The following happened about 10 years ago. There are times that I still wake up in the middle of the night, sweating in the grips of a nightmare. When this occurs, I know that getting back to sleep will be a losing proposition, so I instead get up and make a pot of coffee. As time has passed, the nightmares have lessened, but like a virus, they have never truly left. I will have a good couple weeks, maybe even a month, when I am able to sleep through the night. Then, suddenly, the nightmares will come crashing back and I am not only remembering what happened, but am really there again. I believe that I will be dealing with these memories for the rest of my life, which is a blood-chilling thought. When I think of the prospect of never forgetting, always remembering, and dementia seems like a blessing. But I'm getting ahead of myself...
Ten years ago, as a US Marine, I was stationed in Iraq for my third tour of duty as a basic metalworker attached to an armored battalion. I was basically in charge of repairing any problems that needed to be fixed via welding. We also did quite a bit of fabricating and any other type of metalwork that was necessary. I was not, however, able to do all of the work by myself. There were certain jobs and tasks that I was simply unable to do. As a result, I worked very closely with two other Marines; incidentally they also happened to be my best friends. One was a machinist by the name of Chris. Chris was quiet and never really spoke a lot, until he started drinking. Once he got a few in him, he never shut up. The other Marine was a mechanic, also by the name of Chris, but who I will call Sam from this point on to differentiate between the two. Sam was the complete opposite of Chris. Sam was brash, loud, and always had an opinion which he was more than willing to share, whether you wanted to hear it or not. Both of them came from West Virginia, albeit different parts of the state. I was from New Jersey and was somewhat between the two in terms of personality. We had all met at boot camp, thrust together by virtue of our last names being next to each other alphabetically. We had quickly connected and had been thrilled to discover that not only would we be stationed together at the same battalion, but we would also be deploying together.
I am usually seen as more of a loner by nature. I prefer quiet and my hobbies usually are solitary activities, such as reading and fishing. I know that fishing is usually seen as a group endeavor, but it can be solo as well. I am married now, but back when this all occurred I was as single as could be. I wasn't worried; I figured I would meet someone eventually. Chris was single as well, although he was really popular with women around the base. He said that he didn't like the idea of being tired down. He liked to "play the field" in his words. Sam had a steady girlfriend. They had met in high school and had started dating shortly thereafter. They had just celebrated 3 years together before we deployed and he was planning on proposing when we returned. Since Kayla (that was her name) lived in West Virginia, he couldn't see her all that often, so they talked on the phone almost every night while we were in the States. He would go up to visit her almost every weekend, however, even though the drive was a killer. In Iraq, however, visits were not possible and phone calls were limited, so Sam had been very moody for a little while
When we arrived in Iraq, we learned that we were going to be stationed at a large base outside of Fallujah, Iraq. Not being known for their creativity, the military had named this base Camp Fallujah. After we arrived and settled in, we began the daily grind of going to wait and basically waiting around for something to happen. After about two months, we received orders one day to travel to a remote base about 2 hours distant. We were told that one of our vehicles had hit an improvised explosive device and they needed a welder, a machinist, and a mechanic to try and determine if the vehicle was repairable and, if so, to repair it. The vehicle had been towed back to the base, but it was deemed too dangerous to tow it back to Camp Fallujah. Instead we were going to travel to it. On the designated day, we loaded up in Humvees and made the drive, which was surprisingly quiet, and after about 2 hours, we arrived at Forward Operating Base Smitty (named after a member of our battalion who had been killed in action a few months previously). Our battalion had previously used the base heavily, but we had since moved our command to Camp Fallujah. We still had a small contingent of Marines at Smitty, but it was mostly used by an infantry company for patrols.
To call FOB Smitty nice would be too kind. The base was about half a mile by half a mile square. Mud brick walls about 8 feet tall ran around the entire perimeter. There were only a few buildings within the walls. There was a small building in the southeastern corner that served as a barracks for the Marines that were stationed there, enough space for about 100 men. The building was divided up in small, cell-like rooms that were placed every few feet down the hallway, all arranged around a central courtyard. There was a large building on the western side that served as the FOB Command Center. Immediately outside of the command center stood a covered area that served as the base motor pool. There were also quite a few concrete bunkers randomly scattered around the base which were meant to serve as emergency cover if we were attacked. The defining feature of the base, however, was a warehouse that was at along the eastern wall. Hulking, rusting, and huge, the warehouse squatted there like a malevolent beast. The doors and windows were missing, giving the old metal structure a neglected, empty, and forlorn look. We had been told that the base had previously been a privately owned tank production facility, but it had been appropriated by the Republican Guard for their own use during the first Gulf War. That was it, that was home. No showers, no bathrooms, not even a chow hall. After getting acquainted with our new home, Chris, Sam, and I got settled into the barracks area and began to get ready to repair the vehicle that we had been called to fix.
We had been told that we could expect to be at FOB Smitty for about a month to a month and a half. We expected the repair job to be difficult, but we actually finished in just under 4 days. The damage wasn't that extensive and we were able to get everything ready for the vehicle to be used again. Since we had finished so early, this left us with a lot of free time on our hands. As is typical among Marines with nothing to do, we very quickly grew bored. People are under the impression that war is a constant buzz of activity and fighting. This, however, is not the truth. About 90% of the time spent in a combat zone is sheer boredom, interrupted only briefly by brief bursts of activity mixed with sheer, utter terror. This is the actual combat part of war. Boredom, not bullets or bombs, is the biggest danger that is faced by a military member. After a couple weeks of just sitting around, we were bored to tears. We were itching for a firefight, an attack, hell, even a case of lice. Just something to break up the monotony. Since we were forbidden to leave the base, we were forced to find ways around the base to stay entertained. We spent an entire day emptying the powder out of rounds and trying to make a bomb out of a canteen (it didn't go off). We perfected trick shots with a BB gun, trying to shoot cigarettes out of each other's' mouths with it (yes, there were quite a few intentional misses). We also would sneak up on each other at all hours of the day and night, just goofing around. Our favorite activity, by far though, was called the FOB 500.
