It’s Saturday, March 5th. Corporal Chris Ruzicka finishes his banana while heading out the door for zero-six-hundred physical training (PT). On his way out, he contemplates the upcoming deployment that will take him away from his wife and two kids, ages one and five. Chris is gearing up for a nine-month Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU—“mew,” like a cat) tour.
A MEU usually stops in 10 to 15 friendly ports over the course of a nine month deployment. They are also known as “America’s 9-11,” a quick reaction force. This means that while the MEU navigates the seas on its peaceful tour, if there is trouble, the MEU’s fleet of ships, its Marines, and its combat aircrafts, have to respond immediately. Things get exciting during quick response action, opposing hostile countries, but most of an MEU is mundane spans of sailing. MEU’s have phones and laptops, but the majority of the journey is receptionless isolation. This is not Chris’s first deployment; he’s done this for two and a half years now. He’s familiar with the stress that a lack of communication puts on a relationship.
Chris lives in base housing, a fifteen minute commute to the PT grounds. He steps outside into the quiet, dark morning—the March air is still cold in North Carolina, and the grass slick with fresh dew, ready to greet morning commuters leaving the comforts of home. Outside, the only sound competing with the breeze are cars humming into action, warming up to transport Chris’s fellow Marines to training while their wives and children remain sleeping. Being outside at 5:40 A.M. is a peculiar feeling, the feeling of being awake before the rest of the world—just Chris, the crisp morning air, and a subtle symphony of cars and wind.
Near six o’clock, Corporal Ruzicka has met up with the rest of his platoon. As the clock strikes the hour, the chatter of the lower ranking Marines halts and the young enlisted leaders—Corporals—take roll. The Marines stand uncomfortably in the fifty degree morning air. Their PT uniforms consist of a green t-shirts usually wreaking of last week’s training session and green silkies—running shorts—which always ride awkwardly high up the leg. Sweats are an option, but the platoon knows they’d regret them once they begin running. Corporals must ensure that each and every member has made it to morning PT safely, and on time. With the platoon rogered up, Corporal Ruzicka begins the run.
During the run, Ruzicka hears some of the lower ranking Marines talk about the upcoming deployment. Privates First Class (PFC) Means and Godoy are to finally leave the States. They’re eager to explore the world and make a difference—they’ve been eager since the day they signed on the dotted line to serve. Means and Godoy are non-married Marines living in the barracks. They have loved ones back home. PFC Means has a girlfriend he’s been with for some time, but they’re far from settling down and starting a family. Hearing Means and Godoy’s talk of exploring the world and making names for themselves, Corporal Ruzicka worries about departure, about what will remain at home him when he returns after nine months.
As the run continues, Ruzicka remembers his first deployment four years ago and how difficult it was without talking to his wife or seeing his baby boy. His insecurities had proved right once before and he worried that history would repeat itself. His fellow Marine’s high spirits deepen his unease. Do I want to deploy again? He feels detached and unloyal as a leader, lacking the excitement of the rest of his platoon. There was nothing in his training that could help combat the anxiety building in his stomach—it twisted and knotted as he led the platoon past trees which sliced the sunrise. He thinks forward, imagines the months of the MEU, anticipates losing the control that he’s had throughout the last year at home.
There are a handful of other married Marines with children in the platoon—even they’re excited to get away from home for a little bit and experience some “real Marine life.” Corporal Ruzicka has never been sociable with Marines who can’t stand their wives and kids, the ones who are eager to leave for months on end. Chris Ruzicka is a family man. He knows that he has more important places to be than out at sea or on the shores of other countries. When the platoon’s run ends, the Marines gather around Lance Corporal Withrow as he delivers a motivating speech regarding the coming weekend’s departure. Although Withrow is only a Lance Corporal, a Marine one rank below Corporal Ruzicka, he’s 29 years old; the Marines respect his leadership.
“Okay, Marines,” Lance Corporal Withrow’s deep voice grabs the attention of the younger Marines, “this will be our last run before deployment this weekend. We need to rest our bodies and finish our preparations.”
“No more PT?” PFC Hillis asks.
“No more PT,” replied Withrow.
Hillis whispers to Means, “That’s the best news I ever heard. They’ve been running us into the ground.”
