A February Raid in the War on Terror

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This story began on Facebook. It was published in Proud to Be: Writing By American Warriors, Volume 3. I rushed to finish it before the submission deadline, and I wasn’t totally satisfied with it. Maybe I’ll turn it into something bigger later on.


It was 1AM. Sleep this night had been elusive at best, coming in short segments between bumps and swerves that jostled us around in the cramped troop compartment of our twenty-ton tin can as we made our way toward the drop off point for our mission. Boys in camouflage body armor, packed like sardines leaned against one another. They moved and shifted, desperately searching for some small semblance of comfort while trying to keep their legs and asses from going to sleep. A rifle magazine jammed into the inside of a thigh here, a hand grenade pinched a hip there. In the dim glow of my squad leader commo screen, their heavy eyelids slowly closed behind the lenses of their ballistic glasses. Heads bobbed up and down like pistons as the young warriors drifted off to sleep and awakened, startled, before their eyes drooped again. Gravity was especially cruel, pulling hard on the nearly 5 pounds of each advanced combat helmet adorned with tactical lights, d-rings, para-cord, camo bands, photos of wives and babies, and night vision goggles, commonly referred to as nods.

Each of us fought a stiff neck, a sore ass, and tingling legs and feet when my gunner, Sergeant Taaga, opened the ramp. It was early February, and cold night air surrounded us as we stumbled out, rifles at the ready and adrenaline just starting to pump through our veins. We would have to worry about being tired and having aches and pains later, much later, when we are old and in our thirties. We had a mission to do.

The cold, winter night concealed our movement through a frosty grove of date palms. Our armored Stryker vehicle had deposited us along Iraq’s Highway 1, at a spot some 30 miles north of Baghdad, leaving the last few klicks between us and our objective to be covered quietly on foot. The spikey trunks of date palms stood in uniform rows that disappeared into the glowing green darkness ahead. Dead and dying fronds hung low and out of place, making strange silhouettes in our night vision. Others reached up at us from their final resting places on the ground, their dry and hardened points like finely sharpened claws grabbing at our pant legs, at times puncturing fabric and flesh. Some found our faces, slicing and stinging our cold red cheeks. Decaying palm leaves, underbrush, and knee-deep ditches paralleling each row threatened at every step to give us away as we crept toward our target.

First squad was on point, walking in wide fire team wedges, with Lloyd, their squad leader, directing from the middle. The infrared strobe light in his right shoulder pocket flashed every couple of seconds, invisible to the naked eye, but clear as day in my night vision. It lit up the palms around him, and left eerie snapshot profiles of the soldiers walking between us. I hoped they were on their game, as Lloyd’s squad would be my overwatch when we reached our objective.

My alpha team walked between me and Lloyd’s soldiers. Sergeant Fraleigh, who we often called Frolo, was at the front of his fire team wedge. Fraleigh was the best kind of guy to have as a team leader. He was a young sergeant, but he was big, loud, aggressive, and fearless. I watched him win our division’s boxing championship long before he became one of my team leaders. He was the type of NCO who struck fear into the hearts of privates and Iraqis alike. No one wanted to be on his bad side.

As we walked, I spun around to check the spacing of my bravo fire team. My other team leader, Sergeant Jimmy Bridges was walking at the apex of his team’s wedge. They were doing exactly what they were supposed to be doing. I was proud of my boys tonight. Their spacing was perfect, and despite all of the obstacles, we were moving silently through the palms toward our objective. It all looked like a scene from a war movie, or even a trailer for some new video game. Heavily armed soldiers moving through the darkness like silent ghosts. To the naked eye, the only evidence of their existence was the dim green glow that the night vision goggles left on their faces. All that was missing was a soundtrack by CCR and the thumping of helicopter rotor blades.

I turned back around and smiled at no one in the darkness. This was my favorite kind of mission. “Bravo Company, 1st Platoon, the “Maggots” conducts a raid against target house, vicinity Iraqi Army checkpoint, in order to kill or capture enemy sniper.” My boys, second squad, would be the assaulting element, while first and third squads were to provide support and security.

I couldn’t remember a time when we had walked more quietly in the dark, and I was anxious to hit this house. Just days earlier our platoon had been returning to Camp Taji after a twelve-hour patrol, when we were directed by our battalion headquarters to support our sister company, Charlie, as they searched this very home. We had hoped to make it back in time for a midnight meal at one of the Camp Taji chow halls. Instead, we set up hasty blocking positions to prevent anyone from fleeing as soldiers from Charlie Company entered and searched the house. No one had tried to run away. We sat in an empty field watching lights come on in the windows of the house, and listening to the radio communication as the mission progressed. The occupants were cooperative, and there were no weapons or contraband found.

After several hours of waiting in the cold, we received instructions to hold our positions until daybreak, so that Charlie Company soldiers could search again during daylight hours. The temperatures had dropped below the freezing mark, and we sat there shivering, while frost formed around us. Finally, just before dawn, we were given permission to return to base. Charlie Company had found nothing in the home.

Now it was our turn to search this place. As we continued moving, I could make out the outline of a building through the palm trees. Lloyd, the first squad leader, whispered over the radio that he had the target house in sight. It was a pretty typical Iraqi home for this area. It was two stories with metal doors, a flat roof, and a sort of stucco exterior. There was a garage, a couple small outbuildings made of mud bricks, and a small fenced area with goats and sheep. It was quiet and dark as we approached.

We halted, and waited for Lloyd to set up his over watch position.  As he set his men in place, I whispered radio checks with Sergeant Taaga; Sergeant First Class Arambula, our platoon sergeant, who had the medic; and Leo, the third squad leader. I had clear comms with everyone but Leo.

Where the hell was our reserve squad?

I walked over and knelt next to my Lieutenant. “Hey sir, I can’t get Maggot 3 on the radio.  Where the hell are they? I don’t even see his strobe flashing behind us.”

While Lieutenant Schardt, our platoon leader, tried to raise third squad on the radio, I heard brush breaking to our right. I turned around to see what or who might be moving, and the noise grew louder.

Then Leo called out, “Hey, first platoon, where the fuck are you?”

So much for noise discipline, I thought.

“My fucking radio isn’t working,” he continued, almost shouting.

By this point, we had practically announced our arrival. His squad continued tromping toward us, seemingly stepping on and breaking every stick and branch in the palm grove.

I quickly walked over and whispered through clenched teeth, “Hey, shut the fuck up. What the hell is wrong with you guys?”

Leo approached and started complaining that he had been trying to get us on the radio, and that we had just left his squad alone out on the highway. He went on and on about how he had somehow ended up on the east side of the road, opposite our objective, where he ran into another platoon’s blocking position while trying to figure out our location.

