I got an email from Afghanistan yesterday. After his first few tours of service as an Army Ranger in his twenties, Phil tried civilian life. He got a job and tried to decompress; that’s how we met. He wrote an amazing first novel in his spare time, he found true love, but none of this could muffle the call of duty. Now an officer in his mid-thirties, he is back leading others in the most dangerous forward unit he could find.
I was once an accomplice in a bird killing. Armed with a new 22, my brother and I went hunting. He shot it right off a branch. It fell into the thick underbrush. As we looked for a new target I could hear it flopping around in the dry leaves. It wouldn’t stop. We hacked our way through the saplings and stickers toward the rustling sound. Once we got close, the wounded bird froze instinctively. Silence. I studied every inch of the forest floor trying to detect the slightest movement. There it was, brown and white, bloody but still breathing. It was a beautiful little bird and I started to cry. Without a word, we both knew what we had to do. I can’t remember how many times we had to shoot, to put it out of the misery we had caused, but it remains one of my worst childhood memories. Shot after shot, after shot, until it was still. The gun went into our closet and was never fired again. I do not have a warrior’s heart.
When I was drafted during Vietnam, I knew I was in trouble. Though I didn’t believe in that war I had no opposition to serving or dying for my country. To me, killing for it was another matter.
“But what if it’s them or you?” my friends would argue.
“Then I’d be dead,” I responded with total conviction.
I wrote my Draft Board a nice, sincere, naive letter explaining that I would be happy to cook, or clean, or carry the wounded, or haul ammunition for others. But I knew that when the time came, I could not be counted on to kill people. A few weeks later I opened their letter in response. “Fine, you’re a non-combatant, welcome to the Army, son.” Shortly after my induction testing and a fun-filled physical with a few hundred draftees, they ended the draft and I was never called. Never tested.
The generals all know, what I did not at the time. Nobody kills for their country, they kill to protect the friend next to them. In the years after he came home, Phil’s list of buddies being killed never stopped. When he came to say goodbye before shipping back out, he smiled and said, “Do me a favor, don’t tell me to be safe. Nothing about war is about being safe. It’s about killing as many of the enemy as you can. That’s what I’m going there to do.”
I shook his hand and said, “Thank you for killing our enemies, Phil.”
He smiled and was off. That is a warrior’s heart. I still pray for his safety. So far, so good.