Our post is in the hilly, wooded area outside the city. We sleep and eat in an old stone building with dirt floors. There’s no electricity or running water, so we shower at a bigger camp, the command center outside a small town just south of Sarejevo. Stubb, Perry and Morgan were just there last week, so they don’t stink as much as the rest of us. For Robinson, Wiggins, Van Dorn and me, it was three weeks since our last shower and it might be another two or three weeks before the next one. Our BDUs are woodland camoflouge but they turn white after a while with all the sweat salt. Even though it’s still kind of rocky where we are, it’s green and the trees don’t look too different from the ones back home. A small river curves around the greener side of the hill. Sometimes we dip our feet in it to clean em up. Robinson and Wiggins won’t do it cause the water’s too cold, but it doesn’t bother me any—it’s warmer than Lake Superior in the spring. We did get some supplies—ammo, MREs, and water but no soap this time.
In our deployment briefing, Major Hansen said Sarajevo used to be one of the most beautiful cities in eastern Europe. Said it’s the place where World War I started and the people here sided with the Nazis in World War II. Got lucky here though—they didn’t bomb the hell out of it like some parts of Europe. We’ve been here two months and most of what we see is country roads and hills. Gets confusing sometimes, who’s fighting who, with Serbs and Croats and everyone else. We’re not a real unit, just a small attachment manning a lookout station for the UN to make sure they don’t all kill each other. Our whole company is scattered around the hills and valleys, mixed in with others units. We just report any fighting we see. It’s not our war.
Some guys think Bosnia looks like the places we trained in Colorado and New Mexico, except maybe greener. To me, it reminds me of the places Hemingway talks about in his books, like WWI Italy or the mountains in Spain. Except for yesterday, it’s been mostly quiet, kind of boring. This morning we had the first hot meal in a week, thanks to the Sterno we brought back last night. Everything else lately’s been MREs and every box we get is missing the number five meal—spaghetti. The command center guys always steal the good meals before they make it to the field, the ones with M&Ms. Most of our hot meals come from cans, the kind of rations Dad probably ate in Vietnam.
When we got to Europe, they started breaking up the units based on needs. Wiggins and Robinson are from a transportation unit. Van Dorn is logistics. We didn’t know any of them before coming here, but Stubb, Perry and Morgan are from my infantry company. You get to know people real fast though, when you’re deployed. We’re not technically on a combat mission, we’re more of a security force, but they wanted a lot of combat arms guys here because they think this whole mess might explode soon and then we’ll be ready. In the meantime, we just mostly watch. There really isn’t a whole lot of action and we’re not supposed to fire our weapons unless we get clearance from higher up.
Wiggins talks the most about killing. It’s kind of funny since he’s a transportation guy. Most of us infantry guys don’t even mention it, except for Perry. We just stay quiet, observe and report. Do our job. One day, Wiggins was going on and on about how much “Euro-trash he was gonna smoke” until Robinson threatened to choke him if he didn’t shut up. Then Wiggins started getting on Robinson’s case, calling him an Oreo pussy, until Captain Stubb ordered both of them to clean the perimeter for the rest of the day. After an hour, Wiggins started running his mouth again and Stubb gave him all the shit duties—latrine, trash, double night duty for two weeks. He told Robinson to take a break and cool off. Then he told Wiggins to stop acting like a wigger. Then he said, “Wiggins—wigger!” and laughed for a good couple of minutes like he never thought of it before.
Wiggins just said, “That’s racist, Sir! That’s some fucked up shit. Why you wanna do me like that?”
Wiggins told me later that Stubb better never show his face in Oakland, cause when he’s out of the Army, he’ll be gunning for him. Told me why he signed up. He was in a gang back in Oakland and arrested for assault. Said it wasn’t his fault—when you live in some neighborhoods, you just grow up part of the gang. He got caught and the judge gave him the option of military or jail time. Not sure how much to believe—the guy’s full of bullshit most the time, but he looked me in the eyes when he told me all of this and he seemed real serious. The part I know for sure, is that he would’ve killed Captain Stubb without blinking if he could’ve got away with it. Says the only people like Stubb in Oakland are in the bottom of dumpsters.
