Illustration by Leonard Miller.
It was close to 2 a.m. in Mosul in late September, and the temperature was still warm enough to be the hottest day of summer for most people back home. I stood in the Vehicle Commander hatch of my Stryker armored personnel carrier, parked at a loiter point a few blocks from the target house that the rest of the platoon was assaulting.
At that point, I had difficulty paying attention to the radio; my mind was preoccupied with the need to take a shit. It was a need I had woken up with but, due to the abrupt time-sensitive mission, a need I hadn’t been able to resolve.
I knew it had been a pretty uneventful hit: no enemy contact beyond the breach, and temporary detainment of several fighting-aged males who didn’t appear to be the target. There was chatter about the possibility of a follow-on mission to clear a few houses down the street — news I didn’t want to hear. Having a “block party” — clearing multiple houses around the area in an often futile attempt to catch an elusive bad guy — could be fun.
If you’re on the assault team.
And not stuck at the vehicle drop-off point needing to take a massive dump.
But there I was, standing in the VC hatch of “Rico 5” at the VDO, feeling the weight of gravity slowly pulling at my gut.
I began to panic.
A Stryker vehicle moves through the busy downtown streets of Mosul, the third-largest city in Iraq. This is not where you want to be when you need to go No. 2. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Gretel Sharpee.
I had just taken over the VC position for a guy who had been sent home early because of a death in the family, and quite frankly, I didn’t feel all that confident in my new job. Being the VC means standing half-exposed through a top hatch in the center of the vehicle and basically being the eyes and ears of the Stryker, as the driver and gunner are both protected inside. It’s one of the least sexy jobs you can do in a Ranger Battalion. The VC hatch was also, as I was discovering, the absolute worst place to be stuck when needing to take a shit.
There were six Strykers at the VDO, led by the platoon squad leader. I thought about dismounting our vehicle, darting off to the side of the road, and squatting near the outer wall of the house we were parked alongside. Our squad leader was pretty salty and I figured he’d get it without needing much explanation, but my imagination took me into the window of a building across the way, and to the presence of a sniper that I couldn’t see. I imagined him watching me through the scope of his Soviet-era rifle as I climbed down the side of the vehicle and darted to the wrong side of the street, squatting directly into his reticle’s center mass. He’d chuckle and aim a little higher, knowing a head shot while my pants were down would be the ultimate flex.
No, taking a shit on the side of the street was not an option.
Pelvic bloat was beginning to set in. The kind where I could feel my insides expand and my abdomen did the contortion on itself to flex in all the right spots while simultaneously relaxing just enough to hold it all in. I knew I had to figure something out fast. I wasn’t prairie-dogging at that point, but I was feeling a massive turd begin to tickle my prostate.
I needed to drop down through the hatch and back into the vehicle to perform the necessary squat. The thought alone scared the fuck out of me though, so I quickly arrived at a different option to evacuate my bulging bowels: I clenched my butthole and slowly lowered myself forward onto my knees instead of backward into a squat but got stuck on one of the monitors across from the gunner’s seat, forcing me to awkwardly duck my head in.
My gunner, Tubaugh, looked over with a perplexed look. Truth be told, I did not like John Tubaugh, and if he were here to testify, he didn’t like me either. We couldn’t have been more polar opposites, or forced to live in any closer proximity to each other than we were during the summer of 2005. John was several years older, stood at 6-foot-4, and hit the scales at 250 pounds, while I came in at 5-foot-10 and walked around on deployment at 170 pounds. He was a former cop from Florida; I was a former hooligan who probably represented the kid who outran him on the mean streets of West Palm Beach. Along with a third Ranger, we shared a four-man CHU, which was basically an air-conditioned box the size of a prison cell in the desert where all we did was sleep and binge-watch DVDs of the first two seasons of The O.C.
The only thing that separated John and me from physical violence was the fact that I outranked him. Also, he had a massive height/weight/reach advantage on me. We were the same pay grade, but I was a tabbed corporal and he was an untabbed specialist who was in the company training room, a job assignment that was the result of a C-spine injury that he had since recovered from. To compound matters, we were part of a small detachment of Rangers from Charlie Company who were sent to Mosul to reinforce Alpha Company for the remainder of their deployment. This meant that instead of Tubaugh reporting to our first sergeant, I was his first line supervisor.
