Johnny Quinn falls to the ground and covers his head waiting for the explosion. The mortar round lands fifty meters south of his position behind the concrete T-wall and sand filled barriers, the blast sends shrapnel ripping through vehicles and barriers alike. “They don’t like us today and it’s not even Ramadan.” The crack of bullets impact around him as he sprints to cover. “I’m up, he sees me, I’m down.” After completing the sprint, while utilizing various sprint techniques, he sees insurgents crawling through the gap in the fence. Johnny grabs the hand mike of the radio in the disabled vehicle. Pressing the button, he screams in the mic, “We’ve got company! Insurgents are overrunning the camp! Fall back!” The hammering of the machine guns fill the air with lead. Grabbing his weapon, Johnny falls back while laying down suppressive fire. An insurgent with an RPG comes through the wall and aims at Johnny. Without hesitation, Johnny lines up his sight with the insurgent’s chest and fires until his magazine runs dry.
A woman runs through the fence and cradles the child in her arms. Turning her face to the sky she screams the most heartrending scream of sorrow. As quickly as the battle started it ends. Johnny heads to the lady, to lend aid to the child. It’s too late. The child soldier is dead, riddled with bullets fired from his weapon. Tears run down Johnny’s face as he realizes this child is no older than his son in Washington.
“Oh God….forgive me.”
As Johnny stands there crying and begging forgiveness, the soldier’s mom leaps to her feet and spits in his face. Her tiny fists pummels Johnny and he stares in shock at the handiwork the weapon did to this soldier’s small frame. Finally, Johnny snaps back into reality and some of his friends drag the woman away. “He is Timmy’s age…” No words are spoken, just a silent nod that says the situation is horrible. Silently, the soldiers walk back to the Forward Operating Base and take accountability. As they walk into the barracks, Johnny feels a hand on his shoulder. Turning to face the person who touched him he recognizes the commander’s clerk. “Now isn’t a good time….” The clerk nods and shakes his head in agreement. “We heard the tactical report over the net. The commander and 1SG wants to see you immediately.” Johnny nods and makes his way to the Tactical Operation Center. “Staff Sergeant Quinn come in here. Take a seat.” Johnny walks over to the aluminum chair and sits down; the metal frame is cool after fighting for his life in the hot desert air. “You did fine work today. We understand a child was killed, are you ok Staff Sergeant?” Tears form in Johnny’s eyes, but he blinks them away. “Thank you, sir, I am fine. He shouldn’t have run out with an RPG if he wanted to live. “The commander walks over and puts his hand on Johnny’s shoulder. “It’s still a kid. Take tomorrow off to get your head right. It is no small thing to kill a man, if rumors are true, killing a child is even worse. Remember this, you did what you had to do. You weren’t given any other option.”
“How am I going to face my son? What is my wife going to think? I’m a monster.”
“I don’t know son, but you will find a way to deal with it. We will be here to support you. You’re dismissed Sergeant.’
Johnny stands and exits the office. As he makes his way to his room tears sting his eyes. By the time he gets to his room, anger has choked off the words in his throat. Anger comes in the form of salty tears; he throws himself across his bed and his mind wanders to Timmy. “What if someone killed my son? How would I feel? How am I going to live with this? How do I face my family?” In his mind he hears something snap and the best part of Johnny is lost forever.
In the quiet church the only sound comes from the altar. Lying prostrate on the floor, LJ Peaknuckle seeks an answer to his prayer. “Lord, if it be your will let me be used of you to help someone else. Many of my brothers in arms are killing themselves because their lives have no purpose. Help me Lord to be pliable in your hands.” The dark memories search for a way to enter his mind, but in the turmoil and travail God hears his prayers. The buzz of his cellphone rings insistently until he peeks at who is calling.
“Hey man, its Jason. What are you doing?”
“Not much man, I’m at church.”
“Yeah, I figured you might be. I need some help.”
“Ok brother, what can I do for you? Aren’t you still in Washington?”
“Yep, still here in Washington. I started a homeless outreach here and can use some veterans to help reach those of us out on the streets. There are a lot of our brothers who couldn’t deal with the war living on the streets and I take hot meals out to them. I have a staff of three and we are overwhelmed. You’re a talker, I figured you could come out and bring some of the Jesus power with you.”
The wheels start to click in Peaknuckle’s brain. “Here is your path….”
“I don’t know how long I could stay man. I have obligations here in Mississippi, but I will talk it over with my pastor and see what we can do.”
“If you can give me a couple of weeks, I would appreciate it. Love you, brother.”
“Love you too, man. I’ll talk to you soon.”
Wiping his tear stained cheeks with a Kleenex, LJ walks out of the church in search of his pastor. “Let’s see what I can do with this opportunity.”
