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Private Kate Carlson is nineteen years old in 2003 when she is deployed to Iraq. On a remote base in a desolate expanse of Iraqi desert, Kate meets a nineteen-year-old Iraqi medical student named Naema, a smart and angry young woman whose father and thirteen-year-old brother have been, she believes, wrongfully detained in the US prisoner camp. Naema would do anything for news of her family, and when she convinces Kate her English is good enough to translate for the other prisoners' families, the two women strike up an uneasy friendship. But the stresses of war may prove too much for their tenuous relationship. Kate enlisted in the Army to show her dad she was tough-but being tough doesn't make her active duty any easier. There's the constant threat of enemy roadside bombings, mortar shellings, prisoner riots-not to mention the danger a female soldier faces at the hands of her own male colleagues. Kate's war experience becomes increasingly sinister, as does Naema's. As each woman takes up arms to protect the people she loves, buried prejudices come unearthed and allies turn hostile. Can two women from such violently opposed backgrounds ever be friends? Culled from real life stories of female soldiers in Iraq, Benedict's novel, the follow-up to her universally acclaimed nonfiction book on the experiences of female soldiers in Iraq, tackles the issue of widespread sexual abuse within the military.
[ K A T E ]
IT'S THE BIGGEST frigging spider I’ve ever seen in my life. From one hairy leg to the other, the whole thing’s as long as my forearm. So I make sure it’s dead first. Nudge it with the butt of my rifle till it flips over, limp and sandy. Then I pick it up by a leg, haul it into the tent like a shopping bag and nail it to the pole beside the head of my cot, right under my crucifix. That should keep Macktruck quiet, at least for the time being. He’s terrified of spiders. Asshole.
The whistling is loud outside the tent today; a creepy, skin-prickling sound I can never get used to. The desert whistles all day and night out here. The hissing whistle of the wind cutting past your helmet. The moaning whistle of it winnowing through the razor wire. I stand under the hot canvas a moment, just listening. And then it hits me again, that deep-down ache that makes me want to curl up and cry.
“What the fuck are you doing, Brady?” It’s Will Rickman, this bony young specialist in my squad with zitty skin and an Adam’s apple twice the size of his brain.
I wipe my hands on my pants. “Nothing.”
Rickman steps closer and squints at my spider. “Look at that thing. It’s disgusting. It’s fuckin’ bleeding black ooze.”
“Don’t talk like that about Fuzzy.”
Rickman raises his eyebrows. But all he says is, “Let’s go, they’re waiting.”
I pick up my rifle and follow him, sunglasses over my eyes, scarf over my mouth. Ducking against the wind, the sand whipping into my cheeks, I run to the Humvee and cram into the back behind the other guy in my team, DJ, and our squad leader, Staff Sergeant Kormick.
“We got better things to do than wait while you powder your nose, Brady,” Kormick shouts to me over the wind, shoving the Humvee into gear with a grinding wrench. “Don’t keep us waiting again. Got it?”
“Got it, Sar’nt.”
While we drive along the dirt road to the checkpoint, the guys shooting their usual bull, I gaze out the slit of a back window into the early morning light. Dirty gray sand stretches as far as I can see, blending so exactly with the dust-filled sky it obliterates the horizon. On either side of the road are rows of rectangular olive-drab tents, their roofs droopy and covered in dust. The ones on the left are for us, the ones on the right behind the loops of razor wire are for the prisoners. But other than that, there’s nothing out there but an endless gray blur. And a tree.
I like that tree, standing outside the wire all by itself in the middle of the desert. I call it Marvin. I spend so many hours staring at Marvin that I know every twist of his wiry little branches, every pinpoint of his needle leaves. I talk to him sometimes, compare notes on how we’re doing.
We rattle along for twenty minutes or so, while I sit in a daze, too tired to line up my thoughts in any kind of an order. We work twelve-to-fifteen-hour shifts, and even so I can never sleep. It’s too damn hot and I’m sharing a tent with thirty-three snoring, farting members of the male sex, not to mention the prisoners only a few meters away, chanting and screaming all night long.
