Excerpts from e-book “Private Lenczyk – The Misadventures of a Polish Soldier in Iraq – Part 1 – Arrival” available at Amazon Kindle Store
“You are in the army now and being a soldier means… no thinking!!! From now on, your superior will be doing all the thinking. The sooner you understand that, the better it will be for you, the platoon and the whole army. When the officer says that the trees behind you are white not green that means they are white and end of discussion. Whoever doesn’t understand that simple fact will be screwed in this army, especially by me and the other officers. And if you are on our shit list, it means no passes, extra duties and other not-so- interesting things you are soon going to learn about. So even if you graduated from five different colleges and have an IQ as high as Lady Gaga’s, keep your mouth shut!!! This is the army, not school, and you have to listen and try to use what’s inside your head. School did not teach it, but I guarantee you will master this skill to my satisfaction.”
He paused for a moment, took a deep breath and pretended not to see the irritated looks of his lance corporals for depriving them of the opportunity to use phrases that would make the conscripts aware of how to behave for the next nine months.
“Your upcoming plans will be reduced to the following: reveille, making beds, cleaning, eating and drills. Physical activity and improved coordination never hurt anybody. And it is going to be like that till evening, till you are off the hook. Which basically means roll call and sleeping with your hands on the covers. Let me remind you that everything you do, you do according to the order of the chain of command.”
He pointed at the standing lance corporals, and noticed that one of them was smoking a cigarette despite the fact that they were told earlier about such impertinent behavior. Well, he knew he would have to talk to them and set them straight before leaving. The lance corporals’ behavior was influenced by the fact that he was to leave on a mission. Because of it, some of them felt a bit too cocky in his presence. But for now, he was still here. And he wasn’t going to leave any unfinished business.
“I promise many of you will hate them with all your heart. But every order must be obeyed and as quickly as possible. I hope this platoon is full of Boy Scouts, who like to march and sing. If not, you are going to learn quickly.”
Some people from the row smiled hesitantly, which he noticed at once. He was waiting for that moment, and even if it hadn’t come, he only needed a pretext to check whether they had again sent him somebody with visible physical problems.
“I see that we have some volunteers to march and sing! Your wish will be fulfilled.”
He stepped back and, with the wave of his hand called one of the lance corporals. It happened to be the one with the hidden cigarette. Perhaps it was no coincidence, because he made sure that the soldier could not drop the cigarette and now the inside of his hand was burning.
“Platoon! Attention!” The lance corporal was alert and knew what to do. “Down.”
It was difficult to call it a proper “Down”. It was more like an attempt at going down gently, with the second row making sure not to touch the shoes of the first one. In one word, it was a caricature execution of a simple command, although he noticed that some did it correctly and quickly. Those were the pluses that he cared about. He just needed to check whether they were accidental or intentional.
“Up!” The execution of this command wouldn’t impress anybody, so: “Down! Up! Down! Up! Down! Up! Run!”
The confusion began, as not everybody understood the command. But after a while, taking their cue from those who did, the whole row was running in place, trying to do it in sync. It is true that this kind of “checking” had been forbidden for years, but it helped him to see what he had to work with.
“Move it, Move it! Jesus, master corporal, sir.” The lance corporal glanced at him with a disgusted and desperate look on his face. “This band is the most incompetent bunch in the whole army.”
“Jasinski! Enough!” Lenczyk interrupted, examining the recruits. “Do you know what to do?”
“Yes, sir, master corporal!” The lance corporal was not happy to be reprimanded in front of everybody. “Platoon! Down! Up! Down! Up!”
“I am going to say one thing — my dying grandmother could do it hundred times faster and better than you,” the master corporal commented on their weak efforts, smiling ironically. At the same time he signaled the lance corporal to wrap it up. He had already seen enough. “Platoon! Attention!”
He walked in front of the group, watching them carefully and feeling their eyes on him at the same time. He had nothing to be reproached for. Maybe he was not tall; maybe he was stocky, with a short haircut, spoke in a nasal voice, but he was obviously in perfect physical condition. Black sunglasses protruded from his breast pocket, which was against regulations, but that was the fashion in the army at that time. He was not against introducing some novelties, taken directly from the West, like the badge with a name, called the Radek’s badge which everybody had to wear on the right pocket. It was useful as you would know who you were talking to right off the bat. On the other hand, they were called “snitches,” as they revealed the identity of a soldier.
