The Service - A Short Story
I transcribed this short story from a soul of a former soldier who told me he died in Bosnia. He wants to tell his story for anyone thinking about joining military service. Franck has tried finding details about this person, but I don't think we will find much about him online. I hope you gain from this story.
It was 1992. I was a new recruit. My life was just beginning in the armed forces. The good thing about a military career is that your superiors will guide you to your next mission. You don't have to figure it all out as long as you do your job. Your assignment, for however long you have it, is your job. And then it's on to the next gig.
I always wanted to be in the military. I liked how it was mission oriented. I figured I'd never had a dull or boring job as long as I focused on the mission. Even if I played a small role, together, we could accomplish anything.
After basic training, you're on to your first assignment. It was chosen for me that I would do best on the ground as a tactical soldier. They give you a gun and you walk around; Protect those people and things around you as they are being moved around the board.
I wasn't the tallest guy, but I was the toughest. I was strong. I worked hard at building my physique. Me and my fellow soldiers did push ups in every way imaginable: with people sitting on my back, with one arm, with a leg up. I figured, the stronger you are, the more likely you are to survive.
The armed forces does a good job at building an image. They strip away every weakness until you're tough enough to do the job they assign to you. Your identity is gone. You're a soldier with orders. Of course, I look back at it now and realize how little all of that means.
Because, they fill your mind with so much training that, when on the battlefield, you're stuck with doing your orders even if your intuition tells you something else. You're not at a high enough rank to decide to take another route or do something else if your gut tells you so. If they tell you to go from point A to point B, then damn it, you go from point A to point B.
That's how it got me.
I was stationed in the States for nearly half of my military career. Then, I hopped from base to base doing logistics. Most of the military's activities are logistics: moving people, moving things, moving weapons, moving information. It's all movement.
I made a lot of friends in the military. It was my life. I enjoyed every minute of it from dawn until dusk. It provided a camaraderie that some civilians just don't understand. The feeling is like a church where everyone works together to keep the community healthy and safe and employed. Not everyone agrees or has the same experience, but that was my experience. I could have fulfilled my entire career in the military if I was given the chance.
The news came that I was being activated. Our mission was a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia. The rebels there were making life hell for the people and it was our job to help keep them safe. I felt like an action hero going in to save the day.
When our platoon arrived, we got to enjoy some sight seeing as soldiers. While I was still in uniform, we go to visit beautiful places. I remember standing on the edge of Bosnia overlooking the sea. Standing on a cliff, it felt like my world was really starting to open up. I spent most of my time alone during this trip, my superiors and peers standing around or taking photos of some thing or another. I didn't feel the need to take photos. I would keep these experiences in my mind forever and take myself back there if I found myself sitting in a warehouse stamping inventory sheets or standing guard at an entryway.
The months went by in Bosnia. I spent most of my days walking around vast stretches of terrain next to an armored tactical vehicle. My boots hadn't been replaced in months, so my heels were starting to ache and the discomfort wound its way up to my lower back. I didn't realize that it wasn't the boots that were causing the sensation, but it was my body's inner guidance system trying to warn me for what was coming.
We had no armed conflict. Much of the job was standing, sweating, walking, talking, and patrolling. We were just keeping an eye out. I can't tell you anything more than that because, on the bigger picture, I didn't really know why I was there. I was on a mission and I was told exactly what I needed to know to fulfill it. And I accepted that.
One day, we left our base in the early morning just as the sun was rising. I always enjoyed how cool it was in the morning during those spring to summer months. It began as any other, freshly showered and on our vehicle, we headed towards an outpost in the northeast quadrant of our patrol area. From there, we would begin our patrol on foot next to the vehicle to see if there were any rebels making their way through with weapons.
We were walking for a couple of hours. There was four of us on patrol that day, as there usually were groups from four to twelve. My hiking pack was in the patrol vehicle. I decided to walk without it that day and just carry my rifle tucked under my right arm. Looking back, I wish I had worn it that day. It might have done me a bit of good.
