by Matt Labo
“Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting it’s ultimate practitioner.” Cormac McCarthy-Blood Meridian.
Somewhere east of Kandahar, an American soldier leads a dozen of his men into the mountain villages, gaining intelligence and tracking down enemy actors. His feet are blistered and sore, his mouth dry. The eery silence makes him uneasy. Out there the trail runs on forever, curved like a serpent woven through the mountains.
Clouds passing over head, the soldier steps onto a dirt road at the base of a hill. The earth leaks back the heat of the day through the soles of his boots. His gear grows leaden with sweat, crusted with grit as dust clouds ride the wind, twisting their way through shadowed chasms of rock. The mission runs on and on. The perilous and problematical days. The months without cease.
He looks in all directions, concentrates so he doesn’t step on a buried sample of the bomb maker’s trade. He would be turned instantly, to little more than a pink mist on the wind. He’s seen the legless, armless. Men alive with no jaws. Nothing below the top teeth, just, gone. Or he could be shot in the back by ambushing Taliban hiding perhaps behind the hills just feet away. Or a local goat herdsman threatened and paid by the enemy, five American dollars to fire at him before running away.
Right now, his home is a mountain outpost surrounded on three sides by enemy territory. A target of unimaginable obviousness where the night is spooky, uncertain, grim. It’s establishment, this devils resort, was an accomplishment made a few days after PFC (private first class) Linderholt was lost to enemy gunfire on what amounted to a sad day.
To claim it, they had to fight their way across dense pockets of Jihadists and Taliban loyalists for days. The soldier and his boys, prowling the terrain. This bloodthirsty posse, this avenging squadron. They drove back a dozen or more enemy fighters and stumbled upon left over food remnants and wooden bowls, crude maps showing U.S. assets scribbled on dirty paper. Excrement. They kept going. Then they overtook a goat farm with three bad guys holed up and sent them to their maker. And then a few more.
In the face of occasional gunfire, and the ever present threat of buried bombs, they went forth until eventually deciding on a piece of new terrain atop a hill smack dab in the middle of Taliban occupied ground. They could tell by the reactionary assaults. Sgt. Demery had called it, “kicking the fu**ing hornets nest gonzo style,” as they dug through the night with their shovels to etch a little trench into the earth from which to make their stand. The gunfire thankfully ebbed as the hours wore on.
But come dawn, the silence was breached. The tolling bells of war. Gun blasts and the smell of burnt metal and phosphorous and cordite. Little explosions all over the ground near them.
They took turns shoveling as some fired back every time the enemy assaulted. They shouted Linderholt’s name and continued to defend their new position throughout the early morning of June 17, calling in air strikes and relaying information back to base.
And their moment came. That tipping point instant on which the battle turned. PFC Ricci had taken aim at an enemy gunner perched high above them atop a cliff and scored a poetic hit. The man lifelessly hung over the edge of a makeshift gun turret like a headless doll. Half of the enemy firepower was soon taken out for they could hear the slowing of the attack and then it’s ceasing altogether. Better still they saw the bastards scurrying over rocks and out of sight. Three more gunman were felled mid-retreat without another American casualty. Every squeeze of the trigger for Linderholt, lately frozen for eternity-but far from dead. He lived on within the spirit and bravery of the others. The soldier was daily amazed at this. How sorrow was like acid, eating through fear, producing victory.
And so, that little trench. In the coming weeks, it was built into a livable outpost encampment with supplies coming regularly-and the soldier and all his boys were proud. And so was America once the newspapers got a hold of the story. The Washington Times reported how the intel guys from the CIA had been calling any serious advancement of this type into enemy coordinates impossible. They’d said it was suicide with all the entrenched Jihadists and their support networks in that part of the valley. Then Linderholt got smoked out on patrol. And suddenly the mission was on.
In one of his delusions, the soldier intends to visit Linderholt’s family in Ohio after his deployment is up. He shares the idea with no one but he sees himself knocking on their door one day out of the blue to tell the dead boy’s father what a brave son he had raised. And how he was the little kid brother to every member of the unit. He would apologize. He would make no excuses. He wouldn’t tell the man how he had little choice about who came along on the patrol that fateful day. Nor how it happened. Nor the chain of events thereto.
But of course he remembers it well. Like it was yesterday. The way it plays back to him in his head is like this: Ibarra and Wilcox, Demery and a few others were all out across the 6-1 grid line on a mountain pass trying to outflank a band of enemy fighters who had been terrorizing the valley. So the soldier…he made a plan. He verified the position over the radio, then turned and chose the remaining five men still there with him and gave them the orders to follow him east in support of the others. Rosenbaum, O’Grady, Stokes, Ortiz, Linderholt.
From the first, his gut rejected this decision. But why…he couldn’t put a finger on it. Seemed tactically sound. Necessary even. But still, that bad feeling came rising up from his bowels during weapons check before they even left the outpost. Something seemed off. But they had to go because if he hesitated each time he had a bad feeling he’d lose the precious confidence the men had in him. Their very lives depended upon that faith they had in the soldier and his leadership. So they marched out as planned.
