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Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience

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Men in Black

By U.S. Army Specialist Colby Buzzell

Warning: The following text contains language that may be considered offensive.

I was in my room reading a book (Thin Red Line) when the mortars started coming down.  Sgt Horrocks ripped open the door and yelled, "Grab your guys! And go to the motor pool! The whole BATTALION is rolling out!" Holy shit! The whole Battalion?! This must be big.

One by one the Strykers were rolling out of the motor pool ready to hunt down whoever was fucking with us. Soldiers in the hatches of the vehicles were hooting and hollering, yelling their war cries and doing the Indian yell thing as they drove off and locked and loaded their weapons.

As we headed north up route Tampa, I was sticking out of my hatch, behind the .50 cal, and I glanced over to the left side of the vehicle, at which time I observed a man, dressed in all black with a terrorist beard, jump out all of the sudden from the side of a building. He pointed his AK47 barrel right at my fucking pupils. I froze and then a split second later, I saw the fire from his muzzle flash leaving the end of his barrel and brass shell casings exiting the side of his AK as he was shooting directly at me. I heard and felt the bullets whiz literally inches from my head, hitting all around my hatch making a "Ping" "Ping" “Ping” sound.

All of the sudden all hell came down around us, all these guys, wearing all black, a couple dozen on each side of the street, on rooftops, alleys, edge of buildings, out of windows, everywhere, and started unloading on us. AK fire and multiple RPG's were flying at us from every single fucking direction. IED's were being ignited on both sides of the street.

I kind of lost it and was yelling and screaming all sorts of things (mostly cuss words).

I fired and fired and fired and fired and fired. At EVERYTHING.

I saw a crowd of people suspiciously peeking around a comer at us, I pointed this out to Sgt Horner. As he was shooting non-stop from his hatch, he told me to just fucking shoot them, and he briefly explained to me that these people have no fucking business out on the street whatsoever. So I pointed the cross hairs right at them, but then I moved it to right above their heads and fired a burst, which got them to disperse in a hurry. I could tell that they were just spectators.

Down in the hatch, I was frantically scanning my sector when suddenly about 300 meters away from us, over by the traffic circle, I saw two guys with those red and white jihad towels wrapped around their heads creeping around a corner. They were hunched down hiding behind a stack of truck tires. I could tell by their body language that something was up. I placed the cross hairs right on them and was about to fuckin waste them, but for some reason I didn't pull the trigger. Something told me that I should wait for just one, maybe two more seconds. Then I saw another guy come creeping around that corner with an RPG in his hands. As soon as I saw that I screamed as loud as I could, "RRRPPPPPGGGGGGG!!!" My cross hairs were bouncing all over, so I gathered my composure as fast as I could, put the cross hairs on them, and engaged them with a couple of good ten round bursts of some .50-cal, right at them.

Nobody moved from behind those tires after that.

We had to return to FOB Marez, as we were running extremely low on fuel, ammo, and water. So we all mounted up and drove back to the FOB.

I was smoking like a chimney, one right after another. My nerves were completely shot and I was emotionally drained and I noticed that my hands were still kinda shaking. The stars were now out over Mosul, and I decided to go and sit by myself and stare at them for while. I was thinking how I was lucky to be alive. I've never experienced anything like the fear I felt today. I thought about that guy who jumped out from the corner of that building with that angry look on his face when he pointed the AK at my head and pulled the trigger.

Sgt Vance saw me sitting by myself, and he came over and sat next to me. He asked if I was O.K. I thought about that one for a second and I told him, "I don't know." I told him how I wasn't really in the mood to roll back out for another inning with these guys, and I also told him that I was kinda tripping out about how not everybody that I engaged today had a weapon in their hands. And that I wasn't really too sure about what happened to some of those people.

Vance started telling me a little bit about his father, who had been in Vietnam, and who had given him sound advice about situations like this, "Put all the things that bother you, and keep you awake at night, and clog your head up, put all those things in a shoebox, put the lid on it, and deal with it later."

