originally appeared in The Fear of Monkeys (March 2010)
When people ask me about the war, there are certain things they want to know, and certain things they don’t want to know.
They want to know if I am a war hero, so I casually mention that there were a few occasions where I thought I handled myself fairly well. They want details, and so I oblige them. I mention the time that I was out on patrol, with my buddies Buchanan and Sanders, and some suicide bomber took out a little grocery store just a hundred yards from where we were. I spare them the details of the blood and gore, and men-tion the fear that coiled up in my gut at the thought that I had narrowly escaped death. I had just been inside that little store, you see, to buy a newspaper. I cannot read the language, of course, but I like to contribute to the community. It helps the natives—that’s what I must call them, the natives—take a liking to you. If they like you, they are less apt to kill you.
Anyway, Buchanan and Sanders and I rush over to the site of the bombing, our M-16s at the ready. It’s kind of pointless, we must admit—it was a suicide bombing, after all, and that’s always good for a chuckle or two—but protocol is protocol. An-yway, we rush over to the store, and lo and behold there’s someone there with a gun, an AK-47, and he’s got his gun up to his shoulder, and my ears are still ringing from the blast so I can’t hear the gun go off, but I can see the muzzle flash and the shells spitting out to one side, and I scream and hit the deck, dodging behind a car that had been dented in the driver’s side thanks to debris tossed aside during the explosion.
I’m quick, thank God, but Sanders isn’t, he’s hit in the chest repeatedly, his vest ab-sorbs some of it but you can never really tell, and Buchanan has dropped to the ground, probably hit by a stray bullet. I see all this from underneath the car, I’m ly-ing prone on my stomach, and I yell and jump to my feet and whip my M-16 up and blow that bastard half to hell. I then ran over to see how my buddies are. (“Sanders got sent home early,” I tell them, “and Buchanan has one hell of a story to tell—he tripped over his own feet while he was trying to reach cover.”)
My neighbor, Mr. Poch, placed a hand on my shoulder at the end of this story and said, “Son, I’ll be damned.”
I don’t know whether Mr. Poch is truly damned or not—probably, we all know he fools around with his secretary, even his wife knows it—but I laugh it off and say, “No, sir, I’ve already been to hell, and I didn’t see you there!”
They ask me if our camp was ever attacked, and I tell them many times, but only one time was it ever halfway successful, and that was when they began tossing in homemade bombs. One of them even hit the Port-a-Potty, and there was shit-covered shrapnel—pardon my French, Mrs. York—flying everywhere. A piece of it ripped into my vest, though it didn’t make it very far through, thank God. The raid only lasted about thirty minutes, and we managed to deter our attackers with only minimal casualties. No one was killed, and no one spent more than a few hours in medical.
I tell them too, about the time I was most afraid, because this is probably the ques-tion that comes up the most. It was while we were searching the caves, looking for “sand niggers” (that’s what I have to call them, “sand niggers,” and I try not to scowl as I say it, but I’m not always successful). We found a group of about ten, or rather they found us, because they set up an ambush at the mouth of this cave on the side of the mountain, and poor old Sergeant Peterson, he was the first hit, took it in the neck and didn’t die until after all the shooting was over with, that’s how awful it was.
Anyway, Sergeant Peterson goes down, and before we know what’s happening, an-other man—I’m not sure who, it doesn’t really matter because it wasn’t Daniels and myself, we’re the only two to make it out alive—goes down, and then all hell breaks loose, if it hasn’t already. I feel a bullet whiz past my head—literally feel it, not hear it but feel it—and I fire a burst from my M-16 and then I jump behind a boulder. I see another man fall—this was Matheson, I know because he was the only black guy out there with us that day, and a great guy to boot, knew the stats to every Major League player in the past five years—and I can see Daniels screaming and firing, and I crouch up but can’t see over the rock, but I can hear everything just fine and it sounds like a madhouse filled with gunfire.
There’s an explosion—someone’s tossed a grenade. I think it’s taken out a few of the terrorists, because the roar of gunfire decreases slightly, but they’re still shoot-ing at us and we’re still shooting back, though by now I can’t tell how many of us are left. Peterson’s down, some other guy’s down, Matheson’s down, Vincennes gets his legs shot out from under him right before my eyes, and I stand up to fire over the rock, the consequences be damned (and here everyone gasps), but when I pull the trigger of my rifle, nothing happens.
The gun’s jammed somehow. I fall back behind the rock as bullets spray my way, and I’m banging on the gun because in my panic I think it might actually help, when in reality I’m very close to shooting myself in the foot, and even through the gunfire I hear someone coming up behind me, not being very sneaky about it either, and I turn around and there’s this “sand nigger” (if I have to utter the phrase a se-cond time I almost always frown, though by this point everyone’s too caught up in the story to notice). He’s just as surprised to see me as I am to see him, except he’s holding an AK-47 at his side, and as he brings it up I’m betting it’s operational, un-like the rifle that I hold in my hands which have gone cold despite the sun that’s beating down on us.
It’s miraculous, but I have time offer up a prayer. I pray: “Dear Lord, please watch over my family back home, and ease their grief in any way You can, and help them carry on. Please, too, watch over my brothers here, so that I have not died in vain, and that these fine men and women may go back home to see their families. I pray to You, oh Lord, please be merciful.”
Maybe He’s listening, or maybe the Army just trains us so damn well, but somebody shoots the enemy standing before me (I never say “sand nigger” a third time, never), and he falls backward, his gun already beginning to point towards me. I never learn who shot him; I suspect Daniels, but he’s never admitted to it, and I’ve never asked him. All I know is that one of my brothers saved my life out there that day, and there is a good chance that he died doing so.
There’s usually silence at this. The silence lingers; I like it, and often this is the last story I have to tell. I try to tell it first, so that I don’t have to say any more, but I can’t always manage that.
If I don’t get to tell that story first, they usually ask me about how I feel now that I’m back home. I tell them, smiling brightly, that it’s damn good to be able to eat a cheeseburger any time I want. They laugh, and I add that, but seriously, there were times I never thought I would make it back. War is hell, I tell them, which must mean that Heaven is right here in Miller’s Creek.
That is what people want to hear when they ask me about the war. I do not tell them what they don’t want to hear: that I spent the majority of my time inside, filing papers and cleaning guns, and that the one time I went into combat, I got so scared at the thought of taking a bullet that I wet myself, and I poked a hole in my canteen and poured the water over my lap so that no one would notice.
Profile: Daniel Davis