The incinerator burned amputated body parts. It sat immediately next to the barracks in Baghdad. The black cloud of burning limbs enveloped the barracks if the wind blew just right, and dark gray silt snuck into the rooms, coating windowsills with human dust.
The first week in Iraq, Specialist (SPC) Ashley Morris carried a little girl’s burnt legs down three flights of stairs to throw in the incinerator bin. The legs were tiny, made even smaller by the death of infected muscle.
“I couldn’t stop thinking that these were Amani’s legs, a minute ago,” Ashley says to me, voice monotone and face dry, a week after she has returned from Iraq. “They were dead, I could see the gray flesh, I knew they had to be sawed off, but a minute ago, they belonged to her, and they were legs. And then, I was holding nothing—just hunks of charred meat ready to be burnt up. Nothing. I still dream about the sound of that saw, the sound of the bone. It was so thin, so brittle, that when it finally broke it sounded like the snap of a pencil.”
We lie in my bed in the dark, noses touching. Her body trembles against mine, but her voice stays steady.
“I’ve never told anyone this stuff, Lauren. They can’t handle it. You’re the only one I can talk to.”
I feel like crying but don’t. I pull my fingers through her snarled hair. I tell her I love her; I’m proud of her.
She begins again: “After Amani’s surgery, when I went back to my barracks, my window was covered with ash. That’s the first night I couldn’t sleep.”
Ashley shifts closer to me, tucks her head into my neck, her dry eyes against my chest. I breathe in and out and don’t cry. I think about what it must have been like to know Amani’s legs were the dust stuck to the window, the ashes caked in her hair.
B. Fort Carson
Fort Carson’s website proclaims “BEST ‘HOMETOWN’ IN THE ARMY, HOME TO AMERICA’S BEST.” Fort Carson houses 15,000 soldiers. Twelve of these soldiers took their own lives in 2009. Eleven of these soldiers committed murder in 2004–2009. While stationed at Fort Carson, the top general of the base, Major General Mark Graham, lost both of his sons: one to a roadside bomb, one to a rope lashed on a ceiling fan.
Fort Carson was under fire for mistreating its wounded when they returned from war, for neglecting their mental health. Maj. Gen. Graham attempted to change this with his new mantra, tacked up on homemade posters all over the base’s hospital: Provide The BEST Care Possible. His encouraging attitude for troops to get the help they need was supposed to change things at Fort Carson.
Soon after SPC Morris returned to Fort Carson (injured: dislocated shoulder, massive depression, anxiety disorder), the command directed her to clean guns in the armory. The constant clicking of guns, the smell of grease, the echoes of soldiers yelling: it sent her into a panic. SPC Morris didn’t know what to do—she couldn’t move for fear of grabbing a gun and attacking someone. So she sat at the table, a gun in front of her, unable to take it apart.
Her commanding officer noticed. “Morris, what the hell you waiting for? Your mama?” He leaned over the table, held the weapon in his hands, pointed it at her. “Didn’t you learn anything in Iraq? Your mama isn’t gonna save you. No one is gonna clean this gun for you. Get to work. Be a soldier.” He slammed the gun back on the table, jarring SPC Morris from her trance. She broke into tears and ran.
She called me that night and told me she often thinks of killing herself.
Three months later, after a suicide attempt, SPC Morris is admitted to Cedar Springs, a private hospital and psychiatric ward in Colorado Springs. Fort Carson ships its most troubled soldiers to private facilities at a rate 700 times greater than average for Army hospitals.
SPC Morris is on thirteen medicines, two of which combat nightmares: Ambien and Minipress. After ten months on Ambien, she still can’t sleep through the night. Minipress forces her pulse so low she supposedly can’t have nightmares. If she doesn’t sleep immediately after taking her meds, her bright blue eyes glaze over.
She once drove her Jeep after taking the drugs but doesn’t remember. Ashley only knows she drove because I was on the phone with her, trying to talk her out of it.
