A Light in Dark Places

… But such is the irresistible nature of truth:
that all it asks for—and all it wants—is the liberty of appearing.
          —Thomas Paine

September, 2007

Fallujah, Iraq

 

We assembled in the courtyard of the house we commandeered in the southern part of the city. We checked our equipment one last time as the corporal went over the plan for today’s patrol. He instructed us about the purpose of today’s mission, which was the same as it was every day: to ensure the security of Shuhada District and to enforce our presence in the city. He reviewed protocol in how we should respond to threats on the streets, how we would give approachers every chance to stop and turn away before we fired on them. The rules of engagement had changed for this war.

 

We each chambered a round in our weapons and filed out onto the street, where we staged ourselves into our staggered double-column formation. We exited the compound with nine men. In the front were the two point-men with standard M16A4 rifles. Next came the machine-gunner with 600 rounds of spare ammunition, paired with another rifleman. Next came the squad leader alongside the radio operator with a machine like a cinder block and a tent-pole antenna, halfway folded to avoid low-hanging power lines. I came in the third rank beside another rifleman, followed by two more Marines to cover the rear. With us somewhere in the ranks was our interpreter, a local national who called himself Joey.

 

We patrolled the city in this formation, moving furtively from one checkpoint to the next, stopping to report on one Iraqi Police control point after another. We visited sheiks and community leaders, businesses and known intelligence sources. In our desert-tan uniforms, flak jackets, and Kevlar helmets, we patrolled the streets like we owned them, prepared to strike down anyone who would dare to threaten us. Mysterious women glanced at us through their veils and children crowded us to beg for candy—Mister! Give me shokolata!—and they would hold out their hands.

 

As we worked our way through a dusty brick-filled alleyway to cross the busy street beyond, I heard a single rifle shot and I ducked for cover behind a low pile of dusty bricks. All around me, Marines took hasty positions and looked around.

 

The corporal ran into the street where the point-men were taking up position. As panic and screams began to fill the air, he turned to me and stoically called out, “Doc.”

 

I sprang to my feet, with my rifle in my hands and a medic satchel at my side, ready to prove myself and put a year’s worth of medical training to use, and ran to him. Shop owners stood paralyzed at their kiosks of lamb meat and milk jugs full of gasoline.

 

“Go see if anyone over there needs help.” He sent Joey with me to a bus that was stopped in the street some fifty meters away.

 

I stepped in and found broken glass, screaming children, and blood, but nobody apparently hurt. Joey urgently spoke to the driver and he responded by pointing to the back.

 

We found what we were looking for in an Iraqi Police car behind the bus. The passenger door was open and a policeman sat there with a bleeding child in his lap.

 

I laid down my rifle and took her in my arms. She was wearing blue polyester coveralls over a white blouse: a school uniform. Her face was locked in an expression of shock, pain and horror. Her entire left side was soaked in bright pink arterial blood. (Blood comes in two colors: dark red and bright pink; the oxygen-deprived red comes from veins, while the oxygen-rich pink comes from arteries.) Her arm was cold and heavy from internal hemorrhaging and when I placed my fingers on her neck, I felt no pulse. I ripped her shirt open and found a small entry wound with the bone of her shoulder clearly visible. I slipped my hand behind her shoulder but my fingers could find no exit wound, although I knew there to be one for all the blood that was spilling everywhere. It was all over my gloves, my rifle, my flak jacket, and my boots. The 5.56mm NATO round is notorious for its small weight and enormous velocity, designed to ricochet when it hits bone and cause unpredictable internal damage.

 

In the movies, the hero never dies from a gunshot wound to the shoulder, but this boney eight-year-old girl did. She was shot by a United States Marine on her way to school. I allowed the policemen to take her away to the nearest Iraqi hospital and they sped off in that car.

 

After a brief moment of mayhem, the corporal rounded us up and we scurried back to the compound. We debriefed in the courtyard and I went out again with the next patrol and returned to the scene.

 

We stood like idiots outside the home of the dead girl, heard the wailings from inside. The sergeant went around making apologies and promises before we finally returned again to the compound.

 

The battalion commander visited us that day, as well as the chaplain and a JAG officer who interviewed each of us and took a statement from everyone who was involved. They took the shooter away and he remained “under investigation” for a few months, sitting in the rear at one of Saddam’s epic palaces, eating three hot meals per day while the colonel figured out what to do with him. His story corroborated with everyone else’s—that he was simply trying to protect the squad by firing a “warning” shot that by some horrible chance went through the center of the windshield. When asked if he had followed all the steps in the escalation of force continuum, well, of course he had. The school bus driver had apparently not noticed that some camouflaged men were stepping out into the road fifty meters ahead. If they had tried to signal him to stop with flags and flares (no flare was ever fired), then he did not see any of it.

 

He was eventually returned to us, absolved of all charges. In fact, he never even took any blame from the platoon. (He is now a police officer in whatever state he came from.) According to them, all the fault was my own, the corpsman who couldn’t save the victim of a simple gunshot wound, not the maniac who pulled the trigger. And for many years I blamed myself.

 

No front-line journalist came to report this story. The death of Aia Khaleed is apparently not documented in any military record outside the dark secrets of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Her name will be forgotten unless her story is told.

 

As my perspective broadened, this great unspeakable truth began to grow in my mind so much that I could no longer ignore it: incidents such as this happen in war zones all the time, and our own military is not innocent, but they must be accountable. When I finished my enlistment, I went to college with dreams of medical school. But the gods of Academia decided otherwise, so I put down the needle and took up the pen. It falls to me to give voice to the voiceless victims of injustice.

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