The Spaces Between Your Fingers

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After work, I sat down on my bed and Facetimed my dad to interview him about his life. I wanted to hone in on his young adulthood specifically and how that led to him enlisting in the United States Armed Forces in 1994 and ultimately landing him in Iraq in 2004. 

This passage is a memory of my father, Staff Sergeant Earl Ray Johnson Jr, or who was known at the time as simply Sergeant Johnson, and his brief time stationed in Abu Ghraib, one of the world’s most notorious prisons under the reign of Saddam Hussein.

“ETA O’Seven Hundred,” Staff Sergeant Montgomery shouts over the brutal whirr of the helicopter blades. They’ve been downrange for almost four months and the feeling of jetting through the air at two hundred miles per hour still hasn’t settled in Earl’s stomach. 

Earl looks over to see if anyone else is as uncomfortable as he is, but then the helicopter dips and his eyes pinch shut in pain. He can feel his gut recoil and the sweat pool at the base of his neck. The heat has been relentless, and today’s temperature is staggering towards one hundred and fifteen degrees. After four months, no one really geared up – except for when they were traveling from camp to camp. Soldiers typically didn’t suit up unless there was a threat of an attack. 

He glances outside the opening of the Black Hawk when he feels like he’s finally stopped shaking. They are a few thousand feet in the air and all he can see is the burning ocean of sandy waves below, spanning miles in every direction. He never quite feels safe here in Iraq, his head remains on a swivel, but at least the sand is something he can rely on to always be a constant while he drowns in unknowns. 

The buttons on his uniform dig into his skin, as the rest of the chatter blurs out into the monotony of the helicopter blades. He’s uncomfortably hot and tries to sit back – M-16 between his legs – and forces his shoulders to relax despite the heavy burden on them. He lets out a slow, shaky breath. 

He can remember sitting down with his Grandfather, reveling in his war stories. All the stories make sense now, he thinks to himself. 

The solidarity he feels with his Grandfather’s own stories does little to calm his nerves or his stomach. All he can focus on is the heat on his neck, the pulsing pain behind his eyes and the unbearably loud sound of the rotor blades whirling above him. Suddenly, his tongue feels heavy and his mouth tastes salty. He realizes he has at most thirty seconds before he loses what little breakfast he had eaten earlier. Luckily, his comrades are more focused on their own discomfort than his own. After carefully coughing up the contents of his stomach into his canteen unnoticed, Earl leans back and closes his eyes. Moving on to his next hurtle: staying hydrated during this mission with his canteen now out of commission.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Above Saddam Hussein

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2004
Above Baghdad, Iraq

After work, I sat down on my bed and Facetimed my dad to interview him about his life. I wanted to hone in on his young adulthood specifically and how that led to him enlisting in the United States Armed Forces in 1994 and ultimately landing him in Iraq in 2004.

This passage is a memory of my father, Staff Sergeant Earl Ray Johnson Jr, or who was known at the time as simply Sergeant Johnson, and his brief time stationed in Abu Ghraib, one of the world’s most notorious prisons under the reign of Saddam Hussein.

Decade: 2000s
Rating:
Recorded by Aesha Johnson on March 12, 2020
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