It was Sergeant Harris’s second tour to Afghanistan. He was assigned to provide the Colonel personal security on patrols. That day they sat in the Brigade Tactical Operations Center (TOC), which was a large room with a couple monitors at the front, several rows of desks lined with computers, and about 25 people who kept tabs on the two provinces and approximately 5,000 troops under the Colonel’s command.
A radio call came in from a base near the Valley. The platoon stationed there was driving to an objective when a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle (MRAP) hit an improvised- explosive device (I.E.D). Immediately after the explosion, they took small arms fire as well. The platoon returned fire, and dismounts from the functioning MRAPs ran to aide their buddies in the disabled one. But they didn’t find their buddies inside.
The Staff Sergeant on the ground concluded fighters must have captured their men in the commotion following the I.E.D’s detonation. He reported them missing to the Valley’s radioman, Pinz, who reported the same to the Colonel, who reported to a General, who appeared over the monitors from his position at Division Headquarters. This was officially an all hands on deck scenario.
Together, the Colonel and the General directed helicopters, pathfinders, other nearby platoons—everything available—to search, and everyone braced for the worst, not knowing how bad it actually was. The guys, it turned out, had not been captured, they’d been incinerated. Their buddies, who searched the MRAP’s burned out hull, simply could not comprehend the scene.
One of Harris’s other duties was to hang photos of the fallen soldiers in the Brigade’s command hallway. This was on the Wall of Heroes, and the title, Hero, was only used for those pictured on the wall. Mid-tour, there were probably ten photos. That night, Harris put up four more: Captain Van Dyne, 27 years old. Sergeant Richter, 23. Specialist Parker, 20. Private Muñoz, 18.
Sergeant Harris sat across from the Colonel. His stomach shot into his throat on the descent. The Blackhawk banked sharply and hugged the ground through the winding valley, reared back suddenly, leapt forward, and the skids hit the L.Z. Harris jumped out, took two steps, and dropped onto his stomach. The blades whirred above his head as the Blackhawk took off, kicking up a cloud of dirt and rocks that bit his face.
When Harris regained sight, he ran off the L.Z. Captain Van Dyne and a Staff Sergeant met and escorted the Colonel and him, briskly, about 50 meters to a two-story, concrete building —once an Afghan civic center. Sandbags were thrown on the roof, and it was converted to military use.
“Sir, I noticed Sergeant Major isn’t with you today. Where’s he at?” The Staff Sergeant asked, as they were walking.
The Colonel put his hand on the Staff Sergeant’s shoulder.
“Well, Sergeant, I believe that’s more information than you need to know,” he replied with a grin.
Inside the building to the right, there was a small aide station. Blood was still spattered across the floor from an Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier who had, the day before, been shot in the neck the while on patrol with the platoon. The Colonel paused and turned to the medic.
“I want to see this cleaned up, Franklin,” he said.
Franklin stood at attention. The Colonel studied his face, told him to stand at ease, and with Captain Van Dyne and the Staff Sergeant following him, walked into the platoon’s TOC located to the left in a room behind a curtain. When they past earshot, Franklin shook his head. “Have you ever tried to scrub blood out of concrete? M-a-a-a-n. You’re helping me with this shit, Pinz.”
Harris tossed Franklin and Pinz a couple rolls of dip that he would always try to bring on his visits. He felt guilty coming and going from his base, which was, compared to the Valley, a five star resort. And even it was a large step down from the base at Division, where touring celebrities and statesmen visited, playing shows and shaking hands, watched across televisions back home.
“Do you know what this meeting is about?” Franklin asked Harris.
Pinz interjected, “some push they’ve got us doing next week with Company. Sounds like it’s going to be a real block party. We’ve got about 10 places that are suspect, like maybe they’re hosting these fighters who keep comin’ in.”
This was more than Harris knew about the meeting or the mission. He did know the Valley was a central pipeline for fighters coming from Pakistan to Afghanistan during the summer, or “fighting season.” It was about that time, so Pinz’s account added up. He nodded. Franklin didn’t say a word, didn’t need to. He just looked at the blood on the floor.
“Do you need help with that?” Harris said.
