The One Percent – by Rosa Meronek
Blood covers my hands. It slides between my fingers. It’s never quite like how it looks in the movies. A unique red – not bright, not dark, but both. A unique smell too – metallic. Like iron – but not.
I should be used to it.
I take a deep breath then look around on the floor of the vehicle. A bone fragment in the corner catches my attention. I pick it up and hold it in my gloved fingers, rubbing my thumb across the surface. Probably skull. I usually see skull pieces. I place the fragment in the small plastic bag that holds the other pieces.
“How’s it going in here, Sergeant?”
I glance up to look at my First Sergeant, standing by the front door of the armored vehicle. “Almost done, First Sergeant. Vehicle’s been stripped. Just need to finish up the cleaning.”
He nods. “Good. Get a hold of the other unit’s First Sergeant to inspect and collect. How’s your team doing?”
I glance out the back of the vehicle at my four soldiers – quietly rinsing blood-soaked rags and dumping buckets of bloody water. “They’re…okay, First Sergeant. But, we’ve had a lot of vehicles to sanitize. A lot of…bodies to process. I think it might be starting to get to them.”
He nods. “We have another vehicle coming in.”
I shake my head. “First Sergeant…my team is beat. And, they’re on mission tomorrow. Can the Bravo team take it?”
He shakes his head. “They’re on mission, and Staff Sergeant Miranda is on leave, so you’ll have to cover.” He pauses for a moment and looks me in the eyes. “It’s a burned one.”
I take a deep breath then give a slight nod.
He starts to turn then stops. “Give your troops tomorrow to recoup.”
I look at him in surprise. The day off? Deployed in the desert isn’t exactly a Monday through Friday 9 to 5. But, I’m not going to question it and risk losing my team their much-needed break.
His gaze drifts to the floor, his forehead creases, and a frown pulls at his mouth. “There’s something under there.” He points at the equipment rack beside me.
I bend down to look below the rack. A splash of blood covers a white paper square. I turn it over. It’s a picture of a young man in uniform. Early twenties. His arm is around a smiling young woman holding an infant. I swallow and take a breath. I glance up at my First Sergeant.
He nods. “Charlie Mike.” He turns and steps down.
Charlie Mike – Continue Mission. Of course. The mission comes first. “Roger that, Top.” I stare down at the picture in my hands. “Golden!”
“Yes, Sergeant?” A young female soldier walks up the ramp leading into the back of the MRAP. I hold out the picture to her. She takes it and stares down at it for a moment before turning to exit the vehicle.
She walks to a stack of personal items on the table against the far wall of the warehouse. Five separate piles on the table. Four small piles of identifiable personal items: pictures, phones, wallets, dog tags. One larger pile of items with no way of knowing to whom they belong: gloves, eye protection, cash, earplugs.
I don’t know the Soldier in the picture. None of us do. It’s done that way on purpose. Units don’t sanitize their own unit’s vehicles – not usually. It doesn’t make it easy, of course.
I sigh and glance around me to make sure there are no more personal effects, military equipment, bone fragments or…brain matter.
I climb out the back of the MRAP into the warehouse that serves as the vehicle sanitation area for our unit. This hot warehouse we have come to know far too well in far too short of a time.
“Jackson, it’s good to go,” I call out to one of the soldiers.
“Roger, Sergeant.” He walks to the back of the MRAP, pulling over a water hose. “Spraying!” he calls out as he puts on his eye protection and turns on the hose.
The rest of us back away as he sprays down the inside of the vehicle. Water and blood mix, flowing out onto the floor and into the drain.
I close my eyes
I take a deep breath.
I shake my head.
I look towards the other three soldiers of my Mortuary Affairs and Vehicle Sanitation team. They also stand motionless, watching the MRAP being sprayed down. Mesmerized by the dance of crimson water.
“Michaels,” I call to one of the female soldiers.
“Moving, Sergeant.” Across the warehouse, she pulls her gaze away from the vehicle and composes herself. She quickly walks over.
“Vehicle has been stripped, and all Army equipment has been wiped down and logged, Sarge. Personal property has also been catalogued.”
Specialist Jackson finishes spraying down the vehicle.
“Everybody on me,” I call out to the four of them. They line up in front of me. “At ease.” They move to position, their feet spread, their hands behind their backs. I take a deep breath. “Guys, there’s another vehicle coming in.”
