The alarm, a mix of ringing klaxon and urgent voice, sounds three to five seconds before impact. Never more, usually less, sometimes not at all.
Protocol for incoming rocket fire dictates to get to a bunker if you can, drop to the ground if you can’t. As the catchy ditty reminds, If you hear the alert, hit the dirt! I’m usually in our office when the alarm goes off, which is as close to a bunker as we have within reach. There my reaction to ‘INCOMING! INCOMING! INCOMING!’ means I look around at my co-workers, smirk, and wait for the hopefully distant boom.
This time I was waiting at the passenger terminal, ready to fly back to our main base to do some administrative work. No office in a concrete building, no bunkers nearby, just a corrugated metal roof between me and the falling sky. This time the booms were close.
At the first INCOMING! I snapped my laptop shut and slid to the ground, crouching for cover next to my gear. I wasn’t ready to embarrass myself by laying prone on the dusty floor. After all, I still have some dignity.
That round landed about a hundred and fifty meters away, far enough that no shrapnel hit our building but close enough for me to discard any dignified airs and hug the ground.
The second round was closer, well within a hundred meters. The building shook as I muttered a few choice expletives, asking no one in particular: “Seriously!?! You’ve got to be [choice adjectival expletive] kidding me!”
The experience wasn’t pleasant. The concussion was deep and pronounced, a gut punch to the boom’s audible insult. Inside the passenger terminal lights flickered and swayed; impatient furniture jumped at the opportunity to shift an inch.
Thankfully no one was injured. I, however, was offended at the insurgents’ audacity; their timing is downright rude. They never attack when I’m ready, caffeine-filled and geared-up. Instead, they wait until I’m in the shower, right on the cusp of sleep, or listening to Ke$ha and trying to decide if I genuinely like her music or am just enjoying it ironically. In short, they wait until I’m worlds away before unleashing a boom or bang to bring me back to the present.
Usually nothing stands in the way between me and my mental escapes. I will seize any moment, opportune or otherwise, to sort things out, think of how and when things will be better, remind myself of goodness. But I’m scared I may start to drag these these violent Iraqi interjections into my frivolous delights.
During my days of constant convoys we rigged up an iPod to the internal radio in the Humvee to help the hours pass. I was plagued by paranoia that at some point during Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” a roadside bomb would tear through the Humvee, shattering limbs, breaking bodies, and forever ruining my innocent enjoyment of Billy Ray’s less than innocent offspring. To think that I would descend into existential terror hearing about a young girl “rockin’ Kiks” (natch) who “never got the memo” to wear stilettos… I’m willing to sacrifice a lot for my country, but that’s pushing things a bit.
Not surprisingly, when I requested that the gunner (who also served as DJ) leave Miley off the convoy playlist he acquiesced immediately, no doubt sharing my fear. After an impromptu poll we settled on Red Hot Chili Peppers for an anthem. To everyone in the truck the band already held emotional baggage (ahem, “Scar Tissue”) from failed relationships. If anything, a traumatic event over here could help free Stadium Arcadium and Californication of more painful associations.
It’s hard to process this immediate shift from whimsy to severity. I can’t justify always being on edge, because things are peaceful the vast majority of the time, but I can’t relax, because things could devolve to booms and bangs in a heartbeat. If this was 2006 Iraq I could be living from one adrenaline-fueled moment to the next, doing actual war things. But this isn’t 2006, where convoys are regularly taking fire and you can expect an IED or two a week, where being on edge makes sense.
It’s 2011, and the country is usually safe. Most months we lose a guy or two to roadside bombs, and occasionally an Iraqi soldier will turn his rifle on Americans and send a few home in flag-draped caskets, but that’s par for the war course. We’d probably face similar casualties if we were deployed to Detroit.
Right now, Iraq is safe. It’s safe until it isn’t.