The Partial Assassination of PFC Johnny Little Wolf
by Jack Shakely
I first met PFC Johnny Little Wolf at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
I was a first lieutenant short-timer, putting in my last few months of active duty in the adjutant general corps as something the army called a warrior care liaison officer. This meant that I helped enlisted soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan fill out paperwork, apply for veterans benefits, create job resumes, get credit cards, get married, get divorced. But mostly I just listened to those broken warriors talk about things that were important to them.
I’m mixed-blood Creek and grew up in Oklahoma, so I used to make a special effort to meet all the returning soldiers from there. My twangy accent reminded them that they were a lot closer to home than Iraq, I guess, and I got a good home-cooked feeling talking with them, too. I’d run my finger down the daily intake sheets and look for Okies, especially Indian Okies.
The intake sheets didn’t tell you which tribes the soldiers came from, but some names were dead giveaways. Anybody named Harjo has to be Creek, for example, because harjo is a Creek word meaning crazy or brave. The Mingos were mostly Creek, too, as were the McIntoshes. Atubby is a Cherokee name, so’s Wadie, of course. The McCurtains are Choctaw, the Pauls are Chickasaw, and you show me a guy with the last name of Tiger and I’ll show you a Seminole. Also anybody with a funny name like Brokeshoulder or an animal name is probably Indian, too.
That’s why when I saw the name Johnny Little Wolf, I figured he was one of my boys, and I was right.
His intake sheet showed that he had lost his right leg just above the knee to a homemade bomb he’d stepped on. It also showed he was nineteen, which I thought must have been a typo, because he’d been on his second tour in Afghanistan when he got nailed.
When I got to his bedside, I could see it was no typo. Indian kids tend to run a little younger-looking than white kids anyway because of a lack of facial hair, but this guy looked like he’d have to sneak into an R movie.
I read he was from Wetumka, which is in the Muscogee/Creek Nation, so I took a chance and addressed him in Creek. “Hosci, Oklahoma, hosci,” I said in greeting.
“Hosci, Lieutenant. Damn, that sounds good. Like a letter from home. Nagin geemaleghee dadee?”
I laughed. “Sorry, buddy. I know that means what is my clan, but I all but used up my Creek with hello.”
He laughed, too. “Still sounded good, sir. Thanks for trying. Are you my care liaison? Sure hope so.”
I pulled a metal straight-back chair close to his bed. “Yep, you’re stuck with me, I guess, an Okie who only knows four words of Creek, and three of them are food.” I looked at his folder. “Let’s kick things off right. Are you really only nineteen years old?”
He looked over my shoulder in thought. “That’s a good question, Lieutenant. Let’s put it this way—I was seventeen when I talked my way into the army, but as you know, you got to measure your combat tours in dog years. I know I look young, but I got old eyes. Seen it all and then some.”
“I bet you have at that. How’s your rehab coming? They fit you for a new leg yet?”
Johnny laughed in a way that sounded fake to both of us, but we let it pass. “They start next week, I guess. I’ve seen a picture of it. It’s beautiful—all chrome and steel and stuff. My other leg’s going to get jealous.”
I put my hand on his arm. “It’s going to take a while, soldier, but it’s going to be worth it. Is there anything I can do for you? Write some letters? Make some calls? That’s why I’m here.”
He leaned forward on one elbow and dropped his voice so that only I could hear. “Actually there is and I’m damned lucky to have another Indian to talk to, because I don’t think a white man would come close to understanding. Ever hear of the Wounded Warrior Project?”
“Of course, Johnny. It’s a fabulous resource. It helps returning injured soldiers like you get readjusted, meet other injured soldiers, get PTSD counselling, tons of programs. They have R and R tours to Miami and Colorado—lots of places. I’d be happy to get you in touch with them.”
“That sounds great, Lieutenant. But I’m thinking of somewhere a little farther off than Miami. I read that these Wounded Warrior guys took some soldiers back to Afghanistan. You hear about that?”
