David serves with Fort Lewis's 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Baghdad
There comes a time in your life when something occurs that makes you reflect about the succinctness of life and things that you have perhaps disregarded because they didn’t seem significant at the time. As I was growing up, I always had the feeling that if anything went wrong my parents would be present to protect me. One day while I was walking through the grocery store I came to the milk section and noticed that on the back of the cartons were pictures of missing children and all of their information. The child on the back of one carton was a 12-year-old boy. He had been kidnapped while playing at a park with his family; somehow someone snatched him up in the blink of an eye. I recall shaking my head and then placing the carton in the grocery cart not thinking of it again. I can’t imagine how it would feel to have your child there and then gone, possibly forever. I flip out when my dogs run away, but I eventually find them, and things go back to normal. When your own flesh and blood is taken from you I imagine everyone would agree a part of you would go with it. The guilty feeling would possibly permeate your day-to-day life.
As we drove away from the house, the old, visually distraught man sat down on the curb with a cane in one hand while his other hand rubbed his wavy gray hair. The wrinkled old man began to cry uncontrollably. He then lowered his head in utter shame, knowing what was done was done and there was no changing things.
We started off the patrol as normal, doing our regular drive around the AO. The sun was out, and there was a gentle breeze. We all agreed that it would be a nice day to get into a firefight but that these days firefights were paucity, unlike our first months here. In the time we have been here, we have had to deal with some pretty unsightly things, but over time you just compartmentalize everything so it won’t get to your head. During a mission, typically, if something important is going on Sgt. Lawrence or Sgt. Murillo will give Ray and me a heads-up on what is going on, such as we are going to a dead body, or we are going into a firefight, or better yet we are stuck in the mud and are missing chow. When I get the information regarding going to a deceased body or anything gruesome, I immediately prep myself psychologically. Doing this has helped immensely.
As we turned down the first of various tiny allies, a lady flagged us down. The truck came to a screeching halt, and the ramp thudded to the ground. I looked at Ray confused. “What the hell is going on,” I said. Before he could answer we were both getting off the truck. I quickly made my way to the sidewalk. An older woman frantically raising her hand and speaking Arabic a hundred miles a minute approached me. I tried to understand what she was saying, and it seemed like she was saying something about a gun. I looked over at Sgt. Lawrence. “What the hell is she saying, and whatever she’s saying, it doesn’t sound good for the home team.” The woman started crying, and then she walked quickly to a gate that was halfway open. I looked at Ray, and he looked more confused than I did. Nobody was sure what was going on behind that gate, so we had to approach the situation with caution. You don’t want to run into an insurgent with a BKC ready to mow everyone down.
We walked in with a little aggression, but what we came upon was not an insurgent with a gun wanting to mow us down. It was far from that. It was like we had come into a funeral. There were two women sitting on the ground screaming and pulling on their hair while one younger woman was walking around yelling and screaming. She would walk in and out of the house, disappearing then showing up again. Off to my right, leaning up against a wall, was a younger military aged man. He looked like someone had whooped his ass, and he wasn’t going anywhere. I then looked back at the woman on the ground. There was blood on her forehead and hands. At that moment our medic showed up. The medic started on the man, and he came to the conclusion that he had a minor cut on his head and that he was going to be OK. My eyes shifted back and forth trying my hardest to take everything in and piece everything together, but I couldn’t because there was so much noise and confusion. The younger lady emerged from the inside of the house yelling and crying. She walked over to a metal barrow in the corner and opened the lid. I wasn’t sure what she was doing, but I was keeping my eye on her just in case she did get completely out of control, putting us in danger. I looked over my shoulder and looked at Sgt. Lawrence for some answers. “Uh, what the hell did we just walk into?” Sgt. Lawrence had a blank look on his face, matching mine.
As I glanced over at the lady I noticed that she was using an object to cut her wrist. “Holy shit, she just cut her wrist!” I looked over at the medic. He acknowledged what I said, but before he could get to her she ran back in the house. At that point it seemed like the volume of confusion went up. I stood there with my rifle in disbelief over the things that were occurring around me. The lady finally came out; she walked right by me with her wrist exposed and blood squirting everywhere. At this point the man of the house was being asked questions by Sgt. Lawrence. I looked down and found that I was standing in a splattered pool of apple red blood. For the first time I mustered a feeling of utter sadness.
