The man and the woman left the garden with the flaming sword behind them and they went out to till the ground. And wheat grew on the plains of the Fertile Crescent, and Babylon rose from the edge of the Euphrates. To the north in the latter days there was a road called Route Parallel, because it ran along the Euphrates, and there men sowed a new crop. In that mud they laid bombs.
Thunder came from the ground one hot afternoon, filling the blue sky with dust, and Kalashnikovs popped and flashed from the palm groves by the river. When the air was clear again, the American soldiers saw one of their own men lying in the road.
The captain ran through gunfire to reach him and saw what the bomb had done. He and the medic administered black Velcro tourniquets and pressure dressings. They scooped the Copenhagen out of his throat to stop him from choking and pumped clear fluid through his veins to stand in for the missing blood. Meanwhile a sergeant set up a belt-fed M249 machine gun and raked the palms with twelve rounds per second.
A Black Hawk medevac whirled in from Baghdad, and with it came an Apache gunship. The Apache strafed the palms so thoroughly that something resembling a human torso could be seen hurtling through the air. The captain and the medic and two others loaded their wounded man on a stretcher and hauled him through the mud to the Black Hawk. There he sat up, breathing hard, eyes wide open, and then he lay down again. He had mailed his last love letter a week earlier, and it had yet to reach his girl. He had chosen a name for a son.
The Black Hawk took off at 12:33 p.m. and touched down eight minutes later at a combat support hospital in Baghdad. The doctors revived their patient and replaced his blood, but he crashed again. They cracked open his chest, massaged his heart, brought him back for a few more minutes. And then he was gone.
Back at the base, when the news trickled in, another captain ordered fifty aluminum bracelets inscribed with the following message:
SSG MICHAEL R HULLENDER 1-501st PIR US ARMY KIA 28 APRIL 2007 ISKANDARIYAH, IRAQ
The captain put out a sign-up sheet. He got fifty names almost immediately. He ordered fifty more bracelets, then fifty more. They were ten dollars each. His wife asked about all those charges on his credit card. Fifty more. Fifty more. He ordered almost 500.
Many soldiers were dying in those days at Forward Operating Base Iskandariyah. The captain attended more memorial services than he could count. None were as crowded as Michael Hullender’s.
Back in the States, a friend bought Michael’s rusty Jeep Wrangler and attached a new license plate that said HULLENDER. His fiancee’s old boyfriend named a speedboat after him. At least two men suffered the pain of electric needles to have monuments to Michael painted under their skin.
He was buried on a cloudy afternoon in Buford, thirty-five miles northeast of Atlanta, not far from where he grew up. His father stood in the grass under a half-raised American flag and stared at the long metal box. Behind him stood Michael’s sister Amy, in a black dress, going numb from the pain, and behind her was Michael’s mother, who had retreated so far into her own mind that later she found herself asking if anyone had played taps. She was touching the shoulder of her daughter Lisa, Michael’s oldest sister, who for years had played the role of his mother, who had once dressed him up as a girl because he was so pretty as a small boy, and who had voted for President Bush in 2004 for one reason: She thought he would keep Michael safe.
Guns sounded and prayers were said. The casket sank into the earth. Hours later, Michael’s old friend Chad Vincent returned to the grave and pulled rocks from the clay, to make a softer blanket.
I was there too and I cried as hard as anyone, partly from guilt, because I stayed home while he went to war. I knew Michael when we were boys; his family attended my father’s church. We were never close friends—in fact, he once backhanded me in the face after I smeared him with a blackberry—but I always looked up to him, especially after he became a soldier, and I found myself wondering what really happened over there. People say nice things when someone dies, especially when that someone has a flag on his casket. I wanted to know the truth, down to the last detail.
I called Chad Vincent last November, because I’d heard he was one of Michael’s best friends in the Army. I told him about the story and asked if I could visit him in Texas.
“Anything for Mike,” he said.
Anything meant he took two days off work and drove forty miles through the horror of Dallas rush hour to pick me up from the airport. It meant he put me up in his spare bedroom for three nights and took me out for enchiladas and got angry when I tried to pay for anything. It meant he drove me back to the airport, walked me inside and handed me a parting gift.
