Talking Is Not Authorized in This Facility – Joseph S. Pete
Sgt. Tulley squinted at his watch, equal parts curio and cipher. He studied the obstinate object
until it finally relinquished meaning. It meant 0600, and 0600 meant 0600 should have happened
at least five mikes ago. He duly made the morning rounds, rousing his squad, which was tasked to
detainee guard detail. Faced with another accursed day in Iraq, he stone-faced their usual
reassurances of wakefulness, just another five minutes of self-obliterating bliss in sleep’s embrace,
prodding each man to get out of their cot, out of their trailer, and into formation.
After making his rounds, he zombied over to the latrine trailer with its burnished-metal mirrors
and putrid clogged toilets while clutching a hygiene kit nasty with mildew and sticky with spurted
toothpaste–shit, shower, shave, as they said.
Every bleary automaton morning, he performed the sacrament of shit, shower, shave. Every
bleary automaton morning, shivering exposed and fetal out of a needling ice shower glooped from
cheap piping, he drew those three Gillette blades against an otherwise babyish chin strafed crimson
with irritation. He dreaded the ritual, wanted to avert his eyes from his gaunt reflection, those
hollowed pumpkin eyes warped across that scratched funhouse metal. He could not focus on his
retinas. Stooped from dearth and swimming laps in his fitted issued uniform, he lacked the will. Too
many merely edible MRE rations picked through, too many red-eyed hours pushed through, too many
lengthy patrols walked, too much gear hauled, too much appetite-quelling heat, too much disgust and
frustration and fear, too many days accrued in country with interest compounded—he lacked the will.
At half past five, Sgt. Tulley checked on the progress of the infantrymen under his charge,
stalking down the row, poking his head into their cramped quarters, one after the other. His mere
presence carrying the weight of a barked order, he checked off the usual litany of grumbled
complaints. Duty could care less about sniffles and nosebleeds, he told his men, he told himself,
every hateful day. Suck it up and drive on. As always, everyone ran late, in various states of
dishabille, a distant cry from the lustfully hooah and impeccably uniformed soldiers splashed
across the television screen during breaks during sporting events. With increasing frequency,
Sgt. Tulley’s thoughts doubled back to the bill of goods he had been sold when he first signed on
four years ago, that slick spiel of heady purposefulness and statue-esque rectitude. With the
enlistment contract supine on the desk before him, awaiting his hunched perusal, his signature
foregone at that point, he had pictured himself as John squinting Wayne, strong and certain
before the sweeping anarchy of grand drama. He had wanted to sign away that quiet, self-
effacing boy lost in a cavernous church, that pew-chafed pawn of doubt, that inconsequentiality
squirming in itchy polyester pants. With guaranteed admission to the VFW, he had known little
drama, a few scattered firefights yielding short-lived panic and little indent. A few jerkily
exchanged potshots into his deployment, now so intractably mired in 12-hour guard shifts and
perfunctory nightly patrols in a quiet sector, he wasn’t a jaw-jutted man forged in a crucible of
crackling flame and assured as it all unspooled. What the hell was a crucible anyway? He
punched the thankless clock, same as any flannel-shirted schlub bound for the corner bar,
dragging day after thankless day. He watched captive and hunched men for soul-deadening
stretches of time and walked his pointless curfew-cusped patrol, trying to look tough to shiftless
and hope-starved kids with wisps of incipient beards congregating at street corners, all hirsute
devoutness and aimlessness. He was just a cipher lucky to log four hours of uninterrupted sleep
a night. No bugles sounded nor drums beat in the increasingly claustrophobic confines of his
skull. There was no longer any clarion call or martial pulse.
At quarter till six, he gathered with his squad outside the Company CP waiting for the
battalion’s Sergeant of the Guard, whatever desk-tethered pogue dirtbag that was today, to ferry
them to the unit’s detention facility in a humvee. Ferried in the stripped-down seatless truck
bed, transported like goddamned cattle. He could already feel the jarring tumble of those
unpaved pocked roads, his jaw involuntarily clenching in anticipation. Milling outside the CP,
his men flaunted their unlaced boots, their unbuttoned tops, their insouciantly suckled cigarettes
embering in a personal affront. They flaunted their gortex snivel gear, a luxury extraneous on
such a brisk morning—it would be an oven for most of the day at any rate. There amidst a
ravaged third-world country, in a war, a war, they cared nothing for the mission, for the
mystique, for the whole goddamned enterprise. It was just a joke to them, an unintended joke, a
pot-leaden tongue stumbling over pedestrian syllables. There in that forsaken sun-scarred place,
they had long since forsaken their faith.
