The Reluctant Bullet

King Abdul Aziz Air Base, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

January 21st 1991.

 

I wince in pain as the sleeve of my olive-drab T-shirt stretches to the limit to cover my Michelin Man-sized left arm; its skin taut as a snare drum and red as a baboon’s butt. I don’t want to let the lads down, or to look like a wimp, so I head into work, nonetheless. Thankfully, it’s Jimmy’s turn to drive today. I throw my webbing and NBC [Nuclear, Biological, Chemical] suit into the back of our white GMC hired pickup. As I yank open the passenger door, Jimmy tugs his S10 respirator from its haversack and waves it at me.

‘You don’t want to leave this bad boy in the back when Saddam’s chemicals are falling, do you, eh?’

‘Oh, shit, yeah,’ I reply, realising my schoolboy error.

As I climb up, into the passenger seat, the heat in the cab takes my breath away and I wind my window down, letting the wind blow over my fluffy blonde hair, as we pull away. The journey, from our rented European workers accommodation to the King Abdul Aziz airbase, only takes us fifteen minutes and, as we walk across to our temporary engineering workshop, beads of sweat gather into pools before trickling down my back and becoming T-shirt adhesive. It’s only 7am.

After my obligatory mug of tea and several Embassy Number 1s, I head outside for my first job. I struggle to open the cabin doors on the MK11 hydraulic rig, never mind actually service the damn thing, so I quickly realise that I’m not going to be of much use today. My arm no longer feels part of me.

It was Black Death that had caused it, or at least its experimental vaccine; I felt it forcing its way into my arm like cold treacle. ‘It may swell a bit,’ the medic had informed me, ‘but just come back if there are any adverse side effects.’ … Side effects? No, shit!

… forcing its way
into my arm
like cold treacle.

My left arm was undergoing the initial stages of the Hulk’s transformation but had neglected to inform the rest of my body. I hate illness, both being ill and sick people. It’s not that I don’t care, I just can’t cope with it; I hate doctors and blood, especially mine. The anthrax vaccine I had two days ago didn’t affect me one bit, though; my arm obviously liked the taste of that one. I grab my inoculation record, stuffing it into my uniform trouser pocket, make my excuses to the Corporal and head off in the direction of the field medical centre, webbing slung over my good shoulder.

Walking alongside the aircraft pan, I watch as an American medic helicopter briefly lands, to my right, before two shiny black body bags are dumped, unceremoniously, out the back door and onto the concrete below. A black Dodge pickup pulls up, two civilian clothed men get out, lift the bags into the rear of their truck and speed off. All very covert; I wonder whether the bodies are Special Forces.

…two shiny black
body bags are dumped,
unceremoniously.

The medical centre is made up of a few Royal Saudi Air Force buildings and a huddle of demountable cabins, interlinked by rickety walkways and 12’-by-12’ tents erected in rows, end to end. I announce my arrival at reception and sit down in the small waiting room. I seem to be there ages, watching the Kuwaiti Hawks land, replenish their armoury, a mixture of missiles and bombs, before taking off on another sortie. They are relentless; the pilots don’t even get out for a toilet break or a cup of tea, unlike the British Tornado GR1 crews, who are lucky to have enough Squadron members to run separate shifts.

… I’ve been shot.

Suddenly, my eyes are averted from the Hawks as the entrance door swings open and one of our Leckys [Electricians] comes in clutching a blood-soaked field dressing on the top of his head; fresh streaks of blood run down his forehead and over his face.

‘What the hell have you done?’ I ask, as Spud strolls in.

‘I’ve been shot,’ he replies, grinning like an idiot.

My head slants to one side, mouth agape, like a slow worm about to eat its prey. ‘Shot! Really?’

‘Yeah, look at this,’ he says, leaning forward and lifting the pad to reveal a small chunk of missing flesh, with powder burns around the edge, and an exposed skull.

‘Oh, shit! Who the fuck shot you, then, butt?’

… a small chunk of missing flesh.

Spud jabs his thumb backwards over his shoulder. ‘He did,’ he replies. In behind him walks a short, chubby, cadaverous looking SAC [Senior Aircraftsman], his head lolling on his chest, closely followed by a Rock Ape [RAF Regiment] Corporal. The sight of the latter makes me think twice about asking further questions.