To understand the meaning of that gift, you need to know a little about Chad. Before the day his parachute collapsed and he landed hard enough to crack his spine, he was an Army Ranger. Men become Rangers by surviving nine weeks of emaciating misery. Sometimes they get two hours of sleep; sometimes they don’t. Maybe they get one meal a day. They crawl through mud under barbed wire and drag machine guns up mountainsides and rappel down icy cliffs. They do infinite push-ups and flutter kicks. They fall from planes and land in trees. They risk snakebite and frostbite without complaint. Chad went into Ranger School 160 pounds and came out 120, and for that he earned a black cloth patch barely an inch wide with the word RANGER embroidered in gold. Anything for Mike. Chad pressed his Ranger tab into my hand, even though I’d done nothing to deserve it, as a token of thanks for telling Michael’s story. When I tried to give it back, he said I had better keep it or I might fly out of Texas with a fresh black eye.
So, the story. There were two main questions. How did Michael come to inspire such loyalty? And how did he come to die on the floodplain of the Euphrates? I looked closer and saw they were the same. Answer one and you’ve answered them both.
And then I came to another question, a much deeper one, older than patriotism or organized religion, even older than war, though a few minutes younger than killing.
It was first posed thousands of years ago in the Fertile Crescent, in the land that would become Iraq, on the same ground where Michael Hullender took his last steps.
1. Ball and Chain
I spent all my money/I’ve been drinkin’ since a half past noon.
He runs hard through the twilight, hard but not fast, New Balance sneakers slapping the pavement with the force of his 195 pounds. At five-foot-eight he’s a packhorse, not a gazelle, but the Army has standards. Eight minutes a mile. Forty minutes for five miles. Any slower and you don’t get into Ranger School. Fort Benning, Georgia, summer 2003. Michael is twenty-five years old. Five years in uniform and he’s a private, right back where he started.
Sweat darkens his heather-gray T-shirt. At this rate it will take an hour just to burn off the ten Miller Lites he drank last night, to say nothing of the other calories. His friends have learned to hide anything they don’t want him to devour. An eighteen-inch pizza could be dinner. A whole jar of hot peppers for a midnight snack. Breakfast: a loaf of bread, a pound of bacon, a dozen eggs.
Tonight is wide open. Maybe it’ll be a quiet one—a few beers, a midnight wrestling match in the barracks, a few minutes with the Bible, a journal entry addressed to God, and off to bed. Or maybe it’ll be the other kind of night, where he crosses the threshold and his eyeball twitches, where the alter ego known as Mikey Smash comes out, where he stands on the pool table, challenging everyone, where he walks up to the bar with his Hollywood jaw and finds a fat girl and takes her home despite his wingman’s admonitions, insisting, “No, dude, she’s totally hot.”
Michael runs harder, across the sunset, the Prisoners of War tattoo gleaming on his right forearm. He hates running. It hurts his knees and his sciatic nerve. It has hurt even more since the training exercise when he slid too fast down a rope from a Chinook helicopter and jarred his bones on the earth. Once, after an especially rough five-miler, he turned white and spent two days in his room recovering.
On he goes. There is another reason he runs. The men call him Doc Hullender, and he must be ready to save their lives, to move fast, to race death. So he runs, still forty-five seconds off the five-mile pace, portable CD player cranking “Ball and Chain,” by the California punk band Social Distortion, a song that has become his personal anthem:
Well I’ll pass the bar on the way
To my dingy hotel room
I spent all my money
I’ve been drinkin’ since a half past noon
Well I’ll wake there in the mornin’
Or maybe in the county jail
Times are hard, getting harder
I’m born to lose and destined to fail
Take away, take away
Take away this ball and chain
Well I’m lonely and I’m tired
And I can’t take any more pain
Take away, take away
Never to return again
Take away, take away, take away
Take away this ball and chain
2. The Backpack
Clean guns, sharp knives, and well-oiled leather.
Flash back eleven years. A boy stands at an ironing board with a can of liquid starch, pressing his camouflage fatigues. He has always insisted on crisp uniforms, ever since T-ball, and now, at age fourteen, he’s a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol, well past his G.I. Joe stage, four or five years removed from the day he buried his face in his father’s chest and cried, “I just want a mommy.” Next he will iron sharp creases into his shirt and polish his black boots till they shine like mirrors. Tomorrow is inspection day, and it will start at 5:45 a.m. when his father, Ren Hullender, a high school art teacher, rousts him and his two older sisters, Lisa and Amy, out of bed to study the Bible.
