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Keeping The Peace: A Soldier's Viewpoint
By Tom Waltz  (CONTINUED)

one where you basically make sure no one goes in or comes out of the building that's being investigated-other than authorized personnel, of course. I'd been a part of security details a bunch of times, and they had all been boring. This one was a bit different than the ones in the past, though; I had never worked directly with fellow peacekeepers from other countries before.

The French had the eastern wall of the building, and my squad took up the other three sides. I was working the north-facing wall, right around the corner from a French soldier on the eastern side. He and I both had the area of responsibility across the intersection that saddled up to the corner. Basically, what we were watching were the buildings across the street and the hills behind them for anything suspicious-your typical "needle in a haystack" job.

As the investigation was starting to wind down (I don't know if they ever found any weapons or not), the French guy next to me suddenly let out a sound like someone getting punched in the stomach. Then he fell back against the corner of the building and slid to the ground. I was just getting ready to say, "What the fuck ?" when I heard the delayed report of a gun shot from the direction he had been watching.

"Shot!" I hollered, ducking low and grabbing the French guy under his armpits. I dragged him as fast as I could around to my side and plopped him down. The whole time I continued yelling, "Shot! Shot! East side! Sniper!"

There was another crack of gunfire from the same place as the first, and then I heard return fire sounding off from the other French soldiers on the east wall. I figured they must have seen something and were shooting back. I looked down at the guy I had pulled over.

He had been shot in the throat, and there was blood pouring out from the entry wound and from where the bullet had blasted out through his back. He was gasping for breath and the first thing I noticed was how his tongue and teeth were covered with sticky red globs of blood. His eyes were wide and scared and he kept trying to say something to me. As he did, speckles of blood flew out of his mouth and landed on his face. I kneeled down next to him and it dawned on me that he was speaking French, so I listened even though I didn't understand a word he was saying. I pulled his helmet off.

"It's okay, man," was all I could think to say, stroking his hair, keeping half an eye on the corner in front of us, the other half on him. He kept babbling in French, and I could see he was crying. It made my stomach hurt. "It's okay."

Suddenly, the firing on the eastern side stopped and everything became stone silent. Just for a second, I glanced up, my attention drawn by the new quiet. There was nothing to see, so I looked back at the French soldier.

He wasn't talking anymore, and he wasn't crying. I stared at his blood-splattered face and felt a lump fill my throat.

He looked younger than me. And he was dead.


Another day, another security detail. This one was two days ago. We were guarding U.N. and NATO investigators at the site of a reported mass grave. I didn't see much while I was working there, but I saw enough. It's not something I like to think about.

It's something I'll never forget.

The first thing was the smell. It was awful, piercing, like nothing I'd ever breathed in before. But that's not saying enough, not even close. It was a stench so powerful, so vile, that it was like I was wearing it, like it wrapped itself around me, tight, tighter, wanting to choke me, to gag me, to pollute me. To violate me. There were four guys that puked their guts out while we were there, and God knows it's a miracle I didn't. It was so, so terrible. But I'd take the smell any day, by itself, over what I saw.

It turned out that it was a mass grave after all, and the investigators and some of the locals began to carefully remove bodies from the huge hole. Like I said before, security detail means you keep people away from what you're guarding, so I was facing in the opposite direction of the dreadful work being done behind me. But I guess curiosity got the better of me, because I sneaked a peek back at the investigators and gravediggers, anyway. To the day I die I'll wish I hadn't.

I caught sight of one of the men, wearing a sky blue U.N. helmet on his head, coming out of the grave, and in his arms was a body. A small, tiny, murdered body.

A baby.

I turned around with a jerk, back to my assigned security position, staring away from the grave. My heart was pounding, my face was hot, my mind was numb. I looked out at the land in front of me -a harsh, desolate place at best. About fifty meters away from me was a tall, bare tree, naked for the winter season. Standing there, with its skinny, dark trunk and spindly branches pointing off in all directions, it almost looked dead. But it wasn't dead. It was only sleeping, waiting for the sun . . . waiting to bloom again.

The half-rotten baby I'd just seen wasn't only sleeping, though. That baby would never bloom. Ever. Until that moment I hadn't known how truly evil hatred and prejudice makes people.

I continued to stare misty-eyed at the old tree in front of me while behind me the dead were being harvested : one by one . . . men and women . . . boys and girls.


But today was a quiet day. I got back to the bivouac area and found a letter from my parents waiting for me on my cot. My best friend in the unit, Mike Simmons, a private first class like me, was there. His cot is next to mine and he was already laid out on it, reading a letter he had received.

"Who's that from ?" I asked him as I opened the envelope from my mom and dad.

He stopped reading and gazed up at me. "Oh," he said. His eyes looked as tired as mine felt. "It's from a buddy of mine back home in Michigan. We went to high school together. He goes to the university there now and he's kind of turned into a jerk. You know, one of those people who think they fuckin know everything just because they're in college. Never mind the fact that he's never gone further away from home then to Florida to look at girls in wet t-shirts for spring break."

I nodded and told him that I knew the type. He returned his eyes back to the letter.

"At least he writes, though," he finished, and then continued to read. Outside a pair of low-flying fighter jets screamed by.

I read the letter from home. The news was basically the same as always : everyone was fine, my nephews were growing fast, the weather was cold but probably nothing compared to what I was in the middle of, they all missed me, and so on. I could tell my mom had written the letter, but at the bottom, in my father's neat, block handwriting, was a quick little note. "Hang in there, son. We're all very proud," it said. My dad doesn't always say much, but sometimes the things he does say make all the difference in the world. I smiled.

I started to fold the letter back up, when next to me Mike suddenly blurted out, "You gotta be kiddin' me!" He held the letter from his high-school friend in both hands out in front of him, staring at it with an incredulous look on his face. "You gotta be kiddin," he said again.

"What ?" I asked. "What'd he say ?"

Mike stood up and handed me the letter. "Read the last paragraph," he told me, shaking his head. "Fuckin college know-it-all," he grumbled, sitting back on his cot.

I took the letter and skimmed down to the bottom. The handwriting was typical male chicken scratch, but it was readable. I got to the last paragraph.

"Well, I better get going, Mikey Boy," it said. "I got final exams this week and I should study. Man, you're lucky not having to cram with schoolwork like this while you're over there playing soldier. I'll bet you're glad they got you doing that peacekeeping shit instead of putting you in the middle of a real war. Otherwise you might have to see some fucked up shit."

I stopped at that point. I thought about the blood on Corporal Watson's face. I thought about the French kid dying in my arms. I thought about the U.N. guy carrying the bloated corpse of that baby. I thought about how much these people hate, hate, hate each other. The thoughts spun through my brain like a tornado after I read that paragraph, and I felt angry . . . betrayed even.

What the fuck do people think ? I wondered. What do they think this is all about ?

I continued to stare at the letter for a second, then I looked up at Mike and smiled. I mean, what else could I do ?

"Well," I said, my smile growing even bigger. "At least he writes."

We both started laughing then. Uninhibited and raucous, we laughed until there were tears in our eyes. Yeah . . . we laughed and laughed, so loud that for once we couldn't hear the violent sounds of "peacekeeping" outside.



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