“GET YOUR S**T! All hands to the roof of Shark House!” Marc Lee’s breathless bark snapped me out of sleep.
I didn’t think as I jolted off my cot, stuck my bare feet in my Oakley boots, and grabbed my web gear, machine gun, helmet, and night-vision goggles (NVGs). I ran hot on Marc’s heels, in nothing but a pair of PT shorts and some assault gear, as we raced the hundred yards to the roof like sharks toward blood in the water.
Impending violence permeated the Euphrates’s musty breeze.
“Muj swimmers trying to attack Blue Diamond,” Marc called over his shoulder as we hit the ground-floor entrance to the house. Camp Blue Diamond was the Marine base across the river to our east. We bounded up the stairs, untied boot laces whipping our bare shins. On the roof, we joined about twenty other Teamguys, most of us in PT shorts and bare chested, the unofficial uniform for middle-of-the-night, just-out-of-your-rack muj hunting. I saw an occasional T-shirt and had to stifle a chuckle when I noticed Guy, one of our officers, and his perfect uniform. A hodgepodge of support guys intermixed among us. When Marc said all hands, he had meant all hands. Everybody wanted to get his war on.
The muj had sent a sorry contingent of maritime fighters to attack the Marine base. Blue Diamond had alerted our tactical operations center (TOC), who in turn had coordinated the perfect L-shaped ambush. We stood poised, waiting for the green light from our base defense operations center on Camp Ramadi. Our mismatched uniforms and patchwork appearance belied our deadly potential. We stood, silently, vipers waiting to strike.
Somebody was going to have a bad night.
Guy was on my left. Marc Lee and Ryan Job fell in alongside him. JP was to my right. We were new to war, but our brotherhood spanned many generations and was forged by a proud warrior tradition. We were ready.
A few spots to my right, a support guy named Neal was armed to the teeth. I stifled another chuckle. His gear was an arsenal of grenades, M4 mags, and trinkets. He had no NVGs. I turned my attention back across the quiet river. My night vision infiltrated the darkness, and I could see movement. I pushed the safety off on my gun and turned on my infrared laser.
Then the command came.
Three, two, one. Execute.
Together, we unleashed hell on the river below and the unsuspecting muj lurking in its waters. It was euphoric. I methodically delivered 150 rounds in precise eight-to-ten-round bursts. The tracers screamed across the water. Some hit and stuck; others deflected and fizzled into the night. The intense energy of American ordnance and thunder of machine guns singing all around left no doubt in my mind: I was born for this.
I looked around me at every other man doing exactly the same thing and realized that this is how it had always been. Since the first man threw a rock, to when a man chucked a spear, to when another man aimed his rifle, it has come down to a man, his weapon, and the brothers who will fight with him. At that moment, everyone who mattered to me was on that rooftop. Nothing existed beyond Ramadi. These were the men who would bring me out alive, as I would them. I had literally nothing but my gun and my brothers. I hope it will always be like this.
I didn’t notice my scalding-hot shell casing ejecting toward JP’s exposed leg to my right. I didn’t care. When the abrupt call to cease fire finally came, my ears rang, my hands tingled, and the enemy was dead or dying. I felt alive.
Someone was yelling at Neal for firing six mags at the enemy with no night vision on. We called him Shadow Stalker for the rest of the deployment. A gunner’s mate tech asked sheepishly, “Hey, man, am I going to get my Combat Action Ribbon for this?”
“Sure, man,” I said, deciding to let him revel in his glory for a little while.
I checked my left flank. Guy, Marc, and Ryan had the familiar look of satisfaction that operating a powerful weapon delivers. JP cussed the burns on his left calf from my brass. I shrugged and took a deep breath. The smell of cordite from hundreds of spent rounds mixed with a breeze from the Euphrates’s ancient waters. I put my gun on safe and hit the pressure pad for the laser. I grabbed my gear and began the walk back to my tent, wondering how many similar opportunities I’d have like this over the next seven months. I didn’t want it to change me, or us—any of us. I didn’t think ahead to the future—where I’d be as a man or a husband or father a decade later. It didn’t matter at the time. I just needed to clean my gun. I was in Ramadi, and I’d be back in my rack before the flies found the meat we’d left for them in the reeds.
Later, I lay awake for only a moment before falling into a satisfied sleep, confident in the work I’d done with the others.
I hope it will always be like this.