Lest We Forget

I wrote this story while my brother was stationed in Afghanistan. Rememberance Day was always important to me in an abstract way.  Since my brother served overseas it's become real to me in a whole new way.

He shut his eyes tightly and burrowed deeper into the thin, lumpy sleeping bag that lay on the hard packed earth. The loud noises that invaded his tent and pierced into his mind eliminated any attempts to return to the refuge of sleep. He lay perfectly still, trying to calm his thumping heart and his racing mind. As he buried his head into his pillow, another series of violent explosions sounded further away. He could still hear the whistling sound of the rockets as they had approached, still feel the dread in his heart as he waited for the loud bang that would signify he had survived another attack.

After a moment of silence he cracked a weary bloodshot eye open and pressed the upper right hand button on his Timex Indiglo watch, trying to see the time. It was two AM. This was the third time there had been middle of the night attacks and his small tent, surrounded by cement barricades in order to reduce the danger from shrapnel, did nothing to muffle the noises. Fourteen hour days and sleepless nights were beginning to contribute to a general feeling of despair that ate at him like termites on wood.

He thought of home and the comfortable bed in his second floor bedroom. Of late morning breakfasts around a strong wooden table surrounded by family he loved. Of lazy afternoons spent puttering around the old ramshackle house, doing chores and keeping busy. How he had complained of those times, and how he longed for them now. His fists clenched in silent agony at the thought of the peace he had once had and now was missing.

He rolled over and sat up, wiping his sweaty face with dry cracked hands. The acrid smell of burning rubber permeated the thick desert air and left a sour taste in his mouth. Unzipping the door of his tent he looked out. The moon shone eerily overhead and illuminated the camp in its strange half light. He had once found the moon romantic, walking hand in hand with his lover under its warm light. Tonight however, the dim shadowy light served as a sinister backdrop to the horror unfolding around him.

To his right, about twenty feet away a group of people encircled a small crater that had been blown into the ground by the explosion. Fragments of rock and cement littered the ground around it for several feet. A man was seated on the ground being attended to by medical services for a laceration on his shoulder where flying debris had struck him. Other than that, it seemed that no one had been injured. As he approached the group of huddled soldiers he began picking up snippets of conversation.

One man was jabbering excitedly waving his arms around madly and pacing back and forth.

“I was standing right where it hit just two minutes ago!!” he said, his eyes wild. “I was about to have a cigarette when I realised I had forgotten my lighter!! I went to Billy’s tent to see if I could bum one off him and then BAM!” He spoke so frenetically that spittle flew from his mouth in all directions. “Damn it!” he cursed as he shakily tried to light his cigarette and broke it in half. The soldier to his right put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“Well, “he continued, “I can guarantee that the guy that fired that thing is spending tonight with his seventy two virgins. The drones picked up the launch site right away and returned fire. I don’t think there’s much left of him other than ashes.” The men around him muttered their approval as a soldier approached with an armful of beers. The man that was speaking grabbed one, twisted the top off and guzzled most of it in one gulp. He was visibly shaken, his skin so pale it appeared translucent and his hands trembling. He heard a few muttered comments regarding thoughts of the country and its residents as he was walking away.

Not ten feet away, another little group had formed. He recognized them as the newest batch of arrivals. They chattered quietly among themselves and he had to strain to hear them. Whispered pieces of the conversation drifted towards him.

“Third time in three days!” he heard one young Corporal exclaim nervously. “They’re getting closer” he added. “This one was almost in the middle of camp!” The young woman to his left nodded in agreement. “Do you think it will be on the news by morning?” she questioned. The little group shrugged.

He walked on into the mess tent and poured himself a cup of tea from the decanter sitting on the table. He carefully stirred in a little milk and one spoonful of sugar. He sat alone in the corner and sipped his tea quietly the silence feeling even louder than the explosions.

He thought of the previous day. They had been ordered into the red zone to pick up a group of civilians and transport them to a safer location. When they arrived, security had deployed around the plane as the sorry little group of locals were herded inside. They barely spoke and they stank of sweat and dirt. None of them made eye contact with any of the soldiers. Once everyone was safely loaded, they had re-boarded and taken off.

He had expected they would feel relief to be leaving the area but when he had entered the passenger hold his senses had been assailed by the smell of vomit and feces. He realised that none of these people had ever been on a plane before and were not happy to be on one now. He felt a strange sort of sorrow for them, thrown into an unfamiliar situation with no reassurance. He exited quickly and tried to push it from his mind.

As he had entered the cockpit, the pilot addressed him. “Damned camel jockeys eh?” he said. “Barely civilised. Can’t wait for this mess to be over!” He hadn’t responded.

