Everyone was named Katie here. The girl in leggings grinding on Overberg’s lap, the one Trumble was standing behind with a poolstick, the ones holding weak drinks and dancing with each other. The girls were around eighteen—the same as me—and they wore brightly colored American clothes. Jeans with rips, shirts with cleavage, short dresses that ended in shadow between their legs. And they smiled, with big straight teeth. They brushed their black hair from their faces and tipped back their heads and laughed. Everyone except the old woman behind the counter, who stood hunched and never smiled and snapped a towel between her fists. Jason Aldean was playing over loudspeakers, and even the guys from Maine started talking with a drawl. Everyone was a cowboy in South Korea.
I leaned my forehead against a smudged window and looked out at the little shops clustered along the broken brick street. The owners covered the corrugated steel siding with colorful, handpainted signs with Korean lettering. In the middle of the road, vendors formed a median beneath parasols. I watched them pack up their stainless silver and zirconium-studded belt buckles that said things like Bullrider and Winner. There were stands displaying imitation Ray-Bans and sword canes and folding knives. I’d found a leather shop in one alley where they sold wallets and handmade boots. I bought an English-style flatcap and put it on, and Clutch called me a fag. It was okay, coming from him.
The town was Shanty, where American soldiers earned their stripes or popped their cherries, received poor tattoos, happy ending massages, and treatable STDs. Nearby was an Air Force base, built to stay. I was here with Marine combat engineers. We were assigned to build small shelters and train South Koreans how to better kill North Koreans, if it ever came to that. It was the fall of 2011. We’d been here a month, and we were leaving the country the next day.
During the deployment, we spent most of our time on an outpost called Story Warrior Base, two miles from the Demilitarized Zone at the border with North Korea. Our first morning in country, we went on a motivational jog around the base. First Sergeant Bonkin led from the front, singing cadences. We ran down dusty roads, then outside Story, past its razor fences where the dirt path became mud and then grass. We passed a sign that said, CAUTION: MINES. We continued to run. The base grew small behind us. People yelled, “Hole” like on any run, and passed the information down the line. We’d skirt the edge of whatever small pit was in the way. Soon we heard honking. We made room as a jeep drove to the front of the formation. Bonkin stopped the run awkwardly, and two hundred of us accordioned into each other. A Korean Marine climbed out of the jeep and pointed at the ground here and there and spoke in broken English: “Mines.”
Nobody exploded. We turned around and ran back to Story. We were made to do pushups and jumping jacks in unison, a show of strength for the Koreans who farmed beyond the fence. I squatted and thrust and jumped in time, and thought about the sign we’d run past. Everyone was just going to follow and follow, until something big happened.
At Story, a refrigerated supply truck came up the dirt road one day, driven by a local. We unloaded its goods by hand into a metal shed, then walked around front to purchase the things we’d unloaded. Guys bought logs of dip and Mountain Dew and Lunchables until the shop was empty. The truck drove away and didn’t come back for a few weeks.
Sergeant Troy filled his backpack with tall cans of energy drinks. He would drink one can every three hours most days, until nighttime. Troy was fastmoving and funny, and had done some shit in Iraq once. Nowadays, he would do this thing called The Scorpion where he slapped his hands together and bowed in namaste, then arced his boot behind his back and over his shoulder, like he’d kick your face. When he ran out of energy drinks, the shopping shed was long closed. He spent the day deteriorating. It was funny for an hour or two, to see him pissed. Then he got quiet and went to bed early. When we woke him up that night for a live fire operation, he was shivering inside his sleeping bag, his teeth and fists clenched, withdrawing. He didn’t leave bed for two days.
When we went out, it was for a few days at a time, to teach jungle tactics to people who had lived in jungles most of their lives. The Korean Marines were polite when Corporal Belcher gave lessons on snares and tripwires. Then they made their own versions. One was called The Snagglefoot. You sink a dozen pieces of rebar into the ground, leaving six inches exposed. Then you zigzag parachute cord from piece to piece like a web. When your enemies trip, they fall and part of them gets punctured by a blunt end of rebar. Then you hear them screaming, and you come shoot them.
