The blistering sun rose from the endless horizon. I sat on the concrete T-wall and watched as the fiery planet came out of the darkness. It is 0600 and the thermometer read a hot 98 degrees. “I am in hell. How does anything live in this godforsaken place?” Sweat streamed down my face. I scraped my razor down my beard. There was no need for shaving cream or water. The heat has soaked me to the bone.
My section sergeant, one Paul Smythe came and sat beside me. We have been friends from day one in this third world country. He poured water into his helmet and smeared shaving cream over his beard.
“What’s going on, brother?”
It is impossible to sleep in this type of weather. We, that would be the soldiers here with me, had an office that was crammed to the max with cots. A window unit air conditioner kept it semi-cool. The temperatures would drop to a cool ninety degrees at night. Then, you would freeze to death. I was miserable.
There were eight of us at this small camp in the middle of nowhere. Paul and I were the only two up.
“Are you ready for another day, Paul?”
He nodded. We needed few words to express our disdain at being in this hostile land for fifteen months.
“Yeah. I might as well be ready. It is not like we are to be released early. What else are we going to do?”
“We could complain about the food, I guess. Although, the locals have not tried to wipe us off the face of the planet yet.”
“Yet, hoss. They haven’t tried yet.”
Both of us laughed. It is only a matter of time before we are attacked. It is the nature of warfare. Still, every day that we are not attacked is a good day. I washed my face and leaned back against the barrier.
“I have never missed home the way I do now.” I have lived in Europe for a couple of years. It is nice enough; it is not home but there is plenty to do.
“Do you have anything planned when you return to the States?”
“I don’t know, yet. I am headed to Colorado. If I have survived.”
“Looks like today is the day, brother. We’ve got company. “Out of the nothingness of the desert a swell of people walked toward our camp. They had their weapons raised into the air.
They continued to march toward us. We watched as they came forward. So far, they had not exhibited any hostile intent. I turned to Paul. “Don’t start without us, brother. I am headed to get the boys.”
“You better hurry.”
I rushed back to the small building. “We have company! Grab your gear and get to the pad.” They grumble and roll over. I lost my temper. “GET UP! TIME NOW!” They rolled out of bed and grabbed their gear and followed me to the T-Wall. Paul gave us our marching orders.
“This could be nothing. Or, it could be a world class knockdown drag out. Take up positions that give you a clear line of fire without endangering your brothers. If this gets ugly do not let us get flanked. We will all die if we are flanked. Go it?”
“Got it,” we shouted in unison. Paul and I walked out to meet the locals. Adrenaline surged through my body. I took my weapon in hand. “I am not going to die here today.”
“It’s ride or die time, brother. This is not our first time. You know where my letter is to my wife, right?”
“Roger. You know where I keep mine, right? If I should not make it out of this, do me a favor and give it to my wife.”
“One last thing, I don’t trust anyone else to do it.”
“Sure, ask away.”
“If I lose a limb here…don’t let me go home like that. Put a bullet in me. Use one of their weapons to do it. I wouldn’t want you to go to jail for keeping your word to me.”
“I gotcha. You’re going to be fine.”
“The world is full of people who thought they would be fine.” Paul laughed. The crowd pushed in around us. A young man, no older than 25, stepped out from the crowd. He was the ringleader of this ever-growing circus. We watched as he pranced back and forth in front of his crowd.
“Death to America, “he shouted into a megaphone. He was dressed in a black robe; a gas mask was strapped to his right leg.
“Oh joy,” I growled. “They brought a professional instigator.” Our eyes never left the ringleader. “Do you have that riot control grenade on you,” Paul asked.
“I have it.”
“Pop him, I’m tired of hearing his mouth.”
I dropped the solid rubber grenade into the tube, a small smile crossed my lips. Without another word, I pressed the trigger. The grenade slammed into the instigator’s chest; the snap of bone could be heard by everyone. He dropped to the ground with an oof.
Shocked, the crowd backed up. They began to murmur. I walked up to the instigator and knelt beside him.
“Hey, are you okay man?” He groaned. Tiny shards of bone protruded from his robe. He refused to answer me. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey, man. I asked if you were okay. What happened to you?” He groaned again and tried to shove my hand away. I backed up.
I treated the instigator for shock. While I took care of him, I spoke to him. “Why did you guys have to come screw with us? We’ve only been here for two days.”