Shortly after that they told us to go back to our rooms. I walked back to my room, thanked God, and passed out on my bed.

I've put the events of that day in a shoebox, put the lid on it, and haven't opened it since.

© Colby Buzzell
“Men in Black” is excerpted from a longer piece found in Colby Buzzell’s blogOff-site link
His blog writings can also be found in his book My War: Killing Time in Iraq. (Putnam Adult, 2005)


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Camp Muckamungus

By U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Parker Gyokeres

Hello all,

Greetings from the biggest and greatest show on earth.
I know a number of you have been curious about what it’s like over here so we are going to take a small mental voyage.

First off, we are going to prepare our living area. Go to your vacuum, open the canister, and pour it all over you, your bed, clothing, and your personal effects. Now roll in it until it’s in your eyes, nose, ears, hair, and...well, you get the picture. You know it’s just perfect when you slap your chest and cough from the dust-cloud you kicked up. And, no, there is no escape, trust me. You just get used to it.

Now grab a flashlight and attach it to your clothing, as we must, because every twenty to thirty minutes the power goes off for a while. There will be no apparent reason for this loss except it will always happen during (but not limited to) three key times: One: shift change; Two: a meal; Three: any time you can’t get to your flashlight

Okay, pitch a tent in your driveway, and mark off an area inside it along one wall about 6 feet by 8 feet, including your bed. Now, pack everything you need to live for four months — without Wal-Mart — and move in. Tear down the three walls of your tent seen from the street and you have about as much privacy as I have. If you really want to make this accurate, bring in a kennel full of pugs; the smell, loud grunting, and snoring will be just like living with my nine tent-mates.

The breakfast chow was great the first day, ok the second, third, and fourth with decreasing levels of enthusiasm, until I realized that it’s the same thing every day for breakfast.  We’ll see how long I go before I start blending it into a pile and using a straw for some variety!!

After breakfast we make our way to the Deuce.  Yes folks, a real honest-to-god, picture in the dictionary under “Army truck’” Deuce-and-a-Half. All of our vehicles were used in the first Gulf War.  They thrashed all the way across Kuwait and Iraq then were driven back to Kuwait and stored in a field.  12 years later they were dusted off, fueled up and used to assault all the way into Iraq again.

The sight of the 12 of us in our "battle rattle", red-faced and watery-eyed from the biting wind and stinking exhaust, howling happily over the noise, makes me want to crank up Wagner’s "Flight of the Valkyries."  We look like born-again, hard-assed, gung-ho, mo-fo's.  Yet we are just jet mechanics and assorted office workers.  We fully realize that this is probably the closest we will ever get to being in the military we all thought we would be joining.  To do it in Iraq is just something that I know I’ll never forget.
This is what Iraq is like.
Are we comfy now? 

I am.


© Copyright Edward Parker Gyokeres
This excerpt of "Camp Muckamungus" from Operation Homecoming, edited by Andrew Carroll, is reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

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By U.S. Army First Lieutenant Sangjoon Han

Qasim was only a few paces from the road when he caught his first glimpse of the approaching vehicles. His heart jumped into his throat as he dropped the clump of soil he'd been examining. He knew something was about to happen. The town on the far side of the road was suddenly empty.

The three trucks drew steadily closer and were soon just a hundred meters away. From this distance Qasim could make out the faces of the individual soldiers. It was the closest that he'd ever come to them, he realized, and he was still studying their expressions when the explosion engulfed the last truck in the convoy.

The noise was deafening, and the old farmer felt the ground shake beneath his feet, but Qasim stood fixed in place, observing the aftermath. He wanted to see what the Americans would do. The answer was not long in coming. The Americans started shooting.

He turned to run.

Sergeant Price was kneeling just a few meters away from his humvee, taking aim with his rifle.

“If they’re running, they’re guilty.” The credo had been drilled in their heads over and over again, and it was what went through the sergeant’s head as he knelt to take aim. He desperately wanted the man to stop running before he squeezed the trigger.