Washington, late 2006:
Jane Quinn looks over the crowd of people. The parade field is full of spouses and children. Each one jockeying for a better view, a better angle, to snap photos of their hero’s return from the killing fields. The cold wind cuts through her and she reaches down to comfort Timmy. “Timmy, are you ok?” Her son looks at her, his eyes wide with excitement as he looks for his father. “Yes ma’am. I can’t wait to see daddy. Do you think he will notice how much I have grown?’ She smiles, his excitement contagious. She laughs. “Of course, he will Timmy. After all, you look just like him.” Dark hair, dark eyes, it was like God molded him in the same image of his father. “God, please be merciful. Don’t let Johnny come home broken.”
Along the road Jane can see the buses coming along the route. “Daddy is on his way Timmy!” Reaching down, Jane lifts Timmy and puts him on her shoulders so he can see. The buses pull up in columns of two and the excitement builds as soldiers unload from the buses onto the soil of home. At the podium, the speaker steps to the microphone.
“Please stand for the National Anthem.”
In the distance you can hear the 1SG’s of each company call their soldiers to attention as The Star-Spangled Banner starts to play. Hand salutes are rendered and when the anthem has finished playing, the soldiers march across the parade field.
“Commanders take control of your units, provide any relevant information to your soldiers and release them to their families.”
After a quick safety briefing, the call to fall out is given. Jane and Timmy push their way through the huddled masses and Johnny materializes in front of them. Tears fall down Jane’s cheek as Timmy leaps from her shoulders and rushes to his daddy. “Daddy!” Johnny turns and falls to his knees. Taking his son into his arms, tears stream down his face. He looks at Jane and, in his eyes, she sees the brokenness. Johnny walks toward his wife and she meets him halfway. Taking his wife in his arms, nothing is said. He buries his face into her neck, his tears staining her porcelain skin.
“Your home Johnny. The war can’t hurt you now.”
The drive home is filled with laughter and cheer. Timmy refuses to let go of his dad, as if he will disappear again but Jane can see the hurt building in her husband’s eyes. Walking in the house, Johnny feels like a stranger. Jane slips her arm around her husband and rests her head on his shoulder. “It will take time for you assimilate back into your old routine, but you are safe here with me and Timmy.” Johnny nods. He walks into the living room and sprawls out on the floor. Timmy comes and sits next to him.
“Whatcha want to watch daddy?”
“How about cartoons Timmy?”
“Ok, which one?
“Um, Tom and Jerry?”
“I don’t know that one.”
Reaching for the remote, Johnny flips channels until he finds Boomerang. Timmy watches as Tom fails to capture Jerry. Laughing, Timmy crawls in his dad’s lap and falls to sleep. Johnny looks at his son, and in the quietness of his mind the fateful day he killed a kid plays in gory detail. A lone tear trickles down his cheek as he reaches for his son. In the kitchen, Jane watches as her husband lifts Timmy and takes him to his room.
“What happened over there?”
Johnny comes back to the living room, after making sure his son is covered up. Jane sits on the couch, hot coffee in hand, and motions for him to sit next to her. He sits and waits for the questions he knows she must have. Instead, she sits quietly for a moment and turns to face him.
“Johnny, whatever happened over there doesn’t matter. You are home. I don’t know what you did there, and God forgive me, I don’t want to know. You need to let it go and help me here. I’m sorry if the war was terrible, it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk back here. Now let’s go to bed. Timmy will be up early.”
Obediently, Johnny follows his wife to the bedroom. “I guess I will have to find a way to deal with it, since she doesn’t want to talk about it. What am I doing?”
“Oh, it’s a couple of months until Christmas. We need to start getting gifts together. Think about what you want to get Timmy.”
The light is turned off, and in the darkness, Jane leans over and kisses him lightly on the cheek. “Good night, hero.”
The weather is blustery as LJ walks through “tent city.” Rows upon rows of boxes and makeshift abodes litter the streets. The homeless wander aimlessly, their eyes vacant of any hope and future. “What a horrible way to end up. If not for the mercy and grace of God, there goes I.” A homeless lady, her clothes stained from grime, searches dumpsters for something to eat. Her arms pockmarked with puncture sites; she moves trash while muttering about selfish people under her breath.
“Ma’am, we have hot food over here. It’s free if you would like some.”
Whipping about, she brings up her hands to defend herself, LJ steps back.
“Hot food? What do you want in exchange for it?”
“Um, nothing. We are giving food to those who are…”
“What? Poor? Unfortunate? You think you are better than me? I don’t need your charity!”
“Ok. Sorry to bother you.”
She eyes LJ warily and then continues with her dumpster diving. Sighing, LJ continues walking through the makeshift abodes. As he moves through the cardboard and used syringes, he notices a man sitting beside his abode. The man appears to be clean, albeit unkempt. His area is cleaner than others LJ has seen but what catches his eye is the tattoo.
