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Dear Mr. McKay,
They say being in Iraq gets you thinking kind of crazy. But me, no. Me, I just wouldn’t look at those starving faces and hollowed eyes. The sorrowful stares from the mothers of brittle children, clutching their fragile bodies in their arms as they step over the piling bodies. So careful not to lend so much as a glance at the dead victims killed by their own country’s people. I’ve had paled teens stumble to me, screaming words of profanity. I didn’t know how to tell them that I was there to help them. The next day they’re just another victim of insurgents.
I didn’t see deep into this crisis, however. My selfish mind screamed for better food, a more comfortable mattress to sleep on and thicker windows to keep the dry land’s sand and bizarre insects out. I know it seems preposterous, but I did not see past my own problems. I didn’t realize how so very small they were compared to the suffering people we saw every day right in front of our eyes. I guess my own eyes just passed right over them. There were so many people around me but I felt… so lonely. This caused my selflessness to flee. Here I was, a soldier, serving his country, and I was grotesquely self-centered.
Then one day, on the 20th of November in 2007, I thought of Rebecca. And for reasons unbeknownst to me, I could not seem to get her out of my head that day. I just kept thinking of her smile, her eyes, the way she laughed at everything I said, even if it wasn’t the least bit funny.
That day we were out in a ghost town, me and four other guys when something caught my eye. A flash of light hair. A glimpse of bare feet disappearing behind a shack. I abandoned the others, my mind losing control of my body. My gun clicked in my hands as I ran, my lungs shoving against my ribcage. I was chasing after an impossible fantasy, I knew, but my feet kept pounding against the hard ground, my boots leaving distinct patterns along the road that ran behind me. I sprinted around the tiny, crumbling cottage and paused to take a breath. It was silent just then, the usual sound of urgent shouts and wailing children lost in the tumbleweeds of the abandoned area.
It was then I looked up. And I saw her. Her dark blond hair fell just below her shoulders, her warm brown eyes looking deep into mine with disappointment. Her lips were cracked, the front of her purple sweater stained black with blood. As she extended her hand out, I noticed the rips in her jeans, her bare feet. Her fingers grasped the empty air just feet from my face, her lips moving. No sound came from her mouth, but I clearly read her words.
The awed silence was broken by the shouts of my troop. Suddenly the four of them were by my side, sand rising in clouds after their stormy entrance. Just like that, I looked up and she was gone. No footprints, no trace of her ever standing just six feet away. There was another silence, a loud silence this time accompanied by the confused faces of my men, the narrowed eyes towards one another. At this moment I heard the laugh. The sound erupted through my brain, racking my skull. I was ready to check into the loony bin until I saw the reactions of the four men standing beside me. Their faces were curious, their eyebrows raised high onto their foreheads. They looked like four identical toy soldiers, hands wrapped around their guns so tightly their knuckles were white. My eyes caught a glimmer of light at my feet and I bent down. What I grasped up from the dirt was a phenomena my mind could barely handle. The gold chain slipped between my fingers, the small golden heart resting so serenely in the palm of my hand.
“Did you see a civilian?” Sgt. Carlson had questioned me, his voice breaking the silence and penetrating deep into my mesmerized thoughts.
“Yes.” I had answered, my thumb gliding over the letters graven into the locket’s surface. The men nodded, as if to confirm their commencement. Sgt. Carlson’s radio buzzed. As a muffled voice broke through the static, Sgt. Carlson nodded in understanding though none of us could ever quite decode the voice.
“Go ahead,” he had spoken into the radio, “We may have a civilian out here.” When he said this his eyes darted to mine, a blank expression written on his face. I figured it was a “you better be right” stare and straightened up so as to look confident in my sighting. Sgt. Carlson turned to us, his eyes passing strictly over our four faces.
“Okay, men, we’re going to find this civilian. The men will come back for us if we do find them. But if we don’t discover anything, men, we’re going to walk back to base. It’s only a quarter of a mile down from here. Understand?”
“Yes, Sir.” We had nodded, and our group continued on.
We found nothing, of course, but I decided not to share my discovery of the necklace with them. At the time, I was convinced I had imagined the whole thing. A case of soldier fever, you know? Though I couldn’t get it past me why the others had seemed to hear her laugh also. A howl of the wind, I told myself. But imagination or not, I knew who I had seen.
It was your daughter, Rebecca McKay. It was her I saw darting around the shack, it was her whose outstretched hand paused only feet from me. It was her who mouthed those dead, silent words. Help them.
And I did. I stopped caring about the nasty food we ate, I was glad we had any at all. I stopped worrying about the thin mattress I slept on. I had one, didn’t I? And I stopped complaining about the strange bugs that came through the window and the sand that settled in my boots. I started caring about the starving children the mothers held, I was horrified they could hardly afford food. I started worrying about the families who were forced to sleep on dirty cots, or on the ground itself. I started complaining about the lack of proper shelter for these people who woke up with sand in their hair every morning. This had a ripple affect. The teens who used to scream at me in anger now hugged me and spilt their tears and heartbreak on me. Everyone I talked to, everyone I looked at in sympathy knew I was there to help them. They knew that I was now a selfless person.
That night after Rebecca appeared to me, the five of us returned to base only to discover that the armored car we would have been riding in was struck by a road side bomb. A third of the men perished and the rest lost numerous limbs. I could not figure out why I would just imagine Rebecca, but one thing I knew is that she saved my life, and saved my selfish mind, real or not.
Three months after that day, the rest of the troop and I returned home.
But it was only three weeks ago that I found the necklace in the pocket of my uniform. See, the necklace was a gold heart necklace, engraved with the initials R.M. Back in Baghdad I had thought this an extreme, bizarre coincidence. But here I was, holding the locket, when it just popped open. I was used to false lockets, thick hearts that didn’t actually open. But this one did. And one side of the heart, cursive words spelled out My Dad. And on the other side? A picture of you, Mr. McKay.
And it was only two weeks ago, after a vigorous investigation, that I discovered Rebecca had been stabbed to death by her abusive boyfriend on November 19th, 2007. I am a man, and I am man enough to admit that I sobbed for over an hour when I heard this.
What happened that day, Mr. McKay, was not an illusion of mine or a rare coincidence. It was Rebecca. Waking me up out of my mental state and saving my life.
They say that Iraq changes you. And it changed me, changed me for the better. Because I see people now.
And can I just say that Rebecca was the most selfless, kind-hearted person? I mean, who else would do so much good for me in their afterlife?
The world will miss her.
Sgt. Scott D. Halverson