Beneath a Blood Moon
We all struggle with the return home.
The night I nearly killed myself, the moon hung low in the autumn sky, bleeding its first light. I put a round in the chamber of my .45, the familiar click-clack of the hammer cocking, chamber locking against the barrel breaking the silence. I tightened my fingers around its grip. That uncomfortably familiar feeling grew inside me.
I barely got the door open in time to fire licorice colored vomit all over the highway. If there were any traffic on the road, it would’ve been broadsiding me. I heaved uncontrollably until perspiration formed on my brow. I shut my eyes against the world. With each spasm I hoped to expel the darkness. The guilt. The fiery anger. But only booze and cheap beer spilled out. I drank to forget. But it was always there. The war was a living thing, coursing through my veins every day and sleepless night.
I tossed the pistol on the passenger seat and stumbled onto the road. Skid marks tracked wildly behind the car, a testament to my life’s journey. I had completed a full rotation before coming to a stop angled across the highway; technically, a Sunday morning. Driving a hundred miles an hour beyond shit-faced drunk still didn’t come close to the reckless danger of combat. The exhilaration. Nothing did. Stare at the sun for long enough and you can’t see anything else. It’s odd how dangerous a thing it is to even just look at the sun for a moment too long, but we take its power for granted. It sits in the sky sending its blinding radiance to all corners of the Earth, but we ignore its power over us; life and death, sight and blindness. Spend too long outside and it burns you.
There’s no reason I was alive other than pure luck. I barely noticed, though it wasn’t my drunkenness that clouded me, it was the apathy. The war was like walking into a hailstorm and never being struck. There were so many close calls it became banal. It never occurred to me to end it that night because I had earned my pain, I deserved to suffer through it. The invisible wounds of war churned a maelstrom within me, and I would carry it, just like we carried heavy packs and mortar rounds through the Korengal. How we carried water bottles and MREs and pictures of ex-girlfriends. How we carried our friends’ lifeless bodies and the remains of suicide bombers.
Stepping back to my car I glared at my gun. That weapon was my friend; cold, lifeless, indifferent. Like me.
February 17, 2007
In the civilian world, taking a dump is a private, solitary event. There’s a certain amount of privacy and security inside your bathroom. In combat, everything is magnified. I waited until I couldn’t wait any longer, but the sun still hadn’t gone down. Darkness was safety, tranquility. The insurgents no longer challenged us at night—we owned it with high powered optics. There were several mortar impact craters next to the plywood boxes and half-barrels we defecated in, with a prefabricated concrete bunker in the middle. The doors to each “shitter” were pockmarked with dozens of holes, some of them ripping straight through, others at an odd angle, the wood shredded like wheat chaff. We pissed into an open hole.
“It’s still prime time, Pern,” Dunaway said. He was always looking out for me. I always thought JDun should’ve been the squad leader, he was more fatherly than I was. I was hard on the Marines in the squad, something I regret to this day. But, we are all still alive.
In the month of September, the base logged more than 86 mortar attacks. Most of them happened between the hours of 11:00 and 14:00, then 18:00 to 20:00—conveniently, the same times the chow hall was open for lunch and dinner. Prime time. The insurgents seemed to have a sick sense of humor, although a solid grasp of tactics. Even running across the road to grab chow was an adventure.
“It’s your funeral,” he said. At this point in the deployment, we couldn’t even figure out where the mortars were firing from. Our best guess was that it was mounted on the back of a truck, and insurgents had several firing positions dialed in. The first round was on target, every single time. They didn’t even have to adjust anymore. The first morning I woke up in Barwanah, the whole squad was nearly killed when a 120mm round impacted just ten feet away and didn’t explode. Imagine a piece of steel the size of a bloated football falling out of the sky, with an effective blast radius of sixty meters. There was no escaping the war. You had to let go, embrace the violence.
It’s not easy to do your business while still wearing body armor. Not to mention the stench of a 180 Marines’ waste permeating the air, flies buzzing everywhere. At first, it was disconcerting to have ten or twelve flies land on your rear during the course of going number two, but the first time you heard that whump, whump, whump of mortar rounds dropping in the tube, you forgot all about it. There was no feeling of terror and helplessness like being on the receiving end of steel rain.
After a minute, I had finished and pulled my trousers up, making the dash to and from in less than three minutes. On the short catwalk connecting the “barracks” to the COC—in reality, a school that hadn’t been used since the invasion—I ran into Davis from 2nd Platoon.
“You know you guys are going out?” he asked.
“No, what’s up?”
“Head Hunter reported some gunfire but they’re committed to the position. You gotta check it out,” he said. “Be safe.”
I ran upstairs and threw my gear on. I had become exceedingly fast at it. Every man in the squad dutifully grabbed their weapons and armor. Eight of us when there should’ve been fifteen, but we were a tight group after five months in country. “Pack light,” I said, expecting to be out less than a few hours. I attached my PEQ-2A infrared laser and hooked up my night vision to my helmet.
