Of the decimated platoon, only George’s body had returned alive. Beside his hospital bed hung a Silver Star for gallantry in action, though he had no memory of an award ceremony. Perhaps he had received it for surviving.
There had been surgeries and periods of pain, eras of confusion too futile for nightmares yet too grotesque to be dreams. He had come to accept fluorescent light and the beep of machines as natural. Plastic tubes and bits of metal and smelly plastic bags had emerged from orifices and from expanses of body he had imagined were sacrosanct, seeming designed to pin him to the bed in outrageous postures. A rare moment of lucidity had caused him to recognize for an instant that he was in fact still alive. He had experienced a stab of excruciating disappointment, as he’d imagined, or hoped, that it might all have been over. When he tried now to recall his hospital course his mind hastily shuffled images of himself crawling, clinging, pleading, but mostly laying still and flat and lifeless.
And at last, George realized that he was feeling bored: under the circumstances, a spectacular sign of recovery.
One afternoon a young officer arrived at his bedside.
“Good morning Captain.”
“Captain?” George replied, “are you in the correct room, sir?”
“You are, McFelix, George?”
“That’s me –“
The young man smiled, revealing satisfaction. “I’m in the right room – and it looks as if finally you’re here too –“
“And, could you remind me -” George asked mildly,
“I’m Captain Manuel Rodriguez,” the figure grasped George’s hand to shake it in an oddly un-officer-like gesture, “Dr. Rodriguez – you’ve been here at Letterman Army Hospital over six months. We have spoken before – perhaps you have some memory of that?“
Dr. Rodriguez, psychiatrist, was part of the hospital team routine to any solider so badly injured. George had taken wounds to his head, to his chest, to one arm and both legs. Bones had been smashed, organs ripped. All were once again functioning, more or less.
“At least the blast to your brain was not penetrating,” Dr. Rodriguez explained, “MRI scans showed some degree of injury – which we expect to heal. It appears that you lost a portion of memory from somewhere before the trauma until some months after – I don’t imagine it will return. But now you’re able to organize your thoughts again, eventually I believe you’ll do fine.”
“I feel pretty good right now,” George offered, “I’m just glad to be back, sir.”
“I imagine you must miss your colleagues, your platoon -”
“Sure. They were great guys. Of course I miss them -”
“I’m sure you do,” the doctor murmured sympathetically. And then very delicately, he continued, “It might be difficult to imagine how it is that you survived and they did not –“
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” George replied, interested but not defensive, “I was told we had no cover and that bullets were flying everywhere, that nothing anyone could have done would have raised or lowered their chances.”
“Do you have persistent thoughts about that firefight, any recurrent nightmares?”
“No, I’m just happy to be alive.”
“Some people might experience – discomfort, anxiety, some for a while might even feel guilt – over why they survived while others died –“
“I guess that would be a religious question,” George shrugged, “when it’s your time to go –“ and they reverted again to silence. Throughout his struggle towards a desperate and unlikely future, the past had been a solace of imagined childhood pleasures. Trying now he could find only the vaguest of images, and those only at the very start of that grim battle. “One thing, though,” he looked up at Dr Rodriguez sitting patiently beside him, “sometimes I have this dream, in which I hear American voices coming from the bunker –“
George could not miss the silent hesitation of Captain Rodriguez. So: not all of his dreams had been fantasy. Since beginning his recovery George had accepted his injuries as a natural consequence of war, and had not looked for explanation or blame. He’d had problems enough, and had not even thought of friendly fire. Doctor Rodriguez waited silently for George’s reaction. At last, George asked,
“Why did they give me a medal?”
“Well there’s no way you could have known! The bunker was an advance operation that was deeply classified, some considerable distance inside of Iraq – no one could have imagined that your platoon would have pushed so far behind enemy lines –“
“Weren’t we pursuing chemical weapons stashes?“
“Yes – and with such determination and courage! That’s why the medal, and the promotion, Captain – you led your platoon like a hero -“
George’s stolid concentration silenced Doctor Rodriguez in mid-sentence. The firefight itself remained invisible to him, but as he tried now he could picture himself gazing down below them some time before the assault. Yes, he realized, he had not been alone. Sergeant Garth had been there too, peering in the pale moonlight at the unexpected structure half-buried in the sand. The intervening months were a fog, but as he looked back beyond them he found that the mood, the feeling of that moment in the desert when he had made the decision to attack, was vivid. He remembered now that there had been something unspeakably seductive about the eerie dunes in the darkness, an intoxicating, magical quality to the stark other-worldly desert, which lacking a horizon at night had seemed to extend unbroken out into the stars.
Yes, and in this dream Sergeant Garth had suspected that the construction of that buried bunker seemed familiar, and George had over-ruled him.
Oh the flaw was clear to George now. Burying themselves in the sand by day and traveling exclusively at night, with no landmarks and in profound sleep deprivation, he had miscalculated their position.
George was a practical man – earnestness, a devotion to tangible reality, the well-being of his friends – all of these could be carried to extreme lengths, but not, at least not upon reflection, self-delusion. So he had killed his own men.
The notion of heroes had never sat well in George’s worldview. The idea of a man arbitrarily sticking up his head, outside the plan, was clearly an aberration – it meant something had gone wrong, an oversight, some lack of self-discipline or failure to follow regular procedures – a mistake.
George felt somehow relieved to know that the Army had not misconstrued his error. Any hint of pessimism at the start of a battle must be avoided, any suspicion of incompetence or doubt. Five dead colleagues – wasted in a pointless mistake would only damage morale for the survivors – but lost in a heroic act would galvanize those on whose behalf they had sacrificed themselves.
Very gently, Doctor Rodriguez murmured, “Your bravery was completely authentic, Captain. Your courage and determination, your willingness to place yourself front and center in the line of danger – “He shrugged very slightly, “You ran straight into the fog of war, and the Army understands that.”
George gazed thoughtfully at his Silver Star, hanging from the wall. He felt ashamed, he felt anger towards himself. This was a bitter reward for surviving. And clearly his duty now, if only to his dead colleagues, was to keep his mouth shut.