I hang around outside, after seeing the medic, and wait to speak to Spud, eager to know he’s OK and to find out what the hell happened. As I wait, our illustrious leader, Chief Technician, Bob Tommsa, pulls up in his Chrysler.

‘How is he?’ Bob asks. ‘Is he OK? They said he’s been shot in the head.’

‘Yeah, well, he’s …’

‘Oh, my, God, he’s not paralysed is he? Is he conscious?’

‘No, he’s …’

‘Oh, shit, no, don’t say he’s dead; he’s not is he?’

‘Bob!’ I shout.

‘What?’

‘He’s fine,’ I say calmly. ‘He’s OK; I expect he’s just getting it cleaned up.’

‘Oh, that’s such a relief. Right! … Erm, you stay here and I’ll, umm … I’ll speak to the medics and the Regiment guys to see what the next steps are and then you can have a lift back with us, OK?’

‘Cool. Thanks, Chief.’

… Oh, shit, no, don’t say he’s dead; he’s not is he?

I lean against the Chief’s car, in the bright sunshine as Spud bimbles out, his head bandaged like a badly wrapped turban. I can’t help but laugh. ‘So, what the hell happened, then, butt?’ I ask, before we slip into the back of the Chief’s car.

‘Well, you know this dump is overrun with scabby moggies?’

‘Yeah.’

… Watch me shoot the cat

‘Well, when me and numbnuts were guarding the East accommodation block, this gorgeous ginger cat comes meowing past us. He was so out of place in that dump; some rich Arab must own it ‘cos it was groomed and everything. So, anyway, I knelt down to stroke it, laying my SLR [Self-loading Rifle] on the ground beside me. Then, that twat of a MT [Mechanical Transport] driver, who’s stood behind me with his SMG [Sub-machine gun] suddenly shouts, “Watch me shoot the cat”. I ignored him until I heard the ‘chk chk’ of his SMG being cocked.’

‘What a tit, why’d he do that?’

‘I have no fucking idea; he’s an idiot. The bullet was reluctant to come out at first, it jammed, but instead of leaving it, he fucking released it! So, now I hear this, ‘ka-chink’, as the working parts fly forward, so I jump up, just as the bullet leaves his SMG, hits the floor behind me and ricochets up into the top of my head.’

‘That’s nuts, mun. He’s going down for that, a negligent discharge, out here, in theatre and he was fucking about; the Rock Apes will lynch him.’

‘He’s not being charged.’

‘You’re joking?’

‘Nah, he’s being removed from guard duty and won’t be allowed near another gun for a long time, but that’s it. They may send him back home though.’

‘But, that’s stupid, he could kill someone. He would’ve killed you, if you’d got up quicker!’

‘I know, I know, but I’m a bona fide war casualty now,’ he says, as a big smile fills his round face, forcing his freckles into a cluster on each cheek. ‘If I was American I’d have a Purple Heart for this.’

Back at our workshops, work grinds to a halt as Spud regales everyone with the gory details of his shooting. I listen intently, as he remembers things he’d forgotten to mention earlier and as he embellishes his story, playing to this wider audience. As I swallow the first of my two anti-inflammatory tablets, I realise that my swollen arm is nothing compared to what others are enduring in this war.

*

January 24th 1991.

The air war against Iraq increases dramatically, after Iraq blows up Kuwaiti oil wells, and more intelligence is gathered to suggest that Saddam is intent on using chemical warheads in his SCUD missiles. As such, we are ordered to start taking NAPS [Nerve agent pre-treatment set] tablets every day. These tablets have to be in our system prior to injecting ourselves with an anti-nerve agent drug, via our personal auto-injector ComboPens, during a chemical attack. Without these tablets in our system we will die from atropine poisoning, before the chemicals Saddam drops even start to take effect. Unfortunately, they don’t sit well with those who take them and stocks of toilet roll quickly deplete. Some of my colleagues refuse to take these tablets and, indeed, some of them, also refuse the cocktail of injections too. Something that, one day, I might regret not doing myself.

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