Archive for January, 2010

Possessions

Posted: January 11, 2010 in Uncategorized

(Marksmanship Training, 1993)

How much do you value something entrusted to you? Do you place a monetary value on it? Did it ever occur to you that when something is left in your care, that it’s all about trust? About honor? About a friendship that goes beyond the boundaries of death itself?

It’s kind of hard to imagine isn’t it? I mean, what material object could possibly hold such value, that it might be sacred to one person, but of no importance whatsoever to another?

Allow me to put it into perspective.

I am a former Scout Ranger. I have a civilian job now. But a few years ago, I got recalled into active service once more. And at the drop of a hat, I left that higher-paying, more comfortable job in exchange for a uniform, a weapon, plus the prospect of dying anonymously in some humid, muddy and obscure shithole most people wouldn’t give a second thought about.

Why? It wasn’t as much out of patriotism as it was for the simplest reason of all: I gave my oath. My word. That means a lot to me. I hold it above whatever opinion people may have of me. But that could be because I don’t really give a flying fuck what people think of me. All I know is, I gave my word, and it is cast in stone.

Moving on. So I went back. Over There. And I saw a familiar face. He was someone I had served with back in the day. And man, was I glad to see him. He was no longer a Ranger. He was Special Forces. A frickin’ Green Beret. Bastard had moved up in the world.

Anyway, in one of our ops, that friend of mine got killed. I was there when it happened, no more than 2oo meters away. We tried to reinforce them, but it wasn’t enough. That was just the brutal nature of combat, you know? That and Murphy’s Fucking Law. Shit Just Happens.

But the real bad part was, we couldn’t retrieve all the bodies right away. Including his. So, I did the best I could, taking with me his possessions that I didn’t want to fall into enemy hands: his weapons, ammo, maps, dog tags…and his Zippo lighter.

Eventually, my active service ended and I went back to Manila and got my civilian job back. I had kept the lighter, as his wife wanted me to have it. And I swear, but for every time I lit a cigarette I’d see his face. Or what was left of it the last time I saw him. But I still kept it for a couple of years. Until a friend of mine fancied it. Who wouldn’t? It had the Special Forces logo and motto on it. And I gladly gave it away. Because I decided it was time to let go and move on.

Of course, I never told him about the Zippo’s history. He might have changed his mind. Kinda hard to explain that it took me almost two days to clean my buddy’s blood off of it..

After some time, this friend and I had a falling out of sorts. He even tried giving it back, but I never take back that which I have given away. Recently, I found out that he’d left it at another friend’s house. Perhaps he had just forgotten or misplaced it. Perhaps not. In any case, from a soldier’s point of view, that says a lot about a person’s character.

If you can’t even police your own stuff, if you can’t even keep something as seemingly insignificant as a lighter squared away…well, I’ll just keep my opinion to myself.

I just can’t help but think how easy it is for most people to discard things given to them. I wonder if they would take better care of their things if they had to lose a friend for each item. Or would they still be just as careless? Just a thought. Chew on that as I get myself a beer.

That First Kill

Posted: January 3, 2010 in Uncategorized

(That’s me in the #2 position. Point man is Pfc. Roy N. Cristobal, KIA-1998)

The day is comin’
The drums are drummin’
If you know one, say a prayer
There’s mothers cryin’
And fathers sighin’
War is in the air
Trains are fillin’ up with boys
Who’ve left behind their favorite toys
They’re goin’Over There
Over There
Where someone has to die
Over There
Where ours is not to reason why
Where someone has to die…

01011993 Time: Unknown

How can you really tell which one’s your first kill? For a soldier, the typical firefight initiates at distances of 20 meters or more. That’s 60 feet minimum. Even at that range, you can pick a target, fire, see him go down, but there’s always that doubt. Especially since everyone else is firing too. It could be one of your guys’ bullets that took him down for all you know.

Not that I was eager for one. As a matter of fact, I was quite anxious about it. I wasn’t sure I had what it took to do it. To come eyebell-to-eyeball with another man one second, then take his life the next. We all have some sort of morbid cusiousity. That was mine.

I told my sergeant about it once, and his reply was, “Private, when the time comes that you have to make that decision, I hope you don’t hesitate. Because my life or the your squadmates’ lives might depend on you pulling that trigger. I swear, if I get killed because your conscience itched, I will kill the Devil himself just so I can come back for you.” You don’t know my sergeant. He means it when he says shit like that.

But he also said, “There are only three reasons we SHOULD kill: self-defense, to protect or save an innocent’s life, and to end someone’s misery.

It was one of those three reasons that would compel me to kill. And it happened on New Year’s Day of ’93.

I was about 2 months out of Ranger training and it was my fourth mission in.

The job was to scout a 50 square kilometer area for an insurgent training camp. So we were to find it, and if we could, destroy it. Simple, right? Wrong. Nothing is ever that simple.

