Of all my days at war, I never dreaded rolling out the gate more than I did that morning. It was my first time in a humvee in two weeks, and I was once again in the driver’s seat. Last time I touched the steering wheel, my drive ended on top of a pressure plate IED.
The only comfort of my first mission back out was my crew assignment. There were no two guys I’d rather share a humvee with than Quinlan and Strouth.
Quinlan enlisted a month before me, and we’d pretty much been a package deal ever since. He was super gung-ho when he joined, and earned a recruiting ribbon for tricking five of his friends into signing their souls over to the Army. As a card carrying right-wing extremist, the word freedom was all the explanation he needed to shove a red, white and blue fist up Iraq’s ass.
Strouth was our squad leader; he had some demons. To win an online inappropriate t-shirt contest, he snuck a shirt with a picture of Hitler on it into a concentration camp. It was a felony in Germany, but he won a shitload of free shirts. He wrote a quote on our mission schedule board which he attributed to himself:
“Everyone else has given up on you. Why not give up on yourself?”
Strouth and Quinlan were in the humvee behind mine when I hit the pressure plate. They saw a cloud of fire, then a split-second later, everything was enveloped in kicked-up sand. When it cleared, fire danced from where the engine used to be, and smoke billowed from the gun turret. Debris rained on their vehicle a hundred yards behind us. Quinlan said he couldn’t believe it when he saw us walk away.
Even with my guys, it was hard being back on missions. I was really paranoid, and thought everything on the roadside looked like a bomb. Whenever we passed something suspicious, I felt it all over again: the jolt of the humvee launching off the ground; the shockwave of the explosion; the panic and confusion. Images of a melting black windshield and smoke pouring out the dashboard vents were burned into my vision. I didn’t even need to close my eyes to see them.
It was one of the few times I was the most cautious member of my crew. Strouth and Quinlan wouldn’t have known it, though. My description of the IED strike made it sound like an amusement park ride. It isn’t easy to make a funny story out of shrapnel in the arm and being trapped inside a burning humvee, but I managed. Strouth helped by introducing the rumor that I pissed my pants after the blast. I changed my Myspace quote to, “Van Dyke: 1. IED: 0. Suck it, Iraq!” and called my two-week medical profile a good chance to catch up on my Wrestlemania DVDs.
Privately, my life was filled with teary-eyed calls home, nightmares, and guilt over seeing my lieutenant crutch around base because I didn’t spot the trigger. I did my best not to be alone, and found myself grateful for the first time for the lack of privacy deployment life offered.
As close as I was to my crew, these things created the first gulf I’d ever felt with them. Our wars weren’t the same anymore; they knew what an exploding humvee looked like from a hundred meters back, but I had seen it from the driver’s seat.
We were in the lead vehicle of the sweep team. It was our job to take care of anything along our route before the rest of the convoy arrived. Anything usually meant IEDs, and as the lead truck, I was convinced I was getting blasted two runs in a row.
We rounded a bend which brought an overpass into view. The desert was flat and featureless, so we could see the bridge from miles away.
Something was off.
There were three long, slender shapes on the underside of the bridge. Artillery rounds tied to the I-beams? Why so obvious, though?
It was like whoever left them wanted them to be found.
“You see that on the bridge?”
“Yeah, what the fuck is that?”
I thought maybe the bridge was a decoy for a larger attack. I looked all around, but only saw sand.
As I drove closer, the shapes took form. The slopes of shoulders. Dangling feet. Pants. Shirts. Dark hair. Arms pointed to the sky.
“What the fuck?”
“Those fucking savages!”
They were bodies.
When we came close enough, I saw they weren’t hanging by their necks. Their hands were tied behind their backs, and the other end of the rope was secured to the railing. Rather than having their necks snapped in nooses, their shoulders were dislocated, and they dangled from arms ripped free from their sockets.
I felt a sickness not quite physical—more like a taint. I parked in front of the overpass, and Strouth and I dismounted with rifles and cameras. It was the first time either of us had seen a murder victim, but we were no strangers to death. As sons of suicide, we lived everyday with the knowledge that someone chose being a corpse over being our parent.
The smell was awful; the sweetness of rotting fruit and the fetid reek of day-old vomit is as close as I can come to describing it. I worked on a hobby ranch as a kid, and helped bury a steer’s carcass. It smelled the same way, but was so much worse this time. Maybe because I knew these desiccating mounds of biological matter had once been human beings.
Strouth and I took pictures of whatever clues we could find to pass on to intelligence. I found a bunch of AK-47 shell casings on the road. Strouth found a pool of blood beneath a body; blood was still dripping from gunshot wounds in his legs and torso.
“Jesus-Fucking-Christ,” Strouth said, “these guys were fucking alive up there!”
I was looking at a depth of evil I’d never imagined. They hung alive from dislocated shoulders—disgraced, mocked, terrified, doomed; their bodies so racked with pain that they must have gone into shock—begging some barbarian with an assault rifle to find a shred of humanity, and put them out of their misery. I didn’t even want to think about how long they had to hang before the trigger was pulled.