The crowd began to disperse. Paul watched me work, our soldiers came and stood beside him. “Do you honestly believe we wanted to come here and screw up your country? Heck no. We wanted to be home and watch our children grow up. But no…”
He had not responded, so I checked his breathing. His chest continued to rise and fall. In the distance, I heard the medic shouting out orders.
Rough hands grabbed me and shoved me aside.
“What happened here,” the medic shouted at me.
“Man, somebody shot this poor fellow.” The medic stared at me incredulously. He shook his head and bit down on his lip.
“Nah man, for real. This fool showed up with a crowd of people and shouted, ‘Death to America.’
“So, you shot him.”
“Potato, Potatoe. I was fearful for my life, man. If that crowd had swarmed us, we’d all been dead.”
“Whatever. Help me get him in the vehicle.”
We loaded him up. I watched as the vehicle rushed him in the direction of the medical camp.
“It’s going to be a long fifteen months.”
I walked over to Paul and we watched as the medics left. Paul forced a smile and said, “that was a close one. We got lucky.”
“Yep. You know they will be back tonight, right?”
“Yeah. Let’s draw up a plan and then rack out.” We chatted about our kids on the way back to the tent. Paul’s daughter was valedictorian for her graduating class, mine was playing basketball on the local team. “It’s not even 0700 and we’ve already had trouble. What else could go wrong today?”
Sometimes, you should just be thankful things are not worse and keep your complaints to yourself. I was about to learn that lesson in a hurry.
Three days later, I found myself outside of a hostile city, lying in a bomb crater, waiting for orders to kill it.
Have you ever helped kill a city? What? You did not know they were living, breathing, entities? I have. I am not especially proud of it, but sometimes these things are necessary.
Falcon was one such place. Numerous attempts had been made to quelch the violence in the city. Any who held opposing views were annihilated.
I was summoned to headquarters two days after the mass of people showed up at our office. Our intelligence officer, Dan Something-or-Another, stood at the horseshoe shaped table.
“Gentlemen,” he said in a voice that had hardly any edge to it, “the time has come for us to liberate Falcon. The insurgency has grown to such strength they openly kill all who dared take a stand against them.” I fidgeted in my chair; I hated these briefings. “Point us where to go and give us the objective already.”
A guy who sat next to me lifted his hand; Dan acknowledged him. “Yeah?”
“How many insurgents are we talking about, exactly?”
“We are unsure of the number of insurgents. There could be a couple of hundred. No more than that.”
“We are told to expect small arms and IEDS.”
“Told by who?”
“We have sources on ground who have fed us this intel.”
“You mean locals,” I interjected.
“Yes. They are locals.”
“Getting back to the matter at hand. You guys are being sent to work on a task force.”
Across the table another hand shot up in the air. “Yes,” Dan sighed.
“What’s the survival rate of this mission? Are we walking into the lion’s den here?”
“We don’t expect for all of you to return. We would be surprised if any of you returned. Falcon is a hornet’s nest, and you are being sent to kick it over. You should call your families. Departure for Falcon is 1630.”
A day later, I am stuck in this bomb crater watching the comings and goings of the city. Women are raped in public. The poor children, the horrors that befell the innocent children.
On day three in the OP, the radio broke the silence.
“The entire city is hostile, I say again, the entire city is hostile.”
Those were the words that sealed the fate of Falcon.
It was Falcon that damaged my psyche the most. This city destroyed my humanity. Something meaner and darker replaced the kind boy from Mississippi. Of course, such drastic change never occurred at once. It began about ten minutes after the assault on the city.
“SSG Paden, take a squad and clear the buildings. If anything, inside of the building has breath- you end it.”
“It dies. They had ample opportunity to leave, they chose to stay. Now, they reap the whirlwind.”
“Roger,” I replied. There would be no mercy shown, no quarter given. It is the grisly nature of warfare.
My heart cannot take the remembrance of what happened in Falcon. It hurt when we completed our objective, it hurts now.
Years have passed and I still cannot bear the thought of what I have done. I have used humor to cover the worst of my memories, but it has not worked.
Time has not eased the pain. ‘We liberated those who were innocent,’ people have said throughout the years. When pressed on one good thing that came from Falcon no one can name anything.
My bud Hank, nicknamed Buster, died in the horror of Falcon. We met during the briefing for Falcon (he was the guy with all the questions.)
