A Service of brainline.org
Sgt. Wells's New Skull
He goes to war and wonders what it will be like if he gets hit. Will he be tough, maybe heroic? Will he piss himself? How bad will it hurt? He isn't sure when, but at some point the thought shifts from the possible to the inevitable. When he gets hit. Because now he's sure it's going to happen.
This is how it goes.
The dreams come first. Every night he huddles on the rooftop with his squad and the grenades rain down. They aren't wearing their body armor, just T-shirts. He tries to cover his men with his arms, but he can't protect them. He's helpless. And the grenades keep falling.
After he's sent out to pick up what's left of the suicide bomber, still smoking and too hot to put in the body bag, that dream is joined by this one: He lies in bed, waiting for sleep, and hears something down on the floor, scratching, sliding. There's the bomber, a head and a torso, just as they'd found him, crawling toward him in the darkness.
Staff Sergeant Brian Wells has been in Iraq ten months. This is getting old. Time to go home.
But he stays, we all stay, because that's the Army and that's war.
On April 23, 2005, First Lieutenant Dan Hurd, Wells, and his squad are preparing for a foot patrol in a village just west of Baghdad, searching for weapons caches. With a cockeyed smile, Hurd tells Wells he might want to keep his distance from him today. "I dreamt last night I blew up on a dismounted patrol," he says. "I saw my wife speaking at the funeral."
Wells laughs. "I have horrible dreams every night," he tells Hurd. One bad dream is no big deal.
A few hours later, just before sunset, they're outside a metal shop, near an artillery round they've just found. That's a win for the day, one less roadside bomb. Hurd and Wells are standing with Captain Scott Shaw, the company commander, talking about finding some cover. No sense staying out in the open. And now Hurd is watching Wells fall. He didn't hear the bullet snap past his right shoulder, but a second later, with Wells already unconscious and halfway to the dirt, he hears the shot.
Now he's yelling.
The soundtrack of war would probably bore you. Mostly you'd hear bullshitting and bitching. But sometimes you'd hear long rips of machine-gun fire and explosions so loud, they box your ears and rumble in your chest. That's exhilarating. So that's war, you'd say with a greedy, giddy smirk. And sometimes you'd hear something that shoves your guts into your throat. A sharp, short, desperate cry.
Shaw is yelling, too.
"He's dead! He's dead!"
Now all sound is drowned out by gunfire as the platoon rakes an apartment building four hundred meters to the northeast, which everyone figures is the origin of the shot. If there's a sniper in the building, this should keep him from firing again. The racket builds in coughs and spurts. Every four rounds, the rifles and machine guns spit out tracer rounds that glow red as they zip through the air at a half mile a second.
Dust is rising around the apartment building as bullets pulverize the concrete. Someone calls out a target. Brown car. The gunmen are leaving in a brown car. Across the canal to our front, maybe two hundred meters away, a gray sedan comes into view and the gunner on my Humvee starts firing, throwing rounds across the canal, blowing out the back windows of the car, which stops. I'm standing outside the truck, using the open armored door as cover, with my rifle raised to my eye. My ears ring from the machine gun barking beside me. Through my scope I track the driver. Easy shot. He's getting out of his car now, hesitating, terrified. He's back in and speeding away, clearly not the gunman. I lower my rifle. But I could have killed him, and no one much would have cared.
The platoon's medic is off that day, so the job falls on Specialist Scott McCarthy, an infantryman trained as an EMT. Every day that he's the assigned medic, he prays no one is hurt on patrol. He joined the Army to shoot guns and kick in doors, not to be responsible for saving his friends' lives. He's eating Tostitos and salsa on the hood of a Humvee when Wells is shot. He hears the call and sprints around the corner with the aid bag, a mobile ER packed with thirty pounds of IVs, morphine, splints, airway tubes, and bandages.
Panic crowds his thoughts. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. There's Wells, lying on his back, eyes closed. Shaw is kneeling beside him, shielding his body. "Get down," he tells McCarthy, not wanting another soldier dropped by the sniper. "He's dead." McCarthy hears him, but not really. He doesn't hear much at all. Everything's foggy, quiet, far away. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. He lowers his ear to Wells's mouth and feels breath. "No he's not!" he yells. "He's alive!"
The bullet struck the edge of his helmet, just above his left ear, punched through the layers of Kevlar, split the top of his ear, and drove into his skull, shooting fragments of bullet and bone into his brain. Blood seeps from the wound and congeals in a pool in the dust. McCarthy slides his fingers to the back of Wells's head, feeling for an exit wound, but there isn't one. Thank the helmet for that. Without something to slow down a tiny cone of metal traveling at nearly two thousand miles an hour, Wells wouldn't need a medic, might not have a brain left in his skull. As it is, the bullet has done plenty of damage. Before putting a piece of gauze over the entrance wound, McCarthy sees bits of brain mixed in with the blood. It looks like greasy sausage.
There's a half dozen people working on him now. Cutting off his web gear and body armor. Loosening his boots. Sticking his arms with IVs. McCarthy kneels behind Wells, cradling his head, squeezing it, really, with his left hand clamped over the wound. Our interpreter, Sala, who must be sixty-five but walks with us in the heat every day, is crouched by McCarthy. "Wells! Wake up!" There's pain in his voice. "Wake up, Wells!" And soon he does. His body shifts. He moans and mumbles.
The Black Hawk is fifty feet overhead and thwacking madly, covering us in a wave of dust. The pilot sets down on a soccer field and a knot of soldiers shuffle to the bird, taking turns as stretcher bearers. McCarthy trips and falls to his knees but is up again, his blood-soaked hands never leaving Wells's head. They load the stretcher, shut the door, and the bird rises. We watch it disappear, headed for the Green Zone, and we wonder if Wells is dead.
From Esquire magazine, March 14, 2007. Copyright © 2006 by Brian Mockenhaupt. All rights reserved. www.esquire.com.