"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Tangled Up In Knots

Tangled Up In Knots

Hours before our mission, I sat on a foam mattress placed on a homemade bed, put together with nails, 4x4s 2x4s and plywood which all sat outside so long the musty smell of sand would never go away. In order to maintain a sense of normalcy in a place that lacked everything I remembered about the real world, I was Playing Call of Duty across from a priceless desk that sat a black 24 inch television, laptop and Xbox and felt like it might fall apart if someone breathed on it wrong. My roommate’s sweaty laundry was piling up and I was annoyed, the smell of old sweat turning my stomach as the window unit air conditioner blew cool musky air from the back and mixed with flowery stick-on air fresheners in the front where I played; they were losing a battle they weren’t designed to fight.

My routine at FOB Kalsu was to play video games until an hour and ten minutes before a mission, put on my bullet proof vest, check my ammunition, put on my O.D. green combat gloves, grab my rifle and combat helmet. Just before walking out of a box the size of a twenty-foot-long cargo container that had been fit with a flimsy white door, an A/C unit and painted the color of clouds after a thunderstorm in the midwest. It felt more like a prison cell than a Containerized Housing Unit (CHU). I closed my eyes, tilted my head back, breathed deeply through my nose and told myself, “Everything is going to go fine.” Each time it felt like something would go wrong.  Either I wouldn’t see the wire or someone would be waiting on top of a bridge as our convoy drove passed. This time I couldn’t shake the feeling. It didn’t  matter, I had work to do. So, I left.

I walked through the dark from my CHU -- my boots clunking against plywood decking until I reached the end of my row. I stepped down taking a left onto a silty dust path between the twelve-foot tall concrete barriers that were supposed to keep us safe. My truck was only a couple minutes away, walking between the walls which were faded into a golden sand color from the numerous dust storms in the years before tonight. They were put up in order to reduce fragmentation from mortars or rockets that the Iraqi combatants would inevitably launch at our base. It was an hour before I would be leaving on a mission to resupply Delta Company. I would be driving a tall flatbed truck and trailer which carried all the refrigerated food for soldiers in outposts. I had filled the fridges earlier with vegetables, frozen meats and deserts for the night’s convoy. I checked to make sure they were still running and conducted a walk around of the vehicle.  Tires--check. Lugs--check. Air hoses--check. Look under for leaks--check. Ice and water bottles in the cooler--check. I finished by starting the truck and sat down to smoke on a box of MRE’s, those pre-packaged mud brown bags of what the Army claims to be food. All I could do was prepare -- stay focused. I didn’t have the luxury of worrying any more. I was only driving a truck but we all had to play lookout. There, death and pain could come from anywhere. The lead gunner was chewing on a plastic straw while he set his machine gun into its mount and placed cotter pins to keep it there. After setting the last pin, he came over to me. I handed him a cigarette, he lit it and stood back. “You have an extra water?” 

“Yeah, check the cooler.”

As he ambled over to the truck the alarm began wailing. Three short tones which signified a rocket or mortar attack.

Fuck. Can’t even finish a fucking cigarette. I calmly walked toward my armor-plated truck, dragging my vest in my left hand. Our orders were to wait, stay in a safe place until higher headquarters determined the threat was clear. As the first explosion boomed. I threw my gear inside the cramped cab and climbed into the driver’s seat.  Heavy steel plating and bullet proof windows were better protection than concrete bunkers sitting between rows of CHUs lined with swamp-green sandbags along the tops and sides. The low knocking of the large diesel motor directly behind my head muddied the sound of the next explosion. From my higher vantage, I saw the short flash, the rise of white smoke.

Facing west, the trucks were lined up at the corner of a T-intersection in columns of five, three or four rows across. One road following the northern border wall, the other a rutted and dusty dirt road perpendicular to our trucks. My truck was  the lead one in the second column. Beyond the road, a shower building, painted the same storm-grey as the CHUs without protection from twelve-foot concrete walls. It sat one hundred feet behind the long rows of hundreds of chus that went on for hundreds of feet to the north of where we sat.

Through the windshield, a ball of fire rose in the inky darkness with a cloud of dust and smoke forced high above the concrete barriers.  A silhouette most of the way down the perfectly straight line of concrete barriers laid out in boxes that enclosed each group of chus.

I counted each box to figure out which company was going to have to clean up the mess, and possibly have all their shit burned.  We didn’t have much in our rooms. Lucky soldiers would have a bed, a wall-locker and a makeshift desk to hold the over-priced TVs that the little store on our base sold, along with Xboxes or PS3s.  I didn’t want to be the guy who had to dig through twisted metal frames and charred concrete rubble to find a pair of ratty boxers.  I felt bad for the ones who had been hit already.  It was near the end of the housing area, Alpha Company’s spot, I panicked.  

