Third in a series.
The Army fixed Jason Scowden's teeth with 28 fillings. He smiles now, even if he has to carry a machine gun to the desert to pay the government back.
Five years into the war in Iraq, Scowden has been dispatched to Fort Polk in Louisiana, where the bridge to Iraq is a short one.
Scowden grew up here in the sunshine. After his parents split, he bounced from high school to high school until he dropped out.
He smoked pot, slept on couches, wasted days watching Jackass and listening to the Insane Clown Posse.
Then he found the Army. He boarded a bus in Tampa on an inky June morning and stepped off in Fort Benning, Ga.
The Army fit a rifle to his palms and boots on his feet. He made it through nine weeks of shaved heads, bunk beds and midnight marches through the hills. When his mom drove up from Tampa in August to see him graduate from basic training, she couldn't pick him out of a crowd.
She was proud.
He was happy.
Now the number of U.S. deaths is nearing 4,000 and the reality of war is setting in.
• • •
Here stands Jason Scowden three years ago, all of 16, slicing pizza at Sbarro in Tyrone Square Mall. He's making eyes at the little girl who scoops ice cream at Ben & Jerry's.
Friends introduce them and, as the months slip by, they grow fond of each other, start hanging out more.
But it is not to be. Not now. She likes him, but he's directionless. He parties too much. They don't speak for nearly a year.
Then her phone rings. Pfc. Scowden is calling from Georgia.
I'm a military man now, he says. I've been thinking about you.
He sits on the floor between his bunk and a wall locker and scratches his thoughts on notebook paper. He tells her the Army has changed him, that he wants to take care of her, to protect her.
He has been saving his military pay. He says he's buying a car, and maybe he could come see her when the Army cuts him loose?
He flies to Tampa in October and again in November.
Back in Georgia, he buys a ring for $120, with a military discount. White gold and cubic zirconia.
He goes to her mom's house in St. Petersburg just before Christmas.
He reaches into his pocket.
She starts laughing.
"Shut up," she says.
She starts walking away, then walks back.
He's smiling with new teeth.
"Yeah," she says. "Yeah."
• • •
Here stands Jason Scowden, wearing his Army uniform and a buzz cut, in a small municipal office in downtown St. Petersburg. Ashley's wearing a dress of black and pink. Her mother is here, and his cousin.
"I do," he says.
"I do," she says.
The ceremony is short and sweet and they want to repeat it for friends and family, so in February they reserve a pavilion at Fort De Soto Park. Jason and his cousin start drinking early and then Ashley brings more beer and pretty soon Jason's buddies are laughing and throwing cake.
When it's over, when Jason and Ashley have a quiet minute to themselves, she mentions she's been feeling different. She thinks she might be pregnant.
On their wedding night, they drive to Wal-Mart and buy two tests.
• • •
Here sits Jason Scowden on St. Patrick's Day, IRISH tattooed down one forearm, PRIDE down the other, on the swing outside Ashley's mother's house.
His new bride is beside him, burning threads off her shorts with a cigarette lighter.
"I like Cyrus Phoenix Scowden," Scowden says.
She rolls her eyes.
"Or Elijah Damien Scowden."
She thinks the baby is a girl. She likes Anna Sophia. He likes Salem Trinity.
A friend is bent over Ashley's station wagon, which blew an intake gasket a few days ago. Scowden plans to drive it back to Fort Polk, in Leesville, La., full of wedding presents to fill their new apartment, where he uses a trash bag as a shower curtain.
"It's going to be a complete culture shock," says Ashley, 22.
Scowden thinks getting transferred to Fort Polk is a sign he'll ship out soon. His unit, the 337th Signal Company, has stepped up convoy training, where they simulate driving convoys through hot zones and rescuing soldiers from burned-out Humvees.
Scowden wants to be there for the birth this fall. But he realizes that's unlikely.
"I'm pretty sure I'll get deployed by then," he says. "When I signed up, I signed up saying I'd fight if I had to.
"Now I have to."
Ashley tries to avoid the subject.
"It's better not to really think about it," she says. "If they say he has to go, he has to go, and there's nothing we can do about it."
She puts her hand on her belly and looks over at her soldier, the Army's next fresh face in a war that's 5 years old.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650.