Big black eyes stared at me. Two minutes had passed and neither one of us had moved or flinched. I felt a sudden pain deep inside my lower stomach. Finally, it was ready to come out. I groaned with a sigh of discomfort and exhaled a breath of relief. Suddenly, the locust disappeared out the hatch as it took flight with a faint hum from its wings trailing behind. I heard Tucker, my squad leader and best friend, yelling.
“Todd! What are you doing in there, praying? Let’s wrap it up! We are Oscar Mike in five!” he said.
“I’m coming out now, Tuck! Ten pounds lighter!” I replied, as someone in the bay started an MP3 of our battle hymn, “Highway to Hell” by the rock band AC/DC. As the heavy metal guitar riff started to crank out the opening chords of inspiration, I cleaned myself and secured my trousers, along with the rest of my gear. I picked up my M4 Colt and walked out to see Tucker standing in the middle of our bay, along with my two other best friends, Thomas Shirikjian from Boston, who we called Tom, and James Barber from San Diego, who we called Jay. All were head-bobbing to our anthem, pumping themselves up for the mission.
Tuck looked at me as he began to play air guitar with his rifle. He was speaking to me without words, but I knew what he was saying. I walked over to the group and joined my brothers in our solemn pre-mission ritual. Whether praying or doing things in a specific order, superstitions ran deep. Every warrior has some sort of routine. It might seem like bullshit to a civilian, but then again, we are talking about civilians. If they experienced even one day of carnage in this desert hellhole, they would believe in superstitions too. However, they aren’t here, we are, the Devil Dogs. The Almighty has blessed us to become United States Marines.
The way I saw it, the only thing a civilian needed to worry about was what movie to watch on Friday night, or where to go out to eat. Back home in the United States, what we call the “World,” exists a different reality than where we four Marines were living, fighting, and dying at for the past two years. As we rocked out and let the music take control of our minds and bodies, our spirits joined in unison, becoming one. We were one group, one purpose, one machine. We loved each other and we wouldn’t hesitate to die for one another. We were a family.
The song ended, and Tuck turned off the music player. It was time to earn our paychecks. An honest day’s work, for an honest day’s pay, was the motto. Tuck walked back to us with his military bearing in overdrive. He stood tall and blond with blue eyes and a stone-cleft chin. He was from Tennessee and had a strong southern drawl when he spoke.
“You know the drill fellas, this ain’t our first rodeo. Now, ain’t that right?”
“Oorah!” We all sounded off in unison.
My adrenaline was high as my breathing increased. I was ready, and we were prepared for anything.
Tucker continued. “The mission briefing this morning was cut and dry. We got two buildings to clear in Sector 2a and one more in 7e,” he said.
Tom spoke up. “Tuck, why the hell didn’t they give us adjoining sectors? Echo Squad is hitting sector seven and sector three. Why can’t we just swap a sector with them? It makes more sense than driving way the hell across the damn city.”
Tucker frowned. “Ain’t gonna happen. Nothing’s gonna change, so suck it up and quit pissing and moaning.”
Jay looked at Tom and smiled. “Too bad, so sad. You want my hanky, Tommy?”
Tom shook his head. He was getting pissed off. “Do you want me to stuff it up your ass?” he yelled.
Tucker broke up the skirmish.
“Enough with all that! Shit, Tom, what’s with the attitude? Speak up like you got a pair, what gives?”
Tom just shook his head again. “Nothing, I’m cool. I just don’t like driving through the city when we don’t have to. Makes sense, right? Of course not, I’m a jarhead!”
We all laughed, except Tucker.
“You’re right, it does make sense. But it’s too late in the game now to change the plan. It sucks, but what else is new? We got a job to do. The sooner we get her done, the sooner we can come back to the house and kick our feet up. Now, are you good?”
Tuck was right. It sucked, but what else was new? I had something on my mind, so I spoke up.
“This whole day has been FUBAR. Did you see the replacements for Fire Team Charlie? They’re all new blood and have never been out with us before. That’s messing with my head. Something doesn’t feel right about this one.” I said.
Tucker looked over at me in surprise. “Not you too, Todd? They’ll be on point, so no worries. Look, they’re gonna be covering our entry and egress to the Humvees. You were a cherry once upon a time, just like the rest of us.”
“Still feels like something is wrong. I mean, besides being cherries, they are all black. We don’t know them dudes! You got to admit, it is strange to have an all-black fire team.” I said.
