Reflections from the Brig: Kids Are Not Meant to Be Puzzles

Listen to this article

Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay

“Is that one over there peeking out?” I say, waving to a gunner. The dirt just under the toenail smiles at me. Or is that a frown? Silly me, I think, I am looking at things the wrong side up.

These, though, are independent digits. Like reddened slugs or overfed worms. Their status miniscule, yet their usefulness has helped rule the world. Here they appear to be shitting red on the ground.

“These didn’t have a chance … yet,” I say it to the seasoned boy-gunner, whose searching for his 5th friend.  Having walled off the shock, he looks at it. It’s smiling at him.

“This is what’s called a tragedy, if I am getting my Shakespeare correct,” I say.

“FUBAR[1] is what we call it, Zoomie[2].” He says.

He nods decked out in cammies[3], and I think that this is what a philosopher would like if 23 and a Marine. I am too numb and he too young to know the digits’ effect on us. It will come soon. At present, one survives with humor or acronyms.

There is one, and another. The last digit I wrestled from a feral. Pulling a John Wayne[4], the gunner shot it. I thought, then, of my cat, who’d nestle by my feet in bed and affectionately nipped at mine.

Maybe that feral is not a feral, but the girl’s cat, wanting her back? I do not say this to the gunner though. I push it in, a toe stuck in the crack of a dam. Even Marines have their limits, their heroic vulnerabilities. But I must have looked at him like Puss in Boots.

“Don’t be a Wookie[5],” said the gunner thoughtfully, “Come to think of it, that’s a promotion for you, Zoomie.”

I smile. I think he’s connecting with me.

Feet are safe. I recall driving next to an SUV, the girl on the passenger side had her feet stuck out the window. She was young, a minor, but I don’t have any idea how old. She had black stockinged feet, transparent, the kind guys like me like. I looked at them and then at her face. She looked at me looking at her and smiled, approving my approval of her. The moment is still vivid, though I was young then.

They are supposed to be safe, even for a fetishist. They are seen everywhere.  Yet, if emphasized, shown off, they become the most intimate parts of us. I recall the red-faced dad scolding his beautiful daughter for having her bare feet up on a public table. I liked them; mad she took them down. I accused the dad of being embarrassed. When I was gunner-young, like the Marine, I was not so corrupted. Trauma, the eighth deployment, has taught me otherwise.

There is a humanity in them, in feet, and especially with young girls. Both are taboo yet in plain sight. I knew that the girls liked my uniform more than I. With age comes such a realization. We all like what we cannot have, so we pretend and accuse others. Like bare feet, we dress up what IED’s[6] strip away. The terror of our bodies, of death. Each pair is different, a unique history in a commonly fearful world. If I love or admire them enough, I know whose feet I am looking at.

I need more than digits. Not all match either. When together, each toe is unique, that is if they are on the same foot. One must look at the other foot to notice perfection, to get it right. Yet no pair is alike.  Some toes, when together, form an arch, while with other feet; a toe pokes above the others, almost awkward. They are the narcissistic toes. Toes, though, need arches and soles.

I find one on a roof and the other the gunner found, sunning itself near a well. Marines are multitaskers. I like them like I like feet. They can smell good or bad and are shaped differently, but you always know a Marine is a Marine, just like you always know a foot is a foot, whether barefoot, socked, or booted.

There are others scattered about. I learn to compare them. After hours, we find and match carefully preserving them under the immense heat. Through the carnage, we peer for more toes, feet, and body parts with mechanical indifference.

I think that is a head there, with a colon on the side; no that foot is the wrong hue, the other worn. It must be an adult. If alive, the feral could have that one.

No worries, the gunner found his 5th intact, sound in body but the threat of TBI[7] after effect. He simply rose up among the ruins. After getting him in the chopper, we continued. His friend telling him to carry on.

“People are not meant to be puzzles,” the gunner says.

“Don’t you have an acronym for that?” I blurted back, fighting against the depth of the statement.


I nod, wondering what the difference is between FUBAR and TARFU. Who thinks of these things, I wonder. Is there a Marine board of officers that debate the nuances and how each are applied?

I try to reconstruct, recalling the picture of a little girl. Her tentative face shown behind all ten toes ending just below the balls of the feet. She was sitting in a car posing for daddy. They were going to the park. The beauty of that image, the vulnerability of it was intoxicating. I think she didn’t like the picture but did not know why. Daddy did and posted it, not seeming to mind the sexual comments like, “I came a lot.” She is just a kid, I thought.

I blurt out, “Maybe seven or eight?”

“Negative, we have eight.”

“I mean the girl, about seven or eight?”

The gunner is silent for a moment, then looks at me sincerely, “This is a different kind of Shit Storm[9], Zoomie. You can tell the age of a toe?”

“When you see enough of them, gunner, you can see the whole person,” I reflect.

The Marine observes methodically what’s in his hand, “Kids are not meant to be puzzles.”

Girls have beautiful feet, I thought. These, too, were so. There is no time for fungus, calluses, hammertoes, and yellowed nails. These, though, are no longer so natural. We tag them, put them in a Ziplock, and put them in the cold. On a bad day, we wrestle the remnants of girlhood from her grieving mother, our weapons, “Lock and Load[10].”

Without thinking, words flooded out of my mouth, “I sniffed a girl’s sock once.”

The Devildog[11] hardly seemed to notice.

“I mean, a woman’s,” now sounding more stupid and perverted.

Walking in front of me, the Marine turned, equal in rank but younger in age, “SNAFU[12], PeeWee[13], we all have our poison.”

