e had just begun to rest his eyes ever so slightly for the first time in days. They burned. Everything in the desert burns.
Even the smell in the air. It feels like it singes the tiny hairs on the inside of your nose when you inhale. You never quite get used to the fumes of those desert burn pits. It’s a sharp, sulfuric, rotting sour of a smell. They call it death the way it rises from the smoldering heaps of slow-roasting tires, trash, feces, even bodies. Everything in the desert burns.
Ed Fleming had just begun to rest his eyes. His flack jacket lay on top of him. His Kevlar to the side of him. He’d become comfortable operating at a heightened level of awareness lately. Staying alive required a sharper sense of caution these days. He was unusually comfortable for once though. He allowed himself, for the first time in a while, to relax a bit, to doze into a mind fog of dehydration and sleep deprivation.
He’d just begun to let himself drift. A whizzing noise sliced through the evening air beside him. Was he dreaming? Another pounded against the steel door of the Humvee he’d propped himself against. Then another. Two more.
He was wide awake now. His heart pounded. He peaked from behind the truck. Everything lay still. Only for a moment. Another bullet came humming toward him. They were getting closer. A cotton field stretched for miles ahead of him. Nothing else surrounded them. It must be coming from the field, he thought. And cotton?
It amazed him how a cotton field could flourish in the middle of a desert battlefield so dry that even his .50 caliber machine gun had jammed. And cotton, of all crops. The field of white stalks reminded him of home. Cotton was woven into the fabric of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Tonight though, as Fleming dug a low crouch into the sand, this cotton patch, with gunfire raining from its branches, reminded him of just how far from home he actually was.
Fleming, 33, laughs thinking about the brash punk that strolled into the recruiting office 12 years ago thinking he had anything at all figured out.
He wanted to join the infantry and slay the enemy, he said boasting with his chest out. A recruiter, more of a mountain of a man with a long, hallow drawl to match, stopped him there. He countered with a book that outlined more than 101 different jobs in the United States Marine Corps.
“Who do you want to be,” the recruiter asked.
Fleming didn’t really have much of a clear direction at the time. Life was good though. He’d been out of high school for a little more than a year. He was taking a few classes at the local community college while working part-time in restaurants and bars. He was a pretty typical Charleston kid. He lived downtown. The nightlife was always entertaining. Girls were important. Partying was a priority. So was getting out to Sullivan’s Island to surf when the waves were breaking at Bert’s.
People looked at him strange when he began to float the idea of joining the Marines. He’s comfortable with people thinking he’s a little crazy though.
Part of his enlistment had to do with honoring his grandfather, Edward Fleming, a Marine who served in the Korean War. He’d always been one of the toughest guys Fleming knew. Fleming admired the respect people showed his grandfather. He wanted to make him proud.
A lot of it, though, was to fulfill his own desires. He’s always had some sort of insatiable wild spirit. He justifies that by first explaining that he grew up in the Old Village neighborhood of Mount Pleasant, as if that alone should tell the listener all that he needs to know. The old Old Village, he’s sure to distinguish, before the spirit and culture in which he was raised underwent a million-dollar makeover.
Fleming takes a lot of pride in where he’s from. More than most. His hometown and neighborhood especially. He winced watching the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in high school.
“Oh, hell no,” he remembers thinking as the watched the buildings fall on the small square television hanging from the ceiling of his homeroom class.
“It just took me a year or two to say, ‘Actually, hell yes,’ Fleming said. “’Challenge accepted. I’m coming.’”
Fleming can take a D battery, a desk lamp and few things out of your kitchen pantry and blow up your house.
As a former combat engineer in the Marines, he’s considered an expert in explosives. He’s the guy walking outside of the truck with a metal detector sweeping the sand for roadside bombs. He secures the minefields. He’s also responsible for all kinds of construction, large and small. So not only is he getting you there safely, but he’s erecting something secure enough to keep you and everyone else alive.
“You’re the queen of all spades,” he explains. “We can build anything out of anything. Plus, we get to go play with explosives.”
His first deployment sent him to the Anbar Province in Iraq, known then as one of the bloodiest regions of the war. Children walked around casually carrying AK-47 assault rifles. Men were allowed to beat their wives in the middle of the street. None of it was out of the ordinary over there.
Fleming figures he was engaged in a firefight at least once every 14 days there.
“That’s not really a lot,” he tries to convince. “It was a pretty chill deployment that first time as far as deployments go.”