“You stow that shit right now! Ain’t nothing strange about that at all! Stop with the superstitious bullshit already!” He paused for a moment, frowned, shook his head, and sighed.
I stopped complaining, but what Tucker had said didn’t change my mind or the way I felt. “Aye, aye, Tuck. I hear you, but I’m not riding with any of them! Us four are all riding together, just like always. That’s all I have to say.”
“I didn’t know you got promoted to squad leader Todd, congrats.” Tucker smiled, put on his helmet, and fastened the strap.
Jay and Tom laughed. Jay grabbed me by the shoulder and whispered in my ear. “Hey, bro! When we get back, can I borrow that Spring Break bikini picture of your girlfriend? I just need it for like two minutes, I’m about to bust!” I laughed and pushed him away. We all walked out of the barracks behind Tucker to the three Humvees parked single file. Bravo and Charlie Fire-teams were milling around their vehicles.
Tuck signaled to them. “Marines! Mount up! We are moving out!”
Bravo and Charlie Teams got into their vehicles, as we climbed in the middle Humvee in our usual positions. Tom rode with Tucker up front, while Jay and I were seated in the rear. Charlie Team took the point position as we made our way toward the front gate, followed by a thick trail of dust behind us. I noticed it was scorching hot today, dryer than usual. We had made this trip hundreds of times before, but this time it felt different. I turned to see Tucker staring at me. He could tell something was eating at me; he had no trouble reading any of us.
“You good?” he asked.
“Whatever, man, I don’t give a shit. Let’s just get the damn job done,” I answered. I looked back out the window. I wasn’t the type to complain about something repeatedly, like some sissy. I spoke my piece at the barracks, and that was the end of it for me. A few seconds later, I heard Tucker on the radio calling out to the lead vehicle.
“Charlie Team, when we pass through the gate, fall back to my position. Alpha Team is taking the point, do you copy?” A few seconds later, Charlie Team acknowledged, followed by Bravo Team.
“Ten-four, copy that.” I glanced over at Tucker, who was looking forward. Why did he do that? I couldn’t let it go.
“What the hell Tuck? Why are you changing formation?” I asked. Tucker looked at me.
“You ain’t frosty, Todd! You’re acting spooked! You said something didn’t feel right. You’re worried about Charlie Team. Well I just took care of that for you. Now we’re on point! How do you like that? Satisfied? Now get your head out of your ass!”
We exited the base and Tom immediately passed Charlie Team. Tucker looked at him and knocked on his helmet like a door.
“Tuck to Tom! How about you put some lead in your foot? I want to see the pedal to the metal, baby boy!”
This was Tucker-the-squad-leader escalating aggression in the atmosphere. It was one way of ramping us up and pushing us to where we needed to be. We had prepared ourselves to kill or be killed.
“I can’t drive! Fifty-five!” Tom yelled out. I looked at Jay, who was staring out of his window. He was nodding to a song in his mind. He was always quiet like this while en route to our first stop. We made a left turn two blocks before the East market, trying to avoid the primary traffic. We had six miles left before reaching the first objective. The first breach and clear of the day was always stressful, but as the day wore on it would become more routine, but not safer. Complacency on the team could cause mistakes which could kill all of us. I started to feel like my old self again as my adrenaline and aggression took control of me and turned the knots of fear inside my stomach into harmless butterflies.
“Oorah!” I yelled out. Everyone else sounded off after me. “Oorah!” Tucker looked back at me and nodded his head in approval.
“It’s all good brother! It’s all g—” There was a flash of light, a jolt, and then darkness. That is all I remember.
I woke up to bright lights. My head felt ready to explode. I laid there for what seemed like hours, looking up at a white ceiling. I tried to comprehend simple thoughts and understand what was happening. I remembered I had feet connected to my legs. Yes, I had arms and hands with fingers. I tried to move each one, before I noticed a beeping sound. It must have been there the whole time, but now it was faster. I turned my head in the direction of the sound and felt a painful, burning sensation. It was coming from what connected my head to my body; my neck. Of course, I had a neck! How the hell did I get here?
Reality flooded my consciousness and overwhelmed me. I realized I was in a hospital. What happened? A roadside bomb? A rocket-propelled grenade? I closed my eyes tight and tried to remember. Where’s Tuck? Where’s Jay...Tom?
“Corporal, can you hear me?” The voice startled me and took my breath away. I opened my eyes and saw a woman standing next to me. I stared at her.
