Little Warrior Brother by Gabe Keith [Excerpt]
Little Warrior Brother by Gabe Keith is available on Amazon in both print and digital format.
Her paws scrape against the road’s surface as she slowly hobbles up to the back end of my post. My bunkered position rises from the middle of the road in a half-assed tower of stacked sandbags on top of boxes of sand wrapped in metal mesh and plywood. I pull back the heavy red blanket that serves as its back door to see who is approaching. It’s our dog. She bleeds from multiple bullet holes as she climbs up the sandbag steps to where I stand, watching her.
She forces her way to the third step, turns slowly, and sits down, facing outward. Her body wheezes and shifts as she gazes as evenly as possible, stretching her neck so she can scan back and forth across the road. I want to touch her, in spite of orders not to. But her body is in pain. Petting her will only punish her more.
This is a memory, and I never trust memories. I blocked them out for years, and now they hit harder. I remember that pain, the way her face wore it. She looks out steadily with her nose tilted up, her eyes focused even though her breathing is forced and her body shudders in pain over and over again. I wonder if she knows she is going to die, her pups will probably die, and that will be the end. Riddled with bullets, she protects me still.
I can see the house in the distance where I have lived for the last couple of months and wonder how she made it back. I can’t believe I’m mad at her. But I am.
I stand in the stuffy wooden box, encased in a sweat-stained shell of assorted gear held together by interwoven straps, buttons, and Velcro. My gear weighs down on my shoulders more than usual. It’s been a long post. I let the curtain fall and return to facing the front. The smell of burning shit suffocates the senses. I listen to the wheezing creature as I ponder my options. I tell them she’s here, they kill her. I say nothing, she lives until the next shift begins and my relief makes the call. I move her into the woods, she walks back over again.
My machine gun sits crookedly on the bipods with a belt of ammo resting on the can. The road beyond me disappears into the horizon, cutting through one-story houses with palm trees dotting little farm plots and an occasional lonely oasis. I’m currently on the outskirts of Fallujah. I’m in the Marines, in an infantry battalion, and we are on our third deployment to Iraq in less than two years since this thing started. We hold an area of large multi-story houses that stretch along the highway just outside city limits. Each house holds a full platoon, and each platoon has set up a perimeter to ensure the entire infrastructure is watched closely.
Since we replaced the last battalion here, it’s been our job to manage the ebb and flow of traffic that enters and leaves the city. My post is the farthest out from the house my platoon inhabits on this side of town.
I reach for my radio and call in to command.
“Snowball is here, and she’s sitting on my post. Looks like she’s been shot up pretty bad.”
“What?! Okay, hold on.”
I wait. My squad leader, Corporal Fisher, must be checking with the lieutenant on what happens next. I look back outside at our girl, and remember how we got here.
Months prior, I was sitting among bunk beds that I shared with thirty other Marines. Some of us were coming off post, others were returning from the most recent patrol, still more were preparing for their turn in the suck. My squad was up for patrol. We checked our gear, cleaned our weapons, and made sure we had enough ammunition, water, and rations. Fisher checked our gear one at a time, moving from bunk to bunk. When he got to mine, I looked up.
“Well, Sweet-cheeks? Do we have everything?” he said with a half-smile.
“Yes,” I replied. “Of course, if I do, Olsen will probably forget something.”
Fisher rolled his eyes. “You guys are seriously going to give me a fucking heart attack.”
He continued walking down the line, checking the squad. Twenty minutes later, we were outside and moving slowly across the road into the nearest neighborhood. Our gear was heating up and its weight burned into our shoulders, making it difficult to focus.
I sifted through notions of days long gone, of t-shirts and shorts. I thought about home. This could have been my thousandth patrol in Iraq, and usually nothing happens. When it does, it’s over quickly and everything goes back to waiting and watching and wondering.
Our biggest problem was quickly becoming the dogs in residential areas. Unlike back home, people don’t choose dogs here; it is the other way around. The wild creatures roam neighborhoods until they find someone’s house and choose to stay and protect it. The homeowners keep them fed.
The dogs are wild and territorial. When anything moseys onto their property, like a group of Marines patrolling through town, they react aggressively. It wouldn’t be an issue if we stayed to the main roads, but that creates a recipe for an ambush.
Sometimes we would shoot the dogs. Fisher picked one off one day and I felt the frustration build for all of us because it didn’t feel like a viable solution. We were going to keep walking through the backyards of these animals and they were never going to understand.
Our leadership didn’t have an answer. They told us to figure it out and follow the credo: “Adapt and Overcome.” They never fail to assert recruiter taglines as useful guidance for very uniquely difficult situations.
One day, we were patrolling through a yard when a larger dog barked at us. I stutter-step toward it to back it off. The moment I moved it lunged, as if an invisible gate dropped between us. I grabbed at my machine gun, but it was too late. I reached for my Berretta instead. The dog stopped abruptly before me and I heard someone shoot into the ground a safe distance away. At least someone got his gun out in time. Or maybe, through sheer luck, I was a foot or two off this psychotic mutt’s perceived property line.
At night, the dogs would announce our every step. We wore night vision goggles and quietly moved through the neighborhood farming community. Before this particular problem began, sometimes I doubt people even knew we were in their homes.
One night, we found roof access to provide over-watch for a patrol while they slowly maneuvered through a moist field of churned ground underneath a moonlit sky. I stood in a living room and waited for the Marines in front to finish filing up the stairs and onto the roof. I watched as the family slept around our feet. We sweated silently and our gear creaked and groaned. A little boy shifted and lifted his head off the ground, staring at our dark shapes hovering overhead as we filed up the stairs and onto the roof. He cried, but as quickly as he started, a hand appeared from the person sleeping next to him, lightly resting on his head. Whimpering, he lied back down.
