For fans of Phil Klay, Kevin Powers, and Tim O'Brien: Dramatic, powerful, authentic short stories of soldiers fighting a "forever war," in combat and back home.
Combat takes a different toll on each soldier; so does coming home. All the Ruined Men by Bill Glose comprises linked stories that show veterans struggling for normalcy as they grapple with flashbacks, injuries (both physical and psychological), damaged relationships, loss of faith, and loss of memory. Beginning in 2003, All the Ruined Men spans ten years, from the confident beginning of America’s “forever war” to the confusion and disillusionment that followed.
As a former paratrooper and Gulf War veteran, author Bill Glose is closely bound to these stories. Drawing from his own experiences and military knowledge, Glose presents a cast of complex and sympathetic characters: young men who embraced what seemed like a war of just cause, who trained and fought and lived and died together, and who have returned to families, wives, children, civilian life, and an America that has lost its way.
Unforgettable, moving, filled with moments of anguish, doubt, love, hope, and other emotions, All the Ruined Men is a singular debut collection.
A Macmillan Audio production from St. Martin's Press.
Release date: August 2, 2022
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 288
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All the Ruined Men: Stories
In the Early, Cocksure Days
Fastened to the dash of the jingle bus with a double loop of soft wire, a transistor radio plays reedy, atonal music. The wailing reminds Staff Sergeant Berkholtz of a kazoo, but he can’t say that to the Iraqi driver. That’s one of the cultural insensitivities S2 briefings had warned him to avoid. Along with touching a woman, drawing Mohammed, drinking alcohol—prohibition stacked upon prohibition like sandstone blocks of a pyramid.
Once a competitive bodybuilder, Berkholtz is the only one in the squad with bulk. While his thick torso tapers to a perfect V, the others are lean and knotted with muscle, perfect builds for soldiers required to hump forty-to-fifty pounds of gear into battle on their backs. Sitting sideways in the front seat, Berkholtz eyes his squad spread through the bus. His boys. That’s what he calls them when jawing with other squad leaders. Partly because that’s what they are, young boys, none more than a few years removed from high school. But mostly because of the way they look up to him as a father figure, one responsible for preparing them for life-threatening danger. And then, when danger comes, for sending them charging straight into the face of it.
He’s not much older, just twenty-seven, but Berkholtz feels fifty-seven, the weight of his rank aging his mind and body and twisting his gut into knots. The Velcro patch on his shoulder with three chevrons and one rocker gives him absolute authority over his squad; he just never realized how heavy it could be. The two team leaders, Corporals Faust and Parker, command four-men teams, but out of the field they’re just one of the guys. Not so for Berkholtz. His is a strange and lonely position. Part of the squad, yet separate. Surrounded by men he would die for, but none he can treat as a true friend.
Some of the soldiers doze, their energy sapped from the 120-degree heat. Unlike the drenching humidity of Fort Bragg’s forests, the desert kiln leeches moisture until cracked lips bleed and grit-scoured eyeballs scrape their sockets. No matter how much water they suck from the three-liter CamelBaks strapped to their shoulders, the parched feeling never goes away. The only one who seems immune to the withering heat is Private Mueller, a loudmouth filled with frenetic energy. In combat, he’s a perfect soldier, a berserker who never flinches when bullets snap the air around him. But when things calm down, he becomes a troublemaker determined to drag others down with him. As Mueller hops up from his seat and slides in behind Bradshaw, Berkholtz knows he’s going to start some shit. He could order Mueller back, tell him to leave Bradshaw alone, but anything that takes his mind off the wailing music is a welcome distraction.
PFC Bradshaw stares out his window at a landscape of endless, undulating dunes. Below a cloudless sky pale as a blister, the desert’s hills and valleys stretch as far as the eye can see. He seems mesmerized by the endless brown, but his mind is back home in the lush green of Virginia.
That morning, he’d chatted online with his sister, Darla, but it had brought him more aggravation than relief. Each time she said how she was praying for his safe return, he was reminded how his faith had died out here in the brown. He’d carried a travel-sized Bible in his breast pocket all through basic training. Now, he has no idea where it is. Bradshaw vaguely recalls praying what feels like a million years ago. A choir boy, he believed every promise the priest uttered—that God was benevolent, that all faithful souls go to Heaven, that good always conquers evil. Each night Bradshaw would curl on his side, arm slung round the neck of his stuffed giraffe as he stared into its eyes, imagining the beaded blackness stretching to infinity. So easy when you’re young to believe a soul is fabricated from starlight and clouds, tucked between heart and lungs, stitched within your skin. Harder once you watch those sacred vessels spill their contents in the sand, animated bodies becoming lifeless corpses. The desert taught him what happens when bullets tear a torso’s seams, plunge in like needles without a threaded eye. He knows how few places bodies offer souls to hide.