The FOB 500 required a dark night and a Humvee. We had established a sort of track that ran inside the entire perimeter of the base. What we would do is drive the Humvee and try to complete 5 laps as quickly as possible. After the driver finished his last lap, he was supposed to drive through the warehouse and the timer would be stopped as soon as he crossed the threshold of the opposite door, which is also where we started the "track." Looking back, I realize how dumb and dangerous it was, but you need to understand, we were young, in combat, and exceptionally bored. Obviously, this was not a proper use of military equipment. I'm certain that some of the Staff NCO's on base knew what was going on (after all, it's hard to ignore the growl of a Humvee engine being redlined as it raced around a base at night) but, for some reason, they let us be.
The night of February 10th, 2006, was a cold, exceptionally dark night. The clouds had covered the face of the moon and it was difficult to see anything at all without the use of night vision goggles. We realized that we had a perfect night to do the FOB 500, possibly for one of the last times since we were scheduled to leave in the next couple of days. After discussing the issue, we all agreed that we wanted to do it one more time. We got dressed, went over to the motor pool, took out the Humvee we always used, and drove to the northern side of the warehouse, where we would always start the laps. After a quick round of rock, paper, scissors to determine who would go first (always throw out scissors), I was the first to go. I climbed in, adjusted what needed to be adjusted, and, on Sam's signal, I mashed the accelerator to the floor.
The Humvee quickly gained speed as I flew around the perimeter of the base. The sensation and experience of flying over the desert sand in an open air Humvee in the winter is absolutely unimaginable to anyone who hasn't experienced it. It is complete and utter freedom. You forget that you're in a combat zone and you are just completely alive. I honestly forget what my time was, but I do remember that I was disappointed when it was over. There was no chance that we would be able to continue this at Camp Fallujah and I wished that I could do this again. I already missed the sensation of freedom and exhilaration that I had experienced and seriously considered going again when we were done, just so I could revel in the feeling one more time. I had, however, to wait my turn. It was not, however, completely enjoyable. As I had driven through the warehouse after completing my last lap, I had a distinctly uneasy feeling, almost like I was being watched. I just shrugged it off, however, as I was certain there was no one around that area of the base except for the three of us. Still trying to ignore the feeling that I had, I got out of the Humvee and turned it over to Sam. He took off when we gave the signal and, again, I forget his time, but I do remember he finished a little more quickly than I did, so it looked like I was the loser of this round, regardless of how quickly Chris finished.
Chris jumped in after Sam got out, and, on our signal, he mashed the accelerator down and he was off. As we watched him race around the track, I considered asked Sam if he had felt uneasy in the warehouse like I had, but decided against it. Sam was a good friend, but he could be brutal and borderline cruel if you were acting, in his opinion, like anything other than a man. I turned my attention back to Chris as he raced past us, through the warehouse, and began his final lap. I thought that he was going faster than Sam and I had, but I wasn't sure. He entered the first turn, then the second, then the third, then finally the last one. We heard the Humvee engine screaming as Chris tried to get every last ounce of speed from it. We saw him shoot through the open warehouse door, then, there was a problem. As we watched Chris started drifting to the left, then he shot to the right. The Humvee rocketed toward a wall, but suddenly, stopped. The nose of the Humvee disappeared and the taillights, which we had covered with a quantity of tape to avoid being seen, were pointed drunkenly up at the roof of the warehouse. As we watched, the back end of the Humvee settled down back onto the ground with a huge crash, but the nose was still not visible "Sinkhole," was the only thought I had as we ran to where the stranded Humvee was, desperate to see if Chris was alright.
As Sam and I skidded up to the side of the Humvee, we heard Chris groaning, so at least he was still alive. We looked in through the window and were relieved to see Chris looking back at us. His face was white and you could tell that he was dazed, but otherwise he seemed on. His eyes focused on us and, groggily, he asked, "What happened?"
"Jesus Christ, are you ok?" was Sam's reply. "We saw the crash and had no idea if you were even alive. What the hell went wrong?"
Chris shook his head, as if trying to clear the cobwebs from it. I noticed that he winced as he moved. No doubt he would be sore for a couple of days. "I started drifting as I came through the warehouse, so I tried steering back to the center. Guess I overdid it," was his response.
"Are you sure you're OK?" Sam asked. "Do you want us to go get a corpsman?"
"I think I'm OK, just feeling a little woozy," was Chris's reply.
"Well, at least sit down for a second," I added as we helped Chris out of the Humvee and set him on his feet. "You were flying when you crashed. You're damn lucky you didn't get more seriously hurt."
Sam and I turned out attention to the Humvee. We had no real idea what exactly had occurred, but we had a pretty good idea. Chris had said that he oversteered, but if that had been fully true he probably would have crashed into the wall of the warehouse from the inside, which would've been really bad news. Instead, it seemed that something had stopped him mere inches from the wall. It appeared that as Chris was driving, he had hit the leading edge of a board that was laying down and had crashed through into a sort of crevice. Sam and I quickly sized up the situation and decided that since the back of the vehicle was on the ground, we may be able to back it out. Sam jumped in, put it in reverse, and was able to reverse the vehicle, exposing the dark hole that the tire had punched through. We were all surprised, obviously this hole had been here the entire time that we had been driving the FOB 500, but we had never come this close to the interior wall of the warehouse before. Not really surprising when you think about the fact that we would always try to stay in the center of the warehouse as we came through.
Chris and I leaned over the hole trying to see in, we were joined shortly thereafter by Sam, who had the foresight to bring a flashlight. As he clicked it on and shined in the hole the contents became suddenly, gruesomely clear. A body lay on its side in the hole. Dry, desiccated, almost mummified. It lay in the fetal position, not covered by anything. It's dry, thin arms and hands looked like sticks of firewood and as we looked, we noticed that they had been handcuffed together. We also noticed that there was still a rag tied around the mouth as well. It was clear that whoever this was had been tortured and executed. If there was any doubt, the gaping hole in the back of the head clearly pointed to a close range shot from a pistol.
"Is that what I think it is?" Chris asked
"If you think it's a body, you're right," was Sam's reply
"We can't just leave it there" Chris said
"I say we leave it and get the hell out of here," I replied. "Somebody was bound to have heard that crash and we're still going to have to figure out how we're going to explain the dented front grill Chris."
