By John Thomas Tuft

He comes in every Friday like clockwork, at 1205 sharp, for his lunch. And every Friday it is the same thing: cheesy grits and shrimp. Mind you now, the grits have to be stone-ground, and only stone ground. Just like on Mondays when he comes in at 0700 for oatmeal, and only steel cut oatmeal. A body does have its standards, ya hear? Boog is very particular about those sorts of things. Lights out at 2230, lights on at 0500, thank you very much. Hoo Rah!  A large, shallow bowl of stone ground grits smothered with melted cheddar and shrimp cooked just right with oregano, paprika, onions and garlic. Just like momma’s and momma’s been gone twenty years now. After serving ten years in the US Marine Corps, seeing action in Desert Storm and Somalia, with a loud and proud eagle and furls tattoo on his forearm, salt and pepper hair close cropped, Boog is pushing fifty but his eyes stare into forever. And his heart never stops aching.

It’s always been about coming home. Desert Storm: big victory. Somalia: nobody remembers. Desert Storm: yellow ribbons. Somalia: body bags. Desert Storm: git ‘er done. Somalia: get us out. You’re a Marine. You go, you train, you do the job, accomplish the mission, keep your head down. Come home. Semper Fi. It ain’t easy. Nobody said it would be. But God Almighty, Boog sometimes wonders, what was it all for? Now he puts on a uniform each day, that of a county EMT, climbs into the emergency vehicle and sets out into the mission to aid the suffering and abet the pain. It’s right there on his name plate: BOOG, Semper Fi. Others tease him about displaying the motto, but to Boog it’s no laughing matter. Plain as day. Plain as the tattoo. To remind him. Maybe some day he’ll find a good woman, maybe kids, who knows. But he will never forget. It’s not about him. Semper Fi is for the others. Always the others.

There’s no night quite as black and bleak as a night in the desert. And there’s a lot of black, bleak nights and a lot of desert for marines in both Iraq and Somalia. Boog was nine years into a career when he deployed to Desert Storm. Then detoured in 1992 to the Mog in Operation Restore Hope. Boog doesn’t talk much about what he witnessed there: the starvation, the violence, the abject cruelty all around him and his buddies. The Gunnery Sergeant and his recon platoon were sent into the stark desert country outside Mogadishu to exercise their skills. Back in Washington the mission changed; the Marines were sent home and the Army Rangers and Delta Force deployed. Except no one remembered Boog and his men, no accounting, and they were marooned in the desert.

The ship pulled out, returning the rest of the Marines home, as the Army moved in. Boog and his men waited for word in the hot sand, short on food and water, unwilling to believe there could ever be a violation of the Corps basic principle: Semper Fi. Always faithful. No man left behind. No choppers came. Radio silence. Boog cowboyed up and led his unit on the long, slow slog of a journey through the desert to the airport where they attached to the Rangers. Boog grows very still, his voice barely a whisper, as he describes the events immortalized in the book and film, Blackhawk Down. “It’s all real. It’s all too damn real.” Then he looks away, staring deep into the ache. “It took a year to get back,” he says. “We stayed attached to the Army and had to go with them. Rwanda happened in April of ‘94 and we were itching to go stop that genocide. We coulda done it. We were more than willing. What the hell else are we for? Nobody could tell me why to any of it.”

He grows agitated, the words spitting out like gunfire. “I was going to put in my twenty. Honest to God, I was. But when we finally got back to California a year later, I marched into my CO’s office and resigned on the spot. I was done. Finished. Sometimes I even think about getting my tattoo removed.” He pauses, rubs his eyes. “Sometimes.” He pushes his cheesy grits around for a moment. “But it ain’t about me, now is it? I always told my Marines to watch their sixes. Know what’s going on in front of you and behind you.”

On any given Sunday, at 0800, you can find Boog at the same hill. It’s not really much of a hill, more of a grassy slope alongside the highway. He’s there in full dress, never mind the dirt. Trimming the grass, planting a few flowers, a bucket of white paint nearby. To use on the crosses. Scattered around the top. And straightening the flags. Of those from his county who have fallen. From wounds visible and invisible. The little church sits back a ways. Watching their sixes. Semper Fi, Boog.

(Boog is not his real name, but the historical events described are real.)

Words are magic, and writers are wizards.