We are walking into occupied territory. Tension is high. We are on high alert. I'm on the left flank of the only armored vehicle we have left. We had to salvage scrap to repair it yesterday. We grazed a roadside mine. Joey lost his leg. We are hot, tired, and loaded with gear. We are walking into what was once a city. Buildings are skeletons of steal and concrete. The road is passable and no civilians in sight. They either knew we were coming or they were smart enough to abandon the place. There are plenty of good places for snipers at the other end of the street. I am hoping sergeant decides to send out a scout to tell us what is farther on. I doubt he will. We are short on men. I feel like I am ready to run the gambit. We will be like ducks in a carnival shooting gallery. There is nowhere to hide.
I'm more worried about my throat closing off from thirst then I am a firefight right now. I'm starting to get dizzy. I'll be no good to anyone if I don't get a drink. Half way down the single main street of the small city is an opening to the left. Looks like what is left of a parking lot in front of what was once a large building. It could have been a school. We stop next to a pile of ruins to rest and check the maps. I relax just enough to get a drink from my canteen. With the flask still at my lips my eyes sweep over the mass of broken concrete and steel. Then I see it. Only ten feet way from my boot a dirty but otherwise perfectly plump child's hand is sticking out from under the rubble. For just a moment it feels like my heart stops. The father in me wanted to save the child. Pull it free and place it in the arms of a happy mother. The soldier in me knows we don't have time to save the child. Rationally I know it has to be dead. We bombed this place days ago. There could be snipers and sometimes they plant mines under bodies. They play on our sympathy as a means to kill us. It's not hard to hate them. But that child had nothing to do with this war.
They call it collateral damage. I'm not even sure what that means. I'll look it up when I make it back. I've seen some crazy shit. Things they could never show in the movies. They say you can't explain it to them back home. They can never understand. I wouldn't want my loved ones to understand. The way I see it we're not just protecting their lives. We're protecting their innocence. As fare as I can tell that's what the world really hates about the US, it's ignorance to all the pain and injustice in the world. But when you think on it that's all anyone wants, to live without fear and suffering.
Chad punches me in the arm and I snap back into the moment. "You thinking too much again?" He hasn't lost his young and foolish smirk yet. I point at the hand with the mussel of my M16. He sees it and the smirk slides off his face. "Think we can do anything about it?" All I can do is shake my head. Words fail me. Our decision is made for us in no time. The sergeant barks orders and we are back on the move.
I hook my canteen back to my belt and shoulder my riffle. Keeping my boots to a steady pace with the tank I pass the rubble before I realize it. I can't keep myself from looking back at the hand, someone's child left to rot by the road. What can I do? I miss my daughters. I pray they are safe. We are here to keep this from ever happening to our families. I am falling behind. I double steep it back to my position. I resume the sweeping motion, scanning for distant snipers. It's my job.