Article Short Story I wrote, Roll-Call

Bang! Bang! Bang!

I, still fully asleep, look up, as a bright light overwhelms me as the door to our CHU (Container Housing Unit) flings open.

I hear a booming voice, but it is unintelligible as I regain a tangent of cognition. As my eyes adjust to the discomforting immediacy of SSG Donahue’s silhouette, I began to comprehend the words being spoken to me, us.

SSG D speaks louder than was necessary in those waking moments, “Company formation at the motor-pool, 20 minutes!” The door was immediately slammed shut by SSG D, partially a reprieve from the early morning light that had invaded our home, and equally a measure to stir an awakening among us.

I heard his words, but ever so wanted to pretend that I was not listening. Hearing 20 minutes immediately computed to my well-conditioned soldiered mind that we needed to be there in 10-15 minutes. I without hesitation chose to be there as late as possible, need to keep my Specialist “sham-shield” status.

Again, I began to regain a greater appreciation for my immediate situation and surroundings. A feat made all the more difficult by our last week of unrest, during the always trying “Quick Reaction Force” detail, nine months into our fifteen-month deployment to Iraq during the Surge. I lay on the same cot issued to generations before me, one only capable of giving a dog-tired soldiers any degree of rest. As I throw off my “woobie”, I look at the two other inhabitants in my (our) domicile of rest.

PFC Young and my fellow Specialist, who I came to the battalion with a little under a year ago. SPC Actaeon and PFC Young, were my squad-mates, and the other “Joe” members of our truck-crew. Young (AKA Tard, for his “retard strength”), a nickname that made him salty to boot, as our relative “boot”. As well as Actaeon, who easily enough managed the moniker “Greco”. SSG Donohue was our truck commander, with two tours under his belt, and an easy going but focused point of view, he was the best NCO I have ever known.

I was acting gunner, and therefore was most immediately responsible for my crew, and their corresponding actions to make formation. Our crew, us. In all honesty, it was a responsibility I despised, and which myself and Greco happily passed back and forth as we F***ed up individually in the role. That is not an admission of being shitbags, but that we accepted the OCD standards of our NCOs (Don, Platoon Sergeant, 1st Sergeant, Command Sergeant Major), could not be met. Greco and I basically gauged that our chain of command was not really expecting what they said, but to meet them halfway. And that is what we attempted to do.

I began making more noise than I ever wish to at my exhausted friends, and rouse “my” crew. For whatever stupidity follows our retarded tour thus far. This is the S**t we hoped to forgo upon departing garrison life, and into a combat zone, where we can be treated as somewhat responsible young adults.

The three of us threw on our uniforms and gathered our immediately necessary sensitive items (personal weapons, a spare magazine, and an MBiter radio on my part) in a space no larger than the smallest walk-in closet. We do so, half-alive and half-aware, a norm that no person should have to meet.

We exit our CHU, and see a somewhat familiar but all the same disturbing sight. Every member of our battalion is stumbling towards the same direction we are supposed to. I know the “walking dead” expression, but this isn’t it, it is something different.

No matter, we fall in with our cohorts, not even immediately cognizant of the order that woke us. It is fair advice to follow the crowd in the military when you are somewhat unaware of your immediate intended function. In our collective stupor of sleeplessness and physical exhaustion, we followed our crowd.

The city in which we operated in was always talking. There was the near constant chatter of gun-fire and explosions. After nine months in and around that city, those violent events gave a certain peace of mind, where their absence raised alarm.

They were absent this cold and solemn morning, around a group of buddies that always found humor in the worst of circumstances.

Our friends and comrades are headed towards the battalion motor-pool, and we follow without a second thought. No jokes were made on the journey, a rarity among the collective company surrounding us. We have been here before, and bad news usually follows such an atmosphere.

We have had plenty of bad news recently, with an ongoing steady trend of friends being lost to the nature of war. Weapons and tools have evolved, but that part of warfare hadn’t changed since before recorded history.

