by Eric Watts
In the military, sometimes the most tragic stories about war never get told. If nothing else good comes of the war, at least I have the chance to pen the tragedy of Private Tucker and me.
We met here in Baghdad, in 2005. He had already been stationed here two years, broken in from one of the very first invasions in March of 2003. A letter came for me in the mail during one of the troop surges. I was called in, unprepared to fight a war that I didn’t even know was happening.
Maybe no one is really ever prepared for war. With all due respect, perhaps even the men of steel, the Marines and Seals only want to be here out of a misguided sense of duty and honor. The other type, the ones that want to be here because they enjoy killing, are just plain mad.
Tucker and I were nothing but two ill-equipped, sandy-haired babes from the National Guard who could barely load a gun the right way. He was a bricklayer by trade; I was an aspiring writer, taking care of my mother at home in Vermont. She was slowly withering away with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Many of us sat idle so long through times of peace that war seemed like some great myth, some Greek epic. But when we were called in, standing under that hot desert sun, time stopped and slowly tipped backwards. With the daily prospect of dying or becoming maimed, death was no longer a myth. Reality was violently flipped on its head. Sitting at home in a warm house watching TV became the fairy tale. We were playing Russian roulette on a daily basis.
Tucker and I gravitated toward one another, the same way lonely drunks in a bar seem to sniff out each other’s misery. Three months after I landed, my sister Jenny wrote. Mom was at St. Anthony’s on her deathbed and my fiancée Crystal was cheating on me with her high school beau. She said she was sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that it was better to find out now than later.
Coincidentally, Tucker received his Dear-John Letter three days after mine. His brother was “taking care” of his wife while he was here fighting the war. They had been living the high life in a condo near Bradenton Beach for the last two years.
That night we sat in a dusty dive, an old abandoned school that had been remodeled into a place where the soldiers could kill themselves with whiskey.
Tucker looked me in the eye, putting back shot after shot of rum, daring me to keep up. We were drinking not only to spite ourselves, but each other as well. Not a single word was exchanged. We were playing a game of roulette; each shot of whiskey was a bullet. We wanted to see who had the stones to take it the furthest. I didn’t think things could get worse, but they did.
A few weeks later, we were sent about fifteen miles north of Baghdad. It was one of the most volatile regions, constantly bombarded by insurgents. We were doing a recon mission to find munitions bunkers and garnering a rough estimate of how many rebels were holding the area.
We were hiding next to what looked like some derelict salvage yard. Metal parts of jeeps and scrap were strewn everywhere. A crooked, sun-faded sign hung above the door for dear life. The wood siding of the building was pocked with bullet holes.
Through binoculars, we were watching some kids play on a schoolyard. Some were making flags, others were tossing a ball back and forth. Sergeant Liskey went around the back to take a leak. Tucker lowered his binoculars and took a swig from his canteen, wiping sweat from his forehead. I was still watching those kids play when I heard a click, and a thump.
Before I had time to turn my head completely around, I heard an explosion. A sharp, burning pain like a red-hot needle spread from my left eye and down my cheek. At the same time, Tucker tackled me, or maybe he was blown into me. We never got the story straight. But when you’re the one that gets your leg blown off instead of the other guy, you deserve bragging rights for something. I let him have them.
No one knows how we made it out alive. Gunfire splintered the wood building and hit Corporal Atkins. He flopped over in front of me, holding his gut. Blood poured out of his mouth. He choked for a few seconds and then his eyes closed. Three Privates turned the rest of that wood hut into Swiss cheese. I don’t remember this, but Liskey said he gave the signal to fall out. After the building went up in flames we hightailed it back to the base in the Humvee.
I was in severe pain. Every image in my left eye looked like a silhouette eclipsed by the sun. Tucker screamed the whole time. The medic gave him a shot of morphine during the ride back, but the screaming continued. His knee, and everything below it dangled like a kite from his body. It literally hung by threads.
After they flushed the pieces of shrapnel out of my eye and cauterized his leg there wasn’ t much left they could do. We were to be shipped back home in three days: I with a blind eye and scarred face and he with a missing leg. A day and a half of lying on a bed in the infirmary felt like two months. Tucker only made it worse.
He shoved a nurse when she was late with his medication. He constantly complained and at night I heard him crying. After hours and hours of this I slowly soaked up his apathy and despair like a sponge. It was hard for me to be around him, but at the same time I needed him. He was the only one in the platoon more miserable than I. We were both pretty much in the same position, but it hit him harder. That somehow validated my own sense of survival. Think of it as the opposite of Survivor’s Guilt syndrome.
To pass the time we played games with each other. I took care of him for the same reason he let me, out of pure spite and anger. I owed him one, and he took every advantage of it. So I took every advantage of owing him.
Sometimes I would put his tray of food too far from his bed. I’d watch him hobble toward it to remind him that he needed me, and that I was one leg up on him. He would dirty extra dishes, and make extra messes just because he knew I hated cleaning them up. But at the same time, my cleaning up his messes made him feel more and more like an invalid, and he hated himself for it. So I took sick pleasure in cleaning up these extra messes he made just to spite me, in order to spite him.