Back in garrison, a lot of people like Wiggins are always talking about wanting action and getting deployed. Funny how the people with the biggest mouths are always the first ones crying or pissing their pants when it actually happens. Since the first Gulf War, the rest of the world thinks everything’s gotten peaceful but there’s always some kind of shit going down. Seems like we’re always on alert, locked down in the barracks. Most of the time, nothing happens and we just keep on our business. Then one day you’re on a plane to some shithole mess. I remember my first deployment. Everybody thought it was a drill and they didn’t even pack all their gear cause there were so many close calls in the months leading up to it. Lot of grunts ended up leaving important personal shit behind.
Then you’re deployed and all anybody talks about is back home. Most days here are slow, just like back in garrison. We play a lot more cards here and just talk—about women, music and whatever else comes up. Sometimes you almost lose yourself in the cards and the bullshit—forget you’re a soldier deployed in some foreign country, until somebody starts shooting at you or launching grenades, or you run into people who talk funny and dress funny and you realize you can’t understand a damn word they’re saying.
We told Stubb, Perry and Morgan a few stories about the ambush yesterday. In Wiggins’ version of the story, he didn’t piss his pants. Now we’re back to playing Spades under flashlight. Wiggins, Robinson and me all brought cloth folding stools with us to Bosnia. We’re used to spending time in the field. Van Dorn’s mostly a clerk and wasn’t expecting to be here, so he’s stuck sitting on a five gallon water can. He shifts every few minutes when the handle makes skin dents in his ass cheeks. Our table is a four-high stack of MRE boxes.
“Got a buddy attached to third platoon Bravo,” Wiggins says. “’Bout once a month, he come back up in the barracks after he be hanging out with the girls on the south side, syphilis all over his face and shit. All brave when it come to pussy but he a bitch when it comes to firefights—those mortars, getting shot at and all that. Mofucker would’ve shit his tighty-whities last night.”
“There’s a dude like that in my platoon. Sisco. Except he’s smart enough to wrap his shit up,” I say. “This dude’s got so much porn on VHS, so many stacks of titty mags, his quarters looks like the back room of a truck stop. Can’t shoot for shit. 11B and he needs a shooter in the knoll just to make Marksman.”
“We got another dude, Ramirez,” Robinson says, “got all that and blow-up dolls, handcuffs, all kinds of kinky shit up in the barracks. Room look like a damn medieval dungeon.”
We’re laughing so hard we hardly notice Van Dorn shaking. He left his cards face up on the MRE table. He’s over by the edge of the hill.
“We almost died last night,” Van Dorn says.
“But we didn’t,” Wiggins says. He clears his sinuses and spits out toward the downslope side of the hill.
Van Dorn dry heaves till he pukes.
Since we’re a combat arms mission and we don’t have much contact with regular civilians, I haven’t seen a woman in over three months. It’s bad enough back at the barracks with guys talking about jerking off all the time, but it’s worse here, living like wild animals. Most the guys here just whip it out in front of you and start jerking it like it’s no big deal, the way most guys piss in the woods. I still can’t bring myself to do that. Perry’s doing it out in the open right now. Looks like he’s having a seizure—it all reminds me that we’re still in Bosnia and I want to get the fuck out of here.
My hands are shaking again. I really need a drink. Didn’t notice the shaking before—all the laughing helps you forget for a while.
Van Dorn said last night’s the first time he’s been shot at. Probably not the case for Robinson and definitely not for Wiggins. Today wasn’t the first time I’ve been shot at either. Hell, I got shot at before I enlisted, down in Detroit, when my cousin Ryan and me ended-up in the wrong neighborhood. Couple of close calls at the Iraq border a few years back, when I first came in. Some of the guys, big, tough-talking guys, were crying for their mommas at night. This one time, we were in a safe area. Nobody ever came by to give us ammo. We were set up around a re-supply camp, like the UN base fifty kilometers from here. One night a couple Crimson Guards caught this big guy, Samuels, sleeping, standing up, on guard duty. They would’ve fired on him with their AKs, but one of ’em pulled a knife, so they could kill him quiet. The second Samuels felt the knife coming in he knocked the Iraqi out cold and grabbed his M-16 on instinct. The other dude panicked when his AK misfired, so he dropped it and put his hands in the air to surrender. Backed away and then tried to run when he saw the look in Samuels’ eyes. Samuels caught up to him and butted him in the back with the stock of his sixteen. Ended-up strangling both of them to death. Killed them with his bare hands, like he would always say.
“After last night, I wanna go get some action, don’t know bout y’all,” Wiggins says.
“If it’s up to me, I hope we don’t hear one more shot the whole time we’re here,” I say.
