Lieutenants have a lot of theoretical knowledge but not much experience, so they are paired with a platoon sergeant who has probably been in the Army for years. Second Platoon's sergeant was a career soldier named Mark Patterson who, at age thirty, had twelve years on the youngest man in the unit. The men called him Pops. Patterson was both the platoon enforcer and the platoon representative, and his role allowed him to keep an eye not only on the grunts but on the lieutenants as well. His face got bright red when he was angry or when he was working very hard, and he could outwalk just about everyone in the platoon. I never saw him look even nervous during a fight, much less scared. He commanded his men like he was directing traffic.
The men of Second Platoon were from mainland America and from wherever the American experiment has touched the rest of the world: the Philippines and Guam and Mexico and Puerto Rico and South Korea. A gunner in Weapons Squad named Jones claims he made thousands of dollars selling drugs before joining the Army to avoid getting killed on the streets of Reno. O'Byrne's soldier Vaughn was eleven years old when 9/11 happened and decided right then and there to join the U.S. Army. As soon as he could, he did.
Danforth was forty-two years old and had joined the year before because he was bored; the others called him Old Man and asked a lot of joking questions about Vietnam. A private named Lizama claimed his mother was a member of the Guamese Congress. There was a private named Moreno from Beeville, Texas, who worked in the state penitentiary and had been a promising boxer before joining up. There was a sergeant whose father was currently serving in Iraq and had nearly been killed by a roadside bomb.
The Army has a lot of regulations about how soldiers are required to dress, but the farther you get from the generals the less those rules are followed, and Second Platoon was about as far from the generals as you could get. As the deployment wore on and they got pushed farther into enemy territory it was sometimes hard to tell you were even looking at American soldiers. They wore their trousers unbloused from their boots and tied amulets around their necks and shuffled around the outpost in flip-flops jury-rigged from the packing foam used in missile crates. Toward the end of their tour they'd go through entire firefights in nothing but gym shorts and unlaced boots, cigarettes hanging out of their lips. When the weather got too hot they chopped their shirts off below the armpit and then put on body armor so they'd sweat less but still look like they were in uniform. They carried long knives and for a while one guy went on operations with a small samurai sword in his belt. The rocks ripped their pants to shreds and they occasionally found themselves more or less exposed on patrol. A few had "INFIDEL" tattooed in huge letters across their chests. ("That's what the enemy calls us on their radios," one man explained, "so why not?") Others had tattoos of angel wings sprouting from bullets or bombs. The men were mostly in their early twenties, and many of them have known nothing but life at home with their parents and war.