We were walking just under a ridge where the sun couldn't get us. Our goal was to make it around the corner of the ridge and keep patrolling. To my right a steep cliff and straight ahead and to the left a stretch of terrain to surveil.
That was the last thing I saw.
I took my last steps and then felt a blast from behind me. My patrol partner stepped on a IED, a landmine for short. He died on the spot. I heard loud, frightening screaming from one of the drivers. I was so shocked that I didn't feel any emotion. All I could remember was losing consciousness.
I was blown from behind. Everything went quiet and still. I was alone in my thoughts. It was like I was in a dark room and my thoughts were things that surrounded me. They echoed what I observed. From there, I was able to grasp what was happening.
Then, I heard other distinct voices. They were voices of people outside of me. I was still alive from what I gathered. They were medivacking me out of there. I heard a woman's voice seeing to my care. They acted as if there was a chance for me to survive. It was if I was standing in a dark, safe room while all of this was happening. I didn't feel any sensation, but I could tell that the woman and the men around her were scared. I could feel their emotions, their adrenaline rushing, the fright in them. I could feel how they cling to hope to save me as if they were saving themselves on that operating table.
They needed blood, but they didn't have enough. They weren't prepared for this occasion. The general consensus was if I had worn my hiking pack, I would have been buffered from the shrapnel that severed the arteries in my back. It would have reduced my blood loss. In short, I made a big mistake.
The hope inside my medics dwindled. They hoped that I would somehow miraculously improve. But, the reality was, there was no going back. I was faced with a choice inside that dark room: go back into my body, be discharged from the military, and live my life in a wheelchair or start over with a new life. I didn't make an instant decision. I had to feel within the core of me what I wanted to do. Nobody was going to make that decision for me. It was if either way was the right decision. It depended on what I thought I wanted most.
I decided to start over. I knew what that would do to my family and especially my parents. The shock and grief of me leaving them was something they never thought they'd have to do. Their prayers for my safety were just some of the thoughts I could hear in that dark room. I was safe where I was, just not in the way they had hoped.
My body started to grow cold once I had made my decision. The medics around me felt as if they had failed. The woman who looked over me leaned her back on the steel table where my body lied and wept. She didn't even know me, but it was if she had thrown all of her love and power into me only for me to not survive. I wish I could have consoled her and told her that she had done her job, that I felt her love and care, and that her job wasn't just to 'save lives' but to transition souls with dignity.
They put me in a box and prepared me to go home. I didn't know how to get myself back to my family in States, so I decided to follow my body until it made it home.
My comrades, a couple of them I had known, loaded me with honors into a large cargo plane. I wanted to say hi to them, but I couldn't reach the divide from where I was and where they were. I took on a passive role on this trip. I stayed with my body in the casket and the casket of my friend who died in the blast for the entire flight. I heard the pilots making conversation in the cockpit. They didn't admit they were uneasy about bringing lifeless bodies back home, but I could hear their thoughts about the situation and feel the tightness in their stomachs as they tried to process the grim reality of military casualties. I guess, we all like to think we'll make it home alive, but we forget the contract we sign risking our lives for the job.
Our plane stopped on a base in Texas. That's where my body and the body of my friend were separated. A young black man loaded by body onto another plane. It was about that time that my family was notified of my death. I knew I was headed closer to home. I could hear in his mind that at that moment that he wanted out of the military. He was afraid that he would die like me. I couldn't blame him, but I wanted him to know that my death was not a natural consequence of military service. It was a consequence of war. But I had to keep going.
I finally made it home. My family didn't know what to do with me. They were bereaved and depended on the military to arrange my burial in a military cemetery. They wanted to be buried with me in a family plot, but they felt that this was the way for me to go: the traditional route of a man of service.
I didn't think of myself as a man of service, but that's how they saw me. I realized that I would have been a man of service no matter what I did, but the military was how I went about it.