We never saw eye to eye on anything, and at times, he’d voice his disagreement to the point of borderline insubordination, always stopping shy of the point where a definitive line had been crossed. In return, I took every opportunity to assign or volunteer him for guard duty or last-minute details. If I knew he was the only one sleeping in the CHU during stand-down, I would go in and turn on all the lights and make as much noise as possible looking for my iPod. Or I’d eat the blueberry muffins that he’d stash away next to his bunk while he was at the gym.
It may look big, but there's no bathroom on this thing. Adobe Stock photo.
This went on for weeks, until the last 10 days of deployment when I found myself taking over as VC for Rico 5. Now we were forced to work together, stuck in a compartment only inches apart for hours at a time in the Stryker, before, during, and after missions. Rico 5 was also the Stryker the platoon leader rode in, which meant we had to be more professional than we might otherwise have been, leading to a thaw in interpersonal hostilities.
Tubaugh had an annoyed expression on his face, looking over from his monitor while I awkwardly leaned into the vehicle.
“Dude, I gotta take a shit.”
John sighed, seemingly knowing what I was going to say next.
“I can’t do it on the side of the road.” I felt a bubble in my gut and wondered if it all just might be a fart.
John looked at me. “You can’t do it in here, man.”
I thought to myself, Well, actually, I outrank you so I can do it in here, but offered a guilty smile and shrugged.
“I know, dude, but I can’t get shot out there taking a shit, and I don’t think I’m gonna be able to hold it until we get back to the FOB.”
John let out a bigger sigh, his big shoulders rising and falling with his exhale. I could tell he wasn’t happy, but neither was I. Nobody wants to take a shit in the back of a troop carrier, and nobody wants to sit in a troop carrier while another dude takes a shit in it. War is hell, as they say.
John’s expression softened a bit. “You better do it in the back.”
I chuckled and sarcastically replied, “Of course, man. I’m not gonna shit right next to you.”
“What are you gonna do it in?” John looked genuinely perplexed.
I didn’t have an immediate answer.
“Do it in a water bottle!”
We looked at each other, both wondering if we’d heard the same thing. I bent my head down further toward my feet and tried to peer through the escape tunnel between the driver’s compartment and the rear troop carrier, barely making out the shadow of our driver, Pfc. Denofrio, from the faint light of his driver’s monitor.
Denofrio’s voice came over the radio. “Do it in a water bottle,” he said. “Just cut the top off.”
I looked back up at John, who looked more confused than ever. Without breaking eye contact, John keyed his mic and said, “What do you mean, just cut the top off?”
“You just cut the top off an empty water bottle and stick it under your ass. It’s easy. I’ve done it twice already.”
John shrugged. I looked over my shoulder at a row of 1-liter water bottles that had been frozen and were slowly thawing for the assault team to drink after they finished hitting houses around the neighborhood. I could immediately see that it was feasible — diameter wise — if I cut the top quarter of the bottle off. The problem was we only had eight water bottles for the assault team.
I looked around in the back of the Stryker, hoping there was an empty bottle somewhere. I knew we cleaned out empties after each mission but hoped we had missed one.
Illustration by Leonard Miller.
I looked back at Tubaugh, sitting in his gunner’s compartment. Next to him was a half-full bottle of water that was still cold but not frozen. I could see the bottle sweat and immediately felt guilty for even considering the idea of using it. John didn’t make me ask. He just let out another sigh and grabbed the bottle. I gave him another guilty smile as he took a few last gulps and then handed it to me, still a third full.
I thanked him, feeling a sense of relief that made me wonder if I had to shit at all.
That moment of elation quickly returned to earth as the bubble in my gut grew bigger and began to travel south. I squeezed my balloon knot and stood back up through the VC hatch with the water bottle in one hand while I unclipped my knife from my kit. Before cutting the top, I decided to pour the remaining water out first.
As I leaned across the top of the Stryker to empty the bottle, my front rifle plate pushed against my lower abdomen, and I felt a fart begin to creep its way toward the back door with increasing speed.