Every dragging automaton day, Sgt. Tulley’s men filed in and out of a co-opted Iraqi Army
bunker on the outskirts of the fenced-off forward operating base, baby-sitting unwashed and
despair-sunken Iraqis of indeterminate and varying guilt rotting cot-ridden behind looped spools
of concertina wire. It was a makeshift facility, a makeshift war. Every dragging undifferentiated
day, they stumped ensconced in patio furniture across that jerry-rigged divide of droopingly
stacked concertina wire, cradling shotguns stuffed with foam crowd-control rounds, sleek pistol-
gripped action-flick icons just resting on their laps.
Saddled with a cherry lieutenant, freshly scrubbed and freshly from the ROTC program on the
University of Alabama-Birmingham campus, their last lieutenant convalescing in Germany
minus a leg, the men faced eternity and a day of detainee guard, a joyless slough regulated
beyond comprehension in the wake of the press scandal. Hajji had it in for the men, the
prevailing reasoning went, and ought to be treated accordingly. Exhibit A bled into a colostomy
bag and seized with phantom pangs at Landstuhl, his once-proud physique a disfigured canvass
of shrapnel’s splatter. And yet they were forced to pamper these detainees like sultans. With
three meals, a cot apiece, and a beachfront horizon of idle hours, hajji lived lavishly, enviably.
Mechanically, Sgt. Tulley relinquished his carbine to a sequestered-off surplus armory
container at the detention facility at two mikes to six, 158 seconds total to spare. Mechanically,
he queried the outgoing sergeant. Mechanically, he performed a head count of the detainees and
made the other requisite checks. Mechanically, he settled into his patio lawn chair, a chafing
assembly-line chunk of frozen petroleum, a 12-hour plastic cell. Mechanically, he started
making scrawled entries in his duty log. Four years and a few millions of dollars of training and
he was a machine, a finely honed chair-sitting machine.
“Hello, hello infantry,” Pvt. Cullers recited, booming out rote marching cadence. “Queen of
battle, follow me.”
“Do some push-ups, Cullers,” he said.
“Hey, what the hell?”
No one was smoked in theater, subjected to corrective physical discipline. A private was
inherently a dirtbag; it was a private’s Edenic nature. A private deserved to drip sweat, to burn
with shame, to bake in the gas-lit judgment of his peers. A private deserved to shake chastised
with muscle fatigue. But an infantry private who had exchanged small-arms fire and seen blood
seep on those blighted dusty streets warranted a respect beyond rank. Embattled-bastion
camaraderie prevailed. And, the mind naturally cargoing the freight of more than a few
Vietnam films, no one wanted to risk provoking a subordinate with ready access around the
clock to a semi-automatic assault carbine. Too much risk was already assumed in the natural
course of things. Mistakes made in the thick of it were still buried under mounds of paperwork.
“Last I checked, I’m still a NCO, Cullers,” Sgt. Tulley said. “Now do some damn pushups.”
