Authors: Eric Fair
I stop drinking on Saturdays and I start sleeping alone again. I return to the Presbyterians in Carmel by myself, and I volunteer to help with the youth group. I visit the chaplain at DLI and volunteer to help him as well. I focus on Arabic. I excel in class. I try to be a good Presbyterian again. I try to stay away from people who aren't helping me. I try to focus on my calling.
Near the end of the course, there is a class picnic on the beach. Mumtaz pulls me aside and takes me for a walk. We speak in Arabic. We speak about Bethlehem Steel and Liberty High School. We talk about my father and his job as a teacher. We talk about Gordon College and Boston University. We talk about Sergeant First Class Francis and the beautiful soldier. We are sleeping together again. I tell him she has mentioned marriage. Mumtaz knows the soldier. He says, “Impressive.” Mumtaz listens as I talk about all of these things. He asks questions. He insists on more detail. He tells me to speak more quickly. I speak in Arabic for over an hour.
Mumtaz holds this conversation with every student in the class. He pushes our limits. He forces us to show him what we've learned. We call it the interrogation. When we return from the picnic, he fails two more students.
The DLPT is a three-day ordeal. The speaking portion of the test comes first. I sit before three native speakers of Arabic. Their questions are familiar. They ask me all the same questions Mumtaz asked me on the beach. I speak quickly and with confidence. The proctors nod in approval. The listening portion of the exam is familiar as well. Mumtaz has been speaking about the topics during our meals at the Lebanese restaurant in Monterey. By the time I take the reading portion of the exam I know exactly what to expect. Mumtaz has already exposed us to the pertinent texts during classroom sessions. The test scores from our section exceed the required proficiency.
I do not report Mumtaz. To me, his behavior appears unethical. It's possible he could be dismissed from his position. And it's possible our test scores could be invalidated, forcing us to either take the test again, or roll back into another class and repeat part of the coursework.
I've come to respect Mumtaz. And I like my fellow classmates. I don't want to make life difficult for any of them. But it still feels dishonest. I'd like to think I'd have passed the DLPT even without Mumtaz's help, but I'll never know. It's the kind of thing Don warned me about. He warned me not to abandon voices of accountability; he warned me not to do things that can't be undone.
The class spends another week in Monterey packing rooms and preparing for follow-on assignments. I receive orders to report to the 101st Airborne Division in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Before leaving, I spend time with the beautiful soldier. She asks about marriage again. I want to say yes, but I'm still blaming her for my behavior at DLI. I can't see it yet, but my pursuit of a calling has caused me to value my own path more than the lives of those around me.
I think of Monterey often. When I do, I think of the beautiful soldier. I knew even then that it was juvenile to think we'd done anything wrong. It was callous to think my journey meant more than hers. It was cruel to assign blame in place of my own guilt. I was sorry for the way I treated her at the end. In the coming years, I will do much worse to others.
In September 1997, I report to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell. This is the place the officers at DLI warned me about. After spending a week at a reception battalion completing paperwork and familiarizing myself with the division's policies, I'm assigned to D Company in the 311th Military Intelligence Battalion. There are a variety of units within the 311th, among them Low Level Voice Intercept (LLVI), a three-man team trained for infiltration and reconnaissance.
I spend my days and nights training as a member of an LLVI team in the open expanse of Fort Campbell. We train in small-unit tactics, marksmanship, land navigation, helicopter insertions, and ambushes. We conduct physical training five days a week. We run, we climb ropes, we carry logs, and we go on twelve-mile hikes with fifty pounds of gear. We say, “Hang in there.” We say this a lot. In six months, I don't speak a word of Arabic.
In December 1997, I go to war for the first time, against the People's Democratic Republic of Atlantica (PDRA). This country is located in the swamps of Fort Polk, Louisiana, where the Army has established a multimillion-dollar Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC). Weapons are outfitted with lasers and sensors in order to allow soldiers to practice shooting each other.