“Corporal, can you hear me?” I nodded; she leaned closer. “Can you talk?” I tried to swallow, but even that was difficult. I took a deep breath and whispered, “Yes.”
She smiled. “Good. Can you tell me your name?” I knew that I had a name, but I couldn’t recall it. I remembered the names of my buddies, so why not my own name? The next minute which passed was exhausting and a struggle, but I could not remember it.
“Take your time, there is no rush.” She spoke gently. Her voice was soothing, but I gave up.
“I don’t know,” I replied. My vision blurred as tears rolled from the corners of my eyes. I closed them and began to quietly cry. Shame and embarrassment were the least of my worries; I thought that I must have brain damage. The nurse saw my distress and held my hand.
“Everything is fine. It may take a while. I’m going to take your vitals and the doctor will see you shortly, to explain your condition. I will let your unit Commander and 1st Sergeant know you’ve woken up. Just relax and try to stay calm.” I opened my eyes and looked at her.
“Todd Goodson. My name is Todd Goodson,” I whispered. Still groggy, I drifted back to sleep.
“Domino!” Jay hollered, as he slammed his last one on the table and stood up. “That’s game bitches! Pay up right now!” he yelled. Everyone tossed their money on the table except Tuck.
“Man, all I got are fifties,” Tuck said as he looked away. Jay’s eyes
“You lying sack of shit! You reneging Tuck? Where’s your damn honor,
Marine?” Tuck laughed at him.
“I didn’t say I wasn’t gonna pay, I just don’t have change is all. Let me go to the canteen first. Dang! It’s only five dollars bro! You act like I’m trying to stiff you out of a car payment!”
Jay gathered up the rest of his money. I couldn’t help myself. I had to instigate.
“I never thought I would see the day that Tuck would re-nigger on a bet! Uh, I mean renege...That’s a damn shame!” I laughed, shaking my head. Tuck snapped.
“That shit ain’t funny!” Tuck looked at me. “I’ve done told you before about talking like that. One day you’re gonna say that around the wrong person and get your face punched in,” he said. I stood up from the table.
“What? Do I look scared? I don’t give a damn man! It’s just a freaking joke!” I replied and walked over to my footlocker. He shook his head.
“You need to wake up and smell the coffee punk,” he said. I reached inside and grabbed my MP3 player, walked over to my bunk, and laid down. I always needed to get the last word in.
“You need to stop being so sensitive. You sound like an old woman,” I said, while putting my earbuds in and turning up the music. He was staring at me, so I stared back over at him. He started talking, but I couldn’t hear him over the music, so I shouted out. “I can’t hear you! Speak up like you got a pair!” I laughed. Tuck stood up and started throwing dominoes at me. Tom and Jay joined in the stoning as I did my best to block the incoming projectiles. They circled me as I tried to get up...
“Lay down. Lay down Corporal! Corporal Goodson!” I opened my eyes and saw three figures standing over me. Two of them were holding me down. It was my 1st sergeant and a doctor. The third person was my commander Major Truesdale. I quickly gathered my thoughts along with my military bearing.
“Sir, yes, sir. I must have been dreaming.” I said. The doctor smiled.
“I’m Captain Horowitz. You are one lucky Marine, Corporal.” He looked down at his clipboard. “I want to give you a rundown of your injuries and condition, none of which are life threatening.”
“Yes sir.” I nodded while glancing at my 1st sergeant and commander out the corner of my eye. Both were silent and stone-faced as the doctor continued with my report.
“You have sustained a level three concussion and have been unconscious for the last fourteen hours. You have several minor first- and second-degree burns, as well as two separate stress fractures on your lower right fibula.” He flipped to another page. “Also, you have experienced a severe flexion-extension motion of the neck. This is similar to what you may know as whiplash.” He turned to another page. “You have no internal bleeding detected at this time—which was one of our main concerns in your case. Regardless, we are going to continue monitoring you over the next few weeks as you recuperate and heal. If all goes as planned, we’ll draw up a specific rehabilitation program for you. You can expect to be here for two to three months. Now that you are awake and conscious, tell me, how are you feeling?”
“Where’s my team sir?” I croaked with a dry throat. The doctor looked at me with his eyebrows raised, then turned to my commander, who in turn gestured to my sergeant. The 1st sergeant nodded and walked over to my bedside and held on to the bed rail. He leaned over and spoke quietly.