Finally, we got ourselves organized, and Lloyd and Leo finished getting their squads settled into over watch and security positions. Amazingly enough, there was no sign that we had disturbed the occupants of our target house. It appeared that we still had the element of surprise working in our favor, but this whole cluster set the tone for how the assault phase of this mission would go.

I signaled for my alpha team to move forward to the house. They spread out, crouching low as they ran quietly across the clearing to the front door of the house. I followed closely behind, and as we reached the corner of the front wall the men automatically lined up in a stack. Most infantry fire teams have a breach man. In this team, it made sense for Frolo to be the door kicker. We had never encountered a door that he couldn’t get through.

Sergeant Fraleigh stood in front of the door and looked at me through his night vision. I gave him a quick nod, and he took a step back with his left foot, and then slammed the heel of his boot into the door next to the latch. It gave way, but the door didn’t fly open like they usually did. He kicked again. Then a third time, and the plastic mount on his night vision goggles broke. They were hanging from the para cord attached to the camo band on his helmet.

Frolo turned to me and said, “Sergeant T., my nods are down!”

“No shit! What the fuck to do you want me to do about it? Take care of it once we get inside.”

He reached up and held onto the nods while he kicked the door again. It sounded as if someone were hitting the door with a sledge hammer. It was bending in the middle, and each strike left a new dent, but it simply would not open more than a couple of inches. A light came on inside. Through a window at the top of the door, we could see a large wooden cabinet that was preventing it from opening. An outside light came on, and we no longer needed our night vision. We had also lost the benefit of surprise.

I paused for a second to figure out my next move, and a woman pulled back a window curtain and waved at us frantically. With our rifles pointed at her she motioned to the side of the house. About that time, a small boy, maybe ten or eleven years old, came walking out from around a corner and gestured for us to follow him. A man in his early forties met us at the side door and invited us in. In the main room, where Fraleigh had been kicking the door, we found a China cabinet that stood seven or eight feet high, and ran the length of the room. It was full of all sorts of stuff; silver platters, little trinkets, and lots of newly broken dishes.

I called for Sergeant Bridges to bring up his team and help secure the first floor of the home. There was an elderly man, a younger woman, and four children ranging in age from toddler to about ten or eleven. They were cooperative but not very happy with us. The old man kept shouting at us. Our interpreter said that he wanted us to know that he was not a terrorist. He wanted to know why we were searching his home again.

We secured the first floor, and separated the men from the women and children. With the help of an interpreter, I asked about any weapons in the home. The younger of the two men explained that there were two AK 47 rifles in the house, and pointed to where I could find them. He said that they worked with the Sons of Iraq, and that they were allowed to have the rifles and the ammo pouches. I checked their ID cards, and they were indeed on our payroll as checkpoint security guards in that area.

Raid 3

That figures, I thought.

“Tell them that we are still going to search their house for weapons and contraband.”

Our interpreter relayed the message, and told me that they understood.

“Maggot Six, this is Maggot Two. Over.”

“Go ahead, Maggot Two.”

“Six, first floor is secure. Moving to second floor now. Over.”

“Roger that.”

Lieutenant Schardt entered the house with one of Leo’s fire teams, and asked which rooms the occupants were in. I pointed to the room where the men were being held, and started up the stairs with Sergeant Fraleigh and his fire team.

At the top of the stairs, there was a landing and four doors. The door to our right was metal and had a window much like the door downstairs. It was access to the roof of the home. One open door revealed a room that was mostly empty expect for a few large bags of dates, presumably from the palm groves that we had just walked through. The second room was used for storage. It was piled full of all sorts of junk. I could see burlap sacks, car parts, pots and pans, broken chairs, and all kinds of other things. The door to the third room was closed.

Sergeant Fraleigh gently checked the door handle and signaled that it was locked. I nodded to him, and he kicked it. Unlike the plain metal door downstairs this door was very ornately carved wood with a brass door handle. The handle and latch mechanism fell to the floor as wood splintered around it. The door was destroyed, and the latching side of the door frame came out of the wall as well. We thought we were ready for anything as we entered and cleared rooms, but we were not prepared for what happened next.

We rushed into the room, and a man rolled out of a large bed onto the floor in front of us. A woman rolled out of the other side of the bed, taking the sheets along with her. She was screaming as she pulled the sheets up to her neck in an effort to cover herself. The man, probably in his mid-thirties, was startled and confused. He got up from the floor quickly, his eyes wide with fear and surprise. He had one hand over his head, and was attempting to pull his pants up with the other. When he realized that our weapons all pointed at him, he dropped his pants and raised his other hand. He still stood there awkwardly bent at the waist, as if he really wanted to pull his pants up, but he wasn’t sure he could do it without getting shot.

A quick glance around the room confirmed what we had busted in on. His pants were around his ankles. His naked wife was curled up in a corner of the room holding a sheet up to her neck. There was a red light bulb glowing in a wall fixture above the bed’s headboard, and there was a box of peach scented douche sitting on one of the nightstands. I looked at her and then back at him, and I started laughing.

Sergeant Fraleigh laughed too and said, “That sucks dude! We had no idea you were gettin’ some ass in here.”

The man gave an uneasy smile. He didn’t understand English, but he knew we were laughing at him.

I looked at the interpreter. “Tell him to pull his fuckin’ pants up. I don’t want to see that shit. Tell her to get dressed too.”

Once the woman was dressed, she was escorted downstairs to the room with the other woman and the children. I kept lover boy in the room so that I could ask him some questions.

“Ask him if there are any weapons in the house.”

“He says that there are two AKs downstairs, and that those are the only weapons they have.”

“Has he heard any gunshots in this area recently?”

“He says no.”

“Ask him if he knows anything about a sniper firing on the Iraqi Army checkpoint out on the highway? I’m sure he can see the checkpoint from the roof of his house.”

“He says he doesn’t know anything about it.”

“He’s a fucking liar.”

I took him downstairs and handed him off to some of the 3rd squad soldiers who were now in the house. I walked over to where Lieutenant Schardt was standing and gave him a sit rep. “The house is secure. We have two women and four children in that room. Three military-age males in this room. I’m going to start searching the place upstairs first.”

“Sounds good Sergeant T. Let me know what you find.”

I walked back upstairs where Jimmy and Frolo already had their teams starting to search the rooms. I looked around as well, watching what the soldiers were doing, and rifling through drawers and closets that hadn’t been checked yet. I knew that this house had just been searched, and I wasn’t very confident that we would find anything. I didn’t see any reason at that point to totally trash the place.