Once down to the Combat Operations Center—the best fortified place in the FOB—I got the official brief. No matter how high tech our war-fighting capabilities were, reports from the front always came in cryptic. Head Hunter 5, the sniper team currently attached to our company, was on an observation position above Nuggets road in the south of Barwanah. They reported 5 shots fired and screaming north of their position. Due to the sensitive nature of their position, they could not move. They offered to walk us on target once we got down there.
“Hey Perna,” Lieutenant Brusch called. Brusch was a second lieutenant and had been a great leader. Though there wasn’t much to do, this was a squad leader’s war. “Head Hunter 5 reported shots fired and a lot of screaming directly to their north. Once you get down to the area, they’ll walk you on target.”
The street corner in question, Taco Bell and Nuggets on our company maps, was a constant problem. Taco Bell ran just behind the base, and we could follow it west for 300 meters where it intersected Nuggets, in the middle of the palm groves. There were several “danger areas”—and by that I mean areas of atypical danger. The whole goddamn country was a danger area. Especially if you were American. But especially if you were a US Marine. We were like trophy kills to the insurgents. A fourteen point bull moose to put on their mantle.
Another issue was Booth’s radio. Every once in a while the radio gets out of sync with the base and communications are lost. The radio needs to be plugged into the cryptographic device that “fills” it with the correct algorithm. And right at the moment when we needed it the most, Sergeant Wildman, head of the armory, flips out when I walk into a class about pistol safety.
“You can’t be in here,” he protested.
“Bullshit, I need a fill and an MBITR for QRF, and I need it now,” I said.
“We’re having a class in here, so you’ll have to wait.”
“I can’t wait. We’re heading out right now,” I said.
“Yeah well we had this scheduled—go tell 1st Sergeant Moran if you really need me.”
I drilled a hole in his face with my eyes. I took him outside the door, just out of earshot of the Marines sitting patiently. “Listen to me. I don’t have time to play this game. People are dying outside of this base right now and if you don’t give me a goddamn radio, their blood is on your hands. Do you understand that? What if it’s a kid? Do you wanna live with that?”
“Alright, alright, you’ve got a point. Gimme a minute,” he said. Tensions between guys who spent all day at the base and Marines on patrol were rising, to say the least. We even heard of a Marine pulling a pistol on another Marine.
Wildman returned with everything, and I told him, “Thanks, really.”
After double checking comms we jumped in the back of a 7-ton, I counted every man up and was the last to board. I would be the first person out.
We left the base and headed down Quiznos, then took a hairpin right turn onto Taco Bell. “Booth, turn to 696 and see if you can establish comms with Head Hunter.”
“Got it, Pern,” he said. Booth was a private but I didn’t care if he broke rank. We fought in Afghanistan together and knew each other in and out. On the ‘LPOP of Death’ during one operation, we were directly attacked by a force of 45 Taliban. There were seven of us because half the squad was wounded the day before. We repelled the attack via the use of AT-4 anti-tank rockets, accurate rifle fire and use of our PEQ-2A lasers. Taliban were so close we could smell them, hear them whispering Allah-u-ackbar moments before the attack. Booth, another Marine, and I threw hand grenades down the hill and crawled on our hands and knees through the maelstrom, trying to reach the rest of the squad while we listened to the passionate screams of the dying.
“Anybody got a light?” Booth said. I gave him a small LED pocket light. Still, we had difficulty reaching the snipers over the radio. They would have to be relayed through the COC.
The up-gunner on the 7-ton leaned back from his M240G machine gun, “Okay, ya’ll are dismounting here. Too dangerous for us to be too deep into the groves.” I noted we were still a few hundred yards shy of the drop-off point. Very well.
We jumped out, security branching out flawlessly. We were a well oiled survival machine this far into the deployment. Silently, we moved closer to the intersection. Gravel crunched under our feet, and my helmet amplified the noise, making it awkwardly loud. I was aware of every piece of gear that sloughed against body armor. The moonlight pouring silver across the street. Blood coursing through the veins next to my ears.
“Pern,” Booth whispered. “They say we’re right on target.” But there was only silence. It was incredibly uncomfortable. I looked around. Everyone had taken cover and established fields of fire to cover the squad. Smooth. It wasn’t long before a local man approached us. His eyes looked like an owl flying up the street.
“Mishtar,” he pleaded, hands raised to the sky. “Mishtar, please come!”
He ran, and so we did. I kept my rifle aimed at his feet in case I had to kill him. Be polite, be professional, have a plan to kill everyone you meet. We made entry to a large home on Nuggets, Cooper’s team taking up security around the front of the house. The family stood in a circle in the living room, a large paisley carpet in the center. And on top of the carpet, a boy who couldn’t have been more than ten. He was naked and soaked in blood from head to toe. He was grabbing at his penis absent-minded, as if to take his mind off the pain.
“Doc! Corpsman up,” I yelled, running to the boys side. I dropped my rifle and slid on my knees as the boy collapsed, wheezing. “Oh my God.”
He was covered in blood. I tore some gauze out of my med pack and—
His face. There was a hole in his face. Just to the side of his nose. Then I noticed another in his neck, just below the chin. Doc Taylor gently cradled the boy’s head in his hands as I looked over his small body for wounds. Brushing his hair away, Taylor exposed the exit wounds on the back of the boy’s neck. They were rather large.