At JRTC, I die. I'm killed by simulated grenades, rifle fire, and aerial gunnery. The training center issues us casualty cards inside sealed envelopes. When our sensors indicate we've been hit we open the envelopes and announce our injuries to our comrades. Training officers stand nearby and judge the lifesaving efforts of other soldiers. One of my casualty cards reads, “Sucking chest wound.” My team leader places a plastic bandage over my lungs leaving one side unsealed. He rolls me over so that I can breathe. The training officer says, “Good. Now he's in cardiac arrest. Do CPR.” My team leader presses on my chest and pretends to breathe air into my mouth. The training officer says, “No, no, do it for real.” My team leader presses his lips against mine and blows. The air is stale and disgusting. The training officer says, “Holy shit, you faggot, I was just kidding. Holy shit! It's gay LLVI.” I recover from the sucking chest wound and get sent back to war.
We spend the week invading and reinvading the country of Atlantica. We also fight an insurgent group called the Cortina Liberation Front (CLF). The CLF is made up of fast-moving small-unit forces that harass troops throughout the night. They earn a reputation as cheaters. They don't wear the right uniforms, and they turn their sensors off so we can't shoot them. No one likes the CLF.
We deploy to Louisiana for weeks at a time. We return to Kentucky to train for Louisiana, then go back to Louisiana to be killed by the CLF and the PDRA. I excel as an LLVI soldier. I acquire a particular talent for land navigation. I become adept at identifying terrain features and maintaining an accurate pace count in order to calculate the distance we travel. I am proficient with a compass and a protractor. I instruct other soldiers in the difficult task of navigating at night. I am in the best shape of my life. From December 1997 through December 1999, I don't speak a word of Arabic.
During this time the LLVI team is attached to a group of Army Rangers from the division's Long Range Surveillance Detachment (LRSD). We spend the week in the field trying to stay warm and dry as we perform a series of exercises designed to teach us how to react to an ambush. On the last day of the exercise, we practice assaulting a fortified position. The Rangers shoot us with paintball rounds, leaving us black-and-blue. We pretend to be dead, but the sergeant in charge of the exercise orders us to keep going. His voice is familiar. As we move forward, a soldier from inside the bunker tosses a smoke grenade. It pops and hisses. I charge the grenade and pick it up. Smoke pulsates from the grenade and burns my hand. I yell, “Die, motherfuckers.”
The sergeant stops the exercise and gathers us together to assess our performance. I know the voice now. It is Sergeant Francis from basic training. He's a platoon sergeant with the 101st. He recognizes me. He says, “Fair? You fucking failure, I thought you were going to be a linguist. What the fucking shit are you doing out here?”
In December 1999, after two years of endless LLVI training exercises, I receive new orders. I am attached to the Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, in support of their deployment as peacekeepers to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. We serve under the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), which enforces the agreement signed between the Egyptians and Israelis at Camp David in 1979. I deploy to the Middle East as an Arabic linguist.
In Egypt, a lieutenant colonel from the 10th Mountain Division is hosting a group of Egyptian officers. I am called in to translate. He begins by telling the history of the unit and its legendary service at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. The unit was nearly massacred. He talks about a statue at Fort Drum erected to commemorate the event. I do not know the Arabic word for statue. He says something about how much snow falls at Fort Drum in New York. I do not know the Arabic word for snow. Then he tells a joke. The joke is about giving his wife a blow job. He says while he's hiking through the desert, she's stuck at home using the snow blower to clear out the driveway. He says he's going to owe her a snow blow job when he gets home. I still don't know how to explain snow in Arabic.
I spend six months in Egypt, most of them in Taba, a small city on the Egyptian-Israeli border on the Gulf of Aqaba. My mornings are spent translating for foreign liaisons and Egyptian officers at the Taba Hilton. In the afternoons, I walk to Israel, where the officers are fluent in a variety of languages. I ask them to come back into Egypt, to the Taba Hilton, and tell me what the Egyptian officers are saying.
