Nolan Capps

2024 Fiction Spring Contest Runner Up

March 2010, Camp Lejeune, NC—

When I was a new infantryman in First Battalion, Eighth Regiment, I lived in a barracks with about a hundred other Marines. Most of these Marines were lance corporals who had already fought in Iraq. I was a nineteen-year-old private awaiting my first deployment to Afghanistan. And it wasn’t the far-off combat I was afraid of—it was those senior lance corporals.

I served with plain, menacing men, and I lived in a plain, menacing building. Three stories of brick and concrete stood like the wall of a prison. And beyond stood another identical prison, and another beyond that. Within each barracks, at twenty-foot intervals, were the metal doors to our cells. A breezeway ran through the building, and in this breezeway was a vending machine, a stairwell, and a bulletin board to which our chain of command tacked orders.

Life in the barracks was dangerous when my seniors ignored those orders. But it was far more dangerous when they actually read them. There was this order, for example: 


Common myths about hazing: It builds comradery. It produces tougher Marines. It is a tradition. It was a staple of the “Old Corps.” These myths are false. According to Article 38 of the UCMJ, hazing is forbidden. Hazing is not only dangerous: IT IS A CRIME.

Pinning, Table-Topping, Mattress-Taping, Shell-Backing, Blanket Parties, Berretta Bites, Pink Bellies, Jersey Meat Hooks, and Wolfpacking are all considered hazing and will no longer be tolerated aboard MCB Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

—Brigadier General Gaviria, USMC

I remember Lance Corporal Gerber and Lance Corporal Carlisle reading this memo with confusion. They knew what pinning, table-topping, mattress-taping, shell-backing, blanket parties, Berretta bites, pink bellies, and Jersey meat hooks were, having performed most of those operations in their tenure.

“But I ain’t never heard of Wolfpacking,” Lance Corporal Gerber said.

Gerber, a machine gunner, was an enormous Floridian redneck with a bass voice and a broken tooth.

Carlisle was an assaultman, an explosives expert. He was thin and mean. For fun he hung around the barracks laundry room and stole uniforms from the dryer. I suspect he sold these articles at Saigon Sam’s on Western Boulevard, but I also suspect that he just liked to steal.

They guessed what Wolfpacking might be until Lance Corporal Carlisle noticed me watching them.

“Get in here, Kermit,” he said.

“Aye, Lance Corporal,” I said. I stepped into the breezeway and presented myself to my seniors.

“You know what a Wolfpacking is?” Carlisle said.

“No, Lance Corporal.” A ball of sweat teased its way under my collar and down my back.

“As soon as we find out,” Gerber said. “You’ll find out.”

Weeks passed before Gerber and Carlisle delivered on this promise. During that time, I could think of nothing else.

December 2016, Boone, NC—

I earned a bad discharge from the Marines—drug test, Percocet. Years later I enrolled in community college. I met Dana there. Dana, a Christian, wore long, thrift-store dresses and turquoise jewelry. She bit her nails. She was the most generous person I ever met.

First Fridays in Boone, the galleries on King Street opened their doors, inviting people in for bad wine and worse art. Dana and I never missed it. In one gallery she recognized a friend, a scruffy hipster with a dazed look. He sat in the corner on a stool and noodled around on a Taylor. He was a terrible guitar player, and I said so later that night.

“But he’s so nice,” Dana said.

“What does that have to do with his playing?” I said.

To Dana it had everything to do with his playing. She cared more about who you were than what you did. More than attraction to her, I felt a desire to be like her. I wanted to believe in her judgment of my character.

Though I was firm in my atheism then, I would attend church with her. That’s what broke us up—more specifically, we broke up over a sermon about the Book of Samuel, chapter 15. The prophet Samuel orders King Saul to kill the Amalekites. Not just the military-aged men, but the women, children, livestock.

King Saul kills almost everybody—but he takes Agag, king of the Amalekites, prisoner, and spoils, rather than slaughters, the livestock. Samuel delivers a famous rhetorical question to King Saul after the conquest: “What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?”

In the balcony I listened with horror. A prophet suggesting God was upset because a mass murder had stopped short of the livestock?