For the second time, I wondered if it was all just a bunch of gas. I was still leaning across the top of the vehicle, and my ass was no longer inside the troop compartment, so I thought maybe I could let the fart out without crop-dusting Tubaugh and maybe not have to shit in a water bottle, after all. I knew it was a risky move but figured I could always pinch it off if I felt things get out of control. Slightly wincing, I released the tension on my sphincter muscle, hoping for the best.
With the pressure valve open, a stream of air started to slowly leak from my ass without much cause for alarm. Relieved, I gave a little push with my abdominal muscles to help encourage the release of gas buildup. And what began as a slow leak turned into a sudden surge — I could immediately feel my colon dilate. I tried to push myself back and stand up, but it was too late. Pressurized gas gave way to organic matter, and the seat of my desert camo pants quickly filled up with shit.
Standing upright, I squeezed my glutes with every ounce of energy that I had and shut off the valve, momentarily ceasing the flow of fecal matter. I took my knife and cut off the top of the water bottle, then reached down and began to unfasten my rigger’s belt and unbutton my pants.
I heard Tubaugh groan and figured he could smell what I had already cooked up. I wanted to give him a courtesy flush but the only way out at that point was to push through the kill zone and insert the remaining SEALs. I dropped my pants around my ass and stuck the water bottle up against the skin of my bare cheeks. I gave a little wiggle to make sure I had good surface to surface contact and that my turd cutter was properly aligned with the jagged opening.
“You can’t be serious right now,” John muttered.
I knew that as I half squat, half stood in the VC hatch, my ass and the water bottle were at perfect head level with his 6-foot-4 frame. I was at the end of the rope and couldn’t do anything more than key the mic.
“I’m so sorry, bro.”
Crap trap in position, I reopened the poop dam and was almost caught off guard by how quickly the weight of the bottle increased. I could hear Tubaugh groaning in horror and disgust but couldn’t stop the force of gravity in motion. My body demanded that I expel the waste it had created, and I found myself at the mercy of man’s most basic need. My large intestines emptied themselves, and as abruptly as it had begun, the shit storm was over. I held my pants up with my left hand and quickly removed the bottle through the hatch, pausing briefly to inspect my work. Oddly satisfied with the volume I had created, I threw the water bottle to the side of the road where I had once considered chancing sniper fire, both relieved and proud of myself for keeping my cool in such a dire situation.
With the bottle jettisoned, I started trying to problem-solve the next phase of operations: cleanup. I’d once used a sock I was wearing to wipe my ass on a PT run but quickly brushed that off due to the difficulty of removing a boot with full kit on. I reached down below and along the inside wall of the Stryker, I felt a piece of cloth. I pulled it out and discovered the cravat we used to check the fluid levels of the vehicles during vehicle maintenance. It was greasy with motor oil and transmission fluid, but I had no other option.
Everyday water bottle or impromptu human waste receptacle? You decide. Adobe Stock photo.
I began wiping my ass, attempting to fold the cravat multiple times to get as many wipes with a “clean” surface as possible. Once I had folded it down as small as possible, I threw the cravat over to where the water bottle lay and silently apologized to the guy who was going to find it in the morning.
Refastening my rigger’s belt, I could feel the cold shit on the seat of my pants. By that point, I could smell my own brew and knew it was potent. Regardless of whether I liked Tubaugh or not, I couldn’t force him or anyone else to sit in a metal box smelling my poopy drawers all night. I decided the only honorable thing I could do at that point was to sit on top of the Stryker with a muddy butt and hope the ventilation system eventually cleared out the odor.
I don’t know how long I sat there. Eventually, the assault force wrapped up and the platoon returned to the vehicles. Tubaugh and I didn’t exchange any words on the way back to the FOB, or after I returned to the vehicle for post-mission inspections — after taking a shower and changing my pants, of course.
We didn’t have any disagreements for the rest of the deployment, nor did I volunteer Tubaugh for any details that I didn’t go on myself. In a weird way, taking a shit in John Tubaugh’s face helped our relationship mature into a more cordial one. But at the same time, I doubt he’s ever forgiven me. We never spoke after we returned stateside and he began to separate from the Army.
Sometimes I wonder if John ever thinks about the time another man shat in a water bottle 3 feet from his head. I hope that if he does, he knows that I, too, think of shitting in his face from time to time, and that I’m still really, really sorry, bro.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine as "Catching Number 2."
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