I’m in full battle gear in the year 2004 and I’m sweating my ass off. It’s gotta be at least 110 degrees and it’s not even daylight yet! We’re going out to man a checkpoint north of the city and we’re all kind of skittish. The day before, two of our outfit were blown to bits, one of them my best friend. And three others were so messed up they had to be evacuated to Germany for treatment.
I should never have enlisted, but sitting in my dorm room on that Tuesday morning watching the towers fall, I felt I had to do something. But I didn’t get to go to Afghanistan. No, I get deployed to Iraq to fight a murderous thug that had nothing to do with 9/11. And now the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that we don’t know who we’re fighting.
Because replacements for those killed and wounded yesterday have not yet been assigned to our platoon, I find myself in command. I am only a corporal, but I outrank the other five men. We’re supposed to set up a checkpoint on a lightly traveled road into the city. The captain told me we would not encounter more than twenty vehicles all day, which is probably why he put a twenty-three year old corporal in charge.
We are traveling in a two-vehicle convoy. I am in the lead Humvee and with me are Hernandez and Scott. Behind us are Reilly, Simms, Grabowski and our interpreter. Simms is sitting in his sling, manning the .50 cal machine gun. The night is dark in spite of the half-moon hanging in the western sky; electricity is sporadic, sometimes it’s on and sometimes not. Because of the darkness, the stars seem close and bright. As we make our way into the desert, I think of Jimmy, my friend that was killed yesterday, and what a waste of a life his death was.
Without warning, I peripherally see a flash and then I hear the explosion; it came from behind. Turning, I see the Humvee in flames; no one is moving. They’ve been hit with an IED, an improvised exploding device. Reilly has pulled off to the side of the road and we three run back to help our comrades. But we might as well have continued on. They are all dead.
Then Hernandez shouts, he is pointing to the east. He tells me he saw a shadowy figure running towards a house about one hundred meters away. I am in command and I must make a decision. I tell Scott to call in what has happened and stay here until help arrives. Then I take Hernandez with me and we start off for the house.
At the door, I do not knock, I kick at the latch. The door swings inward, it is not locked. Hernandez and I stand at the threshold, moonlight slants in through a window, illuminating the room before us. There are two couches against one wall that face a television that sits against the opposite wall. To the left, at the far end of the room, is a rectangular table with six chairs around it. To the right is a hallway the leads off into darkness. On the far side of the room is another hallway with four closed doors, two on either side. Figuring that the hallway on the right leads to a kitchen, and if the man we are looking for came to this house he would most likely be in one of the four rooms, I send Hernandez to the right with a nod of my head and I go toward the four doors.
A few minutes ago I was angry, now as I approach the first door on the right I am angry and scared. I flatten myself against the wall and with my gun at the ready I push the door open. I expect bullets to come flying out, but nothing happens. In the dim light I see two mattresses lying on the floor and not much else. Then I cross the hall and open that door in the same manner and see just about the same thing, two mattresses on the floor and a bureau against the far wall.
I don’t know what makes me so sure the man we’re after is in this particular house. Maybe because it’s the closest building to the explosion, but whatever the reason, I am sure he’s here. And I’m just as sure that he’s behind one of the two doors that I have yet to open. My mouth is dry, my heart is racing, and I’m scared. Where the hell is Hernandez?
I guess it doesn’t matter where he is. He’s doing his job and I must do mine. Because I’m closest to the door on the left, I choose that one to open next.
The door swings in easily. I am not against the wall this time because I have come to the realization that the walls are so thin they offer no protection from bullets. This room is different, there is very little light. There are curtains on the window and they are drawn shut but a little moonlight comes in from around the edges. A mattress sits on a box spring and a frame, it is a double bed. Great, now I’ll have to get down and look under it, but first the rest of the room. There’s a dresser and an old fashioned wardrobe against the near wall. In the far corner there is something indistinct. Is that the glint of moonlight on metal that I see? It is! It’s a man holding a gun!
Without hesitation I open fire. I rake my gun back and forth, twice, and then stop firing. By now Hernandez is by my side looking for a target. That’s when we hear the scream. Before we can react the lights come on; the electricity must be working again.
I wish the lights had stayed off. The sight before me is too much to bear. There is a woman sitting on the floor screaming, and as far as I’m concerned, she has something to scream about. Her face is covered with blood and she’s holding a baby or what used to be a baby. It is now a corpse with half its head missing. Next to the woman lie two children, both boys. One is about twelve and the other looks to be two years younger. They are both dead, their eyes open, but not seeing. The younger of the two holds a puppy, a mutt, also dead.
