I dash outside and run toward my humvee. Mortar rounds and indirect fire are hitting all around us. My Marines are rushing back and forth from the ammo trailer and the humvee. We'll need all we can fit for this one.
Every insurgent group is making a push today. They're trying to reclaim the city. Haven't they learned yet? Day after day, we cut through them like a knife through butter and yet they still fight.
I can still remember his face, a young boy in my scope. We were fighting back and forth across a street downtown. One after the other, we just kept killing them, and they just kept coming. They didn't stand a chance, not against us. I remember feeling a great sense of respect for them. They knew they couldn't win; they had to have known.
I looked at this boy, a moment I stole for myself when I should have been fighting. I stared at his face through my scope for what seemed like an eternity. I knew him. He knew me. We were the same, just on different sides of a street. I quickly realized that he, like I, had been born to be a warrior. I knew that if I had been born where he was born and had grown up where he had grown up, I would be fighting with him instead of against him.
I thought about what his childhood was like. What games he played with his friends. How innocent he once was. How much he must have loved his mother and how warm her loving embrace must have felt to his small body. Just like me.
We were rolling through the base now. A few more seconds and we would be out the gate and back into combat, back to doing what we did. I patted myself down, making sure I had everything I needed. I checked my pistol and shotgun; they were good to go. I checked my rifle; it was good, fully loaded and relatively clean. I gripped my rifle. I could still feel the recoil of my rifle on my shoulder when I shot him. I can still remember what he looked like when he fell.
I looked in the side mirror of my humvee to check for the rear security vehicle. There that man was again, staring back at me. He was so cold and hard. I looked back down at the rifle I used to shoot that boy and remembered something my drill instructor had said to me: "Your rifle is just a tool, it is a hard heart that kills." This is who I am now.
A lot have nothing in such a ravaged land. It's hard to find anything that hasn't been shot or blown up. The air never smells clean. Sulfur, soot, blood, burning rubble, petroleum, sewage, and rotting bodies are our daily fragrances. Most families have nothing left, not even each other. They run when we come, wide-eyed and frightened. Their courage cannot stand against the cold, hard, unforgiving steel mechanics of our technology. They call us destroyers.
Back home I am praised for liberating a nation. People there thank me and tell me I am a hero. I know what I am. I know what I have done. I look at the others in my unit; used-to-be boys who once had innocence; now nothing more than blood-stained gears of war. The bare feet that sounded the joy of child's play through tickling fields of green grass now wear the boots whose thud sounds death's approach. War is horrible, and so has it made us.
But even in the darkest places there can be light. And the darker it is, the brighter the light shines! It restores hope; with each flicker it reminds us all of the beauty we once had in life! It calls out to us, and bids our return! And our hearts ache with a hunger. . . .
There was a woman and a boy, a mother and a son, who had nothing but each other and a stove. The light of their love filled even the darkest corners of our hollowed hearts. The boy brought a pizza to us every day and every day we gave him ten dollars for it. Every now and then he told our translator about a nice scarf or a pretty necklace he wanted to buy for his mother. He was all she had left. He loved her and was intent on keeping a smile on her face. Dutiful son. Between all of us, it was easy to come up with the money for the boy's present to his mother.
One day our pizza didn't come. On the second day, we began to worry and established a patrol to visit the bombed out building in which the boy and his mother lived. We needed to see what was wrong. We found a body behind some rubble in an alley along the way. The hands had been bound and the victim beaten to death. And there it was, a lonely pizza spilled on the red ground. They had killed the boy because he was our friend. His death was a message sent to the others. A few Marines ran back out to the street to set up a perimeter in case of ambush. One of them then called back for the translator. I ran to the street with our translator, hoping to find one of the town's inhabitants who might know who had done this. It was the boy's mother. She was on her way to our base to find her son. She asked why he had stayed the night with us, and if she could have him back.
The light is gone from me and my heart is dark again.
The Breath Before the Plunge
Time is almost stopped. My mind is racing; I can't keep up with it. I can almost see the rounds as they whiz past my face. Shit, how did this happen? Surprised, ambushed; we're better than this. Doesn't matter, what do I do now? Hide, cover, and concealment. The door gives way as the full weight of my body and combat gear smash against it in a leap of desperation. We're all inside. It's dark, and hell is hot.
The rounds ripping through the mud walls give us little windows to the outside. Damn there are a lot of them. They're consolidating; it won't be long before they cross the street and start coming through the door. We all scramble in the darkness, there's no way out. We have to meet them, counter attack. Where did I put the smoke grenades? Shit, I can't find anything. Calm down, focus; slow is smooth and smooth is fast; there's no time for this punk recruit shit. The bullet hole streams of light pierce through the darkness; I catch glimpses of my guys, racing to prepare.
We're almost ready. Andy is linking the last of the extra ammo for the SAW; he's going to need it all. We're almost ready, just waiting on Andy. It's loud outside but it's dead quiet in here, the breath before the plunge.
How the hell did this happen? Did they give us up? Did we make a mistake? We're better than this. Maybe this just ain't our day. How the hell are we going to make it out of this one? I don't think we are. By the silence I can tell the other guys aren't too hopeful. There's no discussion, we know what we're going to do. Like Butch and Sundance, we're going out shooting. I press my eye against a bullet hole. They're coming.
Andy's ready. We stack up by the door. Here we are, at the edge, at the end. Ready? Ready. Fuck it, GO!
Jesus Walked This Earth
His shoulders sagged under the weight of the armor and pack he was wearing. His tired feet dragged across the desert floor. His cammies were drenched in sweat. He took off his helmet and wiped the soot and blood from his face. It had been a hard day and we weren't done yet, just paused to refit and regroup, then it was back in. It wasn't far but we were worlds away. That's the way the desert is.
