I Should Be Dead
By Tom Garcia
I feel like I should be dead—not my friend. After all, he was sitting in the seat that had been mine all week. No one should feel this intense pain and sadness, which continues to ebb and flow, 4 years later. Unfortunately, I know that I am not alone. I suspect that while these feelings may diminish or fade periodically, they will always be present.
Am I afraid to let the feelings go? If I let them go, will my memories of my friend also fade? My counselor told me no. I want to believe her, and to a point, I do. She did help me, but she can only do so much. I can only do so much.
It may sound strange, but sometimes my brain has a mind of its own. It takes me to places that I do not want to go—or revisit. The harder I try to steer away, the faster I arrive. The more I try to ignore it, the brighter the neon sign flashes. All this when I am awake.
I met my friend in November of 2007. A teammate and I had just disembarked from a Blackhawk helicopter that brought us home from a two-week long mission in some hostile armpit region of eastern Afghanistan. We were glad to be home where we had access to luxuries many take for granted. We could have a hot shower anytime we wanted. We sat on porcelain. We had a private space and a bed that did not include a sleeping bag and the cold, hard ground. We had a dining facility that offered gourmet cuisine. Maybe the gourmet is a bit of a stretch, but the food was certainly better than anything we had eaten in the last two weeks. We were hot, dirty, stinky, and tired.
We stopped by our rooms to drop off our gear before heading to the office to check in with the rest of the team—and to meet our new teammate. Our new teammate was a tall, thick, man with short dark hair on his head and face. He wore glasses and looked a bit Indian, dot not feather. He turned to greet us when we walked into the office. We shook hands, and assessed each other through our introductory conversation. As it turned out, he had been busy in his first two weeks on the ground, already starting a couple of research projects. From our assessment, he was going to fit right in, no problem.
I remember my teammate saying to me as we walked back to our rooms to clean up (and violate the 5-minute combat shower rule), “Man, he better get tired soon or it’s going to be a long year trying to keep up with him.” I agreed. It was going to be a very long year.
One thing you should know about our new arrival is that he is and was probably the only person to ever wear an oxford, button-down, long-sleeve shirt with combat boots (which covertly hid the argyle socks that made his feet happy) to a combat zone. The only thing he was missing was the blue and red striped tie, a smoking jacket, and a pipe hanging from his mouth to complete the image of the Oxford scholar that he was. I am not certain who should be credited with the adage, “don’t judge a book by it’s cover,” but WOW!
Our new teammate and I shared a hooch, or a living space, with our team leader. The long, then, crudely built brick and mortar living accommodations were nice, especially compared to tents, plywood shelters, or the hard ground. They were “hard” shelters, but we all knew they would do little to stop one of the rockets we regularly received.
We were also fortunate to have two pieces of plywood furniture each: a bookshelf and a wall locker. It is amazing the things people build out of plywood. Our fortunes continued. We also had actual beds that were only slightly better than cots, but a bed nonetheless.
The funny thing about our living arrangements was that when we lay in our beds, we could clearly see each other’s faces through the space between the bookshelf and the wall that the light switch box created. The space, though an unnecessary prompt, facilitated evening conversations between us.
We got to know each other pretty quickly and pretty well. We talked about pretty much everything. We made plans to take the other to our respective homes when we returned from our deployment. We had so much to show each other.
I suppose it can be difficult in the deployed environment not to bond like this, especially when you are a small team in a combat environment, and have very little privacy. It is tough not to get to know someone when you essentially spend nearly every hour of every day with someone; our quotidian routines were only minutes apart from being an exact match.
Our new teammate was no stranger to austere or combat environments. He had spent some time in East Timor a couple of years prior researching conflict. He had also spent a lot of time roaming around Afghanistan conducting academic research. He would hire an interpreter, purchase or rent a vehicle, and roam the country—unarmed. He was no stranger to risk and hazard. He had some cojones.
He knew all too well what Afghanistan was like; he knew the possibilities. We all did, really. We all knew that we may never see home again. We quickly stopped thinking about that possibility and let the days happen, looking forward to the final wake-up—the day we got to go home.
