A Boy Without a Name
This first story makes me feel uncomfortable. Every time I have brought it out and examined it I question certain parts of it: the teller, the people that committed the atrocity, our involvement in the war…my involvement.
The reason that I have held onto this story, even though it is probably not the best thing for my mental health, is because it explains things that were gruesome and frustrating about the wars. Also, in some small way, it justifies why I was willing to put my life in danger to try to help the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. But, like most stories that I have come to believe are true, or at least the stories that I center my life around - that I use to gain a true north - I have realized that in their telling they lose almost everything. The details the teller leaves in are the things that wrench the heart, but this might not be what it was that pushed history one way or the other. The “true” story plays out in real time; most moments are filled with unbelievable boredom.
If I have come to these pages to answer questions like: Why was it the third soldier back that stepped on the land mine? What was his story? What were the stories of the soldiers around him? How were each of them effected by the detonation? How was the squad? My endeavors fall hopelessly short. Although I want so desperately the answers to these types of questions; that road is very long, leads close to insanity, and is filled with facts that our minds can still somehow misrepresent. My hope in the telling of these happenings is to connect with the receiver. To, if only for a fleeting moment, cause the reader to feel the blast wave of the land mine the soldier stepped on, to taste the dirt that hung in the air, to see the pain of the loss on his companions hearts, and to know the joy that comes from sacrificial love.
In the attempt to create this experience, to send the reader off on this journey, I have come to realize that there is not enough room or time to write everything down. We have to limit ourselves and edit out things that one person might find fascinating and still others would find tiresome. Even John, the author of the fourth Gospel, shared this frustration when he said, “There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.”
So we can ask the questions: Was it that only one soldier recognized Christ for who he was when he died on the cross? “Truly this was the Son of God,” or maybe there were many more and the author chose not to write it?
As I pour these experiences into the vessel of words, I know that words cannot tell what it is like to be part of a war or what it is like to bring my family through this reality. Words cannot express everything that needs to be said, and yet they serve as a matchless medium that we will continue to use for millenniums to come.
“Martin,” I heard my friend Staff Sergeant Wilde call out to me from across the dirt parking lot in Afghanistan. We were inside our compound, our walled in little fortress, within the larger walled in and fenced Kandahar Air Field. All of our tactical vehicles were lined up ready to roll out of the gate at a moment’s notice. There were little plywood huts strewn about the compound that we called our Tactical Operations Center (TOC), and our Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) buildings. There were tents that housed robots and bomb suits and an extremely large tent that was used for working on our vehicles.
“What’s up, man?” I said back to Wilde as more of a greeting than a question.
“I just wanted to talk for a minute.”
Two members of our EOD Flight had been killed in as many months and we began to open up to each other. Somehow I had become the unofficial Chaplain and people wanted to tell me things that I never wanted to hear.
“Let’s go over here,” I motioned toward the fire pit.
The pit’s official purpose was to burn classified documents, but every night the Senior and Captain would start a fire and smoke cigars.
This was not allowed – starting a fire for enjoyment – and they were warned several times to discontinue their practice, but their disregard for authority pushed them to continue to do so until one night a firetruck came blazing into our compound, lights flashing. Three firefighters jumped out in great theatrics, pulled their hose, fired up the pump, and blasted this little camp fire with about 10,000 gallons of water. The story goes that the Senior and Captain were so astonished at the whole thing that they just sat there and continued to smoke their cigars, like nothing had happened. The firefighters got back into their truck without saying a word and drove away.
Wilde and I walked over to the fire pit and sat in a couple of the chairs that were there. The pit smelled like the ashes of burnt paper. It was under one of the few trees in the compound – some type of evergreen that I have come to notice all over the Middle East. These trees grow tall like a pine tree, but there needles are more like a cedar or a juniper or a cypress. The branches looked thick and sturdy, but when we cleaned up the compound and cut a few of the lower hanging limbs we found them to be very brittle.
“I have never told anyone about this before. Well, that’s not true. I have told people the story, you know, what happened that day. I have never told anyone about the dreams.”
This is the way Wilde started out his story. It was hot that day and I was uncomfortable in my uniform. I realized that what I was about to hear was going to make me even more uncomfortable, but I had become a sounding board as of late, and it was something I was willing to do. It seemed to be something that I was good at.
“I keep waking up in the middle of the night sweating and clutching my arms to my chest like I held that little boy. It takes me forever to get back to sleep because I just keep thinking about him…his eye missing on the right side… and you could see his brains, his brains. There was very little blood. He was still breathing. His right arm was broken. All I could do was hold him. They had called a medevac, but I knew he wasn’t going to live.”
“What happened?” I asked. “Where was this?”
