It was hard to stay cool.
The heat waves curled off the asphalt road and rolled across the desert, making it impossible to remain focused. It wasn’t any easier with sixteen pounds of body armor, especially as the Kevlar absorbed every ounce of sweat and the fabric increased in weight. It was brutal and uncomfortable, and I could feel those extra pounds with every movement and each step I took. There was no escaping the heat, no matter what time of the day or night, and it was all we talked about.
Except when the topic was getting shot by snipers.
Or being maimed by IEDs and roadside bombs.
Conversations like that had each of us riding nasty, serrated edges and suppressing our fears.
It was a couple of months after they found Saddam hiding in the underground hole near his old hometown in the desert. We were already tense, six long hours into a roadside checkpoint in the Salahuddin Province north of Baghdad; surrounded by people intent on making us leave their country – willing to take any risk and pay any price to accomplish that mission. We dreamed about going stateside, although it was just an abstract memory – vaguely familiar but impossible to remember in detail. Everything had changed since we had been deployed. Nothing about home seemed real any longer. Our only goal from the minute we laced up our boots in the morning until we fell back into bed at night was to make it through the tour; anything else was unimaginable. We took it day by day, one step at a time. In basic training they taught us to channel any thoughts that took away focus, no matter how tough the conditions, but it was difficult doing that in the hell of the Iraqi desert. Clouds of dust swirled around, stuck in my throat, and left me coughing like a two pack a day smoker, barely able to swallow. Sometimes the dirt got inside my goggles, leaving me unable to decide whether to use my canteen water to clear my vision or quench an unbearable thirst that remained day after day.
Cool was an afterthought.
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