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A Soldier's Burden: Excerpt from 'My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir'

Image: A Soldier's Burden: Excerpt from 'My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir'
Cover Illustration. (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc./Barnes and Noble)

By    |   Tuesday, 28 Oct 2014 08:05 PM

Excerpted from MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY: A MEMOIR by Brian Turner

“Here’s the situation,” Sergeant First Class Fredrickson said, gesturing to the tiny plastic red and blue flags driven into the ground on thin metal poles. There must have been thirty or forty of them arrayed in the grass around us, in no discernible pattern. It was September 2003, and, like some of the others gathered around SFC Fredrickson on that clipped green field outside our classroom, I’d been scanning the scene to gauge what the flags might represent. On the big-screen television in the company dayroom, the war waited for us. Fighters who shot at American soldiers in Baghdad and Samarra and Tikrit were perfecting their trigger squeeze for us.

“We are surrounded by the dead. And by parts of the dead,” Fredrickson said, emphasizing the word parts. “Your unit has come upon the scene of a possible ambush. Everybody’s dead. This is not a mass casualty exercise. So. What’s the first thing we should do?”

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One of the students in the back said, “We better start scrounging up a shitload of body bags.”

Fredrickson smiled.

“No. Like everything else, the first thing you do, the *first thing: set up security. Create a perimeter, and then you can get to work.” He went on to explain that a certain number of soldiers would be needed to deal with the task at hand, especially if time was of the essence, as it always was in these situations. “You’ll want to photograph the scene from several angles, if you have a digital camera and if you have the time. That’s why the flags are here. You have to place one flag at the spot of each body, or body part, that you find. If you don’t have a camera, do a field sketch.” We practice drawing hasty field sketches in our pocket notebooks, creating small legends in the margins, crossed lines with tiny arrowheads: a rough guide to the cardinal directions.

He tells us to use a certain Department of Defense form to label and keep track of the dead sealed up in their body bags. “And remember, this is very important: never place two separated parts into the same bag.” He pauses. “I’ll give you an example.” He points to the nearest soldier and tells him to lie down and act like he’s dead.

Sgt. Gordon kneels on the damp grass and then lies down prostrate, with his right arm stretched out from his side, as if pointing to something beyond us. His mouth is open and at first he stares blankly at the few clouds above. Then, he closes his eyes and assumes the role of the dead.

A few of us joke about Gordon and his ability to sham, to loaf, no matter the circumstances as Fredrickson steps closer to the body. “Imagine that this arm,” he says, gesturing toward Gordon’s outstretched limb, “has been blown off, here at the armpit. And there’s no other body nearby, and you can plainly see that it’s the same uniform and everything. Still, you have to put his body in one bag and give it a number and then you have to put this arm in another bag with a different number.” He looks across our faces. “Don’t assume anything. They’ll figure it out back home. They’ll test for DNA and all that jazz.” A pause, and then he continues: “Let me tell you something—you don’t want to be the one who makes some poor family bury their soldier with somebody else’s body part. Roger that?” As he carries on explaining the work at hand, my eyes wander over the grassy field and the bright flags stationed in the earth around us. It’s a rare day of sun in Fort Lewis, Washington State, and the early morning light illuminates the translucent nature of the grass in its subtle gesture toward infinity. The dead assume their positions. Some of them lie on their sides, others rest on their backs, their faces lifted toward the sky. Each with a numbered flag beside him. Some turn their heads slowly toward me, their eyes crossed over into the landscape of clouds as they call out with hoarse voices, quietly, asking for a drink of water. A small sip, they say. Just a sip of water.

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The 1st Platoon of Blackhorse Company sits on the tile floor of the weight room cleaning weapons with CLP and bore snakes and dental tools after running lanes in the woods and conducting live-fire exercises. The men are dirty and exhausted. They laugh and shout out their orders as bags of burritos are delivered from the twenty-four-hour Taco Bell off post. I’m in the adjacent room with my squad leader, Staff Sergeant Bruzik, and Sergeant Zapata, my fellow team leader. We watch more of the war on television. Several Marines rush under fire to a bridge in Nasiriyah, Iraq.

