A Glass, and Darkly
Chapter 15: Bohica
20 October 2004 – Bagram Airbase, Bagram, Afghanistan
The vivid primary colors in front of Jeff contrasted sharply with the dull tan of the walls surrounding him. He could hear the bustle of activity outside the chapel tent, though the rigid walls muted the sound. He didn’t know how long he’d been staring at the flag-draped casket in the room; he felt there was much he didn’t know at this point.
Ivan Gilchrist hadn’t been in Afghanistan a week before they loaded him on another C-17 headed back out of the country; at least he was alive. Emilio Reyes commented that he hadn’t even been in the country long enough to cast a shadow. Like many of Jeff’s fellow Rangers Ivan was an active person before joining the Army, and was always outdoors hiking, fishing, biking, or playing volleyball when he got the chance after joining. He planned to start doing all those things again after they returned from deployment; depending on the kid’s attitude he should be able to do much of what he did before despite losing both his arms. Rangers weren’t the kind of people who gave up easily.
Norm Oteri’s leg wound needed a good cleaning, twenty or thirty stitches, and some antibiotics; what it really needed was for him to stay off of it, which probably wouldn’t happen. Ruben Montes, who’d been ahead of Terry Nauert when the explosion happened, suffered a broken left scapula and a severe concussion from impacting debris. Blow Blajewski’s position in the squad behind Terry shielded him from the blast because he hadn’t yet rounded the corner into that hallway. As for Terry, Rick hadn’t wanted Jeff to roll him over because his face wasn’t there any more. Within the past month almost a quarter of the Rangers deployed with his platoon were gone, in one way or another, as were their replacements.
The outside noise rose when the door opened, then dropped off again when it closed. Jeff didn’t turn to look at whoever just entered the tent. Mickey Kasperson lowered himself into a seat and sat silently next to Jeff.
“When’s the plane leaving for Dover?” Mickey asked after a few minutes of silence. All US war dead are received at Dover Air Force Base’s Center for Mortuary Affairs before being released for internment.
“This afternoon,” Jeff answered in a monotone. Silence wrapped itself around the room and those in it again.
Mickey glanced at Jeff out of the corner of his eye. He saw the bloodstains spattered across the front of Jeff’s plate carrier and the legs of Jeff’s BDUs. Jeff still wore his equally-bloody combat gloves. Jeff’s weapons likely still held rounds in the chambers though Mickey could see the safeties set; Mickey quickly revised his opinion on that – Jeff was too much of a professional to forget to clear them. It was evident, though, that he hadn’t taken any time for himself since returning.
“Can I bring you something to eat? Get you some water?”
Jeff realized he hadn’t eaten anything since dinner the night before. His stomach growled; it sounded loud in the chapel’s silence.
“Maybe later. I don’t want to leave him, and I don’t want to eat in here.”
Mickey nodded. “I’ll stay with him while you go eat if you and your platoon would be okay with that. Wouldn’t be the first shiva I’ve helped sit.”
“Maybe later,” Jeff repeated.
Mickey said nothing. He heard choppers coming and going from the airfield in the distance, the scream of jet engines, trucks roaring by outside, troops calling cadence while they ran. Jeff didn’t respond to any of it if he heard it at all.
“‘One life for each to give,’” Jeff whispered.
Jeff looked down and shook his head, causing a tear to fall to the floor.
“The Sox won Game Six, by the way,” Mickey told him, trying to bring Jeff out of his funk. “Game Seven in the early hours tomorrow.” No reaction. “Jeff?”
“None of it matters, Mickey. It’s all a damn game. They’ve got us over here killing and being killed, and for what? We’re tearing lives apart on both sides, sowing the seeds of future hate, future war. Put all of us down south, let us take the Taliban out, and send us the hell home. We don’t need effing oil anymore, so pull us out of the damn Middle East all together.”
“They’d still come for us, Jeff,” Mickey reminded him gently. “Part of why we were attacked is they hate what we stand for, how we live, how we allow our women to live. If they leave us alone they probably feel like they’re condoning it.” He turned back to the casket and sighed. “My dad’s side of the family was almost entirely wiped out because they were different; it’s been that way down through history regardless of who the different ones were.”
Jeff stared blankly at Terry’s casket again; his was the look military folks call ‘the thousand-yard stare.’ “Twenty-one, Mickey. He was only twenty-one. Now his life’s over and we’re getting ready to ship him off to Arlington. A handful of people will be there for his funeral, but no one he knew. He’s got no other family, and almost all his friends are here. His best friend was the CLS we shipped home from Kandahar missing a leg.”
