Book Excerpt: The Calm Before the Storm

Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
Reborn on the Fourth of July:
The Challenge of Faith, Patriotism & Conscience
By Logan Mehl-Laituri

Book Excerpt:  The Calm Before the Storm

Just after midnight, we got a distress call from another one of the units from our Forward Operating Base (FOB). There had been a vehicular accident in a convoy headed back to base; a driver had rolled over an embankment above a reservoir.

Our Humvees roared to life and we booked it to the coordinates supplied by the medics. Our group of about twenty was the first to arrive on the scene, so we pulled into a perimeter with the vehicles from the original convoy. Half of the rolled vehicle, a Humvee that sat two in the cab up front and six in the open bed in back, was resting above the water inside a concrete enclosed reservoir. There were nine people in the back and three in the cab when the vehicle tumbled down about twenty feet to where it rested. Soldiers surrounded the wreckage, working to free the men in the cab.

The platoon leader, platoon sergeant, squad leaders, medic and I made our way down a mound that surrounded the site. As I carefully walked down the rock-strewn hill, past a medevac vehicle with its internal lights on, I saw a man inside being treated for a head wound. His entire face was covered in blood. Small droplets of bright red jumped from his lips and spattered the medic's face. I remember it in slow motion, like in the movies. I'll never forget it.

As we continued down the short incline to the reservoir, we heard someone shriek, "I need swimmers to search the water!" At that, my pace quickened. I was one of the few men in my platoon who knew how to swim well; before we deployed, I had been encouraged to enroll in the selective Navy Diver course at Pearl Harbor. My unit knew I surfed regularly on the North Shore, a place where waves could get hairy. If there were anyone who could be trusted to search the water, it would be me.

The temperature was in the fifties on land, and I suspected the water was even colder. The concrete barrier was at least four feet above the surface of the water, so while I could get myself in the water, I would need to be hauled back up. I made sure there would be a constant presence that I could call on to grab me before I took off my boots and body armor, and I plunged in.

It was much colder than I expected. My breath escaped my lungs as I hit the water, and I gasped for relief and air as soon as I resurfaced. I tried to stay clear of what looked to be the rest of the dam and began to dip intermittently underwater, pointing my toes and hoping to hit the bottom of the reservoir—or a body. I was never so scared in my life—not of getting hurt or drowning but of having to retrieve a lifeless body from the frigid and foreboding waters. I prayed over and over to God that my search would be in vain.

Ancient communities once depicted hell not as fiery but frigid. The devil, being far from God and the celestial bodies like the sun, was blue and cold. Dante describes one of the lowest levels of Satan's inferno as a frostscape, with whole bodies suspended in ice. Their heads alone remained above the surface for Virgil and his companion to stub and kick. I couldn't help but feel a bit like Dante, descending to a frigid hell in the fearful hope of finding friends to drag back to the surface.

From the water, beneath the truck, I could see the person that most of the rescue effort was aimed toward. A sergeant had landed on the concrete wall of the reservoir before the vehicle did. His left leg was bent at an impossible angle, pinned by the weight of the Humvee. He had already been put on morphine and was muttering incoherently, whispering either sweet nothings or frantic pleas to his invisible wife. I couldn't bear to see his leg twisted well past its limits; the image of a layer of blood painting the concrete below him assaults my mind occasionally, and I cringe at every invasive thought.

The five minutes I spent in the water passed at a glacial pace. Eventually, the call was made that everyone was accounted for. I made my way toward the edge of the reservoir, but I couldn't lift my arms high enough for my friends to grab hold. It took a man on each of my arms to finally drag me out of the water. Nobody had been lost. I was left blessedly empty-handed and with a supreme sense of accomplishment. I had done well; I had contributed to a successful rescue mission and faced a challenge few others in my platoon were able to. I was a good man, a selfless servant. I thought the worst was over, but I was wrong again.

Combat can be explained and retold by any number of fellow combatants—the blood and gore, the anxious anticipation of explosions and bullets, the overwhelming boredom between missions. All of it in some way is translatable by others in the martial fraternity. But none of the glamorous depictions and romantic sentimentality we put on war could prepare me for what came after the rescue of that cold November night.

Up until the rescue mission, I was more or less caught up in the generic feelings of patriotism that crystallized around the time I entered the military. I wasn't rampantly patriotic, but I also had no problem with conducting violence on behalf of freedom, democracy or America itself. I was a suspended pendulum, sitting comfortably on the patriotic side of the war and peace spectrum. Soon everything holding me in place, all the cultural and political assumptions I didn't even know I held, would fracture and break, sending me on a foreboding trajectory into unknown territory.

From Movement One, "Rescue Mission"

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