"You guys need to relax and calm down," Sam said. "The crash wasn't that loud, plus it's two in the morning, we're the only ones awake besides the guard. You know how deeply the Staff NCO's sleep." Sam did indeed have a point. The SNCO's on the base were known for being very deep, very heavy sleepers. They were known for setting multiple alarm clocks and having young Marines wake them up in the morning by beating on their doors. Rumor even had it that one of the officers had slept through a firefight the year before.
"Here, watch this." Sam bent down, grabbed the dry arms, and used them to haul the husk out of the hole. "He only weighs about 40 pounds," Sam said. "He's really, really dry. It feels a little bit like sandpaper that the sand has come off of." As Sam laid the body back on the sand, illuminated by the flashlight, we saw that the body was indeed a male, but with everything dehydrated and dried, it was a little hard to tell.
Sam laid the body on the sand and we all looked down at the body. "Sucks to be him," was all Sam said.
"That's disgusting, touching that thing," I said. "You really shouldn't be messing around with that, you have no ideas what diseases it could have."
"It's fine," Sam said. It doesn't have any diseases."
"How do you know? I really agree with Dave," Chris said, startling us both a little bit. Chris had been so quiet that I had almost forgot that he was here. "I really think we should put that thing back in that hole, cover it up, and get back to our room. I'm getting a bad feeling."
Sam didn't answer. Instead, he suddenly reared his leg back and kicked the body in the side as hard as he could.
"What the hell?" I yelled. "What're you doing?"
Chris didn't say anything, he just backed away quickly. As we watched Sam, the one kick quickly became a flurry. He looked like a madman, kicking the body again and again in the side. As he kicked, we heard him muttering under his breath. He was cursing Iraq, the military, the Iraqi people, everything you could think of. We had had no idea that he had this in him, but as the abuse of the corpse became more extreme, we realized that he had a lot of hate inside that he had to get out.
Eventually, Sam stopped kicking and, breathing hard, he stared down at the corpse. It still bore a resemblance to a body, but it appeared that every rib was cracked, the bones of the withered arms were broken, and the legs were bent in the wrong directions.
"You did a freakin number on that thing," was all Chris had to say.
"Anything you wanna share?" I asked.
Sam sat down heavily on the sand. He looked down between his knees and, when he looked up; I saw something that I never thought I would ever see. Tears were streaming down Sam's face. As I looked in wonderment, I noticed more tears leaking from the corner of his eyes. "Kayla left me. She said that she still loves me, but she needs someone that will be there for her when she needs someone. I'm stuck in this Godforsaken country and can't be there for her. She found someone else. She told me last time we talked on the phone. I don't know if I can take it anymore man. I hate this place; it cost me the one thing I love more than life itself. It's dirty, disgusting, everything. We're trying to help these people," at this he shot out his foot again and kicked the corpse that he was indicating, "and they don't care. All it's doing is costing us things that are dear. People are dying, losing limbs, you name it. All I wanted was to go home and now, I don't have anything to go home to."
Chris and I looked at each other, unsure of what to say. Sam had put his head back down and started to really bawl now. Sobs were racking his body as he let all of his emotions go.
"Why didn't you say anything?" Chris asked softly.
Sam looked up and said "I didn't want to admit it. It seemed like admitting it would be proof that it had happened. I was afraid. Haven't you noticed how angry and off the walls I've been lately?"
"Sam, no offense, but you've always been a little crazy," Chris said.
This got a reaction out of Sam. Even in the midst of this crying jag, he smiled, which caused him to cough a few times. Eventually, the crying began to subside and, when Sam looked up, his eyes were dry, but you could still see the tracks of the tears that had coursed down his cheeks. Sam took in a deep breath, looked at us a little sheepishly, and gave a smile. "Please don't mention that guys. It just...I really loved Kayla. Still do, I guess. Maybe things can go back to the way they were when we get home, but...I'll just have to wait and see. I am feeling a little better now. I've been holding that in for a couple months now. She broke up with me pretty soon after we arrived and I've been holding it in since." Sam's smile grew even wider and he got a glint in his eye that I knew all too well. He was going to push the envelope, try and regain some of his composure the best way he knew how. "Watch this," was all he said.
As Chris and I stared, Sam stood, turned, and within a couple of seconds, we heard a wet, splattering sound as Sam relieved himself on the body.
Chris and I both groaned. We knew Sam was one to go a little bit too far, but this was too much. "That's absolutely disgusting," I said. "That used to be a person. That is so disrespectful. You're unbelievable. How would you feel if someone pissed on you when you were dead?"
"I wouldn't care," Sam called back over his shoulder as he finished up. "I'd be dead. Plus, I already told you this country and these people cost me everything I care about. I'm getting some payback the only way I can."
"I think I'm going to be sick," Chris said.
"It's probably just a little bit of a feeling from the crash," Sam replied.
"No, it's not," Chris said. "It's from watching you piss on a dead body."
Sam started to get a little upset again. You could see it from the flush of his cheeks and the way his voice took on a slight edge. He had tried to be funny and it had backfired. Neither Chris nor I were laughing. It looked like he was going to argue, but instead he puffed his cheeks out and we heard him take a deep, long breath in. "Okay," Sam said. "I'll stop. Wanna help me get him back in the hole?"
Chris and I were agreeable to this, so long as we didn't have to touch it with our hands. The sooner we got everything back to normal, the sooner we'd be able to get in the rack. Using our feet, he pushed and rolled the corpse back to the edge of the hole. With a final tap of our boots, the body rolled back in and hit the bottom face down. Chris had walked over and gotten the board. He drug it over the hole and covered it the same way he had before and took a step back. If you didn't know that a hole was there, it looked just like it was a board lying on the ground.
We climbed back into the Humvee and, without another word; we slowly drove back to the motor pool. We got in without anybody seeing us and we snuck out the back door. We evaded the roaming guard (they were too busy talking in order to really notice anything anyway) and we got back into the barracks without any problems. We walked into our "room" and quickly got settled and ready for bed by flashlight. Exhausted, we all lay down on our separate cots.
As we lay there, I kept remember what had happened in the warehouse. The fact that Sam had actually peed on the body was really eating at me. I knew Sam had crossed the line, but I also realized that it wouldn't make any sense to talk to him about it. I decided to try and let it go. Before I fell asleep, however, that feeling of being watched again returned, stronger than before and pervasive, almost like there was something leaning over me staring down. I knew it had to be by imagination, there was nobody else in the room with us. Additionally, I chalked it up to what we had just seen and done. I tried to clear my mind, but even though I was bone tired, sleep would not come. I tossed and turned, flipping towards the wall, then back towards the door. My mind kept returning to the body that we had seen? Who was he? What had happened? Did he have a family and did they know what had happened. What did he ...
