Specialist Andrew Stock
In my second deployment, a FOB in Kabul, Afghanistan, we spent long hours in watchtowers or on foot patrols around the small camp we were assigned to guard and defend. During this time I learned that the nature of reality and the cause of all suffering is desire. I set upon a path to free my mind from the binding chains of this illusory reality, or Samsara (rebirth or transmigration). It was easy to meditate and be at ease of mind, because no violence was being perpetrated against us.
Yet I carried a terrible burden. My oath to uphold and defend the Constitution was a barrier between my current situation and a life free of suffering. How could I foster compassion for my fellow human beings and at the same time ensure my M240B machine gun was accurate and clean, my ammunition coiled properly in the feedbags, and my crew trained and operational? I would walk the path of demons and give up hope of mental and spiritual liberation for my honor, as well as for the life debt I owed to my worldly comrades in arms.
A good friend, Sergeant Moon, asked me one day before we left for Afghanistan whether I would be able to pull the trigger. I had confided in a few about my realization that acts of violence only set us back, and that true liberation and peace would come through nonviolence and compassion. Men at arms do not care for true liberation and peace I soon realized. Most only want their three hots and a cot. Upon taking my oath, however, I was reborn into a platoon of men at arms. I'll pull the trigger, Sergeant. Don't you worry about that. I keep my word.
Every day before patrol, I prayed that no target would present itself. I kept a tin bracelet engraved with the Sanskrit mantra Ommani padme hum (the mantra of the bodhisattva of compassion) on the buttstock of my machine gun. I wrapped a long sandalwood mala-bead necklace around an ammo can. "Keep my brothers safe and my enemies away from me" became a near constant mantra that I would repeat before and after meditations.
One night our four trucks are on patrol outside of Taji. The sky is clear and the stars crystalline in their perfection. A distant explosion, and soon after a call comes over the net that 2nd Platoon's patrol has been hit by an IED. One truck disabled, backup requested. We're en route before the order for us to move is even given.
The hit truck lies upside down beside a smoking hole in the road. An angelic, blessed Black Hawk is already flying away, taking the casualties to safety. Their patrol's leader, the platoon sergeant, is screaming mad. As he curses furiously into the night, a squad leader tries to hold him back, because he is fighting to get to the nearest house. "I know you're fucking in there! I'll fucking kill every last one of you fucking people!" The driver, Blakeslee, the fastest runner in the company, has had his knee destroyed. The gunner, Dawes, is pinned under the upside-down truck while burning motor oil boils the skin off his face.
A gray morning is in full bloom by the time we get orders to return to base. With dragging tires, we slowly roll back to the FOB. As we pass through a market intersection a mile or two from the incident, a small boy in a doorway slices his fingers across his throat, glaring at me. I dash all thoughts of compassion and freedom from this life of suffering, shatter them against the raging inferno. Hatred has me by the throat. Choking despair and churning fear all boil into one cataclysmic ball of loathing and pity. The tragedy of war is the realization that it would be all too easy to exterminate everything. I understand immediately how a company of soldiers could burn and murder a village. I understand the nature of hatred. Vile and corrupt, gladly does one put the noose around his own neck for a chance to strike out with murderous vengeance against those who would seize our cherished way of life and throttle the breath out of its lungs. Fear, loss, and pain are the bedfellows of maddening hatred.
Later, the bombs would fall around me, but I would never see a target of opportunity. Always the ghosts and the bombs and the craters, never a chance to let hot 7.62mm bullets fly. I would come to realize that the enemy is as hateful and murderous as we are. When crossing bloodied pools of former children or cleaning up the body parts of a voting assembly or finding a suicide bomber burning in his own failed contraption, the hatred flies both ways. Boiling, we stew in this cook pot of war. There is evil in the world, and it lies within the acceptance of war and violence.
Time passes and I find myself outside of the military. Home. Standing at a Valero gas station, a lone cigarette as my refuge, I find a shadowed corner to crouch in. I still haven't figured out what to do with this rage inside. A Muslim-American woman walks into the store. I try in earnest to stamp out this irrational racism I feel. It's all too easy to think of that village, that boy with murder in his eyes. The murderous intent burns you alive.
Specialist Andrew Stock, US Army, served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
MOS: 118 Infantry
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Excerpt from OUTSIDE THE WIRE: American Soldiers' Voices from Afghanistan. Edited by Christine Dumaine Leche. Foreword by Brian Turner, author of "The Hurt Locker." University of Virginia Press; April 2013. Copyright 2013.