Then I found something. In the back of the top drawer of one of the nightstands, I found a little glass dish that held about ten bullets for a 9mm handgun. Iraqis were allowed to have an AK-47 with one 30-round magazine for home protection, but there were no handguns allowed. I grabbed the dish and walked downstairs to ask lover boy about them.

Raid 4

Speaking to the interpreter, I asked, “Where is your handgun?”

As our interpreter spoke, he looked at me, and shook his head no.

“He says he doesn’t have a handgun, only AKs.”

“Why do you have ammo for a handgun if you don’t have a handgun?”

“He says he doesn’t have any handgun ammo either.”

I showed him the dish and said, “What the fuck is this then?”

He backpedaled a bit, but still insisted that there were no other weapons in the home.

“Tell him that we will leave if he just gives up the handgun.”

“He still says that he doesn’t have one.”

I left my lieutenant to continue asking questions, while I went back to searching. We looked in all of the usual places and found nothing out of the ordinary. By this point, we were hours into the mission, and I was tired and pissed off. Captain Veath, my company commander and our first sergeant, 1SG Angulo were now in the house poking around and asking why we hadn’t come up with anything yet. I pointed out the bullets in the dish.

Captain Veath said, “Where is the gun?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It has to be here somewhere, but they won’t give it up. Without flipping this whole place upside down, I’m not sure where else to look.”

“Flip this place, and find it then.”

“Roger that, sir.”

Back upstairs, I called all of the soldiers out of the rooms onto the landing at the top of the stairs. “We have a handful of 9mm rounds that were in a nightstand drawer in that room,” I said, pointing toward the busted wooden door. “You will check every nook and cranny in this mother fucker. Flip the beds. Take the drawers out of each piece of furniture. Check the bottoms of them. Check inside to make sure that there is nothing taped above or below the drawers. Turn the furniture over, and check the back and bottom of each piece. Toss everything.” We broke to continue searching.

Raid 2

I walked into the bedroom with Pvt. Shane Steward. He went to the night stand where I had found the 9mm bullets, and pulled out the top drawer and dumped it. He dropped the drawer on the bed, and looked into the bottom drawer. Then he got up and started to walk over to the closet. I told him that he needed to remove the bottom drawer, and check under and behind the nightstand too. He turned back, pulled the bottom drawer out of the nightstand, and dumped it.

Raid 5

“Umm, Sergeant Taylor? I think I found something.”

I glanced over and saw the excited look on his face as he pulled the bag from the nightstand. He placed it on the bed and opened it. He shook his head as he reached in and pulled out a handful of 7.9mm rifle rounds.

Raid 10

“Nice job Steward! Take that out on the landing and dump it.”

When he dumped the bag, hundreds of 7.9mm rifle rounds on stripper clips, and loose 7.62mm AK 47 rounds fell out onto the floor along with several loaded AK47 magazines.
Raid

I called for my lieutenant to come up, and some of my privates started organizing our find so that we could get an accurate count. When Lieutenant Schardt came up, he smiled at me, and asked if we had anything else. I told him that we still had a couple of rooms to check, and that we had found yet another caliber of ammunition. I started thinking we would find more weapons.

Next was the junk room. Jimmy and I started searching this room. After finding so much ammo, we were feeling a second wind. We started pulling stuff out of the room. There were burlap sacks full of sheep’s wool. It was now daylight outside, so I carried the bags out onto the rooftop. I pulled out my knife and slit the side of each bag and dumped the contents onto the cement roof.

Raid 8

As we moved further into the room, I found a green cylinder with white military markings on it. The cylinder was empty, but it was a shipping container for a warhead for a Brazilian surface-to-air missile. Raid 11Raid 9I set that aside, and continued digging. Next I found a navy blue child’s backpack with UNICEF embroidered on it. Inside the pack I found a cowboy style leather belt with bullet loops all around it. There were a few AK 47 magazines, three strands of Christmas lights with no bulbs, which are commonly used to make IEDs, and finally wrapped in a piece of cloth was a rifle scope. After moving all of these things out of the room, we reached several large rolls of canvas on the floor. They appeared to be large tents or something of that nature, but when I tried to lift one of the rolls, it was much heavier than plain canvas. I unrolled the first one, and inside I found a bolt-action rifle. I held it up for Jimmy to see. He unrolled the second roll and found a sniper rifle that went with the scope we had found. In another larger roll there was another green cylinder, this one filled with rifle cartridges for the sniper rifle. Two more rolls revealed two more rifles and two more shipping containers filled with ammo. Raid 7

Jimmy and I carried the rifles and ammunition out onto the rooftop, and I called for Lieutenant Schardt, the commander, and the first sergeant. When they came through the door to the rooftop, I held up the sniper rifle and the scope.

“We didn’t find a handgun, but here is your sniper rifle, sir.”

“Damn Sergeant Taylor, we’ll have to call Charlie Company and tell them that you found what they were looking for.”

“No shit, sir.”

I went down to speak to the three men who had claimed that they only had two AK 47s in the house. I asked again where their handgun was. They continued to deny that anyone in the house had a handgun.

Talking to the interpreter, I said, “Okay, I believe that you don’t have a handgun in the house. I have searched upstairs, and we didn’t find a handgun. Are there any other weapons in the house?”

They all told the interpreter that there were no other guns in the home, and they looked relieved that I hadn’t mentioned finding any weapons.

I turned to the other soldiers in the room, and instructed them to put flex-cuffs on all three of the men. Once they were cuffed, I told the soldiers to bring them upstairs to the rooftop. The looks on their faces were priceless when they came through the door and saw all of the weapons and ammunition laid out across their rooftop.

In all, we discovered more than three thousand 7.62mm and 7.9mm rifle rounds, almost thirty AK-47 magazines, and seven rifles. We also had materials that were commonly used in making IEDs, and evidence that these men had gotten their hands on some sort of missiles or warheads that could have potentially been used against American soldiers in a number of different ways. It was a fruitful raid. We found what we were looking for. We accomplished our mission, to conduct a raid on the target house in order to kill or capture enemy sniper. There was not a single shot fired, and there were no casualties, aside from some dishes and a couple of doors.

Raid 6

All of our success aside, I felt guilty about that raid. It was approaching lunch time by the time we had processed all of our evidence, and prepared to move our three detainees. As my soldiers escorted the three handcuffed men to our vehicles and placed blindfolds over their heads to protect the secret materials in our Stryker vehicles, the oldest boy came out of the front of the house. He watched armed American soldiers blindfold his father, uncle, and grandfather. His face was emotionless as the armored ramp closed, concealing the men in his family inside. My company commander walked over to him and patted him on the head. The boy’s stare changed to anger and hatred when Captain Veath handed him a soccer ball.

I saw it right then; we took his dad, and his uncle, and his grandpa, and gave him a shiny new soccer ball in return. What a fucked up war. 