“Nah, man. I have to do some inventory first, and I’ll get it. No worries.”
“Yea, sure. And thanks for the dip. I’ll make sure it gets around.”
Franklin walked into the aide station with Pinz, and Harris stripped his gear and sat against the wall in the hallway. He wondered what he’d be doing if he’d never joined the Army. Working construction? Serving fast food? …Probably drinking a lot of beer.
A few guys stirred in the large, dim room straight ahead of the building’s entrance. Bunks were spaced five feet apart covering the entire area. The whole platoon slept there alongside the ANA and a few Special Forces guys. No one slept or worked on the second story. It was kept vacant, because multiple times during the day and night, fighters launched rockets from a village behind a hill, and reasonably, no one wanted to be there if a round came crashing through the roof. The fighters had not worked out the angles to hit the building, but they were getting close. The rounds often landed in the area near the platoon’s shit burning barrel, making the duty of burning and stirring the shit, for lack of any other means of disposal, a much-loathed tasked on more than one level.
There were murmured conversations on all sides of Harris. “Panic attacks…” He heard Pinz say. “Won’t patrol… panic attacks….they need to get him out of here…”
“I know,” Franklin said. “It’s on the Captain. …Jeez, hand me the bucket… Like oil, it just smears.”
Moments later, Pinz’s hand held radio crackled.
“TIC (Troops in contact) on the wire,” he said, as he rushed past Harris into the TOC.
Harris threw his gear back on and ducked outside. Guys returned fire with what sounded like their SAWs (Squad automatic machine guns) and M4s. The action took place about 50 meters to his left. A couple minutes passed. Then, he saw a soldier with one arm wrapped around another soldier limping to his position.
“They fucking got me… Little bastards.”
The two soldiers disappeared into the building, and the Colonel stepped outside.
“They fucking got him,” Harris said.
“Yep, got him right in the ankle,” the Colonel replied.
“Well, are you going to just stand there? Go get in the fight. I’m going to finish up inside.”
“Yes, sir,” Harris said and moved out, excited to get the opportunity.
He posted up looking over a Hesco barrier next to a grenadier. Attached to his rifle was a 203—a tube used for launching grenades.
“Watch the right corner of that house,” The grenadier said. “12 o’clock, right in front of you. I’ve got the other side. There’s one on the backside. He’s got to pop out one way or the other.”
One minute Harris was sitting thinking about home, and the next, just like that, he was flipping his safety to fire. The moments seemed to slow down, while time seemed to speed up. Things became a little surreal.
He tried to control his breathing and peered through his CompM —a red dot scope generally used for room clearing. It was also good for pulling security during meetings. And he flipped up a 3x magnifier, which he’d bought with his own money and attached to his M4 should any situation arise like the one he was now engaged in. At 3x magnification, the house looked not more than 150 meters away.
“Poncho’s got a couple of em held down over there,” the grenadier said.
Poncho-- the kid named Muñoz--was about 15 meters to their eight. He had dropped his SAW and taken the place of the injured 240 Gunner, and he manned the heavy machine gun with rounds running directly from a can.
“I guess that makes you Lefty,” Harris said to the grenadier.
“Townes Van Zandt. That’s some good stuff.”
“What, you think because I’m some grunt out here I listen to the bullshit that passes for country over the radio nowadays? Big & Rich and shit. Some Hanky Panky bullshit…sh-e-e-it.
“No I wasn’t meanin’ it that a way. I’m just sayin—”
“Eyes down range, soldier!”
The sun beat down from straight above. Sweat ran from Harris’s helmet under his protective eye lenses causing them to fog up, so he took them off and shoved them into the leg pouch on his pants.
A few rounds whipped behind their backs. Snap, snap, snap. Outgoing rounds rang out from the 240—thud, thud, thud, thud, thud—a burst lasting the same duration as it takes to say, “die motherfucker die.”
“The fuck? Poncho!” The grenadier said.
“They’re just spraying and praying. Hell, I got this.”
There was a lull. Gunfire rang out from the other side of the base about 300 meters behind them.
The grenadier shook his head. Sergeant Richter ran up.