Later, they were between two villages on a trail. The last thing the soldier saw Linderholt do, was to bend down and fish out a can of tobacco from his sock and load his lip, flicking the remaining specs of the stuff off his fingers. Within the hour, up the trail, the pop popping sounds so familiar and the soldier running forward toward the gathering group ahead. To see Linderholt where he lay slain, disheveled and faceless in a mess of gore, his body fluids draining back into the dry earth. A chaotic scene. Muffled sobs and Ortiz losing his shit having to be physically contained. Others still and silent in shocked disbelief. Born on their faces the dreaded empty-eyed thousand yard stare. The wages of trauma, of loss, worn like a mask that says, “I’m broken inside.”
This hindsight was always part of the burden of command which the soldier shoulders-as did his father in Vietnam and his grandfather in World War 2. And like his forefathers, the soldier values the lives of his men more so than he does his own life. On a few occasions, he’s proven this by charging into a hail of bullets, or across a mine field to gather wounded men. But there was no saving Linderholt. Nor the others who had been lost in recent months. Precious brothers. Christ come to take them. Someplace better.
The soldier knows from Linderholt’s detailed descriptions of his beloved farm, that he will have to drive down a very very long, dirt lane through the field to reach the old white clapboard house in the back. There will be a big barn too. With one of the the family’s big purchases sitting inside. A giant John Deere tractor in green with yellow wheels lately financed through a local bank. Linderholt had sounded so enthusiastic when he talked about his tractor or it’s many attachments or about the two crop operation he was supposed to help run when his tour was over. There were many distinct traits the kid had. So he was so damned easy to remember. And therefore so very hard to forget. Bow legged. With a birthmark on his back shaped like a half moon. He loved to pick his teeth with dry weeds and talk about horses and so the boys called him Brokeback Mountain and it stuck.
Linderholt would appear to the soldier for years to come, in a striped collared shirt and his white cowboy hat standing at the jukebox at Nicky’s Bar and Grill the night before they shipped out. He was a very handsome kid too, though he seemed not to know it. Blonde hair, lean and athletic. And he used to brag about his girlfriend to try and measure up to the older guys. Her name is Cathy. In a picture pulled from Linderholt’s pocket after he died, Cathy sits on the hood of his Chevy pickup, in a pair of tight jeans with the wind blowing her pretty brown hair. She is beautiful and studies at Ohio State to become a teacher.
A box full of letters from Cathy soaked with her perfume and with imprints in red lipstick smudges were left without an owner by his bunk. The men, out of respect, teamed up and did his final work in the military for him because he couldn’t do it himself. They packed his stuff for shipping back to Ohio.
In his uncontrollable mind, the soldier often imagines Mr. and Mrs. Linderholt and what they may have been doing when the officer and the chaplain knocked on the door to do the notification. They were smart people. They would know as soon as the officer and the chaplain approached the clapboard house. No words would have to be said because in the end the thing really just came down to a woman stepping into a dining room, parting the shades, and seeing a big sedan in the driveway with two middle aged men sitting in it. One in a military uniform, the other in a minister’s collar. Everything in Mrs. Linderholt’s life up until that very moment, was good and warm and familiar. Apple pies and feed corn, young boys and holidays. And everything after it would be a living nightmare-and there was no way to awaken from it. No way to make it not so. Sometimes the soldier hears her screaming and screaming as he tries in vain to sleep in his bunk so he covers his ears.
But when someone was lost they invariably do what good soldiers do-they fight on-they fight harder. They would fight if asked until each mountain was washed in blood. All races and all breeds. Men who each carry 75 pounds of armor and weaponry along with the hopes and dreams of every decent American over the blood slaked dust. Guarding first not their own lives but the lives of each man to their right and left who in turn guard theirs. Brave soldiers who endure cruel and weird scorn from American academics who as kids cowered to school yard bullies. Yet they live under the very protection the soldier provides in a paradoxical dilemma no philosopher could rightly divide into sensible points.
The soldier trusts in God and country as well, in whichever order he arranges them. For he either figures it was his country who sent him to Afganistan, where God protects him from danger – Or conversely, he decides that it was God who sent him and his country or his president which will protect him while he fights that ageless enemy, which isn’t man himself but something which resides within man. An intrinsic, visceral predisposition toward conflict. The darkness within. The soldier has long believed that man is just the instrument through which this force enters the firmament. Nothing more than a conduit.
And at the end of the day, the soldier trusts that he can make it through his deployment in one piece so that his family can once again see him. He had promised them he would be okay.
But he knows one thing above all. Sacrifice.
His living sacrifice is complete. Which means that his reasons to remain alive are finally unselfish from all angles. He breathes to lead his men. He wakes to serve his country. He lives to kiss his little 6 year old niece Eva on the cheek and swing her around in his sister’s side yard in Tacoma beneath a big tree.
And that is to say that the soldier doesn’t fear death any longer. Only disappointment. And so it goes.