In the summer before I deployed, we had a Friday night officer gathering. It was meant to recognize all the leaders who were leaving and to welcome the new arrivals. I skulked around the tables of food after the last speeches, wanting nothing more than to go home. A guy I didn’t recognize said hi and introduced himself. His name was Brian, and he had just arrived in the battalion. He was a second lieutenant like me, but he had just graduated from Ranger school a few weeks earlier. He was from Washington and into the outdoors, the way I had hoped to be.
We talked for a solid hour, and he seemed like an interesting person. I remember leaving the scene thinking I had finally met someone with whom I shared common ground. We exchanged numbers, but he was assigned to another company in the battalion, so I knew I wouldn’t see him at work. We had a mutual friend, though, and we hung out a few times on the weekends.
I quickly discovered a few things, though. First, he heavily outclassed me in any sort of outdoor sport. He was a phenomenal biker, skier and climber, whereas I was still working on being passably bad at all three. Second, he was a very nice person when you talked to him one-on-one, but in a group he was an asshole. He was a clown, but he would savage you with barbs about your personality, competence, sexual preference and physical appearance when you least expected it. God forbid you try to make the conversation about something serious. Of course, I didn’t mind. That’s just Army life sometimes, and in truth he was pretty funny.
Still, there were times when he went too far. One of our fellow platoon leaders was dumped by his fiancée while on an exercise in California. We were gone for five weeks; this guy was literally planning on coming back from the desert and getting married, and this girl ditched him. It crushed him, but he was almost back to normal by early February. At another officer function where companies had the chance to mock each other with skits, Brian got up and basically gave a PowerPoint presentation set to techno music about how lame this guy was, and the centerpiece was pictures of the victim and his ex-fiancée gleaned from Facebook. It wasn’t funny at all, even though the victim was often a jerk. It broke the guy’s heart all over again. It was totally unexpected and absolutely brutal. I didn’t know why Brian did it, but from that point I basically wrote him off.
Right before I left for Afghanistan, all the lieutenants went skiing. I stopped awkwardly while trying to get in line for a lift, and Brian was sitting there, kitted up like ski patrol (which he was as a college student). He just smiled at me, with a look of gentle sympathy in his eyes and said, “You skied a lot as a kid, right?” He said it with no malice, and I thought, “If only you could be this nice all the time. I would be your best friend.” In truth, I really did want to be best friends with him. It was like I was in elementary school all over again. I feel sheepish saying it now.
I deployed a month before Brian. I was an executive officer—a logistical job—and he was still a platoon leader, subordinate in position to me but still a way more desirable job in combat to the kind of people who joined the Army as infantry officers in 2009. I was jealous; I knew that I had received my promotion only because my new company commander was so breathtakingly incompetent that they wanted someone to babysit him. I was living in relative luxury, all the while hating it and wanting to be in the worst place in Afghanistan, in Tangi or Korengal or Gereshk.
Brian, by contrast, was in the most dangerous and hostile part of our battalion’s area and performed heroically. He ran through an open field when one of his squads was isolated, all the while being chased by DShK fire. Which is to say a Russian-made heavy machine gun: its bullets are 12.7-mm wide and they’re meant to take down airplanes. The bullets can punch through cinder blocks, and they were impacting next to him.
It was a huge firefight, with insurgent mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and rifles all targeting his 30-man platoon. This whole village erupted as soon as Brian’s vehicles rolled up. And here’s Brian, all smiles, sweetness and light, and the rotten ground of an Afghan manure field is exploding in chunks all around him as he sprints as fast as his suit of armor will let him to the other side. He tells his cut-off squad what to do next, and then, to everyone’s surprise, he runs right back again. “This is insane,” his platoon sergeant thinks. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” He made it back in one piece; he acted like nothing had happened.
It was hard not to be jealous. I wanted to be him. I wanted to live through the close calls and shrug it off the way he did. And I was even more jealous of him when I found out that he was going to take a liaison job with the Afghan government. I’d wanted that job forever, but I was stuck with my train-wreck commander. Brian’s platoon leader time was almost done, and he’d performed spectacularly.
Our battalion ran a huge logistical convoy to bring gravel to Brian’s base, a distant southern outpost. The dust was so thick down there that without thousands of tons of gravel, helicopters couldn’t land to bring them supplies. Brian’s platoon would help to provide security for the hundreds of Afghan dump trucks (rolling wind chimes with hallucinatory murals that we called “jingle trucks”) contracted to move rocks in a long, snaking convoy, the kind that attracted the insurgents all across the region. The staging area for all the trucks was our battalion’s main base, my unwanted home.
I was working in my office one morning when I heard his voice in the hallway. The convoy was getting ready to depart, and his platoon was up with us until the time came to head back south. It was like a vacation for his guys; their outpost had very little fresh food, no stores, a scant supply of potable water and massive infestations of fleas and sand flies. Our base was like a paradise by comparison, and the recently-opened Pizza Hut store seemed to cement that point. The gym was palatial. There were attractive girls on base. Brian’s guys were in heaven, and Brian visited an old friend in the office next to mine. We all got lunch at the dining hall.
