It was just another day, waking up and getting ready to go on patrol, standing behind the truck, bullshitting with the guys, waiting on the op order. Early May in Iraq: it’s not too hot, not too cold, nice breeze blowing. The morning was great.
The lieutenant comes, giving us the brief. Time to mount up and get going.
My feet pressed against the bench, my body up out of the hatch, leaning back against the cases of ammo on the top of the truck. In front of me is the 240 Mounted, with the rounds fed into the chamber. It sits on a swivel, easy to maneuver and aim. I swing it around to my right side and leave it sitting tucked against my side.
Rolling down the road, dust flying, looking off into the distance, watching the road behind us, little kids run along the side of the road, hands in the air, yelling some bullshit you can’t understand. As we pull into the city, cars smash into each other, trying to get around us like they are in such a big hurry to go nowhere.
Watching the road behind me, there is a car that keeps getting closer and closer to the back of the truck. I wave the red flag and start yelling, but he doesn’t give a shit. I pull up my rifle and point it at his head, thinking he will get the picture. Nope, the dumbass just keeps creeping slowly up on us.
So I swing the 240 around, cock back the bolt, and get a round in the chamber. Leaning softly on the butt stock, pointing my sights at the front of his car, I squeeze the trigger and let a 10 round burst go into the hood of his car. He slams on his brakes as I lower the ramp.
Moving in formation, we come up on his car. I pull out my 9 mil and press the barrel to his fucking head and tell him “Etla oguf dishma ge inta to hal areid ah chic werack.” (Slowly get out of the car and come here. I want to talk to you.)
The man gets out and starts rambling on about how he needs to get his son to the doctor because he is sick. Well, I told him: get him out; my medic will take a look at him. The boy gets out; his flesh on his leg is hanging off the bone. Yellow puss seeps out of the burn. The flies cover it as they cut away at the flesh.
I have doc clean it up, cut away the dead tissue, and put creams on it. We give him antibiotics, bandages, cream, ibuprofen, and clean wraps. “Tell the man to bring his son by our base in 2 weeks, and we will take another look at it.”
He thanks us and invites us over for chai and dinner. We accept and arrange a day to come over. Just the simple choice to stop him instead of shoot him, and I became their hero.
But that’s just me. Thousands of soldiers make this choice every day, and they all aren’t heroes.
I write this the morning after you and I have seen each other again, after you have talked of worrying about your grandmother’s health, of your plans for your daughter’s upcoming birthday. I am so glad that you have remained clean and that you and your wife feel more hopeful about your future.
I find myself thinking about you at the age you were when you were over there. I spent my early twenties in medical school. I was an emotional wreck, to be honest, although I did a fairly good job of hiding that from most folks around me (probably all, truth be told). I had a good intuitive feel for people and situations, but, honestly, that talent complicated my life as much as it eased it. I certainly saw my share of life-and-death situations, but I was always low on the decision-making totem pole, a well-educated orderly, for the most part. I did make some split-second, potentially-game-changing decisions, but I knew that within a few more seconds, someone older, someone at least slightly more experienced than I would be present to pick up the slack.
Odd, isn’t it, Winston: everyone from The New York Times to the Congress of the United States has—under quite the high-flying moral flag of “concern for others,” I might add—since then made darn certain that no other young twenty-something should have any such split-second moments in any hospital, any clinic, anywhere. Safeguards, safeguards, safeguards!
There are a lot of people, Winston, who are quite proud of themselves that they have succeeded in that endeavor.
But, of course, this is War, isn’t it, Winston? One panicked father gets the assurance that he’ll have an attending physician at the side of his son. Another gets the possibility that an unsupervised twenty-year-old will even allow him to exist with his son.
I have no clue whatsoever what I would have done at that age had I needed in that split-second not to decide whether a man’s breathing rate was worthy of calling a Code Team, but rather whether to fire a gun. Yes, I would have been trained well. Yes, I would have known the Rules of Engagement. Yes, I would have wanted to do the right thing, for my buddies, even for that man.
But I was so uncertain in life, so uncertain. I don’t know.
I can understand, though, why you might have mixed feelings about the word “hero.” I think I would have been with you on that one, Winston. No doubt.
Thank you again for your honesty. Thank you again that you force me one more time, one more day, to be honest with myself.