The rifle kicked back against his shoulder where it was braced, and Price could see a small puff of dirt rising a few meters ahead of the man. There was no way the Iraqi could have missed it, and yet he kept on running.

“Stop!” Price shouted at the man’s back. He gave the man another second, then skipped another round in front of him.

It would be so simple for the man to stop, Price thought, as the silent anger rose up inside of him. Just stop running, his mind screamed at the man. The son of a bitch was going to make him shoot. Price hated the man at that moment. He wanted the man to die for the sin of forcing Price to kill him.

“STOP!” he shouted only a half-second before he fired again.

Qasim kept his jaw clenched tightly shut. He refused to look down at his abdomen for fear that the sight would fill him with horror and he would cry out or weep. He was less than two hundred meters from his house. Inside, his wife would be huddled in the far corner—the smallest children gathered around her while the older ones hid elsewhere in the field.

He saw the outlines of the Americans when he opened his eyes, though the world had taken on a terrible brightness. There was something about them that made them soft, almost pudgy. They were people used to luxury, and soon they would go back to their old lives while he would be dead and his children left fatherless. At last, he could feel anger cutting through the pain.

Sergeant Price knew it was hopeless the moment he saw the ground under the man turning into dark, bloody mud. Still, the Iraqi was alive and conscious, and the only alternative to trying to save him was to return to their humvee and watch him die from the side of the road. 

About the only thing he could do was to give the man an IV to try to keep up his blood pressure. It was absurd, he thought to himself, that he was holding a little plastic bag over a man whose vital organs were sitting in a pile on top of him. But he simply didn’t know what else to do.

Qasim could feel the American helicopter taking off. How would his wife and sons ever be able to bury him now? He didn’t even know where they were carrying him.

He silently cursed his own stupidity. He also cursed the Americans for their guns and the young men who attacked them with their bombs. He almost cursed God, but just barely caught himself. He was going to die, and there was nothing he could do about it.

He looked around the helicopter once more, trying to catch a few last glimpses of his surroundings. On the far wall was a window, the blue Iraqi sky beyond.

Across from him there was an American soldier clenching his eyes shut and shaking slightly. Qasim could see that for all the fabulous technology that his country had sent with him, the soldier was still filled with terror. He is a boy, Qasim said to himself.

It will be over soon, Qasim thought as each breath grew more labored than the last. He took one final look at the soldier and closed his eyes.

© Copyright Sangjoon Han
This excerpt of "Aftermath" from Operation Homecoming, edited by Andrew Carroll, is reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

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By U.S. Air Force Reserve Captain Ed Hrivnak

Our patient load is 11, 7 and 2 and a duty passenger. That means 11 litter patients, 7 walking wounded and 2 attendants. Some can take care of themselves, some need lots of help. All have been waiting for us for a long time and need pain medicine and antibiotics. The patients include: gun shot wound to the stomach, partial amputations from a land mine, open fractures secondary to gun shot wound, head injury-struck by a tank, blast injuries, shrapnel injuries, and dislocations. The patients are mainly from the Marines and 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles. Many were involved in ambushes.

I’ve noticed that the most seriously injured are the youngest. The older, experienced soldiers do a better job of staying alive and avoiding the flying metal. One soldier I’m treating looks like a young boy. We talk for a bit as I assess him. I medicate him for his pain.

The morphine is not working, but it’s the strongest stuff I’ve got. At some point during these adjustments I accidentally dislodge a Hemovac suction unit from one of his infected wounds. Foul smelling, reddish-yellow fluid drains from the tube and drips off the litter. I start looking at his bandages to find the other end of the tubing. I open one bandage and find sand fleas where his toes use to be. I try my best to keep a straight face, but the sight nauseates me.

We finally get this soldier comfortable. Because we moved him so much, I decide to reassess his extremities. I know there are parts of his leg and thigh missing from reading his medical record, but I can’t tell from the thick bandages. The wounds were left open to allow them to drain. The dressings are wet and covered in a light layer of sand. I ask the soldier to wiggle the toes he has. On one side his toes move fine; on the other side there is no movement. What is left on that side is cold and hard to the touch. He looks at me and our eyes are locked. His eyes say, “Tell me I’m going to be O.K. Tell me that I’m going to be fine, tell me I’m going to be whole again…” These are some of the longest seconds of my life because I know he is counting on what I say to him.

