Old Soldiers

December 10, 2009
By , Shelbyville, KY
We all clustered around the dead man. His name was Bryant, and he’d been popular – always had a joke or a word of encouragement. We wouldn’t have made it without him, but none of us had been there when he needed us.
None of us knew how he had died – there were no visible wounds, at least none that we could see before the medics took him away. There was no blood, no discoloration of the flesh, no strangle marks around his neck.
All that was discernible was a strange, peaceful look on his face. His eyes shined brightly at something, his brow was smooth, and his mouth held a gentle smile. It was the face of a man who had seen the approach of an angel.

He hadn’t known that it was the angel of death.

Little did we know, as we clustered around fires and tried to read the foreign language in the local newspapers, that this was to be only the first of many separations. For next day, the second in command was found in the same condition – only his manner of death had been quite different.
Lieutenant Walberg had been distant from his men, issuing orders from Above and caring nothing for them as people. He had needlessly ordered three men into crossfire. Rumor had it that he had a personal grudge against them, but the official reports said that it was a “necessary tactical maneuver.” These men were soldiers to him; not people, only soldiers. No one was very sorry to see him dead, but everyone was beginning to get really scared.
Whatever was stalking us, it wasn’t something that could be seen by a watchman, stopped by a guard, or fled by its victim.

Next afternoon, I was eating my last K ration when I heard men shouting. This time, a patrol had been coming home when they’d found another one. He lay face down in a pool of blood, his back a gory mess.

He wore our uniform, but was not one of our men. He was Jean, a traitor to his own cause. The story went that he had, instead of simply deserting, gone and stabbed his commanding officers in the back before going to the enemy side during the failed last assault. To make matters worse, we all knew that he would do the same thing to his new friends if the tides of war should turn.
For some reason, I understood why his face held a look of terror as he had faced one whom he could not trick.

There were times when I heard a strange beeping sound, strange and unfamiliar. I couldn’t make out what it was – maybe those local tales of banshees really were true. None of us slept well after those days, and I prayed a lot harder than I had been. Time just seemed to start going faster, and every moment brought a new revelation.

The next thing I knew, I was with a group sent to check a downed telegraph line – it seemed that we weren’t able to contact the other squads. The old boys had lost touch with each other, and it was our job to fix the line, wherever it had broken down. We found a fallen tower – under it were clustered all the old guys we’d fought with – Perkins, Smith, even little Pierre. Not everyone was there, but a lot of our old friends had shown up. I was confused, but I was glad to see them. I didn’t know why they were all here. It was a glorious time though – we relived the battles, wondered where our other buddies had gone, and reminisced about the way things used to be at home. Eventually, even these old friends began to trickle away. By the time it was just me and my squad, even this group had diminished. There were only about half a dozen of us left.

When we went back, the camp was silent. We looked around, but we could not find anyone. They were all gone – nobody knew where. The lights were dark and the sun was going down as we trudged through the silent, muddy camp. One by one, my comrades split up to follow their own paths. Fuller was in front of me; he’d been dog tired on the way back. Suddenly he fell in front of me. I looked; he had that same look of peace on his face. I couldn’t even be frightened, only sad.

I looked around for the other guys, for someone, for sympathy.

I was alone, and the sun was already over the horizon. Darkness was almost complete.

Then the machine gun fire started, a distant memory of a dark past. I looked up and heard the fear in Mike’s voice – he had been my best friend on the voyage over; we’d waited on the Island and hit the beaches together. He’d gone down under the machine guns, and I still remembered him lying on the sand.
But there he was! He was running again, trying to get to cover. “Help!” he screamed. Then he went down, shot through the leg. I ran forward… Suddenly there was a bright light, and the sounds, smells, and fear were gone.

I looked up into the face of the nurse and was overwhelmed by the hospital scent.
“He’s awake,” she said.
“Quick! Help me get Mike! He’s down!” My voice sounded strangely hoarse and weak.
She looked down at me sympathetically, and I heard that strange beeping again.
I felt a needle go into my arm. She smiled at me. “Don’t worry, this will help you
sleep.” She stood back.

I heard her talking to another nurse as I drifted off.

“He hasn’t got long. Poor fellow’s been muttering about war and dead friends. It’s sad though – nobody’s here for him. I’d hate to go alone when it was my time.”

She paused.

“I wonder which war he was in.”

I struggled to speak past something in my mouth. “I don’t want to go alone!”

There were footsteps, and I no longer heard the voice of the nurses. I opened my eyes, and there before me was a man in a uniform. I was back! Didn’t know what that delirium with the nurse was.

“Medic! I need help – help me get Mike!” My voice was young and strong again.

He smiled. “I’ve already taken care of Mike. He’s home now, with his family.”

I stared.

“What are you talking about?”

He looked back calmly. “Don’t you recognize me?”

I looked into his face, and slowly I recognized him.

“General!”

He smiled back.

“I always come back for my own.”

He took my arm and led me. As we walked, the beeping sound receded.

“Where are we going?” I asked.
I almost forgot before I added, “Sir.” Somehow it felt unnecessary now.

“To the rest.”

Then I saw them – there they all were. The boys – Mike, Bryant, everybody. And was that Pierre with a wine glass? I couldn’t hold back a smile.

“But what’s going on?”

The General looked back at me. “Never leave a man behind. You served me well, and none of my soldiers dies alone!”

I took a few minutes to speak to the other men. I looked around – some were missing. None of the men like Jean were there. Odd – not depressing, but odd. “Where are the others?” The General frowned.

“They were not good men.”

“But some of these weren’t good men – I mean, they were good, but they weren’t religious or anything.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“Are you sure?”

I looked at him quizzically.

“Good men are rarely outspoken about it. It’s about who you are, not who people think you are.” He paused. “Sometimes they go hand in hand. But sometimes they don’t.”
Soon, the General tapped my arm.
“Sir?”

“Now that we’re all here, it’s time to move on.”

“Where are we going? Isn’t this the end? The end of the road?”

“Son, I was in charge of one little army in one little war. It’s time to meet the Supreme Commander. The One who runs the whole show – and He wouldn’t live in a boring little place like this.” The sky in the east was dim, but this time it was a brightening dimness.

“Come on, we don’t want to miss it!”

And as we walked on, I knew that my army wasn’t the one that had invented the motto, “No man left behind.” A Higher Power had already come up with the idea.

It was a comforting thought.





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