Anger, sadness, exhaustion. The mix of emotions war on their faces.
I pause for a moment. “It’s a burned one.”
In their eyes, I see that they’re thinking of the last burned vehicle we had.
There was no blood. There were no bodies. A few fragments of bone. Mostly ash.
“Sorry, guys. Bravo team’s on mission. But, you guys can take tomorrow off.”
“But, Sarge, we’re all on mission tomorrow,” one of them says quietly.
I shake my head. “I’ll take care of it. I’ll talk to your squad leaders. This is coming straight from Top. Sleep in, go to the gym, or relax in your CHU. Go to the MWR and call your families. Let them know you’re okay.”
They nod, their eyes glancing at the MRAP behind me.
“For now, go get yourselves something to eat. If you hurry, you can still make it to the DFAC for chow. Get your heads clear, then be back here in two hours.” I release them, and they start to head for the doors. I walk over to the table of personal belongings.
“Sarge, you coming?” Golden calls back to me.
I shake my head without turning. My fingers brush the photograph on one of the small piles. “No, I gotta wait for Top and the other unit to clear this vehicle before the next one gets brought in. One of you grab me something, please.”
“This is fuckin’ bullshit!”
I turn around to look at Golden. The other soldiers also stare at her in surprise. The youngest and quietest of the team.
“You got something to say, soldier?” I ask, walking over to her.
“Sarge, this is fuckin’ bullshit. I mean, what the fuck are we doing here? Damn politicians don’t give a fuck about us. Over here getting killed!”
“Private First Class Golden.” I take a breath. “I know you’re angry. I know you all are. I am too. You think I don’t feel this?” I point at the MRAP. “These are our brothers and sisters in arms. You think this doesn’t piss me off?”
My soldiers look to the vehicle, water still dripping from it.
I shake my head. “There are shitbags out there in this shithole of a country who hate us. They want us dead, and they’re willing to strap IEDs to kids and sew them inside animals just to kill as many of us as they can.”
Their eyes are focused on me, their hands balled into fists.
I take a breath to calm down. “But, they are the exception. You cannot judge the whole by the actions of the few. There are many out there who want us here and appreciate us being here. And, yes, it sucks to be here. But, each of you decided to be part of the one percent of the American population to enlist. And, each of you decided to do it during a time of war. Knowing you would most likely deploy. Didn’t you?”
They nod in silence.
I sigh. “We all took an oath when we enlisted, and some of us again when we reenlisted to ‘obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me’, right? Now, you might disagree with those orders, but you will follow them.”
I look away from them to stare out a small window, the hot sun blinding me. “Look, just being deployed and running missions takes its toll. But, you guys volunteered to go a step further and picked up this extra duty. You all stepped up to do it for no other reason than knowing it had to be done.”
My voice drops to a barely audible whisper. “This is not an easy job.” I look back at them, my voice strengthening again. “So, if this is too much for you…if you need to be replaced on the team, there’s no shame in that.” I look from one to the other. “If you need to talk to someone, please do so. Talk to a battle buddy. Talk to the Chaplain, each other, me.”
Golden’s words are quiet. “We’re not weak, Sergeant.”
I look back at her. “Asking for help is not weakness.” I look at them individually to make sure they hear me as I repeat the words with emphasis. “Asking for help is not weakness.”
“Sarge,” someone calls from the table. I look over. The soldier from the picture is standing there in full battle gear, the right side of his helmet, face, and body bloodied and destroyed.
“NO!” I yell into the darkness as I sit up in bed. There’s no air. I can’t breathe. Tears fill my eyes, but I blink them back as I turn on the lamp on the bedside table. “Fuck.” I lay back in bed, trying to catch my breath. Fucking flashbacks.
Flashes of last night’s dream distract me from the Chaplain’s words as they echo through the room. The auditorium is full of uniformed men and women, standing with heads bowed.
“Amen,” I say and raise my head as he finishes. My gaze moves to the front of the auditorium. Downstage center is a pair of combat boots atop a small wooden box. An M4 rifle stands on end behind them with a combat helmet placed on top of the stock and ID tags hanging from the grip. Just in front of the box is a photograph. I stare at it as I hear a loud voice start the ceremony’s roll call.
“Private First Class Hayes!”
“Here, First Sergeant!”
“Here, First Sergeant!”