I awoke in the pitch dark. I hadn't even realized that I was starting to fall asleep. I felt wary, however. I knew something wasn't right. I wondered what had woken me when suddenly I heard automatic weapons fire right outside the barracks. That must have been what woke me up. The rhythmic thump of heavy rounds impacting the walls (which were right on the other side of the barracks) along with the rat-a-tat-tat of the machine gun also caused Sam and Chris to fly out of the rack. Reacting purely on instinct, and still half asleep, Chris, Sam, and I grabbed our flak jackets, helmets, weapons, and ran outside. In our rush, we hadn't even had time to get dressed. We were all wearing PT gear (green shorts, green t-shirt) and we had slipped our boots on without bothering with socks. As we tore around the corner, however, we stopped in shock.
There was nobody there, nobody shooting, all was quiet and dark. We looked at each other, wide-eyed with confusion. . We looked around, but matter how hard we tried to discern it, we were unable to discover what had happened. We did notice, however, that the guard, usually loud and walking around, was nowhere to be seen. I was just about to remark on this when we heard a brief, shriek whistling sound, and, suddenly, the world exploded.
Apparently the machine gun fire had been a signal to begin an attack. Mortars began to rain down all around us, but miraculously we weren't hit in the onslaught. We had all immediately dropped to the ground and were hugging it as closely as we could. There was a brief lull, so we got up and ran for the safety of the barracks. Before we got there, however, the mortar attack resumed and the back wall of the barracks exploded in the shower of hot metal, dust, and dirt. The force of the explosion threw all three of us backwards, and when we raised our eyes we could see the barracks had been reduced to a pile of rubble. No mortar had the power to do that. I realized in that instant that it was not just mortars that we were being hit with, but instead heavy artillery, probably at least a 105 millimeter piece, a serious piece of hardware. Just then, mortars or whatever they were lobbing at us started landing again so we ran for the only safety that we could think of: the warehouse that we had been in earlier that night.
The mortars seem to chase us as we sprinted across the sand. Our breathing was harsh and was coming in short, sharp gasps as our legs pumped as fast as we could, sprinting as fast as possible for the scant security that the warehouse would offer. With the final desperate burst of speed, we dove inside and rolled to the right inside the missing door towards the wall. We quickly put our backs against the wall, put our head between our knees, and waited for the on onslaught to stop. No sooner had we thought about it, that the mortars did indeed stop. We waited a couple minutes, but the attack had seemed to have come to an end. As the realization came that the attack had ended and we had survived, we briefly took stock of the situation. We had our helmets, our flak jackets, our weapons, and little else. We knew that there had been nobody else in the barracks, (the infantry company was running patrols that particular night and all of the higher ups slept in the command center) so we didn't have to worry about anyone being killed in the attack.
I glanced at Sam, and let out a breath that I have been unconsciously holding. "That was freaking intense," I said to him
"Are you OK?" Sam asked.
This question was directed at me and I answered in the affirmative. "I think I'll be OK, just bring me a new pair of pants." I didn't mean to be funny, it was just the first thing that came to mind. Chris snorted, then began to laugh. Not a giggle or a snicker, but great, loud, gasping laughs. I couldn't help it; I began to join in, and then Sam did as well. For a solid couple minutes we couldn't contain the hilarious laughter that issued for from us. I have no doubt that it was a direct result at having lived through a mortar attack, but it felt spectacular to laugh. All of our stress and worry came pouring forth from us in one hilarious moment.
The laughter slowly died away and we all wiped away the tears that had come from laughing so hard. Eventually, we slipped back into silence. After a good five or 10 minutes, our heartbeats had slowed down enough and we had caught our breath. We quickly discussed our options and decided that we had better head over to the command center. We had no idea if that's where everyone had gone to, but it was as good of a place to start looking as any.
We were just about to get up when Chris grabbed my knee and squeezed, it was so hard that it
brought an involuntary cry of pain to my lips. "What is going on?" he stammered out?
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"What is going on?" he repeated. I looked at him, trying to figure out what he was talking about, but he didn't say a word. I noticed that he was not looking at me, but past me, over my shoulder. I turned around and followed his gaze to where it was directed and I noticed that he was staring at the far wall. The wall where he had almost crashed. The spot where had hit the hole. The hole where we had reburied the body. I turned on the flashlight that I had clipped to my vest earlier and directed the weak beam towards the spot where we had put the body. It was quite a distance away, but the beam clearly revealed the board that we had placed over the hole thrown back and the gaping maw of the hole stood open. Seemingly is if we had one mind, we all stood up and began creeping towards the hole, sure about what we would see when we got there, but not believing. As we crept, we all began to shake like a tree in autumn as the wind blows. We reached the edge of the hole and slowly, cautiously, peered in. The weak beam of the flashlight revealed empty sand in the bottom of the hole without a trace of the body that had been there.
We were suddenly overcome by a feeling of sheer, utter terror. As one we turned, and ran as fast as we could out of the warehouse, across the compound, and into the command center. I personally think we ran even faster than we did when the mortars were landing. We tore into the center and, thankfully, no one was right behind the door or we would've knocked them out. We all started talking at once, too terrified to make sense of each other or what we had just seen.
"Did you see..."
"Empty! What the..."
"Missing! How is it missing!
"There were no mortars there! No one came past the wire!"
"What? WHAT? WHAT?"
"STOP!" Sam screamed, and we all quickly lapsed into silence. In the quiet we could hear voices from the command center, all raised, talking about the mortar attack. It seems that our outburst and mad entry hadn't been noticed. "We don't know what happened, so just calm down." Sam lowered his voice to just above a whisper. "We know the body is missing, but we don't know exactly how it went missing. Somebody may have found it. Someone may have taken it. If it was one of our guys, we'll know soon enough. He looked at Chris. "I know what you're thinking Chris. I know how much you love those movies and shows. Stop. Before you even begin. There is no walking body around here. I can see that look in your eye."
