Where do the wild things go? After childhood and the boy has made his decision to attempt to be a man, toys stored in the attic, ray guns traded for real ones and when he came home his mother said, “This is not my son.” Five U.S. soldiers based out of Fort Lewis Washington are back from Afghanistan, suspected in the premeditated homicides of at least three Afghan civilians. I watch a few of the soldiers confess their take on these “thrill kills” taking place during the early part of 2010. I was in Afghanistan in May 2006 serving as a Marine Infantryman on my second tour of duty when an Army CH-47 helicopter crashed leaving a joint operation that we had participated in. The word spread across Jalalabad Airfield and my platoon was ordered to gear up and wait for a helicopter that would take us to the crash site that we were to help recover and secure. Our helicopters arrived early the next morning and we loaded as we had practiced. I sat down and put on my seat belt. My stomach drifted like a rollercoaster ride as our CH-47 climbed into the chilly clear blue skies over farmlands and into the mountains that lead to the Kunar Province. The door gunner let off a burst into the emptiness making a chop-chop-chop noise as he tested his weapon. The enormous flying banana would dip seemingly out of nowhere, and I would think about how not special I really was. It had happened to many before. A violent vibration would creep under our seats and spread through the cockpit, that nineteen year old door gunner would shake his head at me, eyes hidden behind his tinted black goggles, signaling to me our hopeless situation and then what? Hopefully you’re unconscious when you burn to death, hopefully they can find your remains and this horrible nightmare will end. There is darkness in a combat zone; the worst part of a human becomes the part that wills his survival. I had lost some friends on a helicopter that had crashed leaving Fallujah on my first tour, I remember hearing the news ten days after the fact, and how secretly happy I was that it had not been me, and how ashamed I always feel for being grateful to have survived.
Our helicopter landed, I adjusted my goggles and ran off of the back ramp of the bird into a blinding cloud of fine glittering dust. I took a knee and began to conduct a radio check. The helicopter lifted off as the sweeping rotor wind finally died down and the dust settled I was surprised to see that we had landed in an opium poppy field. I had trained up another radio operator to replace me, and he was better, I was already tired at the ripe old age of twenty summers, but once again I found myself hauling the communications equipment that had become my specialty after a couple of years. We were supposed to have been done with our Afghanistan deployment and had been prepared to leave but the Army helicopter crashed and fucked up our schedule. I had a problem with being tasked out to recover an Army helicopter crash when I was a Marine and was outnumbered easily three to one, Army to Marine back at the airfield. I hated to be forced to risk my life off schedule; it wasn’t good luck and good for the paranoia. I needed to come home, I would walk five feet and scan and look at the good places to take cover if we were suddenly attacked. I needed to come home, this had not been like my first deployment where I was convinced that I would die, by the end of Afghanistan I was determined not to let a stupid mistake fuck up my chance at a legal drink. The Marines snaked along a goat trail worn into the side of an Afghan mountain.
We would pass through a village, and the elders would stand outside, stroking their beards covering the deep set lines their hard life has rewarded them for thirty years of fighting. He was not happy to see me. I could see the smoke coming from where the helicopter had crashed. I wondered if the elder would plan an attack while we were occupied with searching for the dead bodies? After a sharp left turn I began to see electronics hanging in the bushes, and pieces of scrap metal, some fabric, it smelled like a fried motherboard. I gave an extra pack of cigarettes to a soldier that had been from the same unit as the guys on the helicopter, he told me that he had watched the CH-47 roll down the mountain on fire. A couple of Air Force operators specialized in crash recovery were attached to us, and began their descent into the scene of the flaming wreckage. They took some Marines with them and rigged up a pulley system. At the foot of the mountain they would secure a body-bag to a skid and we would pull on a rope like a bunch of pirates on a ship until the corpse reached our lip of the mountain. It would take the better part of an hour to get one up the hill. By nightfall we had located all but two dead soldiers. I slept near the row of body-bags. In the morning the missing soldiers were located and we assembled teams to carry the bodies to the landing zone that we had arrived in. The work was challenging, the bodies were heavy and as ribs cracked through the bags I began to vomit at the smell that reminded me of how the city of Fallujah Iraq had smelled a little over a year before. I thought about the mission we were doing, and I came to peace with the Army/Marine thing, it didn’t matter, all that mattered was that we got the bodies of the dead American’s back to America.
As we passed through the village I saw the elder again. He began to smile. He was happy to see me, vomit in the corners of my mouth and maybe a little pain in my American eyes. I wanted to shoot him, to raise my weapon and rip the smile off of that cheap fuckers face. Leave him there for his son to find after he was done with his bomb planting for the day.
Let America ask why I would have wasted him, it was because he smiled and these bodies were in his ugly ass country for reasons I could care less about. But I didn’t kill him; I went home and had my legal drink to forget the bullshit. Now I am a human again and I watch the robots talk about how they lined up an Afghan man on a wall and murdered him, and I thought about it, what a long war it has been, about how the worst parts of combat were not the dangerous ones, but the times where we were doing nothing. How it felt when a buddy died and how bad I wanted to make someone feel that way. And I wonder why this is such a long war? The leader of these five “thrill kill” soldiers is my age, 25 and a Staff Sergeant, which means he probably joined the Army the same time I joined the Marines.
I can’t imagine how I would see the world if that desert deployment just became another part of life every other year another year in the desert. The 25 year old sounds like a psychopath, because sometimes people go to war and like it, they get promoted because they are good at it, and now they have influence over the junior men who want to be cool like the 25 year old Staff Sergeant with combat experience, the man who will give them what they always wanted, show them how to get away with it, to just kill people because, fuck it this has been a very long war, and not too much to say.