Number Two

I was sitting in the CO’s office. The First Sergeant came in and closed the door. A soldier in the Brigade had been found dead in his room that morning. Not one of ours, he assured us.

Suspected suicide. That was as much as he knew. The three of us exchanged glances. I pressed my lips together.

That was how the blackouts started. Early in the deployment, word would come down that someone had lost a soldier. Everyone looked around, made eye contact. No one spoke. The air in the room grew heavy. Then the NIPR phones went dead. Computer screens filled with error messages.

That was deployment. This was garrison.

A low vibration of bad energy moved through the battalion that morning. I didn’t hear the word suicide again, but it was the Purple Elephant in the corner of the room. The commander called the battalion together for a special formation. He sat everyone on the ground. A few of the leaders stood in the back. I moved around behind a tree.

“I don’t know what rumors you’ve been hearing . . . ” he began.

I wasn’t paying attention. I had already heard the news.

I’d only been with the unit a week. I was a stranger in their ranks, recently promoted. I’d only met the battalion commander the day before, by accident. He gripped my hand fervently, half at a loss for words. He and my old commander were next door neighbors. I had no idea what my old boss had told him, but suddenly I had the impression that I had a lot of hype to live up to.

I was droning. Hiding outside of the formation. I heard the new boss mention my old battalion. It was one of their soldiers. My stomach churned. After the formation, I ran into a First Sergeant from another company. Another transfer from my old unit.

“You hear anything about this?” I asked.

“Not much. Just that it was some PFC . . . anyone you know?”

“PFC? I doubt it . . . unless he was busted down . . . “

I headed for Battalion Headquarters. I stopped at the office of another NCO I knew. Another transfer. I’d heard his voice in the hall the day prior; the faint lisp of a light pair of loafers. I stuck my head in the door.

“You know anything about this dude?”

“I thought I saw you the other day! No . . . not much . . . uhm . . . ” he looked down at his desk, then back at me. He told me the soldier’s name. ” . . . Did you know him?”

” . . . Yeah.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I could barely get the word out. I turned sharply and stormed off down the hall. I walked into the back of the company CP and straight through the ranks of soldiers waiting for release. I didn’t bother to remove my patrol cap.

I didn’t have to excuse myself. Soldiers turned and stepped out of the way. The CO had the company leadership gathered around the conference table. He looked up as I entered, as if to tell me I was late. I looked him square in the eyes.

“He was one of mine,” I muttered.

His eyes went wide. He started to ask if I was alright, but I slammed my office door behind me. I slumped down in my chair and stared vacantly at my computer screen.

“Oh, fuck . . . “

I heard one of the platoon sergeants mutter, from outside my door.

I sobbed once. Violently. No tears came. My face curled into a sneer and a hot well of anger surged up in my chest. I spent the next interminable minutes forcing myself to breath slowly . . . quietly . . . I could hear the meeting outside of my door. I didn’t need the Cliff Notes.

I composed myself gradually and changed into civilian clothing. My CO was sitting at his desk, staring at Microsoft Outlook. He looked up when I entered. I cut him off before he could speak, hitting him with a slew of work-related items. I ticked them off on the fingers of one hand, waving my thumb and index finger with authority as I emphasized what my two main efforts were for the following morning.

. . . As if nothing had happened.

That night I was hailed into the battalion. An informal mass gathering of officers and senior NCOs. All of my new peers, and no one I knew. I sat off to the side, picking at food I didn’t eat. I had my token beer.

We failed that fucking kid . . . 

Four months prior, I’d sat in a room full of shrinks and counselors. Me, my old CO, my platoon sergeant, and my best squad leader. Our soldier walked in. The last time I’d seen him, he was prostrate on a gurney with a tube in his throat.

My squad leader and I pushed to have him committed for psychiatric care.

The doctors disagreed.

He’d been having discipline issues. Little things that were adding up to a pattern of misconduct. He wasn’t having problems at home because he barely had anything to go home to. Despite this, all he wanted was out of the Army. He wanted to go home.

He drank and medicated himself to sleep.

Every time I looked him in the eyes I saw a frightened little boy full of nightmares. All my platoon sergeant saw was a fuck-up. He kept throwing paperwork at him every time he was late. Every Article 15 delayed the inevitable, extending his commitment to the Army by months.

On the drive home, I thought about the day I became a platoon leader. The day I was told I was going to Afghanistan. I emptied out a soldier’s wall locker. The armor that couldn’t protect him. The dress greens in fresh plastic. His buttons and ribbons all shining and new.

Never to be worn again.

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