The sun shone hard and the wind billowed in from the west the day I first killed a man. He was more of a boy, really. He’d been spotted leaping up from a ditch near the site of an IED that had ripped through the belly of an Eleven-Fourteen up-armored Humvee, killing one soldier instantly and imprisoning four others in the truck’s bombed-out cab.
The strength of the blast had curled my body like a whip, rapping the back of my head and neck against the hard vinyl of the seat before slamming my forehead into the dash. My seat belt gave way but didn’t tear. I gasped violently for the breath that I needed to scream out loud, “Holy shit! Holy shit, what the fuck was that? What the fuck was . . . ” I breathed deeply, trying to calm myself. “Did we just get hit? Did we just . . . ”
I ran my hands up and down the length of my body, limbs and all, and gave special attention to the areas of strategic importance. There was blood flowing from my nose, but not from anywhere else. The impact of the dashboard against my helmet had dislodged my headset, cutting me off from communication through our internal radio system with Lieutenant Grey in the turret, our interpreter Raz Mohammed in the back, and the Sergeant Major in the driver’s seat.
I felt a firm hand grab ahold of my blouse near the shoulder and pull me toward the center console.
“We didn’t get hit!” the Sergeant Major shouted. “It wasn’t us.”
The windshields that came standard in the Eleven-Fourteens were divided into two pieces separated by a small steel girder. The glass panes in our trucks, four-inch-thick plexiglass designed to stop rounds from small arms and even shrapnel and debris from explosive ordinance, had just barely sustained the blast. They were white with splintering circular fractures, like two miniature frozen-over lakes, cracking and giving way.
“Are you alright?” I nodded.
“What about Lieutenant Grey?” I hollered. “He’s fine. We’re all fine.”
I looked back over my shoulder and saw the laced boots and uniformed legs of Lieutenant Grey, his arms, head, and torso poking out through the gunner’s hatch in the roof of the truck. He sank down behind the 240 Bravo automatic heavy machine gun that was mounted to the turret of our Humvee, rotating back and forth, firing at will. The gunners of the other Humvees started firing as well, and the air became flooded with percussive vibrations.
The Sergeant Major again grabbed my shirtsleeve; this time he pulled my ear all the way to his lips. “You okay for real, Doc?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said without pause, in a voice that felt somehow foreign to me.
His eyes scrolled up and down my face, scanning for fatigue or diminished capacity.
“Go help them.” He pointed to the Humvee to our front, the one that had the one that had taken a direct hit.
“Cover me, Lieutenant.” “You’re clear, go!”
I reached in the back of the cab for my medbag, located one of its straps with my fingers, and pulled it onto my lap. The battle locking mechanisms that came standard with the newer Eleven-Fourteens were designed to keep doors from being blown clean off their hinges by the force of IEDs and rocket-propelled grenades. They worked well, sometimes too well. Unhinging the battle lock and pushing open the two- hundred-pound steel-reinforced door required gorilla strength.
I slipped out of the truck and low-crawled a few meters to the hazard area, outgoing rounds from the convoy’s mounted crew-served weapons whizzing and popping overhead. There was no incoming as far as I could tell, but I kept low, advancing up the beige, sandy road like a spider.
After a short while, the firing stopped and I began to hear the cries and the wailing/far-off dying animals sounds at first, then slowly more human as I approached.
Initially, I could not make out any intelligible language, but soon after I was able to register the distress call.
“It’s okay, I’m here, I’m here! It’s okay, I’m coming to you!” I shouted in the direction of the voices. I tried to get a good look at them to see what I was working with, but it was useless. Thick clouds of grey and black smoke hemorrhaged from the site of the explosion, shrouding the vehicle.
The near-vertical wall of a cliff face bordered the left side of the dirt road. I lay on my belly in the prone position, unable to put eyes on the casualties; unable to stand up for fear of being hit with an errant round. As I lay there on the warm surface, a chance wind blew down across the rock face and momentarily chased away the opaque swirls of smoke and ash.
The smoke cloud broke apart and opened like the curtains of a stage play, and immediately I understood two things: the men in the Humvee were still alive, at least two of them, and there was no way of getting them out in time.
The power of the blast had flipped the truck onto its left side, with the roof pressed flush up against the wall of the cliff, eliminating the prospect of escape through the turret hatch. Their left driver- and passenger-side doors were pinned down beneath the mammoth weight of the vehicle. The gunner had either been blown clean out of the turret by the force of the blast, or had been ground into the side of the cliff as the truck was flipped onto its side.
No one on the convoy had tools capable of cutting through the steel to create an opening. The only practical escape route was through the rear door on the vehicle’s right side. Even if they could have negotiated the battle lock and released the main latch, they would still have had to military-press the two-hundred-pound door, hold it open, and climb through the narrow space one at a time.
