by Christopher Lyke
Eugene wasn’t the best looking eighteen-year-old. In school pictures his features were too ruddy, and too out-sized, and his hair was more like a pelt than anything a pretty coed would ever want to run her fingers through. I’m sure his mother felt differently though, and honestly, when in motion, he was beautiful. This “beautiful youth” permeated the Army. Many of the young soldiers were like Eugene. They were nineteen or twenty and had left their parents’ care for the military’s. They’re probably more rambunctious than their peers at Madison or Palo Alto, but after six months in the Army they were more competent than a frat boy, and for the most part acted with the knowledge that they had more to prove to the world. There’s a hubris that came from knowing that they’re the ones going to take it in the face when everything goes all to hell. We like them that way, too.
He’d come to us straight out of basic training. And that had come directly after a lackluster four years in high school. He was light, and tough, and easily wore the smallest uniform in the platoon. Sometimes he’d ask out of the blue, “Sarn’t, permission to smoke myself?” Then he’d jump to the ground and bang out fifty push-ups or mountain climbers and pop up laughing at the big joke and at being so hooah. His buddies were also super gung-ho and had a sense of humor about it too. They started copying him with the whole push-up thing when they felt like it. When he insisted on being on a gun team, his friends did, too. When we asked him why, he smiled and said, “I wanna make that Pig my bitch, Sarn’t.” The Pig is the 240, a light machine gun common to an infantry platoon. It’s a sleek, devastating weapon that the fittest, or biggest, privates get selected to carry. The designation “light” is relative only to the “heavy” machine guns that were usually attached to vehicles, or on massive tripods in guard towers. The 240 is about as tall as Eugene was, and probably a third as heavy. Just carrying the ammo was a separate job, but he wanted to have the roughest, deadliest, weapon in the squad.
Eugene would ask questions out of the blue, maybe while we were running in the morning, or cleaning weapons, or during some other monotonous task that prompted the boys to start shit talking. “Sarn’t, will a 25mm round make a body explode?” or, “Hey Jason, you think there’d be anything worse than getting buried alive?” His eyes were blue and kind of sparkled at the person as he spoke to them in a southern Indiana drawl. Often he knew the answers to his questions and was already smiling when he asked them. Sometimes they were directed at his comrades. “Damien, you think you’ll marry that stripper girl from Junction City?” Before the other kid could answer he’d be on him, “Well, I can’t believe she’d marry you cause you’re so fuckin’ ugly.” And everyone in formation would laugh and laugh until it petered out, or until a sergeant had to tell them to shut up.
When I was unlucky enough to get picked for weekend CQ duty (kind of like babysitting a Rifle Company at night) I’d have to go and police up the young privates and make sure the vomit and the beer cans were stashed appropriately in the barracks. This wasn’t ever easy with Eugene and his friends. They never forgot who the sergeant was, but as I found out later on in life, it was very similar to getting one’s kids ready for school in the morning. I was herding cats. As one zagged this way, another zigged that way and in the end I’d have to form them up into a drunken semblance of a squad to holler at them and then walk out laughing as I headed back downstairs to put out some other lame-brain fire.
Every six months or so some sergeant major or a colonel somewhere thought it would be a good idea to have a brigade-sized run. At 0700 the three-and-a-half thousand or so soldiers-infantry, armor, signal, medical, etc.- would form up in a long snaking line. The formation took up the entire road and when the Brigade Commander, a full bird colonel, said go, off we all went. A very slow five miles later and we’d be back at the company releasing the men to shower and change for work. This seemed tedious, and it was. We usually exercised by platoon, or even squad. We wrestled or climbed ropes or sprinted up and down hills with our buddies on our backs. To make the brigade runs more exciting, company first sergeants would send motivated privates off on missions to steal some other unit’s guidon. A guidon is a flag that the unit’s head boy-as they’d say at Eton- would be carrying in front of the company, or some other, larger, group of soldiers. It was affixed atop a nine or ten foot pike and in days gone by would have been used to direct the company in the din of battle. Well, at some point in the summer of ’05 we had a brigade run. I heard later, after the run, that the first sergeant had pulled Eugene into his office the night before and, speaking of himself in the third person, and of the other human in the room as though he was a tool or an implement of some kind, said to him, “Look private, the first sergeant’s not exactly telling a private he should go and steal the dirty tankers guidon, but if some hooah mother fucker of a private did, well, he’d always be on the first sergeant’s good side.”
