Him in the Dust

by James Matthews

Chapter 4

Sand, Sand, Sand

July 6th 2006

I woke up to turbulence ... bad turbulence. I mean, I'd been on planes before, but this was the worst. I looked to my left and saw Jack's head tilted forward; he'd remained fast asleep through it all. Lukas was smiling like a Cheshire cat and Tank looked ... green. I didn't know where we were, only that we were going down.

There were 85 of us who were all dressed up in desert fatigues, strapped in like bombs to each side of this C-17 monster with vehicles between us. It had been a while since there was any update. I tried to look at my watch as we were buffeted up and down, left and right. My stomach felt like it was full of spaghetti.

"WE MUST BE COMING INTO LAND!" shouted one of the boys a few seats down from me. The noise of the aircraft was deafening but somehow comforting, as the low intense hum of it's Pratt & Whitney F117 engines appeared to be just idling as we descended.

I felt a sudden drop, and then another, before the engines roared up again to compensate. There seemed to be air pockets everywhere and I wondered how many aircraft had recently used this flight path to create this turbulence judging by the drops that were killing my stomach.

Then there were large jolts that even the hardiest of flyers were not expecting. Had we been hit? Were we under attack? The engines, which has been idle for so long, now were revving up along with my anxiety. Then, without warning, there was a flurry of screeches from the wheels and we bounced ... We definitely bounced, once ... twice ... no just once. Then rolling! Just rolling and rolling ... forever!

"We must have come in pretty fast and hard," said Lukas, an excited look on his face.

My focus on the landing faded when I heard the whole plane cheering to celebrate that we'd finally come to a stop. I was done on this tin tube!

We unstrapped and relaxed in our seats for what felt like eternity. "What's going on," I asked, frowning. The plane had now gone quiet and the compartment we were in had started to rapidly heat up causing beads of sweat to form under my helmet.

Then, sunlight. Blazing hot sunlight flooded our dimly lit area as the main cargo door opened. A sergeant, who I'd never seen before, started bellowing at us to leave the aircraft. We all heaved out of our seats and began to disembark. I looked behind to make sure the four of us were still together. Jack looked sleepy, Tank was a bit brighter and Lukas was like an excited puppy.

The heat floored me as soon as I hit the tarmac. It was scorching my face, and I pulled out my sunglasses and quickly put them on to stop my eyelids burning off my face.

It was 2pm local time.

We took a ten-minute walk to the camp which was full of different size tents, strolling straight into a makeshift briefing room. We took our seats and waited.

"Gentlemen from Yorkshire Regiment, welcome to Camp Bastion. My name is Group Captain Peter Hills, Commander of the Camp. I trust you all had a pleasant flight in. Right; now , listen up! I know you are all exhausted and we will soon get you settled into quarters. But first we need to go back to school. Now, you know why we're here! As we know, and many of you will, the Taliban have been resurgent in this area. Your job, along with 40 Commando Battle group, will be to protect, guard and reduce the terrorist threat to the Afghan people. This has not been and will not be an easy task. That is directive number one!"

I listened intently as the Commander spoke and realised you could hear a pin drop, even with disturbances outside such as aircraft and vehicles moving all over the place. There was a moment where I had to shake my head to really take in where I was. This was not Cyprus, or Germany, or the Falklands. This was a fucking war zone and I could be killed the minute I stepped out of this base. I looked at my three comrades whom I trusted, if only for visual and selfish support.

Jack looked at me looking at him and mouthed 'You okay?' I nodded, even if it was a lie.

"Wow! That was some grim news," Lukas said, as ten of us were being taken through a maze of tents to our bunks. It was gonna be weird sharing again but we got a four-bunk tent so at least we could be together, I thought.

"Biden, Hans, Green, Stapleton!"

"Yes Sir," we all said in unison.

"Bunk 21 C! Listen very carefully. There is a booklet in your bunk. Read it! It will locate your nearest washing facilities. Stepping off the base is forbidden unless on an active mission. Your bunk contains four beds, one fridge, reading lights and storage for clothes. Space is at a premium so use your area sensibly. Attennnntion!"


