Volume 28, Number 1

Mercy Flight

Ken Williams

“Rest easy. You’re safe now.” The nurse’s voice quivered. Threatening to break. She had just entered the cargo bay from the pilots’ cabin.

“Must be a newbie,” Miles Brown said low. Talking to himself was a bad habit that was becoming more pronounced. One that he knew he had to break now that he was returning home. Scaring people back in the real world just wouldn’t do! His thoughts drifted back to the nurse. “She’ll never make it as a public speaker.” His eyes stayed on her. She sat down heavily. Shoulders slump. Head nestled into her chest.

Miles Brown’s eyes squinted in accusation. “Safe.” He repeated, lips twisting cruelly with distain. It was not a word he used easily. Not since his third deployment: One in Iraq, two in Afghanistan. “Safe,” his voice raw with feelings. Not a likely proposition when every little pile of dirt, heap of trash or dip in the road might hold an I.E.D.

Miles tried to see what the other Marines on board the plane thought of the nurse’s suggestion. Clamping his jaws hard he privately cursed that the pilot had turned off the lights in the cargo hold, all except for a few feeble emergency ones. He had advised them of his intention over the loudspeaker, saying it was for their own good. It was a long flight back to the states, and they should get some rest. He had gone on to say that the scene at the airport was expected to be chaotic with family, friends and local media swarming. To make matters worse, Miles had the distinct impression that the pilot wasn’t talking to the Marines on board but rather to the nurse and others who had bummed a ride aboard the mostly empty cargo plane. “Couldn’t the Pentagon spring a few bucks for a regular passenger plane?” Miles mumbled. He wasn’t doing so well on the, not speaking to himself he thought.

“And then some,” Miles voice cut low. Made harsh with sarcasm. “A scene at the airport. Really?” He had been home before, after his first two postings.

Sure. There was the quick pat on the back. “Thank you for your service,” told him more times than he could count. Even offers of brought drinks. But then the awkward silence always followed—especially from people his own age. Miles was finding out what all veterans returning home from war learn: Life goes on—went on without them. Him. Colleges were attended. Careers cemented. Families started. Or simply the good life of singles was being fully enjoyed. What didn’t happen was the shared hardship of a faraway war. Wars, he reminded himself. Veterans. Service members. Their families stood alone. Lives lived within a bell jar, isolated from the nation. “Build a wall along the border? Who had built the wall around them?”

It was as if the country simply tired of the wars. Service members in uniform reminded them that they had decided it was best to ignore the fighting. After all, they thought when they could spare the few seconds to think about it, it was best to leave thousands of military personnel in harm’s way on the off chance they could somehow influence the outcome of bitter tribal animosities and religious hatred dating back hundreds of year. If the costs were merely a few hundred injured and/or dead of America’s sons and daughters so be it. It was a small price to pay for feeling safe in the face of the unknown.

“A small price to pay.” The words tumbled from parched lips. He quickly looked around. Relaxed. In the darkness, no one had heard him. And if they had, they knew well enough to mind their own business. After all, who didn’t have issues on this plane?

An image of his dad flashed before him. He was a solemn, hard-drinking man who had served in Vietnam. Softness came to Miles eyes remembering him. He had died when Miles was nine. His dad never talked to him about his war. Miles always remembered him leaving the room whenever the subject of Vietnam was raised. At those times, he remembered his mom’s eyes shedding pain. Her mouth twisted in anguish. No. Nobody cared on this plane about his little particularities. He knew in the depths of his soul that all combat veterans had “issues.”

Bile filled his mouth. And that was another thing that his fellow citizens had wrong. It just wasn’t America’s casualties that mattered. The horrific sight that haunted his nights roared to life. His heartbeat went into overdrive. He worried of a heart attack. He squeezed his eyes shut but the image remained:

The firefight with the Taliban was, as usual, brief but intense. It ended when badly aimed Taliban mortars and/or precise Marine artillery took out a few houses in the God forsaken town. By the time his squad advanced into the few streets and mud structures that constituted the town the dying was over. He never should have entered the partially demolished house.

The family: mother, father two kids of undetermined sex had huddled together. The artillery shell, or mortar had landed right on top of them. God, he had never seen such carnage. Arms ripped off. Heads decapitated. Blood painted the walls red with embedded chunks of pink flesh.

For what? They no longer fought to catch Bin Laden. They no longer had the foolish dreams of crushing the Taliban who turns out was usually some kid with a rifle taking a few potshots at their patrols. Or his more experienced cousins, fathers and uncles who knew the best way to kill Americans were to plant I.E.D.s.

He was surprised that he didn’t break out in a cold sweat remembering that last I.E.D. he had encountered. They had seen the partially buried wires leading out from small mound of dirt. His sergeant had turned to warn the rest of the platoon when a blast tore a hole clear through his chest. Miles remembered being hurtled back, the wind knocked out of him. Breathing coming hard. Then things turned murky.

He had a vague recollection of the Corpsman leaning over him, pressing something into his chest saying he’d be all right. That it was, “just a scratch,” before hurrying back to the sergeant.

The pain wasn’t so bad. He considered himself lucky. His third wound was his ticket home. The reason he was on this plane. His thoughts jumped back to the pilots reminding them of their upcoming homecoming reception. Which brought his thoughts back to the dark side. He knew he wouldn’t fit in—again, especially with people of his own generation. They simply didn’t care about the wars, especially the veterans who had fought them. He had a feeling around them that he was a downer. Even worse, he was something that simply didn’t belong to their world. “Better off dead,” came from somewhere. He didn’t bother to look around. He knew his own voice when he heard it.

He guessed he had drifted off for the sound of the landing gears lowering woke him.

“Damn that pilot!” He still hadn’t turned the lights on.

The plane came to a stop. The engines died. Time passed. Miles anger at the pilot was beginning to boil over. “If the lights don’t come on…”

A sudden lightness came to him. Was he passing out? Then he felt a floating sensation. To his surprise he was watching from above as a spectator. The cargo bay of the plane flooded with intense white light as the ramp was lowered. A Marine honor guard solemnly walked up the plank. Marines in dress blues positioned themselves around the three metal coffins, each covered with a flag. In the distance, Taps was heard. Haunting music for the returning war dead.

Miles suddenly realized he didn’t have to worry anymore about not fitting in with his generation. They could, and would go on without him. Their lack of guilt or insight would be more firmly intact without him being around—reminding them of abandonment. For that they were probably grateful. In a perverted way—giving his death meaning. If a spirit can laugh the heavens above was rolled with the maniacal thunder of an abandoned soul. Abandonment: The cruelest wound of all.