In front of the boys, and next to the woman is a man. In his left arm, and tight to his chest, he holds a little girl, and in his right hand he holds a knife. I can’t help but fixate on the knife. It is just like the one my father used on Thanksgiving. How many times did I watch him as he sharpened that knife in anticipation of carving up a big juicy turkey? The man and the little girl are dead, and still the woman screams. She holds the baby in her right arm and with her left; she shakes the boy nearest her, the one with the puppy, as though trying to wake him from a deep sleep. And still she screams.
Hernandez now turns from the carnage and says the words that I will never forget.
“That’s not the man I saw running. He was dressed in dark clothes. This man is wearing white.”
This man was only trying to protect his family. That was his crime!
The house is now filling with soldiers. The captain is beside me, he’s saying something, but the words are indistinct. My eyes are locked onto the woman’s eyes. She has now stopped screaming, she is quiet. She is looking right into my eyes. I want to turn and run, but I cannot break off the eye contact. To do so would prove me the coward that I am, so we look into each other’s souls until someone lifts her from the pooling blood of her loved ones, still clutching the dead baby. She is being led out of the room. She is docile, but at the door she stops and turns to give me one last look. I think she is trying to memorize my face. Her face, I will never forget, it is burned into my memory.
I’m brought back to the base where they try to debrief me, but I refuse to speak. Hernandez is then brought in and is asked what happened. He explains that he was in another part of the house before and during the shooting, he did not know what precipitated the incident. Hernandez is then dismissed. It is decided that I must be in shock, so I am sent to the base hospital for treatment and observation. Three days later, I am released and sent back to my unit.
While I’m in the hospital, a sergeant has been assigned to our platoon, and the replacements for Reilly, Simms and Grabowski are also in residence. I am surprised, and a little mystified, when I am not summoned to explain the shooting of an entire unarmed family. It seems the incident has been hushed up. Officially it never happened.
I no longer feel the comradeship or the Esprit de corps of our unit; I just want to be left alone. Eventually the men do leave me to myself after a few attempts to bring me “out of my funk” have been rebuffed.
The platoon has been idle since the night I murdered that family, all but the mother. I spend my days lying on my bunk, staring at the ceiling and seeing her face. I try to find out her name and where she is, not that I have the courage to approach her. But I’m told to let the matter lie, that there is nothing I can do to change what happened. I have to agree. Then I make a decision that is the first, small step to my redemption.
The captain walks in and tells the sergeant to have the squad assemble, he has orders to convey. The men stop what they are doing and gather in front of the captain. I remain where I am, lying on my bunk. I see the captain nod to the sergeant, who in turn yells, “Soldier, front and center!” I remain where I am. The sergeant comes to my bunk, and standing over me says, “On your feet soldier.” I remain where I am. He turns to the captain for guidance. The captain nods and the sergeant grabs the mattress and flips it and me onto the floor. The mattress and I remain where we landed. The sergeant once again looks to the captain. I cannot see the captain from my vantage point on the floor, but the sergeant retreats and I hear a whispered conversation followed by the captain’s voice giving orders for a mission.
The captain leaves and everyone gives me a wide berth lest they be contaminated by whatever is afflicting me. A few minutes later, I am surrounded by four MPs, very large MPs. Without preamble, I am hoisted to my feet and half dragged and half walked out of the door. Once outside, I am given the option of walking under my own power or being knocked out and carried. I chose the former.
The base has no jail or holding cells. If someone has to be incarcerated, he is sent to Abu Ghraib, Saddam Hussein’s infamous prison now run by the coalition. I, on the other hand, am thrown unceremoniously into a small, windowless room. The door is closed and I hear the click of the lock. There is nothing in the room but four bare walls and the floor.
About an hour later, sitting on the floor, I once again here the click of the lock. The door opens and in walks the captain with a major that I am not familiar with. “Attention!” the captain barks. I remain seated. The captain and major look at one another and then the major raises his hand as a sign for the captain to let him handle things.
“What’s the problem son? What happened the other night bothering you? asks the major. His voice is soft and kind, like he really wants to know what is on my mind. I stand and face him, “Yes sir, I wiped out a family and I will not take another order that will put me in that position again. You can court-martial me, hang me, shoot me or draw and quarter me, But I’m not going out there again, sir.”
The major nods as though he understands. Without another word, he turns and waits for the captain to open the door. Then they are gone and I am left with the vision of her eyes. They are dark, and surprisingly enough there is no hate in them. Only the one question, “Why?” She wants to know why. If I could, I’d tell her the simple truth. I was afraid. That is why her family had to die.
I am given an honorable discharge with the proviso that if I ever speak of that night to anyone, especially a member of the media, I will be prosecuted for murder. They need not worry on that account. I have no need to speak of it, I see her eyes, her face, and I think of those dead bodies every waking moment of my existence.