“Spoken like a true pussy,” Wiggins says.
“Keep running your mouth and you’ll be back on the latrines,” I tell him.
“Damn, why you got to pull rank on me Metzger? Thought we was cool—why you gotta go there?”
“I hope you get your action, Wig,” I tell him. “Just hope I’m long gone from here when those bullets start to fly around your head. Don’t want to be the one stuck cleaning up the mess.”
My step-grandpa, Colonel Henry saw more than his share of action and he always said a man who couldn’t hold his own in a fight was worth nothing but a man who goes looking for a fight is a damn fool. Wiggins is a bullshitter but he’s no fool.
Red lights flash from below the hill, signals that they’re our guys. Not just any blue helmets, Americans.
“Must be Hansen,” Stubbs says.
“Just here yesterday. Why’s he back already? Maybe we’re going back to our units,” says Perry.
“’Bout damn time,” Wiggins says. “I’m sick of y’all infantry motherfuckers and your camping out. All that damn digging. Thought it was bad in my unit.”
“Wouldn’t get my hopes up just yet, wigger,” says Stubbs. “And I told you to watch your fucking mouth when higher brass comes around. It’s just damn disrespectful.”
Hansen’s with two young guys, privates. Looks like they’re fresh out of basic, their uniforms clean and new. Hansen’s BDUs are faded but he’s clean-shaved and he looks showered, from what I can see in the flashlights.
“There’s a rogue set up shop on a hill two clicks from here. Over yonder hill, right up from that UN re-supply hub, one the Swedes are running. Doesn’t know we’re here behind him. Might be a sniper or calling in mortars. My boys here, Mendoza and Cooper, been watching him through the green light. They said y’all had the sniper rifle.”
“Got the rifle, but no sniper,” says Stubb.
“Nothing but clerks and jerks in my attachment,” Hansen says. “Let’s get a team of your boys on that ridge. Set one of ’em up about a half click out and pop that sombitch first daylight. I’d do it but my eyes ain’t what they used to.”
“How ’bout you, Robinson,” Perry says, “want to take down a white boy?”
“No Sarge, you know it never work out well, black man shoots a white man. Never been nothing but trouble for my people.”
“I’ll do it,” says Wiggins. “Give that pavlaka-eating motherfucker a taste of Oakland.”
“Sniper rifle takes a little more skill than a drive-by, son. What y’all need is a bonafied backwoods, deer-hunting country boy,” says Stubb.
“Van Dorn’s country. Mississippi boy,” says Perry.
“It’ll be just like deer season,” Stubb says.
“I’m from Jackson, Sir,” Van Dorn tells him. “My old man’s a dentist. Never did much hunting. Nobody else wants to do it, I’ll give it my best, Sir.”
“How ’bout you, Metzger? You’s kind of backwoods,” Perry says.
“And he’s one of our boys, 11B. Ever take down a buck Metzger?” Stubb asks me while he lights his cigarette.
“Every year since I was nine,” I tell him. “Till I joined the Army.”
“Can you take down an objective at 500 meters? Probably shot bucks from a couple hundred with a 30.06? Sniper rifle’s same difference.”
“I’d get that motherfucker real good,” says Wiggins. “Give me that gun. I want to get me some action. Sarge Metzger don’t even want no action. Just told us all so.”
“Last thing we need’s a lot of noise,” says Major Hansen.
“Don’t need an international incident. Wiggins running in like Wyatt Earp, shooting shit up. Maybe you should stay back on this one,” says Stubb.
“Hell no. I ain’t gonna miss this. Metzger choke, I’ll run in there and give that Euro-cracker a beatdown.”
“Good, you’re Metzger’s spotter. One shot, one kill, boy,” he tells me. “You miss, the shit goes down.”
“I won’t,” I tell him. I won’t.
“Well hot damn. We got ourselves a sniper,” says Major Hansen.
“Even better, a redneck grunt with a deer rifle,” says Perry. “I’m getting a hard-on already.”
Perry hands me the black plastic case.
“You can do this, son,” says Hansen. He slaps me hard on the back.
I pull the rifle out of the case and wipe it down. Make sure it’s not loaded and run the ramrod in to clear debris. It’s not all that dirty on the inside compared to how dusty it was on the outside. I’ve never fired this exact rifle but it’s really not too different from some of our hunting rifles back home.
