By John Bubar
Dingo’s job this morning, like every morning since I’d tasked him with doing my unit’s deadliest job, was to search for booby traps. Dingo and the new kid they’d christened Jerkoff, Dingo’s personally chosen trainee, had turned the body over after a careful search. Everything we knew about booby traps we learned on the job. I waited for the day our training caught up with the war we fought.
When an explosion didn’t shred the rolled body, I credited those two with doing their jobs. Again. Dingo hadn’t planned on Jerkoff brushing him aside and searching the body for—who knew what. The bomb went off when the dumbass pulled on the dead guy’s belt. Fucking amateur move.
Dingo lost his right eye—no telling about the head damage. The medic said he might lose his right arm. Jerkoff had shielded him from most of the blast, and that put Jerkoff homeward bound in a body bag.
My immediate problem was to find another Dingo. I needed someone who could successfully rummage about looking for explosive devices anywhere and everywhere. My need was immediate because I had a patrol to finish. The chopper thumped nearer, returning to pick up the body bag carrying Jerkoff. Strange how nobody looked at the bag. After my guys loaded him up, we had to go back out.
My best idea to replace Dingo was the new guy from West Virginia named Lester. His real name wasn’t Lester. Those East Coast assholes I’m saddled with gave him that name because it went well with Molester, and if you were from West Virginia they figured you were one. Lester played along with his roadkill recipes, missing his good-looking sister, and stories about outrunning the revenuers with a trunk load of moonshine. He delivered the stories with a hardscrabble edge and a threatening tone. The joy he took in describing his roadkill preparations disturbed me. I tried handing my worries off to my sergeant, but he said it would sort itself out.
Two days ago I found Lester talking softly to a stray dog. It kept its distance, which was unusual for a mutt if it thought you had food. Lester did, in one hand. The other hand hovered by his boot where he kept his knife. When I interrupted his little bait and switch routine, he tossed the bait to the dog and slowly came to half-assed attention. If you’re thinking about making one of your roadkill recipes for your fellow soldiers, you could find a dead dog, I told him. But that’s not okay. So knock it the hell off. Understood?
No denial, no confession, nothing—like his lawyer was in the room—but as I turned to go, he declared that most of the dead dogs he’d seen were booby trapped, as if to say my suggestion wouldn’t fit his needs. The statement was a credibly deniable, “Fuck you, Lieutenant.” Sly, cunning, and cold—just what I needed. When I assigned him his new duties, he surely wouldn’t thank me like Dingo had.
I’d gotten into Dingo’s face about his won’t-let-you-down-Sir nonsense, which was his response to me telling him to take the lead in sweeping for all the nasty shit that was out there waiting for us. The job was too important to alternate soldiers. I’d tried that and lost one, and watched two other troopers make a dog’s breakfast of it, and so I called them off and put Dingo on point.
Dingo—professional care and due diligence—that’s how I thought of him, and made the mistake of telling him, and got the thank-you-sir routine. Stop, Dingo, just stop, I said. I’m not giving you anything. I’m not your brother, your father, or your friend. What I’m telling you is that every day you’re going to try not to get blown up so the rest of us won’t. Unfortunately, you’re the best man I have for the job. He took the smile off his face, but only because he knew he was supposed to.
The chopper touched down, and later, I had to write the next-of-kin letter. I had written three so far this tour, all pretty much the same—brave, reverent, trustworthy, loyal soldiers—right out of the Boy Scout manual. But what I wanted to say about Charles Hastings Wellington III, aka Jerkoff, a nickname whose provenance I chose not to explore, was that the dumbshit made only one friend. That friend was going home badly broken because he really was a Boy Scout and had a thing for looking after the underdog, and your son, the underdog, who had no business being here, did something stupid today. I spent an hour of my life wiping their blood and bits and pieces off of me.
Well, I wasn’t going to get that by the fucking Colonel. Jesus, Dingo, I knew better. All I had to do was say no. Which was what I’m supposed to do. And the one time I forgot who I was and listened to you tell me how you’d take care of Hasty, which is what you told me his parents called him, and give the kid a chance to gain a little credibility with the guys…well fuck, Dingo. What was I thinking? This was no place for Boy Scouts or underdogs. We should all be Lesters.
There went the chopper. It was time to brief Lester and get those guys to mount up.