Walking down the aisle between two rows of our housing containers, camouflage netting eight feet above the ground, connecting the rows, giving it the appearance of an indoor hallway, I could barely see the outline of a man sitting on the steps in front of his door.
It was late, and I was returning to my hooch dog-tired. I’d been to the medical clinic several times to visit that day’s wounded. I’d been to three or four work areas to encourage, counsel, or pray, depending on what people wanted and needed. The last thing I wanted was to get into another conversation. I just wanted to go inside, lock the door, fall on my bed, and turn off the world for a few hours. Forget brushing my teeth and showering. Maybe tomorrow. What caught my eye in the moonless night, was the burning, circular tip of a cigarette.
I greeted the silhouette. “How’s it going?”
A voice behind the glow responded. “Survived another day.”
“Sometimes that’s all we can ask for,” I mumbled.
I unlocked my door, walked inside, turned on the light, dropped my body armor and helmet onto the floor, turned out the light, and crashed-landed on the bed. Almost asleep, I heard a knock. Being in that not-quite-asleep, not-quite-awake nether world, I wasn’t sure whether there was someone at the door, or I was already dreaming. When I heard it again, I got up, opened the door, and saw the cigarette and the silhouette.
“Are you the chaplain?”
“Can we talk?”
I felt like saying, “C’mon dude. Give me a break.” Instead, what came out of my mouth was, “Sure. Let me get some sandals on and I’ll be right out.”
I sat on the stoop across the hall as he lit up another cigarette and asked, “Mind if I smoke?”
I grinned, assuming he couldn’t see my face any better than I could see his. He was going to light up no matter what I answered. “Nope. Go ahead.”
The average smoker spends five-and-a-half minutes per cigarette, and the next time Silhouette Man spoke, he was on his fourth Marlboro. I wondered if he knew I had fallen asleep two or three times. It had to be past two in the morning.
“I was a cop for thirty years and saw some pretty interesting things.” He paused for half-a-cigarette. “But for the first time in my life, I’m scared.”
“What’s been happening?”
“We have two shifts. Early and late; I’m on the late shift, working from two PM til about midnight every day. Plus an hour to get there and an hour back. We go into town to the police station to teach the IP how to do their jobs. We send people to all the stations. I think there are about thirty IP stations in Diwaniyah. Most of our team is Army MPs, but there are a few civilian cops on each team. Most of us retired.”
He lit another cigarette and continued.
“The station where I work is a two-story building surrounded by those huge apartment buildings – fifteen, twenty stories tall. The break area at the IP station is on the roof-top. You know how the men will drive over to the field on their way to work or during lunch or on their way home and shoot off the mortars?”
“They do that to us with rifles. They sit up in those apartments like snipers, waiting for one of us to be visible in a window, or when we go on the roof for a break, and they start firing at us. We’re trapped. We’ve been shot at every day for the past three weeks.
“This afternoon I was on the roof. It had been a pretty quiet day until a little after four when the shooting started. I dove for the parapet that surrounds the roof-top patio, using the wall to try to protect myself. The two guys next to me were killed. One American cop like me, retired, from Cincinnati I think. One Iraqi. Several downstairs in the main part of the building were shot, too. Injured; none killed. I felt so powerless, so defenseless. We’re like sitting ducks waiting for the slaughter. It’s starting to get to me.”
I hurt for this faceless guy from Philadelphia. I wanted to move over, sit next to him, and put an arm around him, but then I thought that might seem weird to a total stranger, especially a career policeman. Maybe after we got to know each other I’d have that opportunity. So I asked him a question. “When do you get back here at night?”
“It’s usually a little after 1:00. 1:30, maybe.”
“Would it be helpful for me to be here when you get back so you have someone to talk to about what you just went through?”
“Yeah. I think it would. I’d like that.”
So I started waiting up for him most nights, letting him set the agenda for what we talked about.
One night, all of a sudden he asked, “Where do the priests get all those stories about Jesus?”
“They get them from the New Testament.”
“No! You mean they come from the Bible?” He’d never heard that before.
“Yep. Would you like me to get you a Bible?”
“Yeah, I would.”