I’m a veteran of the fighting in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. When I was nineteen, I shot a man in a firefight and watched him hobble away into a building. I’ve been praying ever since for that man’s survival, but I don’t know what happened to him. His wound or the sepsis might have killed him, and it’s my fault.

Mass murder with sword and spear is incomprehensible to me. My pity might have been misplaced, I admit, because I first thought not of the war crime, but of the PTSD the Israelite spearmen would certainly suffer after such occupation.

“Some people,” the pastor said, “question whether it was right of God to do this. I tell you, if God ordered it, it was right.”

All to the left, right, and below me were people listening to this and accepting it. It was a young congregation. They, I thought, have never been in a war. They have never seen one person die violently, let alone an entire society and much cattle.

Afterward, as I rode home in Dana’s Subaru, I asked how she could embrace a faith built on such stories as those.

“That pastor,” she said, “doesn’t normally preach here. I’m sure he’s a good man, but I don’t like his sermons as much as the others’.”

“I’m not talking about the pastor,” I said. “I’m talking about the Amalekites.”

“That was in the Old Testament,” she said.

“But it’s still in the Bible. What if George Bush said we had to kill every man, woman, child, and goat in Afghanistan? What if he said God told him to do it? And what if everybody else just threw up their hands and said, ‘well, God ordered it. Let’s get to work.’”

Dana bit her thumbnail while she drove. In a small voice, she explained that the God of the Old Testament was an untouchable God—so untouchable that the Levite priests, when entering the Holy of Holies to burn incense, would leave a rope tied to their ankle. If they were stricken dead at the brass feet of the cherubim, the other priests could pull them out.

Christ is the human, approachable side of this untouchable God, and both, somehow, are the same deity.

“You’ve got to think about it all in context,” she said. “I wish I could explain it to you better than that.”

I sat shaking my head in the passenger’s seat. Dana wasn’t an idiot. She had her own reasons for ignoring or rationalizing the war crimes of the Bible. It isn’t my intention to either judge her or dig up her past on the page. I will say that now, in 2024, I’m beginning to understand why she didn’t interrogate harder the faith that kept her sane.

“Just take me home,” I said.

March 2010, Camp Lejeune, NC—

While I waited to learn what Wolfpacking entailed, I did something very stupid. I bought a plane ticket. My unit had earned a four-day weekend for Easter, and I didn’t know how else to get home safely.

I had never bought a plane ticket before. It didn’t look odd to me that the only available flight from Jacksonville to Columbia had an eleven-hour layover in White Plains, New York. It did look odd to me that the plane ticket cost over a thousand dollars. 

I decided I didn’t care about the money. The Marines paid well, compared to working the drive thru at Popeye’s. I could afford the ticket, and to get away from the barracks for a few days, I would have paid double.

On Holy Wednesday afternoon, I bought the ticket, printed the itinerary at the rec center, and stapled it to my Leave Safety Plan. Then, along with my roommate, PFC Park, I took a nap.

We accomplished this risky task by turning out the lights in our barracks room and hiding. That way, if one of our seniors looked in the window—we weren’t allowed to close our blinds during the workday—it would seem we weren’t home. Infantry Marines usually have little to do unless we are training in the field, and during the slow afternoons while we waited to get off work, it was safer to hide. 

I awoke to Gerber jiggling the knob and Carlisle pounding the window.

“Kermit!” they cried. “Park! Open this door! It’s time for your Wolfpacking.”

They said they knew we were in there. Park believed them. He stepped out from behind his wall locker and unlocked the door. Gerber and Carlisle howled like wolves as they leaped into the room. Before I could think, I was on my feet with my hands behind my back—the position of parade rest came automatically to me. The moment the punches started, I curled in on myself and blocked with my arms as well as I could.

“You will remain at parade rest for your Wolfpacking, Kermit,” Gerber said.

I reassumed the position, and Gerber immediately struck me between the legs. After I folded over, he sank three heavy hooks into my side. This was what they had come up with: a plain old beating. 

The lack of creativity disappointed me even as the blows fell. When Gerber and Carlisle got tired, the Wolfpacking ended. Carlisle took a few big breaths and spoke.