“I need my cigarettes,” she said. “I’ll have nightmares if I don’t get a pack now. I have to drive.”
On leave, Ashley visits me. In her sleep I watch her lips tremble, hear her teeth click against each other. I feel her legs kick against mine. I don’t wake or comfort her, because if I do, she turns on me, not recognizing safety. The medicine doesn’t work. The nightmares don’t stop.
D. Phone Calls
Cedar Springs monitors phone calls and allows patients to use the phone for ten minutes at a time. Ashley never uses all ten minutes. After twenty days at Cedar Springs, ten days longer than the average stay, I’m desperate for her to stay on the line just a moment longer.
“Baby,” Ashley says, her voice monotonous, androgynous—alarming. “When I’m talking to you, I feel like throwing the phone across the room and watching it shatter into a million pieces. That’s how I feel.”
I whimper into the phone. I cry for the first time in twenty days.
“You know I hate that.” Ashley’s voice is even more detached than before. “Tell me you love me.”
“I love you,” I say.
Ashley ends the call, and I look to see how long it lasted: one minute, forty-two seconds—the longest I’ve spoken with her in three days.
While serving in Iraq, SPC Morris dislocated her shoulder. Due to the physical nature of her job as an operating room technician, the injury worsened. Eventually, whenever she tugged on the laces of her boots, her shoulder popped out. She lost feeling in her fingertips, then her hand, then up into her arm.
SPC Morris couldn’t identify a combat-related incident in Iraq that caused her shoulder to dislocate. The Army doctors recommended repeatedly to her command that she be sent home for immediate shoulder reconstruction surgery. Her command refused. The Army doctors prescribed more Vicodin by the day.
Two weeks after SPC Morris returned from Iraq with nightmares and Ambien and Vicodin and a dislocated shoulder, her commanding officer took her into his office.
“Morris, you did a heckuva job over there, and that’s what we need—more soldiers who can do a good job like you.” He pushed a form toward her, with a space for her signature. “Sign here, and you’ll be out of the Army in four weeks and we can get a new, healthy soldier to take your place.”
She asked about her disability package after discharge, and he explained that she wouldn’t have any benefits of any kind: no healthcare, no VA loans, no GI bill—but the discharge would be honorable. Or she could wait a year and try and get out on a medical discharge. Or she could wait until someone told him that she was gay, and then she’d get chaptered out. Except he didn’t say that last part.
“Sir, I wasn’t born yesterday,” SPC Morris said. “I deserve my benefits, sir. I served my country.” She left the room without signing the paper.
In therapy several months later, her therapist said that as women are not allowed on the front lines of war according to the Combat Exclusion Laws for Women in the Military, they often have to work much harder to prove they saw combat than their male peers, that it is almost impossible for women soldiers to access the benefits they deserve for physical injuries and mental disorders.
Roadside bombs, mortar attacks, repeat deployments: everyone serves on the front lines of Iraq.
Y. Ibn Sina Hospital
When stationed at Ibn Sina Hospital in Baghdad, SPC Morris accumulated over five hundred surgery hours, assisting with operations on Iraqi children, Iraqi insurgents, Iraqi citizens, and American troops. She helped deliver five Iraqi babies by Cesarean section and cried every time. The mothers always cried, too.
On her days off, SPC Morris escaped to the nursery to watch the newborns sleep. She carried the baby girls around the hospital, walking lightly so the loud clunk of her combat boots wouldn’t wake the others. The infants cuddled into her chest, their soft cheeks pressing against the rough material of her uniform.
The boys’ parents were there, coo-cooing over their sons, swaddling them in blankets. Girls’ parents tried to leave without their daughters—mothers ripped IVs from their arms in an attempt to escape their new burdens.
I. Contract Marriage
The Army pays married soldiers at a higher pay grade than single soldiers. The Army allows married soldiers to live off base. Soldiers marry other soldiers in order to obtain the extra benefits. These marriages are called contract marriages, and they are illegal. Contract marriages are especially common among gay and lesbian soldiers.
