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Eight days earlier, Charlie Company sat around for thirty hours surrounded by their gear on the runway in Logistical Support Area King Cobra in Iraq, alternately sweltering by day and freezing by night while waiting for a ride home. King Cobra was a virtual city of sandbagged tents and concrete bunkers sprawling for miles in all directions and surrounded by concertina wire and guard towers. The Army’s ongoing exodus from the country was a marvel in its overall speed and orderliness, but LSA King Cobra nonetheless steadily unraveled in the confusion, constant attacks by insurgents, and the massive ongoing labor of trying to provide shelter and medical care for the infected. An estimated twenty percent of the forces in Iraq caught Lyssa and were suffering in quarantine tents.
At the time, the boys thought they were being redeployed to Florida, which started a debate about the relative merits of Miami girls versus girls from every other state represented in the Company. They shouted to make themselves heard, as some POGs—people other than grunts, support troops—in a nearby motor pool company had started a musical duel, one side picking gangster rap, the other heavy metal anthems.
The second night, the boys began to worry. Nobody in charge seemed to know they were there, and they were out of food and hungry. Some snuck out to beg or steal some MREs and barely made it back alive. One couldn’t walk to the latrine without being attacked by wild dogs or shot at by nervous replacements. Dogs caught Lyssa too and you needed to bring a shotgun to the can so you didn’t get bit, and for the same reason, if you shot a dog, as a sniper from Third Platoon did, you couldn’t eat it.
A Humvee parked near the edge of the runway took a hit from an RPG and was burning, its ammo cooking off and popping. Marine Cobras roared overhead in the darkness, setting up strafing runs. In the middle of a densely populated camp with fires all around, thermal and night vision optics were useless, so the boys sent up flares and took potshots at the shadows. The swacked Humvee exploded, shooting flaming shards of metal fifty feet into the air, making the boys whoop. A SAW gunner in Second Platoon showed up laughing with a bottle of cheap Iraqi gin he’d bought from some kids at the perimeter, and the boys passed it around, savoring the slow burn on their parched throats.
A firefight broke out in the distance, then another, red tracer flashes bursting along the wire. A single mortar round whistled and burst in the center of the camp, sending pieces of tent flying. A squad of heavily armed MPs jogged by, telling everybody to keep their heads down. Buses packed with soldiers drove onto the runway as if nothing was happening, their headlights playing on the tents and Stryker vehicles lined up in neat rows while a C130 cargo plane touched down dangerously close. The headlights briefly illuminated two soldiers locked in a fist fight, then swerved away, returning them to darkness. Somebody in the quarantine tents was screaming. Shots rang out.
The boys lay on the ground shivering in their armor, using their helmets to rest their heads, dreaming of forbidden pleasures—hot showers, plates piled high with French fries and, of course, sex. Some were so exhausted they dreamed of sleep, or not at all. In the middle of the night they woke up, Iraqi dust caked in their ears and mouths and nostrils, to the sound of gunfire close by. The air stank of oily smoke and hot diesel fumes.
At least it’s not like this at home, they thought, and sighed. Soon, it will all be over.
Green tracer rounds from Russian guns streamed into the cold night sky over Baghdad. The city appeared to be tearing itself apart. Word went around that the militias were shooting Lyssa victims down in the street. People went Mad Dog and roamed the city along with animals who’d also caught it, spreading infection.
It was a disaster beyond the soldiers’ comprehension.
“We tried,” PFC Richard Boyd said, watching the distant fireworks, his voice quivering with rage. “We really did. Now they can die for all I care.”
At dawn, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer Armstrong, silver-haired and looking fierce with his arm in a bloody sling, mustered the battalion and gave everybody a rousing speech just before they boarded chartered United and Air France planes and started the long journey home.
Operation Iraqi Freedom has been scrubbed, he told them.
We’re going back to the World.
The mission has changed. Our new mission is more important. In fact, it is possibly the most important thing the Army has done since the founding of the Republic.
We’ve got to see America through the Pandemic, he said.
The boys glanced at each other in formation, exchanging quick, discrete grins. It was actually happening. They were finally going home.
As Charlie Company boarded the planes, First Platoon found that Private Tyrone Botus, the kid everybody called Rook, had gone Elvis. He had ventured out near the quarantine tents to refill his squad’s canteens the night before. They couldn’t find him anywhere.