It’s not true that your life flashes before your eyes when faced with death. For me it was the books I’d read and the characters that had left an impression on my soul.
It was just after nine in the evening in Iraq. The heat still rolled in waves from the packed, sandy earth, defying the darkness and the moon that hung above. The moon was bad news. The silvery circle in the clear night sky meant that the enemy could see and maneuver at night. Rockets were a periodic threat that always seemed to increase as the moon waxed high in the night sky. Anywhere from one to three rockets fell on any given night, but that night the trickle became a downpour.
I was halfway through my second company command, leading a company of 352 soldiers as our division worked around the clock to close out operations in Baghdad. Outside the wire, you were always aware that bad things could happen around any corner, but it was easier to forget the danger amidst the base's fast food and the shopping complex.
The thing most firmly lodged in my psyche from my three trips to the desert is the triple klaxon and warning of incoming that blared across the base during rocket and mortar attacks. I once downloaded the sound file to my phone to play a joke on my senior non-commissioned officer. I still play it from time to time and it always takes me right back. My back tightens. My jaw clenches. From the comfort of my couch, I feel the fear that gripped me that night and see the lives that flashed before me that night.
My early literary heroes were all dogs. I wept when Old Yeller had to be put down after a bite from a rabid wolf while saving his family. Despite the hope offered by the titular plant, I bawled at the ending of Where the Red Fern Grows for the loss of two dogs whose love for each other and their master led to their deaths. Follow the Leader showed me quiet heroism in the face of life-altering events. These dogs showed me that love for another was a source of bravery and sacrifice that resonated with a lonely, awkward kid.
Once I discovered Dickens, I was swept into the deeper waters of human interactions. I felt Pip’s loss and loathed Miss Havisham’s treachery even as I yearned for the trappings of the wealth and privilege she represented. I thrilled at Oliver Twist’s escape from his sordid surroundings into a better life. Here too, I found sacrifice, weeping as Carton lay down his life in to ensure a future for the one he loved.
It’s impossible for me to count the number of vicarious lives I’ve lived through books. These stories showed me heights and depths of character I could have never witnessed in a thousand lifetimes. I always felt that these stories were just that; such nobility didn’t exist in the real world. Nothing about these heroes felt fictitious to me. There was truth, beauty, love, and heroism out there, even if I couldn’t see it in my daily life. I continued to lose myself in fictional worlds until a very pressing reality entered my own. My girlfriend was pregnant and it was time to face reality. I joined the Army, not out of any sense of heroism but because they offered college money and I was broke.
Fifteen years later, I saw real heroism and love beyond self on that sweltering night in Iraq.
It started with a distant boom; the first round almost always landed before the warning system figured out what was happening. Our counter-rocket guns roared to life, filling the air with smoke and chaff in an effort to disrupt projectiles in flight, but that night they were outnumbered. As the klaxon blared its warning and soldiers around me dove to the floor or under their desks, the chorus of booms continued to ring out, some near, others far in the distance. The ninth rocket hit close enough to throw gravel across the wall with an angry screel like the claws of some insistent beast. In the midst of it all, I thought of all the books I’d read, and those I might never get to read. Characters and poignant lines from a thousand stories rolled through my mind as a tenth rocket shook the building shredding a nearby latrine, melting and warping the plastic from the heat of the shrapnel. I thought of my three unfinished novels in boxes or old hard drives back in the states. Would I ever create the kind of stories and characters that had so enriched my own life? This train of thought was shattered as a jagged, keening wail rose up from the center of the operations room.
One of my soldiers, a new private who had recently joined the unit, had lost it. Her harsh, ragged cries were only broken as her straining lungs demanded some relief from the terror-driven flight of oxygen. The operations sergeant, who served as surrogate mother to us all, lay beside her. As the rockets continued to burst around us she climbed on top of that soldier and held her, one human shielding another from the shrapnel spinning outside the walls. The soldier’s cries faded, tapered off to a whimper, and stopped, sheltered in the arms of her sergeant. Nine more rockets fell around the camp but the sergeant didn’t budge. She held on through it all. It was an act more brave and pure than any I have ever read. I still tear up thinking about the nobility and selflessness of that one crystal clear moment amidst the chaos.
The rockets stopped, and the klaxon ceased its three-note song. The sergeant rolled off the soldier and helped her to her feet. Despite the noise and some external damage to the surrounding buildings, my soldiers and I emerged from the building into the still, hot night unscathed. A blue haze of burnt powder and smoldering plastic hung thick in the air. The heat and smoke lifted as a breeze began to swirl the cloud around us into the night sky. After getting accountability for the 352 souls in our care, the sergeant stayed with her soldier through the night, even when the private finally collapsed into a restless sleep from stress and fatigue and the events of the day. A little bleary-eyed the next morning the sergeant trudged back into the office and began making phone calls to set up counseling appointments for soldiers who wanted to talk about the events of the prior night with chaplains or counselors.
I regret that I never told my operations sergeant how much her bravery and selflessness meant to me, but I think of her often. We all shook it off. There were plenty of jokes about mother bears and their cubs, but underneath it all was an unspoken respect for a moment when the world around us spun into chaos, and one sergeant forsook her safety to protect and comfort one of her soldiers. That no one was injured is irrelevant. In one moment as the world around us exploded, a sergeant chose the safety and well-being of her soldier over her own.
I’m sure there are thousands of similar stories from the decade and a half of men and women trudging off into the uncertainties of war. Books will undoubtedly be written, true and fictitious, about those who answered the call. As future generations read those books and find within them heroes, I hope they realize that heroism doesn’t just exist in dusty tomes.
There are heroes, many unknown or unacknowledged, and they walk among us.
Chris Townsend is a Middle East Foreign Area Officer with 19 years of service in the U.S. Army. He served as section sergeant, platoon leader, and company commander during operations in Kuwait and Iraq. He is on Twitter and LinkedIn and welcomes any communication. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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