Rating: K+ (Suitable for ages 13 and above)
Disclaimers: Names given in this story are fictional and any relation to an actual person, living or dead, is purely incidental.
Original pen-date: 26 February 2010
Summary: An infantryman's reflections. Baghdad 2007.
Author's Note: It doesn't always flow smoothly, but trains of memory can be pretty disjointed. It is my hope that a truer glimpse of what it is like to live as a soldier and to lose a soldier can be seen here. Having read other submissions of a similar nature on this archive, it is my thought that such a piece is perhaps best written by a soldier.
The setting is based loosely off the circumstances in which then-PFC Ross McGinnis, of 1/26 Infantry, earned the Medal of Honor.
We sent Kilroy home today.
It's not the first time we've had guys go home like that, with slow salutes and silence. There have been plenty of guys sent off before him, and there'll be plenty more after. There's no stopping it. I just wish it didn't seem like it was always our company taking the hits. He was the first in almost a week. A record. It was just him, which I suppose is lucky. That ambush almost took out Doc McGowan and Sergeant Taylor too. It could have been a lot worse. That's what our chain of command says. It's not very comforting to me, though. Kilroy was a good kid. Seeing him go down was one of the worst moments of my life.
Kilroy wasn't his real name, but it might as well have been. Everybody called him that because he loved drawing Kilroys all over the FOB. Nobody knew what a Kilroy was until he explained it, and the nickname stuck. I think he liked it. Drawing was his thing. If he wasn't marking up everything from Porta-potties to the shower trailer to the back of the DFAC, he was doodling in his notebook. He was good, too. I still have the sketch he did of me and him, based on a picture Sergeant Ortiz took. It's always in the left arm pocket of my jacket. It's a memento, I guess. Something to remember him by.
It was his drawing on buildings around the FOB that got him in trouble. Yeah, defacing Army property is technically a bad idea, but a few Kilroys scrawled in black Sharpie here and there weren't hurting anything. A lot of guys thought it was cool. It was pretty good for their spirits, you know? Something funny to take their minds off everything else for a moment. Sergeant Major Cortes didn't see it that way though, when he found out who was behind it all. The Article 15 busted Kilroy back down to E-2 and knocked off two months' pay, plus giving him fifteen days' extra duty. We were all pretty pissed about that. But that's how it goes. Sergeant Major Cortes is an asshole like that.
His last day of extra duty was the day he got hit. He'd just come off that last detail, in fact. Just in time to join us as we were mounting up. Sergeant Ortiz had told him that he could sit that one out, but Kilroy wasn't the type of guy to miss out on anything. He crawled up into the turret and that was it. He was our truck's gunner, like every other patrol before. Maybe it was because he was a good artist that he had sharp eyes, or maybe it was just his attention to detail, but that kid was a damn good gunner. Hell, he was a damn good soldier all around. One of those rare gems you get. He would've had a real bright future in the Army, and man he wanted it, too.
I'll never know if he was looking in the wrong direction, or if he was checking his arcs of fire, or even if he was distracted by something along the road, but he never saw the Haji bastard that shot him. None of us in the truck knew what was going on until Kilroy dropped out of the turret, almost into our laps. There was dead silence, for almost a minute it seemed like, then everybody in the truck started shouting. We had nobody on the .50 to suppress and there was incoming fire from almost every direction. The truck behind us came flying up to support us, while Sergeant Taylor tried to get us off the road enough so we could dismount. A round came in through the windshield and hit him. The truck stopped short, bouncing everybody around pretty bad.
All I remember is seeing Kilroy sprawled across the floor of the truck, his ACUs soaked through with red, while Doc tried to stop the bleeding. Then there's a patch of black, and the next thing I remember is dropping an empty mag and slapping in a fresh one. There was nothing but noise. The ear-jarring rattle of AKs against the subdued pop of M16s, with that wonderful throaty roar of .50 cals inbetween. It started fast and ended fast, because that's how Haji gets down. One second, there was a firefight and the next, deathly silence. Nobody dared move from cover, in case there was a second attack. Nobody except Doc McGowan. He wrestled himself out of the truck and started shouting for a litter. There was sort of hissing snap, like a firecracker, and he went down too.
Eventually, we got support from the tankers attached to our battalion and we got the hell out of there. Kilroy, Taylor, and McGowan got Medevaced out to the hospital in the Green Zone. The rest of us finished the patrol, somehow. I don't remember any of it. Debrief and shake-down back at the FOB was all a blur. The chaplain was there, I think. That's never a good sign, when the chaplain is around. That's when they told us that Kilroy hadn't made it. They said he died shortly after they got him to the 86th. We all believed that, because we wanted to. At least I wanted to. There was doubt in the back of my mind though, because there hadn't been anything natural or alive about the way Kilroy had lain there in the truck.
Colonel Simmonds said it could have been much worse, if the rest of us hadn't reacted as quickly as we had. He was proud of us, he said, for keeping our heads and coming out of the ambush in good shape. Sergeant Major Cortes said it was a damn shame to lose such an outstanding soldier. He went on about how Kilroy was a good kid, who never got into trouble and was always there if a job needed to be done. I guess he forget that he was the one who'd gotten Kilroy into trouble, who'd taken his rank and money and time. He didn't even know who Kilroy was, beyond that he was another name on the Killed in Action list. Funny how that happens.
Sergeant Ortiz and I were sent to pack up his stuff. That's when I found the picture. It was supposed to go into his foot locker, along with everything else. I tucked it into my pocket instead. He'd only been gone a few hours but it felt like only a few minutes. His roommate couldn't believe it. All he did was sit on his bunk and stare at Kilroy's locker, while we packed everything away. Somebody from Supply was supposed to come down for the locker once we were done. They'd be the ones making sure everything got back to the States. I bummed some Camels from Serrgeant Ortiz after we were done and we stood outside the barracks units and chain-smoked the whole pack.
I don't know why I did it, but I volunteered to escort Kilroy home. Maybe I felt responsible for him, like it was my fault he'd gotten hit. It's stupid and doesn't make any sense, I know. But I was his squad leader, and it was supposed to have been my turn on the gun since he was on extra duty. Everything happens for a reason, the chaplain told us, and sometimes we never know the reasons why. We're not always meant to. I'm not sure I believe that. Not when things like this happen to kids like Kilroy. Colonel Simmonds granted my request and I went to pack. Whether it was morally my responsibility or not, it was now my physical responsbility.
Private Second Class Jared Crosby, Kilroy, was killed in action in Adhamiya district, Baghdad, just after the New Year. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. And I, Sergeant Matthew Young, was taking him home. Before the honor guard draped the flag over his coffin, before the Air Force crew got the loading gear ready, I found a scrap of paper and a Sharpie. I drew a Kilroy and taped it to the coffin lid. I think he would have liked that.