept her talking and made her miss the actual funeral. He became freshly professional.

"Okay, I think I’ve got enough for now." He closed his notebook and clicked his pen.
"Okay," she said.
He looked for the first time fully into her wide, flat face and large, glistening brown eyes. Again she reminded him of something Maya. Those were Indian eyes, the kind that gleamed with wary, simple hauteur in warriors’ faces in nineteenth century photographs. He spoke slowly. "I’m sorry. I realize that the point of all this was to learn about your brother. I obviously got caught up in your story, instead. The eyewitness perspective is ... it’s something more to the point of what the reader wants."
"It’s okay."
"And you’re a woman. We, uh – we don’t have quotas, either."
She smiled, and became almost lovely. "That’s fine."
"And it would end up being a tribute to your brother and to your whole family in a way. Obviously I would mention him. And everything."
"That’s fine, I understand."
"Can I call you if I need more details about anything?"
"Okay." Kyle took her phone number, and they shook hands and parted. As he got into his car and drove back to the newsroom, the summer sun blazing down as always on men at war, on handsome red-brick buildings dedicated among straw-hatted crowds in 1910, his middle-aged confidence evaporated a little. He began to worry about what Karen would say. He hadn’t really followed her instructions. She might even send him back to do it all over again, correctly – "what about the brother?" he could hear her asking. He began to grow pleasantly furious, imagining scenes. Honestly, he would probably be more wanted, and better taken care of, in the army. As he merged onto the expressway, half-snorting at the rearview mirror, he noticed a simple sign at the entrance to a strip mall parking lot, among the marquees for dollar stores and factory shoe outlets, there above the sea of sunny gray parking lot. Armed Forces Recruiting Center. Plain black on white.

When, the following weekend, his story did not run, he imagined more scenes, he prepared to be righteous and look daggers at Karen. But it turned out that a night editor had only bumped the story temporarily to make room for an ad. "I wasn’t there," Karen assured him. The struggling paper needed revenue, and features often gave place to an ad. She promised him it would appear in the next week, or two at the latest.

In two, it did. His e-mail address followed as usual in the tagline, but no reader contacted him about it, not even the girl to say "Great job." He was disappointed, until he remembered a professor at school who once quoted Qui tacet consentit in another context. Silence gives consent.

The End

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