THE COMING OF A STORM |
July 22, 2013
Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan
The coming rain hung heavy in the summer air. I waited and scanned the field in front of me with a clear mind, eyes open, breathing cordite in, heart pumping in my chest and whooshing in my ears. Jason called the targets with one hand on my shoulder and fed ammo into the gun. The M240 stuttered reassuringly against my body. The silhouettes fell in strings of three and four as the rounds walked across them in perfectly timed ten-round bursts. With Jason at my side, I was shooting better than ever before; everything seemed right. I burned my hand trying to help with a barrel change from behind the gun. I knew better and, through my Peltors, I could hear Jason laughing at me as the acrid smoke curled up off of my gloved hand. It was the last time I remember hearing him laugh.
The storm clouds rolled in over the pine trees in the distance like a dark tide coming ashore. I had no idea what they would portend that day; what sadness they might wash over us. The range disappeared in the storm and that is where my memory of that day ends.
I spoke at Jason’s funeral a few months later. His photograph, boots, and rifle stood next to me on the stage. Looking out across the chapel at his parents sitting in the front row, I felt fear welling up inside of me. I wanted to hear Jason’s voice, to feel the reassuring touch of his hand on my shoulder, to have him there with me, talking me onto the target. My vision went blurry, my hands trembled and I felt my voice begin to crack. All I could hear was the ringing in my ears. I paused to collect myself and recall being grateful it didn’t matter that I couldn’t read my prepared remarks.
Jason and I shared many days on the range over the decade before his death. That is where we gathered to practice our trade. That last day on the range with him is now one of my most vivid memories. As it was happening, I knew in my soul that it was special — I just didn’t know why. But I do now.
We stood in my office and I looked at him, a man I had known for over a decade. Before me stood a competent and capable young NCO, newly married with a bright future ahead of him. I signed his out-processing forms, shook his hand and hugged him before he walked out of my office. I never thought that it would be the last time I would see him, or hear his voice, or hold his hand in mine.
Jason took his own life a few weeks later. There are many reasons, but no explanations. I have searched my soul, my heart, and every fold of my memory without success. I have stared blankly at the ice in the bottom of a tumbler alone at night, but even there I could not find a satisfactory answer. Instead of continuing to search for that elusive answer, now I just wonder if Jason remembered that day on the range the way I do. I hope he did. I hope he does. I hope I always will.
I helped bury him at Arlington National Cemetery where chalk-line straight rows of stone course across rolling hills. From his grave I counted identical white marble markers with the names of five other men I knew; six souls within a hundred meters of each other. Two of them took their own lives. The war took the others. Perhaps the war took all of them. It was a day of brilliant sun and I silently wished for a storm to come and make the field before me disappear. I cannot recall anything else about that day, nothing of significance anyway.
Whenever I hear gunfire now, no matter where I am or how far away the sound of the guns are, I smile and think of Jason. It does not make me sad.