Survivor Guilt pt. 1 - The Experience

 “Rage;

Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,

Black and murderous, that costs the Greeks

Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls

Of heroes into Hades’ dark,

And left their bodies to rot as feasts

For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done”[1]

 

The vehicle slowly rolls to a stop. I’m only half-awake. I’m tired and ready to be back on the Forward Operating Based (FOB). It’s been a long deployment and I’m mentally exhausted. We only have two weeks to go until we’re back in Kuwait and on our way home. All I want is for our missions to be as uneventful as possible.

We’re still sitting here. It seems like forever. I’m wondering what is going on, and suddenly the ramp starts coming down. Sunlight streams through the opening in the back of the vehicle, temporarily blinding me.

I dismount first with my team following close behind. As I round the corner of the vehicle, SGT Mulligan, one of the other team leaders, approaches me. There’s something different in his body language, the set of his shoulders, the look in his eyes, the tone in his voice. “We need something to cover these bodies.” 

Time seems to slow down while I process what he’s saying. My stomach drops. I feel disconnected, dazed. As I walk back to the Bradley, I get the burn blanket and wonder why I’m getting it. No one is on fire; they’re dead. This blanket is worthless. It won’t be able to soothe anything. And yet, I’m still going to use it.

As I walk around the Bradley the scene almost stops me dead. In between my vehicle and the next Bradley is a giant IED crater where the engineers’ Humvee should have been.  The roof of the vehicle is upside down inside covering the bottom of the crater. The hole is so big it dwarfs the Humvee roof—I feel like I’m looking at a kid’s toy instead of an armored military vehicle. The back half of the Humvee is in front of the crater leaning forward at an angle. The front of the vehicle is gone. I scan to the left and right to assess the situation. To the left of the dirt road we’re traveling on is a large field with a body lying about 100 meters away from us. To my right is a small berm.

My brain feels sluggish. I can’t seem to process what I’m seeing. How is the back of the Humvee in front of the crater? Where is the front half? How did that body get so far away from the road? Where are the other engineers?

I walk into the field with one of my soldiers. I don’t even pay attention to what’s happening around us—I’m fixated on the body we’re walking towards. It’s obvious from the awkward position of the body, as well as his charred state, that he’s dead. One of his legs is bent at a strange angle—his foot is touching his armpit. His skin is burned black with blood seeping through fissures in his flesh.

We load him onto a litter. I’ve never really understood the meaning of “dead weight” before in its truest sense until this moment. We cover the body with the burn blanket that I grabbed from the back of the Bradley. I’ve never used one before, and I’m surprised at what it feels like—slimy, wet, and heavily textured. I wish I had grabbed a poncho. Instead I’m trying to drape this unwieldy blanket over my horribly broken comrade.

After a few minutes of waiting a Chinook sets down and we load his body along with another into the back of the bird. I still feel numb, empty. It’s like everything is happening to someone else. As I look over at the other body I realize who it is—First Lieutenant Cleary. He was going to get married right after we got home. Now he’s a mangled mess lying on a litter in the middle of nowhere.

 

 “From under a great weight, Achilles answered:

‘Then let me die now. I was no help

To him when he was killed out there. He died

Far from home, and he needed me to protect him.'”[2]

 

I start to look around as we walk away from the helicopter. The engineer’s Humvee is where my vehicle would have been in the convoy. The thought hits me like a hammer. If LT Cleary’s engineer team hadn’t been out with us my vehicle would be the one getting hit by the IED. I would most likely be dead right now instead of him.

The thought makes me sick inside. I’ve lost count of how many times people have confused me with LT Cleary. We’re the same size and apparently walk very similarly, closely enough that my own Platoon Sergeant saluted me countless times. Now LT Cleary is dead and I’m alive. It’s like some sick joke. He had so much going for him—a degree, a promising career, and a fiancée.

I just turned 21. I probably couldn’t get into college if I tried. I’m not planning to stay in the military after this deployment, and “infantryman” doesn’t open a lot of doors in the civilian world. There’s no one special waiting for me when I get back. Why did he have to be the one? It should have been me.