Michael finishes the ironing and goes to his bedroom, where he keeps an Army-green backpack full of Civil Air Patrol supplies: a first-aid kit, ponchos, his Leatherman tool, emergency flares, a hank of 550-pound parachute cord, and, of course, meals ready-to-eat, all sealed in watertight Ziploc.
The backpack is always packed, in keeping with the Civil Air Patrol motto: Semper Vigilans. Always Vigilant. The phone could ring in the dead of night and it might be the ground team leader and he would say, There’s a plane down in the woods—meet us at the Lawrenceville airport in an hour. And Michael would grab the backpack and go. Ren would drive him to the airport to join the team and they would head for the crash site, navigating by compass, building fires as needed. They would keep watch along the perimeter to make sure no one disturbed the wreckage. They would be self-sufficient in the field for up to twenty-four hours, thanks to their training and their backpacks.
The team leader never calls, but Michael is ready just in case. Clean guns, sharp knives, and well-oiled leather. This is one of Ren’s favorite sayings. He buys a 9mm Glock and takes Michael to the Bull’s Eye in Lawrenceville every Tuesday and Thursday night to fire at bowling pins, and he takes Michael into the woods of Hancock County to kill deer with long rifles. He takes Michael and the girls to the YMCA and teaches them all to lift weights.
Ren has designed this regimen to recondition three children who are accustomed to running wild. He and their mother, Cindy, separated when Michael was two, and the kids lived with her for the next six years. Cindy worked as many as three jobs and frequently left them with babysitters. She moved north when her new husband got a job on Wall Street, but the children wanted to stay in Georgia, so she sent them to live with Ren. “It’s probably a good thing they were with their father,” she would say almost twenty-five years later, despite her regrets.
After high school, Ren sends Michael off to West Georgia College to major in business and look for the virtuous woman described in Proverbs 31, the one who rises before the sun and clothes her household with scarlet.
“Lord,” Michael writes in his blue hardbound journal, “I have been pondering the thought of what I would like in a wife or a woman that I have a long-term relationship with. Blonde—Southern belle, physically and inner attractiveness, conservative, home maker, 5’2”–5’7”, thin, smart intellectual w/Southern drawl. God fearing woman, actively seeking.”
Then he asks for a pickup truck: a Chevy S-10 with a 4.3-liter engine, CD player, custom rims, cruise control, and a bedliner.
“Lord Permit Bless Me These,” he writes.
Michael learns to drink in college, but he finds nothing to keep him there. He gets an A in Weightlifting and a B in Personal Relationships and a D in Drama Appreciation. He reads about Robert E. Lee in his spare time. He flees north in the summer of 1998, to his mother’s house in New Jersey. She is a Civil War reenactor. Her father was a lieutenant colonel who ran the Army hospital at Fort Bragg. Her mother was an Army nurse. Michael puts on the gray uniform of the South and goes out to the simulated battlefield with his mother’s friends, and somewhere around this time he decides he’s not going back to college. He joins the Army and leaves for basic training in September. He will be a medic. He is ready for a bigger backpack.
3. The Killing
Two brothers in a field.
Michael’s Bible is a gift from Ren, a New King James version with gold edging on every page. It tells how the world began, how Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, how God cast them out of the Garden of Eden, how angels and a flaming sword were stationed to guard the Tree of Life. And then, in the fourth chapter of Genesis, it tells of the first killing.
In time, men would find many reasons to kill. There would be spite and revenge, conquest and profit, convenience and self-defense. But the first reason was jealousy.
Adam and Eve had two sons: Cain, a farmer; and Abel, a shepherd; and in time each one made an offering to the Lord.
And the Lord respected Abel and his offering, but He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” Now Cain talked with Abel his brother; and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.
The manner of death and the murder weapon are left to our imagination. But God sees everything.
“Where is Abel your brother?” He asked.
“I do not know,” Cain said, which was a lie, of course, though not the world’s first lie, for that belonged to the serpent.
And then Cain stood red-handed before God and uttered a question of his own.
4. The Making of Doc Hullender
The pigs and goats get anesthesia.