“And for all you married Marines,” Withrow continues, “Remember: embrace the last few days of suffering you have with your nagging wives and kids. This weekend, we leave them for the nine months on the high seas.”
In response, Lance Corporal Hecht blurts something about his “bitch” of a wife.
“Okay, okay,” Corporal Ruzicka interrupts. “Everybody back here at zero-seven-thirty in the uniform of the day. Make sure to get chow before returning.”
The Marines separate like freshly broken pool balls throughout the base.
Corporal Ruzicka finds himself back at home showering and preparing breakfast. His wife Sasha comes downstairs.
“Hey, babe, how was PT?”
“Any word on the deployment?”
“No, still nothing new—same as last time. Won’t find out a thing until the morning of.”
“Okay, well, we have the power of attorney paperwork complete. And my mom will be staying for a few weeks during June. I also just joined that new Camp Lejeune Marine wives group on Facebook. I should be okay while you’re gone. Nothing we haven’t been through before.”
Chris kisses his wife goodbye and leaves for work. He knows he can’t leave her again for another nine months. On his last deployment, his wife brought another man into the house. His five-year-old, Matthew, only recently stopped asking where “Dave” was. He and Sasha decided to work it out. Things improved but distrust lingered.
The work day drags on, Corporal Ruzicka overhears PFCs Means and Bittner doing what Marines do best—making jokes out of uncomfortable situations.
“Did you hear about that Sergeant—came back to find his wife sold the house and his truck, and moved in with Jody.”
“Yeah. Heard he still spends every night at Cherry’s. At least he’s got strippers.” replies Means.
“Who’s that about now?” Corporal Ruzicka asks.
“You know Sergeant Hochteil, right?” Means replies.
“Yeah. From third battalion?”
“Yup, that’s him. Poor fucker didn’t even see it coming. Got a letter from his wife two weeks before coming home saying how much she loved him. Came home to some other family living in his house. Tried calling the police but it turned out the family had been living there for months. His wife sold everything after banging some other guy.”
“So, what did he do? Did he kill the guy or what?” Corporal Ruzicka asks.
“Na, Corporal, he didn’t kill him,” replies Lance Corporal Crowe, his cheek full of chewing tobacco. “He just sucked it up like a lil’ bitch. Sure lucky I weren’t him.”
When Chris arrives home, he makes dinner with his wife, helps the kids wash up, and then put them to bed. Chris lies in bed with his wife by his side, knowing she’s been unfaithful before. He can’t help but wonder how he’ll make it through the next nine months. He loves her. He wants to maintain a solid household for his children, his wife. But, for Chris, Dave lingered.
He questions his wife, “Honey, you’ll still be here when I come home around Christmas right?”
“Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she replies.
Corporal Ruzicka and his platoon are two months into their nine-month deployment. They travel to Spain and Jordan, meeting their peoples along the way. The Jordanians are fascinated by the Americans, and appreciative of their support. The platoon’s two weeks with the Jordanian military is enriching, they learn a lot about their fellow allied military while living with them on the field. The Jordanians are not so different from Americans—equally interested in women, good food, and the newest electronics.
Americans often come into contact with Mexicans, but to Corporal Ruzicka and the Marines, true Spaniards were different. They were romantic, more European in their dress and hospitality. The Marines were able to explore the nightlife in Spain for two nights, which was a lot more fun than their nights on the ship. The platoon could drink and play around with local women, so long as they were back by two A.M.
Corporal Ruzicka received a few letters from his wife while he was at sea, and was able to Facetime with her while they were in Spain’s port.
“Hey, honey!” Chris says, seeing his wife’s face for the first time in weeks.
“How you doing, Chris?” Sasha asks.
“I’m good. Are the kids up?”
“Sorry, they’re both still in school. Don’t forget about time zone differences.”
“That’s okay, Sash. I’m just glad I got to hear your voice. Any new friends?”
“No, not much new. I’ve been socializing with some of the wives in your unit, nothing too crazy. We’re all supporting each other back here.”
“Okay, that’s good to hear. If there’s anything else you need to tell me or want to talk about, please feel free.”
“Chris, there’s nothing else. We’re all doing just fine back here. I think the phone’s ringing though. I have to go—love you.”
“I love you t—” the line drops.
