This post was first published just before Halloween, 2012. I returned home just over a month later. The Soldier’s death seemed needless at the time. It seems even more needless now, considering that both areas of operation that we occupied are now back under Taliban control.
As I go back and read these memories, I find my throat tightening and anger burning ulcers in the pit of my stomach. It all seems like another lifetime. That place and time have changed my life in ways I am still learning how to reconcile.
Rest in Peace, Brother.
We sent another one home in a bag. He’d probably already bought plane tickets home for Christmas. He wasn’t one of mine. One of my guys knew him . . .
I didn’t find out until the ceremony. I’d noticed he was in a scratchier mood than usual, but I hadn’t made the connection. He stood in front of me in the formation. When the colonel stood to speak I saw the skin on his neck turn bright pink. He hung his head for the benediction and never raised it. One of my squad leaders laid a hand on his shoulder. The colonel kept talking.
I stood in the back with the same pensive, grit-toothed expression I’ve been wearing for months. The colonel was talking, but I wasn’t listening. Nevermind that he isn’t an engaging speaker. He didn’t know the deceased. He doesn’t know any of us. He calls me “bud” because he doesn’t know my name. He doesn’t even like me. I’ve lead my boys all over Hell’s Acre at his beckon, and if I were sent home in a Ziploc tomorrow he wouldn’t have one thing to say at my bullshit ceremony.
That gave me pause.
I haven’t called my mother, I realized.
Not once this whole tour. The woman worships the ground I walk on, and all she asks for in return is a phone call. She gets a sparing e-mail. Maybe two or three sentences. What is there for me to say? I have no other family to speak of. None that I keep in contact with. I’m just a blurb to them. Oh, yes. He’s ‘over there’.
I have friends from college that don’t know where the Hell I am. They e-mail me out of the blue to ask if I’m in the States. They don’t know if I’m in New York or Georgia, Washington, Oregon, Colorado. Kandahar. It doesn’t matter. That isn’t because they don’t keep up. It’s because I don’t tell anyone.
They wouldn’t have known until I had been scattered on the side of some shitty dirt road. My personal affects would have been gathered up and shipped home. My gear would have been rat-fucked by anyone who could get their hands on it. Fifty-Fifty chance that my unpaid allowances would have been taxed for the cost of some lost piece of equipment or another. Something blown into the weeds by ammonium nitrate and shrapnel.
The colonel would have privately asked my peers what to say. They would look at each other and shrug. We have nothing in common. We don’t really talk. Or they think I’m a prick.
None of that matters. It doesn’t change who I am. It doesn’t change the facts of my life. If I lived every day for the opinions of others, I would be one more boring, well-liked person. Survived by too many, with too much to lose.
A few days after the ceremony, the colonel came down to talk to the company officers. He crammed us into a little office and gave a quiet monologue about how we do so much of the work with so little thanks. He gave us each coins and shook our hands and that was it.
Battalion coins. Also-Ran prizes.
He still doesn’t like when I look him in the eye. I looked at the number on the thing. It had to be one of the last in the batch. I tossed the coin in my footlocker with my socks and t-shirts and forgot about it. I found later that the unit had a glut of them. The command team were giving them away left and right.
No one is going to ask how many battalion coins I earned when they scatter my ashes. They will want to know, at my wake, why the casket is closed.