“Son, I want you to brace yourself. It is not good news.” My heart went dead. I could feel my eyes begin to water again. “Your Humvee was hit by an I.E.D. You and your fire team were ambushed. Corporal Thomas Shirikjian and Lance Corporal Jay Barber were killed instantly in the explosion.”
“No. No!” I yelled out of shock. I closed my eyes tight and clenched my teeth as I lost my composure. I didn’t believe it, but I knew it was the truth. The 1st sergeant rested his hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Corporal. They gave all.” I barely heard his words as the thoughts in my head drowned out everything around me. Why? Why am I still alive? This wasn’t right. It shouldn’t be happening. It was wrong. It was all wrong!
“Sergeant Tucker Pearson was severely wounded in the blast. He’s alive but in critical condition,” he said.
I opened my eyes at the sound of his name. “Tuck is alive?”
“Yes he is, but he is in the fight for his life as we speak. They flew him out to Landstuhl Regional a few hours after the blast,” he replied.
I desperately wanted to see Tuck, but realized I might never get the chance. I was exhausted and just wanted to close my eyes and die. All of this needed to stop, be over and done with. Sarge had told me the truth, but I didn’t want to hear it. I closed my eyes and turned my head away. A few moments later, someone else’s hand was on my other shoulder. This time, I heard my commander’s voice.
“You rest up, Corporal Goodson. We all mourn this loss with you. It’s another sad day for the Corps and for America. I want you to know we’re all here for you. I promise you their sacrifices will never be forgotten.” He patted my arm and I nodded without opening my eyes. I couldn’t handle it anymore. Soon I heard their footsteps as they moved away, talking.
“The mission de-brief will wait until he is ready. He’s going to need some time,” Captain Horowitz said.
I lay there alone and thirsty, hoping I could blackout, sleep, or just fall unconscious. However, I felt the need to urinate. I looked around the bed for a call button and pressed it. A short while later, the nurse came by my bedside.
“How can I help you?”
“I’m thirsty and need to go to the head.”
“Corporal Goodson, we don’t want you trying to walk just yet. I will bring you some water now, but if you feel the need to urinate or have a bowel movement, you can do that now. You have a catheter inserted, and your urine bag is only a quarter full. I’ll also recheck your incontinence diaper and change it if necessary,” she said.
I hadn’t realized any of this. The weight of reality smothered me. I was wearing a diaper, two of my brothers were dead, and my best friend was clinging to life. Somehow, I needed to escape this hell.
“Nurse, could you give me something for the pain? My head and neck are killing me. The shit is almost unbearable and I need something for the pain right now. Please!”
“Of course,” she replied. “I’ll inform Captain Horowitz. Try to relax and I’ll be back shortly with something for the pain.” She left and returned with a tumbler of water and some medication. I sipped on the water slowly as she patiently waited.
“Don’t drink too much. Your mouth is very sensitive right now. Even water may start to hurt,” she advised. I didn’t believe her, but after I handed the tumbler back to her, the roof of my mouth began to ache.
“I see what you mean,” I mumbled. She produced a vial and began to unwrap a needle.
“This will help you with pain and also allow you to sleep. Are you
“I’m ready. Where do you want to stick me?” I replied. I didn’t care for needles.
“No sticking. I’m going to take it easy on you this time,” she said.
As the nurse injected the drug directly into my I.V., it began to work immediately. I felt a rush of relief pulsate through my mind and body. I stared at the light directly above me in the ceiling. The light; so soft and bright, guided me safely away from the pain of this world.
Three weeks had passed and I was healing well. It was great to walk and eat. My body began to feel better, but inside, I still felt like crap. I inhaled depression with every breath. If it were not for the pain meds helping me to temporarily forget, I believe I would have lost my mind.
Captain Horowitz would not release me back to my unit. He said I was not ready physically or psychologically. I was going to physical therapy daily, with counseling sessions twice a week. To me, it was a waste of time and I couldn’t understand why, or what good came from talking about my thoughts or feelings. The present reality was set in stone. Nothing about the past could change the here and now.
None of the bullshit therapy was helping me or Tuck, wherever he was. I found out after staying two weeks at Landstuhl that they flew him stateside.
There were two months left on my service contract and I had previously planned to re-enlist. All four of us were going to do at least twenty years. This was our life. We were career professional soldiers, but now I knew I wasn’t going to re-up. Why should I? I couldn’t go back without my brothers. No way.