Vietnam, December 1966. An American bomb falls on American Marines on a riverbank, killing about ten and injuring nearly twenty. The explosion blows both legs off Don “Doc” Rion, the company’s senior medic. He smears mud on his stumps to slow the bleeding and gets to work. Unable to talk much because of the pain, he uses hand motions to direct other Marines who are treating those with the worst wounds. He refuses bandages for his own legs. There’s no time, he says. He drags himself from one Marine to another, pantomiming medical procedures, until he is taken away. Doc Rion dies in the medevac after saving the lives of at least four Marines.
This scene, recounted by Major General John Admire in the anthology Doc: Heroic Stories of Medics, Corpsmen, and Surgeons in Combat, distills the essence of battlefield medicine. You do what you can with what you have. Medics have sanitized wounds with Scotch whisky and choked off severed arteries with their fingers. They are not bound by the rules of civilian medicine. They are doctors of first and often last resort.
Michael learns procedures that are forbidden in the civilian world for anyone but a doctor. If a soldier is bleeding to death and he can’t find a place to insert the IV, he can cut the skin near the ankle and find the vein and cut it free of surrounding tissue and tie it off and insert a catheter. If a soldier has massive head trauma and can’t breathe on his own, Michael can perform a cricothyroidotomy: Take a scalpel, cut a hole in the soldier’s throat near the Adam’s apple, insert a clear plastic tube with a bag at the end, squeeze air through the tube to the lungs.
He can do these things because he has practiced them. This kind of learning goes beyond books, or sophisticated mannequins, or even the cadavers that aspiring doctors slice and probe. Michael knows these procedures work because he has tried them on pigs and goats.
The Army calls this Live Tissue Training. You surely don’t get it in medical school. Think of the protests! No matter. The Army does not run on public opinion. And there’s nothing like handling a living thing when it comes to learning how to preserve life. So the pigs and goats get anesthesia and then they are stabbed, or cut, or otherwise injured, and then Michael and the other medics must save them.
In 1999 he reports at Fort Benning to the 75th Ranger Regiment, the finest light infantry in the world, heirs to the Swamp Fox, where the standing orders have remained the same since before the American Revolution: Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minute’s warning. Soldiers in this regiment are expected to finish Ranger School, those nine weeks of misery, but Michael is not admitted. There’s the problem of the five-mile run. Still, the regiment makes exceptions, especially for medics, especially for good medics like Michael, especially for good medics like Michael who have earned both the Expert Field Medical Badge and the Expert Infantryman Badge and can also hit thirty-eight targets in forty shots with an M16 and a long-range sight.
And still he drinks, in the proud Army tradition of his grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Wilkins.
“Well,” he writes in his journal on November 26, 2000, “this weekend has not been the best for me. I made a fool of myself Wednesday, and I am afraid I will get caught for an accident I don’t remember.”
Twenty-four days later, on his twenty-third birthday, a telephone rings and an alert goes out. This is usually a drill. Each of the three Ranger battalions is on a four-month alert cycle, during which time no Ranger may go more than fifty miles from post and all Rangers must report for duty within two hours. The Ranger Regiment says it can deploy anywhere in the world within eighteen hours. So the alert goes out, through the phone tree and the pagers, and Michael shows up. He always shows up, even when he’s been drinking, as he has today, and his boss hides Doc Hullender in his office and tells him to stay out of sight until he sobers up.
Ten months later, with the rubble still deep at Ground Zero, the Rangers are called again.
5. Objective Rhino
An airfield south of Kandahar.
He falls hard through the warm night, toward the desert floor, green silk parachute billowing above him. They say paratroopers fall at twenty-two feet per second, but Michael must fall faster, with all his bulk and his forty-pound medic bag. The men call him Heavy Drop, a term usually reserved for parachuting Humvees or tanks.
Even the good landings hurt, because even with the parachute he falls with the force of a free fall from the roof of a house. Never mind the bad landings, the spinal shock, the broken teeth, the biceps torn on the static line. Even the good landings hurt. He lands on the balls of his feet and does a slow cartwheel, body curving like the runner of a rocking chair, impact diffusing from calf to knee to thigh to armpit, feet coming up over his head. He stands on the ground of Afghanistan.
Through his night-vision goggles he can see fire in the distance. All around him, Rangers are landing. It’s October 19, 2001, and the men of the Third Battalion are the first ground troops, other than the CIA and Special Forces, in a war America is fighting from the air. They have come to seize an airfield south of Kandahar code-named Objective Rhino.