A few times, we poured concrete and built primitive shelters for people. We tried to dig out a culvert so a farmer’s rice paddy would drain beneath a dirt road and into a swamp. The backhoe broke, and we could have gone back to Story, but Lance Corporal Roger said, “Fuck a backhoe!” and began to pick at the baked dirt with a collapsible shovel. Sergeant Garrison smiled under his thin mustache and said something about the formidable spirit of junior Marines. We dug a ditch straight across the dirt road for three days. When the backhoe fired up again, we used it to heft a cement tube to drop into the ditch. The tube cracked when it fell, and the swamp began to trickle into the farmer’s field.
We scraped dirt over the culvert, took pictures and shook some hands. We packed things quickly. We told the farmer we’d run out of operation time, and best of luck with his crops.
We slept beside a graveyard that night. Sergeant Garrison stole a handful of hot peppers from the farmer’s plants out back, and offered them to the lower ranks in exchange for no firewatch duty. I volunteered to eat a pepper, and a few of us sat in a circle and made faces while our stomachs burned and Garrison laughed. He gave us the night off.
I could tell it would storm that night, because the air felt humid and static, and dark gray clouds cluttered the light gray sky. People who come to Korea say it’s full of ghosts at night. That night, I rolled out my sleeping bag to face the tombs. I pulled a camouflage tarp over the length of my body, and tucked it in at the edges. The rain began to come down, heavy and uneven. I pictured dark figures surrounding my tarp, taking turns beating at it. I could smell oil and cordite from my rifle next to me. Rain brought out the smells in the metal. The air in the tarp became hot and sticky as it filled with my exhales. I tried to sleep, but soon the rain became a solid sound. Somebody nearby let out a long wail from under their tarp. Everything felt dark and alone, and I thought about things that were dark and lonely. I remembered Sergeant Devlin describing what it might be like to get your head sawn off by a terrorist with a rusty knife, the slow pops and bursts. How the guys in my squad say they can’t wait to find a Korean hooker and do her in the ass. All the jokes that ended with the words, “Sucky, sucky, five dollar?”
After a while, someone kicked me softly in the head and put a red flashlight in my face. “Wake up for firewatch, fucker.” It was Corporal Belcher, and I didn’t argue.
We got back to Story, and I wrote to my mother.
How are you? I’m pretty good. The food is miserable. Plane ride was cool, had meals and movies. Been reading my Bible every chance I get. Someone walked by me the other day while I read and said, “Good job.” Last night I read Hebrews in a gun turret with night vision goggles. We are 2 miles from the North Korean border. I’m gonna nap for a bit.
Next day, big PT run again. They’re trying to show us off to the Koreans, even though I’ve only seen like 3 of them my whole time here. Lunchtime now, wearing dirty, sweaty clothes. Food sucks unless I buy it. Hate my corporals. They’re condescending and sarcastic, like they’re used to dealing with bratty highschoolers. Wish they knew that’s not what I am. Rumored day off after the month but I’m 98% in doubt.
I’m back. It’s Sunday—day of rest? Of course we still went on a 4 mile run. It’s rumored that we’ve got less than 3 weeks left. That’s good news. Apparently we’re getting gypped out of a cool ribbon with a dragon on it. Oh well.
We’d fired thousands of bullets into paper men painted with slanted eyes. We’d stomped on brightly colored snakes that could have killed us. I’d refilled Sergeant Garrison’s water bottle with powdered Kool-Aid thirty or so times, and now we were leaving.
We had two days free before the plane would arrive to bring us to Japan, then Hawaii, then California, then North Carolina. On our first day of leave, we took a bus to the DMZ. There was a concrete palace at the border on the North Korean side. Soldiers stood with ball bearings in their pant cuffs, bloused heavy above their boots. They wore aviators and stared each other down, on both sides. We took pictures and behaved respectfully. In the distance, behind a pillar, a fat man in a green Army suit peeked out with binoculars every few minutes. It all felt staged, like a place designed to amuse tourists.
