Marines too, grow old. I’m already older than my father was when he had his first child, my sister Elizabeth. At twenty-eight I have no children of my own. I haven’t finished college. I still draw dicks on the whiteboard of my apartment to make my roommate laugh. I still stay out too many late nights, still drink too much, still wake up too many mornings with stale cigarette and vodka red bull breath. At the age when my father was getting his masters’ degree and raising small children, I’m still acting like a kid with something to prove.
I’ve aged – but not how I thought I would. I’ve had experiences. I’ve been to seven countries. I drank absinthe in a small-town Spanish bar on the night Spain won the World Cup, and felt champagne rain from the rooftops. In Bahrain, from the rooftop of the American embassy, I watched a revolution crushed by a king, aided by the heavy hand of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council. I’ve humped a rifle more miles and up more hills than I care to remember. I was raised by giants –– my sergeants were veterans of Fallujah and Ramadi, their chests heavy with their stacks of ribbons. I fought in America’s longest war.
Yeah, I’ve grown old. Not the way I thought I would –– go to combat, get the distant stare, the “man face,” feel the responsibility of life and death decisions and return with a sense of purpose and gravity. Not like that. I’m old the way a high school star athlete is old the second their last game ends.
“Slow down, Mike, we can’t be doing 100 mph,” I say over the phone. I look down at my speedometer; the needle is in territory that makes me very uncomfortable. The truck in front of me, the truck belonging to Mike Lemuel, my old team leader, nevertheless, is still pulling away. “We’re already late, just stay tight on me, we aren’t going to get pulled over. It’ll be fine.”
I put the phone down, and concentrate on the road. It is October 2016, nearing the fifth anniversary of my unit’s deployment to Afghanistan. Four of us from our squad are meeting for a reunion weekend –– Mike Lemuel, Joey Trentino, Colin “Kenny” McKennis and myself. Mike lived with me in Bozeman, and the two of us were driving to the Billings airport to pick up Joey, our squad leader, and Colin, the baby of the group, who were both flying in. We were all going to head up to Mike’s uncle’s ranch and hunt pheasants. The boys of Bravo Section were reuniting to shoot, and move, and kill, again.
I fumbled for the pill bottle in the passenger seat. I was nervous about hunting. This was my first time. I was excited to see everyone again, excited to shoot guns again, excited to be outside, for my senses to light up like they used to in the field, where after three days my nose could smell anything –– from the stale musk of cigarettes smoked the night before on the breath of a squad mate, to the delicate freshness of morning dew. But I was also anxious –– anxious from the memories. I wonder what I’ve learned since those days in the Marine Corps, those days in the field, or on deployment. I wonder if it changes anything.
I relaxed my finger off the trigger, and gasped deep breaths.
I have to avoid the tangle of the aux and power cords snaking out of the stereo and cigarette lighter into my phone. The speedometer twitches around 95, as we push west on I-90, towards Billings.
The last time I had looked through the sights of a weapon at something alive, with the intention to kill, was in the village of Krum, a small town on the banks of the Helmand River. It was January 31st, 2012. It was cold. We had a large patrol that day, more than twenty instead of the usual eight or twelve. The blimp that floated above the company outpost caught enemy movement on its high-powered cameras, as we were cresting Sniper Hill, on the east side of the town of the town. Eight to twelve men with AKs, PKMs, and RPGs. Corporal Estrada called out to the back of the patrol “Come get in the fight, boys!” when he heard the news on the radio. A routine patrol to establish a new patrol base immediately became something new and frightening. My mind flicked from the low level of constant awareness to high alert –– scanning every tree line, looking at every local’s hands for weapons.
Guided by the aerial reconnaissance, chasing an enemy we never saw with our own eyes, we began a two-hour shadow dance. We cleared the whole town of Krum, building by building in search of an ambush. Every door I went through I waited for the burst of fire to hit my chest, my unwieldy MK12 proving too long to effectively pie off corners. I turned down an alley too quickly –– a dog leapt at me, and I froze. In those brief seconds while I was pissing myself, Staff Sergeant Cochran pivoted and put the dog down with two quick shots.
We finished clearing the town, and came on line along a canal between the town and the Helmand River. I found a small depression in the ground in which I could lay out, and set up the bipods on my rifle. The enemy was pinned with their backs to the water. Our air controller called in A-10s. 500 meters in front of me, their 30mm cannons caused the ground to explode in a cloud of dust.
