Chapter 2: Fire and Dust

“You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty. ”

― Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

   “Fuck that was my last cigarette,” I muttered under my breath as I burned the filter on the ass end of the Marlboro red.  The air was filled with the smell of burning plastic and dust.  I broke the filter off and lit it again.  I hated filterless smoking, but it was my last one, and there was no way I was going to waste it.  Each drag burned the back of my throat as I inhaled the harsh smoke mixed with the dust from the air.  I made love to that cigarette, and the rush of nicotine calmed my nerves as I crouched behind the berm.

     Our post was situated atop a shipping container which was half buried in a ten foot tall pile of dirt that surrounded our encampment.  I crawled up the side of the berm back to where Jones was waiting.  

     “Fuck, man, I almost wasted my last cigarette,” I said, “I lit the fucking thing backwards and had to break off the filter to smoke it.”

     Jones laughed at me and said, “Yeah, I’m almost out of smokes, too.  3rd platoon better get here soon so we can go buy some back at Wolf.”

     It had been one week since we had the opportunity to buy cigarettes from the PX at Camp Wolf.  Everybody was running low and nobody wanted to share.  Cigarettes act as a type of currency in the field.  It’s similar to prison in that way, only in prison you have better access to the vices that keep a young man happy.  Money has no value in a war zone, and supply and demand dictate the barter value of an item. Alcohol was strictly forbidden because Kuwait was a dry country.  Porn was also forbidden, but enforcement was lax.  Everyone who had porn kept it under wraps to keep it from getting confiscated, but we all knew it was floating around.  MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) contained items for barter, but only if you were lucky enough to get one before it was “rat-fucked” of all the valuable items inside.  As the old saying goes, “There’s only one thief in the Marine Corps and everyone else is just trying to get their shit back.”  That phrase came to mind every time I strapped on my kevlar helmet which was stolen from the Army.  

I arrived in Kuwait without a kevlar and there were other marines missing chin straps, canteens and other basic supplies.  Our reserve base was undersupplied, and we were told we would get our gear once we arrived in Kuwait.  After waiting a few weeks we took the matter into our own hands.  “The lance corporal underground” was given a mission to resupply our company of all its missing gear.  They raided an army supply depot at camp Wolf, while an unnamed Staff NCO distracted the supply chief. It’s tough enough to drink water with a gas mask strapped to your face in a chemical environment, but it is literally impossible without one of the special canteens that are designed specifically for that purpose.  Was it unethical to steal from our brothers in arms?  Maybe, but it was definitely unethical to send a bunch of Marines to a war zone without the proper gear.

“Anything to see out there?” I asked Jones as he peered through the night vision goggles (NVGs).

“Nothing but sand,” He replied.

Sitting on post was almost always boring.  The days were too hot and the nights too cold.  You had to spend hours staring through NVGs and when those weren’t available, you had to make due with the eyes you were born with.  The desert in Kuwait was a wide open expanse of mostly flat, formless desert.  There were no trees or bushes to hide behind, just endless dunes of sand.  It was fun at first because you felt like Lawrence of Arabia traveling across some exotic middle eastern landscape, but over time the novelty wore off and the only thing to break up the monotony were tread marks in the sand. 

We saw a vehicle approaching in the distance, but through the NVGs Jones could tell it was just a friendly.  I took aim anyway and followed it with my weapon for a minute or two.  

     “Hey, did I ever tell you about that sniper I met back in Tucson who was Force Recon?” I said to Jones.

     “No, I don’t think so.”

     “He was a real crazy fucker with some messed up stories.  He told me this story once about this mission he was on.  He was lying down looking through the scope of his Barrett fifty cal when this truck started to approach.  Through the scope he could see the guy in the driver’s seat.  I think he was in Kosovo or some shit so he wasn’t supposed to shoot anyone, but no vehicles were supposed to be driving down that road either, so to disable the vehicle, he shot it through the engine block. But here’s the messed up part.  The engine block exploded and shot burning fuel all over the inside of the cab.  He just sat there and watched through his scope as the guy burned alive inside the truck.  At the end of the story he looked it me all crazy eyed and laughed like some psychotic lunatic.”  I lowered my M16 away from the vehicle in the distance and looked over at Jones.

     “No way!” Jones said, “that’s pretty crazy.” 

     “I know, right? Royally fucked up.”

     “Yeah, you have to be a little fucked in the head to be Force Recon.”

