The War Within: A Short Story Inspired by Chester's Life


#1

Greetings, fellow Soldiers!

In honour of July 20, I wrote a short story that tells in a fictionalized way what Chester means to me, exactly 1 year after his tragic passing. If you don’t have time to read all of it, you can scroll down to the most important part called “This is Not the End; This is Not the Beginning.” May we all make Chester proud!

The War Within: A Short Story Inspired by One More Light

“Daddy, are you going to die?” inquired the small child as he stood dwarfed by his father’s imposing stature.
“No, son. I’m going off to fight bad guys and then I’ll come home again,” Sergeant Benjamin Fort said, kneeling down so he could look into his child’s beautiful brown eyes. “I’ll be back. I promise. Just remember that, Hawk. Remember you’re loved and you always will be. You’re my son and I love you more than you can ever know. So make me proud while I’m gone,” Fort stroked his son’s cheek before standing up to meet his wife’s angry eyes.

“Ben, you shouldn’t make promises like that to the kids. You of all people should know there’s no guarantees in war.” Lindi’s eyes flashed with indignation at the unfolding situation.

“Baby, this is my third tour of duty. I’ll do my time and I’ll be back before you know it. Then we can finally take that Fiji vacation we keep talking about.” Lindi felt a hot flush of rage flowing through her veins, but she carefully kept her feelings to herself. Every time he leaves, I wonder if I’ll ever see him again. He’s missing out on seeing his kids grow up. Lindi knew that merely mentioning her feelings about her husband leaving yet again on another dangerous military mission was fruitless. Sometimes, I just feel like I’m talking to myself; he’ll do what he thinks is right, no matter what the cost. I just hope he comes home.
Fort felt a brief tug at his desert camouflage uniform.

“Daddy, I know your job is dangerous and I don’t want the bad guys to hurt you!” Hawk hugged his father with all the might of a six-year-old as tears drifted down his cheeks.

“Hawk, how many times to I have to tell you?” Fort said, temporarily losing his usually stoic demeanor. “The bad guys won’t hurt me – I won’t let that happen. The bad guys are strong – but I’m stronger. Hey,” Fort said in an obvious attempt to change the subject. “Maybe I’ll bring you back something, like a souvenir. When I get back, I’ll take you to the planetarium and we’ll look at all the stars.”

“And Mars!? We have to see Mars, too! ‘Cause I’m gonna be an astronaut one day and be the first ever to walk on Mars!” Hawk’s face brightened.

“Yep! If you try hard enough, you can do that. Do something that no one has ever done before – reach for the stars!” Fort playfully swept his hand through his son’s short brown hair before kissing him on the cheek. Fort looked into his son’s eyes for what he knew might be the last time. “Listen to your Mama and do everything she tells you to do. Don’t run…”

“With scissors. You’ll hurt someone.” Lindi interjected, finishing Fort’s thoughts. “Think before you speak. Look before you leap; watch the friends you keep. And don’t talk to strangers…” Hawk knew all this information; his mother had repeated this advice to him so often he could recite it nearly word for word.
“Yes, Daddy. I will.” Hawk wiped away his tears with his sleeve. “I’m gonna miss you a lot!” Hawk gushed.
“I’ll miss you and Mama.” Tears continued rolling down Hawk’s now tear-stained face. “Awww, kiddo…It’s ok. I love you. I’ll be home soon.” Fort had no idea of the truth contained in those words.

At the same time that Fort was kissing his wife and kids’ goodbye, Corporal Miguel Estrella was already on a flight east-bound en route to a sun-scorched strip of land that was teeming with sundry types of terror. From his window seat, Estrella casually gazed out upon the left wing of the Boeing 747 aircraft. In the spangled sky, condensation formed raindrops that pixelated Estrella’s view. He could barely make out the plane’s landing gear that alternatingly blinked red and white. Not much to see. With over 10 more hours to go, Estrella settled back in his seat and stretched his already cramped legs. The plane hasn’t even landed yet and I’m already missing my kids. Figures. This war won’t be over soon enough! Estrella sighed before drifting into a dreamless sleep.
Crash!

