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She was There
“Don’t forget your helmet!” cried Sonya. Her blonde curls bobbed up and down as she ran towards me with my camouflage helmet. I knelt down and pulled her into a hug.
“Look at you, looking after Daddy! Thank you Sonya, you’ll always be my little girl,” I praised. Sonya beamed up at me, brown eyes brimming with suppressed tears.
“Daddy, will you be okay?” she quivered.
I hesitated. “Don’t worry about me, Sonya.”
Giving her one last squeeze, I turned away to go. My boots made deep imprints in the grass as I left my daughter behind. The warmth of the sun beat down upon the Green Zone neighborhood, as I took in the last of its safety and familiarity and marched towards the military truck.
Restlessness and anxiety hovered in the air. The breath caught in my chest. The new recruits fidgeted and tried to keep calm, as the veterans sat poker straight and unbearably still. Claustrophobic walls of canvas pressed us together in the truck. We all shrank into ourselves to avoid contact. I evaluated my new associates with a critical eye. Who would be the first to charge into battle? Who would be the one I could rely on? But most importantly: Who would be the first to die? I knew the consequences of war. I trained hard for this position. As I watched the yellow dust of Iraq trail behind the truck, I knew what I was here for and the nation I was to protect. The dense sky toned down its colors from a sandy yellow-gray to a powdery blue-black, while our truck skidded to a halt in front of the Unit 8 Military Base.
Sergeant Collins was there to greet us. “Men! Get in gear! Unit 8 leaves in two hours. Four tanks will follow the front line men. Walk in set formation!” he barked. Our barracks was a large 40 by 40 windowless box encased with gray cement walls. The chalky florescent white lighting lit up the dust from our uniforms and gear, as we shook out our things. I pulled on the camouflage uniform and strapped the artillery belt on top. Its weight settled and kept me grounded. My screened helmet lay on the bench. As I flipped it around, something fell out onto the ground. Bending over, I realized it was a pack of M&M’s. Sonya, I thought, my dear little Sonya. I put the M&M’s into my pocket and felt the waxy paper wrappings rub against my leg. It was comforting to be close to something that came from home. Sliding the helmet onto my head, I marched out to the main chamber of the base.
The soldiers stood in rigid lines facing Sergeant Collins. “We are to set off into Baghdad in less than ten minutes. You must all remember: we are entering enemy ground. Do not forget that we are at war against Iraq. All Iraqi civilians that you come across could be an enemy. Be watchful. Be careful. Don’t ever let down your guard. One mistake may cost a life, either yours or anyone in your ranks.” Ending on that dreadful note, he saluted and directed us onto the path that we would march to test the skills of our bravery and integrity. Resolution hardened inside of me. I was ready.
Our transportation helicopter landed on the outskirts of a small Iraqi village. We bounded out one by one and settled into a practiced formation, loose yet whole. Our throng was designed to move as one, but in a safe village, we covered more ground by slowly fanning out. The tanks were planned to follow about a quarter of a mile behind us. The village was silent as we infiltrated its boundaries. Dust flew into my face, cloaking my cheeks and glazing my clothes. A shadow of caution and fear followed my movements. I gripped my gun and held it closer to me. I moved along, constantly checking the locations of my companions. There was an invisible cloud of trepidation pressed down upon this town, choking and thick. Every house in the village was thatched of thick straw and backed up with soft wood to keep out the dust. No one seemed to live here. The terrain was flat and loosely packed. Winds blew and swirled dust into the sky where land and heavens met. I squinted hard through the dust. From behind my screened helmet, everything looked a sandy clay-yellow.
A sudden movement caught my eye. My spine stiffened. There was a little girl crouched on the side of the dirt road. She was about six or seven years old, just like Sonya. I took off my helmet to face her. That little girl stared directly back. I felt a sudden chill. Her eyes were Sonya’s eyes, dark brown with a fringe of dark lashes. But unlike Sonya’s, those eyes held a type of sorrow that was beyond her years; they held an understanding for neglect, for hunger, for war. Through those eyes, I could see into her soul. I was frightened of her. The girl was wrapped in a white cloth tunic. Her dark hair whipped around her face in the wind that swirled clouds of yellow dust up and about her form. Looking at this child, I saw Sonya. Sonya’s innocence and spirit was there in this little girl. She made me ache for a sense of safety and love.
Dropping my gun, I crouched down in front of the child. Wary, she kept her distance. A bitter sorrow replaced my fear. I wanted her to experience kindness. I took the M&M’s out of my pocket and threw them to her, as though I meant to do it all along. Looking confused, the child glanced up at me, then back down at the bag of candy. Taking slow, unsure steps, she went to retrieve the M&M’s. Her delicate fingers reached out and curled around the candy. Crouching down, she stared in amazement at the colorful bag in her hand. The girl’s face split into a luminescent smile that softened the cutting edges of her demeanor. Her eyes lit up to a golden auburn, and she glowed like tanned parchment over a flame.
I drank in her expression and savored it. She was happy. It was so simple, yet so beautiful. Her eyes were bright with an inner flame. Thank you.
The ground trembled. A dim hum of tires disturbed the silence. Breaking the trance, I thought: Is this what war was for? To obtain comfort and kindness for those who were robbed of it? I glanced down at myself. Is that what I’m here for? Undoing my artillery belt, I set it down by my gun. The child still cupped the candy in her hands. I prayed for bliss to wrap its numbing content around the child.
The far off sound of tires rumbled closer. A dark shadow loomed up behind the curtain of dust. I let out a cry of surprised fear. Scrambling, I tumbled out of the path and ducked behind one of the straw houses. The little girl was still on the road. I hesitated, and then struggled towards her. Half-blinded by the dust, I saw a dark shadow run across the road. The girl looked up, startled. She froze in fear and confusion. She clutched the bag of M&M’s tightly.
A wave of panic drowned me. In a blur of green and brown, there were the letters printed in stark white on the side of the tank: UNIT 8. I stood there. A curtain filmed over my eyes, blank and empty.