“Make sure he comes back safe,” Hannah said, her voice a whimper. Cramer’s wife clutched at John’s sleeve. They stood with the rest of the battalion and their families next to the buses, getting ready to load up. From Camp Pendleton they’d make the drive to March Air Force Base, then fly to Afghanistan. “He’s going to be a father. You’re his fire team leader. You’re responsible.” Hannah glanced over at her husband, who had his back turned toward her as he rifled through his pack.
At first John couldn’t respond. He was a lance corporal and senior to PFC Cramer. But they were the same age and neither had deployed before. Most of John’s seniors had deployed to Iraq. They’d told him Afghanistan was a different kind of beast. John understood Afghanistan only as something deceptive and hungry, a mysterious, nightmare creature plotting to gobble him up. John was terrified and wasn’t sure he’d be able to bring himself home in one piece, let alone his fire team.
“I don’t think—” John began.
“Promise me,” Hannah said, gripping him harder. Her eyes were desperate. She looked as afraid as John felt.
“Okay,” he said, relenting. As soon as he spoke he felt he’d crossed a grave line, broken some sacred taboo. His voice caught briefly as he felt his throat clenched by the dread that filled him. “Okay. I promise.”
By some miracle, or by the roll of the die, he kept that oath.
The battalion went to Garmsir District, in the notorious Helmand Province, and John’s platoon made itself a home in a combat outpost they built for themselves out of earth and engineer stakes. The Marines fondly referred to it as Patrol Base Kardashian.
John, along with the rest of his squad, found themselves in a firefight on their first security patrol. They were five hundred meters beyond their entry control point and at the floor of the adjacent valley.
The poppies were in full bloom, pink and green and beautiful. Then the shots rang out like staccato fireworks. John’s first thoughts were of bottle rockets.
“Contact left! Contact left!” his squad leader screamed. John’s eyes widened and he threw himself to the ground, instinctively trying to bury his head in the dirt. He had to remind himself he had three men to look out for, felt a cringing, searing twitch at the thought of Cramer and his wife. John forced himself to look around for the rest of his team.
Billings and Gregg were in the prone position. Their weapons faced outboard but their eyes were looking inboard, wide and expectant, at John.
He hesitated a moment, nonplussed by their stares.
“Oh,” he said to himself in a grunt. Then he shouted, “Shoot back, goddammit!”
The men nodded, looked at each other as though embarrassed, then complied.
John froze when he finally saw Cramer propped up on one knee, his head the only obvious target exposed above the poppies, looking rapidly back and forth like an oblivious bird.
“I can’t see ’em, Butler!” Cramer said. He looked at John. Cramer’s pupils dilated as his body attempted to identify every potential source of danger. “I can’t see a muzzle flash!”
Before John could respond he heard a dull, sickening whack, and Cramer was knocked to the ground.
John swore, over and over, the curse word a mantra. His heart pounded as he low-crawled toward Cramer.
The camouflage cover of Cramer’s Kevlar helmet had been torn asunder and the helmet itself had a gaping chip knocked out of it. The helmet beneath the cover was olive-drab green and the cracked portion was as bone-white as a skull. Cramer moaned, lying on the ground.
John canted Cramer’s helmet, disbelieving. He stuck one hand underneath it, feeling along Cramer’s head, his fingers probing for a wound.
“Sweet Jesus,” John said, panting. “You’re not hit.”
“It hurts,” Cramer whispered. “I think I’m going to puke.”
“You’re concussed,” John said, pulling his shaking hands away from Cramer. “Don’t fall asleep. Just stay the fuck down.” John turned his attention back to Billings and Gregg and returned to the fight.
After the patrol John promptly walked to the latrine and threw up. That was the first day, he thought, wiping his mouth. Someone’s going to die out here. Cramer’s definitely going to die out here.
But somehow Cramer didn’t. Later that week, wrapped up in the protective embrace of a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, John and his squad rolled along a different road toward some unpronounceable village where his lieutenant wanted to speak with the town elder. Cramer stared outside the small porthole at the passing, barren countryside. John glanced from Cramer to the cab where the driver tapped on the wheel, all nonchalance.
The assistant driver in the passenger seat tapped on the driver’s shoulder, pointed out the windshield, shouted, “What’s that?”
