The following passage illustrates the all-too-common experience of serviceman and women, as well as their loved ones, in discovering and dealing with the tragic loss that is so commonplace in today’s climate of perpetual military conflict and war. Excerpted with permission from "All the Ways We Kill and Die: A Portrait of Modern War" by Brian Castner. Copyright 2018 by Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or Indiebound.
I had been an Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, a leader in the military’s bomb squad. We call it a brotherhood, and there are so few of us we’re all connected by only one or two degrees of separation. The brotherhood is a mindset, an affection, a burden, a bond that endures long after the crucible of EOD school and deployments around the world are over. It’s the covenant we keep with those in the ground, our responsibility to those hobbled before their time, the standard by which I secretly measure everyone I meet.
In EOD, our job is to make bombs safe. Sometimes we can disarm the device before it goes off. Too often, though, the bomb works as designed, and we’re left picking up the pieces, human and mechanical, to figure out what happened. Collecting the forensic evidence, recreating the scene, imagining the attacker’s intentions, noting the effect of each munition on the human body. This is all fundamental to how we are trained to think.
War can be random; you can die from bad luck, wrong place at the wrong time. But other times they pick you out of the crowd, and it’s intentional and premeditated. If it weren’t a war, we’d call that murder.
My story, and the story of so many EOD officers, can be summed up as: All the ways we die, and nearly die, and who and how we kill in response.
* * *
In January, 2012, a western mountain warm spell had stolen the modest Christmas snows, and the home of Matthew and Jennifer Schwartz sat among bare trees and dying grass, a pale house on a brown lawn.
The house was nearly empty. The girls were off at school. Jesus and his radiant Sacred Heart stared from the living room wall at a blank television and forgotten couch. Duke the chocolate Lab slept at the foot of the stairs. The only sound in the empty house was the mechanical hum of the treadmill and the regular beat of a runner’s footfalls.
The house was often empty. A new pickup truck and trailer filled the driveway, camping equipment filled the garage, dirty dishes filled the sink, Duke shuffled and huffed about the backyard, the three girls laughed and sang songs, but Matt was gone, always gone, and the hole remained. A toothbrush here, a T-shirt there, the small reminders of him were strewn about the house like so many pretty gold rings, and she but the amputated stump of a hand with no fingers.
That morning Jenny was finishing another long run on her treadmill. She had discovered running on Matt’s second tour. At the start of his deployments, she ran four or six miles. Now that he had been gone three months, she was up to ten and barely out of breath.
Jenny had learned long ago not to pine by the phone; it only made the hours crawl. But she had also learned to save the last recording on the answering machine, not to delete the last email. Matt had been out on a long-distance patrol for over a week, and had managed only a quick and broken sat phone call. So more than anything, it was a last email that kept tumbling through her head. It bothered her that it read like a last email. Heavy zippered sweatshirts in the dryer, tumble, tumble, the email always in the back of her mind as she ran.
Jenny was soaked when she got off the treadmill, dripping the sweaty, unwashed funk that comes from not having showered since, well, who keeps track of these things when your husband is gone and the girls need you? She paced and began her stretching routine, and the doorbell rang. Under no circumstances would she ever answer the door smelling like she did, but she did look out the window.
She saw a sea of uniform blue hats stark against the dry Wyoming prairie.
If I don’t answer the door, she thought, he’s not dead. He’s not dead yet.
The doorbell rang again. Perhaps a third time. They weren’t leaving.
Jenny disconnected her mind and entered a dream. She felt herself drifting across the floor as her feet, under their own programming and direction, moved her body to the door.
“Ma’am, are you Mrs. Jennifer Schwartz?”
Yes, the empty body answered.
“Ma’am, on behalf of the United States government, we regret to inform you that your husband has been killed in action in Afghanistan.”
* * *
That January evening, soon after the New Year, when darkness comes early to New York State’s northern tier and the chill clamps tight, I finished a walk in my woods and shed my snowshoes at the back door to find my wife curled up under a knitted blanket on the couch, nestled in front of the Christmas tree as one would sit before a fire, a still twinkling in an otherwise unlit room.
The kids busied themselves with an embarrassment of new toys, recent Christmas gifts from all members of the family. A pile of papers, my wife’s half-edited PhD dissertation, lay abandoned next to her in this, her favorite of post-holiday spots; Jessie’s efforts to work were stymied by the softness of the seat and the comfort of the blanket, the pleasant glow from so many small white lights and the snow outside. I kissed her and snuggled in and felt the warmth from her back and neck and no one had tried to kill me in five years.
