His Torch Beckoned Like a Searchlight
Sitting in the back of a seven-ton truck, Stewart and I crept our way out of the main gate. This was his first time outside the wire and Stewart watched through the small gap between the armor plates as we left the base. I sat back with a cigarette, enjoying his excitement. I’d only been outside the wire a couple times myself. We were welders, so we weren’t needed often off base. My first tour had been a bore. I had volunteered for this tour and promised myself I’d go outside the wire every chance I got. We picked up speed as our convoy sped toward the city.
Our conversation stopped as we approached the city of Fallujah. Old busted down cars and trash littered both sides of the road. The one-story tan buildings showed countless scars from bullets. Diesel exhaust mixed with the smell of sewage. Trash and burnt out cars multiplied as our convoy trekked deeper into the city. My gut tightened as the traffic and the civilians on foot engulfed our convoy. We inched closer and closer to downtown and the police station.
I had never been inside an Iraqi city and a ball of fear swell up in my throat as I thought about how easy it would be for one of the cars or people to detonate an IED. Our convoy slowed to a crawl as we swerved around the multiple barriers leading up to the main gate of the Fallujah police station. A dirty looking grunt waved us in. His uniform was outlined with white crusty lines where his sweat had soaked through.
Concrete barriers surrounded the compound, with trash, twisted metal and sand piled beside them. The compound itself was large, two or three football fields wide and five long. The place was a flurry of activity. Our convoy stopped and we jumped out.
“Corporal Mallek!” CWO3 Smith said with a smile as he put his hand out. CWO3 Smith was a part of our company during training in Twentynine Palms, California. He was laid back, prior enlisted so he wasn’t all motivated and dumb like most officers.
“We’ve needed some welders out here for weeks. The fuck took you so long?”
The barracks, if you could call it that, was about a five-story concrete building that looked like it had been through hell and back, bullet holes and scars everywhere. Guys had rigged rundown air-conditioning units in the windows, supported with lumber and wires. Green cots were packed into every available inch, all surrounded by dirt, crusty socks, and MRE trash. Body odor many weeks past due filled the air.
We dropped our day packs and headed outside. Dusk had settled, and the air no longer felt like a hair dryer. CWO3 Smith talked as we walked.
“We only work nights here, 1800 to 0600. Sniper threat is high with the tall buildings. All the heavy equipment operators use night vision goggles. Don’t use anything but your red lenses on your moon beams. We’re blackout at night. The sewer floods the compound every evening about 1900 hours. Don’t walk through it, you’ll catch something.” We rounded some barriers and found ourselves in a corner of the compound. Piled high in a twisted heap about 20 feet wide were fence posts. “See all these Texas barriers surrounding the compound?” CWO3 Smith continued. “I need a way to hold two layers of razor wire on top of em. We’ve had a few brave bastards try and crawl over top.”
“Sounds good, sir.” He turned to walk away. “I’ll keep you updated on our progress.” Smith gave me a thumbs up without turning around. I looked at Stewart. His forehead was scrunched up.
“That’s a fuck ton of posts,” Stewart replied.
“We just need something simple to support it.” I said as I loosened my flak jacket.
We’re gonna be here awhile, I thought to myself.
“Kinda dumb to have a torch and welder fired up in the middle of the night with sniper threats,” Stewart said.
He had a point. It’d be like we were standing there with a searchlight. That blue light could be seen for miles.
“We’ll be fine,” though I wasn’t sure if I believed myself.
Stewart started cutting and I started welding the twelve-inch piece in between the posts. We worked all night, until the first light of dawn.
“Twenty eight,” I said, counting the completed H shapes.
“That ain’t much,” Stewart replied. He took the words right out of my mouth.
“Let’s head in and grab some chow and shut eye,” I said as Stewart shut down the MCTWS. We grabbed our rifles and started the long walk back to the barracks. The sewage pooled in a low area of the compound. The stench was beyond words. Back inside the barracks, we took off our flak jackets for the first time since the afternoon the day before. The feeling of weightlessness and freedom was rejuvenating. I peeled off my boots and lay back on my dusty cot. Grunts were mumbling softly and munching on MRE’s. The haggard air conditioners hummed as they fought a losing battle against the heat. I could feel my sweat soak into my cot as I dozed off.
