They piped all the shit into a reservoir. When the reservoir was full they poured diesel on top of the shit and lit it on fire. The diesel burned and the shit turned to vapor. The vapor rose and condensed into clouds. The clouds thickened, forming drops heavy enough to fall to earth. Then the stars disappeared and it rained shit. This happened often enough. This happened at night, whenever the shit reservoir was full.
Milo's memorial took place on such a night. Milo was a Belgian Malamute, trained by monks. The monks sold him to us for a king's ransom and we took Milo to Afghanistan. There Milo found booby-traps, machine gun nests, and false walls. There Milo flung himself at barricaded shooters. Then one night one of our own guys, Big Country, shot Milo. The next night it rained shit and we held Milo's memorial.
Shit fell on the roof. It puddled outside the door. Its smell seeped into the room. Milo's ashes were on the podium, sealed in an ammo can decorated with pictures. In one, Milo held the windpipe of a barricaded shooter between his jaws. In all the rest he was with Kane-strapped to Kane jumping from a C-130, licking beans off Kane's plate at a picnic, curled up on Kane's couch. Kane sat in the front row, crying. Tears plinked their way through his wiry red beard. The night Milo was shot, Kane vowed to kill Big Country. On the night of Milo's memorial Kane appeared unable to kill anyone.
The night Milo was shot we were patrolling alongside a gigantic wheat field. Big Country was at the rear of the formation and Kane was up front. Kane let Milo off leash and Milo slipped into the wheat to run around. There were very few times Milo could just run around, so he tore ass through the wheat. The patrol was stretched out a half mile and Milo ran from one end to the other, back and forth, rustling stalks. He popped out alongside Big Country, and Big Country put two rounds in him. Big Country said he didn't know and what he didn't know scared him.
Kinger took the podium and told a joke. Kane spoke of friendship. The ceremony ended with a prayer. After the memorial we all went to eat. This was our routine, good or bad, shit rain or no. At that time of night we went to eat.
Outside we raised our hoods against the shit, and there was Big Country under the lean-to with the dirt bikes. His bags were next to him. He was going home in shame. Everyone looked at him but no one said goodbye. We just looked at him, and listened to the shit ping off the lean-to's roof. The shit rolled off the roof and into the crushed gravel. It rolled off our shoulders and collected in pools. Rainbows appeared in the pools and the smell was horrendous.
We left Big Country alone and walked to the gate. Someone unlocked the gate and swung it wide. Outside the gate we broke into groups of two to share the narrow road with creeping Buffalos and MRAPs. I walked next to Bob and the Vet fell in behind us.
Bob was an older gentleman who'd been to Viet Nam and survived worse, shit rain included. Bad days were not new to Bob, nor were dog memorials and the inevitable thoughts of a dog's innocence versus our own. That we draped Milo's ammo can with a flag and sent it home for burial at Arlington came as no surprise to Bob, though it did to the Vet.
The Vet came from Kabul where he took care of horses. While Milo was still on the ground huffing, his tongue in the dust, headquarters dispatched the Vet to our outpost in hopes he could save Milo. Simultaneously, we Medevac'd Milo and Kane from the edge of the wheat field. By the time they met at the outpost it was too late. The Vet declared Milo dead and afterward had nothing to do but wait for his return flight to Kabul.
Meanwhile the Vet had questions. Why are you sending that kid home? Why don't they truck the shit out into the desert and burn it there? How can a dog be a hero if it has no choice in the matter? What do you do besides knit?
That last one was directed at Bob who did nothing besides knit. He didn't go out on target, talk on the radios, or answer phones. He just sat in a chair knitting a purple sweater. I cannot point to a single thing Bob did that was mission critical, yet the one night he wasn't sitting in his chair knitting his purple sweater Kinger asked, Where the fuck is Bob?
I knew. Before Bob and I were friends I'd walk a hundred meters behind him to and from chow. From that distance I'd watch him veer off course into this field of tanks. A minute later I'd watch him emerge somewhat confused. The night he wasn't in his chair knitting his purple sweater I went out to find him in the field of tanks. All the tanks faced west with their guns centered, the entire armada glowing in anticipation of use. I found Bob lost in the tanks and brought him back. From then on we walked together. The night of Milo's memorial the Vet tagged along behind us.
Do we even use tanks in Afghanistan? How much do you figure we spent bringing them here so they could rust? What if we melted them down and made bullets?
The Vet expressed similar disbelief over the long line for chow. But waiting in the shit rain I couldn't listen. Instead I watched shit pool in the crushed gravel. I watched the pools connect, and a shiny coat of shit cover the surface of the outpost. I saw a soldier slip and go down. I heard him curse loudly, profanely abusing the entire effort, to include what started it, the current situation, and all possible outcomes.
Doesn't he realize how foolish he sounds? asked the Vet.
Eventually we got inside the chow hall. And there was a point, as we approached the buffet, where the smell changed from shit to stir fried garlic. A Korean outfit had won the latest contract, replacing the KBR chefs in their tall white hats. A Korean lady banged her spatula, took orders, and shook ingredients into her wok. Between customers she wiped the wok clean, then poured on the oil and steam rose hissing.
"What you wan?" she asked Bob.
Bob's eyes went from chicken to shrimp to meat. "What kind of meat is it?" he asked.
"Meat!" she said.
"No, what kind," said Bob.
"You wan meat?" she asked.
"Sure," said Bob. So he wouldn't be alone I got meat too.
The Vet was next in line. "What's in the meat?" he asked, and a soldier behind him said, "Woof!"
We sat down in the corner near the stage, where a tuba and a trombone rested on their bells. A clarinet rested on a chair. The Vet sat down, shut his eyes, and started to pray. One of the reasons I liked Bob is he didn't pray, or if he did he didn't make a big deal about it. He just sat there quietly, thinking about his third wife, or his chopper back home, or maybe just letting the situation unfold.
While we waited for the Vet to finish praying the tuba player returned from break. He was chubby, rosy cheeked, and in his dress uniform. He took his seat and lifted his tuba to his lap. The entire population of the chow hall appeared inverted and blurry in the polished curve of the tuba's bell. The Vet opened his eyes and started talking.
I tell you I don't know what some people think. It's one thing to love a dog. But it's another thing to give him a blood transfusion, or a hip replacement, or an MRI for crying out loud! An MRI!!! Children die for lack of an MRI and here we are giving them to dogs. I just don't get it...
I forked some meat, cabbage, and a water chestnut and put it in my mouth. The meat was chewy. And while I chewed the Vet's words blended into a thousand other words being said. Bob chewed too, listening to the noise in the room.
"Good evening!" yelled the tuba player over the noise. He was alone on stage in his dress uniform, addressing soldiers covered in shit. His medals jingled as he adjusted himself in the seat. I wondered, when someone asked him how he got those medals what did he tell them? What did he tell himself? To his credit he didn't appear to give a fuck. He looked happy with his instrument properly balanced and ready to play. "What do you folks want to hear?" he asked.
Nothing, anything, go fuck yourself.
"Alright," he said. And he started to play.
Milo's replacement was rejected from the LAPD after biting a police officer. He fit in just fine with us.