Was it his room? I have to get over there to find out. Must see him. I can’t just sit here. Is he okay? My eyes filled with hot tears as I sat, helpless like a midwestern farmer after seeing a tornado barreling towards the farm, waiting in the cellar to see the foundation of his upended homestead.

I tried to take deep breaths, but I was hyperventilating. My heart felt like it had been ripped out and put back in with rubber bands constricting the ventricles. I could only sit, wide eyed, staring across the base, while blood pounded in my ears.  Smoke was still billowing from the area but the explosions had stopped.  I sat in the cramped truck for more than an hour. Waiting. Alone. I felt drained of blood, pale as death. My eyes filled with sweat and tears.

Chris is my twin brother. When we were fourteen, we were separated because my mom couldn’t handle his outbursts. We were in foster care together before that and we were both abused. She couldn’t deal with the guilt and fell into a bout of depression that lasted long after she eventually kicked me out too. We were both lost and grasping for a chance we had been denied until we joined the army. Chris was afraid but I reassured him that it would be okay. That basic training wouldn’t be as bad as he expected. That everything would be taken care of and he could focus on a mission. Chris was excelling as a leader, growing and training his soldiers to be their best when we found ourselves together. Chris and I were in the same battalion and happy to be stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, then Iraq together but we were the only brothers in the unit.

The muffled echo of an all clear sounded from the PA system, I quickly stepped down from the truck, leaving the door hung open with my vest and helmet lying on the console and my rifle wedged between seat and door frame. The platoon was already late for the convoy by then.  I went to my platoon sergeant, 50 meters away.  He hadn’t spoken yet, but I told him, “I have to go. I have to make sure he is okay.”

“Don’t make me wait for you,” he yelled as I ran toward the smoke looming in the dark.  I didn’t reply.

I sprinted past my room. Nothing had changed and it felt too calm. As I pounded down the sandy plywood decks, it was darker, like clouds were blocking the moon’s light.  “I hope everyone is okay,” a soldier said in a worried tone from someone’s doorway as I ran past. 

As I reached the next section of CHUs, a medic sat on a makeshift pallet chair, staring at the ground. A cigarette dangled from his partially open mouth. His hands lay palm up, bare tattooed forearms resting on his knees. He looked hypnotized by the dried blood splotched along his forearms.  Instead of asking him the simple question that’d overtaken my mind, I kept going, refusing to believe that it could be Chris’s blood that stained his skin.  

As I neared the row that held my brother’s CHU, a thick tattooed arm shot out to bar my way. “You can’t go down there.” His gruff affectless voice sounded practiced, obscene. 

“Where’s Davis?” I pled, trying to look around his broad shoulders. A length of rope was knotting itself in my stomach.  Growing, getting heavier, the weight making it harder to think.

“Who?” He blinked

“Davis. The fister.  My brother.”

He frowned, “I don’t know who that is.”

I turned around. The knot was growing larger like a monkey fist. I didn’t know what else to do so I started walking again, toward the building Chris worked in, hoping someone, somewhere could tell me he was okay. I came out of the southern side of the chus and walked along the main road. Our battalion’s main building was only lit on the corners, by a small trailer equipped with a generator and an extendable pole. Harsh flood lights pointed toward the dusty intersection. I was soaked in sweat, my boots felt heavy, like they were filled with sticky mud. I pushed on to the long plywood building that stood along the same road but south of where our trucks were staged. I opened the plywood door into the building. As I turned left into the long hallway my brother’s office was in, the door banged shut behind me. I jumped slightly but kept searching. Halfway down the hall I looked into his team’s office, but it was empty.  The hallway was empty too but boots thumped and voices echoed from the command post area. I walked in there to look for someone, anyone I recognized. 

The entire staff were still wearing bullet proof vests, eyes narrowed at the computer screens or printed reports in front of them. A tall unfamiliar soldier stopped me. “What’re you doing here?”

“I need to find my brother,” I said, looking him in the eyes, hoping he’d recognize Chris’ face in mine.  

“Umm, you mean Davis? I haven’t seen for a little bit.”

“But was he here?”

“Sure, he came in after the all clear. But he left.” 

The knot twisted in my stomach finally started to unwind. “Was he hurt?”

“Huh, no, not him,”  the soldier replied glumly, shaking his head. As if he knew someone who had been. 

“Thanks,” I said, and turned away, rushing back to my convoy where they’d already started the brief.  My platoon sergeant glanced over with a faint upward nod, silently asking if everything was okay. I nodded back, pulled out the small notebook and pen from my left breast pocket, and prepared to take notes. The feeling that something bad had happened was gone. By then I had finally understood the nature of possibility. That the knot could soon return. That the cold, trembling fear of losing my brother at any moment would never go away.

Brett Davis is a 12 year Army Veteran from Portland, Oregon.

Cover photo by Israel Palacio on Unsplash

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