Bradshaw notices movement in his peripheral vision and comes back to the present moment. It’s Mueller getting up from his seat. He hears the pestering squadmate plop down behind him and lean over the tall, row seat.
Mueller taps the window beside Bradshaw’s head and says, Know what these remind me of? On the other side of the glass, red tassels dangle from the roof’s edge, some with tiny bells affixed to their ends. Mueller drops his hand from the window and taps Bradshaw’s shoulder instead. Hey, know what the tassels remind me of? C’mon, you must know.
Bradshaw still doesn’t turn. As the newest member of the unit, Bradshaw is the continual target of Mueller’s taunts. Berkholtz had transferred in about the same time four months ago, but as their squad leader he is beyond Mueller’s harassment. Shit flows downhill, not up.
Mueller continues tapping until Bradshaw turns from the glass, irritated. What?
They remind me of the pasties on your sister’s tits, that’s what! He puts his hands up in a mock defensive posture as if Bradshaw might punch him. But Bradshaw just shakes his head and turns back to the window and the ocean of brown.
Mueller spins to see if his squadmates heard the exchange, looking for anyone to give him props. But they’re ignoring him, too. Aw, c’mon, he says. That shit was funny.
This is what it’s come to, Berkholtz thinks. Picking fights among ourselves. With the war on hold, it’s not just Mueller. They were all feeling the tension.
A month ago, when the statue of Saddam toppled in Firdos Square and jubilant Iraqis slapped his face with their sandals, Berkholtz had figured the war was all but over. But the next day they attacked and captured Kirkuk. The following week, they rumbled into Tikrit to battle the last pockets of the Republican Guard. Their battalion fought ferocious battles, all successes with few casualties and no deaths in the company. They were conquering heroes, liberators of the subjugated. Each sandstone city they entered, skinny men and children in ankle-length thawbs raced, cheering, beside their vehicles. When President Bush stood on an aircraft carrier in front of a banner reading, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, what more was there to say? It was time to pack up and go home to the ticker tape parade.
Except they didn’t go home. A provisional government was set up and they stayed on in a peacekeeper role, stuck in the desert, six thousand miles from loved ones. So here we are, Berkholtz thinks, riding out to a makeshift range in a jingle bus, the hour-long ride feeling more like three.
Looking back at Mueller and Bradshaw, Berkholtz stifles the smile trying to rise to his mouth. Not because he thinks Mueller’s comment was funny, but because he knows one of these days Bradshaw is going to knock Mueller down on his ass. Quiet and contemplative, Bradshaw is a former linebacker who still carries a hitter’s mentality. Something Mueller will discover soon enough. Now is not the time for a fight, though, so he orders Mueller back to his seat with a flick of his hand.
Berkholtz runs his hand across the fuzzy stubble on his head and feels the pulpy texture of his scalp. Yesterday had been the squad’s first shower in a month. The sensation of being clean is still foreign to his desiccated skin. The uniforms are fresh, too, unpacked from their follow-on duffels, their skunky, salt-rimed clothes collected and shipped off to be laundered. Though no one would have cared if they were burned instead.
Now seated beside his team leader, Corporal Faust, Mueller sits with his feet tapping, his knees jerking up and down. He’d also had an online chat this morning, the scared face of his pregnant wife filling his mind as they made small talk about babyproofing the outlets and what type of crib was best. Mueller was just as scared as his wife. Not that he might come home in pieces or not at all; no, he was scared of becoming a father. He wasn’t ready for that kind of responsibility, and he’s pretty sure Sophia senses that about him as well. He’s probably the only one in the unit who’s dreading going home. In battle, everything makes sense. Kill or be killed is a mantra he can embrace.
Mueller’s hand drifts up to his eyebrow and fingers a scar bisecting the hair, a remnant from a high school brawl. Rubbing the old scar is something he does whenever he’s deep in thought. Anytime someone asks about the white strip of skin, he brags how the guy who hit him broke two of his fingers. Part of the reason why he’s nicknamed Blockhead, but not the only one.
Looking down, Mueller notices his tapping feet and makes a conscious effort to stop. Part of the ADHD generation, he can’t sit still without his skin itching as if ants were burrowing beneath. He needs action. If nothing’s happening, he’s got to make something happen. Stretching a hand out in front of his team leader’s face, he points outside the window. Hey, Faust, know what those things remind me of?
Say my sister and I’ll have you doing push-ups in the aisle till we get to the range.
So you were listening. Thought so. No, man, I’m being serious now. They remind me of those Christmas specials on TV, the sound of bells off-screen just as Santa flies up in his sleigh.
