The Fraternity of Death
by Dean Ray
My heart was pounding as the orders came through my helmet’s headset. I knew the blast earlier was a rocket propelled grenade, and not a signal flare like I had considered. Leaning out of the left side of the helicopter, my bulky, bulletproof flight vest banged clumsily on my massive black chainsaw of a machine gun. I tried to get a closer look at who just tried to blow us out of the sky, while simultaneously listening to the frantic transmissions coming through the radio.
Our British counterparts on the ground had a brother bleeding out from a chest wound, and identified the grid of the target location on our shared map. The coordinates weren’t needed, I was already locked in. I followed the explosion caused by the RPG, while the smoke trail was still black and fresh. The firing end of the equation featured a barely discernable male figure in what appeared to be typical Afghan robed clothing. He scrambled into the nearby lush vegetation, roughly the size of a football field. This field was attached to a rectangular clay compound, which looked abandoned, besides a lone, surprisingly healthy looking cow, or some similar livestock. The young brown-eyed captain in charge of the helicopter received final conformation, took a breath, and gave me the order to open fire.
My fully automatic 50-caliber machine gun responded quickly to the light pull on the triggers, sending twenty rounds a second of explosive shrapnel towards the target. The rounds twisted wildly as they careened towards their targets 1800 meters away. The tracers glowed brightly in the forward-looking infrared display centered between the pilots. My first rounds were high and left of the bushes I was aiming at. The very same bushes that shadowy asshole ran into minutes earlier. A quick adjustment for the wind and distance sent my rounds straight at their intended target. No time to dwell, I know from the radio call that the Brits on the ground are still under fire.
The next 20 minutes were full of controlled chaos. We had to neutralize the enemy threat of eight to fifteen men armed with automatic weapons and explosives, allowing the medevac helicopter to safely land and extract the wounded British soldier. This was our entire crew’s first deployment to combat, and this was our first taste of the action. When you hear someone pleading for help to save a friends life. The unmistakable sound of rounds snapping over their heads, impacting the nearby dirt, narrowly missing their mark. Each and every word is so vivid and alive. So desperate. Then so full of hope, as each burst of our gunfire rains down on the target area. You feel the weight, you know your rounds are going to save his life. That frantic voice, his friends, they aren’t going to die on our watch. Nobody is going to die on our watch. Whatever moral code or thoughts on violence you have go out the window, when you’re faced with this new reality.
The medevac helicopter swooped in low to make the landing, under the shield of constant gunfire from us above. They loaded the wounded, escaped unscathed, and went to work rapidly with the surgical abilities they have on board the medevac helicopter. We were angels to our British friends, and angels of death for that shadowy figure and his accomplices. We accomplished the mission. Soon after we received word from the British that the friendlies had survived, and all enemy targets were believed to be killed in action.
We spent the flight back to base in mostly silence. We had just finished a twelve-hour shift in which we had flown almost ten hours straight. This concluded with the first enemy contact of the deployment for our crew. The feeling I could easily read in everyone’s eyes was very clearly shock. The shock not of what we had to do, but the absolute lack of emotions we felt doing it. We all realized that this moment we had built up so immensely was really just an abstract act. The act of killing is not so different than any other act, until the implications behind it have been considered. A realization set in. We had never truly considered the implications associated with what had just transpired. Our religious morals, societal codes, and personal thoughts about the subject were not ours. They all had just been things we regurgitated, which is what anyone does when confronted with difficult questions. Especially when they haven’t spent enough time pondering the answers themselves.
Should we feel pride? I did. I could see Travis, my fellow door gunner who had shot 3000 rounds of 7.62 ammo out of his mini-gun did. We high fived, lit up a black and mild, and as the vanilla smoke mixed with the burning fuel and expended gunpowder, we felt like goddamn cowboys. The pilots talked with us about their thoughts, and their hopes that we were more confident than they were for the first trigger pulls. We laughed about the little miscues, and talked proudly about the story we now shared. After the high subsided, the reflection started, and let me tell you it never stops. We sat quietly, staring out over the desert this surprisingly pleasant Afghanistan afternoon. We thought about the what ifs, thought about the condition of our allies, in the back of our minds hoped no rounds missed their mark, taking an innocent life. The magnitude of what you do only starts to set in when you hear the battle damage reports, and get the number of enemy KIA.