Estrella awoke with a start and out of sheer instinct, reached for where his rifle would have been had he been equipped with one. The plane tilted forward as the pilot applied the brakes and the roar of the engine finally ceased. “Welcome to [country name redacted]. The local time is 3:20 in the afternoon. Please make sure you have all your belongings before exiting the plane.” Darn flight attendants. I wonder if they ever get sick of saying the same speech over and over and over again. Estrella ensured he had his wallet, cell phone, and rucksack and ambled off the plane in the direction of a makeshift military post on the edge of an ever-encroaching desert.
“Ok, ladies! Let’s move! MOVE! One, two! One, two!” Fort barked his orders to the 12 men in his squad. He sometimes used harsh language not out of any desire to demean anyone, but because experience had taught him that if he wanted to live to see another sunrise, he had to become tough. As his squad performed the typical military calisthenics in preparation for their first day on the battlefield, Fort thought about the task set before him and his men. He knew that the guerillas that appeared, disappeared, then reappeared again, like phantom ghosts, only understood one thing: violence. Fort and his squad were tasked with clearing out any remaining guerillas in the village; his squad would have to go house to house searching for any weapons and guerilla fighters all the while avoiding any ambushes or booby-traps.

“Sgt. Fort, sir. May I have a word with you?” A skinny, yet well-built man of average height saluted his superior officer and was granted permission to speak. “Sir, I was just wondering when we were all going to introduce ourselves.”

“Your uniform says you’re Corporal Estrella. That’s all I really need to know. I don’t really care who you are or where you come from. You’re a soldier in my squad and that’s all that really matters to me. Besides, we didn’t come halfway around the world to chit-chat and have an ice cream social. We came here to kill the enemy so we can win the war so we can all go home to our families. Understand, soldier?” Fort stared squarely at Estrella’s unflinching eyes.

“Understood, sir.” Estrella saluted Fort again and returned to his cardio exercises.
“Let’s go, ladies! My grandmother can run faster than that, and she’s in a coma!”Estrella saw his commanding officer as unnecessarily aloof; cut off from the rest of his squad mates, and, even more alarming, cut off from himself. For the time being, Sgt. Fort was impregnable, with thick stone walls several meters high. The walls kept Fort safe, but it also kept people from getting too close to him. Only the cacophony of battle could cause Fort’s carefully constructed walls to collapse.

The sadistic sun mercilessly beat down upon Fort’s squad as they trekked along the windswept sand dunes. Each soldier shielded their face from the ubiquitous dust and sand with a piece of protective cloth tied around their entire face except their eyes; aside from their desert camouflage uniforms, they might be mistaken for bandits.
“Almost there, ladies! Just a few more miles.” Fort’s men marched two-by-two; each soldier had a battle buddy to whom they were held accountable. If one soldier got in trouble, so would their battle buddy. Like Estrella, Private DeeJay perceived that his sergeant’s overly-businesslike attitude could be a liability on the field. A good leader spends time getting to know those under his command and learns their strengths and weaknesses so that each soldier’s talents are used for maximum effect against the enemy. Unfortunately, DeeJay concluded, Sgt. Fort didn’t seem to care for people very much. After all, no one rises to the rank of sergeant by hosting ice cream socials; Fort must be a killing machine…

Fort instructed his squad to halt just below the ridge of a sand dune. Just over the next dune lay a village occupied by radical guerillas. He had to prepare his men for the hardships of war.

“Welcome to war, ladies! One the other side of this ridge lies a sparkling resort town chock full of fancy temperature regulated Olympic-sized pools, pizza places, hot babes in skimpy swim suits, and movie theaters on every corner. Just kiddin’!” No one laughed. Fort’s sarcasm whooshed right over the heads of his men. All simply stared at their commander with stone faces. Fort cleared his throat.

“Ahem! My guess is that except for Corporal Estrella, none of you have experienced war before. So let me clue you gals in. As the great General Patton once said, ‘No one ever won a war by dying for their country. You win wars by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.’ Our mission is to get rid of the radicals in the village. As guerillas, they are used to fighting at night, so sneaking into the village during the day and blending in with the locals is our first step. The bandanas that cover our faces are a good start, but with our desert camouflage, we’ll stick out like an orange tractor at a flea circus. So if any of you happen to conveniently stumble upon an extra set of local’s clothes, feel free to ditch your camo. Gotta blend in, remember?
“There’s a safe house that we should get to ASAP. We can regroup there and I’ll give an update on mission status to the Commanding Officer, our CO. Oh, I almost forgot. The first time anyone shoots at you, you’ll probably puke and shit yourselves. Which is another wonderful reason why each of you should find a new set of clothes ASAP. I love the sound of a gun battle; it’s like a symphony – a battle symphony! You ladies ready for war? You’d better be, ‘cause here we go! Follow me to the safe house!” Fort’s squad leapt over the sandy ridge and bolted toward the village.