A few soldiers from the convoy dismounted and approached the wreck, only to be repelled by the unbearable heat of the fire. I could feel it gently peeling the skin off my nose from a distance of three or four meters, and I cringed at the thought of the men trapped inside.
Their screams grew louder and more childlike, and were torture to hear. They cried for their mothers and cried out to God, and they cursed us for doing nothing and we cursed ourselves.
I never knew their names. I believe they were part of the 82nd Airborne, the Army’s maneuver element for the eastern part of the country. They were here to execute missions on behalf of the Afghans while we, the advisors of 4th Kandak, 1st Brigade (known colloquially as the Horsemen), were here to train the Afghans to stand up for themselves.
Everyone in the convoy climbed out of their Humvees and watched as the fire consumed the damaged vehicle. The roar of the flames helped to drown out the final dying whimpers.
* * * *
“Doc, they need you up front.”
I was still laid out next to the now smoldering steel tomb; still in the prone, unable to move. Temporarily paralyzed.
The dense moisture had a foul, smothering effect. Public plumbing and sewage treatment were concepts that had not quite taken hold in rural Afghanistan. Flies abounded. The area surrounding FOB Mehtar Lam was alive with the smell of human excrement.
“One of the guys from the 82nd dropped a hadji. He’s all fucked up. He might be able to give us some intel. Doc?”
Soldiers in different vehicles, mostly from the 82nd, had dismounted and secured a perimeter around the blast site. Drivers and gunners remained in the trucks, the latter fixing their crew-served weapons outboard. The high ground lay just above our convoy, to the left, atop the cliff face against which the blown-out Humvee had been pressed. It was a vulnerable position, but we had to do what we could before returning to post.
“Doc, you fucking hear me?”
The Sergeant Major was standing over me. I pushed myself up, rifle, flak, medbag, and all, and rose to my feet. My uniform, saturated with sweat from the time I’d spent laid out on the ground, was now caked with thick Afghan clay.
“Moving,” I obliged.
The Sergeant Major and I followed the dirt road lined with parked Humvees until we came to a fire team–sized element of Army soldiers in a loose formation, huddled together, kneeling over an obscured figure. Everyone else from the convoy had either pulled security or gathered around the IED site. Only the four PFCs attended the injured boy.
“That’s what you get, you hadji fuck!”
B“You like that, bitch?!”
“How’s that feel, motherfucker?!”
The soldiers were not physically harming the boy as they hovered over him, chiding and chastising. However, they made no attempt to treat his injuries, which included a gunshot wound to the left arm and an abdominal evisceration.
“What the fuck are you doing?” The soldiers went quiet. “I know you weren’t just abusing this prisoner, were you?”
“Sergeant Major, this fucking hadji just—”
“I don’t give a fuck! Do you see a weapon on him anywhere?” The Sergeant Major pointed at the ground surrounding the boy. “’Cause I don’t. That makes him a patient!” The men again went quiet. “Open up that hatchback,” the Sergeant Major said to one of them, pointing to the convoy’s lead vehicle, behind which we had all gathered.
“Roger that, Sergeant Major.”
“The rest of you, move him into the trunk.”
The truck’s gunner turned around and tried to give us some lip about how their Humvee wasn’t an ambulance, but a stern look from the Sergeant Major reminded him that his job was to shoot people and not to meddle in the affairs of those who’d been shot. That was my job. The gunner turned back around and faced forward, his .50-cal pointed in the direction of the road ahead.
The four soldiers obliged, transporting the wounded hadji from the dusty ground where he lay to the trunk of the Humvee as though he were a piece of fragile equipment. Their cargo delivered, they headed back to their vehicles.
“You’d better go grab Raz, Sergeant Major. If this guy has anything to say”—I gave a head nod in the direction of the hadji—“he’s gonna have to say it real soon.”
“Fuck it, just ride with him and meet us back at the FOB. Make sure he’s still breathing when you get there.”
The Sergeant Major stepped off in the direction of our vehicle. I turned my attention to the writhing patient. His face was beaded with sweat, his eyelashes fluttering like butterfly wings. He had clearly gone into shock.
It was time for me to go to work. Everything I needed was right there in my medbag. I had Israeli bandages, pressure dressings, tourniquets, blood clotting agents, IVs, blood volumizing solutions, Silvadene lotion and wet dressings for burns, and, of course, field anesthetics. I also carried 1mL glass vials of Narcan that were shaped like little green hourglasses to counteract a potentially lethal dose of morphine.
I reached into my bag of tricks and pulled out a 10mg auto-injector syringe of morphine sulfate. I said to the patient in my gentlest voice, “It’s okay, buddy, you’re gonna be just fine.” He continued to tremor and sweat heavily. Unintelligible obscenities poured out of his mouth.
The auto-injector syringes were spring-loaded so that, in a pinch, the needle would punch right through the uniform and break the skin, no problem. The downside to that, as any fiend will tell you, is that the drug enters the system through the interstitial space just under the skin, which dilutes the hit so it does not come on as strong as an intravenous dose. My own personal research on the topic superseded any training I’d undergone in the service of my Military Occupational Specialty. When it came to narcotics, I was a subject matter expert.
