“Missing in Action” by S.C. Beckner

29 March 2019 on Nonfiction   Tags:

It was somewhere in the mountains of Afghanistan that I was no longer “Mom,” but now “Momma.” At some point while Joshua was carrying ninety plus pounds of radio gear and equipment, anticipating the whirr of the next bullet, and witnessing the deaths of young men just steps ahead of him‒ I became “Momma.” It stirred song lyrics in my head like “Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys” in the nasally-baritone of Willie Nelson, or “Momma, I’m comin’ home,” in the coked-out voice of Ozzy Osbourne.

*

2012 was the year the world was going to end, according to the Mayans. Joshua wrote a letter. It was stored away with his personal effects, to be opened in the event of his death. A letter that I would presumably open sometime after the two men in uniform had been on my doorstep. One of those men, generally a chaplain, assigned to offer support.

“Ma’am, we regret to inform you…” 

He was twenty-two. He would have been graduating from college had he gone right out of high school. If he didn't make it home, the government would give me a manila envelope or, if his pockets were particularly full that day, a small cardboard box.

I knew he carried a dog-eared photo of him and his grandfather who had died in the winter of 2007. In the picture, a pudgy 18-month old Joshua wore only a diaper and his father’s wide-brimmed boonie hat in desert camo. The hat had been part of his father’s Desert Storm uniform.

He also carried a letter from me, the ink smeared from days of resting in his breast pocket in the swampy August air at Fort Benning in Georgia. That letter had traveled with him on twelve-mile ruck marches through the loblolly pines, through the trying days of infantry training, and now the letter would go with him into an undisclosed location located along Highway 1 between Kabul and southern Afghanistan.

2012

I stood over the stove, an early morning in the middle of May, after a sleepless night. I watched the sun rise that morning, on the day he would leave for Afghanistan. I wept over a cast-iron skillet filled with bacon, blackened at the edges. As each kamikaze tear dove into the skillet, hot grease spattered my wrists. I didn’t mind the pain. It served as a welcome distraction from the scenarios playing out on the widescreen of my brain. I watched him sleep on the couch on the other side of the musty cabin on the bank of Milford Lake. Occasionally, I would spy a fluorescent, slithering salamander in a corner here and there.

Joshua had opted to stay at the cabin with us that last night before he left rather than return to his rusty metal bunk at the barracks. We laughed and played board games for as long as we could stay awake.

In the quiet of that morning, just past dawn, I looked at him, no longer a child. His right arm was slung over his head, his left hand rested on his belly. The same way he had slept as a child.

Joshua was my firstborn. In my mind he has always been about six years old with sun-kissed, dirt-smeared cheeks, a straw hat with a red bandana that corralled his blond ringlet curls. His white undershirt, grass-stained, stretched at the neck. He had aluminum six-shooters strapped to each hip, brown felt chaps that lay flush with knee-less blue jeans.

“Mommy! Mommy, I got the bad guys,” he would shout from the tire swing that hung from a stately old maple tree that stood next to the driveway to our farmhouse. He could never bring himself to shoot the bad guys. Instead, he would tether them to the old maple with his imaginary lasso.

I needed Joshua to be six years old again. I needed to be able to protect him, to shield him from harm like I did when he was little.

*

Later that day, we were in a park, just off post in the middle of the Flint Hills of Kansas. I took the last hug, the last one before he would leave to go board the bus. I breathed him in. The menthol of the Edge shaving cream permeated my nostrils. The mist from the park fountain drizzled over us, an umbrella of cool, a shield from the Kansas sun. I prayed it wouldn’t be the last time I would hold him. I was light-headed, on the verge of hyperventilation. As my eyes closed while I held him there on that sunny day in the park all I could see was the little boy with the curly blond hair, the red bandana, and the six-shooters. He was dangling from the tire swing, head thrown back, eyes looking skyward.

Joshua’s arms quivered. We both knew it could be the last time. Neither of us spoke the words aloud. His words were an attempt at reassurance, but they were a script for my benefit. 