“I’m going to leave Reynolds with Muñoz over there,” he said. I’ve got to run over to the backside. They’re reporting several more coming up on us.”
“Train the mortars on them,” the grenadier said.
“Yea” Sergeant Richter replied. “You know how the Captain feels about that.”
The grenadier mumbled, and Harris felt a pat on the back of his plates.
“Get some,” Richter encouraged and ran to the other position.
The tension mounted. The grenadier shot off more rounds and began to sing.
Living on the road, my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron.”
He thudded his plates.
Your breath's as hard as kerosene
“Go to hell, you Haji fuck!” He shot a series off.
“I’d use this fuckin tube were it not for the Captain. ‘We don’t know who’s in those houses,’ he says. Yeah well, I’m starting to think who gives a shit. Waste em all.” Just barely audible, the grenadier continued the song.
You weren't your mama's only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams
There was a glint of barrel around the house’s corner. Shots threw up dirt in front of them. Harris put more rounds down.
Pancho was a bandit boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Another lull. Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud—die motherfucker die. And there he went, a little brown dude (L.B.D.) carrying an AK. He popped out Harris’s side. Harris put him right in his sights like a target on the range, and he pulled the trigger.
Just behind him. He took a quick second shot.
The guy ran over the side of a hill, just behind the house. Harris looked at the grenadier.
“Well you gotta lead ‘em,” he said. “Like shooting muskrats.”
“Right,” Harris said.
Muñoz crouched over to them. He had smooth cheeks and a light, black growth on his upper lip where sweat beaded. His pupils were dilated, and his whole body was charged with youthful vigor. “Mine got away, too,” he said. “May have winged one. Quick as he dove over that hill”…he took a breath, “couldn’t tell for sure.”
The Colonel finished his business, and he, Harris, the injured soldier, and another soldier, who the Colonel told Harris to keep an eye on, lined up to wait on the helicopter. It came roaring in shooting flares. The door gunner zipped rounds down the valley. Right when the skids hit, the group jumped in, and before Harris could buckle into his seat, they took off. The Colonel and Harris wore headsets for their personal radios, but they could also be plugged into the helicopters internal audio system.
“We have to avoid the ridgeline,” the pilot radioed. “We think they’ve got a Doushka set up in the trees there.”
The Colonel turned from the injured soldier to Harris and shook his head. The other soldier, next to the Colonel, removed his protective lenses and wiped away tears. Then, noticing Harris watching, he sat upright—his face ghostly white, his eyes glazed and red. Harris broke contact and turned toward the window. Thin strands of clouds drifted past.
The sun raised blood red above the mountains, reached its peak, and drove knives into the valley, drawing a new layer of sweat from Hamid’s dust covered skin.
“Hey,” Ahmad said shoving his shoulder. “Hey. Stay awake. ”
Hamid had spent the entire night digging. Ahmad was little help with his bandaged arm where the bullet cut through, just missing his bone. The fight could have ended worse for the both of them. Hamid knew this. He needed to get free from this valley of death. He needed the money. Images of his wife and daughter flashed across his mind, and he pushed his elbows into the rocky soil, propping himself up.
A few boulders and a thicket concealed him from the dirt road about 200 yards away and a couple dozen feet below. It must be close to time, he thought. The ANA insider had told them noon. He eyed the tiny ribbon marking the bomb’s location and checked the detonator. Soon, he heard a hum.
“This must be them,” Ahmad said.
The hum turned into a rumble, and Hamid gripped the detonator with a shaky hand. When the first vehicle’s front end rolled around the bend, he wanted to run. Nerves wracked his entire body. The vehicle’s whole side came into view. Heavy plates lined its tan exterior. It had three small windows, four large tires, two heavy doors near the front, and a back door that could swing down. A gunner pivoted out the top hatch.
“Allah, help me,” Hamid prayed. “Give me strength.”
He was supposed to wait for the third vehicle—the one with the Captain. The second passed.
“Allah Akbar,” Ahmad chanted quietly, “Allah Akbar.”
The third vehicle rounded the bend.
“Allah Akbar. Allah Akbar. Allah Akbar.”
