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Essay: Sick And Chugging Gatorade In Iraq

Routines are vital to a soldier in combat. They are often the only comforting aspect of life in an environment that is as foreign as it is bizarre.

Eager to return to my pre-leave routine following 18 days of home leave, I began rising early to work out in the makeshift gym on our small outpost in southern Baghdad. This routine lasted three days, until I was slammed by a debilitating case of bronchitis.

Feeling under the weather is never an enjoyable affair, but being sick in a combat zone is wretchedly miserable. There is no chicken soup, no warm bed to crawl into, no lazy days watching cartoons while the fever subsides and certainly no room for pity. There is simply work that must get done amid temperatures of 120 degrees.

I executed as many of my duties as I could with a chest full of mucus. The most difficult challenge was finding fresh reasons to excuse myself from meetings with Iraqi commanders when I had to clear my lungs.

As we neared the end of our partnership with the Iraqis we had worked with since June, the Iraqi battalion commander planned a series of dismounted offensives to clear the worst neighborhoods surrounding our base. Dismounted offensives are less scary than they are exhausting; we move through a neighborhood on foot, searching every block of a huge area for people on detainee lists, as well as for weapons and explosives.

Our battalion operations officer, a major, was conducting the mission with us, so it was not necessary for me to command the patrol. Regardless, I did not want my men to execute a mission without me. On the morning of the first offensive my medic, Matthew "Doc" Pooley, took one look at me and said, "Sorry sir, you're out."

I had a fever over 101 degrees and reluctantly agreed. My desire to aid the patrol was trumped by the harsh reality that I posed a real threat to the mission as a heat casualty.

The night before the second mission, Doc looked me over and said that if I felt up to it, I could join my men the next day — but only if I drank four liters of Gatorade throughout the night. The mission began at 4 a.m., which was fortunate because we would be nearly done before the most unbearable heat. In spite of the fact that my fever had begun to subside, every step felt like torture. My head pounded as the heat sauteed my body. At the corner of each block I hacked up a wad of chest congestion, depositing it in one of the thousands of piles of garbage that line Baghdad's streets. I focused on directing the troops, observing the Iraqis, and prayed that each street we started down would be the last of the mission.

As midmorning arrived, the temperature reached 100 degrees. The Iraqi troops stopped for a rest in one of their safe houses. I collapsed against a wall in a sweat-soaked heap and allowed Doc to poke and prod me.

"You're keeping fluids down well, so I don't think you need an IV," Doc told me, "but you're not allowed up until you drink two more bottles of Gatorade."

Doc plopped his wide frame down beside me and watched to ensure I complied with his instructions. As I finished slugging down the yellow liquid, I leaned my head against the wall and asked, "Doc, if I ordered you to, would you please shoot me in the face?"

Doc grinned as he shook his head. "Can't do it, sir. I'm sure there's a girl somewhere who would hunt me down and kill me if I did."

We both laughed.

"I don't see any around here, Doc," I replied. "I think you're safe."

The Iraqi battalion commander signaled for his troops to move out. Doc helped me up and we gathered our equipment, strapped on our helmets and walked into the dizzying heat.

"Don't worry sir," Doc told me as he walked beside me into the street. "All's well that ends, right?"

It was something I had said to my troops many times as they struggled through difficulties. Soon it will end, I told them, and sometimes, all is well that simply ends. Sometimes in the midst of misery and suffering, when you can't be sure of the outcome, all you can look forward to is the end.

That was the last mission I conducted with Doc Pooley; he left for his R&R shortly thereafter. By the time he returns we will have different duties in different places. Though I will miss walking garbage-strewn streets with my friend, I cannot be sad that this miserable punishing mission came to an end.

The end, sometimes, is all one has to look forward to, and at the end of each mission, we are one step closer to finally going home.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nate Rawlings
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