“Where did you serve in 1st Cav?”
The man looks up, standing to his feet he reaches for his bag.
“What does it matter?’
“It doesn’t. I served in the Seventh and thought it might give us some common ground. The group I am with is giving out hot chow, and I am trying to get people to come eat.”
He nods. His bushy beard sways from the movement of his head.
“Johnny Quinn,” he extends his hand.
“LJ Peaknuckle. Come on, let’s go eat.”
“Before we go eat, why don’t you tell me what the catch is?”
I look at Johnny and shake my head.
“No catch brother, just two hungry vets getting lunch.”
“You one of these church types, here to save my soul over a bowl of hot soup?”
I smile. “Yeah, I am one of those church types, but I can’t save your soul. I am just here passing out food and having conversation.”
Johnny and I make our way out of tent city, and we find an empty table where we can sit and talk. A volunteer brings a bowl of chili, crackers and a pitcher filled with sweet tea to the table. I bow my head to say the blessing over the food, but Johnny begins devouring the hot food. I close my eyes and whisper a silent prayer. I open my eyes and Johnny is studying my face.
“Does that make the food taste better? Is there any sense in praying?”
“It doesn’t make the food taste better, as far as I know. Yes, there is sense in praying. Saying the blessing is just a small way of me showing the Lord I am thankful for every blessing in my life.”
“I think God hates me.”
“Why would God hate you Johnny? Do you think God is a mean kid on the playground? God is love, brother. Hate is from Satan.”
“Then why is there so much evil in the world?”
“Good can’t exist without evil, or vice versa. It is how God made things. He knew the moment He created us; our nature would often overrule what we know to be right. God knew sin would enter the world, and sin brings about evil in the hearts of men. The whole purpose of Calvary was to create a system where we could find forgiveness in the arms of a merciful God.”
“Thank you for the chili and the conversation LJ. I have one more question, but I don’t have time to wait for you to answer it. Where was God when we were putting Hajis in the ground for the government?”
Johnny’s question took me by surprise and in the time, it took me to gather an answer, Johnny picked up his bag and left. I walk back through the crowd of homeless looking for Johnny, but he had disappeared. “God, please give Johnny comfort. Keep your hands around him and protect him.” I wander back through the crowd, picking up litter and making small talk with some of the homeless. As evening approaches the dumpster diving lady from my earlier encounter walks up to me.
“I saw you talking to Johnny.”
“Yes ma’am. He seems like a good man.”
“He’s a vet. There are no good vets, just hard men who did bad things. You a vet?”
A dirty scarf covers her mouth and her beady eyes never move from my face. It is slightly discomforting to be questioned by such a person.
“Yes ma’am, I am a veteran.”
“Johnny don’t talk much to anybody. Just stays to himself. Maybe you can help him.”
“Ok. We are packing up for today. I will try to check on him soon.”
She nods her head. The dirty scarf falls away from her mouth and her yellow teeth flash into a brief smile or maybe it is a snarl. Either way, she quickly lifts the scarf back to its rightful place. “If he ain’t here, he will be watching over his wife and son over there with the other uppity people.”
Without another word she turns and walks away. “Great directions. I suppose I can just scout out each rich neighborhood in Washington D.C.”
The sun disappears into the western horizon as my own demons come out to torment me.
“Timmy, come on! We must get you to the doctor, and I can’t afford to miss anymore days at work. Get the lead out son…”
Tears fill Jane’s eyes. “God, Timmy is all I have left since I threw Johnny out. Please be merciful, don’t let my son be sick.” Footfalls sound on the stairs as Timmy makes his way down to the kitchen. He materializes at the counter beside his mom.
“Can I have some juice before we go mommy?”
Timmy looks at his mom anxiously, his body seems to shrink under the shirt and coat. Forcing a smile, Jane hands him a cup filled with orange juice.
“I figured you might want some, drink up. We have a busy day ahead of us.”
Throwing his head back, Timmy downs the juice in one pull. “God, he looks just like Johnny.”
Timmy and Jane walk out to the Jeep Commander and climb in. Buckling the seatbelt Jane reaches over and helps Timmy secure his belt. Glancing in the mirror, Jane backs out the driveway and heads to Memorial General for her son’s test results.
“You know Timmy, it’s almost Christmas. Have you decided what you want for Christmas?”
Jane peers at her son through her peripheral vision. His little face is so sincere, eyes clear, he seems at peace with the world and it with him.
“You want to clue me in here tough guy? You want a bazooka? A girlfriend?”
Timmy laughs, his mouth pulls back into a warm smile.
“No mom. I want daddy to come home.”
Jane’s grip on the steering wheel tightens. Tears fill her eyes and she turns her head to keep Timmy from seeing them. Clearing her voice, she nods.
