Two and a half tons

Matson was killed on 14JUN03. Flag day. Also, the Army’s birthday.

Fourteen June always sucks. All of Fort Knox gathers in the park near Main Gate to play softball and volleyball and to eat hamburgers and hot dogs and drink beer. They get to wear civilian clothes and enjoy the day. Even the post run at five in the morning is fun. A slow pace, the commanding general leading it, everybody singing cadence. Lots of mark time running because there’s always a hold up somewhere up front.

But not for the MPs. Especially not for the Traffic MPs. We don’t get to do the run, which is fine with me. But we don’t get to have any fun either. No civilian clothes, no volleyball, no beer for us. We’re in uniform, bulletproof vests and pistol belts, directing traffic and parking cars.

And as I was using the hand-and-arm signals I learned in school to let drivers know to Fuck off, you can’t park here, Matson was in Iraq. Her truck driving towards some check-point just outside Baghdad. She had slept soundly the night before and had a piece of cake that morning. The cake was chocolate with vanilla frosting and, by tradition, was cut by the youngest member of the company with a cavalry sword. The youngest member of the company was her gunner. PVT Oneal.

Oneal was from California and was eighteen years old. She joined the Army because she had nothing else to do. She was a senior in high school on the morning of 9/11 and maybe that had something to do with her decision too. But she didn’t know. And she can’t tell us now because she’s dead too.

Matson and Oneal and the rest of the squad were set to relieve a check-point on the outskirts of Baghdad. They would be out there for 24-hours, blocking the road to the airport. Matson didn’t really enjoy the cake. She was busy thinking of contingencies. She was busy hoping her squad had enough ammo, had enough water, had enough MREs. Matson was a good soldier, she left nothing to chance. She could be annoying, all her questions. “Did you bring enough socks? Do you have a spare uniform? A spare pair of boots? Are your canteens full?” But these questions had a purpose.

After they ate the cake and had some eggs with hot sauce and bacon and sausage, after they sang Happy Birthday and the Army Song and saluted the Army Flag, Matson’s squad went back to their hooches and got dressed for combat. Helmets and flak vests and weapons. They grabbed their rucks and headed to the trucks. They were lucky, their trucks were armored, sent down from Kosovo and painted tan. But luck wouldn’t save them. They checked the trucks for flat tires and oil leaks and made sure all the brake fluid was still there. They started them up with some trouble, the glo-plugs cold and swollen, and did commo checks on the radios. Everything was working good enough.

They had been in Iraq for two months now and Matson was loving it. This was what she had been born to do. Kosovo had bored her, all the driving around and ammo counts and nothing to do. Finally she was in a war. But this wasn’t the war her daddy had told her about. He had been in Vietnam, walking through the jungle looking for an elusive enemy. Here she was in the desert, in a large base camp secured and fed by Halliburton. The chow hall was open all day and the food was great. She took a shower ever morning and had her dirty laundry cleaned every week by Macedonians. She could go down to the PX for socks and get her hair cut. It hardly felt like a war at all. Nobody ever shot at her.

They drove past the gate, past the sandbags and the bored soldiers drinking water, and turned right. The driver picked up speed and Matson watched the GPS, looked at her map. The driver turned on some Metallica and Matson smiled at him, bobbed her head, tapped her feet. It was hot, but you got used to that. She drank some water, watched the land go by. Kids ran along the truck like dogs and were eventually lost in the dust in the mirror. Women hung laundry from wires. Men smoked weeds and drank tea and sneered at them. Matson smiled at these men, waved at them. These backwards men who thought a woman should be covered head to toe in black. Who thought women shouldn’t drive or look at a man. Here she was, leading a squad of US Army Military Police. Here she was commanding enough firepower to kill every one of them six times over. They looked at their tea, puffed their cigarettes.

The squad reached the edge of town and the landscape opened up. Desert. She didn’t like the desert. She liked trees. She missed the trees. All her life she had been around trees. When she was seven, she broke her arm after falling out of one. She wanted to show the boys how to climb and she had climbed higher than them all. The branches up there were thin and the boys yelled at her to stop but she kept going. And one of the thin branches snapped and she fell past the yelling boys and hit the ground. They climbed down after her, hovered over her. She held her arm close to her and walked to her daddy. He held her arm, shook his head, drove her to the doctor. And for the next eight weeks she couldn’t climb any more trees.

There was trash everywhere in this country. And everything seemed to be on fire. Smoke rising everywhere from burning trash piles. The truck picked up speed and the rhythmic hum of the Humvee lulled her into something short of sleep. She listened to Metallica ordering her back to the front, she listened to the traffic on the radio, all routine. She called out to the check-point, let them know they were only five mikes away. She could see the checkpoint. The pile of sandbags, the trucks parked off to the side with machine gunners sticking out the top, the American flag waving in the wind. Three helicopters flew over her and banked sharply left towards the airport.


Martinez relieved me from the center of the road, from the baking sun. I went back to the car and leaned into the cool air coming from the vent. I took off my beret and drank some water. Sergeant Ellis carried down two plates of hamburgers and hot dogs. He handed them to us.

“Where’s the Coke?” I asked.

“What?” he said.

“The Coke. How can I eat this hamburger without any Coke?”

“If you want Coke, you have to go get it yourself,” he said.

“Lazy NCOs,” I mumbled under my breath.

“What?” he said.

“Thank you, Sergeant,” I said.

It was 1300 hours. This would all be done by 1700 and then I could turn in my weapon and go back to my room and get drunk again.

Up in the park, the Sergeant Major cut the cake. But there wasn’t enough for everybody.


Six anti-tank mines taped together and buried in the night. Maybe the checkpoint should have noticed it. But maybe it was too dark to see. Maybe they were asleep.

Six anti-tank mines taped together and buried in the night. Pressure tripped.

She weighed two and a half tons. She didn’t have a chance.

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