Oaths and Sand

Scared, as we all would be, you joked with your brothers, ate a meal and prayed your enemy wouldn’t take the time to aim true. You fell in a trench, in the rain, in mud so deep your last thought was that you hoped you wouldn’t drown in it. You could hear nothing over the roar of a thousand weapons flinging metal in waves so thick, even insects in the air weren’t safe. Then silence.

Scared and angry, you huddled in the landing craft and were tossed forward as the grating sound of its bottom slid to a halt on the beach. The sounds on the water were muted, floating above your head as if on some far shore, then the front dropped and a world of fear, fire, and pain poured in. Anger surged as your brothers fell in front of you, forcing you to climb over their still warm bodies so that you were free of your floating metal coffin. You fell on the beach, sand crunching in your mouth. Your last thought was worry about your mother when she learned of your death.

Scared, angry, and miserable, you had nothing in your possession that was dry, except your mouth which always seemed to lack moisture even while you waded through foreign waters. Mosquitoes in thick black clouds hung about your head in constant assault, your ears ached and your feet smelled of rotten flesh every time you switched from one wet pair of socks to the next wet pair. Tense and uncomfortable, you fell because exhaustion and mosquitoes distracted you and your feet found a tripwire. Pain became your world, but as your brothers carried you they assured you you’d be fine. On the helicopter you felt peace, not fear, and slipped into darkness before you cleared the treeline. Your last thought was “finally, no mosquitoes”.

You walked behind the HUMVEE, watchful, aware, suspicious of every move, every plastic bag flapping on the side of the street. Only feet away from the “safe zone” and yet you couldn’t let yourself slip into hope for even a second. You didn’t even hear the shot that got you. You just suddenly felt tired, as if reason had left you and the only important thing to do was to lie down and sleep, annoyed at the sand crusting your nose. Your last thought was that your brothers and sisters behind you would cover your back while you napped…that’s what brothers and sisters are for.

You didn’t choose your fight. You didn’t have a say in the policies behind your orders. You didn’t get to pick your weapon, the color of your uniform or the company you kept among your brothers and sisters…but you spoke the words. You took your oath. You said to God, or yourself, or to the invisible universe around you, that you offer any payment required, up to and including your life, to defend the people and the principles the Constitution enshrouds.

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…

U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Michael Hurndon pays his final respects during a Fallen Warrior ceremony at Camp Phoenix, Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 18, 2009. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Senior Chief Kevin Elliott)

After the words were said, your brothers and sisters became your life. The man or woman to your right, the man or woman to your left. They said the words too…that makes them family.

The politics of war are never the soldier’s to question. And though you complained mightily about those above you who seemed to know nothing of what they asked, when the brother to the right, or the sister to the left fell, you would rush into the hail of metal to be by their side…because they said the words too.

No matter how small a role, no matter how scared you were, or even the mistakes you made, you fell paying the debt you took with those words. You left behind brothers and sisters who will remember you always, fondly, kindly, with love only those who have said those words can know.

You fell, and we didn’t. You paid for your promise and ours, with flesh, blood and breath. You are the best of us, even if we complained about you while you breathed. Even if we fought, even if we…you are the best of us because you paid for your words and ours. Rest brother. Rest sister. You’ve earned your peace.

Rest. You are remembered.


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