“Mom, I’ll come home. I promise,” he whispered into my ear before he walked away. His broad shoulders convulsed. I imagined his face, contorted with his cries. I gagged on the choking sobs that overcame my body. I waited for him to turn around, take one last look. I fought the urge to shout after him.

“Joshua, wait!” I imagined screaming. “Please don’t go.”

*
“Dear God, please bring him home. I’ll do anything. Please bring him home to me.” I prayed this mantra silently and repetitively over the next three hours, until I couldn’t be in the car anymore. I couldn’t tolerate another minute of the drive back home to Indiana. It felt like I had left him behind. I was going home to my normal routine. He was flying into a war zone. I was suffocated by the images in my head. Snapshots of flag-draped caskets, mothers kissing their dead children’s faces with tear-soaked lips, holding on until the very last moment. The sobs erupted, renewed, from somewhere deep inside of me. My husband finally agreed to stop at a Days Inn in Kingdom City, Missouri. Kingdom City‒ which made me think of heaven.

*

August 2012 - By the time in my deployment when I had been in the country 45 days, I had been on more than 35 day and night patrols doing 12-16 hour guard shifts. There were reports across the region of planned attacks on our compound or on our counterparts. By the middle of July, I had experienced my first civilian casualty at the hands of the Taliban, rockets flying over our tents, and lived through a mortar attack with two impacts 15 meters or less from me and my family. My cherry was popped. I got what I asked for and still wanted more. As a company, we got what we asked for.

On July 12, a man that I had hated as equally as he hated me apologized for his past actions and told me he was proud of the soldier that I had stepped up to be. Two days later, that man shot himself in the face in one of the guard towers because he felt he could not lead his troops. I drank, trained, and laughed with this man. Then he was gone… ‒Joshua

October 5, 2012

(correspondence via Facebook Messenger)

J: Hey, Momma.

Hi! How are you?

J: Better. It’s been a bad two weeks.

What happened?

J: Promise you won’t freak out?

I promise.

J: One of our intelligence colonels at the FOB gave the Afghan army and police all of our schedule info, guard info, and supply routes. It got leaked to the wrong people, so we got hit the first three days out, then an attack at the cop when the ODA team was flying. We took direct fire. No one was hurt.

Oh my God. Why would he do that?

J: He’s a fucking dumbass, that’s why. I’ll take bullets over bombs any day. We got one of the guys that was dropping mortar rounds. Damn near ripped his head off. Not one of the prettier things I’ve seen but they haven’t messed with us since.

Joshua, I’m so sorry.

J: He had shrapnel in his chest and a crevice around his dome a couple of inches deep. He was missing an eyeball. It was kinda weird, how we reacted‒ almost inhuman, nothing. I don’t know how else to explain it.

Honey, I’m so sorry you’re seeing these things.

J: Anywho, how are things back home?

*

November 2012 - By this time in my deployment our battalion had lost one to suicide, a company commander to enemy fire, and has had roughly a dozen or more injured from IEDs, IDF (indirect fire), or enemy fire. We watched IEDs being planted and were told to stand down and not intercede. We had 2 stand-offs with the Afghan soldiers who did not want us there as much as the Taliban. I'd been in three fire fights where you could not tell the bad guys from the civilians, and had watched body parts rain from the sky like a Kansas spring rain. I no longer want what I asked for, my blood lust was gone. The incoming sirens would ring out and I would be the first to the bunker from a dead sleep, only to get there and realize I was the only one there because I was dreaming. ‒Joshua

*

His battalion of infantry rangers are part of the Big Red One Infantry Division. The insignia is a large red number one on a drab olive-green patch to be worn just below the left shoulder. The Big Red One is based out of Fort Riley, Kansas.