"Move along!"

We walked down a thin corridor between other makeshift tents and located our tent. It was tight, with no more than five feet between each double accommodation . But, this was home now and I really forced myself to stay positive, at times wondering what the hell I had done .

Why did I join the army?!

"Top or bottom?" Jack asked. I stood there like a lost child. Jack didn't seem to have a care in the world. He actually had this demeanor that he could have been on holiday somewhere in the sun.

"Be my guest," I gestured, and Jack threw himself on the bottom bunk. Lukas and Tank were still deciding when a corporal came and stood in our doorway ... well, our gap with a curtain!

"Settling in lads? Know where everything is yet?"

"Uh, getting there corporal, Say, uh, do you know where I could find a toothbrush ? "

"A toothbrush, soldier? You here out in the middle of the desert and the you're asking for a toothbrush!" he said, raising his voice. "Baaah, I'm just pulling your chain. Yeah, Naafi sells all sorts of stuff. Left, out of here, take a right at the water tank and then a left again. Out onto the tarmac, past the generators and right at the medipost. You got that soldier?"

"Yes corporal thank you . "

"Anytime. Now you four get out of those fatigues, what are you, cold or something.?"

"Yes corporal thank you . " We all sounded in unison.

"As you were." he said, and left.

"You remember all that?" asked Jack.

I saw Lukas sigh. "C'mon Seb, I'll go with you. It's nowhere near where he said. It's in the opposite direction."

"Huh? How do you know all this stuff?"

"It's on the map; look."

Spinner pointed to the map, before grabbing my arm and leading me out.

"Hey, I need money."

"Take a credit card, let's go."

Spinner and I walked out of the Naafi with some essential supplies, including bottled water and sanitary products. Spinner brought a packet of cigarettes ... In fact he brought a box! We headed back to the tent we were placed in. Part of our walk back meant braving it in the midday heat that was constricting, intense and overwhelming, but Spinner chose to stop.

"Hey, you, erm, you wanna grab a beer? There's a place here."

"There is not! What, here?"


"How do you know all this stuff?"

"Friends in high places."

I shrugged. "We're technically on rest leave for a couple a days, so why not?"

Spinner smiled and grabbed hold of my wrist and shoved me in another direction. We walked past loads of machinery, tents and hardware. By the time we walked into the bar, or ... well whatever this was, I was sweating up a small lake.

I kinda looked in amazement at what was basically a big tent with fans in it, a few scattered fans and tables. A single ashtray sat on each of the round tables and a small stack of crates with a door laid across them made up a bar of some sorts. It was truly bizarre, but none the less, Lukas was right—it sold beer, and cheap!

"Two beers, please," Spinner said to the private behind the bar.

"They're kinda cold, but they haven't been in ice long," the private replied, banging two bottles of Bud down in front of us before flicking off the lids with a hunting knife.

"Suits us," Spinner replied, walking over to a table. I followed, taking a seat opposite him. There were a couple of other guys in less formal gear just quietly chatting as I looked around the tent.

"So, uh, how you doing?" Spinner asked. "You looked pretty freaked out on the plane?"

"Just turbulence. I hate it. Makes me feel ill."

"My family used to take me to France. It was always rough, flying over the Alps from Germany."

"You don't have an accent?" I asked, changing the subject.

"Nope; should I?"

I looked at him and grinned. "Well, you're German."

"I'm also British, in fact probably more British than you are."

"How so?"

"Because my ancestors settled in Cumbria in 550 AD. How much do you know about where you come from?" Lukas looked at me, shifting his head from my left ear to my right. "Hmm, I'm gonna guess maybe a bit of German in you, perhaps Austrian. A proper little Aryan; Hitler would have been proud, you know?"

"Shhhh, you can't say that here!"

"I'm just kidding around; relax."