By now the AC-130 gunships have already strafed the airfield. Toward the horizon Michael sees the headlights of Taliban trucks. Then the AC-130 cannons strike again, and there is an orange explosion. The headlights go dark. The Rangers take the airfield before the enemy can fire a shot.
The lack of resistance is almost disappointing. Closer to Kandahar at Mullah Omar’s compound, the men of Delta Force are fighting for their lives, but this airfield is nearly deserted. They are on the ground barely five hours. A few Rangers hurt themselves landing—a broken foot here, a muscle strain there—but no one needs Michael to save them.
6. The Barroom Hero
Four, two, three, one.
One night about five months later, as he is leaving a bar in Winder, Georgia, he sees two girls. He stops to talk, because he always talks to strangers, and he sees they are too drunk to drive. He offers to bring them home, even though it’s out of his way, and they all pile into his silver Jeep Wrangler. On this new route he turns left on a street with a no-left-turn sign, thus drawing attention from the police.
“Four, two, three, one,” he says when they ask him to count down, because it turns out he is also too drunk to drive, and so his misguided altruism costs him his job. The Rangers don’t tolerate DUI charges. He is sent to the Ranger Training Battalion. There is more drinking, a positive test for cocaine, a demotion to private.
But the boy with the backpack always gets up for work, even after the roughest nights, and he attends to his duties with microscopic precision. He cannot be a Ranger but he can train them, because he has made himself one of the best-trained medics in the battalion. He is sent back to the Ranger Regiment to teach the Expert Field Medical Badge course. Many good medics fail this test, because it requires such reams of memorization, such rapt attention to detail, but Michael teaches his eighty-two medics so well that sixty-eight go on to earn the badge.
His new roommate is Chad Vincent, the Ranger who missed the war in Afghanistan because he fell from the sky on a training jump when his parachute collapsed. Chad works at a desk now, what with the fused vertebrae and the nerve damage, and he is shunned by many of the soldiers. The injured are often viewed with suspicion in the Army, because everyone knows that some soldiers will fake injuries to get a ticket home. Michael believes Chad. He looks at the X-rays and says it’s a wonder Chad’s not in a wheelchair.
When Chad is forced into medical retirement, he hurls away his uniform in disgust, because he wants nothing more than to be a Ranger for life. Michael saves Chad’s camouflage shirt. Years later, Ren will go through Michael’s things and find Chad’s shirt and mail it back. Chad will open the package and the sight of that camouflage will hit him like a bullet in the heart.
When Chad goes home to Texas to work in an eyecare products factory, Michael is one of the few soldiers who keeps calling and visiting. They drink barrels of Miller Lite. Even at the bar, Michael is on a mission. He scans the room for the lonely, the outnumbered, the short-skirted. He buys drinks for so many people that he runs out of money and goes begging to his friends.
When he hears people decrying the war in Iraq, he puts on his brass knuckles and slams them on the bar, spilling their drinks, because he figures if you’re against the war you’re against the soldiers, no matter what else you say. One day a man sees him and Chad at the Jack in the Box and tells them to go back to Iraq and step on some IEDs. Chad prepares to send the man’s teeth down his throat, but Michael pulls him away, not because he is opposed to this natural correction but because through the window he can see a police car.
There are a hundred such stories in the Legend of Mikey Smash: knuckles bruised, trousers dropped, cougars flattered, cameras defiled, popcorn blackened, dancers overpaid. But my favorite unfolds one night at the Shamrock in Fort Worth, when Michael sees an old man who has had too much whiskey. The man passes out and falls off his barstool. Michael runs to him, picks him up, sets him back up at the bar.
“Hey,” he says, “you all right?”
The old man wants another drink.
“I’ll drink another for you,” Michael says, and just sits there with him, talking about Irish pub tunes, one hand on his shoulder to keep him upright.
7. A Bowl of Snow
You have captivated my heart.
He meets her in a bar on the white slope of Mount Alyeska. She is not blonde, not a Southern belle, not conservative, and no kind of homemaker. But when Michael gives Kyle Harper a dollar and tells her to pick any song on the jukebox, she plays his favorite, “Ball and Chain”:
But wherever I have gone
I was sure to find myself there
You can run all your life
But not go anywhere.
It’s March 2006, and Sergeant Michael Hullender has relocated to Fort Richardson, just outside Anchorage, where snow-covered mountains line the horizon like a great white row of shark’s teeth.