Fort Riley is situated near the Kansas River where a person can drive his truck into the cold, midnight-black waters, his only hope of being able to suffocate the sounds and recollections of war. The feel of the pink mist on skin as it rained from the sky. The smell of blood and burnt flesh and how the breeze blew the tendons of the limbs retrieved from the road. The men of this battalion continued to fall out like dominos. I waited for Joshua to fall out.

Kansas 2015

I pulled into the gravel drive of our old farmhouse built sometime in the early 1900s. There was an abandoned coal chute in the corner of the damp, rotting basement. Last year’s Christmas lights dangled haphazardly from the towering pine tree that stood in the bend of the drive, likely a Pinus Strobus, the Eastern White Pine. This stately place had not been home to the older children. They didn’t know the ins and outs of this house. The best places for hide and seek, or even where to hide a can of chew or a box of condoms so they might remain undiscovered while I perused their rooms for dirty socks and glasses with chocolate milk crusting at the bottoms. They had never returned from war to this house or crawled into my bed during a spring thunderstorm. We had moved a lot.

The late afternoon sun warmed my cheeks pink through the driver’s side window and cast the illusion of fire through the jutting branches of the leaning maple and walnut trees in the side yard where the dogs loved to run. The fallen red and yellow leaves had started to brown as they waited for the certain death of winter. They blanketed the yard, suffocating the green out of the grass beneath them. I sat in the front seat and waited for the song on the radio to end ‒ “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors.

“…I stretched my hands out to the sky

We danced with monsters through the night

Wo-o-o-o-oh, wo-o-o-o-oh…”

I wondered what to make for dinner and scrolled through Facebook on my phone. I was rarely in a hurry to make my way into the huge, nearly-empty house at the end of the day. With a sigh, I dropped my phone into my bag, gathered the odds and ends I had picked up at the grocery, and opened the car door.

Almost immediately the muffled ringtone wafted up from inside my bag. A cello concerto ‒ Bach, I think. I rummaged through my bag, rearranging textbooks, notebooks, pencils, and loose change in search of my phone. A sheet of paper sliced my finger just beneath the nail. It opened the flesh deep, but no blood surfaced. As I turned my phone over in my hand to see the caller i.d, balancing the bags on my opposite arm, I saw Joshua’s name on the screen. A jolt of adrenaline hit my heart, momentarily throwing off its rhythm. Joshua rarely called me. My palms had started to sweat as I got the phone up to my left ear.

“Hello,” I said as I shut the car door with a swing of my right hip.

“Hello?” I repeated.

“Momma?”

Joshua’s voice was faint, shaky. He sounded much further than the 700 miles that separated Indiana from Kansas.

“Joshua? What’s…”

“Momma, I’m in trouble.”

I recognized the sound of muffled sobs. His breathing was choppy. Labored.

“Joshua?”

Silence.

“Joshua?” The urgency was building in my voice.

“Fuck, Momma. Fuck,” he screamed.

I felt another familiar surge of adrenaline. I imagined the veins bulging in his neck in the same way they had when he cheered with football teammates after a win, or when he’d stood in the kitchen toe to toe with me as an angry 16-year-old.

“Momma, I need you to tell me why I shouldn’t drive my truck off this fucking bridge.” More sobs. “I just need you to tell me … I can’t do this shit anymore.”

I fell back against the car door. My knees threatened to buckle. I looked around. My brief instinct was to scream for help. Scream for anyone to help him. If he was drowning and I couldn’t reach him I would scream for help. But there was no one. I was 700 miles away. He was drowning. Gasping.

“Joshua, listen to me,” I said. Then nothing. I looked at my watch wishing I could teleport myself to him. Heart palpitations stole my breath. My cold, clammy hands shook.

“Where are you Joshua? Where is Nicole?”

There was a primal growl from somewhere deep inside of him, its intensity stifled by the distance and the brittle leaves in the breeze. I heard what must have been his fists landing on the steering wheel or dashboard.