I bend down below the litter to break eye contact. I act like I’m adjusting some of the medical equipment attached to him. My mind is racing. I have always been honest with my patients. Do I lie or tell him the truth? The seconds move so slowly as I fight my internal battle on what is right.  I stand straight up and there are his eyes. I’m at the end of the litter and with the noise of the plane there is no way he could hear me speak. We are now communicating solely with our eyes and facial expressions. I’m sure less than two seconds passed before I gave him a big smile and a thumb’s up. Those two seconds felt like an hour. He broke into a big smile of relief and I felt broken for lying to him. 

He motioned to me and I walked to the head of the litter. I leaned in so he could yell into my ear over the jet noise.

“Why do my feet feel so cold?” he asked.

I yelled back, “There is a lot of swelling in your feet and the blood circulation is not so good because of the swelling. It is way too early in the game to tell how well you are going to heal. The swelling is going to affect your senses and ability to move.”

These were all true statements. I felt reassured with my answer. It is too early to say how this soldier will recover. But I still felt bad about lying.

What does the future hold for these men who go home to their families mentally and physically different? And what of the critically injured who have a long future of VA hospitals followed by VA disability? How do they cope? How do they adjust? I feel obligated to stay out here and take care of the wounded. I want to do all I can to help them.

© Copyright Ed Hrivnac.  All Rights Reserved
This excerpt of "Medevac Missions" from Operation Homecoming, edited by Andrew Carroll, is reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

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Road Work

By U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Jack Lewis

I never heard the boom-CRUNCH, only imagined it later. Our Stryker moaned through its monstrous air brakes and then bumped, heaved, and finally ground itself to a halt.

“Six-seven’s in the ditch!”
 “Did they roll it?”
 “No, they’re up. I think they’re disabled.”
 “Where’s the colonel? Is the colonel’s vehicle okay?”

The major said that we would need a combat lifesaver. It wasn’t combat. There were no lives left to save. But we dug out the CLS bag, because you never know, do you? And walked across a pitch dark highway.

Somebody was wailing in Arabic, hypnotically, repetitiously.

A single car headlight was burning, a single shaft of light beaming across the road like an accusing finger. When tactical spotlights suddenly illuminated the little car, we found the source of the wailing.

He was an older man, wearing a silver beard, a monumental, red-veined nose, and a big, thick wool overcoat. He was hopping like a dervish, bowing rapidly from the waist and throwing his arms to the sky, then to his knees, over and over again in a kind of elaborate dance of grief.

It’s hard to describe the contents of the car. They had been a man, only moments earlier that night. A cop or a fireman or a soldier would have simply said, “It’s a mess in there.” I used to be a fireman. I’m a soldier now. It was as bad a mess as I’ve seen.

I thought about CPR, but only for a moment. His left arm was mostly torn off, and the left side of his head was flattened.

Up on the highway, GIs walked around, gave and took orders. By the car, the victim’s father still capered madly, throwing his arms around, crying out to God or anyone. I asked him, in my own language, to come with me, to calm down, to let me help him.

While the medic worked on him, the colonel’s interpreter came over and fired a few questions at the man. It sounded like an interrogation.

The younger man had been taking his father back from shopping. They were minutes from home. The young man had been a student. Engineering. With honors. Pride of the family. What we like to think of as Iraq’s future.

Finally, I had to ask, “What does he keep saying?”
The terp looked at me, disgusted, resigned, or maybe just plain tired. “He says to kill him now.”

I walked away and lit a Gauloise. A sergeant came up next to me, smoking. I didn’t say anything.  After a few moments in the black quiet, I overheard him say, “It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was just an accident.”

 “I know.” Inhale. Cherry glow. Long exhale. “Why we gotta drive in blackout - here - I don’t get.”

 “Yeah. I know.”

