From the Anthology 

Veterans’ Voices

The Things We Pack

Debra J. Gipson

The air is thick and hot with sand and the quiet fears of soldiers a long way from home. As my unit gathers near a wall awaiting orders, I drop my ruck, crouch down and collect hot sand. I watch as it falls to the ground with each attempt to tighten my grip on it. It is only when I let go that it stays. It is both metaphor and omen. 


“What ya’ doin’?” a Soldier asks.


“Praying,” I say. 


They laugh. I don’t.


The irony is not missed on me. It seems disingenuous to believe in God and choose a profession that gives you a gun. I tell myself that the Commandment, “Thou shall not kill," ranks sixth, meaning that in the list of things God thought bad, the potential inherent in my profession is in the 60th percentile. God understood our potential when He created us. After all, we killed his son. 


I rise and grip ‘Suzy’ the mini-machine gun I am ordered to carry that, when fired, spits out bullets with not only anger but velocity. Suzy gets so hot the barrel melts as the steel warps, twisting and turning as it bends towards the ground as if in mourning. 


The prayer, the one I pray when we touch boots on ground, is that I never have to use my weapon, but, if I do, I do so in defense of myself or my fellow Soldiers. That prayer, my Soldier’s prayer, is an omen, too.


Months later, I get assigned to Tower Guard Duty. I, along with my Tower Guard Partner (TGP), a man who knows things about me few men will ever know because for 30 days we ascend metal stairs until we stand just outside God’s gate to stand guard in a tower that lies on the perimeter of our base. 


Kids, the color of chocolate milk, play outside our tower and beg for water when they are thirsty. I gently toss down bottles of water. The kids tell me they love me. They don’t mean it and I don’t believe it. TGP warns me not to get too emotionally attached. He says it may compromise my ability to make decisions if … I tell him that compassion is as necessary as weapons. 


On our 29th day, a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed is seen in the distance. I know something is wrong. I feel it. I tell TGP to call it in. He hesitates. The car speeds up. Again, I tell TGP to call it in. TGP tells me there’s no need. I tell TGP that if that vehicle turns onto the auxiliary road I am going to shoot. I snatch the walkie-talkie and call it in myself. The all-knowing, all-seeing “Eye” that directs activities in the tower orders me to stand down. It is too late. The vehicle turns onto the auxiliary road and picks up speed. I tell the Eye that I am going to take the shot. Again, the Eye tells me to stand down. I can’t. I promised my kids I would come home and the only thing at the end of the auxiliary road is this tower, TGP, and me. I have 30 seconds to decide what I plan to hold onto and what I plan to release.


I drop the walkie-talkie, aim, and pray. I pray that the driver stops. I pray that he turns around. I pray that I get to go home. My plan is to shoot the tires, disable the vehicle and then take out the driver. I count. One, two, thr … the driver comes to a screeching halt. He does a U-turn and races in the opposite direction down the auxiliary road.


Minutes later, in the far distance, there is an explosion and I know.




One day, as I walk across rock and gravel, the air hot and filled with sand, a Soldier stops me. I don’t recognize the face, but the voice is unmistakable.


“Why didn’t you take the shot?” the Eye asks.


“His God told him to turn around,” I say.


“There were explosives in the vehicle,” the Eye says.


“I know,” I reply.


“Do you ever think about him?” the Eye asks.


I consider my next words carefully.


“I pray for him. I pray his soul is at rest, and I thank him for turning around because I get to go home and kiss my milk chocolate-colored kids. It’s hard being a woman here. It’s not just the testosterone or the fact that men outnumber us 20 to 1 or that people second guess whether I deserve to be here or question whether I would have taken the shot. Which isn’t really what you asked, is it?”


The Eye shakes his head.


“I think of him because since he turned around, I get to pray for a husband who understands that if my country calls, I intend to pack a ruck filled with compassion, prayer, promises, and a weapon with a barrel that mourns.”


“That’s a lot to unpack,” the Eye says.


“And, I have the rest of my life to figure it out,” I say.


The Eye nods with respect before we part ways.


I grip Suzy, close my eyes, and lift my face to the sun, as I take in air that is hot and still with life and the promise of danger.