“Frago” is included in Phil Klay’s collection of short stories Redeployment, which was a finalist for the 2015 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a debut work of fiction.
The collection takes readers to the frontlines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned. In “Redeployment,” a soldier who has had to shoot dogs because they were eating human corpses must learn what it is like to return to domestic life in suburbia. In “After Action Report,” a lance corporal seeks expiation for a killing he didn’t commit. In the darkly comic “Money as a Weapons System,” a young foreign service officer is given the absurd task of helping Iraqis improve their lives by teaching them to play baseball. These stories reveal the intricate combination of monotony, bureaucracy, comradeship, and violence that make up a soldier’s daily life at war, and the isolation, remorse, and despair that can accompany a soldier’s homecoming.
LT says drop the fucking house. Roger that. We go to drop the fucking house.
I gather my guys, make a sand‐table diagram. I’ve got a dip in while I brief, and the dip spit’s evaporating as soon as it hits the ground.
HUMINT says the place is an IED factory filled with some bad motherfucking hajjis, including one pretty high up on the BOLO list. SALUTE report says there’s a fire team–sized element armed with AKs, RPKs, RPGs, maybe a Dragunov.
I make 2nd Fire Team the main effort. That’s Corporal Sweet’s team, and Sweet’s a fucking rock star. Stellar NCO. Sweet’s SAW gunner is PFC Dyer, and Dyer’s excited because here’s a chance to finally pop his cherry and shoot somebody. He’s nineteen, one of our baby‐wipe killers, and all he’s killed so far in the Corps has been paper.
I put 1st Fire Team in support. Corporal Moore’s team. Moore’s a bit of a motard, always thinks his fire team should be main effort, like it’s a fucking prize. He could be less oo‐rah, but he’s good to go.
I put 3rd Fire Team in reserve, as usual. They’re Malrosio’s, and he’s dumber than Fabio on two bottles of NyQuil. 3rd’s had an easy deployment so far because I don’t give his team anything too complicated. Sometimes it helps to be led by an idiot.
When we get to the house, the other squads set a cordon and we tear down the road and bust in the back door. M870 with lockbuster shells. Boom, and we go.
Back door leads to the kitchen. Right, clear. Left, clear. Overhead, clear. Rear, clear. Kitchen, clear. We roll through, don’t stack, just roll. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. Corporal Sweet’s fire team clears houses like water running down a stream.
Next room there’s AK fire as soon as we go through the doorway, but we’re better shots. End state is two hajjis, no survivable wounds, no injuries on our side, just another day in paradise. Except Corporal Sweet leads 2nd Fire Team to the bedroom and hajji jumps out shooting blind from the hip and plugs lucky into Corporal Sweet. Two get stopped by his SAPI plate, but one goes through the nut protector and into his thigh. PFC Dyer’s on Sweet’s ass, second man through the door, and he fires a burst of 5.56 into hajji’s face. We clear the bedroom, call, Corpsman up, and Dyer drops down to pack Sweet’s wound. It’s bleeding bright red, maybe hit the femoral.
We keep moving. 1st Fire Team steps up and Doc P’s in with Dyer on Corporal Sweet now and, oh, hajji’s still breathing, so Doc tells Dyer, Go pack the wound in hajji’s face, do the four life‐saving steps, restore the breathing, stop the bleeding, protect the wound, treat for shock. I get on the IISR to the LT to call for CASEVAC.
We keep moving. Bedroom, clear. Head, clear. Pantry, clear. Whatever the fuck this room is, clear. First deck, clear.
LT gets on and says they’ve got a CH‐46 in the air coming to save Sweet’s life. He asks for status, so I shoot Doc P a look like, WIA or KIA? Doc says, Urgent, no joke, and I tell the LT as we stack outside the door to the basement.
We drop a flashbang, and when it goes off we flow downstairs. There’s three down there. One’s al‐Qaeda, but he’s shook by the flashbang and there’s no weapon in his hands. He looks like he’s seventeen and scared, and when we flex‐cuff him and start to go through all the usual EPW shit, he pisses himself. That happens sometimes.
