By Mark Johnson
Nobody had said anything for a good two minutes. We were captivated by the bricks beneath our feet.
Then I heard glass clinking as Rex kicked one of the twenty or so empty Corona bottles. It rolled under the trailer Matt and I shared, stopping dead center beneath our Baghdad home. Murphy’s Law. Somebody, probably me, would have to crawl in there to get it out.
I half heard what Rex said.
With his hooked nose and nonexistent chin, Rex looked like Foghorn Leghorn without feathers. His fair complexion had taken a beating in the Iraqi sun. He was homely but acted like he was good-looking. I would catch him checking his reflection in windows and smiling.
Matt, my trailer mate, sat up in his metal chair. One of the legs made a high-pitched screech on the brick. I flinched. He was my boss. We lived together in one of the hundreds of two-bed trailers set up in Baghdad’s Green Zone. Rex and Allen were our next-door neighbors.
“A fucking what?” Matt said.
Rex was having trouble focusing. “Most certainly,” he said, nodding.
“I didn’t know you were married,” Matt said. “What did you call your wife?”
“I said she was almost my wife. She was a crockadillapig.”
“Actually, I can attest that fact,” Allen said. “I met the woman. Complete crockadillapig. That is to say nothing of her disposition. Foul. A match for her face.”
Rex and Allen were both British SAS and from London. Most days they left the wire to kill somebody. If they carried short-barreled HKs, it happened up close. Sniper rifles meant death came from a hundred meters or more.
The two seemed to have nothing in common, other than where they called home. Allen was good-looking and spoke with an upscale Roger Moore accent, the type Americans loved to listen to. Rex had a ghetto London accent; Cockney, I think it was. Sometimes I needed Allen to translate what Rex said into English.
But inside they were alike. Neither dwelled on the morality of what they did. Once they got the green light, they went ahead.
Matt started laughing. “I’m not disputing she was a crockadillapig, whatever the fuck that is.”
“You don’t know what a crockadillapig is?” Rex said, trying unsuccessfully to roll his eyes. It was something he did when the Yanks in the next trailer didn’t understand some aspect of British cultural heritage. They stayed wide, watery and crossed.
“I can figure it out,” Matt said. “So, you weren’t married to…her.”
“No, I fucked her,” Rex said.
“Oh. There we go. You getting this all down, Paul?” Matt said to me, holding up his beer.
Rex was having trouble forming words, so Allen spoke for him. “She told Rex she was pregnant a few days before we shipped out for Desert Storm. The condom broke, she claimed. She said she’d been tested and was carrying Rex’s child.”
I shuddered, thinking of what that union would produce. I stood to walk to the john between our two trailers. Behind me, I heard “false alarm” and “she made it up.”
On the floor by the shower was today’s Stars and Stripes. February 19, 2004. It was open to the last page.
There was a photograph of a girl in uniform. Beneath that, an article. Even in black and white, I could tell she had blonde hair. She had arrived in-country when I had. And she was with the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion. Her unit had deployed on the same plane with mine, the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion. She was Nicole Bowen, and she had been killed by an IED three days before.
I remembered her.
When I came back outside, the conversation had moved to women in the military. I had the Stars and Stripes on my lap.
“It’s a great idea,” Matt said. “In theory. A force multiplier. Paul and me, we’re civil affairs. Winning the hearts and minds, all that shit. Women work out in our branch. For the most part. But I’ve never seen a woman who could hang in a combat unit. You guys know better than me. Clerk jobs, personnel, finance. That works with women.” He paused. “They’re better than men in those jobs.” He nodded as if his concession showed his awakening.
Matt was tall and looked a bit like James Arness, the Sheriff on Gunsmoke. He was my friend, which was odd, because he was a lieutenant colonel. Officers, particularly field grades, did not socialize with sergeants. Once I asked why he didn’t hang with the other senior officers in our unit.
“I like NCOs,” he said. We were both in our forties, not unusual for the reservists in our branch.
Allen cracked a beer. “They don’t belong, not even in clerk jobs,” he said.
“You guys are in special ops,” Matt said. “I agree there’s no place for the ladies there. But in personnel units? In the rear? Why not? Let them keep stats. They do it better than the guys. Who pays your bills at home, Allen? You or your wife?”
“She does, but we live in England. It’s not Baghdad.”
Rex found his voice again. “You’d…trust a woman in a firefight…not to wag off when the shit hits the fan? It’ll fuck up the war effort. No one wants blonde hair and blue eyes in body bags.”
I remembered Nicole had amazing blue eyes.
“Hey, answer me this,” Allen said. “Where’s the front line?”
These three officers—two majors and one lieutenant colonel—had arrived in-country five months before. I was surprised how much bullshit banter passed between them.
I didn’t like this. The three were judging the capabilities of an entire gender and concluding women couldn’t hang. I had three daughters and considered myself a feminist.
“What about the Israeli military?” I asked. “There’s women in their army.”
“Come on, Paul,” Allen said. “You can’t believe that. I’ve heard that for years, but the Israelis never put women in combat. They use them as clerks, Matt’s plan in action. You really want a bird guarding your flank?”
