Between deployments the battalion flew to California. The Department of Defense converted a square mile of condemned suburban housing outside of Riverside into a mock war zone so we could practice controlling an occupied urban area. The Marine Corps called this Security and Stability Operations training. Our own little slice of the war, right here at home. We called the place Sasoland. My platoon lived in a four-bedroom house fortified with sandbags in the corner of the training square. The back side of our yard ended at a chain-link fence and on the other side civilians in bright clothes walked down a road in front of an elementary school. We all wore the same camouflage uniforms, carried M-16s and squad automatic weapons with full flak jackets and Kevlars. None of us ever showered or cleaned ourselves, except every morning the whole platoon shaved together in the backyard. Sometimes the children across the road stared at us.
We had classes during the day on over-watch techniques and urban warfare procedures. In the afternoons, our platoon had training objectives that we carried out while other Marines playing “insurgents” tried to disrupt us. These Marines didn’t have enough time left to redeploy so the Corps attached them to the training unit. They lived out in the square in dilapidated houses, wore dishdashas and carried AKs with blanks in them. The DoD also paid local people of Arab descent to act as civilians for us to interact with.
A week after we arrived, I got promoted to corporal and took over the responsibility of third squad. About that same time our platoon got tasked with providing security around the “mayor’s house” while the insurgents tried to assassinate him and his family. My squad pulled the late shift from midnight to zero six. The mayor, his wife, and daughter got paid extra to stay all night, but after midnight they stopped acting and came out to sit around the fire pit. Each night I posted my squad around the perimeter of the house and roved between them making sure they stayed awake.
Sometimes I stopped and talked to the civilians around the fire.
The man playing the mayor had a dark brown dishdasha stretched over his heavy belly and gray in his beard. He looked similar to men that I had seen in Afghanistan. He wore a white taqiyah cap pushed back over the bald spot on the top of his head. His wife seemed no older than thirty-five, and the woman playing their daughter looked at least thirty. Twenty-eight, I found out the second night.
Sarah had one more semester left in a grad program at UC-Riverside. A lock of black hair kept falling out from under her purple hijab. “I can’t believe I let someone talk me into putting one of these things on,” she said, sitting back in her lawn chair next to the fire.
“I think you look pretty in it,” I said.
“Oh, you do, huh?” She rolled her eyes.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“Well, you don’t know anything,” she said lighting a cigarette. “You will soon, though.”
“I’ve already been over there once,” I said. “You think you’re the first woman I’ve ever seen in a burqa?”
“You’re so young,” she said.
“I’m about to turn twenty,” I said. My assistant squad-leader stepped into the light of the fire.
“Corporal,” Raney said. “Harkness and them want to know if they can come up by the fire, too.” Raney had gone to Afghanistan with me, in the same fire-team. Harkness had gone with us, too, but in first squad.
“Go tell them to fuck themselves and then you can,” I said. He grinned and left.
“You’re in charge of all of them?” she asked, lighting another cigarette.
“Just twelve of them,” I said. “They kind of run me, though. I’m a new NCO. I guess I still have to earn their trust.”
“You have such a baby face,” she said.
“We shave every morning,” I said. When Raney came back she crushed out her cigarette and said goodnight.
The next morning we sat out in the back yard eating breakfast. The kids across the fence started showing up for school. Each one hugged whoever dropped them off and then ran up the steps to the double door entrance to the school. Raney turned to me and the whole squad got quiet.
“So, Corporal, tell us about your haji girlfriend,” he said. The squad laughed.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I said. I couldn’t help but grin, though.
“It must be nice hanging out with a girl around a fire, Corporal,” Harkness said. “And we’re out in the cold guarding some fake guy’s house. Corporal.”
“Next time I’ll make sure that you get the best spot right next to the fire, with all the girls and everything just special for Harkness. Would that work for you, fucker?” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“Y’all hurry up and eat,” I told the squad. Across the street the last bell rang.
That night the insurgents attacked us at the mayor’s house. We fired blank rounds through the windows at them. They came close enough that three guys from my squad ran out and grabbed one. The mayor, his wife, and Sarah lay on the floor while Raney and I stood over them. I watched Sarah flinch and cover her ears as if we were firing real bullets. Good acting, I thought. Eventually the insurgents ran off laughing and cursing us. The squad brought me the one they had caught.