They were answered by a boom. Everything went black. John felt the weight of the world crushing him. His ears rang, and he thought he was suffocating.
Oh God oh God am I blind am I deaf am I dead I can’t see why can’t I see why can’t I—
Mercifully, the darkness vanished. Other Marines from his squad, those from the next vehicles back, were pulling the metal rubble from John’s vehicle off of him. They grabbed him beneath his shoulders and dragged him from the blast crater. John coughed, tried to fight up to his feet, but the Marines forced him down as they assessed him.
Ignoring them as they looked over his body, John stared as first Billings, then Gregg were also pulled from the crumpled remains of the vehicle. They’d struck an IED, and their vic had deflected the force of the blast. Rather than attempt to hold together and consequently tear the passengers to pieces as it was ripped apart, the MRAP had simply fallen apart as designed. All of the occupants walked away shaken, bruised, and probably concussed but in one piece.
“Cramer?” John asked, his hearing coming back to him with a painful ringing. Anxiety welled up in him. There’s no way we all walk away from that, he thought.
He was immediately contradicted. Cramer was pulled from the wreckage as well. A twisted piece of the vehicle had torn at his combat shirt and cut his shoulder. They set him next to John as the corpsman rushed over to bandage Cramer’s wound.
Cramer looked from the blast, to his wound, and then to John. He looked like an excited boy. He’s enjoying this, John thought.
“You think this means I rate a Purple Heart?” Cramer asked.
John shoved Cramer over, then looked at the corpsman. “Make sure you amputate, Doc. At least then they’ll send this idiot home.”
That night the event played itself out over and over in John’s head. He and his team, strapped into a metal box, powerless, just cargo, and then boom. John shook his head as sleep evaded him. Just waiting for his number to come up. It’s just a matter of time. The odds will get us. The odds will get him.
Instead, Cramer continued to slip past death’s scythe through the whole deployment. Stacked up outside of a mud hut, clearing their tenth house, Cramer took his turn on point as Billings donkey-kicked the door in and leapt aside. Cramer stepped into the doorway, his rifle raised, but hesitated instead of rushing inside like he’d been trained. He took three shots to the chest and crumpled over. Gregg dragged Cramer away as John threw a grenade into the hut. It detonated, and John and Billings rushed in and cleared the hut, firing. They made sure the insurgent was dead, and then John checked Cramer. All three shots had smacked into his body armor. Cramer’s chest was black and blue with bruising, but he hadn’t even cracked a rib.
In their next firefight, Cramer got tripped up in a ditch as the squad buddy-rushed across a field under heavy fire from an insurgent’s machine gun nest. John and the squad were safe behind a berm while Cramer clambered out of the ditch then ran without taking cover once, across fifty yards of open terrain as the enemy team focused all their fire on him. Shots kicked up dirt all around him and a shard of rock cut across his cheek. He dove and slid into place next to John. “Sorry I fell behind,” Cramer panted with a disarming smile.
On their last patrol, Cramer brought up the tail end of the squad, staring at his boots, completely disregarding his surroundings, and failing to keep an eye on the squad’s rear. He heard the RPG’s swoosh and turned just as it flew harmlessly over his back, fired from the hillside he’d just passed and failed to observe.
That time, Cramer laughed. It made John’s blood freeze. Cramer held his hands out at his side, palms open, letting his rifle dangle from his body, hanging to him only by its strap, and grinned from ear to ear. “I’m untouchable!” he shouted, triumphant.
John wanted to sock him in the jaw, knock him to the ground, stand over him and scream, No one’s untouchable! Instead he engaged the insurgent who’d fired the RPG and maneuvered toward the target, eliminating this latest attempt on Cramer’s life and enabling his delusion of invincibility.
When the deployment ended, John and his platoon boarded the C-130 that would fly them out of Bagram Airfield to Manas, Kyrgyzstan. Seated, Cramer was talking and laughing with another Marine, careless as a child.
John stared at him, unblinking. God, is that really him? he thought.
John finally reached over and seized Cramer’s camouflage blouse, gripping the material so tightly that his knuckles turned white.
Cramer turned to him, his face fearful. “What’d I do?”
John shook his head, his face expressionless. “Nothing,” he said, slumping back in his seat and letting go of Cramer. “You didn’t do anything at all.”