For all I knew, these guys could have been killed for helping us, or they could have been our enemies. This might have nothing to do with the war at all. It was even possible they had been killed for doing things just as heinous as what was done to them.
But this? Nobody deserves to die this way. Tie a blindfold on them, put a bullet in each of their foreheads, and bury them in a desert grave if they need to be killed.
The monsters who killed these people sent a message with their brutality: this is what happens to anyone who stands against them. I wanted to send a message back. If they thought their bridge decorations would scare us off, they were dead fucking wrong. Even if they weren’t around to see our reactions, I could at least prove it to myself.
I stood on the roof of the humvee to get a better view of a body. When I was done, I handed the camera to Strouth. Quinlan climbed out the turret to join me on the roof.
We both gave a big smile and thumbs-up to the camera while the corpse hung in the background.
Afterward, we swapped out the sim card and gave the intel guys nothing but blank images. Better to make a few enemies in the intel shack than have our smiling faces broadcast on CNN disrespecting a dead Arab.
When I looked at the photo later, what I saw scared me. Not the corpse, but us. Our smiles were genuine. We looked happy. The body behind us reminded me of a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean where the entrance to the pirates’ cove was marked by skeletons hanging from a gibbet with a sign reading, “Abandon Hope, all ye who Enter.”
The smiling soldiers in the photo had done just that.
Like my Myspace status, our photo-op reduced the horrors of our war to a punch line. When shit got bad like this, nothing felt better than laughing at it, even if nothing about it was funny.
I climbed off the roof as the rest of our patrol arrived.
“Ugh…get these fucking guys down,” ordered our patrol commander. His face looked like he was holding a piece of shit under his tongue.
Perkins threw up when he smelled the death.
I took the exit ramp and parked on the overpass. Strouth cut down the middle body with the vehicle’s seatbelt cutter. Sergeant Thomas had his ASV pull up right next to the body in the left lane, thinking they could cut it down from the road. They backed away after blood poured all over the hood and windshield, and they figured out the gunner would practically need to hug the cadaver to cut the rope. Another humvee pulled up on the opposite ramp to cut it down for them. I used my Victorinox Swiss Tool to sever the rope which held the man in the picture suspended.
The hollow crunch of skull hitting asphalt felt like a punch in the stomach after a big meal. It sounded like a coconut being cracked, but what poured out wasn’t fruit. It was all the memories, thoughts, fears, hopes, dreams, loves, hates, and regrets that twenty-some years of life could contain.
I didn’t look down as the body fell. I didn’t want an image to accompany the sickening crunch. Sometimes, looking away was the only way to make it through. I kept my eyes forward, but what I saw was even worse than a limp body crumpling on the pavement. It was a barren stretch of highway cutting a path through an endless desert. It was the last sight a human being looked upon before he was thrown over a guardrail to be tortured and murdered.
“You poor sons of bitches…” It was as close as I could offer to a prayer for the dead.
I knew I was feeling something I wasn’t supposed to. I flipped my mental switch back to soldier.
Time to start bagging. I drove back down to the highway, and snapped on latex gloves. I went to the corpse I cut down. Another soldier had cut away the rope from around his wrists, and flopped his dislocated arms over his body. Ashen brown skin. Dirty bare feet. Cream colored shirt stained crimson with still drying blood. Skin bruised and scraped raw around the wrists. Skull deformed. Eyes open.
His irises had a mucus-like yellow tint, and his dark pupils were lusterless. His dead stare seemed to say: This is your war, but I paid the price. Then you used me as a prop in a picture. I would see those eyes in my dreams for years to come. I didn’t want to be the one who ran my hand over his eyelids to close them for all eternity; it just felt too dirty.
A body bag was laid out for us. I couldn’t cradle him under the shoulders since they were out of socket, so I squeezed the back of his shirt while another soldier grabbed his feet, and we hoisted him into the black bag.
When all the corpses were secured, we zipped the bags shut and loaded them onto a flatbed. With our clean-up complete, it was time to resume our mission.
We got back into the humvee.
“That was so fucked up.”
“Yeah, that shit was nasty.”
“I hate this motherfucking country.”
Every overpass we crossed for the rest of the mission, someone would get on the radio and say something along these lines:
“Do you see anyone …hanging around up there?”
It was funny the first few times, but after that, it got old. We didn’t start laughing again until Drewitz got on the radio.
“Those were dead fucking bodies up there!” He was disgusted, and didn’t even have the decency to hide it.
“You must have missed the joke,” I said into the radio, “do you see anyone …hanging around? Get it, hanging?”
My over-explanation had us all laughing. It felt good. The divide separating me from the rest of my crew had closed. We had all seen something worse than the inside of a burning humvee.
More in the Paul Van Dyke Micro-Collection:
Front page image by The U.S. Army.