We were late, at least in comparison to our fellow members of the Banshee Company to which we belonged. Looking at their faces as we approached, it appeared as if they had been standing there all night, waiting for something to stir them into motion. There was a noticeable melancholy in the faces of my fellow soldiers, one that was admittedly painful to see among persons I considered to be my second family. There was also an apparent seething hatred among them all, one where the calm surface they exhibited was not reflected by the inward determinacy towards extreme violence on those who have lethally contested our presence since arriving in this far away land.

We took our places within the Banshee Company formation, filling absent spaces that were explicitly tied to our roles and functions in an organization greater than any one man in our unit. Over the next few minutes, others did the same. The end result was a battalion of soldiers in formal formation within our motor pool. Minus Apache Company, who only had their HQ platoon present. No matter the immediate issues, we had an ongoing responsibility to keep a presence within our Area of Responsibility within the city. That boot had fallen on us before, and now Apache took up the guard. All members had a weary and pained body language painted across them, with a greater resolve apparent among the Non-Commissioned Officers that guided the implementation of our Commissioned Officers, who directed our cumulative efforts according to the assigned vision from the Battalion Commander that we served under.


Hundreds of pairs of boots snapped together, despite many having to reach into their own energy reserves to do so, myself included. Made all the more difficult by paying false respect to an officer we all hated, Lieutenant Colonel Tucker. Our hatred is well-founded, a coward of a leader who caused more casualties by avoiding fights that should have been fought head-on. The only man who made me hesitate to reenlist, ordering his lower officers (and us enlisted as result) to follow his stupidity.

LTC Tucker immediately took stand in front of us in the motor pool, with a near immediate order to stand “At Ease”. There was movement to follow his command, but no ease. Something was up. Tucker rapidly turned the formation over to our highest NCO, Command Sergeant Major Bell. A man who seemed to hate his fellow enlisted soldiers in garrison back in the States, but overseas we came to realize more and more that he was trying his best to look after us in respect to ineffectual leadership from LTC Tucker. They were private battles between Tucker and Bell, but we all knew the source of change in our ongoing headache with insufficient formal leadership from Tucker.

Bell without any further formality began the continuous and ongoing practice of accountability through roll-call. The only difference this day, was he skipped immediately to my Banshee Company. Bell called out first our First Sergeant, Owens. 1SG Owens had silently done his best to protect his lower-enlisted soldiers from the calamities occurring higher in our chain of command. He was a hard-ass, but he protected us more than I would ever know.

“First Sergeant Owens!”

“Here, Sergeant Major!”

Next followed was the calling towards our Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class Burnett. A hard-ass to a fault, but the best and wisest man I have ever known besides my father. SFC Burnett was always cool and collected around me, outside from when he hosted us “Joes” who were away from our families during Christmas.

He did something I had never seen from him, he hesitated, only to respond excruciating seconds after Bell’s command to address his presence. Even then, it was with little more than an anguished response rather than his trademark motivational demeanor.

“Here, Sergeant Major!”

SSG Donohue was called next by CSM Bell.

Donohue as a dutiful NCO responded nearly immediately.

“Here, Sergeant Major!”

“Staff Sergeant Matt Donohue! Report!”

Donohue, among the rest of us were perplexed as he repeated himself vocally.

“HERE, SERGEANT MAJOR!” Donohue responded desperately as if he was about to lose his stripes.

Our buddies around us seem equally upset at CSM Bell’s command, and as puzzled around the circumstances as our crew was.

“Specialist Moore!” with my name called, I tried to remedy the overlooking of SSG Donohue by sounding off as loud as I could.

“HERE, SERGEANT MAJOR!!” a pause followed.

“Specialist Anthony Moore!”

Frantically, I shouted with as much vigor as I can muster.


Nothing but silence in response, and the looks of those around me that could seize hope from the strongest of men. Something was wrong, more wrong than we had ever previously expected.

“Specialist Actaeon!” my friend did his duty in firmly responding as Donohue and I had done before.

“Here, Sergeant Major!”


Actaeon shouted himself hoarse as he attempted to respond in earnest, only for our crew to be the only party to hear his passionate assertion of existence.

“Private First Class Young!”

Young was catching on better than the rest of us apparently.

He despondently and half-heartedly responded.

“Here, Sergeant Major!”


Young made no attempt to respond, looking utterly defeated.