“What pisses me off is the PC,” Matt said. “Nobody believes all the shit about women in combat. But they—politicians—keep peddling it. The women who push it, all those fuckin’ talking heads on TV? They don’t sign up.”
I stood quickly. “I can’t listen to this shit.”
I grabbed a Corona and walked off.
“What the fuck’s eating him?” Rex said as I was closing the door.
A half hour later, Mark came in with a beer. He would drink it lying in bed watching a movie on his laptop. He loaded a DVD.
“What was all that bullshit about?” he asked.
I sat up and turned on my light. “Take a look at that Stars and Stripes. On the fridge. The girl.” It was open to Nicole’s photo.
He held it under the light by his bed. “Nicole Bowen.” He studied my face. “You know her?”
“She sat next to me on the plane from Bragg,” I said.
Private First Class Nicole Bowen and I flew from Pope Air Force Base to Kuwait. Sixteen hours. The first thing I said to her was she could have the armrest between our seats, but she wouldn’t take it. “It’s yours, you’re bigger.” That was three weeks ago.
She was tiny, maybe five-foot-one, a hundred pounds. Her hands were small, and she wore a pink sapphire heart ring on her right hand. Someone will soon be telling her to take that off. Her combat uniform was baggy. At the layover in Prague, she introduced me to her friends in the 415th Civil Affairs Battalion. They were from Kalamazoo, Michigan. I bought snacks for Nicole and her two girlfriends. They offered to pay for their lunches, but I wouldn’t let them. “I don’t let women pay.” Neither Nicole nor I could sleep, so we talked nonstop for sixteen hours. She was the oldest child in her family. She had three little brothers. Two were “really annoying.” She had a boyfriend back home—he had given her that pink ring—but she didn’t think the relationship would survive the deployment. She liked cats better than dogs and had two cats, Alexis and Misty. She showed me their pictures, then photographs of her family. An hour before we landed, she said she was scared and didn’t want to go. Her father was a Vietnam vet, but he didn’t talk much about it. Her family came to her unit to see her leave on the bus. That was the first time she’d seen her dad cry.
Nicole was killed by an IED in Baqubah. She was the driver of her Humvee and the only one of four killed. A piece of shrapnel had ripped her face in half.
“Tough,” Matt said. “She’s only nineteen. She gets shipped home in a box two weeks after hitting ground. So sorry for her parents.”
My daughter Emily was her age. We were close. I had thought meeting Nicole was a good omen.
Matt shut off his light. I was glad. I was crying.
“Tough,” Matt said again. “She won’t be the last.” He had the cavalier attitude about dying I saw in everybody who had been in-country for a while.
I heard the fizz of his beer opening. Fifteen minutes later, he was snoring. The movie kept playing in the dark, illuminating his face.
Over the next two weeks, I wrote my daughters every day. And though I loathed my ex-wife, I wrote one to her. I thanked her for our three daughters and the good times we once had. My daughters wrote back. My ex did not.
Civil Affairs was not a combat branch. I was on a team rebuilding Baghdad’s water system. But insurgents didn’t care I was in Iraq to help rebuild. The uniform made me a target.
The dying was so arbitrary. A 7.62 round killed a soldier on a C130 heading home on mid-tour leave. Fired from a thousand feet below, it penetrated the skin of the plane, hitting the guy in the ass. Or the IEDs. They could be in a box or inside a dead animal or even strapped to a live one. A rocket, fired blindly from fifteen miles out, killed four soldiers a hundred feet from our trailer. “What are the fuckin’ odds of that?” Rex asked, not expecting an answer. “Poor bastards. Their numbers were up.”
That was the Iraq version of shit happens.
“You’re down, Paul,” Rex said as we walked to the chow hall for breakfast. “I’m worried about you. This is all over that girl that got killed? You know, you can’t worry about it. You know, when your—”
“I know,” I said. “When your time’s up, it’s up.”
“Hey,” he said. “I got something. Tonight. It’ll snap you out of this. You need to come with us.”
Rex was one of a team of special ops guys pulling security for a team of contractors inspecting the Haditha Dam, two hundred miles northwest and only a few miles from the Syrian border. “This is easy. Black Hawks over the desert. These contractors got more security than the President. Not because they need it. Everyone wants on these birds. It’s called fun, Paul.”
There were twenty-six of us in a big circle at the heliport as the pilot went over the manifest for the three Black Hawks: six pilots, eight SEALS and SAS, eleven contractors, and me. Most of the special ops volunteered for this.
Rex was right. This was as close to a boondoggle as you got over here. The mood on the flight out was relaxed, three helicopters chasing the sun, skimming a hundred feet over the desert.
It was dark when the helicopters landed on the dam. I could see the huge lake by the full moon. The water was calm, shimmering. Sounds carried like only at night.
