A droplet of sweat hitting my hand brings me back to the here and now, sometimes it makes sense. I’m sitting in a delivery truck, keys in hand. Yeah that seems right; but for how long? It’s so goddamned hot, I must have slipped away for a while because my shirt is soaked straight through. It’s just part of my life now, losing track of time. Another war trophy from the sand box along with night terrors, flashbacks, and the deep scar tissue that covers my hands, wrists, and most of both my arms.
I’m thankful for the small things. I wasn’t driving or cooking this time. Almost burned down the kitchen the other day. Mom said she was talking to me from the other room as I started breakfast, but I must have just stared through the skillet and into the void as the oil smoked and then caught fire. Mom dared not snap me out of it out of fear that I might flinch and send the flaming oil flying, so she doused everything, the skillet, me, the stove and most of the wall with the extinguisher. The cold discharge brought me back to reality. I mostly eat cereal now. Simple solutions are best.
I turn on the engine and crank the AC full blast. So much to do, but I can’t go out looking like this — a complete train wreck. A kinder more considerate politically correct world is full of empty platitudes of support and encouragement, but it’s preferred if you keep your scars and demons on the inside. I may be a product of the real world, but the world in which I currently find myself only likes reality on TV. Not in their neighborhoods where their kids play and they walk their dogs. I wear gloves and long sleeves to hide the visible and fight like hell to contain the rest for as long as I can.
I pull out my journal and scramble to find an empty page among scribbles and ramblings, some coherent, some too… too real to ever let anyone read. The Veteran’s Hospital psychologist called it “the healing power of words.” I bet he gets a kick out of that these horror novels, a sick affirmation of how well his life turned out. In college, it seemed to me that Psych majors were the ones that were a little bit off. Like they were trying to find the knowledge to help diagnose their own neuroses, mommy and daddy issues, rather than seeking a profession that would allow them to help others. God, my college days seem like they were someone else’s life, a different world. It’s hard to conceive of a time before we watched the planes hit their marks back in 2001. Before I dropped out to bring the fight to “THEM.” To anyone who wanted to do us harm.
I’ve written about so many things. Where does one start when death was a possibility every single day? I started with a quote I read my first day in the combat zone, scrawled on the wall of a portable shitter.
“If a mortar hit right here, right now, would you wipe before running to the bunker?”
In the moment it was hilarious, bringing forth the picture of a soldier running for cover, tripping over pants hanging around his ankles, toilet paper hanging out of his ass like a flowing white tail, rifle and vest dragging behind like anchors. But that first night as I lied awake under the thin canopy of the canvas field tent listening to inbound mortar rounds from some distant enemy, knowing every night would bring more of the same, I realized the shithouse quote was actually profound, philosophically fatalistic, and so true. Your life is not always in your hands, so close your eyes…if death happens, it will happen, awake or asleep. The one choice you have is to live in fear or just live. It was liberating.
Deep down inside, I know I have avoided writing anything substantial. I’ve penned nothing about what brought me here to this literal crossroads. The reason I can’t hold a steady job or keep any meaningful relationship, but the healing starts today. I’ve done everything everyone has told me to do and today, I’m taking control.
9 November 2006 – Mosul, Iraq
The patrol drove black out, no headlights, through the heart of the city to drop us near our hide-site, our sniper nest, which was 100 meters beyond the infamous Yarmuk circle. Nicknamed headless circle, a designation that always struck me as strange given that the traffic circle was actually where the shit-bird insurgents would display the heads of their kills, not the remains of a decapitation.
The line of five gun trucks pulled into an alley, slowing just long enough for my spotter Duffy and I to jump out and take cover. As was typical, we would break from the drop sight to cleanse ourselves of the patrol route before sneaking into, over, or under anywhere to give us the best vantage point.
This mission was personal for everyone in our battalion. A local insurgent leader had ordered the execution of Colonel Samir, one of the few Iraqi military that actually gave a fuck and wasn’t merely looking for a payout. Some flunky had tossed a grenade into the Colonel’s house, killing his wife and son when he was out on a raid on the other side of the city. Through an informant, we located the bed-down site for the leader. Tonight Duffy and I would bring the fight to the insurgent’s front door and our mission was to lie low on a neighboring rooftop for as long as it took to put a bullet in his head.
When all things are going as planned, too smoothly, we warriors superstitiously find ourselves looking for evidence of Murphy – the axiom that whatever can go wrong will. Well Private Murphy found us through the screams of a child that pierced the night. “Ali Baba (thief), Ali Baba (thief)”, the boy shrieked, bringing his whole house to life. In an instant, we went from camouflaged to compromised, the block coming alive as an elderly man exited the house three floors below firing an AK-47 wildly in the air as his family evacuated, escaping from something they knew was coming.