Earlier in the day, two guys from my unit came to visit me. That was cool. They gave me some encouragement and I began to feel better for a little while, until they mentioned that Charlie Team came out of the ambush without a scratch. They should’ve had the point position that day and been blown to bits, not us! The shit wasn’t fair. Everything about that day felt wrong. I had a feeling and I was right.
The more I thought about it, the more it pissed me off. I could see those black dudes now; sitting around the barracks, listening to their rap music, probably eating watermelon-flavored jellybeans or chicken- flavored potato chips, laughing it up and having a good old time. It made me sick to think about it.
I looked at my watch. I needed to wait another hour before taking my pain pill, but I walked to the water fountain and took it early. I sat down on a chair in the hallway to relax and let the magical meds do their work. They acted quickly and relaxed me, taking me to that place I needed to be. I hadn’t talked to anyone back in the States since the attack. I tried getting a hold of my girlfriend, Angela, but her voicemail said she was out of the country and would return this week.
She was a pharmaceutical sales rep for a company based in Germany, traveling every few months from New York to work at the corporate headquarters. Memories of her hit me hard and I wanted desperately to hear her voice. I didn’t believe she understood how much I loved her.
I got up and walked to the dayroom to watch television for a while. There were always three or four guys in there kicking back, shooting the shit. Thirty minutes later, it felt like I was wasting away and I had to get out of there. I walked out into the courtyard and called Angela again. Every ring that went unanswered depressed me and pissed me off. My neck began to tighten and I felt hot. The sensation of rage was growing stronger inside me.
“Shit!” I shouted. A few startled heads turned to the outburst, so I walked to a more secluded area of the courtyard with my cell phone to my ear. My heart jumped as I heard the line connect.
“Hello? Todd?” The sweet sound of her voice was pure nirvana. “Hey babe! I’ve been trying to reach you all day!”
“Sweetheart, I am so sorry! I was in Stuttgart all week at corporate. Oh my God! How are you? Your voice sounds different. Are you all right?”
“No babe. I am in a world of shit right now. A couple of weeks ago my squad was hit. It was an ambush.” I began to feel flush, almost lightheaded. I heard her shriek.
“Todd, no! What happened sweetie?” She started to whimper.
“Our Humvee was hit by an I.E.D. It’s what you hear about on the news. Basically, it was a roadside bomb. Tom and Jay are dead, gone. Tucker is in critical condition. Last I heard, they flew him back stateside,” I replied. She was clearly crying now.
“Oh my God, I can’t believe it! Please, tell me about you. How bad are you? I need to know! Did you lose anything sweetie? Your arms? Legs?”
“No babe, I’m whole. I had a concussion, a few minor burns, and fractures, but I am all right.” I felt weak and started choking up as my eyes began to water. I sat down on the grass. My chest felt tight and I couldn’t seem to get enough oxygen. “I’m not good baby. I shouldn’t be here. I should have died with them.”
“What? Are you crazy! Don’t talk like that! Do you hear me?” she screamed.
I closed my eyes while her words tore through me. I didn’t like being yelled at. It was the first time in six weeks I’d heard her voice and she was fussing at me already.
“I hear you Angela, but I don’t want to fight with you.”
“I am not trying to fight with you. You say something like that and what, I’m just supposed to let that go by unchecked? You should be happy to be alive! I’m sorry about your friends, truly, I know you were close, but you’re alive and that’s what matters!”
I heard her but I wasn’t listening to what she was saying. She didn’t know, and could never understand, what was going on inside me. How could she?
“Okay Angela, you’re right. I guess I’m just stressed out and trying to get my thoughts together.”
She was quiet for a moment.
“Sweetheart, I don’t blame you. I cannot imagine what you must be going through right now. Let’s just change the subject. When are you coming back to New York? If I remember correctly, you should only have a few months before your contract is completed. Am I right?”
“Yeah, I have around two months left,” I replied. I had never told her about my plan to re-enlist. She would have resisted the idea of becoming a military wife and it would have been a deal-breaker for her. I thought that over time, I could win her over to the idea.
“Awesome! Finally! Now you can begin submitting your applica- tion for the dream job you’ve always talked about! We can seriously begin to plan our future together.”
She remembered that? The idea hadn’t crossed my mind in years. A career as a New York State Trooper was no longer a dream, now it was a reality. Years ago, when we first began dating, I remember constantly talking about the idea. Right now, there was too much going on in my life, and Tucker’s well-being stayed on my mind. The state police was something to think about someday.
