Casualties of War
Thunder scares her. It never did before, but it does now. A few days ago, it rained, and when the thunder clapped, she almost dived under the bar in her apartment. She told herself, “It's just thunder.” She told herself she's here in South Weymouth, her Army pay in the bank, waiting for classes to start again. But even if she had dived under the bar, it would've hurt; her shins and knees have been injured since basic. And the war made them worse. The war made a lot of things worse.
Her name's Jo Anne, but everybody calls her Joey. She has deep green eyes and blond hair and a steady way of looking at you, like she's weigh ing whether or not you're friend or foe. She's short and muscled and would be getting ready for ski season now if it weren't for her legs. She admits she's a little jumpy these days and sometimes short-tempered, on edge.
It was hot over there, often as high as 150 degrees, and it stunk, too. She can't get the smell out of her nose — all the dead animals by the side of the road: the rotted dogs and bloated cows, the blackened sheep and festering donkeys; there were trash-heap fires and raw sewage in the streets; there was the exhaust from the backs of tanks that made you lightheaded, and nobody could wash, and when you came back from patrol, your desert camos were white with salt from your own sweat. In camp, you walked out in the sand and squatted. Sometimes you dug a hole and buried it. You constantly itched from sand flies and fleas.
And of course there were the dead people. A lot of dead people.
In front of her apartment building is a young tree with a wide yellow ribbon tied around its trunk. An American flag hangs near her window. Her landlord has a son fighting in Iraq, and when she told him she was a veteran, he put up the ribbon and flag as close to her apartment as he could.
Inside, she writes songs and poems. She also plays the trumpet and is teaching herself how to play her new electric guitar. When she was 14, she traveled to Washington, DC with the school band and played her trumpet on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
“What'd you play?”
“I don't know. My memory's kind of messed up.”
Bits and pieces. You can see it in her poetry. Here's the last part of one she wrote since returning home:
Liberate peace . . .
“Bush. I hate him. A lot of soldiers do. You're over there wondering what you're doing. I mean, why are we here?”
“You don't know why?”
“Negative, Ghost Rider.”
On Joey's coffee table is one book: Poets Against the War.
“See, we shouldn't be there. Afghanistan, maybe, but not there. It's a poorly planned, irrational mission, and we went in too hastily. Not enough intel. A real clusterfuck. You want to see what war's like?”
She walks into her bedroom. Her computer is in here, across from her electric guitar, amp, and mike. She opens a file of color photographs. Many of them are of dead Iraqis, or parts of them. One shows a man's severed calf and bare foot lying in the street. Another is a close-up of a young man's head. It's half gone, and his face is sunk in blood, bits of brain, and skull.
“That poor fool blew himself up trying to blow us up.”
A teenager lies on his back, his eyes on the sky above, his arms spread wide. His T-shirt is wet with blood and torn with at least a dozen bullet holes.
“That one wouldn't die. We think he was on something.”
There's an image of an Iraqi man lying dead on a highway overpass. There are dark openings in his face and chest. He has a beard, and his eyes aren't fully closed. An American soldier stands over him with his M-16, smiling happily into the camera.
And there are pictures of children. When she clicks onto these, she goes still in her chair and says nothing.
A naked 7- or 8-year-old boy lies dead on a table, his small chest and face yellow, his mouth open. Another boy, alive, is stretched out on another table, his legs peppered with black shrapnel wounds, and there's a large one in his stomach, his intestine poking through. There are mortared children and shot children. There are the blind and the crippled and the maimed. One girl lies on her side, her bare torso unmarked, her legs and feet intact, but her face is a melted mask of red and purple burns. Her mother, dressed in black, her head covered, sits beside her and squeezes her hand.
“You don't see this on the news,” Joey says.
Jo Anne Bastable was a freshman at Massasoit Community College in Brockton. Between classes that morning, she ran out to her car for books, flipped on the radio, and heard Howard Stern talking about the planes and the buildings. She thought he was joking, but then she found out it was for real and she got angry. Worried, too; a coworker was an Afghani who'd escaped with his mother from the Taliban. Would people go after him? Beat him up? Worse? And all those dead people here. Why? What did we do? She wanted to do something back. She couldn't just sit around and do nothing.
Within a few days she was in a strip mall in Quincy sitting in a fluorescent-lit recruiter's office. She took her aptitude test at the Military Entrance Processing Station near the Museum of Science and the Charles River. It was like the SATs, she says, and she scored highly enough that she could have her pick of jobs for her rank of private. It came down to military intelligence or military police. She heard the MI guys just studied maps, so she chose MP. It's what she'd been drawn to for a long time anyway: That fall, she was taking criminal law and an intro to law enforcement.
She doesn't remember much about the swearing-in ceremony. Five or six of them got sworn in that day. People her age, 21 or younger. She raised her right hand and swore to assist, protect, and defend the United States of America. Along the wall stood a row of flags: the Stars and Stripes, Army and Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. She felt proud.
