This was written in 2004 while deployed to Afghanistan. It won first place in the Erma Bombeck writing contest the following year.
Bob the Cat
Eric Van Fossen
Here at the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force camp we are surrounded by machismo, with just a dash of bravado stirred in. Large men from many different countries live here. They are the Special Forces soldiers of their country’s respective armies.
I have a suspicion that most of these guys know more ways to kill an enemy soldier using only their pinky finger than I know ways to use a hammer. We are all guilty of having gleeful emotions when we hear of our enemy’s death. The tranquility and comforts of home that we brought here to Afghanistan have been drowned out by the reality of this land. The men that brought terror to our homeland are still trying to hurt us. We are glad to be of some part of their death.
I don’t know how Bob the cat got his name. He just showed up one day about two months ago. I was told that we want him around because with the coming summer months also comes a lot of mice. Snakes, including Cobras, then come to eat the mice. So having a cat around to keep the mouse population down seems like a good idea.
Soldiers started feeding Bob the cat with scraps of food from the chow hall. Soon, white Styrofoam bowls of milk started appearing for him. Yesterday, I noticed a can of cat food laid out for Bob. The PX here does not sell cat food, so someone had to request that it be sent from home by mail. I don’t really think we keep Bob the cat around for his mousing abilities.
We all talk to Bob. It may be a cursory grunt in his direction as we pass by. Or the greeting might be a cheery “Hi Bob!” as he peeks out from under the huts we live in. Many of these highly trained and gruff soldiers will stop in their tracks and bend over to pat Bob the cat’s head or to scratch an ear. On a good day, Bob the cat will approach you and let you pet him for a few minutes before he slithers away on mouse patrol. We don’t need Bob the cat because of the mice. We need Bob the cat in spite of ourselves.
In this existence, where tenderness and affection are seen as a weakness, Bob grants us just that, tenderness and affection. He reminds us that we can rejoice in our enemy’s death but still have an ember of love in our souls for all living things. He reassures us that we will still have the gentleness required to be husbands and fathers when we return home. With Bob, affection is not only allowed, but returned with a nuzzle and purr.
I think Bob the cat has become a poor substitute for stroking your wife’s face, talking to a baby or hugging a mother. But he is enough of a substitute to remind us of what our hearts long for – and why we came here. I don’t like to think what men might become in a place like this, without a small reminder like Bob the cat.
Bob will be around for a while I suspect. I have yet to see a mouse and he looks like he is gaining weight. Yesterday he crawled up onto my lap as I was petting him.