Ari McGuirk is an Air Force veteran originally from San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico. He's currently studying creative nonfiction as a third year MFA student at the University of New Mexico, where he also serves as Managing Editor for Blue Mesa Review. His fiction has appeared in The Deadly Writer’s Patrol and he is at work on a full-length memoir. This is his first nonfiction publication.
They told us before we left that some missions meant recovering bodies. My war had been flying over gunfights, watching tracers flash and volley until a side won. As an aircraft loadmaster, I’d flown airdrop missions and random cargo hauls, transporting everything from Humvees to hand soap to every airfield in country. I might have been in a war zone, but at a distance, flying above the chaos. The C-130’s name is Hercules, and I rode it like a chariot through Afghanistan’s twisting mountains and canyons, safe from the war I couldn’t face back home.
February. Sometime during the night, our B-hut’s heating unit broke down. We were sitting Bravo Alert—a forty-eight hour standby that Ops used to mobilize a crew when an unscheduled mission dropped down the pipes. This was our first Bravo Alert since we’d arrived in Afghanistan six weeks earlier. The Ambien that I took at the start of our crew rest hadn’t run its full course. I shivered awake in Bagram’s cold early morning hours—groggy, pill hungover, a world apart from my neighborhood in Pennsylvania with streets named after flowers.
I sat upright in my cot when the crew phone rang. Our aircraft commander picked up and acknowledged whatever was said. The makeshift door to his room in our B-Hut creaked and he shuffled down the narrow central hallway, knocking on each of our doors as he passed them. By the time he’d made it to my room, I was already changing from my PT gear into my tan flight suit.
“We’ve been alerted,” he said.
I acknowledged that I heard him and said I was going to scarf down some chow before I went to the Ops building. I draped my dog tags around my neck and pulled on my thickest, fuzziest socks because flying with cold toes sucks. I grabbed my holster and loaded M9 Beretta from where I let it dangle at the foot of my cot. I wrapped my holster around my waist, ensured I had my weight and balance PDA and its printer. I was ready for another combat flight.
Snow drifted from platinum clouds that morning—a touch of tranquility I didn’t expect. My unit had usually deployed to Kuwait and Iraq. For two years, I’d only heard “the desert this, the desert that.” I got Afghanistan’s white winter instead. Screeching F-16s zooming over the mountains broke the snowfall’s serenity.
Fitz, my fellow loadmaster, and the rest of my crew were already in the Ops building waiting for the intel brief when I arrived. I suspected that day’s mission would be different. Ops didn’t typically mobilize Bravo crews. It happened when something went awry, something unexpected. I asked my pilot if he knew the day’s mission. He shrugged in response. Normally, the flight schedule told us the type of mission, the airfields we’d fly to, and the cargo we’d pick up. I’d grown used to combat life rife with miscommunication, lack of intel. Still, even in my short stint in Bagram, I could tell this was nonstandard.
We gathered in the intel briefing room. I’ve forgotten what the intel officer’s voice sounded like, what accent he had, funny speech patterns to note. He said the mission would be simple, from a load planning perspective. We’d take off from Bagram with an empty cargo compartment, which was odd. Back-logged cargo sat around Bagram collecting dust at all times. Something always needed to go somewhere. Then he told us why.
Early that morning, a suicide bomber had attacked a military police compound in Mazar-I-Sharif. We’d flown there before. I remembered that the Germans controlled most of it, their chow hall served massive pretzels, the Europeans allowed to drink. Three MPs had been killed. The bony spot in my neck tingled. This was a human remains mission. We’d been tasked with collecting the corpses of soldiers who’d been killed in action. The intel officer said the mission had three legs: pick up the bodies in Mazi, fly them to Kabul, return to Bagram.
I’d never flown a human remains mission before. Training instructors had said they’re quiet, solemn, ceremonious affairs. Grieving soldiers shouldered caskets containing their fallen friends aboard and lowered them to the cargo compartment floor. Back in the states, I’d been to a handful of fallen soldier ceremonies. I’d seen family members receive their dead sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, mothers, and fathers. I didn’t look forward to it.
Fitz and I left for the aircraft after the intel brief and readied the plane for flight. I didn’t admire Fitz, his strict loyalty to regulations, but I felt reassured having him that day. A Master Sergeant with two handfuls of combat deployments under his belt, Fitz had nearly twenty years seniority over me, his eager apprentice. I wonder now how many fallen soldier ceremonies and human remains missions Fitz had flown prior to that day, how methodical it must have felt to him.
Fitz broke down the mission’s process so that it sounded simple. We, meaning me, him, and our crew, would stand against the left side of the aircraft and hold a salute while the soldiers brought the caskets aboard. If any soldiers rode along as passengers, we’d rig seats for them. After they were seated, we’d carefully strap the caskets to metal tiedown rings located throughout the floor. Once we landed in Kabul, the reverse order. We’d unstrap the caskets, the soldiers or HR detail would hoist them, and then deplane through the aft cargo ramp.