We took weapons away from insurgents that day, and we interfered with insurgent sniper activity in that area. What else did we do that day? Did we help reinforce negative feelings toward Americans in another generation of Iraqi people? Did we create another insurgent or another terrorist that day?

Tim O’Brien says, “Boom. Down.” That’s not how I remember it…

I grew up reading about war. I was fascinated by Green Berets, Army Rangers, and Navy SEALs. I read story after story and book after book about the fighting in Vietnam. I never cared much for historical research type books. I wanted the stories, the personal experiences, the war stories. These are the kind of stories that I write now, about my own wartime experiences.

I remember reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, where he described the death of a soldier as “boom, down. Zapped while zipping.” It’s a great book, and his writing can really help a reader get into the mind of a soldier. How are they feeling? How can they do this terrible job? What is it like? He doesn’t glorify the war. He doesn’t talk about explosions and massive firefights. It is just a simple, yet deeply expressive, explanation of his experiences in combat. While describing the physical burdens carried by infantry soldiers, O’Brien dips into the emotional burdens too.

He discusses dark humor and macho and dehumanizing language. It is all 100% true, and with a change of weapons, uniforms, and lingo, it could apply to almost any war.

“Boom, down. Zapped while zipping.” This phrase sticks out to me, because I don’t remember it happening so quickly or silently in my war. It was an explosion. BOOM! It didn’t go down. Smoke, fire, shrapnel, flesh, it all went up. We went up too, up to the intersection where the rocket came from. We unloaded, firing everything we had available. Machine guns rocked those buildings.

Glass. Glass went down, and so did bits and pieces of the walls that we were firing into. Brass shell casings went down to our feet. When the Air Force flew over, bombs went down. Smoke and flame went up. Pieces of roofs, wood splinters, and other debris went up. Then they came down, along with the walls that held them up. BOOM! CITY BLOCKS WENT DOWN.

Two weeks later, our brother-in-arms went down, to join those who went before him, and all those who have since gone.

Dagget Stone

Gone, but not forgotten.

10 Years Ago Today

I have a thin piece of steel. It is 6 inches long, 1/2 inch wide, and 1/32 inch thick.

It holds 77 little symbols that have no significant meaning when they stand alone.

65 letters—snthiavagtefstrngiotasaftrabostmbdecsbateivapamamthnIfodilramiqsa

10 digits—1512522005

2 periods—  .  .

When arranged in a particular order, these letters, numbers, and periods tell of a fallen warrior.

These letters, numbers, and periods serve as a reminder of a fallen son, brother, and husband.

He was a soldier.

He was a leader.

He was a mentor.

He was one of my closest friends in the army.


SSG IOASA F. TAVAE

1ST BN 5TH INF RGT 1ST BDE COMBAT TEAM

25TH INF DIV 2 APRIL 2005 IRAQ

AM. SAMOA


I wear this bracelet as a reminder. I don’t wear it everyday, and it is not the only one that I have. I don’t need bracelets to remember my friends, but sometimes these bracelets help me keep things in perspective.

When something is challenging…

When something is frustrating…

When something is stressful…

A bad day…

These bracelets remind me that today is not as hard, not as stressful, and not as bad as March 11th, 2003; April 2nd, 2005; August 22nd, 2007; April 1st, 2008; April 29th, 2008; May 1st, 2008; May 15th, 2008;  August 10th 2008; or probably half a dozen other dates that I could list.

KIA Bracelet Crop

I learned of his death through an email from our former platoon leader.

Tavae was leading men in combat in Iraq. I was in Afghanistan.

29, of Pago Pago, American Samoa; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Fort Lewis, Wash.; killed April 2 when his unit was attacked by enemy forces using small-arms fire in Mosul, Iraq.

SGT Ioasa Tavae on Homeland Security at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland SGT Ioasa Tavae at K2, Uzbekistan Dec. 2001

A story from Djibouti (2003) that still makes me laugh.

“Sergeant Taylor, First Sergeant wants to see you in the company CP for the platoon sergeant meeting.”

“I’ll be right there,” I said, as I sat up. Getting up from my green canvas cot, I pulled on my desert camouflage uniform shirt and buttoned it. I grabbed my M4 and slipped the sling over my shoulder as I walked toward the door.

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When I stepped out of my dark tent, bright African sunlight assaulted my eyes. It was mid-afternoon in October, but the temps still hovered around the 100 degree mark nearly every day. Before my eyes had completely adjusted, sweat was beading up on my forehead, and my brown undershirt was sticking to my skin. I hate this fuckin’ place, I thought to myself as I walked down the gravel path between rows of tan tents.

I stepped into the company CP and found my 1SG and the platoon sergeants from headquarters, first, and third platoons sitting around rickety table made of plywood and scrap 2x4s. “Sergeant Taylor, just the guy we were looking for. I’ve got a mission for you,” First Sergeant said.

Aww shit. I’m supposed to be going home in less than a week. My platoon was in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, a couple hundred miles south of our camp. The platoons in my company were doing two week rotations between Camp Lemonier, in Djibouti, and Camp Ramrod, in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. I had been left behind, because I was on orders to PCS from Fort Drum, NY to Schofield Barracks, HI. Basically, I was leaving one deployment to move from NY to HI, so that I could get ready for another deployment. What the fuck do I have to do now? “Sure, First Sergeant, what do you need?”

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First Sergeant explained, “Your platoon is doing a MEDCAP with a civil affairs unit, and they need some more medical supplies. I need you to get this box down to them tomorrow.”

“No problem, 1SG.” I grabbed the box, and asked, “What do I need to do about transportation?”

“Just walk down to the flight line tomorrow morning at 0600. There are usually flight crews working on their birds in the morning. Find one that is going to Dire Dawa sometime tomorrow, and see if you can catch a ride. Hopefully they’ll be able to get you back tomorrow too.”

All of our aviation assets in Camp Lemonier were either Marine or Air Force. Anytime we had to fly, we flew on CH-53 Sea Stallions. They were bulky gray helicopters, and they leaked unbelievable amounts of hydraulic fluid. When the helicopters banked, the fluid would drip from the ceiling, or run down the walls. The floors that we sat on were always slick and oily. I don’t think a single soldier in my company left Africa without greasy brown stains all over his uniforms from riding in the back of those leaky helicopters.

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The next morning rolled around, and I was at the flight line at 0600, as instructed. I had everything that I needed for the trip, since I had no idea when I might leave. I wore my body armor and Kevlar helmet. I carried my M4 rifle, and my black 12-gague shorty shotgun. I also had the box of medical supplies, and a rucksack that was packed for a couple of days. I really did not believe that I would manage to get there and back in the same day.

