Camp Habbaniyah, Al Anbar Province, Iraq 15 Dec 2006
I stepped from the chow hall into dreary December twilight. Jamming on my crumpled cover I barely acknowledged the cheerful greeting of a Marine smoking next to the door. Distracted by problems personal and professional, I almost brushed by a small knot of men gathered off to one side – evidently waiting for me.
These were all members of my old weapons platoon in Kilo, which I had been forced to give up in October. They had noticed me inside eating with my new company commander and had courteously waited to approach me after dinner. Much happens in two months of combat and we spent the next few minutes catching up. As we talked I noticed one young Marine with a green foam ear plug sticking out of the right side of his head. He was a short, pale boy with close cropped hair and piercing blue eyes. I remembered him as a quietly intense machine gunner who had done well in a number of vicious engagements in August and September. I asked him what was wrong with his ear.
“Well, sir,” he began earnestly, “the membrane got pushed back when Warpig Charlie hit that mine on Jack road. See, I was in the turret two hundred yards away and the concussion just must of hit me the wrong way, sir.”
“It was the second time it’s happened, sir,” a big, good-looking Corporal chimed in. “The first was back a couple months ago, so his ear is pretty messed up. You may have to talk louder for him to hear everything.”
I looked searchingly at the injured Marine. His wide-eyed innocence was heartbreaking.
“Well, what did the docs say, P.? When will it be back to normal?” The gray light was fading into night and I had to peer intently at P.‘s pale silhouette to catch his facial expressions.
“Well, sir, they said that right now I’ve lost 90% of my hearing, but that when the membrane heals I might get 30 to 50% back.” He dropped his gaze and spoke in a barely audible whisper. “You see sir, it’s been a pretty hard deployment for me. My dad died three months ago.” He hesitated for a moment and I shifted uncomfortably. Then he continued hurriedly. “I went home for his funeral. Four days later, my fiancée left me. She said she had no feelings for me anymore, since she hadn’t seen my face or talked to me in so long.” The last part was said without a trace of bitterness, just young hurt and bewilderment.
“I’m sorry P. I’m sorry that you had to go through all that.” What else was I supposed to say? That his dad was in a better place and that a cruel, selfish girl didn’t deserve someone as brave and forthright as him anyway? The darkness deepened around us. His next words were hollow with pain.
“Right when I got back, Hertzberg got killed. Then Sergeant Z….a few weeks later….” his voice trailed off. The cluster of Marines stood in sympathetic silence as P. wrestled with inner emotions. Abruptly he raised his head and said firmly, “But I’m just gonna do my best until we go home, sir. I’ll make it through.” His squared jaw and gleaming eyes left me no doubt that he would.
I’ve never been good at responding to shared emotions, particularly with Marines. I never want them to see how much I care. P.’s story left me with a lump in my throat. Commenting thickly on the darkness and an invented timeline, I hurriedly shook hands with the Marines and strode rapidly away.
I hadn’t gone ten steps before a soft swishing of boots through gravel behind me announced someone hurrying to catch up. I turned and saw P.’s ghostly figure framed against the inky blackness.
“Sir,” he said quickly, before I could open my mouth, “I just wanted to thank you for – for everything, sir. You and Staff Sergeant Thomas taught me so much and – and I wanted you to know, sir, that Kilo put me up for two meritorious Corporal boards already. And it’s because of you and everything you did for me, sir.”
I stared fondly at the nervous, upturned face in front of me. In my chest, for no reason that I could put into words, I felt what fathers must feel when their sons tell them that they love them.
“No, P. It wasn’t because of me,” I said truthfully. “It was because of you, and who you are. Are they putting you up for the next board?”
“Oh yes sir! I didn’t have the test scores last time, but now I do. I’m sure I’ll get it this time!” His eagerness was contagious, and I grinned past the stinging in my eyes.
“Well that’s great, P. You deserve it.” I grabbed his bony hand and gripped it hard. “Let me know when the promotion is. I’d like to be there.”
P.’s face lit up with a huge grin. For a moment, dead fathers, lost brothers, and selfish, stupid girls were forgotten. “Oh, would you sir? I’d like that!” His grip was surprisingly strong. I held it for a moment, then released.
“I’ll see you then, P.. Be safe.”
“You too, sir. See you in January!” He turned and was swallowed up by the night.
I stood silently, there in the dirty gravel and creeping darkness, staring at nothing and thinking…. Thinking that most people will look at returning vets and search out the men with scars and limps and dangling, empty sleeves. They will see those men and say, “You are the casualties of war. Thank you. God bless you for your sacrifice.” And that will be right and honorable for Americans to do. But there are other men who have sacrificed, too. The wounded are not the only casualties. Shaking my head sadly, I turned and began the long walk back to my empty room.