“Alright, ladies! You heard the CO: We’re here to clear this village of the radicals. Our first step in doing this is enforcing curfew. Any locals out past 01:00 is violating curfew and must be dealt with as situation dictates.” Sgt. Fort continued giving instructions to his crew. “We have a few hours till then, so I’d advise you to get a new set of clothes in order to blend in with the locals. Split up; walking around with a group our size looks hella suspicious, so explore the village and get to know the territory before it gets dark. That way, when you’re on patrol later tonight, you’ll have a rough idea of where rebels might like to hide. At 01:00, we start patrolling the village and making sure no rebels are out causing trouble. If you spot them, shoot first and ask questions later. Citizens are well aware of the curfew and no mercy should be given to them.” Upon hearing this, Estrella thought the Sgt.’s words seemed harsh, but then again, he thought, this was war, not a high school musical. “Let’s meet back at this safehouse at 05:00 and we’ll get our next objective from the CO.”
After asking careful questions of some locals in the village, Fort made his way down some lonely crooked paths that passed for roads in that developing country and presently stood in front of what appeared to be an abandoned shack. A subconscious craving had driven him there in search of that country’s most profitable export: a highly potent narcotic. Fort knew the rest of his crew was busy getting a feel for the lay of the land, so he wasn’t worried about getting caught making a potentially career-ruining purchase from the burly bearded man who now stood in front of him. The muscular man eyed his potential new customer from the top of his shaved head to his combat boots.

“Are we going to have a problem?” Fort said, flashing a thick stack of currency in his hand.
“No, sir. Your money here is just as good as mine…Of course, we also accept other forms of payment…” leered the man as he slowly licked his lips as the Sgt. Stood deadpan in front of him.
“No thanks. I’m not fucking around here.” Fort smiled slightly at his double-entendre. His attempt at humor was lost on the man. After carefully counting out the bills, the man handed Fort a hypodermic needle and syringe. “There’s some rooms in the back. Make yourself at home. I’m always happy to have a new customer.” Fort walked towards the back of the rickety house, sat down on a small chair, and began unlacing one of his boots. Using of his shoelaces as a tourniquet, Fort carefully inserted the needle into his vein. A sigh of contentment escaped Fort’s lungs, for he knew that for the next several hours, he wouldn’t care about anything else other than the warm feeling slowly radiating into every part of him. I don’t like drugs. Drugs like me. He smiled in resignation of the fact that one day, perhaps in a few minutes, this lifelong habit of self-medicating might kill him. Who cares? At least then, I’d die on the biggest rush of my whole goddamned life. At least then, I’d die happy. Fort suddenly had a realization of his potentially fatal decision and mumbled to no one in particular, “Please don’t let me die here.” Soon, his meandering thoughts became fuzzy and he drifted off into a heavy drug-induced slumber.

Having completely lost track of time, Fort woke up from his deliriously happy dream in a panic. Judging by the angle of the moonlight that now streamed into the abandoned flop house, it must be at least 01:00, which meant his crew would already be out patrolling the streets in search of rebels. Fort quickly grabbed his rifle and other belongings and ran out of the house so fast that he didn’t even notice that the burly man who has sold him his narcotic lay dead in the corner of the same room. A needle protruded from the bearded man’s arm.

From his high vantage point of the safehouse roof, Fort surveyed his surroundings. Scanning for any rebels, he reached for his rifle when he saw a suspicious gang of traditionally garbed men with what looked like weapons slung over their backs. Rebels! Peering into his rifle scope, even with his poor eyesight, Fort could make out the rifles on each of the rebels’ back. Unnerved and yet exhilarated for the inevitable adrenaline rush brought on by the thrill of combat, Fort aimed his sniper at the head of one of the rebels.

Bang!