“I’ll see what I can do. What else do you want?”
“That’s its mommy. I want daddy to be okay. If I am dying, I want him to be there to hold my hand and tell me it’s going to be okay.”
Sobbing, Jane clutches Timmy’s hand. He pats his mother’s hand and the tears run down her cheeks.
“You’re not going to die Timmy.”
“Something is wrong with me mama. I don’t feel good anymore.”
“Help me look for a parking place buddy.”
With Timmy and Jane looking for parking, they find a place near the front of the aisle. They exit the vehicle, and Jane takes Timmy by the hand. Together they make their way to door. Unbeknownst to them, a pair of beady eyes watches them from a dumpster across the street.
“Hey brother, we are going to cook up some meals for the homeless to pass them out around noon. What do you have planned today?”
I look up from my Bible and take a sip of the hot coffee in my to-go mug. “Brother, I am here to help you. I might go hit tent city early to see if anyone wants to talk about the Lord. I will be available to help pass out meals and have conversation.”
“Sounds good bro, be careful down there. They may like the free food, but don’t trust them as far as you can throw em.”
I nod. “Roger, I copy.”
Packing my Bible into my bookbag, I walk out into the sunshine. “I wonder if Johnny is going to be around today.” I make my way down to tent city, it is a 20-minute walk from Meals on Wheels, and the exercise causes me to smile. I nod to those who are sharing the sidewalk with me, and my happiness draws curious looks from each passerby.
My favorite dumpster diver is sitting on a metal bucket. The bottom of the bucket is almost completely rusted out. Her beady eyes lock on to mine and never move.
“I am. How are you today? I didn’t catch your name yesterday. I am LJ Peaknuckle.”
“Her name is Janey.”
I turn and behind me stands Johnny. Instinctively, I assume a defensive position to protect myself. Johnny notices the stance and grins.
“You have nothing to fear from me.”
To ease the awkwardness of my posture, I smile and extend my hand.
“Hey Johnny. I was wondering if I was going to see you today. Janey, it is nice to make your acquaintance.”
“Whatever.” She stands and moves off so Johnny and I can chat in private.
“Nice woman. She mentioned you are married.”
“I was married. What’s the worst thing you ever did in war?”
Sighing, I take a deep breath to compose myself. “I can’t say one thing was worse than the other man. All of it was bad.”
“You ever kill a kid?”
Silence builds between us. Neither Johnny nor I can meet the eyes of the other.
“You don’t have to say anything. The silence says it all.”
For a long time, we sit in silence. Finally, I break the silence with a question of my own.
“Janey says you have a son. How old is he, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“That’s a good age, I have a couple of daughters. They are almost grown.”
Johnny rummages around in his rucksack. The more he looks, the more agitated he grows.
“What are you looking for? Maybe, I can help you find it.”
“I’m looking for the answer to all of life’s ailments, whiskey.”
“Well Johnny, I don’t have whiskey. However, I do have a spring of living water that can quench the thirst of any man.”
“You preaching to me?”
“No Johnny, I am simply saying if all else has failed, why not try Jesus?”
“Janey saw my wife and son going into the hospital yesterday. I don’t know what is wrong, but I feel like I should be there.”
“Okay, we can change the subject.”
“I went to my wife’s house and she answered the door. I asked her what was wrong, but she wouldn’t tell me.”
A lone tear rolled down his cheek. His rough hand wipes it away and he looks at the ground. “Will you go find out what is wrong?”
“Give me the address. I will go by and see if I can get any information. What is your son’s name?”
“Her name is Jane, and my son is Timmy.”
I hand Johnny a piece of paper and pen. In neat handwriting, he writes down the directions to his family’s residence. Underneath the address he draws a detailed map.
“Just in case you were a Lieutenant.”
I chuckle. Johnny grins, and then in one swift moment he throws his arms around my neck.
“Thanks brother. I owe you one.”
“Why did I get involved in this situation?”
The day passes swiftly. Meals are handed out, conversations are had and after all the chow has been eaten, cleanup begins. Jason and I stare at the now vacant lot. Jason punches me on the shoulder.
“You remember the pads at the National Training Center? Hot chow, hot days, and sand in all the wrong places?”
“Who can forget them?”
“It was the worst of times and the best of times.”
I nod my head.
“Where is this location at brother? Is it close?”
Jason takes the paper from my hand. He looks at me and nods.
“Yeah it’s close. Seven or eight miles from here. Why?”
“Johnny wants me to try to find out what is wrong with his son.”
“We don’t do that man. You sure you want to get involved in this?”
“No, I’m sure I don’t want to be involved, but he asked me to, and I agreed.”
Jason chuckles. “And you are a man of your word.”
“I try to be.”