A whole lot of dying

Notes on war and sacrifice

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan

Corporal Keith Kluwe watched as dry winds snapped plastic strips covering two broken windows. It was 2003, and we were in the public affairs office in the American military base outside Kandahar. Birds flew in the dark hall, building nests in the ceiling lights.

“How you doing?” I asked Kluwe, 30, reaching for his hand. I had just arrived for my third embed with the 82nd Airborne Division as a reporter.

“A little up, a little down,” he said, helping with my backpack.

He had just lost six Air Force friends. They had flown out of the Kandahar base on a Sunday night to help two children with head and eye injuries in a village near Mazar-e Sarif. Their helicopter crashed close to Ghazni, about three hours south of Kabul. Mechanical failure.

“An accident,” Kluwe said. “They could have died that way at home. They shouldn’t have had to come out here to die that way here.”

Kluwe had introduced me to many of his friends on base during my first embed. I tried to recall if I had met anyone from the Air Force but couldn’t. They had a memorial service at Bagram Air Base for Kluwe’s dead friends just before I boarded a military aircraft for Kandahar. I covered it, no more than a brief, a few lines for the wires. Had they died in combat, I would have been allowed to make a story out of it. But they didn’t.

“This would be big news if it wasn’t for all the shit going on in Iraq,” a photographer said to me at the ceremony.

He showed me his digital photos of men weeping, clutching each other, their hands dug into each other’s shoulders, their faces tearful and bewildered. Not worth more than a brief.

“I’d just finished a barbecue and playing volleyball with them,” Kluwe said after I put my backpack, vest and helmet in a corner. “I left to do some laundry, and they went on their mission. Sometime later, I don’t know, someone came into the laundry room and said, ‘You’d better come out and hear this.’”

I didn’t say anything. I watched the birds swoop around their nest. I listened to the noise of the wind tugging at the plastic strips. The cotton-thick humidity layered me.

I met Kluwe three weeks ago. He was the Army’s media supervisor on a military operation in southeastern Afghanistan. I was one of three reporters assigned to the 504th Battalion of the 82nd.

Kluwe had asked us if we’d ever been shot at and warned us to be “situationally aware.” We were not to fall behind or stop moving even if we dropped our equipment.

“You’re going to be cold, wet, miserable,” he said. “You’re going to get enemy fire. Can you handle that?”

We nodded. He told us soldiers would risk their lives for a fellow soldier because a bond forms in the service that can’t be broken by bullets or fear. He doubted any soldier would jeopardize his life for us.

“I got to baby-sit these guys,” Kluwe would tell other soldiers in the days leading up to the mission.

We dubbed him “Poppa.” We were confident that beneath the gruff talk he’d cover our tails. If he wanted to talk like a football coach, that was all right. He took us to dinner, introduced us to friends and made sure we had enough food and water for the operation. Despite himself, we felt he liked us and we liked him. I learned later he got airsick. He carried ziplock plastic bags with him to puke in whenever he flew in a Chinook. In those moments of vulnerability, I saw him as a young man, much younger than me, in uniform in a place neither of us had any reason to be. But I had more than 40 years of living behind me. He had just 25. If he died like his buddies, what impressions would he leave? How would he be remembered? For serving his country? For how long would that memory linger and be appreciated by 25 year olds at home who would marry, have children, careers and lives much longer than his?

I considered these questions as I looked at Kluwe and listened to him try to articulate a grief impossible to describe. To lose someone in an accident back home is one thing. To lose someone you worry may die in combat to mechanical failure raises the bar on incomprehension to stratospheric heights of absurdity that leave you mute with outrage.

I said nothing. I had no words to comfort him. I liked him but we were not so close that I knew what to say to him about the loss of his friends.

I think he wished he had been near Ghazni. Had been there to help his friends no matter how hopeless the situation. Going through the wreckage, gripping their hands in his. Something. Instead he was left alone with his laundry.

“There’s still a lot of fighting going on here,” Kluwe said watching the birds carrying branches to their nest. “There’s still a whole lot of dying.”

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