Her dogtags were cold in the hands of her Soldier. He closed his eyes and could hear her telling him to hurry up, stop holding up the line.
She Didn't Know She Would Die Today
She didn’t know it would be her last day on earth.
Pissed off, she slammed her hand down hard on the snooze button. That was second most annoying sound she had on record this deployment, her third deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The alarm clock shut up, as did the rest of the electronics in her room to include her air conditioner. The power went out again.
“Really? Generator maintenance at the prime time of the day when people are getting ready for work?” No one was listening but it felt better to say it out loud. Having her own room was one of the perks of being a staff sergeant.
Thoughts of a plan to find a functioning shower trailer ran through her head as she mentally located her hygiene equipment. The silence was broken by the alarm clock which had awakened from its snooze. She laid back, shut it off, and stared at the sliver of light coming in where the a/c unit and wall failed to meet. That crack was also where all the cool air would escape since the power was out.
She swung her feet around, planted them hard on the floor and turned to make the bed just as she had done every morning. Because this day was no different than the past 10 months, finding her shower bag, towel, and loofa was easy in the dark. She slipped on her shower shoes and reached for the door.
Realizing she had to foot march to a working shower instead of walking the usual 15 feet to her normal spot, she suited up. Socks, tennis shoes, pt belt, eye-pro, hair up, shirt tucked in.
“Hydration source and MRE?” She giggled and headed out for the adventure.
The shower trailer she found was hot. It was the only place on Forward Operating Base Kalsu with humidity. It was also muddy. Why? She wasn’t quite sure. She waited in line behind the other Soldiers, civilians, interpreters, and Ugandan women who all shared the same base…and shower at the moment.
When it was her turn, she did the whole shower dance she had done every morning. The balancing act to take off her shorts, making sure she didn’t fall into the still puddle of water and body funk. The “get skinny” act of not making any over exaggerated movements and accidentally touching the walls or shower curtain. The balancing act again to put her shorts back on. And the slippery obstacle course maneuver dodging puddles and naked bodies till she was free and clear to leave the building.
It was already hot outside and she anticipated it being even hotter in her room since the a/c was out…it was. She pulled up her window shade to let in the light and hid behind her wall locker to change. Pulling up her uniform pants over her hourglass figure was snug and, since her hips were moist with sweat, the feat was even more difficult. The waist fit her well but the pants were obviously made for a man with no ass.
She moved her mirror to the window where she could put on her make-up. She wore make-up every day. It was something that made her feel good and, over the past three deployments, she learned holding on to the little things that make you feel good will keep you from going crazy. She accessorized her outfit with headgear, eye pro, M4 rifle, and wedding rings.
The walk to the office was long and seemed to get longer with every passing day. It was in her DNA to say something to every passing being whether they looked at her or not. She got that from her dad.
“Good morning” was usually met with “Good morning sergeant.” Occasionally she would see people she knew and, depending on who it was. determined if she would stop and talk or pretend like she was in a hurry. Either way, she smiled.
Although it was hot and super bright out, she welcomed the daylight. Typically the days were safe. Insurgents usually didn’t fire at the base during the day for fear of being seen. She had once prided herself on being a fobbit this deployment. She had seen her fair share of death and destruction in the previous tours and figured this time would be a welcome break. Not the case. She had never had so much indirect fire than she had this past year. This deployment, it was safer to be out on the roads. She wished it would just stay daylight forever.
As she reached the front door, she saw the lock was open just as she expected. She briefly envisioned the inside and was proven correct when she opened the door. Her Soldier was sitting at his desk to the right with his feet up and his key board on his lap.
“Sergeant Hedrick’s here,” he said, faking excitement.
“Please excuse me if I look like I fixed myself in the dark this morning, ‘cause I did.” No further explanation was needed. He knew exactly what she was talking about. She hung her weapon on the same nail she had hung her weapon on for the past 10 months. She took off her hat and eye pro and slung it in the vicinity of the only clear spot on her desk. The only spot not peppered with ingredients of an unmade yearbook.
“Sergeant Hedrick…Natalie?” The voice from the back office was her boss. He called everyone else by their first name. He tried to get hers but it just seemed so difficult. Why?
“I briefed in the BUB this morning that you would have the yearbook done by the ninth. That’s what you put in the FRAGO right?”
“Roger, but you know how battalions follow FRAGOs.” She was about to find out just how many complied with the instructions to have photos and quotes in her inbox by close-of-business yesterday. She anxiously opened her computer. It was a guilty pleasure of hers to run down the list of gripes, bitches, and complaints about the yearbook. After reading each one she said “fuck you” in her head and smiled. She knew she would eventually comply with 90 percent of what they wanted changed but at that moment she was mentally flipping them off.
“It will all be over soon.” She meant that in the way that the yearbook and deployment as a whole will be over soon. She did not realize her words had a different meaning in life’s plan. It will be all over soon.
The first three hours of the work day was filled with questions. They came at her like shrapnel and from various weapons. Some were in the form of emails, some by phone calls. Some came walking through the front door. Those were the worst. For someone to make the trip all the way out to the public affairs office, they usually wanted something big.
Sometimes the shooter wasn’t even aiming at her but it was her duty as noncommissioned officer-in-charge to deflect and protect her Soldier and officer. She assumed that earned her the title “BITCH” but she wasn’t really sure nor did she give a rat’s ass.