The bullet thundered through the air and hit its target. As the high caliber cartridge case fell to the ground, the remaining rebels shrieked and found cover. Fort raced for cover behind a nearby concrete wall and continued firing. The rebels and Fort exchanged fire for what seemed like hours. When the rebels finally ceased shooting, dawn was just beginning to caress the sky with pink and yellow streaks. Exhausted by the gun battle and lingering grogginess from his foray in the abandoned house, Fort fell asleep once more.

“I’ve found him! He’s over here!” Corp. Estrella motioned to his comrades. Quickly forming a circle around their leader, Sgt. Fort groggily opened his eyes and blinked a few times as the corporal towered over him. Before Fort could say anything, Estrella’s panicked words assaulted Fort’s ears:
“Holy shit! Shit! Half our crew is gone!” Estrella’s eyes were as wide as saucers.
“Gone? What do you mean, ‘Gone?’”
“They’re dead, Sgt.! We did everything you told us to do! We each got a new set of clothes so we’d blend in better. We were out patrolling a little past 01:00 when…” Estrella’s voice cracked with emotion. As if to lessen the impact of what he would say next, Estrella hastened on, “…when one of our guys got hit by a sniper! His head fucking exploded like a smashed pumpkin right in front of us!!!” Estrella shook in shock and disbelief.

Sgt. Fort’s heart dropped into his boots. The gun fight last night wasn’t with a bunch of rebels – it was his own men! Fort covered his face in shame and silently wept because of his colossal mistake.
“Six men, Sgt.! We’ve lost half our crew.”
Nearly on the verge of vomiting, Fort took the biggest breath he had ever taken and told his surviving crew of 5 soldiers the whole awful truth.

“Friendly fire!? I’ll be damned if you have a job tomorrow, Fort! I oughtta FIRE your army ass!” Sgt. Fort’s CO barked. “Jesus H. Christ! This isn’t just some small mistake like forgetting to clean your rifle. We’re talking about 6 brave soldiers DEAD – all because of YOU!! I swear to God if I ever see your ass again I’ll blow your fucking head off myself! Fuck it. Finish the mission. But when you get back home, I’ll make damn sure you are stripped of all your medals and are dishonourably discharged from military service. Thanks but no thanks for your service, Sgt.! I hope you die out there in that hellish desert.” Tears rolled like rain down the cheeks of every member of the now 6-man band. Fort wondered if he’d ever be able to wash his hands clean of the blood he had so mistakenly shed.

About a week later and after much self-reflection, Fort called his men to a meeting in the safehouse. Having thoughtfully Sgt. reflected upon his actions thus far with his men, he decided that a massive change in priorities was in order. He had to win the trust of his soldiers again; once lost, trust is one of the hardest things to regain. A simple way of starting this process is to get to know the members of his small band as individuals, Fort reasoned.