I approached the open ramp of the nearest helicopter and saw one of the Marine crew members inside. “Do you know if anyone is flying to Dire Dawa today? I need to deliver some medical supplies to a unit down there.”

“We aren’t flying today, Sergeant,” he said walking toward the back of the helicopter. He stepped down the ramp and pointed to another bird parked near the other end of the row of helicopters. He suggested that I ask someone down there.

I moved down the flight line, starting to sweat from all of the gear that I was carrying. I’m glad they had me clean my gear for customs already. This shit is going to be covered in dust and sand again.

I walked up to the back of another Sea Stallion, and asked the Marine inside if he knew of anyone flying to Dire Dawa. “I’m supposed to hand deliver this box to a unit down there, and they need it today,” I explained.

“We are heading down there this morning, Sergeant. We are supposed to be wheels up in about forty minutes,” he said.

“Can I catch a ride with you?”

“Sure, I just need to add your name, social, and blood type to our flight manifest.”

I chuckled to myself thinking, holy shit. This is actually going to work. I’m going to hitchhike from one country to another on a damn Marine helicopter. I put the box in the back of the bird and gave the crewman my information. I sat down on canvas seat in the back of the helicopter and pulled a cereal bar and a warm Coca-Cola Lite from my cargo pocket. Breakfast of Champions, I thought. I couldn’t wait to be home to real food in just a few days.

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 I sat there waiting, and I wondered if I was going to have the whole back of this bird to myself. After about twenty minutes, the crew members climbed in and started getting into their gear. Helmets were going on. Machine guns on the sides and on the tail ramp were being loaded. The pilot and copilot climbed in and started flipping switches and pushing buttons. The helicopter came to life. The engines started to whine, and cockpit lights turned on or flashed on and off.

Just as the rotors were starting to turn, several Marine Corps officers climbed on board. There was a colonel, a couple of majors, and then two or three captains. They did not appear to be infantry officers, as none of them were wearing any sort of tactical kit. They each had pistols in hip holsters, and their uniforms were neat and clean. Even their boots were nice and new looking.

As they climbed into their seats, they each put on safety glasses and helmets. One of the majors sat down next to me, and from the way he was scrambling to find the female end of his seat belt, I got the idea that he was a little nervous. He appeared to be relieved when he had finally fastened his seat belt and pulled the straps at each end to tighten it.

I slipped some ear plugs into my ears, and leaned my head back against the inside wall of the helicopter and closed my eyes. Over the growing noise of the whining engines, I heard someone trying to talk to me. “Hey Sergeant, are you our…” I opened my eyes and saw this very nervous major looking at me and talking.

I pulled the ear plug out of my right ear and leaned towards him. “What’s that, sir?”

“Are you our security, in case we go down?”

Is this guy fucking serious? I held back my laughter. Did this major really just ask me if I am his security…in case we fucking crash? I smiled at him and gave him a thumbs up. “Yes, Sir. If we go down, just get behind me. You’ll be alright,” I said as I slipped the ear plug back into my ear. Still chuckling to myself, I took my helmet off and leaned my head back closing my eyes again.

The crew chief signaled that we were ready to move, and the ramp raised a couple of feet off the ground. The bird started to shake, and we began rolling forward. We taxied away from the rest of the parked helicopters and moved toward the runway. Once there, the pilot turned and stopped the bird. We sat waiting, I assume, for clearance to take off. After just a moment, the helicopter got much louder, dust kicked up from the runway, and the bird started shaking and bouncing. Once up to speed, the pilot pulled back on his stick and the rotors started making the loud whop, whop, whop sound as they pushed down hard on the sticky morning air.

The wheels left the tarmac, and we hung there, wobbling side to side for just a few seconds until the pilot tipped the nose forward and the ground fell away from us.The Marine officers made it to their destination safely, and I managed to hitchhike back to Djibouti in time for dinner that night.

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Cub Scout Camping Trip


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This story also first published in Proud to Be:  Writing By American Warriors, Volume 2. (2013)

“Dad, can we please go camping with my Cub Scout pack this weekend?” Jacob asked, as he climbed into the back of my car outside of his school.  “It’ll be so much fun, and all of the other scouts are going!”

I looked over my shoulder to watch him buckle his seat belt. “Yeah, I saw it on the calendar.  I already made plans to go.  Your mom has to work, so she won’t be able to go with us.”

His eyes lit up as he pumped his fist.  “Yes!  It’s going to be so awesome!”

When we got back home, Jacob hopped on his bike and went down the street to his friend’s house.  I climbed up into the attic above the garage and started digging around.  I was looking for our tent and wondering what else we would need to bring.   At the bottom of a dusty stack of cardboard boxes I saw “Cold weather camping stuff” written in black marker.

“That figures; it would be on the bottom” I thought out loud.

I moved the boxes off of the top, and gray insulation dust swirled up from the floor as I made a new stack.  My eyes itched, and the dust made me cough.  After moving the last box from the stack, I reached down to open the one that I wanted.  I used my keys to puncture the clear packing tape, and opened the flaps.

The contents took me back a little.  The very first thing that I pulled out was a desert camouflage Gore-Tex jacket and rolled up underneath it was the matching pair of pants.  I held up the jacket and thought about my last combat tour in Afghanistan.  It was the third of my four deployments.  It had been so cold out there in the mountains, and we were told not to carry too much because of the elevation.  I rolled the jacket back up and set it aside.  Reaching into the box again, I pulled out a pair of cold-weather combat boots.  Now, these I can definitely use this weekend, I thought.  It was late October and there had been frost every morning lately.

I kept flipping through the box and pulled out a couple pairs of gloves, a ski mask, a scarf, some old long-sleeved undershirts and a bottle of arctic rifle lubricant.  I threw the gloves into a pile of things to take camping and set the other stuff to the side so that I could repack it all.  I found two sleeping bags folded flat at the bottom of the box.  Mine was black.  It was one of the three pieces that came with an army-issued sleeping-bag system.  Jacob’s had Scooby Doo on it.  I carried the sleeping bags, boots, and gloves over to the attic entrance and dropped them onto the garage floor below.  I went back over and put the rest of the stuff back in the box and closed it up.

Still looking around for the tent, I wondered what else I should bring.  My mind started to wander, and I began thinking about all of the times I had spent nights in the field as a soldier.  I hadn’t been camping since I left the army, three years earlier.  A tent still sounded like a luxury.

I found our green three-person dome tent shoved in the back of the attic behind some boxes.  I grabbed it and slipped the shoulder strap over my head.  I climbed down the ladder back into the garage.  I set the tent down with our camp chairs and grabbed the other things I had dropped down from the attic entrance.  I placed it all in a pile near the garage door and thought about going inside.

