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Anaconda (Continued)

His aid bag.  The little black bag an old-fashioned doctor carried from one to another bedroom isn’t Rivera’s impediment.  As big as an ottoman, inside it are scissors, needles, catheters, syringes, bags of Ringer’s solution, vials of Nubain—a synthetic narcotic—vials of EpiPen, Ketorolac, Rocephin and Xylocaine, bandages, dressings, cravats, and a few hundred yards of Kerlix gauzes and Ace wraps.  As if this weren’t enough, on the previous evening the chief medic stuffed it with many more needles, catheters, etcetera, until the bag weighed forty pounds and Rivera, carrying it, his rucksack, his sleeping bag, his helmet and bulletproof jacket—his aptly named interceptor—and his shotgun needed help to stand up.  At two in the morning, sitting on a steel runway waiting for the Chinooks, he griped to his fellow soldiers, “Who do I look like?  Hulk Hogan?”  He flexed his miniature biceps and said, “Do I look like I work out at Gold’s?  But look at this monster aid bag.  I feel there’s a child inside it.” 

At five in the morning came the Chinooks, and with someone’s heave-ho he stood up and got on.  By now it’s six and his helicopter still isn’t at Anaconda’s locale, ninety miles south of Kabul.  The helicopter’s at ten thousand feet, and Rivera stares out a rare window at snow-sided mountains and at—well, what? camels? gazelles? oryxes? yaks? at animals running down them and, in the valleys, at Afghan people outside their adobe homes.  A real nice place, thinks Rivera.  It’s sad what’ll happen here.  Hey Eddie, he corrects himself as his eardrums detect the Chinooks coming down.  Snap out of it! You’re not a tourist today!   In one corrugated valley, the helicopters land, the sergeants cry, “Get out, get out,” and after saying, “Help me up,” Rivera jumps onto the red-colored snow-covered mud.

It’s chilly outside.  The helicopters take off.  The plan is, up in the mountains are hundreds of Qaedas who our Afghan allies should rout and who the Americans in the valley should subsequently ambush.   But the first casualty of any war is the Plan.  In seconds, a boy in Rivera’s platoon cries, “I see somebody.”  He then cries, “He’s wearing black,” and Rivera, using binoculars, says, “Oh, I see somebody too,” a Qaeda, a scared civilian, an anthropomorphic oryx—what? running from left to right forty meters away.  To shoot him, is that what these soldiers should do?  No one has answered when the black-wearing apparition drops into a little hollow and ffft! ffft! starts shooting at the soldiers themselves.  Let’s light his ass up, Rivera thinks, but as soon as the whole platoon and (“Hooah!” the jubilant soldiers cry) two Apache helicopters, two cannon-shooting, rocket-shooting, missile-shooting helicopters try to light it, boom, near the platoon there falls a grenade, not a hand-propelled but a rocket-propelled grenade.  One, two, three kilometers away, high on a snow-sided mountain, unpurged by our Afghan allies, a Qaeda (a man who’s invisible but by inference is Qaeda) has shouldered something like a Bazooka, and the foot-long grenade inside it has fallen close to Rivera’s wards.  And within minutes from the same unassailable mountain there comes a mortar round, boom, and Rivera hears someone cry, “Doc!  Doc!  Doc!” 

 

No, not this soon, Rivera thinks, but he runs toward the “Doc”s while the boy who’s shouting them runs to Rivera.  In all this platoon, there’s no one who’s less of a brother to Rivera than this Private Horn.  Just after training, he joined the platoon in Afghanistan, and Rivera’s only encounter with him was “Hey, I’m your medic.  If anything’s wrong with you, tell me.”  Today there’s nothing terminal wrong with Horn.  A piece of the mortar round: a piece of the shrapnel grazed him, his shin started bleeding, his pants became bloody.  Off comes Rivera’s aid bag.  Out comes Rivera’s scissors.  Swiftly, Rivera cuts open the red-stained pants, looks at Horn’s minor wound, and says, “You’re all right.”  He swathes it in Kerlix and says, “How you feelin’?” 

“I’m good.”

“You’re lucky.”

“I’m ready to go.”

“Then go,” says Rivera with a big-brotherly slap on Horn’s other leg, and Horn returns to the uninterrupted battle. 

A battle it is.  To the platoon, from the distant mountain, the bullets, grenades, and mortar rounds come.  The dirt kicks up as if underneath is a new volcano announcing itself.  A bullet bounces off a boy’s rifle barrel, sending sparks like a children’s sizzler, and the boy bitches, “My fuckin’ weapon got hit!”  A boy who’s a Muslim but even more an American prays, “Hey, Man Upstairs?  If it’s my time to go, I want to go fightin’!”  At what they don’t know, but the boys fire guns, machine guns, and in time mortars (“Adjust!  Two hundred meters left!  Adjust!  Go back fifty meters!”) in the mountain’s direction.  Also firing are the Apaches, but no one in this muted platoon is now shouting “Hooah.”  On everyone’s face, Rivera’s included, is an “It’s game time” mien.  Anaconda!  We aren’t playing soldier!  We can get hurt, very hurt!

