On the plane ride home, I’m quiet. The others recover. They seem happy. Several reports on the airwaves describe a covert team that was found and killed. They were lined up, shot, hanged, and skinned. The plane’s radio crackles. There is another story about Taliban weapon strongholds that were abandoned, and loaded with explosives.
By my count 15 are dead, not including the covert guys.
The walls here are silent or loud, depending on the day. It’s never a murmur, never some odd noise. It’s either dead silent, or someone’s screaming.
Private Cote was with me in the Hummer. Now he’s in the room next to mine. He’s trying to hide the fact that he speaks Arabic.
He talks to me through one of the holes in the wall, tells me what they say. “They’re trying to look for the head officer. They don’t even know how to ask.” He’s just come back from his latest session; I can smell his blood through the hole. “Fucking electricity man, I used to install the shit.” He coughs a laugh.
The screams come from the room upstairs; they’re protecting me.
These guys are organized. Every guard walking by my door takes about 35 steps to pace the hall. Someone is always there. We’re down to five from eight, in our group anyway.
I stop listening to Cote. He’s telling me about the session he just came from. He’s wondering why they haven’t questioned me yet.
The nights in our barracks were more restless. I lost sleep thinking about maneuvers and plans, guys like Cote and Manning, how to keep them safe. There are no mood swings here. It’s almost soothing. Sleep comes easily because we’re caught; there’s nothing to figure out.
They speak to me in broken English. I recognize my beige fatigues. Dirty, brown hands hold them. I’ve been in underwear since I arrived.
“We know mark.” They point to my stripes. Uniform is a serious misnomer.
There is a map of the local area in front of me, and a glass of whiskey. “Where are we?,” he asks.
I know what he’s asking. It’s not the location of the Americans they’re looking for. The Americans are hanging out under the camp with the big fucking American flag over it. They want to know where we know THEY are. Where we know their weapons are. Where, say, the FAST team is. The Navy has SEALS, the Marines have FAST teams. No one makes movies about FAST teams. Where they are infiltrated. That’s what he wants to know.
I motion to the whiskey. “You first.” The man’s teeth are surprisingly clean. He drinks from the glass and they put down two new glasses. Jack Daniels goes into each, he nudges one toward me, and drinks the other.
The bottle pings as he flicks it. “American, eh?”
The smoky drink bites at first, has a rough finish.
This room is beat to shit. There are holes in the corners of the walls, stained white paint.
“Think, eh? You others can go.” He points to the map.
We drink in night time silence. I place the glass on the empty table in front of me.
He still looks clean but he no longer has a map in front of him. Dinner here is a friggin’ ritual, course after course. After the meal, they walk me to the cleanest room that I’ve seen since being here. This place has painted walls, a couch, and a knock at the door.
I pictured their women a little less attractive. She looks clean, dark and clean. She presses her hand into my crotch.
I’ll go along, make them think I’m cooperating. Hard-ons happen, everything happens.
More screams tonight. I’m not sure who it is. No one is talking. These guys already know who I am. Now they’re just doing it. It’s dark, that’s all I know. No idea what time it is. I haven’t heard anything from Cote or the others. I must have laid down about an hour ago. There’s another scream.
Cote’s door opens, there’s a muffle and a whimper. He could get out. There are some places they hide weapons that we know about. I don’t know if we were going to hit them or not. No one would know. Cote is quiet. Usually, he tells me more than I want to know. Now, I can only hear him breathing. His breath is hard and arrhythmic.
I can’t tell him about last night’s dinner, or after dinner. She was probably a pro. It was hard to keep it together. It’s been a while, she smelt pretty good too. Also, it’s important to make them think I’m cooperating. I may not get out of here. It’s later than I think. Shit, I’m not sleeping.
I can’t tell Cote about my interactions. He wouldn’t understand the nuances of this negotiation. I think he smells my soap through the wall. The other men are being tortured to within inches of death, then brought back. Let to rest, then being tortured again. I, on the other hand, have been fed, showered, and consistently laid.
He’s starting to hear the guards talk though.
“Hey, I think there’s another officer here. They think someone’s about to talk.”
When he was in my command, Cote was a smart-ass. I know he ripped me to the other guys.
“Go to sleep, man.” My voice is rested and clear. He needs to get out of here.
We’re meeting again. More drinks.
“The man in the room next to me needs to go home.”
They look at each other, and before I can say more, the same map of the area is in front of me. I grab the empty glass and place it over a weapons stronghold I know about. There is no drinking. They make phone calls, and send me back to my room.
Cote is released.
My steak is perfectly rare. The map’s in front of me, and there are three whiskey glasses indicating different places I know are strongholds. The bottle marks a house where the FAST team has people undercover.
“Let us go.”
“For this, we let you all go.”
“I can’t go back to the base. I need to get home.” A POW will get sent straight home. We all know this, but I need it clarified.
“We don’t hurt you.” He is smiling and sincere. He’s never lied to me.
The 4th of July parade used to be a joke, now it’s massive. High school bands march wearing yellow ribbons. We sit in an open convertible and follow men dressed in revolutionary garb. Their line includes a drum and fife. Periodically, they fire fake muskets.
Prior to the parade starting, we all shake hands, the guys and my family.
The only one who speaks has a push broom mustache. A drip of sweat hangs from his earlobe. Those uniforms are pure wool. “Thank you for your service. How long were you imprisoned?”
“Once you’re in, you’re in, it’s hard to say,” I say.
“No, I mean, do you know how long you were captive for?”
“I think these guys want a picture,” I say.
One of the men’s wives has a small American flag painted on her temple. She points a camera at us. They gather around me. We all smile. Thumbs are raised.
My real uniform’s too small. I wear a fake one from a store. Once we start moving, we stop every ten feet, so the guys can fire those muskets. My daughters have red, white, and blue ribbons in their hair. When the fake rifles go off, they block their ears and giggle. My wife waves proudly with one hand, the other is snug in mine.