William Tecumseh Sherman is credited with saying, “War is hell.” From my experience, he is right. Mostly. No, I am not an aggressive sociopath. However, there are times when war is the circumstance that puts people in situations that couldn’t be scripted by even the best Hollywood comedy writers. As long as there is not an imminent threat of you or your buddies getting your respective heads chopped off, there is always a chance that hilarity will ensue. You just have to keep an open mind.
For example, in the summer of 2003 I led a mission into the Iraqi desert to engage the local population. Alas, let me clarify: “engage,” meaning “induce to participate,” not “wear their ears on a necklace.” The area was remote and U.S. Soldiers had not set foot in the area. We wanted to make sure they had access to the basic necessities – power, water, 1990s hip hop – and confirm that they did not want to skin us alive.
I consulted my map to scout the location of the villages. We could take paved roads for half of our journey, but then we would have to go off-road for approximately two hours to reach the targeted villages. We preferred to take paved roads whenever possible because they were faster, less bumpy and allowed us to occasionally drive through sewage runoff. Don’t judge! We routinely drove or walked through the 120-degree desert for hours on end. A refreshing sewage mist raises morale, if only momentarily. It is a small victory, HIV and hepatitis be damned!
After a brief mission planning session, we set out. The blacktop portion of our trip was tolerable and uneventful. However, our off-road section was an agonizing drive from hell. It made Heart of Darkness look like Penthouse Forum. There was nothing allegorical about it—it literally sucked. The terrain was so sun-scorched and uneven that it was like driving mile after mile over three-week-old dog shit.
After about an hour of severe jostling and multiple suspected traumatic brain injuries, I received a call over the radio. It was from the truck behind me carrying about fifteen soldiers in a cargo bed.
“Sir, we need to stop. Martinez has to take a shit,” the hand mic crackled.
“Good. I have to clean pesky spinal fluid out of my ear canal anyway. Let’s stop.”
It seemed that the bumpy ride had upset his already dysentery-filled guts. Everyone got it at some point and now it was his turn. Immediately upon stopping Martinez gingerly hopped out of the truck, squatted and unleashed Hell. You try not to notice a grown man blasting industrial waste out of his ass, but it was the most interesting thing happening in my field of view other than watching a dung beetle roll a turd across the post-apocalyptic wasteland.
After the sound of what I liken to a vuvuzela being played in a puddle subsided, Martinez pulled up his pants and quickly climbed back into the truck.
“Is Martinez okay? Does he need Doc to look at him?” I radioed.
I looked behind in the side mirror and saw the sergeant I was speaking to on the radio yell back to Martinez. Martinez gave him the “I’m okay” wave.
“No, he is okay,” my sergeant replied.
“Okay. Let me know if he has to go again and we will stop before we get into town.”
“Roger. Just try to stay out of the big holes.”
We only had thirty more minutes of eating sheep shit-filled dust before I could see the town over the horizon. It was a typical Iraqi town in the middle of nowhere. The village had twenty mud huts randomly scattered around a main thoroughfare. There was a vaguely romantic yet other-worldly vibe emanating from the hamlet. It was Under the Tuscan Sun meets The Hills Have Eyes.
We slowed our convoy to a crawl as we entered the town. Men, women and children lined the street, waving and working themselves into a miniature frenzy. This was the first time these Iraqis had seen U.S. Soldiers, and they loved us!
As we got to the center of town, I got another call on my radio. The voice had a level of concern not heard in the last few transmissions.
“Sir, we need to stop again. Martinez is hurtin’,” the sergeant blurted. I grew irritated at this point, especially since I offered to have our unit doctor look at him before we got into town.
“Tell him to hold it. We have to meet with these people and get to the next village.”
I got out of my Humvee ready to be hailed the hero and new demigod of the village. As I sauntered over to my new subjects I noticed their jubilation waning. They seemed to be distracted by something behind me. I turned around to see four soldiers holding Martinez by his tactical webbing, his bare ass hanging off of the side of the truck terminating the contents of his lower intestine with extreme prejudice.
The horror… the horror…
All I could do was watch in what seemed like slow motion as Martinez defiled the village in Super Soaker fashion. The same men, women and children who moments ago sang our praises and showered us with gratitude were suddenly very confused. Their confusion quickly turned to disgust as they realized what was happening. One by one their hands dropped from the air and they stood in stunned silence. Rather than offer an explanation as to why an American was besmirching their village, I sheepishly got back in my truck and queued my hand mic.
We visited a few more villages during the course of the day, but we did not top that entrance. I can’t say we prevented anyone from becoming a terrorist, but I completely understand if they did.