By Jerad W. Alexander
Shannon said nothing as I stepped into the battalion administration office on the first floor of the big command center—the Headquarters—on the plateau that overlooked the desert to the north. I had just returned from a nine-day operation in the Euphrates Valley, commanding a Humvee of wayward Marine lance corporals stuck between jobs and plugged into the dubious task of escorting a videographer to the Marine battle positions that dotted the Iraqi urban landscape—dusty outposts of the Empire—canning footage for some dubious video project cooked up by an officer with more ideas than practical understanding.
Whatever the case, we were finished. I walked into the administration office to check in. Normally the office was a raucous place. The men inside all knew each other intimately, having spent six months very close to one another, and Shannon, though in charge, had made the place fraternal, even to me, a functional outsider. Today it was quiet. Behind his desk, Shannon barely acknowledged my presence. David, his second in charge, offered a solemn nod, but little else. He sat at his desk repacking tobacco into a Black & Mild cigar. At first I didn’t consider the silence, or at least register it as anything other than a mute day. One of those drooling afternoons in the Big Routine that just seems out of phase somehow. But when I began to take a seat behind the communal computer to check my email, David looked over his computer monitor—
“River city, dog,” he said.
I shot erect with my rifle in my hand before I could fully sit. River City was code—someone had been wounded or killed. All communications with the Homefront were terminated until next of kin had been notified, usually within 24 hours.
“Who?” I asked.
“Phillips. India Company.”
David nodded. “Know him?”
David gestured toward Shannon and spoke softly. Shannon had not looked away from his computer once. “Staff sergeant had to go identify the body,” David said.
I sat down in the chair.
It’s true I knew Lance Corporal Steven L. Phillips, but not in any real way. We had never hung out, at least not socially. I only knew him within the context of Iraq. We had worked together, loosely, during a house-to-house operation the previous fall and had been through a few firefights together. He was an “anti-tank assaultman,” as the Marine Corps referred to it, but mainly he lugged around a large rocket launcher, along with a shotgun, and shepherded another, much newer lance corporal through the alleys and streets of Husaybah, blowing locks and hinges off the doors anyone, or at least anyone other than the homeowners, deemed appropriate. He did shoot a rocket once, though. We’d been ambushed by insurgents from an Iraqi house. Phillips shot a rocket into it that burned everything inside. We were grateful for that. I interviewed him about it later, after the operation, for a small Americana-apple pie story for the hometown newspapers. “We have the resources to take targets out without going in bodily,” he’d told me, as if it were a clinical procedure. He’d said it softly, but with confidence. He’d also told me that he wanted to leave the Marines and become a civilian pilot.
“What happened?” I remember asking David.
“Vehicle roll-over,” David said. “He was in the back of a high-back Humvee. The driver rolled it going down a slope too fast. He was thrown out and the vehicle landed on top of him. I think he was alive for a few minutes. I don’t know.” Shannon remained fixed at his computer, plugging numbers into some eternal matrix of personnel and logistics, administrative flotsam. His face was stony.
After a moment I stood and left the administration room and the big command building. I stopped along a bench on the side of the building that faced the open desert to the north and east. I sat down and rested my rifle across my lap. I lit a cigarette. The desert was brown and ugly, and though it was sunny I wanted it to all vanish behind a mist. My knee rattled up and down, making the sling of my rifle clatter against the scuffed black buttstock. I toggled the cigarette filter with my thumb—off and on, off and on. I finished it and tossed it away, and rose and left. I walked toward the chapel, built as it was inside a defunct and abandoned passenger train car. I wove through the sun-beaten wooden huts where Marines and soldiers palled outside under the chaos of camouflage netting, drinking Red Bull, shooting the shit.
I walked somewhat aimlessly, absentmindedly, but in the notional direction of the mess hall. I meandered through a gap between the giant mechanic’s bay and the pavilion that hid all the gear for the combat engineers. A helicopter clattered overhead; halfway down the narrow gap, a Marine helicopter crossed the crystal blue sky above—twin-rotored, ugly gray. The long airstrip where helicopters normally landed and refueled was on the far end of the base, nowhere near where I stood, looking up. But the chopper circled as if to land somewhere close by. I knew what was going to happen. I dreaded it.
I began to run as the helicopter lowered and settled into a hover. I reached the end of the alley where it burst wide into a landing pad outside the battalion aid station. The helicopter settled on the pad and idled its engines. The back ramp lowered. The crew chief stepped out onto the concrete dressed in a long, tan flight suit and a large camouflaged helmet with the sun visor pulled down and tethered by the spiral intercom cord still plugged somewhere inside the chopper’s guts.
From inside the aid station, a line of Navy corpsmen emerged and made two ranks on either side of the large wooden door. Most had stripped down to their T-shirts and baggy camouflage trousers. Some wore baby blue latex gloves. The rotor blades whirled dust devils on the concrete and disturbed the gravel in the cracks. The crew chief remained near the ramp.
The doors of the aid station burst open as four corpsmen pushed a large green stretcher into the sunlight. The stretcher had large wheels affixed to it. Gone were the days of manhandling the dead and wounded with the wooden poles of M*A*S*H-era canvas stretchers. As the four corpsmen pushed past the corpsmen flanking the door, each row saluted, as did the crew chief. I stood a little straighter and saluted too, the requirements of military protocol. I was here and the corpsmen were here and Phillips had come here of his own free will. America was here of its own free will too, and for its purposes Phillips and many, many others, on every side, were dead. Some were in shallow graves or decomposing along the length of the Euphrates and Tigris. Others were shredded by high explosives, others atomized. Some died later, at home, by their own hand, as if a bullet or bomb had been caught in a gust and tossed into some unseen future to strike later. Some were carried out on stretchers to the maws of waiting helicopters, crushed by the stupidity and hubris of the Empire.
While the corpsmen remained in their places with their salutes brushing against their temples, the crew chief stepped into his bird and raised the gate. After a moment the engines revved and scattered the desert around it and around us in buffeting gusts of wind. The corpsmen remained with their salutes, pummeled as we were with rocks and old trash, unwilling and unable to find shelter or run from the storm. But not me. For a moment I watched as the helicopter tottered on its wheels before I turned away, into the alley, beating my fist into the tan, ugly wall for all the dust in my eyes while the helicopter turned in a wide arch and clattered across the desert and was gone.
Jerad W. Alexander is a New York-based writer focusing on politics, history, war, and American culture with works published in Rolling Stone, Esquire, Narratively, Ozy, and elsewhere. He is also a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute literary reportage program. A list of works can be found at jeradalexander.com. He can be followed at @jerad_alexander.