CSM Bell did an immediate 90 Degree turn and faced LTC Tucker, as he reported the absence of four troops under his command.

An Army band not previously seen or acknowledge by us began to play Taps, a tune that can melt the iciest of outward soldier facades. Our buddies around us are openly sniffling and outright crying as that somber song translates the painful reality of what has occurred. Even having experienced such ceremonies before, that tune echoes the immediate pain that comes with every friend and acquaintance that is lost.

We slowly began to realize our state, and our crew of four huddled together while listening to that solemn song that has followed the passing of generations of American combatants before us. There was no acceptance, only unsaid acknowledgement among us that signaled we had followed the path of many before us.

We concluded our small gathering after an unfathomable amount of time, only to look up in awe. We were no longer among our comrades in Iraq, but among over a million of comrades from several generations who had met similar fates.

As we attempted to make sense of our new circumstance, a figure in an olive drab, with full-bird Colonel Insignia, wearing a warm smile, extended a hand towards SSG Donohue.

The figure with a noticeably heavy weight on his conscious, but balanced with an apparent graceful understanding of our collective fate, said only two words, “Welcome gentlemen.”

Some of us here have lost friends in combat, and this is my tribute to all those friends we have lost. May they all Rest in Peace, and hopefully, we will see each other once again.

Taps A Shau Valley 1969 COMMENT.jpg
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Sleep, just sleep. Get some sleep. “Vehicle buckles”. You bust your knee on the armored frame. You are back-door now, you are an observer. It is near the end of Quick Reaction Force (QRF) week. We have been outside the wire 152 hours of it, Out of a 168 hour week. We rotate such weeks, but there is always another. Essentially we are working for $2.50/hour, to get killed, or worse. We are a single truck crew, among two others. As an observer, there is nothing you can meaningfully do to defend yourself, only if you dismount.

Get some sleep, hit an IED crater, and then another. Bomb craters have no comparison to pot-holes, filled with fluid (of whatever kind) turns such craters into splash-mountain for the gunner. That fluid hits your sense of smell and physical touch for the whole crew, as it seeps down into the internal truck from your gunner like a mild but completely disgusting waterfall. Sleep. “Hey Ryan, pass me your gloves”, our gunner calls out to me. We are driving at 50 MPH, if we can, and the wind chill in an Iraqi winter for a gunner is literally numbing to the body and mind. Your body is numb? Fine, so long as your hands can work the gun if needed, and your mind aware enough where to direct the gun where needed. Sleep. Your buddy on gun calls once more to rotate gloves.

Shooters are a secondary threat, IEDs are the primary. It is impossible to see all potential IED threats. In realistic terms, it is not “if”, but “when”. For every eight you find before hitting, there are two hidden, waiting to punch your patrol in the gut. Please sleep. Blinking Rear-Door, you see what route you are on, and it isn’t a good one. You instinctively keep your mouth open, a small help in dealing with blast pressure from an explosive detonating right next to your vehicle. Most IEDs are “party-poppers” ones that normally cause superficial damage to the vehicle, but not the crew. Gunners know which times, dates, and locations to hunker down in the turret. But there is no way to prepare for all potential eventualities. For the love of God, please let me sleep.

You then remember the truck crew you lost within the last week. You lost your buddies to a “cato-kill”, a deep-bury catastrophic IED. That in past experience completely obliterates the truck-crew, and the truck. On a previous “cato-kill” where we lost four friends, we searched for their remains (and sensitive items) for 72 hours, and we found nothing left of the crew. In the Rear-Door, there is nothing you can do against such a threat. But how do you erase the known threat in your mind? You can’t, it is there. It is there every minute of every hour your crew is out on patrol. Why can’t I sleep?

I know, but to acknowledge what potentially jinxes us to the worst outcome. Close my eyes for a moment, quickly followed by a relatively distant blast. We chase such noises. We go directly towards where the danger is, it is our responsibility to attempt to provide some semblance of security to the local population. And which we attempt to prevent every day, we fail. Every. Single. Day. Don’t get me wrong, we want to do our jobs, we obsessively want to do our jobs. We left garrison life back in the states in order to do our jobs, instead of just training to do our jobs. Nearly every time, we are too late. We show up minutes afterwards to a horror scene, innocent people dead or dying. Show up on scene to family members lamenting and mourning the worst day imaginable. Doing everything in our power to prevent such events, and we are consistently failing. Such failures break both mind and body, it is a spear both into the brain and heart. But we keep trying, and every failure leads to a deepening burrow at our resolve. We need to do better, but we are doing the best we can. No wonder I can’t sleep.