First buck I shot was a five point. Dad was with me and his hands were shaking when he handed me the 30.06. I wasn’t nervous at all. Too young to know the difference. Just aimed—lined up the deer in the scope and squeezed the trigger once I got a clear steady picture through the glass. Dropped that deer right over the pile of brown apples Dad left for bait. He was screaming, excited when we went to drag it back through the woods. It was so heavy, awkward and dead, snapping twigs and leaving a blood trail in the crisp snow. It’s one thing with a deer, another with a human, and with humans, there’s usually not this much time to think about it.
We set up on the closest ridge and watched the Bosnian through the green light of night vision for a few minutes but he bedded down behind some rocks before we could get a clear shot. Perry thought about sneaking up on him, but if he woke, he’d have the advantage up on the hill and there’s a good chance he’d hear us. Before basic training, I never fired at a human silouhette, the kind of targets they use downrange to train soldiers. Shooting at the black silouhettes is a strange enough feeling, but then they got the ones that look like real people, the ones in the bright green uniforms. I missed my first few shots at qualifications just because it weirded me out so much firing at the little green men. Cost me expert. Then I started thinking about Lester Cronin. Ever since then, every time I fire the M-16, the M-60, AT-4, M 203 grenade launchers, 50 cal, the SAW, or whatever, it’s always Cronin at the other end.
The man through the binoculars doesn’t look like Cronin though. He stirs again for the first time just as the sun’s coming up from the valley over the pink sky. The Bosnian wears a kind of camouflage more like what we might wear back home during deer season. He takes off his cap and scratches his light brown hair and I see that he’s young, no older than twenty or so. He never turns completely toward us but he looks down at the UN camp through a sort of telescope and I see the side of his face. For a minute, he smiles, maybe laughs, like he’s thinking of a private joke. Then he writes notes in a black ledger. Something about him reminds me a little of me.
Morgan’s clumsy with the tripod.
“Let’s set this shit up,” he tells me. “Hurry up or I’m taking that rifle.”
“I don’t need a tripod,” I tell him.
“Don’t be stupid,” says Perry. “You need support. If you miss this, we’re all toast. Those Swedes will call down the fucking rain on these hills.”
“Never shot with a tripod. With all due respect, Top, back off and let me get this.”
“You miss, your ass is running down to draw him out.”
Last night, Major Hansen said that this is for the good of everybody. That I can save a lot of spilled blood this way. No telling what the guy on the hill is up to. They say the snipers in Sarajevo take out women and children and brag about it to their friends—count everything on their kill lists. I kept looking through the binoculars, trying to find a sniper rifle, a pistol, some kind of weapon to make it all easier to justify snuffing him out. Wiggins and Perry stare at me and Perry whispers for me to hurry. It’s not my job to think, they both tell me.
“Don’t miss. Come on, man, you got this.” It’s the first time I’ve seen Sargent Perry so nervous, excited about anything here.
“Smoke that mo’fucka,” Wiggins tells me.
I rest my left arm on top of a bushel-basket-sized rock and rest the barrel on my left hand. Then I take a breath and lean in to the scope to line up the crosshairs. I move my head forward till the circle in the scope fills with a picture of where the sky meets hilltop. The Bosnian, whatever his gang is, gives me a wide target with his back toward the crosshairs. Just like a deer, I could miss by half a foot and drop him with a long shot. He’d choke to death on his own blood while he suffocated, holding the bloody hole with his hands. It’s a hell of a state to put an animal in, worse a man. If I pull, a single round will snuff out the problem and the Bosnian won’t be in any shape to call back-up or artillery. He’ll drop and it’ll be hours before his unit figures it out, if not days. He’s probably radio silent with so many damn factions out here. I should just drop him, do my duty. I hear Wiggins’ and Perry’s heartbeats and their exhales heavy around me—sometimes I can’t tell if it’s me or them, the three of us sweating in unison. I feel my chest move and it makes the image in the scope bounce from the man’s waist to the air over his shoulder. I could never shoot a man in the back, unless that man’s Lester Cronin. So I start to squeeze and think of Lester Cronin but the Bosnian bounces around in my scope again. I steady my breath and he turns to the side, giving me centimeters for a margin of error. He faces our position and might see my head and the rifle barrel, so I squeeze the trigger. The Bosnian stumbles in my scope and drops.
(Excerpted from the novel North Dixie Highway by Joseph D. Haske. Texas Review Press, 2013)