Nothing can show the raw unpredictability of war like the forest can. Anyone could sneak up on you, and usually it's too late until you finally notice. Red and I were marching through the dense air, doing a perimeter sweep of the area. Red was eight years my junior, and pretty recent to our platoon. A bunch of newbies were shipped in from home recently. At this rate there wouldn’t be anyone left to send.
Once you’ve been in the military for a few years, you start to notice the little things the new recruits tend to do, both in training and in combat. Last year, there was this man who earned the nickname Thumper. Whenever he was sitting down, he’d shake his legs so badly it would rattle the plates on a table. In Red’s case, it almost seemed funny how he would walk around when deployed. Red always clutched his M4 carbine close to his chest and walked like he was Elmer Fudd hunting Bugs Bunny.
I stopped walking at one point and just watched him. I remember when he stepped on a fairly large stick and froze, petrified by his own footsteps. Part of me felt bad for the guy. If I think back to my first time out in a war, I guess I was no better. My helmet felt too big, my med pack too heavy. I remember the first soldier I patched up. He had been shot in the leg with some type of machine gun. I had tried my best to save it, but when I asked him to curl his toes, he just couldn't.
The worst part was he thought he could curl them. He looked at me with his pale, sweaty face and broke out in a grin. He asked me if everything was okay, and when I thought he could walk again. For a second I hesitated, but when his smile started to fade I managed to tell him that it was still a little too early to tell, and we’d have to wait a few days. He gave me a goofy smile and a thumbs-up.
I didn’t lie to him. It was too early. But I wasn’t totally honest either. I could have told him that if he couldn’t move his toes in a few weeks, he probably wouldn’t be able to move them ever again. I could have told him that the likelihood of him gaining feeling back in his leg was so incredibly slim, it would be best not to have any false hope. But I didn’t. And you know what, he actually got better. I told this story to my buddy Forkes, and he claimed that it was the work of God. I didn’t buy it. How could God heal a man’s legs, then go off and take another man’s life?
I wanted to ask Red what he thought of the matter. I called out to him. He turned, and began to walk toward me. Before I could speak again, I heard a small click, and a sudden bright flash illuminated the night. I went completely airborne. My med pack was torn from me and I landed in a heap of vegetation and mud, with sharp splinters of wood raining down.
Before I could collect myself, there was another light, and a stronger blast to my left side. I was pushed across the ground, stopped by a tree that hit me in the back of the skull.
I groaned and rolled over. Grasping an overhead tree branch, I stood on shaky legs and reached for my M4 rifle. But the indistinguishable sound of gunfire was not present. Part of me was relieved - just booby traps. But my relief was soon snatched away when I registered Red’s screaming.
I stumbled forward, looking for my pack. Scraps of cloth littered the ground, and I realized that my pack probably succumbed to the second blast.
I changed course and made my way over to Red. He was lying face first on the ground. One of his legs had been blown clean off. The other was still attached by strings of flesh just at the knee. I dropped beside him and rolled him on his back. Without clean dressing or meds, he would’ve run a very high risk of infection. But if I didn’t use something, he’d bleed out. I figured if I could keep him stable until we got to the base, he’d be given proper medication to fight off whatever he picks up. But there's no way he’d make it without something to stop the bleeding.
I took off my jacket and pulled out my knife. I slit it down the middle and brushed off as much dirt as I could.
I then picked up a nearby stick and and forced it between his teeth.
As quickly as I could, I wrapped the shirt around the stump on his leg and used the sleeve to tie it in place.
Red let out a muffled scream and rolled his head back. Blood started to soak into the shirt, and soon even the shirt was dripping with blood. There was no time to be gentle.
I turned to the other foot and already knew I couldn't save it. It had to be removed. I used my knife to slice into the remaining flesh. I heard a crack, and when I looked back at Red he’d splintered the piece of wood between his teeth.
He spat out the wood and turned to me, face pleading and pale.
In almost a whisper, he said “I don’t want to die out here, man. Not here. Get me back. Not here, oh God not here, it’s too dark. I don't want to die in the dark. Don’t tell the others that I’m afraid of the dark.”
We were a mile away from base. The others probably heard the explosion and were most likely making their way over. But with the weight of their equipment and lack of a truck, they’d take too long.
Red’s pack was gone too, so he was light enough to carry. I started to pick him up over my shoulder, but he put a hand on my chest. We looked at each other. His eyes were half closed and his mouth hung open, ready to speak. But then his arm dropped to his side, and his body went limp.
I laid him down on the damp ground and tried to resuscitate him. I gave him CPR, long after I knew he was gone.
I heard the sound of people running through the woods. My platoon. As I flagged them down, I saw that Forkes was there. We made eye contact for a split second, and so many things passed between us at once it made my head hurt.
Two medics approached me. They produced an AED and attached the pads to his chest. I just sat on my knees, blank faced, and watched as they tried to bring back the dead.
It couldn’t have been more than five minutes till they leaned back. For a while, no one said anything. All sixteen of us, some standing, some sitting, just looked down at the boy. He was twenty years old. Not old enough to have a beer with his friends, but apparently just the right age to sacrifice his life.
One of the medics started to pronounce his death. But I stopped him mid-sentence.
“No. Not here.”
The medic tried to protest, but I just picked up the poor boy like a mother picking up her baby, and began to carry him back to the base. His head rolled along my shoulder. His legs still dripped with blood. Forkes fell in step next to me. He looked like he wanted to say something, but the night was so quiet, footfalls and crickets the only soundtrack to our march, and he kept silent.
Eventually we made it back to base. A few of the newbies and other men had stayed behind, probably getting ready to burn the camp down if the sounds turned out to be the enemy advancing.
A few tried to ask me questions, but I ignored them. They all stared with wide eyes as I brought Red into the infirmary tent. I laid him down on the nearest bed, turned on all of the lamp lights, and covered him with a blanket. His blood, running out more slowly, made two red circles on the sheet.
The others soldiers had gathered inside of the tent, shoulder to shoulder in the cramped space with their hands clasped, nobody looking exactly at him.
I looked at my watch. “Time of death thirteen thirty-two hours.” The other medics didn’t challenge me.
I shouldered my way out of the tent. I didn’t go ten paces until I stopped, and looked at the trees around me. I felt the cool air on my face and closed my eyes. I sunk to my knees, dug my fingers into the dirt, and threw up. Sick of it all.