She was processed as “delayed entry” so she could finish up the semester. There were a lot of goodbye dinners, most of them at her favorite restaurant, Papa Razzi in Hanover. In March, she flew to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training. Eight weeks of hurt. Four a.m. to lights out at 9 p.m. Physical training all day long: pushups, sit-ups, running. There was the obstacle course and hand-to-hand combat, rifle training and the 9 millimeter. Anytime, day or night, the drill instructor could shout, “Front! Back! Go!” and they had to fall forward for pushups, roll back for flutter kicks, then get up and run. Chow time was five minutes long. Food as fuel, and you eat with a spoon to get it down faster. She says everybody underestimated her because she's 5-foot-3 and she smiles and laughs all the time. Her dad says she came out laughing.
But all the marching and running in tight boots started to hurt her shins. She got stress fractures. Broke a bone, too. With their M-16s strapped on, the soldiers had to climb a rope up the side of a two-story building, then crawl through a window. It was the end of the day, and her arms and legs were tired, and at the top she just couldn't hold on any longer and fell. She broke her finger against her M-16. Her DI called her a dumbass, and she just lay on the ground and laughed.
After basic came nine weeks of MP School. More class work and less physical training, but not much. The MP girls hung together. Sabrina was her best friend there. Joey liked her because she was always goofing around. One time cleaning the barracks, Sabrina found a dead mouse behind the radiator and, on a dare, placed it on her tongue. Sabrina is now one of the Abu Ghraib MPs detained for mistreating prisoners. Joey thinks what they did was wrong, but “everybody did shit like that all the time.”
She had another friend, too, Michelle Witmer. Michelle had a cherubic face and was always laughing, Joey says. She'd get in trouble for it from the DIs, giggling when she was supposed to be serious. But they liked her; she was helpful, would volunteer whenever a DI needed a hand with something.
Joey was at Camp Victory in Kuwait when she read about Michelle in Stars and Stripes: killed in an ambush. She read about Michelle's twin, Charity, and her other sister, Rachel, how her family was appealing to the Pentagon to let them keep their remaining daughters home. They'd already sacrificed enough.
In November 2002, Private Jo Anne Bastable found herself attached to the 94th MP Battalion. American soldiers were fighting the Taliban then, and she'd just heard on the news that the military was calling up 10,000 more reservists, mainly MPs. That meant she was going to war, though she thought it would be in Afghanistan, hunting down Osama bin Laden.
She flew to Florida and visited her mom in Tampa. In no time, it seemed, she was flying to Fort Polk in Louisiana. She was assigned to overnight gate duty.
Dressed in her battle dress uniform, she wore a belt carrying her loaded 9 millimeter, her baton, handcuffs, and walkie-talkie. Around her upper left arm was the MP brassard. Music wasn't allowed, but nights got long and she smuggled in her Walkman, listened to everything from classical to heavy metal. She played cards with some of the other MPs. Sometimes they'd throw a Frisbee to each other under the security lights.
In March, the U.S. invaded Iraq. In April, Joey shipped out.
It was early in the morning, the sun still low over the desert, but already over 110 degrees. For two weeks she'd been at Camp Virginia in Kuwait unloading connex — metal containers full of sleeping bags, cots, tents, truck mounts for the MK-19 grenade launcher, and her favorite, the M-249, otherwise known as a squad automatic weapon, or SAW. Sixteen-and-a-half pounds unloaded, 22 loaded. Even though it was heavier, she preferred it to the M-16. Felt safer with it in her Humvee. Three soldiers were assigned to each one. A driver, a turret gunner, and a team leader. She was a driver. Her Humvee was unarmored and neither she nor her team leader nor gunner wore bulletproof interceptors, just flak vests, good only for slowing a grenade fragment, not a bullet. “That's why Michelle died,” Joey says. “Not enough armor on her Humvee.”
That morning, dressed in her desert camos, her hair tucked up under her Kevlar helmet, she was part of a group of four platoons moving out to Iraq for the first time, 50 or 60 trucks and trailers. It was a clear day, and as they crossed the Iraqi border, she saw a little boy with black hair and dark eyes, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt, waving a small American flag. She smiled and waved back at him.
Joey was attached to the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment on the Syrian border in the Al Qaim region. Her job was to search for and bring in Baathist loyalists, and she spent her days and nights on patrols and raids. She'd drive fast down the narrow earthen streets and pull right up to a front stoop. M-16s locked and loaded, teams of three to five would kick down the door and clear the house from bottom to top. Joey liked the action of raids, though she didn't like when the kids cried, or the women. And when they found a man — any man, any age — she didn't like how they had to duct tape his eyes or put an empty sandbag over his head before transporting him back to camp for interrogation.
