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September 28, 2015

Dying For Air

There’s no honor in dying. There’s none in killing either. All that matters is that you live.

That’s what I’ve learned during my time in this god forsaken corner of the world, and I swear that if I ever make it back home, that lesson will stick with me for the rest of my life.

But first, I have to make it out of here alive. And if there’s anything I know for certain, it’s that too many of us won’t.

Gunfire has filled the air for hours now. Sounds that were at first piercing and nerve-wracking have settled into a persistent hum. The rat-a-tat-tat of Russian-made rifles has become as familiar to my ears as the pat of boots in the sand and squeak of bunks as soldiers stare into the photographed eyes of the lover they left behind. Only this time I couldn’t allow myself to tune out the sounds. Familiarity had never been so deadly.

The uniform I wear is worn so thin that I can feel the concrete I’ve pressed my back against. Initially cold, I’ve sweated enough to warm the patch behind me. I hold a sidearm in my hands, and while it can offer a feeling of power under different circumstances, this was not one of them. I didn’t have a rifle. I wouldn’t be able to aim far enough to shoot at whomever had been shooting at us.

It would be one thing if my life were the only one that depended on my not getting shot, but I am hardly alone here. On the ground next to me lies a soldier that has already been shot. He’s staring up at me with wild and fearful eyes. It’s in moments like these where I’m reminded how, despite what we tell ourselves, we’re still animals.

The base isn’t going to hold. No one vocalizes this. If morale drops below a certain point, the battle’s lost. A high school teacher drilled this into my head not long before I thought to join the army. If you don’t think you can pass the test, you won’t. Even in school, it’s less about what you know and more what you believe.

And just like in school, believing you can win on the battlefield doesn’t mean you will. But if you don’t think you can, then you’ve already lost.

A rocket slams into the top of the building next to me. It’s the cafeteria. Inside wounded soldiers and private contractors have turned the space in front of restaurants and bathrooms into their bunker. Some hide behind overturned tables. Others lay on top of them. It isn’t the first rocket strike that shakes everything into chaos. It’s the second that follows shortly after, managing to crash in through a window and slams into a kitchen. The resulting flames ignite the sprinklers, leading to a downpour none of us have felt since we left the States.

The gunfire aimed at the building picks up. Most of the incoming fire never makes it inside, but enough rounds penetrate the walls and windows to keep everyone’s heads down. The wounded aren’t carried to safety. They’re pushed onto the floor and dragged by the arm or leg, whichever is within reach.

A few of our people take position near the windows and return fire as best they can. But the hail of bullets is too heavy for them to stick their heads out for long. When they do, they can hardly see where to shoot. The sun is setting in the direction of the onslaught. Glare is all that most of us can see.

How the enemy can catch us with our pants this far down in this day and age is beyond me. Later military officials will say the attackers utilized tunnels in the mountains that we didn’t know existed. We would again acknowledge the reason that no one had ever been able to successfully conquer this part of the world. No one would be able to free it, either.

I look in through an open door at the panic on so many of our faces. It’s almost surprising how, in the middle of a warzone, so many of us tell ourselves that this can’t be happening. Not here. Not now. We didn’t sign up for anything like this.

Just when things can’t get any worse, our ears are all shaken by piercing explosions. We brace ourselves and look around for the damage, but we don’t see it. Then we hear the sounds we’ve been waiting for, the ear piercing cries of jets flying overhead. Those bombs were ours. Our angels have arrived.

In the distance I can hear the heavy propellers and heavier gunfire of the gunships raining hell from the skies above. In the moments after, less heavily armed cargo ships are making their way to the nearby airstrip. We’re getting out of here, but not just personnel—our vehicles and equipment too. Anything that isn’t concreted down.

It’s time to get out of here. Except when I look back down at the soldier beside me, the wild look in his eyes is gone. So is the fear. I’ll manage to get his body back home, but no amount of time can make it breathe.

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“Dying For Air” by Bertel King, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.