So, we were sent in. Three Ranger teams and one Special Forces unit. Each would take a sector of that 50 square kilometer area to patrol.

Our eight-man team was on its second night and I was feeling it. It’s no joke lugging sixty pounds of gear on your back over rugged jungle terrain. And enemy terrain at that.

I spent New Year’s Eve looking up at the stars. There were no fireworks. In a land where gunfire and explosions were commonplace, fireworks were just a nuisance and only brought unwanted attention. We spent the night on the ground in total silence, each man lost in his own thoughts, and took turns on watch.

By 5 a.m. New Year’s Day, we were moving agin. We had two more grids on the map to cover, then it would be back to base.

After almost two hours, we reached the base of a hill designated Hill #94 on the map. (All hills are given numbers as a reference.) Our pointman Ellis (short for Eliseo, hehe) signalled a stop. He’d spotted something. Our lieutenant and sergeant conferred with him for a few moments. It was smoke from a cooking fire. This place was not supposed to be populated, no way were these people civilians. So it was decided we would move in for a closer look.

The LT (lieutenant) was able to contact one of the other Ranger teams patrolling to the Northeast of our position, and they would approach from the other side of Hill 94.

We split up into two teams, so that if we had to engage, we could put them in a crossfire. My team was led by Sarge, the other by LT. We went left, they went right.

We hadn’t been moving for more than ten minutes when a shot shattered the jungle air and was then followed by a long burst of machinegun fire. It seemed to come from the treeline that we were headed for. From the sound I knew right away that it was an M-60 machinegun. Sonofabitch. That’s some heavy shit. They weren’t firing at our team, but that was about to change.

You couldn’t tell where exactly it was or how far away beacause in the jungle sound carries, so it sounded like it was all around you. It was time to take a peek.

Sarge gave a signal. So he, I, Roy and Ellis all came up from cover raising our rifles. Right away we saw the fighting hole with a three-man team in it. And the fucking Hog (M-60) was already pointed AT US. Just thirty feet away. Too close. So close I could see the smoke from the newly fired, hot barrel.

“Down!” yelled Sarge. No need to tell us twice. We went down and ate dirt. Then the world around us exploded.

This was what I will call the “hiss and snap” moment. When a bullet comes within ten feet of you, it makes this sinister hissing sound. But when its less than five feet, and at level with your head? You get a loud snap or crack. That’s the bullet’s sonic boom as it passes by your head. Try breaking a thick, dry twig in two, and that’s the sound I’m talking about. During the next few moments, I would hear nothing but hisses and snaps.

That gunner must’ve been a part-time gardener, because he seemed hell-bent on cutting down all the foliage and the trees around us. I won’t bullshit you and say I wasn’t scared. I was fricking terrified out of my wits. This was the first time I had ever come under direct enemy fire like this (fourth mission, remember?). Trees around us were splintering, raining us with with wooden shrapnel. The world was quickly becoming smaller.

Then came the moment when I thought I was gonna die. I didn’t know it at the time, but a round had hit a large rock that was lying just a few inches from my head. The rock fragmentated, peppering the right side of my face with shrapnel.

I don’t remember it, but they said I had rolled over on my back, screaming that I was hit. Well, I really thought I was. A horrifying image of half my face being gone flashed before my eyes at the time. Sarge knew that my first human instinct would be to sit up, so he pinned me to the ground in an armlock and told me to take the pain. I guess my training kicked in then, because they said I immediately grit my teeth and just took it.

“He’s gonna reload soon.” Sarge said. “Grenades.” The best way to take out a machinegun nest was to use grenades, you just had to wait for that moment when the gunner had to reload.

I reached down my webbing for one of mine. Damn, my hand was shaking so bad. I could feel that my right eye had puffed up. The pain was gone, but my face still stung a bit. By now, I was pissed off.

Suddenly, the crew stopped firing. Reloading. All four of us pulled pins on our grenades, released the safety levers giving off multiple audible “pings” as they flew off. We gave it a two-count, then heaved them in the enemy’s direction. The ground shook from each detonation. By the time the last one exploded, we were up and moving forward, firing controlled bursts from our CAR-15s. I couldn’t see much because of the all the smoke, but I just kept shooting through it, firing bursts left, middle, right, then back again. I distinctly remember the strong smell of cordite. You know that New Year smell after everyone has shot off all their fireworks? Like that, only stronger.

Then we reached the nest itself. The gunner was lying at the bottom, face-up. He looked dead. But I was in a battle-rage and still pissed off, so I fired a burst into his chest. Insurance. His lifeless body jerked from the impacting rounds.

One was still alive. His back was to us, trying to crawl away. In one motion, the sergeant drew his .45, and in a two-fisted grip shot him once in the back of the head. He then holstered it and reloaded his rifle as if nothing had happened. He just turned to us and said, “Keep moving.” Just like that. So move we did.

