Highlands, North Carolina

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Things happen when you go camping.

Forty-four hundred feet above sea level. We’re sitting in comfortable plastic and aluminum chairs next to a rushing stream in a magnolia forest. Winter is coming on, the temperature mild and the fresh air mixed with our camp smoke are incredibly aromatic. They are smells I thrive on. This sun is starting to dip, and a gentle breeze is coming across the ridges all around us. Kimber, Low, Simmons, and me. We’re old men now, the only ones left from the time over there.

Baghdad. We spent a year together, in the way back. A year in which the sound of things exploding seemed more common to me then gunfire, which I don’t tend to think of as an explosion, but more of a controlled detonation. Although I have to admit, a lot of the trigger fingers in Baghdad weren’t starting controlled explosions during that year. More like panicked ones.

I think all of us knew, somehow, that this would be the last trip to Highlands. We’re old now, and we want our comfort. Plus. What happened.

Kimber was the first sergeant. Low, Simmons and me were one section in his public affairs team. Our job, reporting on the war from inside the war. I suppose it was important. But it was also a heaping helping of bullshit. We weren’t reporting from an unbiased perspective. We were mouthpieces for men who loved metrics and spin. You know the type, I’m sure. They act as talking heads on the boob tube daily, even though all that shit happens in holovision now. War isn’t the same when you’re projected right into the middle of it. It’s harder for those power mongering fucks to start wars these days. An invasion in holovision, well, you can’t control the footage that gets out of a war like that, and it shakes people up a lot more than what they got to hear and see back in 2005. I had a fucking panic attack for the first time in 20 years the first time I watchedDark Descends on Baghdad in holo. Fuck, that brought it back.

Mortar attack, Christmas, twenty o’ five. I ran for my life. Ran like I never had before in all that rattletrap bullshit gear they gave me to wear. Wished I wasn’t wearing anything but some track shoes. The ones who weren’t wearing body armor made it into the bunker precious seconds ahead of me. That fucking war movie sent me right back into the moment. Whooooop. The sound of  a mortar coming in is something you never forget after the first one lands near you. Your brain trains itself to get running the instant that whooooop starts. Cause you know more of them are coming behind and you better be inside a concrete structure quick.

I was proud when the IVAW got that Pentagon rule about showing wounded and dead troops rescinded. People need to see what the ones in charge are responsible for. On all sides of any given argument or dispute. I believed it then, and I still believe it now. It gets a lot hard to make bad decisions when the results are right there in your living room, in full holo. Those nicer units give you the smells too, and believe you me, the smells of war will make a protestor out of you. I think the Chinese incursion of 2030 had a lot to do with that policy being rescinded too, while I’m rambling. Alaska being renamed New Hainan kind of shook things up and made us take a step back when it came to being the world’s loudest blowhards.

Kimber is a human piece of shit. We’ve been doing this trip once or twice a year since we got back alive in 2005. This is the first time Kimber made it. Why?

We all hate him. Plus, he’s been incarcerated until recently, so even if we’d gone crazy and asked him to come along, he wouldn’t have been able. Couple years after the unit got back from the sandbox he got arrested for touching his stepdaughter.

No one was surprised except Kimber. Fifty shades of self-delusion and an untouchables complex that stood a foot taller than he did. This guy. Kimber. What a bull necked, hard-headed, misogynistic, crude loudmouth. Or just bully for short. Big guy. Of the kind that goes sorta soft around 30. Fat rolls around all the vitals. Running up into the neck. Enough size and muscle to push the medium size guys around still, but would go down hard if a real brawler showed up. Kimber was a real pro when it came to using verbal threats and cajoling to get things done.

He used to trade favors over there. “Hey,” he’d say, “I’ll get my guys to write a story about you, a real good one, that you can send to the fam back home. You get me some better meals.” Shit like that. He wrote himself up for a bronze star at the end of our year. It got approved. You know, connections. Fucker stayed under cover in a fortified parking garage the whole time we were there, but the commendation didn’t mention that. Bronze stars are supposed to be for folks who actually take risks and achieve something that means something. The first sergeant didn’t take any risks, and he sure as shit didn’t achieve a damn thing unless it somehow made him more comfortable or forwarded his career somehow. He spent all his time handing danger out to us, and he enjoyed the hell out of it. One week it was a story in Mosul, the next in Mamudiya. We’d come back in one piece somehow, and have to listen to his endless critiques about our shortcomings as war reporters. He liked to use massive, ripping farts as punctuation marks for the creative verbal beatdowns that flowed unceasingly out of his mouth along with foul smelling breath.

He liked to touch us inappropriately, pretending he was some sort of crossbred father/teacher/wiseman, and that he was only telling us how much we sucked because he wanted to make us better at what we did. Bop in, put an arm around your shoulder all friendly like, and start talking in a low conspiratorial voice about whatever his latest great idea to fuck us all over happened to be. By the end of our year in hell with him as the main decision maker, I lost count of how many times I’d fantasized about shooting him in the back of the head just to shut him up.