As we near the checkpoint, the deep-down ache starts up again. I hate this.
Sure enough, there they are. Fifty or so civilians waiting outside the wire, baggy clothes flapping in the wind. They’ve been coming every day for weeks now, arriving at dawn to stand in the sun for hours without moving, like shrubs. Most of them are women. Mothers and sisters, wives and daughters looking for their men.
Kormick pulls the Humvee up to the checkpoint and we climb out. Hitching my rifle strap over my shoulder, I head for the wire with my team, the sand blowing up my nose and down my throat, making me cough. God, what I would give for a breath of clear air, one that isn’t filled with dust and the stink of burning shit and diesel. Air like the air at home: clean, cool, mountain air.
“Brady!” Kormick yells after me, beckoning me back with a jerk of his head. “When you get over there tell the hajjis we’ll mail them a list soon. And make ’em fuck off.”
“And Brady? Get a move on this time.”
I’m not any slower than anybody else, but I do what he says. What list he’s talking about, though, I have no idea. There isn’t any list. And even if we did have one, how in Christ’s name am I supposed to tell these people, “We’ll mail you a list of the prisoners” when we just bombed all their houses and mailboxes, too—if they even have mailboxes in Iraq?
When we drove through Basra on the way here from Kuwait in March, right after Shock and Awe and the start of the war, it was flattened. Nothing but smoldering rubble. People living in lean-tos made of cardboard and scrap. Garbage piled so high you couldn’t see over it, making the worst goddamn stink I’ve ever smelled in my life. Corpses lying in the streets, smashed and gory, like those run-down deer on the highways at home, only with human faces. But Kormick always gives me the job of talking to these people. He’s got the idea that the sight of a female soldier will win their hearts and minds. We’ve just pulverized their towns, locked up their men and killed their kids, and one GI Jane with sand up her ass is supposed to make it okay?
The minute I step in front of the checkpoint wire, the same old havoc begins: civilians shouldering each other to get near me, waving photographs and screeching. A checkpoint is supposed to be secure, but ours is nothing but a plywood shack no bigger than a garden shed, a rickety wooden tower, a razor-wire fence and a handful of badly trained reservists with guns. And sand, of course. Lots and lots of sand.
“Imagine being on an empty beach looking out at the ocean,” I wrote to Tyler once. “Now take away the ocean and replace it with sand all the way to the end of the frigging world. That’s where I am.”
I miss Tyler so bad. The soapy smell of his hair, the warmth of his big body up against mine. And his eyes— he has the prettiest brown eyes you ever saw. Cinnamon eyes. We’ve been dating since eleventh grade, which is funny ’cause when I first met him I didn’t like him at all. I was into class clowns those days, show-offy bad boys, not quiet, nerdy types like Tyler McAllister, who mumbled and blushed whenever we talked. But then he invited me to see him play guitar and sing at a place called The Orange Dog, and I was so surprised that a geek like him even played guitar I said yes.
The Orange Dog’s in Catskill and the closest thing to a music club we have in our corner of upstate New York, although it doesn’t serve alcohol, which is the only reason my parents allowed me to go there at seventeen. I asked my best friend Robin to come with me because we made a good boy-hunting team: Robin tall and dark, with creamy skin and big brown eyes; me small and freckled, with frizzy red hair and eyes so light they’re almost no color at all. She picked me up in her rusty, third-hand Saturn and drove us the forty minutes south it takes to get to Catskill from Willowglen, our hometown. That was a big-deal expedition for us back then.
Soon as we walked into the club, I felt happy. It smelled of wood and beer (it had once been a bar), just like a music club should. On one side was a counter, where you could buy hippie things like carrot cake and iced mocha. Scattered around were ratty old couches and chairs that the owners probably rescued from the town dump. Colored lampshades hung low from the ceiling, making pools of soft light over the mismatched coffee tables—the place looked like a living room after it’s been trashed at a party, which I thought was perfect. Robin bought us each a root beer, and we sank into a couple of stained red armchairs and stretched out our legs to admire our tight jeans and high-heel boots.