I travel the Sinai Peninsula with an Egyptian army officer and mediate disputes between American troops and Egyptian civilians. When a U.S. Army fuel truck runs over a camel, I am invited into a Bedouin camp to offer payment. When U.S. soldiers are accused of stealing necklaces from a shop in Sharm el-Sheikh, I speak with the Egyptian shop owners and offer to cover the costs. When a chlorine tank on an American outpost ruptures, I visit sick Egyptians in the hospital and hand out MFO coffee mugs and sweatshirts. When a U.S. soldier is killed in a traffic accident, I cross into Israel and help process his body through customs and over the border. Egyptian officers mourn with me in their office. They hold my hand and kiss me on the cheek. My Arabic improves.
Near the end of my deployment to Egypt, I take a few days of leave and meet my father in Cairo. We visit the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, and Tahrir Square. We buy train tickets to Luxor, but I become ill and can't make the trip. I spend two full days in the hotel room in Cairo vomiting and fighting a terrible fever. I make an effort to venture outside and see the sights, but the heat is too much for me. My father heads back to the States and I return to the Sinai Peninsula. I spend the next week recovering. An Army doctor prescribes an antibiotic. It is slow to work. There is some talk of sending me home early, but eventually I recover. The doctor tells me to get a full physical when I return to Fort Campbell. He says overseas illnesses such as mine have the potential to do serious long-term harm. He says they can even damage the heart. But that's rare.
When the deployment ends, I return to Fort Campbell. I return to LLVI. I go back to JRTC and get killed by the CLF again.
By July 1999, the Korean Warâera barracks at Fort Campbell are beginning to deteriorate. They are old and cramped. The bathrooms don't always work. They are populated by young drunk males. I manage to survive. A few buildings away, a young soldier named Barry Winchell does not. I read about him in the newspaper.
Barry Winchell was dating a transgender woman. Other soldiers thought of him as being gay. He got into a fight. He won. Other soldiers taunted the loser for being beaten up by a gay man. A few hours later, the loser retrieved a baseball bat and beat Barry Winchell in the head. Barry Winchell died the next day.
I begin to attend a Presbyterian church in Clarksville, Tennessee, one that practices infant baptism and where the congregation never claps. At an adult Sunday school class we all wear name tags. A week after the Barry Winchell murder, the class leader talks about homosexuality. He mentions Barry Winchell. He says, “Love the sinner, not the sin.” After the class, we drink coffee in the narthex. There have been crowds gathering outside the gates of Fort Campbell to protest the Army's treatment of gay soldiers. The class leader tells me that he doesn't know where these people come from. They must be part of a larger organization that promotes homosexuality “and those types of things.” He says they're wasting their time. “It's not like they're going to convert any of you.” Other members of the class have gathered around us and echo the leader's words.
I mention that I didn't live far from Barry Winchell. I tell them about the kind of suffering a soldier like Barry Winchell must have endured and how it must have been hard for him to feel protected. But the leader says, “That's exactly why we can't have them mixed in with you guys in the first place.” Everyone seems to agree with this.
Like Barry Winchell, one of the soldiers on my LLVI team is gay. I've curled up with him in hide sites and foxholes in order to keep warm. After a week of long-range foot patrols, we were tired, filthy, and disgusting. Thoughts or fears of intimacy were the farthest thing from my mind. I don't understand why that soldier felt he needed to kill Barry Winchell. But I do know the Presbyterian leader in Clarksville reminds me of the attitude that brought me so much pain as a boy, and it reminds me of the students at Gordon College who told me my family wasn't saved, and the students who compared homosexuals to murderers. It is judgmental and exclusive. It is dangerous. I stop attending the Presbyterian church in Clarksville.
In January 2000, in the Gulf of Aden, a group of men associated with Al-Qaeda load a little boat with explosives. They load too many. Their little boat sinks. Their target, the Navy's U.S.S.
, is unharmed. Our first sergeant says if the men in the little boat had succeeded, we'd be going to war.
As an Arabic linguist, I'm familiar with Al-Qaeda. I know who Osama bin Laden is. I know about Ayman al-Zawahiri. But most of us think the organization is incompetent and amateurish. We know it is capable of car bombings and kidnappings, and we know it was probably involved in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, but organizing a successful attack on a U.S. warship seems out of its league. Al-Qaeda seems like the kind of organization that would load too many explosives and sink its own boat.