He shows up for their first date in camouflage shorts, even though it’s snowing, with plastic wrap on his lower leg to cover an unfinished tattoo that involves praying hands and a knife. She forgives all this because of his courtly manner and his Hollywood jaw and because, after graduating from Georgetown with a degree in women’s studies, she has come to Alaska for a good time. They close down the bar and then it is 2 a.m. and ten degrees. He knows better than to try to drive forty-four miles back to Fort Richardson in this condition, so he tells her he will sleep in his rusted Jeep Wrangler with no locks or emergency brake or working heater. No, she says. You can crash in my living room.
She cries in the morning. Her hangover is only part of the reason. Her brain’s imbalanced chemicals pull her up and down, up and down, from the giggling, jittery peaks of hypomania to depression, cold and dark like the ocean floor. And now she has a fever, too, because she didn’t get enough sleep, which is one of the symptoms of her chronic fatigue syndrome.
Kyle expects Michael to flee when he learns about all this, but he keeps coming back. He knocks off work at the troop medical clinic and heads down the Seward Highway, wedged between the bay and the ridge, a fresh natural masterpiece around every curve. Sunlight pours through holes in the clouds and lands on the water in pools of white fire. To the left he can see fissures in the rock where avalanches are born, and up ahead is Girdwood, surrounded by mountains, a giant bowl of snow.
He finds Kyle at the Sitzmark, the ski lodge at the base of Mount Alyeska where she is a server. Sitzmark is a word of German extraction referring to the impression left in the snow by a falling skier or, in Michael’s case, snowboarder. Michael is responsible for many sitzmarks, but he keeps shredding, even when he bruises his hamstring so badly that he can hardly sit for two weeks. They sit on the beige carpet in Kyle’s living room, listening to Social Distortion, drinking port wine, debating White Male Privilege. She meets at least one condition on his old wish list to God: she is an intellectual, albeit a liberal Democratic feminist one.
He takes her copy of Bitch magazine back to the barracks, though he hides it beneath other magazines on his nightstand so the other men won’t see. She comes home from work to find him in her condo, cooking lamb and asparagus, and at night he sleeps on the floor next to her bed, instead of beside her, so he won’t disturb her ten hours of sleep.
They have a talk before he leaves for Iraq. She tells him she will probably never have children, partly because of her health. He doesn’t flinch.
“I value my love for you over anything else in my life, so I am pledging to give myself to you,” he writes later. “I went into this knowing that I may never have a child, or at least one of my own blood, and I am prepared for that.”
He says all this despite already having chosen John Alexander as the name of his firstborn son.
Michael goes off to war in October 2006, even though he needs surgery on his back and could probably get a medical deferment if he tried. Four months later, he steps on a bomb. But it’s buried too deep, and he is merely shaken. He comes back to Alaska on leave and hands Kyle a diamond ring, even though he knows she will not take his name.
Back in Iraq on April 21, 2007, he sends her a letter:
So many times you’ve asked me what I love about you, and it is quite simple. You understand me. You see through my exterior flaws, and you see me for who I am. We can go through life not ever really knowing anyone, but to truly love and understand a person, and to accept their shortcomings, to grow with them, reinforce their strengths, and be their heart and soul is an amazing thing. I feel like this is what I found with you, and it makes me so happy and a little teary even as I write this.
The package also contains a mix CD with notes on all sixteen tracks, including “Hard Headed Woman,” by Cat Stevens (“I needed that strength in a woman, and you’ve shown me a new way of seeing the world”); “The Perfect Girl,” by The Cure (“You have captivated my heart and mind . . . ”); and “Angel’s Wings,” by Social Distortion (“Yay, I’m going to marry you some day and I’m so proud”).
He writes this at the end:
I want you to listen to this any time you are feeling alone, frightened, anxious, or happy, and know that I am thinking of you.
Love you, M
But he writes the wrong zip code on the package, thus delaying delivery, and by the time it reaches her he is already in the ground.
8. The Reckoning
A throwaway line.
The first human question was a rhetorical one, spoken with insolence and deceit. It came from the mouth of Cain as he stood before God with his brother’s blood on his hands. God did not see fit to answer.