Scanning over top of my rifle scope, I saw the shapes of people jump up from behind a berm. Staff Sergeant Cochran knelt behind me, calling out targets for me to engage. He focused in on a man wearing a white robe, and told me to take him –– a shot of about 400 meters, easy enough with my scope and bipods.
I hesitated. The man disappeared. When he rose again from behind the berm, he was shielding a woman and child with his body, and running towards a nearby house. I relaxed my finger off the trigger, and gasped deep breaths.
That was the one and only time I had a chance to shoot someone. In the car, still pushing west towards Billings, I’ve managed to grab the pill bottle, and pop the top while keeping one hand on the wheel. I have to dry swallow the two 100mg gabapentin, casting a forlorn look at the empty shaker bottle in the console cup holders. The panic had started somewhere in the pass through the Bridgers, the mountains separating Bozeman and Livingston. It has since swelled and swirled in my head. This is what I’ve got instead of wisdom, instead of the grizzled war face I wanted, the redemption I thought would come through violence –– anxiety, panic attacks, and a small pharmacy to combat them, carried with me everywhere I go, the way I used to carry my rifle, my day pack, my combat load out.
We get to the airport about an hour after Joey and Colin landed. We pull up curbside at the arrivals area –– small town airports are so much easier to navigate, and they are waiting for us. From the first hugs and handshakes, we fall right back into our old roles and routines, like we were meeting at any of the hundred morning formations we had attended while we were in, and we had just seen each other the day before, instead of for the first time in years.
“What’s up Mike, you fat fuck?”
“Hey Joey, how many hand jobs did you give out on the flight?”
“Lucy…” (that’s me) “…you got your whole library in this trunk?”
“We need to stop and grab some pixie sticks so McKennis doesn’t go into sugar withdrawal”
Mike calls Joey gay, Joey calls Mike fat, and everyone makes fun of me for being an egghead, and Colin for eating too much sugar. We make a quick stop at a liquor store for smokes and dip and booze, and head north to the ranch. Mike and Joey were always close –– so they ride together. Kenny hops in with me.
It’s about an hour ride to the ranch. I ask Kenny all the pedigree questions. “How have you been, brother? What’s Pendleton life like?” “How are the boots treating you, any problem children?” “Do you remember that time that Kaipat almost ripped my head off because Kidd and Gardner told him I was talking shit about that ‘fat Islander PFC?’” As we talk, it starts to dawn on me that even though we all still treat him like our kid brother, Colin has gotten older too. He used to be timid around girls. Now he is telling me about hooking up with random girls in the parking lot outside of the Stampede –– the country bar near Pendleton, a notorious Marine hangout. “We went outside and she sucked my dick behind the bushes. We almost got busted by the bouncer.”
He tells me about his problem junior Marines, and how he’s had to bail them out. “This fucking kid tried to get me written up for hazing.” I have a hard time reconciling the quiet, compliant, obedient Kenny I knew, with Sergeant McKennis, leader of Marines.
We wind through the buttes and valleys of Eastern Montana, the clouds a low and oppressive grey. Grey clouds always make me feel boxed in, claustrophobic. I have Kenny dig out more pills.
I ask Kenny about deployments coming up. To my surprise, and some dismay, he excitedly lists off the possible hotspots his unit might be called upon to fight in. Russia, Korea, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan. I was surprised. I knew Kenny had never fired his rifle on our deployment. Like me, he hadn’t gotten to do the thing he’d joined the Marine Corps to do. I could understand wanting to go back, wanting another shot at combat. But he hadn’t been on the patrol with the man in white either. He rode up in support vehicles after the A-10s had made their runs, to assist with the damage assessment, and after action. It had fallen to Kenny to fingerprint and take iris scans of the four dead teenagers the A-10s had killed, and when he was done, load their bodies into black bags and put them into the vehicles. I remember thinking nineteen-year-old Kenny was probably their same age, if not a little older.
What would Joey have told Kenny, if Joey heard him being excited to go out and kill? Joey had gone out his way on our deployment to keep us out of action. Bravo section never went looking for trouble, always meticulously planned the safest routes. Trentino’s opposite, Sergeant Gardner, on the other hand, had seemed determined to find action. Alpha got ambushed twice, Bravo never did. Both casualties came from Alpha section –– Corporal Tyler took a bullet to the ass while bounding away from machine gun fire. Kaipat had been killed by a pressure release IED connected to a white flag. Kaipat had always wrestled with Kenny, or took him out to get beers, or burritos, in Oceanside. Kenny had a large memorial tattoo for Kaipat on his side. I didn’t expected that Kenny to be still be praying for war.