He threatened them as they dragged him, then looked up at me and said, “Oh, hey.”
“Becker,” I said. Sarah watched us confused. “How are you, man?” I turned to my squad. “Let him loose. This guy went to Afghanistan with us. He’s from Weapons Company.” Raney cut his zip ties loose and gave him back his AK.
“You going to be here until zero six?” Becker asked. I nodded. “I’ll come back and talk with you later tonight,” he said. “We’re not going to mess with y’all any more. Shutting it down for the night, the LT said.”
After he left I let my squad sleep until the end of the shift. The mayor went to bed too, but Sarah went out to the fire pit and lit a cigarette.
“I guess you like playing army, huh?” she said blowing smoke out of the side of her mouth.
“Whatever,” I said.
“Why do you do it then?”
“Look, I got a year and a half left on my contract,” I said. “I’ll do whatever they say to until then.”
“You mean, whatever you tell your squad to do?” she said.
“Those guys are in it for their own deals,” I said. “They don’t hardly listen to me anyway.”
“Why are you in it, then?”
“Cause I’m in it.” Used to, when people asked me that question, I would tell them why I joined the Marines. After my first deployment, though, those reasons didn’t matter anymore. I found out over there that I was just in it and that I might die in it.
Sarah had already stopped role playing for the evening when Becker and his friends attacked and she didn’t have a hijab on. “Your hair looks a lot prettier without your burqa on,” I said. She smiled, but I could tell she had something to say. Becker walked up out of the dark and she stopped.
“Those Newports?” Becker asked her.
“Ugh, no,” she said. “I don’t smoke Newports.”
“Either way, light it for me?” Becker said and turned to me. “How you been, brother?” He smiled. He had on a long blue-gray dishdasha and a brown towel held on his head with boot bands. He had not shaved.
“I’m all right, man,” I said. “I guess we’re going to Iraq.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m getting out in four months.”
“Oorah,” I congratulated him. “College?” I asked.
“Fuck, yeah,” he said.
“You like being out here doing this stuff?” I asked. “It’s kind of fun, huh?”
“Yeah, it’s all right,” he said. “This place is a lot better than Afghanistan.”
“I hate Riverside,” Sarah said. “I’m so ready to leave here.”
“Have you ever been to Afghanistan?” Becker asked.
“No,” she said, shaking her head as if she had answered that question before. “I take it you two know each other well?” Sarah looked at me.
“Yep,” I said. “One time Becker saved my life.”
“I didn’t save your life,” Becker said.
“You might’ve. That guy might’ve killed me,” I said.
“Well, Shepard shot him a lot before so he was probably already dead.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“Wait, what?” Sarah asked.
“Becker killed a guy with a hand grenade,” I said.
“I think Shep got him first,” Becker said.
“Wait, like a real grenade?”
“Huh?” We both looked at her.
“I got to go.” Becker flicked out his cigarette. “Good luck.” He disappeared into the darkness. Sarah went to bed soon after, too.
The next night she didn’t come out to the fire pit at all. And the night after that she only came out once to smoke a cigarette. She said she had school work to do.
That weekend Becker drove an old white Ford Focus up to the gate of our house and set off a flashbang and smoke grenade to signify that we had gotten hit by a suicide bomber. I heard a civilian from across the road say, “It came from over there.” We spent the rest of the afternoon doing mock casualty evacs. Sitting in the backyard eating that evening I thought about Becker getting out and going to college. It seemed unreal that the Marine Corps would actually let him out at the end of his contract. I always figured they would just go on deploying us until we got a limb blown off or were just a limb left. I tried to imagine Becker in class, but I couldn’t get the image of him in that dishdasha out of my head. I thought about Sarah instead, how she said she had been going to college now for seven years straight.
On the last night of our objective at the mayor’s house I hung around the fire pit long enough that she finally came out.
“Well don’t you look lonely.” She smiled and lit a cigarette.
“Hey,” I said. She lit another cigarette for me. “How’s your homework?”
“It’s not just homework,” she said. “But my thesis is going well. Thank you for asking.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Marines are so cocky,” she said.