We had gabbed our gear and moved toward the trucks. Hank stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Hank but people call me Buster.” I shook his hand. “Paden, and no one calls me Possum.”
Buster laughed. He had this raucous laugh. “Why in the world would anyone call you Possum?”
“When I was young, my parents would rock me to sleep. When they went to put me in the crib, I would wake up. My dad started calling me Possum because I always faked them out.”
“Man, that is a fantastic story.”
“Yeah, and if you tell anyone, I will make sure you don’t leave Falcon.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Sure. I am joking. According to the briefing we are already dead, our brains have not registered it yet.”
“Do you think it’s that bad? Are we all going to die out here in this dump?”
“Only the Lord knows, Buster. It won’t be long until we know.”
We made it to a camp right outside of Falcon. Tiny hooches (rooms) were in rows, Hank and I were assigned to one closest to the end. We walked in and threw our gear on a cot.
A Marine stuck his head in the doorway and looked at us.
“Y’all with the taskforce,” he asked.
“Yeah, what’s up,” Buster responded.
“There’s a formation in front of y’alls vehicles in five minutes.”
“Understood,” I said. “So much for a power nap.” Buster scoffed. “This freaking sun is downright murderous.”
Hank was a good ole boy from Alabama, I hailed from Mississippi. Both of our accents were thick enough to cut cane syrup. Hank never missed an opportunity to smile. We walked to the vehicles.
“I guess we are about to be told what’s what, eh Paden.”
“You got any thoughts about what we are here to do?”
“I imagine it’s the same job we always do-find the enemy, kill the enemy. It’s a straightforward job.”
A Ray Ban wearing bean pole of a man stood on the hood of a Humvee, he gathered us into a loose gaggle.
“We hit Falcon in three days. They must be warned before hell is unleashed upon them. Our job here is to limit civilian causalities, while removing the insurgents by any means necessary. The dining facility is in the center of camp. A Post Exchange is not far from the dining facility- make liberal use of both.”
We were dismissed, and we walked to the dining facility.
“Hopefully, the chow is better here,” Buster said. The tent was air-conditioned. A variety of food was on the line. Hank got Shepherd’s Pie; I took Coconut Shrimp Scampi.
Hank sat down at a table near a television set. It played the news. ‘Experts’ commented on the war, many spouted their opinions as ‘facts.’ ‘This war is being carried out on false pretenses,’ one military expert spouted. Hank looked up from his plate.
“What do you wanna bet this ‘expert’ never made it to a combat zone, much less picked up a weapon and fought for what he believed in?”
I nodded my head and tried to swallow a mouthful of mashed taters and gravy before I responded.
“You’re right, Hank. It is easy to sit at home in America and spout off at the mouth while someone else’s kid goes and fights the war. These fools make me sick.”
“Me too, brother.”
“Let’s change the subject, Hank. Who’s your favorite team?”
“What sport, Possum?”
“Well, Possum, I am a huge fan of college football. Ohio State is my favorite team.”
“Ugh. That alone is worth a bullet. Why Ohio State?”
“They got cool uniforms, bro.” We laughed and Hank wagged his finger at me. “Tradition. Plus, I went to school there.”
“Who is your favorite?”
“I am an Alabama fan.”
We finished our meal and made our way toward our hooch. The night air was a cool 90 degrees, and the moon was full. It was silent, then we heard indirect fire headed our way. Buster and I hit the ground and covered our heads. The mortar landed on a building and exploded. Emergency personnel rushed to the building, Buster and I were hot on their trail.
We began to pull people out of the rubble. In some instances, it was only parts of human remains.
“They were locked in,” Hank said. “Guess they figured they would kill us before we killed them.” I looked at Hank. His eyes were cold and reptilian, his demeanor was frigid.
“Yeah,” I thought, “Hank could kill somebody.”
“Well, Buster, boredom won’t be an issue.” The medics were busy treating the wounded. Buster and I walked from the ruined building and made our way to our hooch. No more mortars fell before we made it back. I threw myself on my cot and closed my eyes. Sleep would not come. I guess digging dead folk and wounded out of a collapsed building ruined my rest.
Buster noticed my restlessness. “That was a small taste of what we are faced with, Possum. Sleep while you can.”
It did not take me long to figure out that hell was not just a place, it was also a state of being.
General Sherman said, “War is hell.” That quote sprang to my mind as I watched Hank bleed out.