The most frustrating part of Corporal Ruzicka’s deployment is lying awake at night, phone in his hand, with no signal, out on the sea.
If I could talk to her regularly, would she stay loyal? It’s the Navy’s fault, isn’t it? If they would just fucking invest in communication, I wouldn’t have to worry about all this shit. She just needs to hear from me more often. Then everything would be okay.
A Navy Sailor in the bunk next to Corporal Ruzicka approaches him while he’s trying to fall asleep, noticeably distressed.
“Hey, man. You alright?” the Sailor asks.
Corporal Ruzicka snaps, “What the fuck’s it to you, dude?”
“I was just wondering, bro. I seen you over here tossing and turning, mumbling and looking at your phone every thirty seconds.”
“‘Bro?!’ Pretty sure that’s ‘Corporal’ to you, bitch. Get out of my face.”
Seven months into deployment, as they’re winding down and getting anxious to turn toward home, rumors begin to spread. Important information was kept tightly hidden by those of the highest ranks. Due to the isolation of the seas, the news isn’t much help either. Speculation is all that most on a MEU have.
PFC Means is excited, “Guys! Got a letter from mom! She says there’s big conflict in Africa right now and the president is talking about sending in the Marines.”
“When was that from?” Corporal Ruzicka asks intensely.
“Give me that shit,” says Lance Corporal Hecht. He rips the letter out of Means’s hands, “Says here it was postmarked nine days ago. Out here, guess that’s the best we’ll get.”
Means takes the letter back and reads.
“It says the president is highly considering sending in quick reacting Marines to settle the most recent turmoil in Africa. A guerilla group has been going around massacring people, and the local governments are unable to combat them alone.”
“Alright, gents, you know what this means,” Withrow says, barely containing his excitement.
The Marines rejoice and play cards until late at night, in celebration of the news of action. Corporal Ruzicka lies in his rack, pondering.
Will we really get extended out here? She’s already been through enough time without me. She needs a man in her life, and I can’t be there for her for reasons beyond my control. Is it even worth this shit? Why me? Should’ve just gone to college—I wouldn’t be dealing with any of this bullshit. Someone else can easily fill my shoes. Why me…
Captain Neller’s firm voice wakes Corporal Ruzicka and the others in their bunks.
“Corporal Ruzicka, I need you to have all the Marines in formation and accounted for on the second quarter deck by zero-eight-hundred,”
“Roger that, sir.”
At zero-eight-hundred, Corporal Ruzicka and his platoon stand before Captain Neller, jabbering, awaiting news and orders.
“Okay, Marines. While I have you all—hey! Shut your cock holsters and listen up,” Captain Neller shouts. “While I have you all, I’ll cut to the chase: word just came down from high up that we’ve been extended two months and we’re going into Africa. Your families have already been notified. You boys may finally be getting some.”
Corporal Ruzicka’s is dizzied by thought.
How can they do this? What can I—there must be a lawyer, or somebody that can help me. Why is this allowed to happen? I promised my wife I’d be home by Collin’s birthday. I’m going to miss it again. Fake an injury? Fake crazy? What can I do? I can’t do anything. I have to do something. I can’t stay here.
As they exit the ship with full backpacks and weapons loaded, Corporal Ruzicka carries one additional item that outweighs all his other gear—a letter he’d received from his wife last night, the first letter he’s gotten since the extension but was somehow compelled not to open. His mind is fixated, speculating of its contents. He cannot confront them, not now.
“Hey, Corporal, you dropped these a few steps back there,” PFC Means exclaims, out of breath, while running up the shrapnel goggles Corporal Ruzicka had dropped.
“Ah. Thanks man,” Corporal Ruzicka says with a tired mouth and hazy eyes.
“Hey, dick face.”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant?” Corporal Ruzicka asks.
“Your weapon’s on ‘fire,’ killer. Fix that shit. Basics, Marine. Basics.”
“Roger that, Staff Sergeant. Won’t happen again.”
As they shuffle into their operating base on the African soil, Corporal Ruzicka stumbles. Holding his rifle, he has a difficult time bracing himself and lands on his face.
“Corporal! You alright?” Lance Corporal Withrow yells while running to his aid.
“I got his canteen over here,” PFC Godoy says, glad to be able to help.