“This is your last night?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Then we’re off to do some other bullshit on the other side of Sasoland or something. I don’t know.”
“Well,” she said after a little while. “I’m going to miss talking to you,” and then she stopped.
“Let’s go inside,” I said.
“No,” she laughed. “You’re so ridiculous.”
* * *
The next day our squad sat outside cleaning our weapons when one of my younger marines said something and everyone laughed except me. “Oh, he’s just worrying about his haji girlfriend,” Harkness said. The whole squad groaned.
That evening Becker walked by our house in his dishdasha, but no AK, and told me to meet Sarah at the corner of our street at midnight.
“You talk to Sarah?” I asked.
“Come on, man,” he called back. “You know the civilians and the insurgency talk.”
Around midnight I stood in the shadows in full gear waiting for her. When she showed up she had on jeans and a low-cut t-shirt. Her hair smelled the way it had the other night. “Come on, let’s go out,” she said. “My car is around here,” she pointed.
“I can’t go anywhere,” I said.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “Just sneak off.”
“I have my rifle.” I looked at her as if she had said something really dumb.
“Okay, don’t get mad at me,” she said. “Why did you have to bring that thing anyway?”
“I can’t just leave it,” I said. “They’d put me in prison.”
“All right, well, I’m going to go then,” she said.
“Okay,” I said and started back towards the rest of the platoon.
“You really can’t go out?” she asked.
“No, really,” I said. “I don’t think you understand the situation.”
“I understand the situation,” she said, put off, but she stayed around and talked to me in the shadows, anyway. After a little while she leaned in close then immediately took a step back. “You know all of you really stink very badly?” she said.
“I know,” I laughed. “We don’t shower or anything. Sometimes I use the wet wipes from the MREs to wipe my balls.”
“That’s so disgusting.” She gagged.
“You should have seen us in Afghanistan. I thought I was permanently gray. We never even took our clothes off. Just marched everywhere and slept in holes, in the dirt.”
“All you ever talk about is Afghanistan,” Sarah said.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, embarrassed. “It wasn’t but two months ago, though.”
She giggled. We stood around in the dark and talked until I knew the platoon would start waking up soon. She pinched her nose and kissed me on the cheek before I left.
That morning we all sat in the backyard shaving. The first parents had already started showing up to drop their kids off across the road. “You’ve got lipstick on your face, Corporal,” Raney said. He held up his field mirror so I could see the smudge across my cheek.
“Aww, he went to see that haji last night,” Harkness said. I couldn’t deny it.
“Why do y’all have a problem with me trying to get some out here?” I asked.
“We don’t care about that, Corporal, we just don’t like you fucking with a haji bitch,” he said. The rest of the squad agreed.
“Think of it this way,” Raney stepped in. “What are you going to do when we get back over there? Are you going to get over there and start feeling sorry for them or something?”
“Okay now,” I said. “This is California.” I pointed at the kids across the road. “She’s a haji-American or whatever,” I said.
“She’s a haji, man,” Raney said.
I looked at the twelve Marines I had the responsibility of not killing. She just plays one for work, I thought. She almost has a master’s degree.
I did a decent job of avoiding her. Twice Becker passed along the message to meet her and I didn’t. Once I thought I saw her through the fence, eating at an Arby’s down the street from the elementary school. Then a couple of nights later my squad got tasked with performing a routine presence patrol around Sasoland. About halfway through our route the point man and Raney stopped a car headed straight towards us down a dark alleyway. We approached the vehicle with weapons trained on the driver seat. Sarah got out of the car in jeans and a pink jacket.
“What the fuck are you doing out here? It’s passed curfew,” I told her.
“This isn’t really Iraq, dummy,” she said. “I’m off work, I just want to get out of here.”
“What are you doing on this side of Sasoland, then?”
“Well, honestly I was lost and you all stepped out in the road in front of me out of nowhere,” she said. “Will you please tell your friends to put their guns down?” I waved the squad off. She got back in her car. “You were just going to avoid me until you left, huh, asshole?”
“Listen,” I said, sticking my head into the open window and gripping the door. “It’s not like that. It’s just my squad and all.”
“Your squad what?”
“My squad doesn’t like that you’re a haji.”