“Let’s start with our names and where we’re from. I’ll start. My name is Sgt. Benjamin Fort and I’m from a little town in California called Lincoln Park. Corporal Estrella, you’re next.”
Estrella smiled at this seemingly childish way of conducting introductions. “Hi. I’m Corporal Miguel Estrella. This is my second tour of duty in this lush, green country.” Responding to the corporal’s sarcasm, a small chuckle arose out of the small crowd. “My parents immigrated to America when I was 7. Growing up, my dad would always remind me that my last name meant “Star” in Spanish, so he’d always tell me to reach for the stars.” Estrella was just about to say something else when he was interrupted by a deep, commanding voice:
“And yet, here we all are, right in the pit of hell fighting a war that nobody agrees with.” Five pairs of eyes fell on the owner of the voice who had the courage to speak that uncomfortable truth. Fort read the private’s name tag.
“DeeJay? Please tell us about yourself.”
“Well, um…” DeeJay stammered. “I’m DeeJay and I’m also from California, um, from the City of Angels.” Not knowing what else to say and having lost his self-confidence due to being put on the spot, DeeJay concluded his introduction by adding, “This is my first tour of duty. And I need ANOTHER set of clothes!” DeeJay difficult truth made him grimace.
“Don’t worry,” Fort reassured. “We’ll get you some.” Turning his eyes toward yet another unfamiliar nametag, Fort asked, “Who’s next?”
“My name’s Bob and I really am from Hell.” At this statement, some wore confused looks while others softly chuckled. “No, really. I’m from Hell!” Bob said with a gently smile. “Hell, Michigan! It’s a real place!” The small band roared with laughter.
“Haha!” another soldier chuckled. “And I thought Phoenix was hot!”
Fort’s eyes turned towards the soldier who had just spoken.
“And you are?”
“My name is Dawid and I’m from a really hot place called Phoenix, Ari-“ Fort saw yet another opportunity for humor and interjected,
“Phoenix, huh?” Fort smiled kindly. “I think I’ll call you Firebird.” Firebird smiled and nodded with amused acceptance of his new name.
“Ok. There’s only one soldier who hasn’t been introduced yet.” Fort and the rest of the band looked toward the as-yet silent soldier. Reading what must have been a misprint on the soldier’s nametag, Fort looked expectantly at the soldier.
“Hi. My name is Brad, but as you can tell from reading my nametag, the genius bureaucracy that is the military, can’t even spell my first name right.” The band snickered, knowing Brad was correct in his assessment.
“I actually like the misprint. Bard, not Brad. I’m pretty sure that makes you smarter than me,” Estrella chimed. The soldier stood in silence for a moment, contemplating the sound of his new name.
“Ok. I’m Bard!” the soldier smiled playfully. “I’ve always been a fan of Shakespeare!”
“Well, now that we all know each other, it’s time I tell you a little bit about life in the military. Corp. Estrella, this may be old hat to you, but please listen up and follow me into the desert…as thirsty as you all are!” The band grabbed their heavy rucksacks and trudged out of the safehouse until they were on the edge of the village. The infernal desert that seemed to endlessly stretch out before them.

“Now, I want all you guys to stand next to each other in a line facing me. I got important stuff to tell you.” The band did as they were told.
“War is probably one of the most intense experiences someone can have. Nothing can solidify a relationship faster than war. We’re gonna see a lot of bad shit. People will get hurt. People will die. So I really need you guys to trust me again, even after…” A large lump lodged in Fort’s throat, “Even after my past mistakes. I’ve never been perfect. But neither are you.” Fort’s posture straightened, despite the 50-lb rucksack that weighed heavily on him. “So I guess that makes us even, right?” he added, his voice brightening.

Fort bent down to rest his rucksack on the sandy desert ground. Taking his left index finger, he traced a word in the sand before drawing a line in the sand separating him from the rest of his band. As Fort did so, Estrella noticed track marks on the Sgt.’s right arm. Estrella immediately recognized the needle marks for what they were. He looked upon his leader with a mix of concern and compassion, but said nothing.
“Guys, I’m sure you know by now that we’re not playing games here. I have to know that you guys are gonna back each other up and fight for each other; no matter what. So, I want everyone who is willing to give their all, no matter what the cost, stand over here on my side of the line. If not, fine. I won’t feel insulted. I won’t think bad of you. Just means you’re not ready to take one step closer to the ideals that we soldiers try to live up to: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and trust. You gotta be willing to put yourself on the line here. Everyone willing to stand strong with me, cross the line now.” As if they were one soldier, not five, every member of Fort’s squad took one step forward. All had crossed the line in the sand. Heartened, and somewhat humbled by their unified solidarity, Fort looked with pride upon his willing comrades, and said, “Let’s go get those rebels!”

Through the static on Sgt. Fort’s radio, he could barely make out the words of his Commanding Officer saying that the rebels had been spotted regrouping at the Salt Sea, several miles across the infernal desert. Their new mission was to trek across the desert and attack the rebels’ stronghold at the Salt Sea. Briefing his fellow soldiers on their new mission, Fort inquired,
“Everyone has all their stuff right? You guys got compasses?”
Estrella saluted his superior and said, “No. I think I lost mine somewhere in the village.” Estrella looked down at the ground sheepishly.
“No worries. I’m sure the locals need that compass. Here, you can have mine. I’ll just navigate using the stars. You can’t afford to get lost in this desert.” Fort tossed his own compass to Estrella. Estrella used a carabiner to clip the compass on his belt loop, ensuring he would never get lost again. After making sure his crew was adequately prepared for the harshness of desert survival, the band of brothers began the trek to the Salt Sea, a distance of 150 miles.