It rolled toward the marker.
Hamid pulled the pin.
There was a flash—a blinding light—a boom so loud Hamid’s eardrums popped. A wave of pressure pulsed through his body and carried dust and debris, enshrouding him in a thick cloud. His ears rang. He could barely breathe. A hand tugged at his clothes and Ahmad’s face appeared, mouthing something. “GO.” “GO.” “LET’S GO.” Hamid stood up, knock kneed, unsteady. Bullets started to zip around him. Ahmad returned fire with his AK and disappeared into the cloud. Hamid ran to catch him.
Tripping on boulders down the mountain, falling to his knees across a ravine, and using the trees for support through a withered apple orchard, Hamid made his way home. He entered a gate behind Ahmad, dropped in exhaustion, stood up, and with one hand braced against an empty goat pen, began to heave water and stomach bile. Nothing solid emitted from his gut. Ahmad put his hand on Hamid’s back. His voice cut through the ringing.
“We’ve done it, my friend. We’ve done it. Oh, Allah, Oh Hamid, we are blessed.”
Hamid gasped and rubbed where his jaw met his ear.
“Oh, the Chechen,” Ahmad said, “He knows how to pack the bomb, too. That explosion, that explosion. Hamid, it was huge! Oh, we have done it. It is done.”
He shook Hamid, and Hamid turned.
“Yes, for my family, it is done,” Hamid said. “For my wife, my child.”
He walked toward the door to their living area.
“My wife, my child.”
He entered the living area and heard wailing.
Hamid’s eyes were unadjusted to the dramatic shift in light. There was only one small window in the room.
“Martyr! Martyr! You will be a Martyr!” Sahar’s, voice rang from the darkness.
She was on her knees.
“Oh Hamid,” she sobbed. “They will kill you.”
Behrukh, ran from Sahar across the room. Hamid knelt down with his arms extended, and she pushed her small, wet face into his shoulder.
“MARTYR!” Hamid’s wife cried, louder and louder, until the Chechen, Borz, emerged from a dark corner and shoved her to the floor.
“Quiet, woman,” he said in broken Pashto, Hamid’s native language.
Sahar continued crying, and Borz brought his thick black beard to her face.
“If we become martyrs, then that is what Allah wills,” He said in Chechen and raised a large hand to slap her.
Hamid jumped to his feet and feebly grabbed Borz’s wrist. His hold was sharply broken. Borz stood, shoved Hamid, and pointed a finger in his face.
“You’ve done your job. Now control the bitch.”
Hamid crouched to Sahar’s level, and a terrible laugh erupted from the second, final guest—a Pakistani. His name was Mullah Yasir. He walked toward Hamid holding out a roll of U.S. money. He made a show of unrolling the money, threw half of it to Hamid, and handed the other half to Ahmed.
“Borz saw your work from the roof” Mullah Yasir said. “Death to the infidels.”
A helicopter whirred overhead, and Hamid looked up, worried a missile might crash through the roof any minute.
“Tonight, we leave,” Borz said and gestured to Mullah Yasir to articulate in a more understandable language.
“Of course. Once night falls and the calm sets in, we leave. The Americans will search this village high and low. We can’t remain, you see. You know this. The arrangements are made in the West. Borz’s brothers are with fighters there. They will take us in.”
Hamid looked at Sahar. She was young, but her face was fractured like baked clay wet with tears. They had been through the worst together. Emaciated and broken, Hamid handed her the money.
The child wept next to them.
“Hush, Behrukh,” Hamid said. “Everything will be okay. Hush baby. Hush my darling.”
Hours passed. A sunset hue blanketed the back wall where a lone family portrait hung of Hamid, his sister, brother, mother, and father smiling before the Russians came. The Russians pillaged the valley, poisoned the wells, and terrorized the roads with helicopters that killed every soul who fled towards Kabul.
It was the helicopters that took the life of Hamid’s father. He was attempting to get medicine for the illness that killed his sister the same year. Hamid’s uncle, who fought with the mujahedeen, was fortunate to retrieve his body before the dogs ate it. Five years later, Hamid’s mother died from heartache.