“I don't know. It dehumanized them. I let the guys do it.”
It was past midnight, and she'd been behind the wheel more than 36 hours. Her eyes burned and her helmet felt heavy on her head. Intel from the Fourth Infantry Division and Task Force 20 told them Saddam Hussein was racing for the border town of Husaybah and Syria with his entourage in two SUVs and a Mercedes sedan. Hers was the third truck in, Hussein's convoy not far ahead. Above her streaked American jets strafing the Iraqi cars with large-caliber machine-gun fire. Then they shot something bigger and the convoy erupted into orange flame and black smoke. The Cav boys continued to head into the action, but they made her stay back in her Humvee.
“Because I'm a girl.”
Across the flat desert, the SUVs and Mercedes burned. A few buildings, too. Some Syrian border guards had been injured. Midmorning the next day, she put the Humvee in gear and drove into town. The Task Force 20 was gone, and the three cars were blackened shells.
“Who was in them?”
“I don't know. Civilians. Random people.” Dead now.
Off to her left was the smoking debris of what used to be a Bedouin settlement. There were dead sheep and chickens and a man's body was lying on the ground. Flies flew out of his mouth. His hands were clenched in loose fists and, driving closer, Joey could see his middle finger was straightened as if he were flipping her off. Did one of the Cav boys do that as a joke? She heard from another MP that there was a pregnant woman dead on the other side. When Joey saw all the children's clothes scattered over the sand and broken stone, she drove away before she could see anything else.
” The first time I got scared over there was right after one of our guys got it.”
“Sergeant Dooley. He was with the Cav. He stopped a car at a checkpoint and a guy shot him point-blank in the face. Then [the Americans] lit 'em up.”
“Lit them up?”
“Yeah, with the machine gun on the Bradley. They smoked the shooter, then the Cav guys dragged another one out of the car and beat him pretty bad. They brought him back to camp to get looked at, but he didn't make it.”
The Cavs brought the body of the man who killed Dooley to the local police station in Husaybah. His relatives claimed his body, and a few days later, Joey and four other MPs were on guard duty at the police station. They stood on the steps under the sun, smoking cigarettes and shooting the shit.
After a while, Joey could hear something from a long way off. Men's voices, loud and angry. She could hear the fall of their feet on the road, their shouting and chanting, then she saw them — 40 or 50 of them, most of them bearded, all of them yelling and thrusting their arms in the air. Six or eight in front carried a wooden casket on their shoulders, the body of the man who'd killed Sergeant Dooley.
Her mouth went dry, and she drew down on them with her M-16. To her right and left, her buddies fanned out on the steps, looking as startled to her as she felt. Across the street, the men stopped and screamed at them in Arabic. Some pulled off their shoes and threw them at the MPs. Others threw rocks. Joey held her ground, and the crowd was a sea of black hair and black eyes and dark skin. She knew they would kill her if they could, and it was like seeing pure evil. “I know that's wrong. There're a lot of good Iraqis, but those men just looked evil to me. You know?”
Joey and the other MP and medic girls were living in an abandoned train station in Husaybah. She had a friend, Jimmy Mack. He was short and black, 19 and funny. He was one of the commo, or communication, boys camped next to them. He always offered to take the trash out for them, and he used to dance in the halls.
“He cracked me up. He was just a bubbly little kid. He'd walk up to you with that big smile and go, 'Hi, I'm Jimmy Mack. Hi, I'm Jimmy Mack.'”
One night she got back from patrol and heard he was missing. The next day they found his body floating in the Euphrates. Nobody knew what happened. But now, in raids, she didn't care so much anymore about taping men's eyes and covering their heads with sandbags.
“I don't know, I guess it seemed dehumanizing until one of my friends died.”
And she'd heard stories about the MI guys throughout the region, how they get Iraqis to talk. You could make them dig their own grave in the sand blindfolded, lock and load on them, tell them to pray to Allah, then fire at their feet and watch them piss themselves.
“See? It wasn't just Sabrina.”
Looking back now , there's no real order to it. She's even forgotten a lot of the names of other soldiers and towns.
“I don't know, I've blocked out a lot.”
But she remembers things:
She was in her Humvee guarding the commo boys while they set up equipment in the desert. A cloud of sand rose in the distance and at first she thought it was a storm, but then she could hear the rumble of the hooves, and she sat up and watched 70 camels trot by, a few Bedouins herding them along.
At a checkpoint once, she made the driver open his trunk, and there was a live ram, its big eyes staring at her. It wasn't unusual to see a cow or camel standing in the back of a pickup truck.