“Get the hell off me. I’m fine,” Corporal Ruzicka snaps. “Give me that,” he says as he snatches the canteen from Godoy. “Get back in goddam formation.”
“Aye aye, Corporal,” his Marines echo.
“What’s gotten into him? He used to bring us together,” Means whispers.
“Who knows, man,” Godoy ponders.
A week goes by while stationed in Africa. Corporal Ruzicka and his platoon haven’t left the operating base at all, and they’re constantly on high alert. They can be called at any time, and many are hungry for their chance at action. Nobody’s showered since they got off the ship. Some wonder if their stench is similar to that of a decaying body. Temperatures reach near 110 fahrenheit; all that the Marines have to do is wait.
They sit outside, cross-legged in a crescent with the Staff Sergeant standing in the center.
“Alright, Marines! Listen up,” says Staff Sergeant Hoffmeister. “I know we haven’t gotten any mail since we got off the ship, and, unfortunately, I don’t have any news on when or if that will change. Short notice does that in operations like this. Any communication with the rest of the world will likely have to wait until we get off of this god-forsaken stench of a continent.”
“That’s bullshit, Staff Sergeant,” Corporal Ruzicka says, “They promised we’d be able to send and receive mail the whole deployment, except for one or two days during transition.”
“Excuse me, Corporal. Number one, who the hell do you think you’re talking to? Number two, it’s not my fault your bitch can’t keep her legs closed and you wanna hear how her new man’s taking care of her.”
Means shouts, leaping to subdue Corporal Ruzicka. But the Corporal is already grappling with Staff Sergeant Hoffmeister.
The dry earth crackles underneath the two as they tussle on the ground.
“Dude it’s not worth it!”
The other Marines try to break up the quarrel.
“Relax, relax!—Corporal Ruzicka!”
The Marines succeed in pulling Corporal Ruzicka off of their Staff Sergeant.
“I’m gonna let that one slide on account of the heat today, but you better watch yourself, Corporal. Keep your fucking head straight.”
Staff Sergeant Hoffmeister, coughs as he whacks the dust and dirt off of his uniform.
Shaken from the incident earlier, Chris lies in his cot, looking at the dull ceiling of his platoon’s tin shelter. He’s been sitting for a half hour, alone, with his wife’s letter in hand. He carefully tears it along the edge, pulls out the paper, and reads:
I just wanted to write to you to let you know the kids and I are doing well. Collin is starting kindergarten right on time, and Bella is eating whole foods now.
I do have to tell you something you might not want to hear, though. We heard about your deployment extension. You know the kids and I love you with all our hearts, but this just isn’t fair to you, me, or them. We just can’t live like this anymore. I met somebody, and the kid’s really love him. They’re happier than they’ve been in months.
We’ve packed up and moved out. I’m going to settle into a job again. We needed to take the truck but you can get it back when you come home. You’ll be okay. You can reach out to me when you get back, for any legal questions. For now, it’s probably best that we not continue this discussion over letters.
Stay safe out there,
This wasn’t an affair. This wouldn’t be apologized for. This was it. Corporal Ruzicka tucks the letter into his pack, zippers the pouch shut, and goes to sleep.
“Alright, Marines! Gather around,” says First Sergeant Rozelle, the highest enlisted leader in the battalion and the Commanding Officer’s enlisted advisor. “I know we’ve had an arduous journey out here. From set up, to maintaining this place, to the peacekeeping operations—I am proud of my goddamn Marines for their work, and I would be honored to do this all over again. Whether out there on the field or stuck here at the compound all of you contributed to this mission, and your country is proud of you. I am here to announce that tomorrow, we will begin tear down.”
“Hoorah!” the Marines call out with excitement and relief.
“Enjoy your last night in hell. Tomorrow, we’ve got to move quick.”
“Aye-aye First Sergeant,” the battalion echoes, relieved that their journey is ending.
“I can’t wait to get back to my girl, dude,” PFC Means says as they return to the shelter with the platoon.
Hecht brags too Godoy, “Bro, my girl wrote me about this new lube and these toys and—it’s going to be a hell of a return, I’ll tell you that.”
Godoy laughs, “Wait, you have a girl? In Spain, weren’t you—”
“You know how it is, man. Can’t just stick with one chick your whole life. Gotta get out there. We’re Marines, don’t you know?”
