Dear Mrs. Dawson,
My name is Frank Tiller, and I was with your husband when he died. I don’t know how to contact you properly, but the sergeant once told me the two of you used to read stories like this, so I figure you might find these words too. He used to read to you while you drew pictures of what’s happening, isn’t that right? He said you weren’t scared of nothing though — didn’t matter how dark it got, your laughter was a light to follow. I don’t suppose you’re laughing much these days. I know I’m not.
Two gunshots, one in the chest, one in the stomach. He didn’t abandon his position, not as long as he could provide cover to give the rest of us a chance away from the ambush. That’s what they told you, wasn’t it? I was shocked when I read the report, but I suppose I understand why they lied. That’s a hero’s death they gave him. They knew you wouldn’t question it, and really that’s all they cared about.
Pardon if I’m overstepping my bounds ma’am, but if I were you I’d want to know the truth, even if it weren’t so pretty.
The report said he died May 22nd, but you have to understand that this begun on the 13th when our squad encountered a landmine. It detonated beneath the front left tire of our LTATV jeep with a sound so loud I only felt it. I was thrown clear when the jeep went into the air, but Sergeant Dawson got the worst of it in the driver’s seat. What metal hadn’t disintegrated had melted and run like candle wax leaving a crater in the car like a meteor just punched through.
Nobody could have told you how your husband walked away from that with hardly a limp, just like nobody could say he was the same afterward. Doctor said it was an acute case of PTSD, but I see what PTSD looks like every time I look in the mirror and it didn’t feel nothing like that to me.
I don’t know how to right describe it ma’am, but when the sergeant talked I felt like he was calling from the bottom of the deepest of deep wells like he wasn’t here at all but just a little echo that started a long time ago.
Sometimes he’d look right at me and say something like, “Frankie what you got waiting for you back home?” and we’d talk like a bunch of geezers on a park bench with all the time in the world. He was like that when the Captain came in — sober enough to be approved for his position again.
Captain wouldn’t have been so quick if he saw him at his dark times. He’d forget who I was, or who he was, wandering lost and scared until I found him and brought him back to his quarters. Other times he’ll be screaming at a wall, really going at it, red-faced with the veins bulging in his neck and spit flying like a drill sergeant.
Every day it seemed the dark side was a little more the only side. Even when he had it together he’d forget my name or say something which betrayed how fragile his mind was. Once real loud in front of everyone in the barracks, he ordered me to “Climb to the moon on the finest of ladders,” his voice sing-songing like a lune.
The Captain didn’t see it, but the rest of his men did. I’d hear them making fun of the sergeant behind his back, taunting him for his wild intellectual and personality fluctuations. Your husband only made it worse, ordering a man to grow a beard or demanding to know why the King of England was so late in arriving. He was a laughing stock behind closed doors, and sometimes the doors weren’t even closed.
Other men gave me shit for not joining in, but on my word, I wouldn’t do that. If the sergeant asked me to jump I’d ask how high, and if he said it was to the moon then I’d give it my damn best. Count all the bricks in the barracks — it was 16,444 and I didn’t leave until after midnight.
You see I knew your husband was still in there, somewhere nobody could reach him anymore. He was the same man who had saved my life on more than one occasion, and I would follow him to whatever end. I thought that if he noticed I was listening — really listening, then he’d find his way back. If he knew he wasn’t being judged or looked down on or forgotten, he’d have a reason to return.
God ma’am, those days scared the hell out of me. I wasn’t just scared for the sergeant who seemed to keep getting worse, I was scared for myself. The only way I used to sleep at night is trusting the sergeant was going to keep me safe, and these days even pills couldn’t settle me down.
I didn’t give up on him. I want you to know that. Every damn impossible thing he’d say I’d look in the eye and say “Yes sir!” Everything except one — the night of May 22nd. The night he grabbed me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye, the night he really knew me, when he asked for me to take his life.
“I feel something bad coming, Frankie,” he said. “Like my soul needs to take a really bad shit that’s been brewing way too long.”
I told him not to worry about it. We all feel like that all the time. He chuckled a bit, but he wouldn’t lay off.
“I want you to put a bullet in me. Two to be sure. Something’s coming Frankie, and I don’t want to be around when it gets here.”
The next question out of his mouth was how much would it cost to buy India. I told him I’d need some time to research it, and he let me go for the night.
He had no right to ask a question like that (not the India one). I didn’t deserve to be put in this position where I had to just walk away in shame. Maybe the rest of the men were right, I thought. I ought to have called the medical officer and gotten him locked up a long time ago, for his own safety and everyone else. I just couldn’t bring myself to admit he was already gone.
That’s why I’m taking responsibility for what happened ma’am, and it’s why I’m writing you this letter now. The sergeant wasn’t wearing nothing but his skin when the midnight shift caught him sneaking around the base. I know for a fact that neither of them fired a shot before they were both dead and the alarm didn’t go yet.
There’s a lot of different accounts after that ma’am. Some say he had fur growing down his sides and a mouth like the inside of a butcher’s shop. Other’s think he was high on amphetamines or something, so much that he didn’t feel no pain — not even remorse for the men he killed.
All I can tell you with certainty is what I saw with my own two eyes. That was the sergeant burying his head in a man’s chest cavity like a starved dog. And when everything was all over, seven body bags were stacked against the far fence, his being one of them.
One in the head, one in the chest, two to make sure. I guess on that count the army told the truth. Just what the sergeant ordered. But I was a damn fool for not listening to him sooner, and there are six fine ladies who are going to have a man in uniform knock on their door holding a flag, just like how it happened to you.
What they didn’t tell you though — what they didn’t want to tell anyone, but I damn near forced it out of them — was that the sergeant was cold long before I shot him down. 8-10 days, that was their best guess, putting the actual death closer to the 11th. Nobody knows how your husband walked away from that mine, and it’s my theory that he never did.