By Thanksgiving , she should've been back stateside, but the 94th got extended and she was transferred to Ramadi, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, about 60 miles west of Baghdad, to guard Champion Base, in one of Saddam Hussein's bombed-out palaces. Encamped there was the 82nd Airborne and its commanding officer. Joey drew the night shift guarding the rear gate, which she preferred because more and more she wanted to be left alone. Her squad leader was an electrician and ran some wire and got a coffeemaker working. They brewed Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts their families had sent from home, and she spent her nights on top of her Humvee, her SAW locked and loaded, watching tracer rounds light up the sky. Every now and then, jets would roar right over the palace on their way to bomb Fallujah, and she liked how loud they were, how powerful they sounded.
She wasn't feeling so powerful, though; it was here, in Ramadi, she began to feel afraid. A couple of guys from Nomad Troop had offered to give her a ride in their Kiowa helicopter, but a few days later another Kiowa was shot down over the Euphrates and the pilots drowned. There were nightly mortar and rocket-propelled-grenade attacks on the palace, many of them missing the base and exploding on the banks of the Euphrates. She says it was worse during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, that they got attacked twice as much then. And she kept thinking about Lieutenant Adams. He commanded a tank back in Al Qaim. He was tall and blond and skinny and exactly her age. After patrols and raids, he'd give her a ride in his tank. In March, his tour was up, and on the road back to Kuwait, an oncoming car came too close and hit the barrel of the tank's gun and swung it into the back of Lieutenant Adams's head and killed him.
Nights on her Humvee, Joey kept seeing things: a dog walking under a streetlight looked like an armed man. Shadows moved. A truck engine turning over made her jump. She'd pull her 9 millimeter from its holster and keep it beside her.
During the afternoons, she slept in abandoned servants' quarters. All the windows had been blown out, and it was cold and damp and made her legs ache. But she stayed there and read books. Quite a few male soldiers were hooking up with female soldiers, Joey says, many of them married. “I mean they'd do it anywhere — in a barracks, a Bradley, the back of a Humvee. Two guys almost fought over a girl.”
Her legs got so bad she couldn't ignore them anymore and was medevaced on a small cargo plane to Kuwait City. The day after she left, three suicide bombers rammed the front gate and killed themselves and one of her fellow soldiers.
She stayed in Kuwait City for a month and a half. She'd go to the Troop Medical Center for physical therapy, then spend the rest of the time helping the supply boys with ordnance. There were breaks here and there, and she was allowed to change into civvies and walk into the city. One afternoon, a beautiful Kuwaiti woman stopped her in the street to tell her how much she loved Americans for what they were doing. Joey hadn't heard that in a long time. It was good to hear.
Back in Al Qaim , Joey's attachment had gone into Husaybah for a morning raid. One of their soldiers had been hit the night before, and they were going to search every dwelling for weapons. It was close to 10 and hot when her team found a father and his three kids on a blanket in front of their house. The MPs searched the building, and there was no one else. No women. Nobody. Two MPs were about to cuff the father, but his children were crying, so they led him away. It was a boy and a girl and an infant. The boy was about five and held the baby in his arms, his black eyes on Joey, who stood there in full battle dress, her M-16 over her shoulder, her 9 millimeter strapped in its holster across her chest. He kept looking from the guns to her, then back at the guns. And the girl was shrieking and shrieking. She was tiny, maybe three, her face glistening, her nose running, and she couldn't stop trembling.
Joey walked over to her and squatted, but the girl kept screaming and screaming till Joey reached up and pulled off her helmet so the girl could see her hair. Joey smiled at her and spoke quietly. Then the girl held out her arms and Joey picked her up. The girl kept trembling. Joey wished her side arm wasn't pressing against her. She wished she'd taken it off so the girl would feel something soft. So the girl would feel her breasts and her beating heart. So the girl would feel her.
Last week , in her apartment in South Weymouth, Joey had a dream about a friend who got pregnant, and she woke up sweating and shaking, her heart kicking against her ribs. A shadow moved against the window, moved closer, then pulled back. It wasn't the first time she'd seen it, and she wanted to feel the weight of her 9 millimeter in her hand.
A friend was visiting her one night and saw the shadow, too. She stepped closer to the window and started to laugh. She turned around and said, “Joey, it's just the flag. ”
Joey's active duty in the U.S. Army ended on September 11, 2004. At Fort Drum, just before boarding the bus for home, she bought two decals: an American flag and a “Support the Troops” yellow ribbon. Joey lost the flag, but she stuck the one for the troops squarely to the bumper of her Honda Civic.
There's a picture of Joey and her dad hugging at her homecoming. Her chin is pressed to his shoulder, her face tilted up, her eyes squeezed shut; her blond hair is pulled back from her cheek, and she looks like a child. Her dad calls her his Desert Girl.
She's no longer interested in law enforcement, wants instead to study international relations and diplomacy. But she feels completely unprotected without her gun. She finds herself thinking a lot about Jimmy Mack, about Michelle and Lieutenant Adams and Sergeant Dooley. It's weird, she says. She wasn't that scared over there, but now that she's home, she's scared all the time.