I couldn’t bring myself to talk to Colin about any of this. I left it at “I hope you stay safe Kenny, I’m praying for all you devil dogs.”
The conversation drifted back to girls and movies, until we arrived at the ranch. We exited the highway and took the long dirt access road through fields filled with cattle, winding around the scattered barns and cow pens belonging to Frank Haughton, our host, past the old abandoned lead hand house, which was in an awful state of disrepair, white paint mostly flaked off to reveal an ugly gray underneath, the basement flooded, up the short hill to the big house. Cone Butte –– an imposing mountain loomed behind the small but neatly kept pond in the backyard of the house, a pond Frank kept well stocked with trout.
As Marines will when meeting outsiders, we immediately assumed our best, most self-effacing manners to meet Frank and his wife Shelley –– taking off our shoes just inside the door, “you’ve got such a great spread out here, Frank,” and “you have such a lovely home, Shelley.” The home, and the land, truly was beautiful –– rolling hills, neatly planted grass fields, and the home with its dark, natural wood walls and floors, and handsome paintings of noble Native American scenes on the walls.
We all knew the rules –– you don’t talk about the bodies, the metal, the meat. You remember fondly those who died. You don’t blame anyone, you don’t dissect the decisions made, the hesitations. Frank and Shelley laughed where they should, and nodded where they should, and thanked us for our service when they were supposed to.
We take our bags down to the well-appointed guest rooms in the basement, and head back upstairs for pre-dinner beers. We sat around their large dinner table, careful to keep our cans of Coors and Millers on the custom coasters. Frank and Shelley are the perfect hosts, asking all the right questions, asking the safe questions about the war. “What were the people like?” and “How was the food? Who cooked for you?” We are all practiced enough in this kind of interrogation to respond in kind, with well worn clichés, and stories with easy laugh lines –– “not as good as my wife’s cooking!” and “we had been out of water for 36 hours when we finally got resupplied, and just before it gets there Hess pulls out a full canteen he had been hoarding and drank it all!”
We all knew the rules –– you don’t talk about the bodies, the metal, the meat. You remember fondly those who died. You don’t blame anyone, you don’t dissect the decisions made, the hesitations. We don’t mention that Kaipat only went for that Taliban flag because his sergeant and lieutenant told him to pick it up. We don’t talk about why he was sent there –– for the flag, or even to Afghanistan in the first place. This isn’t that kind of discussion.
Frank and Shelley laughed where they should, and nodded where they should, and thanked us for our service when they were supposed to. I was nervous about drinking –– it can set me off, but in the warm beer buzz, and the rich smell of good food, and the warm embrace of good company, I felt good. I felt safe.
After the 3rd beer or so, Frank had mustered to courage to start asking questions that skirted the border of real war stories. His face growing serious, Frank asked us “Why do you think they hate us? They seem like a bunch of backwater savages to me, determined to live in the Stone Age.”
Three of our heads all snapped to look at Trentino, expecting him to take the lead. We all have developed different ways of dealing with these kind of questions, but like good Marines, we want to make sure we are coordinated, and even after all these years, we naturally defer to Joey’s leadership. Joey takes the “agree and amplify” approach –– assume the point of view of the civilian asking, and take it one step further –– “You know Frank, I don’t know what they hate us for, just that they are evil, and I’m proud to have fought against them” –– to which Frank nods approvingly, and we quickly move back to safer waters.
After dinner, the drinking continues, as we swap beer for whiskey, a twenty year Pendleton Mike and I splurged on for the occasion, Frank and Shelley bid us goodnight, and we retire to the basement, where we don’t have to keep up the politeness and pretense. Gone are the polite “thank you ma’am’s” and “please pass the potatoes” replaced with “pour me a shot you fucking pussy!” and “you’re such a fag, Joey, did you get your asshole bleached before coming here?” I start having to beg off shots when I take one too many, and I feel the panic start to lap at the shores of my brain.
The shotgun was unfamiliar, it didn’t melt easily into my hands the way my old M4 would have, but the weight and the action of it resonated and rhymed with my old service rifle, and I adjusted quickly.
