Please read the beginning of this story as shown within the “Afghanistan Story” tab above.
Afghanistan, June 22nd 2010, Camp Delaram
After the men from the police mentoring team left, life went back to “normal” on Delaram. I was still reeling from being shot at and seeing the shattered bodies of the civilians. The only person I could talk to about any of it was Virkler and we were separated as soon as we checked back in with SSgt Rambo. Virkler went back on days and I was placed back on nights. So I was back to being completely alone.
24 hours after Sgt P and the boys had dropped us off in Delaram, I was working on my own settling up a small portion of the network within the compound. I had to place the internet protocol (IP) address on the switch to ensure it would connect properly. I navigated to the excel document that held the IP addresses that were taken already. I chose one that hadn’t been used according to the document. I placed the IP address on the switch, verified connectivity, and casually sauntered over to Command Operations Center (COC) to see if everything was okay over there.
When I walked into the building, it was clear that something was wrong. The helpdesk that was attached to the COC was bustling with activity. Everyone was yelling at each other in panic. Through the window to the COC, I saw Lieutenants and Captains yelling and ordering people to “find out what the fuck happened.”
I asked one of the Marines at the help desk what was going on.
“The grunts were on a foot patrol and there was an explosion.”
The blood drained from my face.
“WE LOST THEM! COMM IS DOWN COMM IS DOWN!”
I went completely numb. Everyone in the help desk scrambled to find out what had happened to the communications between the COC and the patrol.
I sprinted back to the switch in the other building and quickly attached my laptop to the console port on the back of the switch. I logged in. Every cell in my body was screaming and I was sure I wasn’t breathing. Realizing what I had done, I yanked all of the cables out of the switch. As the green lights shut off, my hands shakily placed the laptop back onto the table and I sprinted back to the COC.
Communication was back up. I stood in the center of the help desk, which was now calm as we watched the COC try to gain an understanding of what had happened.
I ran back to my desk.
It has to be a different patrol. It can’t be them. It can’t be them. Please, god, don’t let it be them.
I searched the table of the wire guys to see if I could find the phone number of the AUP station. When I found it, I shakily dialed the number.
Please pick up, anyone, pick up.
The line went dead as no one answered.
I dialed again. Someone picked up.
“What the fuck do you want?”
The voice was sharp.
“It’s Cannon, wh-”
“Hang up the fucking phone, Cannon.”
The voice sounded weary now.
“I’m trying to call in the medevac.”
The line disconnected.
I stood there as realization flooded my body and my brain started to process what was possible.
When I reached the COC, I sat down on a bucket and placed myself where I could hear what was happening. The grunts were using call signs that I didn’t know. I couldn’t understand much, and no one could identify the injured.
“They won’t say his name over the nets.”
15 minutes, 30 minutes…some amount of time passed before I heard,
“We lost him.”
The COC seemed to collapse with frustration and sadness in one collective breath.
“Warhawk heading back to base.”
Everything moved in slow motion after that. I immediately walked outside of the compound and stood waiting for the grunts to pull up next to the cans at the bottom of the hill as they had multiple times before. As I waited, my mind went over what I had done. I had probably connected the switch five minutes after the explosion. I took down communications when they were trying to call in the medical help. Communication was down for maybe seven minutes. I tied up the phone line for another four minutes. That’s 17 minutes. 17 minutes that he was struggling to live. I cost him 17 minutes.
The vehicles pulled up and I sprinted down to them. Coming to a sudden halt, I watched the men climb out, looking for Sgt P’s face in every one. Red fell out of the vehicle, white faced and sobbing openly. Blood covered his shirt and pants. He looked me in the eye and I knew he wasn’t seeing me as his face twisted. Following him, holding Red up, was Sergeant P. Relief flooded my body when I saw that he was okay. I started to run towards him when he saw me and shook his head roughly for me to stay back.
“Get everyone to the Chaplin.”
“Someone has to watch the vehicles.”
“I got it.”
Everyone glanced at me when I spoke.
Sgt P and Owens carried Red between them, his feet dragging the ground. He was in such shock that he couldn’t stand.
Sgt P, Owens, Red, Martin, Salgado…Where is Dumaw? Oh fuck, no, not Dumaw.
The tall black Gunnery Sergeant stayed too.
“Go, Gunny, I got this. Go to the Chaplin.”
“No. No. No.”
He didn’t look at me; he was looking at the lead vehicle.
“They can’t come back to this.”
I walked over to where he stood and looked at what he was looking at.
Blood covered the outside of the vehicle. My stomach lurched. There was so much blood, streaks of it, a spray pattern of an explosion.
Without saying a word, I sprinted back up to the compound, burst into the help desk, and looked around at what I could find. I stuffed a trash bag into my cargo pocket, grabbed a container of bottled water, and a broom. Everyone asked me what I was doing and I ignored them. I sprinted back to the vehicle.
The gunny was still standing where I had left him.
“Go away. You shouldn’t be here.”
He still didn’t look at me. I ignored him and I started pouring water on the blood. The water collected dust and blood as it fell into the sand below the vehicle. The gunny grabbed a bottle of water and we cleaned together in silence. I used the broom to scrub the outside of the vehicle where I could reach. I climbed into the front seats and collected the bottles of dip spit and empty cans of energy drinks and filled the trash bag I had brought.
The gunny climbed up to the top of the vehicle and I followed.
“You shouldn’t be seeing this. I couldn’t protect him but I can protect you from…”
He was kneeling on the cammie cargo net that draped over the top of the vehicle. One knee touched the cargo net and he put his head in his hands and sobbed.
“It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have left them keep walking. We had already found one IED. I shouldn’t have let them keep going. He kept walking. I failed him. I failed him. I failed…”
He was openly sobbing. I was watching this broken leader silently and he finally looked me in the eye.
“Cannon, I failed. He’s dead because of me.”
I reached out and touched his knee.
“No, he’s not. You didn’t fail him.”
The Gunny collected himself after a few moments.
We started to clean the cammie netting.
Something hung in the cammie netting. I reached down to pick it out. When I looked more closely at it, my stomach heaved. It was a shard of stark white bone with part of the Marine Corps digital cammie pattern stuck on it. I looked at the cammie netting more closely. Bone was everywhere, caught between bits of Dumaw’s cammies and covered in blood. I looked up at the Gunny. We had noticed at the same time. Without a word between us, we gathered bits of Dumaw’s body. My tears mixed with his blood as I quietly cried and cleaned. I started a pile of the pieces big enough to grab and held them in my hand, and I poured water over the bits that were too small. I meticulously went over every inch of the cammie netting to make sure none of the grunts would have to see their friend’s body on their vehicle for the rest of the deployment. When we were done, I held Dumaw’s bones and blood and cammie bits tightly. I gripped them so hard that one shard of bone made a crease in my palm that would remain for hours.
When I climbed down from the vehicle, I looked at what I held in my hand.
What do I do with…him?
I didn’t want to bother the Gunny with that question. I unceremoniously placed what remained of the lower half of Dumaw’s body into the trash bag.
I didn’t go back to work.
If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
For assistance with addiction, please call the professionals at 844-778-1026 or visit http://www.drugrehab.com.
For Marine Corps related stress assistance, please call DSTRESS at 1877-476-7734 or visit http://www.usmc-mccs.org/services/support/dstress-line/.
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