Once the Russians withdrew, economic hardships spread from Kabul where infighting raged between warlords. Hamid’s younger brother fled home in search for work. He would never find any. Hamid survived, thanks to his uncle, who purchased him a herd of goats, which was enough for him to start his own family. Then, the Americans arrived.
Initially, Hamid welcomed the American’s arrival. He hoped they would bring stability to Kabul. But with the Americans, other foreigners started to appear. These foreigners brought their own beliefs, weapons, and desire to fight. Hamid’s brother, impoverished and despair-ridden, took comfort in their teachings, and when they compared the Americans to the Russians, he listened with zeal up until he clicked off a suicide vest.
While devout, Hamid’s faith could not convince him to fight. That took the onset of the drought, the loss of his goats the past winter, his daughter’s protruding ribs and her quiet sobs that never ceased. He had at times regretted bringing her into the world. During an onset of famished induced insanity, he nearly put an end to her life. Quietly, he took her hand and led her to the orchard. The boney branches rattled. Everything appeared black and white and focused sharp as a razor.
We have no food, Hamid thought. There will be no food. I can’t provide it. This girl needs food. She suffers all day, all night. She suffers and I cannot provide the food.
He took a stone and held it over Behrukh’s head.
If I kill her, she will no longer suffer. She will never suffer again. I will do it quick.
The child stood there trembling. Only her ruby eyes seemed to retain color, and looking into them, Hamid was transfixed.
Allah, help me. He prayed.
“Daddy,” Behrukh spoke.
It broke the spell. Hamid collapsed to his knees, knowing he’d been answered. He set the rock by Behrukh’s feet and kissed her cheek. Light filtered back through the trees.
“Let’s go home, my beautiful. Daddy will make things better.”
Night descended on Hamid’s household. In addition to a burro Hamid paid them for, Ahmad’s family provided flatbread, rice, and lamb. The group ate in silence, except for Behrukh, who bubbled to life giggling between Hamid and Sahar. Hamid gripped her as she came running toward him and tickled her ribs. There was laughter. Laughter, from her…Borz huffed in the corner.
When the group was finished eating, Mullah Yasir read from the Koran.
“And remember, that all those who refuse to take up arms against the infidels are traitors to their faith.”
Since Hamid was illiterate, he couldn’t check Mullah Yasir’s interpretations but wouldn’t have been surprised if Yasir was only trying to further his own agenda. Hamid heard from village elders that foreigners would often do this. Instead of turning Hamid onto violence, these elders also taught Hamid passages to assuage his grief, and in the intervals between his prayers, he recited them several times each day:
لتبلون في اموالكم وانفسكم ولتسمعن من الذين اوتوا الكتاب من قبلكم ومن الذين اشركوا اذى كثيرا وان تصبروا وتتقوا فان ذلك من عزم الامور
“You shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your lives; and you shall certainly hear much that will grieve you…But if you patiently persevere and be pious, then surely that will be of great resolution” (3:186).
After Mullah Yasir read the Koran, the group prayed. A basin sat in the corner next to a jug where Hamid washed. First, he rinsed his calloused hands. Three times, he poured water on his right hand; three times, on his left. He rinsed his mouth and snorted water through his tanned, angular nose, blew the water out, washed his trim black beard, and dabbed behind his ears. Finally, he cleaned his thin arms and feet, walked towards the window, and stood on a prayer rug cast in moonlight.
“Allah Akbar,” a unified chant sounded from everyone in the room.
Hamid folded his right arm over his left, just below his chest.
“In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful, master of the day of judgment—You alone we worship…”
Hamid unfolded his arms, brought his open hands to his face, and placed them on his knees, as he bent forward at the waist, head bowed, face to the ground.
“Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem. Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem. Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem.”
Hamid dropped to his knees, bent forward with his hands on the ground in front of his face, and he touched his nose and forehead to the rug.
“Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem. Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem. Subhana Rabbiyal Adheem.”
Hamid sat straight back on his feet, and before rising to repeat the ritual three more times, he said,
“My lord forgive me.”
Once completed, the men grabbed their belongings and prepared to leave. Mullah Yasir handed Hamid an AK.