“Strickland’s gotta sign off on those Leave Safety Plans,” he said. “Get to the company office.”

Park and I sounded off. I took my LSP in my hand. I already had a feeling familiar to me from grade school, as though what I held were a homework assignment I knew that I hadn’t done correctly. I never cared if I failed the assignment; I only hoped my teacher would not confront me about it. Of course, the Marine Corps infantry is not grade school.

“Kermit,” Staff Sergeant Strickland said, “tell me what I’m looking at.”

We stood, he and I, in his cramped cubicle in the company office. He studied the itinerary of my flight with a confused expression on his face.

“My LSP, Staff Sergeant,” I said.

“You bought a plane ticket,” he said, “to go to Columbia?”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant.”

“How long does it take to drive to Columbia from here?”

“About four hours, Staff Sergeant.”

The ticket now seemed insane to me. Staff Sergeant Strickland asked why I had spent a month’s pay on a plane ticket that would take three times as long as the drive. I had no answer.

“Why didn’t you just ask somebody for a ride?” he asked.

Bruises from the Wolfpacking had already risen on my ribs. I was still half-nauseated from the beating. But I didn’t mention any of that to Strickland. He called the airline and got my ticket refunded, which was no relief to me.

“Anybody in the platoon who’s going down 95 would be happy to give you a ride, you know that?” Strickland said. I said yes.

“I think Lance Corporal Gerber’s going that way,” Strickland said. “Ask him at the afternoon formation. We’ll fix you up.”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant.”

But the afternoon formation came, and I told no one I needed a ride. Strickland was happy to do it for me.

“Kermit,” he said, “tried to buy a plane ticket to go to South Carolina.”

The platoon started laughing.

“And he spent a thousand bucks on it,” Strickland said.

There was such an uproar then that it was hard to make out the individual insults. I heard someone say something about “flying first class” and I heard someone else say, “You suck.” I wished I could melt into the dirt beneath my boots.

Strickland let the abuse go for about a half a minute before saying, “Who’s driving through Columbia? Somebody needs to give Kermit a ride.”

The platoon shut its many mouths, and I waited for Gerber to offer his services. The Marines in their jungle camouflage looked at one another. The sensations rolled over me: Listerine that covered liquor on breath, rough shaves on faces, bad haircuts poking out from under caps. Someone’s hand softly scratched at a crotch. I waited for a favor from these awful people. I stood at the mercy of their calculation and their hard-learned reluctance to volunteer for anything.

“We ain’t leaving till we square away Kermit,” Strickland said.

A voice from the first rank, from the assaultmen, spoke at last.

“I’ll take him, Staff Sarn’t.”

2020, Harlem, NY—

I was studying creative writing at NYU during the pandemic. About a month into lockdown, my father suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. It would disable him for the rest of his life.

I relapsed on pain pills, and when I couldn’t get those, I rode the A train all through the city, visiting pharmacies and stockpiling over-the-counter cough syrup. High on Robitussin, hunkered in my apartment in Washington Heights, I thought of Afghanistan, my father, and the life that I didn’t want to continue living. I was writing a book, a thinly disguised autobiography about a bisexual Marine who finds it easier to go to war than to be himself. A part of me wished my parents would die before the book saw print.

It was around this time that I ordered a secondhand King James Bible from Thriftbooks. My first excuse for reading it was research: my main character’s father was a Baptist minister, and I wanted real Biblical knowledge to put in this character’s mouth. My second excuse was a search for the context of which Dana had once spoken. I wanted to know the Bible from Genesis to maps if I ever argued with a Christian again. 

Privately I looked for something else. The stroke had cost my father, a professional musician, his ability to play the guitar. Even before the stroke, he mostly communicated in grunts and gestures. When he played music, though, I could hear who he really was, or at least who I wanted him to be. When we played together, our minds skated along the same track. No words necessary. That is over now.

Everything we have on earth is not ours for good, it is ours on loan, and some force, whether God or time, will eventually collect. And does it matter? Has anything I’ve ever done, including shooting a man in the hip, mattered? If not, why shouldn’t I drink Robitussin and liquor until my kidneys fail me? I read the Bible to save my life, or to give me the courage to end it.