We sat together on the couch, and I pulled out my phone, an unconscious habit. My thumb moved through various Facebook status updates, past children at Disney World, a four-year-old’s birthday party, a new hairstyle and car, political memes like modern prayer cards. I checked on Dan Fye, who had lost a leg half a year earlier and was struggling through rehab with a halo of pins and screws erupting from joints. I checked on Evil, to see if he had time to update while flying out of Bagram. I checked on three dozen other friends, brothers really, closer than any friends, who were in Afghanistan, about to leave for Afghanistan, just back from another tour. Jessie asked me what I was looking at, and I lied and said, “Nothing,” as she stared at the tree in peace.
I was thumbing through my phone, my wife’s head across my chest, my children distantly playing some electronic game in the basement, when it happened. No telegram arrived. The phone did not ring. There was no knock on the front door. The tiny screen on my phone simply flickered as I scrolled to more recent updates.
First, a more distant acquaintance changed his Facebook profile photo. His smiling suntanned face became the bomb squad’s ordnance-and-lightning badge with a thick black band across it, the universal symbol for mourning. Someone had died. Then a second friend changed his photo as well. Someone had died recently, or at least, the news was only now getting out.
So I started over, reviewed when everyone in Afghanistan had last checked in. It was an exercise in frustration. For some it had been weeks; when on patrol in the mountains, a civilian Internet connection was hard to find. I checked the updates of those who normally announce bad news, but there was silence from the Chiefs and commanders. As a last resort, I rechecked the wife network, for offers of vague support and prayers. Nothing from Amanda, but her husband was still recovering from his gunshot wound. Nothing from Monica and Aleesha. Jenny had been silent for hours, which was unlike her, and her husband Matt was deployed. Had he called and told her who it was?
Then a new status update popped up. “Fuck you Afghanistan.”
This was from Pinkham, a much closer friend. My chest clenched. A choke collar around my neck tightened.
Then immediately a direct message to me, from one of the few female techs I served with, Angela Olguin: “I assume u r in the know?”
No, I wanted to shout, I was not in the know. The crossover potential between Pinkham and Angela was small. We had all been assigned to the same unit in New Mexico, a small company of sixteen. Who was there? Kermit, already killed in Iraq. Bill Hailer, retired. Dee, retired. Garet, in Japan. Beau, shot and home. Hamski, already killed. Pinkham, Angela. Matthew Schwartz, who was deployed. Wes Leaverton, was he deployed? Laz? I thought he was in Guam. Piontek, no he got out. Burns too. Who else?
I grew agitated and fidgety, broke the Christmas tree spell.
“What is it?” asked Jessica as she sat up, wary, defensive, holding the blanket to her chin.
“We, we lost someone,” I fumbled.
“Please don’t let it be Matt,” my wife pleaded.
Why Matt? Why did she say Matt?
As fast as my fingers and thumbs could work, I messaged back to Angela: “No, fuck, what happened?”
My mind raced. Who was it? Who’s the worst it could be? Imagine him or her, imagine the worst outcome, and then whoever it is will be a relief.
In our job, we knew there would be casualties. Well, not at first, not when Afghanistan started. But eventually we grew to understand that while our vocation had provided a new family of brothers and sisters, it did so on the condition that too often they would die young. We had all by now learned how to lose acquaintances, a guy you had trained with, a guy you met once on a range clearance or Secret Service mission, a guy whose face appeared in every group photo.
But in time most of us developed a list, buried in the subconscious until moments like these. Five or ten names. The guys you can’t lose. The guys that have to make it back. It is a bargain with Satan. If I have to lose brothers, you tell yourself, I can bear it all as long as you spare these few. Matt and Josh and Phillips and don’t make me say them all. Please, just don’t take this small list that I am hiding in a place I am terrified to look.
Why did Jessie say Matt? Why did she have to say his name out loud?
I sat and shook and repeated my names like a mantra, and Jessie clutched the blanket, and I stared at my phone until it rang not ten seconds later. It was Angela.
“Matt died this morning,” she sobbed.
I nodded my head to Jessie. Her face broke into a thousand pieces, and she collapsed on the floor in front of the glowing Christmas tree.
* * *
There are so many ways to die, and right away, from the first moment, I wanted to know how Matt died, every last detail. It’s a basic human response magnified by my professional calling. It was January of 2012. We thought Iraq was over, but Afghanistan was still bloody, and Matt was just the latest in a terrible string of killed and crippled. Fifteen of my fellow EOD brothers had died in the previous twelve months, a killed-in-action rate of 5 percent, over ten times the average for American soldiers at the time. The year before that had been even worse, and I had lost track of the number of amputees created. For a while there, it seemed like every few days you heard someone lost a leg.
Some of us slip through the war unscathed, and some are lost to it, and some step up to the brink and then are pulled back from the abyss.