Up ahead, we ran into the LT and the rest of the team. They had had better hunting: five kills. So that now made it a total of eight enemy dead in less than ten minutes of combat.

We then started moving North in a skirmish line, ten feet apart in between each man. We could hear gunfire up ahead, maybe a hundred meters or so. The other Ranger team had arrived.

After about two or three more minutes, we came upon a clearing. There was a large hut in the middle of it, and all the windows were shut. No sounds of activity.

Immediately, I could just feel that there was something wrong here. I don’t know why, but the feeling was there, just hanging in the air. I was pretty sure the others felt it too. We were crouched beyond the clearing for about a full minute, just observing. Nothing.

Finally, the LT and Sarge, thru hand signals, split the team in two once more. LT took off to the right to cover us against any hostiles that might come in that way. Roy and Ellis covered the left. Sarge and I would be doing the assault.

We started closing in, and just as we got to within ten feet of the house, one of the windows burst open and out came about six inches of machinegun barrel, blasting away on continuous fully automatic. We made a run for the side of the hut and ended up with our backs to the wall. So there I was, with that huge barrel inches from my head. I thought my ears were going to explode. I was sorely tempted to grab it and yank it out, but that barrel was white-hot.

The firing suddenly stopped, and we heard the clatter of a magazine dropping to the wooden floor. The fucker was reloading. Before I knew what was happening, Sarge took out a grenade, pulled the pin, then reached across me and dropped it in the window. He then started running to the right. I remember thinking, “Did he just… Damn it!” Then I went running right after him. When it blew, the concussion threw me to the ground, but I was able get right back up.

We finally got to the side of the house where the door was, with another window next to it. This one was open though. He signalled me to throw a grenade in. What was it with this guy and grenades? But I chucked one in anyway. As it sailed in, I remember thinking: what if there are civilians in there?

We moved off to the side, crouched, and I watched as a large section of tin roof flew off when the grenade blew. That was so cool.

Sarge moved in, kicked the door, and sprayed the place. I was right behind him. The smoke was just clearing, and when it did, it showed the carnage we’d created.

The first word that comes to mind is “slaughterhouse”. There were four of them in there. Or what was left of them after two grenade blasts. What I saw was something that disturbs me even to this day. Sometimes I still dream about it, but I DEFINITELY remember it every time New Year’s Eve comes along. So I hope you understand if I don’t go into details on this one.

But I will tell you this. One thing most people don’t know, and what they never show you in the movies, is what really happens when people expire in a violent manner. Their bowels and sphincters tend to just let go. And you can smell it. Mixed with the sickly sweet smell of blood, and the acrid stench of gunpowder. It’s a literal assault on the olfactories, and sometimes you can’t tell which is worse… the sight, or the smell.

So now, we went about the grim business of checking for survivors. There was one. The shooter at the window.

A fucking kid. I myself was twenty at the time, but this one wasn’t even 18 by the looks of him. His weapon was still lying beside him, an old World War Two BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle).

His back had taken the brunt of the blast. One of his legs was half-severed below the knee, and I could see that his left arm was broken in two places. His chest was all ripped up, probably exit wounds. Blood was coming out from his nose, mouth, and eyes. He was breathing in long, wheezing gasps, an indication that one or both lungs were perforated. And he was looking directly at me, but with that far-away look. The poor bastard was a goner.

I felt the sergeant’s presence next to me, but I didn’t look at him. That is, until he said, “End it.” I turned to him, but all I could do was blink. Did he just ask me to execute this kid?

He read my mind. “It’s not an execution. It’s mercy. Look at him. No medic can save him. It’ll take three or four minutes for him to die, and he’ll be in agony the whole time. If it were you, you would want that bullet. Now’s your chance to answer your own question, Private. Do it. Kill him.”

Kill. Now there’s a word we take for granted. We use it in jokes or when we’re frustrated. Saying things like “I’m gonna kill him.” or “I’m so pissed off I could kill someone.” But it’s so different when its used for real.

I turned back to the kid – he was still looking at me, but I don’t think he was really seeing me. Maybe all he could see of me was this blur. He was having greater difficulty breathing now and I could see bubbles in the blood that was coming out of his mouth. He was far gone, but still willing himself to live.

With my thumb, I switched my weapon’s selector to SEMI. My heart at this point seemed to be pumping much faster than when we were at the firefight at the machinegun nest.

We were taught that if you had to shoot someone, go for the center mass if you can. If you tried to aim for the head they said, it would force you to look at their faces or eyes. And that’s when most would hesitate. When they make eye contact.

So I pointed my CAR-15 at his heart, and focused on it. Then I asked myself: can I do it? For some damn reason, I looked back into his eyes one final time.

I decided I could.Then I pulled the trigger.

My corruption was complete.