His thoughts travelled back even further to his first week on duty in the country. They had been ordered to accompany the caskets of three Canadian soldiers from Kandahar to Dubai, where they would be shipped back to Canada and to their respective families. He and the other soldier had sat in near total silence the entire flight, staring at the grim reality before them.

He returned quickly to the present as a cluster of soldiers walked into the tent talking loudly. He finished his tea quickly and walked out into the oppressive night. As he made his way towards the kiosk that housed the telephones, he mentally calculated the time difference. No one was around. He picked up the telephone and his callused fingers danced across the keypad quickly, dialing the number. The line rang three times on the other side and then the answering machine kicked on. His fathers’ voice announcing that they were not available at the moment was followed by a loud beep and then silence. He cleared his throat.

“Hey guys,” he started, trying to sound carefree. “Hope everything’s going well there. How’s Dan doing? The wedding is getting closer, she must be really busy. Anyhow, I can’t talk for long, but I just wanted to give you guys a heads up on the situation here. You’ve probably heard about the attack by now, so I just wanted to call and tell you guys not to worry. It wasn’t even close to us” he lied for his mother’s sake, “and we’re all okay. I guess I’ll talk to you later. Love you.” He hung up the telephone quickly, the lump in his throat growing. He didn’t like lying to his mother, but he didn’t want her to worry. He slowly wandered back to his tent and tried to go back to sleep, but it continued to elude him.

The following morning, he rose and donned his uniform. He washed his face quickly in a bowl of tepid water and went to get some coffee. His heart sat heavy in his chest and his feet dragged. As soon as he entered the tent, he knew something was wrong. Several groups were huddled together speaking in hushed tones. He poured himself a cup of coffee and then joined one of the groups.

“What’s going on guys?” he asked quietly.

“We just got word that two of the new guys – the Van Doos – were KIAed last night on a patrol. They just got here two weeks ago. One of them had a brand new little baby girl– he showed me the pictures the other day.” He shook his head in despair. “It’s happening more and more lately” he observed. “It’s always the good guys that go.” They chatted quietly for several minutes more and then went their separate ways to prepare for each of their assignments.

When the mail arrived two weeks later, he was thrilled to receive a package from home. He quickly took it to his tent and began to open it. His father had wrapped it in old aviation maps. He chuckled. It was an inside family joke – his father hated spending money on wrapping paper so he had begun taking expired maps from the airport where he worked and bringing them home to serve as wrapping paper. His heart ached as he thought of home. He put aside the wrapping paper and yanked off the tape that was holding the box shut.

Inside, he found two clear mason jars of homemade jam wrapped in socks, a few books by Tom Clancy and two audio books to load up on his MP3 player. There was also a letter from his parents. He carefully removed it from its envelope and smoothed it out.

Dear Son, it began

We were so sad to miss your call. It was nice to hear your voice and know that you are doing well. We hope that you enjoy the jam we sent you. Your sister went berry picking and made too many batches – she thought you might enjoy some. We wrapped the cans in socks to keep them from breaking- hope it worked.

We went to visit your grandparents today. They’re doing well. Memere is worried about you though. We told her that we had heard from you, but if you have the time, maybe you should email her or call her – it might put her mind to rest.

Your sister’s wedding is coming together well. She’s found her dress and booked the reception hall. I can’t believe it’s coming so fast. She’s started running, I guess as a way to burn off stress. She’s doing really well and is thinking of running a half marathon in the fall. Ottawa is having one in support of the troops and she’s seriously considering it.

As for the attack you mentioned, we weren’t sure what you were talking about. The news only said that our troops had found and eliminated a suspected threat – there was nothing about an attack on your camp. Maybe because it was farther away, as you said, they didn’t feel it was important enough to mention. Your father and I pray for your safety every night, you know. We are counting the days until you come home.

I want you to know that we are so proud of you and what you are doing. We can’t possible imagine what you are going through or the things you are seeing but we hope that you are well. I wanted to include something that I read the other day. I hope it will help you during difficult times when you feel like you are totally alone. We love you so much and eagerly await your return. Stay strong and stay well.

All our love

Mom and Dad

Two thin pieces of onion skin paper fell out from behind the letter. He picked them up and examined them. They were pages from his mothers Bible that she must have ripped out. A small section was underlined and highlighted. As he read, a tear ran down his cheek.

When you pass through the waters,

I will be with you;

And when you pass through the rivers,

They will not sweep over you.

When you walk through the fire

You shall not be burned.

A thousand may fall at your side,

Ten thousand at your right hand,

But it will not come near you.

No harm shall befall you,

No disaster come near your tent.

For he will command his angels

concerning you

To guard you in all your ways;


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