Chris looked at Sam with wide eyes. "I wasn't going to say there was a zombie around Sam, honest. I know that that's all fake. But, what the hell happened? Where is it?"
"We'll find out in the morning. What we need to do now is head into the center where everybody is or they'll think that we bought it in the attack. If they find out that we ran to the warehouse, we won't have to worry about finding a body, they'll have three fresh ones. We'll look around in the morning and see what we can see. Maybe the concussions from the explosions moved the board and body out of the hole. Watch, it's going to be right by the hole when we check in the morning.
With that decided, we went into the command center where our presence was noticed, but our earlier absence was not. We all claimed a piece of real estate on the floor behind the radio and stretched out to try and sleep We were too tired to continue talking, so the remainder of the night was passed in silence as we were left alone with her thoughts and listen to the hum of activity around the command center. Eventually sheer exhaustion took over and we fell into a fitful, nightmare filled sleep, full of dead things and the feeling of ever-increasing dread.
At around 5 o'clock the next morning, I was awakened by Sam shaking my shoulder. "Dave, you need to get up," he said.
"What? What? Why? What's happening? What's going on?" was my reply.
"It's Chris," Sam said. "He's missing, he's not here."
"What do you mean he's missing," I asked, sitting up.
I wiped the sleep from my eyes and I saw that Sam was speaking the truth. There was no sign of
Chris. We hadn't had any equipment with us; it had all been lost in the artillery attack.
"How do you know he's missing? Do you think maybe he went back to the barracks?" I asked, "maybe try to salvage some of the stuff that we lost in the motor attack.
"I've already been over there and checked," Sam replied. "I've also asked around here
and nobody else has seen him. A couple platoons of grunts came in from patrol last night, pretty soon after the attack. They never found the guys who attacked, by the way. They did see tire tracks and the site that they were launching from though. Anyway, I just finished going over there talking to them, but they haven't seen anything out of the ordinary. If you don't know where he is we're going to have to go let somebody know that he's missing."
"Did you check the warehouse?" I asked.
"Yes I've been over to the warehouse. I've been all around the Command Center, and around the entire perimeter. I woke up in the middle of the night, around 0300 to make a head call and he was just missing, I figured I would see him on my way over to the heads, but there was no one. That's when I started getting worried and decided to try and find him. I've been looking for the past 2 hours. There's nothing out of the ordinary except for the warehouse," Sam said.
I looked at him, knowing where he was going with this. "What's out of the ordinary?" I asked.
"You remember how last night we thought the board may have been shaken loose and the body would be right next to the hole?"
"You mean the way you thought," I corrected.
Sam hadn't heard, or, if he did he hadn't responded. "The board is still away from the hole, but there is no body. I checked when I went to look for Chris. I'm starting to freak out man. Where's Chris? He couldn't have just walked away, right? What if he was kidnapped?"
"Chris wasn't kidnapped," I said, perhaps a little too sharply. "We were all in the command center last night, so we would've heard if people broke in and took him from right next to us. I do admit though, it is strange that he's missing. Especially since you've been looking for him since 0300. I'm lost for ideas, so let's do this the right way. Let's go let the higher ups now. Just, don't mention the FOB 500 or the body. We were attacked, we came in here, now Chris is missing. That's all," I finished.
"Agreed," Sam said. "I just hope someone knows where he is."
I had tried to keep my emotions in check, but at this point I had started to get really, really worried. At this point I started to get really, really worried. Chris could be a goofball and sometimes he didn't take things seriously, but he was still one of my best friends. He was quiet, sure, but that was his personality. It wasn't like him to just go off on his own. He liked being around people, even if he didn't talk a lot.
As we walked over to the higher-ups sleeping area, we looked around the area trying to see if we could see any trace of Chris, but we didn't have any luck. We reached the master sergeants hooch, and, with a certain amount of trepidation, we knocked on his door. The door swung open almost like he had been waiting for us, but we could tell in an instant that we had awoken him. Words were quickly exchanged, the situation was explained, and within a half hour Sam and I along with one of the platoons of infantrymen were dispatched to the nearest village try and see if Sam had taken off. We received an assurance from the master sergeant that some of the other platoons would search the base.
We entered the village and were immediately struck by how quickly it seemed that we had stepped back in time or entered another world. The village was arranged in a haphazard fashion, scattered over an area about the size of an acre. The villagers had grown accustomed to the presence of military forces in the area, so as we came in, they all left their houses and stood by. They knew the drill, they fully expected their houses to be searched. It had been their new normal for the past couple years. We split up into four-man teams and started searching the village. We left no stone, bed, or storage chest unturned, but there was no Chris to be found. No hint of him. Nothing. Disappointed we began to gather to head back to the base. As we started to file by, the tribal village elder took a step forward and began talking. We all stopped and stared at him. The lieutenant that was leading the patrol came back to us and he called our interpreter over. "What is he saying?" the lieutenant asked the interpreter.
The interpreter, a man named Wasad, began listening, then started replying to the man in Arabic. There was a lot of back-and-forth, accompanied by voices being raised by both men, wild gesticulations, and what looked like the glistening beginning of tears in the old man's eyes.. He made quite a few gestures at Sam and I, so there was little doubt that what he was saying had something to do with us. Shaking his head, Wasad turned to the lieutenant and translated, "he says these two are cursed. He says they have awoken the ghoul, and there is no help for them. He says that their friend has been taken by the ghoul, and they will be next. He says their souls are tainted and that they are damned. Nothing can be done to help them. They will be taken by the ghoul. It is just some silly, old superstition that people tell in order to get children to stay in line."
Shaking his head at the superstitious beliefs of rural villagers, the interpreter walked away. Sam and I looked at each other, and I could tell Sam was scared, which was evident by his wide and open expression. The old man was still yelling and pointing at us, but everyone else seemed to have realized that the show was over. Disappointed by our failure to find Chris, we all begin to walk back to the base with heavy hearts and the old man's words weighing heavily on Sam and my heads.
As we walked back to FOB Smitty, Sam and I began to fall back a little in line and we found ourselves walking next to Wasad. An Iraqi by birth, Wasad had emigrated to the United States as a young boy when some members of his extended family had been executed by Saddam's Republican Guard. Growing up in the United States, Wasad was a naturalized citizen, but still very proud of his Iraqi heritage. He had signed on to come back to his native country to serve as an interpreter because he believed very strongly in what the United States and our allies were doing. As a native Iraqi and not a member of the military, Wasad had an "in" with the people in the areas we patrolled. True, he was still an outsider, but he knew some of the customs, stories, and intricacies that were foreign to us.