The next morning, at about mile three-and-a-half, while the chubby tankers were getting winded, a beaming, flashing-eyed, blonde streak, barely five feet off the ground sped out from a bend in the road, slammed into the tanker “head boy,” ripped the flag and it’s ten-foot phony pike from the kid’s hands and took off. He sprinted through several company areas, parking lots, and around the motor pool. He hurtled past the PX until he reached the 16th Infantry battalion area. He sped on short legs to the Alpha company office and burst, heaving, into the platoon area where he hid the yellow flag emblazoned with a tank. Within a quarter of an hour we were finishing up and stretching outside the company when two tanker first sergeants, with their guidon and PFC Eugene Harmon, stormed out the back of our building and past our gaggle of soldiers. The cheers from the boys overrode the instructions being given by the platoon sergeants. They were doubled over and looking at one another and laughing. Our first sergeant, chest puffed and back arched, smiled at his two counterparts from 1-34 armor as they led our favorite eighteen-year-old across the battalion headquarters to meet with both our sergeant major and their own.
Eugene spent that workday polishing the trophy cases and medals the armor unit had displayed in its battalion headquarters. He did a lot of extra push-ups too. (“Don’t throw me in the briar patch!”) He polished pictures of Shermans in frozen France in 1944 and framed photos of tanks crunching through brush in Vietnam. He shined the glass over the pictures of the Abrams tanks, moving in columns and speeding across the desert in Iraq.
Our first sergeant retrieved the young private at 1700. He led him to battalion headquarters where our sergeant major promptly gave him a battalion coin. These coins were mini awards passed out by “higher” as they came upon soldiers going above and beyond in their day-to-day routines. Ours was basically an over-sized silver dollar with a Big Red One on one side and the battalion crest on the other. I’m not sure but I think first sergeant bought Eugene and his buddies a couple cases of beer too. He made them promise to sleep in and skip PT the next morning. This was high praise indeed.
We received orders for a deployment shortly after that, maybe a week, and so we began ramping up to head overseas. Brigade runs and parade ground bullshit immediately disappeared as we prepared to go to war, most likely in Iraq. We raided fake town after fake town. Kicked in innumerable doors. Assaulted Camp Funston time and again with the Bradleys pulling over-watch. Shipped-in Iraqis played street vendors and Imams that harried us in an effort to approximate what even a simple patrol is like overseas. It seemed realistic to those of us that hadn’t been there yet, but afterwards, after being there, it was obvious that the only way to be prepared for combat is to be there, smelling it, looking at the desperation and fucking violence. The best you can do is to make sure the boys know everything besides what it is actually like. Make sure they know every weapon system and radio and how to call for fire and drop burning, poisoned shards of steel on the other guy. Make sure the boys can carry their shit, and their buddies’ shit, for days on end. Sleep in the cold. Put on a tourniquet, plug a hole, fix a gun truck, and blow a door off its hinges. Make them feel mean. Make them miss their families so they have something to kill for. Once they’re over there they’ll fight to get home, and they’ll fight for each other. They won’t have to be told to get mean, over there we’re all mean, even the sweet boys are tigers. We marched for miles in the pre-dawn, doubling down on our conditioning. We weren’t made to look pretty with big beach muscle arms, instead we looked like rope, dragged through uniforms, booted, carrying weapons and ammo and batteries and water and every other goddamn thing. Eugene was ecstatic.
We’d been in the field for a few days when it happened. The bullet entered Eugene’s face in the lower left cheekbone. The hole was small and there wasn’t a ton of blood at first. The bullet tumbled through his head in a tenth of a second and made a smacking, popping noise when it came out the lower left side of the back of his head, near where the spine joins with the skull. He fell as though someone pulled all of the bones from his body, collapsing onto his back.
I heard the shot and came round the tent to see what happened. Even if I hadn’t heard it, it was obvious something terrible was going on. A kind of smell, or vibration, is emitted into the atmosphere with these things. There’s a dread that mushrooms out from the violence itself. It caused that hiccoughing breathing that lasts for a second. Once people are in combat they begin to react instantly to the sound of gunfire or the thud of a mortar being launched-gritted teeth waiting for the impact-or the smack of a 107 Chinese rocket as it slams into the earth. But this awful thing, Eugene being shot, happened in Kansas, before he ever had a chance to see Iraq, or Afghanistan. We were training up. We were practicing at war.