As I get back to the IED site I start searching for a detonation device. Insurgents are pretty versatile with this particular weapon so there are plenty of ways that it could have gone off. As I search the circumference of the crater I notice a red wire. Carefully, I begin following it, making sure to be careful in case of a secondary device rigged as a booby trap.

The wire takes me on top of the small berm. There is the command detonation device, right next to a pool of LT Cleary’s blood. It’s everywhere. As I stare at the blood splattered all over the ground next to the detonator anger starts to swell within me. Soon it’s white-hot. More than anything I want to find the person who did this.

I come down the berm to find my squad leader walking over. “Mount up. The Apaches spotted someone they think is the triggerman about a quarter mile away. Clean white robe, fresh haircut, and newly trimmed beard. We’re going to get him.” I nod and round up my team.

The anger inside me is seething. All I can think about is killing whoever did this. I hear someone transmit over the radio, “don’t bring back any EPWs.” I understand the unspoken message. If you find him, kill him. Period.

 

You have seen a falcon

In a long, smooth dive

Attack a fluttering dove

Far below in the hills.

The falcon screams,

Swoops, and plunges

In its lust for prey.

So Achilles swooped and Hector trembled

In the shadow of Troy’s wall”[3]

 

The ramp unlocks and starts to lower. Before it hits the ground I’m moving. We’re in a small clearing with a little mud hut about 50 meters away. My team moves with practiced precision to clear the house.

There are five men inside. We line them up to start searching them. The other team leader and I begin the search while our soldiers pull security. As I look them all over to decide where to start my search I see him. Fresh haircut, neatly trimmed beard, white robe.

Immediately I search him from head to toe. As I get to the bottom of his robe I see blood splatter against his right leg. In my mind I see the detonator facing the crater. If I were the triggerman LT Cleary would have landed on my right side.

As my brain connects the dots, anger turns into uncontrollable rage. Before I know what I’m doing I’ve thrown him facedown in the mud. I drive my knee into his back between the shoulder blades and roughly zip cuff his hands. I’m screaming obscenities; at least I think that’s what I’m doing. I don’t even know if what I’m yelling is coherent.

The next thing I know the muzzle of my rifle is pressed against the back of his skull. We only have two weeks to go, and because of this guy two of my friends are going home early in body bags.

I’ve got the green light to pull the trigger. It’ll be easy. I’ve never wanted to kill someone before. Now I want it more than anything. I’m barely in control. All I feel is unbridled rage coupled with a desire for revenge.

I flick the selector lever of my rifle to semi and start to depress the trigger. It’s just like I’ve done at the range thousands of times. A nice trigger pull is smooth and steady; it should surprise you when the round goes off.

Suddenly my squad leader is talking to me. His voice is calm and even; he’s speaking softly so that only I can hear. “You don’t want to do that right now.”

“What are you talking about? I’m going to blow his head off,” I respond.

I turn back to the man on the ground and resume my preparations to shoot him in the back of the head. “No you don’t. Think about it. Do you want to live with that for the rest of your life? This isn’t the way to do it.” I’m not sure what it is, the tone of his voice, the fact that he’s still talking to me, that he’s so calm, but it cuts through my rage and grief. We lock eyes. His gaze is steady. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and flick my selector lever back to safe.

I stand up and take a step away from the man on the ground. My hands are shaking; my breathing comes fast and heavy. I’m still filled with anger and grief at the loss of my friends. As I look at him I feel an intense hatred, but I realize that it’s less about him and more about me. I should have been the one to die today. It was supposed to be me.

 

[1] Lombardo, Stanley. 2000. The Essential Homer: Selections from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hacked Publishing Company, Inc.: Indianapolis. p. 1

[2] Lombardo, Stanley. 2000. The Essential Homer: Selections from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hacked Publishing Company, Inc.: Indianapolis. p. 178

[3] Lombardo, Stanley. 2000. The Essential Homer: Selections from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hacked Publishing Company, Inc.: Indianapolis.  p. 209