Pvt. Lenczyk was standing and dreaming, not about a warm place, although he wouldn’t mind that. He simply was hungry. The dinner that he ate two hours ago was digested. He was known for being notoriously hungry. Food was a big reason for his problems; specifically the trials he had endured to satisfy his growling stomach. His ability to consume huge amounts of food was enormous and sometimes scary, even to himself. Despite the fact that he was 175 centimeters tall and as skinny as a bean pole, he consumed not only his rations and seconds, but two hours later, you would find him hovering around the kitchen hoping to be noticed. He wasn’t trying to extort food; he offered to help in food preparation in exchange for satisfying his needs. They tried to hire him in the kitchen and he turned out to be a culinary anti-talent, but he was an excellent dish washer, especially when it came to plates with leftovers on them. He was even suspected of having a virus or a tapeworm and was supposed to undergo special tests. But before that could happen, he had an accident in the hangar. Dared by his friends, he tried to siphon alcohol from plane equipment. Somebody should have warned him to avoid fire, but he managed to splash some alcohol onto his uniform so the rest is history.
His friends were waiting for him in the hangar, laughing out loud and joking about the possibility of Lenczyk’s mishap. When a soldier waits for a task, he usually smokes a cigarette to make the time go faster. This time they were betting on whether this poor wretch, as they called him, will be able to still a bottle of alcohol from the plane. Smoking cigarette is forbidden at the airport, but if nobody sees it, you can find a way to hide your addiction. And as the forbidden fruit tastes better, they felt that being old hands, they didn’t have to follow rules. They greeted him with admiration when he pulled out a full bottle and handed it to Pvt. Kozlowski, the initiator of the whole episode. Somebody patted him on the shoulder. It was bad luck that one of the privates took a puff and shook the ashes onto the bottle. If it had been cold and there were no alcohol fumes, maybe everything would have been OK, but the fumes caught fire and it spread quickly.
“Oh, fuck.” He heard a Kozlowski’s nervous voice and jumped out of the way. “Fire!”
Somebody else yelled:
Without giving it a second thought, he threw it as far as possible, noticing in surprise the flames appearing on his hands, then his uniform. It didn’t look good. If not for one of his friends, he would’ve ended up at the hospital with third-degree burns, but his friend knocked him to the ground, and using a blanket put out the fire immediately — although, there were holes in his uniform.
“Fuck! The rags are on fire!” He heard a loud voice of one of the soldiers. “We’re fucked if they catch us!”
“Don’t panic!” Kozlowski yelled. “Put it down! It’s only a container with old rags. There is an automatic fire protection system. We can’t let the fire spread all over the hangar! They will lock us up for that! What made you think this idiot could do it?!”
“It was your idea, you asshole!” somebody yelled. “You wanted to drink so now you have it!”
Lenczyk lay on the ground and watched how the old rag container next to the hangar burst into black smoke and followed by red flames of fire. If not for the automatic fire protection system, installed there according to regulations and common sense, they wouldn’t stand a chance, but as they say – dumb luck. On the other hand, if they had thrown the bottle the other way, it would have landed in the gas station, so maybe there weren’t so unlucky after all. Fire is the worst thing that can happen an airport — there is gasoline, lubricants and various kinds of mechanical equipment. All of the above should be secured. That’s why everywhere you look there are anti-smoking signs. There is even a special security detail to enforce the regulations. The smoke from the container was quickly noticed by the officer on duty, and within seconds the fire squad appeared to put out the fire. Immediately after that, the officer on duty, the unit commander and other officials showed up. There was no question about explaining the situation – it made no sense for Lenczyk to hide it. He didn’t even try. His uniform was burned and full of holes. Nobody who knew him thought they came from fighting the fire as a volunteer. He admitted everything to the unit commander, although he didn’t betray his friends by revealing their role in the affair. He was aware that the military police would arrest him and he would be accused of sabotage and burning a jet fighter, but fortunately the commander had a different idea. He knew that if he handled the matter according to the book, he would have to deal with headquarters and an unflattering entry would appear in his personnel file. He decided to close the case by describing it as spontaneous combustion. He locked Lenczyk up for two days with only bread and water, and then got rid of him fast, sending him as far away as possible. The following day he had new papers to deal with and went to a new unit where MCpl. Lenczyk was waiting with his ingenious proposal, which seemed like manna from above.
For the next two minutes, they hid against the wall, where they could see everything and watch for the guards at the same time. The sleet had stopped, but when they went under low-hanging branches they got a shower anyway. Normally, they would have laughed it off and moved faster, but now they stoically endured the stream of water and froze by the wall. The guards were nowhere to be seen. Except for the lit control tower and the arrival hall, the base was covered in the darkness of the coming evening. They preferred not to think of what would happen to them if they got caught.
As Zalew predicted, there was a party in the arrival hall. You could hear the sounds of music, the noise of conversation, the happy and provocative laughter of women, and louder and louder almost choreographed wishes:
“Happy birthday, General! Happy birthday!”
