James Mathews: Blondes to the Rescue

            We were all ready, hundreds of us, cast into a sea of camouflage that spanned the enormous hangar floor, each clinging to a duffle bag stuffed to bursting with field gear, body armor, gas masks, last wills and testaments. All the things we would need in Afghanistan. The hangar doors were cranked open to reveal a grim, gray morning. Many of the assembled airmen had spilled out onto the tarmac, their bodies lying flat and motionless, like dead fish washed up on a sunless beach. Even more stood clustered around a nearby smoke shack. In the distance, C-130 transports lumbered around the flightline, providing a constant buzz and blur of propellers. Our seven-man chalk had settled in near the center of the hangar. We flipped through our deployment folders pointlessly, perhaps searching for what was missing even though we had just been confirmed by the processors that we were good to go. The only one of us not present was Senior Airman Wyatt which came as no surprise.
            Wyatt was always forgetting something. This time it was his dog-tags. He had been flagged at processing station #4 and told to report ahead to station#8 for new tags and then back to station#5 for shots. He stumbled over to our group about forty-five minutes later, his arms laden with small bibles sheathed in camouflage covers. He had apparently been intercepted while passing the chaplain’s station (an optional stop) where he was promptly plied with the word of God.
            Wyatt collapsed on his A-bag and let the bibles tumble into a heap between his combat boots. He made a vague gesture to us that we were welcome to them. Nobody took one except Staff Sergeant Lyle who collected anything that might qualify as war memorabilia.
“Why is it hurry up and wait for everybody but you?” Airman Jorgenson said to Wyatt. Jorgenson was the youngest among us, the only one who didn’t shave.
            “Because Wyatt likes to hurry up and hurry up,” Technical Sergeant Franklin said. He was our chalk leader. It was a duty, he liked to remind us, that he had accepted only after being “voluntold” to do so.
            Staff Sergeant Perry tossed aside his deployment folder which he had been inspecting with suspicious scrutiny. “Just think,” he said. “You came within five hours of missing our deployment bird.”
            “Jesus, is that what they’re saying?” Lyle said. “Five more hours?”
            “Wheels up in five hours,” Perry said. “That’s what I heard from Ops anyway.”
            “Fucking Ops, dude,” Airman Smith said. As a rule, Smith never said much and what he did say was usually always book-ended by ‘fucking’ and ‘dude.’
Perry scrambled to his feet. “Watch my stuff,” he said to nobody in particular. “I’m gonna burn one.”
            Wyatt was looking down into his hands, at a set of dog-tags. “I didn’t forget my dogs,” he said. “I just brought the wrong ones.” He held them out in a fist and shook them defiantly as if we had demanded proof.
            “How’d you manage that?” Lyle said.
            “These are my dad’s,” he said. “Or they were my dad’s. From when he was in Vietnam. I grabbed them off the shelf without realizing it. Kinda weird, huh?”
            “Let me see,” Jorgenson said.
            “He’s dead,” Wyatt said, placing the dog-tags deliberately into Jorgenson’s open palm.
Jorgenson inspected the small metal plates. He grimaced as he picked at them as if they were something he was expected to eat. “No bullet hole?” he said.
            “He wasn’t shot.”
Jorgenson handed the tags back to Wyatt. “I’d put one in there,” he said. “A bullet hole. For show, ya know.”
            “For show?”
            “Yeah, you could tell a story about how he got shot taking a hill and the dog-tag saved his life. Something cool.”
            Franklin scoffed and then patted a holstered nine millimeter pistol at his side even though we all knew he had not been issued rounds yet. “Hold one of them up to your forehead, Jorgy. I’ll put a bullet hole in it for you.”
            “He was only eighteen when he got shipped over,” Wyatt said. “He never really got over it. Vietnam.”
            “Don’t you mean, the Nam?” Lyle snorted with a derisive grin.
            “Fucking Nam, dude,” Smith said.
            Wyatt went on, his fingers glancing over the lettered indentions in the tags, as though he were reading Braille and then translating for us. “When him and my mom finally split, he got a little apartment right down the street from us. He only invited me in there one time. He had all his gear and stuff spread out on a little kitchen table. Letters from home, his dog-tags and mess kit, Army manuals, medals, you name it. And all of it was still there thirty years later when he died. Like he just got back in the world and dumped his duffle out.” Wyatt attempted a smile, but could not quite pull it off. “I think he spent all that time just sorting through it, ya know? Organizing it into different stacks. Moving it around the table. Like a big puzzle.”
Franklin sighed, weary of the story. “You won’t need them anyway, you know?”
            “What?”
            “The dogs. We’ll be as inside the wire as you can be.”
            “I wouldn’t say that,” Lyle said, winking at Jorgenson. “We could die easy. I heard a supply troop in the Bagram flightline office bought it last week from a mortar round. They get two or three attacks a day.”
            “One of those things has to land directly on your head to kill you,” Franklin said.
            “Tell that to the supply guy. Besides, the round’s gotta land somewhere. Why not on your head?”