My mom, with her short, brown wavy hair held tissues to her face for most of the time that I stayed with her. She didn't understand why I, out of everybody, could die that day. She asked a million questions that seemed to go unanswered. I wish I could have told her that the answers were simple and that there weren't that many questions to ask in the first place. I died protecting people, I wanted to say. I stood between them and harm. That's what I stood up for in a world of people who want to hurt innocent people on a war path towards getting what they want. I can't believe that I lived in a world like that, but there are some people who believe they have to create mayhem and destruction to build a utopia. It's maddening.
My dad held in all of his anger. But at the core of it was a deep sadness. He knew on one hand he prepared me as a scout to do that job I was assigned to do, but on the other I think he realized that he was never prepared to lose me. He was angry at himself for not being prepared. A good scout is always prepared.
My sisters clinged to each other. They took it better than most.They were proud of me and what I did. While they didn't understand the bigger picture of military life and the role it played in American life, they honored the individual sacrifices military service men and women make and the sacrifices people like them made to share them with the country. It made them angry that people didn't understand that. I see now how it drives political conflict.
There was a funeral. All of my friends and family made it that day. It was a sunny day. There was a salute, a passing of the flag, and a headstone with my name on it. I watched all of this from above. I stayed with my family as they mourned and cried. I stayed as long as they clinged to me. They didn't know that as they cling to me, they bring me to them.
I drifted in between their real time and my memories. I watched every memory of my family from growing up. I watched myself relive every experience. It was the perfect American life. Camping, ghost stories, slumber parties, pool parties, barbeques, family celebrations - all those moments that string along the mundane, everyday life of us going to work, grocery shopping, and school work. All of those moments, I realize, were tiny celebrations of love. They expressed how much my parents loved me, how they were grateful to share their lives with me, and how they wish we could always be together and never part. All the while, my parents prayed for us and looked out for us, preparing us for a life without them. They never wanted to acknowledge the possibility of a life without us.
I grew up as a boy scout. First a cub scout and then a boy scout. Scouting was an immersive experience that prepared me for life and service. I saw myself walking along the forest trails with my friends and my dad and saw my smiles. A good scout leaves their trails clean. I never understood why the men who buried those IEDs felt it necessary to leave a trail of destruction.
Eventually, I felt my family learning how to live without me in their lives. While I was in the service, my family could feel me out in the world and that connection sustained them until we could be reunited again. They were learning to adjust their minds and accept that I was in another world, Heaven, they called it, and believe that we would be reunited there.
When I felt that they were in a better place, a lighter place, I felt that I could leave them. I still visit them from time to time, but my mind wanders elsewhere. My mind goes back to Bosnia, but I watch it as I fly the skies above. My mind goes to different places where my curiosity takes me. I have learned to love the world from a different vantage point. I go to people who can see me and feel me and I tell them my story. Eventually, I'll come back and live a new life, but the world isn't ready for me yet. The world has some growing to do until we can get to a place where killing people isn't a natural solution to conflict. I'll come back when better ideals replace the thoughts of yesterday.
I want to tell my story for the young men and women who are thinking about joining any military service. It's called service for a reason. It's not called military capitalism. It's not called military mercenary. The men and women who serve have to strive for freedom - not just our own as a Nation, but the ideals of freedom far and wide - even if we don't agree, profit, or enjoy the rights of others. It's a service dedicated to keeping the peace. We are not instruments of destruction. We don't carry a rifle to use it. We carry it to acknowledge that there are others who believe they need to use it to get their point across, but it's the last thing we should ever feel compelled to use. Because, we're not defending our lives or our boundaries; we're defending ideals of freedom, democracy, and individual expression. Nobody has a stranglehold, a trademark, or copyright over these truths - nobody in our elected official buildings and nobody using terror to enrich themselves.
I didn't die for my country. I died while preserving these ideals on this planet. I may not have known it then, but I know it now. Everything I learned about service I learned from my parents. They did their jobs and I did mine. The medic did hers. Our jobs on Earth are not the tasks assigned for us that day, nor the mission we must endure to fulfill a goal. Our jobs are to pour every ounce of our being into everything we do with and for others who cross our paths. When we do that, it's a job well done - even if we think we've failed.
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