Instead, I climbed back up into the attic.  I knew that there was an old army rucksack up there somewhere, and everything we needed would fit into it.  Wishing I had taken more time to organize stuff when I hauled everything into my attic, I started digging around again.  After opening five boxes of Precious Moments figurines, baby clothes, and Christmas decorations, I finally found what I was looking for.

I pulled my old green rucksack out of a box and opened it.  My Kevlar helmet and rifleman’s vest were packed away inside.  The ammo pouches still had empty rifle magazines in them.  The ear plugs I had used in Iraq were still clipped onto the top of the vest, and there were still unopened first-aid dressings in the pockets.  In another pocket I found a small folded up section of a map of Baghdad.  An intersection on the map was circled in red pen, and I remembered my friend Kyle who had been killed there.  I closed my eyes and saw the stucco buildings standing guard around that intersection; their broken window panes and bullet riddled walls told tales of earlier battles.  The streets had suddenly cleared out, and we sat there quietly, waiting for something to happen.  The single rocket screamed as it streaked across the road and slammed into Kyle’s truck, bringing with it chaos and confusion.  My heart started to beat faster, and I took a deep breath.  I could still smell the mix of smoke, dust, and gun powder in the air, and I heard a panicking voice come across the radio again as they sped away from the contact, leaving a trail of black smoke in their wake.

“I’ve got two down!  Two down!  We are pulling back.  I can’t find a pulse!”

The intensity of the shockwave from the explosion came back to me, and I could see the smoking truck speeding away as we moved toward the enemy.  We opened up with everything we had and rained hell on that small piece of the city.  Our machine guns punched holes in the walls and doors, and our lieutenant called for air support.  We were still firing when Apache attack helicopters swooped in low over our heads and released their Hellfire missiles, making loud swooshes followed by ear shattering explosions that sent bits of stucco, splinters of wood, and pieces of broken glass raining down on us.  The dust and smoke made it hard to see and even harder to breathe.  Gunfire and the explosions were all that could be heard, and we still weren’t finished.  Air Force fighter jets screamed overhead, and we were directed to back away from the intersection.  They flew high over the city streets, making pass after pass, releasing their bombs.  One at a time, the buildings on each side of the intersection erupted into giant balls of fire.  Black smoke, dust, and debris rose high into the sky while we yelled and cheered.  When the smoke cleared, the buildings were gone.  A city block in each direction had been reduced to rubble, but Kyle didn’t make it.

I refolded the map and put it back into the pocket where I had found it.  Since I didn’t need body armor for camping, I reluctantly set it aside.  I dropped the empty rucksack to the garage floor below and climbed down the ladder.

Jacob came home from his friend’s house, and all he could talk about was going camping.  All through dinner it was all we heard about.  He could hardly sit still long enough to eat.

“Mom, Dad and I are going camping tomorrow,” he said with enthusiasm.  “I can’t wait!  I’m going to get to shoot a bow and arrow, and go hiking, and they will even have a bonfire,” he went on and on.  “Maybe I’ll even finish up the things I have to do to get my wolf badge.”

“I know, honey,” my wife said.  “I’m sure you’re going to have a great time, but you need to make sure you’re careful out there, and you have to be good for your dad.”

That evening after dinner I made a list of everything that I wanted to take camping.  I hadn’t been out to the woods for a long time, and I didn’t want to forget anything.  Never mind the fact that this camping weekend was going to be at a Boy Scout camp with a lunch room, bathrooms, and showers.  I wrote down everything I could think of.  I’ll need to bring a first-aid kit, Gatorade powder, extra socks, and my diving knife.  I continued writing: Para cord, bungee cords, entrenching tool, rain jacket and pants, insulated undershirts and pants, tent, chairs, combat boots and shooting gloves. The more I wrote, the more I worried about missing something.  I wondered if I still had my foil casualty blanket and if I could find my fluorescent VS-17 signaling panel.  They went on the list.  I scribbled down map pens, sleeping bags, extra water and food, a red-lens flashlight, signaling strobe light, extra batteries, and d-rings.  Adding more to the list, I wrote soap, hand towel, wash cloth, baby wipes, toothpaste, and toothbrush.  My list filled an entire page of notebook paper, and I still had this terrible feeling that I was forgetting something.

I went to bed that night, worrying about being prepared.  Theresa slept, while I stared into the darkness of our bedroom.  I finally drifted off to sleep sometime after three.  When my alarm went off at five-thirty, I felt like I had just fallen asleep.

Theresa got up, got ready for work, and left the house.  I took Jacob to school that morning and came home to pack after I dropped him off.  I would have to pick him up a little after three, and we would need to leave just after five when Theresa got back home.  The camp facilities opened up at four so that campers could get their sites set up before dark.  It would be close to six before we would arrive, and it would be dark by seven.

I spent the morning packing and checked each item off of my list as I stuffed it into my rucksack.  The pack held everything except for our tent poles and our two camp chairs.  Those we could carry separately.  My rucksack held enough food, water, and survival gear for us to get by in the woods for a few days without resupply.  I had everything we would need to stay warm in the cold weather, and all of the right stuff for directing a medevac helicopter in to our position.  I was prepared for whatever might happen.

Three o’clock came, and I picked Jacob up from school.  He was practically bouncing off the walls when he jumped into the car.

“Is Mom off work yet?  What time are we leaving?  Jameson said that his dad is taking him right when the camp opens.  When can we go, Dad?”

“Settle down, Jacob.  I already told you that we won’t be going until your mom gets home from work.  She’s off at five tonight, so we should be able to leave by a quarter after or so.”  I looked back to see that he was buckled, and then we headed home.

Once we got back to the house, Jacob asked for a snack.  While he ate a stick of string cheese, I loaded our gear into the car.  “Is there anything special that you want to take tonight, Jacob?”

“Can we take stuff to make s’mores?”

“Yep, it’s already packed,” I said.  “Anything else?”

“Nope,” he said, as he pulled another strip from his string cheese and dangled it over his open mouth.

I stepped out into the garage and looked around for anything that I might have missed.  I still felt like I was forgetting something, like I was unprepared.  Theresa got home a just after five, and we chatted for a few minutes about her day.

I kissed Theresa goodbye, and told her to enjoy the quiet weekend.  “We should be back in town sometime Sunday afternoon, but call me if you need anything.  Hopefully, my phone will have signal out there.”

Jacob had disappeared into his room, so I peeked around the corner of the hallway and said, “Let’s go, Jacob.”

Jacob came bouncing down the hall like he had just finished a case of Red Bull.  He ran outside and climbed into the car.  I followed him out, and we headed toward the Boy Scout camp.