No threat from the other two in the basement, a policeman and a jundi from the 1st Iraqi Army Division. They’re tied to a chair in front of a video camera on a tripod. They’re beat to hell, and there’s a nice pool of blood working the floor.
Corporal Moore sees the camera and the two guys who’ve been tortured. Real quiet he says, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. But we all know what this is.
Lance Corporal McKeown looks at the camera and says, Al‐Qaeda makes the worst pornos ever.
Moore looks over at the EPW, who we’ve got facedown on the deck, flex-cuffed and blindfolded, and says, You son of a bitch cunt‐ass SOB. Moore takes a step forward, but I stop him.
1st Fire Team unties the two guys and starts first aid. AQI used wire to strap them to the chairs and it’s dug into their skin, so getting them loose is tricky without stripping off more flesh. Also, something’s wrong with their feet. I say, Bring ’em to the CCP Doc’s set up on the first deck. The house is clear now, whole thing took under two mikes, so pretty good except for Sweet, and that’s a real motherfucker. Any groin injury’s a nightmare wound.
In the basement there’s a weapons cache, usual shit, AKs and RPKs, homemade explosive, RPGs, some rusty 122 mm arty shells. I leave that to Moore and go check on Sweet.
Upstairs, I see Doc’s already pulled out the QuikClot and put it on the wound. A bad sign, and that QuikClot shit burns, but Sweet forces a grin. He gives me a thumbs‐up, looks down at Doc working on his thigh, and says, Hey, Doc, you wanna give me a BJ while you’re down there? Doc doesn’t look up.
PFC Dyer’s working on the hajji he shot in the face. I see he’s pulled apart his own IFAK to get gauze for the hajji. Not supposed to do that. Your IFAK is for you.
Hajji’s bad. It looks like half the jaw is gone. There’s bits of the beard, still attached to skin, sitting on the other side of the room. Dyer’s holding down hard on the gauze to stop the bleeding, and I can see he’s got the look. So I grab Lance Corporal Weber and tell him to take over from Dyer, give him a break.
CH‐46 touches down in under ten mikes. That’s enough time for Sweet to stop joking and start saying the usual shit people say when they’ve been hit bad. I tell him we won’t let him die. I don’t know if I’m lying or not.
We take Sweet out with the hajji and the IP and the jundi and load ’em all up and they’re off to TQ. I tell the squad Sweet’s got a good shot. You make it to Surgical with a pulse, you’ll probably leave with one.
Once the CASEVAC leaves, it’s mostly waiting. I give the LT my SITREP. He passes it on to Ops and they tell him that the CO said, Bravo Zulu, whatever the fuck that means.
I make sure security’s posted and that nobody’s in a post‐combat slump. I’m definitely not. Normally after a raid the adrenaline taps out and I want to curl up in a ball and take a nap. Not with Sweet up in the air, though.
The guys are posted right. Malrosio’s team, God help us, in overwatch. Sweet’s team is not in a good way.
Dyer’s at one of the main room windows, but he’s not really there. Not tactical. First, he’s too close. Second, not even really scanning. An insurgent could probably walk up and grab his balls before he noticed. And Dyer’s covered in blood, Sweet’s and the hajji’s, probably. Packing a wound isn’t pretty. The sleeves of his flight suit are drenched.
I tell him, Come here. And since the main room’s got two bodies, I tell Moore he’s in charge for a second and walk Dyer to the kitchen and say, Strip.
He looks at me.
You can’t wear those, I say.
He strips and I do too. I see the huge Superman S he got tattooed on his chest before deployment. Everyone makes fun of him for that, but I don’t say anything now. I take off my flight suit and give it to him. I put my PPE back on, roll up Dyer’s suit under my arm, and walk back out into the main room wearing just my boots, my flak, my skivvy shorts, and my Kevlar. My legs and arms haven’t seen the sun in a while and are pale as pigeon shit. Moore sees me and starts smiling. McKeown sees Moore smiling and starts cracking up. I’m like, Fuck you, I look sexy.
