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The sun was just above the horizon when I awoke. I went through my normal routine of showering and eating a hot breakfast. However, today wasn’t a typical day. It was a big day, one I hadn’t wanted to come, but also one I couldn’t wait for. Today I was leaving to join the fight against the Taliban. I was a Private First Class in the Second Light Infantry Division of the Canadian Armed Forces.
The cab honked, startling me. I gathered my duffel bag containing photos of my family and girlfriend, and a hunting knife my father had given me on my eighteenth birthday.
I took a last look around my apartment, noticing the bare walls. I sighed, knowing once I left, I wouldn’t be back. This place had become my home during the last year; I was going to miss it. I stepped outside and walked to the cab, not looking back.
I handed the driver a crisp 20. I would fly from Calgary to Toronto, staying at the base for a few nights before flying to Kandahar.
As I entered the terminal, I saw familiar faces. My family, a few friends, and my girlfriend had come to see me off. I smiled, feeling a lump in my throat. This was the last time I would see any of them for a very long time. I noticed my mother had shining eyes … she had never wanted me to join the army, much less go off to fight. I remember very clearly the day I told her I was going.
“You don’t have to, sweetheart, if you don’t want to,” she had said.
“Mom, I want to,” I had said quietly. She hadn’t seemed to hear me.
“There are many things you can do right here in Canada to help. You don’t have to put yourself in danger,” she had pleaded, on the verge of tears.
This was going to be a hard good-bye.
After going through security, I boarded the plane. After a few minutes, the turbines began to whir, and the plane pulled toward the runway. My heart beat with anticipation. These would be days to remember.
The convoy hummed as it traveled through the outskirts of Kandahar. Two jeeps, each with five soldiers and a manned machine gun on top, were on patrol duty, trying to keep our half of Kandahar safe. I was settled in, my rifle pointed up with the safety on.
My thoughts wandered to home. I missed it already. I hated being away from everyone I loved, and I missed city life. My first two days here had been dull. Once we arrived we’d been given an orientation of the airfield, then pressed right into patrol duty, which wasn’t exciting. So far I hadn’t seen any action … I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
The other guys were talking about home. Most of them had been here a while.
“Jim, what’d you leave back home? Got a wife or girlfriend?” a guy named Simon asked me.
“Yeah, my girl’s doing a degree in psychology. How about you?”
“No, she left me just before I came to this stinkhole. She wasn’t going to wait.”
Sometimes I wondered if my girlfriend would wait for me. She said she would; I hoped it was true.
On my left was Sergeant Ryan Smith. He’d been here a long time. He was a brutal sarge, one who demanded the absolute best, which always seemed to be more than anyone could do. If you ever got a compliment, it was not to be disregarded.
Across from me was Justin. He’d been here two months, a private, like me. Corporal Heather Davis was driving. I thought she was brave to face the Taliban and the torment of an all-male group. She was hardened and had experienced a roadside bomb and an urban firefight or two alongside Sarge. Not many could say they’d seen action, though. Usually we kept to our half of the city and the Taliban to theirs.
I heard a muffled explosion. Through the front window, I saw the jeep ahead of us roll over.
“Bomb!” Heather shouted. She slammed on the brakes just in time, as the second one blew up right in front of us. I was tossed forward and hit my head. My vision blurred, and for a second I lost my hearing. I thought I would black out, but everything quickly came back into focus.
“Hostiles on the west side!” Sarge shouted. “Everyone out of the jeep! Someone get on the big gun!”
All hell broke loose. I grabbed my gun and bailed out. Simon got up on the gun and began firing. It was loud and drowned out all other sounds. Countless shells hit the ground. Men stood in the long grass and began shooting at us. Most seemed to be very bad shots, but there were lots of them – at least 12.
I leaned around the jeep and tried to return fire, but my trigger was stuck. I tried again, and it wouldn’t move. I looked at my gun and found the problem. I clicked off the safety and fired at a man 25 yards away. I didn’t think about any family he had, or loved ones who would miss him. I was trying to survive. I fired a few times and hit a tree, then he ducked out of sight.
I paused to reload, and the machine gun droned on. I saw a Taliban fighter stand up in the grass with a long tube-like object on his shoulder. He fired and a stream of smoke trailed behind the projectile. I felt my heart sink as I realized what it was.
“RPG!” I shouted. “Move!” I dove toward a ditch as far from the jeep as I could. The explosion knocked the wind out of me, but I’d gotten far enough away to escape. I lay still for a second and then rolled into the ditch.
Simon had been in the jeep when the RPG hit. He hadn’t heard me; I don’t think it would have made a difference. He’d cut down at least four Taliban fighters. I heard Sarge calling for backup. I aimed at the man who’d fired the RPG. Taking my time, I fired. He clutched his gut and went down.
Unless anyone from the other jeep was still conscious, we were alone until backup arrived. It was four against seven. We had no big gun and no air support. Our chances looked grim.
The gunfire stopped for a few seconds and I spotted an open jeep speeding down the dirt road. It showed no intention of stopping. It was 50 meters away now, spraying dust behind it. We couldn’t afford to have more Taliban against us. I brought my gun up and began firing. A few holes appeared in the windshield, then I hit a tire. The jeep lost control and rolled into a ditch. I smiled and turned my attention back to the other hostiles. I reloaded, fired, reloaded and fired again.
It must have been only five minutes, but it seemed like a lifetime. I began to hear whirring above us; then I saw Taliban soldiers falling like dominos. Hot shells dropped into my shirt and burned my skin. I looked up and saw a military helicopter – our backup had arrived. I heaved a sigh of relief. Soon the gunfire ceased, and I knew we were going be okay.
I was sitting on the ground beside our wrecked jeep when I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Then Sarge spoke.
“You know, Private, in the heat of battle, you can’t always make the right decisions.”
I was quiet. I didn’t know where this was going. What had I done wrong?
“When one is pressed to make a quick decision, they have to base it on the information they have at the time,” he continued.
“Did I do something wrong, Sarge?” I asked.
“Yes, something terribly wrong, but something any man, including myself, could have done in your position. Follow me, Jim.” He brought me to the jeep I had shot, overturned in the ditch. The windshield was smashed and smoke billowed from the engine. To the side, bodies of the victims were laid out.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I saw the product of my hasty decision. A two-year-old child had a hole in his arm and a gash across his face. Blood crusted his clothing and forehead. Beside him was a woman, just as bloody, with a surprised look frozen on her face. Then a man.
Hate overwhelmed me. This was the Taliban’s fault. If they weren’t here, we wouldn’t be. I screamed. I screamed louder than ever before. It echoed, even though there were no mountains or buildings around. What had I done? I looked again at the child’s face. A sob escaped my lips.
“Forgive me,” I whispered.
I ran. I ran past the bodies of the dead Taliban fighters. I heard voices calling me, but I didn’t stop. I kept running until exhaustion overwhelmed me. I knelt and began to sob. I could not live with what I had done.
My hand went to my pistol and I pulled it out. I put the barrel under my chin. It was cool, even in the blazing heat. My finger felt the trigger, and I began to shake. Sweat poured down my back. My fingers slipped and I almost dropped the gun.
My heaving sobs continued. I was overwhelmed. I hated myself for my crime. I’d taken the life of a child. I deserved to die. But something stopped me. My thoughts went back home, to my girl, my family, my friends. I had promised them I would be safe. None of them believed it, but I’d promised I would be back, and not in a body bag.
I uncocked my pistol and got back up to do my job.