I drove through the camp’s entrance.  There was a gate that could be locked across the country road, but it wasn’t attached to any sort of a fence.  As we rounded a bend and entered the gravel parking area, I saw families unloading camping gear from their cars and walking off into the surrounding woods.  Other parents and scouts stood in line at a card table situated near the edge of the parking lot.  Scout leaders flipped through papers attached to clipboards and highlighted names as the campers checked-in.

I looked around.  We were surrounded by woods.  A few buildings were situated here and there with woodchip trails stretching between them.  A single street light stood at one end of the parking lot.

I backed into an empty parking space near the exit and turned the car off, pulling the trunk lever as I got out.  Jacob and I stepped around to the open trunk lid, and I lifted it up.   I handed him the camp chairs, and lifted my rucksack.  After slipping my arms through the shoulder straps, I cinched them down and clipped my flashlight and diving knife onto my belt.  I closed the trunk and made sure that the car was locked, and we walked toward the back of the line at the card table.

When it was our turn, I gave the scout leaders our names.  They marked us off with an orange highlighter, and one of the men seated behind the table pointed to a woodchip trail and explained where my son’s scout pack had made camp.  Jacob carried our camp chairs, and I hauled the over-packed army rucksack down the trail to our campsite.  As we reached the small clearing where Jacob’s friends were set up, I noticed that the tents weren’t arranged in any particular fashion.  Camp chairs were scattered here and there.  Kids were running all over the place yelling.  Some of them were carrying colored light sticks in their hands, others had them tied around their necks, and still others had flashlights.  It wasn’t dark yet, but it would be soon.  Moms and dads were sitting around on picnic tables and in lawn chairs.  Some were drinking coffee or hot cocoa already, and others were drinking sodas that they had brought out in big coolers.

I immediately felt uncomfortable.  It was too noisy here.  We were too visible.  Where was the security around this place?  What kind of an idiot would set up a camp this way?

Jacob dropped the camp chairs next to a tree and watched his friends.  “Can I go play, Dad?”

“Yeah, I can get the tent up.  It’s pretty simple.  Come back and check-in with me before it gets too dark.”

“Okay!” he yelled as he disappeared down a trail with the rest of the kids.

I went to work on the tent.  A few minutes after I started, another dad came walking over.  I noticed his desert combat boots and his camouflage pants as soon as I saw him.

“How ya doing?  I’m Mike,” he said.

I stood to shake his hand and introduced myself.

“I saw your boots and your rucksack.  Army?”

“Yep, almost ten years,” I said.  “What about you?”

“I just got out last year, when I got home from Iraq.  Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Did you have a hard time packing for this little trip?”

Escort

P2B Vol. 2

This story first published in Proud to Be:  Writing By American Warriors, Volume 2 (2013)

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.  On behalf of Delta Airlines, I would like to welcome you to San Antonio, Texas.  The local time is eleven-twenty-three AM, and it is currently seventy-eight degrees and sunny.  We will be pulling up to the jet way momentarily, but we ask that you please remain in your seats.  Today, we have the honor of carrying the remains of a fallen American soldier.  Please remain seated until his casket can be off-loaded.  Thank you for your patience and thanks again for flying Delta Airlines.”

The flight attendants were up moving around the cabin, and one of them approached my seat.  “Thanks for what you’re doing,” she said. “If you would like to go ahead and grab your carry-on, you can move up to the door.”

I unfastened my seat belt and reached up to grab my bag from the overhead bin.  The passengers sitting near me suddenly looked very uncomfortable.  The young woman whom I had sat next to for the last few hours had told me all about her hometown, her work, and how much she loved running.  She had asked me about where I lived, if I had been overseas, and what it was like to jump out of airplanes.  We had talked off and on for most of the flight, but now she looked at me sympathetically.   She hadn’t thought to ask why I was flying to San Antonio.

“Once again, we appreciate your patience, ladies and gentlemen.  Please remain in your seats, and we will deplane momentarily.”

As I stood up, I straightened my necktie and pulled at the hem of my green jacket.  Once everything was in place, I moved forward.  As I walked toward the door some of the passengers looked at me with sorrowful faces, others checked their watches as if waiting was a huge inconvenience.  A few older gentlemen looked at me and nodded.  As I reached the door of the aircraft, I was met by the pilot.  He put his hat on, and I slipped on a pair of white gloves and pulled my black beret onto my head making sure that the folds were just right.

I followed him out onto the jet way and then through a side door that led outside.  We walked down a flight of metal steps onto the tarmac where a charcoal-gray hearse was backed up next to the conveyor belt that would carry luggage out of the plane’s cargo hold.  The driver stepped out, opened its rear door and walked over to us.  He was an older man, dressed in a black suit, and walking with a limp.  On his left lapel he wore an American flag pin.

He shook hands with the pilot, and then reached for my hand.  “Good mornin’, Sergeant.  I’m Bill Meyers.  Once we get the casket loaded, I’ll take ya on around to pick-up your luggage.”

I reached out and shook his hand.  “It’s nice to meet you, Sir.  I’m Staff Sergeant Taylor.”

The pilot nodded to the ground crewman who was standing in the entrance of the plane’s cargo hold.  Looking up at the plane I could see passengers’ faces in the windows.  They were all looking down, trying to see what was happening.  Behind me, in the airport terminal, some people had stood and were watching.

I stood there thinking about how much I hated this part of the job, and how later I would have to meet this kid’s parents.  How the hell did I get picked for this one anyway?  He wasn’t even in my squad.

As the ground crew worked to prepare the luggage carts, a long rectangular box came into view.  The man inside the fuselage cut the shipping bands and lifted the top off.  Inside was a soldier’s casket with an American flag stretched over it and held tight by an elastic band.  Private-First-Class James Anthony Smith Junior, barely twenty years old and dead.  A hero’s homecoming for a kid who had never even been to war; I wondered how these people would respond if they knew he had died in a hotel room after getting drunk and overdosing on prescription pain killers.  It must have been some party.  Unfortunately for his mother, the hotel housekeeping staff had found him on the bathroom floor on Sunday morning.  It was Mothers’ Day.

With the help of the mechanical wheels in the plane’s cargo area, the man maneuvered the casket to the top of the conveyor belt.  Another crewman turned it on, and the casket slowly descended from the aircraft toward the waiting hearse.

I snapped to attention and raised a slow ceremonial salute.  The pilot saluted as well.  When the casket reached the bottom of the conveyor, ground crewmen and Mr. Meyers slid it into the back of the hearse.  I dropped my salute.  The pilot shook my hand and thanked me for my service, and then he turned and walked under the plane heading back to the stairs.  I walked over to the hearse.  Mr. Meyers was fastening the casket onto the rollers and straightening the flag.