After the day’s range time the boy’s squad leader, my boss, had neglected to eject a round from his weapon. He dropped the magazine, pocketed it, but instead of racking the bolt and clearing the chamber he simply walked off the squad live-fire range with a bullet sitting on the bolt face ready to go. The lieutenant did not check the staff sergeant’s weapon out of professional courtesy even though it’s policy, and fucking good sense, to clear every one’s weapon as they leave the range.
The accident happened at dusk. We’d done the day version of the squad assault range. This is basically where the nine guys in the squad start movement in a predetermined direction, simulating some kind of patrol. Eventually one of the “coaches” throws an explosive, signaling contact with the enemy. A bunch of targets pop up and the squad conducts fire and maneuver as it had been taught; shoots the targets, and takes the enemy position. We’d done it plenty of times before and were finished with the day version and getting ready for the night iteration. We were eating dinner chow, sitting amongst the tents, on the grass, smoking and preparing all our night vision gear, and lasers, and talking about the exercise that was coming.
The squad leader had left his weapon near his bunk-this was also an unheard of mistake-and went to check on his guys, which wasn’t. He’d never been overseas and didn’t have the instinctual, habitual reflex of constantly carrying his rifle with him, stroking it, cleaning it, checking it. So there it sat, next to the cot, one 5.56 x 45mm bullet loaded in the chamber, waiting.
I was eating when it happened. I rounded the tent and there was Eugene. The first person I’d seen shot, the little hole in his cheek, the little stream of blood that rivuletted out of it, and the widening, pumping of blood from the back of his head directly into the grass and dirt in between the tents.
Our medic crashed through the crowd of people and began performing on the boy. He did this automatically and didn’t hesitate to start working on Eugene as we all gawked and tried to figure out what had just happened. He moved methodically and quickly despite the violence of the dying boy. Another medic appeared by his side bandaging the boy’s head. They’d been in Habbaniyah together, the two docs. The first medic had Eugene’s shirt ripped open and was performing chest thrusts and mouth to mouth. He threw all of his weight down onto Eugene as he compressed the boy’s small chest and I thought every rib would break. Doc fought for minutes to save that boy. But in the end, the tiny steel bullet that had tumbled through his brain was it. That was the only thing that won the day.
A year and-a-half later, after a deployment to Africa, I left Ft. Riley. I joined another unit, one leaving for a deployment to Afghanistan. More people were shot, sometimes shattered, sometimes just left there, torn up and dead like a grotesque dog on the road. Tongues out, teeth bared, missing hands, and dead. Eugene died like that. He was fucking around with one of his buddies and so he was dead. He’d been fucking around instead of eating, or prepping, or smoking. It seems they’d been “clearing” rooms, from tent to tent, had grabbed the squad leader’s weapon, clicked off the safety, pad of the finger, squeeze of the trigger, and in a flash, and with incredible violence, he was gone.
We escorted the body home that fall of ‘05. He came from Indiana, a few miles from its border with Kentucky and Illinois. A tiny town with rolling hills and the last of the autumn leaves falling onto the roads. It was raining that weekend and the town was dreary, muddy, and the red-brown leaves stuck to our tires. Then the road would wind and turn suddenly and lead to a beautiful vista or copse of trees. The lieutenant, our platoon sergeant, the chaplain, and our squad were there to lay the body to rest with our best uniforms and berets. The squad leader did not go. The private who shot him didn’t go either; he was also in custody.
My friend Joe flew ahead early with the body. He was Eugene’s team leader. He was there with the family when they opened the casket. The Army had neglected to wash the dirt from Eugene’s face. Before he died we’d been in the field for several days and he hadn’t showered or anything. His face was waxy, and seemed airbrushed somehow. Joe started crying, as did Eugene’s mother. He told me that he held her as Eugene’s father took a wet handkerchief and washed the dirt from his son’s face. Joe couldn’t look at the father, he only held Eugene’s mother and wept with her. He’d become The Army, and felt as though any ills done by the giant organization were on him. Joe had won the Bronze Star for valor because of stuff he’d done in Iraq the year before. He’d been forced into the Army by a judge somewhere in central Kansas four years before that. He was a father, and a husband, and he’d been a killer for over a year by then. He wept with Mrs. Harmon until the crying ended. Eugene’s father, seeing Joe’s horror, took him by the shoulder and told him it wasn’t his fault. He told Joe that he had served and knew how it was. It wasn’t Joe’s fault, or my fault, or Eugene’s buddies’ fault, but that it was The Army’s fault.
