from Esquire, August 2002
2 to March 3
this. Imagine you’re a country
doctor up in the
Adirondacks, and your first patient today is your
brother. “I have this cough,” he
reports, and the X-ray reveals he has lung cancer, clearly terminal.
Bad enough, but your second patient today is your sister, and the Pap
test shows terminal cervical cancer. And
knock, knock, knock on your door come your beloved brothers, sisters, at least
close cousins, come all morning, afternoon, evening, come in the throes some
dreadful disease—imagine it, I ask you. Imagination
aside, no doctor in the
(or anywhere else in
America) has had the unbearable heartache such a
cortege would occasion, but in the American infantry lots of medics have had it.
In combat, when they hear a cry of “Medic!” “Corpsman!” or
“Doc!” an hysterical cry that like “Help!” “Man overboard!” or
“Fire!” pounces on everyone’s senses like a Doberman pincher, generating
adrenaline, dilating carotid arteries, pounding on everyone’s heart like the
kettledrums in Day of Wrath, by
Berlioz, when they hear a cry of
“Medic!” “Corpsman!” or “Doc!” it comes from one of their buddies,
someone they’ve lived with, trained with, partied with, someone they love as
they love their blood brothers.
stands the Tenth Mountain Division.
In one platoon of one company of one battalion of one brigade, the one
and only medic is a 21-year-old from Ellenville, near the Catskills: is
Specialist Eddie Rivera. One day in
September, two airplanes hit the World Trade Center, and Rivera watches the TV
incredulously, his fingers against his forehead, my
head’s still here, my head’s still here, no, I’m not dreaming this, as
the two towers collapse, as two towers of ashes supplant them, as ash-plastered
people run from the great catastrophe. “An
,” the TV announcer calls it, and Rivera at
once phones the girl he fell deeply in love with in medic (not medical) school
and, with prescience, tells her, “I may have to go somewhere.”
That’s what Rivera was until three years ago.
His parents both Puerto Ricans, his skin olive-colored, his hair curly
black, his brows black too, his mustache a thin black streak that at one end
broke up into shapeless bristles, he usually was a no-show at Ellenville High.
At six every day, his mother went to work making knives, and Rivera (an
hour later) called up his friends and said, “I ain’ goin’ to school today.
You shouldn’t either, come over here.”
If the truant officer didn’t come too, Rivera and a half-dozen friends
would party, drink Bacardi, listen to rappers, and on TV play video games as
their cheerless peers sat in Accounting, studying double entries.
The parties sometimes continued past four, past Rivera’s mother’s
return, Rivera’s mother saying in Spanish, “ˇNo
tiene tiempo para eso!” “You don’t have time for this!”
worry about her,” Rivera would reassure his fellow revelers.
one day Rivera was partied out and, still hung over, showed up at Ellenville
High. “You’re late,” the
Accounting teacher said.
what? I’m always
taking a test today.”
no.” The test being handed him,
the very first question stumped him. Rivera
took out his textbook, raised his hand, and said, “What page is it on?”
whole class laughed, but the teacher didn’t.
“You can’t ask me! You
can’t look it up!” the teacher cried. “Ten
points off!” and the class laughed again.
Went hahaha, its teeth almost biting at Rivera.
Rivera liked being laughed with not at. At his parties, he
liked putting tabasco in some sleeping reveler’s mouth, and at school he liked
saying, “I’m always late.”
He liked being class clown but not class knucklehead, and he stopped
playing hooky, made up his classes, graduated, and joined the American army.
medic school in
he smelled a few aromas absent in basic in Georgia, aromas like Bath & Body Works.
They came from the women soldiers—women
soldiers—who barracked upstairs of him and did their exercises beside him,
the panty lines pressing against their shorts.
He soon went so steady with one, the sergeants discovered her field
blanket in his rucksack and his rivera
camouflage shirt upon her.
The sergeants called them Mr. and Mrs. Rivera and said, “You two like
being together? All right, go down
together,” meaning drop to the ground and do twenty pushups together.
A runner-up to Miss Teen San Francisco, Krystal was black, round-faced,
long-haired, a girl whose smile melted artillery pieces, and Rivera yearned to
spend every day of his life with her. From
medic school, Rivera went to the camp near the
and Krystal (an army reservist) went to a
college nearby, and it’s she who on Tuesday, September 11, Rivera tells
presciently, “I may have to go somewhere.”
wait for you, I promise,” Krystal says.
and his whole platoon, company, battalion don’t go to
Afghanistan, not yet.
A nameless country in
is where they’re deployed, nameless
because it’s a deep dark secret that the American army’s here.
As rich as this nation is in Asian relics, golden temples, marble
mosaics, intricate filigrees, turquoise cupolas, towers, all the marvels of
Xanadu, the soldiers immured in their secret camp are of necessity bored, bored,
bored. All there’s to do is play
spades, crazy eights, and Scrabble (“Let’s play go-fish,” a soldier
proposes one day) and eat the Combos: the chocolate, chipolte, or chili-crusted
pretzels from the PX. Never did they
salute officers back at the
, but they must crisply salute them here
in—no, I’ll never say, but the name embraces every letter of the word stink.
So despondent is one lonely soldier that he shoots his brains out and
(“Medic!”) becomes Rivera’s first case.
“Breathe, breathe,” incants Rivera.
“You’re all right, buddy, breathe,” he conjures, his Ringer’s
solution dripping into the soldier’s corpse.
becomes despondent too. He walks
around like an abandoned dog, his head hanging down.
He broods that Krystal will slough him off, and, either to precipitate
this or forestall it, he phones her and says, “I know you miss me—”
do. I miss hanging out with you.
I miss cooking dinner for you. I
miss kissing you, and I miss laying with you.”
Krystal. I know you’re crying.
I know you’re going through heartache.
I want to make people happy, not sad.
I want people telling you, ‘Gee, you look happy!’
If you’re unhappy, then I’m unhappy too.
I don’t know when I’m coming home.
Just leave me, Krystal. Go
with some other friend. Do what you
want to, and have a good time doing it.”
talking crazy,” says Krystal, and Rivera can see her right index finger
shaking at him in
, eight thousand miles away. “I
want many things, you’re right. But
for them all I want you.”
hanging up, Rivera thinks, Thank God for
Krystal. As soon as I’m home,
I’ll put a ring on her finger. Then
people can see how I love her. But
home isn’t where the sergeant says that Rivera’s assigned.
“We got another mission,” the sergeant says as Rivera’s hands
curtain his eyes, No, I don’t want to believe it.
He flies by cargo plane to a camp in Afghanistan, then by Chinook (a long
green helicopter, one rotor fore, one rotor aft) to what’s about to be
America’s bloodiest battle since Somalia, a decade ago.
His “aid bag” between his shoulders, he flies by this giant
helicopter to Operation Anaconda.