During his post-deployment leave John went home, saw his family in Nebraska, and spent his nights in the bedroom he’d grown up in as a boy. It was largely unchanged and this gave John some sense of infantile comfort.
But as he stared up at the plastic glow-in-the-dark stars he’d put on his ceiling years ago, waiting for sleep to take him, he had to help it along with the handle of whiskey he kept under the bed. The slightest noise in the night brought him to full wakefulness, his heart hammering in his chest, and kept him awake until dawn. At restaurants with his family he had to take a table with a wall at his back where he could remain oriented to the door. John had conversations with aunts, uncles, and old friends without really hearing a word, nodding and grunting at the appropriate times while staring at the horizon. Gloom, hypervigilance, and insomnia ate at him slowly, while his family complained that he didn’t seem to be enjoying being home very much. He knew he should care about this observation but couldn’t find the wherewithal to take umbrage with it.
On his return to Camp Pendleton, John was immediately invited to Cramer’s home for a dinner party along with some of Cramer’s friends. Cramer was loud, happy, boisterous, clinging to his perfect, newborn son with one arm and gripping a bottle of Coors Light in the other. His ease made John equal parts nauseous and jealous.
It’s like he didn’t even deploy, John thought.
Privately, Hannah cornered John and thanked him profusely. “I don’t know what you did but you did it,” she said, smiling and teary-eyed. “He’s the same man that left. He’s in one piece, he’s still a good husband, and he’s a happy father.”
John shook his head and looked away at the floor. “No. No, it wasn’t like that,” he said, looking up at Cramer, remembering his stumbling ineptitude and almost total disregard for the unit’s training and standard operating procedures. Dumb, stupid luck, he thought, then said instead, “He did good. He’s a good Marine. He knew how to take care of himself.”
“He told me,” Hannah said, “that every time things got hot, you were right there next to him. He called you his rabbit’s foot. As long as you were next to him, he knew he’d never get hurt.” She beamed at him.
It made John sick.
The battalion was notified of another deployment. John got promoted to corporal and assigned as a squad leader. Cramer, Billings, and Gregg were still in the squad with Billings picking up John’s old spot as team leader. John’s responsibility had tripled. He’d watch over twelve lives instead of four. In addition to his old team he now had Morgan, York, Martinez, and Dukes in second fire team and Fraser, Trumbull, Yang, and Delano in third fire team. Some of the guys were hangers-on from the first pump, like John, but most of them were new joins fresh from the School of Infantry.
Every time he took his squad to the field to train, John felt a sense of vertigo. Leadership wasn’t natural to him and he’d been given a team in the first place by virtue of being at the unit a couple of months longer than the other three guys below him. The squad, in turn, was given to him after the more senior NCOs got orders to a new duty station or got out of the Corps when their contracts were up. He felt like an impostor. I barely scraped by with a team, he thought. How am I going to manage a whole squad? He ran the numbers in his head and came up with a loose approximation of an algorithm connecting time in service to an exponential increase in men under his charge. The thought made him dizzy so he tried to discard it.
He was forced to think about it again when the battalion was told where they’d be going: Sangin in Helmand Province. “The deadliest place on earth,” his lieutenant had said. They were briefed on all the intelligence they could handle from the unit they were relieving, one of the hardest-hit battalions in the war’s history: nineteen dead, sixty-three wounded. Nearly a whole company of casualties.
Worse yet, some of the Marines were going to get pulled from each platoon to form an advisor team. They’d be embedded directly with counterparts in the Afghan National Army. “More likely to get shot in the back by your own Afghan soldier than shot in the face by an insurgent,” Billings muttered to John. “Count me out for that shit detail.”
John went back to the barracks after they got the news and drank himself to sleep. He awoke to a splitting headache, a dry tongue, and the incessant buzzing of his cell phone. He glanced at it and saw the incoming call: PFC Martinez.
John answered, clearing his throat. “What the hell, Martinez! It’s late.”
“Is this Corporal Butler? John Butler?” A woman’s voice.
“Uh… yes, ma’am?” He said, his voice rising more in question than in answer.
“This is Julia Martinez. Miguel’s wife. PFC Martinez’s wife.”