"I wanna know something," I said, looking at him as I took a swig from my bottle.

"I know what you want to know."

"Oh, really"

"Yes, Seb, you want to know why I moved to your dorm so late in training and why I was standoffish?"

"Well, yeah."

"Man, you guys! Listen, you boys have been great to me; the whole dorm was when I came. The reason I was moved was precisely the same as the jokes I'm making about your Aryan appearance."

"I don't get it!"

"I had a hard time because I was German. Six of my dorm mates ... well, not mates if you get me ... they didn't trust me."

"Are you serious?"

Spinner waved his hand at my comment. "Only one started it, then others joined in and things got a little uncomfortable for me. When I did dual training to be a light medic I got to know the Sergeant in charge there. I explained that the morale of the dorm was not great because of me being there and that it would be better if I was moved before things got out of hand. So, here I am."

"Wow, that's pretty shit. I can't believe you let them get away with it, what fuckers!"

"You know how things are, Seb? I went quietly; it's the best way. And anyway, things worked out really well for me: I met you, right?" Spinner smiled, placing his hand on mine. I pulled mine away, the act seeming a little weird.

"Well, uh, I mean, yeah, I'm really made up you got with us. That's great," I said, chuckling, not really knowing why.

"Another?" Spinner asked, gesturing at his finished bottle. "I'll get them."

"Uh, yeah, sure; why not?" I replied. He got up and left the table and I followed him with my eyes. What the fuck was that hand on mine all about, I wondered, rubbing my knees to release some of the tension I now felt. It was only a moment and he was back.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, great, why?"

"I dunno, you seemed to have gone all quiet." Spinner set our bottles down and returned to his seat. "So, the four of us here in the desert, together and doing what we were trained for. I'll drink to that!"

"Yeah," was all I said, taking my new bottle and gulping down about half of it.

I think I wanted to ask about the hand thing but couldn't quite work out how, or what I would say. He was right, though, I had gone quiet. It was like those times when something shocked you and your mood felt like it had been kicked off its axis and you feel almost altered by it.

There was a pause, then, with neither of us speaking , he looked me in the eyes and said, "Okay, let's do this ... what the fuck is up with you?"

"My hand, okay," I hissed, trying to keep my voice down. "You touched my fucking hand."

Spinner looked at my red face as if I was barking mad. "And?"

"For longer than is ... well, bro!"

"Hey, we're having a beer! Why get uptight because I touched your hand? It was just a friendly touch. Jeez, settle down."

"Cool, I just thought ... "

"Listen, I'm gonna get back. I'll see ya."

Spinner got up from his seat, necked the rest of his bottle and walked out, leaving me feeling worse now than I did twenty seconds ago.

What a dick I am!

I sat at our table alone for a further half an hour after Spinner went. I played the touch over and over in my head. Was I being stupid? Was I overthinking it? Was it just friendly? This moved on to, will he tell the guys? Will it be awkward? Does he hate me? Eventually, I got up and left, taking a slow and long ... lost route back to the bunk, needing to ask twice where I slept, like some newbie. Well, I mean, I was a newbie, but to have to ask for directions felt somehow belittling. I mean, how could I not remember where I bunked? Well, if I had just gone straight back without just sitting in the bar tent so long, maybe I would have found it.

Shut up, brain!

I got back a whole fifty minutes after Spinner had left our table in the tent, finding the three of them playing cards. I now looked very overdressed seeing that they had all got into shorts.

All three of them looked up as I stood in the doorway.

"There you are! We were gonna come find you," Spinner said.

"Yeah, we wondered if you had gone home." Tank said. Jack smiled.

"Why would I?" I asked defensively.

"Just a joke, dude. So, you wanna play?" Tank replied, and pulled up a spare crate he'd fetched in.

"Nah, I'm gonna get undressed and chill if that's okay?"

"Sure thing, Seb."

I caught Lukas looking at me, his expression cheerful. I managed a nano-second smile back before looking away, not wanting the moment to embarrass me. I mean, what could I do, smile back and hold the pose? The fucking situation was so awkward. I couldn't see why he was being like this. Actually, why was I being like this?

