Life Questions

Christopher Southworth


Tonight you’re still alive. Are you going to die? You’ve stopped counting how many nights you’ve gone out. You’ve made a few runs, had a few close calls, but they haven’t got you yet. Are you going to die tonight?

Mosul is a shitty place, emphasized by the acrid smell of the burning trash pits on the south end, a direct contrast to your freshly cleaned armor. It’s nice to be in clean armor. Iraq is a shitty place in general, but Mosul really embodies the shittiness. Literally, as there are open sewers running through some of the streets.

As the gunner in the command humvee, you have a good view of the city, and complete exposure to everything it offers. It’s nighttime; the curfew is in effect. Other than the forty or so military vehicles in your convoy, the road is clear and there’s no one to be seen, but that doesn’t mean there’s no one watching you. This is something you know, something ingrained into every thought and action you do tonight. They’re watching.

The convoy leaves the open desert and enters the city. You shift your weight as the humvee transitions from the nicer interstate, Route Tampa, to the pot-holed city main street. The fuel trucks are only a few vehicles ahead of you, which puts them a comfortable distance away should the insurgents decide to play. It’s never fun to be too close to 7,500 gallons of an easily combustible liquid in a combat zone.

Ahead, about halfway through the city, is a transition from Route Tampa to Route Santa-Fe. It’s a cloverleaf, where Tampa crosses the top of an overpass, and the convoy will take an exit immediately after on a downhill loop and cross underneath. Anything could go wrong. As the gunner, you are especially vulnerable.

You grip the M2 fifty-caliber machine gun in front of you. No one is talking. This is the most dangerous part of the route; everyone is hyper-alert. The headphones attached to your helmet as part of the com system are noise canceling. Sort of. The blood pounding in your ears is loud enough to drown out just about everything.

The radio beeps and a transmission comes in. The scout vehicle has made the transition. A moment later, the lead vehicle calls in. The convoy has begun the crossing. You watch the tall buildings on the right and adjust your night vision.

Ahead there’s a flash and an explosion. Then things get interesting.

*****

It’s earlier in the day. Your alarm is going off. Mission tonight. Your roommate, Mikey, is waking up too. It’s late afternoon. You’ve slept through the day to prepare for tonight’s mission. You’ve got about an hour before you have to be ready. You and Mikey both throw on coveralls, grab your rifles, and head for chow. Tonight it’s something interesting. You’re not sure what it is, but it looks interesting. Some kind of meat in a salty gravy. Last night it was salty meat in some kind of gravy. You bolt down your chow and head back.

Your overnight bag is already prepped. Sleeping bag, clean clothes, a clean uniform, and your toiletry kit. You grab your book and drop it in. Mikey has turned on some music and sings as he finishes his last minute prep. He sounds like shit, but it makes you smile. You go over your gear. Your mags are loaded and in their pouches on your armor. Your clean armor. You spent most of yesterday cleaning it. Some stains are still there, but it’s hard to get blood out. It’s not your blood. You didn’t know the guy, you just helped carry his stretcher while the doc worked on him. You don’t even know if he made it, but his blood is still there, sprayed up one side of your armor and a handprint on your coveralls where he gripped your arm. The armor smells clean, that’s what’s important.

You put on your armor and do up the straps and buttons. There are so many flaps and layers, the thing looks like an overdesigned insect carapace. You sling your pack and grab your weapon. Mikey is excited and ready to go. He leaves for the motor pool where the trucks are waiting. He forgot his rifle. You know he’ll be back for it. When you go everywhere with them, you notice when they’re missing. You disassemble his rifle on his bunk and lay it out all nice and organized. Then you grab your gear again, pick up your own rifle, and head out. You’re carrying eighty pounds of gear, but once it’s on, you barely notice.

As you leave the sleeping area and pass through the blast walls, Mikey comes running back, huffing, “Forgot my weapon,” as he passes you. He’s got as much gear on as you do. You’re crossing to the motor pool when you hear his angry shout. It makes you smile.

The trucks are waiting. You dump your pack and armor and go into the headquarters building and check the mission board to see what truck you’re in and what position, driver or gunner. Good news, you’re in the command humvee, with Jewish as your driver and Staff Sergeant Hauser as the gun-truck commander. Good guys to talk to and joke with, but serious about the work, dependable.

You go to the armory and sign out an M2 fifty-caliber machine gun, haul it out to the roof of the humvee, and get it mounted and set up in the turret. Next you sign out a couple hundred rounds of ammo, a spotlight, a night vision monocle, and signal flares. You spend the next while getting everything situated in the humvee for your crew. Jewish is there too, running checks on the vehicle and the radios. You get the safety brief. They emphasize weapons safety again ‘cause one of the idiots in third platoon almost shot the gunner in the vehicle in front of him while unloading his fifty.

