“Someone always falls out. Don’t be that fucking guy.”
First Sergeant’s voice shook against the front of the peach-colored company headquarters as he addressed the formation before dismissing everyone for the evening. The next day we were due to get on a plane just like thousands of others had done since the beginning of the Global War on Terror. It was 2009, and I was a private first class in the US Army. Despite enlisting at 21 years old, I was still wet enough behind the ears that if I heard anything resembling an order, I swallowed it whole.
Given that it was the last night before boarding a plane bound for the Middle East, the main priority of every soldier in the barracks was to get as drunk as possible, as it might be the last time. First Sergeant’s final safety brief in front of the company shattered those aspirations:
- If you lived in the barracks, you were restricted to them until morning.
- No drinking.
He told stories about how every time he deployed, a dehydrated soldier ate the tarmac while exiting the aircraft because they had consumed a plethora of cocktails the night before instead of water and electrolytes. Coming from the cooler climate of Fort Lewis, Washington, the desert heat punches you right in the face. I wasn’t taking any chances.
I had some beers that night — which is to say I had a lot of beers — but I also drank the most water I have ever consumed while simultaneously indulging. After I ran out of beer, I stayed consistent with the water. Nalgene bottle after Nalgene bottle. By morning my piss was as clear as Poland Springs, and I didn’t even have a hangover. We passed a receiving line of USO volunteers who gave each of us large zip-close bags full of snacks and toiletries, which I stowed in my ruck. The plane rides into Germany and Kuwait were like opium dens with low light and hundreds of sleeping soldiers racked out on Ambien from the medic. Each flight, military and commercial, had bathrooms the size of closets that I became familiar with over and over again.
A lot of people talk about deployments and luck and how bad luck in any form can be a threat to your mortality. Thus far, I’d had great luck. I had avoided baggage details. I had gotten an emergency aisle seat, so my M249 and I had extra legroom. But most important, I had avoided lines for the bathrooms on the planes, relieving my bladder as I pleased. My luck held up when we landed in Kuwait — I didn’t fall on my face getting off the plane. I had never been a heat casualty, and that day was no exception as we boarded dozens of air-conditioned buses that would bring us to our interim lodging before we’d make our way to Baghdad.
My luck continued to serve me well as I scored a row of seats all to myself. Life as a PFC shouldn’t be this easy, and I should have known the universe was about to throw me the messiest curveball of my military career to date.
As we cruised through the night, I saw absolutely nothing through the window next to my seat. I had expended pretty much all of my water at this point, but I was so hydrated I didn’t even care. Plus, we would be at our destination within the next few hours.
These buses were small and thus lacked bathrooms.
I had the urge to piss again and ignored it, trying to sleep some more. I woke up with my bladder churning, giving way to a sharp pressure and a growing sense of panic.
My luck had probably run out, I realized, and I was going to piss my pants before even being in imminent danger.
I had visions of First Sergeant standing me in front of the entire company: “Congrats, Dow! You fucking idiot! You didn’t pass out from heat exhaustion, but you pissed your pants — at 21 years old!” I had to do something. I started looking at everything as a potential vessel for urine. I was the MacGyver of peeing.
My CamelBak bladder seemed to be the most viable option, but if I used that, I would have to throw it out, and there was no telling when I could replace it. I looked for empty bottles in other seats and came up with nothing. Finally, I remembered the zip-close bag I had from the USO volunteers. I dumped its contents on the floor, and the slope of the bus sent them sliding and rattling to the front and out of sight. I tested the bag’s durability, placing both hands inside of it and trying to bust it apart at the seams. It held. I was excited but reminded of how much
I didn’t even give a shit as my pelvis pulsated and throbbed, probably perspiring urine by now.
Everyone around me was sleeping, and even the crashing of the USO bag’s contents didn’t disturb them. I knelt on the seat, braced my forehead against the window, and let old faithful flow into the bottom of that zip-close bag, praying it would hold at least a gallon of the barrel I had brewing inside of me. I touched the base of the bag and felt it leaking through the seam already, dripping hot piss all over the seat and the floor. “FUCK!” I frantically evacuated the rest of my bladder, then sealed the bag before sending it rolling and sliding down the sloping floor beneath the seats to take its rightful place with the snacks and toiletries it was intended to hold before being repurposed as a urinal. I looked at the wet pissy trail it left behind like a mop and sat back in my seat. Crisis averted. Maybe my luck hadn’t run out after all.
The bus stopped and the lights came on. I walked quickly to the front, my eyes searching discreetly for an unclaimed bag of piss on the floor, but I didn’t locate it before exiting the bus into that thick, arid climate.
As we fell into formation after unloading the bus, the driver directed First Sergeant to inspect all of the buses with my commander. I fell apart inside as I realized I wasn’t going to be laughed at for pissing my pants in formation — I was going to be smoked into heat exhaustion for leaving a nasty, pissy mess inside the bus.
I watched with eyes as wide as that Kuwaiti desert as their tan suede boots stepped up onto the bus. Their heads darted back and forth at the seats and floors as they moved from the front to the back and then out onto the pavement. They hadn’t stopped, and there was no screaming indicative of any discovery, but I remained terrified and sweating beyond what the desert heat made me do. Then, just like that, we filed into housing units and picked out bunks, and no one (especially me) said a goddamn word about a bag full of piss on the bus floor.
My pride — and my bladder — were intact.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine as “Piss Bag.”