I tore my boots off and put them on a shelf before spilling out of my fatigues. I climbed up onto my bunk with my phone and book and stretched out, my whole body sighing. There was no air, but it felt less stuffy being out of my kit.

"Your bollocks must be in heaven with all that freedom," Jack chortled, making the others laugh.

"Yeah, the blood and fresh air is getting to them again," I replied, trying to make myself feel like the normal person I normally am.

"OOOOOHHHH, I almost fucking had you!" came Tank's roar as he lost the final hand at cards. "Meh, I'm going to find out what the showers are like here."

"Yeah, I'll come too," Jack seconded. I peered over my bed and watched the two of them leave. Lukas got up too and threw himself on his bed.

"Wow, two guys going for a shower together; what will people think?" Lukas said, oozing sarcasm.

"Don't be like this, please." I got up on my elbow. "Look, I apologise, I overreacted. I was stupid."

Lukas smiled into his magazine. "No bother, I do know the boundaries."

"Huh, what boundaries, and why say it in that tone?"

"Nothing, a s I just said, I know the boundaries."

"Look, if this is some warped way of coming out to me, well, I don't care, okay?"

"Whoa, easy there. Who said I was gay?"

"Well, I dunno, just the words you're using, the episode at the bar ... "

"Which you overreacted to?"

"Yeah, I said I did, didn't I?"

Lukas got off his bed and came over to mine. His head was level with my mattress.


"You're tense, it's kinda cute."

"Fuck off Spinner, you're doing my head in."

July 7th 2006

I managed to call home and speak to my parents that morning. Dad said the war was intensifying and that it had never been so bad. I think he was worried about me. I was worried about myself. Hell, I'm worried about my friends, too. I didn't know who was running this show, none of us really did, but they wasted no time in getting us out on patrol. I was thinking about this as we rolled along on dusty terrain to a potential Taliban hideout on the outskirts of Helmand Province. We'd been on the road for over an hour.

We'd been told that our Land Rover Wolf s were being replaced in December with Jackals—much better armoured vehicles. But we were in July. The problem with what I was travelling on was ? Well, if we ran over something man-made we were history. The boys tried not to think about it. But my dad had a tendency to be straight with me about the current limitations of this 'mobile coffin', as it was named. I kept quiet.

There were six of us on the back of this open back Wolf. Our sergeant was in the passenger seat with his binoculars keeping a keen eye out. No one was speaking. I felt tension in my body as we started to speed up. Had he seen something? What the fuck was I doing out here?

"You okay?" asked Jack, who was sitting directly opposite me.

"Just sand in my eyes," I replied. I clutched my automatic weapon ever harder.

"Fucking sand everywhere," said one of the boys in our squad. His name escaped me.

Spinner kept tapping my knee with his even though the stretch of road we were on was flat. He was sitting on my left and as I looked at him there was that smile again. Annoying, yet comforting.

"You okay, Tank?" Spinner asked.

"Yeah, Lukas, I got Jack here," he replied. The three of them laughed. Me and the other two unknown squaddies didn't.

We came to a stop near some dilapidated buildings. Across the dirt track was a wall, perhaps no taller than any of us. Our sergeant signalled for us to gather behind it. We hopped off the back of the Land Rover and did as we were told, moving quickly to our meeting point. The driver took the truck and parked it away from the buildings and joined us, his weapon pointing down.

"Three round the back, three at the front. You don't talk to the locals and you don't raise your weapons until I say."

"Yes sargeant " we all hissed.

I followed Tank and Lukas round the back, while Jack went with the other two towards the front after we'd been put in our groups. We found four men sitting in chairs playing some kind of game with matches. They immediately put their hands up.

The sergeant and the driver came round seconds later and saw the men now sitting in silence. The driver then started speaking in some foreign language and one of them pointed to the house. We checked them for weapons. Thankfully they didn 't have any.