Ashley calls me from the Cedar Springs Psych Ward after thirty-three days, twenty-three days longer than the average stay. She will be released the next day.
“Laur, I want to talk to you about something important, something I’m gonna do for us.” I can hear her smile through the phone. Her voice approaches the voice I know as my girlfriend’s. I’m the happiest I’ve been in days.
“So I’m going to get married next week. To this guy I met here. They’ll pay me $1,200 more a month, and I can pay down my debt so that when I get out we can buy a house for our family. Everything I’m doing, I’m doing for you.” Ashley pauses. I say nothing. “Baby? Is that okay?”
I list the reasons for not marrying some guy you met last week in a psych ward. “You don’t know him, he could hurt you, you’d have to move in with him. He must be unstable, he’s in a fucking psych ward.” My voice rises and begins to shake. “I don’t want to plan our marriage around your divorce. I don’t want to be your second marriage. If you got in a car crash, this guy could be the one to decide when to pull the plug. Jesus, Ashley, you don’t even know him!” My voice shrieks. I yell and cry and lose control.
“So I get that you don’t like the idea, but you don’t understand that a lot of people in the Army do this. Would you break up with me if I did it?”
I say yes, hell yes. And she promises me she won’t. We hang up the phone, and for the first time in thirty-three days I don’t say I love her, even though she asks me. The next day, Ashley’s sister calls me.
“Nana said Ashley met a real nice boy from Alabama who she really, really likes who she thinks is going to ask her to marry him,” her sister says. “Of course, Nana is thrilled. Do you fucking know about this?”
Ashley’s grandmother is a Southern Baptist, Alabama-born and -raised. She prays every day that her favorite granddaughter—the granddaughter of whom she has a life-sized cardboard cutout dressed in uniform, the granddaughter to whom she has a shrine with all her patches and coins and medals—will find Jesus. When Ashley talks to her Nana about me on the phone, I overhear the woman sniffing and asking when she will find a proper man.
I call Ashley that night and tell her we need to talk.
In Iraq, SPC Morris listened to the guttural Arabic seep out of Amani’s father’s mouth as he explained, through a translator, that he burnt the child as punishment for oversleeping and neglecting to fill the oil in the heater. He poured burning oil on her to wake her, and then didn’t take her to the hospital for ten days. He only sought help for Amani after he began to worry she wouldn’t walk again, wouldn’t be able to work for her food. Amani’s clothes grew into the burns as they tried to heal—threads stuck out of her dead legs like hair.
Before Amani’s legs were cut off, SPC Morris shaved the little girl’s head and shampooed her bare skin. Lice crawled all over the girl. SPC Morris told me she remembers Amani’s eyes: huge and dark brown, filled with fear and wide open.
SPC Morris prepped the girl for surgery because Amani wouldn’t let men near her. As they put Amani under, she clutched SPC Morris’s hand and wouldn’t let go, even after she’d been anesthetized. SPC Morris pried the girl’s skinny fingers off her gloved hand to hold onto the burnt leg as it was sawed off.
On leave, in the night, Ashley calls out Amani’s name. She sees girls on playgrounds that remind her of Amani: tall, lanky, dark-haired. Ashley wants to name our future child Amani.
When Ashley calls out Amani’s name, I stay quiet.
O. Breaking Up
Ashley doesn’t understand why we are breaking up. I had to break up with her every day for a week before it stuck—the drugs destroy her short-term memory, and she couldn’t remember. Even now, she calls every night at 3 AM.
Ashley can’t remember that she drove high, attacked me in the night, walked out while I cried, hung up the phone on me, refused to talk for days. She’s too overwhelmed with her PTSD, her anger, her not remembering. This isn’t her fault—but it’s not mine, either.
I wish I could make up an ending, finalize the break up—but I can’t. Because Ashley still calls me. And sometimes, I answer.