A Marble in the Sand

A Non-Fiction Essay By Former U.S. Army Sergeant, Stephen Crowley

3rd Place Winner 2011 Maricopa County Community Colleges Creative Writing Competition

Route Cherry is a road outside of Kirkuk Airbase to the west of Riyhad with bomb craters pot marking its lethal warnings every foot of the way. A road traveled with whispered prayers and curses. The one thing more frightening than traveling Route Cherry is to be parked along side it, waiting. “Waiting for what?” I ask myself.

Route “Cherry”

The Humvee idles, the radio squawks.  “Charlie Niner Bravo, SIT-REP, Over.” Situation Report, that’s what they want. I want to reply with SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up), but I don’t. I just whisper it to myself. I have been in Iraq for many months now. The days blur together. It’s all the same, every mission, nothing changes for me. It wasn’t always like that, but Iraq will condition you that way.

The day we actually deployed from Fort Bliss to Operation Iraqi Freedom was a long day of “Hurry Up and Wait.” Fort Bliss had it’s own airport and terminal dedicated to deploying troops. Once we received the order for movement, we were on lock down. We could not leave the tent area. If we went to the chow hall, we had to sign out and have a buddy. Later that day, we were given our unit assignments. We were all going to different units in theater; most likely, never to see each other again.

One of the senior, Non Commissioned Officer’s (NCOs), Sergeant First Class Finch, called everyone to gather around. SFC Finch was a big jolly guy, weathered from years in service. Back in the “Real” Army, we used to call those guys Lifer Dogs. The old Lifer Dogs would hang around the 1stSergeant’s desk, sipping “Lifer Juice” (straight black coffee) with a Butter Bar, 2ndLieutenant on the floor in the push up position. They commanded respect and deserved every ounce of it. A true lifer dog would quickly tell a young E-5 Buck Sergeant, “Before you grab a plate of chow for yourself, you better damn well make sure all of your troops have been fed! You take care of your privates, E-4 and below, and they will take care of you!” That was their mantra. They truly were the “backbone” of the US Army. SFC Finch was no different; a true Lifer Dog to the core.

As we all gathered around SFC Finch, he pulled out a bag of marbles and began handing them out. “One marble per soldier!” he kept saying. 

We were all looking at each other, wondering what was up. Was this some kind of lottery to see who gets a ticket home? More than likely to see who gets to load the bags on the plane.

Once Finch had double checked that everyone had their Marble, he announced, “Okay, everybody, listen up!” He held his marble up high so we all could see. “Everyone hold up your marble.” He ordered. “Come on, everybody! Hold em up!” Finch was obviously serious about holding up these marbles. Finally, everyone was holding up their marble, even the stragglers.

            “I want you to look at everyone here! Look around! Everybody’s got a marble!” Finch was stoic as he watched to make sure we were looking at each other. “We are all splitting up after this and may not see each other again from this point on. We have been through a lot here at Bliss, put up with a lot of bullshit and we made it through. We got the job done. So here we are, getting ready to load that bird to the big sandbox, Iraq.” Finch paused. “I want you to look around at each other; everyone standing here. I want everyone here to make it through this deployment! I want every one of these marbles I just handed out to come home. Keep it with you and remember this night. Throw it in a backpack; stick it in your duffle bag, but whatever you do, make damn sure you bring that marble home! Shit may get real bad over there!”

Finch went on, “…but whatever you do, don’t lose your marbles!’

That was it, meeting over.

I looked next to me and saw PFC Carrie French, holding her marble. A late comer from Idaho, she had just finished her basic training before arriving at Ft. Bliss. She looked apprehensive. Trying to cheer her up, I told her not to worry, Iraq will be a cake walk. I knew by her eyes, she didn’t believe me.

Gunner Position Durring One of Many Missions, OIF 2005.

I stuffed my marble in the top zipper-pocket of my backpack and forgot all about it. I took that backpack on every mission, oblivious that my marble was riding along. One day, June 5th, 2005 to be exact, Sergeant Major Winstead, who was in charge of our group at Ft. Bliss, approached me in the Kirkuk Gym.

“Have you heard the news about Carrie French?” His face was graven. I said nothing; I just looked at him. “She was killed by an IED today while on a supply convoy; Route Cherry.”

My heart dropped. I could not believe it. Carrie, at 19, was the youngest member of our group from Ft. Bliss. In fact, she had just turned 19 in February, which made her only 18 during our training at Bliss. I just couldn’t imagine her that way, dying in Iraq. 

She was an all-American girl from Caldwell, Idaho, a cheerleader, just a small-town kid earning money for college. She had pushed to go on missions and insisted that she wasn’t given special treatment because she was a young girl. It was only her third mission traveling the roads outside of Kirkuk Airbase, 200 clicks north of Baghdad, Iraq. I had already been on over 100 missions. It just didn’t seem fair. It would have suited me just fine to take her place, and I know I wasn’t alone feeling that way. Unfortunately, for Carrie, life just doesn’t work that way.

I was pretty down after French’s death. It was just April 28th that we had lost Timothy Kiser, a 37-year-old Sergeant from our group.  The war wasn’t fun anymore.

The adrenaline rushes I had craved so much before their deaths lost their flavor. I wanted it to end, and I didn’t care if that came by a sniper’s bullet or an IED blast. I was done, finished, an empty stare, held together by desert fatigues and body armor.

It was a few weeks after Carrie’s death that I found myself walking on the FOB (Forward Operating Base) and happened to look down. There in the sand was a marble. A marble. My first thought went back to that strange speech by SFC Finch. Someone had lost their marble, I thought.

I remembered the last time I saw my marble was when I placed it in my backpack at Ft. Bliss. I picked up the marble from the sand and took it back to my bunk. I checked my backpack; there was my marble, in the zipper pocket, where I had originally stashed it. Then it dawned on me; what could be the chances of just happening to look down and see that marble on the ground at Kirkuk Airbase? SFC Finch did not hand out that many marbles, 50 to 60 maybe? Whose marble was it?

I thought of Carrie French. I cried, thinking about how she wouldn’t be bringing her marble home. Tears fell on my hand holding the marble in a clenched fist. It was at that moment I decided to symbolically make that her marble. I would carry it home for her. To me, that little green marble represented not only Carrie French and Timothy Kiser, but also all the soldiers lost, who would not be going home. At every ramp ceremony, as comrades loaded a flag draped casket on a C-130 bound for the States, we all stood there together in gripping silence, rendering a last salute to a fellow soldier.

Whether we knew those who died or not, we all carried extra marbles home with us. Although we were so glad to make it back, we knew it came with a price. That price can still be counted today in the names of those lost.

I still keep that marble. Sometimes I take it out of my desk drawer and just stare into it’s cloudy center, like a crystal ball, I see dusty visions from Kirkuk, Iraq. I see my friends, their faces, I remember the missions, like a movie I watched years ago; one of those that stays with you forever.

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