My wife would hate it here, she really would—the heat, the wind, the wavy mirages of the plain. This place cooks you all day, spits sand in your face at night. Cavernous in the way it makes you empty inside, carnivorous in how it swallows your every step. Casey would absolutely hate it; it’s just like home.
Only here it’s a little more interesting. Here I gotta watch out. Here a sniper might off me should I not maintain the same precautions and attention to detail for which I’m here—implementing security measures for Karzai’s guys, our guys. If I’m careless I might take one in the back of the head or lose my legs in a street market from some whacked-out Taliban sympathizer’s bullet or IED. The landscape may be dreary, but the hostile environment keeps you on your toes.
But my wife’s back on the base with our son in Twentynine Palms, enduring a desperately hot and achingly isolated summer. No doubt fighting the recurring nightmare she gets, where she’s being chased. I’m no Freud, but I can tell she feels trapped. When dreaming she says her escape route always involves fierce headwinds and running through sand. Twentynine palms. Twentynine-fucking-palms. That’s where things started going wrong for us—and keep going wrong, for Casey. Some of it’s beyond her control, but there’s absolutely no reason to fuck things up like she has lately. She’s gone 5150, completely upside down.
Casey and I met after I’d enlisted. I’d worked sales for an auto parts distributor and took courses at the local JC. But then 9/11 happened and I decided to become one of the good guys, a hero to my country. So I was molding myself into a man at Camp Pendleton while she was a San Diego party girl, 19, sharing an apartment with girl friends and working at the Wild Animal Park. We met at a popular watering hole and dance spot one night along the Mission Beach boardwalk; Casey’s fake ID had drawn interrogating looks and I stepped in to make everything better. She was striking—flaxen hair and bronze-skin, big shiny teeth unveiled with her dimpled smile. There was a certain electricity between us and it wasn’t long before we made out in an alleyway. But, just as quickly, she slithered off with her roommates and I was left with a phone number that was likely no good, a red herring designed to lead me afield.
But days later when I rang Casey answered. We had our fun. Off base I loved to get lit, and she was always ready to drink with me'”at the beach, at a bar, in the back of her Subaru. Plus, at the time, I was seriously into climbing. The skills it required were a perfect fit for my Marine training. There were a number of amazing spots within a day’s drive, and so I turned Casey on to the sport, too. All the rappelling and belaying was something that she really dug. She felt that, more than the physical benefits we derived from the endeavor, we obtained a mutual trust in each other that represented our relationship as a whole.
And maybe she was on to something, for over the next six months we invariably coursed our future. She got pregnant and we soon got married—a budgeted wedding party for our closest family and friends. But then fate set in not much later and I got deployed. Casey, in her third trimester, practically tackled me before I boarded the ship. Once out to sea I discovered the blood drawn by her fingernails had stuck to and matted the hairs on my chest.
There’ve been several redeployments since, and such a circus never ends. Now, Ben, Jr., my three-year-old son whom I love but barely know, is learning about life from the confines of a Marine base in the California desert, and his mother is associating with ne’er-do-wells outside its boundaries. The physical and mental isolation has led to progressively poorer choices and now Casey seeks escape from all responsibilities with the “help” of dangerous drugs. It’s a sad state of affairs, but there’s not much I can do without the consent of my commanders. I’ve continually expressed my concern about how badly Casey needs me now, and have provided them her therapist’s confirming, handwritten opinion.
We need you badly, too, they always say. We need you even more.
I rely on my friend, Riley, a staff sergeant who’s stationed on home base many times I’m not. Reliable Riley, who—when I was first deployed—was undergoing a dirty divorce that no amount of drinking could cleanse. Back then my greatest worry was that he’d hook up with Casey. But those worries were unfounded. Now, years later, he’s embraced a key role in keeping tabs on my wife and kid, and intervenes when necessary to keep her from going too far astray. Because of the drugs there’s always the danger our marriage and her ability to function as a mother will bid adios. She could end up whiling her days in a jail cell'”or worse, six feet under.
It’s a difficult situation made near impossible with me overseas. Apart like this, there’s not much I can do. I sometimes think if I had the right words, a letter or phone call could make a world of difference. I keep trying that angle but, so far, my words have failed me.
In Kabul, our unit trains the police and security forces of the Afghan government. Most of us have been here before or in Iraq (I did two tours there) and are itching to exchange our duties in this forsaken hellhole for life as we know it back home. Unfortunately only those “dying” to get back are making the trip. Two guys not yet of drinking age returned this week in caskets. They’d been manning a roadside checkpoint when some insurgents rolled up and opened fire.
Death is the way of life here. There’s a cemetery outside the city high up on a hill that I pass nearly every day. It’s a “sacred place,” off limits for combat even if Taliban gather there. Headstones bloom like wildflowers, more and more each day it seems. I walk it sometimes but can’t understand the inscriptions (my Arabic no better than that of most Marines). Yet I know most of the buried have been there for years, decades, victims of some armed conflict or another. This country’s known nothing but war for far too long.
At times of leisure I stroll the street markets. It makes me reminisce of home—one of my wife’s favorite weekend activities was attending the coastal farmer’s markets and stockpiling on smoked fish, heirloom tomatoes and fresh-cut flowers. It’s one of the few things she still occasionally enjoys, even when I’m not around. But Casey would be appalled by what’s on display. Here, food and produce is dwindling by the day. Stale bread that in the past was sold for livestock feed is now eaten by the local Pashtun citizenry. The goats in these parts are emaciated like no animals I’ve seen before. But they’re considered a delicacy these days, and are fetching a princely sum. There’s not much worth buying here, and the only money the market claims from me is that lifted by young pickpockets who snake in and out of market aisles, and make mad dashes when chased by victimized merchants.