"Move in, weapons ready."

"Yes Sir," we replied. Tank led us towards the house in a slight crouch. Lukas and I followed and we gathered on either side of a flimsy door. The sergeant barged in followed by the driver and then us.

"Down! Down on the floor," the driver shouted, first in the local language, then English.

But they didn't. There were two men and a woman with a kid in the single room. One of the men came at us. I saw he had a knife. A woman with a small child ran towards the front of the house and through a doorway as time slowed down. The man holding the knife lunged forward at the driver. In my peripheral vision I saw the other reach inside his jeans and pull out a small gun, and raising it, I saw his target was Tank. In that moment which seemed to last minutes, hours, maybe even forever, I fired and saw the man with the gun's chest explode; he was knocked backwards against the wall which held him up momentarily; then he slowly collapsed to the floor. Tank, who had seen the man with the knife also fired. Lukas jumped back, almost sending me off balance. Tank got the man in the centre of the chest. He seemed to look at me ... . stare in fact, and he went down.

"I ... I had no choice," I said looking back at my sergeant. "He was aiming at Tank; I had no choice."

"You did what your training taught you to do. Well done, lad. Let's move out."

And that was it. We walked out the front joining Jack and our other two squaddies and the driver went back to collect the truck. That was fucking it. I was now a killer. Was I a murderer?

Tank saw my distress immediately and pulled me in for a sideways hug, followed by Jack.

"I just killed someone," was all I could say. "I just killed a human being. I just killed a person ... A living person!"

"And if you had not, he would have killed Tank and you and then someone else would have killed him, and so the cycle continues," said Lukas as we started to climb aboard the Land Rover. There was no lingering; we immediately drove away. I didn't feel at all well. Those scenes just played out in full Technicolor, burning themselves into my memory.

Lukas grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I didn't pull away this time, somehow needing or wanting someone to say ….

"It's alright, you know; the first one is always the worst."

I ungripped my hand from Lukas. "How would you know?" I said, looking at him.

"Personally, I don't. But ask anyone who has, and they will say the same."

As we drove back to the camp, I heard my sergeant on the radio. He only said three words: "Two targets eliminated!"

Warm water poured over my naked body as I stood in the shower with my eyes closed. Each drop was providing a nano-dose of peace. I tried hard to clear my mind.

"You did good today," I heard Lukas say, as he joined me in the showers. "You look good today," he continued.

"Your forwardness is disgusting," I blurted, not bothering to open my eyes. "Are you staring at me?"

"No, I'm showering."

"You know you always sound so ... . I dunno, experienced. It's like you've been there, to places I mean. Or done stuff that we haven't."

"Perhaps it's the German efficiency in me. I analyse, process, evaluate and conclude. No, Seb, I am as inexperienced as you. But if I train my brain to say I'm not, then who is to say I am not?"

"You've lost me."


"So are you?"


"See, how did you even know that's what I was asking?"

"Because that's the only reasonable thing to think you are asking. I said you look good today. It was a flippant remark, and yet for you it lingered. It was in your thoughts, perhaps in the background as we spoke. So naturally when you ask an open ended question like, 'am I?', it suggests that's what you want to know."

I rolled my eyes. "Just fucking tell me already."

"Is it crucial to your survival that you know?"

"Lukas, stop playing games," I said, now deciding to look at him. "Again with that smile!" I looked away again and closed my eyes. "You enjoy fucking with people. Is that a German thing?"

"Labels, Seb. Why must everything be labeled? Can't someone just ... be?"

I had long since washed. The needed shower had become the indulgent shower and I decided I had been in there long enough. I was pruney and my eyes were now red.

"I'm done, I'll see you back at the tent ."

"You will," he replied as I wrapped my towel around me and walked out. "I LIKE WHO I LIKE, AND I'M BRITISH TOO!" he shouted after me.

What a fucked up day. I needed to call home. I needed to hear my mum's voice. I needed my mum!

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