Ft. Hood, Texas is perhaps one of the hottest places that I have been that I will ever talk about, and the barracks there are some of the shabbiest. My room in particular was less than comfortable as the air-conditioner had pissed out a few years before I was assigned the bunk directly below the useless piece of shit. The underside of my bed, I once had the displeasure of discovering, was stained a sickening brown from sweat soaking through the entire mattress from the previous occupant. It stunk of mold and mildew, rancid food and chewing tobacco, and of my roommate Randy.

Randy. The swine. He had less than two months left in his enlistment and so spent his days lying half-naked in our sweltering room, playing his video games and leaving soda bottles half-full of tobacco spit. Said bottles would then be strategically placed so as to be knocked over by any and everyone who entered our humble commode. Empty fast-food containers carpeted the area and roaches had infested the puke-green couch that Randy used as a bed since he used his bed for a dresser/laundry hamper and his wall locker as an entertainment center.

Going outside to face the blistering Texas sun in full battle gear to spend hours on end running battle drills was slightly more appealing than going back to my room. I would take as long as I possibly could cleaning my weapon in the courtyard of our barracks, sitting in the somewhat cool shade next to the CQ desk just to keep from having to return.

At night, as I lay stripped down to nothing on top of my poncho liner, sweat running off of me in streams, the air-conditioner motor would kick on and the only thing that came out was a high pitched whine for around twelve minutes making it entirely impossible to sleep. Not that I got much of a chance since Randy was a big fan of John Madden football video games and would play them until the crack of dawn. Every single night. I can now hum 62 different college anthems, recite over four hundred different plays straight from the playbook, and break out in a cold sweat every time I hear John Madden's "Yeah, Baby!"

Thank you Randy, you're a hell of a guy.

Then one bright sunshiny day I was introduced to Estep, one of the drivers from another track-crew. Estep, it turned out lived right next-door to me and had offered to let me use his computer to send my fiance an e-mail, since walking all the way to the on-post library was taking up a healthy portion of my lunch breaks. Thank you, says I and headed up to his room.

Upon entering, the first thing that I noticed was that I couldn't breathe. My breath actually got stuck in my throat because the temperature in his room had to be somewhere on the shady side of 0° and as an added plus there were no roaches scattering from the piercing sunlight. It smelled clean and cool, my knees got weak and I thought I was going to faint, but finally I was able to take a full breath- and when I exhaled a little puff of steam came from my lips.


Thus Estep's room became my regular spot to go and chill out. He would show me pictures of his girlfriend Aurora, on the beach in her bathing suit, show me pictures of his family, Mom and Pop Estep happy and smiling, and let me check out the sketches that he had been working on. He was a talented artist and had painted our company logo, a screaming Banshee, on a boulder out in front of the company area. He used to do caricatures of the CO and XO with caption bubbles, griping about how their strawberry ice-cream was melted and trying to figure out a way to blame it on the enlisted so they could put themselves in for medals.

When we were out in the field, I used to make my way over to his track under the guise of re-filling my squad's canteens and he would let me listen to his portable CD player and read the latest letter from Aurora. Sometimes he would read me lines from The Picture of Dorian Gray and I could escape in my mind from the sweltering heat and get lost in the story.

We got to be really good friends and I would end up spending more of my free time in the arctic sanctuary of his room than in my own. We would clean our weapons while watching Cartoon Network shows on his high-speed DSL and compete head to head in first-person shooter games linking his and his roommate's computers together.

After I had been in Texas for about five months I started pushing harder to get my bonus, which I was told, was on its way. I had a few credit card debts I needed to take care of and the five grand I had re-enlisted for would cover them and the cost of a car. Two months later I was informed that during the time I re-enlisted that the bonus that was clearly defined in my contract was not authorized for my MOS, and I was given the opportunity to Voluntarily Separate or stay and finish out my contract without the bonus.

Fuck you.

You've spent a half a million dollars training me, sending me to specialty schools, cases and cases of ammunition, a ton of food and clothes and now you can't afford a paltry five grand?

I opted to separate from the army under a chapter 7- breach of contract, the party at fault being the army. I was sent home Christmas Eve 2003.

My unit was deployed to Iraq two months later. Estep, who only had 17 days to go on his active duty contract, got caught on a stop-loss which meant he had to stay untill his reserve obligation was completed. I was free and clear with no obligation at all.

Once I was home I moved in with my girl, had a lot of sex, smoked some cigarettes and got a job at the state university as a janitor, cleaning the dorms and picking up after the students who could never quite seem to make it to the toilets after their 14th shot of tequila.

One of the good things about being an employee at a college was that I had unlimited access to the internet and used it as often as I could- and one quiet Tuesday morning I stumbled upon a CNN website with a list of soldiers serving in Iraq and there was Estep, Sergeant Estep even! He got promoted, and it showed his picture, his hometown, and there was our unit name. I was happy for him that he was finally getting NCO pay which meant he could afford to get Aurora a nice fat diamond engagement ring.

Very cool, I thought, until I read the part that told me how he was killed when an RPG-7 hit his patrol in Baghdad. I scanned the rest of the page still not really believing that Estep was dead, thinking maybe I misread or something. Then I saw Arsiaga, the guy whose name I always fucked up, his picture was there too. Cason, the guy who used to keep everybody awake by talking about basketball and football and spinners, his picture was there too. A picture of Miller, the tight-ass supply clerk who had a hillbilly accent and wouldn't let a paper clip go without a signature, was next to them. Chen, the new guy, was just arriving when I was leaving, there he was.

I called my old squad leader's wife to hear if she had received any information, maybe Estep was just wounded and they'd listed him as dead, or maybe he was missing. Maybe anything. No, she told me, Estep, Arsiaga, Cason, Martir, and Miller were all KIA. Sutherland, Emmett, Ryan, Shcueller, Alexander, and Gonzo were all wounded, bad.

I feel guilty that I didn't stay, and maybe it doesn't make any sense, but I feel guilty that I got out on a loop-hole, a fuck-up by some clerk in some office, and Estep, this cool dude who didn't mind letting me have the last Pepsi in his fridge, had 17 days left in the army ends up taking the brunt of a rocket-propelled grenade explosion in some country he never gave two shits about in the first place.