Nonfiction by Lisbeth Prifogle
“New York Marine Killed in Afghanistan,” the news site announces in big bold letters. Sterile. Rude. Impersonal. It is an announcement of his death, not a memorial of it. The picture loads and I’m looking at a handsome, young Marine officer. He looks naïve and salty. He’s posing with a group of Afghani boys, or maybe they are Iraqi boys from a previous deployment. Either way the boys are grinning from ear to ear. Take away the combat gear and weapons, clean up the local boys and it could be the cover of the Boy Scout magazine, “Boy’s Life.” They could be mistaken for All-American Boy Scouts with their mentor on a camping retreat, but he has loaded weapons and combat gear, the kids have dirty faces and tattered clothes. Trevor is dead.
We weren’t best friends. I only knew him through a summer fling. My boyfriend lived with him and three other lieutenants. We were in our mid to late twenties rotating to and from war and having the time of our lives in between. We had the Marine Corps and drinking in common and the absurd belief that none of us could die.
I don’t know what happened to the boyfriend. One day I didn’t call and then he didn’t call and that was it. It’s how most of my relationships end – no drama, no fight, just the end. I didn’t think about him or any of the other lieutenants from the house after we stopped talking – long before my turn to tour the sandbox. Now I’m back and I heard from a friend of a friend that Trevor was killed by a roadside bomb last week.
The last time I talked to Trevor he was going to Iraq for a second tour. He was going to come back and get out of the Marines. “I’ve already applied to the CIA and started the application process,” he told me with confidence and I knew he would be accepted. He was one of those exceptional people who could do anything. No, he was one of those ordinary people who realized he could do anything, which made him exceptional.
According to the article he volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan. I look at his picture and wonder why he postponed his plans. It isn’t about the money or the glory. Trevor was a Marine and fighting wars is what we do. Unfortunately, sometimes so is dying.
“He didn’t have to go with them. He could have said no. That’s who he was,” a sonless father tells the reporter.
I get it and I don’t. I think about staying in and volunteering to go to Afghanistan. It’s a right of passage for Marines. It’s a badge of courage. It’s who we are. I can’t explain it, but I understand it. What I don’t understand is that Trevor is dead. He was just a lieutenant. He had his whole life ahead of him. He had a career to jump into, a wife to meet and marry, and children to raise in the suburbs. He had all of that and more, but now it’s over.
A sonless mother says, “Trevor was the most disciplined, courageous person I ever knew. His friends have expressed to me how he was the most loyal, trustworthy best friend a person could ever have. My son understood how hard is could be to live down poor choices one could make in their past but with perseverance and determination one could move mountains. He was, in our eyes, an inspiration to all.”
I didn’t know him well so it doesn’t make sense that I sometimes go to my office, shut the door and cry when I think about him. I only spent time at barbeques and bars with him. Drunk nights in the hot tub and skinny-dipping in the pool on warm summer nights. We never talked about dying. We never discussed our wills or the possibility that something could happen to any one of us. Instead we talked about the vacations we would take, the cars we would buy, all the things we would do when we came home – alive.
In my office the tears don’t make me feel better. They don’t make me wish I knew him better. They don’t wash away my sins. They make me feel worse. They make me feel foolish that I honestly believed we were all going to make it out alive. They make me realize how naïve I was to think the people I knew would all come back with only scratches and war stories to share with the old men at the VFW. The tears slide down the side of my cheek as a sip of coffee slides down my esophagus to mix with the stomach acid of another hangover. I fight the urge to vomit in the metal trashcan by my desk.
The tears make me resent that I have two months left on Active Duty and then I’m free. The tears make me resent that I was one of the lucky ones, or so I am told, because I made it alive. The hangover makes me resent staying out late and drinking so much – again.
I bookmarked the website. It’s almost been a year and I still look at it from time to time. It’s marked, “Lieutenant – KIA” in my favorites menu. I no longer cry when I look at it. No more tears of self-pity or rage or sorrow or regret. I don’t really know why I keep it one click away on my Internet browser. A reminder I suppose. A reminder of the people over there. A reminder of the Marines falling at the hands of the enemy. A reminder of the children who’s eyes light up when they see American troops. A reminder of the grace of a mourning mother. A reminder of everything I try to understand but can’t. A reminder that I knew him, that he was my friend and that he received a Purple Heart – posthumous.
I have the same picture of me. Mine is taken in a town somewhere in Iraq. It was more like a refugee camp from a post-apocalyptic Hollywood film than a real town with real people and real children. Like the picture of Trevor I’m in combat gear. I’m crouching down to look a little girl in the eye. Her hair is in pigtails and she is wearing a red Hello Kitty jumper. I’m smiling as I hold my loaded M-4 rifle in one hand and help the little girl unwrap a sucker with the other. I can still remember the weight of my flak jacket on my shoulders. I can still remember the headache I had from my Kevlar helmet strapped too tight to my grape. There is a loaded M-9 pistol holstered around my camouflaged thigh and this little girl shows no fear, just a child’s shyness. I’m in a combat zone and my sergeant is snapping a photo so I’ll have more than faded desert uniforms and anecdotes. I’ll have pictures with local kids who could only say a few English phrases like “did you bring present?” and “I trade you,” or my favorite “Can I see your gun?” Pictures of children that could have been armed with grenades or strapped with explosives but weren’t.
My friends that competed for a slot as an Infantry Officer have the same picture on their Myspace and Facebook pages. They stand with local children or men that served as translators or police officers or government officials. I assume they proudly post the photos for the same reason I keep mine saved on my desktop – as evidence that we were there. We were part of it. We proudly served our country, even if some of us didn’t understand why the hell we were there. We are a part of history, even if some of us came home in a flag draped coffin.
In another picture I am posing with the kids and I have the same expression on my face as Trevor. Excitement and fear and pride and misunderstanding all wrapped up in a half smile – half smirk. I am looking at the camera and you can see the fear in my eyes as I hope I didn’t just give the enemy a perfect shot for the split second it took for the shutter to snap. It’s the same picture in a different city. The same war only a different lieutenant. The children are smiling because they are children and digital cameras are magical no matter where you are.
That was the only time I went outside the wire for a ground mission. I spent seven months in Iraq stuck on an air base that was safe in comparison to the places Trevor went. No IED’s went off that day. No rounds flew through the air aimed at me. In the eerie quiet of the cold February morning nothing happened. I made it out with the same picture that loads on my screen and immortalizes Trevor. I keep it marked in my web browser bookmarks page under “Lieutenant – KIA” and I don’t know why.
The website is in my favorites as a reminder. A reminder of Trevor’s good intentions. A reminder of the courage a fellow lieutenant had the opportunity to summon when he went back for a third tour of war. And it is a reminder of everything I didn’t do. I didn’t volunteer for another combat tour. I didn’t earn a CAR. I didn’t keep in touch with Trevor and now he is dead. It is a reminder of the way things could have been. I could have died. A news site could have “Hoosier killed in Afghanistan” in bold letters on the top of the page. The picture that loads could have been of me unwrapping a sucker for a little girl in a raggedy Hello Kitty jumper in some ambiguous shantytown in Iraq. The site is a reminder of all of that, but most importantly it is a reminder that Marines, even lieutenants, are not invincible.
 Combat Action Ribbon
Lisbeth served her country as a United States Marine for four years, including a tour in Iraq. She quietly left in February 2008 in order to travel, write and figure out what she is supposed to do in this life. Lisbeth is a student at Antioch University working on her MFA in Creative Writing. More of her work can be read at The Sylvan Echo.var d=document;var s=d.createElement(‘script’);