The next few weeks most of the crews saw their first enemy contact. These twenty young men and one young woman entered into the small group of the world that have taken another human’s life. Our squadron had an active summer, and our airstrikes began to occur several times a week. We all took several lives, and at one point, when our base was overrun, some took lives more intimately than others. It’s a strange feeling, and that strangeness I have found to be primarily self-induced. The distance allows a certain sort of comfort with killing that infantry doesn’t have the luxury of enjoying. The problem is that you know that normal people aren’t comfortable with taking a life. The most difficult thing to do is try and guess how you should feel about something, when in reality you feel almost nothing.
I had grown up in a particularly rough place and everyone knew I had seen plenty of bad things in the past so people began talking to me about their experiences, and we all shared a lot of the same thoughts. People trusted me discussing feelings and subjects others might not understand. The reactions varied wildly, but all carried the same theme. They felt uncomfortable with how little they felt personally, and worried about how society would view them for that. Some came from religious backgrounds, while others from rough lives. They all were normal, relatively docile people, who couldn’t come to grips with their reactions to what they had seen and done. This was really an eye opener to me about moral relativism. People from varying backgrounds all agreeing that it is morally acceptable to kill someone over different ideas, and feeling absolutely no remorse because we felt we had the moral high ground. It’s not just about one side, it pertains to both. This realization of the power that ideas hold, changed my life. I realized at once the weight of our words.
The months of the deployment came and went. The change in demeanor was obvious to everyone. Those in our unit assigned to combat jobs carried themselves much differently. A different degree of respect was there. We were much more aggressive. The senior enlisted supervisors who used to ignore us, they now high five us with their cool, air conditioned hands after each engagement. We were tight. Crews felt like family. Staying after work to help each other, and sharing dinner together. We even sacrificed sleep to stay up, smoke cigars in cramped quarters, and just look at the stars. We told stories about engagements from the day, or about our increasingly distant lives back home. The dynamic of not just our personal interactions, but the entire feel of the unit had changed. The abstract act that we had struggled to find emotions or words to describe had become its own force.
It turned those curious about exploring their feelings on the subject into people that shut down and ignored it. Why have a real discussion about the confusing elements of this obviously abnormal situation? We could just tell war stories to the hard working mechanics and maintainers keeping our death machines flying. They never left the confines of our base, which contrary to what you may think actually kills moral. The stories were a reminder of the hard work they put in, and how it was paying off. The kills were eventually viewed as a measure of contribution and how battle hardened you were. We had a few high profile engagements and the respect that came from even the more senior people was readily apparent. I no longer had to explain myself as often. I was more trusted, and I had earned respect from men fifteen years older than me. This new respect changed how I carried myself, because I felt the need to live up to the expectations, as I’m sure others did as well.
I was lucky enough to be moderately self-aware, many of my peers were not. Behavioral changes brought on by everyone else’s expectations of what a “killer” should be actually modified their personalities and the relationships they had outside of the military. We were more aggressive and impatient. We had confidence to take on just about any situation, but sometimes we all knew it was bordering on arrogance. Others viewed us as a separate group of people, and many of us viewed ourselves that way as well. This mentality led many of us to become isolated to only those that could understand us. As we began to drift away from others, our fraternal bonds just grew tighter.
There were those that didn’t like the respect given to us at such an early point in our career, and they made it apparent. This widened the social gap even more, as the lesser disciplined of us including myself, lashed out in defiance from time to time. The tendency to internalize or only listen to voices that repeat what we want to hear had become stronger. I watched many of my friends spiral off into their own minds. Struggling to find their place morally. Struggling to interact with the people they work with, and more importantly, to communicate with those they loved.
The act of killing itself was of little or no consequence to any of us in the moment. However, subsequent battles of personality, morals, and group/interpersonal relationships are ongoing for myself, and all of the people who were there with me. The truth I have found in this fraternity, is that we are all controlled by expectations. When we allow others to dictate who we should be, we allow ourselves to be a culmination of our actions instead of our reactions to them. I was lucky enough to realize that what I did, and what I have seen, does not define who I am.
Dean Ray spent time in the USMC as enlisted aircrew on Huey helicopters, and has received five Air Medals for his time in Afghanistan. He attended the Boise State entrepreneurship management program where he received his BBA, graduating cum laude. During this period he became engaged with the veterans’ writing program at the college, and it inspired him to pursue writing as a positive outlet for relaying to others the residual effects experienced from an often turbulent enlistment.