Our last night in country, we were given a condemned barracks to sleep in at Osan Air Base. Each suite had a living room, a bedroom with a double mattress, a closet built into the wall, and a full-sized shower. We dropped our gear in corners and explored the new space. We inspected things like we’d never seen them before. We pushed cushions with our fingertips, cracked open fridges and listened to the hum. There were signs of life everywhere, like the occupants had left suddenly, or just vanished. The kitchenettes had some old pans in the cupboards. We found half-empty jars of almond butter, and dishes in the sink. In the showers, we found Vagisil and clumps of long hair stuck to the walls. One room had a flatscreen television that Clutch tried to fit inside his rolling suitcase.
We were assigned rooms like it was a hotel. First Sergeant Bonkin stationed a private downstairs with a green logbook, and we checked in and out with him like a concierge. At night, we put on proper civilian attire and took to the streets.
I began the evening with Jackson and Clutch. We ate a Japanese meal cooked in sake at a restaurant with ricepaper walls. Jackson got excited and had three drinks before the food came. Outside, he heel-clicked his cowboy boots. He waved at a girl in a window, and mimed a blowjob with his tongue in his cheek. Then he found a vendor of butterfly knives. His eyes grew wide at the glint of the polished steel.
“Genuine Korean made,” he whispered.
“That’s not special,” I said. “They’re always made in Korea. Even the ones in America.”
“Shut the hell up, Graham. Check this shit out.” He flashed the butterfly knife and spun it, and sank the blade into a vein behind his knuckles. Brick-red blood ran down his hand. Immediately, he took off his pink Polo shirt and wrapped the wound. He wore a baby-sized tank-top, and his tattooed muscles popped from every opening—the Lord’s Prayer on his chest, a grim reaper on his ribs. At the first bar we went to, he poured a double sake on his hand and started drinking again. After a while, a corporal made him go back to put on a real shirt. He went outside and slapboxed an inflatable Santa Claus on the sidewalk first.
I walked the curbs and climbed down stairwells into bars. I didn’t drink, but I paid for empty glasses as souvenirs. The owners looked at me with suspicion when I offered them five won notes for empty cups. In one bar, Private McDougan had opened a tab and was buying imported Irish whisky for everyone he ran into. He spent his entire paycheck. Another club had a karaoke stage, and Overberg sang a Poison ballad. Tudor and Tinner were sitting in the corner with two girls in tight dresses. Tinner was making crawling motions with his arms, telling the story of how he helped kill bin Laden. The girls smiled and nodded and then said, “We will kiss each other if you kiss him first.”
I walked into another bar and found Bradford arm-wrestling with a Korean Marine. They both strained and stayed in the same place for a while, and then Bradford’s arm broke in half. It collapsed like bad scaffolding, with the sound of snapped celery. Bets were lost and collected upon quickly. A sling was made from a sweater. Victor volunteered to walk him back to base—he’d bought a half-sized katana from a street vendor, and was intent on smuggling it home. He stuffed it down the leg of his blue jeans and walked stiffly towards the main gate, one hand on Bradford’s back.
Outside the window of the cowboy bar, the sun had set, and the last of the street vendors was feeding horsemeat kebabs to stray dogs. Someone tapped my shoulder. I turned around, and two girls were standing there. The one in front held out her hand and said, “Katie.” She wore a strapless red dress, open-stitched up the sides, to show there was nothing beneath. I shook her hand, and she held onto it. “Baby, you in the Army?” she said. “You sit with us.”
“Marine,” I said. “We’re all Marines.” I motioned to the room, packed tight with my platoon. The place was small, with a dart wall and a pool table and a dance floor the size of a closet. The room was filling with smoke from a fog machine in the corner.
“Oh, marine,” she said, “Just like fish?” She held my hand and tugged. I followed them to a small round table. The other girl stayed quiet, and touched my back as we walked. She sat across from me. Her friend stood and squeezed my arm.
“This is Amanda,” she said. “We are sisters.”
“And isn’t that girl Katie too?” I pointed into the crowd at someone else.