At first, Lenczyk tried to sneak a peek at the birthday party, but Zalewski stopped him, holding on to his arm and nudged him to move along the wall.
“There is nothing to see here,” Zalew decided, pushing Lenczyk along the wall to the cover of the bushes. “It’s lit here as a whore by a street light. We could get caught by some prick who would like to know what two soldiers such as us are doing at the party. For us, the back door and the back way to the kitchen are best. The salon we can leave to the officers. If we are lucky, some cook was too warm and left the window open.” He pushed him harder, whispering. “Check the windows well.”
“Are you sure what we’re doing here is the best strategy?” he asked anxiously. He always regretted reaching the point of no return. Besides, he sensed it was not going to end up well for him, especially with his luck.
“Take it easy, Piotr,” Zalew patted him on the shoulder. “In the army, everything is blamed on AMBA. The only thing is they can’t catch us. If they do, one doesn’t know about the other,” he said, clenching his teeth and holding onto Lenczyk’s shoulder. “Do you understand?” He wanted to be certain.
“What’s AMBA?” Lenczyk asked, checking the next window. It moved encouragingly. He pushed harder and sighed with relief when the hinges didn’t squeak. “I found it,” he whispered.
Zalew pushed him aside and opened the window carefully. After checking for noise, he opened the window all the way.
“Good for us.” He squatted. “It looks like a storage room. It’s what I was looking for. Let’s do it like this: I’ll give you a lift and you go inside.”
“Why me?” Lenczyk asked nervously.
“Take it easy.” Zalew held him by the sleeve, as if he was afraid Lenczyk might disappear among the bushes. “I would go in myself, but you’re lighter. I’ll keep watch outside and take the goods. You get it?”
“What goods?” He didn’t understand what Zalew wanted. He regretted being talked into the whole thing and was feeling worse and worse. “Maybe we should just forget it?”
“Piotr, we’re not doing anything wrong.” Zalewski didn’t let go of his jacket sleeve. “Listen to how the company is enjoying themselves.” He indicated the arrival hall. “You are going to war and they are having a party. You are sitting hungry in the cold hangar, because some asshole didn’t bother to coordinate the arrivals of two planes. Think about how they gorge themselves while you are dreaming about hot tea.”
A soldier is in no position to demand comforts. They had to sit on a tarpaulin spread over aluminum pipes along the fuselage. They knew right from the start that they were not going to be comfortable — leaning on the wall meant feeling the plane’s vibrations. They realized that during the flight they would have to pull up their knees and cover their ears. Additionally, they would be deprived of the sights because in the fuselage, at the heights where they sat, nobody thought of placing any windows to let them see where they were.
“Don’t worry. After an hour, you will feel like a monkey on the monkey bars. But after the next two hours, everything will be the same to you. Even sudden changes in altitude will not affect you. It makes no sense to get upset as you can’t do a thing about it. So try to relax, sit calmly, vibrate with the aircraft, and think how happy you’re going to be once we land. I give you my word as an American pilot that you are going to get there with no problems whatsoever.”
That was all that the stowage commander with the familiar-sounding name of David Kopencki had to say while welcoming them aboard. He tried to get them to appreciate the qualities of the plane they were about to fly, but one look at their faces and he realized it would be a waste of his precious time. So, instead, he handed every soldier three paper bags for “natural waste” and told them to sit on the tarpaulin seats. In its basic model, the “Combat Claw” could accommodate 92 soldiers or 68 paratroopers in full combat gear. This one was modified and adjusted to take two HMMWV vehicles known as Hummers, 12 high-ranking officers seated at the front and 30 soldiers seated on both sides of the fuselage.
Lt. Rutkowski made sure he sat as far away as possible from Pvt. Lenczyk, the sight of whom was sure to ruin his mood. On the other hand, MCpl. Zalewski was not fazed by anything. At first, he was happy to see Pvt. Lenczyk going into the hangar as he was not quite sure where they both would wind up – on the mission or in jail after the commotion they had caused. He even gave him a shot of vodka to start the trip, saying that was the ration for everybody, along with the remaining sandwiches. The rest of the food was eaten earlier to remove evidence of the crime. Later, he helped him with the equipment needed for direct transportation and, as one of the first soldiers, boarded the C-130. Zalewski’s insolence was so great that he sat in the front on a leather seat intended for high-ranking officers. But the stowage commander, despite his pleasant smile, chased Zalewski to the side seats and said he would be keeping an eye on him.
