This piece was originally published on The Spearhead in 2010. –Ed
Baghdad, Iraq, Spring 2004
“49 weeks down in this desert” said Ian to Elliot as they walked through the rail station on one of their last days of work before handing the reins over to their replacements. Just three weeks until their boots hit the soil in the States after a year spent in the heart of Baghdad, helping patrol the city and training Iraqis to assist Coalition forces with certain tasks in the city. Of all the experiences he and Elliot have shared through their years of friendship, this deployment at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom was hands down the most intense. The tents they shared as Boy Scouts in middle school were just the beginnings of a special sort of friendship that developed through the years. They’ve done everything together. Built fires, tied knots, stood in line for the latest greatest video game, and chased girls in high school. They even went into the recruiters office together, signing on the dotted line to join the Reserves when they were seventeen, barely in need of razors, barely able to drive, barely turning into men. And here they were, several years later, a part of history, wrapping up a year long deployment to Iraq at the beginning of a controversial war.
Walking into work, the conversation turns to planning for their first weeks back to the US. “I say we have a Stargate SG-1 marathon and then ride down the Oregon Coast. Our last boyish hurrah before you get married Elliot” suggests Ian. Elliot nods, liking the plan very much, adding “this winter we’ll have to be sure to go snowboarding again. Man, it’s been too long since we had a fun weekend trip like that.” Heading into their respective offices, the friends end their jovial conversation until break time when they plan, like always, to meet out front.
The morning was like so many others: mundane, routine, nothing out of the ordinary. Signatures were necessary here and there. Paperwork had to be done to tie up loose ends before the hand off to the replacements in just a matter of days. As the morning dragged on, lunch time was becoming all the more enticing. Around break time, Elliot set his papers aside and got ready to join his buddies outside. As he stood up to leave the room, he noticed something in the window. It looked as if the sun were rising, but this wasn’t the right time of day. “Oh fuck” Elliot managed to blurt out, right as the window shattered and the glass came flying at his face, cutting him on all exposed skin and clinging to his uniform. Grabbing his weapon, Elliot took off outside, not fully comprehending what had just happened but on high alert, primed with adrenaline for fight or flight.
When he arrived outside a large number of the Iraqi men who had been outside working were nothing but blood and guts strewn across the ground. The remnants of a vehicle was ablaze and was clearly the car that had held the bomb. Debris was everywhere and the officer in charge was freaking out and panicking, unable to gain composure and issue orders. Time seemed to stand still, yet it passed quickly all the same. The chaos was loud but inside his head was a deafening quiet. Elliot could hear his heart beat clearly with yelling outside his head jumbled and unclear. One of Elliot’s soldiers followed him and once they made sure everything was clear, that the danger was gone, they began to offer medical aid to the survivors of the blast. There were too many people who needed help for them to adequately tend to everybody, and some were too far-gone to offer anything beyond comfort and an ear to listen to their precious last words as they died outside under the hot desert sun. The men who could be moved to safety were flung over shoulders and carried away until more help could arrive. The soldiers stopped bleeding with torn up pieces of their own clothing, cleaned and bandaged wounds, provided IVs and treated shock with whatever makeshift blankets they could make, and kept traumatically injured men breathing and alive until transport arrived.
As Elliot and his soldiers ran around assessing the damage, locating those who were still alive and those who needed immediate care, he heard a familiar voice cry out. He looked over to the side of the building where the noise was coming from. Elliot couldn’t see much in the bright sunlight, made all the more confusing by the surrounding chaos, but then he saw a peek of camo around the corner. He ran over and realized right away who it was: the man on the ground was Ian. Bloody and gravely wounded, but his friend all the same. Desperately, Elliot applied pressure on the worst of his friend’s wounds, ripping off part of his clothing to serve as tourniquets to stop the bleeding. As he worked frantically, Ian told him to stop, “The pain is leaving. I’m going to die, aren’t I?” Before Elliot can answer his buddy, Ian gives him a message to bring home.
“No NO NOOOO!”
Elliot desperately screamed, demanding his friend hold on, but it was too late. He’d lost too much blood. He was hurt too badly to hold on. There was nothing left to do. “I love you, man” said Elliot as his best friend, the closest thing to a brother he had ever had, slipped away to the other side. Ian was just twenty years old. He was intelligent, talented, extremely gifted in the sciences, and had a world of opportunity awaiting him at home. So many plans for the future, so many dreams left unfulfilled. All gone in just a second as he left this world too soon.
With his DCUs ripped, torn, and covered in blood, with bits of debris lodged into his helmet and even stuck on his body armor, it was only then Elliot realized he was injured and could attend to his own medical needs. Bits of shrapnel from the bomb, bone fragments from the people who had died, and gravel from the ground were lodged in wounds all over his body and he realized he had been treating patients, bloody patients, with his wounds unprotected. He might not only be injured but could have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis, or any number of other diseases. After returning to camp, he went for medical treatment and returned to his tent where he could finally let the events of the day sink in. Thirty five men had been killed. Men who were simply trying to feed their families were murdered for being involved with the Coalition Forces. Some of the soldiers he worked with were dead, and his tent was now empty except for the ghost of his best friend, the laughs they shared inside just this morning nothing but a cherished memory now. He looked over to the cot across the tent, the one that no longer had an occupant, a friend gone in just a instant… Elliot just sat there and stared for a while. How much time he’ll never know but it felt like a lifetime. Unsure of what to think or how to feel, he lay in his cot, listening to mortar attacks around the airport until he finally awoke the next morning, groggy and numb, and called home to connect with loved ones for the first time since the blast. One voicemail said, “there’s been an accident, but I am okay.”
Two weeks later, when his boots hit ground in the USA, the homecoming was not the joyful celebration originally imagined, but rather a dark and somber occasion. They were home with three fewer men than they left with last spring. They’d said goodbye to three brothers in arms just about the time they thought they were safe and danger was over. Elliot kept his promise to Ian and visited his friend’s parents to share the message he had been entrusted with. This wasn’t all, he said; far from it in fact. He had an apology to offer for these people who were nearly family. With a guilty survivor’s conscience he offered an apology for not getting there in time, for not being able to save their son. They were supposed to come home together. They always did everything together.
Arlington National Cemetery, Spring 2010
Six years since the blast and Ian still lives on in hearts, in love, and in memory. Once again Elliot traveled to his grave in Arlington, as he does whenever the opportunity has arisen, to place a wreath on the grave of his lost friend. This time is different, however, as he doesn’t go alone but brings his little girl along. Ever curious, the little one asked why they are here. Elliot told her that he wants her to know a special man, a true American hero, somebody who was brave even when it hurt. His little girl doesn’t yet understand death, but she does know what it means to be brave and serve in the Middle East. She remembers well when her daddy was gone for a year. With the innocence only a child can posses, she lays her small American flag on Ian’s grave and offers a salute for “being Daddy’s bwave fwend.” This she repeated as she and Elliot walked away, her tiny fingers clasped in her daddy’s strong, but trembling hand.