He bent down and ran his fingers through the earth. I stopped loading the extra ammo into my vehicle and watched him. I watched him as he ran his fingers back and forth through that hot sand on the banks of that lazy river. He turned and looked toward me, but his gaze was fixed on what lay beyond. He looked right past me for a thousand yards at what waited for us. He noticed me staring at him and he looked at me. He looked down at his hand, full of earth, and shook his head. The sand sifted through his fingers and he looked me in the eye and said, "You know McCawley, Jesus walked this earth." He took one last look at that city and went back to prepping for our next mission.
I stared at that calm earth hugging the banks of the Euphrates and thought about what my sergeant had just said to me. I looked at all of us, instruments of destruction; cold, methodical, calculating, precise, efficient. I looked at all that madness in the distance and a great shame fell on my soul. Jesus walked this earth.
Midshipman 2/C Steven Sifuentes, U.S. Naval Academy
Baptism by Fire
The call came in fairly early: Echo Company had a squad that was pinned down! They needed support fast! "Out the gate in three minutes," that was our motto and with that we loaded into the trucks. I was a rifleman at the time and my team's position was in the rear of a highback. We headed out the gate with four highbacks, one 240 Gulf, three SAWs, and a platoon of Marines. We moved along the main route through the city and then as we neared the center of the city we took a sharp right and started taking side roads heading east toward the pinned-down squad.
All of a sudden the sky, like a rainstorm, was filled with bullets zipping into the sides of the truck and overhead creating noise and chaos. Before I or anybody else could react, our drivers, out of fear, surprise, whatever, slammed on the brakes and everyone in the back became one ball of rifles and men. It was in this ball that I began to panic. Our gunner screamed at us to get off of him and as we untangled ourselves we heard the glorious fire of our 240 Gulf; we had responded with our own fire.
One by one the SAWs from each truck began unloading everything they had on the prick firing from the corner. We moved around the side of the truck and across the street to where the dead body of the enemy gunner lay silent. This was the first time I had seen a person get killed, but I didn't stop. The threat was gone, but we had to move on.
We moved forward. A wall lay in front of us. It was about my height with a little step in front of it. This was the only place where this guy could have come from. As we approached I heard an order, "Sifuentes, get over the wall." My heart began to beat again; I did not know what death or destruction awaited me on the other side. I wasn't supposed to do anything besides hop over and see what was there. Was it the enemy? I hesitated for a split second but then took the step up toward the wall. Even though it was not very tall, the 40 pounds of gear felt like I was trying to get an elephant over the wall, but quickly the elephant and I got over.
On the other side it was just me and two empty cars with open doors. There had been a lot more men than just the one dead, I thought to myself, but to my good fortune, they had run away or something. It didn't matter—the relief I felt was indescribable. My team followed me and on approaching the cars we saw that they contained extra weapons and ammo. I thanked my lucky stars. Had the other side of the wall not been empty I would have been done for.
"Not today," I thought to myself as I got back into the truck.
The Joke Death Played on Me
The last thing I remember hearing is Jason ask, "Is that a marker?" Then we realized what it was, but by then it was too late. We were out.
I was the first one to wake. A feeling of panic came over me because nobody seemed to be moving. My mind instantly flashed back to images of dead and wounded bodies; one in particular, Savage, who had died just last month, and whose job as a turret gunner I was now filling. I began to move my hands over Jason checking for wounds and signs of injury and life. Fortunately everyone was just knocked out and, in what seemed like an eternity but was really seconds, everybody in the truck began to wake and realize what was going on. "GET OUT OF THE TRUCK!" my squad leader yelled, "PREPARE FOR AN ATTACK!" This was our worst nightmare: to have a follow-on attack after a truck had been taken out. Everybody disembarked except for me. As the gunner, I needed to stay. I immediately checked over my weapon to ensure that it was functioning properly.
The attack didn't come.
After a couple of minutes as I tried to shift around and better position my weapon I noticed that my leg had become heavy and it was hard to move. I looked down and noticed my uniform was blood soaked right around my knee. I had been hit! As this realization struck me, so did the pain. I could feel the throb in addition to each beat of my heart as I tried to shift around. There was a lot of blood but Doc was quickly called over and he put a bandage on it, stopping the bleeding. There was no need for a helicopter medical evacuation.
They towed my disabled truck, with me in it, back to base. Once we got back I hobbled into the medical room where the doctors probed the wound and found a piece of shrapnel that had been lodged in my leg. "We can't do surgery and it's not close enough to the surface to yank out," they said. They decided that it was best to leave the metal in. "What's going to happen with it then?" I asked. "It will heal and then cut itself free, then heal again slowly working its way to the top. You'll be like a lot of Vietnam vets who are still pulling metal from the war out of their bodies."
After I got cleared by the docs to go back to my hooch I was ordered to go and call my mom with the satellite phone. The only words I got out were, "Mom, I got hit . . . " before the phone went dead. I would not be able to call her back and assure her that I was fine until an hour later. She was relatively calm but I could sense the worry and fear in her voice. Our conversations would be more frequent for the rest of my deployment.
The wound kept me out for a week, and a hard week it was; my brothers had to fight without me. They still had time, though, to come in and tease me about my "scratch" as it would become known. Jason kept jokingly wondering if I had really been trying to check for wounds or if I had just been trying to "cop a feel."
After that, missions were not the same for me. A feeling of paranoia set in and I found myself feeling very nervous when I would hear the whistle of mortars flying overhead, causing me to quicken my pace when I was walking to chow or the gym on base. Out in the city my heart would race at the sight of garbage, animals, shady-looking cars, or dug-up dirt along the side of the road. Even today, when something just looks out of the ordinary, like it might have been put in place on purpose, my heart rate increases to the same nervous beat.