“Yeah, I probably read the same article you did. Some wounded soldiers were suffering post-traumatic stress disorder terribly, with nightmares so vivid they were literally almost scared to death. Their Wounded Warrior counsellors agreed to return the men to Afghanistan to confront their demons and put some fears to rest. It seemed to work well. It’s all part of a process, Johnny, and usually reserved for guys with severe stress. I didn’t read you were under a lot of pressure, but of course only you would know that. Are you suffering, buddy?”
“Oh, I get the bad dreams, just like everybody else, I guess. But it’s another dream, a spirit dream that’s driving me on. And that’s why I’m glad you’re Creek, sir. A white man would probably laugh at my reason for going back.”
“I won’t laugh,” I said. “Tell me.”
“I want to go back and find my leg.”
“I’m not going to laugh, but I will say, one Oklahoma boy to another, what in the hell are you talking about?”
Johnny reached for a book on the white enamel nightstand and took out a folded piece of paper. “This is a letter from my micco thakko (he saw my perplexed look). Sorry, sir, that’s my principle chief.” He chuckled. “His name is Curtis Kazee, which doesn’t sound very chiefly to me, but nobody asked me. Anyway, I’ve been stewing over that damn leg quite a bit. Then last month I saw the answer in this dream, just as plain as day, a dream that white folks may think is nuts, but Chief Kazee says it sounds pretty good.” He took the letter in both hands, holding it like a priest might hold the sacramental cup. “You know much about our sacred ways, sir?”
“No, Johnny, I’m sorry. I’m a Christmas and Easter Methodist, that’s about it.”
“Well, to us Muscogees life is a journey through many circles. We call it the Sacred Path, and it starts before we are born and continues after our bodies are dead.”
“Kind of like going to heaven?”
Johnny smiled easily. “Nothing like going to heaven, Lieutenant, no disrespect. When I went to school at St. Mary’s, I was surprised at how hard the sisters worked to fit our square-peg Indian ways into their round-hole Christianity. Our religion, if you want to call it that, and frankly we don’t, our beliefs, are so tied together with daily living that you can’t peel them apart. We have many chiefs in this world and many, well, sort of gods, for lack of a better word, in the spirit world. And you might think our gods are lazy compared to the god of the Catholic sisters. Our gods don’t do miracles; they don’t save babies. The Christian god seems to have his finger in everything—curing cancer over here, plucking people from a river over there, sending people to hell for pissing him off. I asked one of the sisters one time why god didn’t just stop giving people cancer in the first place and save everybody a lot of trouble. As you might imagine, I got a paddling from Father Michael.
“And frankly, I deserved it. I was being disrespectful of Christianity, while at the same time demanding respect for our sacred ways. War made me wiser, Lieutenant. If you believe there is only one god and his name is Allah, then maybe Allah is the only god you’re going to get. If you think water can be holy, then maybe your water is holy. If I believe I enter the spirit world when my body dies, then who are you to question my journey? Or what it looks like?”
“I guess we’re going to come to the part about your leg sooner or later,” I said, feeling a little uneasy.
For the first time I saw the flash of the warrior in his eyes. “I’m getting there, Lieutenant. I just want to make sure you get there with me. So here’s the deal: we Muscogee believe that we make our final journey into the spirit world, the world of Ibofango, in human form. We eventually finish our circle of life to unite with Ibofango to create life all over again. But it takes a while to complete that circle, sometimes a very long while. Those who die violently or are disfigured by an enemy may wander around the spirit world for nobody knows how long, and that’s no place to call home. We are not the only people to believe this. Many tribes used to take scalps because that would send their enemies into the spirit world in humiliation. I read a book about the Cheyenne where the Crows cut off the fingers of an enemy chief so he couldn’t notch his arrow in the spirit world. Brrr.”
“Brr is right, Johnny. I read that book, too: ‘Fools Crow’ by James Welch. Gave me the willies.”
“Well, there you go. So anyway, I didn’t die violently, but part of me did. I don’t mind hobbling around on a metal leg up here, but a one-legged man in the spirit world doesn’t sound so good.”
I quietly nodded, but it was more of a “go on” than an “I understand.”