We finished preflight, the flight from Bagram to Mazi a cold blur. We landed and shut down engines. Before long, an Army liaison officer rolled up to the aft end of the plane. In a normal C-130 cargo configuration, four rows of metal rollers spanned the length of the cargo compartment. They can be pulled from the floor and stacked in the wheel well, which we did when onloading vehicles. Fitz and I removed them now to make space for caskets. As we unsnapped rollers, I overheard the liaison talking with our pilot. US troops had not been killed, but Kabul’s police chief and two of his top men: allies. The dead’s family members would accompany the bodies to Kabul, where the bodies needed to be buried by sundown. Ops storage didn’t have caskets available. Instead, the corpses were placed in body bags and would be carried in and out on litters. I heard our pilot acknowledge all of this, but the meaning of the words, for me, remained distant.
A duo of windowless white vans parked close to our aircraft. A dozen or so men emerged and opened the van’s rear doors to remove the litters. Men only. No wives, sisters, mothers, or daughters to say their farewell. Once each of the Afghan men had exited, their agony flooded my ears. Unbridled pain. The crushing anguish from the loss of loved ones not yet dead for eight hours. Sounds I should have recognized instantly and am ashamed that I didn’t.
Each Afghan wore an assortment of turbans, robes, and vests colored white, red, brown, and other colors whose shades I’ve forgotten. Some were on cell phones—languages I didn’t, and still don’t comprehend crackling out between sobs. I don’t think any Afghan noticed my crew and me holding a salute, a hollow gesture in the face of immediate loss. The liaison hadn’t lied. The dead were tucked inside fraying green body bags, their zippers coming loose at the seams. Each Afghan ensured he placed a hand atop a body bag as they slowly carried them on board. Blood dripped and leaked onto the aircraft’s floor, splattered a few inches when set upon the floor’s black antiskid. An Imam began praying over the bodies.
When he finished, Fitz and I went to work. Our pilots ushered the Afghan passengers to their seats, each one reluctant to budge, to be distant from their loved ones. The seats we arranged for them weren’t far from where their comrades lay; I could feel stares burrowing into my back as Fitz and I weaved straps around the litters’ handles. I don’t know how much death they’d already seen, how normal this might have become for them, or anyone living in Afghanistan.
As Fitz and I finished strapping down the litters, three heavily armed men wearing Afghan military uniforms walked up to the cargo ramp unannounced. The family members had taken their seats and we weren’t expecting more passengers. These men were a walking armory carrying rifles, frag grenades, RPGs—a tiny militia. I finished ratcheting a strap when Fitz tapped my shoulder. I looked up and he nodded in their direction before chambering a round in his M9. I followed suit. Our nine-millimeter handguns wouldn’t have stood a chance against the weapons they carried. We weren’t armed with those tiny pea shooters with the intention of killing anyone. They functioned as last line of defense, a deterrent for any would be hijackers. I’m not sure what good we thought we’d do by readying our weapons to fire. What I remember is feeling vulnerable and confused.
Our pilot spoke with the armed men who claimed to be guards for the family members. The liaison hadn’t mentioned them, which made our suspicion feel warranted. Our pilot determined they could come aboard, but their weapons needed to be stored on the flight deck. The guards grimaced as they transferred their firearms to our copilot and navigator.
“Don’t worry about scanning for outside threats in-flight. Keep your focus in here. Don’t be afraid to shoot if you see sudden movements for the flight deck,” our pilot said matter-of-factly.
I nodded. Shoot if necessary. Kill if necessary.
The flight to Kabul lasted just under an hour. Fitz and I sat in our usual spots: combat seats rigged in the paratroop doors protected by thick black armor. Even through my headset and the dull droning of the aircraft’s engines, I could hear the family sobbing. I felt guilty for considering them a threat. We were allies, after all. But their eyes said otherwise. Their faces expressed no gratitude, no sign of thanks for the ride to their nation’s capital. And why should there have been? My crew and I slept hundreds of kilometers away when an explosion killed these men. And yet, the family members’ faces said everything. Directly or not, this was still our fault, my fault.
We’d strapped the bodies down a few feet from my paratroop seat. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Viscous blood pooled and spread down the cargo compartment to the ramp crest. Hydraulic fluid swirled through my nostrils; my hands smelled metallic, like cable and wire. Small windows provided fleeting flashes of light in my dim stretch of airplane. I didn’t think about what must have been running through the Afghan family’s minds. Nor Fitz’s. Not even my own. I blocked out everything because it seemed like my only path to navigate the death I’d seen, the death I was seeing. Suppression had become my art form.
The C-130’s name is Hercules. That day, it was Charon, ferrying the dead to the underworld.
I sat there, cold, numb. It makes perfect, ironic sense that being a transporter of the dead would become my labor. My whole life had been shaped by death. My mother’s death from an aneurism when I couldn’t yet form words. My sister’s death from heroin overdose when she was only nineteen and I was seventeen. My father’s suicide just ten months earlier, two weeks before I turned twenty, the death I’d been working hardest to block out. My combat deployment gave me comfort, not because it granted me solace, but because it provided distraction. I was naïve. What did I imagine I’d see in war?
Then I think of the family in the dingy cargo compartment and the grief they expressed so openly that day. And I find it darkly beautiful that they could show the grief devouring them, such immediate pain. The US and other forces, even by 2011, had killed so many people in Afghanistan, Iraq, elsewhere that I’m amazed people who live there could feel anything but inured. This mission was ordinary. It wouldn’t make the news. Only the people who were there would mark its significance. My life had been molded by death, but how many hundreds of thousands, millions even, could say the same? How many generations will bear the scars of our wars upon their souls? How much of it had I facilitated? If I wasn’t from Pennsylvania, if I were from Kabul or Baghdad, would the death I’ve known even be noteworthy? How many families have been needlessly destroyed? How many young people will react worse than I did, isolate beyond recovery?
We landed in Kabul, and I opened the ramp and door as we taxied to our parking space. Some of the family stood and started shouting with the aircraft still in motion. They wanted to get the hell off the aircraft to bury their loved ones. Once the props stopped, the Afghans lifted the fallen. The police chief left a chunk of his brains behind. Fitz turned sallow, eyes rolled into the back of his head. He’d been in the Air Force more than sixteen years and I still don’t know if he’d had a day like that before, or since. I felt nothing. The family walked out of the aircraft. I doubt they’ve thought about me since that day, but I can’t forget them.
When we landed in Bagram, mission complete, the maintenance crew climbed inside the cargo compartment horrified to see blood soaked anti-skid. I collected my things while Fitz explained the mission.
“I saw brains,” he said. He instructed them to clean the drying red liquid with a pressure washer and a special solvent. “It’s Afghan blood.”
My nostrils flared, I wanted to yell at him. We weren’t the ones suffering, yet the way he said it suggested that he felt affronted, like he was the victim for bearing witness to mangled bodies.
“The hell does that mean?” was all I managed to say.
“It’s in the Vol. 3. Those are the instructions for cleaning the blood of TCNs.” He said it unfazed. Third Country Nationals. I’m sure he registered my anger. But perhaps it didn’t matter. Maybe Fitz, who’s retired from the Air Force now, didn’t care if I was offended. He was communicating loadmaster information, no different than relating cargo weight. Maybe I would have become the same had I made the military a career. I read that section of the Vol. 3 later that night, and everything Fitz said was true. But these men were allies who’d made the ultimate sacrifice. I’ll never know what Fitz had seen to make him feel justified in using such cold language, what passed his gaze throughout his long military career. What I know is that we wore the American flag upon our shoulders and because of that, some lives would always be valued more than others, nationalism and humanism incompatible.
I’d discover much later why the family were in such a rush. Tradition varies from country to country, community to community, but in Islamic funerals, the dead are to be buried as quickly as possible, usually within twenty-four hours. Cremation is forbidden. Outward displays of grief are welcome; wailing is generally not censured, but discouraged. The mourning period for relatives is three days. The mourning period for widows, four months and ten days. When my mother died, her friends carried her into a cremation furnace within forty-eight hours. My family and I huddled together when my sister’s casket lowered into the earth. When my dad died, I had to use personal leave to see my family, of which I had less than two weeks allotted. I had friends and supervisors around if I wanted company, but I never talked about the deaths I’d endured. The Air Force could provide me with an instruction manual for how to do everything, except grieve. I don’t know if having engrained rules, if having ritual for handling death would have worked for me. But looking back now, I appreciate the family’s urgency to properly mourn their dead.
I flew one other human remains mission that deployment. This time, two US soldiers were killed. I don’t remember where we picked them up or how long they’d been dead. I remember their salvaged limbs were encased in stainless steel caskets. HR detail was supposed to be waiting for us when we landed in Bagram, transporting the caskets to a larger aircraft bound for Germany before heading to the States. But when we landed, there was no one. The reason: a high-ranking Admiral, along with models on a USO tour, was glorifying a new hangar opening. Morale boost. Pep rally. A complete ramp freeze—no ground or air traffic allowed until he left. For three hours I sat in a red jump seat waiting for someone to provide the fallen soldiers the respect they’d earned. Something sacred had been cast aside to make room for a dog and pony show. Bad optics to have dead soldiers carted around during a spectacle to win hearts and minds. The men who should have been venerated the most that day were treated as a problematic afterthought.
I didn’t think of my mother, or sister, or father on that mission, either.
I can’t tell you what war looks like. All I can offer is a small glimpse. I had it easy, in and out of active duty after four years, life and limb intact. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians cannot say the same. What do I know of war? Very little. But what I know most is death, and I’d decided that I’d spent enough time in its company.