Tuesday, October 30, 2018

A War Story: The Sound of Silence


This morning I woke up an hour before my alarm went off. It was early, too damn early, and I was unable to fall back to sleep. My back ached from the previous day’s work hauling lumber up three flights of stairs. KD studs weigh more than you think. It adds up. Anyway, I figured I might as well get out of bed, seeing as I wasn’t falling back to sleep. I tiptoed down the creaky staircase. I had to be especially careful on the fourth stair. With a baby sleeping, it sounded like a pressure plate IED. Usually the descent down would wake at least one person in the house, but luckily, everyone continued sleeping. I could hear one of two of my children snoring away. I strode silently across the worn planks to the coffee pot, threw in water, a filter, and coffee grinds, relishing the silence and solitude of the moment.

The moon was hanging low in the black sky, casting strange shadows in an eerie bluish light onto the deck. The trees swayed back and forth in a gentle rhythm, hypnotizing me. The quiet was both comforting and startling at the same time. I was used to the chaos of four children running around throughout the day. Instead of focusing on the silence, I began listening to the late night sounds. The wind was howling, and off in the distance, two owls began to hoot. The silent stillness reminded me of something, something that I couldn’t quite recall. Then it hit me. Fireguard.

FUCK! That is what most soldiers and Marines just thought as they read that, but fireguard wasn’t bad all the time; it really depended on the shift. No one ever liked pulling fireguard during the last hour because it meant they had to wake up an early before everyone else. Most guys liked the first hour because everyone else was awake during that time. I hated the first hour though. There was too much noise, too much talk about pussy. My favorite fireguard shift was two or three hours before first call, especially if I could maintain a sort of half sleep while still conducting whatever detail needing to be completed. Really, it was the since that I loved most.

I’ve always valued my alone time, even if it happens to be in a bay filled with sixty+ snoring soldiers. My love of solitude may have even hindered my military career. I hated dealing with the bullshit of military schools. I wanted to learn without dealing with the impossible time hacks, endless smoking’s, and irrelevant layouts. All of it was to weed out “that guy,” the window licker. You guys know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, well maybe you were the one licking the window. Unfortunately, we can never simply attend a military school to learn. No, instead we are forced to face the nonsense. How hard are you? It was fun when I was twenty. Little did I know how irrelevant all that noise it. Push-ups, sit-ups, forced marches, grown men screaming at you. That is what makes the solitude feel blissful. It is something civilians will never understand.

It was weird, feeling such peace while being surrounded by so many soldiers. I would walk between the bunks with my L-shaped flashlight (red lens, of course) lost in thought. For the first time all week, I could slow down and simply just be. Exist. It was the only true alone time of the week. There was no one yelling, no complicated classes rammed into my school, no privates around you who are discussing endless tales of pussy dominance (though we all know most of those guys are still virgins). It was just me, my red flashlight, and whatever chore I was faced with. (Usually cleaning the latrine.)

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. The coffee maker brought me back to the present, though the memory lingered. I wondered how many of those guys became a casualty of Iraq or Afghanistan (fucking pointless wars). They were good men, even the window lickers. I would never trade my time with those guys for anything, no matter how frustrating they were at times. It is something civilians will never understand. I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat at the dining room table. The memories were coming quickly now, like they usually do during those quiet times. I relished in the memories. They were like old friends. I sipped my warm, bitter coffee. The sun was slowly coming up, and it made me think of all those times at zero dark thirty we had to do PT, when none of us really wanted to. I leaned back and let the memories wash over me.

AHAHAHAHAH…THUNDER!
AHAHAHAHAH…THUNDER! 

AC/DC’s Thunderstruck was playing in the MATV as we drove fifty meters off from the dirt road. The Army thought these new vehicles would better protect us against the constant IED threat. The best part, my guys were somehow able to splice an IPOD into the radio system. It was brilliant, and they even made it so if the radio would come on, the music would stop.

“So, you never answered the fuckin’ question, Mills. Who would you rather fuck, Megan Fox or Scarlett Johansson?” This topic was getting old. They had been going back and forth on the matter for fifteen minutes. It was my third tour. The argument was the same; the actresses were changed out. I wasn’t paying much attention, as I was looking at the lead vehicle stopped in front of us. There must be a canal blocking our path.

I was caught
In the middle of a railroad track
I looked round
And I knew there was no turning back

BEEP. “We’ve got some sort of irrigation canal up ahead. I think we are going to have to hit the road on this one, but hold on, I’ll check it out.” I watched as the lead vehicle, an MRAP with a giant set of rollers on front, made a wide right turn and skirted the canal. It looked like a giant hippopotamus with bug-like antennae probing the ground. Out of context, it looked ridiculous. It probed the canal to try to find a way around it, though getting increasingly closer to the road, and I thought, fuckwe are going to have to get on the road on this mission. I knew our chances of encountering IEDs was much higher on the road. I was vaguely aware of AC/DC still playing, and the Fox/Johansson debate continuing. My focus was on the lead vehicle which had just stopped short of the road.

My mind raced…
And I thought what could I do
And I knew…
There was no help, no help from you

“Sergeant, new one. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Beethoven’s Fur Elise?” What the fuck? That was a dramatic shift. Infantrymen always amaze me. Within minutes, they go from discussing the latest hot chicks that they will never bang to their favorite classical music.

Suddenly interested, I replied, “I have always loved Four Seasons. It is my favorite symphony. It was playing at the hospital for three of my four children’s births.”