Her eyes widened. She slammed her fist down on my fingers and sped off in reverse. I could hear the whole squad laughing strung out down the street in a staggered column. I stood there for a minute then gave the signal to move.
The next morning, a blonde woman in a yellow sundress got out of a white SUV across the road. Her heels clicked on each step up to the big double doors. If Sweden bombed us I might not be able to bang blondes anymore, I thought. Could I say that woman definitely didn’t work for the insurgency? Did I know for sure that Sarah didn’t? One time in Afghanistan, a woman we detained—I couldn’t even see her eyes behind the mesh in her burqa—had an AK-47 under her dress. Just a couple of weeks before, in the airport in Ireland on the way back from deployment, I saw on the news that an Arab woman walked into a supermarket in London and started shooting the place up like she was in Fallujah. I watched the blonde woman walk back to her vehicle. The rest of the week we had classes on detainee procedures and searching buildings.
Near the middle of the square the instructors had turned several houses into a mock compound for us to practice searching. The houses had everything a place in Iraq might have, complete with furniture and old clothes in the closet. Sarah, the mayor, plus a younger male and a woman, played the occupants of the compound. All Friday afternoon our squad waited around while each squad in the Company cycled through clearing all the rooms the way the instructors taught. Everything ran at a training speed so the younger Marines, who had never deployed, could learn. When we came up next in line I saw Sarah through one of the windows. She had a smile on her face as they started setting up for the next squad to come through. Look at her in there giggling, I thought. Another clueless civilian. She’ll never have to understand shit, no one will ever make her. Then I turned to my squad. “Hit it like we’re back in Afghanistan,” I said. “Bring it to them.” The squad smiled.
“You think we’ll get in trouble, Corporal?” Raney asked.
“Let me worry about that, oorah?” I said.
Harkness kicked in the door. Sarah stood in the corner eating a Subway she had stashed in a purse behind the couch. Raney slammed the oldest man to the ground. The man tried to let out a last second plea in English, but the floor cut him short. Sarah’s eyes snapped to me. The younger man threw his hands up and collapsed onto his belly. Sarah had this of course you would look on her face. Then, as if humoring me, she laid down on the ground with her hands over her head. I stood over her with my rifle to her neck as the rest of the squad tore the house apart. They flipped over the furniture, swept the pots and pans off the counters, and everything out of the pantry looking for weapons caches we all knew didn’t exist. Harkness and Raney threw all the clothes out of the closets, kicked the bathroom door off its hinges, and dumped Sarah’s purse, and all their other personal bags, out on the living room floor. The instructors had to come in to get us to stop.
I did get into trouble. I ended up getting a page-eleven that I never read and two years non-recommendation for promotion. The Company Commander wanted to charge me with assault and several other things, but the battalion needed warm bodies in Iraq so nothing much came of it. I never saw Sarah again. Becker said she quit after that. I lost contact with Becker when we left California, too. About three months after we got back to Iraq I ran into his old platoon, though. They showed me a picture of him that he had sent them in a care package full of Skoal, menthol cigarettes, and Jack Daniels in apple juice bottles. In the picture, Becker squatted in the middle of a group of frat boys holding canned beers. They all had on the same kind of shorts and T-shirts and flip flops. Except that some had more hair than him, Becker did not look any different than the rest of the boys in the picture. Then I noticed one of their shirts had something about the University’s student veteran society printed on the front and I realized all of them were young veterans. Even the Marine I handed the picture back to said, “Can’t tell he was ever in the Marines, huh?”
“Not looking at him,” I replied.
A couple of times after that, I had this dream. I stood in one of my old elementary school’s classrooms in full gear with my M-16 in hand. Becker and Sarah sat in desks in the room, too. Becker had on the plaid shorts and maroon t-shirt from the picture and Sarah wore that purple hijab. I kept thinking, Surely I’m going to get in trouble if someone comes in here and sees me with this rifle. But every time I went to the window to jump out, the whole world, as far as I could see, was on fire.
James Walley holds an MFA from Syracuse University and served as a combat engineer in the U.S. Marine Corps. His story Hesco was selected as runner-up for The Iowa Review’s 2014 Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans. He lives in Mississippi.