I’m the first in bed, wrapping myself tightly in the warm, soft blankets, and I think again about Kenny, and the ride up. All this catching up feels so friendly and familiar, but I know it’s temporary, and the world outside is waiting. For me that means more talks with the Franks of the world –– well meaning, patriotic, but desperate to make me something I’m not –– a symbol of the America they want to believe in. For Kenny the world outside is all those places he still dreams of going, the fights not yet fought, the glory not yet won. We’re safe now, in Frank’s basement, in the small corner of Montana that I ran off to.
I woke up early and stepped out of the walkout basement door into the cold Montana morning to smoke a cigarette. Cone Butte was backlit by a sun struggling to break through the morning purple clouds, and the stiff breeze that rippled across the pond snuck right through my jacket, making me shiver. Mike was already outside, sneaking a pinch of Copenhagen, spitting on the rocks on the shore, casting a fly rod, waiting for a fish to rise. He saw me, but we remained in the comfortable silence we so often enjoyed together.
When the others were all up, we migrated back upstairs, and ate heartily – pancakes and bacon and eggs and gravy, heavy, substantial food, before donning borrowed orange vests and filling the pockets with 12-gauge shells. “You boys ready to kill some birds?” Frank was excited to take us out, and Raven, Frank’s young and eager black Labrador, was anxious to get to work. She knew that breaking out the hunting gear meant she’d soon find herself with a bird in her mouth.
I hadn’t shot a weapon in quite some time, and was worried how I’d feel with one in my hands. My hands moved over the cold metal and wood as we bumped along the right-of-ways through Frank’s fields. The shotgun was unfamiliar, it didn’t melt easily into my hands the way my old M4 would have, but the weight and the action of it resonated and rhymed with my old service rifle, and I adjusted quickly. It felt good. It felt right.
After we got to the first field, we double checked our equipment, got on line, and began to walk. Moving together again, “through killing fields” were the words that briefly fluttered across my thoughts, felt right as well. The four of us fell into an old familiar sync, just like on the old ranges we’d run, or the countless patrols in Afghanistan. We walked four abreast in a skirmishers line –– an patrol formation as if we were moving towards contact –– through the fields, waiting for a bird to flush. Our line flowed effortlessly across hills and depressions and creeks –– adjusting wordlessly, keeping our formation, never having to look to see where the others would be.
Once, Kenny and I were running this range, a live fire and maneuver training exercise, a few months after we got back from Afghanistan. The two of us were the only two in the squad who had deployed together; the other ten were all new guys. Kenny and I ended up bounding together. We didn’t have to talk, we moved off the sound of each other’s gunshots. His rifle went down with a jam right as he was engaging a target not ten feet in front of him. I put two rounds into it before he could even yell “Gun Down!” He didn’t flinch. Later when we egressed from a notional ambush site, before I could even give the command, he was banana peeling off, keeping the line intact, providing rear security. We trusted each other. We knew each other. We were young and perfect and golden and shot and moved together freely, effortlessly. Now, moving through the pheasant fields, we picked up right where we left off.
The memory of my hesitation with the man in white still lingered in my mind as we walked through the grass. I had waited for that moment for so long, wondering how I’d react to combat, and then, in my moment of truth –– I’d hesitated. I’d justified that hesitation to myself –– it turned out the man in white was probably a father, shielding his wife and children. But I hadn’t known that when I hesitated. I’d made the right call, but I still felt ashamed.
Each of the members of Bravo in turn managed to get a bird, and I was the only one whose vest was still empty, who still hadn’t fired a shot. Then it happened, on the downside of a small windy knoll, next to a muddy creek. The bird shot up about twelve yards in front of me, and then took a hard turn with the wind. My shotgun snapped into my shoulder. I tracked and fired. The bird dropped. My first kill.
Joey slapped me on the shoulder; the dog hunted the bird through the tall grass, and brought it back. Kenny grabbed it out of the dog’s mouth for me with the confidence and ease of a country boy who had done it many times before, snapping the bird’s neck by twirling it around a few times. He handed it to me, and I gingerly placed it in the pouch on my back. I could feel the dead bird’s weight, still warm, cling close to my body. It felt good.
I wanted to say something to Kenny in that moment; the words were swelling, mixing with the memories, threatening to erupt out of my mouth in an uncontrolled deluge. But Kenny wasn’t there. The sprightly young kid, our squad mascot, was disappearing over the next hill, chasing Raven, who was chasing a bird.
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Header Image: Homecoming Marine | Norman Rockwell | October 13, 1945