“Yeah, you’re right babe. Maybe it is time to start planning our future. Getting married, buying a home somewhere, having kids...”
She interrupted me.
“Hold on there! Before you start planning our future, you need to actually become a state trooper, silly!” She laughed. “I heard they have a waiting list, so you need to start filling out the paperwork soon. On second thought, you may not be able to pass the physical. How bad are your injuries?” she asked.
“I’m good to go, I told you! I wouldn’t have any problems passing the physical; Besides, I have my technical college credits in HVAC, plus my years of military service. It’s as good as done!” I replied.
“All right, fine. When you come back home you can start on it. By the way, you do know that when you get back you’re staying with me, right?”
“Babe, I hadn’t thought about any of that, but since you brought it up, hell yes! I can’t wait!” The thought of sharing the same bed with her again gave me the first real dose of happiness I’d had since the ambush. I heard her moan with excitement.
“I can’t wait either! You have no idea the things I am going to do to you every night, over and over,” she added. I grunted in agreement. Her sexy voice always made me horny and she knew it.
“Oh! Have you spoken with your Dad yet?” she asked.
“Actually, I hadn’t called him yet. I will after we hang up,” I replied.
“I know he will be so happy to hear from you. He’ll be proud of you after he finds out that you are going to join the NYSP. You should be proud as well, by following in his footsteps and becoming the third generation in your family to serve on the force. That will put a huge smile on his face!”
“Yeah babe, that’s true. My old man will definitely be proud of that,” I replied. Instead of ending that subject there, she kept talking about it.
“Yes he will and he deserves it too! After all the pain that he’s been through.” She paused, waiting for me to comment again, but I didn’t, so she kept pushing. “You know what I mean by that. Like when your mom left the both of you.” She just couldn’t leave that subject alone and she knew damn well it would stir up a hornet’s nest.
“Angie, I don’t really feel like talking about any of that.” I tried to remain calm as she huffed.
“I’m not going to say another word, just forget it. I won’t argue with you either. We had a good conversation, so let’s just end this call on a happy note,” she replied.
“Okay babe. I’ll talk to you later. Be careful out there. I love you,” I said.
“You too sweetheart! Goodbye!”
I hung up the phone and sat there a few minutes, daydreaming while staring at the grass. My old man would be happy about me coming home. I couldn’t help feeling a little excited, but the crappy feeling was still in the pit of my stomach. Tom and Jay were gone and Tucker was in a bad way, probably suffering. I honestly had no right to be alive, let alone a reason to be happy. I searched through my phone contacts and dialed my dad. It rang until his voicemail answered.
“Hello, you have reached the voicemail of Mike Goodson. I am not available right ...” I hung up. My dad was old-school and barely used his cell phone. I dialed his apartment landline and within a few seconds, he answered.
“Hello,” he said.
“Todd! How in the hell are you, boy? I hadn’t heard from you in months!” The happiness in his voice was contagious.
“I’m okay Dad. Damn, it’s good to hear your voice again! Let me update you first. A couple of weeks ago, my squad got ambushed. An I.E.D killed my friends Jay and Tom. Tucker, my squad leader, is fighting for his life in the hospital back in the states.”
“Holy shit Todd! How are you? Talk to me son!”
“I’m fine. I mean, I’m the only one who’s walking around. I have some minor injuries, but they’re nothing.”
“Thank God! I had a feeling, you know. Like something wasn’t right. Over the past month, I couldn’t stop thinking about you over there. Those bastards! The military needs to just nuke that whole country and send them back to the stone ages.” He became quiet, but I heard him sniffling. “I’m grateful you’re alive.”
Dad was a proud person and a real man who never used to cry, but he changed after Mom left us. I tried to cheer him up.
“Hey Dad, everything is all right, really I’m good. I have some other news you’ll like. I’m coming home and joining the New York State Police. That’s right! I plan to become the third generation of New York State Troopers in our family!”
I heard him hold the phone away from his mouth and shouting. “Please tell me that you are not shitting me!”
“Hell no Dad! I’m not gonna re-up. I’m coming home in a few months and starting the application process.”
“You just made my fricking year kid!” He laughed. “I’ll get your room ready. I was storing some shit in there temporarily, but it’ll be ready when you get home.” I hated to burst his bubble, but Angie had already spoken. I’d rather face my disappointed dad than my pissed off Italian girlfriend. Still, I had to let him down easy.