"Hey, Wasad, I got a question for you," Sam said as he walked along.
Wasad looked over at Sam and I. He grinned and said, "I'm surprised you waited this long to ask. You want to know what a ghoul is, don't you?"
I grinned back and said "guilty. We're just curious. Is this like a ghoul that people in America know?"
Wasad shook his head and, clearing his throat, he hawked a large glob of phlegm out of his throat and onto the sand. "Not really," he said. He took a deep breath and began, "the ghoul is a creature that lives underground. It usually feasts on dead bodies, which is why they are usually found in cemeteries. They have long claws that enable them to dig through the dirt and to also claw their way through caskets and burial shrouds. They usually don't bother live people, but they have been known to abduct people, kill them, and then eat them. It is usually described as being human in size and appearance, but that is only because they take on the appearance of those that they eat. The only effective way to kill them is via fire, by burning. Guns, knives, traditional weapons like those are worthless. Fire purifies whatever it touches and since the ghoul is an unholy creature, purification will kill it." At this Wasad shrugged and continued "or so they say. This is all just a superstition, just like Ireland's Loch Ness Monster or the Pacific Northwest's Bigfoot. This is a tale usually told to frighten children in order to get them to obey their parents. Those villagers don't know what happened to your friend, but they do resent having Americans in the area. They were probably trying to frighten you all away. Don't worry." With these final words, Wasad sped up and caught up to the lieutenant leading the patrol. Sam and I looked at each other, but we didn't speak. We were seriously freaked out at this point, but didn't want to say anything else. We walked back to the base in silence, contemplating what Wasad had said
Over the next couple days, a couple more attempts to find Chris were made, but nothing had come of it. It seemed like Chris had just simply been swallowed by the desert. Sam and I wandered around the base, seeing if we could find anything, but absolutely nothing had changed. The hole where we had reburied the body still remained empty with the board still thrown to the side. The day that Wasad had told us the legend of the ghoul we had snuck back to the warehouse, an unspoken agreement that we were going to see if any tunnels we connected to the hole our purpose. We both felt foolish, but we would feel a little bit better if we knew for sure. As we stood on the edge and peered in, we could see the faint outline of where the body had been laying on its side the first timer we saw it, but that was all. No body, no tunnels, no Chris. Sam and I discussed covering the hole back up with the board, but we decided against it. I think we were both afraid of what we might find; that we would return and the board would be thrown back again.
The days began to quickly blur together. Shortly after Chris disappeared, our orders to return to Camp Fallujah were put on hold so we could assist with the search. Since nothing had been found, Chris was officially declared MIA, or Missing in Action. There was nothing we could do. We were told that if he turned up, we would be the first that would be notified. Eventually, we received new orders that we were going to be returning back to Camp Fallujah. We start to gather our things, that is, what we could have salvaged from the rubble of the barracks. We had been staying in the command center along with everybody else. Considering how much of our gear was still buried under tons of rubble, we were returning to Camp Fallujah considerably lighter than when we arrived. We were unable to salvage anything of Chris's from the barracks. Plus, we figured, if he did turn up, he would need what was there, so we left it. Once packed, we had nothing else to do but hurry up and wait. Sam and I were conflicted about leaving. We felt that it was wrong that we were leaving Chris, but we had searched all over for him, the grunts had searched for him, but there was absolutely no trace. We kept hoping against hope that he would show up by random chance one day, but as the days went by and there was no Chris, we began to lose hope. Finally the day before we were supposed to return back to the camp arrived. Sam I should have guessed, but we were assigned watch that night for four hours (2200 to 0200). There was no sense arguing about it, everybody had to take a turn pulling watch, so around 2145, Sam and I got up, got dressed, gathered our weapons, and walked across the base to the guardhouse this stood by the front gate.
A thin, wooden, rickety structure that was only accessible by ladder stretched about 15 feet into the air. It just didn't seem unsteady, it was unsteady. The slightest breeze made the tower shift and wobble like a drunk, but true to the militaries nature, it wasn't broken, so there was no need to fix it. Upon reaching the tower, Sam and I called up to the two Marines we were relieving and as they came down they said that everything was quiet. After bidding each other good night, Sam and I ascended the structure and settled in for a lonely, cold, four hour stretch.
The minutes started to crawl by, and as the time went on the cold seem to get more and more intense. Sam and I were both wearing multiple layers, but since we weren't able to move around much we were losing a lot of body heat. The only real movement we were able to obtain was passing the night vision goggles back-and-forth. As we looked across the empty desert, looking for any movement, it was easy to see why this land was as desolate as it was. There was nothing around except for the village a little ways away. There were no bushes, no trees, no nothing. The only movement came from shifting sand that the wind picked up and blew across our field of vision. We made a couple attempts at talking, mostly about Chris and where he might be, but we both begin to get a little depressed talking about it so we gradually began to let the talk fall off.
Night vision goggles give the entire world an eerie greenish quality. They require a little bit of ambient light to work, and you have absolutely no depth perception, but it does enable you to see clearly at night. Sam and I scanned the desert again, and again, and again. We were supposed be looking for anybody that maybe trying to sneak up on the base, infiltrate the base, or were otherwise up to some sort of no good. It was boring work, but it did require concentration, so it was tiring. Time stretched on and on. We discussed letting each other get some sleep, but we realized that it would be our asses if something happened. Plus, we were leaving the next day and we figured we could grab some shut eye on the ride back.
Sam and I had about an hour to go in our watch. We had started to become complacent, and we were not truly watching as clearly or sharply as we could have. Our first hint that something was wrong was just this weird, gut feeling. We had a sensation that we were being watched. We looked around in the base, but there was nobody stirring. We used the night vision goggles to look out across the desert, but again we didn't see anything. We looked at each other both knowing what we were experiencing, but unable to explain it. Suddenly, we heard a whistle and then the world blew up about 100 yards in front of us outside the walls.