I observe the bartering and clamoring from my outsider’s perspective, trying to gauge the mood of the people. We Americans are appreciated at times but not especially beloved by the Afghan people. Largely, the feeling’s mutual. I’m not fond of the Afghanis, but have nothing against them. I’m indifferent really. Most troops are. The way I see it there’s a cultural disconnect that’s not easily fixed, and it goes far beyond language. When my brother first got into advertising he told me his agency didn’t have a clue about what their clients actually did, but were more than happy to spend their money. That’s the way I feel about our role here.
At least I’m with my Marine brothers, duty bound. I know what to do and where to go; I have orders to follow. What Casey follows is the trail to the dive bar off base where she scores crank from tweaker friends. She denied this fact when I confronted her about it on the phone, but Riley’s kept me informed. And from the description of the man she’s seen with, Casey’s allied herself with, in her own words, the Devil.
The Devil! That was the Devil! exclaimed Casey.
We’d met someone subterranean or other worldly that’s for sure. Had just dropped him off in the parking lot of The Oasis, a tavern in town that appealed more to bikers than servicemen. He invited us in for a drink, said he was a mainstay there, but we shook our heads emphatically. The place gave me the creeps. I’d been in once before, nearly blotto, and a fight broke out. Now, the crescent-moon scar on my neck from a broken bottle is a constant reminder of that night, and the intoxicated time I spent having a medic treat my wound in the infirmary.
What a freak, Casey said. It’s scary to think there are people like that out here.
I shrugged my shoulders, but guessed he was one of many. Your mind can short-circuit in the heat and isolation of the Mojave Desert. As Marines, a sense of order and purpose was drilled into us. For common folk living on the cheap, unable to make it anywhere else, they must battle for themselves.
The sketchy character who’d disappeared into The Oasis, he of the stringy hair, sepia teeth and cracking skin, had camped by our site at Joshua Tree National Park the night before. Casey’s mother had come to the base from LA to care for her grandson so we could enjoy a rare vacation—just the two of us—while I was on leave between tours of duty. We’d brought our climbing bags and ropes and carabiners for a few days of scaling towering boulders. Just like old times. Somehow we’d failed to notice our campground neighbor the previous night as we drank one beer from the cooler after another, but in the morning the Devil woke us with a thundering series of belches and coughs. He had a surprise waiting for us when we opened the tent upon hearing a high-pitched buzz.
Oh my God, look at that guy! Casey said.
Her future cohort and crystal meth mentor stood not a dozen yards away, balancing a rattlesnake the size of a fire hose at the end of a thick mesquite branch. The snake was by turns coiling and unfurling, as if it couldn’t decide whether to cling, jump or strike. It shook its rattle and hissed like crazy. The man simply laughed and laughed, undeterred by any sense of danger.
We made friendly and chatted him up—but only after he’d returned the rattler to the maze of husks at the base of the Joshua tree where it sought shade. When the Devil learned Casey and I would aim for home in the direction of his very own stomping grounds, he coaxed his way into the backseat of our vehicle. We got rolling and he got talking. Oh did he talk.
He said he was a Gulf War veteran, but I wasn’t so sure—he looked too old to have been a young recruit then, and didn’t really speak the lingo when quizzed. But again: the sun, the heat, the parched desert. It certainly could have weathered him and advanced his age. Coupled with the combat, it might have even melted his mind. Something had, because as we motored on he made a scarier commotion than that rattlesnake he’d messed with. Talked about invisible winged beings—the size of humans—who hovered the air undetected. When we slept or weren’t looking they stole from our homes, ravaged our women and children, and poisoned our crops and sources of water. Casey kept telling him to shut up and it was all I could do to keep my hands on the wheel and not wring them around his neck. His delusions, I realized then, were more likely caused by crank than PTSD.
And now knowing that he’s opened the door to my wife’s dark side kills me; I hope to hell little Ben doesn’t understand what’s happening to his mother.
I jolted awake the other day in such a sweaty fright I nearly caromed off my bunk. I’ve been having Casey’s dream lately, running scared through endless drifts of sand. Only this time, as I fled from whatever was in pursuit (an invisible winged being?) I stumbled and fell flat on my face. Dusting off what tripped me I discovered someone’s forlorn grave. Then I looked around and saw tombstone after tombstone, until another huge gust of wind came and covered everything up in sand, me included.
That one dream soured the pit of my stomach so badly I called home and called home, again and again. Finally, I got a hold of Casey.
A Marine buddy and Afghan translator wait for me at the bottom of the hill, take cat naps in the vehicle until I return. A furnace-like breeze sails past me, but today’s one of my better days. I think of my son whom I talked to that morning. I miss you, he said, the very first words he’s spoken by phone. Hearing him speak I could almost picture what he must look like now. What’s more, to my surprise, my wife wasn’t anxious and defensive at the sound of my voice. In her own way she confessed she has problems but lacks the power to overcome them on her own. Casey said she keeps envisioning the day we’ll again be together, and says that’s what she needs to turn her life back around. She asked when that will be and I told her not to think about it.
And now as I stand in the cemetery outside Kabul, one living soul in a sea of the dead, I finally understand what’s written on the gravestones. No knowledge of Arabic is necessary to get the meaning behind the words. It’s simple: I must get back to my family. Somehow, some way, I must survive this place. There will come a day.