Faust glances out the window. You on acid? Ain’t nothing like Christmas out there.
Just the sound, man, that’s what I’m saying. Mueller leans back in his seat and fingers the scar again, his head slowly rocking side to side. Soon he’s whistling the tune of “Up on the Housetop.” After a few minutes, he snaps his fingers, then starts singing. Out in the desert on a jingle bus, where’s Hajji taking all of us? Out to the range to blow shit up, fire off some rockets and some other stuff. Ho, ho, ho, who wouldn’t go? Ho, ho, ho, who wouldn’t go? Oh, up on the rooftop, click, click, click. There’s Saddam, let’s shoot the prick.
The bus pulls up behind three Humvees spread across a dune’s hard-packed crest and halts, air brakes hissing. Third squad barely pays attention to the new arrivals. The sun hangs low in the sky like a ripe mango, throwing long shadows from the men, who crowd around a circle of ammo cans, howling and cheering. A couple of them give a cursory glance at the jingle bus, then return their attention to the circle.
Shit, man, says Mueller, I want in on this action. He races out of the bus, and everyone but Berkholtz follows quickly behind.
In the center of the ammo-can circle are two scorpions, a thick, black one, with sharply defined segmented sections, and one about half its size, colored a light butterscotch that appears translucent in the sand.
From the bottom step of the bus, Berkholtz leans against the accordion door, giving his boys a little space for the moment. They’re like a pack of wild mongrels, and he is the alpha dog who needs to manage their fury. All amped up with no enemy to take it out on, they’ve been instigating fights with each other, wrestling in the sand, and dry-humping the losers in shows of dominance. He’s glad the war is over. How much further they could descend into their animal selves, he hates to think. If this little sideshow can bleed off some tension of their testosterone, Berkholtz won’t stand in its way.
Shouldering his way into the circle of men, Mueller shouts, I want to put fifty bucks on the big fucker.
Sure, says Corporal Rambali, I’ll take that action.
The scorpions have already begun dueling, the small one snagged in one of the black pincers. They’re scuttling in a clockwise circle, the black scorpion’s head and thorax pressed low, scraping a furrow as they spin. The smaller one keeps tugging to get out of the black pincer’s grip while avoiding the large, lancing tail. At the same time, the smaller one’s tail keeps stabbing its venom into the scabrous sides of its larger foe, until finally the black scorpion’s pincer opens up as its body jerks and falls, then sits still. A loud cheer goes up from half the men, a volley of curses from the others.
Rambali steps into the ring and uses a piece of cardboard to scoop the small scorpion into a Tupperware container. After sealing the lid, he pulls a small notepad from his breast pocket and marks down the fifty dollars he’s owed. Then he hands the pad to Mueller, who signs it at the bottom. Around the circle, other losers mark similar IOUs in victors’ notepads. They won’t see any actual cash until they get back to the States, then everyone will settle tabs that have been running for months.
Hey, Rambo, Berkholtz says, where’s your squad leader?
Rambali points over to the middle Humvee, and Berkholtz walks over. Staff Sergeant Payne is sprawled in the shade puddled on the side of the vehicle, an olive-drab net draped over his face to ward off flies. Berkholtz lightly kicks one of Payne’s heels and says, C’mon, you lazy turd. Time to go to work.
Payne pulls the net off his face and gives a sour look. He stands up and makes a show of stretching. Was wondering when you were going to get here. Any longer, we were going to fire off your shit as well.
Not a chance. My boys need this.
I hear you.
Both squad leaders are thankful for today’s familiarization exercise. All of Alpha Company is rotating through the range one squad at a time, firing the heavy weapons belonging to Delta Company. The WWII-era M2 Browning .50-cal machine gun. The chain-fed MK19 grenade launcher. And the wire-guided TOW missile, which only the top marksman from each squad will get to fire.
Here’s the skinny, Payne says. He points east with the blade of his hand. The range stretches out for three klicks in a fan shape. Delta platoon did the safety checkout to double that before parking their vehicles up here. They also marked the left and right boundaries.
He indicates a row of posts plunged at fifty-meter intervals into the sand and topped with white flags. Then he swings his rigid arm to the other side and points out that line as well. Centered between those boundaries are two bullet-ridden Toyota trucks. Tendrils of white smoke ribbon up from both of them. Beyond those is a blue-and-white Volkswagen van.
The left truck is about nine hundred meters, Payne says, and the right is eleven hundred. Both well within effective range of everything we’ve got here. The van is at twenty-five hundred.
They fist-bump and Payne gathers up his men and loads them into the jingle bus. As it drives away, Berkholtz lines up his guys and gives them a safety brief. Then he points to the Delta platoon soldiers leaning on their Humvees. Listen to these guys when they instruct you on the weapon systems. Remember, they’re the experts; you’re just tourists.
