As explosions echoed through the Afghan mountains, I knew that each blast that tore through the night was also tearing through the flesh of my friends. It was October 2013; we had been caught in an ambush, and though the Taliban in the area had been killed quickly, the explosives they left behind for us were still detonating.
My fellow Rangers and I had arrived by helicopter and surrounded a small building in an open field; I.E.D.s had been buried, then armed by the enemy once we were in the middle of them. Any movement from that point onward threatened all of us.
[For more stories about the experiences and costs of war, sign up for the weekly At War newsletter.]
I had just returned from chasing down one of the insurgents, who had tried to bait us into another deadly ambush in a nearby gully, where an explosive was triggered that almost killed me and my teammates. Instead, Jany, our military working dog, raced ahead of us toward the enemy and was killed, trading his life for ours. When I returned to my platoon from that secondary ambush site, they had already suffered multiple casualties, and the dead and wounded were scattered on the ground under the moonlight. Explosions spat fire and rock at us.
A medic’s gloved hands moved with trained precision from casualty to casualty. He dashed from one to the next with intense purpose; I think that if he could have poured his own life into the veins of the men lying on the ground, he would have.
As the detonations continued, our explosive ordnance disposal technicians cleared paths to safety, avoiding patches of disturbed earth and checking the rest with metal detectors. Blasts like that are like an earthquake to your soul; after the flash, they rattle your rib cage and wash through you like a tidal wave made of invisible heat. Cold sweat was pooled under my armor as a bomb tech cleared a route toward me, and then a passage out. These bombs had been designed to be hard to detect, so no step was certain.
Another explosion; more service members wounded or killed.
Despite the desperate cries of pain in the darkness, despite the dead friends and the injuries we sustained, we all moved forward. We picked up the living and the dead, and we fought through the last moments of the mission, because that is what needed to be done. No one broke down. Everyone did their job.
Before long, I found myself kneeling in the back of the MH-47 Chinook helicopter, a large tandem-rotor aircraft that thundered back toward our forward operating base. We had a total of four dead and more than 30 wounded, with injuries ranging in severity from minor to life-altering. Around a dozen explosions had gone off. Of the three fire team leaders to step onto that mission, I was the only one stepping off.
My gaze drifted toward the rear of the aircraft, where the other Rangers sat quietly, many with blood on their faces or hands. The metal floor was a mess of red fluid, bandages and damaged equipment. The wounded were strapped into their stretchers, the medics checking and rechecking them in the dim, crimson light of the helicopter’s interior. Some people carried rolled American flags on their backs through their deployments — when we ran out of stretchers, they used these flags to carry out what was left of the dead. Broken flesh, tattered and bloodied flags, the faces of iron men whose bones and spirit had been terribly shaken — that image was branded into my mind and has remained there ever since.
We were all torn up when we returned to base, though physically I had been barely touched in comparison to the others. I tried to keep myself busy. We needed to do an inventory check of our soldiers, weapons and equipment and assess exactly what had been saved and what had been lost, so that’s what I did. With forward momentum propping me up, I got on with it.
Just as the sun was peeking over the mountains, I headed to the field hospital in Kandahar to visit some of the wounded. It was there that I was asked to escort the body of Sgt. Patrick Hawkins, who had been killed that night, back to the United States. Patrick was a fellow team leader. He had just turned 25. He was my best friend. I packed a bag, and a few hours later I got on a plane. His wife and parents were waiting for him; he would have wanted me there with them for his return.
I boarded the C-17 transport aircraft with three other escorts, one for each soldier who had been killed. This was our new mission: to bring them home. Since the first explosion had been triggered that night, I had been using momentum as a crutch. Adrenaline had kept me moving. On that cargo plane, soaring over the Atlantic Ocean, I had no choice but to sit amid the hum and whine of the aircraft and confront my own thoughts. I remember that moment clearly — I was sitting with my head resting against the cold metal behind it. Before me lay the four boxes, each wrapped tightly in an American flag, in stark contrast to the olive drab and black military equipment around us.
