by Sam Creed
An American soldier in Iraq makes a mistake that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
|I backed away from the burning wreck of a house, gun held up.
Everyone in my squad of soldiers waited breathlessly for any sound from the house - any sound at all - that this had been worthwhile. We had all heard the sounds that came when the house first blew up, from all the bombs we had planted around it. These sounds were fresh in my mind, as I'm sure they were fresh in everyone's.
The scream of a woman, followed by a cry that sounded suspiciously like that of a child. Then what had been left of the roof caved in and all was silent.
We had been told that this house was holding terrorists. We had been ordered to blow them out.
There had been no report of hostages of any kind. That was why the scream and the cry had frightened us so badly.
Terrorists don't have families - at least not families that hide with them in the middle of a war zone. Those cries should have been screams of men. There should have been some gunshots or an extra explosion, if they had had weapons with them.
So why was there nothing? Nothing but the scream of a woman and the cry of a child?
Sergeant Michelson, who had given us our orders after receiving his orders from The General, bit his lip next to me. Finally, turning to me, he said, "Once the flames burn out, search the house. See what you find."
"Yes, sir," I replied. I bit my lip, watching him carefully. "Sir, are you sure that this was a good idea?" I couldn't help but think - but no...it couldn't be...we never made mistakes that big.
Sergeant sighed. "The General was sure of himself when he gave me the orders." This didn't exactly reassure me, but I didn't dare push him more. It was pretty clear that he was thinking the same things we were.
I could tell by the way he watched the flames and the way he clenched his hands around his gun that he suspected what we all did - that we had made a mistake.
That somehow, we had gotten the wrong house.
My gut clenched as I thought about how bad a mistake it was - we had probably just killed an innocent family.
I wanted to turn back - to run away, abandon mission. We could handle the wrath of the General, knowing that we were right - that what we did was wrong.
Sergeant glared at me. Mistake or no mistake - he was under the General's orders. And we were under his. I was supposed to repeat his orders to the rest of the group, and make sure they were followed. I glanced desperately at him, hoping against hope that he would disobey orders.
No such luck - he scowled at me and gave the orders again.
Quietly, I repeated the Sergeant's orders to the soldiers near us, and then waited once again in silence.
It was late evening, and the light was beginning to dim. The Sergeant gave us orders to begin searching before the flames were completely out - we didn't want to search in the dark.
It was as we began to move into the wreck that it happened.
We all tensed as we heard distant shouting and running footsteps.
We all clutched our guns a little tighter as we thought, half with hope, "This is it. The terrorists are coming."
There was only two of them, one taller than the other. They sprinted toward us, waving their arms and yelling something in Arabic.
The taller one waved something over his head - something long and dark. He limped a little, but still ran fast.
I felt my heart beat faster as I lifted my gun, moving as I tried to find a good shot. I thought nothing - only a chant-like repetition of "He's got a gun. He's got a GUN. HE'S GOT A GUN!"
Something inside yelled back - "No! No!" But it was covered by adrenaline and fear - and a little bit of hope. Hope that this man was a terrorist - caught away from base.
Over the chant in my head and the sound of adrenaline pumping in my ears, I heard the Sergeant say "Get him down."
I lifted my rifle and aimed through the scope. He was still running, and I noticed dully that his face was contorted in rage and streaked with tears. While I was aiming, I caught a glimpse of the shorter one's face, and something deep in my mind noticed that he was young - very young.
But I thought nothing.
Just as I tightened my finger around the trigger, someone - it might have been the Sergeant, might have been another soldier - yelled "Don't shoot!"
But it was too late.
My finger squeezed the trigger, and the bullet flew away.
As soon as it was gone, everything that had clouded my brain, covered up my conscience, it escaped with it. And I saw without it, heard my conscience cry out in guilt and anguish.
It hit the tall one just as I had aimed it - in the head. He pitched forward, blood spewing behind him. He didn't even have time to scream, just dropped instantly.
But the other one had plenty of time to scream, and as he did, I suddenly became conscious of how young he was - no older than fourteen.
Everyone in the squad was silent - we all realized at the same time what had happened.
I walked closer, my stomach threatening to make me throw up with dread.
The man I killed was older, and he had landed with his head to the side, one dead eye staring up at me. The thing he'd been carrying was not a gun - it was a cane.
That eye would haunt me fro the rest of my life.
And the boy stared at me with tear filled eyes, and he cursed me in his language. I didn't understand what he said - I didn't have to.
We had blown up his house, we had killed his mother and his sibling.
And now I had killed his father.
He had watched me kill his father.
His eyes were filled with despair and hatred.
His father's dead eye was filled with mistakes, orders, and clouded thoughts.
My eyes filled with tears and my gun clattered to the ground.
Two living eyes forced me to the ground, retching. They hated me and wanted me dead.
One dead eye watched me from the ground, blaming me and making me scream.
And behind me, hidden by debris, at least four dead eyes watched their world fall in ash and flame.