‘Tell me they’re fine, tell me they’re hurt, tell me they’re dead, but tell me something!’
An excerpt from Dog Company, by Lynn Vincent and Capt. Roger Hill
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15 August 2008 The last thing Spc. Joseph Coe remembered for sure was downing his blue Gatorade and … something? … something to do with Lt. Carwile. Now, lying on a litter in a MedEvac bird, Coe’s memories flickered through his mind like an old flipbook movie, leeched of color and slightly out of focus.
They had been on a mission to Sayed Abad, something about food and water. Yes. That was it: food and water because the Battalion CLP had forgotten to deliver any to Sayed Abad … He remembered rolling down Highway 1 … Lt. Carwile in the TC (truck commander) seat …
Conlon up top on the gun …
“Hey, anybody got a spit bottle?” Carwile had said … Coe’s head ached. He remembered driving with his left hand, downing his Gatorade with his right and passing the empty to Carwile, who had said, “Thanks, brother …”
The next thing he remembered was waking on the side of the road in a dust storm. A blur of legs speeding past his head. Sgt. Haskins yelling and running back and forth between Humvees. Ochoa wrapping his head, telling him everything was going to be okay …
Dudley and Carlin had carried him to the helo. Dudley had picked up a loaf of bread that had blown off the supply trailer and tucked it under Coe’s head as a pillow. He also remembered Dudley carrying Lt. Carwile, and putting him on the same bird.
Now, on the helo, Coe lifted his head off the litter, straining to see his platoon leader (PL). But he couldn’t see, because a couple of medics sat between them, blocking his view.
AT FORT CAMPBELL, Kentucky, Lauren Hill was snuggled down in bed sleeping lightly when her cell phone rang. The distinctive ringtone told her it was Roger. She smiled as she reached for the phone: She always had a good day when he called in the morning. That meant her husband had survived another day in Afghanistan, and she could enjoy her day teaching without the white noise of constant worry.
She breathed into the phone, “Hey, baby, is that you?”
“Hey, honey, I need you to wake up. Can you do that for me? Wake up, baby.”
“Okay ...” Lauren said. “Everything okay?”
The sound of her, warm and alive, clashed in Hill’s brain with the whirling smoke, the bloody pavement, the policing up from the earlier ambush. The bomb-trigger device and more than a kilometer of wire had been left behind. Those items would have some intelligence value. But the enemy was long gone, their exfil well planned.
Larry Kay and remnants of the Shockers and the Dirty First appeared as ants in the distance as they searched surrounding qalats for traces of the IED trigger team. Nearby, other soldiers picked through a bizarre mix of blackened bomb debris and undamaged bags of hot dog buns and breakfast sausages. Contrasting worlds warred in Hill’s chest, making it hard to breathe.
He focused. “Yeah, I’m okay, but I don’t have much time. Remember our deal about you taking time off if something happened?”
“Yeah … ?” Hill heard her voice shed its drowsy warmth, come fully alert: “Yes.”
“I need you to call into work today. You are going to need to stay home today, okay?”
“Wha—why? Is someone hurt?”
“Baby, just call in and stay home so that you’re ready. Some of our ladies are going to need you today. Do you understand?”
Shock and dread coalesced in Lauren’s mind. She struggled to absorb her husband’s words. As the Family Readiness Group leader, she had fielded dozens of calls about wounded men, but Roger had never asked her to stay home. That could only mean one thing: The worst had happened. And it wasn’t just happening there; it was about to happen here, too.
She found her voice. “Yes … yes, I understand.”
“I gotta go.”
“Okay … I love you, Roger.” “I love you, too, baby.”
The line clicked shut. Lauren managed to dial the principal of her school and stammer out that she wouldn’t be in because she was sick. It was only half a lie: She sprang from the bed, ran to the bathroom, thrust her face over the toilet, and retched.
IN CAPE COD, Massachusetts, Maria Conlon awoke in a panic. She sat up in bed, her heart tattooing against her ribs. Something was wrong with one of her sons.
Maria threw off her covers and went straight to her computer. She and Paul had a system: He couldn’t share specifics on his whereabouts, but if he logged in to his MySpace page, she’d be able to see the time stamp and know he was okay. She’d talked to him on the phone just the day before. The arm that had taken the shrapnel was still painful enough that Paul couldn’t even lift a case of soda. There was a mission coming up and he was supposed to stay on the base, keep on recuperating. Instead, he’d talked his way onto one of the trucks.
