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Expanded from Esquire, August 2002


Company C

March 2 to March 3

 Imagine this.  Imagine you’re a country doctor up in the Adirondacks, and your first patient today is your brother.  “I have this cough,” he reports, and the X-ray reveals he has lung cancer, clearly terminal.  Bad enough, but your second patient today is your sister, and the Pap test shows terminal cervical cancer.  And knock, knock, knock on your door come your beloved brothers, sisters, at least close cousins, come all morning, afternoon, evening, come in the throes some dreadful disease—imagine it, I ask you.  Imagination aside, no doctor in the Adirondacks (or anywhere else in America) has had the unbearable heartache such a cortege would occasion, but in the American infantry lots of medics have had it.  In combat, when they hear a cry of “Medic!” “Corpsman!” or “Doc!” an hysterical cry that like “Help!” “Man overboard!” or “Fire!” pounces on everyone’s senses like a Doberman pincher, generating adrenaline, dilating carotid arteries, pounding on everyone’s heart like the kettledrums in Day of Wrath, by Berlioz, when they hear a cry of “Medic!” “Corpsman!” or “Doc!” it comes from one of their buddies, someone they’ve lived with, trained with, partied with, someone they love as they love their blood brothers. 

Near the Adirondacks stands the Tenth Mountain Division.  In one platoon of one company of one battalion of one brigade, the one and only medic is a 21-year-old from Ellenville, near the Catskills: is Specialist Eddie Rivera.  One day in September, two airplanes hit the World Trade Center, and Rivera watches the TV incredulously, his fingers against his forehead, my head’s still here, my head’s still here, no, I’m not dreaming this, as the two towers collapse, as two towers of ashes supplant them, as ash-plastered people run from the great catastrophe.  “An attack on America ,” the TV announcer calls it, and Rivera at once phones the girl he fell deeply in love with in medic (not medical) school and, with prescience, tells her, “I may have to go somewhere.” 


Unpromising.  That’s what Rivera was until three years ago.  His parents both Puerto Ricans, his skin olive-colored, his hair curly black, his brows black too, his mustache a thin black streak that at one end broke up into shapeless bristles, he usually was a no-show at Ellenville High.  At six every day, his mother went to work making knives, and Rivera (an hour later) called up his friends and said, “I ain’ goin’ to school today.  You shouldn’t either, come over here.”  If the truant officer didn’t come too, Rivera and a half-dozen friends would party, drink Bacardi, listen to rappers, and on TV play video games as their cheerless peers sat in Accounting, studying double entries.  The parties sometimes continued past four, past Rivera’s mother’s return, Rivera’s mother saying in Spanish, “ˇNo tiene tiempo para eso!” “You don’t have time for this!” 

“Don’t worry about her,” Rivera would reassure his fellow revelers. 

But one day Rivera was partied out and, still hung over, showed up at Ellenville High.  “You’re late,” the Accounting teacher said. 

“So what?  I’m always late.” 

“We’re taking a test today.” 

“Oh no.”  The test being handed him, the very first question stumped him.  Rivera took out his text­book, raised his hand, and said, “What page is it on?” 

The whole class laughed, but the teacher didn’t.  “You can’t ask me!  You can’t look it up!” the teacher cried.  “Ten points off!” and the class laughed again.  Went hahaha, its teeth almost biting at Rivera. 

Now, Rivera liked being laughed with not at.  At his parties, he liked putting tabasco in some sleeping reveler’s mouth, and at school he liked saying, “I’m always late.”  He liked being class clown but not class knucklehead, and he stopped playing hooky, made up his classes, graduated, and joined the American army.

At medic school in Texas he smelled a few aromas absent in basic in Georgia, aromas like Bath & Body Works.  They came from the women soldiers—women soldiers—who barracked upstairs of him and did their exercises beside him, the panty lines pressing against their shorts.  He soon went so steady with one, the sergeants discovered her field blanket in his rucksack and his rivera camouflage shirt upon her.  The sergeants called them Mr. and Mrs. Rivera and said, “You two like being together?  All right, go down together,” meaning drop to the ground and do twenty pushups together.  A runner-up to Miss Teen San Francisco, Krystal was black, round-faced, long-haired, a girl whose smile melted artillery pieces, and Rivera yearned to spend every day of his life with her.  From medic school, Rivera went to the camp near the Adirondacks and Krystal (an army reservist) went to a college nearby, and it’s she who on Tuesday, September 11, Rivera tells presciently, “I may have to go somewhere.” 

“I’ll wait for you, I promise,” Krystal says.


He and his whole platoon, company, battalion don’t go to Afghanistan, not yet.  A nameless country in Asia is where they’re deployed, nameless because it’s a deep dark secret that the American army’s here.  As rich as this nation is in Asian relics, golden temples, marble mosaics, intricate filigrees, turquoise cupolas, towers, all the marvels of Xanadu, the soldiers immured in their secret camp are of necessity bored, bored, bored.  All there’s to do is play spades, crazy eights, and Scrabble (“Let’s play go-fish,” a soldier proposes one day) and eat the Combos: the chocolate, chipolte, or chili-crusted pretzels from the PX.  Never did they salute officers back at the Adirondacks , but they must crisply salute them here in—no, I’ll never say, but the name embraces every letter of the word stink.  So despondent is one lonely soldier that he shoots his brains out and (“Medic!”) becomes Rivera’s first case.  “Breathe, breathe,” incants Rivera.  “You’re all right, buddy, breathe,” he conjures, his Ringer’s solution dripping into the soldier’s corpse.  Rivera becomes despondent too.  He walks around like an abandoned dog, his head hanging down.  He broods that Krystal will slough him off, and, either to precipitate this or forestall it, he phones her and says, “I know you miss me—” 

“I do.  I miss hanging out with you.  I miss cooking dinner for you.  I miss kissing you, and I miss laying with you.”

“But Krystal.  I know you’re crying.  I know you’re going through heartache.  I want to make people happy, not sad.  I want people telling you, ‘Gee, you look happy!’  If you’re unhappy, then I’m unhappy too.  I don’t know when I’m coming home.  Just leave me, Krystal.  Go with some other friend.  Do what you want to, and have a good time doing it.” 

“Stop talking crazy,” says Krystal, and Rivera can see her right index finger shaking at him in Asia , eight thousand miles away.  “I want many things, you’re right.  But for them all I want you.” 

And hanging up, Rivera thinks, Thank God for Krystal.  As soon as I’m home, I’ll put a ring on her finger.  Then people can see how I love her.  But home isn’t where the sergeant says that Rivera’s assigned.  “We got another mission,” the sergeant says as Rivera’s hands curtain his eyes, No, I don’t want to believe it.  He flies by cargo plane to a camp in Afghanistan, then by Chinook (a long green helicopter, one rotor fore, one rotor aft) to what’s about to be America’s bloodiest battle since Somalia, a decade ago.  His “aid bag” between his shoulders, he flies by this giant helicopter to Operation Anaconda. 


His aid bag...More