The stories were so unhinged, gory, salacious, and bizarre that I mostly found myself chuckling. But I felt at times as though the book had eyes—as though, centuries before my birth, the Bible had already seen me. In Deuteronomy, Moses says, “And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron … Thou shalt find no ease, neither shall the soul of thy foot find rest: but the LORD shall give thee there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind: 

“Thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear day and night.”

These were the passages that comforted me even as they galled me—because I could say, yes, it’s like that. The Bible seduced me. 

When David cried for his son Absalom, he cried for me; when God appeared to Job and taunted him, He taunted me. I lay beside a hallucinating Ezekiel in Chaldea. I relished with Nahum the destruction of Ninevah. I wept with the singers and the harpists by the rivers of Babylon. How could I not? Those singers are my father.

March 2010, Camp Lejeune, NC—

“I’m going to Savanna,” the stranger said. “I can take him.”

“I appreciate that, Sarn’t Rhett,” Strickland said. “Kermit, you’re in good hands—me and Rhett ate the same dirt in Fallujah.” That’s how my road trip with a dirt-eating Fallujah vet started.

DJ Rhett drove a Dodge pickup truck and chain-smoked Marlboro Reds—typical Marine behavior. Our conversation, however, did not feel typical. He called me by my first name, and he let me call him DJ. He never picked on me for buying the plane ticket. We talked instead about family—DJ had a three-year-old daughter who wore Coke-bottle glasses. We talked about music—DJ loved Peter Frampton. And we talked about drugs. 

He had survived the fighting in Fallujah with no more than scratches, but obviously, he developed PTSD, and self-medicated, as Marines do, with anything he could put into his body.

“I was fine,” he said. “I was functional, anyway. While I was still serving with the rest of the guys in 1/8, I was fine. But I reenlisted—that’s where I fucked up. I transferred out to Parris Island to coach on the rifle range. I was high as a kite on painkillers trying to teach recruits how to hit targets 500 meters away. My vision was so blurry I couldn’t see the targets. Goddamn. I’m lucky I didn’t get somebody killed.”

He told his chain of command he had a problem, and he got sober in a 12-step program. He gave up everything but the Marlboro Reds.

On that drive DJ Rhett defanged my senior Marines. He was a senior who didn’t abuse or bully me. I realized then that some of my seniors were good people. Some of them—maybe not Gerber and Carlisle—might even be kind. And then he told me stories of the battle, and that defanged my seniors too.

Fallujah was already famous—so famous there was a training exercise in Parris Island named after it, just as there were exercises named after Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Hue City, and the Chosin Reservoir. The fighting in Fallujah was real fighting and not some skirmish. I asked him, after we stopped for gas at South of the Border and continued toward Columbia, what that battle had been like.

“It sucked,” he said.

“Like, what was the scariest thing you had to do?”

Fallujah was Rhett’s first deployment, just as Afghanistan would be mine. He was an assaultman—he carried a rocket launcher. He once fired a rocket into an enemy bunker. Within this bunker was a 20mm anti-aircraft gun that the al Qaeda fighters had set up to fire down the length of a highway. The Marines needed to cross the highway, and they couldn’t cross while this enormous gun was shooting down the road.

Because of a rocket launcher’s backblast, a Marine must fire it from an open position. Staff Sergeant Strickland—then only a lance corporal—had ordered young Private Rhett to crawl out into the road, aim at the bunker, and fire a rocket into it. The whole time, the 20mm cannon ripped in his direction at a rate of about 300 rounds per minute.

“I could see the tracer rounds,” Rhett said. “Like burning baseballs flying right toward me.”

Unlike those Levite priests of old, Rhett had had no rope tied to his ankle—if God, in the form of a 20mm bullet, elected to smite his head, then Rhett’s corpse would rest across the asphalt until another Marine picked him up. But he didn’t die, and he didn’t miss, at least according to the story. He sent a rocket screaming into the concrete hulk of the bunker, he watched the structure collapse under the blast, and then his squad continued their push into the smoking heart of the city.