Instead He put a curse on Cain, along with a mark of protection so no one would kill him, and sent him to wander the earth. People later claimed they saw him as far west as Tennessee and as far north as the moon. The killing continued, never to stop till the world goes dark, and the question became a throwaway line, a dangling footnote.
And yet, in the subsequent eons, in countless lives and innumerable words, no one has asked anything more important.
Who knows what Michael thought of Cain’s story, or if he thought of it at all.
Who knows what whirled through his mind on April 28, 2007, when he answered Cain’s question without saying a word.
9. The Question
And the answer.
The first bomb explodes before noon with the crash of a bass drum. It rises from the mud of Route Parallel, not far from the Euphrates, and it fractures a Humvee full of American soldiers. One takes shrapnel to the right temple and suffers a cracked skull.
The boom reverberates nearly two miles away, inside the City Council building, where American officers and Iraqi officials sit in high-backed leather chairs around a dark wooden conference table. Some of the Iraqi men wear black-and-white kaffiyehs on their heads. Some are Sunni Muslims and some are Shiite. This is an important meeting, a reconciliation, because lately the Sunnis and the Shiites have been blowing up each other’s mosques, and houses, and children; also Al-Qaeda is at work, to the west at the fish farms, and clean water is scarce, and unemployment is something like 70 percent. There is no telling what idle young men will do.
Captain Joseph Whitener hears the boom at the table and hears chatter on his handheld radio: IED, casualties, firefight. He is the commander of Dog Company. Those are his men out there. He asks the major if he can take a team to Route Parallel.
Michael stands guard outside the meeting room, looking puffy in his body armor and pixel-print camouflage. His presence here is no accident. He is the only medic among the eighteen soldiers in the battalion commander’s Personal Security Detachment, which means it is his job, should the need arise, to save the commander’s life. The officers have such confidence in Michael that Command Sergeant Major Bernie Knight will later write, “I had no doubt that injured soldiers would die of old age before they would die of wounds if Doc Hullender was involved in their treatment.” But this assignment has created an odd paradox: Because the commander is smart enough not to go busting down doors and looking for trouble, Michael—one of the best-trained medics in the battalion, and perhaps the best soldier of all the medics—doesn’t either. In fact, his colleagues say, despite nearly nine years in the Army and six months here in the Triangle of Death, Doc Hullender has yet to treat the battle wounds of a single American soldier.
And so, when Captain Whitener gets permission to take the Personal Security Detachment to help the men in the broken Humvee, he sees Michael squared-up in the doorway.
The men pile into four Humvees and drive gingerly through the streets of Iskandariyah, past a landfill, out to the desert. Captain Whitener rides in the lead Humvee and Michael rides in the third. The drive takes about five minutes, and when their convoy reaches Dog Company’s convoy, they stop in the middle of Route Parallel because the road is blocked. Captain Whitener gets out first and runs ahead, through the fine brown dust, on a road notorious for subterranean bombs. Michael gets out too.
“Sparrow 7, this is Pirate 4,” Michael says on the radio to Staff Sergeant Paul Shirey, who is leading the Personal Security Detachment that day. “I’m going up there.”
He does not ask, even though Shirey outranks him. He tells.
“Hold on a second,” Shirey says. “Let me find out if they need a medic.”
“Dog 6, this is Sparrow 7,” Shirey says on the radio to Captain Whitener. “Do you need a medic?”
“Please,” Captain Whitener says.
Michael takes off with Shirey behind him. Up ahead, Captain Whitener reaches the wounded man. A Dog Company medic has already bandaged his head. He is conscious, alert, talking. He will survive. Captain Whitener radios to Shirey:
“Dog 6 to Sparrow 7. Hey, we don’t need the medic.”
Shirey is at least ten meters behind Michael. He never delivers the message. Anyway, he is sure it would have been ignored. The boy with the backpack has waited fifteen years for this.
The enemy is laid up behind some earthworks in the palm groves maybe half a mile west, near the Euphrates, the fourth river that flowed from the Garden of Eden. Somewhere around here, thousands of years ago, Cain asked God his insolent question.
Am I my brother’s keeper?
Michael runs, on creaking knees, 100 pounds of gear on his aching back, through 100-degree heat, across the enemy’s gunsights, up a road full of bombs. Am I my brother’s keeper? Around the world, there is one more killing every forty seconds. He runs, he runs. A thunderclap. A cloud of dust.
This story originally appeared in our May 2009 issue.