LT’s in a corner with Doc. He takes in my legs sticking out of my flak and doesn’t smile, just says, Good thing you wore skivvies today.
I say, Hey, Doc, what the fuck? And I nod toward the door to the basement.
Doc shakes his head. Beat up pretty bad, he says. I think with hoses. A lot of lacerations all over their skin and the bottoms of their feet especially. And they took a power drill through their ankles, right at the joint, so they’re pretty much fucked for life. Not life‐threatening, though.
LT says, They were gonna videotape them.
Doc says, They put them up in front of the camera, like, “Get ready to die, kuffar,” and then realized they were out of film.
LT says, There’s two more out there. The ones they sent to get film. Probably never see them again, but keep an eye. One might get stupid and try something.
Sir, I hope so, I say.
I go to tell the Marines, but the LT puts a hand on my shoulder. He says quietly, Sergeant, you ever seen anything like this before?
Sometimes I forget it’s his first deployment. I shrug. Adrenaline’s gone now, and I’ve got that deep tired. Not this, exactly, I say, but there’s not much that’d surprise me. At least it’s not kids.
Sir, I say, don’t let yourself think about it until we’re back in the States.
Right, he says. He looks out to the road and adds, Well, EOD’s coming for the cache. They said don’t fuck with any‐ thing.
I say, I don’t play with bombs, sir.
He says, As soon as they’re done, we go check on Sweet. He’s at TQ.
He okay? I say.
He will be, he says.
I go check on my men. EOD comes pretty quick, and I see it’s Staff Sergeant Cody’s team. Cody’s a down‐home Tennessee boy, and he points to my bare legs and gives me a big old country grin.
When you’re done fucking these hajjis, he says, you’re supposed to put your pants back on.
While his team is dealing with the UXO, I deal with Dyer’s flight suit. Moore gets me some gasoline from the basement, and we douse it and set it on fire. These things are supposed to be flame resistant, it’s why we wear them, but it goes up fine.
Looking at the flames, I ask Moore, Were you gonna stomp that hajji downstairs?
Would’ve deserved it, he says.
Not the point, I say. Your Marines see you fucked up over this, then they start thinking about how fucked up it all is. And we don’t have time to deal with that. We’ve got another patrol tomorrow.
LT walks over with a spare flight suit. Change, he says. We’re going straight to TQ. Sweet’s stabilized, but they’re gonna fly him to Germany soon. IP and jundi are stabilized, too. Hajji didn’t make it.
I take the flight suit and tell Moore, Pass to the squad that Sweet’s okay, and don’t mention hajji dying.
I go back to the kitchen and change over, and by that time EOD’s done, so we all roll.
As we’re driving to TQ, McKeown says, Hey, at least we saved those guys’ lives.
I say, Yeah, Second Squad to the motherfucking rescue.
Except I’ve got their eyes in my head. I don’t think they wanted to be saved. After al‐Qaeda sets you up in front of the video camera? And you’ve been beaten and tortured and drilled through and you think, Finally. Just let the head come off in one slice. That’s what I’d be thinking. But then, guess what? Ha‐ha, motherfucker. No film. So you’re sitting, in pain, waiting to die, for who knows how long. There isn’t exactly a Walmart nearby.
I didn’t see any tears of joy when we burst in, M4s at the ready. They were dead men. Then we doped them up, CASE-VAC’d them out, and they had to live again.
I think, for a second, maybe we should all breathe out tonight as a squad. Get drunk off Listerine and deal with this shit. But I don’t want to pull that trigger unless I have to, and Sweet’s still alive. Today’s a good day. Save that shit for a bad day.
We roll into TQ, which is a huge FOB, all U.S. and Coalition Forces. We all clear our weapons, bring them to Condition 4 at the gate. FOBs are basically safe. And crawling with contractors.