O Lord, When? Where?—

There’s an episode of House where Dr. House makes a bet that he can give up his Vicodin addiction for a week. After a few days he smashes his hand with a paperweight. He pretends it was an accident. His best friend, Dr. Wilson, knows better.

“There’s a gating mechanism to pain,” Wilson says. “The brain can only perceive one pain at a time.”

The suggestion—that House bashed his hand to distract himself from opiate withdrawal—is absurd. And yet, for years of my life, I was either bashing my own hand, or I was letting other people bash it for me. Only it wasn’t physical pain I was hiding from, but fear—a psychic pain.

Joining the Marines was a hand-bashing. The greater suffering I tried to block was, I think, my fear that my parents would reject me. Both my parents were divorced twice, which convinced me that a relationship was something you can walk away from when you feel like it.

I never played with GI Joes as a kid. I preferred Pound Puppies. I had a teddy bear named Baby Barrel and a Cabbage Patch kid named Robin Ray. My first stepfather, a soldier himself, taught me to be ashamed of these things. He said, “You’re sensitive, Martin. The girls are gonna go crazy for you one day.” It was clear this statement was a hopeless wish and not an observation.

As I got older, I feared that I was gay—I knew my stepfather already believed it, and that’s why he never spoke to me after the divorce. As the years passed, my fear grew, because I didn’t find myself attracted to either sex at all. I waited to wake up one day as the right person. If I didn’t, my real parents would divorce me just as they’d divorced each other.

And, like the proverbial turtles, there were wider fears all the way down. I don’t know what any of this means, I don’t know what will happen when I die, I don’t know how I will fill the icy stretch of years before me.

Some French existentialist said, “The tragedy of war is that it denies a man his own personal war.”

Tragedy? If you ask me, a human being wants nothing more than to give up his, her, or their personal war as quickly as possible. I’ve seen men extend their contracts to go back to Afghanistan, three, sometimes four deployments in a row. You don’t do that unless you’re hiding from a personal war. But you also don’t need war to mask your suffering. You can do it with chess, or football, or a bad marriage, or a friendly razor, or an addiction to painkillers.

I used to think addiction was about pleasure—using pleasure to relieve pain. Having lived through and recovered from a few drug addictions myself, I now believe all addictions—yes, even to painkillers—are more about the pain than the pleasure. Because addiction is painful. It’s painful to drink yourself sick, to fail a drug test, to hear the bars of a cell close behind you, to wake up with a hangover, to grind your teeth to dust because you can’t take the drugs you want.

If it’s painful, why not quit? Because the pain is the point.

So, too, with reading the Bible. A naïve reader of the Old Testament might think, how could the ancient Israelites have worshiped a figure like this? He’ll punish you for following his orders. He’ll murder you with fire, flood, and the botch of Egypt, whatever that is. On a good day, He’ll just demand the firstborn of all your livestock for a burnt sacrifice.

But if I lived in the bronze age, beset on all sides by powerful empires—Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians—I’d be much more pained to believe that the world we fought over was just a moldy lump of rock. If there is a God who created the world, and if that God wants us to bleed for His pleasure, at least there’s a set of instructions. There’s a plan, even if a bad one. And even knowing the consequences of the Bible’s existence, even witnessing the wars we still fight over holy land, and knowing the human cost of this book, I still feel its pull, its call to suffer and submit. Narcotics Anonymous tells me that I have to submit—to something—if I want to stay clean. Maybe those old heads at NA are right.

It’s possible, after all, that religion isn’t to blame for the Crusades, for the persecution of queer folks, for the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, for the murder in the Gaza strip today. Maybe religion wasn’t to blame for Dana’s generosity, either. Maybe religion doesn’t make us better or worse. We’re already better and worse, and religion gives us an excuse to do what we’re going to do anyway. Of course, this argument feels dangerously close to the stance of the NRA: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

I heard a comedian reply, “I think the gun helps.”

Where does that leave us? Can we really look into the void without averting our gaze? Not for long, and it isn’t our responsibility to do so—that’s a comforting thought. There’s comfort too in knowing that, yes, nature’s mindless hand squeezes this rock, violence oozes out of it, but so does the music of crickets.