            “Snipers too, I heard,” Jorgenson said. “Stars and Stripes said an airman was jogging out near the perimeter of the base and Boom! Head shot. They didn’t find him until the next day.”
            “Fucking snipers, dude,” Smith muttered.
             “Rough way to die,” Franklin agreed. “At least with a mortar, you hear it coming.”
We all nodded solemnly, including Perry who had just rejoined us. He waited a moment and then clasped his hands together and grinned. “Then again,” he said, “if you gotta go, you’re gonna go happy. Did you see the blondes? Three of them. Over by station #7. Try not to all look at once, for shit’s sake!”
            “So what?” Franklin said. “You think I never saw a blonde before?”
            “Not this kind,” Perry said. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “They’re not really in the military. They’re here on a little covert morale mission straight from the Pentagon. The Soviets used the same tactic when they were in Afghanistan.”
            “Soviets?” Jorgenson said, clearly puzzled by the term.
            “Russians,” Perry said. He rocked back on his heels, dispensing with the hushed voice. “Oh sure, the Ruskies were big on psy ops. They planted a few blondes in each unit. Strictly for morale purposes. For whatever reason, guys feel better and fight better when they’re around blondes.”
            Jorgenson nodded, still staring off at the blonde female airmen in the processing line. “I think I heard something about that.”
            “You think?” Franklin said. “What’s that mean?”
            Jorgenson shrugged. “I guess it means I heard something about it. Just what I said.”
            “Well they better do more than just be around for my morale to go up,” Lyle said.
            “They’re not even that good-looking,” Jorgenson said.
            Franklin said, “Three weeks in tent city and they’ll be perfect tens, I guarantee it.”
            “They had a saying in Iraq,” Lyle said. “Go ugly early and beat the rush.”
            We laughed, except for Wyatt who was still looking at his father’s dog-tags and Perry who appeared to take offense. “They’re not like prostitutes, you jackasses,” he said. “The whole point is that they’re blonde. They literally train them on how to walk, how to flip their hair and what not. Then they just show up in different places on the base. Like the chow hall. At the B/X. In bunkers and at Ops meetings. You watch, they’ll act like they’re part of the unit, but they won’t really have a function. I’m not saying they’re not going to get snaked while they’re over there. You know the pilots will be on their six o’clocks right after wheels down.”
            “Fucking pilots, dude,” Smith said.
            “I’m just saying that’s not how it works. Psy ops, I mean.”
            Franklin shifted on his A-bag and sat up. “Everything you just said is ridiculous, you know that? Tell me you don’t believe what you’re saying.”
            “Okay, answer me this: have you ever seen any of them before? The blondes?”
            “They’re probably with the 89th Wing,” Jorgenson offered. “We got 89th people all over this place.”
            “I haven’t seen half of the people in this hangar,” Franklin said. “So I guess that means they’re all plants, right? Ridiculous.”
            We watched Perry fume, his eyes searching for any hint of support. “Okay, okay,” he said finally. “I guess salt peter was ridiculous too. I guess the water at basic training just naturally had gray particles floating around it.”
            “Salt peter,” Franklin said. “What is this, military myth day?”
            “My water didn’t have anything floating in it,” Jorgenson said.
            “That’s because you weren’t paying attention,” Perry said. “They count on you not paying attention. I mean, be honest, did any of you guys ever get a boner in basic?”
            Nobody answered. A few of us looked away.
            Perry slapped his hands together again and nodded. “Salt peter,” he said.
            Franklin jumped to his feet. “Tell you what, genius. Why don’t I just stroll on over there and talk to them? See if I can smoke out a Russian accent?”
            “Tell them our morale is in the toilet,” Lyle said, scribbling his man number into his bible. “Tell them we’re in need of some serious blonde psy ops.”
            Perry huffed. “What’s talking to them going to prove? You think they don’t have cover stories?”
            Franklin dismissed him with a wave, already making his way through the crowd toward the blondes.
            Perry turned away in disgust and crossed his arms. He stood over us and shifted slightly, blocking our line of sight to Franklin. He then looked down at Wyatt who was still caressing the dog-tags with one hand and straightening the pile of bibles at his feet with the other.
            “What’s wrong with you?” Perry said.
            “He brought his dad’s dog-tags,” Jorgenson said.
            “What the hell for?”
            “I brought them by mistake,” Wyatt said. “I shouldn’t have.”
            Jorgenson reached forward and nudged Wyatt on the knee. “Hey man,” he said with sympathy. “So did he ever solve it? The big puzzle?”
            Wyatt’s response was immediate, as if he had been waiting eagerly for just one of us – any one of us – to ask. “Sure he did,” he said. “He never told me he did. And the table looked like the same jumbled mess that I saw years earlier. But I don’t think he would have died without knowing what was there. Or at least what it was he was looking for.”
            Wyatt’s eyes moved across our faces, pausing briefly at each. But by now, we were distracted by the blondes. Franklin was standing beside one of them. She said something to him, pushed aside a wisp of hair from her forehead then gestured toward some undefined space above us all. Franklin looked up and then laughed.
            And Wyatt kept speaking even though it was obvious that we had stopped listening.



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