They crawl on the concrete and asphalt of the roadway as the invisible trails of bullets zip past them from the far shore of the river. They return fire, shooting at what I’ve been trained to think of as known and suspected enemy targets. The Marines rush the bridge over and over as the newscast replays the scene.

The television is on mute. I don’t know what Bruzik and Zapata are thinking, but I’m looking at the far shore and trying to make out the muzzle flashes. Those on the other side of the river are honing the same fundamentals of marksman-ship we’ve studied at the rifle ranges of Fort Lewis. It isn’t something I mention to Bruzik and Zapata. I feel remote, somewhat cold, my mind working out the possible trajectories that might bring me home. I’m Sgt. Turner and I’m a team leader preparing to deploy to combat. But there’s something echoing through the branches and channels of my central nervous system.

On the other side of that river, Iraqis continue to crouch along walls and lie on rooftops in the prone. Even when I fall asleep tonight, they’ll continue to fire their weapons. The news anchor will narrate the action. On replay. Figures in the distance. Soldiers running toward the bridge. The sight picture placed over them as I dream and sleep in the state of Wash-ington. The Iraqi men, again and again, pulling the trigger. Once the plane comes to a stop in the dry waves of heat and the orange night air of Kuwait, we’re bused north to one of the many camps along the border with Iraq. The military supply system begins delivering a staggering amount of new equipment to my unit. We shuffle through three different sight systems for our carbines until settling on a sight we’re told Special Forces use, too. Among other things, I am given a coil of metal with an eyepiece at one end and a tiny optical instrument at the other—for snaking under a door and peering into a room. Journalists report of units lacking the proper gear, like body armor for flak vests and slat armor for Humvees or five-ton trucks; we are given so much new and expensive equipment that our unit has to stow much of it away in metal connexes, the large cargo boxes used by the military to ship much of its inventory. I am in the first Stryker brigade to deploy to combat and the path of a number of careers depends upon how lethal and how durable this unit will be during its time in country—maybe that’s why we’re getting special attention. Our Strykers weigh nine-teen tons and are fitted with wheels rather than the tracks of traditional armored personnel carriers; soon local Iraqis will refer to us as “the ghosts” because of the speed and silence of our approach. When we learn about this, our platoon sergeant, SFC Daigle, changes our platoon nickname from “The Bonecrushers” to “The Ghostriders.” My new call sign: Ghost1–3 Alpha.

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SSG Kaha, who will later go AWOL, packs away some of this equipment when I pass him on my way to the showers. He’s been fired from his job as squad leader due to perceived incompetence. I nod as he continues to sing “Rain-drops Keep Falling on My Head.” Long after dusk has shifted to stars, I lie back on my bunk and think about the divorce paperwork signed a few months earlier, the few addresses where I might mail a letter if I were to write one, and it occurs to me that if I were to die in the country north of our camp during the year ahead, my death wouldn’t irreparably alter the life of another. My address is now my Name, Rank, Unit, and the last four digits of my Social Security number are stenciled in black spray paint onto the duffel bag containing my worldly goods. It doesn’t seem possible that in the years to come, in the years after the war, I’ll get married and move across country and start my life over. Why should it seem plausible? No one stood at the unit staging area in Fort Lewis to wish me goodbye and, however I make it home, in a body bag, on a gurney, or stepping off onto the tarmac with my duffel in the belly of the plane, no one will be there to welcome me home. I step outside the tent to get a breath of air and quiet. A slight breeze lifts fine grains of sand from the landscape of the desert as if a white gossamer veil were slowly being drawn over the surface of the earth. There is a distinct sense of the past and the future being erased at the horizon’s edge. The circumference of the world retracts itself until it comes to a rest beneath the nightfall of stars within my field of vision.

Later tonight, I will read a book, a translation of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. I will think about the idea of home, what the country before me might have in store, and know that I have become, as Aurelius had quoted centuries before, one of the many “leaves that the wind drives earthward.”

Excerpted from MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY: A MEMOIR by Brian Turner. Copyright (C) 2014 by Brian Turner. First American Edition 2014. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Brian Turner recalls his training, Iraq tour in 2003 and his return home and how the experience changed him.
brian turner, my life as a foreign country, memoir
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2014-05-28
Tuesday, 28 Oct 2014 08:05 PM
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