In Wilson’s neck of the base, he hangs out with Mike, who says he misses green grass today, more so even than drinking; Fontane, who misses freedom; Moses, who misses his shower; Rampage, who misses the daughter he hasn’t met; and Wilson’s roommate Ramen, who is so called because his family sends him stockades of ramen noodles, in beef and chicken flavors, and it is all he eats every day. Shirtless and kneeling before his microwave, he assembles ramen burritos—he drains the noodles and rolls them up in a tortilla—when everyone else leaves for the dining facility.
Fontane says he joined the Army for self-improvement. He is 31 and almost has his bachelor’s degree, and this is because of the Army. It gives you focus and a schedule, and it pays for school. Rampage joined up to honor his late brother, who was also in the National Guard. Also the money. A lot of the soldiers join for college money. Ramen signed up because “a recruiter came along with a $20,000 check.”
None of these guys joined to kill the enemy. “That’s all the Marines,” says Moses. “Or the Rangers. That’s active duty. Nobody who joins the Reserves says, ‘I’m gonna go join the Guard one weekend a month and whup some ass.’ ”
And yet here they are in Iraq, if not trying to whup some ass then trying, at least, to keep from getting their asses whupped.
Folks back home have the perception that the soldiers in Iraq are twiddling their useless thumbs, says Wilson. They are no longer the subject of war articles and war books and war movies, and their slain and armless and legless are no longer on the front page of the New York Times. “Yeah, Afghanistan is worse,” he says. “But people think that’s where the real fighters are, and the guys over here … we’re just hangin’ out. It’s not like that. There are still people dying.” Another guy says, “The brigade we’re attached to lost four people in the last few months,” and Wilson tells him to hush up, they’re not supposed to give statistics. Wilson says, “People are still dying off. Afghanistan is definitely scarier in most ways, but Iraq is a different war. It’s worse because nothing changes, we’re doing the same thing we’ve been doing for the past two years, it’s just different soldiers doing the same things other soldiers were doing a few months ago.”
On this day in July, Wilson and Rampage and Fontane and Moses and Mike are in Wilson and Ramen’s chu on the base that is built around some old Iraqi bunkers that the U.S. Army overtook. They’re talking about Lindsay Lohan going to jail, because she has just been handed her sentence. They get their news from Yahoo and the like. The print magazines they are sent, says Wilson, consist of “every tool-bag muscle magazine and every kind of weapons magazine that exists.” The Army, it seems, does not know who these boys are, not the way that Facebook does, with their macros up in everybody’s engines so they can deliver heat-seeking ads.
About Lohan, Fontane says, “When I saw her on the news, crying in the courtroom … shit. If it was me back home, if I’d gotten consecutive DUIs, I would’ve been locked up long ago. I mean, the fact that she’s crying about 90 days … ” Fontane has been in Iraq for hundreds of days.
Iraq is scorched, says Wilson. That is the best word. It’s dusty. Your ankles get tough from kicking and slipping on rocks all day long. It’s so hot that your sweat evaporates in direct sunlight. So hot you don’t sweat.
This week, it’s so hot that they can’t stand to eat carbs. Ramen has laid off the ramen in favor of fruits and vegetables. It is too hot, in fact, for underwear. The boys just powder up. Wilson dreams of having a mesh window on the rear of his pants between his legs and his butt so that the skin down there can breathe.
Having a better job shows on the body. Some of the combat guys are shriveled and small, but the supply guys—who get the most time at the gym—are huge and beautiful. “Combat in Iraq,” says Wilson, “has come to mean riding around in a truck for four days or more at a time.” The soldiers pound energy drinks and Honey Buns to stay awake and alert.
Up north, there is a big base that they convoy to. They call it Mount Olympus. It has an enormous swimming pool, and roasting around it is a meat locker of Air Force and Navy troops. In their farmers’ tans, Wilson and the rest of the combat guys look like small pale potatoes from the Midwest.