And three soldiers are.  No soldiers in this platoon but in one that landed synchronously a hundred meters away.  As its medic, it doesn’t use Specialist Rivera but Specialist Miranda, but among the three soldiers stumbling down to Rivera is, you guessed it, Miranda.  Once, near the Adirondacks, Rivera borrowed Miranda’s cell telephone and, in one month, talking to Krystal at her home in Antioch, California, ran up a $2,000 bill, and he’s been lavishing a third of his salary paying off Miranda.  And now his creditor teeters as though overdosed on Bacardi and says not “Doc!” but “Eddie!  Oh, help me!” 

“Oh shit!  What’s wrong?” 

“I don’t know.  My back.”

“That scares me!” Rivera says.  His friend can’t be moved from the incoming fire if his spinal cord’s hit, but Rivera runs fingers on Miranda’s bulletproof jacket—Miranda’s interceptor—and says, “There’s nothing wrong with it.  It’s all right.”  But on Miranda’s seat there’s blood, and as Miranda screams, “Ow,” Rivera rips open Miranda’s camouflage pants, pulls out a piece of a mortar round, a sharp piece as big (or small) as one of Miranda’s teeth, says, “It ain’t too bad.  You’re all right,” and, giving the souvenir to Miranda, replaces it with sterile stuffing, with Kerlix.  He then finds a scalloped hole in Miranda’s right hand, some shrapnel having passed like a dum-dum bullet in one side and out the other. 

Then boom!  A mortar round scores an ear of one of the two other casualties. 

 

The two other casualties.  Besides Miranda (who swathes his right hand himself) there’s Sergeant Abbott and Sergeant McCleave.  Abbott’s the sergeant for the other platoon, where, at his instigation, everyone addresses everyone else as “Brother.”  “Brother, can I have some polish?”  “Brother, you need any Cocoa?”  McCleave has the cot right next to Rivera back at their camp in Afghanistan.  Moving in, he said to Rivera, “Thank God!  I’m sleepin’ nex’ to my medic!” and Rivera said playfully, “Well, I hope your feet don’t stink.”  The mortars now chasing them, the two medics and the two sergeants run, teeter and stumble to a safe haven behind a small knoll, and Rivera starts ministering to Abbott and McCleave.  A piece of a mortar in his right triceps is Abbott’s affliction, Rivera treating it by the book by wrapping it in Kerlix while saying, “You’re all right,” but it’s impenetrable what’s wrong with McCleave.  On his clothes is no blood, but in back of the knoll he sits as though wearing a sign saying homeless.  He stares as though waiting passively for a clink in his dented tin cup. 

“Sergeant McCleave,” says Rivera.  “What’s wrong with you?”

“Who…are…you…?”  McCleave doesn’t say it, just looks it. 

“Sergeant McCleave!  Please tell me!  What’s wrong with you?” 

“Where…am…I…?”

“Sergeant McCleave!” Rivera screams, shaking him vigorously. 

Some slobber comes to the panhandler’s lips, and he says audibly, “I…don’t… know…” 

“Sergeant McCleave!” says Abbott, the shrapnel-suffering sergeant.  “Tell the Doc what’s wrong with you!  Or you’ll die!”  

Or you’ll what?  As slowly as worms, these words wend their way to McCleave’s addled brain.  “My hand…my back…”

Rivera rips off McCleave’s gloves and says, “Good.”  He looks at McCleave’s interceptor and says, “Good.”  He cuts McCleave’s pants, and on both of McCleave’s legs, both upper and lower, he sees dozens of holes from the same indiscriminate mortar round that hit Miranda and Abbott.  Now, shrapnel is painful wherever it is.  Unlike bullets, it enters red hot, and it starts burning the flesh, fat, muscle, nerves of the boy who haplessly caught it.  A dozen of such inquisitor’s tortures are, if concurrent, excruciating, and McCleave’s state of shock isn’t in any way overwrought.  He can’t raise either leg, so Rivera props each leg on his knee like a two-by-four that he’s sawing as, with his hands, he wraps on the Kerlix, lest his good buddy bleeds to death and, at their camp, his cot right next to Rivera’s becomes unoccupied. 

By now Rivera’s the only medic in either platoon, or so Rivera reasonably believes.  But now from the other platoon, a hundred meters away, a hundred meters of bullets, grenades, and mortar rounds raising divots, there comes a cry of “Doc!” and Rivera, as intuitively as a champion sprinter at the cry of “Go!” commences a deadly hundred-meter dash.  I’m running, he thinks philosophically—running for my life for someone else’s life.

 

He’s scared.  He runs anyhow...More