“You’re feeling guilty.”
“You’re goddamn right I am!” Jeff spat. “I’m the effing medic! His ‘Doc!’ Where the hell was I when he needed me? I WASN’T EFFING THERE FOR HIM!”
“Jeff, you remember the combat medic’s three rules, don’t you?” Mickey asked. Again he received no reply from his fellow New Englander. “One: people will die in war. Two: Doc can’t save everyone. Three: Doc will personally lead a charge into Hell trying to change Rules One and Two.”
Jeff blinked his reddened eyes quickly but said nothing as he continued to stare off into the distance.
“What would have happened to Ivan?” Mickey sighed.
“What?” Jeff asked while turning to face Mickey.
“If you hadn’t been with your 2d Squad last night, what would have happened to Ivan Gilchrist?”
“Norm would have taken care of him.”
“Really? You think so?”
“Yes!” Jeff insisted. “He was right there!”
“Funny how Norm just told me Ivan would have bled to death if you weren’t with them. He said he locked up when the blast happened but you jumped right in.”
“You go ask him yourself, then! He’s right outside!” Jeff turned away from the SF medic, his face a mask of angry defiance. “The fact is Jeff, whether you want to admit it to yourself or not, there’d have been two dead last night if you were with 1st and not 2d last night.”
“Get out,” Jeff growled, glaring at the man next to him again. Mickey didn’t budge. “EFFING GET OUT! GET THE GODDAMN HELL OUT OF MY FACE!”
Mickey stared Jeff down. Jeff eventually turned away with tears tracking down his face. It was only then that Mickey silently left the tent.
Army CID and 2d Platoon clashed over the subject of bringing the person or persons responsible for 2d‘s ambush to justice; CID wanted justice but what 2d really wanted was revenge, and everyone knew it. For that reason the Army ultimately chose CID to raid the interpreters’ area; they took four of them into custody for passing information to the insurgents.
An understrength 2d Platoon went outside the wire the night after Terry Nauert’s death; Blow swapped out his M-4 for Terry’s Mk46. The machine gun made him look smaller than he was, but Blow didn’t show any difficulty in handling the larger and heavier weapon. Emilio Reyes became the platoon’s new point man, moving from 2d Squad to 1st to fill the hole left by Ruben Montes’ absence.
Jeff, despite his foul mood days earlier, kept his focus and watched the men closely for any signs of excessive strain. The platoon and the health of its members became Jeff’s sole mission. Where he used to have a smile for the Afghans, a kind if not understood word for them, that night he only gave them a cold, blank stare. He showed no emotion when they showed their fear and anger, just an impassive mask.
With a successful – though admittedly soft-ball – operation under their belt following their tragedy, 2d went back out again the following night, still reduced in strength by one fire team. Norm Oteri rejoined them for this operation, though he should be off-line because of his leg. More replacement Rangers were in the pipeline to get the platoon back up to strength, but they would be another week in arriving.
The theory in sending 2d back out right away was the old adage of getting back on the horse after falling off it: dust yourself off and take another ride; the platoon needed to continue rebuilding their confidence. There was no chatter in the Black Hawks speeding toward the target that night. Each Ranger reviewed the plan in their mind, visualizing themselves moving through and securing the objective. The choppers flared over their destination, ropes dropped, and the Rangers exited the aircraft.
The target chosen for tonight’s assault was a step or two below the level of the targets the platoon normally took on. The skill level of the insurgents on the ground shouldn’t be anything the Rangers would have difficulty with. One of the Rangers did have difficulty with a basic soldier’s task, however: running. Blow Blajewski tripped over his own feet while running to the objective, stumbled to the side trying to keep his balance, and went sprawling in the dirt. He dropped his weapon on the ground and tripped over it as he fell.
He’s not living that down anytime soon, Jeff thought, glancing over while running to the target building.
It took a second for Blow to realize what happened. He looked around through his VAD and saw Sergeant Dinkins motioning for him to get up; his squad leader pointed toward the objective building while yelling something. Blow’s cheeks reddened in embarrassment; the rush of the blood in his ears due to that, combined with the roar of the rotor blades above his head as the choppers left the area, meant he couldn’t hear his sergeant. He nodded anyway and picked himself up. His weapon lay behind him after he got to his feet. He turned and steadied himself with a wide stance before reaching for the machine gun on the ground. Blow didn’t hear the muted <click> when his weight shifted to his front foot.
