Saturday, January 31, 2009

In Their Stead

My return from my second tour wasn’t terribly exciting. After we’d gotten off the buses, I fairly quickly figured out that nobody was there to greet me yet, so I busied myself helping my Marines find their gear, locate their families, and even helped the Lieutenant’s wife track him down. Once everybody found their families, they wanted to disappear immediately, so the crowd dwindled quickly and I wandered inside to eat cold pizza which the command had provided for the families.

A guy I didn’t recognize came slowly limping up to me. He had a big “boot” on one foot, and still favored the other leg too. He shook my hand. “Welcome home, man. How was it?” he asked quietly.

I explained how it had been – which really wasn’t all that bad. Certainly not like the first time. He listened, looking far away and, though he was definitely paying attention, he was clearly somewhere else. Only then did I remember how I knew him.

Dave was the sole survivor of the last catastrophic IED that some guys in my battalion hit before leaving Iraq in early 2005. In fact, it was their last mission. They were going to drive around as usual, try not to get blown up, and then head back to base to start turning in ammo and preparing for the long, miserable drive down to Kuwait.

During that mission, Dave was in the turret, manning a 240 [medium machine gun] as they patrolled route Martinez – to our west. The IED wasn’t really even an IED. It was a death-trap. For days, insurgents had been tunneling under the road and creating a hollowed-out spot which they loaded with old artillery shells and rigged with a detonator. Not only would it create a huge explosion on its own, but it’d also add an abundance of dirt, rocks, and asphalt to the shrapnel. It would be huge.

Tragically, the triggerman detonated this one right as the vehicle was traveling over the hollowed-out section of road, and the whole vehicle was consumed in a dust, smoke and shrapnel filled cloud that mushroomed upwards. The humvee was completely destroyed – what pieces of it could be found. The engine block landed in one place, piece of the frame in another, and Dave, the gunner, was shot out like a cannon directly upwards by the blast. As pieces rained down around him, he landed a moment later in the crater itself, which was still smoldering. Nearby, the frame of the humvee started to burn, with ammunition inside of it sympathetically exploding and shooting out in all directions. Amazingly, the grenades rolling around the remnants of the floorboards didn’t detonate. Unable to move, both his legs mangled, Dave lay in the crater, where his buddies soon found him and began working on him as best they could. Everybody inside the humvee was killed instantly.

When Dave shook my hand, he had the demeanor of somebody who missed the Corps and missed his brothers even more. I, one of the dwindling numbers who were also around on the first tour, was a familiar face to him. I guess he’d seen us out on other missions to assist him and his guys. Yet now, he was quieted, and still limping.

The doctors had amputated one leg above the knee, and he was still getting used to walking with it, which was made worse by the fact that the other foot was virtually fused from repeated surgeries, and now tightly wrapped in a cast. He told me that they’d given him the option keeping it and walking with a pronounced limp, or amputating it and eventually learning to walk quite smoothly with a prosthetic. He sorta wanted to keep his foot, though, he said. At least until it was so bad that he couldn’t walk anymore.

We talked for a little while about how my tour went, and how his treatment and recovery was going – which was slowly. He was ready to be done with all the surgeries and rehab. Even if he couldn’t serve anymore, I could tell he at least wanted to be around his brothers.

My unit had gotten called out for that mission – one or our last, too. We heard what happened, and went out there, expecting the worst. We found it, too. That was the mission where Doc [Navy medical corpsman] used his poncho to cover a body, and years later the USMC still wouldn’t give him a new one. The kept insisting he had carelessly lost his. I was on the back end of that cordon.

We were blocking traffic while in front of us EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] struggled to figure out what happened and perhaps profile who did it. I remember that a car approached, and we told them to stop, but they just kept edging forward. I was already angry with what had just happened to Dave and his buddies, so I just shot their engine in fury and went over to yell at them. Of course, they didn’t understand. But they should have known that stop meant stop. Well no kidding. I just yelled at them until they backed up and drove away. That, I believe, was the last time I fired my rifle that tour.

What impressed me most that Dave took time to come welcome us home is that I, we, and the country still owe HIM, not me. He gave up all luxury of a normal life when he lost one leg and stands to still lose the other. That, to me, is like a WWII veteran thanking me for my service. I’m the one that owes HIM a handshake, free drink, and a clap on the back. It’s those guys that deserve my gratitude. Not them thanking me. I almost feel guilty accepting it.

But for Dave, the brotherhood extends beyond personal trauma and collective tragedy. To him, we were still brothers. We were still both Marines, and still wore the same uniform and fought for the same cause. He simply paid more for it – yet there was no trace of regret in his voice. I think he was glad to be alive, and still wholly grieved that the other three in his humvee were not. Maybe he came to honor them, because they paid still more for our cause. For many of these men, living and dead, the unbreakable bond has been anointed with their own blood. Only some lived to enjoy it. As for the rest of us; we can offer little more than a pathetically weak, but heartfelt thanks. And live fruitful lives devoted to the memory and honor of those who are unable to do the same.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Yep. You are in that groove. Stay there.