And in the Kingdom of God
they shall beat their swords into plowshares
and the lion shall lie down with the lamb.
But in the kingdom of man
munitions plow the earth violently
and the eagle strikes down the weak.
In the kingdom of me
a rifle functions as a crutch for my sore knee
and a blind man’s cane when walking at night.
In doing no harm
am I at least
anticipating the Kingdom?
DEPLOYMENT becomes a reality.
The large plastic case houses an M-16 assault rifle and I am checking it in with my duffle bags at the Nashville International Airport. The NCO who brought me down from Ft. Campbell wishes me luck and returns to the relative safety of our Army base on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. I tell the airline employee checking my bags what is in the case and he asks me to open it and show him that the weapon is empty. He is visibly curious about the weapon and asks questions about the type of bullet it uses and other technical aspects as to its functioning. This information is unknown to most medical officers, but I’d served a few years as an infantryman in my early twenties and that kind of information had been drilled into me. I politely answer his questions and grab the charging handle to lock the bolt to the rear so that he can see the chamber is empty. When he is satisfied I hit the release and the weapon jerks in my hand as the bolt slams home.
Nashville, New York, Amsterdam, Kuwait
There is a two hour layover in Amsterdam where I am free to roam the airport. I have a friend who lives in the Netherlands and has been a great source of support in my conflicted existence as a physician, soldier, and Orthodox Christian. He is unable to meet me at the airport for this brief window of time, but then I see someone at a departure counter talking to an airline employee that I can almost swear is him. It is like a mirage in the desert where my mind creates features that may or may not be there. He is an older gentleman with a ruddy complexion and graying hair that is thinning but with a full beard. I stare at him intently, willing it to be true. Is it him? Is he looking for me? I move in closer and he turns in my direction. I see he is similar to my friend, but not the same and I feel a return of the heaviness that affects me both in body and spirit.
I step off the flight at Kuwait’s main airport wearing civvies and sporting a light beard.
I’m being driven through the city at night, then the desert for a few hours. The NCO in charge of transporting me asks “What’s with the beard?” a bit of a smirk detectable in his voice. I explain I have been traversing international airports and did not want to stand out as a target. That shuts him up.
I arrive at the transition base and am dropped off at an empty troop hanger that can sleep hundreds. It is just an empty expanse with a single forlorn cot set up in a corner. It is cold, but that will change when the sun comes up.
Dreams are hard to quantify.
Morning finds me disoriented and still alone. I take a “combat shower” (get wet, shut off water, soap up, quick rinse, get out) and reluctantly shave my beard. I am not Special Forces, after all. It is stifling hot and I can barely breathe as I walk the base and check in with the appropriate personnel, lugging my M-16 like an albatross around my neck.
The time is off by several hours from what I am used to, but that’s OK. There is little separation between night and day here with ongoing activity around the clock. It is sometime around 2am now and I can’t sleep, so I put on my PT uniform and shoot hoops on an outside court that sits in the middle of a cluster of buildings filled with carrels for watching movies or playing video games. Entertainment in limbo is essential for survival, apparently, though I tend to enjoy passing the time by reading. There are a few people already here playing basketball and a game of 21 gets started.
Places like this in the Army are interminable. They are holding tanks to transition soldiers to their particular units where they may have to stay for hours, days, or even weeks while an unseen hand moves up and down the system to figure out when and where to get them. Time stands still as typical reference points simply cease to exist and the brain is fatigued as a result, the sleep-wake cycle like a wheel that has disengaged from your car and disappeared into the ditch.
Fifteen years prior, in Korea as a young soldier in the 2nd Infantry Division, it was a fenced in area known as the “Turtle Farm” used to corral and house the new soldiers arriving in country. It was next to the main drag on base and soldiers driving or walking by would see us gazing out through the fence longing for freedom and taunt us with “Turtles!” The term apparently originated in Vietnam where the new arrivals were labeled thus because as replacements they were perceived to be slow in coming.
Time passes without seeming to pass.
I eventually find myself on a fumy cargo plane headed to a base just outside of Tikrit, a former Iraqi airbase. One of the buildings there functions as our clinic, “212th Combat Stress Control.” I arrive late at night and am offered a bottle of water pulled off of a massive pallet of shrink wrapped cases of them.
Over the coming weeks and months I explore this desolate landscape. It is a flat expanse of dirt and sand that stretches in all directions. On the way to the chow hall I pass a stand of trees planted in rows that are dead or dying. Rusted pipes connected to defunct pumps can be seen poking up through the friable ground no longer functioning to water this manmade grove. A little farther down is an outdoor soccer stadium surrounded by a muddy track, the stands pocked with shrapnel scars and crumbling in the desert.
