Of stars and friends

There is so much nighttime light here at Camp Victory that stars are hard to see. A few somehow shined through the other night, though, dim pinpoints of flickering light. They seemed to wave at me like friends I hadn’t seen for years, bringing with them memories of deep star-filled skies from my first deployment.

We guarded an ammunition storage area in western Iraq during the summer of 2003. These acres of huge bunkers were filled with explosive ordnance that we didn’t want getting into the wrong hands. While half of our unit would be guarding that storage area for about a week, the other half would be back at Al Asad Airbase near Haditha in western Iraq. We would rotate every week or so.

There were few comforts of life out at the ammo storage area. We slept on squeaky cots or inside our Paladin self-propelled howitzer. The flies were nearly unbearable. The latrines were the burn-barrel type — every few days somebody had the honor of pulling the barrel from under the latrine, mixing in a few gallons of diesel fuel, lighting a match and stirring the evening away with a fence picket.

Each of us pulled a two-hour guard shift every four to six hours. We would stand in the gunner’s hatch of the howitzer, where the .50 caliber machine gun was mounted, watching and protecting our position. To say the least, life guarding the ammunition storage area was austere.

But what that existence lacked in physical needs was made up for in other ways.

Almost every evening, as the sun was going down, the heat slowly draining from the rock and dirt landscape, a few of us would climb up on top of the howitzer and talk until long after darkness had spread across the wide horizon. We would talk about everything, from what we would do when we got home to what we had done before the war to things we wished we had never done. We talked of baseball, hopes and fears, girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, future love, dreams. We would talk until the stars seemed to settle around us, in our hair and on our shoulders.

We became familiar with the constellations and could tell time by where they were in the sky. As they rotated around the North Star, we would marvel at the wonder that was the night sky. None of us had ever seen so many stars or knew the heavens to be so deep.

Since then, I have yet to find darkness black enough or a horizon flat enough to bring out as many stars as those desert nights. Even in the backcountry of Utah, where the stars mingle with mountain peaks and reflect in calm lakes, I haven’t seen such an immense gathering of stars.

Thinking about it now, replaying the memories, those nights made the long desert days more bearable. Nighttime was something constant and firm to look forward to. No matter how long and hot or horrible the day, we knew it would eventually come to an end, yielding to the deep night and an eternity of stars reflected in the eyes of friends as they looked up from the top of a howitzer in western Iraq.

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