“So here’s where the Wounded Warrior Project comes in,” Johnny said. “You remember in that same book, the Cheyenne raided the Crow camp and took back the scalps of their dead braves. They returned the scalps to the earth with a special blessing way so their fallen braves could be whole again in the spirit world. So I want the Wounded Warrior Project to take me back to that Afghan village so I can be reunited with my leg. Chief Kazee said he’d hold the blessing ceremony himself.”
“I don’t know, buddy. I’m having a hard time buying all of this, and you can’t sell what you can’t buy.”
“Lieutenant, I’m not sure what you believe, but can you believe that I believe? Can you believe that this is like my holy water, my marble halls?”
“I want to believe it.” I was silent for a few seconds and then I surprised both of us by blurting out, “Damn, Johnny, I want to believe something. It’s lonely not believing in anything. I see you and others firm in your beliefs and you all seem, not happier, really, but more grounded, more sure of your place, part of a community of believers.” I snorted a laugh. “I don’t even believe in atheism. Isn’t that a hoot? I just live in the half-lit Land of Probably Not. Maybe there really is a spirit world and I’m already in it, just floating around all you grounded people.”
“Sounds like both of us are looking for something we lost. I need to get back to Afghanistan. Will you help me get there?”
My voice was unsteady. I was experiencing an emotion that frightened me and thrilled me at the same time. “I’ll do better than that, soldier. I’ll walk your papers through myself and I’ll come with you, if you’ll have me.”
The Wounded Warrior Project, being privately funded and all volunteer, had surprisingly little red tape. Three months later, Johnny and I found ourselves on a MAT flight out of Charleston Air Force Base to Frankfort and then to the Bagram Airfield in eastern Afghanistan near Kabul.
“If your time in the spirit world is half as long as this flight, I’m already feeling sorry for you,” I shouted above the drone of the engines. “Tell me something. What are we going to do with your leg if we find it?”
Johnny pulled a beautifully-beaded small leather pouch out of his field jacket pocket. “Don’t worry, Lieutenant, we’ll find it. I saw that in my dream. And when we do, I’ll scoop up some of it and put it in this medicine bag. Then we take it back to Chief Kazee, he performs the blessing circle, and I hang my medicine bag around my neck for the rest of my life.” He laughed. “Me and my leg: together at last.”
We got to the town of Charikar, which appeared to be made entirely of dust. I thought that when it rained, it might well be the birthplace of the Gollum. Johnny’s shiny new leg was covered in fatigues and combat boots, and he walked in a tilted lope reminiscent of Walter Brennen, but he was every inch the combat soldier. Although I was almost a decade older, I fell in behind him without even thinking. He was a natural-born leader on a mission, and his faith became mine.
We left the truck to walk down a narrow dirt street until we came to the world’s ugliest soccer field with two goals made out of pipes. The nets and any blade of grass that might have been there had taken flight years ago. The place was deserted except for a pack of dogs that were too skinny and disheartened even to bark.
“Gosh, they’ve done wonders with the place since I was here,” Johnny said cheerfully. He pointed to a spot near the street behind the north goal. “It was right over there. Let’s get digging.”
This was obviously impossible, I thought. The gray-brown dirt and dust and pebbles were the same everywhere, but I saw Johnny get on his hands and knees and start probing with what looked like a palate knife, so I took out my pocket knife and did the same.
I have no idea how long I poked around, but all at once the ground lost its sameness. I looked stupidly at half a dozen pebbles that shone chalky white. They might have been; they could have been; an Indian with faith in the ancient ways might say they were: bone. “Come over here, Johnny, and bring your medicine bag. I think I found your leg.”
“I knew you would. I dreamed this, too. Ibofango came to me and said the one of greatest faith would find my leg. Maddo, Lieutenant, Maddo. Thanks. I am whole. Let’s go home.”
Jack Shakely is a mixed-blood Muscogee/Creek born in Oklahoma. He served in the US Army as a civil affairs officer in Key West, Panama and Ft. Gordon, Georgia, where he was awarded the Army Commendation medal for meritorious service. He is the author of three novels, including the historical novel of the Civil War in Indian Territory, “The Confederate War Bonnet.”