Instinctively, I whipped my scope to the target door, praying for a glimmer of luck in this sudden shit storm. I could barely hear Duffy yelling for us to retreat. He could have been shouting directly into my ear, but I wasn’t there…I was my rifle. I was at the door, then making my way from window to window. Where the hell are you, you insurgent fuck-stick?
It wasn’t the gunfire that brought me back, but the concrete fragments of the rooftop and shrapnel that peppered the side of my body. Ignoring the searing pain, I rolled to one side and put my first round of the night center mass into the shooter’s chest.
Duffy and I slid up to hunker behind the slowly eroding concrete wall running the edge of the rooftop. Gunfire erupting on all sides of the building confirmed our worst fears; we were trapped.
Duffy radioed our situation into the battalion tactical operations center. The response was grim, the quick reaction forces were pinned down three blocks from the operating base and the patrol that dropped us off was engaged in a firefight during the separate operation meant to draw attention away from our infiltration. The only welcome news was the report that a Kiowa Warrior recon helicopter was being routed to our position to provide cover fire.
We could hear the slow wump-wump of the chopper blades before we could see it on the horizon. Our guardian angel strafed an armed crowd forming in the street below, but it was too late. We could already hear shouts in the stairwell below us, beyond the support the pilot could provide. A head popped up into view through a roof hatch a split second before Duffy dropped it with a three round burst from his M-4 carbine. Two rifles popped up from the hatch, firing blindly, bullets kicking up on all sides. I grabbed the radio and called on the pilot to fire rockets into the floors below us. The pilot refused, claiming that the explosions would surely kill us, but I assured we were being overrun and I would prefer death to capture.
The impact of the volley of rockets was more powerful than anything I could have imagined, the world seemed to stand still, like the moment a roller coaster reaches the top of the steepest drop, and then the roof collapsed on the floors below.
I lost track of time and space, gripping first for a rifle I could never find and then for Duffy. He wasn’t moving, but I wasn’t going to leave him behind. I dragged him to the ledge, scanning the alley below for movement. The area was clear, but despite the collapse of the building, we were still 30 feet above the ground. I tried to wake Duffy, but he wouldn’t respond.
I’m still haunted by the decision I had to make, a choice to wait and hope or drop him from the rooftop so that I could carry him to safety. As my platoon sergeant once told me, hope is a shitty plan. I had only one choice. I whispered an apology to my best friend and swung him down as low as I could before his hand slipped away from my grip. I cringed as his body hit the ground legs first, crumpling into an impossible heap.
I scrambled down the side of the building to my friend. He was still breathing, but the abnormal position of his legs was a clear indication that both had broken during the fall and no time to make a splint. I rose to drag Duffy to a safer place, just as I caught a flash of movement at the corner of my eye, a butt of a rifle smashing down into my face.
I awoke, head splitting. I tried to raise my hands to my face. A panic rising as I remained immobile, no matter how I jerked and thrashed. I forced myself to slow my breathing – losing my shit wouldn’t get me anywhere. I closed my eyes to take an inventory of my situation. I moved my body, joint by joint in a slow diagnostic. Aside from the throbbing of the worst migraine of my life, the ringing in my ears, and the aching of my wrists, tied far too tight behind my back, I didn’t think I had any serious injuries.
I opened my eyes but could only see out of the left, the right probably swollen shut from the blow to my head that knocked me out. The room was dark, lit only by a few kerosene lamps that were commonplace due to constant rolling blackouts. I was seated on the floor at the base of a wooden post.
I turned toward the sound of a weak groan to my right. It was Duffy in the same predicament as me. I winced as I saw his tibia; sticking out of his camouflage pants, blood oozing onto the floor. The bastards hadn’t given him any first aid, just dragged him into this hellhole. I looked around and spotted the second indication that we weren’t getting out of here alive; in the corner there were two portable spotlights flanking a video camera on a tripod, all three focused on a chair. It was a scene that had become familiar, almost cliché, in so many terrorist propaganda films circulating the black markets and extremist mosques of the war zone. We were going to be front and center in Jihad’s Next Top Infidel.
Three men entered the room. The tallest of the three looked over at me.
“G-Morning, you’re just in time to see the show.”
I don’t know what scared me more, the nonchalant tone in his voice or his unmistakable Jersey accent. The shock on my face brought a proud smile to his.
“What do they call it when you get killed by accident by another soldier?”
He paused, awaiting a response, but I was determined not to give him another reason to smile.
“Fratricide, right? Blue-on-Blue? I wonder what they’d call this? Killed by another American, but one from the enemy side in a foreign war?”
