Fiction: The Friends of the Fallen
August 19, 2011 Leave a comment
Some years ago, I met Dr. Jenny, an animal-rights crusader with remarkable stories about saving the pets of fallen soldiers in Iraq. Through her passion and persistence, she was somehow able to affect change in the military bureaucracy. In my mind, the families of many brave souls rest easier because of Jenny, and what better legacy could there be for a true hero?
I remember going to the movies the day before I joined the army. They were showing a fresh print of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and I wanted to prepare myself for boot camp. It was pretty intense, but I remember laughing out loud when Matthew Modine talked about why he volunteered.
“I want to go to Vietnam, meet interesting and stimulating people of an ancient culture… and kill them,” he said.
So six years later when I got to Afghanistan, I found that war wasn’t like that at all. In fact, it was kind of reversed.
See, I’m the last guy you want to meet when you’re in-country. I’m the Mortuary Affairs Officer, the guy that packs you up in the transfer tube and sends you home. They don’t call them body bags any more.
It’s morning on base and the coffee is cold and bitter. Corporal Janus comes with a clipboard, but he doesn’t hand it to me right away. Instead, he is mumbling about some raid last night in Kandahar, 20 clicks to the east.
I motion for him to hand me the thing and he hesitates. “Last night,” he says, handing me the clipboard. “Private Hanson. I believe you knew him.”
I read the report. Hanson’s squad was on patrol when insurgents ambushed them. He jumped in the way of the bullet meant for his buddy.
Under the report is a manila envelope. It says, “From Dr. Jenny Feinstein.”
“What the fuck is this?” I ask Corporal Janus. He winces a bit and says that she stopped by again this morning with the envelope, saying it had to do with the late Private Hanson.
“She said it was urgent that she speaks with you,” he says. “You’re supposed to read that letter before you say no.”
Dr. Jenny has been a pain my ass since she arrived last month. She’s some kind of animal rescue nut and she cornered me at the USO. It was a particularly bad day. Roadside IED. Five dead. She started babbling about orphaned dogs and I was drunk and pissed off and wouldn’t have any of it.
I breathe a sigh of disgust and rip open the envelope. There’s two photos, the first is a picture of Private Hanson smiling away in his fatigues holding a fucked up looking cat with a Mohawk kind of haircut on its head.
I look at the photo for a while. Hanson was a good kid. Bright. Well-liked. I taught him how to shoot pool.
“Uh, sir? She’s back.”
I’m about to bite the corporal’s head off when I see the second picture. It shows a much-younger Dr. Jenny pushing a stretcher in front of a medical tent. Looks like a MASH unit. Vietnam.
Attached to the photo is a sticky note. It simply says, “Hear me out.”
Janus shows her in and I ask him to close the door.
Dr. Jenny is not the package you might expect for a crusader. She’s Tiny. Thick glasses. British. 60-ish. Maybe 5 foot with heels on.
“Thank you for seeing me today, Lieutenant,” she says. “I want to talk to you about Private Hanson’s pet.”
“His unit has already packaged up his property,” I tell her. “We’re set to fly his remains home on the C-130 tomorrow.”
“I need your help to get his cat home,” she says. “Only you can sign the order to put his pet on that plane.”
I look at her. “His kitty cat is not the Army’s concern,” I tell her. “We need to return this soldier to his family and put him to rest.”
“Look, Lieutenant,” she says. “That cat was all he had here in-country. He rescued the animal from the streets when it faced certain death. He nursed it back to health.”
“I’m sorry,” I tell her. “The army has protocol for everthing when it comes to a fallen soldier. The funeral procession, the honor guard, the way the flag is wrapped, everything.”
I hand her back the picture of Hanson with the mohawk cat. “There’s simply no protocol for this.”
Dr. Jenny looks at me for a moment. For a minute, I think that maybe she’s going to give up. Instead, she hands me another photograph.
“You see that dog? His owner was killed in Iraq,” she says. “When that mutt got off the plane at Dover Air Force Base, it ran right to the boy’s family in a middle of a crowd, even though the dog had never met them. The thing is, all the pets do that. They just know.”
“Why are you showing me this?” I ask her.
“Private Hanson,” she says. “Don’t you think this is what he would have wanted?”
When Dr. Jenny leaves, there is no gloating. Just a hug, which I reluctantly accept. The little mink grabs my ass though. No one’s watching after all, but if my C.O. catches wind of any of this, I am never going to hear the end of it.
And like that guy in the movie, I find myself wanting to travel to strange places and meet exotic people. For now, I don’t get to go. I just send them back. It’s a bad rap so please don’t blame the messenger. When I can, I’ll send you a little piece of their soul, even if it’s just a fucked up looking cat from the other side of the world.