“War is an extreme experience; the burden is not only physical but emotional as well. There is no way you can return to a normal life immediately. You need to rest, relax and sleep in. The worst thing that a soldier witnesses in war is human suffering: the killed, the grief of the family, the damages and the people going back to the ruins of their homes. Nothing can prepare you for it, not the speeches, not the films or the articles you’ve read. When you stand next to the ruins of somebody’s home and watch desperate people pick up pieces by hand, and pull out the bodies of their children or parents… When you collect human remains at a bazaar, after some idiot in the name of Allah blows himself up, then you’ve had enough. Your psyche and your body will refuse to participate in this horror show any longer. You feel like falling into a black hole or getting those assholes and pulling their balls off so they can’t have children. If you do it with an officer present, you’re screwed. But if nobody sees it… Don’t tell anybody about it, even your best friend. The question is how to deal with it?” He looked around at the intent faces and knew that his words would help them survive the difficult time and that was what he wanted. “You have to turn yourself off, build a psychological dam. It doesn’t mean indifference. Normal human beings can’t be indifferent in such circumstances. These are not things you can forget; you will remember them for many days. The truth is they will stay with you and that’s why it’s important not to drag them back to your families. Our distress and thinking about the fate of others are not going to help anybody – not me, not the victims’ families, not the dead ones. Remember our first duty is to survive and then get those who are killing. The faster you do that, the better. People kill each other – that’s their nature. Not because they have to, but because they want to.”
“The next thing – Be a human being. Sometimes, a small gesture is enough to make people feel you are on their side. You have to show that you are not their enemies, despite your foreign uniform. You might find yourself at the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe it will be right after a bomb assassination, then reaching out to the rescuer, or pouring water on his hands means a lot. When the paramedic pushes the body into the bag, help him with his injuries, as in such conditions, even the smallest scrapes can become infected. Stand in respect by the victims’ bodies; show others that you share their burden. Such behavior lets people from the war-torn areas see that you are not only a soldier but a human being.”
Pvt. Lenczyk opened his mouth wide in astonishment when he saw the guide. If not for the badge with the MP on the right arm, she wouldn’t have been different than any other American soldier with the rank of sergeant. If only Sgt. Herbey McLuis were not a beautiful, tall mulatto, with as her uniform displayed, something lovely to breathe with. If only she didn’t have the long, good-for-basketball player legs that even uniform pants and special Army boots couldn’t conceal. Even the helmet on the head and the weapon in her hand or the bulletproof vest couldn’t hide her beauty — all in a place full of thousands of young and healthy men who had only one thing on their minds — getting laid. It was not important what the lady looked like or how old she was, getting laid and having something to talk about later with friends was all-important. She knew all the lines:
“Where do you live?”
”Can I stop by?”
“When is your shift over?”
Sometimes, she met cads who thought they could do they wanted to do. She remembered an Italian officer who used this line:
“Hey, babe! I have a new car. Do you want to see the new upholstery?”
He was surprised with what happened next, when he ended up against the wall. Of course, she didn’t do it on purpose. She simply didn’t understand what he wanted as she didn’t know Italian. She knew one thing — her chosen one was not going to be in uniform. It didn’t matter what kind of uniform — police or the army — as she knew all too well that she would end up with a master who would decide everything and neglect his family. She only had one more year of law school and three years of army duty. She could handle that much. After that, she was not about to re-enlist.
“What a beautiful ass!” groaned one of the soldiers, who couldn’t take his eyes off her, but stopped when MCpl. Zalewski rapped him in the helmet.
“You’d better be quiet, if you don’t want to have any problems.” He shut him down quickly. “There are some words known to women everywhere, and you have to know that American women are especially sensitive to vulgar remarks. Not only she will put you in jail, but she will sue you, so shut up.”
He smiled at the female sergeant who was looking at them suspiciously, and raised his hand to his helmet to show respect. The sergeant only looked at him more intently. He didn’t know why he made the gesture, but it was too late to take it back. Out of the pocket of his jacket, he took out two condoms and gave one to Lenczyk. The whole time he was looking at the female sergeant who didn’t like what she was seeing now even more than before.
“Do exactly what I do,” he whispered, barely opening his mouth, “and don’t go faster than me.”
“It’s stupid,” said Lenczyk, but opened the package, imitating the master corporal. “Do we always have to get into trouble?”
“Take it easy,” whispered master corporal. “I know what I’m doing; I really want to hear her voice. If it’s like the rest of her, I’m going to marry her.”
Following his lead, he shook the rubber to unfold it and smiled wide. In response, the female sergeant with a furious look on her face pushed the button on her walkie-talkie and reached for the white baton, hanging by her side.
With the two blown-up condoms waving in the air, Sgt. McLuis decided that it was time for action and moved toward the two jokers, thinking which one to hit first before her friends showed up and carted them off to jail. She was just a few steps away when she stopped, surprised. Both soldiers, pretending not to be paying attention, let the air out of the condoms and put them on the barrels of their weapons. The others started to mimic them.
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