Trudging across sand dunes, the soldiers grew bored of the nondescript scenery and told each other stories to stave off ennui.
"I had a fucked up childhood,” said Fort to Estrella. “Like, when I was a kid, my crazy Aunt would dress in these disgusting mink coats made out of real animals. Then she’d beat the crap out of me, and afterwards, when I was crying in the corner yelling at her to leave me alone, she’d make me kiss her hand. Her hand! The one she just hit me with! And she’d make me thank her for beating me. What a sick fuck. Other bad stuff happened too…”

Estrella tried his best to put himself in his Sgt.’s shoes and imagine what a terrifying experience that must’ve been for a little kid. Then he remembered the track marks he saw earlier on Fort’s arm. _He was just trying to cope…_the corporal thought to himself. As an immigrant, Estrella’s struggles were not the same as his Sgt.’s, but he did know what it was like to feel like he didn’t fit in anywhere.
Listening to his Sgt.’s words, Bard remembered one of the things that made Shakespeare (the original Bard) so great was his ability to speak to the human condition; everyone could relate to his words.
DeeJay remembered a time in his life when the people who were supposed to love him, failed to accept him; he could relate to Fort’s experience even though he had not gone through the same situation.
After a few weeks of trekking, the comrades’ water supply had begun to run dry. The sadistic sun mocked them from noon till early evening when the cursed cold would take its turn.

DeeJay’s lips stuck together; all he could think about was water. He imagined torrents of waterfalls, a gentle rain, a peaceful brook. Turning his canteen completely upside down, he shook it in a desperate attempt to get some kind of moisture, but received none.
“Um, is anyone else thirsty?” DeeJay asked.
All the soldiers responded affirmatively, as though they had been waiting for someone else to speak up first. The thirst bothered Sgt. Fort too, but he didn’t want to say anything for fear of inconveniencing anyone. Now that his soldiers had acknowledged a problem, Fort intended to fix it: He needed to find water in what was called in the local language, “The Waterless Desert.”

Rising up early, Sgt. Fort was the first to pack up the tarp that the soldiers had been using as part of their lean-to shelter, and set off to find a source of water. The entire squad was searching for water, but only Estrella and Sgt. Fort had the experience needed to find it quickly. Remembering his survival training, Bob lifted up a large rock in the hope that dew had been trapped underneath it. Instead, he found a scorpion. Surprised by the arachnid, Bob dropped the rock and the scorpion scuttled away.
Estrella saw this incident and noted which direction the scorpion was headed. Where animals gather, there’s bound to be water nearby! he remembered. He motioned for his comrades to follow the scorpion. Unfortunately, the squad hadn’t been tailing the scorpion long when it found refuge underneath yet another rock.
DeeJay’s patience was wearing thin.
“Uh, are we looking for water? Or are we just chasing bugs? I’m fucking hot. Where’s the water, Sgt.?”
Fort’s biting sarcasm rose to the surface, “You must think the rest of us have a secret stash of lemonade hidden away somewhere. Yeah, it’s fuckin’ hot. Deal with it. Matter of fact, why don’t you guys find the water? Here’s my canteen; fill it up for me and bring it back.” To DeeJay’s astonishment, Fort gracefully tossed him his canteen.
“You’re really serious.”
“Damn straight, I am.” Cursing under his breath, DeeJay slung the empty canteen over his shoulder and joined Bob, Firebird, Estrella, and Bard in what seemed like a futile search for water. Alone, Sgt. Fort knelt on the infernal sands, his eyes scanning the sand. He too was looking for a clue as to where water might be found.

Hours passed, and the 5 soldiers’ blood ran hot with frustration. Finally, Estrella lifted his eyes towards the horizon and saw a large tree in the distance! “Look! Two o’ clock! I think that’s a cactus!” Firebird looked in the direction Miguel indicated.
“What cactus?” Firebird replied, wiping sweat from his eyes.
“There’s a big friggin’ tree, right there, Dawid. Its roots must be storing water! We’re saved” Estrella spouted excitedly.
Firebird pulled Bob aside and covered his mouth with his hand so that Estrella couldn’t hear their conversation.
“Fuck, Bob. Corporal is hallucinating. And Sgt. left us here to die alone in this desert. We’re fucked.” Bob sighed, but tried to give his battle buddy hope.
“It’s heat exhaustion. He needs water ASAP. Look. Tell DeeJay and Bard to stay with Estrella. You and I will go find the Sgt.! He’ll know what to do!”