“Ahmad, are you certain you will not go with us?” Hamid said.
“No, I must stay at home.”
“And what if the Americans come for you?”
“That is what this is for,” Ahmad said and raised his rifle.
He hugged Hamid with his other, bandaged arm and put his hand around Hamid’s neck.
“Farewell, friend” he said.
Ahmad left, and Hamid turned to Sahar and gave her a kiss.
“If the Americans come for you,” he said, “hide the money under your dress. There they will not search. Tomorrow you will go to my uncle in Kabul. He is working at the Afghan National Army Headquarters. Tell him what has happened today. He will take care of you.”
“I don’t see why I can’t go tonight?” She said. “The bags are packed and heaven knows I won’t sleep. But Behrukh will. With the burro, she can sleep soundly there.”
“No, no, you must not go. Not tonight. You don’t know what haunts the skies and might mistake you for something to kill. It is far too dangerous.”
“But what if the Americans take me?”
“The Americans will see you have a child. They will not take you.”
She paused and bit her lip, holding back tears.
“I love you, Hamid.”
“I love you, too.”
Hamid knelt to his daughter, taking her in his arms.
“My Behrukh, my beautiful, stay with your mother. I must go.”
Hamid wanted to add more after the word “go,” but he stopped himself. It was difficult for him not to cry. He didn’t want that to be his daughter’s final image of her father. He wanted her to remember him going brave and strong. Behruk, full from the dinner, didn’t seem to comprehend. Her spirits were still high.
“Go?” she said.
Hamid choked and started tearing up.
“Go, I must. Your mother will take good care of you.” He kissed Behrukh on the cheek and quickly rose to Sahar’s embrace.
“You will return,” she whispered to him. “’I must go but will return.’ That is what you mean to say. That is what you’ll do.”
Mullah Yasir, Borz, and Hamid left Hamid’s home, and under a full moon near a mountain, they further discussed their plan. The Pakistani insisted on traveling with Borz, alone. He told Hamid he must go his own direction, but that they’d meet at a set point, at a set time, and travel together from there. They knew the Americans had drones that stalked the skies, and the Pakistani was afraid that a large group would call attention to them. Hamid had no choice in the matter. He wondered if he ever had a choice in any matter. Everything in his life, he thought, amounted to this.
He started up a familiar route over the mountain. Looking back, he noticed Borz and Mullah Yasir heading a different direction than the meeting point. Several miles out on the ridgeline, he heard a blast from the direction of his village, which he could now only barely see. He knew how the American raids worked. This would not be the first in his village, and he imagined the night soldiers set a breaching charge, possibly on his very own gate.
He continued slowly and looked up to the stars. He remembered previous summers sleeping on the roof, where it was cool, with his wife and child. Sahar and Behruk. Their names hung on his lips. He was at peace and threw down the AK. Holding out his arms, palms outward, he thought, “I’m ready,” and he felt the blast.
In the TOC, the Colonel watched the drone strike through its night vision on the monitors. A small white body was thrown backward. The MAM (Military Aged Male), the body belonged to, got to his feet. Another strike landed 15 meters away. The MAM appeared torn in half, but still alive. He scrambled on his arms toward a boulder, leaving behind a trail of grey warm blood. A third blast struck further off, throwing debris in a concussive wave over him, still scrambling, until a fourth and final missile struck directly.
The bustling that preceded the strike was replaced by a long silence. Fans near the front churned the dry air. The General replaced the drone screen over the monitors.
“We got him,” he said. “Great job, men.”
A few, worn-out heads turned one way, then the other, and a short congratulatory murmur passed through the room. The Colonel remained solemn. After spending several tours leading troops from the front and witnessing war’s unmediated horrors, the drone’s blast still stirred within him a revulsion he hadn’t anticipated.
“We did all we could,” The General said directly to him. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes, Sir,” the Colonel said. “Tomorrow.”
The monitors went black. It was already past midnight. The ceremony to send the caskets home would be that afternoon. The Colonel signed off with his men and exited the room, taking a satellite phone with him. Outside, the moon and stars illuminated like daylight. The Colonel called his family as he had promised to do, and first, listened to his son speak enthusiastically about a little league baseball game that he’d won.