The road signs to the hospital are just like you’d see in the U.S., a blue square with a white H in the middle. And there’s Marines driving civilian‐type vehicles in their cammies, without body armor, just like you’d see in any base in the U.S. TQ Surgical’s in the middle of the FOB, next to the Dark Tower, which is what the logistics guys call their command post. The road circles us around the tower, slowly edging closer. I’ve been here before.
We’re quiet as we get close, and then McKeown says, Sergeant, that was really fucked up.
But now’s not the time to have that conversation, so I say, Yeah, that’s the most blood I’ve seen since I fucked your mom on her period. And then the guys laugh and bullshit a bit, and it breaks the mood that was settling. We get out of the Humvees and walk to TQ Surgical in the right head space.
Inside TQ Surgical, Sweet’s awake but on an IV drip of the good stuff.
I feel good, he says, I’ve got my leg.
Another Marine had come in while Sweet was in surgery and things didn’t go so well for him. Still, it was a good day for us.
Except while we’re joking with Sweet, Dyer grabs a doc walking past and asks him how the hajji he shot in the face is doing. I try to catch Doc’s eye so I can signal, Don’t tell him hajji’s dead, but it’s not a problem. Doc’s like, I have no idea which one you shot. Besides, al‐Qaeda gets flown out to a high‐security hospital after we stabilize ’em. Right now you won’t find any here.
Then Dyer’s standing there, off to the side. He’s still in my flight suit, and he’s swimming in it. I put a hand on his shoulder and say, You did good today, PFC. You took out the guy that shot Sweet.
Next ward over from Sweet, they’ve got the IP and the jundi we saved. I step out into the hall and peek in and there they are, fucked up, drugged up, and knocked out. It’s nice in the hospital, not the blood and dust over everything like in the basement, but those two, even cleaned up, their bodies don’t look like bodies should. Seeing them stops me for a second. I don’t call the squad over because they don’t need to see this.
After that, there’s not much left to do but hit the DFAC. We’re on a FOB, might as well get that good chow while we can. My guys deserve it. Maybe they need it. Besides, everyone says TQ’s got the best chow hall in Anbar, and soon we’ll be back in the COP.
The DFAC’s about a klik away. It’s a huge white barn of a building, two hundred meters long at least, a hundred wide, surrounded by a ten‐foot fence topped with barbed wire. We show the Ugandan guards our IDs and walk through the gate. Inside, there’s sinks you wash your hands at first, no eating with dirty fingers, and then there’s a huge cafeteria line with KBR workers serving all kinds of shit. I’m not hungry, but I get some prime rib with horseradish sauce.
We sit down at a big table. The DFAC is pretty full, there’s probably a thousand people eating there, and we’re sitting between some Ugandans and some Marines and sailors from the TQ BOS.
I’m across from PFC Dyer, and he’s not eating much. I’m next to some Navy O4 from the BOS, and he’s chowing down. When he sees we aren’t exactly FOBbits, he starts talking. I don’t tell him what we’re here for, I just say a little about our COP and how it’s good to eat something that’s not an MRE or the Iraqis’ red shit and rice. He says, Y’all are lucky. You came here on a good day. It’s Sunday. Sunday is cobbler day. And he points to a serving table in the rear of the DFAC where they’re serving cobbler with ice cream.
So fuck it, when we finish we all get up to get some cobbler, except for Dyer. He says he’s not hungry, but I tell him, “Eric. Get your ass up and get some fucking cobbler.” So we go.
KBR’s laid out all kinds. Cherry cobbler. Apple cobbler. Peach.
The O4 says cherry’s the best. Roger that. I get the cherry. Dyer gets the cherry. We all get the fucking cherry.
Sit back down, I’m across from Dyer and he’s looking at his ice cream melting into the cobbler. No good. I put a spoon in his hand. You’ve got to do the basic things.