We tell the community there is a chance we will occasionally travel through their backyards and front doors. This message is lost on the dogs. Each house we approached kicked off new sets of animal sirens. Mario turned one night and walking back towards where I knelt, while I scanned the night, hoping our position wasn’t compromised. We needed to be eyes here, and nothing more.
“Fuck these dogs, fool,” he said in the tone that served as his way of wanting to scream and throw shit.
“I know, man.”
“Have you ever seen this before?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said. I thought back about how superstitious he was when we arrived in country and wondered if he still was, or if it was something he’d grown out of.
We sat in the back of a Humvee together, on an early convoy at what was the beginning of his first deployment and my third.
“Hey, Mario, what will you do if this happens?” I take a drag off a cigarette and simulate a sniper round smacking the back of my helmet, sending me back against the bench seat as I exhale to simulate the smoke from the blast as it exits my body.
“Don’t do that, fool. That’s not cool, fool. Seriously, fool, stop it!”
None of us thought much of the dog when she showed up at our house. She seemed content to sit in the front yard, panting and watching us trudging through our daily routines. She was a motley thing, with her belly loosely hanging in the dirt and ugly patches of hair interspersed with patches of hairless, wrinkled skin. Out on patrol one day, she followed us, moving among us at first. As we moved through town, she took the lead.
We followed her instead of sticking to the planned patrol. When she didn’t recognize someone, human or otherwise, she would stop and growl. Quietly, we floated outward from the snaking, staggered formation. Some took a knee in a ditch, leaned against a wall, or crouched among trees, like we have so many times before on our own intuition. Then, we waited, keeping her in our peripherals. When she relaxed, so would we. When she moved, we moved, one-by-one getting up to resume the patrol.
She would meet other dogs at their property lines, growling or sniffing her introductions. They began to leave us alone. No more dogs died and no more humans were attacked. The nights became quiet again, even when our dog didn’t follow.
After some time, another dog stopped by the house and stayed. He adopted the same habits as his female counterpart, and as Marines took turns leading patrols, so did the two dogs. Gossip spreads, and we made the mistake of telling others about the dogs. Command sent an order down: We aren’t allowed to feed or touch the animals because they might be unsafe and diseased. Either command didn’t know or didn’t care how helpful the dogs had become. The decision was above our pay grade to question, but command doesn’t say to stop working with them, so nothing changed.
Since I was one of the two Marines carrying a medium machine gun in my platoon, I was always assigned to the furthest outlying post that stood directly in the center of the main road. I don’t like the feeling of being so exposed, but it usually meant that when it got dark, I shared my shift with another Marine, another kid to swap stories and rumors with throughout the night.
I got used to seeing the dogs on patrol, and soon the one that showed up first adopted a new role. She began sitting on the back of my post and looking out. If anyone approached she would growl. I would turn, brush back the red blanket to see what she saw. I watched her with a smile on my face as she sat in the front yard and watched me walk out to my post, knowing she was processing the scene before her and would decide to join me soon. I stood on post, smiling to think about how comical it looked with this creature sitting just outside the tent flap, like a mythical beast guarding the gates of an ancient stronghold.
I would talk to her sometimes, and I think others did, too. She was one of us, and it was beautiful. We fed the dogs what rations we didn’t eat, but never touched them. We struggled with not reaching out and giving her a ‘good girl’ or two with a pat on the head.
In time, the animal that showed up looking sallow and unkempt turned into something well-fed and less bloated. She led a few less patrols one week. Her belly was growing again, but not in the sunken way it was before. She had pups. We built them a shelter so they would survive in the rain and sandstorms. Their fur was fine and thick, like American pets.
At night, they played outside. During the day, they sat in the shade. The fuzzballs tackled each other regardless of the hour. They were almost impossible not to play with or assign little doggy names. It was fun watching the little things bounce around. Days pass, and the pups weren’t that old when we were given orders to kill them.
Command wouldn’t budge, so a few Marines picked up the pups and their mom and drove them into the city in hopes of finding a nice family to feed them. That was our first mistake. We knew she had abandoned her pups when she returned.
Her belly is sagging for the third time now, this time pregnant with blood and bullets. Dirt from where she sat ground into the matted, bloody mess. She shakes and wheezes and looks on down the road. She must have been shot at by every post along the way, but she sits behind me like she has done so many times before, in spite of her bloody, wheezing frame riddled with bullet holes by our own guns and at the expense of her lost pups.
I stare out down the road in front of my post, listening to her labored breathing and waiting for Corporal Fisher to respond with instructions.
The radio crackles.
“How bad is it?”
“She’s about dead.”
“Well, the L.T. said put her down, so go ahead and do that.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I just can’t,” I say as my eyes begin to water.
The radio is quiet for a while. Time passes in a windy desert silence. The dog growls, and I turn to check it out as I’ve done with her for months. Fisher approaches, and I can’t tell if he’s mad at me or the whole situation. His face looks resigned and tired at the same time.
He walks up to the post and lightly prods the dog off the sandbags with the barrel of his rifle. Whimpering, she hobbles down into the street. Fisher starts shooting at her and she yelps, running off the road, and falling down the side of a ditch. He swears under his breath, following her there and shooting at her again. I can’t tell if his shots are landing, but she scrambles her way out into the thick tree line and the backyard beyond.
Fisher looks at me and, for once, he doesn’t say anything. We both know he shouldn’t have had to come out here. He turns to walk away and I drop the red blanket back in place. I face forward again, staring down the road, waiting for nothing in particular. She is out of sight now, and we’ll never see or talk about her again.
When people ask me how many people I killed, sometimes I think of her.