Fleming took fire in just his second mission. He was still fresh. He was dismounting a .50 cal off the top turret of an MRAP vehicle. He was a sitting duck perched some 14 feet in the air. A sniper put a bullet into the HESCO berm beside him. He ducked down inside the vehicle for cover. Four feet closer and rather than sand pouring from the HESCO it’d be blood leaking from his body. A few more shots followed. MRAPs are designed to withstand explosions. He’d be fine here to wait out the arrival of support, he figured. He lit a Newport cigarette and continued to take apart his weapon from the bottom of the turret. This would be his new everyday reality.
“Being shot at is such a weird feeling. You’d think it’s terrifying but it’s kind of more exhilarating,” Fleming said. “You hear them whizzing by you and your adrenaline kicks in. You try to remember your training and when you and your boys come out unscathed it’s like, ‘Holy (cow), that was intense.’”
It’s nothing like getting blown up, though. Fleming uses the words “blown up” so casually that you have to ask him if blown up to him means the same thing as blown up to you. And it pretty much does.
Fleming figures he’s stood face to face with an improvised explosive device (also known as an IED) probably just short of 50 times. He’s lost count — but definitely more than five times — an explosive has detonated within range, as close as 20 feet, for him to feel the effects of the blast.
Your body tenses in a strange way when you withstand an explosion. It’s violent. Your body seizes, something like a high-speed car crash. Fleming will tell you it’s even worse and you believe him after the way he describes his brain being pushed against the inside of his skull. He’s considered service-connected disabled, in part because of these brain injuries. He still struggles with the effects. He blacked out one time, back home not long ago, as he exited the shower. His crashed forward, his face smacked off the tile floor and had to be repaired with titanium plates and screws.
His second deployment sent him to Helmand Province in Afghanistan. If Anbar was known as one of the bloodiest, Helmand was even worse.
“Like the wild, wild, west,” Fleming said. “It was a whole different ball game.”
He was now a Non-Commissioned Officer (or an NCO) responsible for leading 12 other guys in his squad. He ran the missions. Lives were his responsibility. Casualties were on him.
The rules of engagement and escalation of force seemed different in Helmand. The first convoy Fleming was a part of while there involved a shootout between an Apache helicopter and a group of militants on the ground. Fleming and his squad returned fire and were sent in to assess the situation once the melee settled. The body parts that remained were hardly distinguishable, scattered about in pieces in that stone well of a hideout. "There’s nothing left," he radioed back.
Days went on like that, blending into weeks and months. Sweeping for bombs, raiding compounds, exchanging fire, trying not to die. The Marines are the first ones to infiltrate an area. Bullets, bombs, bodies, it all became so commonplace for Fleming. There are so many horror stories. Some he doesn't think he should tell. Some he doesn't want to relive.
“All my friends were going off to college, I was out there listening for beeps and holding this stick waiting to go kablooey,” he said."They attack us. We attack them. On and on and on."
How many times did he think he might die?
“At least 60 or 70 times, probably.”
And how often did he worry about dying?
“Probably every single day you’re over there."
He and his team built a base called Fiddler’s Green where they slept in shallow holes — ranger graves they call them — in the ground for months on end. It was better than the times they slept in sewage ditches. Every morning at 6 a.m. they’d watch the artillery fly over. Every night they’d watch the ash from the nearby burn pits rain down on top of them as the tried to steal a few moments of sleep. Water bottle showers were a luxury. Fleming and his squad washed with nothing but baby wipes for 40 days straight. Only two wipes at most at any given time to wash away a few days worth of sweat in 120-degree temperatures. You wiped from your face, down under your arms and then between your legs in one swoop. It’s called a whore’s bath.
Water was delivered on enormous pallets of one-liter bottles. But it would get so hot, sitting out in the sun all day in those plastic bottles, that you couldn’t drink it straight. You had to pour some onto a tube sock and let the wind run through it to drop it down to a reasonable drinking temperature.
The conditions, the heat, the general mission of just staying alive wore on people. Fleming had to maintain his own sanity while being conscious of his crew. He had to take guys off the gun, let them settle down, get some sleep, maybe use a satellite phone to call home for a minute. Whatever to hold things together.
“You do get to a breaking point,” Fleming admits. “People do lose their minds over there. Every day someone is trying to murder you. Every day is about staying alive. You forget about everything else.”
Fleming got married just before he joined the Marines. He and his wife separated midway through his four years on duty. They’re now divorced.
The military can cost you things. A healthy relationship is one of them.
He and his wife found out they were pregnant five days before his first deployment. He missed almost eight months of the pregnancy. His daughter was born three months before his second deployment. He couldn’t call home for the first two months of it.
