They Call Them Heroes

Two days ago, my best friend died.

That afternoon I was on guard in the tower until 1700. Towards the end of my shift I was studying the Japanese characters of the Hiragana alphabet that I had copied down into my notebook, The Electrifying Conclusion. I got off guard and ate dinner; I was playing Super Mario Bros 3 when someone came in. He said that Bushmaster came in the gate with casualties, he saw Tabada slumped over, he thought he was dead.

I walked outside and they told me not to go anywhere near the truck. I looked through a gap in the T-wall barriers and saw a scorch mark on the door. I crossed the HLZ and passed their medic, a very young kid. He looked so shaken, I wasn’t sure if I should ask, but I did. He mumbled something and kept walking. So I went to the aid station. My squad leader told me not to go in. He was standing outside wearing blue latex gloves. I asked him what happened. He wouldn’t tell me. He said they’ll put out that information later. I walked away.

Crossing the HLZ again my team leader approached me with Tabada’s team leader in Bravo (Bushmaster) company. He told me what happened. There was plenty of time to get the details later. An RPG hit square in the middle of the door of his truck and killed him. One of the dismounted soldiers responded with a hand-held LAW missile from a nearby ditch. He said he knew he had to tell me because he knew we were close.

After that my team leader, CPL Wilder, followed me around. We ended up behind our old wooden buildings, and he offered me a cigarette, and I smoked it. I hadn’t spoken. Hadn’t thought much, didn’t know what to think. Then I thought of my Dad.

I had always mentioned Tabada to my parents over the phone, we had met in training and became friends at our unit. So they knew him already when he and Baggenstoss came home with me for Thanksgiving the year before last. The whole family met him, and he and my Dad became friends in their own right. Sometimes Tabada would relay messages from my Dad to me after they’d been IMing.

“I want to call my Dad.” Not just because I hurt, but because it was his friend too. When a soldier gets severely hurt or injured we go on communications blackout, so that rumor doesn’t reach the family before a Chaplain does. Wilder took me to see our squad leader to see if an exception can be made. But he said no.

The light began to fail, as we were waiting for the helicopter that will escort him out of here. They will only come here after dark because of the danger, but soldiers crowd around the HLZ, awaiting their chance to salute him. They don’t call them K.I.A. over the net. They call them Heroes. When the Platoon Sergeant of his platoon comes asking for those to carry him to the bird, I step forward, but say nothing- I didn’t think they would let me, since I’m not in his platoon. But someone calls out my name for me, and they pick me. Wilder follows me to the aid station.

It was a long wait. My squad leader asked why I was waiting outside. “We’re here to carry him.”

“Hey, dude, his platoon’s going to carry him.”

“They picked me.”

We were told there was a change of plans, that all the higher-ups were going to carry him, but my squad leader, not knowing that, called me inside. While I waited, they asked if I wanted to carry him, and I said yes. But I told them I had to be on the right side of the stretcher. I showed them my other hand in the cast.

He was covered by an American flag. I didn’t see him. I knew I didn’t want to. Night fell thick, and the helicopter came. His Platoon Sergeant and I switched on our dim red headlamps. The wind from the rotors blew dirt in our faces. We approached the open doors of the empty Blackhawk and loaded the stretcher.  What I remember is that dim light showing the flag draped over that boy in the bay of the Blackhawk, and the nothing of night all around it. As I backed away, under the roar of the spinning blades, I said out loud, because no one could hear,

“I love you, man. Goodbye.”

I walked to the back of the crowd and saluted while it took off. I turned off my headlamp, but in the dark I recognized Wilder’s tall form approach me. By then it was quiet.

“I was studying Japanese in the guard tower today. We were going to spend a month in Japan on our post-deployment leave.”

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