I still recall it vividly.

I’d already retired from the military and was ventured to start my new life as a free spirit. I’d envisioned myself growing a ZZ-Top beard and exploring the country with my three-legged dog, protesting how surfers hampered the mating cycles of sea turtles and planting a tree in as many open spots of ground I could find so that the world would renew, all green and happy.

It was a fanciful notion but not one that matched any of the realities in my life. I have a fine wife, dislike dogs, and still can’t stand it when my hair gets long. None of that mattered, though. When you retire after over two decades of being ordered around by semi-competent officers whose thinking is as logical as the old Mousetrap game, you become enticed by all visions of freedom, no matter how ill-conceived they might be.

The Old Mousetrap Game

That life of complete liberty and poverty was taken from me with a phone call in late 2007.

The guy on the other end opened the conversation by telling me that he already knew who I was and also knew all about my background. I was concerned that he was about to accuse me of sleeping with his sister and never calling her back or or cutting a tag off a mattress in violation of Federal law so I tried to play it cool. I knew that if things turned badly, I could always hang up and answer any subsequent calls with a fake-Jamaican accent saying that “Russell, he be gone to sell squid from his boat, mahn.”

While I listened, the guy continued in a manner that told me he probably wasn’t likely to fall for the fake-Jamaican voice trick, even if I did have waves crashing in the background for cover, but after a few moments I realized it really didn’t matter.  He wasn’t accusing me of anything.

Instead, he asked me a simple question.

“How would you like to go to Baghdad?”

Now, why the Hell would any rational person want to go to Baghdad during the height of the Shi’a insurgency? It was an insane idea that only a nutjob would even consider.

Consequently, within five days, all the arrangements were in place.

My wife sat beside me while I packed and we both pretended we were braver than we felt. We’d already covered all the important stuff like wills and life insurance and what color breathing tube I’d like if 2/3rds of my insides got blown out. This was hardly my first deployment but I was still a bit apprehensive as I knew a good deal about the spot I was walking into.

I was headed for a place that was regularly pounded by 122mm unguided rockets, barrages of mortars, attacks by truck bombs, and AK-47 gunfire. Al-Qaeda was still active with suicide bombers, although they posed the lesser threat. The news at the time kept talking about the peace and progress in Iraq but I knew the real situation on the ground at the location where I was to spend the next 13 months. It was a region where lots of locals wanted to kill Americans and every week things were getting considerably worse.

My wife sensed my underlying thoughts. She has that freaky mind-reading thing that always seems to work when I don’t want it drilling into my brain but can never seem to understand how cool tower speakers with over-sized sub-woofers are. Yet, when it comes to dangerous, third-world countries, she’s pretty much in tune and as any good woman who loved her man would, she wanted me to be prepared. She’d considered the entire situation and already predicted what would ultimately prove a big disadvantage for me in an active war zone.

“You need new underwear”

It might help to know that I wasn’t wearing any pants at the time. I wish I could claim this was due to some amorous activity but they were in the washer as I was trying to clean everything I wanted to take with me. Of course, I was hoping that the packing might get interrupted by some wild, romantic whirling of passion but with her question, that ambition evaporated like candle smoke in a high wind.

She didn’t make the statement like it was a suggestion. It was akin to the eleventh commandment. She’d taken a good look at me and assessed my readiness. I was in my mid-40s, in what I’d hoped was still pretty respectable shape for my age, still smart, alert, and very well-qualified for the task they’d hired me to go do. Yet, with one statement, my woman had cut through all that and honed in on the singular issue that would cause me the most difficulty in battle-torn Iraq.

I needed new underwear.

“What’s wrong with these?” I asked.

It was one of those questions that men feel like they have to ask, even through they know that the entire exchange is about to veer into an intellectual swamp where they’re certain to be eaten by gators. Still, we have to ask these questions, — and I did.

She looked at me in a manner that not only told me that I was missing some vitally important information about how the world really worked but also probably couldn’t operate an Etch-A Sketch without adult supervision.

The Classic Etch-A-Sketch

Her voice became a bit more stern. “You need new underwear. Those you have on are old”.

She really didn’t need the words. Her tone said it all but given that I am, at heart, a swamp creature that must return to that verbal bog, I tried to defend myself.

“Baby, I’m heading to Iraq. Its a war. People are lobbing bombs and trying like all Hell to cut each other’s throats. Nobody will care what my underwear looks like.”

“I don’t want anyone to see you in those. Besides, I don’t like the design.”

“I may not shower for a week and a half at a time. Who the Hell cares what the design looks like?”

She stopped arguing, not because I’d made any sense to her but because she knew that at any moment, I was likely to stop packing and stand on a chair in my living room, holding a protest sign that demanded the preservation of my underwear rights.

She simply said OK and stepped out of the room.

Two minutes later, I heard the car start up.

An hour later, she’d returned with nine new pair of underwear. They were the narrow briefs, like the guy models wear in the magazine advertisements for cologne or hair gel. They weren’t the style I was used to wearing but in retrospect, I should be thankful that they also weren’t the super-tight, semi-gay design that all the Italians who deploy always seem to wear.

I tried a pair on.

They were comfortable. They actually felt better than the old pairs that my most sensitive parts had long grown accustomed to feeling.

Of course, I wasn’t about to admit any of that to her. After all, I was a man going to war and I had the right to wear worn and manly underwear if I wanted to.

She made me pack them anyway. I complained with the best arguments I could still muster but that only caused her to give me another look that proved I wasn’t ever going to be trusted with an Etch-A Sketch again.

Somehow, all of my old underwear disappeared from my bags before I managed to leave the country. I attributed that to the same mystery that seems to befall all my favorite old shirts that my wife thinks are out of fashion. Over the years, I’ve just come to accept it, like the existence of black holes and tooth decay.

When I got to the unit in Baghdad, wearing a weathered jacket, shoes that had seen far better days, and my new, show-model underwear, I was certain that given the very close living conditions, within 24 hours, I would garner a lot of “good-natured ribbing”, which is a polite way of saying that my life was probably going to be a living Hell for at least three weeks.

It turns out that nobody did care. I didn’t get as much as a casual glance.

So I settled in on the first night on my deployment to Iraq, feeling a bit more at ease due to the admittedly nicer fabric enshrouding my manhood.

That’s when the first truck bomb went off.

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