Hero by Ralf Schreder

I was twenty years old fighting an unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

Like my brothers beside me, it made no difference to me.

At best, we were “defending” America. At worst, we were insecure young men.

Loud explosions and nice uniforms were enough to compensate for what our fathers forgot to teach us.

One day we were out on patrol.

Walking near the mountains, I feared the forest provided them too much cover.

Then someone fired at us in the distance.

He shot Ramirez in the head and killed him.

The bang, whistle, and snap of death.

We returned fire and advanced.

Approaching the shooter’s position up the hill, we realized he was a couple of years younger than us.

Screaming in another language, we drew closer to the sound of his war cry.

Such anger and passion for someone with such a high voice.

Failing to comply with English commands, he was shot several times.

Still alive, his anger turned to fear.

Crying and gasping for air, he tried to speak to us.

Unable to communicate, I assumed he was saying:

“Please, I don’t want to die.”

The corpsman tried to help him, as it was his job.

The laziness in his face, I wasn’t surprised when he told us the kid had died.

We dragged both bodies away.

Digging a grave for the boy, I looked over at his corpse.

How many of my bullets were inside him?

How many other corpses had my bullets inside them?

Is this what I was here to do? Count bullets? Count bodies?

I stopped and broke down.

A part of me hoped there was a sniper eyeing me.

My ego wanted to exchange my guilt with my life.

Months later, some of us came home.

Though all our bodies were here, our minds were still there.

We had a memorial for Ramirez.

I stood there and watched the whole ceremony.

I watched the commander vow vengeance.

I watched his mom cry. I watched his dad cry.

I tried to imagine what kind of funeral the boy got.

We definitely didn’t give him one.

Feeling overwhelmed, I started to cry.

Breaking my poise, I felt out of place in my uniform.

It would be the last time I would ever wear my quintessential dress blues uniform.

A comrade tried comforting me. I wish I could have told him why I was upset.

He wouldn’t have understood. He was a devil-dog – a Marine.

I had written a letter to Ramirez, but didn’t have the nerve to leave it on his casket.

Six years later, I went to his grave.

Many vigils were still there from years ago, as if no one had been there since.

Having grown up, I had enough of an identity to have an opinion.

Or perhaps enough of an opinion to have an identity.

Unshaved, out-of-shape, and in plain clothes,

I left him my letter in an envelope.

Dear Brother,

I’ve wanted to tell you this for some time.

I’ve wanted to tell you that I wish I felt worse.

I wish I felt guilty about what happened to you.

I wish I wanted vengeance.

I wish I felt bad for your mom.

I wish I had the urge to re-enlist.

But I don’t.

You signed up for this. You wanted this.

You wanted to be remembered. You wanted to have an identity.

You thought you were invincible. You thought you were right.

You weren’t. You were wrong.

You will be forgotten – but not before you’re objectified.

You will at best be patronized by liberal professors.

Or maybe romanticized by clueless conservatives.

I wish that the boy had gotten a memorial instead of you.

I wish that his family received such a big death gratuity payment like yours.

I wish he spoke English,

Or maybe we spoke Dari.

I wish we weren’t there.

The truth is, though, I see myself in you.

That’s why I wish it was me instead of you.  

Because I’ve been dead ever since.

But I have to live with what we’ve done.

And you got to die a “hero.”

My only hope for myself is that the old saying is right:

“And when he goes to Heaven,

To St. Peter he will tell:

Another Marine reporting, Sir;

I’ve served my time in hell.”

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