When I open my eyes, I wonder if I’m dreaming. This entire operation has seemed unreal from the start.
It is pitch black and silent. I loosen the top of my sleeping bag, and my fingers reach out to feel the icy metallic floor. I move my body and bump into full ammo boxes. I remember now, I fell asleep in a Humvee.
Everyone else wanted to bed down on a floor, not in a vehicle seat. But enemy mortar fire has been constant, and I refused to sleep in the abandoned three-story building we parked next to. I feel safer with four inches of steel over my head.
We have lost four Marines since this assault started on Halloween. Twelve more have been seriously injured. Back home, a civilian might live from paycheck to paycheck; I try to stay alive from holiday to holiday. I’m just trying to make it to Thanksgiving, only one week away.
I have all the gear that makes a warrior. My Humvee is my warhorse. My Kevlar is my helmet, and my flak is the armor that protects my heart. I have boots to march me into battle. My M16 is my “thunder maker,” so called for the thunderous cracks it makes when fired. My sole luxury item is an oversized sweater that bears the Marine Corps crescent of an eagle guarding the world. At night, my sweater doubles as my pillow.
Why am I up? The sun hasn’t risen. Ohhhhhhh… Nature calls, even when you’re in war. I slip on my sweater; the sleeves are baggy and the elastic seams to hug my wrists and hips. I crawl out of my sleeping bag. The cold chills my legs while I fumble around for my boots.
The Humvee’s steel doors are heavy, especially for a feather weight. But I know how to use my 120-pound frame. I give a grunt and slowly push.
With my final shove, the door opens and I fall over. I quickly recover and raise my arms before it swings back and crushes me.
I am still not completely awake. I start to walk toward the latrine area, but get only eight or nine steps when the night lights up. My shadow appears before me, three stories high against the building wall. I look behind me and see four Humvees illuminated by bright white flashes. Multiple blasts stun me. It’s mortar fire. I know that sound anywhere.
I spin in a circle, looking for cover. I’m smack between the building and my Humvee, and I’m too groggy to decide which direction to run. My ears start ringing, and I realize that the mortar rounds must have been closer than I thought. I’m amazed that I’m not dead yet.
Explosions and more white flashes are coming faster. I don’t know if I’m frozen in my boots, or if my brain is processing faster than my body can move.
Marines in full armor rush about. Another series of blasts and flashes, then I come to my senses.
We’re not under attack. A Marine mortar team is firing into the city, and I’m underneath the fire arc. They must have set up a fire pit behind the Humvee while I slept.
A mortar flare pops in the distant sky. It’s like a red star that floats above the city, lighting up the buildings around us. All turns quiet and movement slows to a crawl.
A soft red glow basks the building next to me. My double shadow dances along the dirt road, stretching farther as the red star sinks behind this ancient city.
As I look at my shadow, I take stock of myself. No thunder maker, no armor, and no helmet. All of it still in the Humvee that I stumbled out of moments before. Instead, I stand frozen in place, wearing nothing but my unlaced boots, baggy sweater, and tighty whities turned pink by the fading flare.
The red star burns out, the city falls back into pitch black and all is silent. There is nothing, as if in a dream.