“Fucking murder!” I couldn’t resist lashing out. “You sick in the head fucks call it the struggle, but you’re an abomination to your own religion.”
Instead of a smile, Jersey erupted in laughter. The other two chuckled, but it was clear they couldn’t follow the conversation in our native tongue.
“Well my friend, you are in for quite a surprise,” Jersey said. “These misguided idiots might do anything in the name of some faceless deity, but money is my religion. Your war gave me a license to steal and an army of misled psychopaths who will lay down their lives for me as long as I say the right things, help them plant a couple IEDs and decapitate an infidel or two every so often.”
Jersey’s smile eroded at the sound of not so distant incoming fire. He must have suspected what I knew, our command knows this neighborhood was lost and the pilot likely reported us as killed in action. They would cordon off the surrounding area, pound the enemy with artillery or gunship fire to soften the targets, and then take the battle door-to-door until the high value targets were captured or killed and our bodies are recovered.
“Well, the show must go on.”
Jersey turned and barked orders at the two other men, who cut Duffy loose and dragged him to the chair. Duffy screamed as his legs bent into impossible angles, leaving two lines of gore along the way. He appeared to pass out as they dropped him into the killing chair. Thank god for simple miracles.
Jersey pulled on a black balaclava and then unsheathed an AK-47 bayonet from his belt before walking behind Duffy. “Normally we drug you guys to take make this easier, but you caught us by surprise.” Jersey looked up toward the sound of a closer blast, “But I don’t think we have time to waste.”
One of the lackeys turned on the camera and Jersey spat forth a quick message, likely full of hate and scripture, manipulated for the simple minded that could believe that Islam welcomed this inhumanity. He clenched Duffy’s head and started to swing. Duffy didn’t regain consciousness until the third pass of the blade across his neck, but by then what should have been screams was a violent gurgle of blood, only his eyes revealing the terror and agony.
Now the incoming fire was shaking the whole building, causing dust and chunks to fall from the ceiling. Jersey ripped off his mask and barked out more commands. The cameraman grabbed the tripod and ran for the door. Jersey pulled off the blood-covered shirt, leaving only a wife beater underneath. He used the inside of the shirt to wipe his hands and forearm’s clean, which is when I saw it. Halfway up his forearm, he had a tattoo with a bayonet with crossed arrows, ink common to U.S. Special Forces.
Jersey passed the bloody bayonet to the third man and made his escape. The third man held out the knife, grinning as he walked toward me, this wasn’t going to be a quick death.
I learned that day that enemy suffers from Murphy’s wrath as well, an equal opportunity bastard. He may have another name, but the results are indisputable. Just as my assailant got within striking distance, our building took a direct hit, causing him to fall onto me. I was able to raise my legs as he fell, trapping his head and right arm between my thighs. His fall and struggling shook loose the kerosene lamp nailed on the pole above us. The glass shattered, throwing fire and kerosene everywhere. My shirtsleeves were engulfed in flame.
The man thrashed to break free, slicing my sides and stabbing at my legs, but the pain was nowhere near that of the burning on my arms. I pulled and pulled until the fire burned the ropes enough to free my wrists. I wrestled for the bayonet and he let go as the flames engulfing my forearms seared his face and I buried the blade to the hilt in the man’s chest
I remember exiting the building, but not much more until I awoke in the hospital. I told my command about the American Jihadi with the tattoo, but they said it was impossible. No one meeting that description was captured or found dead in the cordon and search. I swore it was the truth, but the doctors maintained that such stressful conditions play tricks with the mind. They patched me up, gave me a medal and shipped me home.
This is my final entry. I believe this has absolutely made me realize how to find closure. Two weeks ago, while making a delivery in the apartment complex across the street, I saw the man that took Duffy’s life.
I did what you are supposed to do. “If you see something, say something.” The FBI opened an investigation. They found out the guy with the tattoo was an honorably discharged veteran who had even selflessly continued serving his country as a contractor filling critical military needs and services. The investigation closed quickly and quietly when they checked my background, matching my claims against my post-operation debriefing. They even talked to that oxygen thief of a psychologist, who said delusions were quite common with those of my affliction, the brain trying to make sense of the trauma. He added that I’d been watching too many Trump speeches about immigrants.
Today I will have closure by way of a very special delivery. I feel obliged to return something that literally fell into my hands so many years ago. I pull the bayonet from my backpack and place it into a small cardboard box sitting on my lap along with two large zip ties. As I exit the delivery truck, I check the taser with two quick zaps before I put it back into the holster. I button up my sleeves and pull my hat low, special delivery for apartment 616.
But it is a gift from Duffy.