“That freaking sucked,” he admits.
He could video chat with his pregnant wife during his first deployment. There weren’t many opportunities within his second. When someone dies, the platoon goes into what’s called River City, shutting down communications temporarily as a safety precaution. No calls in or out.
“We were pretty much under River City every day,” Fleming said.
Fleming owns up to much of the responsibility for his failed marriage. He spent the final two years of his service as a battle skills training instructor at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., maybe the most honorable part of it all in his mind. It was an opportunity few engineers receive. He helped rewrite parts of the Marine Corps curriculum on IEDs. He’s credited with training 43,000 Marines, meaning he’s likely saved at least as many lives.
“I love my life right now. It’s great,” he said. “But I’ll never feel as important as I was then, in some aspects.”
It left little time to nurture a marriage though. The job required 16-hour days, regular flights to the West Coast and back. The best times of his professional career were some of the worst times of his personal life.
Fleming doesn’t outright blame the Marines for his failed marriage. But he and his wife undoubtedly get along better now than when he was on active duty. His relationship with his daughter never really faltered. But it’s incredibly strong now. Rather than searching for bombs or sorting through body parts in the desert, he’s hanging with his beautiful blonde-haired 11-year-old at the spa, or picking out expensive heels or rapping along to Taylor Swift songs in a suite in the Charleston Place Hotel.
“I look at things so much differently now. I’m so humbled by the world,” he says. “I just want to watch my daughter grow up and be happy now. If I can do that, life is perfect.”
There are, of course, the health concerns. He’s had 26 surgeries in the past eight years. He might have more scars from surgeries than combat at this point. He never had an issue with his blood pressure before serving, nor is there any history of diabetes in his family. He’s now a Type 1 diabetic, one of the most brittle doctors have seen, he’s been told. He eats healthy and checks his blood pressure regularly. It’s supposed to stay between 90-150. Right now, as he reminisces on his Marine past, it’s 389. He can’t even go to the bar and drink a couple low-calorie seltzers without ending up in the hospital for a couple of days. When he goes surfing, he has to bring two jugs of orange juice in a book bag and refuel every so often. His blood sugar can drop in an instant. And if it drops too low, he’ll die.
“I can never be the same again,” he says. “My health is absolutely awful.”
He steps outside to smoke a cigarette. A door slams in the distance. He ducks down on cue and almost braces for impact. Muscle memory, he calls it. Old habits die hard. He often relives the wars at night. His post-traumatic stress disorder hasn’t really improved much over the years. Counseling wasn't helping. He rarely talks to anyone about it now. He takes heavy doses of night terror medicine and that hardly helps. He can’t sit down in a restaurant without being near an exit with his back against a wall.
“Dude, this is a Longhorns,” his friends have reminded him.
It isn’t all bad, though. Fleming considers himself lucky. He’s alive. He’s safe. He has more memories than he can share. He’s saved countless lives, both American and otherwise. He’s been to the Fertile Crescent. He’s bathed in the Tigris and Euphrates River. He’s accomplished more in his four years of service than some will in a lifetime. And he’s satisfied with that.
His time in the Marines and what came with it has set him up to be financially stable for the foreseeable future. He opened a printing shop a few years ago and has worked different side jobs since to stay busy. He spent three months repairing houses in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria just because he had the skills to do it and thought he could catch some waves while he was down there. He’s thinking about going back to school. Photography interests him lately.
“I’ve lost some things I love. I’ll never be the same. But (heck with) it. I still have a great life. I have everything I need,” Fleming said. “It’s not all bad. I think about the humanitarian aid part, the reward of bringing all your guys home, the reward of coming home. I’m lucky.”
When Fleming thinks back of his time in the Marines — and he does often — he doesn’t pictures bombs or bullets or dead bodies. He thinks about delivering food and first aid to staving, injured children. He thinks about the down time with his comrades, feasting on local goats or chickens that they field dressed and rotisserie roasted with a few metal spikes, a rubber strap and the back wheel of a Humvee. He thinks about sipping bottles of Gatorade diluted with cheap vodka and chewing cans of Grizzly winter green long cut tobacco, thankful to be alive, as they gazed into a clementine sunset that stretched for miles.
“I have a different perspective now. I think about the beauty of what I fought for,” he explains. “I lived the fastest, gnarliest, craziest four years you could ask to live. And I made it. I appreciate the chillness of life now. That part of my life and that style of life is done for me completely.
“But would I do it again? I definitely would. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Ed Fleming, the cotton that flourished in the desert.