At Mount Olympus, the girls “aren’t scary, which is the equivalent to being pretty over here,” says Wilson. Because he is in an infantry unit, there are zero women in his battalion. When they do see girls, Wilson says, they’re so rare, like crested ibises coasting around the desert, that in the red-brown light of Iraq, they all look like paradise. And they act like it. The guys want to say, “Baby, you may be a ten here, but when we get home you’ll go back to being a two.”
When he was recruited, his mother made him choose the communications department. She knew he was wild, and she wanted him in an office, out of harm’s way as much as possible. Little could she know that modern warfare doesn’t always spare the desk jockeys.
In Iraq, the gossip is “Did you hear so-and-so lost his arm in the truck accident?”
About once a week, their trucks will get tagged, which is another way of saying hit, by IEDs—improvised explosive devices, such as roadside bombs. Thankfully, Wilson says, their armor is so damn good.
An e-mail from Wilson a few days ago: “We got attacked today and these mothers mortared the gym! My precious gym!” Six guys are injured, but nobody died. A mortar attack sounds like a light whistle that gets ever louder as it gets deathly closer.
Here on a top bunk, there is a boy in glasses and a dog collar. He is half-naked, maybe fully naked, and his torso is large and white beside the blue sheets.
“How you got pimples on your chest, man?” says a black guy from the floor.
The collared kid says they’re scars.
“Yeah, scars of pimples.”
The other guys in the room—reading, standing, getting ready for bed—laugh. The collared kid is laughing most of all. He knows he deserves to be teased. Aside from a stuffed Pikachu with whom it is alleged that he has a special relationship, he is a 24-year-old virgin.
Someone else says, “Shit, are you naked or something?”
They are laughing and screwing around, but then there is a red fire burning across a dark war sky and you remember, this is not a college dorm.
“I’m not naked!” says the dog-collared kid and he begins to lift off the blue sheets to prove it and the room goes wild. Heads bury into pillows, they laugh and tell him to stop, pull the sheets back up, man!
Nobody in Wilson’s “If the Army Goes Gay” video is actually gay, even though that’s the part that a lot of people got stuck on. He says he’d be shocked (shocked, not upset, he is careful to say) if he found out there were any gay guys in his unit. “They’re all from Virginia, where we have a lot of straight arrows.”
Wilson says there are homophobes on the base, “backcountry rednecks” whom Wilson makes fun of, but mostly makes fun with, because that is how you get across the sand. There were guys in the company who thought Wilson was disrespecting the unit or speaking out in favor of the repeal. “I was also getting gay jokes for a while, but I have kind of a reputation at home—I’ve had like 50 girlfriends—so let people make jokes.”
The thing they seem most concerned about is that the repeal will usher in a slew of new rules about fraternization. “If everyone knows you’re gay and you touch someone, even as a joke, you’ll be going down for it, the same way that if a guy held a girl’s hand on the—Stop it, man! My roommate’s touching me right now.”
These kids don’t have politics—or not the kind you’d recognize back home. They made the video, says Wilson, because they want to be part of the conversation. They watch Lady Gaga videos from their warm blue laptops thousands of miles away, they download current music and post items on Facebook about caches of puppies they find inside of old bunkers. More than anything it says about gays in the military, the message is, Hey, we’re still here.
“The most special thing about the video I made,” says Wilson, “is that for a few days, we kind of became members of society. It was like we actually mattered.”
Everyone gets depressed at some point in Iraq, he says. The word depressed comes out of his mouth pretty often, actually. These boys are different from soldiers that came before, savvier in a sense, mostly because they are more in tune with what they’re missing. Iraq is like Narnia, minutes are hours and you have plenty of time to watch the world move past you. Time happens faster back home. People become celebrities overnight. Girlfriends move on in an afternoon. You can see it all happening in real time on the computer screen.