“Sir, you hungry?” She always had to ask him because their lunch schedule revolved around his meetings. They always ate as a group. It just sort of happened like that day after day at the beginning and morphed into a ritual. She was the only one of the group to stray every now and again but today she had no other plans than to eat with her team.
“One more email.” That was his standard answer. She wondered if that was really the case or if he was just finishing up a conversation with his wife. Both he and the Soldier talked to their wives too much in her opinion. She Skyped her husband almost every night before she went to bed and that was enough to keep her going.
She and the Soldier were on standby. Once he finished up his “one more email” and his hat went on and his light went off, he walked out the door to the porta-potty. That was their cue to pick up their headgear, eye pro, and weapon, and wait outside. It was the same song and dance every day.
Chow this day was no different than any other day. She showed the guards her ID card. They told her to take off her eye pro. She rolled her eyes. She knew the drill but it was fun to make them ask. She washed her hands, scanned her card, grabbed a tray, forgot her silverware.
Meat, carb, veggie, and something from the salad bar was the typical fare for her. Either that or a sandwich if nothing looked appetizing. A glass with ice, un-sweet tea, three Splenda, and a splash of kiwi-strawberry was her poison. It was a concoction she invented early on that served tasteful yet not fattening.
It wasn’t hard to find her crew. They sat in the same place every day. She made eye contact and saw their hands shoot up in exaggeration. She played along and acted like she was still searching. After 10 months of the same game, it still made her giggle. What a dork.
Lunch was sustenance. Nothing spectacular, nothing nauseating. It gave her the necessary energy to make it to the next meal. That’s pretty much how she counted down this deployment. Meal by meal.
The second half of the day was pretty much like the first only two hours longer. She watched the clock and waited for 1730. That was her cue to head to her room and change for the gym. Something she did almost every day.
The gym was crowded as expected. It always was this time of day. She assumed it was people trying to get a workout in before chow closed. That’s why she was there at that time. The stench grabbed her nose the second she walked in. A mix of cultural body odor. She signed in her name, rank, unit, and time and skipped her last four because why the hell do they need that…really.
Everyone in there she sees every day. There are the ones she knows well enough to do an ab routine with. There are the ones she knows briefly who smile and wave and carry on with their workout. Then there were the ones who thought they could get in her pants by trying to help her with her workout.
“Hey, I know a really good chest workout. Wanna come back to my room and watch a movie later?”
“No guy. Really? No.”
She usually ended her workout by smoking one or two of her buddies on an ab routine she created. That always made her feel good and her and her friends would joke about it on the way to the chow hall. It was a ritual that just kind of stuck.
Normally, she would get her meat and veggies (or sandwich if nothing else looked appetizing) and walk back to her room with her friends. She did that because she felt safer. Not that she thought anyone would jump out of the bunker and rape her or anything. She felt pretty confident she could defend herself against that. She walked back to her room with her friends because talking to them took her mind off the fear that at any second, a rocket or mortar could blast her away where she stood. They typically came in around this time.
Normally she would end up back in her room with her to-go plate and her television show. But not tonight. Tonight was Saturday night. Saturday night was the night when her team played video games. They started with Band Hero then moved on to some shooting game. She never stayed for the shooting game.
“Goodnight guys.” She waved to her friends.
“See you tomorrow?” They yelled back.
“No it’s Sunday. I don’t go to the gym on Sunday.” She knew they knew this and wondered why they always asked. She didn’t know that the day of the week had nothing to do with why they wouldn’t see her.
The walk from the chow hall to the office was nerve-racking. She listened carefully because she knew that if you can hear it whistle, it won’t hit you. It’s the ones you don’t hear that get you. She breathed hard and counted each step. For some reason she felt she walked faster when she counted her steps.
She made it to the office. A wooden building was no match for the wrath known as “incoming” but with her team there, she felt safe. The Soldier was already sitting at the drums. Her captain had pulled his bass down and set her guitar on the make-shift coffee table. Sergeant major was sitting on the couch. He was the band manager.
It was fun. Concentrating on the colors and the tunes took her mind off what could potentially happen…and what did eventually happen.
Between sets the guys took their cigars out to the bench in front of the reenlistment office. She didn’t smoke and took the opportunity to type to her husband that she will call him when she got back to her room. He was familiar with Saturday night and assured her he would be awake when she called. She never called him back.
It was the single most annoying sound she had on record this deployment. The deep, loud buzz, buzz, buzz, “incoming, incoming, incoming.” Her heart raced and her stomach churned just as they always had during times like this. She plugged her ears, opened her mouth and fell to the ground just as she was taught. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough to save her. The rocket had come in through the roof and landed in her boss’s office. One piece of shrapnel caught her in the side of the neck.
She put her hand up to her wound. It was hot and wet. She tried to yell for her team but knew whatever sound she could get out fell literally on deaf ears. The blast was so close there was no way they would hear her. She thought about her family and how their lives will be changed forever. She hoped they knew how much she loved them.She stayed alive for as long as she could but without blood, the body shuts down…and hers did.
The memorial service was that following Friday. She had been in the unit for seven years so everyone knew her, or at least knew of her. The seats were filled. The photo at the bottom of the memorial was of her on the porch of the office with a big smile. She had once told her Soldier that if she ever died, to use that photo. He remembered that and did.
Today she lives on the marble wall on Kelley Hill. The same wall she raised her right hand in front of two years before, giving herself to the Army for another deployment. Her spirit is in every photo taken and every story written forever immortalizing the Sledgehammer Brigade. Today she lives in every Sledgehammer Soldier.