In his Texas drawl he said, “Hey, Sarge, go ahead and get on in the passenger seat there.  It’s a good forty-five minute drive down to the funeral home.  The family’s gonna meet us there.”

I opened the door and sat down on the leather seat.  I took off my gloves and my beret, and I waited.

After closing the back door, Bill walked around and climbed into the driver’s seat.  “Which luggage carousel do you need to go to, Sarge?”

“Carousel A, please.”

“Alright.”  He shifted into drive and started following an airport-security vehicle toward the gates to the flight line.

“Are you familiar with the Smith family, sir?”  It wasn’t my first time meeting grieving family members, but I wondered what I was getting into.  I absolutely hated delivering the body of a young soldier to his mother and father.

 “Yeah, I have known them for years.  We’re actually headin’ to a small town outside of San Antonio.  It’s a pretty close community.”

“How are they doing with all of this?”

“Well, Jimmy’s dad has been doin’ alright, but his mother, well she’s pretty well devastated.”

We pulled up to the baggage claim and parked.  I stepped out and went inside to retrieve my bag.  I came back out and slipped it into the back of the hearse next to the casket, and we drove on.  Bill and I talked some on the way to the funeral home.  He asked about the Army, and told me that he had served many years earlier.

“Jimmy’s father retired from the Navy about ten years ago.  He was real proud that Jimmy decided to enlist.  He never could understand why the boy wanted to join the infantry, though.  Sure is a shame how he died.”

I sat there talking, but really I was thinking about how this first meeting with Jimmy’s mom and dad would go.  I had no idea what to expect.  I wondered if they would blame me for their son’s death.  They let him go off into the Army, and his leaders allowed this happen. 

We arrived at the funeral home, and there were several cars there waiting for us.  As we pulled up next to the double doors a woman got out of the passenger side of a blue truck.  Bill gestured towards her.  “That’s Jimmy’s mom, Wendy, there.”

Mrs. Smith looked to be in her mid-forties.  She was short and appeared to be in good shape.  Her hair was blonde, but there was some gray in her roots.  She wore a black dress, and her makeup had been smeared.  I could see that her eyes were red and puffy from crying.

The funeral director came out through the double-doors to meet us with a rolling cart.  Bill opened the back door to the hearse, and they pushed the cart up to the back bumper.  After unfastening the clamp that held the casket in place, Bill and the funeral director slid the casket onto the cart and pushed it inside.  I walked in behind them.

Jimmy’s mom followed us inside.  I quietly asked Bill to keep her occupied and away from the casket for just a moment.  Part of my job was to open the casket and check the uniform.  I had to make sure that everything was neat and crisp, and double check the placement of all of the medals and badges.  Funeral homes made mistakes sometimes, and occasionally things shifted in flight.  Usually everything came out okay.  Regardless, I really didn’t want a dead soldier’s mother watching while I checked his uniform and made adjustments to it.

Bill tried to talk to her, but Jimmy’s mom demanded to see the body.  She stood at the center of the casket while the funeral director opened the lid.  She immediately became hysterical.  Even I was surprised at what I saw.  The makeup was caked on Jimmy’s face like paste.  His fingers were shriveled as if he had spent too much time in a bathtub, and they were still stained black from postmortem fingerprinting.  Doctors had performed an autopsy, and Jimmy’s fresh military buzz cut did nothing to hide the sutures that ran over his crown from one ear to the other.  It looked like the thick red stitching that holds the leather in place on an old baseball.

I took a deep breath and glanced over the uniform hoping that everything was correct.  Jimmy’s mother was weeping in the arms of another family member who had come into the viewing room.  Damn it!  Of course there would be something wrong, I thought.   The unit crest that was supposed to be centered over Jimmy’s right breast pocket was crooked.  I was really hoping that I wouldn’t need to move anything on his uniform.

Jimmy’s mom watched closely while I unbuttoned his jacket.  As I reached inside to remove the pin backs, I felt the stubble on his cold dead jaw scratch against my wrist.  I carefully adjusted the pin, and then I buttoned his jacket.  I turned to his mother and promised to find some white gloves to cover his hands.  Through tears she thanked me for bringing him home and turned back to her family.

I walked to the back of the viewing room.  I was angry that I had been picked for this escort detail, and I wanted to tell someone at the casualty assistance office that the preparing funeral home had done a really lousy job on the makeup.   The funeral director walked up and said that his makeup artist would clean up Jimmy’s face and hands before the visitation the following day.  I thanked him and stood alone at the back of the room.

A minute later the side door opened again, and Jimmy’s dad walked in.  Jim Sr. was a brawny man with hair over his ears and collar and a thick graying beard.  He had big tattooed arms and wore biker boots, faded jeans, and a plaid button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway up his biceps.  It looked like he could have come straight out of a biker magazine.  Jim walked into the room, and the handful of gathered family members parted for him to walk through.  He approached Jimmy’s casket, and I heard him mumble something.

With his hands on the rail of the casket, he leaned over it and said, “That’s not my Jimmy.”  He repeated it more loudly and finally turned to his wife.  “It can’t be him.  That can’t be my son.”

They held each other sobbing, but his gaze searched the room and found me standing near the back wall.  I straightened up a bit, and he stepped around his wife in my direction.  His face was filled with hurt and wet with tears.  He walked toward me like a man on a mission, and as he got closer, I wondered what was going to happen.  When he was only a few steps away and still hadn’t slowed his pace, I half expected him to swing at me.  Instead, he ran right into me, wrapping his arms around me and crying on my shoulder.  He sobbed loudly and thanked me over and over for bringing his boy home.  Relieved that he didn’t try to take out his sadness and anger on me, I returned his hug and expressed my condolences.

Soon after the initial shock, the family thanked me again and began to clear out.  I was glad when Bill said he was ready to drive me back into San Antonio.  Jimmy’s mother offered to make arrangements for me to stay with someone in the family, but I politely declined.

Climbing into one of the funeral home’s black Cadillac sedans, Bill said, “You gonna get a rental car, Sarge, or are you gonna need a ride for the visitation and funeral services?”

“I’ll have a rental car for the rest of the week.  You can actually just drop me back at the airport, and I’ll be fine from there.”

“No problem, Sarge.”

The ride back to the airport was quiet.  I thanked Bill and double checked the times for the visitation the following day, and then we parted ways.  I checked into my hotel room and found a nearby bar.  I was hungry and tired, and I needed a drink.  I hated escort detail, and it bothered me to think that this kid was getting the same military honors that were performed for my friends who were killed in action.  I raised my glass in a private toast to myself for another mission accomplished and then a drink for Jimmy.  “Welcome home, kid.  Pills and booze, what a dumbass way to die.”