“We have same name. You want a drink? You buy us drinks.”
“No, I’m not drinking,” I said. “Just spending time with my friends.” I waved at Overberg in the corner. He was drinking a Jack and Coke with a wilted lime wedge. He saw me waving at him, and reached into his pocket and pulled out his middle finger.
“Babysitter?” Katie let go of my arm and said something to Amanda, then left. I drank from my bottle. I’d ordered Coke in a glass. Before deployment, they teach you about microorganisms and unsealed containers.
“Do you work here?” I said.
“Yes. I’m a waitress.” She was staring over my shoulder at the old lady behind the bar. She was missing teeth, and had eyes like black seeds. She held a dish-rag between her hands, slackening and then snapping it tight. She was glaring at us.
“Are things okay?” I asked.
“Um, not okay,” she said. “I can’t talk to you if you don’t buy me drink. I get in trouble.” She smiled blankly.
I went to the bar and ordered sake with cranberry. The lady filled a bulbous glass with ice, juice, and a splash from an old sake bottle. She tossed an umbrella on top and charged me ten won. I handed over the bill.
I set the drink in front of Amanda and she took a sip.
“So where are you from? From here?” I said.
“No, I lived in Philippines before.”
She didn’t talk much, so I asked her questions. She was nineteen, and her real name was Aijie. She grew up in Manila until she was sixteen. She wanted to go to college, but needed to earn money for her family. One day, recruiters came to her neighborhood. They flashed one-way tickets to Seoul and talked about the casinos there. Salary, tips, wire transfers. They asked if she was ready for a future. She and some friends packed their bags together and made the flight. Since her arrival in South Korea, she’d been sleeping in attics above bars. She hid her money in a sock. She’d been saving for years to buy a ticket home. Aijie’s eyes were wide and sad as she spoke. She told me sometimes she’d raid the sock to buy a new dress, or a few drinks, or a medical procedure. Because she did live here now, and she might as well not go hungry and cry all the time.
I’d taken a required online class about human trafficking on MarineNet. I thought about writing down Aijie’s information, bringing her back with me to the base. We were the same age. I glanced around the bar. My friends were dancing on girls and letting them sit in their laps. They didn’t understand what they were doing, spending their checks on drinks, keeping alive the system that kept the girls here. Aijie leaned forward and laced her fingers between mine, for show. We were still being watched.
“I don’t like to work here. If we don’t make enough money every night, we get punished. If night is slow, we take boys upstairs to make enough payment for the day. Some girls, they don’t mind. But I hate to.”
The old woman at the bar squawked, and Aijie released my hand. She stood and smiled at me. Her eyes were wet. She made herself laugh. She turned and walked into the crowd, to find someone else. I looked for her later when I was leaving the bar, but she was gone. Upstairs, maybe.
I walked back to the base with Overberg, and he took his shirt off and threw it in the road because it was humid outside.
Back on base, the platoon was being rallied. Something had gone down in the condemned barracks. Clutch had punched Juice in the eye and nose until he bled from both places. He left a handprint of blood on the wall. His nose was warped, and he stuffed a tampon in each nostril to keep it straight. He laughed and lay on his back while a taxi drove him to a nearby hospital. Before the punches, Juice had thrown a lamp at Clutch’s head two or three times, for sport, and had cracked the drywall everywhere.
First Sergeant Bonkin assembled us in the waiting room downstairs. His face was sweating, and he had some drool that shined on his chin. He was wearing an extra-large t-shirt with a Nike check, with sleeves that came to his forearms. He leaned against a wall. “This is not how we conduct ourselves as Marines in a Goddamned foreign occupation,” he said. He told us that Juice was being treated by local nationals at a Korean hospital. “I don’t know how we’re going to pay for the treatment,” he said. He blinked hard and tears squeezed out the corners of his eyes. “He’s not on the base. That means—that means our Goddamned government’s gonna know about this. The U.S. government will have to pay this country for medical treatment. And what if they hold him at the hospital? How will we even get him back?” It was as though he had nothing prepared, and was uncovering new layers of the situation before our eyes.
