When you look in the mirror, or at a dark window, or the surface of a puddle, you see your reflection, the product of a physical object (you) perceived in the form of light by your eye and transmitted as an impulse to your brain. That is pretty much what a written reflection is, too: when you as a writer process something you have seen or learned about through the lens of your own perspective. You have probably done it in class, when a professor asked you to write a personal response to a film you watched or a book you read, or out of class in the form of a journal or diary entry.
In the example below, "I Have Your Back," set in Afghanistan, BCC student and veteran Alex Rodriguez explores the meaning of brotherhood in an intense scene of risk and violence. This personal essay first appeared in the most recent issue of THESIS.
What have you learned lately that is worth reflecting on?
by Alex Rodriguez
The year was 2004, and like most my age, I should have been in some tropical location in board shorts and sandals wondering what drink I was going to use to feed my continuous state of intoxication. This is how any 21 year-old would be savoring Spring Break. It was what I daydreamed about as I marched, in seemingly perfect alignment with the man to my left and the man to my right, through some impoverished Afghan’s excuse for a farm. How can a farm exist in a place that had not known the sweet caress or taste of nature’s most precious commodity in so long? A drought had gripped Afghanistan since 1998. Every river and stream that had once filled this country with life and vigor was now a dry wadi, a mere remnant of what once was. Hell was what this place had become, the heat always visible as waves were dispatched from a ground that could no longer absorb the punishment it was being dealt by the sun.
I was a grunt, a Marine infantryman, a hardened warrior who had already endured the trials and tribulations of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This second go-around was very different, a trip backwards through time to a place where Abraham almost killed his son and Moses returned from a mountain bearing stones with rules for all to follow. Electricity seemed scarce and the things you and I take for granted could not be found in the common man’s home. Radios and flashlights were not used, so that the expense of batteries would not be a burden. I’m sure that in Kabul and some other urban regions this may not have been the case, but what I had seen and encountered was nothing short of mind-boggling. Homes were compounds built entirely with mud, dung and hay. Their living rooms were outdoor courtyards where tiny doorways with homemade wooden doors hid little rooms used as kitchens and bedrooms.
Even in these conditions my morale was high. I was amongst my brothers who, except for the small matter of DNA, were closer to me than any could ever ponder or dream. When I was not in the middle of something tumultuous, my days were spent laughing like one might have done as a small child on the school playground. I sat in tents, hooches and under any cover I could find, hiding from the sun, as my friends and I pursued world-renowned fame as the best Spades players around. Every detail of my life was known through conversations carried out standing next to a water buffalo or waiting in line for the Port-A-John. There wasn’t anything that I wouldn’t have done for them or them for me to guarantee our safe passages back home. These were my brothers.
That day had started out like any other day: wake up, pack up, brush teeth, shave, mount up and ride out. Arriving at the outskirts of a small village, which had not encountered anything like that which was about to descend upon them since the Russians had been there. I prepared for that day’s operations. It is called a “Cordon and Knock,’ where my fellow scouts and I, covered in at least seventy pounds of gear and carrying weapons that make your grandpa’s shot gun look like a bb gun, destroy any preconceived notion of privacy you might have had up to that point and time, rifling and searching through every inch of your home. This particular town was down in a valley, just under where my vehicle had moved into position.
I searched house after house, and after what had become agonizing suicide-inducing monotony, the day was finally coming to a close. As the sun began to sink out of the sky, releasing its evil grip of heat from the scorched earth, my team - Adam Westport the team leader, David Bass the rifleman, and I - came to the last house of the day. I was the last man as we stacked along the outside wall, preparing for entry into yet another unknown situation. Bass kicked in the door, tearing it off its top hinge, causing a sound like a whip being cracked. I crept in, a cat burglar going in for the jewels, as we made our way just past the wall that was keeping us out of sight. Abruptly, our green rifleman Bass shouted, “Enemy!” Rounds began to crackle out of his rifle like a child firing away with a toy cap gun. The entire scene seemed surreal. Westport, being the second man in, was now firing away himself. They stood side by side unleashing a barrage of bullets, but the trajectory of their bodies began to change. It seemed that the enemy was charging at them.
Their muzzles began to point low towards the ground. I thought to myself, “This guy must be short or crawling on the ground.” Then, as if straight out of the movie Cujo, a gigantic, white, polar bear resembling dog entered my field of vision. He charged still, now headed straight at me, as the hot metal of the projectiles tore into his flesh. Blood splattered along his body as a bullet shred his cheek in half. He was, in that moment, more like an unstoppable freight train than a dog. I stood there, a foot or so behind my friends, as their muzzles now began to make their way inwards towards each other, still firing. Anxious by that point I shouldered my shotgun, the smell of the gun oil trying to escape my nostrils by way of the back of my throat. In this vacuum of time, I stood outside myself and watched my body moving motionlessly as I aimed the shotgun at the beast. My iron sight grew in size against the shape of the dog and the sound of his heavy breathing grew louder with each inch of his approach. I squeezed the trigger, never actually hearing the round explode out of my barrel. Immediately Westport grabbed for his elbow and screamed, “You shot me! Bass, you shot...”
“No, it wasn’t me,’ Bass wailed back.’ It was A-rod! He’s got the shotgun.”
Westport, still clasping his elbow, made his way past me and out of the compound. I quickly tagged behind him, at once overcome with guilt. I confronted him outside. “You alright bro? I’m sorry.” He stood there, rubbing his elbow, his back towards me. “Let me see!” I half yelled, wanting to both make an assessment of the damage and out of sheer morbid curiosity. He turned towards me with a look of what I had believed to be embarrassment and Westport explained, “The pellets from the shell must have ricocheted off the ground.” Instant relief filled me up like the rising mercury of a thermometer. As I stood there elated, grateful that recent events had not been worse, I thought of the dog. What was wrong with it? Why had it behaved in that manner? I imagined that was how a person on the drug PCP would act like. Had he eaten some opium? Was it fed to him? In the end, it didn’t matter. Had that been the enemy, my brothers were there for me and I was there for them.
U.S. Marine Gysgt. Carlos "OJ" Orjuela,
Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Project: Home Front, 2008
By Louie Palu