Patrick Hawkins, Cody Patterson, Jennifer Moreno, Joseph Peters. I said the names in my head over and over as if they were in danger of slipping away, as if they weren’t permanently etched into my heart and mind.
Cody had been relatively new to the platoon, and it was his second deployment. He was capable, smart and proficient, and I wished I had been more like him when I was a newcomer. Young Rangers are the little brothers in our small platoons, and Cody was the type you would be proud to call family.
Jenny was a 25-year-old first lieutenant and served as a Cultural Support Team member, though she had initially joined the Army as a nurse. C.S.T. members supported our missions and primarily dealt with civilian women and children after an assault was over, gathering valuable and actionable intelligence and defusing many volatile situations. On a few occasions, Jenny and her teammates met up with me and another Ranger in an abandoned building near our camp. We laughed together, spoke of home and shared the snacks sent by our loved ones.
Joe was an Army special agent with the 286th Military Police Detachment, and he was 24 years old, with a wife and a young son waiting for him back home. I met him for the first time that deployment, but we worked closely on the missions where he joined us. He understood the essence of servanthood — of a job whose true purpose was to help the people around you — and when we were together in the field we were always on the same page.
Then there was Patrick, my dear friend and Ranger brother. We entered the same squad just after the Ranger selection course, grew into young leaders and traveled the world and into combat four times together. We were roommates back home and overseas, and we were seldom apart. We laughed at the same jokes and recited the same lines from our favorite movies. When we cleared rooms or took fire, we knew exactly how the other would move. As I sat in the cargo plane, my thoughts drifted gently to his wedding, and to his wife and parents. I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t terrified, I was just sad. Sad that it happened and sad that for Patrick’s loved ones the years ahead would be filled with so much pain.
Patrick and I had never gone on a mission without each other, and we never would. (Though my injuries from that night were not severe, they kept me from returning to that deployment, and I left the military soon after.) There was some dark poetry to that; on paper, our military careers were alike in almost every way, and yet for some reason I left with my life and he did not. I wondered how the future could possibly look without him in it.
I wanted to melt into the metal and rubber of the C-17 and remain there forever. The lives of those in these coffins had ended so abruptly — how could mine simply go on? Images of 21-gun salutes, folded flags and grieving families flashed through my head; the thoughts made me feel sick, but they were better than trying to think of what might come after. It felt like some enormous, empty thing looming ahead that would surely swallow me whole. I wondered if this was the start of my transformation from an Army Ranger to a nameless veteran, drinking alone at the back of some seedy bar.
The tires kissed the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base. The plane taxied to a stop, and the jaws of the C-17’s rear door opened up to announce our arrival. Then the sun poured in, illuminating the flags draped over the coffins. It shone on those dark corners of my mind, and a part of me knew that beyond the nights of heavy drinking and the throbbing headaches afterward lay a whole host of other things, both good and bad. If I just put one foot in front of the other, I could move toward an education and countless books, to having my heart wrenched by rejection, to having it restored as I fell in love, to hiking mountains and to holding precious things. My legs understood what needed to happen, so they stood me up and carried me forward.
Weeks later, as I watched Patrick’s coffin being lowered into his final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery, I wondered if he would just disappear. Life was demanding that I move forward, and yet there he lay, forever still.
Everyone in that ambush lost a part of themselves in the fight that stole our friends. My fellow team leader Tom Block was seriously wounded on that same mission. He required skin grafts on his face, along with some reconstructive surgery. It felt to me as though I followed a similar path to recovery: I grasped onto my memories of Patrick, and I grafted them over the hole that had been torn into my soul.
Luke Ryan is a former Army Ranger who grew up overseas, the son of missionary aid workers in Pakistan and Thailand. He is an American poet, author of “The Gun and the Scythe” and lives in upstate New York.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of At War delivered to your inbox every week. For more coverage of conflict, visit nytimes.com/atwar.
Source: Read Full Article