There is blood on our hands. Literally on our hands, when we attempt to aid blast-site survivors. Of course our buddies we failed to protect, but an inexhaustible debt that can never be repaid to the local nationals we are there to protect. They are people like you and me, people that only want to provide for their families and keep them safe. That’s on us, and the weight of that feeling is immense. Nonetheless, I need to sleep.

But it won’t come. It never really has since our tour began. Beyond QRF, and daily patrols, we do occasional “pushes” into problem neighborhoods, hoping to a make a dent into the violence as we had been unable to do otherwise. “Kack, Kack, Kack”, nearby AKM fire, though it wasn’t directed at us. Our convoy splits off our route to the suspected source. Once again, we are too late. We ask our local interpreter to ask the victimized civilians for any details that would allow us to find their attackers. They refuse to answer, only to prevent reprisal attacks. Our truck has stopped, but with no real sense of peace to get that inkling of rest that the body is screaming to want. Grunts in the past have been described as the “walking-dead”, and we were better off being mounted in vehicles. In our relative comfort, it never comes. All the same, most of us can’t sleep.

Our vehicle commander (who had two tours already under his belt), slept relatively like a baby when he rotated on Rear-Door. The rest of us on our first tour were jealous to the point of salivating at his ability to do what we couldn’t. “Stop trying to control what you can’t” was his advice, and it was difficult for us to collectively fathom, among the lower enlisted. We just felt so helpless, not only to protect ourselves, but the good people we were ordered to protect. It would be fine if it was just us, we were taught long ago to accept our own mortality. We held funeral ceremonies state-side in training in order to reinforce that we, or our other buddies could very likely die in combat. However it did not prepare for us that innocent people who would die for our failures. We collectively volunteered to fight, they didn’t. Some guys acted like they didn’t care, but there was a subtle depression in all who joined up to fight, and rarely have a direct enemy to fight. We were literally driving around in circles. “GOD-DAMNIT SLEEP!”

Sleep wasn’t nightmares, and it was a temporary reprieve from the living nightmares. And then I (we) had our reprieve, we all fell asleep in our truck once arriving back in our motor-pool. You could barely find a worse place to sleep, but we all did. Now off of QRF week, we collectively awoke to our Tactical Operations Center radioing us to get ready for our twice-daily routine patrol outside QRF. And the cycle went on.

Five months later, the truck commander and I were wounded in a blast. I was largely unscathed compared to others, but my one tour was at a last. . I was medically retired at age 20, around the time my school friends were just starting their own lives, and I started into a longer state of life anew. My truck commander went on with our crew, and he was wounded once more on our tour, and more seriously two tours later onto. You get home though, and you never get the sleep you so desperately wish for.

We have new found peace, but a peaceful life not ever known. It remains a thought never here nor known. It never comes, you are always never at rest or at peace either never known. You have a new normal, a normal never found in the comfiest of conditions. You can return home to a loving family, and that should be enough. But, it isn’t. Without those craters, the cold/heat, the lost friends, the wailing of innocent families who have lost everything, the explosions, the gunfire, the moments away from death or being severally wounded. You are still there. Despite all that, the troubles remain. Maybe, just maybe if I went back, I could sleep again. A dozen years later, in a comfy apartment, with no threat of ours and yours’ dying, and little probability of you or your crew dying, you will find yourself some semblance of life.

Get some sleep. We as a crew, find a crew’s death worthy dying. Please why can’t I sleep?

Over there it feels normal. Back in the safety of the free world, it just feels weird. I want that world again. Back at so many of you warned me, (BTDT)s. But I so much wanted to be you. You were right. It was something else. Something I should have never rushed into. But the best lessons are hard learned. I hope to pass on that lesson, as you have to me.

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