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He awoke out of deep slumber only to feel shafts of pain searing his nerves.
Laying on a canvas stretcher, the sullen crash of artillery beat a cadence in the back of his mind. Towering above him, the grim, frowning crags of Mount Suribachi stared down across the beach. Iwo Jima. A dead volcanic rock where thousands were receiving their fiery baptism into the deathly rites of combat.
His tortured breath rasped spasmodically. Agony radiated from each wound, but that was nothing compared to the torture his mind was putting him through. Like a hellish movie, scenes replayed themselves. He saw himself struggling to reach the crest of the beach and belly-crawling through a forest of charred sticks towards a pillbox. Next to him, dragging the 30-caliber machine gun along, was his best friend Alan. Then the world erupted in roaring fury as the Japanese inside the pillbox rained down fire on the exposed Marines. He was screaming into Alan’s ear, trying to direct his fire. Then he looked over and saw his friend’s face, so peaceful, so serene.
Now he was running, red fury surging to his eyeballs and pounding in his ears. He was charging the pillbox, yelling like a fiend, lugging Alan’s machine gun awkwardly, perching it on his hip. He felt the first bullet punch into his shoulder, lurched, almost fell. But he kept running. The second caught his opposite arm and he spun drunkenly, staggering forward to the viewport of the pillbox--shoved the barrel in, and held down the trigger.
Dear God, the screaming. Would he ever forget?
The grenade came from farther up the hill, landing at his feet. He stared at it vacantly for a moment. Then came an interminable instant of panic.
Then it exploded.
The shrapnel tore through him and pitched him backwards down the slope. He remembered the strange feeling; knowing there were holes in his body, but no pain. Spreading stains leaked from the holes and dyed his fatigues a dull crimson. Still no pain.
Then the pain shot through every nerve and he slipped mercifully into unconsciousness.
Now he stared up into the unshaven face of a Navy corpsman-a medic. “Hiya, kid. Just lay back, we’ll have you patched up here soon enough.”
The young Marine gasped raggedly, fighting for air. Glazed eyes gazed past the medic’s face vacantly. The boy’s countenance was stamped with sorrow, the despair of an old, broken man. Tears traced white paths through the grime on his face. His torn hand sought and found a small silver cross, crusted now with dried blood.
One word, despairing and harsh, knifed into the silence.
The corpsman shook his head. “I don’t know.”
He would have spoken again, but he saw the young man slipping further into shock with each passing second. Quickly, the corpsman inserted an IV into the boy’s arm, life-giving plasma dripping slowly into emptied veins.
“Hang on, kid, you’re gonna make it.”
All around them, medics labored feverishly, trying to save the broken and torn as young lives drained into the black sands of Iwo Jima. The wounded Marine saw all this but took no notice. Over and over again, he charged up the hill, heard the dying screams of the Japanese soldiers. And he saw Alan lying there in the powdery ash, his body twisted and broken. A dry, barking sob escaped the boy’s cracked lips.
“Alan! God, why?”
He looked up at Suribachi’s frowning crags, the brooding stare of the mountain pressing down into his soul. Suddenly, his dim eyes caught a flash of bright color. At the summit, six Marines strained to lift a twisted scrap of pipe into place, hoisting a defiant banner above the blood-soaked wasteland below. Crimson, white, and navy blue, a small flag flapped out strongly, shining like a beacon to all the tired, hungry, hurting Marines below. A roar like the ocean’s swell ripped from men’s throats as they cheered the Stars and Stripes till they couldn't rasp another joyous sound. The battle for Iwo Jima would rage on for another bloody month, the war for months beyond that. But the victory was already theirs.
The young Marine’s head dropped back to the canvas, tears running freely again. He remembered the flag he knew best, the flag that used to fly in front of the old church in town. He remembered the day he and Alan had signed their papers, then burst out of the recruiter’s office, shouting at the top of their lungs, pounding each other on the back.
And he remembered Alan’s face, finally at rest, slumbering in death.
Turning to the corpsman, the young Marine forced his dim eyes to focus on the grizzled face before him.
“Sir, I think I understand. But I wish--I wish…”
“I wish too, son. But there’s just not another way.” The navy corpsman swiped a grimy sleeve across his face and returned to his task. He jabbed the needle of a morphine styrette into the boy’s arm. “Gotta get you back in working order, kid. You’re going home.”
The Marine gripped his cross as he sank back onto the rough canvas. His eyes closed as pain’s grip finally relaxed, and a faint smile played across his lips.
He was going home.