Taylor shot me a look that made me feel ten degrees colder.
“Booth—” I started.
“Medevac, I’m on it, “ he said, moving to the courtyard to get better reception.
“Dunaway, grab the fluids from my bag,” Taylor ordered. Jason complied, attaching the bag to a carabiner on his flak jacket and standing over us. “The hell? He’s already tapped!” There was an IV taped to the boys arm. He plugged in and squeezed the bag, flushing lactated ringers through the kid’s system.
“Does anyone speak English around here?” I asked. One of the young men stepped forward, no older than me.
“What happened? Who did this?” I asked, pointing the boy’s veins.
“Doctor leave. Worried you will shoot him for curfew,” he said in broken English.
Several incredulous looks bounced around the room. I liked the idea because it probably cut down on terrorist shenanigans in the middle of the night. But it also struck me how much fear these people lived with on a day to day basis. Heads were rolling when local cells found out anyone had helped the Marines.
“Get him a blanket,” I said.
“He has only one clothes,” the man said. He grabbed a blanket off the couch and wrapped the boy gingerly. Cooper was taking pictures like he was on spring break.
“Command won’t give us a medevac because we didn’t shoot him,” Booth said.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.
“Nope. Fox 6 says that if the kid wasn’t involved in an incident with coalition forces, then we can’t help ‘em out,” Booth said. He shrugged at me.
“Dude, if he doesn’t get medical attention, he’s gonna die,” Doc said.
I was determined. I got on the radio and asked for Fox 6, the company commander.
“Sir, we need a medevac for this kid. He’s going to die here if we don’t get him some help, over,” I said.
“Fox three-two, protocol dictates that we can only medevac personnel who are coalition forces or have been wounded by coalition forces, or the enemy, in a direct engagement with coalition forces. This man is neither, over.”
“Roger, Fox 6, I understand that. This isn’t a man, it’s a ten year old boy, over.”
“Roger, three-two, still no medevac, over”
“Sir, I need to inform you that I am going directly to battalion or regiment or as high as I need to to get help. I don’t care if I lose my command or my rank, but I am not watching this boy die,” I said.
The Forward Air Controller, Capt. Krahulec, interrupted. He was the same rank as Captain Lancelot, but it was his job to liaison with air units for the entire company. “Three-two, you’ll get your medevac. You need to get him to the drop zone in 15 mikes,” he said.
“You heard him. Fifteen minutes. Let’s get this kid outta here,” I said. “Booth, call Domino and get the trucks down here. Everyone else, grab your gear and set up security on the street for the convoy.”
The English speaking man turned to me, “What will happen to him? Where will he go?”
“He’s going to the hospital and we’re going to have the doctors look at him. He’s lost a lot of blood. Can you or someone else go with him?” I asked.
“Yes. There is father who will go. Thank you. I am family,” he said. “Ah ne Ishmael.” My name is Ishmael.
“Shit, his veins collapsed. We need to go,” Doc said. Just then the trucks showed up, and Sergeant Domino stepped inside.
“Jesus Christ,” Domino said, stopping in his tracks. Doc and I were carrying the boy. I looked into Domino’s eyes, and I could see the pain sink in. Domino had a child himself and was more a father in that moment than warrior.
We put the boy in the truck and they sped off to the LZ. We remained in a daze. Finally, I turned to Ishmael and said, “Show me where this happened.”
We followed Ishmael back up the hill. Inside the uncle’s house were the four pints of blood that the boy had lost before his veins collapsed. There were cracks in the concrete floor where it had coagulated an inch thick, looking like maple syrup. We left bootprints in the precious liquid.
The uncle was beside himself, hysterical. He wasn’t all there. What dementia he had prior to this had taken him over. What we got out of him through the help of our English speaking friend was that three men in masks came to the door asking for water. As the man let them in, they fired directly at the young boy. He was the target. A ten year old. Then they ran.
Blood filled up the room. The demented man scrubbed as hard as he could, and there were smear marks all over. Outside the back door was the boy’s jacket—a twisted mass of polyester and blood clots. It looked like a dead dog.
We patrolled back to the base in silence.
I conducted the debrief, and filled Fox 6 in on what we had found. I showed him the pictures. “You did the right thing, Sergeant Perna. I’m sorry that I didn’t listen to you at first,” he said. Through all his command problems, through all the orders I thought were bullshit—there was a sensitive man behind the facade. The fog of war was thick, and his command decisions were, in fact, the best he could do. All of us did the absolute best that we could. But still, people died, and we all lost parts of ourselves that we would miss very much.
I walked slowly to the squad’s room, sloughing off my gear and laying down on my bed.
“Why do you think they’d shoot a kid?” Booth asked.
“Ishmael said that a distant uncle is related to the Iraq Ambassador to the United States,” I said.
“That’s messed up,” Booth said.
“You think that’s messed up? I almost shot you in the foot to get a medevac.”
“Pern, you can’t shoot me.”
“Because I’m black. That’d be a hate crime.”