Sensitive Content Warning: This story contains scenes of fighting, war, blood, and death.
My ears rang as the barrage of artillery rained down around me as I stumble- walked- ran bleary-eyed through the unfamiliar hilly terrain. In all my years in the small town where I’d grown up, I’d never seen such chaos. Such utter destruction. No video game had ever prepared me for what I had come to witness. I wanted to close my eyes to it all but that would mean my immediate demise. So, I struggled on. Losing my bearings in all the anarchy, I got turned around and lost track of our base camp location.
I had become separated from my unit in the last skirmish and had been alone for close to a week of rain-soaked days with little to eat and even less to drink. Delirium and dread were my sole companions as I skulked through battle-torn districts and blood-soaked fields filled with fallen soldiers. Sleeping by day and walking only at night to stay in the shadows made it harder to find my unit, but it was the only way forward that somewhat guaranteed my tenuous safety.
My feet were like open sores within my boots from being wet for so many days. Trench foot they called it. The squelching sounds a constant worry of disclosing my location to our adversaries. The blisters a not-too-distant second concern. I walked for many hours in the fringes of an unforgiving forest until I heard shots ring out in the distance - a battle taking place! I knew it had to be my unit. I had been following a trail of debris and demise for days. Initially, I began to run at high speed toward the clamor, pleased to have found my place amongst the men once again, but then I began to falter. What exactly was I running back to? All the fighting again? Just to possibly lose my life like so many others before me? The war had definitely lost its glimmer and shine for me. I just wanted to be home with my family. That’s all that really mattered anymore. That’s all that ever really mattered to me in the first place. It was the reason I had signed up for this war. To protect my family. Isn’t that why we were all fighting this war? To protect our families? Our loved ones?
Lost in thought, I tripped right into a foxhole and came up staring at a rifle pointing directly into my face! I slowly raised my hands and looked toward the owner of the rifle. Our eyes locked onto each other. It was like looking into a mirror. I could see the disillusionment written all over his face. The bitter hurt and betrayal. The desire to just be home in a warm bed again. Tears threatened to spill from his eyes. We stood there in tense silence as the war raged all around us. He with his rifle, me with my hands up in the air, for a few very long minutes, until I slowly lowered my hands and he slowly lowered his gun.
No words were exchanged. They weren’t required. We were both boys. Fighting a man’s war. Boys who now understood that they wanted no part of this war.
We sat in that foxhole all through the night and through the next day, each silently pondering our own existence. As luck would have it, he was of a kind nature. He shared some of his food and water rations with me. Since I had nothing to share in return, I showed him a picture of my family from home. We bonded in a way that mere words could never express. I may never know his name, but I will always call him my friend.
When the second night dawned, he pointed to a path in the forest that my unit had come through that would eventually lead me back to them. I almost did not want to leave the safety of our little foxhole. It was the first place where I had found solidarity. Comfort. Empathy. From the supposed enemy. In the middle of a war. But wretchedly I had to leave, as did he. So we each made our way to our respective units to fight another day. To tell another tale. To die another day if the fates so chose.
I came into this war bright-eyed and full of optimism that can only be held in youth or ignorance. My heart and soul belie the nineteen years that this body has lived. I no longer see things in black and white. I now see all the gray and blood in between. I see the hurt and pain and strife that causes anguish where I once only saw a direct order. I am forever changed in the blink of an eye. I began my journey with one mindset. But have turned a page in the book of life.
Making my way across the now deserted battlefield toward the forest, seeing the remains of those who had lost their lives as I huddled in the foxhole the previous night, I shuddered as I realized that could have been me. Or my nameless friend back there. I had never been the religious type and did not know any specific prayers, but I said a silent prayer that night to any higher power that might be listening to please end this war, and stop any war that might ever come again, for the lives it takes are beyond any measure. It steals not only life but love and hopes as well. I prayed my prayer fervently that I might be heard as I trekked through the darkness of the forbidding forest. The biting cold nipping at my skin. The moon peeking through the overbrush gave me small glimpses of light to guide my way. I walked slowly. My boots announcing my advancement with each step. Knowing that I would be reunited with my unit. Knowing that my time to fight would be upon me once again.