- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

He’s a lean stretch of American soldier: 6 feet of him, with the burnished edges of a man who’s spent time in the desert.

Ray is on leave from Iraq.

He has had two weeks to revel in the good stuff of home — the clean sheets and hot showers, the pretty girls and perfectly tuned engines he left behind.

Just 14 days before returning to the grit of Baghdad, where little kids throw rocks and sometimes grenades at their American liberators. Ray calls it “Bagh-nasty-dad.”

The Iraqis are the “hajjis.” Ray is blunt about that.

“We hate the hajjis,” he says, then adds without emotion, “And they hate us.”

Hajji is slang among the soldiers, referring to the “hajj,” a devout Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The term is offensive to Muslims, no doubt. That’s why it’s part of the GI vernacular.

Ray is an intense man. He smokes a lot of Marlboros, right down to the filter. His eyes are watchful and quick; weary but knowing. He can spot a Republican Guardsman — loyal to Saddam Hussein and often hiding in plain sight — because they usually wear the long traditional robes of a desert man, with an AK-47 hidden underneath.

At 27, Ray — whose real name is not being used to protect his identity — is a seasoned fighter who has served in both the Marine Corps and the Army. He has vowed to his buddies that he’ll be the last man to leave Iraq. For now, his assignment is to get enough of home to last awhile.

Ray is relaxing at the moment in a booth at a Bob Evans restaurant, dining on the country ham platter. “Anything with pork in it,” he says, a mischievous gleam lending a twinkle to his eye.

He orders extra sides of mashed potatoes and gravy. There are biscuits, some token vegetables and a tall iced tea. He can’t finish it, to the consternation of a matronly waitress who peers in his eyes and asks, “You still want to work on that?”

“No. Guess not,” Ray says. “The desert got my appetite.”

For now, Ray has replaced his desert fatigues and body armor with black leather leggings, faded jeans and black leather jacket embroidered with an American flag across the back and a sewn-on patch for a Beretta 92 pistol. He stands beside a flawless blue 1340cc Harley-Davidson, a formidable portrait in the parking lot of a rest stop on a Virginia highway.

The 18-wheelers thunder past, and Harleys, too, their tell-tale roar clear and pointed above the traffic noise. Ray doesn’t see the traffic. He doesn’t even turn to watch his brother Harley riders go by.

He keeps his eyes fixed on a line of trees done up in the autumnal colors of a temperate climate: amber, bronze, marrow red, set off against a blue sky.

“The trees, man,” he says. “Beautiful. Beautiful, man.”

But the clock is ticking. He has phone calls to make, a date with an angel up in Baltimore and miles and miles of riding to do on a Harley, which pals have kept in a shed for him while he was overseas. An old friend steps forward to say goodbye.

“Ray,” she says, then stops on the brink of some fatuous phrase that only a civilian could muster, something that says more about her than about Ray — a soldier recently under fire.

He gazes at her, intent blue eyes still in scouting mode, more suited to rifle sights and night-vision goggles. He takes a drag on his cigarette and flicks the butt to the asphalt.

“Never believe we’re not all thinking about you. All of us here. We’re all with you,” she stammers.

There is a flicker in his eyes.

“Ray, thank you for your service to your country.”

He squares himself, and nods.

“You bet. Roger that,” Ray says.

In two minutes, he’s donned a black helmet airbrushed with a pale skull and fired up the Harley. In three minutes, he’s bound for the ramp leading to the highway. He makes a victory fist in the air.

And in four minutes, he’s gone, a soldier on leave, racing into the fast lane, the American flag on his back and the wind at his face.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide