Strange Relic From a Day in Iraq

Strange Relic From a Day in Iraq

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Editor's Note: This essay originally appeard in Another Source, a nonprofit, nonpartisan online journal  founded in 2010 dedicated to giving a voice to those directly impacted by violent conflict.

Adolfo Bayardo's blood runs down his flak jacket, forming a small red puddle on the ground. My hand presses against the wound on the back of his neck, but I can't stop the hemorrhaging. With each beat of Bayardo's heart, with every pulse of his artery, blood seeps between my fingers and trickles away.

“God, no,” I pray.

This can't be happening. We are near the end of our deployment. We've survived firefights far more dangerous than this. This can't be happening. Not here, not now.

We are at Baghdad's water district building, days after one of our armored vehicles pulled down the towering statue of Saddam Hussein in the city's main square. It's strongly fortified with brick walls, an iron-barred fence and solid metal gates. Inside the compound, there are about a dozen tanks and 70 or so Marines. Snipers are in the towers, and a couple of "rovers" patrol inside the perimeter. For the most part, this is supposed to be a safe place to be.

But even in the most secure location, the difference between life and death can be seconds or inches. Sometimes less.

Only a moment before, we were safe inside the building with the rest of our unit. For the first time since the invasion, we had time to ourselves and to hang our helmets. No one wanted to be in the hot sun. When Bayardo and I stepped out to fetch a pair of clippers from a tank, we were the only Marines on the grounds.

It happened so fast. First we heard tires screeching around a corner on the other side of the walls, then a revved-up engine getting closer to the gates. As a small white pick-up sped past a lower section of the wall, a gunman sprayed a magazine through the bars. The vehicle turned a corner and disappeared before anyone could return fire.

For a just a brief second, I felt relief. We had crouched down as soon as the firing started, making a smaller target. The truck was moving so fast that the shooter wouldn't have been able to hit anything, anyway. But when I look to Bayardo, I'm sickened with anguish.

Blood spews from the back of Bayardo's neck and sprinkles the dusty ground at our feet. He screams.

“I'm hit!”

Time stops; my senses become acute.

I clamp my hand against the wound to slow the bleeding. My heart races, I flush with fear and panic. I can feel my body temperature heat up another 100 degrees. The adrenaline that's pumping through me turns my stomach upside down. I pray.

They say that God answers many prayers, but whose does He answer, ours or the enemy's? Both sides are equally loved by Him. This is what makes God's role in war so difficult to fathom.

"Oh God, no. Not him," I pray. "Please make it all go away."

A few feet away, a shrill squawk pierces the air. It’s from a huge black crow, its beak bloodied, flapping around on the ground. One of its wings seems to be injured—probably hit by the gunman, I think. With each squawk, the bird spits blood and struggles to stand, but manages only to spin in tight circles.

I stare, but only for a few seconds. My priority isn't some meaningless bird, but my tank driver, my friend.

I remove my hand from the wound and sling Bayardo's left arm over my shoulders. With a grunt, I pick him up off the ground and carry him back into the building we had just left. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the crow fly away.

“Please let him be OK," I pray. "Not Bayardo.”

I'll never forgive myself for his death—my friend, and the only Marine I'm directly responsible for. I think about our mothers, close friends back in the States, and how they will react to the news of his death. What will I say when I have to tell them that I watched Bayardo die? I will carry this guilt for a lifetime.

Inside, I scream for the corpsman. “My driver's been hit!”

The corpsman's response is unexpected. “Calm down,” he says.

Calm down? How can I calm down? My friend, my brother, is dying. The last thing I want to do is calm down. Anger eclipses my panic.

The corpsman says that there's no way Bayardo could have been shot. He explains that a bullet to the neck would have had an exit wound, and it would have been fatal. You don't survive a shot like that, he says.

We clean the wound and stop the bleeding long enough to see the damage. The gash is about an inch and a half deep and half an inch wide. No exit wound.

I think about the angle of the wound and the entrance point. Bayardo was to my right, and the shots came from my left. Bayardo’s injury is smack in the middle of his neck. A nearly impossible shot.

I think about the crow with the bloodied beak. Could the bird, frightened by the shots, have flown into the back of Bayardo’s neck? Was Bayardo wounded by the crow’s beak?

That had to be it—a freak accident.

I tell the corpsman and Bayardo what I saw, and what I suspected. The corpsman agrees that that's what must have happened. As improbable as it seems, it's the only explanation that makes sense. He has a good laugh as he patches up Bayardo.

Bayardo and I laugh too, but it’s more of a nervous laugh. Like, thank God it was just a bird. We joke that Bayardo was wounded by the Iraqi air force. Later, our comrades jump in on the joke.

In the weeks after Bayardo's injury, we go out on a few more missions. But there are no major incidents. For us, the war is over for now. We head back to Kuwait and eventually return to the States.

The next year, I am back in Iraq with another driver. This time Bayardo stays behind. He gets married, has children and leaves the Marines. When we think of it, we both enjoy sharing our strange war story with family and friends.

Seven years later. Bayardo, now a civilian tank mechanic for the military, starts to feel his neck bother him. This goes on for a few days, maybe a week. It doesn’t go away. In fact, it gets worse.

Finally he decides to go to the VA hospital and get it checked out. After they take some X-rays, the doctor comes back and asks, “Have you ever been shot?”

“No,” he says.

“Well, there’s a bullet lodged into the back of your neck.”

When Bayardo calls to tell me the news, he asks me to write an incident report. I was the only other person present that day, and he really doesn't recall much of what happened. That's not unusual, trauma therapists say. People often forget moments of extreme stress.

But I remember it clearly. Bayardo's phone call triggered the same fear and panic that had sickened me that day. Even now, I sometimes relive the moment in my head. I feel guilty knowing that my interpretation of events probably kept my friend from getting further treatment at the time. Instead of being medevaced to Germany, he got bandaged up and finished his time in theater.

But in another sense, I’m glad it went down the way it did. Bayardo was able to calm down and deal with just how narrowly he escaped death when he was ready. He now says that he'd always thought that he'd been shot, not wounded by a bird, but that he was afraid to ask for another medical exam. I guess when you think you're going to die, and someone tells you it's only a scratch, you don't want to argue the point.

I now wonder if I had a role to play that day. Maybe I was there to calm Bayardo and give him some peace. Is that why I saw the crow? Is that why the crow was there? Some people might think that I envisioned it. Bayardo didn't see it, and nobody else was around. But I swear to God that I saw that bird.

Or did I have another purpose? When I first deployed to Iraq, I had a hard time reconciling my faith with my mission. I was a U.S. Marine, so it was my job to seek out and destroy the enemy. I could never call on God to strike down another person. I could only pray that He look over us and keep us safe. And that was that I did: I prayed for Bayardo's well-being.

A 7.62 mm round remains in Bayardo's neck, too deep to remove without risk of paralyzing or killing him. I still don't know how the bullet penetrated his neck, or why the crow had blood on its beak. But I take it as an omen. God had a plan for my driver, and it was to not die that day.

The author deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2004. He now lives in Southern California. On June 27, 2011, tank driver Adolfo Bayardo was formally presented the Purple Heart for the bullet wound that he suffered to his neck eight years earlier in Baghdad.