It takes some of his boys a little while to get used to the butterfly-style triggers on the heavy guns. They have to depress these triggers with both thumbs instead of pulling with a finger. But after the first few shots, they get the hang of it.
Mueller fires long bursts from the .50 cal mounted on the left vehicle. Sand erupts ten meters away from the left Toyota, so Mueller swings the gun’s long barrel to correct his aim, the splashing impacts stitching a path toward the target. When he connects, bullets punch through the pickup’s skin, the punching thump of metal on metal resounding across the range. Yeah! Mueller yells from the turret. Get some! Get some!
Atop the right Humvee, Bradshaw fires three-to-five-round bursts from the grenade launcher. Compared to the jackhammering thunder of the M2, the MK19 sounds no louder than knuckles rapping on a tin door. But the results are spectacular. A series of fiery explosions engulfs the right Toyota from the hail of 40mm grenades.
When they finish firing, Bradshaw and Mueller dismount the vehicles and get fist-bumps from everyone in their squad. Man, I tore that shit up, says Mueller. Bradshaw just nods.
After everyone has fired, Bradshaw is named the day’s champion. Mounting the center vehicle, he leans into the eyepiece of the TOW’s thermal sight and reaches beneath the launcher for the controls. When he fires, a column of flame spurts out the back of the tube as the missile launches downrange and unspools nearly two-and-a-half miles of filament from its tail. As the missile streaks toward the VW van, the wire carries signals from the tracking module in Bradshaw’s hands to tiny compensating thrusters on the missile.
Just after firing, Bradshaw detects movement over the rim of the dune where the van sits. Camels! His instincts are to push away from them, and the minor movement of his hands causes the TOW to splash down in the sand and explode in a geyser of brown.
Mueller nearly doubles over with laughter. He kisses his fingers and points up at the sky. Thank you for that, God, he says.
There are camels out there, Bradshaw calls down from the turret. And a couple of men.
Berkholtz grabs his M4 and squints through the optics. Sure enough, a line of camels is plodding over the dune with white-robed men sitting atop the two in the lead. As they get closer, the gray-bearded Bedouin in front waves at the soldiers. This is the era of goodwill. Everyone loves GIs.
Dude doesn’t know how close he came to getting killed, Mueller says. Lucky for them, Bradshaw can’t fire for shit.
The squad stands watching as the camels trudge steadily toward them. When they reach the hard-packed crest, the two Bedouins dismount.
Hey, Faust, Berkholtz says, give me a few minutes alone here.
Faust herds the rest of the squad to the middle Humvee, where they hunker in its shade.
Berkholtz turns to the lead Bedouin and says, As salaam alaykum.
Wa alaykumu as salaam.
Berkholtz only knows Arabic phrases from flash cards in his cargo pocket, and the Bedouins don’t speak English at all, so they resort to pantomime. Berkholtz points up at the missile launcher, then out at the ruined vehicles on the range. Didn’t you see? he asks, tapping his cheekbone near his eye. Didn’t you hear? he says, touching an ear.
Inshallah, says the Bedouin, shrugging his shoulders. “As Allah wills it.”
Berkholtz motions with two hands patting the air for the Bedouins to stay put. Then he tells the driver in the TOW Humvee to radio command and tell them what’s going on.
Already done, says the specialist. Captain Cuneo’s coming out here. We’re supposed to cease fire and hang tight.
Berkholtz stands with his arms crossed near the two Bedouins, who gather their camels into a tight pack and tap their legs with sticks to goad them into sitting. Berkholtz can’t stop thinking how close they’d come to a colossal fuckup. A civilian casualty would have drummed both Bradshaw and him out of the service. The one who fired the shot and the one in charge.
The Army had trained him to lead troops in battle, but not how to stopper up their wrath once the fighting was done. In the buildup phase to war, Berkholtz had trained the squad relentlessly, rehearsing combat scenarios in the kill house countless times, chewing ass on anyone committing an error, running the men over and over until responses became second nature. Once bullets start flying, he’d told them, there’s no time for second-guessing.
The training had paid off and everyone made it through in one piece. That’s all Berkholtz had ever wanted. Not the power of command or the glory of medals. He only wanted to do his job right and bring his boys home in one piece. Looking over to the Humvees, he sees Mueller is still heckling Bradshaw, his nonstop chatter wafting through the roasting air. Berkholtz should break them up, but he’s tired of playing babysitter.
Suddenly a commotion breaks out. Bradshaw jumps on Mueller and puts him in a headlock, driving the top of his head into the sand. You going to cut the shit about my sister? he says.
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