April 2010, South Carolina—

Sergeant Rhett and I sailed past the exits on I-20, drawing closer to a gas station where my father waited to pick me up. All I could think about was my looming deployment to Afghanistan.

I stared out the window at guardrails and landscaped overpasses and wondered what I would do when Lance Corporal Gerber or Lance Corporal Carlisle—perhaps even Sergeant Rhett himself—gave me the order to step into gunfire and shoot back at my enemy. I couldn’t believe in Sergeant Rhett’s story and my survival at the same time. I met my father.

He still had his health, but I was taller than he was by about four inches, and heavier than I’d ever been in my life. I didn’t think he scared me. I had a tight haircut and tan cheeks from training in the field.

When we arrived at his house, he pointed to the fridge and said, “Beer.”

“Do you have a funnel?” I said. My father groaned in reply.

I found one—a blue, unused automotive funnel—in his utility closet, and I didn’t bother rinsing it. I winked at my sister while I filled that funnel with Busch beer, tilted my head back, and sucked the beer out of the bottom of the funnel in three gulps. I finished nine cans that way.

Before dinner, as I tried to pee in the downstairs bathroom, I threw up all over the wall behind the toilet. I wiped up the evidence, then rejoined my father and sister at the dinner table. In the morning my father noticed all the vomit on the back of the toilet that I’d missed. He said it smelled terrible.

“Clean.” He pointed to the bathroom.

“I ain’t cleaning shit.”

“Grammar,” he said. I opened another beer, though I did not want it. I walked to the bathroom and pretended to investigate the damage.

“I can live with the smell,” I said. “Can you?”

Something between a sigh and a groan escaped his lips. He squeezed around me through the hall, took a roll of paper towels, and cleaned the bathroom himself on his hands and knees. I took another beer and closed myself up in the guest bedroom.

Sunday came. I rode back to Camp Lejeune with Sergeant Rhett and locked myself in my room as soon as I got there. PFC Park showed up sometime after midnight, locked the door behind him, and crawled into the top bunk. Hours later, just before dawn, Gerber and Carlisle, drunk, pounded on the window and ordered me and Park to let them in.

“Wake up, girls,” Carlisle said. “I know you’re in there.”

Park, holding a finger to his lips, leaned out of the top bunk. He shook his head vigorously. “Lyin’,” he whispered.

Park was right. We were on liberty until a formation at 0900. Carlisle and Gerber had no way of knowing we had already returned to base. They would try the door and the window, they would huff and puff, they would get bored, they would leave.

The knuckles kept hammering. The knob shook and clicked as the lance corporals tried to force it. Gerber howled, and Carlisle again commanded us to wake up. I pulled back my blankets.

“Don’t move,” Park whispered.

I tiptoed barefoot to the door. I waited. I reached for the deadbolt.

“What are you doing?” Park said.

An instant after I unlocked the door, it swung outward to show me the faces, illuminated by floodlight, of Gerber and Carlisle.

“You must be the dumbest private in the company, Kermit,” Carlisle said.

Gerber, as he walked into the room, asked me what it was like to fly first class.

“I missed y’all,” I said.

They pounced on us. Gerber took me, and Carlisle ripped Park out of bed. The muffled thumping of body blows filled the dark room. A minute later all four of us were gasping for breath. Park and I clutched our sides and braced ourselves against the bunk. Behind Gerber and Carlisle, the door hung wide open, and crickets chirped from somewhere beyond the parking lot.

“Welcome back, Kermit,” Carlisle said. “Welcome back, Park.”

“We missed y’all too,” Gerber said.

They clapped us on the shoulders, and Gerber gave me a quick, broken-toothed smile, and then they ran howling back into the night.

Nolan Capps is a combat veteran and a creative writing instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He holds an MFA from New York University. His nonfiction has appeared in phoebe, War, Literature & the Arts, and is forthcoming in Arts & Letters. His fiction has appeared in the Kenyon Review and is forthcoming in Every Day Fiction. His first novel, Mosquito Wings, is out on submission.

You can find him at his website: www.nolancapps.com

Artwork: “Education for All” by Guilherme Bergamini

Digital photography

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