The SEALS and SAS guys were armed to the teeth. Their beards and long hair were way outside military standards. They stood in a circle in dirty uniforms, talking about killing people and fucking and punching tickets. One SEAL said, “We dropped a few rounds of fuck you over that wall. That motherfucker ran out, so I dropped him.” They laughed. An SAS soldier told of putting a bullet through the head of “some jihadi motherfucker as he was saying ‘I do’ at his wedding.” He pivoted and took a piss, but kept talking. “Surprise, asshole,” he said with his back to the group. “I wish I could have seen the lovely bride’s face when I dropped his ass, but the bitch was covered with one of those fuckin’ burkas.”
They gave off a fuck everything and everyone vibe and slouched like big cats. Their weapons were immaculate. Rex was the only one of the group who would talk to me.
Nothing PC about these guys. They were uncouth, disgusting, dangerous. I was afraid of them.
These men pillaged Troy. They fought the war between Athens and Sparta and all the other dirty fights over the last three thousand years. They never cared why. They loved what they did.
But I felt something else. Pride. They were on our side. We are the biggest dogs on the block. These are the guys who do our dirty business. That will never change.
Women didn’t belong in this world.
At midnight we loaded the helicopters to return to Baghdad. The moon was almost directly overhead, illuminating the desert. The doors to the helicopters were open.
We were all wearing headphones, linked. Ten minutes into the ride, the lead Black Hawk caught sight of two tents on the horizon. Bedouins, nomadic tribesman, the only people who’d lived out here for fifteen hundred years.
“Watch this shit,” I heard the lead pilot say.
He dipped low, flying ten feet over the roofs of the tents. The rush of air took out both of them, lifting them in the air. I heard laughter from a dozen voices. Then we elevated to a hundred feet and flew in a straight line for Baghdad.
We were skimming over the desert at 140 miles per hour. The cool air was rushing in the open doors. It was clean out here. Much of the desert was flat, but at times we crossed canyons. The sand was crystalline and shined in the moonlight, like a serene ocean. This was ancient Mesopotamia. I didn’t know Iraq could be so beautiful.
The gunner at his .50-cal. was relaxed, bullshitting with one of the SEALs. Rex smiled as he spoke into the microphone. “Doesn’t get much better than this, does it, mate?”
I wished Nicole could see this.
Emily, along with her seven-year-old son, Jason, and I attended the dedication of the Nicole Bowen Memorial Bridge. It was February 16, 2015. Nicole had been dead eleven years.
The bridge was on Highway 8, which turned into Main Street in her hometown of Coleman, Wisconsin. We were two hours north of Green Bay. This is northern Wisconsin, middle America. There are woods, lakes and farms. The country is flat and wild. There are still wolves here.
Coleman is quaint, the type of place stressed-out, big-city people dream of moving to then die of boredom once they do. The population was 324, but it seemed less. There is a general store, the Bavarian Inn restaurant, a volunteer fire station, and one school that teaches first through twelfth grades. Nicole’s funeral service had been held in the one house of worship, St. Ann’s Catholic Church. Emily and I counted thirty-nine buildings, most of them homes. There is no traffic light. The bartender at the Bavarian Inn, red-faced and with the hard muscles of farmers, told me, “We’ve never needed one.”
Nicole’s bridge is a few miles outside of town. It is small with one lane in each direction. Like Coleman, it is nondescript.
The two signs announcing the bridge were covered with tarps. In the middle of the bridge, there was a stage draped with red, white, and blue cloth. In its center was a large photo of Nicole. Next to her was a rifle, barrel down before a pair of boots. A helmet was over the butt. The soldier’s cross. Back a few feet were a podium, seven chairs, and the American and Wisconsin flags. Three men and two women in business suits sat in five of those chairs. In the remaining two, next to each other, were a man and woman in their seventies.
Emily, Jason, and I sat in the front row as the announcer, a gray-haired, paunchy man wearing an American Legion cap said the ceremony would begin in ten minutes.
There were twelve rows of ten chairs for the audience. Other than the three of us, there were six people in attendance. “I hope she gets more than this,” I said.
But I didn’t think she would. Few people lived this far out. A few more minutes passed.
I heard the rumbling, soft at first like distant thunder. It got louder, then louder, and the motorcycles crossed the rise across the valley, lined up four abreast and taking up both lanes of Highway 8. The lead bike was a mile off. They kept coming. I quit counting after seventy sets of four. Another sixty or seventy rows came after that.
There were over six hundred bikers. As the first motorcycles were pulling up, the line stretched across the valley. The noise was deafening. They parked their bikes on the grass along the roadway near the bridge.
The Patriot Guard and the Legion Riders came first. Then small veterans motorcycle groups and a dozen other bands wearing colors I didn’t recognize. I saw the green colors of the Vagos, seven outlaw motorcyclists. The license plates came from as far away as Iowa, Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Michigan. There were twenty women, half on their own bikes, half riding with men. It was a sea of denim and black leather. It took fifteen minutes for the bikers to park and assemble in a huge semicircle.
This was a tough-looking group. Most of the men were bearded and looked like they’d been riding for days. They were all races. Eight African American men, members of the Detroit Patriots, rode from six hundred miles south.
They came to honor a soldier.