"Never have I ever ... taken a tin can shower in a desert" Everyone’s hand held a small can of soda, waiting to take a sip at the appropriate moment of the random game they were playing to pass the time. "Does Phoenix count?" All of us rolled our eyes in unison. "Seriously Lefty?"
A mini can of orange Fanta explodes into a burst of crimson spray near the right boot of Sargeant "Lefty" Ortega. “This is a stupid game without beer anyway man” Hoff complains. Hoff had the talent to make any bad situation worse any time he opened his mouth. He was angry to be spending his first Christmas married away from his wife and was adamant everyone around him be in similar spirit.
"What the hell man?" Lefty looked around at the smiling faces of the others circled around the drum at the burn pit. The faces looking back at them all wore the same sweaty soot covered shine as his own. It might be December 25th but they surely weren't enjoying unwrapping any presents from under the tree this year. Lefty's hand reached for his own can but before he could grasp it, the can was swiftly kicked away.
"Give it a rest boys." Captain Fischer was always the calm voice of reason. He had a talent of stepping in quickly but never raising his voice. If there was anything, they ALL agreed on it was that Captain Fischer could be trusted and was fair. He was one of the few officers who hadn't been influenced by promises of shiny medals and ribbons. He went into the thick of battle with his troops.
They already had a target on their backs being at the burn pit so the Captain knew that shouting voices and exploding cans would amplify their current location. The sound of laughter would definitely stand out among the constant barrage of gunfire.
They were members of "Team Charlie" that had been assigned to the clearing of the embassy which had been a nightmare involving all elements of the human senses. What had obviously once been an elaborate US embassy compound with stately buildings and once running fountains now sat in a bombed-out shamble. This dusty, civil war-ravaged nation had been of far, unknown before then to most of the team. Each day they rose again though to face another day in the heat.
Other teams have been sent to commandeer the port, air field, and local university. Command and control had to be established. The members of team Charlie all hailed from different parts of the US but they all operated as a combat communications unit.
The need for humanitarian relief to those poor, hungry, and suffering who could not withstand the torturous elements of the war seemed a lot easier on paper. It had only been several days since they all had a good laugh over the major trying to pronounce the name of the country they were going to as he pointed to an upside-down map in their conference room. Although the name had been repeated frequently on the news channels the man chosen to lead them into battle still couldn't pronounce the name.
Those seventy-two hours since then had seemed to stretch into eons for the team. They had left the US during one of the coldest winter storms to hit the US and were now so close to the equator the temperatures were of the opposite danger now. It was true desert like conditions but the exposure to the elements prevented them from discarding too much of the uniform although the Captain had made a point of removing his rank insignia. There was to be no saluting. No one wanted to take the chance of losing a real leader out here.
"Guess I'll be taking my tin can shower with my boots on tonight" Lefty angrily kicks his boot which is quickly being covered in flies eager to get a sample of the sweet dusty syrup. "Gross man. You actually take your boots off in the shower?"
Lefty shrugs. He had earned his nickname due to when boredom hit, he designed crazy goals for learning more about the human body through his own personal experiences. Whether it was how long he could stay awake before it affected him or how many cups of coffee he could drink and still have a steady hand – all of this he kept in a small leatherbound journal he shoved down deep into the pocket of his cargo pants. He had always found the brain body chemistry remarkable since a young age. He had even gained a bit of notoriety in high school by training himself to be a switch hitter and pitcher in baseball. While he had the ability to use either hand, he preferred his left when he wrote in the book and when he used a gun.
As the sky began to darken after what had been a long, blistering hot day where the winds of dust and smoke had provided no relief most of them were already past the thoughts of showers. Even bedtime was strikingly different than home. The first night had been spent backpack to backpack, a layered impact to counter attack threat. At least now, days later they each had cots of their own and each a valuable mosquito netting to wrap around them when their location would be unknown. The first nights they were forced to camp under the stars.
The crackling of the pit fire was not the same as enjoying the home fires with friends and family but it did make it harder to perform the task at hand. They were not all of the same faith but they were guests to a Muslim nation, as such the anonymously planted crosses a sympathetic Marine had planted to mark the graves of those found dead during the clearing out of the Embassy had to be collected and destroyed. Among this symbolic debris had been someone’s halfhearted attempt at a tree (it did resemble the Charlie Brown variety).
Ren had been raised by a Native American Indian father and only knew stories of his mother’s Christian faith as she had died during Ren’s childbirth. His father had the choice of his tribe or his son and he had chosen Ren. He had learned the art of a version of mindfulness that helped him calm his breath, keep focus, and detach when moments got rough such as this when emotions start to trickle to the surface and distract you. He chose this moment for that as he sat against a nearby rock looking up at the marvelous arrival of the stars shining brightly above. Diamonds shining brightly from the sky were the same color of his late mother’s eyes. He gathered the strength he needed from above as he lay below. He felt the warm glow of safety over the rise of the smoke.
This day had begun like no other and tomorrow would be the same. The days each would rise would bring a new surprise, but at night at least the stars were the same. The stars above proved his mother’s true love as they shone an eternal flame.