The Road Trip

An IED killed my platoon sergeant two months into our first deployment. As a brand-new 2nd lieutenant still unclear about the exact spelling of colonel, I found this unfair. How could the person who had no idea what he was doing survive and the person who did, not? I puzzled over this through the rest of my deployment, my separation from the military, and the next 10 years.

Every once in a while, frustrated by my insistent and inexplicable survival, I would take from my closet the book my platoon sergeant gave me when I came to his unit—FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1. The manual contained 200 pages of Bradley Fighting Vehicle gunnery tactics. It attempted to detail the make-up and lethal capacities of an armored vehicle designed to protect infantry soldiers into battle. The many abstract charts within alluded to other, equally abstract, charts. I would debate throwing it away. Selling it. Donating it to some poor militaries. But I would always put it back in the closet. Because a) the Red Dawn kids wouldn’t have stood a chance in the wild against the Cubans without Bradley manuals like these and b) I had no idea what else do with it.

A page inside the Bradley Gunnery Field Manual that Michael Carson’s sergeant gave him. Courtesy of Michael Carson

But this last summer I hit upon a solution. I would leave it on his grave. It was his, after all. It had his highlights. His notes. His handwriting. And, as a high school teacher off for summer, I had nothing to do in June but read FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1. So I drove from Houston to Tucson—his hometown and the site of his grave. I passed giant saguaro cactuses. I thought to myself, here, finally, is the giant saguaro cactus. I tried to picture my platoon sergeant as a young boy playing at the base of a giant saguaro cactus. I tried to picture my platoon sergeant as a young man driving to work and passing a giant saguaro cactus. I tried to picture my platoon sergeant as anything other than my platoon sergeant driving over the IED-filled pothole. I could not.

My GPS directed me to the graveyard, a green space with an unimpeded view of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Generally, I liked graveyards. I spent a lot of time in them since leaving the army. I liked them because they told me death had been around forever, and if death has been around forever, why should we feel bad about it now? But this graveyard I did not like. This graveyard was not the good kind of graveyard. I got out of the car.

They tell a joke in the Army about lieutenants and direction. You can’t spell lost without LT. I never saw the humor in these jokes. And I certainly didn’t at five in the afternoon in Tucson. I wanted to get the visit over with. Close this chapter of my life. Have a revelation. An epiphany. An aneurism. Something. But I couldn’t find the grave. How hard can it be to find a grave in a graveyard? I marched back and forth across the grounds what seemed like a hundred times. I had the number and the letter of the plot, but there was no rhyme or reason to the graveyard’s layout. C followed A, and 7 followed 16. After 30 minutes, my shirt was soaked. After an hour, I had that weird feeling in the bottom of my stomach when you know you should probably drink water if you don’t want anything bad to happen.

I went back to the car and booked a room through Airbnb. It cost $35. It was probably the best deal in town. I felt better. Saving money does that. At this rate, I’d be rich by 60. I could buy a jet ski and a horse and say to myself, look, I did do something with my life. I deserved to survive. The Airbnb house ended up being tiny with multiple hotel-style bedrooms and no TV. I stared at a Bradley Fighting Vehicle Dismounted Troops Exposure Matrix in bed. I went out to the living room. It had a fireplace mantle but no fireplace. An Ecuadorian and American flag hung over the mantle. Five books lined the mantle. They were all about how to succeed in business. One was The Millionaire Zone. That sounded like a good zone. Much better than the Bradley Fighting Vehicle Dismounted Troops Exposure Matrix zone.

On the next morning’s graveyard visit I swallowed my pride and asked the groundskeeper for help. The groundskeeper took me to the grave. He said he had to turn on the sprinkler in a few minutes but not to worry. The water wouldn’t hit me. Ants marched over the stone marker. Nothing happened. I turned FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1 in my hands. I think after all this time I wanted some kind of religious experience. But what would a religious experience look like? I had no idea. It had been a long time since I had had a religious experience. My stomach got that weird feeling again. Was this a religious experience? The groundskeeper turned on the sprinkler. The sprinkler sprinkled water on me. Then it swung away. Then it swung back. Then it sprinkled water on me again. I took FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1 back to the car.

The view from Wasson Peak, which Michael Carson climbed after visiting his sergeant’s grave in Tucson. Courtesy of Michael Carson

I drove. I drove until all the people and cars disappeared and a thousand saguaro cactuses dotted the rocky horizon. I parked at the base of a mountain. Halfway up the mountain I realized my mistake: I a) went hiking in the middle of the summer in Arizona and b) hiked at three in the afternoon and c) was a moron. But I kept going. Surrender is not a Ranger-qualified officer word. Overcompensating is. Besides, if you start a hike you get to the top. That’s how hikes work. Otherwise, why leave home at all? I passed a giant saguaro, the biggest one I’d seen, fallen over, its green exterior melted away. There was nothing inside but long dark sticks. I thought of mountain lions. Did they have mountain lions in Arizona? Pumas? What were pumas exactly? I regretted not looking at the Arizona Wikipedia page. I picked up a rock. I put that rock down. I picked up a sharper rock.

You’d think that when you get to the top of a giant mountain in the middle of Arizona there would be no flies. You’d be wrong. I slapped at them. Took off my backpack with FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1 in it. After the platoon sergeant’s death, the platoon looked to me for guidance. They should have known better. I had no idea what I was doing. I was not the platoon sergeant. I was not 37 years old. I had not been in the Army for over a decade. I had not even read FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1. I only pretended to know what I was doing because that was what everyone expected of me. I was 26 years old. Now, on top of this Arizona mountain, I was almost 37 years old. I was almost the same age the platoon sergeant was when he died. I still knew nothing. I was still pretending.

Michael Carson at Forward Operating Base Marez in 2007. Courtesy of Michael Carson

I lit a cigarette. It’s a nasty habit, especially on top of a mountain. My friends and family would be disgusted. They would say people who know what they are doing with their lives don’t smoke cigarettes, and they certainly don’t do so when experiencing borderline heatstroke. So too the author of FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1. “BEFORE FIRING THE 25-MM GUN,” FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1 says, “THE GUNNER MUST CHECK THE GUN COVER FOR SERVICEABILITY, ZIP IT UP, AND ENSURE THE TURRET VENTILATION SYSTEM IS OPERATIONAL TO PREVENT POISONOUS GAS FROM LEAKING INTO THE TURRET.”

But cigarettes always remind me of the one time my platoon sergeant and I had an actual non-military conversation. It was January 2007 in Mosul. We had spent the morning picking up the IED-exploded body parts of friends from another Bradley Fighting Vehicle company and putting their body parts in special Army-issued orange garbage bags. My platoon sergeant didn’t mention FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1. He didn’t say that FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1 would have saved our friends. He did not even seem to remember that he had given me FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1. He said instead that he missed his family. I said I missed my family too. He kicked at the dirt with his tan boot. I kicked at the dirt with my tan boot. Five days later he was dead.

I am teaching again. FIELD MANUAL 3-22.1 is back in my office, tucked away, unread. I couldn’t leave it on the grave, or on Wasson Peak, or in Tucson. It seemed irresponsible of me, to leave it in places like those, where any little boy might come along, pick it up, and think we know what we are doing when we go to war.