“Here, First Sergeant!”
“Specialist Sara Golden!”
“Specialist Sara L. Golden!”
A faint “Ready. Aim. Fire.” A loud crack of rifles. “Ready. Aim. Fire.” Another loud crack. “Ready. Aim. Fire.” The final shots ring out. A bugle starts to play the slow notes of “TAPS”.
I blink against the tears blurring my focus of the picture ahead. The young, smiling face of a new recruit freshly graduated from Basic Combat Training. The young, smiling face of someone who had never been to war. Never asked to “sanitize” a vehicle or “process the remains” of another person. My soldier. I had failed her.
I Left Face and move out of my row, following the procession of soldiers paying their respects. Right Face. The file moves forward. Right Face. A few more paces. As I wait, I stand at Attention but glance up at the stage towards the VIPs. A woman of about mid-forties is crying silently. An older man sits next to her, holding her hands. His gaze meets mine. He gives me an almost imperceptible nod.
I bring my gaze back in front of me to meet the eyes of the soldier from the procession across the aisle. We walk forward until we are face to face in front of the Battle Cross. Left Face. He mirrors in unison. We raise our right hands in a slow salute to the picture of my former soldier.
Specialist Sara Lily Golden.
From Chandler, Arizona.
Only twenty years old.
She dreamed of doing her time then using her GI bill to go to college and become a Veterinarian. Who joked about being a Vet Vet.
We slowly lower our hands. About Face. Up the center aisle towards the back of the auditorium and out the building.
I push open the doors and notice a group of soldiers. My soldiers.
“Hey, Sarge. Long time,” one says as I walk up and start shaking their hands.
“Yeah.” I look between the three of them. “How are you guys doing?”
“Been better, of course. But, alright,” one says. The others just nod.
“If you need anything, ANYTHING, you call me-” My voice cracks. I glance away at the cars starting to leave. I blink and swallow, taking a deep breath.
“Sarge, this ain’t your fault. You did everything you could when we got back. You made us all see the Chap. Even when you got your orders to Carson, you made sure to keep in touch. You couldn’t have known. She kept it to herself. Hell, we were here. We worked with her every day and didn’t know.”
I nod. I look at the rest of my former team. “How?”
“Pills. It was clean. We figure she didn’t want to make anyone have to clean up after her.”
“Yeah.” We stand in silence for what seems like an eternity. Finally, I break the silence. “When are you guys going back to the sandbox?”
“End of the year. You?”
“A couple months.” I laugh. “Third time’s a charm, right?” Again, we say nothing for too long. “I should pay my respects.”
I start to shake their hands in goodbye. I hold the last handshake. “ANYTHING. You CALL me.” I look him in the eye then look at the others in turn. I wait for them each to nod before I let go. Turning, I find Specialist Golden’s mother in the crowd and walk in her direction.
“Mrs. Golden, I don’t know if you remember me from the re-deployment ceremony last year. I’m-” I extend my hand to shake hers.
“I know who you are.” She doesn’t take my hand. “This is Sara’s grandfather.”
I look to the older man standing next to her. No longer inside the building, he has put on a “Vietnam Veteran” cap. I shake his hand and give him the slightest nod. I shift my attention back to Golden’s mother. “I’m so very sorry for your loss.”
“She said you were a hard-ass.” Her voice breaks on a choked sob.
“Oh.” I don’t know how to respond.
“Pushing her. She said you were a hard-ass…but that you cared. She really liked you.”
I half-smile. “She was an excellent soldier, Ma’am. Always maxed out her Physical Fitness test. Could ruck with the best of them. I’d put her up against any other soldier-” I take a deep breath. “There are just some things a person can’t un-see.” I glance to the grandfather. A familiar look of haunting shadows his eyes.
She starts to cry. “She just couldn’t take the nightmares anymore.”
Nightmares. She just couldn’t take the nightmares anymore. I make my way through the parking lot and see the Chaplain standing by his car. I give him the obligatory salute as I pass.
He returns the salute. “Sergeant.”
She just couldn’t take the nightmares anymore. My steps start to slow. Asking for help is not weakness. My words echo in my head. I stop. I glance down towards the long, thin scar – hidden by my watch strap. Asking for help is not weakness.
I take a deep breath, swallowing the rock in my throat, then turn around.
“Sir, you got a minute?”