The club filled up pretty quick. Farm boys and local teenagers on the lookout for girls. A few boozy old men who’d probably stumbled in by mistake. Me and Robin smirked at each other. We were much more sophisticated than any of those folks. They were hicks. We, of course, weren’t.
I had no idea what to expect from Tyler that night, if this was a date or if he was just collecting an audience. I didn’t know a lot about boys yet, since I’ve got no brothers and I’d never had a regular boyfriend. Every boy I’d tried dating had turned out to be either a two-timing dipshit or stunningly dumb.
So we sat there, Robin tall and graceful, me short and gingery, until they finally turned off the music and lights and shone a wobbly spotlight on a single high stool on the stage. Then Tyler walked on, looking way cooler than I ever imagined he could, with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, a tight black T-shirt and long hair swinging into his eyes. He perched on the stool, like a million other singers have, I guess, his guitar on one knee, and I don’t know why, but suddenly I was ridiculously nervous. I felt like I’d known him for years. Like the two of us had been waiting for this performance all our lives, working for it, building up to it. Like this was going to make him or break him and I really cared.
Later that night I found out that Tyler wasn’t a geek at all. He was just in love with me.
That was two years ago, and a whole lot of shit’s happened since then. Tyler’s in college now, back at home, studying music and playing gigs. And I’m stuck in the middle of this frigging desert, like I’ve been for almost three months, surrounded by jabbering civilians and wondering what the fuck I’m doing here.
Soon this old couple pushes through the crowd and hustles up to me, the woman clutching her husband’s arm. They both look unbelievably ancient and withered. The woman is draped from head to toe in black, her cheeks lined with a million tiny cracks, her dark eyes watering under her wrinkly brow. The man is white-haired and knotty, with a tiny brown face like a walnut. Holding each other tight, they hobble up close, and that’s when they realize I’m a female. The usual snort of surprise, like I’m some clown the U.S. military shipped out for their entertainment. Then they try to press the advantage.
“Lady, look,” the old man says in a garble that sounds vaguely like English, and his wife pushes a photo at me with a trembling hand. “My son. He here? Does he live?”
I look at it, not because I’m interested but because that’s my job. A wide-eyed Arab with a Saddam mustache, same as a million others. I nod like I know him and the old couple gets real excited. The woman even smiles, five teeth missing. Her whole wrinkly face is so full of hope that I have to turn away. We have seven thousand prisoners in this place and more coming in every day. How the hell am I supposed to know anything from some crappy old snapshot?
“If he’s here, I’m sure he’s safe,” I say.
“Thank you, thank you lady soldier!” the old man answers, his voice quavering. That makes me feel bad.
“Go home now,” I tell him and the crowd. “When we have a list of the detainees we’ll let you know. But you gotta go now.” I wave my arms in a shooing motion.
Nothing changes. The civilians just keep pressing around me, hollering and shoving their goddamn photos into my face. I shouldn’t even be here by myself in the middle of a bunch of locals like this—one of them could shoot my head off any second. I glance over my shoulder. Where the hell is zit-face Rickman? He’s supposed to be my battle buddy, out here with me, watching my back. But no, he’s over behind the wire, nice and safe, chewing the fat with PFC Bonaparte, popularly known as Boner. I’m alone. As usual.
“Girl, why you balled-up in the bedclothes there? Come on out now, or I’ll pull you out myself, like I did yesterday. You didn’t like that, did you?”
Yesterday? The soldier can’t remember yesterday.
A wave of cold as the nurse pulls off the sheet. Wet gown bunched and piss-stinky. Back throbbing.
“Oh, honey. You had a rough night, huh? Come on, up you get and we’ll wash you nice and clean.”
The nurse wraps her big arms around the soldier and drags her out of the hospital bed, wet and reeking.
The nurse and the soldier dancing the waltz of shame.