I tied a tourniquet four inches above the wound on the kid’s left arm and readjusted his abdominal dressing so that his intestines—both large and small, but mostly small—were no longer dangling out into the trunk space. The phrase “spilling his guts” appeared in my thoughts, and I smiled to myself and thought, going forward, this phrase will have an entirely different connotation.
Grabbing hold of his left leg, I slammed the syringe into his thigh. He let out a cool sigh of relief, which sounded like a slow gas leak, calm and perfect. His face softened. It was obvious the morphine was doing its job. I then pulled a second syringe. This one was not an auto-inject.
“What’s going on back there?” I heard the gunner shout. “Watch the fucking road!” I hollered back.
The hadji lay curled up in the fetal position, taking up most of the trunk space that was otherwise roomy enough to fit two people comfortably. “Move over, dude,” I whispered as I shoved him aside to make room. He hissed a little, making that leaky gas valve sound again.
I lay down beside the dying boy. At this point, he was evidently circling the drain. He probably had only minutes left to live. I thought about hitting him with Narcan but decided he was too far-gone anyway; it wouldn’t have made much difference.
The tourniquet I’d tied around his arm had worked effectively. The bleeding had subsided, so I applied a pressure dressing to the wound and removed the tourniquet.
“You won’t be needing this,” I muttered. I then tore open my vest, pulled my arm out of the grey digi-patterned blouse, and tied the tourniquet around my own arm. It was my turn.
The newer Combat Application Tourniquets were a brilliant design. A simple wraparound Velcro strap with a small winch for tightening enabled the user to clamp down on a raw appendage using only one hand.
Perhaps out of habit, I wiped the antecubital space on the inside of my elbow with an alcohol swab. The stick was sharp and painful, but the pain was short-lived. I watched the flash of red explode into the syringe. I felt like an Eskimo who’d just harpooned a walrus through a tiny hole in the ice. I had hit my mark. I grinned.
Still grinning, I gently pushed down on the plunger, driving the ten cubic centimeters of morphine sulfate into my vein.
I was thrown back into the trunk space by the force of the hit, and the warm gravy washed over me from head to toe. Now it was me making the leaky gas valve sound. The boy had all of a sudden gone quiet. I looked over at him and said, “Hey, you!”
Shaking him by his collar, I shouted, “Wake up, fucker! You still need to give us some intel!”
The child managed to half open one eye and meet my gaze head-on before nodding off one last time for good. I felt the truck rumble forward and begin to turn around before I nodded off myself.
* * * *
I came to with a jerk of my limbs, as though waking from a frightened dream. Taking in my surroundings, I calculated that I was still in the trunk of the Humvee, though it was now parked in the motor pool, well inside the FOB. It was set in a long row, sandwiched between two other trucks. The row seemed to stretch out on either side indefinitely.
As I lurched forward from the supine position, I began to feel sick and realized I was alone. Everyone had vanished, even the boy I’d shot up with morphine. Is he dead? I wondered. Was he even responsible for that fucking IED? Had he planted it himself? Did he even have the skills to pull off a hit like that?
All these questions began to take form in my thoughts. They repeated as though part of some looping playlist. I felt cold and began to shiver.
“What the fuck are we even doing out here?” I heard myself blurt out, my speech slurred and unfriendly. “What the fuck am I doing here?”
The Humvees in the motor pool were organized into neat rows, with room between so the trucks could get in or out. The spaces between the rows looked like passages bordered on either side by the trucks themselves.
It was all so structured. So squared away. But I doubted seriously if even half of the vehicles were operational. Some had flat tires, while others had transmission problems or dead batteries.
The war was often like that, it seemed. Copacetic in appearance, but in a de facto state of disorder. And though clean-shaven, trained, and even battle-tested, our ranks were staffed mostly with dropouts and fuckups—the ones who’d nearly slipped through the cracks—redeemed for our delineation of the straight path to success by our taking up the cause of war. And I was the greatest fuckup of them all.
I’m not sure exactly how long I lay there, but I know it must have been a little while. The sun seemed to stretch out in every direction until all I could see was a sweeping, bright, pulsating light originating in the east.
The morphine had made the violence bearable, but at a great cost. I looked at my arm. It was oozing little droplets of blood from where the needle had torn a hole. The wound was not fatal, but I patched it up just the same.
I sometimes wonder if things really happened the way I remember them, or if I’ve got it all wrong in my head. And I’m still taken with a swell of pity at the thought of that child wiggling around in the dirt like a chewed-up earthworm. I tried so hard to be strong, but in the end, as I watched the last signs of consciousness trail away from his soft face, that boy murdered the best part of me.
From OLD SILK ROAD. Used with permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2015 by Brandon Caro.