We were under attacks again by those freaking mortars. The night vision goggles, intended operate in low light conditions, picked up at the explosion of the mortar with a blinding, white flare that seem to sear my eyeballs. I had been the unlucky one that was looking through the goggles when the mortar went off, so I was temporarily blinded. I groped behind me for the hand crank siren we used to signal trouble and began to turn the crank, as if everyone in the base hadn't heard the explosion. Within seconds another mortar hit, again outside the gate, but a lot closer than the first one. Another mortar, even closer. Another mortar, even closer. Sam and I realize that they were walking the mortars closer and closer to us, and if we stayed where we were, we were as good as dead.
Disregarding the rickety swaying tower, we both jumped out as quickly as possible, hitting the ground harder than we intended, but still alive. Sam grabbed me by and the vest and started hauling me across the base to the concrete bunkers that were scattered around and we dove in. At this point, my vision had started to return and the first thing I saw was the tower we had been in only moments before exploding as it was hit by a mortar. It seemed that we had gotten out in the nick of time.
We were unable to appreciate our luck however as from outside the gate we heard an unholy scream as people began to charge the gate. This was a new concept, we had only received mortar fire up until that point. Sam began to fire into the charging masses followed quickly by myself. At this point we were no longer alone. Every Marine that was stationed at FOB Smitty had responded to the explosions and began to defend themselves from the masses that were attacking the base. Within seconds we were laying down a devastating barrage of gunfire. It didn't seem like it was doing anything, however, people kept coming and coming. From the opposite corner of the base, Sam and I heard another scream as if we were being attacked from another side. The grunts they were with us were still facing the charging masses, so Sam and I turned in case there was another threat that we had to face.
What we saw caused this to stop dead in our tracks. Standing in the empty mouth of the warehouse, we saw what appeared to be Chris! The massive gun fire behind us faded away, and Sam and I both stared at Chris. Quickly, without any regard for what was happening behind us, Sam began to sprint as quickly as he possibly could toward the warehouse. It took me a second to get moving, but eventually I was right behind him. As we ran full tilt, I heard Sam yelling "Chris! Chris! Where have you been man!?"
As we got closer and closer to Chris, we realize that he looked different. He seemed much, much leaner. He had dark circles underneath his eyes and his skin seemed somehow loose, like it had been hung on his frame instead of wrapping his body. As we got closer to Chris, instead of rushing to meet us, he seemed to melt back into the darkness of the warehouse, oblivious to our cries to wait and stop. We still heard the massive amount of gunfire behind us, but we charged into the warehouse with total disregard for our safety, oblivious to the threats all around us, totally focused and intent on rescuing our friend. As we entered the warehouse, we momentarily couldn't see Chris, but then Sam picked him up. He was still walking backwards, almost gliding. As he moved, he kept staring at us with his arms out as it beseeching us to give him a hug.
Sam and I both stopped about 15 feet in front of Chris, both overjoyed at the fact that our friend had returned to us. I had just opened my mouth ask Chris where the hell he had been, when he stopped walking and even stopped me speaking with an upraised hand.
Chris pointed his right hand at us, and then clenched his fist. Sam and I both doubled over; it felt like we had been punched in the stomach. As we tried to catch our breath, a jumble of images hit us out of nowhere. It was like watching a movie in fast forward, only instead of video it was a series of stills in our minds. We saw a man, approximately middle-aged, being walked through the front gate of the camp, but it was not the camp as we knew it. It was the camp as it had been as a Republican Guard stronghold. We saw scenes of torture, beatings, and finally an execution via a pistol shot to the back of the head. We saw the body being thrown into a grave and a board covered with sand. Finally we saw ourselves, as we had been the other night. Driving through the warehouse. Chris hitting the hole where the body was buried. Sam as he kicked at the body. Sam as he performed his final act of desecration. Finally, Chris walking to the head at night, with a dark shadow stalking him.
Suddenly, the warning of the tribal elder and Wasad's explanation came rushing back to us. The entire, horrible truth came crashing down upon me in a rush. I realized that the body we had seen in the whole was indeed a ghoul. The images we had seen of the torture and execution were not an attempt by the Republican Guard to execute an innocent man, but an attempt to rid themselves of a scourge. We also came to the sickening realization that the reason that the body was missing was that it had come back after Sam's desecration. Whether the ghoul's return was a direct result of what Sam did, I have no idea. I remembered what Wasad had said about the legend; only fire could kill a ghoul because fire was seen as purifying. The pistol shot had done nothing more than put it into a state of hibernation of some sort. We had woke it with the Humvee, Sam had majorly pissed it off, and Chris was the one who had the bad luck to be walking to the head at night when the ghoul decided to go hunting.
The jumble of images we had been shown slowed and finally came to a stop. We looked it Chris standing about 15 front feet in front of us, but we now realized exactly what it was. It was not Chris, but instead a ghoul. The reason it looked like Chris was simple. The horrible truth that I wanted to deny and couldn't was that Chris had been eaten by the ghoul. There was no other explanation for how it could look like Chris. A wave of nausea hit me as I realized this and I almost passed out, but I forced myself to stay upright.
Sam had not said a word, but with one look at his face I knew he had realized all of what I had as well. The superstitions of the villagers of the Middle East were right all along. This was not a zombie, but a humanoid creature that preyed on the living, eating dead flesh whenever possible. However, we had done much more than simply wake it. We had personally wronged it. We had completely disrespected it. Sam may have been the one that abused this thing when we thought it was a body, but all three of us had been complicit. We had not done all we could've to stop Sam. We had protested, but not strongly enough. Now, we could see the desire for revenge burning in Chris's eyes and we knew that we were in some major trouble.
All of this had happened in seconds, but it felt like hours. As we stared at what used to be Chris, he threw back his head and gave an unholy shriek that sounded like nails on a chalkboard, only louder than anything I have ever heard. After its shriek died away, it squatted down on all fours and looked at the both of us as of trying to decide what to do. Suddenly, faster than I would have believed possible, the ghoul came at us both. Sam and I both reacted without thinking, we began firing our weapons from the hip, adding to the din that was still continuing from the outside. I saw bits of the creature fly off as it came towards us, but I had no idea if we were both hitting it or not. The ghoul was coming straight at me, but at the last second it seemed to change its mind and it leapt towards Sam. I saw them collide and Sam went down with a scream. I kept pulling the trigger of my weapon, not realizing that it was empty and nothing was being fired out. In a second I saw the creatures hand flash down and with its yellowing, cracked fingernails, it eviscerated Sam
I screamed at the sight. Watching what used to be my best friend kill my other best friend. Sam turned his head and looked at me with disbelief in his eyes. His intestines slipped out of his body, but he made no move to try and hold them in. I saw Sam take a huge shuddering breath and I thought he took in a lungful of air to utter one final scream, but if that was his intention, it was cut short by the ghoul's hand swiping in from the side and tearing his throat out. This was too much for me to handle. I vomited as I stared in horror at the scene. I knew instinctively that I had just seen the law of Sam extinguished in one horrifying instant.