Once again I am thinking about my weapon.
Officers are issued a 9mm pistol that can be carried unobtrusively in a shoulder harness. When I arrived to my first duty station at Ft. Campbell my unit was already in Iraq. I was late to the game and so all the 9mm’s were accounted for. As a result, I was given an M-16 rifle. Once you are issued a weapon it must be kept in your possession at-all-times. No one thought to issue me bullets when I arrived in Iraq and I did not ask for any.
The thought of carrying a weapon designed to kill people is appalling to me on so many levels. A sea change of ideas and priorities separates me from my time as a young infantryman now that I am in my thirties and a physician. As far as I am concerned it is simply an elongated piece of metal to be used as such. What do I mean by that? Well, here are three examples:
Monopod, Cane, Crutch
1). The Colonel and I are walking the road to the chow hall for dinner. The sun is sinking below the distant desert floor and painting lovely swaths of yellow, red, orange, and purple in the sky behind the outdoor soccer stadium. I step off of the road and tell him I want to take some pictures of this silhouetted scene. He seems a little irritated, but acquiesces. The light is too low for a clear shot with my little cigarette-pack-sized Canon Powershot and I cannot stand still enough to keep it from coming out blurry. But then I have a bit of an epiphany. I shove the barrel of the rifle into the dirt to stabilize it and sit the camera on the flat butt that would normally fit into my shoulder. It is now functioning as a monopod and I am able to get some clear shots. The Colonel sighs and softly grumbles throughout, but this is a unique opportunity to capture something beautiful in this godforsaken place. I am sorry his stomach is keeping him from seeing it.
2.) There’s strict light discipline on our base and this particular evening I have to navigate through a graveled area in nearly complete darkness. The area is littered with Mad Max-style armored semi-trucks and other vehicles used to convoy materials through the desert. I end up banging my knee on a bumper and when the pain subsides after some vigorous rubbing I unsling my rifle from across my back. Holding it in front of me at a 45 degree angle I swing it back and forth like a blind man’s cane, hearing the occasional ping of metal which allows me to avoid running into anything more.
3.) And lastly there was the injury that nearly incapacitated my right knee. I’d injured it at Ft. Campbell while playing football and running down a long hill to catch a deep pass, hyperextending it when I tried to slow down. It continued to bug me into the deployment, but I was still able to walk and run for the most part. That was until one morning when I was shooting hoops on the full-sized basketball court that had been constructed inside a large building in the middle of nowhere, wooden floor and all. I am shifting directions when the knee explodes in pain. I am eventually able to get up and hobble to the sick call tent where a PA checks it out. He informs me it isn’t bad enough to justify flying me to the nearest MRI scanner which is in Dubai. Instead I am given appointments to work with a physical therapist. At this point the rifle becomes a crutch to assist me in getting up and down from a chair until my knee gets stronger.
It is half way through my deployment and I have been tasked to transfer to our unit headquarters on the outskirts of Mosul. The unit running the Combat Support Hospital there is returning to the States with its attached psychiatrist and the new one taking its place does not have a psychiatrist.
The Black Hawk helicopter sweeps us up over the perimeter fence.
My stomach flip flops into the territory of Iraq proper. The landscape continues on flat and a washed-out beige for quite some time, spotted only with the occasional village whose buildings and houses looked like something from Biblical times. Further reinforcing this feeling is the presence of a solitary robed shepherd moving across open land with what appear to be some sheep or goats following him. Mountains appear under us an hour or so into the flight. They are full of rounded peaks, ridges, and ravines with not a single flat spot to be seen for an emergency landing if needed.
The expanse of Mosul with its famous White Mosque appears soon after the mountains and I feel the helicopter begin to bank over the Tigris River.
Our unit commander is a stickler for details which helps her fit into the Army nicely. It is an essential skill in an organization with such a high turnover of personnel. At some point she realizes what others have overlooked. I do not have any magazines or bullets in my possession for the rifle that is my constant companion. She is pissed about this. She is pissed I wasn’t issued these in Tikrit. She is pissed I did not seek them out when they were not forthcoming. She tasks our armorer to issue me the prescribed amount of ammunition and I soon find myself in possession of a large plastic bag filled with at least ten pounds of loose bullets.
I carry them back to my hooch and clear out a space in the bottom of the cabinet where my uniforms hang and gear is stored. I put them in the back corner, cover them with my flack jacket, and shut the door. They will not find their way into a magazine which will not find its way into my weapon. Not a single one will find itself chambered with the safety off. It will not be fired and find purchase inside another human being. That is not my role here and I will not be forced into it. RIP, bullets.