All Nonfiction Bullying Books Academic Author Interviews Celebrity interviews College Articles College Essays Educator of the Year Heroes Interviews Memoir Personal Experience Sports Travel & CultureAll Opinions Bullying Current Events / Politics Discrimination Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking Entertainment / Celebrities Environment Love / Relationships Movies / Music / TV Pop Culture / Trends School / College Social Issues / Civics Spirituality / Religion Sports / Hobbies
- Summer Guide
- College Guide
- Author Interviews
- Celebrity interviews
- College Articles
- College Essays
- Educator of the Year
- Personal Experience
- Travel & Culture
- Current Events / Politics
- Drugs / Alcohol / Smoking
- Entertainment / Celebrities
- Love / Relationships
- Movies / Music / TV
- Pop Culture / Trends
- School / College
- Social Issues / Civics
- Spirituality / Religion
- Sports / Hobbies
- Community Service
- Letters to the Editor
- Pride & Prejudice
- What Matters
Wounds of War
There was a soft pattering of falling debris on Leo’s helmet as someone shook him out of sleep, a cascade of dust falling from the folds of his light brown hair. He sat up, instinctively resting a free hand on his rifle nearby as he climbed out of the trench he had dug the night before. It was morning, and the purple clouds had slipped apart to reveal a waking sun that beat down on Leo and his company, already getting ready to move out with the first day’s light. Shaking the dirt out of his boots, Leo rinsed and spat from a water bottle that he slipped back into his pack, a canvas bag strapped together with nylon that weighed almost as much as him. Spitting the sand out from between his teeth, he slung the pack over his shoulder, nearly doubling over under its weight before regaining his footing in the packed earth. Grabbing his rifle, he trekked alongside his company toward town.
“You get a good night sleep?” yelled Specialist Johnny Herald from across the formation, a scrawny teenager just out of high school who had been deployed with Leo to the province in the mountains of Afghanistan. He had been discouraged from enlisting, partially for his dangerous lack of insight, and partially just because he was so darn loud.
“Ain’t insurgents gonna be swarming all over the mountainside if you don’t keep yo mouth shut?” yelled back a deep voice several men behind Leo. Without even looking, he could tell it was that middle-aged African-American who had left a wife and newborn child behind to serve as a medic in their attack battalion.
“Hey, cool it Doc!” shouted Leo. As he spoke he retied an American flag around his neck like a bandana, the red, white, and blue contrasting sharply against the beige and brown camouflage of their gritty uniforms. Leo had just transferred into the company last month, arriving from the IED-ridden Baghdad security forces into the insurgent-infested valleys of Helmand Province. Before that, he had been a student, studying hard in college working when he could to pay for business school. But then on the day the World Trade Centers crumbled to the ground, enveloping his small apartment in thick smoke and searing his windows with soot, his world changed. Against the wishes of his parents and friends, he enlisted in the army weeks before he received his diploma.
The company marched on, rifles held low at standby as they searched for ambushes in the wide, flat scrubland of the valley. Leo dragged his feet behind the others, feeling the cold steel of his M4 banging against his thigh with every step. A cold bead of sweat trickling from his hair stung his eye as he blinked back the pain, reaching for a browned slip of paper from inside his helmet. He looked at his comrades on either side who were concentrating on the rolling hills that surrounded them. Convinced no one was paying much attention, he unfolded the letter twice, smoothing out the wrinkles tenderly. He reread the note, blotches of ink obscuring some words, but relaying the unfortunate message nonetheless:
My beloved Leo,
I don’t know quite how to say this. I’ve never been the sentimental type but here goes: It’s been a year since you were deployed to that dreadful place, and I hadn’t been able to ignore my father any longer—
Suddenly, without warning, the note was snatched from his hand and he turned to see Johnny waving the half-torn note high in the air.
“So you’ve got yourself a girl in the States?” Johnny laughed, reading aloud from the crinkly paper. “My beloved Leo…’”
Out of the corner of his eye, Leo spotted the sergeant order his squad to a halt, raising a clenched fist in the air. Raising the sights of their rifles, they advanced silently ahead of the others into a small groove of dead trees.
“What the hell is goin’ on?” Doc bellowed, marching over to where Johnny continued walking, reciting the letter at the top of his lungs. Leo heard the others from his squad smirk, not concentrating on the path up ahead. He blushed furiously, grabbing at the note which Johnny held out of reach.
“It’s been a year since you were deployed to that dreadful place, and I hadn’t been able to ignore my father any longer. I got married to Ricky last week by the beach; remember, the tall one in our graduating class—?” Johnny taunted as Leo desperately grabbed for the letter.
“Give it back you worthless piece of—!”
Doc stormed up to Johnny grabbing him roughly by the shoulder, tearing him away from Leo who began to chase him through the formation. Ripping the helmet off his head, Doc snatched the note from Johnny’s hand and tore it into two pieces, throwing the remnants of the message onto the ground. A slight breeze blew the scraps of paper into a bank of sand, burying it face up in the rubble of an old orchard shack. Doc let go of Johnny and shoved him back into line, pausing only to pick up his helmet where he had dropped it before returning to his place behind Leo.
“What do yo think you’re doin’, reading a letter from home while on patrol?” Doc scolded, continuing to march through the thicket of branches shriveled up in the beating sun. A hill cast a long shadow on the company in the sunrise, blanketing the orchard in darkness as they pushed their way forward. Leo, still furious at Johnny and regretfully thinking about the letter that laid buried in the sand, walked silently, occasionally battering a white branch aside with the butt of his rifle.
