Then, like a blade swishing through the air comes a sudden sharp voice from the other side of the room, cutting through the growl-buzz of the generator and the fist-thump of wind against the tent walls. You look over and an NCO is pressing a telephone receiver tighter against his ear and saying, "Repeat that last transmission. What did you say?" He waves his hand at another NCO to get him a pen, whereupon he scribbles on an index card. Two or three others cluster near him, heads pressed in a tight circle. One head pops up and catches the eye of the battle captain sitting in his leather office chair at the front of the room. He rises from the chairhe'd been watching a NASCAR race on the TVand walks over to the growing knot of huddled heads.
At this point, something like cold fear creeps around your heart like icy vines. The information on the index card is read back into the phone for confirmation, then the battle captain grabs the card and strides to the front of the room, yelling, "ATTENTION IN THE DTOC! ATTENTION IN THE DTOC!"
All sound and motion in the tent stops. Someone mutes the NASCAR race. The battle captain reads from the index card: "We have reports of one IED in the vicinity of Scania along the convoy route. One KIA. Battle-damage assessment still being made. That is all." He reads it as carefully and dispassionately as someone quoting stock market prices, then he turns and writes the information on a large sheet of paper taped to the wall at the front of the room where all significant activitiesthe loss of an M16, the arrival/departure of a convoy, the publication of an operations orderare recorded.
As you watch him write with the magic marker, the conversation-buzz of the room gradually returns to its former volume. Some drop their heads in sorrow, shaking them back and forth as if that will counteract the loss and bring the KIA back to life, or at least change his status to WIA. But the magic marker ink is permanent, seared there by the heat of an IED blast. No wounds can be reversed. The battle captain returns to his leather chair. A couple of officers return to their crossword puzzle. Someone turns up the volume on the TV and the NASCAR race resumes.
But now, five months later, death was a matter of course, one more task in a day already filled with a heavy workload. Gooding could type his KIA press releases blindfolded. If, that is, he could get these two cupcake-smeared clerks in G-1 to cooperate and give him the nod.
Gooding ground his teeth. CNN was breathing down his neck, calling every ten minutes to ask about the explosion half the people in al-Karkh saw and nearly everyone heard, the deep thud rippling through the neighborhoods, the smoke pluming like a gray finger. The producers had called an hour ago and said they already had a cameraman on the site who was telling them there were U.S. casualties. The rest of the meat-wagon media were right on CNN's heels. By the time he walked back to his cubicle, Gooding could expect to see three or four e-mails in his in-box from the New York Times, NBC, and Reuters. They wanted details. They had deadlines. They needed confirmation of death.
"Not much we can do right now, Sar'nt," said Semple, clicking uselessly at his e-mail in-box. "Dust storm's fucking up the whole computer network from here to Basra."
"CNN just announced this guy's death and they have footage of a body wearing a U.S. uniform being hauled from the blast site on a stretcher."
"You know the drill, Sar'nt," Semple said. "He ain't dead until we get the e-mail from the docs at Camp Bucca saying he's dead."
"And you can't pick up the phone and call?"
"C'mon, Sar'nt. You know it has to be official and in writing. We can't go vocal on casualty confirmation."
Semple looked at Andersen to see if she'd agree with him and get this sergeant off their ass. She had stopped sucking her fingers and was now picking at a piece of dried lunch caught on the ample breast of her DCUs. She scraped her nail back and forth right where the nipple would be beneath the uniform, the brown T-shirt, and the bra. Sweet Jesus have mercy!
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