Over the course of the next few months, most of the team went on field missions that kept us outside the wire in RC East (Regional Command East) for weeks on end. Some of our missions took us to some very nasty and hostile places like Zormat where an over abundance of IEDs lay buried beneath the land, and IDFs (indirect fires) waited for us on the surface, potentially at any moment. Everyone involved was vulnerable; the unknown stalked each of us every minute of every day.
We spent many of our days while at our home base doing weapons training, keeping our combat skills sharp and preparing for our next mission. As civilian contractors, we were a rare breed. We embedded with “front line” military combat units, conducted field missions (often times extended) with them, and carried M16s and 120 rounds of ammunition. We had a full kit.
You are one of two things, especially in combat: an asset or a liability. We trained as we might fight, and prepared for various combat scenarios. We even trained to self-apply a tourniquet and re-enter the fight. We would not allow ourselves to be a liability to anyone.
Our teammate said it best during one of our training scenarios. He was shooting targets with his rifle while a couple of us trained some new teammates. I was explaining to them the mentality that they must possess. I bent down, tapped our teammate on left leg, and told him, “You just took a round to your leg. What are you going to do?”
He rolled over, self-applied the tourniquet, reassumed a firing position and began to reengage targets. A few moments later, I tapped him on his right arm and again told him, “You just took another round.”
He rolled over on his back and assessed his notional wound. He laid his rifle across his chest and self-applied a tourniquet.
“What are you going to do now?” I asked again.
Without hesitation he replied, “Get back in the fight.”
“Why?” I asked.
His war face immediately surfaced. Without hesitation and at the top of his lungs, he yelled, “Because other people are depending on me!”
The last syllable had barely passed over his lips before he took up a prone position, and he began shooting targets from his non-dominant, left side. I smiled.
“That’s the mentality you must have when we go outside the wire. Other people are depending on us.” I told the new arrivals.
We trained hard. We trained right. We were fully capable and ready if needed. We all knew the hazards of going outside the wire. We were a team. We were more than that. We were a family that would take care of each other at all costs—and we sure as hell weren’t a liability.
I do not pretend to be free of survivor’s guilt, however. I think I have far more survivor’s rage than guilt. I do not think there is honor in war. People may do honorable things to protect their comrades, but there is no honor in war. However, I do think that if people are going to fight each other, then it should be at close quarters and personal.
I think what pisses me off the most about the death of my friend is the impersonal and cowardly incident that took his life. I know our teammate would have fought well and fought hard, given the chance. I am pissed off because he never had the chance to discharge his weapon; he never had a chance to defend himself. None of them did.
I can still see the explosion from that day, May 7, 2008. I can still hear it. I can still smell it. I can still feel it. I can still taste it.
It was just before 1100. The sky was a clear and beautiful blue. The heat of the sun was tolerable, but hot all the same. The farmer’s fields we drove between were still bare. The road we drove on was bumping and dusty, like most roads in Afghanistan—little more than a goat trail. Strangely, it was a beautiful day in a very ugly place.
Explosions aren’t like you see in the movies, at least not how I remember it. The sound was not deafening. Rather, it was like a muted whoosh. The feeling, however, was very intense. I remember the shockwave slamming into me and permeating every square inch of my body as the bomb destroyed the vehicle that was 15 meters in front of us. The cloud of smoke blanketed the lead vehicle directly in front us, and engulfed us, obscuring our view. The smell quickly followed, stinging my lungs. My upper lipped curled and my face contorted as I stopped breathing and turned my head. A disgusting, gritty taste filled my mouth and sank down my throat.
Seconds later, the black smoke still encapsulating the wreckage, we exited our vehicle and searched for our comrades. We found them, only one lying close to what was left of the up-armored Humvee. My Afghan teammate began to tend to him. The blast had ejected the others.
I found the lieutenant about 20 meters away. I didn’t recognize him at first. He was a crumpled, disfigured mess that was lying in the naked, uneven field. Kneeling beside him, my heart pounding, my hands shaking, I began to assess his wounds. I didn’t know where to begin. The blood leaked from his wounds and soaked into the hard, gray, Afghan soil. I tended to him as best I could. The medic was coming my way.
