The Folklore Project
Where Are You, Spider-Man?
By Nicholas Harrelson
The bright, nearly unbearable Iraqi sunlight faded, and the horizon took on a fiery red hue.
Young men dressed in modern digital camouflage began moving between the various armored vehicles they would drive through the desert that lay beyond the concertina wire and cement pillars that protected them from danger. Countless checks on equipment and ammunition would occur over the next couple of hours beneath red flashlights designed to obscure the beam from prying, perhaps deadly, eyes. Non-commissioned officers would meet with their subordinates, rehashing the plans that were now, after countless rehearsals, emblazoned into the minds of the men who were about to depart. After the checks appeared in all of their respective boxes, small groups gathered. In one, there was laughter and a dust cloud that, once settled, revealed a private at the bottom of a large pile of arms and legs. In his choked voice, he cried out for everyone to get off him lest he “swallow his dip,” that beloved and beguiling tobacco companion of the lowliest grunt in the military. I never left my room without a trusty can of Copenhagen in my left pocket, to the consistent dismay of my dental hygienist mother.
After the NCOs gave their obligatory ass-chewing to whichever idiot attacked the private, the Chaplain finally meandered into the convoy lanes, silhouetted against the bright artificial lights, offering up the only version of prayer that the infantryman cared to hear, invoking the power of the almighty for safety and a clean trigger squeeze. My .50 caliber machine gun, a big, beautiful hunk of metal that might have seen action in Europe during World War II, sat conspicuously atop the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle that would save my life, on a deployment much like this one in the very same country, only a year later. She sure did look pretty and menacing, I would often think. She was an angel sent to protect me and my brothers.
I’d often find myself alone at times like this. A somewhat silent calm always came before the inevitable “Charlie Mike” — in civilian parlance, “continue mission” — that would send us to the gate that was protected by Ugandan mercenaries.
My unit, the Scout Infantrymen of the 116th Infantry, the “Stonewall Brigade,” were a ragtag group of good ol’ boys from the Appalachian hollers, Christian school kids taking a break from Liberty University, and the best that the Commonwealth of Virginia had to offer for such an undesirable task as this. We weren’t pretty by any means, but we took pride in our mission and pride in our home. Each of our vehicles was adorned with the silhouette of Stonewall Jackson sitting astride his horse, Little Sorrel, who now sat unceremoniously stuffed within a glass box in a basement at the Virginia Military Institute.
In later years I often “joked” of going to Iraq as a vacation from the “Virginia Mental Institute,” where they paid me a steady salary, my room had air conditioning, and my bed remained on the ground, the mattress unfurled, all day long. Any Keydets who read this will understand what I’m saying.
But this night was to be different. This night, I would receive an education in humanity that I would only come to appreciate seven long, arduous years later, because this night brought a new face into our midst and for whatever reason, whether holy or incidental, he would choose to befriend me.
He was skinny, his skin was sun-touched, brown, and dusty, and he wore clothes that would better fit a man twice his size. I would later observe, after countless missions through the vast wasteland that was the Iraqi desert between An Nasiriyah and the central Iraqi city of Balad, that he never left home without his hat, flat-billed and crusty. I forget his name but not his face. I forget his voice but not his words. He came to love us in his own way, and, to his satisfaction, we grew to love him as well. We referred to him simply as Spider-Man. Whether that was due to his wearing of the associated superhero’s T-shirt, his undying love of the character or simply an observation of his gangly, bony structure, I do not remember, but it was most certainly a term of endearment, because his voice did what ours could not.
He was our interpreter, a son of Iraq and friend to America. Spider-Man rode in the Scout Truck, commanded by a particularly wily sergeant who boasted quite often of his role in invading the very same country seven years prior with the famed 82nd Airborne. He would come to be remembered, lovingly, for growing tired of waiting for the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Team to check out a suspicious item placed alongside the road near some no-name town in the Iraqi Desert during some indiscernible mission. He exited his vehicle and unceremoniously kicked the abandoned Iraqi helmet, which could have easily hidden an improvised explosive device, as hard as his right leg could muster. Though I was nowhere near the Scout vehicle at the time (I was the gunner in the last gun truck protecting the rear of the entire element), I can imagine how beautifully that helmet sailed across the desert, becoming engulfed in the blackness of an Arabian night. We would be greeted moments later by his voice over the radio — “Yeah, it’s clear” — and away we went, moving northward at a steady 45 miles per hour, slouching toward Baghdad.
Spider-Man, without knowing it, had been placed with the most thrill-seeking group of fellows from a whole platoon of thrill seekers. He was just lucky like that. Often, after arriving at our destination, some hundreds of miles north and a mind-numbing 12 hours on the road, I would again seek solace by myself, stepping outside of whatever Soviet-era warehouse they saw fit for us to sleep in for the night, to enjoy the last few minutes of the quiet night outside, waiting for my double dose of Ambien to kick in, often with the privilege of watching that Iraqi sun, huge and otherworldly, arising over the horizon. I never dwelt on our situation, nor did I regret my circumstances. I loved it. But this particular night, as it had begun, would so end with the companionship of Spider-Man and his driver, Specialist Mitch Fors.
