Penned Up

James O'Brien

Penned up with the USMC when I was seventeen.

Dad said they’d take care of me. He wasn’t going to.

I drilled with the JROTC on Fridays. Had to wear this uniform with a strap across the chest. Buzzed my head. Looked like the Hitler Youth but the girls liked it. I had one or two. Dad looked at me different. Didn’t say much about it. I took the ASVAB and placed like he said I would. Infantry and light armor. The typical. I could’ve tried. I didn’t. I was okay with that.

They wouldn’t let me get trained until I hit eighteen. Dad said he wished my mom had spat me out sooner.

Day after I turned, they flew me out of the mountains and onto some other ones. They gave me clothes and food and a bunk. Wasn’t bad. I ran a lot. I lost weight. Got a cavity taken care of. Haircuts when I needed them. All free. Couldn’t complain.

I made PFC in four months, two shorter than most. Got a pay raise, some responsibilities. Got a red and gold chevron on my arm. Thought about calling Dad. Didn’t. No reason.

Then I shipped.

They put me up in a spot outside Mosul. You could taste the dust from all the wreck in your teeth. Reminded me of chalk. Had to blink it out of my eyes. Snort it out of my nose. When we’d go out on recon in the Humvee we’d get it deep down in our skin, so deep we couldn’t scratch it out with Brillo pads.

I sat point in recon missions. I could see everything through the Humvee’s windshield. They gave us an up-armored rig, plates on the side. They gave us ceramic discs to put in our flak jackets. Didn’t know how a pot was gonna do anything against a thirty-thirty. And those things were heavy. I never used them.

In the safe zones we tossed candy and little comics to the kids. Outside, we hunkered in tight, let the forty cal do all the public relations for us. I got used to smelling the guys next to me. Their sour crotch stink. The sweat. The tobacco dip and the bubblegum and the gun oil and body wash that smelled more like alcohol. They’d sing AC/DC sometimes. I never did. Always hated that band.

One day, things were getting hot down near some market and they sent us out. Trip felt longer. Maybe it was that the guys weren’t singing this time. We stopped beside a burning car to let a bunch of goats get out of the way. It took a while. Everybody was sweating, not saying anything, just ticking in all their gear. The heat seemed to boil everything. My head hurt. I looked down and shut my eyes, the driver honking.

At first, I didn’t hear it, didn’t see it. I smelled it. Smelled like the worst barbecue you’d ever been to. I never figured that people stunk that bad, until I smelled them burning.

But maybe I did see it, the rocket.

By the sound, it could’ve been any piece of our Humvee, a belt a little loose or a gear offset. I might’ve turned to watch it grow larger and larger in the side window. I might have seen the door erupt. I might have seen someone’s chest come apart, bone by bone. I might have thought about a girl I kissed once. I might’ve.

We ended up twisted and on fire, against some wall. It looked liked everyone was dancing. My driver’s mouth was open, a bunch of shrapnel where his teeth should have been, and it got hotter and hotter and hotter.

When I woke up there were parts of me missing, tubes where the parts should have been. The nurse told me I was safe, that when I’d go home they’d get me prosthetics. Put me up in a good VA hospital. She brought me food when I needed it. Hit me with morphine when I needed that. I felt soft and floating. One day she asked me if there was anyone they could call for me. I told her no.

Pretty soon they had me flying back, to some place outside D.C., the best hospital in the world. Before we set down, I could see it all taking shape, so green and blue. I tried to lean up to the small window to see all of it. But I couldn't. I didn’t have the good prosthetics yet. One of the Air Force boys took me by my shoulder and helped me lean out and see it.

I’d always heard that the military takes good care of you, at least.


I could see it all.