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“They have to play that music five times a day,” Wagstaffe says.
Nobody is bowing toward Mecca.
We order our food and take a seat at a table with Puff, an insurgent. Puff has been out here for three years. He is eating tacos. Puff has beautiful blue eyes, dark hair — well, mostly dark, some swaths are grayish — and his skin is a mix of peach pigmentation interrupted by large, growing patches of darker pigment, like birthmarks. He says he’s turning black and that his doctors don’t know why.
“I’m the first person on record with this,” Puff tells me. “They estimate that by the time I’m 60, I’ll be a full-fledged black man.”
He says that with his condition and all, this is the only place that would accept him as he is, no questions asked. Last night, as he slept, Special Forces raided his hut. They shot him three times in the chest. Then they asked if he agreed that he was dead.
“Yes,” he said, “I agree that I’m dead.”
Then, for extra measure, they shot him a few times in the balls.
“Special Forces can be dicks,” he says.
Puff is married. He says he spent $49,000 on his fiancée’s engagement ring. He isn’t leaving this circus anytime soon. In fact, he says, he has orders to go to Fort Bragg to get airborne training. After that, he’ll be in the shit for real. He’s not stoked.
We hit the road, heading back to Medina Wasl. The sand is blowing so thick, we can barely make out the village until we’re right upon it, and then it appears mostly as a silhouette. Everyone’s taken cover except for a team of U.S. troops on the south side of town.
Wagstaffe opts to sit this one out, but photographer C.R. Stecyk III and I hop out of the van and move toward a group of U.S. forces hovering around a wounded insurgent. Apparently, we missed the firefight, but not by much. Other troops are taking up strategic positions that offer cover and a clear shot at anything moving on the perimeter. Humvees, tanks, armored personnel carriers scramble for position. A tank pulls up feet from us, along with a Humvee full of soldiers. The guy handling the .50 caliber machine gun shouts out, “If anything moves, I’ll paste the fucking city.” I believe him.
After a tense hour or so, the insurgents are caught ,and the town is cleared. The men of the 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, out of Fort Riley — the Big Red One — retire to the Forward Operating Base for some rest and shelter.
“Cool kicks,” one of them shouts out to me as I walk past, obviously pleased with my red Converse One-Stars.
By now, you may have guessed that we aren’t really in Iraq but a reasonable facsimile, where the palm trees are reinforced with two-by-fours and the bad guys, like Puff the pretend insurgent, belong to the 2,500-strong 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Here at Fort Irwin, California, home of the Army’s National Training Center, America’s soldiers play out their most realistic live-fire exercises on a piece of the Western Mojave Desert as big as Rhode Island and getting bigger as the mission expands.
The Long March Home
In another part of this desert, on a different day, a male, 60 or so years old by the looks of him (official designation: 166.614 2554), is on the run. Like so many refugees in this world, he’s just trying to find home. But it’s going to be hard. For one thing, he’s in the middle of desolate and unfamiliar terrain. It’s a hot day and he probably doesn’t quite have his bearings just yet — understandable, considering he’s been dropped off here in the middle of nowhere by helicopter. His quest for home would take him over miles of unforgiving land, rugged mountains, and expose him to harsh elements and unsympathetic predators or vehicles that could crush him without even seeing him. Not to mention, he’s just not cut out for this kind of thing. He’s a slow and steady sort, and, watching him plod across a dry wash, one foot in front of the other, it’s hard not to be a bit moved by his determination.
All the more heartrending is the fact that, try as he might, the truth is he isn’t ever going home again. The place he came from, where he lived his entire life, is fenced off. Even if his heart were really set on it, he’d make just a little more than a kilometer a day. And he probably wouldn’t want to stay if he did make it, because things aren’t ever going to be the same back home. His land is needed — for dubious or essential purposes, depending on your politics — by newcomers further up the food chain. I wouldn’t bet against him surviving, though. His type has been around for a million years. He’s a beautiful, distinguished-looking fellow ... all 15 inches of him. Did I mention he’s a tortoise?