It’s the same question. Different people do the asking, but it’s always the same question.
The hair cut gives me away. Or maybe it’s my correct posture; clean jaw; unconscious use of the titles “sir” and “ma’am”. Maybe it is something else. It doesn’t matter. I’m identified as a serviceman and people correctly assume that I have been “over there.” Curiosity trumps tact and the first question, posed with a mixture of respect and something else – pity? – is always the same: “What’s it like?”
I stare silently at the stranger, wrinkling my nose at the close odor of perfume or cologne, noting the over-styled hair and the soft body packaged inside trendy designer clothing. Bitterness wells up inside of me. What is what like? The desert? Iraq? Being dirty and deprived and despised for months and years? Or maybe something beyond the aesthetic: What’s it like to fight? To fear? To kill? To die?
What’s it like?
– – – –
It’s like golden shards of sunlight streaming down from a blue December sky to crash soundlessly against helmeted heads and blinking, blinded eyes.
“What a beautiful day, huh? Two days after Christmas and –“
It’s the rending crash of an explosion and the sudden scent of dust and cordite.
“What was that?”
“IED! That was a f—-ing IED!”
“Who’d it hit? Marines? Our Marines? Where?” Oh f—, thinking it so they don’t see me lose control.
It’s a throat that chokes out calm commands past a plug of huge fear. Quick off the roof, down through the dark, pungent house, then out into bright, slanting sunlight and the deadly street.
“Hurry up, follow me…. Spread out….Where are they?” Breathing in short, shallow gasps. Holding my breath before I speak, containing the fear, calming the tone: appearing in control.
“Who saw where they went?… Here?” Peering down a narrow alley littered with torn paper and scattered rags. No.
“Keep moving! Get in that courtyard…. Yes, that one…. I don’t care, break it down!” The gate crashes metallically off its screeching hinges.
“They’re not here!” Wait – scooping up a shattered rifle from against the far wall.
“Sir! Look what we found!” Seeing the abandoned weapon, knowing what it means. This will be bad. Too far.
“We went too far.” Back to the alley – to the tattered rags that aren’t rags, but a broken, bleeding body. Blinking to make sure. Maybe he is just knocked out, maybe… but I already know. Fear and despair flood icily into my chest. Two blasted craters smoke eerily across from the broken lump heaped against the gray cinderblock wall. All alone. He is all alone. I need to go to him. But I’m too scared, too scared to run toward death. Desperately I twist my neck around looking for a Marine to order into the alley in my place. I don’t want to go I don’t want to go I don’t want to – but who else will? Go, you f—ing coward.
“Get over here, doc. Help me out.” The words delivered quietly, unemotionally, like ordering a pizza. He will remember it afterwards and remark admiringly to the platoon about my astonishing calm under pressure. Only I know the truth: that forced calm is a coping mechanism, a way to mask horror. And it is my job.
The boy is chalk white underneath a gray film of scorched dust. Scarlet rivulets drain from his ears and nose, and gurgle from between his gray lips. Sightless eyes stare into the dirt inches from his face. I don’t know what to do. Doc glances hopelessly at the Marine’s gruesomely twisted and tortured legs and instantly moves on to a gaping wound in his abdomen. Next to the Marine’s bleeding head, I pluck pathetically at the strap to his shredded assault pack.
“Try to keep him awake, sir.”
Cradling the tan Kevlar helmet in my lap, I stroke the green tufts of damaged ballistic material that sprout from the surface after the shrapnel’s impact. Studiously avoiding contact with the waxen skin underneath the armor, I murmur meaningless words to the silent form.
“Come on buddy, you’re gonna be fine. Stay awake, buddy. We’ll have you out of here in no time.” The words are acid to my soul. I am lying to a corpse who was a boy whose name I can’t even remember now.
“Come on B., you’ll be all right.” Doc knows his name. Ashamed, I repeat it while glancing guiltily at the Corpsman. He is too busy assessing the wounds to notice my desecration.
Empty seconds sift by in lifetimes. A great throbbing pressure settles heavily behind my eyes. I need to think, to figure something out… but fragments of thought and observation slip elusively around the fringe of my consciousness like shadows. A decision. I need to make a decision. But the urge to lie down and quit is almost unbearable. I don’t want this responsibility I don’t want it it’s not fair.
Snap. And that’s it. No more internal argument. Without explanation, a mental mechanism clicks into place and achingly slow, deliberate decisions form.
“What can you do, doc?” Something needs to happen, someone needs to do something. The nineteen year-old corpsman looks up at me. Stamped upon his boyish face are torment and despair.
“I – I can’t help him, sir. I….” His voice trails off into a helpless shrug.
“Calm down doc. Do something for him. Pick an area and start working. You can do it.” I look at him encouragingly, though I feel like throwing up. Doc pulls out a pressure bandage and bends dutifully to the greatest trauma. Turning to a Marine hovering anxiously a few feet away, I begin giving quick, calm orders. I have already buried the casualty in my mind.
“Go set up security at that intersection. Stay behind cover so we don’t get anyone shot by a sniper. One casualty is enough for today.” The Marine nods, takes one more hurried glance at the prostrate form, and rushes off to execute his orders. Gently placing the helmeted head on the ground, I rise, grab my rifle, and stride towards a house at the end of the alley where I can now see a handful of Marines gathered in an aimless knot.
“Where’s your doc? Get him out here to help…. Let’s go!” I have to repeat the order twice before another corpsman pushes past into the alley. This is the squad that was hit by the IED and they are in shock. The squad leader stares vacantly over my right shoulder at the corpsmen bending over his bleeding friend. I have to grab his biceps and physically turn him to face me before a flicker of recognition crosses his stricken face.
“Corporal V, listen to me. Let the docs work on him. I need you to provide over watch from this side so that we don’t get hit again before the QRF arrives.” The order is tactically unnecessary, as I already have Marines positioned at key intervals. But it gives the squad simple, executable tasks to focus them on anything but what they are focused on now. At a crash scene, police wrap victims in blankets to treat them for shock. In combat, we wrap traumatized men in the thoughtless comfort of simple tasks made familiar by hours of training. It works. As the Marines take up crouching security positions I turn back to the tragedy in the alley.
“He’s gone, sir.” The senior corpsman’s voice is choked. Gazing down at his twisted, upturned face, I am inexplicably fascinated by the morphine cap that wavers in the corner of his mouth like a blue plastic cigarette as he talks.
“He just – there was too much trauma—we couldn’t do anything to help.” I can tell the doc is trying to convince himself more than he is trying to inform me.
“I – he didn’t feel a thing, sir. He was dead when we got here.”
A pause. I force myself to look at the dead Marine’s face. Framed by stray wisps of dusty brown hair, it shines delicately white through black grime and smears and smudges of crimson. A boy’s face – and I think involuntarily of how much his mother must have loved her little boy. How would she feel if she was here right now, I wonder. If she could see her son, broken from the blast of three artillery shells, sprawled in the center of a sad little circle of kneeling corpsmen and silent Marines. How would she feel?
She would feel like I do.
“Get him in a body bag.” And I walk away.
– – – –
What’s it like? Don’t ask. Don’t ask, because you don’t want to know what it’s like to live the rest of your life with part of your soul buried in Tennessee.
Author’s Note: I wrote this a week before we left Iraq in January 2007 – three weeks after the incident described. There are tactful ways to show interest in veterans and let them know that their service is appreciated. “Thank you” goes a long way. Being ready to listen without judgment is another good method. Happily, I haven’t heard “the question” in more than 5 years. Perhaps people have learned tact. Or perhaps I carry myself differently. I’m glad, either way.