Pvt. Cullers dutifully sunk his chest to the floor and huffed his trembling arms erect, pumping,
pumping, jackhammer pumping, a finely calibrated calisthenics machine. After a minute or so,
Sgt. Tulley called Pvt. Cullers to attention after ordering him to recover, only to then inform him
that one “only recovers in a hospital.” Sgt. Tulley subsequently ignored him, ignored his
Meanwhile, his men busied themselves slicing open MRE packets with serrated Rambo blades
purchased in most cases just prior to deployment, bone-long knives one could confidently carry
against a tide of marauding Vikings. Prepping for distribution, they stripped the rations of
everything but the 90 percent-sodium entrees and crackers. No spoons, let them lap it up like
dog food. A plastic spoon could be fashioned into a shank—assuming one had a knife with
which to whittle it, no army standard ever demanding that a rationale be rational. A snake-eyes
pork dish meant just crackers, such was their interpretation of Halal. The plan to feast upon the
withheld bounty fell apart when the M&Ms were discovered to be granite pellets amid so
much rainbowed powder, the tubed jalapeno cheese to be rancid and chunky, the apple sauce
off-color and malodorous. What transpired for the men was yet another slogged mouthful of
salty cracker mush, the half-life of those tasteless floor tiles exceeding most known isotopes of
After a protracted spell of irradiated adolescent funk, after then advancing a few tentative
remarks into the shit-else-to-do salon, Pvt. Cullers talked aggressively, talked of fights, of
Iditarod-duration boozing, of sexual conquests past and projected. He recounted the same stories
he always did, floated the same boasts. He couldn’t conceive of how anyone ever could have
been so stupid as to provoke him, so naïve as to throw down with him. Woe unto a civilization
rife with such ignorance. Ignominy unto the failed public school system. He couldn’t fathom it
himself, the dwarf-star gravitational pull he exerted on women. Only a few months remained until Pvt.
Cullers’s glorious homecoming—the breweries had better start ramping up production now, waste not
another precious second. The distilleries would lag behind the spike in consumer demand—that was a
given. The distilling process just took too long. Pvt. Cullers talked and talked and talked; his lungs
huffed gales, his chest a great masted sail gravid and taut with wind. Physician’s diagnosis: total
A week ago, a month ago maybe, Sgt. Tulley would have smirked and baited him with mock
skepticism. All the 5.56 mm in the world didn’t kill the hours. Furtively snatched glimpses at wrinkled
hot-rod magazines didn’t kill the hours either. In his time in, he had heard of a hundred football
scholarships shelved because of a patriotism that intense, that heartfelt, as though you could sleep with
a flag, cradle it to the break of dawn. In the service, he had heard of a hundred football
scholarships snapped away by the talons of freakish fate—a blown knee, a DUI, an aggravated
assault charge, a family illness requiring selfless caretaking. With a paternal indulgence, he had
listened to many, many words. He was too weary to hear them now.
He was too weary to make a convincing show of merely sitting there. His head lolled.
Bobbing in crashing waves of exhaustion, he positioned a tapped water bottle and fished in his
cargo pocket for a Folgers instant coffee packet rat-fucked, as they said, from an MRE. The catch
before him had to be thrown back. He emptied the packet’s contents into his cheek, lodged it like a dip.
Given his overextended tolerance, caffeine had no amyl nitrate-tablet effect, but he would gag
on the geysered saliva, grapple with something other than sleep’s insistent undertow. The
wad tasted stale and sickeningly moist, perhaps fermenting, having numbered years in some
storage container somewhere, having then sat out in a shipping connex in the sweltering desert
heat for an indeterminate length. As he spat into the bottle, he thought of America, thought of
endless tiered shelves of brand-name comforts, shiny and colorful and clean. He thought of the
inviting stretch of a department store aisle; he thought of home.
Reminiscence pained him—he could only prod that loose tooth so long. He could only tune
out the grating prattle of his soldiers, the sophomoric vomit of words so insufferably acrid, too
pungent to choke down. A dip soon replaced the sodden grounds, some sensation being
necessary to keep him pricked alert. For most of the morning, Sgt. Tulley just sat stewing,
tonguing now and then at the lump of tobacco desiccated from use.
For most of the morning, Sgt. Tulley glared at a detainee, his unkempt beard, his scraggly hair, a matted
slick of grease, his sweat-sheened cellulite-riddled adipose tissue pushing against his filthy dishdasha,
splotched discoloration raging against the white of the cheap fabric. He stared piercingly, without
shame. He blamed him and him alone for his presence in this godforsaken wasteland. He wanted
justice, wanted to see him punished. He had no idea what this guy did, why he was even detained, but
believed justice was in order, long overdue. He clenched his fist.
“I’m going to lunch,” he declared.