His company stood before him, leaning against walls, mostly as drunk as him. He cried in front of us for a while and spoke until his shoulders bucked. “I’m coming up for Goddamned Sergeant Major, and this shit—” He dismissed us and confined us to the condemned barracks.
The next morning, I sat at a park bench with Clutch and Overberg. We watched Garrison smoke a cigarette, slow and mechanical. He’d rented a cab to Seoul last night, against orders, and he came back with stories of weird nightlife. He was always the first one to make us ashamed if we broke a regulation. I wondered when rules stopped applying to us. He wasn’t afraid we’d tell someone, since he’d taken Drake and Tomms with him, lance corporals, to show he could be cool.
His eyes were yellow from drinking, and his voice didn’t have that gruff tone he put on to stress us out. It was soft. He leaned on his knee and squinted into the distance and talked about the afterlife. “You can feel it in this place,” he said. “Spirits blowing here and there. When I go, it’ll be off a clifftop. It’s in my will, to spread my ashes over the sea. I’ll never be trapped somewhere. My spirit will roam free.” His guard was down. He’d probably not slept, and was maybe still drunk. Times like this, you think about how old sergeants really are. Garrison was only twenty-eight, but looked ancient. He was an old man by Marine Corps standards. If you did things right, you’d be a decade in by then, and a decade away from retirement. Still a sergeant after ten years, and you’re either infantry, or you’re not doing well on your career path. Garrison was not infantry.
Jackson walked up just then, slapping a dip can against his leg. “What the fuck did I do to my hand?” He spat in the grass. “So, I woke up with leopard-print underwear on.”
The next day, I stood in line on the tarmac, waiting to board the Boeing that would take me back to America. I wore my backpack on my chest. “Step onto the tarmac, move your pack to your chest,” someone said. I leaned out of my place in line and looked up and down the snaking rows of digital green uniforms, packs on their fronts. I simply wondered why we did it.
I boarded the plane and found the seat assigned to me. I stuffed my rifle, muzzle out, beneath my chair. I found a bottle of Nyquil in my pack and drank most of it. Before takeoff, I heard Tomms talking on his cell phone three seats over. He’d met a girl. He was promising to fly her out. He was sniffing, and his voice cracked a little. His volume was on loud, and I could hear her through the speaker. Each time the stewardess walked by, he hid the phone beneath his lap pillow, then took it back out. He kept saying, “Listen, baby, I promise. Okay? It’s me you’re talking to, remember.”
I tipped my head back. The plane accelerated, lifted its nose, and flew. As it banked, I saw rows of missile stations lining the tarmac. Each one pointed to the north.
It was nighttime at the graveyard, one of our last days in country. I’d just finished my shift of firewatch, and I found Sergeant Garrison smoking by the shitters. He came close to me and pointed somewhere far away. We were high on a hilltop, and the skyline spread out before us, thick with stars. Beyond his fingertip, I could see the lights of a distant city to the north.
“See that tower?” he said. It was built like a skyscraper. “Look at the windows, notice anything?” They were yellow and lit from inside, like any building. “You have to peer, Private Graham. Always peer.” I looked more closely. I noticed that the lights became dimmer towards the top and bottom floors.
“It’s hollow,” said Garrison. He pointed up and down. “It’s lit from the middle, that’s why. One big bulb hanging in the center. No floors, no people.” The light spread thin and poked through hundreds of square holes. I imagined the people living there, walking past the tower every day. They knew it was hollow, but they had to keep their heads down and pretend that it was something real, something significant. Garrison walked off. He found a tree to lean against, and lit a new cigarette.
I walked back through the wet grass and searched for my tarp. The rain had let up, and moonlight glinted in the weeds. I stumbled through rows of sleeping bags, arranged by rank and file. They were spread neatly in heaps, like aboveground graves. A red flashlight bobbed dimly among them, someone keeping careful watch. I found my tarp and crawled beneath it. I lay awake and shivered. I waited for the red light to come my way, to wake us all up, to signal the morning.