Last minute checks are made. The rear gun truck is having some problems, but you guess they figure it out, because you all mount up and roll out. You stop by the range and you test fire the mounted machine guns, then you head to the readiness center for the mission brief. It’s usually the same each time, convoy has to go somewhere, you protect the convoy, bad guys want to kill you. Same shit, different day.

You’re finally at the gate; the convoy is lined up and ready to leave. Tonight is nothing special, but you have a feeling, a nervous itch. It’s time to roll out.

*****

The concussion thumps the air, you can feel it in your chest.

“Oh f…” Jewish is cut off by SSG Hauser hitting his com mic.

“Charlie 7-2, this is Regulator 4-6, detonation in the convoy, standby for…” Now it’s on, your heart is thrumming in time with the engine, you’re crouched in your turret, traversing your gun back and forth, waiting for more. In a moment you’ll be at the detonation site; you’ll see if anyone was hurt or a vehicle disabled. A new smell enters the air. It’s familiar to you, you’re sure you know what it is, but it also doesn’t seem to be important. The trucks ahead of you aren’t stopping, which is probably good news: the IED might have missed its target.

“4-6, this is 7-2.” The C2’s vehicle is close to the front of the convoy, while yours is in the middle, so he probably didn’t see anything. “All my Tangos have called in, zero damage, zero casualties.”

“Roger that 7-2, let’s Charlie Mike.” Hauser switches back to the truck com. “Keep your eyes open, Specialist, I don’t think they’re done tonight.” You don’t respond. That smell has gotten stronger and your goggles are fogging up.

“What’s this shit on the windshield?”

“Watch your mouth, Jewish, and don’t cuss while I’m on the radio.” SSG Hauser coms his mic again, this time on the battle net freq, and starts calling in the IED to Red Dragon. With one hand on your fifty, you reach your other gloved hand underneath your goggles and try to wipe away some of the fog, but it’s not working; in fact, it’s getting worse, and your glove smells awful, like… You rub your sleeve across the outside of your goggles and the world smears and becomes blurry. Then you realize, the IED did hit a truck, it hit one of the tankers and now diesel fuel is spilling onto the road and getting kicked up into a fine mist by all the tires. You are now covered in a flammable liquid, and so is your vehicle. You do your best to rub the fuel off your goggles.

“Hey Sarge,” you com your mic, but he’s still on the net with Red Dragon. “Hey Jewish.”

“Whats up, bro?”

“Dude, I think it’s diesel.”

“What is?” You’ve reached the cloverleaf. You watch the trucks in front of you make the turn and disappear under the overpass; you can see Tango 14 leaking. Jewish turns the humvee onto the exit.

“The shit on the windshield, I’m covered in it.”

“Oh f…”

SSG Hauser is back on the truck coms again. “Dammit, Jewish, I said watch your mouth. What were you saying, Specialist?” You fill him in. “Ah shit, let’s hope no one lights a match. I better let the C2 know.” He switches coms again. “Charlie 7-2, this is 4-6…”

You’ve reached the bottom of the cloverleaf and the rest of the convoy is following. You watch as one of the big tractor-trailer combos starts to slide around on the fuel-slick ramp. The inexperienced driver overcorrects, a tire leaves the pavement, and then it jack-knifes, the tractor turning sideways and the back end of the trailer sliding off the road. All the vehicles behind it come to a stop.

“Shit, Jewish!” The road at the bottom of the hill is full of potholes and your truck is bouncing all over the place. You’re holding onto the fifty with one hand and the wall of the turret with the other just to keep from being bounced out. You can’t com your mic. “JEWISH!” He laughs, unaware of the burgeoning disaster behind you. Then he slams the humvee into a large puddle that he couldn’t see in the shadows of the overpass. A wave of foul smelling and chunky sewage washes over the truck, you, and your diesel soaked armor. No time to worry about that right now. “JEWISH!” You kick him in the shoulder.

“Ow, hey.”

“We gotta turn around, one of the Tangos is jack-knifed on the turn.”

“Oh f…”

“What’s going on?” Hauser is back on. You tell him just as Jewish hits the puddle again. Another wave.

“JEWISH!” You kick him again.

“OW!” The humvee gets back to the bottom of the turn and you watch the front half of the convoy disappear into the night. Hauser is talking to the C2. You’re soaked, but you’ve got a job to do, so you keep your head on a swivel while trying to find a dry part of yourself to wipe off your face, goggles, and night vision. You also pick off a few of the more obvious chunks.

After a while, the Wrecker makes it up to you and pulls the jack-knifed truck back onto the road. Your humvee leads the rest of the convoy to catch up to the front half waiting outside the city. Jewish drives slowly through the sewage this time. You endure another two hours of smelling like diesel and shit before you make it to the base. At the barracks you take off your armor. Both you and it are covered in fuel, whatever was in that sewage ditch, and now a thick layer of dust, but you are still alive. At least until tonight.