The gunner, turning back and scanning forward, “I sniffed a Doggie’s[14] ass once, not a Jarhead’s[15], too much respect for the latter, but like feet, an ass is an ass.”

He turned back, “What did it smell like Pouge[16]?”

“Nylon and sweat. The only high I ever got. They were those little black, transparent socks. You, know, like pantyhose but socks.”

“Yep, SNAFU, it is. But I guess not all feet are the same then?”

“Yes,” I agreed drawing parallels, “All asses shit and all feet walk, but they look different, some prettier than others. The high, though, is daring and intimate. It can bring the person back to life, so to speak.”

Seeming to read my mind, the gunner asked, “Why … girls?”

“Because there is a thrill in having what I cannot have. I am not someone that would hurt them, you know.”

The gunner grinned. “Even though you’re a Zoomie, I won’t tell. I didn’t smell a Doggie’s ass, though. I like belly buttons but try and focus on tits to make me feel normal. I get the girl thing, PeeWee.”

We moved toward the beach, spotting someone buried in the sand. Only the head was shown.

The gunner turned to me, “Now regardless, Zoomie, this is a perfect example of a new kind of Shit Storm. Who gets to find out?”

I pulled a coin out of my pocket, a child’s toy I found on my last deployment, and said, “Heads or Tails?” I won or lost, depending on how one sees the world.

As we approached the person, the age and gender became more apparent.

“That appears to be a women-child,” the gunner said,” That’s the worst. Sorry Pouge, given your predilections.”

There was no blood. IEDs are weird that way, one moment we trudge through liquid bodies and blood, the next is a perfectly enact human being or body part that rises above mounds of human grief and anger.

The face is pretty, as little girls’ faces are, and the eyes are open, large, and sad. I gently grab the dark wavy hair, hold my breath, and pull upward.

A blood-curdling screech came from somewhere, a scream that sent both of us back to boot camp. I fell back on my ass, dropping the hair. The Marine almost pulled another John Wayne. Getting my senses, “I yelled, “Don’t Fire! Hold your fucking fire!”

The gunner froze. The head’s face was trembling, tears running down the cheeks.

“She’s buried!” Without further instruction, the gunner covered me and called for assistance. I dug and dug thinking what to say to a traumatized girl?

I knew Arabic as much as a smartphone, but I repeated the words, “Aman, mamun, hob” as I dug. The girl was trembling, but the warmth of the sand may save her. As we pulled her out, the gunner pointed, below.

“Her fucking feet. They are gone.”

Otherwise, the girl was as intact as if she dropped from the sky. I could tell the gunner was startled. I’ve seen many dead kids, but not the living dead. I put her in my arms, all eight years of her, and ran toward the approaching buzz of the chopper. I looked down to see if she was still conscious. She peered through me toward heaven. I repeated, in panting breaths, “Aman, mamun, hob.”

It then came to me suddenly. “Devildog,” I yelled, her feet! We have them tagged in the Ziplocs.” Get them to the Medics.”

I knew they were hers.

In the two minutes I held her, she felt like my own. I pushed her toward the medic and motioned that we have more of her in a bag. The Marine handed over the cooler. The girl’s hands clutched to my body and would not let go. The medics put us in the chopper.

I saluted the Marine below and would never see him again.

Walking toward me, stumbling on what makes us conquer the world, was Ayda with those big eyes. I held an American flag. It was The Long Walk[17] toward me. I tried to stop crying but could not. She was crying, too. As she got near, I gave her the flag and told the translator that this was from Sgt. Brian Forthwinger’s family. He was the Marine that helped me save her life and put her body back together. Sgt. Forthwinger was severely wounded by an IED a few months ago and penned this letter just before he passed:

Dear Ayda,

When carrying you to the chopper, my friend, the Zoomie, with his poor knowledge of Arabic (to be expected from Zoomies) kept telling you, “safe, secure, and love.” We have an acronym for secure, because, for service members, security is everything: we lock up, close, take care of, and finish up for the day. We don’t have an acronym for safe because there is nothing safe about our mission. To be safe is to put others in harm’s way. We can make things secure. Making things safe is what a puddle jumper[18] would do (I love you guys, really). I think I am dying, and will not see you, but you make me feel secure in dying, in knowing I played a part in saving you when having to kill others. You are not an enemy but a friend. Life may be TARFU but security makes them SNAFU. We don’t have an acronym for love, but in the Marines, love is something that is understood. The love of country, freedom, family, and God, or Allah, as you say. For this Devildog, the acronym for love is you, Ayda. You are indeed “one who returns.”

With Love,

Sgt. Brain Forthwinger,



[1] Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition or Repair.

[2] What the Marines jokingly call a member of the Air Force

[3] Camouflage

[4] As noted in USMC Hangout, any brave or bold act that is done in the movies but not done according to USMC (military) protocol.

[5] A term used for a female Marine

[6] Improvised Explosive Devices

[7] Traumatic Brain Injury does not always show all symptoms immediately.

[8] Things are really fouled up

[9] Usually means combat or a violent occurrence

[10] Loading your weapon

[11] Another name for Marine

[12] Situation Normal but Fucked Up

[13] A reference to a popular childhood character who was played by a man that was caught masturbating in an adult theater.

[14] Member of the United States Army

[15] Marine

[16] Anything other than infantry used here as a general term for a military guy that is not a Marine.

[17] Often, a service member walks toward a detected IED alone, in armor, known as The Long Walk. See Brian Castner’s book The Long Walk.

[18] Teasing term used on members of the Coast Guard