A gift at war (for Veterans Day)

In March 2003, as news networks broadcast images of American tanks racing north toward Baghdad, my infantry platoon dug shallow foxholes in southern Iraq. We were part of a defensive perimeter guarding FARP Exxon, a helicopter refueling point for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

The FARP was a small, boundary-less airfield marked not by a runway or buildings but by a couple of scattered antennas and several large fuel blivets. At our dug-in perimeter, the desert spread bare before us in every direction—except in the center of my sector of view. There, beyond a depression in the foreground, were a few makeshift structures on a ridge two klicks north. Every few hours, upon refuel, we buried our faces to escape the Blackhawks’ rotor wash; the tents’ fabric walls whipped as if weathering a storm.

Our first morning at the FARP, my team leader, Brian, and I noticed that the Bedouins sometimes came out to stare and point in our direction. America in their backyard. Did they know the war had begun? Were they the enemy?

Soon, a slow-moving dust cloud drifted toward us, then hooked right. We couldn’t see the road from our position, but as the dust settled, an empty cattle truck emerged. Its diesel engine thrummed a clacking beat, then stood still for a few moments, idling in front of the tents. Our mortar section was on standby; I had a preplotted 10-digit grid and a microphone in hand, ready to call it in. A few minutes later, the truck—its bed now filled with a dozen ride-share commuters—disappeared into a new cloud of dust and diesel smoke.

For the next five days, as Brian and I traded positions in the foxhole every four hours, that’s all there was to see: dirt farmers traveling to and from work. Uneventful is the best you can hope for in war.

We didn’t let up our guard—one of us was always facing out, watching—but there was more to hear than see, thanks to Brian’s 64MB MP3 player, which held 24 low-rez songs, worked on AAAs, and fit inside his cargo pocket.

Each of those five nights, Brian handed me one of his earbuds. He always selected the same song: Creed’s cover of The Doors’ Riders on the Storm. He never explained why he chose it, or what it meant to him, but I knew it held a special feeling. Often as he listened, he’d take off his helmet, turn it over in his hands, and stare at the portraits of his daughters he kept inside a Ziploc sandwich bag fastened to the underside. For me, having grown up in southern California, rain was a special and occasional winter event. I remember falling asleep to the patter of drops hitting the roof above my bedroom ceiling. When I heard the beginning of that song in that foxhole in the desert, I imagined tiny silver anvils tamping the dusty floor and wished for its drops to cool our desert combat uniforms.

It was an otherwise forgettable Doors remake. A compressed cut of dubious digital quality. Half-stereo for each of us. A shared daily ritual. It became, for us, a moment of peace in the uncertainty of war.

Sometimes we’d listen three or four times to that song, on repeat, before returning to our languid task: Back to the binos, back to the Bedouins, back to the war.

The war was the first time in my life when (and where) I lived for weeks without music: No mariachi at the local lunch spot, no radio on the way home from work, no CDs on the budget mid-fi at home. I was surrounded by brothers who would sit on a grenade to save my life, but the absence of recorded music made it feel lonely. I didn’t expect the invasion to be so quiet.

In situations like these—stripped and deprived of the niceties we knew Americans too often took for granted—it can be difficult to find joy. What joy is found in war? None, except shared experiences with those you come to love: Every peanut-butter–for–jalapeño-cheese-spread MRE trade; every taunting, endearing nickname; every prank, laugh, and dream; every late-night lament on life, love, and family; every shared piece of music.

That’s what made Brian’s sharing special. They were his selections, his gift; the sounds that moved him became the sounds that shaped my soundtrack of the war. It affected how the air felt around us: For the first time in weeks, we felt alive. The concert was ours, right there in front of us. Through one ear each, the music spoke to us.

The war wasn’t always quiet. We’d soon trade foxholes in the open desert for nights spent on dusty tile floors of deserted school classrooms in Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad, and Mosul. We’d march all day, every day, along canals and through farm fields and villages, to find a few moments at dusk, before a few hours’ sleep, to hum the familiar refrain. But for those first five days and nights, when we sat parched under an unforgiving sun just across the Kuwait border at FARP Exxon, Brian’s low-fi earbuds and lossy MP3s gave us an aural experience that brought us home and sustained us for the hell to come.

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