Afghan Ghosts by Jesse Durovey

The Navy psychologist’s pompadour stood at least four inches into the air. Something about it reminded me of a cartoon I used to watch when I was in junior high—I’m pretty sure it was called Johnny Bravo. Still, he held the rank of Commander, so I tried to keep my focus from drifting to the crest of his blond hair as he peppered me with questions. We sat in his small office—more like a broom closet, really—on a secure facility on Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

“These are the standard questions that we ask all incoming personnel. While you’re here, you might see things that trouble you, and we want to make sure you’re ready for it,” he said.

“Roger, sir.”

I assumed that, when he said “we,” he was referring to the entire joint task force, and that he wasn’t counting his hair as an extra entity.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s get started.”

Twenty minutes passed, and Commander Bravo still hadn’t asked me if I liked to torture small animals or watch my bowel movements circle the toilet bowl after flushing. I assumed he only asked Marines those questions. I was just a buck sergeant in the United States Army. He was more inclined to ask me if I beat my girlfriend or drank too much.

“Okay, we’re almost done. Last question—what’s the most important thing in your life?”

I looked at the floor and chewed on my lower lip. What the hell is that supposed to mean—do they want me to say my country or some hackneyed bullshit? I wasn’t married—hell, I didn’t even own a dog. My girlfriend meant a lot to me, particularly since she had helped me to deal with the deteriorating health of my father. She had lost her mother to breast cancer when she was only fifteen. She knew how hard it could be to watch a parent slip away. Maybe the commander’s question wasn’t really that difficult after all.

“My parents are really important to me—especially my dad. We’ve had some pretty rough patches over the years, but we’ve forged ahead. For the first time in my life, I think of my dad as my friend,” I said.

“So, that relationship keeps you grounded?”

“I think so. He means a lot to me. He’s been struggling with cancer for a few years now. I just saw him before my deployment started, and he’s got a great outlook on life even though he’s in a lot of pain.”

Despite what I was telling the commander, I knew that pain was a relative term and that how my father felt could not determine the reality of his health. A smile would not erase the tumors that consumed his organs like cadaver worms. I hadn’t been home in over a year and was shocked to walk in the door of my parents’ home to be greeted by a skeleton—only a bit of papery, jaundiced flesh stretched over the skull of the man who had raised me. The cancer had spread from his colon to his liver. The man who had taught me to read and taken me deer hunting in the mountains of western Montana could barely stand to embrace me.

Perhaps I should have voiced my concerns—Bravo seemed like a nice enough guy. I simply wasn’t ready to share these thoughts with someone I’d just met, especially not someone whose style aspirations seemed to mirror those of a cartoon character.

“All right,” Bravo said. “It’s great to have that kind of relationship to keep you centered. I think you’ll make a great fit with the task force.”

I stood to leave and shook his meaty paw. I had to duck my head to squeeze beneath the doorframe as I left his office. I exited the building and wandered onto the main road which cut like a saber through the rows of plywood buildings and khaki-colored tents. The sun was just starting to set over the Hindu Kush Mountains, and the brilliance of its departing rays frosted the landscape with an idyllic calm. Confronted by the surreal stillness of the evening, I found it hard to believe that—perhaps only a few miles away—men with Kalashnikovs might be concealing explosive devices in roadside debris or waiting to ambush soldiers as they patrolled a small tribal village. Ahead of me, I saw a formation of Army Rangers gathered by the task force flagpoles. They looked like green and tan statues which had assembled to memorialize a fallen brother.

I joined the rear of the formation and assumed the position of parade-rest, my hands locked behind my back and my feet shoulder-width apart. A pit bull of a sergeant major eulogized from the front. He had a sun-burned bald head and a voice that sounded like sandpaper being rubbed over wet rocks. I wondered if he gargled with Liquid Drain-O.

“Yesterday, during a firefight with Haqqani forces, Corporal Tanner died from gunshot wounds while heroically engaging the enemy. He was a good soldier, known for his love of the Transformers—his fire team members affectionately called him Optimus Prime. He was a consummate jokester, a husband, and a father—and he will be missed,” the sergeant major said.

This was only the first day of my deployment, and I was already witnessing a memorial service. I wondered how much death I would see in the coming months—how many shattered bodies and tattered hearts. A few of the youthful faces around me were stained with tears, and I wanted to ask how many final goodbyes had been said by these men in nearly a decade at war. General Order No. 1 prohibited drinking in war zones, but I knew that order would be broken tonight. These men—hardly more than boys, for the most part—who had known Tanner would say goodbye to him in their own way, toasting from stores of vodka and whiskey surreptitiously disguised in bottles of mouthwash.

Tomorrow, they would wake up and fend off the dragons of their hangovers, setting their hearts and minds toward the task of destroying the Haqqani Network in what seemed an endless war. They would do it for Tanner.

The sergeant major finished his memorial soliloquy and snapped to the position of attention, as rigid as the barrel of a rifle.

“Group, attention!”

Instantly, the youthful, acne-spotted Rangers—peppered with an odd airman and hirsute Navy Seal—snapped to attention for the “The Last Roll Call.”

I moved to the position of attention with them, not daring to disrespect the solemnity of this moment. I listened as the sergeant major began to call the names of soldiers in his unit—calls that were promptly answered by each man in turn.

“Staff Sergeant Hart!” the sergeant major said.

“Here, Sergeant Major!”

“Private Gordon!”

“Here, Sergeant Major!”

“Specialist Gomi!”

“Here, Sergeant Major!”

“Corporal Tanner!” the sergeant major called a third name, the name of the soldier we had gathered to honor.

No one answered.

“Corporal Daniel Tanner!”

Another pause, the silence only broken by the heart-wrenching sob of a soldier standing next to me.

“Corporal Daniel Allen Tanner.”

The sergeant major sighed with that gravelly voice, his vocal chords hitching with emotion.

“Corporal Daniel Allen Tanner, twenty-two years old, killed in action on 19 May 2008, Khost Province, Afghanistan,” he said.

A soldier with a trumpet stepped forward, and—in the moments that passed between the end of his march and the first note he sounded as the trumpet touched his lips—a portentous silence held our formation captive. Then the soldier played the most haunting and beautiful rendition of “Taps” that I had ever heard.

The sergeant major released the formation, and the soldiers filed by the helmet, boots, dog tags, and inverted rifle which comprised the “Battle Cross” set up to memorialize our fallen hero. As my brothers-in-arms paid tearful respects to Tanner, a phantom teased the hairs on the back of my neck. I could not shake the feeling that I had heard my father’s name being whispered as the final trumpet notes echoed across the stillness of the Hindu Kush Mountains.