Maria tapped her keyboard and the computer came to life. She scrolled down to Paul’s latest MySpace entry. She gazed at the numbers, did a quick mental calculation. Today was August 15. Paul had last logged in early that morning, Wardak time. Eastern Afghanistan was eight and a half hours ahead of Cape Cod. So as of about six hours ago, he was safe.
Okay, that was one son accounted for—sort of. Maria picked up her phone and called her oldest, Daniel, at work. No answer. Not unusual for a workday, though.
Maybe it’s nothing, she thought. But intuition told her otherwise. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d felt something was wrong with one of her boys and had been right. Maria picked up the phone again, this time dialing her boss to say she wasn’t coming in.
AT MIDDAY, Lauren Hill stared at her ringing cell phone. The caller ID said: jennifer carwile. Word was out in the company that something terrible had happened. Jennifer, her best friend, would ask her point-blank what it was. Tears welled in Lauren’s eyes. The rules were clear: She couldn’t tell anyone what she knew.
The cell trilled half a dozen times then rolled to voice mail.
She remembered a conversation with Jennifer just before Roger and Donnie deployed. Jennifer had been on the verge of tears. “I don’t want to be the only one crying when we say good-bye,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Lauren said, “I’ll bring the Kleenex and we can cry together.”
Jennifer had laughed with relief.
The memory made Lauren catch her breath and at the exact same moment, her cell renewed its ringing. It was Jennifer again.
Lauren eyed the phone as if it were a live thing. Finally, it went silent. The third time her cell rang, Lauren couldn’t stand it anymore. She picked up the phone. “Hey, Jennifer.”
“Lauren, I’ve been trying to call you! I heard something happened. What’s going on?”
“Jennifer, I’m sorry. I don’t know anything. I wish I could tell you more, but I don’t know anything.”
It was her second lie of the day.
JENNIFER CARWILE stood at her front door scanning the street, cell phone clutched in her hand. In the early morning, another Dog Company wife had called her. “Something bad has happened,” she said, “but my husband wouldn’t tell me what it is.”
Lauren had said she didn’t know and Simone DeMartino, the Battalion commander’s wife, wasn’t answering her phones. Whatever had happened, Simone was probably busy dealing with it, Jennifer thought. But an unwelcome intuition rippled in her gut. She’d dropped her oldest daughter, Reece, off at kindergarten at 8 a.m. Now it was after noon, Avery Claire was down for a nap, and Jennifer was pacing her entryway, peering through the screen door at the street like a sea captain’s wife on a widow’s walk.
Since Donnie shipped out with Delta Company in March, Jennifer had checked the news constantly, even though Robyn Haskins, Shon’s wife, had advised her to stop obsessing. As a registered nurse, Jennifer was used to research, and she’d found that non-U.S. news sources were more forthcoming. That morning, she’d read on a foreign site that two ISAF soldiers had been killed in eastern Afghanistan.
It’s nothing, she’d told herself. There are thousands of soldiers there. But now as she stared out the screen door, she couldn’t get the report out of her mind.
WHEN THE BLACK HAWK touched down, medics hustled Joseph Coe into a tent. A flurry of faces, hands, and questions came at him.
“Where do you hurt?”
“Everywhere. My head, my arms, my back, my legs. I just freakin’ hurt.” “Do you know where you are?”
“Yes, in Afghanistan, at the aid station.” Coe saw a tangle of IV lines, heard orders barked out. “My L.T. Do you know what happened to my L.T.?”
Hands scissored off his ACUs and they fell away. “Do you know your name?”
“Yes. Coe. Joseph Coe. How’s my L.T.? He was sitting in the right seat of my truck. And my gunner, Paul Conlon. I haven’t seen him. Is he hurt?” It seemed to Coe there was a beat of silence. He tried to hike himself up on his elbows, make eye contact with someone. Hands pressed him back onto the gurney. More questions flew about the pain in his head, the pain in his back, what day it was.
Coe shot back questions about Conlon and Carwile—Where were they? Had anyone seen them?—but it was as though he were trapped in a glass bubble with his words bouncing off the inside. Anger swelled in his chest. He thrashed on the gurney, tried to throw off restraining hands.
