O'Byrne thought that made sense and joined the 173rd Airborne, based in Vicenza, Italy. He'd never been out of the country before.
He wound up in Second Platoon, Battle Company, which was already thought of as one of the top units in the brigade. Battle Company had fought well in Iraq and had seen a lot of combat in Afghanistan on its previous deployment. There were four platoons in the company, and of them all, Second Platoon was considered the best-trained and in some ways the worst-disciplined. The platoon had a reputation for producing terrible garrison soldiers men who drink and fight and get arrested for disorderly conduct and mayhem but who are extraordinarily good at war. Soldiers make a distinction between the petty tyrannies of garrison life and the very real ordeals of combat, and poor garrison soldiers like to think it's impossible to be good at both.
"I used to score three hundreds on my PT tests shit-canned... just drunk as f***," O'Byrne told me. "That's how you got sober for the rest of the day. I never got in trouble, but Bobby beat up a few MPs, threatened them with a fire extinguisher, pissed on their boots. But what do you expect from the infantry, you know? I know that all the guys that were bad in garrison were perfect f***ing soldiers in combat. They're troublemakers and they like to fight. That's a bad garrison trait but a good combat trait right? I know I'm a shitty garrison soldier, but what the f*** does it matter? Okay, I got to shine my f***ing boots. Why do I care about shining my godd*** boots?"
The weekend before they deployed to Afghanistan, O'Byrne and three other soldiers took the train to Rome for a last blowout. They drank so much that they completely cleaned out the café car. Traveling with O'Byrne were two other privates, Steve Kim and Misha Pemble--Belkin, and a combat medic named Juan Restrepo. Restrepo was born in Colombia but lived in Florida and had two daughters with a woman back home. He spoke with a slight lisp and brushed his teeth compulsively and played classical and flamenco guitar at the barbecues the men threw on base. Once in garrison he showed up at morning PT drunk from the night before, but he was still able to run the two-mile course in twelve and a half minutes and do a hundred sit-ups. If there was a guaranteed way to impress Second Platoon, that was it.
On the train Restrepo pulled out a little one-chip camera and started shooting video of the trip. The men were so drunk they could barely speak. Kim was propped against the window. Pemble tried to say something about putting a saddle on a miniature zebra and riding it around. O'Byrne said his job in Rome was to just keep Restrepo out of trouble. "Not possible, bro," Restrepo said. "You can't tame the beast."
On the far side of the window the gorgeous Italian countryside slid past. "We're lovin' life and getting ready to go to war," Restrepo said, his arm around O'Byrne's neck. His face was so close to the camera there was almost a fish-eye effect. "We're goin' to war. We're ready. We're goin' to war... we're goin' to war."