Ordinarily, one of Sgt. Tulley’s privates would have taken the facility’s tasked humvee to
the FOB’s chow hall to bring back styrofoamed slop. But he could not endure another moment in
that chair, another moment of cindered judgment smoldering in the detainees’ eyes. Many
merely knew something, or Intel wanted them to know something. The army was a resident alien
here, here but not immersed—Intel was needed to get a solid grasp of this thing. Some of
these men were fast-tracked to Abu Ghraib, guiltier than a defendant filmed and DNA-fingered
looking down the barrel of a capital case. But many of these men would shortly be cut
loose, dumped off just outside the FOB gate, handed a $20 bill in American currency and a stock
apology without even the trouble of translation. Many of these disheveled men did not know
multiplication, but they knew glowering—spiteful, uncomprehending glowering. Sgt. Tulley
needed great gasps of fresh air, some purposeful chore, some diversion. He clicked the ignition
knob to a low diesel rumble and mashed the gas pedal. He freed dust from the earthen unimproved
FOB roads, freed his head from that prison.
As he neared the circus tent-sized chow hall at the center of the FOB, he let up off the gas,
released from his kinetic reverie of motion, motion, motion. He would be caught speeding,
spotted—he couldn’t afford higher coming down on him. He couldn’t afford another stray penny
dark and lusterless with years.
Nothing impressed Sgt. Tulley as remarkable as he dismounted the humvee, as he shoved
the armored door to its clicked resting place. The sun bore down. The heat shimmered in
translucent waves rising undulant from the earth. Nothing really impressed upon him at all as he
trudged toward the chow hall. He dutifully cleared his weapon in a canted, earth-sunken burn
barrel, sliding back the charging handle.
A gaggle of Iraqi National Guardsmen trainees bunched about outside the entrance volubly
chatting amid a cloud of stale cigarette smoke. They slung around throaty Arabic with great
animation, wholly absorbed in some arcane matter. Sgt. Tulley thought they looked adorable in
their outsized flak vests, in their billowy coarse-fibered uniforms, with their AKs slung loose
and inexpertly. He was tempted to pinch a stubbled gaunt cheek or two as he sidled past them.
He could almost feel the sandpaper grit against his fingertips. At such a close brush, it
occurred to him that they still beaded sweat after millennia—millennia!—to adjust to the climate.
“Excuse me, gentlemen.”
Inside the tent, Sgt. Tulley passed clustered soldiers hunched rapt before the facility’s only
television set, channeling satellite feed from the Armed Forces Network. Some generic movie played,
something fetishizing gunplay. Something with sleek boxy semiautomatic handguns discharging
pantomined death throes with hummingbird rapidity. Something with a plain-clothes cop too
tortured to shave and interchangeable Eurotrash thugs. The mostly junior enlisted soldiers
whooped at every bad guy squibbed explosively by a piddling caliber, hooted as though half
a dozen beers into a cabaret visit. Sgt. Tulley’s glance did not linger.
He found himself idling in a long, snaking line with eighteen Styrofoam plates paired off in a
cardboard box that had crated frozen peas. Settling his vacant supermarket gaze on the valleyed
shoulder blades of the soldier ahead of him, he lurched along. Progress came in shuffled steps,
but the line proved more finite than it seemed.
“Chicken, noodles and peas—nine of ‘em.”
“Yes sir,” said a hair-netted Sri Lankan, indentured to Kellog, Brown & Root, all too unctuous
to be ladling slop.
Sgt. Tulley thanked the diminutive sallow man to the same Sunday edition ad insert smile. He
made his way to the short order line, intent upon a Reuben sandwich for himself, intent upon the
potent primal consolation of grease. The grill maestro was spatulaing American cheese on the
glistening corned beef, the sickly processed yellow hugging and bubbling, a slapdash perversion.
He quickly chastened himself. A supply shortage meant some contractor had been greased on
the long haul from Baghdad. Some Iraqi who thought he had landed a pretty decent gig, who
risked working with the Americans to keep his family flush with dinar and flat bread.
Somewhere along a 225-mile stretch, bulk quantities of Swiss cheese fermented in the upturned
trailer of a bombed-out rig. Rot, rot—all was rot or fouled up, miscalculated with consequences
unheeded by all but widows and orphans, who bore the consequences in their bones. He
couldn’t picture the Iraqi who drove that rig, couldn’t piece together the details of his life. He
could only see that slice of processed cheese curdling on a dollop of corned beef.