After a day and a half of this we were getting restless. Even the morphine drip wasn’t enough to cure our boredom. We decided to play our old game and head back to the bar for our last night out. We took our bottles of Percocet and I wheeled him out against the doctor’ s orders. After his violent outburst and complaining and my antics, they didn’t put up much of a fight.
I wheeled him back to the dorm and checked our mail one last time. I received another letter from Jenny. Mother had died. She died whispering my name, looking off into space with those lopsided eyeballs.
What else could go wrong? I thought.
That night at the bar there was something thick and somber weighing down the air. We sat in a corner booth looking at each other. There was a vacancy in Tucker’s eyes that I can’ t quite describe, like he was about to ask me permission to do something horrifying and he half hoped I might try and talk him out of it. And as if by instinct I knew what he was about to say.
“Jason, we need to talk,” he said.
I looked away from him and rolled up two cigarettes. We popped some Percocets and watched the orange moon through the window. He told me he wasn’t going back home.
“I have nothing to go back for.”
“I understand that.”
“No, I don’t think you do,” he said, chewing another Percocet.
“I’m a bricklayer,” he said, looking down at where his leg used to be, “that’s all I know how to do.”
I didn’t say anything for a few minutes. I sat there, silently smoking that cigarette. It might have been the pills but a faint halo slowly formed around the moon. We chewed down a few more pills and washed them down with whiskey. We ordered shot after shot.
“I need you to do something for me.”
He wanted me to euthanize him, in front of the platoon. In the locker room, first thing in the morning I was to sneak up behind him and blow his brains out with my forty-five.
“Wouldn’t it be so much easier just to take pills, or IV morphine?” I said. The nurses would probably even oblige.
“Nope, everyone needs to see this. All those people getting discharged, going home to their wives and kids with both legs, they need to see this.”
“It’s murder. I don’t want to go to prison. And why can’t you do it yourself?”
He stubbed out his cigarette and sat silent for a minute, as if he were waiting for some hidden part of him to surface and walk him back out of this dark labyrinth he had created for himself.
“I need you to do it,” he said, “because I don’t have the balls to do it myself. I don’t even want to see it coming. You’re the only one I know with the stones to pull it off. Maybe we could do it together.”
We chewed a few more pills and did more shots. The room was starting to spin.
“What do you have left to go back to anyway?” he asked.
He was right. Everything weighed down on me in a way that I had never imagined possible. A man had died three feet away from me. I’d lost my fiancée, my mother, and my left eye. With the side of my face disfigured, I looked like a funhouse monster.
Even if I made it out of this insane war alive it seemed I had nothing to look forward to. No matter which way I tried to spin it the forecast always seemed to hold the same thing for me: one miserable and crazy veteran, crying in his beer with a shotgun propped underneath his chin.
It seemed inevitable, I told myself, so I may as well get it over with now.
The rest of that night is a blur. I woke up a little after five the next morning in my own vomit. I was still drunk. Everyone had already gone to Mess. I wiped the rheum from my eyes thinking it would clear the blurriness. It didn’t.
I walked over to Tucker’s bunk. He was gone but there were a few wrapped presents, a bottle of champagne and a fruit basket on his bed. I chuckled.
The gun was loaded so I put on my fatigues and headed to the locker room. Tucker was in the wheelchair taking off his shirt. Sergeant Liskey was helping him with his boot and the shower was running.
I turned around, and walked back to my cot. I couldn’t do it, especially with Liskey watching. I lit a cigarette and tried to build up the courage while he took his last shower.
After the cigarette I hurried back to the locker room. He was alone, sitting in the wheelchair and facing away from me like we had planned. He began whistling. I crept up behind him, pressed the gun to the back of his head and pulled the trigger.
Time was suspended. His brains seemed to fly out of his head in slow motion, like a beaten pillow’s feathers, slowly floating to the ground. My heart didn’t beat for what could have been an eternity, or two and a half seconds.
Fragments of his brain speckled the wall, which dripped red with his blood. I put the barrel in my mouth and would have pulled the trigger, but I heard someone call my name. A moment later someone turned off the shower.
I peeked around the corner. Tucker sat on a plastic stool under a showerhead. His hair was still wet. Later, I found out Liskey had helped him into the shower and playfully commandeered the wheelchair.
If I had just finished him before he got into the shower, everything would have worked out as planned. I constantly beat myself up for it, even though I know it doesn’t help grappling with those what-if’s. The debate about if my eye had been better, or if my vision hadn’t been blurred from the drunkenness and pill hangover, none of that takes away the bars in front of me. It certainly can’t give Sergeant Liskey his life back, either. The only real debate now is when and how to kill myself. Otherwise I’ll be rotting in prison for the rest of my life, or worse.
My trial is in three days. Tucker hanged himself in a walk-in closet a couple of months ago. I’m still waiting for my sister to write back.
In wartime, every day is just another spin of the loaded chamber. In wartime we are all asked to spin it and pull the trigger. Some are lucky enough to win the roulette game and some are not. This is one of the stories that sometimes slip through the cracks.
Copyright © 2008 by Eric Watts