Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Job

Pfc. Hedley tells me that her fiance is dead.

We're in the motor pool, hauling sandbags for the First Sergeant detail, when she makes this statement. I stop in my tracks and halt my conversation with one of the other soldiers. I look at her, not sure how to react.

"Wait... what did you just say?"

She looks at me evenly, brow furrowed, and shrugs. "You heard me."

I shake my head. " I don't know what the hell I heard. All I heard was...no. You've gotta be shitting me."

I stop and rub at my right temple, chewing on my bottom lip.

"Come on," I say, pointing over to the parked five-ton. "Let's go over here." She follows me, saying nothing.

Once we get over to the truck, I pull out a cigarette and offer it to her. She shakes her head.

"I've already got one."

She goes to pull out a pack of Newports. Shrugging, I take the proffered Camel for myself, sticking it between my lips and lighting up. There is a pause as we each take our first drags, and with my first exhalation, I speak up again, quietly.

"What happened?"

She bites her lip, staring up at the sky. It's cold this morning, as it has been every morning for the last month. She says nothing for a moment, but when she goes to speak again, she looks at me with a hard glare.

"Know that convoy I told you about?"

"Yeah."

"Remember that fight we had about him taking the gunner position?"

"Uh huh." I already know where this is going.

She nods once, glancing down at her feet. "Thanksgiving. IED."

I close my eyes. I was afraid of this. The letters stand for Improvised Explosive Device, and are the technical military term for any manner of homemade roadside bomb. I let out a small sigh, involuntarily.

"Are you sure?"

She nods again. "I had to find out from his fucking mom." Her fiance was in another unit, elsewhere in Iraq, and not being married, Hedley couldn't be listed as Next of Kin. I don't even know what to say to this. I take another drag, watching a pair of Apache helicopters in the distance. I don't know whether to hug her or give her space, and so I simply choose to stay where I'm at.

"I'm so sorry," I tell her.

She gives me a bitter smile. "Don't be." She crosses her arms, looking back for hunched shoulders.

"He was in the turret. Chunk of shrapnel hit him beneath the kevlar. They kept pumping him full of blood, and he just kept bleeding. Then he went under, into a coma; his vitals just kind of shit out, and that was it."

"Jesus."

She laughs harshly. "I know, right?" There's another long pause, and all I can do is look at her. After a moment, I ask her, "Have you been to the chaplain?"

She shakes her head. "No, but my platoon sergeant is making me go."

I nod. "Good. I'd be pissed off at your leadership if they weren't."

She shrugs. Another pause, and she looks up again.

"His mom wants to cremate him."

"And you don't."

"No." Hedley is a practicing Wiccan, and doesn't believe in cremation. That conversation will no doubt be very ugly. I shake my head, stamping out my smoke.

"I can't even imagine what you must be going through."

"It hasn't really hit me yet. I'm just trying to focus on work right now. It's the only thing I can do."

"You gonna go to the funeral?"

"Maybe," she says, "if they let me."

"God." I light up another smoke, and stare at her. I'm not sure what I'm searching for, but her eerie level of composure makes me nervous. I'm glad she keeps staring at her boots. I don't think I could hold her gaze right now.

"It's just," she speaks up suddenly. "What am I going to do? One day, I'm going to have teach our child about him." Tears suddenly start welling up in her eyes, and she blinks them away.

"How am I going to tell our son that his dad was...?" She trails off, taking a deep breath. Her jaw tightens, and I notice the slight twitch at the corner of her bottom lip.

"Come here," I say, pulling her into a hug. She doesn't break, but she sniffles a bit, and her breath catches.

"God, you have no idea how sorry I am." She whimpers, and I wish there were something other the same tired theme to retread. Nearly four years of college, and here my words fail me.

"No, it's fine."

Back in the rear, the death of a spouse would pretty much be one-way ticket to a hardship discharge. But Hedley and her partner weren't married, and especially being in the combat environment, all Hedley has to look forward to are a few sessions with the chaplain, before being declared Fit for Duty and sent right back out the wire. I'm reminded again of the novel "Catch-22," and the way the characters of that story were just endlessly ground into the dust, their humanity overlooked by the objective-oriented military bureacreacy. I know what awaits her, and I don't envy her.

"I'm so sorry," I tell her again. We're still embracing. She still refuses to cry. That's the one thing I hate about this line of work--there is no margin made within the ranks for human frailty.

We're supposed to be soldiers. We're not supposed to get depressed, or cry, or feel sorry for ourselves. We're just supposed to embrace our miserable lot, and anyone whose circumstances conflict with that lot are simply viewed as being weak. An hourlong memorial ceremony, a few sessions with the chaplain, and we're supposed to get right back out there. "Part of the job," people will say.

It's not even the command chain's fault, is the worst part. It's the fault of the other soldiers around us. It's all part of that jostling, "Born to Kill" mentality we're led to believe we should embrace, and frankly it makes me wish that there were more women in the Army. Out here, she's supported by her leadership, and maybe she'll be left alone for a little while, but the Job will still always be what matters most.

And this morning, on her behalf, I resent this Job more than anything.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anne said...

Oh, baby...Give that poor girl a hug from me.

12:04 PM  
Blogger cinnabari said...

Shit.

That's the most eloquence I can manage. Sorry isn't adequate, either, but that's the closest I can come to the feeling I've got.

Hugs for her. And for you.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Cheryl Friend said...

My heart aches for the both of you! The worst feeling in the world is not knowing what to say! But you know what, a hug says it all. My prayers to the both of you.

Courage is endurance for one moment moreā€¦
Unknown Marine Second Lieutenant in Vietnam

8:24 PM  
Anonymous Bob said...

Just so heartbreaking. You're a good dude, man. Karma warrior.

3:54 PM  
Blogger essa said...

Shit... what can you say besides, "shit".

5:04 PM  
Anonymous mik said...

So sorry, Milo. Give her a hug for me, too.

5:09 AM  
Blogger Pixie said...

Shit, shit, shit.

12:22 AM  

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