Loaded up, Sgt. Tulley carted his box over to the cooler, to be dismayed by Diet Coke and
malty near-beer. He would find some Mountain Dew—his men deserved at least that, enduring
another day as they did. Goddamned American heroes. He ventured across the salad bar, The
Garden of Good Eatin’… Proper nutrition is a force multiplier… The deployed soldier needs a
vitamin- and calorie-rich diet to… He ventured across the salad bar moments before it ceased to
For several long beats, nothing existed, nothing but an operatic high note held warblingly as in
a drawn-out finale, the curtains poised, the cast milling off-stage. No sensory stimuli registered,
nothing at all. Just a drone from deep within the inner ear. An altissimo tremulo that deafened,
drowned out all else, blotted out all the ambient incidentals.
Several beats passed before something snapped back into place.
Sgt. Tulley felt singed, seared, tender around his face and neck. He had received the hot
barreling rush of atmospheric displacement, the muscled gut-punch of the blast’s concussion.
His disorientation extended to his nervous system—his spinal cord couldn’t perform an internal
diagnostic, relay nerve signals to receptor neurons. He didn’t know where he stood or if he ever
would stand again, if his spinal fluid seeped among so much dismembered biological
detritus, if he just didn’t know it yet. Sensation flared supernova. He felt scalded and without
remedy, without even hope of relief. He feared foraying a tentative eyelid open, kept them
clenched. He wanted more than anything to shed his uniform in frantic spastic jerks and plunge
into a vat of Jell-O that instant, that instant. He groaned. The ground suddenly felt like parking
lot gravel beneath him; his elbow pulsed kilowatt voltage. He gasped surfaced-diver gasps; his
lungs seemed unequal to the task.
He tried to shift around, get his bearings. He couldn’t hear, couldn’t see, could only interface
with the outside world through the brush of haywire and deadened nerve endings. He needed to
get a grasp of his situation, assess any further threat, tend to the wounded. He needed, needed,
needed. Duty could care less. Suck it up and drive on. He rolled around and landed on his back.
He heaved futilely. His limbs had an incalculable black hole density, too much heft to hoist let
alone manipulate. Dear Christ, Christ, he had to open his eyes.
He couldn’t see. He couldn’t see. But his eyes burned watery against the tarred blankness to
his immoderate reassurance. He would be thankful for all eternity, or at least a solid week. He
would speak of that moment later on rigid barstools and ratty mattresses in a hushed voice, with
an half-affected faraway gaze. But he would never feel it well up so irrepressibly again.
He choked, the air sepulchral, permeated beyond saturation—it was impossible
to breath, impossible to see. It was a pitch darkness so palpable it burned his lungs
and nasal linings, left damp mucus membrane tissue inflamed, throbbing. A faint light shone
celestial off in the periphery somewhere toward his 2:00, where the mortar round punctured the
tent doubtless, but he spelunked in cavernous depths of pond-stagnant soot and still-billowing
smoke. He took it in, its rich ashen aroma, gagged a little, then gagged uncontrollably. The
process shortly played itself out. He felt purged, thick thoroughbred drool dappling his chin.
A boot collided with his shin and stumbled onto solid footing.
The panicked voice receded with the footfalls, gave way a sudden cacophony. He awoke to a
program already in progress. Feet shuffled and slapped a discordant rhythm to a rising chorus of
random expletives and guttural cries. Combat boots moved all around in every direction in
desperate search of an exit, of visibility and breathable air. Boots moved in pure instinct, in
search of safety, the nearest ready-made crane-deposited concrete bunker to huddle in under the
next barrage. Boots moved with animal purpose and in hesitant confusion. Hips slammed the
patio-furniture tables askew; linebacker rushes sent the plastic chairs clattering. Feet fished
around insensibly, every step an experiment. The unlaced scuffed sneaker of Yahweh had
leveled the anthill, and it was all blind frenzy.
Sgt. Tulley’s shin throbbed, allowed him the clarity of stabbing pain, a focal point. On
physical training tests, he regularly knocked out 90-plus sit-ups in two stop-watched minutes, a
piston-pumping machine belching furious diesel fumes. On all those crisp early mornings back
in garrison, back in boot camp, he had never exerted himself so to bring his torso upright, not
even with those last burnt-out burning few. People were dead, ready to be plopped into or sorted
into zippered human remains pouches; people were dead, their lives spilling profusely
and inexorably into dank puddles that moment, that moment. He still couldn’t see at all.