“Put a tourniquet on him, here, here, and here!” the medic instructed me as he pointed to the lieutenant’s legs, and left arm.
The medic left as quickly as he had arrived. He rushed between the scattered bodies. I soon lost sight of him.
“Don’t die on me Lieutenant! Don’t die in this shithole!” I yelled as my open hand slapped his bloody face. He came to, but clearly incoherent. Blood bubbled from his lips and slowly ran down his face. Part of me doubted he would make it. Part of me wondered if he wanted me to let him die. I did all I could to keep him alive.
“Where’s my friend?” I asked the medic as he returned and began trying to administer an IV to my patient.
“Who?” he shouted.
“The civilian. Tall, dark hair, glasses,” I mimed.
He looked up at me and shook his head, “he didn’t make it. Three dead. Two severely wounded. You take care of this one. I gotta see about the other one. The helos are coming.”
He handed me the IV bag and then sprinted across the field to the smoldering truck. His words hit me, but I couldn’t let the death toll raise to four. I focused on the lieutenant.
Someone reported the incident and requested medevac helicopters, shortly after the bomb detonated. What seemed like an eternity was maybe thirty minutes. We tended to the two severely wounded and gathered the three dead while we waited for the helicopters to arrive. We established two landing zones and watched the helos come in for a landing.
The weather began to change. The sky was still a brilliant blue, but a fog or cloud crept over the small mountain and settled upon the valley. It slowly approached our position. Strange, I thought. A soft wind began to blow, and a chill fell upon us.
My Afghan teammate and I put the lifeless body of our fallen comrade onto a stretcher. A fist-sized bloodstain and a shattered rifle were all that remained behind. We carried him across another field to the air hearse. Other pairs of two brought the other KIAs. The WIAs were put in the air ambulance. My Afghan teammate and I boarded the air hearse, carefully stepping over the dead who lay on the floor.
As the helicopters lifted off and headed for base, the temperature suddenly got cold, going from near 80 to what felt like something near 60. Trust me. It didn’t suddenly get colder because of the altitude. We were less than 100 feet off the ground.
Then, the wind pushed hard against our helicopter. The surprised pilot corrected. A moderate rain began to fall from that one strange, misty cloud that had appeared. I swear it was not simply a sudden rain. It was stranger than that. It was as if the angels were crying for the dead. Maybe the weeping angels were helping mask the tears of men.
Thirty minutes later, my rage erupted as I helped carry my friend into the morgue. A solider took him from me, and I went outside to vent. I screamed and I cried. I cursed god. I cursed the bombers. I cursed the country. I cursed and I cursed. I wished hateful, nasty things upon the perpetrators—and upon the politicians who sent our forces to this shithole. I cursed myself.
I went inside the morgue to see my friend. His body was lying on top of a plywood table. The tears blurred my vision. I put my head on his chest. I apologized for letting him take my seat in the front vehicle. Why had I not said no? Too late for that, now. The damage was done.
I stood and stepped back from him, his stained nametape now clutched in my hand. I prepared myself for the walk across base to tell our team leader that I had killed our teammate. Is that blood on my boots? Fuck. I have blood all over my hands, my pants, and my IBA.
I asked myself during what seemed the longest and most difficult walk of my life, “Why Michael and not me?” It was my seat. Why did I let him take it? Then, I asked something greater: “Why anyone? Why did anyone have to die and and for what reason?” I suddenly hated all Afghans. I suddenly hated what I was doing. None of us needed to be here. Three more dead, and for what reason? Three more sons gone.
Are we really simply the young fighting the wars of old men? Where are those who wager our lives? Oh, that’s right. They only showed up for surprise visits and holidays.
We all knew the risks. We all volunteered. Maybe the difference lies in the blood, sweat, and tears.
Tom Garcia is a 17-year Air Force veteran. He enlisted near the end of Desert Storm and had a multitude of deployments during Operation Northern Watch, Operation Southern Watch, OIF, and OEF. Tom frequently writes fiction and non-fiction; however, this is his first effort to share his work with the public. He is a few months away from pursuing academic interests–and exploring a different life.