“Yeah, right! I bet you had them doing air squats or some other awful exercise. Guys, remember that time. . .” I mumbled something in response, losing interest again and focusing solely on the MRAP. It was still stopped short of the road. I could tell it didn’t want to go on it. None of us did.

BEEP. “We are going to have to hit this intersection here. Nothing we can do about it. The canal is too damn steep for this fucking behemoth. I am going to probe for pressure plates before going further down. Wish me luck.”

Roger,” I replied, “Good luck.” I sat back and cringed. I knew something was going to happen, I could feel it in my bones. We had been staying off the roads all day. I hoped our luck would last, but I knew it wasn’t going to. The MRAP began to lurch back and forth, probing for pressure plates. It looked as if the rollers were painting the sand.

Sound of the drums
Beating in my heart
The thunder of guns
Tore me apart

BEEP. “Entry seems clear. It is still steep. Hopefully, I don’t tip over.”

“Roger, we’ll be right behind you.”

The MRAP made it down the embankment and began moving to the other side. Once it got there, the second vehicle got onto the road. The MATV was more agile, so I wasn’t worried about a rollover. I was actually beginning to slightly relax. I thought of a question to ask my guys, and the moment I did, a mirror flashed in the distance. I heard my driver say, "HEY SERGEANT, did you see. . . "

WHUMP! The pressure filled my eardrums first before the sound hit me. A giant plumb of dust engulfed the vehicle in front of us. I sat, stunned, as dirt and metal rained down. Everything changed. We were having a lively conversation, and now we all sat in silence, both terrified and awed at the 200 pound IED that had made the MATV disappear into a cloud of dust. Fuck, my friends were in that vehicle. I froze, feeling completely overwhelmed by the raw violence of the moment. I had seen the damage done by IEDs in the past, and quite frankly, I was sick of it. I thought, how could anyone live through thatCould these take MATVs take such a hit? That would have destroyed a HMMWV. Who was in the vehicle again? I think it is our medic, the Forward Observer, and their gunner.

            You’ve been. . .
            Thunderstruck!!!

AC/DC was still playing in the background, but no one could hear it. Just moments ago, we were invincible. Now, our vulnerabilities have been laid bare by the enemy. Seconds felt like hours. Were they dead? That was a lot of debris thrown in the air. One of the doors on the MATV slowly opened, and their gunner, Saloy, stumbled out. He took a few wobbly steps before collapsing, all while holding and shaking his head. The driver, Tiger 95, opened his door and literally rolled out. It looked like his legs weren’t working. It was horrifying, and yet, it was comforting because it meant they were okay. Thank God they were alive, but they looked fucked up.

“I am going to them!” My driver called, as he began to move from the vehicle. I looked over, still in awe. It was Hafford’s first tour. He was one of the smaller guys I had served with, but in this moment, he proved to have the heart of a warrior. His bravery brought me to and moved me to act. We really do lean on each other. It took only a moment for that private, the one on his first tour, to help me get my head back in the game.  

“No, do fives and twenty-fives. Be ready to pull up if I need cover. Remember, they like putting in multiple IEDs. Expect a secondary. I could hear myself talking, but it didn’t feel like it was coming from me. It felt like someone else was giving orders. I remember finding myself out of the vehicle, weapon ready, and not knowing how I got there or what to do. It didn’t matter. I ran to my friends. I prayed haj wouldn’t choose this moment to start shooting. Then I decided, fuck haj, bring it. 

The seconds turned to minutes and minutes to hours. We setup the casualty collection point, implemented security, and requested a nine-line medevac. The pickup site was marked by red smoke. We had been itching to pop a signal grenade for a while now, so we used that instead of an VS-17 panel. Though in the moment, it didn’t feel like fun. Once the medevac was out, I called for a wrecker. There was no way we were getting that vehicle out of here.

I heard the floorboards creak above me. I saw my wife standing at the balcony.

“You’re going to be late for work.” My wife’s soft voice drifted down from the balcony. I glanced up and smiled. She had been there with me through all of it. Not in person, but in spirit.

Just caught in a moment. I’ll finish getting ready.” I put down my now cold coffee. It was more than halfway filled. It was getting brighter out, and I wondered what the time was.  

“Iraq?”

“One of those places.” I replied. I hated that she knew me so well.
It is crazy how one moment in your life can change everything. You will never be the same again. There is a distinct before and an after. A giant festering wound opens in your soul. It becomes the norm to fill the wound with hatred and anger. It consumes you. You dwell on it, let it consume you, get drunk to cover it, and you become a shell of the person you used to be. Nietche said, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster . . . for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” It is easy to focus on the bad because of the intense emotions surrounding such events.

Hurry up. Hurry up. After all the action is said and done, we sit around with our buddies, bullshitting. We aren’t processing any of it, how could we and still be able to finish the deployment with our sanity? Though we don’t know if our buddy is going to live or die, we talk about anything but that reality. We throw in a dip, play some Madden. We read. We do anything but think about the image of distorted limbs at impossible angles. We think about anything but the torn flesh, that terrifying purple thing you saw through a hole in someone’s chest. God, it was fucking awful. We may think these things, but we don’t talk about them. It is an unwritten rule in the warrior class. So we push it down. It works because you are surrounded by your brothers. It is only later, in the silence, isolated and weak, do you remember the details. That is when the demons come out. Just always remember to lean on your brothers. Don’t be afraid to reach out. You will see that if you look hard enough there is a helping hand reaching out to lift you up. Just like not so long ago…



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