“I’m tired, Momma,” he sobbed. I imagined his sun-leathered face twisted in agony. I hadn’t seen him in a few months. Maybe if I saw him more. I could move to Kansas. His youngest siblings would be graduating from high school and leaving home soon. I could buy a house up the street. He could come home for Sunday dinner.

“Joshua, please don’t…hang on, please. Where is Nicole?”

“She’s home with the baby. I am no good for her. No fucking good for anybody.”

“Joshua, what can I do?”

Silence. Then another low, guttural moan, and weeping.

“Son, listen to me. I know you can do this. You can. Do you hear me? Please tell me what I can…” The desperation in my voice continued to build.

“Momma, can you just come please?”

“I’m on my way.”

I heard the engine of his truck rev, gears slip. My breath was caught somewhere in my chest. My ribs refused to rise as panic pulsed through my body. Sweat beaded on my forehead.

“Joshua?”

“OK, Momma. I am headed home. I love you.”

“I love you. I’ll be there soon.”

*

Twenty-two combat veterans who served in the mountains and deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan end their lives every day. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan began October 7, 2001, less than four weeks after the 9/11 attacks. The war was called Operation Enduring Freedom. Some of the first soldiers rode into war on horseback just as they’d done in World War I. Others were flown in and dropped in the deserts, some parachuted into the mountains from black hawk helicopters under the cover of night.

Joshua was eleven on September 11, 2001.

*

The drive west seemed to take forever. I was on a treadmill of interstate and I couldn’t reach him fast enough. Traffic was heavy in St. Louis and again in Kansas City. Nicole assured me via text that Joshua was at home. I didn’t want to ask if she knew that he’d called me from the bridge just minutes from their house earlier that day.

With every mile I drove, the scenarios flashed through my mind. I imagined him sitting in his truck just hours before as the sun was setting over the Kansas River, the sky filled with the cotton candy colors of autumn, his pistol already loaded. I imagined what might have happened if he hadn’t called. The sweat beaded across my brows once again. My hands ached from my white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel.

I wondered if soldiers who take their own lives were still buried with full military honors.

*

I got to their home in Kansas just past 2:00 a.m. My daughter-in-law, Nicole, greeted me. A plump, sleeping, red-headed baby stirred in her arms.

“Joshua’s been asleep for a while. He tried to wait up. I gave him meds around 9,” she whispered. “He isn’t good.”

I hugged her, and kissed the baby on the cheek, his face warm from cuddling into his mother.

Joshua was asleep on the brown leather couch, still in his multi-cam pants and desert brown undershirt. His boots still on, the laces loosened, one foot planted on the floor. Even in his sleep, he was ready to run. There was no pillow under his head. I could see his heart pounding beneath the cotton of his T-shirt. I wondered what images filled his mind. What horror quickened his pulse?

I sat my bag down next to the coffee table and laid down on the loveseat just a few feet from him. He whimpered in his sleep. I wondered if Nicole knew that just twelve hours before he had been sitting in his truck. The white, Ford F250 parked sideways on that old bridge overlooking the river. I wondered if she knew he had begged me to talk him out of burying his foot in the accelerator.

Afghanistan 2012

(Telephone call)

J: "Momma, can you hear me? Momma?"

His voice echoed, tunneling across the sea. I was caught off guard ‒ he had never called me “Momma” before. I strained to hear him over an indistinguishable roar of background noise. The alarm clock on my bedside table read 2:24 a.m. in red.

"I’m here."

J: "Momma, it’s not good. We’re heading out. Momma, are you praying?"

"Yes, Joshua. Every hour of the day."

J: "I love you, Momma. I gotta go."

"I love you, too."

Then radio silence, so loud it nearly burst my ear drums. I cried into the palm of my clammy hand. My eyes closed. I could see a man in uniform offering me a folded flag as “Taps” played somewhere in the distance. A token of appreciation. My body shuddered with fear.

I didn’t hear from Joshua for eleven days.