The medic started to work on the seriously injured woman. The distraught lady would not sit still, making the medic’s job extremely hard. The medic managed to get her hand still. As he cleaned the wound, blood squirted out. It seemed like for every heartbeat the blood made its way out, dripping like heavy ketchup on the already bloody floor. The medic managed to wrap her up, but the way it looked she didn’t have a lot of time. The young woman was already turning pale. As I looked around, it seemed like the world was going in circles around me faster and faster. I closed my eyes for a second just to get a grip on the whole thing. As Sgt. Lawrence gathered the info, I noticed two little girls sitting on the curb “Holy shit!” I said to myself. Had these two little girls been watching all of this unfold? I looked at one of the little girls, and she looked at me. I canted my head, and she covered her face and cried. I felt hopeless. My heart dropped, and all I wanted to do was to go over to her and give her a hug and tell her it was going to be OK. I looked around, and it seemed like I was the only one not tending to someone. I knelt down on one knee and just stared at her, trying to show her I didn’t mean any harm. I took off my right glove and put out my hand. She looked at me like a cat does when it is unsure. She got up and slowly made her way to me. She was crying, and the tears were running down her cheek, landing on the ground, being swallowed up by the now dark blood.
She grabbed my hand, and the coldness stung deep into my veins. I looked deep into her squinting green eyes. I saw a frightened, scared and confused little girl. As she got closer she rammed herself into my stomach, tucking her head down so that I could only see her hair. I put my hand around her back, and then I gently put my hand on her hair and tried to console her. “It’s going to be all right, baby girl. Everything is going to be fine.” For once I had words of empathy, but who were they really for? I know I wasn’t doing OK, so that was two of us. I got up because I still had a job to do, but the little girl didn’t want to let go. She grabbed my leg, and her tears soaked into my pants. The tears seemed to run down my leg. I looked over at the gate, and there was Ray staring right at me. “Hey, Hardt, if only I had a camera. The world just might know that you actually have feelings.” As the little girl squeezed my leg harder, the only thing I could say to Ray was, “This is the worst thing we have seen man. I don’t like this.” I think Ray understood what I was saying, because he looked at the ground and then disappeared behind the gate.
After some time, the little girl let go and went to where she had been sitting before, but this time she wasn’t crying. She had a little smile on her face. At that moment, for the first time in almost 10 years, I almost started tearing up. I got a hold of myself. It was weird. It seemed time had stopped, and for that moment, I felt what I have tried so hard to avoid while being here — true emotion.
After some time, we finally figured out what had happen. The man of the house told us that his son had been kidnapped earlier and that the insurgents wanted money for him. The old man couldn’t come up with money fast enough, so the kidnapper did what they seem to always do when they don’t get what they want — They killed his son and dumped his body somewhere in the city. The sad thing was the family was going to go to the police and ask for help, but before they got the chance the police had contacted them and told them that their son had been found dead. The father’s eyes where red from crying, and his hands shook uncontrollably. He tried to speak to the interpreter, but his grief was too much. He said, “I couldn’t pay, and they took my son. Why my son? Help me.” The interpreter looked at us as if we had the answer. Sgt. Lawrence put his hand on the man’s shoulder and said with utter confidence, “Sir, we will find the ones responsible for killing your son.” The interpreter told him, and he began to cry and say under his tears, “thank you.”
As we turned around I saw Staff Sgt. Pearson with a bag of toys. He bent down and looked at the little girl. The little girl then looked at me as if to say “Is it OK?” I waved her over, and she quickly walked to Staff Sgt. Pearson. Staff Sgt. Pearson gave the little, red cheeked, teary eyed girl a little puzzle and a stuffed doll. A smile came to the little girl’s face, and for a moment the sadness was gone, but only temporarily because soon the death of her daddy would engulf her.
As we mounted the truck, I looked back. I saw a grandfather and a granddaughter who had lost the one thing they cherished. And now, for the rest of their lives, we will have been a part of the beginning of that sadness. The little girl probably won’t remember me when she gets older. But I will remember her forever, because she made a man who had lost his emotion for the people in this country come back, and for that I am grateful.