The truth though, is that it wasn’t “the Army’s” fault. It was that squad leader’s fault. It was the lieutenant’s fault for not clearing that squad leader’s weapon as we left the exercise. It was his friend’s fault: the other private, this one already a combat vet who had been in the invasion in ’03, who had shot their son in the face out of negligence. He was supposed to know the ropes, and yet he still picked up an unattended weapon, and fucked around, and pulled the trigger. It was our fault for not being more aware. And this teenager, this man’s boy, was dead before he ever set foot in Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever.
After my second deployment I got out of the Army. I felt my luck had run its course and I wanted to see my kids grow up. I get the news through Joe Radio (the rumor mill) all the time though. The young man that had pulled the trigger spent a few years at Leavenworth and was now in commercial fishing somewhere in the Gulf of California. His other friend, one of the boys in the barracks and on the gun team, had done a few deployments and had then been stationed in Alaska. He was out walking along the highway one weekend. He had been walking outside of the base up there at Ft. Rich. He was stopped by the police and was almost shot dead there and then. He was walking down the highway with a twelve-gauge, pump-action shotgun, stinking fucking drunk and yelling at the cars that drove by. The coppers didn’t light him up as they were used to working by the base, but instead they got him to lay down the shotgun and get in the patrol car. A couple days later he was in the barracks and put a Glock 23 into his mouth and that was that. I heard this story after getting home from Afghanistan.
The squad leader whose negligence led to all this had been put in Leavenworth for less time than the kid who’d pulled the trigger. He’s since gotten out and continued life as a farmer in the northwest. This was really the only mistake I ever saw him make. The same goes for the private. They were good soldiers. Usually bad mistakes are caught before something like this happens. The amount of bad soldiering and bad luck that went into each fuckup leading to Eugene’s death is astounding. It is hard to believe when I think about how seriously most of the guys took soldiering. Almost-made life and death mistakes usually end in a shudder and a promise to whomever that it won’t happen again, a promise to move on. But this isn’t always the case. Sometimes the unseen takes hold of these things, and the trickster gods force them into being. Instead of sitting on his bunk and cleaning his rifle and realizing there’s a goddamned round in the chamber, realizing how close he came to disaster, before exhaling with wide eyes and disbelief, the squad leader’s attention is turned to something else and he doesn’t clean his weapon, doesn’t find the round on the bolt face, and the whole series of shitty luck is set in motion.
When I am invited to get back together with my old Army buddies it causes me to pause. That’s less ridiculous than it sounds. We immediately start drinking and carrying on and the old blood starts to flow through the old pipes. There are a thousand laughs, and there’s chiding, and there’s love. However, all the old bad shit is there too. I like being the only fucked up wild card in the room these days. Genteelly teaching a bunch of ne’er-do-well high schoolers that have no idea what’s happening outside of their little lives. With the other vets though, it’s as if there’s a hidden reserve of rage and tears and the potential for real, and deadly violence to whomever decides to tell us “you’re too rowdy, it’s time for you guys to leave” or “Jesus, why don’t you guys shut up!” The five or six of us look harmless enough to the bouncer or the poor bar manager telling us these things but the moment one of these people opens their mouth they’re close to being mauled by a bunch of wolf men. Jobs as forklift drivers, waiters, teachers, firemen, CPAs, and ad men don’t change any of that. Being with them is like seeing yourself in old Dorian’s picture. Usually nondescript, sometimes-a-little-pudgy men that, when the picture’s shade gets pulled back, see only gnarled, furious, animals flapping their wings over dinner. Once this Djinni is out of the box he brings back Eugene, and Kenny M, and Brent O, Chris W, Cody L, and Jason B, and all the other boys that were splayed open by bullets or half melted by explosives or even crushed by flipped armored vehicles, breathing their last breaths in dirt and mud like the trampled Romans at Cannae.