It was great to see him, but I was struggling with envy. He didn’t want to leave his guys; he really didn’t want to live and work with Afghans. He called them, “Those fucking people.” He didn’t know how good he had it, and he was stomping around feeling sorry for himself and scoffing at what would be an amazing experience. Or maybe I was just feeling sorry for myself. He seemed different, though. He had grown up so much since I had last seen him, and he seemed so much more comfortable being himself. I was sad to see him go.
At Brian’s parents’ house in Washington, one of their favorite pictures of him is one that shows him in an Afghan village handing out school supplies to a gaggle of swarming kids. He’s got a goofy smile on his face, and it’s like he’s back to being a high school camp counselor. He was clearly happy. I wonder if he only claimed to hate them because it’s what so many people in the Army do? I want to believe that it was just an act, but I’m not the one who can answer that question.
Some of the staff officers in our battalion were blasé. It was easy to get that way—your job’s minutiae would consume you and you’d lose sight of what existed outside the razor wire. Our battalion’s executive officer, the second in command—a fearsome and tremendously competent major—was angry that the lieutenants had so little idea of what was happening in operations, and so he mandated that we sit in the command center in shifts. We’d have no decision-making authority, but it would force us to improve what the Army calls our “situational awareness.”
My first shift was quiet. There were no voices to be heard in the radio room. I brought an ancient Peace Corps textbook for the Pashto language that I had downloaded. I was working on my greetings and expressions when we received a text message on the central battle-tracking system:
Jingle truck hit IED 1325L, there was a second device detonated 1327L, 1 US KIA.
“Oh shit,” the system operator said. “It says one American K-I-A.” It means ‘killed in action.’ We hadn’t lost anyone up until that point. The next twenty minutes were tense. Our battalion executive officer was furiously quashing any rumor mongering or panic. We didn’t call anything up until we received final word.
A translated radio intercept from the insurgents popped up on a computer feed: Tell our brothers to celebrate, it read. We have finally killed one of them.
Later, an American radio transmission:
“Stand by for KIA battle roster number. Bravo. Charlie. Bravo. Seven. Four. Eight. Eight.”
It was a code to identify soldiers without compromising names on the radio. The second letter was the soldier’s company. The third letter was the first letter in his last name. The digits were the last four in his social security number. We immediately checked the battalion roster. One of my soldiers had transferred to company C. His last name started with a B. I crossed my fingers that it wasn’t him.
It wasn’t. It was Brian.
Four hours later, I was standing on a landing zone as the medical helicopter brought Brian back to us. He was in a black nylon body bag. I helped to carry it with three other people; it was so light that it would have hardly been a task for two men. We put him on a stretcher and I reached to make sure he was going in feet first. I felt his head through the bag but couldn’t find his feet. I started to imagine what happened. We loaded him into a tan, armored ambulance and closed the door. Tears in my eyes, I stood at attention with the group. Dust was everywhere, and in the distance the constant brown of Afghan mountains. We saluted as they drove him up the winding hillside path and to the airfield’s aid station.
The doctors had to perform checks to write a death certificate. I wanted to see what had happened, but our battalion executive officer said he would identify the body himself. He kicked us out of the aid station for the process. Ten minutes later, he emerged, clearly distraught, but holding it together as a leader. He told us the story.
One of the jingle trucks hit an improvised bomb. All of the anti-mine devices and search teams at the head of the convoy had missed it, and when it detonated, it knocked off the truck cab and threw gravel all over the road. Brian ran down to check on the drivers, to make sure they were all right and to start setting up security. They were shaken but unhurt. He called his guys to circle the trucks around the site. Running back to his vehicle, he stepped on another mine that had been specifically placed to target first responders. It blew off both of his legs and most of both arms. He was dead before he hit the ground. That was it. He was 24-years-old.
Our battalion posted a guard outside the refrigerated container where he would stay after the doctors were finished. I walked out and sat on a nearby picnic table, smoking a cigarette and thinking. I wondered how long it would be before his parents found out. I hated the fact that I knew something so terrible and they had yet to find out.
At midnight, a C-130 cargo plane landed on our base and prepared for the return flight to Bagram. It would fly empty, carrying only the crew and Brian’s body. We rode an old bus up to the flight line to participate in the ceremony. As we traveled the half-mile up to the highest point of the base, the driver slowed down and we were taken aback by the sight: the entire support battalion was marching up to participate. With 500 people walking at night, each wearing a bright yellow reflective belt slung in the same style, it gave the eerie appearance of a candlelight vigil.
The ceremony was brief. Hundreds of people were watching, but very few actually knew him. I stood in the column lining the ramp of the aircraft. We saluted as he passed. The body bag, now covered with an American flag, was still strapped to a stretcher.
It was a black, moonless night. The sole light emanated from the open cargo ramp of the C-130 as it prepared to taxi. You could still see the colors of the flag. The plane’s ramp closed, but the noise told us it was still there. Finally, about forty-five minutes later, the plane taxied to the runway and took off. The crowd had dispersed, but a few of us still waited. It was too dark to see the plane in flight; waiting in the night I just listened to the propellers pass by and grow faint. In their absence, I knew he was gone.