I never got used to sweating at night. Middle of the day, under the blaze of the Iraqi desert sun, helmet and body armor a primitive dutch oven, sure, it made sense. But to have your t-shirt and underwear wet and stuck to your skin at two in the morning, somehow that was worse. Laden with gear and ruck sack, standing in a line of Marines waiting on a deafening tarmac to board a C-130, sweat in rivulets over my eyebrows and down my cheeks and tickling the tip of my nose, I admit it, I was miserable.
I wasn’t even supposed to have been at Al Taqaddum. I was stuck, my hop to Kuwait diverted almost immediately after leaving Baghdad, as if I was flying from JFK to Miami with a layover in Trenton. That is, if Trenton was a primitive airbase in western Iraq that exchanged regular mortar fire with surrounding neighborhoods. When my blacked-out flight into TQ landed I had to ask the air terminal workers where I even was. For two days I had squatted in a communal tent next to the parking ramp, had tried to doze on a cot between sortie launches, waited and waited on a stand-by list for a bird out. This 0200 flight was my chance.
I was the last man in a line of Marines waiting in the pre-dawn dark for the loadmaster to wave us forward. The only light on the airfield came from the dim-green interior of the awaiting aircraft. I hadn’t slept, not really, not more than fifteen minutes at a time, in almost three days. I needed a new shirt more than a shower; after several days of sweat, cotton stiffens into a salty board. It was only April, and night time temperatures were already over one hundred degrees.
I never saw the signal, but suddenly we started moving, an identical string of armor and helmets and rifles and overloaded packs, across the concrete and up the C-130 ramp. Nose to tail and hip to hip, we shuffled in, wedged into the next available spot on the jump seat, alternating knees like a zipper to save space, until every last bit was claimed. Now I sweated on my neighbor, and he on me, our body heat on top of the desert heat on top of the radiant heat from the skin of the airplane. The loadmaster kept the ramp down while we taxied to the end of the runway, only raising it at the last moment; the engine exhaust breeze was welcome.
The bird began to vibrate and hum, shook as it leapt forward, tripled its internal gravity as it spiraled up over the airfield to avoid missiles and gunfire. Darkness and heat and claustrophobia and vomit from the next row over until, mercifully, we finally hit altitude. The pressure eased, the cargo hold finally began to cool, and the loadmaster walked the aisles providing one of the dearest kindnesses that has ever been shown to me.
He said nothing, this bulky figure stepping between legs and over packs, holding a large cardboard carton. We couldn’t have heard anything he said anyway. He simply walked up to each Marine and handed them a small green box. It was only when he got to me that I saw what they were. Girl Scouts Thin Mints cookies. A sticker on the end flap said “Thank you for all you do. Girl Scout Troop 31815 Irwin, Pennsylvania.”
I didn’t wait to rip it open, inhaled the first three immediately. I’m not sure I even tasted them. Smiles filled the back of the aircraft. The melting chocolate coating joined dirt already caked under my fingernails, the crumbs gathered on my lap and stubbly chin. But I barely noticed; those cookies filled a hole in my belly like nothing from the chow hall ever did.
I ate the entire package.
I can be so sure of what it said on the sticker on the outside of the box because I tore off the end flap and carefully placed it in the top left pocket of my tactical vest. Not even a week ago I found that worn cardboard strip during spring cleaning, while sorting through stowed combat gear in the basement. The years go on and still I can’t part with most of the old equipment, the old uniforms and shoes still shined and in the box. The frayed edge of the cardboard caught my eye, poking out of a front pocket. The iconic green background has faded with time, but my gratitude remains.
Thank you, former members of Girl Scout Troop 31815 of Irwin, Pennsylvania. Readers ask me if soldiers appreciate all of the care packages sent over the years, the millions of pounds of instant oatmeal and microwave popcorn and babywipes collected by civic and church groups. And the truth is, sometimes those donations from average citizens end up in a landfill of well-intentioned excess. And other times, at the most important times, they are the greatest Girl Scout cookies anyone has ever eaten.