We had cleared the buildings in our immediate surroundings. Shots rang out from the ones further down the street. Hank and I walked quietly back to the cluster of vehicles in front of us. A fresh-faced Lieutenant, no older than 20, was regaling the lower enlisted with tales of his experience. “What an idiot,” I thought silently. “He has his men out in the open. They’re prime targets for snipers.”
“Hey sir, you need to-“
A shot rang out. I heard the projectile whiz past my head. I ducked and headed for cover. The lower enlisted stood frozen, the LT stood blinking in the open.
“Get behind cover idiots,” I shouted.
I rushed behind the vehicle and turned to check on Hank. He stood behind me, his hand covered his lower torso. Blood seeped from his mouth as he stared disbelievingly at his wound.
“Paden, they got me.”
Another round hit Hank squarely in the chest. He crumbled to the ground. The soldiers looked on. Their inaction angered me.
“Get fire on that building, NOW!”
They opened fire in every direction. The LT huddled behind a Humvee; his vast experience forgotten in the heat of combat. I ran to Hank, lifted him, and rushed back to cover.
I put him down and had him apply pressure to his wound.
“Stay with me, bud.”
“They got me. I freaking knew it. I knew I wouldn’t survive this.”
“Look at me, Hank. You are gonna be fine. Ok. Just keep pressure on that wound.” I dressed his wound the best I could. Hank’s color was gone. He was as pale as Death. I knew then he was not going to make it off the killing fields.
“Tell my momma I love her. I am sorry. I tried to do the right thing momma.”
Tears stung my cheeks. I wanted to kill everything in the city. Hank’s last gasp of air caused him to shudder. Someone had called for backup because tanks rolled in and unleashed volleys of hell on all the buildings.
I cradled Hank in my arms. My friend was gone. I carried him to an empty Humvee and placed him inside of it. Then, I went back to work.
We conquered Falcon quickly. The death of the city was over in a couple of days. We returned to our bases conquering heroes; people congratulated us on our success. I unloaded my gear from a Humvee. Someone slapped me on the back. I received more ‘good jobs and attaboys’ that day than any other in my life.
“Yay, liberation,” I thought bitterly. My friend was gone, those unfortunate souls that survived Falcon would bear the scars of what we had done in the name of ‘justice’ for the rest of their lives.
Too many people perished in Falcon. Losses were heavy on both sides. After the last shot had been fired, after the last body had been accounted for, there were no winners. Both sides had lost their humanity.
War is hell.
I felt like I had gone mad. My head ached with such ferocity that it felt as if it would explode. My stress level was through the roof. After the loss of Hank, I gave myself to war. All I wanted was revenge. I volunteered for every ‘high risk’ mission. My heart grew dark with murderous intent.
I was lost in the darkness.
As I previously stated, hell is not just a place, it is a state of being. In my case, hell was my thoughts. Ask any Christian and they will tell you that Hell is a place of eternal torment, where the fire is never quenched, and the screams never died. That was my brain.
After Falcon, I returned to my ‘normal’ day. I went on missions, and for a few months, it was not at all bad. We went out on patrols, ran convoy ops, and returned mostly unscathed.
Then, we opened a previously closed route. It was a known insurgent hotspot. Everything on the route was violent. I had gone to the gym to burn off some of my excess anger. My Platoon Sergeant waited for me in my room.
“Have a seat, Paden.” I threw my equipment on my bed and sat at my desk. SSG Willard turned to face me.
“Are you doing alright, Paden. We heard that things got rough in Falcon.”
“Good people died in Falcon. You returned unscathed. Are you sure you are alright?”
“Sergeant, I’m fine. People die. That’s what they do.”
“We’ve got a hot mission. They have tasked us again. Are you up for it?”
“Sure.” Willard looked at me unsure whether to believe me or not. I forced a smile.
“Okay. The higher ups have opened Route Tomahawk. We are tasked with finding out what’s hidden in the dark.”
“Departure is at 0800.”
“Cool. Daytime ops into the wild unknown is my favorite.”
“Be careful out there, Paden. You have a wife and a child that expect you returned in prime condition.”
“Careful doesn’t get the job done, Sergeant. I’ll see you when the mission is completed.” Willard shook his head in disbelief and walked out of my room. I could barely keep a lid on my rage. I showered and changed into a clean uniform, and then fell on my bed exhausted.