Arriving into Iraqi airspace, I am met by a gripping fear. It is at the edge of my being, waiting. The passengers are instructed to don the Kevlar helmet and flak vest. Shit just got real. This is the real deal and we’re not in Kansas anymore. Keep flying, you noisy beast of an aircraft.
It is obvious the Iraqis outside of the wire know about the US drawdown. They see this as an opportunity to be heroes by increasing the frequency of their mortars and rockets attacks, as if to say their offensive efforts are what are driving the Americans out. We know because we take daily tally of the incoming lobbed into the compound. It is unnerving to live in preparation of the worst every second. The hairs on my arm and neck stand at attention even during the hot showers. No, especially during the showers when I am the most vulnerable—no bullets at my right side, no firearm at my left, no clothes, standing in total nakedness. People walk around with open carry. It is anticipated protection for each and for each other, but this really is the last line of defense.
The base is carefully gridded with buildings for both American and Iraqi forces. Each section of buildings is outlined with tall, concrete T-walls that are meant to dampen incoming mortars and rockets. Bunkers are to protect against mass attacks. The roof reinforcements are only over the staff workspaces and common areas, but not over the housing units. There are gyms, chow halls, chapels. People go into the chapels to drink free coffee, to confess, to plead for life.
The air is hot, quiet, and dust-laden. The dust conspires with the wind to indiscriminately seek and engulf its victims. There is no hiding from this assault. On the worst dust storm days, it blurs directions, clouds the nostrils and, if I’m not careful, taints my tongue. It tastes grainy and is hard to locate like broken pieces of a dislodged cavity filling swimming around in my mouth. I must try to catch it before I swallow it. I know the dust, carrying bacteria, fungus, and mites, has made it into my lungs, but I try and try to not think about this. It is a silent enemy, and I am helpless.
Walking outside is like walking into a souped up blow dryer. Like a god, the heat is omnipresent. There is no relief at night. Showering is simply to maintain schedule regularity; sweat condenses seconds after emerging from the cadillacs.* The dryness, unlike a god, is unforgiving. It cracks my skin, and I have to slather on lotion to prevent the bacteria from sinking through my basic armor.
It is quiet here. Not the serenity that brings peace, but the eerie stillness expectant of a storm. Near buildings, there is the familiar humming of air conditioning units. Prayer music plays on the giant voice at different times of the day. I feel like an unsuspecting soul walking into a sniper’s view when I hear these prayer calls. My battle buddy tells me to think of the music as the daily announcement for sale items at the local market. Ahh la la la two ninety-nine. Ah la la la buy one get one free.
In the months and years following my deployment, that gripping fear grips me still. The psychological and emotional anxiety has morphed, in part, from the invisible into the tangible on my body, skin originally burned by the Iraqi sun. So, I no longer plead to God for life, but for life normal.