“Oh. Okay.” He coughed, clearing his throat. “Is your husband alright?” he asked, suddenly angry but keeping his voice level. If she says he’s too sick to come into PT in the morning I’m going to kick in his door in and drag him here, he thought. I’m sick of married Marines hiding in their homes behind their wives.
But that wasn’t why he was mad and he knew it. He looked around at his bare, sparse barracks room and the walls he shared with so many other Marines. He felt a sudden and vicious need for a home of his own and a wife who would hold him in the dark of night. The strength of this sudden desire made him want to weep.
“Miguel doesn’t know I’m calling,” she said. John’s ears burned. “He’d be mad if he found out. I know it’s not my business to interfere with… well, with his work life.”
John listened without responding, unsure of what to say. Julia hesitated, then continued.
“Miguel was worried when he came home today,” she said, her voice shaking a bit.
Oh, hell, John thought. “Oh, right. He must have told you where we’re going.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s not really what had him concerned.” She cleared her throat and struggled to get her voice under control. “He was worried about getting put on some Afghan team?”
“The advising team,” John said.
“Right, that,” she said. “He, well…he didn’t want to get taken out of his platoon. Out of his squad.”
“Okay,” John said, sighing. “That’s not entirely up to me. Frankly I don’t want to lose any of my guys.” He wanted to kick himself as soon as the words came out of his mouth. Phrasing, he thought.
“He just… he really doesn’t want to get taken away from you.” Her voice was shaking again. “He knows you’re experienced, a good leader. And you brought all your guys back last time. He heard some stories. The way he put it, you taught your guys to dodge bullets.”
Fuck you, Cramer, he thought. “Believe me, I want every guy in my squad to stay with me.”
“I don’t know how it works, but I’m sure you have some say in things,” Julia said. “Can you just… it’d mean a lot to me if you kept Miguel.”
John put his head in his hands.
“I’d feel better if he was with you,” Julia prompted.
Goddammit, he thought.
“Okay,” he said.
“Because I know he’ll be safe with you,” she said, her voice cracking.
John didn’t correct her. His shoulders slumped as if bearing a cold weight.
And one after another, the rest of the wives and girlfriends found John out and extracted, in one form or another, an agreement from John to serve as ward, guardian, or good luck charm.
In line at the commissary, where Morgan’s new bride had picked up work as a cashier: “I’d just die if something happened to him,” she said, wiping away a tear and ruined mascara as she rang him up. “You’ll take care of him. Hannah said you’re good for it. You’re lucky.”
At a static weapons display during Jane Wayne Day, York’s pregnant girlfriend broke down hysterically after handling a squad automatic weapon. “He’s all I’ve got,” she said, bawling. York, mortified, tried to comfort her, while John stepped in close to block her from onlookers and afford her some semblance of privacy. “You’ll bring him home. Won’t you? You’ll bring him home?”
And one last time, full circle now, John thought, standing by the buses waiting to load up for another trip to March Air Force base. His guts bubbled with anxiety, plagued by the looming dread of the long, idle patrols punctuated by the mauling teeth of bullets and bombs under the gaunt, voracious gaze of that dark, storied valley, Sangin, “the deadliest place on earth.”
As Cramer sat on his pack, bouncing his one-year-old boy on his knee and making goofy faces as though he didn’t have a single worry, as though he wasn’t about to be thrust, again, into the gnashing teeth of Helmand province, Hannah managed to corner John once more.
“I don’t mean to ask again,” she said, biting her lip. “I know it’s selfish. I know the other girls asked the same.” She fought back a single, stifled sob. “But I don’t care what they asked for. We’re just so happy now. We’ve got plans.” Her pleading eyes locked with John’s. “He’s getting out of the Corps, after this. We’re going home. He’s going to use the GI Bill. He’s going to build a real life for us.”
The scene played itself out, in agonizing repetition, and John could only wait it out and taste the ash in his mouth.
“Promise me,” she whispered.
He felt as though a rope was cinched around his neck.
“Okay,” he said. “I promise.”
The battalion boarded the buses. As they drove away, John looked out the back window, at the women standing together, the wives and girlfriends, the better halves of his Marines. Their bodies wavered in the harsh, chill wind like dandelions. As they dwindled, John thought they looked first like little girls, and then like dolls, worry dolls he could hide under his pillow to take all his troubles away in the night. And then they looked like nothing at all.