I had ceased pulling the trigger of my weapon, some dim part of his brain telling me that it was doing nothing, but I didn't realize it until later. I was reacting purely on instinct. It slowly began to dawn on me that there was nothing I could do. The creature threw down the remains of Sam's throat and slowly stood, staring at me. There was no one else left to distract it, it was just the ghoul and myself. I slowly began to back away, and, as hard as it is to admit it now, I panicked. I threw my rifle like a spear at the ghoul, turned, and ran a fast as I could.
I ran towards the gunfire, towards the cold night, terrified of what was in front of me, but even more terrified of what was behind me. As I crossed the threshold of the warehouse and sprinted across the sand towards the other Marines, I heard the sound of rapid footsteps behind me. I knew that the ghoul was getting closer and closer. I expected to feel the white hot knife of its fingernails in the back of my neck at any second. I was about 50 feet away from the other Marines, and getting closer by the step. Now 40 feet, now 30 feet, now...
The world seemed to explode all around me, and the word mortar flashed in my head for a second. The next second it felt like a giant had picked me up and thrown me. The mortar had landed behind me, close enough that I was sure I was gone. However, when I landed, it hit the sand, rolled across it, and came to a rest against the wall of the command center.
I could feel myself sinking towards oblivion, but I forced my eyes open and looked around again, determined to take one last look at life, and the earth that I was sure I was leaving behind. I could see the sand grains in the mud brick walls of the Command Center, I saw the other Marines still fighting, now driving off the larger force that had been attacking. I saw Marines running back and forth carrying ammunition and supplies. I saw our men launching mortars. I saw a hundred other small, minute details, but what I didn't see was the ghoul. The creature was gone. It was either waiting in the shadows, watching me, or it was just possible that it was dead. The mortar hit land a close knit behind me that I had basically thrown me across the compound. There was no way something could've survived if it was close behind me. A mortar causes an explosion, but it kind of consists of fire. A smile came to my cracked, dry lips as I sunk towards the dark abyss.
I awoke in agony, surrounded by the color white. My first thought was that this must be heaven, but then I realized that Heaven surely would not have cheap lighting. What I had initially mistaken for paradise was actually the walls and fluorescent lighting of a hospital. I tried to turn my head to look around, but a wave of agony preventing me from moving. I tried to call out for help, for a nurse, but my throat was so dry no sound issued forth except for a pitiful squeak. I experimentally tried moving my fingers and toes, which responded, so that was good, at least I wasn't paralyzed. Just then the door open and a nurse walked in. She saw my eyes open, smiled and said "Good Morning. Glad you decided to join us. I'll go let the doctor know you're awake."
She returned in a matter of minutes accompanied by a short, balding navy doctor. He asked how I was feeling, and he realized by the pitiful squeaking that still came from my throat that I was trying to talk. He chuckled a little bit, then assured me my voice would be returning, it was just going to take a little bit of time. He begin to fill me in on what it happened. It seemed that as the base was being attacked, a mortar had indeed landed close behind me, I had been wearing my flak jacket, which had save my life, but I had suffered some pretty bad bruising, as well as some severe lacerations to the backs of my legs. I had almost bled to death, but they had gotten me onto a medical evacuation helicopter on time. I would walk again, it was just going to take a while, just like my voice. I kept trying to talk, but the doctor got a confused look on his face, I realized he wasn't able to understand me, so I forced the words to come, sure that they were tearing my throat apart from the inside out.
The doctor asked if they were friends of mine and I nodded. The doctor shook his head side to side. "I have no idea, I'm sorry. You were the only one that was sent here from that FOB. There were many other wounded, but for some reason they were kept at another hospital. After the bleeding was stopped and you were stabilized, you were sent here."
I, however, knew the truth. Even as I asked I knew it, but I was unable to accept it. I would never again see Chris or Sam. The loss hit me all over again and brought tears to my eyes. The doctor said that he had rounds to make, but he would return in a bit and give me something to help me sleep. Both he and the nurse left, slowly pulling the door shut behind them. I lay in the hospital bed, unable to move without severe pain, and continued to weep. I was weeping for Chris, for Sam, for all the other Marines at the base who may or may not have made it, and for myself as well. I knew we had done was wrong, I knew that we should have stopped Sam from what he had been doing, but we'd not done more, we told him to stop, but didn't make him. Eventually, the doctor came back and injected some fluid into my IV. Everything grew hazy and as I sunk back towards the dark, I forced myself to imagine the faces of Chris and Sam. Perhaps I would see them in a dream.
As I said when I began, this all happened about 10 years ago. I still have trouble sleeping, and occasionally there are memories that are crystal clear, like I had just experienced them. I have tried to move on with my life. I went to college, got a job, got married, but I still feel like something is missing, like friends that I should have shared these experiences with. Not a day goes by that I don't think with regret of Chris, Sam, and the events of that dark night. We're approaching the 10 year anniversary now, 10 years since they were lost when we awakened an unspeakable terror from the desert. I have never heard of any other reports, but I am starting to believe that I never really left anything behind. As I said earlier, I know that a mortar can cause a fire, but it doesn't burn anything. The exploding metal is what kills, not fire. I have no idea what caused me to come to this realization, but lately, I sometimes get the feeling that I am being watched, that I'm not alone. I try to put it out of my mind, but it's difficult. Just tonight I had returned from walking my dog around the block, and the feeling of being watched came over me. I glanced around the yard and neighborhood, at least what I could see from my front steps, but there was nothing. I am certain, however, that I heard a sound just out of sight along the dark sidewalk, shaded by trees. It sounded like dry, skittering leaves. Like dry, desiccated skin sliding across the pavement.