1830 came all too soon, and Stewart and I headed back out towards our little work area. The same frenzy of activity covered the compound as machines rumbled and Marines scurried. All this for a police station, I thought to myself. But the station had been hit with vehicle-borne IEDs and suicide bombers one too many times.
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The days began to run together. Wake up around 1500, eat, shit, bullshit. Head to the work area about 1845; avoid the sewage, but still puddle through it. Fire up the MCTWS, cut, bend, weld, pile. The heat was unbearable. Other Marines bitched about it, but no one had it worse than us, the welders. Wearing full combat gear, we worked with open flame, burning metal all night. My boots would be soaked through with perspiration. Some nights I wouldn’t even pee after drinking gallons of water. Stewart worked hard. We both did. The one week we were supposed to be there turned into three and a half.
Then one night everything changed.
“MALLEK!” Stewart screamed, trying to overpower the noise of the MCTWS. I didn’t hear him.
“MALLEK!” He shouted again, this time louder. I still didn’t respond—in the middle of laying a weld. I felt Stewart grab the back of my flak jacket and jerk me back as hard as he could.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I yelled back, angered at how violently he’d pulled me.
“Your shadow just took a round, you dumbass!” Stewart shouted in a voice of concern I’d never heard.
“Your shadow just took a round, dude! As you were welding, I seen dust fly up twice, hitting your shadow.”
“You mean I almost just got shot?” I shouted.
“Fuck, get over here.” I ripped off my welding hood and got behind the tire of the MCTWS. Stewart stayed low and took cover next to me. Suddenly, I felt alone, yet surrounded. The welder’s bright blue light had given away our position for weeks and finally the threat of snipers had become real.
“Did you see where it came from?” I asked. I held my M4 in a death grip.
“No, didn’t even look. I just seen the dust kick up and grabbed your ass.” We were all alone. Nobody could hear us.
“Let’s just sit here for now.” I felt almost as helpless as I did vulnerable. Squinting in the dark I could only see the outlines of the tall buildings surrounding us. The sniper could have been in any one of the thousands of windows facing our weld shop.
It was only midnight. Stewart and I sat there in silence until 0430 rolled around. It was the longest four and a half hours of my life. Every twitch or odd sound made me tense up. For the first time, I truly considered death. I thought about how my family would react. I imagined my own funeral, the 21-gun salute. The reading of the “heroic action” report. Being shot in Iraq while welding fence posts was not how I’d imagined I would die, and it was surely unheroic. I thought about how dumb I was for welding in the middle of the night. I remembered Stewart’s comment when we first got there. I hated myself for putting us both in danger. As an NCO, Stewart was my responsibility. Tears welled up as I thought about what I would do if Stewart was shot because of my recklessness.
Just before dawn, we moved. “Stay low, let’s get to the barracks as fast as possible.” Stewart followed without saying a word. We bounced from cover to cover hiding behind anything solid as we made the 400-yard trek back to the barracks. We sloshed through the pooled sewage, not caring about the risk. We finally made it back and found CWO3 Smith.
“My shadow took sniper fire last night, sir.”
“What?” He responded sharply.
“While I was welding last night, Stewart said he seen two rounds impact the dirt right next to me.”
“My God,” CWO3 Smith replied, “you two won’t be welding at night from now on.”
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I walked back to my rack, pulled off my flak jacket, and sat down. The stench of my own body made my eyes water. The week’s worth of clothes I’d packed had long since been used up. I wanted a shower so badly I could feel it in my soul. For the past three and a half weeks Stewart and I had shit in bags, not showered, and reworn our stiff, crusty clothes so many times they almost stood up on their own. We had made 738 H holders for the razor wire. CWO3 Smith wanted 1,000. That evening he sent us back to base, saying we could finish the rest at the shop and have them trucked out. We rode back in silence. We didn’t look between the armor; we both had become calloused.
Back in the barracks, I ripped off my clothes and threw them into the trash. I sat in the shower for 40 minutes, maybe more. I didn’t care about using all the hot water. I shaved and gave myself a buzz cut. I stared at my reflection. Only five more months, I thought. Five more months of Iraq. Then home, then discharge. No more Marine Corps. I felt the fear of death for the first time that day; sadly, it wouldn’t be the last.