“Hey, about that; I just talked to Angie and she wants me to stay with her when I get back. I told her that I would, but that I also wanted to spend some time with you at your apartment. Just so you know.”
“Ah, I understand. Whatever you want to do is fine with me. I don’t blame you for wanting to stay with your woman. She is one hot number! You know that your room will always be here for you. Consider it a Base Camp. Whenever you two fight and she puts your sorry ass out, you can always come back home!” he said laughing.
“Thanks Dad. I appreciate that. I’ll call you next week to check in on you.”
“You make sure to do that. Hey, have you told your mother yet?” “Na, I haven’t called her,” I replied.
“I can understand why not, but don’t feel bad. The way you see her, well, she’s done that to herself.”
Now my dad was starting in on her, just like Angie. Even though I hated what my mom had done to us, and I definitely loathed her new husband, she was still my mom. I didn’t like anyone to put her down or beat up on her. I wished everyone would leave her and our history buried.
“Yes Dad, I hear you. I’ll probably call her later and let her know what’s going on.”
He grunted, not liking my answer.
“It’s up to you. I don’t even think about her anymore. I’ve moved on with my life, just like she did,” he replied.
But he was lying; he had never moved on or gotten over her. Our shared past affected him as much as it did me. It was time to end the call before I regretted making it.
“Good for you Dad. I have to go to physical therapy now and then grab some chow. I’m starving,” I said.
“All right, Toddy. That’s a big Ten-four! I’ll talk to you next week. Please, try not to get your ass blown up before you come home.”
“I’m sorry about your buddies. I’m not going to sugarcoat it; it’s going to be hard for a while. Take your time and grieve. God bless each one of them. They are all heroes in my opinion, just like you.” I should have thanked him and said goodbye, but I had to correct him.
“Dad, they’re the true heroes, not me. They gave all; I didn’t. I gotta run now. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay. Goodbye Todd.”
I was relieved to be finished talking to everyone and getting off the emotional rollercoaster. First, I’m sad, then happy, then pissed off, then depressed. I was a mess. I walked back inside and swallowed a few more pain pills before falling asleep.
We moved up the dimly lit stairwell, the floor littered with trash, with our rifles locked and loaded at the ready. As we passed each door, we could hear noise and commotion coming from inside. Jay was on point, while me, Tucker, and Tom brought up the rear. Jay stopped and signaled—we had arrived at our objective. All eyes were on Tucker as he nodded to Tom, who set the explosive charges and unwound the detonation cord. The air was thick and humid and my goggles started to fog.
Panic set in as I sensed that something was wrong. I tapped Tuck and signaled, No go. He smiled and shook his head. I touched him again, No go! Suddenly, he turned and pulled my goggles down below my chin. I struggled against him and grabbed both of his wrists, but he was too strong.
“Tuck! No go! Abort!” I whispered frantically. He laughed at me and began shouting.
“Off we go!” he yelled, just before a colossal blast engulfed the entire stairwell, along with the four of us.
I screamed and was somehow still alive and conscious, but blinded and burning. I couldn’t breathe. The sound of my screams became muffled as I smelled my own flesh cooking; sizzling like a steak on a grill. The pain was unbearable. I felt someone trying to put out the flames consuming my charred torso.
“Wake up, Corporal Goodson! Corporal Goodson. Wake up, Todd Goodson!”
I opened my eyes, gasping for air and struggling to breathe. The nurse’s voice had rescued me and brought me back. “You had a bad dream, but you’re safe now.”
I sat up in my bed, drenched with sweat, and looked around the room. The nurse rubbed my back while she dried my head with a towel.
“Relax and breathe normally, in and out. That’s it,” she said.
“I need to stand up for a minute,” I said. The nurse helped me out of bed while fanning my face with the manila folder she was holding. “Wow, that was a bad one! It has to be the worst nightmare I’ve had all week. Thanks for being close by. This time I couldn’t breathe. I was suffocating and being cooked alive,” I said.
She listened attentively and shook her head.
“I hate to admit it, but for many of the soldiers I treat, this is all too common. It breaks my heart to see a person go through this. Most survivors are too afraid to go to sleep, not knowing what terrible nightmares are coming their way.”
I nodded in agreement.
“Shit, I must admit it is a living hell,” I replied. I looked down and felt my T-shirt. “Damn, everything is soaked. I can’t remember any nightmares causing me to sweat like this.”