What overhead images from a reconnaissance drone couldn’t show were the reused, Soviet invasion-era anti-personnel mines buried throughout one section of the field where the Rangers landed – the section Blow stumbled into. Images taken on a bright overcast day meant the diffuse light cast no sharp shadows which might highlight hidden objects; wind and weather erased those signs soon after the mines were placed. The low priority of this target meant a long gap between overhead flights, which also made photo comparisons difficult. Long exposure to the elements in various other places meant the pressure plates for the clustered mines didn’t work as well as they once did; the twenty-five year-old mines were clustered to offset any possible degradation of their explosives.
Trace Dinkins took a step toward Blow while the young private bent over to retrieve the Mk46 which lay between them. Blow disappeared behind a blinding wall of dirt which erupted from the field below him. Trace brought his hands up to shield his face, twisted, and tried to dive for the ground. His actions kept him from seeing the twisted machine gun cartwheeling out of the maelstrom. The heavy lump of plastic and steel smashed broadside into Trace’s chest, crushing the left side of his rib cage. Without his armor to attenuate the impact, or if the muzzle of the weapon had impacted first, Trace would already be dead.
Rick Mendoza recalled the choppers while Jeff sprinted to Trace and Blow. A glance at the shattered nineteen year-old crumpled in the dirt told Jeff that Blow was dead. Trace lay unconscious and seemed to be having trouble breathing. Norm Oteri arrived; together they worked to get Trace’s plate carrier out of the way. Finally, they saw Trace’s injury once they had his shirt open.
“Flail chest?” Norm asked.
“Exactly,” Jeff confirmed. The machine gun’s impact broke multiple adjacent ribs in two or more places creating a free-floating or ‘flail’ segment; that segment moved in opposite directions to Trace’s chest expansions and contractions, impeding his breathing. Jeff soon discovered another problem.
“His left lung’s collapsed.” Jeff molded a flexible aluminum splint into a wide, flat shape. Norm held it over the flail segment while Jeff taped it down tightly to ease Trace’s breathing. Jeff ran his fingers over Trace’s chest. “No sign of sub-q air...”
“Subcutaneous emphysema, what we sometimes call sub-q air or ‘Rice Krispies.’ It’s one sign of a pneumothorax which could develop into a tension pneumo. We’ll have to keep an eye out for that and other symptoms on the flight back.” Rather than wait for MEDEVAC in this case they’d bring Trace to Bagram’s hospital themselves, decreasing the time required to get him there.
Norm nodded, then looked over at Blow’s body. He looked back at Jeff and the older man nodded. Jeff took off his pack and pulled a thick, black object from it while Norm walked over to their platoon-mate. As gently as he could under the circumstances, Norm lifted Blow over his shoulder and carried him back to Jeff; together they put the young Ranger in the body bag. The pair recruited others returning from the empty building to help carry Blow’s body bag while they carried Trace’s stretcher.
“What the hell did you idiots think you were doing?” Rick raged when they returned carrying the injured squad leader.
“You could have been killed!”
“They were thrown clear by the blast; plus you’re forgetting one very important thing, Sarge,” Norm said.
“And what’s that?”
“Never will I leave a fallen comrade,” Norm paraphrased to his platoon sergeant. Rick had no answer for that as the choppers landed behind him. Every recruit learned the original phrase as part of the Army’s Soldier’s Creed; that phrase was especially true in units like the Rangers.
2LT Snow jogged over from the choppers. “Let’s move! That building’s set to blow in ten minutes!”
Rick motioned the two toward the choppers with their burden.
Damn, he looks like shit, Jeff thought. Trace Dinkins still lived – though he was deep in the weeds – as he lay in the small ICU at Bagram’s Role Three hospital. As soon as staff could stabilize him a little more they’d ship him out to a higher level of care.
“How’s he doing, Jeff?”
“He’s sick as snot, LT. They’ve got that lung re-inflated, but now he’s slowly bleeding into the fibrous sac that surrounds the heart. That sac doesn’t stretch so if they can’t figure out which part of the heart he’s bleeding from and stop it, the blood will smother it. They’ll have to continually drain that blood until it stops and, if it doesn’t stop on its own, they’ll go in to find where it’s coming from. They’ll probably ship him to Landstuhl later today, regardless; I doubt they want to crack his chest here if they can help it. What’s the word from on high?”
“We’re sidelined for at least the next two weeks or so, maybe longer. We’ve lost almost a quarter of our platoon over the past month, nearly a whole squad; this early in a deployment that’s not good. Even Norm will be almost a month in coming back since that leg wound opened up again. We’re going to reset, reload, and rest up. The five newbies will be here the day after tomorrow, and it’s going to take some effort to get them integrated. We’ll be at the range and practicing movement skills together a lot before we’re ready for missions again. Thankfully they’re experienced Rangers who volunteered to be replacements.”
