I reach for my canteen fastened near my hip.

Finished my two-liter camelback about two-clicks back. The sweat runs from inside my Kevlar helmet and follows the path of least resistance – from brow, as it folds and channels down the center underneath the polarized sunglass nose pads where the Syrian desert sand meets my pores. It drips into my canteen before I take a sip. I don’t flinch.

The haboob blows in quickly, grabbing the earth, pulling it over like the way my wife pulls the comforter after I steal it from her in the middle of a cold night. The Iraq dust is sandblasted onto me, I have the blackheads to prove it.

I halt the twelve-person squad. We can’t see each other through the brown out. I bark out orders to come together in a single file line. I take the point, I’m a designated bullet catcher. Ramirez is behind me, my radio man. He wears the backpack carrying the tactical radio and an extra battery. It’s as heavy as one concrete cylinder, clunky, and a big target for the enemy – can’t send in reinforcements if you can’t talk.

The radio squelches and pops above the sound of the howling wind.

“Sir, it’s red air – no helicopter can fly in this weather. We get into some shit, we fucked, respectfully of course. Sir.”

The Sir Sandwich, the perfect way to get your message across to your leaders that you made a stupid mistake.

I think about it and take a knee and grab the handheld receiver from Ramirez.

What I don’t think about is how five years from now, my skin will make sounds the way the radio transmissions pop. I will learn that my VA doctor will tell me its subcutaneous emphysema or crepitus. That it is necrosis from botulism. But just three years before that VA visit my doctor stopped prescribing my oxycodone so I opted to take heroin. My veins blew out so I had to skin pop.

Just as I relay and transmit to my superiors that my squad will turn back and return to base. The haboob lifts just enough to put Ramirez in enemy sights.

What I don’t think about almost six years from Ramirez’s death is how I will be at the VA staring at a concrete cylinder filled wall hearing the same VA doctor drone on about hospice care. He will ask me if I know what palliative care is, and in my best Ramirez impression I will say “Sir, yes, Sir.”

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