     “No, for sure.  He had this really weird fantasy, too.  He told me every time he was out in the field and lying on his stomach for hours on end, he’d imagine himself fucking some chick with his ghillie suit on.”

     “What, like out there in the jungle?”

     “Yeah, but here’s the crazy part.  So he goes on a float to Thailand, and when he gets there, he buys himself a hooker for the night – this young Asian girl.”

     “Oh my god, you mean he…”

     “Yep!  He took this Asian chick back to the room, pulled out his ghillie suit and told her he wanted to fuck her with it on.  He said she didn’t seem to mind, so he slipped it on and started fucking her.  It gets worse though.”

     “Oh no.” 

     “So he never washed his ghillie suit, and sometimes in the field he would piss in it, because on a stalk you can’t just get up to pee.” 


     “So he says to me, with that crazy look in his eye again, that she has a real weird look on her face because the suit smells like shit, and all this dirt and grass and shit fell out of it all over her.”

     We both laughed for a while and then it got quiet.

     “You’ve heard about the ping pong ball show in Okinawa right?” Jones said.

     “Yeah, who hasn’t?”

     “Exactly,” he said, “Well, Terrence was telling me the other day that he went to a show while he was stationed out in Oki.  He said it was the same old story where a woman shoots a ping pong ball out of her ‘vag’ right into a cup someone’s holding.  You know, standard shit.  He said it was crazy, but the ping pong lady was the tame part of the show.”


     “Yeah! He said some other chick got up on stage, and there were turtles crawling out of her pussy and shit.  She shoved a banana up there, and then fed it to someone in the crowd one slice at a time.”  

     “Now there’s some skills,” I said laughing.

     “Then for the grand finale, the last girl gets up there and pulls a string of razor blades from her twat, and every fifth blade she’d grab a piece of paper and slice it just to prove how sharp it was.”

     “What the fuck?  That’d be some shit to see, huh?” And night air was once again filled with our laughter.

     “Were you on post two nights ago?” I said to Jones.

     “Probably.  The days all run together now.”

     “Yeah, I know what you mean.   Well, I came over to relieve Anderson and Thomson and they told me there two men spotted three clicks out in the direction of Iraq and four vehicles, including an SUV, moving towards the border.”

     “What were they doing out there?” asked Jones

     “Nobody knows.  They called it in but no one knew what they were doing out there.  It went all the way to the battalion level ‘cause nobody knew who those fuckers were.”

     “They were obviously friendlies ‘cause who else would be out there?”

     “I don’t know but what Anderson said was maybe they were recon or something moving towards the border.” 

     The wind started to pick up a little and some dust blew into my eye.  I was used to it by now, but I was still a little annoyed.  

     “I gotta joke for you.” I said to Jones.

     “Oh yeah?  What is it?”

     “Ok, but I gotta set the joke up a little before I tell it.  So I was at Marine Combat Training and our instructor gets up in front of the class and says he’s gonna tell us some jokes.  He starts off with some pedophile jokes, you know, like the one that goes ‘So a pedophile and a five year old head into the forest and the five year old looks up at the pedophile and says ‘I’m scared’ and the pedophile replies, ‘You think you’re scared? I’m the one that has to leave here alone.’”

     With a smile on his face and a little disgust he said, 

     “Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.”

     “Yeah, me too,” I said, “but he’s just warming up, you know, so each joke gets a little worse.  So by the last joke you can see it on everyone’s face.  Everyone there is like ‘This is some sick shit’ and then he finishes with this joke I’d never heard before.”

     “Oh, yeah? I wanna hear it.”

     “Ok, here goes, and remember, he’s up in front of a whole class of marines about to teach us all how to set a claymore or some shit.”

     “Yeah, yeah, come on get to the joke.”

     “OK.  So here’s the joke.  ‘What’s the difference between a bag of apples and a bad of dead babies?’” But before Jones could respond, I answered, “I don’t have a bag of apples,” and then I just stared at Jones without smiling, the same way the instructor had stared at us.  Jones sat there sort half amazed and half disgusted at the same time, and then his face changed a little and he looked really sad.

     “What’s wrong man?” I said.

     “No, its nothing.  I mean, it just reminded me of something.” Then he pulled down his sleeve and showed me a tattoo on his arm. “Those are the footprints of the baby my wife had a year ago.  It died just after it was born.  The joke just reminded me is all.”