She nodded and began removing my linens.
“You need to take a shower and change your clothes. I’ll have your linen changed by the time you come back,” she said with a smile.
“Thank you,” I replied and stood up. The strong odor of urine and feces filled the room. “Man! Where is that smell coming from?”
Her smile morphed into a sad expression though she remained silent. I realized that the smell was coming from me. I had pissed and crapped on myself. She handed me a change of clothes, and I turned away in shame and walked to the shower. I felt emasculated and weak. For the first time since becoming a Marine, I didn’t feel equal or worthy. I felt broken.
The shower washed away the filth and waste off my body, but did nothing for my pride. What was happening to me? I seemed empty inside with no center and no foundation. I was changed.
I finished my shower and walked back to my bed. It was freshly made, the top blanket folded back and exposing the clean sheets.
It reminded me of my mom; she used to do the same thing when I was a kid. She would always give me a snack before bed and then read me a short story. She and I were alone most nights while my Dad was on duty, patrolling the New York State highways.
I looked at my watch and saw it was 2330 hours, which would make it around 3:30 PM in California. Two months had passed since the attack, and I still hadn’t called my mom to let her know. I grabbed my cell phone and walked outside to the empty courtyard. I sat down on a bench and looked through my contacts until I found her number. I breathed deep and dialed. It connected and my temper flared as he answered.
“Hey, this is Todd. Is my mother there?”
“Hello, Todd! How are you doing out there?” I could hear the excitement in his voice as if he sincerely cared about how I was doing. I didn’t know why. I certainly didn’t care about him or how he was doing. To me, he was only blowing smoke up my ass.
“Uh, yeah, I don’t have much time to talk; we’re heading out soon. Is my mom there? I want to talk to her.”
“Yes she is. Sorry. I’ll get her. Hold on.”
I heard him call for her.
“Sarah! Todd is on the phone.” He got back on the call. “She’s coming Todd. I usually don’t even answer her phone, but I saw your name come up on the caller ID and didn’t want her to miss it,” he said. I kept silent. “Well, take care of yourself. It’s good to hear your voice. Your mother will be ecstatic! When will you be able to come back to the states and visit? We can meet you anywhere you choose after you come back home. Just let us know.”
“Yeah, okay,” I replied. I kept our conversation short. Every passing second talking to him was torture. Then, she picked up the phone.
“Todd! How are you doing?”
“I’m doing good Mom. Um, I had a little accident, but I’m about to be released from the hospital soon,” I said. I heard her shriek.
“Oh no! What has happened?”
“I lost some of my friends in an attack on our squad. I’m all right, though, but I can’t really say any more on the phone. I just wanted to let you know that I am not re-enlisting. I’m separating from the military. I’ll be flying back to New York soon.”
I could hear her sobbing quietly. Although our relationship had been strained for over a decade, I couldn’t deny that we shared a deep connection. I couldn’t bear to hear my mother weep.
“I pray for you every day Todd, and so does Herman. We ask that God protect you, keep you, and bring you home safely! I am so sorry for the loss of your friends. I cannot imagine what their families are going through. Can you give me their parents or spouses contact information so I can call them and give them my condolences? I want to offer them assistance or any type of help that they might need.”
“I don’t have any of that right now. I’ll try and get that to you later when I get a chance.”
I knew I was telling her a lie. This was my life and these were my friends. I didn’t need her and Herman talking to any of Jay’s or Tom’s people, let alone Tucker’s family.
“Please do honey, and please, please call me more often. I know you don’t like to write letters, so I don’t wait for a response from all the letters I send you every month, but at least let me hear your voice more often. I miss you! It’s been over a year since we have talked to you, and even that was a very short conversation. Will you do that for me Todd?”
“Okay Mom, I will. I have to go now. Be safe,” I said.
“I understand dear. Please be careful. Let me know when you return home. I love you Todd.”
I usually avoided saying those words back to her, but I had to. For me, it was like pulling my fingernails out.
“I love you too Mom. Goodbye.” I ended the call and looked up at the night sky. The half-moon was a bright beacon above. I remembered looking at the same moon from the top of our apartment building in New York. The same moon, but half a world away. It began to dawn on me that I was going back to the world, a place where everything made sense. I could fix myself there and find my center again, my foundation. I grinned for a moment and walked back inside, knowing that I was one day closer to going back home.