I went and sat on the back gate of the Stryker. I felt the cold creep into me. The old man sat next to me, perhaps too tired to continue his tirade against cruel Fate, careless Americans, war and its accidents.

I haven’t lost a full-grown son, just a little daughter. A baby. And she wasn’t torn from me in a terror of rending steel, stamped out by a sudden monster roaring out of the night. She went so quietly that her passing never woke her mother. I like to think she kissed her on the way out, on her way home.

But still, sitting on the steel tail of the monster that killed his son, I think, maybe, I knew just how one Iraqi man felt.

“Just kill me now.”

We sat and looked straight into the lights.

© Copyright Jack Lewis
This excerpt of "Road Work" from Operation Homecoming, edited by Andrew Carroll, is reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

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To the Fallen

By U.S. Army Sergeant John McCary

Dear all,

We are dying. Not in some philosophical, chronological, ‘the end comes for all of us sooner or later’ sense. Just dying. Sure, it’s an occupational hazard, and yeah, you can get killed walking down the street in Anytown, USA. But not like this. Not car bombs that leave craters in the road, not jeering crowds that celebrate your destruction.

It’s never been a fair fight, and we haven’t always played nice. But not like this. No one leaves the gate looking to kill, or looking to die. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I sure hope blowing up a whole group of Iraqis goes well today.” That’s for suckers and cowards, people afraid to delve into the melee and fight it out, to sort it out like soldiers.

They’ve killed my friends. And not in some heroic fight to defend sovereign territory, not on some suicide mission to extract a prisoner or save a family in distress. Just driving downtown to a meeting. Just going to work.

When you’ve held a conversation with a man, briefed him on his mission, his objective and reminded him of the potential consequences during the actioning of it, only to hear he never returned, and did not die gracefully, though blessedly quickly, prayerfully painlessly… you do not breathe the same ever after. Breath is sweet. Sleep is sweeter. Friends are priceless.

It is also now undeniable, irrevocable, that you will see your mission through. You will strive every day, you will live, though you are not ever again sure why. I, we, must see it through to the end. They have seen every instant, every mission, every chore, every day through, not to its end but to theirs. They died standing with their friends, doing their jobs, fulfilling some far-flung nearly non-existent notion called duty. They died because their friends could’ve died just as easily, and knowing that… they would never shirk their duties, never call in sick, never give in to fear, never let down.  Their lives are lost, whether as a gift, laid down at the feet of their friends, or a pointless discard of precious life… I doubt I’ll ever know.

I’m ok, Mom. I’m just a little… shaken, a little sad. I know this isn’t any Divine mission. No God, Allah, Jesus, Buddha or other divinity ever decreed “Go get your body ripped to shreds, it’s for the better.” This is Man’s doing. This is Man’s War. And War it is. It is not fair, nor right, nor simple… nor is it over. I don’t care about bloodlust, justice or revenge. But we will not give up. We cannot. Our lives are forever tied to those lost, and we cannot leave them now, as we might have were they still living.

We have… so little time… to mourn, to breathe, to laugh, to remember. To forget. Every day awaits us, impatient, impending. So now we rise, shunning tears, biting back trembling lips and stifling sobs of grief… and we walk, shoulder to shoulder… to the Call of Duty, in tribute to the Fallen.

© Copyright John McCary.  All Rights Reserved.
This excerpt of "To the Fallen" from Operation Homecoming, edited by Andrew Carroll, is reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.

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Taking Chance

By U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl

When we arrived at Billings, I was the first off the plane. The funeral director had driven five hours up from Riverton, Wyoming, to meet us. He shook my hand as if I had personally lost a brother.

I picked up my rental car and followed Chance for the five hours back to Riverton. During the long trip I imagined how my meeting with Chance's parents would go. I didn't know anything about Chance Phelps; not even what he looked like. I wondered about his family and what it would be like to meet them. I was very nervous about that.

When we finally arrived at the funeral home, I felt I needed to inspect Chance's uniform to ensure everything was proper.