*

Young men who should be graduating from college, coaching the soccer teams of their children, or going home at night and fucking their wives and girlfriends are instead shoving loaded pistols into their mouths while no one is looking. The suicides started in the battalion before Joshua and his men had made it out of the mountains of Afghanistan.

He had mopped the brain matter of his fellow sergeant out of the guard tower one night in the desert heat while a slivered moon hung high over the mountains.

February 2013

Poster board banners dotted the crowd that waited to welcome loved ones home. Everyone was wearing the red, white, and blue of the flag or yellow ribbons. We had collectively waited for 270 days for this bitter, winter morning. We sat in a sterile, outdated gymnasium on Fort Riley, Kansas. An American flag covered the far wall. An industrial fan exhaled, dumped warm air into the room which smelled faintly of exhaust fumes.

Suddenly, Toby Keith’s baritone boomed from the speakers suspended from each corner of the room. The double doors in the far-right corner clanked open. Soldiers started to file into the room and fall into formation. Then they were running. The rhythm of hundreds of boots on the ground, running toward anxious families. The room filled with camouflage. They stood at attention. Then silence. My breath caught ‒ a serrated knife in my throat.

“Dis-missed!” shouted the company commander.

A cacophony of sound erupted from the crowd ‒ a roar of names being shouted, sobbing, a stampede of family members frantically scouring the room.

I bounded down the aluminum steps two at a time. I heard screaming. I looked to my left and then to my right only to realize that the screams were my own. In uniform, all of the soldiers looked alike. Weary eyes were searching. Jaw lines were set. My eyes scanned the sea of soldiers. Where was mine?

“Joshua!” I tried to shout. My voice failed me.

“Momma.” I heard his voice over the cheers and the weeping of loved ones, already reunited. His face, much older now, was desert-tanned, tired. His eyes appeared aged beyond his years. Fine wrinkles where there once were none. He stood there in full battle dress uniform, then pulled me in. I wore gray T-shirt, a yellow ribbon that begged, “Please Pray for My Soldier, My Son.”

“See Momma, I told you I’d come home,” he whispered.

The sobs of relief wracked my frame.

In the far corner of the room, rifles stood on end with boots, and helmets, to honor those who didn’t make it home.

*

September 2018 - Seventeen years after I watched the towers fall in sixth grade history class, here I sit, a broken kid who wanted to fight for his country and make his family proud. My family is more torn than ever and I feel as though somehow in eight years of service, that I have failed. I feel weak, broken, different, and unable to be a contributing member of society. My oldest son is scared of me, my wife is timid around me … I distance myself from my family daily … I cannot keep up with my family and no longer feel as though I can safely lead them through life without causing insult or injury. I am jumpy most days, paranoid every day, and spend half my time awake in a state of zoning out where I wish I could be back in the country that changed me forever. Part of me is dead, part of me is missing. I do not know how to repair the damage … I am scared every day that today will be the day I say to hell with it and throw in the towel … I had no idea just how different I had become after 270 combat missions, 4 IEDs, 2 mortar rounds, and multiple engagements. I cleaned a guard tower after the loss of a brother, picked up pieces of dead Afghan soldiers, and used my fist to plug a hole in a man’s head. I had no idea any of it would put me where I am now.” ‒ Joshua


S.C. Beckner is a writer and the author of the forthcoming war memoir, The Service of My Children, which details the horrors of combat both abroad and at home. S.C. is an MFA candidate and teaches English at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she hikes and has a home with her husband and their two dogs.

Annihilation and Release: photograph by Saunders Drukker. Saunders is an amateur wildlife and landscape photographer, with a particular interest in wild land fire. He graduated from the University of the South with a degree in Ecology and Biodiversity before working as a Prescribed Fire technician at Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee FL. There, he spent his days lighting prescribed fires in order to help the forest grow healthy. Saunders is currently pursuing a PhD in Biology at Texas State University where he studies the effects of wildfire on native reptiles and amphibians. You can find more of his photography on Instagram at @saundersdrukker and on Flickr.


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