A Marine’s story
By Ben Kent | May 1, 2022
he explosive bang and metallic ringing shot me up from behind my plywood desk as sawdust and sand drifted down from the converted warehouse rafters. Wheeling, I came face to face with the intruder.
A big orange tabby cat locked eyes with me. He seemed as startled as I was by the violence of his entrance. The corrugated metal walls stopped rattling, aluminum sheets settling over the narrow aperture he’d forced himself through. We had left one of the three big air conditioning tubes open and dangling to the floor behind the server racks to cool the systems. The cat turned and disappeared into it.
Just a cat breaking into our makeshift technical control facility. Not a gunshot after all. Kuwait remained firmly a peacetime deployment. I inspected the sliver of air between the metal walls. I figured this didn’t count as a breach of a classified space.
Big Orange’s kin were familiar to us. His sister, Clementine, and her entitled brats hung out behind the chow hall dumpsters and screamed at anyone who didn’t drop leftovers. And also everyone who did.
Big Orange became a ghost flitting amongst HVAC tubes and server racks for the rest of the humid months that passed for winter in the Gulf. We’d never quite get a close look at him again. But like a benevolent spirit, we were thankful for his presence. He kept the mouse population in check, so my Marines could leave communal care packages out on the work benches again. Food and HVAC aside, we knew why he stuck around. His girlfriend, who we also rarely saw but often heard, was a calico shadow weaving her way between the spaghetti tangles of fiber optic cables the Air Force had left patched across the entire back wall. If she ever tripped a wire, though, I can attest that it never took down the Internet on the Marine side of base, since it was part of my job to keep an eye on the network monitors all day anyway. We shot ourselves in the foot plenty enough in that department by ourselves. So even though the base had standing orders to keep all stray animals out of workspaces, I never quite found the time to chase them away. I did the officer thing and told my Marines to do it. I guess they never quite got around to it either.
Calico at least had the decorum to birth the kittens outdoors, sparing the night shift an uncomfortable cleanup job. A few weeks after the mice came back, I was in our fenced-in compound back yard, staring at two more sets of eyes peering out from under the shipping containers. Brother was black as a new moon. Sister was slush and snow. The styrofoam cup of water wedged in the gravel tipped me off that I wasn’t the first Marine to discover them.
The weeks went by. The monsoon puddles dried up. Satellite terminal parts wore out and the maintainers’ wrenches got hot. Tuna packets began to pop up around the styrofoam cup.
COVID hit Kuwait City. No one left base.
Marines smoked and played spades between the cargo containers under camouflage netting. Brother crept an arm’s length away amongst the vehicle-mounted radios, now laid out for inventory and condemned to confinement. Sister sat in the open, social distancing before it was cool.
“Ok, guys,” I said, “you can feed them here in the compound. But no touching, and they stay outside the control facility.” I reminded them of the OSHA sign about not touching local fauna outside the chow hall. The one posted over Clementine and her brood.
Flights were grounded across the globe. The deployment got extended. The last time I saw the kittens together, they were playing tetherball with a Gatorade cap hanging from a 6-foot grounded antenna rod by a length of 550 cord.
The Air Force got ahold of Brother shortly after. He was back a week later with a tiny triangle cut in his ear. The vet had given him his shots, officially employing him as a government sanctioned rat-catcher on base. Ironically, since the experience had soured him on human contact, he lurked in a shaded corner of the compound away from all the humans and their food, and thus, away from all the mice. I wondered how Sister had escaped, until I came into the facility one morning to find her curled in an office chair watching Dog the Bounty Hunter on YouTube with the Marines on the early shift.
Our frequency manager named her “Pretty”.
One day when all her other friends were out of the compound doing actual work, I lured Pretty outside, visibly chewing on a Clif bar. She followed, mewling expectantly for a handout. We got about 10 feet into the compound. My plan was to chase her off and dash inside, reintroducing her to the wild. She squinted in the desert sun, peering at her childhood home amongst the shipping containers. She turned. She sat facing the iron security door. She waited.
I punched in my key code and let her back inside.
I’m not a cat person, I swear. I must have that brain parasite that makes you one.
The global military logistics chain eventually lurched back into gear. Overseas flights resumed slowly. Our replacement unit arrived in country. Unfortunately their 12 hour layover in Germany coincided with the night the EU decided to lock down. Their one Marine who broke curfew to get drunk in Munich compelled the whole unit to do an additional two weeks of quarantine in a tent city on our Kuwaiti airbase. We tossed them Pop Tarts from over the six foot sandy “moat” roped off with engineer tape, ignoring the terrified Air Force teenage guard who’d been issued live rounds because his Colonel thought Marines were psychopaths itching to start a riot. Little did he know his detainees were pilots and comm guys who were mostly just annoyed that they had to choose between functional air conditioning and recharging their Nintendo Switches for another 14 days.
On day 15, we handed over the proverbial keys to the mission, and for me, the technical control facility. We had one last job: get ourselves home. Count weapons, ship gear, count people. Make sure the people are healthy enough to travel, so get everyone in the gym for a medical screening. Heads up: masks on for the whole 24 hour flight back to March Air Base. No one gets off. No celebratory beers in Ireland or Maine. Questions? No? Good. Oh, last thing from the docs:
“Ok, did anyone get bit or scratched by a cat?”
FreqMan raises her hand.
“Go to the clinic right now, get your shots.”
Shots? A murmur in the corner from the communications platoon. My guys.
“Ok. Again, who had any physical contact with a cat that involved a tooth or claw breaking the skin?”
Another hand, puzzled. A wideband technician. Another sheepish hand. A radio operator.
I’d seen our surgeon prepare for mass casualty events without breaking a sweat. When everyone lost their heads in the early days of COVID, he predicted (correctly, in hindsight) the eventual mitigations and life cycle of the virus. He wore the badge of the military’s toughest dive training on his chest.
And now he lost it.
“I don’t know how many of you lost the ability to fucking read, but in case you missed the big ass sign by the chow hall: any cats without the triangle cut in their ear haven’t had their shots. That means they can transmit rabies, where your throat closes up and you kill yourself because your brain decides water is poison. Or you can get a bacterial infection from their claws that spreads to your brain, or your eyes, or your bones, like that contractor over in Arifjan who decided to pet a kitty and fucking died.”
He took a breath, and from across the auditorium, shot daggers at my platoon.
“So one last time so I can tell my nice Air Force colleague to prep more rabies shots. Who touched the cat?”
Hand. Hand. Hand. Hand hand hand hand hand.
“All of you, clinic. Now.”
As Doc ushered twelve of my guys out, The Boss glared at me. Not because he didn’t know, but for our lack of discretion. Now he had to explain to the full bird why his comms platoon (by medical readiness metrics) took 30% casualties the day before redeployment. Hey, I never actually touched Pretty. I had thought that was leadership by example.
The day of our flight I went back into the facility and shook my replacement’s hand and wished him luck. He’d locked our standing desk fully extended.
Pretty slept in the office chair.
About the Author
Ben Kent is a Greater Bostonian by origin, Marine by choice, and contributing writer with So Say We All, a San Diego arts and storytelling nonprofit. When not writing short stories and 10-minute plays, he scouts for Spartan Race discounted tickets on GovX. This is his first published story.