“I’m looking for Lieutenant Donald Carwile! He’s a little bit taller than me! Heavier than me! He was sitting in the TC seat of my truck! Is he hurt?”
A woman in scrubs appeared before him. “Take it easy, Coe,” she said gently. “Take it—”
“Conlon! Specialist Paul Conlon! Shorter than me! Dark hair, buzz cut! He was my gunner! I haven’t seen either of them! Does anyone know who I’m talking about?!”
Coe’s anger melted down to seething rage. He wanted to scream, Don’t anyone f***ing touch me until someone tells me something! Tell me they’re fine, tell me they’re hurt, tell me they’re dead, but tell me something!
He didn’t scream, though. Instead, he went graveyard still. Because suddenly, he knew.
A WARM SUMMER RAIN pattered on the Carwiles’ driveway, whispering in the grass that sloped down to the street. From the screen door, Jennifer could see it was time to mow again. She’d never cut grass in her life until May, when she got a nastygram from the post housing office warning her about her knee-high lawn. She would’ve been mortified if Donnie got word in Afghanistan that she was letting the house go to pot.
That afternoon, she had plunked the girls in front of a Disney video and wrestled the lawnmower out of the garage. She muscled it up the overgrown slope, fighting it on the downhill to keep it from getting away and roaring out into the street. Determined to quash all future housing-office notices, Jennifer mowed down everything in sight, including the yellow-budded ornamental bushes in the flower beds. By June, she figured out that going sideways across the slope with the mower was easier. In her newfound confidence, she also let the flowers live.
Jennifer glanced at the clock on her cell. It was nearly 2 p.m. Something had happened. “Something bad,” the other wife had said.
She sighed and let her shoulders relax. If it was Donnie, she thought, they would’ve come by now, wouldn’t they?
Robyn was right. She had to stop obsessing. She was about to turn away from the front door when a car turned into her driveway. It was a black sedan.
AT THE CONLON HOME, morning and early afternoon ticked by like a metronome. The day was nearing an end. In the afternoons, Maria and her sister, Victoria, usually went to the gym together. Victoria was twenty years younger than Maria, more like a sister to Paul than an aunt. She arrived and tried to talk Maria into going, but Maria couldn’t. She didn’t say so, but she wasn’t leaving the house until she heard from both her boys.
“Okay, are you sure?” Victoria said. “Yes, I’m sure. You go, though.”
Dressed for a workout, Victoria left, shutting the door behind her.
A moment later, the door burst open again. “Maria!” Victoria’s face was white with panic. “There are two soldiers coming!”
Maria did not look outside. She knew who the soldiers were. Somehow, she had known all day that they were coming.
She put her hands on Victoria’s shoulders and smiled. “It’s okay,” she said. “You should go, though.”
Maria had gotten her baby sister all the way to the door, but it was too late. When she opened the door, two officers in dress uniforms stood on her porch. One wore the insignia of a chaplain.
“Are you Maria Conlon?” said the other one, the casualty officer. “Yes.”
“I have an important message to deliver from the Secretary of the Army. May we come in?”
Beside her, Victoria began to shake and cry. A preternatural calm enveloped Maria, though. A strength from somewhere else. Strength for her sister. She escorted the officers into her living room, where they sat next to each other stiffly, backs erect.
Maria thought they both looked like they’d prefer to be somewhere else, even in combat, anywhere other than where they were now. She didn’t want them there, either. She didn’t want them to say the words, didn’t want this moment burned into her sister’s memory.
Maria sat calm and dry-eyed. “Would you like something to drink?”
“No thank you,” the casualty officer said. He took a deep breath and began, “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son, Paul Edward Conlon, was killed in action in Wardak, Afghanistan, on August 15. The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss ...”
Maria listened to the entire recitation. The chaplain gazed at her sympathetically. The casualty assistance officer looked prepared for a blow. She could imagine what they encountered in this grim job: shock, anger, hysteria. But she wasn’t going to make it any harder for them than it was already.
“Do you have any additional details?” she asked in an even tone. “No, ma’am,” the casualty officer said. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you very much, gentlemen,” Maria said, and stood.
The visitors took her cue and walked with her to the front door. She shook each of their hands, shut the door behind them, and locked the dead bolt. Then Maria Conlon fell to her foyer floor and started screaming.
–Read Lynn Vincent's feature story "Warfare vs. 'lawfare'" in this issue
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