“It was on my last deployment. We were up north. It was just a normal day. We were getting ready to check out our truck when we heard a large explosion that came from the local village. We weren’t sure where it was at, but the fireball and smoke looked like it came from the school. We threw on our gear and ran out into the village toward the school. I don’t know why the gate guard let us out, but he did. When we ran into the school’s courtyard it was like hell. There was this carnage that I will never get out of my head. There were bodies everywhere, and they were all little children. I looked around and went to the first thing that I saw moving. It was a little boy. I rolled him over to see if I could help him and bandage him up, and when I rolled him over I saw that his eye was missing and part of his skull, too. And I could see his brain. He was breathing and there wasn’t much blood so I just held him and everything else disappeared.”
Sergeant Wilde went on to tell me that he lives in that moment now forever. In that instant, everything around him disappeared: the guys there with him, the injured children strewn about the schoolyard, even time itself. The only thing that mattered was this boy without a name that he would perpetually hold in his arms. This boy continually worked his way into Wilde’s arms. Even when Wilde didn’t want him there the boy was there. Mostly the boy came at night, particularly on the nights when Wilde needed sleep. The boy was Wilde’s waking infant or the child that burst through the door at the most inopportune times.
I was no Chaplain or counselor, so I didn’t know the words to say. I just listened. It seemed like he needed to let the boy go, to put the boy in his mind down like he did with the actual boy in that school yard in Afghanistan. I asked him if he ever mourned the boy. He said that he had not and asked me how he could. After all, he hadn’t even known the boy. He had only spent the last few moments of the boy’s life with him. But what did matter was that the boy would be with Wilde for the rest of his life. Even if he did mourn him or found some other way to let him go, the boy would always be there.
After Wilde told me that story I picked up that child too. I could never fully relate to what he had been through, yet when Wilde told me that story he put some of it down. It released some of his burden. I chose to pick up that burden, and I stashed it away with many other stories that I had been told. I am very thankful that nothing like Wilde’s story ever happen to me, but now, there is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think about that boy without a name.
They were only little bits and pieces of stories that I held on to, but over the years the burden has gotten heavier and heavier. It is not hard to carry these things. They have numbed my soul to a point that I don’t want to listen. More correctly, I can’t listen or feel for my friends or my family like I did in the past. We all had to dull our senses to things that we saw in war. All the waste and hurt and fatigue and injustice that was much more evident than at any other time in our lives. We didn’t realize that we would bring that numbness that we used as a defense, back home with us.
This is the danger of being human. We are fragile. No matter what we choose to do with our lives we will get hurt and we will hurt others. But there are some lives that are more vulnerable to these sensitivities. Instead of accepting what comes our way, embracing life, we put up this shell, this wall, and we put all of our efforts into these defenses. We build these little structures that we try to house ourselves in, until that day when something penetrates it and our structure comes crashing down around us.
We take these pieces and try to put them back together exactly as they were before, but that is just futile work, so we eventually just pile the rubble up all around us and attempt to live our lives.
I have seen this happen to my friends over and over again. And there have been months at a time that I have done it to myself. But with the help of my family and friends, the prayers of those that care about me and my relationship with Jesus, I have been able to sort through the rubble and find the beauty of what was left. I have collected it and organized what once seemed to me like broken shards and trash and created a life that I want to live. Somedays I feel as though I have hurt others through this process more than it has benefited me. Nevertheless, we have created something that is useful, and even though it might not be pretty, it is not a defense and it is open and it is vulnerable and it is life.
I haven’t seen Wilde since that deployment. Our home stations are on opposite sides of the country and we have never run into each other while training, so I don’t know how he is really doing. However, we are friends on FaceBook, so I know the major life changes that he shares with his “friends.” For instance, he is still married and they recently had another child. He now teaches at Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) School. When I ask the new airmen if they know of him, they always do, because they have all been run ragged by his physical training program. Sergeant Wilde has used his position at the schoolhouse to teach these trainees how to push themselves to the limit and still get up, still go on, so that someday if they experience something similar to his story they will expect it, confront the memories of it, and push themselves forward.
This is how Wilde tamps down that little boy. This is how he puts him to rest and how he avoids picking him up over and over again. This is how he avoids the missing eye and the brains without much blood. This is how he avoids the sleepless nights, and this is how he mourns that child. And through all of this he begins to miss his time at war. The good parts are sharpened – the camaraderie, the accolades, the rush – and the bad parts are blunted – the pain, the boredom, the fear. He also uses his position to mourn his time in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Yes, even his time there he mourns…we mourn. Because as much as we hated being there and the things that happened to us and around us, there is a part of us that deeply misses it and longs to be back in the comfort of our body armor, helmet, and rifle. Imagine walking down a path knowing that this day could very easily be the most exhilarating day of your life. The day you cheated death. The day that you will now mark time with, “That happened before that firefight in the Arghandab.” Or it could just as easily be your last day on earth.