The bulk of soldiers chowing minutes ago were now wraiths, wraiths fled from this place,
shivering outside, shivering irrepressibly in the sun, in the sapping midday post-thermostat heat.
The air’s sediment thinned and settled somewhat. With all the grunts, groans, sobs and
hyperventilated hysterical pleading, Sgt. Tulley was overtaken by a sudden surge of gratitude
that he still couldn’t see. No one shuttled around the FOB in body armor. All that tender
flesh had been exposed.
He found his footing with some effort and staggered along, obliged to make himself useful. He
sensed he would not have enough use if granted a thousand lifetimes, sensed an almost comic
futility. He choked down a welled sob, then choked down a lung-deep hacking.
His feet swung in drunken search of solid ground. He paused to regain his balance, to marshal
composure. Suck it up and drive on.
He forged ahead.
It was shortly thereafter that he nearly stepped on that woman, nearly mashed her underfoot.
He could only see a few feet ahead.
“Watch where you’re going soldier.”
A horse-faced flabby figure hunched over the woman checking her vitals, a medic’s bag torn
open to his side. It was still dense with smoke and airborne detritus, and Sgt. Tulley still suffered
a glitched lag in his reaction speed. But he witnessed no physical manifestation of the aggrieved
rage in the medic’s voice, no corresponding body language, saw only the absorbed solicitude of
a hospice nurse.
He recognized her, all 90-odd pounds and sixty-some inches of her. She was the KBR-indentured
Indonesian who slapped together cold cuts in the salad bar. She emitted a shrill wheeze, hissed like a
blown tire. She wasn’t breathing properly; her lips puckered blue. Her eyes pooled and had already
shed a few gradations toward that waxy gray. Sgt. Tulley could discern no wounds, nothing geysering
and obvious, nothing to occasion such evident agony or such a rapid deterioration.
Her contorted sob-smeared face told of more than the bruising jolt of a hurled tumble, however
forceful, however delicate the recipient. And she couldn’t summon much—her lips had taken on
an ominous shade, that chem-lab blue, that creeping ghastly terminal blue. Had the blast’s
concussion crushed her ribs? Had it sluiced hemorrhaging? Cut a swath through unseen tissue?
He had seen an Iraqi policeman die in such a fashion out on patrol, without so much as a solitary
drop of blood spilled. Straight dust to dust, with no initial conciliatory offering to the earth.
He wanted to blame her. He wanted to blame her for dying. How could it conceivably have
been so bad back in Indonesia? How could it possibly have been so starved for jobs that a
menial gig in this hellhole would seem like a gilded opportunity handed down from on high?
She made sandwiches—how was that an act of war or aggression? How could one wage jihad
against cold cuts, against an infidel smear of mayonnaise? With such wide blast radii, how could
anyone claim to target anyone here? Some teenagers fired a couple of potshots at the battalion
commander’s convey just last week, and he called in Apaches to run thirteen goddamned sorties
through a residential neighborhood, strafing and raining scalding .50 brass shells like a visitation
of His Holy Wrath, straight-up old-school Old Testament.
He looked at her, tried to meet her eyes. She was no longer sobbing. Still leaking sibilance, she
took her breath shallow and irregular. Disconcertingly, her bared rib cage rose almost
imperceptibly when she drew in air. She drained, deflated; her color faded, bleached. He thought
she cursed god, formed some foreign words on her waxen lips. And then the medic eurekaed her
blood-dappled wound, the size of a quartered dime perhaps, hidden under her left armpit.
The small stiletto wound welled a dark rim, nearly black. It frothed, bubbled. Sgt. Tulley
tasted vomit, fought back the corrosive tang. She stared into some firmament, imprinted in some
massed ganglia of neurons, some solipsist’s figment.
“I don’t know; I don’t know,” the medic said. “Hold on…”
He palmed a poised field dressing into the wound as her chest bottomed out before a labored
breath. Leaning into it, he pressured the pinned plastic dressing wrapper into a seal while Sgt.
