THE COMPANY stands in formation under the camp's lights on the pavement in front of the tents. Jake notices the weight of the pack and feels a little top heavy and tired, but it is nothing compared to the long run a few days ago. His weapon feels natural, though, an extension of his body--sort of like how the bat used to feel when he hit doubles deep to center field. His rifle gives him strength and power and courage few men ever will experience or understand. He feels himself. He is like a big, young bull, chained up, trying to pull free. He has trained for months and is strong and motivated, just as he was in boot camp when Drill Instructor Carll spoke.
Carll was big, black, and formidable. When he stood on stage and looked down from under his flat, stiff, round, brown cover, he spoke quietly, and Jake froze--and when Carll said, "The most deadly weapon in the entire world is a motivated Marine," Jake believed it. He believed everything Carll said and worked harder in boot camp than anyone else. A few times he even thought of his old man telling him, "Jake, no one controls how hard you work but you," or Mike's favorite saying that Jake must have heard about 100,000 times: "Someone has to be the best; why can't it be you?"
Mike's tired cliches emerged from somewhere deep in Jake's soul and helped inspire him, not on a conscious level like a baseball coach's advice to keep your hands high to correct a hitch in your swing. This was something deeper--the words that stay in your life and help make you the kind of man you become. So, Jake busted his butt through boot camp. He was perfect on the rifle range and soared over the obstacle course. He always was first out on three-mile runs and marched better, learned quicker, and worked harder than any other Marine in his platoon, and at graduation he was the Honor Man of his platoon, the best Marine, a strong and quiet leader.
Soon, the rumbling of seven-ton trucks, mounted with .50-caliber machine guns, can be heard. Several roll up. The trucks are older, with split side rails and no up armor like the Army. Instead of having the finest bomb-blast resistant trucks and Humvees, the motor pool welded quarter-inch sheets of steel onto the side of some vehicles. Because of the weight, they could not reinforce the more vulnerable undercarriage. It was ugly, obtuse, and heavy protection, good against small arms fire but not effective against the powerful explosives smuggled by A1 Qaeda from Iran into Iraq, bombs that could detonate in the middle of a road and toss a truck in the air like a toy, shredding it to pieces.
Gunny T called some of the Humvees "cardboard coffins" because the armor was just plywood boxes screwed onto the back and side panels and doors, filled with sandbags. "When an IED finds one of those lousy sons of bitches, it's all over but the cryin'"--a favorite cliche.
Jake and Griff wait in formation with the rest of Kilo Company. Dim overhead camp lights shine down on the three platoons of 36 Marines. The men stand at ease, quietly waiting, some whispering about a smoke or asking, "Permission to take a crap, Gunny T." He would nod, and the Marine would be flying, pack and all.
Jake stands behind Griff, stolid, showing no emotion. He imagines Megs and the color of her hair and the one eye that has shades of blue and green. He sees her face and her body and remembers being inside of her on the roof across from the lake and the backyard and that first time when they hooked up on an air mattress down by the lake. Then he worries about the things all soldiers do when they first go to battle: Will 1 be brave? What if I get shot in the face or gut shot or my legs get blown off? I'd rather die than come home a cripple. Maybe I'll be a hero and win some medals. Me and Griff popping caps and rescuing people. Wish I had been there when they caught Saddam. I would have worked him over, pulled that puke from his rat hole, and let everyone take a piece.
I don't know. I don't want to die or end up in a wheelchair and have to crap in a bag for the rest of my life. How bad would a sucking chest wound hurt? Like my old man's. Did he scream and cry? Who took care of him, and what happened, really?--and then he thinks of the hole in his father's chest and playing catch with him, summers in the backyard with his shirt off, and how all his life, he barely noticed the scar tissue, the sunken dent in his chest, but now, as he is about to go risk his life, he can see Mike's wound clearly. The layered smooth flaps of skin that were once stitched, sutured, and pulled into a mass of melded tissue. He also can see the joy on his father's face as he releases the ball, and he can see it spinning, red stitches on white. Maybe he never will see that again; maybe he never w ill throw another ball or feel a bat. Then he recalls Sgt. Carll saying, "You'll be on line someday, crossing an empty chunk of desert, assaulting a bombed-out village, and your best buddy will get shot in the throat. You won't have time to stop and cry. You'll be firing back, thanking God it isn't your butt laying there, groveling in the sand, trying to suck your last breath. There it is. One day you'll understand it's better him than me."