Godoy laughs again.
Corporal Ruzicka’s quiet. He wonders whether it’s even worth going home.
What’s even left. She’ll keep the kids from me. I should’ve quit all this. I could have. Why did this happen. Bitch, I should have known.
In the evening, Marines are once again up late into the night. A few Marines stand the nightly watch post, not only looking out for intruders, but ensuring that the Marines behave themselves. Post duty always carries a loaded M4 rifle, when in a foreign country.
Corporal Ruzicka is on duty tonight. He has a two-hour post: two A.M. to four A.M.
“I’m going to go make my rounds,” Corporal Ruzicka tells his Assistant Duty.
“Roger that, Corporal. I’ll log your rounds in the log book,” says Corporal Ruzicka’s PFC assistant.
The night is cool and the stars and moon shine brightly. Corporal Ruzicka knows home is not far away, but that no longer matters.
He performs his rounds diligently, then stops in the porta-john to relieve himself.
His anxieties from the past several months quell as he sits on the toilet. His thoughts focus so deeply that he’s no longer bothered by the putrid smell. He feels isolated, vacuumed off from the world, in the porta-john’s dim quiet. Distant, the awake Marines chatter. Fireworks go off as the Marines celebrate their departure. Surely no one will hear him.
Corporal Ruzicka reaches over to the corner of the porta-john. He grips his rifle by the fore-grip and sits it across his knees. He looks it over. It’s been meticulously cleaned for the past year. He’d never used it except for one annual rifle qualification. Corporal Ruzicka is the first Marine to ever be issued this specific M4, which is a rare occurrence in the military. Usually rifles have been around for years, have been issued to hundreds of Marines. This one is different. It’s only his.
It is engrained in a Marine’s head from day one that their rifle is everything. There is no life without your rifle. You might as well be naked without your rifle. You must care for it always. Corporal Ruzicka took excellent care of his rifle. He looks it over, brushing his fingertips up and down as it sits on his bare knees.
She’s trustworthy. No other man—loyal because she doesn’t have a choice.
He pulls back on the charging handle, ensuring there’s a round in the chamber. He taps the forward assist to make sure it’s seated. Corporal Ruzicka flexes his left arm and slowly puts the butt stock of the rifle on the floor, in between his boots, scuffing the stock on the sandy plastic bottom of the porta-john, pushing his underwear and trousers out of the way. He squeezes it with his knees and ensures it’s properly supported. Never a mechanical failure. He took care of her well.
With the rifle squeezed between his knees, he reaches down and flicks the safety to “fire.” He gently hunches his back and leans forward, resting his chin on the end of the muzzle.
She’s cold. But she’s clean.
He’s confident he won’t have a spec of carbon residue on his chin because he has maintained her so well. His knees are red and achy from squeezing so hard, her protruding bits of metal dig into his legs. He slides his hand down the rifle until he touches the point of the trigger. He knows exactly what she feels like when being pulled. Corporal Ruzicka feels that he is one with his weapon, that she would always perform for him because he respected her.
“What the fuck was that?” Means asks.
“They’ve got fireworks outside,” Godoy replies.
Lance Corporal Withrow comments, “Na, Means is right. That wasn’t no fireworks.”
The platoon rushes out to the duty hut only to find the Assistant Duty.
“Asleep?! Are you kidding me, Marine?!” Withrow shouts.
“I…I… I’m sorry Lanc—”
“Sorry ain’t gonna cut it, devil dog. Where the hell is Corporal Ruzicka?”
“He was just on post. About… about… ten minutes ago”
“Let me see this logbook.”
Withrow snatches it.
“PFC, it’s three-thirty! You’ve written here he toured at two o’clock! You’ve been asleep for an hour and a half and your duty Corporal is lost.”
They send the Assistant Duty to notify their Sergeant. In the meantime, they look for Corporal Ruzicka. They search the compound, yelling his name, and other Marines join in.
“Fuck!” Means yells in frustration.
The others, searching, cannot tell if he’s upset or angry. They rush to Means and stand around the porta-john. They’re all in disbelief. They know that the person in front of them did not die Chris. He died as Corporal Ruzicka—just another Marine who had chosen to face his demons now, rather than greet the ones waiting for him at home.