By Brandon Caro
Brandon Caro is a 27 year old prior service Navy Corpsman. He served 5 years on active duty, including a 12-month deployment attached to an Army advisor team in Afghanistan. He enjoys reading, listening to music, traveling outside the US among other things. He resides in Austin, TX.
The sun shone hard and the wind bellowed in from the West on the day I first killed a man. In a more hospitable climate, a gust of wind through the tree tops and down across the red earthen terrain would perhaps have offered a welcomed sigh of relief to the poor fools out on the line that day, sauntering through the nearly uninhabitable landscape of the Southwest Asian Steppe. But the cruel Afghan summer heat turned even the gentlest breeze into a suffocating wave of hot air and filth. The heat alone might have been enough to drive a man mad, or at least put him out of his suffering. I remember one day when the sun was particularly fierce, we had one guy fall out of formation and start convulsing. He was promptly flown out on a MEDEVAC and I never saw him again.
After so many days, and weeks and months, so many birthdays and anniversaries and Halloweens and Mardi Gras spent toiling in the inferno, minds begin to wander. Eventually time stagnates, and what ensues is a seamless, miserable experience that stretches out on all sides, in all directions until the misery is palpable.
When I first landed in country, my eyes widened and my breath was taken from me. The physical beauty of the place was overwhelming. The winter had just taken hold, and snow capped mountains haunted the perimeter of the airstrip. I remember stepping off the C17 and walking out onto the Tarmac unable to keep from spinning around in circles. The mountains went on indefinitely, and surrounded Bagram Airforce Base just as they had when the Russians were there, and for centuries and centuries before that I suppose. The air was clean and felt pure going in, getting lost for a moment, and then returning to the early morning twilight in a frosty huff. I was enchanted. It didn't take long, of course, for the glow to fade into shadows and for reality to sink down, deep down into my abdomen, the sinking feeling of a nightmare waiting to happen, content to wait for as long as it takes, but always there within arms reach. Within a few weeks it was impossible to tell where the dream had ended and the nightmare began.
A series of very close calls had occurred during my tenure in the central province of Kabul, but I had not yet seen any blood. The Afghan "government" was heavily defended within the capital city, making enemy activity minimal, and relatively ineffective. So by the time I pushed out east to the lawless province of Kunar, which shared a border with Pakistan, and was notorious for harboring scores of enemy Taliban and Al Queda fighters, my situational awareness had eroded almost entirely.
Within minutes of our arrival at our new FOB, (Forward Operating Base) one of the bridges we had crossed on our way in was destroyed by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device.) It had been meant for us, but the blasting caps had failed to go off at the opportune moment. The shoddy work and ill-timed attack were indicative of a second or third tier Taliban sponsored group struggling to find competent, experienced operatives that were willing to bring the fight to the Americans. Most of their top shelf commanders and soldiers had been killed off during the invasion, and in the short months that followed. It had been several years since then, and they were no where near where they needed to be if they really wanted to win this thing. Most of the guys we were relieving had seen intense combat in the Iraqi cities of Falluja and Ramadi. They laughed off the incident and finished loading their gear into their trucks. I laughed too. Then I went inside the hooch, unpacked my gear and changed my underwear
The nagging fear of death and/or dismemberment is an exhausting weight to tote around on a daily basis, especially when any sign of incompetence or hesitation on the part of a soldier, (or sailor, as the case may be) will permanently compromise his credibility among his brothers in arms. As a combat medic, for me, this only intensified the pressure. It was summer now, and our new base was considerably closer to sea level and saw temperatures that topped out at around 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and didn't drop below 100 for at least six months. I'm not really sure when I fell off the grid; when my consciousness and unconsciousness began trading places. There are a few months sandwiched in the middle of the combined twelve I spent in country that seemed to have run off on me. The things I do recall are all strewn together and not in any particular order. To this day, it is difficult for me to recall even the trivial moments; something as banal as Sgt Rago telling me about how he was planning on suing his ex-wife for custody of his eight year old son Patrick, without the flash flood of memories and fragments of conversations with old friends streaming through my scatter-brain, as though they were a waking dream, completely self-governed and wildly unpredictable. But I don't think I'll ever forget that day.
I think most people have an unclear perception of what really goes on in country. The lion's share of unnatural deaths and brutalities occur during sporadic skirmishes that often begin with an improvised explosive device, and usually don't last longer than a few minutes. There are often great lulls in violence between these instances that inspire unimaginable boredom for which the only remedy is constant internet porn and pirated DVDs of HBO's original series. There really is nothing quite like watching a 19-year-old private or private first class stroll over to a porto-potty in full battle rattle, laptop in toe, and emerge a few minutes later in a brazen sweat with a look of much need relief on his soft face. It was always the little things that got us through. We were not hit everyday, or even every other day for that matter, and it was rare that anyone on our team actually fired his weapon in combat, even though we all wrote each other up for awards that we ourselves signed off on. When we did get hit by the Taliban or Al Qaeda or whomever, by the time we'd turn around to hit back, they'd be long gone; evanesced into the red earth and hot sun. The man I killed, however, was not so fortunate. He might have been as young as 16, and was so thin, that it only took one of us to throw him into the humvee to be evaluated for medical care. He was spotted near the site of an IED that had ripped through the belly of an up-armored truck, killing one US Army Soldier, and seriously wounding two others. Amidst the chaos that broke out in the wake of the explosion, one of our soldiers spotted what looked like a silhouette leaping up from a ditch in the road and making its way for the wooded high ground nearby. He put three 5.56 rounds through the center mass of that figure, and the figure abruptly stopped running. The teenaged boy writhed around on the ground in terrible agony for a while and shouted what I imagined were obscenities in his native tongue. After we finished loading our dead and wounded onto the trucks that had not been damaged by the blast, we secured the area and headed toward the trembling body just up the hill. Two of the rounds had entered and exited the boy's midsection, while the third had grazed his left arm. He was bleeding profusely and had clearly gone into shock. The proper procedure would have been to wrap up the abdominal evisceration to his stomach, tie a tourniquet two inches above the wound to his left arm, and insert an IV with the blood-volume solution Hextend. His fragile level of consciousness contraindicated the administration of morphine. I was the only medic on scene, so the task of looking over his wounds fell to me. But I just looked at the poor kid, who was clearly unarmed, and perhaps not even responsible for the attack altogether. He was so far gone, he probably wouldn't have survived the ride back to base anyway, but I made no effort to treat any of his injuries. Instead I just stared at him, strangling him with my eyes. And though it was not my finger that had pulled the trigger and ended his life, when I watched the last signs of consciousness trail away from his soft face, that boy murdered the best part of me.