Tulley fiddled the bandage’s tails into place. He fashioned a nonslip knot, timing the cinch to the
They rolled her gently onto the wound, so the blood massing in the lung wouldn’t spill over
into its still healthily-functioning partner, cause her to drown in her own fluids, drown from the
inside. They rolled her gently, to a lurching violent spasm. At a glance, it had looked a though a
single pellet had burrowed into her vitals, lodged itself in her collapsed lung. Shrapnel was
unpredictable, by its explosive nature, but Sgt. Tulley had never seen such lethal surgical
precision, such Powerball-odds happenstance. This was no scalpel-popped epidermal
fragment equaling medal. Those wounded so severely by shrapnel, in Sgt. Tulley’s experience,
tended to resemble either gunshot victims, dramatically perforated and draining, or fried
drumsticks mid-chow, all wanton stringiness and gristle.
A limp lump dolled over like a grainsack, she failed to resume breathing. Her chest ceased to
sink, ceased to sway with nature’s rhythmic tide. Visibly perturbed, the medic splayed pudgy
fingers across her neck only to snap them back.
“Look, I gotta do an intubation,” the medic said. “Or she’s dead, dead… it’s a tension
pneumothorax… just wait, wait for me, we gotta roll her back.”
His hands shaky, the medic readied a needle and catheter. Padded folds of gauze and sealed
pressure dressings and capped cased pills cluttered slapdash around his kit.
“I’m gonna decompress the pressure in her chest cavity,” he said. “I’m gonna decompress the
pressure… one, two three.”
They flopped her back on her back, the medic then frantically fingering her rib cage. He
plunged the needle home, then thumbed the shunt home. Blood spurted; blood rushed sinuously
bag-ward. Air whooshed as a choir lifting a chorus to the heavens. To Sgt. Tulley, the gorged
tube resembled a transparent vein exhibited at a children’s museum, a lesson in anatomy.
She gasped slightly, spit froth, shivered.
“We gotta replace this,” the medic said. “This is ghetto… I gotta find an
Asherman… my kit’s been short for weeks.”
They hauled her on a stretcher shortly thereafter to the medevac convey revving just outside
ground zero, to the row of saucered eyes, the row of soldiers sheepish in unfastened flak-vests
and dangling chin-straps, their Kevlar helmets askew. She felt as light as ether on that stretcher,
his forearms slack against her dainty pull. The sun felt like a cartoon sun with a sappy grin, and
his head reeled as though from unmetabolized whiskey.
The chow hall, what was left of it, smoke still stacking from the yawning tent gash, was
already cordoned off, already guarded by grave privates fingering triggers, fondling trigger wells
with a post-coital affection. Duty taskings were already assigned. It seemed to Sgt. Tulley as
though the chain of command could have just as easily established itself in a drag-out mosh-pit
After she had been deposited rampside, to be whisked away to a surgeon’s ministrations, a
major strode up, pin-on rank glinting in the blistering sun, and gripped Sgt. Tulley’s bicep.
“Your day’s done sergeant,” he declaimed. “You get some medical attention. That’s a order.”
Sgt. Tulley wilted and skulked off to the side. After a loitered moment’s consideration, he
made his way back to his humvee. He burned to return to that abattoir, to help however he
could. He was fine, fine as a breeze-kissed summer afternoon on the lake, but he couldn’t openly defy
orders. It was inconceivable. Big screen-haymaker insubordination in the real world was just
insubordination, cut-and-dry. No gratification to be had.
He headed out onto the empty dusty FOB roads, saw his company’s executive officer standing
erect and crestfallen out by their living area, a mere pistol’s range from the chow hall parking
lot. He slammed the brake, shifted gears, spun the steering wheel. It took him four tries in
mounting aggravation to turn 360 degrees on the narrow road. He knew he wasn’t composed
enough to back up 50 meters in reverse.
“Hey sir, what’s up?”
“Sgt. Mathers from Bravo Company, he’s dead. We’re still awaiting word on our own guys,”
he said. “There’s still a lot of guys we haven’t accounted for yet. I guess I can check you off,
“Sgt. Mathers, he’s dead?”
Sgt. Thomas had never even heard of him, couldn’t place a name or a face.
“Yeah, they already notified his wife for all I know,” he said. “Curtis was coming off that
battalion convoy detail, walking up when it hit, and Mathers’ head rolled up to his feet
apparently, from what he’s been saying.
