I remember now, most vividly, the smells. Diesel fuel and electric fires give off sort of an acid, oily stink. No, more stench really, I guess, to be accurate. It is a pervading stench that envelopes and surrounds me. Overwhelms me. I was completely cut off, an island in a sea of black, choking, enveloping mist. The APC (armored personal carrier) was this smoking silhouette. It looked menacing, like the Chinese war-machine it was, until my eyes focused on the gaping hole in the side. When this hole was considered, the vehicle looked sad, almost like now, dead, it was resigned to its fate, a rusting, old heap, a coffin of men, out here in this long-ago and long since no-man's land. The hole was what did it. That and the fact that I was the one responsible, the one who had pulled the trigger, thus relegating this fate to the APC, and also responsible for the cloud of smoke that now encompassed the all to brief battle site. I was the gunner.
The jeep beside the APC was a ruined, twisted wreck. It was riddled from all sorts of small arms fire, ranging from the Maggots 60, to the SAW (squad automatic weapon) and door-kickers M-16A2s. The metal frame even took a couple of grenades too. It was in a pitiful sight. More so were the bodies of the three men, who just moments before had been soldiers trying to mount some kind of defense for their lives. They were not so much bodies any more, because bodies conjure a mental image of the human shape. Maybe the body is cold and pale, and has a bluish tint to it--wooden when dead. No, these were better described as corpses. The damage the Jeep took from the small arms was nothing compared to the devastation that was brought onto these "corpses." They were literally ripped apart, red, dripping, moist, smoking, charred sad little sacks of so much useless flesh.
The violence of it was all too sudden. We train on ambushes, both initiating and escaping them; we train to initiate a violence of action. To act, react, enact and to do it all in a split-second, we commit, open-fire, annihilate, and stop. The halt is a sudden as the opening salvo. It was all so fast. The proper way to initiate an ambush is to engage with the most casualty-producing weapon. In this case it was my Gustoff (anti-tank gun, think of a three-foot long, O.D.-olive drab- green tube that shoots "rockets"). I sighted on the APC, and gently, oh so gently, as to not upset the sight picture, squeezed the trigger. It was all so fast.
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Then it was over and it was time to clear the wreckage. To search for intel.-unit patches, paperwork, loads and ammo types, commanding officer rank and insignia. We look to find anything that would give an inside edge, a glimpse of the enemy's strategy and tactics. This was always a most unpleasant job as it takes one face to face with the slain. It brings it home. I was usually not required to be on one of the "red" or "white" teams. See, both teams assault through the ambush site, then on the other side the "white" team pulls security, while the "red" team searches. Being on the "lady" meant I stayed the "blue" team, pulling this side security and look out. However, being that we were in a mine-field, and that this convoy caught us off guard, the CO (commanding officer) ordered me and my AB (ammo bearer) to clear the wreckage.
I remember being trapped in the black haze, suffocating, when I heard the barked command. I remember mentally struggling to break the trance I was in so as not to have the command re-issued. I literally swam up and into the surface of my mind. What I broke through to was a composite of the smells, the realizations, the adrenaline, and the sounds--everything together. There were new sounds, sounds from the APC, thirty-five yards away. The sounds of a low, pitched screaming, and fire cackling and eating away. They spoke to me of somebody being still alive, and they were dying. I prayed that they would be dead by the time that I got there. It was almost enough to send me, terrified, back into the recess of my mind.
I turned to my AG (assistant gunner-second in charge on gun team level, and also the re-loader of the "lady") and traded "her" off for his weapon. I ordered my AB to follow me. I was worried about him. He was a "newbie," fresh from his welcoming training into the Army, consisting of "boot," airborne, and R.I.P. He was tough, you had to be tough to get past R.I.P.-Ranger Indoctrination Program, but he was new. I ordered him to proceed slow and cautious, to clear every footstep, before he stepped into it.
I proceed to the ruins, once again surrounded in smoke, the black, clutching reminder of the death that lay ahead of me. Waiting. I reprimanded myself time and time again to keep a sharp and focused mind on the task of clearing and searching for mines. I made it to the heaps. My handiwork lay before me, a morbid testament to the razors-edge of my training. The poor bastard whom I had heard earlier had died during my twenty-five minute labor to the site. The corpses were there, no more than three
to five feet away. I felt empty. Emotion and humanity fled, as they should, because when they flee they takes your sanity with them and save it for you. They hide it, try to preserve it.
I turned to watch, to see how close my man was. I remember he was about nine yards away. He was moving with caution, but in a hurried sense. He looked up and caught my eyes with his. He gave a half-sure smile that was really a mask that he used to hide his fear in the face of his leader. He was seeking reassurance. I shouted in my mind for him to focus on the ground, but it was too loud, so I took a minute to reconstruct it. I wanted to be compassionate in lieu of what was waiting for him. Whatever the reason, my mouth opened but no sound came forth, instead it filled with smoke, thick enough almost to chew. It was here with a mouth clogged with smoke, and my eyes trapped in his, that I watched him step off the path and onto a land mine.
It was at that point, in the split-second that I heard the boom and saw him die, I realized that my existence would be forever altered. I watched myself die, as I saw his body hit the ground.
For me, my bout with alcohol was much the same. It started off innocently enough. I was I an area I was not supposed to be. But, I would hurry up and get through, I had a right to be here. Next time though, I stayed longer. After that, longer and longer, and soon I was in my own personal mine-field. However this time, the smoke was my own induced filter that I used to view the world. The stink was still there, only this wasn't of fire and sulphur. Instead, my nostrils filled with the rank of my own sweat and with the decay that the liquor was visiting upon my body. No, not body, corpse really. I had turned into a corpse. I had more animation than the men back in the field, but I was on par with them for being alive.
Then the full on assault came. I drank non-stop. I learned to function drunk. I ran eight, ten, fifteen miles drunk. I hardly slept, and when I did, they were all there waiting for me--My fellow corpses.
I tried to tell him to stop over and over again. I screamed. I shouted. I cried, begged, and pleaded. Alas, it was to no avail. Time and time again, he put his foot down, eyes locked onto mine, half-smile of fear and doubt on his face, and exploded. The only way to stop the noise wailing from my mouth was to fill it with something--The bottle.
The end came quickly. I got a call from a friend. He said he had seen her with somebody else. He said he had seen them kiss. It was an intimate kiss. I went home and spent the day with her. The smell of her burned through the darkness that had become my personal black halo, like a shaft of sunlight breaks through the clouds, reminding me it was only temporary, and that life would once again prevail. The day was wonderful. However, then a call set her cell phone to start singing. On the external I.D. screen came the tag of "My Baby." She took the call. Later when the day waned, and all that was left was a choice to be made, stay with me or go home for him, she left me.
It was at that point, in the split-second that I saw the answer on her face as a single tear rolled down her cheek, to be followed by others, and heard her start to speak, that I realized that my existence would be forever altered. I watched myself die, again, with sanity, and emotion there as witnesses, as I saw her get into her car and drive away.
I sought out my end. I drank and drank. I remember how easy it had been for him. One second he was there, the next, not. I envied him. Envied him, and despised myself.
I ingested enough to black out. I awoke in a pool of my own fluids, once again sharing a commonality with the corpses of so long ago. I had stepped down wrong, purposefully, and survived. I always would. Unlike my private, I had not lost my life, only my love. I ended my alcoholism right there--Not the disease, but the end I sought in it. I picked myself up, cried and set out to once again learn how to be a body.
I remember the smell of her.
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