Just the nine of us
by Kevin Neirbo
It had been a long, mild day in our ambush site. We occupied a small circle of dirt, nestled in the reeds along the river. Our five man team passed the time, trying our best at silence, talking in low voices, moving slowly and deliberately. Quietly snacking on trail mix, beef jerky, tuna, and blades of grass, we gazed at the river’s current and listened to the quiet buzz of our radio. The low hum of the static and the occasional exchange between other battalion call signs created a sense of homesickness from our “family” back at the patrol base. At the same time, I welcomed it as it provided a fleeting moment of security. While we might be here alone at the moment, our brothers were not out of touch.
We had come in the night before, driven halfway by a vehicle mounted squad and walked the rest in. It was a long slow movement, only four or five kilometers, but with heavy rucks that wore oppressively on our backs. We had become accustomed to the weight, learning to move efficiently with days worth of equipment, rations, and water. Strangely, it began to feel like a part of us. We learned to befriend our rucks, they were part of our daily life. It was our system, containing everything we need, and organized for efficiency. In complete darkness we could find any item packed away without fumbling around.
The suddenness of death was what I was left feeling.
The calm low voices increased in clarity as the boat approached our position. Distant chatter became distinct words, albeit of a foreign tongue we were unable to decipher. I watched in the thermals as four doomed men in a small boat inched closer to their final curtain. They did not know. It is these moments I revisit and try to imagine what these men were like in this moment, this moment of final thought, final brain process. Their last breaths were approaching single digits. The countdown. Ours was tense, but I long to know what theirs was like. In this countdown, they did not know their fate, but only feet away were men, us, who knew another man’s fate. I wonder if they were thinking about their upcoming meal, or maybe the one they had before they departed. I like to think they were thinking about killing me, but I can’t be that naiveté.
The blast wasn’t even loud. I only remember the flash, and then the silence. The sounds that came after etched themselves in to my brain forever. A watermark on my mind’s canvas. No more than six feet away, these men were half submerged in watery death. Somehow, a couple men stubbornly fought death off. Their agonal gasps filled with despair. No, not despair. Past despair. Perforated lungs gurgled rich red blood and brown river water as they failed to provide for their human vessels. It was not quite screaming but a desperate howl, a death howl. It was too much to listen to, so I emptied my thirty round magazine into the remains of the boat. My teammates did the same. The rhythm and recoil of our rifles provided a welcome relief from the primal noises of dying mammals. When I finished my first magazine, I reloaded. A brief pause in the firing revealed still more gasps. Go into the night, go now. We continued with the job, unloading many more rounds into the riverside graves of the only other company we had that night. There was nine of us out there on the river together, and we killed four of the crowd. I felt some sort of bond with these men, and now these bodies. We were the ones out here doing it, together. How fragile we are. Our soft tissue and brittle bone so easily shredded and dismantled. I laughed nervously, but I’m not sure why. I don’t know what I felt. I felt nothing.
Kevin Neirbo is a Marine infantryman who did two tours to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. He mainly writes fiction based on true events to tell the stories of present day servicemen and women.