Soldier On

Excerpted from My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir by Brian Turner. first American edition 2014, with permission of the publisher WW Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


I am a drone aircraft plying the darkness  above my body, flying over my wife as she sleeps beside me, over the curvature of the earth, over the glens of Antrim and the Dalmatian coastline, the shells of Dubrovnik and Brčko and Mosul arcing in the air beside me, projectiles filled with poems and death and love. I am 32,000 feet over the Atlantic seaboard. The fields, the orchards, the woodlands below press together the way countries on maps do, coursing waterways, paved roads and dirt tracks and furrows cutting through. Countries touching countries. Bosnia and Vietnam and Iraq and Northern Ireland and Korea and Russia pressed together in the geography below. Cumulus scattered above them, their shapes authored by sunlight on the ground beneath. The Battle of Guadalcanal emerges from the shadows where my grandfather lives. Now Bougainville. Guam. Iwo Jima.

Highway 1—Iraq’s Highway of Death—stretches through desert on one side and California’s San Joaquin Valley on the other. The eucalyptus trees of my childhood line the sides of the highway. In places I can see the scorch marks on the asphalt where transport trucks were left to burn. My dead Uncle Paul steals oranges in the night groves there, just as he did when I was eight years old, while fresh dark earth covers the newly dead on the other side of the highway. Owls perch on their gravestones calling out for water. Each night I do this, monitoring heat signatures in the landscape, switching from white-hot to black-hot lenses as I bank and turn, gathering circuit by circuit the necessary intelligence, all that I have done, all that we have done, compressed into the demarcations in the map below.


“Here’s the situation,” Sergeant First Class Fredrickson said, gesturing to the tiny plastic red and blue flags driven into the ground on thin metal poles. There must have been 30 or 40 of them arrayed in the grass around us, in no discernible pattern. It was September 2003, and, like some of the others gathered around SFC Fredrickson on that clipped green field outside our classroom, I’d been scanning the scene to gauge what the flags might represent. On the big-screen television in the company dayroom, the war waited for us. Fighters who shot at American soldiers in Baghdad and Samarra and Tikrit were perfecting their trigger squeeze for us.

“We are surrounded by the dead. And by parts of the dead,” Fredrickson said, emphasizing the word parts. “Your unit has come upon the scene of a possible ambush. Everybody’s dead. This is not a mass casualty exercise. So. What’s the first thing we should do?”

One of the students in the back said, “We better start scrounging up a shitload of body bags.”

Fredrickson smiled.

“No. Like everything else, the first thing you do, the first thing: set up security. Create a perimeter, and then you can get to work.” He went on to explain that a certain number of soldiers would be needed to deal with the task at hand, especially if time was of the essence, as it always was in these situations. “You’ll want to photograph the scene from several angles, if you have a digital camera and if you have the time. That’s why the flags are here. You have to place one flag at the spot of each body, or body part , that you find. If you don’t have a camera, do a field sketch.” We practice drawing hasty field sketches in our pocket notebooks, creating small legends in the margins, crossed lines with tiny arrowheads: a rough guide to the cardinal directions.

He tells us to use a certain Department of Defense form to label and keep track of the dead sealed up in their body bags. “And remember, this is very important: never place two separated parts into the same bag.” He pauses. “I’ll give you an example.” He points to the nearest soldier and tells him to lie down and act like he’s dead.

Sergeant Gordon kneels on the damp grass and then lies down prostrate, with his right arm stretched out from his side, as if pointing to something beyond us. His mouth is open and at first he stares blankly at the few clouds above. Then, he closes his eyes and assumes the role of the dead.

A few of us joke about Gordon and his ability to sham, to loaf, no matter the circumstances as Fredrickson steps closer to the body. “Imagine that this arm,” he says, gesturing toward Gordon’s outstretched limb, “has been blown off, here at the armpit. And there’s no other body nearby, and you can plainly see that it’s the same uniform and everything. Still, you have to put his body in one bag and give it a number and then you have to put this arm in another bag with a different number.” He looks across our faces. “Don’t assume anything. They’ll figure it out back home. They’ll test for DNA and all that jazz.” A pause, and then he continues: “Let me tell you something—you don’t want to be the one who makes some poor family bury their soldier with somebody else’s body part. Roger that?”

As he carries on explaining the work at hand, my eyes wander over the grassy field and the bright flags stationed in the earth around us. It’s a rare day of sun in Fort Lewis, Washington State, and the early morning light illuminates the translucent nature of the grass in its subtle gesture toward infinity. The dead assume their positions. Some of them lie on their sides, others rest on their backs, their faces lifted toward the sky. Each with a numbered flag beside him. Some turn their heads slowly toward me, their eyes crossed over into the landscape of clouds as they call out with hoarse voices, quietly, asking for a drink of water.

A small sip, they say. Just a sip of water.

The 1st Platoon of Blackhorse Company sits on the tile floor of the weight room cleaning weapons with CLP (cleaning, lubricant, and protectorant) and bore snakes and dental tools after running lanes in the woods and conducting live-fire exercises. The men are dirty and exhausted. They laugh and shout out their orders as bags of burritos are delivered from the 24-hour Taco Bell off post. I’m in the adjacent room with my squad leader, Staff Sergeant Bruzik, and Sergeant Zapata, my fellow team leader. We watch more of the war on television. Several Marines rush under fire to a bridge in Nasiriyah, Iraq.

They crawl on the concrete and asphalt of the roadway as the invisible trails of bullets zip past them from the far shore of the river. They return fire, shooting at what I’ve been trained to think of as known and suspected enemy targets . The Marines rush the bridge over and over as the newscast replays the scene.

The television is on mute. I don’t know what Bruzik and Zapata are thinking, but I’m looking at the far shore and trying to make out the muzzle flashes. Those on the other side of the river are honing the same fundamentals of marksmanship we’ve studied at the rifle ranges of Fort Lewis. It isn’t something I mention to Bruzik and Zapata. I feel remote, somewhat cold, my mind working out the possible trajectories that might bring me home. I’m Sergeant Turner and I’m a team leader preparing to deploy to combat. But there’s something echoing through the branches and channels of my central nervous system.

On the other side of that river, Iraqis continue to crouch along walls and lie on rooftops in the prone. Even when I fall asleep tonight, they’ll continue to fire their weapons. The news anchor will narrate the action. On replay. Figures in the distance. Soldiers running toward the bridge. The sight picture placed over them as I dream and sleep in the state of Washington. The Iraqi men, again and again, pulling the trigger.

—By Brian Turner

Brian Turner, MFA ’96, directs the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College. My Life as a Foreign Country is included in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers series.