     I didn’t know what to say, and we just sat there for a while, completely silent.  “I’m sorry, man, I didn’t know.  Marines are fucked up sometimes and we’re always making stupid jokes.  If I’d known, I wouldn’t have…”

     “Yeah, I know. It’s ok.  Let’s just talk about something else.”

     “For sure,” I said, but there was nothing left to talk about and we just sat there staring out across the open desert as the wind picked up a little more.

     After a period of silence that seemed to lighten the mood we noticed that the distant lights to the south were beginning to disappear, and a darkness was moving in our direction.  

     “What is that?” I asked Jones.

     “It looks like a dust storm is rolling in, and fast.”

     As the darkness drew closer we could see in the moonlight a faint brown wall of dirt which extended all the way from ground into the clouds.   It seemed to accelerate the closer it got, and before we could decide what to do, it was already too late.  There was no time to run for cover as the massive wall of dust accelerated at us with immense speed and struck us like an ocean wave crashing against our bodies.  

     I yelled over to Jones but my voice was silenced by the howling dust storm around me.  The only way we could communicate was with hand gestures and at times we had to reach out and touch the other person to get their attention.  Normally we could see for miles in all directions and the red glow of the nearby oil fire was an ever present reminder of where we were.  Now, even with the night vision goggles on, you could only see a few feet away. We were all alone.  Even our squad leader wouldn’t venture out in a storm like this because there was no way to guarantee he’d be able to find us.  Luckily, that also meant there was no way for the enemy to sneak up on our position.  After waiting fifteen to twenty minutes to see if the storm would die down we decided to climb down and seek shelter inside the shipping container. 

     In this storm lighting a cigarette was nearly impossible and even inside the shipping container the wind was still moving swiftly.  I used a trick that I’d learned from another marine who had been taught the trick from a crusty old grunt who had made it through the first Gulf War.  Every MRE packet has a set of matches in it, so even if you lose your lighter, there is always a light somewhere nearby.  A single match has no chance of lighting a cigarette in a dust storm, and in most cases lighters fail miserably as well.  Through a stroke of luck, though, this old corps marine had discovered or had learned from some marine before him, that if you strike two matches at the same time the chemical reaction creates an intense flame at the moment of lighting that can survive even the strongest of storms.  This moment lasts a quarter of a second or less, but is intense enough to light a cigarette if you know how to do it.  

     “Hey man, if I can light your cigarette for you, you think I can bum one?”

     “Sure. I already tried, but the matches keep going out.”

     “Here, let me show you.  Hand me a cigarette,”  I said, and Jones passed me one.

“The trick is you need to use two matches at once like this.” I flipped the back of the matchbook over and placed the two matches between the top flap and the back and squeezed.  I then positioned the matches right next to the cigarette in my mouth and pulled the matchbook away causing them to strike.   The flame lit up the inside of the shipping container and then went out, but it burned long and hot enough to light the cigarette. 

     “Here, hand me yours,” I said, and I lit his cigarette against mine. 

     “Thanks! that’s a pretty useful trick.”

     “About earlier,” I said, “ I’m sorry.  Marines are fucked up man, you know?”.  

     “Yeah, its OK.  You didn’t know.”

     “So do you think you’ll try again when you get home?”

     “That’s the plan.  We probably won’t leave the house for a week,” which made me laugh when he said it.

     “Well, here’s another fucked up story.” I said, “You don’t have a cat do you?”

     “No,” Jones said, shaking his head and smiling.

     “Did you hear the story Garcia told us the other night?”


     “Well, he said that when he was a kid they used to fuck with cats.  Some real sick shit, but the one that really got me was about how he took these two cats and tied their tails to a pole and then made them fight it out against each other.”

     “Is that even real?”

     “I don’t know man, but it’s fucked up.  I did my fair share of tormenting cats when I was a kid but that’s just psycho.  Some marines huh?”

     “Ain’t that the truth.”

     The storm that raged outside the shipping container was the strongest Iraq had seen in forty years.  On that night, deep in the desert, some alchemist must have discovered how to change himself into the wind, and he put on a show that would have impressed the sun.  

     As the wind began to die down, we ventured outside and crawled back on top of the shipping container.  I turned to Jones again and apologized one more time.  

“Hey man, I’m sorry again about the dead baby joke.  I didn’t know.”

 “No, it’s alright.  Don’t worry about it.  It actually was kinda funny.”