The following is an excerpt from Fidelis: A Memoir (Potomac Books, 2020) by Teresa Fazio.
Camp Victory, Kuwait
On the morning of our convoy from Kuwait to Iraq, we saddled up in Humvees, a row of armored hulks against the moonscape. The M16 rifle slung over my shoulder reached below my knees. My pistol sat on the front of my flak jacket in a green nylon holster, its handgrip facing my right side, easily accessible should I need to shoot anyone at close range. The Marines had spent the previous night bolting on vehicles’ bulletproof doors, Mad Max versions of gear we should have already been issued. Even so, our Humvee had no roof. As my driver fiddled with the radio, checking comms, he joked Uncle Sam had loaned us a slick convertible. My cargo pockets bulged with field-stripped MREs: my favorite wheat snack bread, a pouch of peanut butter, a sleeve of mashed potatoes I’d only eat if I got desperate. As we waited for word to leave, the troops squabbled over snacks. Charms hard candies meant bad luck, my A-Driver explained, hucking a pack of them into the desert. After one last head call, I dolloped hand sanitizer into my palms, ready to go.
Engines coughed to life, and we rode out in a column of dust. As we turned onto the highway, I felt jittery, though I knew this was only Kuwait. Nothing interrupted the flat white-sand horizon.
We arrived late the first night at Camp Navstar, a supply contractors’ base just before the Iraqi border. An advantageous location, I guessed, for the Marines to stay up late fixing vehicles. Stumbling back from the head, I ran into Jack and was surprised he recognized me in the dark. He’d spent the past several hours on the side of the road with a broken-down truck, helping the mechanics patch it together. The truck clanked and spewed oil smoke; it wouldn’t top thirty-five miles per hour, but at least it was running. I said I was glad they’d made it—if barely—and wished him good night.
I curled up, a sleeping-bagged larva, on my Humvee’s tailgate, a place where only someone my size could fit. Four hours later, I woke to my watch- beep with a thumping pulse. I found a Porta-John, swigged water, chewed MRE bread, and refilled my CamelBak. In the cold dark, as tires crunched gravel, we crossed the border.
Morning wore on as we rumbled north from Basra. I buckled my seat belt—might help, couldn’t hurt—and pointed my rifle where the window should have been. The cheap foam donut under my helmet kept it perched high enough so dry wind chapped my nose and cheeks. Beside us, miles of desert unrolled: mounds of dirt, a patch of distant green, and once, a tent punctuating the monotony. A shepherd strolled alongside his flock, wielding a reedy staff, far enough away that we paid each other little mind. In the more populated areas, smooth concrete houses stood patched with cement, their walls’ chipping paint revealing intricate blue and green patterns. Elderly men waved cupped hands, beauty queen gestures from figures in wrinkled tunics and billowy pants. We called their dishdashas “man-jammies.” An elementary-aged boy and girl hailed us from their dirt driveway, their family’s skeletal tractor parked a few yards away. The cars near these houses—small white trucks and sedans from the ’80s and ’90s—looked as if they still might operate. Maybe. Farther along the highway stood lopsided mud huts with tilted windows and iffy roofs, if they had roofs at all. Here, between Basra and Nasiriyah, “Uncle Sam’s slick convertible” suddenly didn’t seem so sketchy.
I’d expected the graffiti-scarred Arabic road signs, but the additional English translations surprised me, until I remembered Iraq’s former colonial status as a British mandate. I would love to say now that in that moment, I soberly contemplated my own unit’s status as yet another occupier of Iraq. But it wasn’t the way I was thinking. Deployment marked my first journey outside the United States since a single high-school band trip to Montreal. When I dreamt about travel as a teenager, I hadn’t envisioned packing heat.
Sunburnt by the afternoon, I wiped my sweaty palms on my trousers; the wisps of clouds did nothing to block the blazing sun. I fished a camera from my cargo pocket and aimed a few touristy snapshots, keeping one hand on my rifle, immortalizing its front sight post in each photo’s foreground. I’d meticulously pecked the grid coordinates of our way stations into my GPS, a Christmas gift from my father. The U.S. model didn’t carry Iraqi maps, but I could see the line we’d traveled. There was only one road, and everything else was sand. I tracked how far we’d gone, yelled it up to the driver in case he was interested. He wasn’t.