“I think that’s all they found of him.”
“Shoot, shoot, thank you sir,” Sgt. Tulley said. “I gotta go check on my guys.”
“Yeah, yeah, you get back to your detail, sergeant. I’ll try to get your guys off it… I’m fully
expecting a storm in a hurry, and I know you want in on it.”
“Yeah well, with everybody and their brother tied up, we’ll probably be out there for a
month straight without relief.”
“I’ll do what I can… I can’t see this standing; I just can’t see it. Before long, I’m sure we’ll be
kicking down doors and kicking in heads. I’ll try to get you in on it, but you know… there’s that.”
“Thank you sir. See you sir.”
Sgt. Tulley sped back to the detention facility, trailing billowing earth. He dismounted without
shutting the HMMWV down, handing a death sentence to its notoriously fickle battery. Lipping
a cigarette, he strode purposefully into the bunker, all grime and grief.
They knew. His men already knew. They held him in awe and incredulity, a much-bandied
assumption of his demise undermined in the flick of a disposable lighter. He didn’t have to expel
a single syllable of explanation, expelled only a tendriled plume of cigarette smoke.
His men knew. They had heard every sordid, despairing detail over the radio, from the flash
conflagration of chatter, still raging. 60 personnel medevaced and counting; 12 U.S. soldiers
confirmed dead thus far. A suicide bombing, probably some Syrian national posing as an Iraqi
National Guardsmen, his vest likely packed with C4 and pilfered claymores given the
widespread swathe of peppered shrapnel—the blast’s rising heat had ruptured the tent, not the
assumed mortar round. Sgt. Tulley’s puffed chest rounded out the canyoned gap left to the
His men gazed. They gazed rapt in anticipation. They sopped pungent sticky lust for a first-
“Get me the taser!” he said. “Where’s the taser?!”
The detainees stared on in total silence, tensing, recognizing something in his tone. His
bedraggled post-apocalyptic appearance left little to speculation. The glint in his eyes
“Schep, schep!” he commanded the detainees. “Bella hachee, schep, shut up!”
Pvt. Cullers rushed out the industrial-grade plastic case containing the taser pistol. It was just
surplus-store junk with a retractable-cord range of ten feet max, though packing 50,000 volts
and packaged as though it ought to be handcuffed to the wrist of some high-ranking State
Department suit. Sgt. Tulley fumbled it open, cast the case clatteringly aside, switched on the
laser sight and surveyed it around wildly. He drew beads between eyes, hoping for maximum
“Schep!” he said. “Talking is not authorized in this facility, in my facility! I am,
however, authorized to enforce discipline! Schep!”
The detainees cringed, drooped, strove to make themselves inconspicuous to the point of
invisibility. A leveled gun barrel bridged all language gaps. Turbine energy channeled into
clenched stillness, no one so much as breathed or fidgeted.
“Shut up!” he said, swiveling his neck around. “Who’s talking? Who’s talking?”
Pvt. Cullers looked at him with lachrymose eyes.
Sgt. Tulley glared at him angrily, but blankly.
“Sergeant, please don’t.”
Joseph S. Pete is an award-winning journalist, an Iraq War veteran, an Indiana University graduate, a book reviewer, a photographer, and a frequent guest on Lakeshore Public Radio. He is a 2017 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee who has read his work for the Fictitious series on the iO Theater stage and who was named the poet laureate of Chicago BaconFest, a feat that Geoffrey Chaucer chump never accomplished. His literary or photographic work has appeared in more than 100 journals, including Horror Tree, Spirits, The Tipton Poetry Journal, Chicago Literati, Dogzplot, Proximity Magazine, Stoneboat, The High Window, Synesthesia Literary Journal, Steep Street Journal, Beautiful Losers, New Pop Lit, The Grief Diaries, Gravel, The Offbeat, Oddball Magazine, The Perch Magazine, Bull Men’s Fiction, Rising Phoenix Review, Thoughtful Dog, shufPoetry, The Roaring Muse, Prairie Winds, Blue Collar Review, The Rat’s Ass Review, Euphemism, Jenny Magazine, Vending Machine Press and elsewhere. He questions the wisdom of trying to move Michael Myers to a new facility every Halloween.