As we sat outside “jokin’ and smokin’,” there were no NCOs to bother us this fine evening. Spider-Man had done this before. He’d met and accompanied countless young Americans from places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Memphis, Tennessee, on missions to and from various bases that dotted the Iraqi desert like “mini-Americas” across a map. This night, he had the pleasure of lounging about with some Virginians, whose accents he hadn’t quite gotten. I found myself repeating my words often, though, in hindsight, I like to think it wasn’t so much because he couldn’t understand what “y'all” meant as much as I needed to repeat them so that one day I could tell this story.
Spider-Man was a Shia Muslim, hailing from the southern Iraqi city of An-Nasiriyah, home to Contingency Operating Base ADDER, our home with the Louisiana Tigers we trained and flew overseas. We didn’t discuss women, beer, or guns — the topics infantrymen typically discuss. Somehow, this Christian boy from the Piedmont and his brother in arms, a Jewish guy from the foothills town of Lynchburg, and their new friend from Iraq, set about discussing religion. Spider-Man simply desired our trust, wanting nothing more than to feel like he was part of the global war on terrorism that we represented. He wanted to feel like part of the group, and by the end of our conversation, I would’ve thought us lacking if he weren’t present.
Between the slow, intentional drags on a cigarette, we each took a turn describing our respective religions and, without being attacked, instinctively defended what was ours. Yet by the end of the conversation, we could only laugh at each other, coming to the realization that we weren’t so different as our initial prejudices might suggest. I had never had a more mundane yet meaningful experience in all my life. And I can tell you, in Iraq, that means something.
Despite whatever delusions of grandeur he relayed, I eventually surmised that Spider-Man decided to help the Americans not because of some intangible notion of honor or integrity, but because the young man wanted to buy his mother an air conditioner. It wasn’t obvious at first, but Spider-Man bore some trepidation in acknowledging that his decision may have been unwise. We eventually understood that his decision to help us, to provide, in whatever small way he could, some added security or peace of mind to us country boys from Virginia, had placed him and his family squarely in the sights of whatever militant organization hated us that day. All because he wanted to buy his mother an air conditioner.
That wasn’t the only thing on Spider-Man’s mind that night, however. I soon learned he had a near fanatical understanding of roller coasters. Yes, Spider-Man also hoped that by helping the Americans, he would one day be afforded the opportunity to put his hair in the 60-mph drop of an all-American roller coaster. He spoke about them in the same way I did when describing a Saturday night away from VMI. I have, after many a sleepless night, concluded that Spider-Man simply wanted to be like us. He wanted one day to have the privilege of calling himself an American, a privilege I have all too often simply taken as a right.
Spider-Man would accompany us on many more missions, eating at the same cho- hall tables, sharing the same beds and same vehicles. We took care of Spider-Man, for he was one of us, a fact proven over countless miles of mine-ridden highways and mind-numbing boredom. He referred to us as his brothers and would warmly smile when would reciprocate the respect. He had, in our eyes, earned it through sweat and dedication. We loved the kid and would’ve protected him from harm however we could. To this day, I know he would have done the same.
In later years, I would find myself working as a staff assistant in the United States Senate. I was initially placed in an office in the cultural cesspool, as we from Southern Virginia refer to it, of Northern Virginia. I hadn’t thought much of Spider-Man and his simple desire to ride a roller coaster until I first met the families, puffy-eyed and sad looking, who would arrive at our offices, on seemingly hopeless missions of their own.
On several occasions, I had what I can only describe as the privilege to meet families of brave men and women, local interpreters who, like Spider-Man, had decided to help the Americans in their efforts to bring stabilization and democracy to their countries. These were the families who felt the sting of betrayal that only American bureaucracy can provide.
Men like Spider-Man began their careers with the hope and understanding that through their sweat, dedication, and, in some instances, their very lives, they might one day sit among us as fellow Americans. In many instances, this would eventually come to be, after a mountain of paperwork and through the good graces of officers who took it upon themselves to personally make it so, but I also met the families of the ones who were running out of places to hide while they awaited their immigrant visas.
I grew to fear those encounters. I was quickly able to spot these families as they slowly shambled through our door, grief-stricken and hopeless, having walked through countless doors just like this one, hoping that this was the government official who would finally make good on the many hopes we had given them. As they would slowly move through the doorway, I could feel my chest tightening, my throat closing up. The sweat slowly beading up on my forehead signaled me. I would often find myself rushing to the bathroom, hiding from the inevitable sad story I knew they bore, leaving them to the helpless interns who shuffled in and out of the offices on a regular basis. I had once faced down the terrors of the most dangerous highways in the world, giving little thought or consideration to snipers, rocket-propelled grenades, and IEDs, but in the face of these families, I was a coward.
I grew to hate these encounters. Even now, I occasionally awake in the night, with unsettling dreams of the conversations I would have with them. In these dreams, I feel utterly alone, even though I sleep beside my fiancée, with a mutt at my feet and another snoring on the pillow beside me.
I wonder whatever became of Spider-Man. Did he ever get to ride that roller coaster he described in glowing, broken English? Better yet, did he ever gain the privilege and recognition of a grateful nation? Perhaps so, but regardless, I know one thing to be true: He is just as much a red-blooded American as I am, and I’d lay low the first man to question that to my face.
In the face of so many similar stories now playing out over the national airwaves, I find that I am no longer filled with fear. No. I am now filled with anger. Hot, unrelenting, and furious anger. And I fear I shall remain so for many nights to come.