Recently, our parent unit opened up another combat outpost in the hub of the outlying villages, earning the all too obvious nickname of Little Anu al-Verona. While one of our sister platoons operates out of here now, the Gravediggers recently covered down on their security operations for a day so they could get back to the FOB for a maintenance refit. It was here, surrounded by palm trees and an irrigation system that actually functions, that we discovered the happiest dog in Iraq.
Most dogs over here bear no resemblance to their domesticated cousins in the western world; instead, they are as feral as coyotes, as scrawny as hyenas, and as ugly as the Duke University student population. ("And I always remember that whatever I have done in the past, or may do in the future, Duke University is responsible one way or the other." - Richard Milhous Nixon.) It’s not a true dismounted night patrol unless there’s a close encounter of the canine kind with a frothing, demented, “rabies is the most benign thing my bite brings” beast-mutant. (We’re back to Iraq now, in case you were confused.) Luckily, these third-world abominations usually recognize what getting too close is and what ignoring the green laser of God means – a bullet through the skull. Still though, it’s all too evident that my too sweet and too stupid golden retriever from back home would last seven minutes - tops - in the back-alleys and alley-backs of Anu al-Verona. There’s not much to wag your tail about in Iraq, and there is no retrieving that occurs when playing fetch with exploding ordinance instead of tennis balls.
And yes America, while I care about said golden retriever far too much, she’s as good an analogy as any for the current state of the nation.
Anyhow, while settling into our security rotations at the combat outpost in Little Anu al-Verona, we heard PFC Van Wilder yelling from inside the center-most building in the billets area. SFC Big Country and I exchanged shrugs, and wandered over to see what the ruckus was all about.
“There’s a fucking giant rat in there!” PFC Van Wilder said as he came back outside. “It lives underneath a bed, and scared the shit out of me.”
“Hah hah hah.” PFC Das Boot’s hearty chuckle resonated from inside the building. “Hah hah hah.”
“What are you laughing about?” asked PFC Van Wilder. “You find that rat?”
PFC Das Boot, in all his gangly awkwardness, stepped outside with a grin to match his length. “There is no rat in there. It is a puppy-dog.” Sure enough, he was cradling a very tiny yellow dog, who was barking down at us playfully from its perch in our young soldier’s arms. It had a slim rodent-like tail, with no feathers, an undersized runt-frame and an outsized tongue flopping out of its mouth.
The platoon burst in laughter, mainly at the expense of PFC Van Wilder. Usually the instigator of the jokes rather than the culmination of them, he couldn’t help but shake his head at this dalliance with fair play. He wasn’t about to let the subject go so easily, though. “It must be a Russian dog. That’s why it likes Das Boot.”
PFC Das Boot set the dog back down on the ground. “I do not understand,” he said. “The dog is Iraqi and I am German. What does Russia have to do with this?”
“Shut up Ivan Drago!” PFC Van Wilder had resumed control of the situation all too easily. “Get your gear and get your KGB-ass up to the towers with me. We’re first on shift.”
While SSG Bulldog traipsed off with the first batch of soldiers on watch in his stead, the rest of the platoon took turns greeting our new friend and temporary housemate. “It must be Apache Platoon’s mascot,” SFC Big Country stated. “I guess it lives here with them.” We subsequently found the dog’s food and water dishes – Frisbees turned upside down.
The dog didn’t have a nametag, and we as visitors didn’t feel it was right to give it one, so “the dog” sufficed for the duration of our stay. It was unlike any other animal we had come in contact with thus far in our deployment. It barked, not out of fear, but because it demanded and craved attention from humans. Fascinated with everything we did, it followed around our most mundane movements like we were discovering the edge of the flat world. If ignored for even a few minutes, the consequences would usually be a string of military 550-cord wrapped around your ankles. Simply put, the dog enjoyed existing in a way most of us haven’t been around since we left home. Being fed regularly and being treated with kindness tends to have that effect on all of God’s creatures, I guess. It was happy with itself and happy with life, and wanted to share such with us.
Truth be told, it was a fucking weird experience at first. I hadn’t prepared myself adequately for such a return to the ordinary. I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen to it if and when Apache Platoon departed this place. Five months and some change into this thing, and cynicism splatters every thought of mine like a Jackson Pollock work.
My Joes loved it, though, and by the end of the night, the dog was exhausted. SPC Doc passed out with it in bed, and finally, the canine-terrorist was down for the count. Most of us moving around that night still compulsively tested our ankles for freedom of movement, however, and kept any sudden movements to a minimum. The dog was definitely more familiar with this terrain, putting us two-leggers at a distinct disadvantage.
I woke up before the sun the next morning. It has been a few months since I’ve been able to sleep for more than three hours at a time, something that – for better or for worse - seems to match our daily schedule. I grabbed a book out of my assault pack, found a group of ammo cans and old sandbags that served as a makeshift chair in this bizarro paradise, and fled the land of action for the land of words. Dawn’s light soon replaced my flashlight, and shortly after that, the unmistakable sound of a pup’s growl interrupted me. I looked up. Across the way, trotting down an empty ditch, the dog had discovered that it was not alone this morning.
“What do you want?” I asked.
My rhetorical question was all too obvious, and received an all too obvious answer. The dog perked up its ears and tilted its head to the side, and barked at me as if to say, “you know exactly what I want, you clown. I’ve been sent from the golden retriever gods to make you stop thinking for a few minutes. Grab a stick and let’s make this happen.” I threw the dog a stick for some minutes, and then I returned to my book. When I did, it curled up at my feet for an early morning nap. The sum result of the experience refreshed me mentally the way clean water can refresh physically - for a few minutes, I escaped the madness, the deadlines, the wars within the war. I escaped it all. I didn’t have to embrace the Suck, or wait around for it to embrace me first. I embraced the normal. My normal. There was nothing more normal in my reality than a book and a dog, and that still seemed be the case.
It all ended, of course. But not before I remembered a few things.