“Headed back to the tent?”
“No, sir. I’m gonna head over to the hospital library and try to catch up with a friend there so I can apologize to him.”
“Your buddy from 12th Group?”
“Yeah, I said some unfair things to him after Terry Nauert was killed. If he’s not there I’ll go looking for him. I’ll be back at our tent later this afternoon.”
“Let me know if you need help with anything,” the young officer said, resting his hand on Jeff’s shoulder.
“Thanks, LT, but I got myself into this mess, so it’s up to me to get myself back out.” 2LT Snow patted Jeff on the shoulder and stepped out of Trace’s semi-private ICU bay. Jeff sighed, took one more look at another wounded friend, and left.
Jeff walked out of the ICU, heading through the attached step-down unit, and noticed a familiar face in a bed whose curtain was now open – Mickey Kasperson. Mickey’s color was good, and he looked healthy enough despite being in the step-down; he looked like he was simply asleep. Mickey’s eyes opened as Jeff scanned his monitor’s readout from the foot of the bed. He blinked a couple times and his eyes focused on Jeff.
“Hey,” Mickey said.
“I heard you guys had a rough night again. Sorry.”
“Yeah,” Jeff sighed. “Mick, I owe you an apology.”
Mickey shook his head. “I went too far the other day. It wasn’t right for me to push you like that when you were hurting.”
“It needed to be said, Mick. Last night proved you were right. Blow had no chance. It didn’t matter I was less than fifteen meters from him; he died the moment those mines went off. We’d been thinking we were invincible up until DJ got hurt. Even then our mortality didn’t really sink in until Terry died. That’s part of what shook me up the other day.” Jeff shook his head. “What are you doing in here, by the way? It’s not like a snake eater to shirk duty like this.”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re not funny?” Mickey asked while waving him to a chair.
“Only every day,” Jeff laughed as he sat down.
“If you must know, a hot appy landed me in here.”
“An inflamed appendix? You’re shitting me.”
“I shit you not, sir; you’re my favorite turd. I ignored some growing abdominal pain for a few days and I almost passed out in the team tent two nights ago trying to watch the World Series ‘analysis’ show. Game One’s only a day away now, but they’ll be hyping this one up until the first pitch is thrown; they can prognosticate all they want but there’s a reason you actually play the games. Anyway, the appy almost burst before they could take it out and they’ve been pumping me full of antibiotics ever since.”
“How long you on the bench for?”
“Should be out of here by tonight, or so they tell me. They want me up and around for a bit before my plane ride to avoid those pesky blood clots which might hinder my recovery. They’ll ship me home to rehab there in a day or two. After that it’ll be however long it takes me to get back into fighting trim.”
“What about you and your platoon?” Mickey asked.
“We’re on a two week stand-down at a minimum. We’ve got five new guys coming in that’ll have to be brought up to speed before we go back out. Five wounded and two KIA since Kandahar, plus one injured who will be back; almost a quarter of the platoon.”
Now it was Mickey’s turn to whistle. “That’ll be a big job while you guys are deployed.”
“Charlie Mike, Mickey.”
“Good attitude, Sergeant,” someone new said. Jeff saw the newcomer’s rank and popped to his feet.
“Jeff, meet my team CO, Captain Arturo DeFusco. Sir, this is my friend from the 3d Ranger Battalion I told you about, Staff Sergeant Jeff Knox.”
“Good to meet you, Sergeant. Bravo Company, right? Your company CO and I were at West Point together.”
“Good to meet you too, sir. I’m afraid I haven’t run into Captain Miller much since we deployed; he’s been pretty busy checking on our company’s platoons while we’re scattered all over all over the map here.” Jeff turned back to Mickey. “I’ve gotta get back over to our platoon’s tent and start reading up on the newbies so I can help the chain of command get them integrated once they get here.”
“No problem, Jeff. Thanks for coming to find me. I’ll try and see you before I ship out.”
“Good enough.” Jeff turned and nodded at CPT DeFusco. “Sir.” He left the hospital.
“Seems like a good guy,” CPT DeFusco observed.
“Sure is, sir. He’s a Red Sox fan, after all.” CPT DeFusco, a New Jersey native, rolled his eyes. “From what I’ve learned about him over the last few months, he could be the answer to the team’s problem too, sir.”