The Colonel paced back and forth, kicking a rock along the ground. His son’s friend was there to celebrate.
“Gotta go,” his son said, and the Colonel heard him sprint away.
His wife took the phone.
“It’s been a real handful here,” she said.
There was a long pause. The Colonel exhaled.
“Is there something wrong?”
“No, sweetheart, nothing. Just another day in paradise….” The Colonel patted his pockets for a cigarette, which he’d left in his room.
“Fuck,” he said under his breath.
“What?” His wife said.
“Oh, nothing” He looked back toward the ground, found the rock, and kicked it hard as he could toward the fence line along the compound.
“The hell are we even doing, here?” He burst out, even though he’d always held steadfast to the belief that there were those in the upper echelons of Washington who knew the answer and who, together, had formed a consensus to further the aims of some greater good, of which, he was one key part among many, and that this part he played was, indeed, necessary, somehow. This, he repeatedly told himself, must be true.
“I’m sorry, honey” his wife said
“The press release will come out in the next few days—you’ll see it.”
“Honey, I’m sorry. The door bell just rang, the pizza man is here. I’ve got to set the phone down.”
The Colonel shook his head and looked toward the stars--a whole lot of them. On the phone, two boys yelled in the background.
“Silas wants to have Jeremy over,” The Colonel’s wife said. “You’ve met Jeremy, right?”
The Colonel had not met Jeremy.
“First it’s one,” his wife continued. “Then two. And next, it’ll be another Xbox party,” She laughed.
“Tell Silas no Xbox party. You just hosted one last week.”
“I know, honey—look I’ve got to go. The boys are yelling for me again. But I love you, I love you.
Please, stay safe, try not to worry so much, like I know you do.”
“Alright. Give Silas a hug for me. Love you. And again, no Xbox party.
“Ok, I know. love you, bye.”
The Colonel clicked off the phone. Sergeant Harris walked past. He was holding frames, on his way to the command hallway.
“Hey! Harris” The Colonel shouted. “Come over here a sec. You mind finding me a cigarette. I’ll be out here a minute.”
“No problem, sir” Harris replied and disappeared into the dark.
The Colonel sat on the boardwalk. A soldier about 30 meters away struck up the burning barrel for classified documents, which started with crack and hiss. sending flames into the sky where the stars continued to multiply—thousands of them, millions… more than the mind could comprehend. Each one, cold, remote, and lifeless.
The Colonel turned inward, thinking of the bright, young captain he sat with not a week before, the captain’s men, the ceremony to send them home, and the one following, in the valley, where he would deliver a speech honoring their sacrifice to the soldier’s buddies, while tears streaked down their faces, and they respectfully contained their emotions, until his conclusion when they would break down into each others arms, sobbing unabashedly, as only men can, who’ve lived in so close a proximity, so long, and suffered through so much, together. The number of times the Colonel had been through this before, he lost count. He pressed his face into his hands, as he tried to fight back a wave of hostile images.
“Too much,” he thought. “Too much.”
A hand patted him on the shoulder.
“Sir, I’ve got your cigarette,” Harris said “…and a light. Here, Sir”
The Colonel breathed in deeply.
“Thank you,” he said and stood up.
“Do you have one for yourself?”
“Sure do, Sir,”
“Well, hang around awhile. I could use some company.”
“Okay,” Harris said.
They walked under a light on the boardwalk. The Colonel lit his cigarette, handed the lighter to Harris, and observed, for a long while, the burning barrel’s flame grow steadily higher.
“Keep that flame down!” He yelled to the soldier at the barrel, and he turned to Harris, whose face was crisscrossed with shadows.
“Hell of night,” The Colonel said.
“Should have killed him,” Harris replied.
“During the TIC last week. I had a shot and missed. I can’t believe I missed. Should have killed him.”
The Colonel turned away. Each drew deeply on their cigarette. Then, the Colonel began to speak about his boyhood home, growing up poor and hunting to fill the freezer with his brother and father, sometimes the whole community, in the beautiful fall stands of Virginia, during much simpler times.