“Kid, this place is dangerous. And you go ahead thinkin’ this ain’t war or something—“
Directly ahead, they heard an abrupt burst of gunfire, followed by panicked shouting of the sergeant’s squad in the clearing beyond the orchard. The company immediately sank to their knees, gripping their M4s in sweaty palms as they waited for the shooting to cease before investigating. Leo glanced at Johnny beside him who was lying prone in the dirt, listening attentively for a command as the shooting stopped. Sweat glistened on the back of the neck of Doc, who silently drew a pair of binoculars from his breast pocket and raised it to his eyes.
“D****t, I can’t see.—“
He slowly stood up, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sergeant over the prickly groove when Leo heard a single gunshot that penetrated the air like a whip, reverberating throughout the valley like a stone dropped into a pond.
Doc slumped over, falling to the ground wet with fat drops of his blood as the binoculars fell uselessly out of his hands. Johnny screamed, shooting blindly at the surrounding hills which seemed innocuous just minutes ago, but now seemed like a prison with no way out.
“Doc?” Leo called out, afraid of what he would see if he turned to look behind. “Doc!”
Gunfire erupted on both sides of the company, sending columns of sand and dust into the air as an unseen enemy opened fire relentlessly. Debris fell onto Leo like rain, bouncing off his helmet as he crawled through the thicket to where Doc laid, covering his neck with both hands.
A chunk of debris was sent flying in his direction, knocking his helmet off his head. The deafening rattle of rifle fire filled his ears as he flung himself over Doc, shielding him from the raining dirt.
“Doc, can you hear me?” Leo yelled into the ear of the motionless body which offered no response.
Back on the other side of the orchard, the burst of an explosion shook the earth, shaking dust off the small slip of paper that poked out from under a mound of dirt. Another explosion rocked the air, revealing the bottom portion of Leo’s note bright white against the dull brown of the surrounding sand. A breeze unfolded it, its sad contents spilling out into the wind.
It’s been a year since you were deployed to that dreadful place, and I hadn’t been able to ignore my father any longer. I got married to Ricky last week by the beach; remember the tall one in our graduating class? It was so romantic; I tried postponing the wedding until you came back, but my father can’t stand the sight of you and Mom won’t even mention your name.
We live in two very different worlds Leo; we could never be together this way. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of what you’re doing for this country. I think of you every time I see one of those yellow ribbons on bumpers or every time I hear someone singing the national anthem on the radio. But sometimes we have to let go of what we love the most; you will always hold a dear place in my heart.
A marching band bellowed down the street, shaking the air with the rattle of drums and blaring of trumpets. Jenny looked up, her brown hair fluttering in the breeze as Leo took a seat on the bench besides her. It was a bright May afternoon on the campus where students were beginning to enjoy their last few days before graduation. A clock somewhere struck the hour, the bells resonating throughout the college premises.
“I can’t believe you decided to go,” Jenny said, turning away from the soft-faced boy beside her. “Does the war really mean that much to you?”
Leo looked down at his feet, broad leaves whipping around his ankles. He sighed, leaning back against the hard wooden bench.
“I can’t just stay here and do nothing,” he replied exhaustedly.
“I just can’t believe it,” Jenny repeated, shaking her head tearfully. “All this time some stupid notion in your head meant more to you than your parents…than me?”
They sat silently, watching students skateboard down the sidewalks that crisscrossed the park. Bronze lampposts lined the walkways, competing with the oaks that fought to lay down their roots into the cracked concrete. The skies were empty, devoid of planes that usually streaked overhead. Only a few wispy clouds drifted across the blue, immaculate sky, a marble crescent moon peeking from behind a building. Leo reached out to place his hand on Jenny’s, his knuckles hardened by his weeks at marine camp scraping against the soft touch of her delicate fingers.
“You will always mean something to me,” he explained. “But this is my dream that I need to fulfill. I have to go.”
Jenny spun around angrily, withdrawing her hand from his rough grasp.
“So Iraq does mean more to you than me!” she accused, standing up. “You don’t have to go! What if you don’t come back and I’ll never see you again?”
Leo took her hands again, slipping off the bench to kneel at her feet. His bare knees scrapped against the sticky pavement, but he noticed nothing except for the way Jenny’s jade eyes glistened with moisture.
“That’s why I wanted to give you this before I left,” he said, digging a black velvet box from inside his back pocket. With some difficulty, he snapped the cover open, revealing a diamond ring embedded in a silver band that sparkled in the afternoon sun.
“Will you marry me?”
Jenny’s eyes widened, a look of astonishment crossing her face. But then she turned away, pushing Leo back onto the bench. A dark cloud crossed the sky, casting a gloomy shadow over the campus.
“Leo, I can’t. Dad will never allow me to marry a marine.” she tried to explain, adding regretfully, “It’s hard enough to cope with a friend being deployed overseas. Don’t make this harder by being a husband.”
And with that final word, she hastily walked away, her books clenched against her heaving chest as she fought back tears. Leo watched her leave, the ring still glittering in his hand. Quietly, he stood up, tucking the box into his breast pocket as he hiked back up the walkway in the opposite direction.
But sometimes we have to let go of what we love the most; you will always hold a dear place in my heart.
Leo picked up his helmet where it had rolled off his head, still couching in the thick smoke that billowed from the remains of the shack. Throughout the orchard, comrades in his company slowly rose to their feet, fingers still hovering over their triggers. Leo, his face streaked with blood and dirt, slowly ambled away from Doc’s lifeless body. He heard a crack of something breaking and looking down at his feet, he realized he had stepped on a box, faded to gray with age. As he picked it up, carefully placing it back into his breast pocket, he failed to notice a diamond ring tumble from its case, twinkling in the brilliant rays of the sun as it fell into the soft sand.