Another Note in an Endless Melody

On March 18, 2013, a decade after the Iraq invasion, The Columbus Herald Ledger printed soldiers’ recollections of their first Iraq tours. These accounts are loosely based on those recollections. All three voluntarily returned for a second tour.

Digital art by Phillip T. Stephens Background texture by Billy Alexander
Digital art by Phillip T. Stephens
Background texture by Billy Alexander

Afghanistan’s Just Another Note
in an Endless Melody

(An American haibun [1] )


Palmer and I drive 24 hours straight. On dusty roads. Grit crusts our crotches, cracks, armpits, teeth. The minute we report, they dispatch us to highway patrol. No time for coffee, cigarette or a piss. Grab gear and go. We’re on patrol maybe fifteen minutes, a toothless haji staggers down the center of the highway. No shirt, holes in his pants, one sandal hanging by a strap, hands empty. Raised like white flags. Palmer steps onto the shoulder; I can’t pull him back. Haji drops. An RPG follows his path, flips Palmer. A six-foot arc. Toothless rolls to the far shoulder, leaps up and scrams. Bullets swarm the squad like hornets from a burning nest. I duck behind an abandoned car. A second grenade punches into the gas tank. I dive into the sand beating the fireball by a second. Wake in the hospital, bathed in sunlight, my leg in a cast from ankle to hip. An officer shows up. Doesn’t even look in my file for my name. “You’re flying home, soldier. Recovery leave.” I asked about Palmer. “He’s flying too.” No eye contact. I knew then that they’d be sending Palmer cargo.

In a village graveyard, in the steaming

summer rain, a priest consoled

a widow weeping at her

husband’s stone. A tear because

he perished, a flower for her love.

Her face in pain. He touched her arm

to share a word of tenderness.


First Wave

Our M113 crossed the Iraqi border at midnight. HQ deployed us as the invasion’s first pawns. The Republican Guard scattered like spider monkeys during the firefights. One night, while our tracers chased the cowards across the sand, I pumped my fist, poked Baker in the ribs. “At this rate, we’ll be in Iraq by Sunday,” I shouted over the noise of the explosions. Baker didn’t answer. Couldn’t answer. He couldn’t answer because he had no head to answer with. He stood perfectly straight, a mess of gristle and spine sticking above his shoulders. After a couple of months, in the Red Zone, Johny Jihad learned how to lure convoys down narrow streets and pick them off. So, it was August, like six months after they said the war would end in shock and awe and we’d be back home polishing off six-packs in our porch swings, and our convoy’s front track lifted its nose, like a horse rearing on hind legs. Six maybe seven bodies spilled into the fleeing crowd. The Bradley at the tail went next, a rocket through the engine block tipping it onto the sidewalk. Cash, our driver, plowed through the wreckage, the rest of us crouching close to the floor and firing over the side. Norton fired the top gun at anything moving. Back at the base, I couldn’t light my Camel, my hand shook the lighter so hard. That was when I started thinking of my college engineering classes as weekends at Disneyland.

“He died in a noble cause.

He gave his life for you and me.”

She seized his words,

spit in mud, cursed such


“Your petty wars are not

the will of God. He gave no

sanction. Nor is there need.

And if you want to tell me

otherwise, please offer

your excuses to the dead.”


Sand gets in your eyes

One hundred twenty degrees with the breeze. On that first day in April, I had no way of knowing we’d suffer in the heat so long. I spent three-months suffering with heat and bug bites before I’d feel air conditioning. They gave me a cushy post. I coordinated battlefield positions. That cushy job didn’t keep me out of combat. One time a sandstorm trapped our convoy. We were three miles outside a sinkhole called As Samawa, sixteen vehicles on a highway that had so many pockmarks it could have been a teenager’s face. The advance slowed until we creeped along at an inch and hour. We couldn’t even see to the shoulder. LT dispatched Parker and Dial to scout. They wrestled with the wind, and disappeared into the brown sky. When they didn’t report back I looked for them. I fought the wind for an hour. Even with a muffler the storm sandblasted the skin on my face. I finally sat on a sandbag for a smoke and a snack. A chocolate bar. The storm faded as quickly as it started. I glanced down, discovered my sandbag was Parker’s body.

You priests of a jealous God,

you prophets of Democracy,

do you ever take a moment

to explain that corpses do not

drink Christ’s blood, corpses

do not vote. They turn to mud

beneath the earth and rain.


©2017 Phillip T. Stephens



[1] The Japanese haibun combines a paragraph with a poem (in its strictest form, haiku). Each haibun requires a title and the paragraph must be composed in first person. The poetry and paragraphs can be combined in any variation.


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