Earlier in the day I wasn't sure how I'd handle this moment. Suddenly, the casket was open and I got my first look at Chance Phelps. His uniform was immaculate—a tribute to the professionalism of the Marines at Dover. I noticed that he wore six ribbons over his marksmanship badge; the senior one was his Purple Heart. I had been in the Corps for more than seventeen years, including a combat tour, and was wearing eight ribbons. This private first class, with less than a year in the Corps, had already earned six.

The next morning, I wore my dress blues and followed the hearse for the trip up to Dubois, population about 900, some ninety miles away. This was the most difficult leg of our trip for me. I was bracing for the moment when I would meet his parents and hoping I would find the right words as I presented them with Chance's personal effects. We got to the high school about four hours before the service was to begin.

In short order I met Chance's step-mom and father, followed by his step-dad and, at last, his mom.

I told them about our trip. I told them how, at every step, Chance was treated with respect, dignity, and honor. I didn't know how to express to these people my sympathy for their loss and my gratitude for their sacrifice. Now, however, they were repeatedly thanking me for bringing their son home and for my service. I was humbled beyond words.

The service was a fitting tribute to this hero. When it was over, we stood as the casket was wheeled out with the family following. The casket was placed onto a horse-drawn carriage for the mile-long trip from the gym, down the main street, then up the steep hill to the cemetery. I stood alone and saluted as the carriage departed the high school.

 All along the route, people had lined the street and were waving small American flags. The flags that were otherwise posted were all at half-staff. For the last quarter mile up the hill, local boy scouts, spaced about twenty feet apart, all in uniform, held large flags. At the foot of the hill, I could look up and back and see how enormous the procession was. I wondered how many people would be at this funeral if it were in, say, Detroit or Los Angeles—probably not as many as were here in little Dubois, Wyoming.

The carriage stopped about fifteen yards from the grave.  Once the entire crowd was in place, the pallbearers came to attention and began to remove the casket from the caisson. As I had done all week, I came to attention and executed a slow ceremonial salute as Chance was being transferred from one mode of transport to another.

From Dover to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to Minneapolis, Minneapolis to Billings, Billings to Riverton, and Riverton to Dubois, we had been together. Now, as I watched them carry him the final fifteen yards, I was choking up. I felt that, as long as he was still moving, he was somehow still alive. Then they positioned him over his grave. He had stopped moving.

Now, he was home to stay and I suddenly felt at once sad, relieved, and useless. It had been my honor to take Chance Phelps to his final post. Now he is on the high ground overlooking his town.

I miss him.

© Copyright Michael Strobl
This excerpt of "Taking Chance" is from Operation Homecoming, edited by Andrew Carroll.

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Here, Bullet

By Brian Turner 

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.

"Here, Bullet” from Here, Bullet © 2005 by Brian Turner.
Reprinted with the permission of Alice James Books.

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What Every Soldier Should Know

          To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will;
                    it is at best an act of prudence.

                                      —Jean-Jacques Rousseau

If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon,
it could be for a wedding, or it could be for you.

Always enter a home with your right foot;
the left is for cemeteries and unclean places.

O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
It means Stop! Or I’ll shoot.

Sabah el khair is effective.
It means Good Morning.

Inshallah means Allah be willing.
Listen well when it is spoken.

You will hear the RPG coming for you.
Not so the roadside bomb.

There are bombs under the overpasses,
in trashpiles, in bricks, in cars.

There are shopping carts with clothes soaked
in foogas, a sticky gel of homemade napalm.

Parachute bombs and artillery shells
sewn into the carcasses of dead farm animals.

Graffiti sprayed onto the overpasses:
I will kell you, American.

Men wearing vests rigged with explosives
walk up, raise their arms and say Inshallah.

There are men who earn eighty dollars
to attack you, five thousand to kill.

Small children who will play with you,
old men with their talk, women who offer chai—

and any one of them
may dance over your body tomorrow.

“What Every Soldier Should Know” from Here, Bullet
© 2005 by Brian Turner. Reprinted with the permission of Alice James Books.

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