In this original piece of fiction, Nathan Holland tells of how one traumatic day is set to alter the course of a soldier’s life and career.
We all recognize the smell of blood, the metallic tang that claws inside our nostrils. In the battlefield it is different, amplified and harsher. I can’t say why for sure, maybe it’s the sheer scale, the pools streaming out over the sand. Maybe it’s the mix of other scents, the sweat and the gunsmoke. Maybe it’s knowing whose blood it is, whose life is forfeit.
A transmission was radioed in to keep moving, whatever we were hauling obviously held more value than us.
It was early, sun barely above the horizon, yet the heat was blistering. Even so, everyone was in full gear, we were under no illusions to the risk. Our jeep was second in the train, five of my unit inside, all alert to the signs of an ambush. Still, we saw nothing before the lead vehicle went up. There had been no time to properly clear the route, the threat of IEDs was expected. A transmission was radioed in to keep moving, whatever we were hauling obviously held more value than us. The crater from the blast didn’t completely block our path so we were able to drive around without much hold up. Promoted to the head of the convoy we were first to spot the ambush. Too late to avoid it. They had planned well, dug in with plenty of cover from a burnt out village whilst we were out in the open with the high cliff wall to our back. Driving straight for the first defensible position we could, a boulder a hundred yards from the village, inadequate but better than nothing. Jumping out before the wheels stopped turning, rifles up and ready, a quick assessment of the situation from peeks around the rocks. Not good. Severely outnumbered and penned in with little cover, air support would be at least 10 minutes out.
Working on instinct I took out the one to my left first, a clean shot to the head. My first kill, my second an instant later.
Two of my unit went down within the first minute, our best option was to try to get to the walls that could afford some protection. Two were left to lay down cover as I sprinted out towards the village. Even if not one of them was a good shot I wouldn’t make it, there was too much ground to cover and I was an easy target. The incredible peril caused a flood of adrenaline that supplanted most of the fear. It was a small miracle that I made it but there was no time to be thankful for it. I was safe from the majority of threats but there were two who now had a clean line to me. Working on instinct I took out the one to my left first, a clean shot to the head. My first kill, my second an instant later. Momentarily safe the weight of it struck. I couldn’t breathe, my legs were about to give out. I heard the breathy whistle of the rocket launcher without recognition, the explosion that followed a split second later yanked me back to the world. Another transport gone, little hope of any survivors inside.
One survivor crawled out of the wreckage. What little left of her legs would never have let her walk and no one was close enough to help. She dragged her body a few metres from the burning vehicle before being picked off. I wish I could have closed my eyes. I’d give anything to have not seen.
I felt every ounce of compassion, empathy and understanding within me detach from my mind.
I had to pause there. Take a deep breath. And another. I’d gone through everything in my mind over and over again but this was the point where I always got stuck. Giving my initial report I managed to stutter through. Now, sat across from this shrink, my mind just wouldn’t keep going. It wasn’t the image of private first class Jones, I’d found out that was her name afterwards, broken and desperately struggling to get to safety that haunted me. It was my reaction to it, the cold, fierce anger. I felt every ounce of compassion, empathy and understanding within me detach from my mind. A clean break leaving a monster in its wake.
“A monster?” The shrink interrupted, I was barely aware of having voiced the thoughts running around my head. It took a moment for me to register what he was asking, before I responded.
“You’ve seen the file.” My response was choked and bitter.
“I would like to hear it from you.”
I don’t want to keep going but the General had been clear that I was to do as the shrink said, so I readied myself to continue.
Another deep breath.