There was one guy, Escridida, who was from Guam or somewhere, I can’t remember for sure, and had a hard to understand accent. Short little guy who talked really fast and got nervous often, which made him screw up the simplest tasks. Escridida made it through the year in Baghdad. He ate a bullet about three months later. I’ve always believed it had something to do with the fact that Kimber spent a year riding his ass and mocking his accent. Truth be told, the guy was hard to understand, but none of us are perfect, and most of us don’t need someone riding our ass about it 24/7. Kimber and Escridida were only one rank apart, but Kimber treated that poor guy like he was a private. Fucking asshole.

He was more than a standard issue fucking asshole though. He drew energy from the simple pleasure of making everyone under his control as miserable as possible. How we all got through those missions he sent us on for a year unscathed is something I still wrestle with. Touch of survivor’s guilt. I’m pretty sure of that. We weren’t really unscathed. More like the scars just weren’t visible. They were there, and lots of things would make them scream. The scars he put on us were up in our grey matter. Most people don’t jump under a table in a restaurant when the server drops a plate and it shatters. I’ve been doing that for a couple of decades.

Kimber found Jesus when he got pinched for touching little girls. He served 27 on a 30-year sentence. It happened about three years after we got home. While he sat in jail talking to Jesus, Low and I went to the VA for counseling and to get some of the road wear looked at. I ended up on the middle of that scale they use to calculate just how fucked up you are from going to war. Only fifty percent fucked up. Yeah, that’s me. I get a little extra paycheck at the end of every month, and have been for a good long while.

You might be wondering why the three of us were sitting around that little campfire with a guy each of us hated with a passion. I was too, back on that night. Kimber always was a good cajoler and convincer. Even though we hated him, I gotta admit he’s a good talker. He told us that he wanted to talk about Baghdad and make some amends. You know, like those AA guys are supposed to do. Apologies won’t do much for Escridida, was what I was thinking, but Low and Simmons wanted to hear him out, so I grudgingly said yes, he could come along and have a heart to heart if that’s what they wanted.

Anyhow, he made his apology, while we were all sipping on some Jim Beam. It didn’t sit right with me, mostly because of the way he kicked it off. Nothing he did really ever sat right with me. I gotta admit that. Don’t start an apology by telling someone that you’re not guilty. Don’t tell three people you put through hell that you didn’t touch little girls, that it was just she made the story up because she got in trouble. I’ve heard enough of his horse shit to know when he’s lying, and when’s he twisting up reality. Plus, while I didn’t attend the trial, I read the court transcripts. He was guilty as shit, and he’d been doing it a good long while. He messed both of their heads up, bad.

I let him finish telling the three of us what Jesus did to make him a better man, and how sorry he was about the way he treated us back in Baghdad. I only asked him one thing.

“Did you send us on missions out of the wire just to get in good with people?”

He lied and said no, that all those missions, especially the hot ones, came from the major. It disgusted me. I’m not sure quite how to put how gross the man made me feel inside into words. I’d heard him plotting through the thin trailer walls on phone calls more than once. He sent Pincher to Fallujah for a week just so he could get on some pogue run to the biggest PX in the city, and buy who the hell knows what. Probably some goddamn Xbox game. Pincher came back different. Fallujah was real hot back then. Lots of stuff flying around. Pincher saw things people really aren’t supposed to see. He told me one of them. About the wounded enemy laying in the street. What it sounded like when the Abrams ran over his head and it went pop. Pincher told me about what the brains felt like running down the inside of his uniform collar. And how the pulp went real far and got on everything.

There was no plan. I’d swear to that. Not that night. I got up and said, “who needs a refill?” I was thinking about Jim Beam. Everybody held their cups out. I went around the circle and filled. Kimber was the last one. When he leaned back to take a nip, he smacked his lips and something broke. Suddenly, I wasn’t thinking.

When I looked down, I realized that I’d put my Benchmade into his gut. That Benchmade has got me out of some shit over the last 30 years. Kimber looked down and dropped his plastic cup. A waste of good alcohol, if you ask me.

First, I didn’t feel anything at all. Then, I felt the need to get my knife back. It’s expensive, and well made, and I am never without it. I pulled it out real hard so it wouldn’t hang up on anything. The back is serrated. Kimber, even though he’d shrunk an inch or two from getting old, was still way bigger than I ever hoped to be. He tried to grab me. I just put one arm on his face and pushed.

That’s what another thing I wasn’t expecting happened. Low and Simmons put their knives in him too. They went for the neck. He bled out in maybe a little less than a minute. Couldn’t talk. He was trying, but nothing came out except some air, and a lot of blood. You cut on either side like that, and it’s over quick. It was done, and we just looked at each other when he fell backwards into the camp chair with his mouth open in a way that felt obscene to me.

We dragged him a good half-mile, dug a hole, dumped him in. I told Jesus how sorry Kimber was for all the wrong he’d done. We burned the camp chair because it was easier than trying to clean all his blood off.

It’s been about a year since that night, and I just had to write down what happened. It’s what I do. No one ever came looking for him. I don’t think anyone cared enough to do that. The three of us have never discussed what happened, and we never will.

I don’t know if this story has any lesson in it, but every word of it’s the truth and I needed to write it down. I still have a conscience. Somewhere deep, it’s telling me that maybe what we did needs the light of day. I slept good in my tent that night though. Better than I had since 2005. My night terrors and the teeth grinding rarely pay a visit now.

Sometimes the wrong things die, and sometimes they don’t. I’m just a guy who tells stories. I’ll let you sort out which kind are what.

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