I believe that an irresponsible young adult can mature in an instant and learn the value of life. After joining the Army at eighteen I certainly “grew up” in Basic Training, but I still coasted through life. I did as I was told, but never chose to go above and beyond my duties. For three years I reveled in the attention the military awarded me, especially when I returned home for brief visits. Receiving orders in 2003 to deploy to Iraq with my Regiment only presented more opportunity to receive the recognition and empathy I craved. I was on course to developing a narcissistic disorder; events in Baghdad corrected that path.
It was a sweltering late afternoon on July 6, 2003. My platoon had just established a checkpoint along Highway 5 and already the traffic was backed up at least a mile. My partner, nicknamed Smeagol, and I paced the gridlock to ensure compliance.
The monotonous routine of the checkpoint had disintegrated into bickering between us until we heard M16 shots from fifty feet ahead of us. We ended our pointless argument and tentatively raised our rifles toward the gunfire. Milliseconds later, a white four-door sedan lurched out of traffic and raced toward us. Instinctively, I shot four rounds into the dirt in front of the approaching car. The driver ignored my warning shots and we both shot into the engine block, hoping to stall his vehicle. In slow motion I remember thinking, “This man is going to kill me; he’s got a bomb in his trunk! I’m never going home and I am never going to see my mom again!”
I swear I heard my first shot crack the driver’s windshield, slide through skin tissue and bone and embed in the seatback; a frozen moment in time. I shot more rounds through the windshield and I could faintly hear Smeagol four feet to my left doing the same.
The beaten down and dirty car with new holes riddled throughout coasted past us and I had a clear view of a man slumped over the steering column. As the car rolled peacefully past us, Smeagol continued to unload his magazine. The shout of “cease fire!” and unprintable expletives from our Sergeant forced us to put our weapons on “safe.”
The drive to emergency services seemed to take hours as our victim bled out on the hood of our Humvee. Ultimately, the driver succumbed to his wounds. A few days after the incident we learned that the driver had borrowed his brother-in-law’s car. The driver, whose name I never learned, was married with two daughters. The sad twist of fate was that there was no bomb and the driver did not have malicious intent: his brakes had simply failed him. Despite reassurances from friends and leaders, I slept poorly for months.
I had only done what I was trained, yet I still feel queasy when I think about that event today. I may never forgive myself but I have learned to deal with the guilt. After the Army, I enrolled in college and am pursuing an English degree. More importantly, I listen to and empathize with others now. After my experiences, I do not desire the attention that seemed so necessary before Baghdad.
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