Dogged by a heat-induced headache, the 2 battle buddies walked back to where they had left Sgt. Fort. To their surprise, he had found a small sapling and using a hollow stick as a straw, was sucking water right out of the ground and using the tarp to hold the water. Fort heard the approach of the 2 soldiers and looked up from his life-saving task.
“So…how’d it go?”
“Terrible!” Firebird blurted out. “Corporal has heat exhaustion and Bard is trying to convince him not to hike towards a tree that doesn’t exist. And DeeJay-“
“Hm. Sounds like a fun time was had by all,” Fort said with a smile. “What’s more fun than dying of thirst?” Firebird stood mute in the face of Fort’s humor under such dire circumstances. “Finding water, of course! Here, sit down by me and lemme show you how this works.”
“But Estrella is losing his mind!”
“And I’m going to lose my patience if you don’t shut up and listen.” Fort said, harshly. Then, quickly regaining his usually calm temperament, he advised, “Ok. Use this stick to dig under the sand and reach the ground water underneath. Any water you find can be soaked up with your bandana and then squeezed onto this tarp. Keep doing this till I get back. I gotta go help Estrella.”

Within an hour, the 6 soldiers had all rendezvoused around the sapling. Estrella was the first to receive the life-giving water so carefully procured by Fort and Firebird. Fort looked at Firebird with pride, knowing he had taught him a life-saving skill.
“See Firebird? And you thought we all were gonna die!” Fort’s dismissive words added to the levity of the situation, now that they all had full canteens again. DeeJay dutifully filled Sgt.’s canteen and handed it to him.

“Hey Sgt.? How much longer until we reach the Salt Sea?” Bard inquired.
“I dunno. When the stars come out, I’ll have more of an idea. Till then, let’s get some sleep. Once the sun goes down, it’ll be easier to travel since there’ll be less heat.”
As the soldiers napped, Sgt. Fort had a nightmare in which he was shackled to a flagpole and the only way to free his feet from the heavy chains was to pick up the hack saw that lay at his feet and hack away…
Fort awoke with a start. Glancing up at the sky and feeling the cool air on his face, he knew it was time to continue the trek towards the Salt Sea.


#2

Once he had located the constellations of Ursa Major and Cassiopeia, Fort was able to find True North, Polaris. Confident that his squad was properly orientated and hiking in the direction of the Salt Sea, Fort knew it would only be a few more days until they reached their destination.

As dawn approached, bringing her promise of sleep to the now exhausted soldiers, the men looked forward to a well-earned rest. There seemed to be a bit more greenery now that they were significantly closer to the Salt Sea. Although sleep beckoned him, Fort became uneasy as he hastily constructed a lean-to shelter.
“Is it just me, or are we being watched?” Fort asked.
“I don’t notice anything. What’s wrong, Sarge?” said Bob.
“Maybe I’m just being paranoid. I just feel like there’s a pair of eyes-“ Fort’s response was interrupted by something moving in his peripheral vision. Turning to face his attacker, Fort saw a desert wildcat bounding toward his squad.

“Oh shit!” DeeJay yelled. Caught unawares due to their setting up camp, none of the soldiers were within arms-reach of their rifle. Prepared to fight to the death with this savage beast, they each grabbed whatever they could possibly use as an improvised weapon. The cheetah-like feline sprinted towards Bard, leapt and tackled him to the ground.
The rest of the squad raced to Bard’s aid as the wildcat fought to gain a better grip on his neck. DeeJay punched the beast’s snout as hard as he could. Without thinking, Firebird thrust his own hand into the mouth of the beast and the muscular cat bit down with all its might on Firebird’s right hand. Screaming in agony, Fort furiously stabbed the wildcat in the eye using a pencil he happened to have in his pocket. Human and feline blood spurted all over their clothing and onto the desert sand. At last, the beast fell to the ground. The attack was over; the beast lay dead.

“My arm! My arm!” Bard wailed in pain. Slippery with blood, Bard finally got a look at his injured arm. His hand was badly mangled and he didn’t have any feeling in 3 of his fingers. Estrella wrapped Bard’s injured hand in gauze and told him to apply pressure to stop the bleeding.
Unfortunately, nothing seemed to staunch the blood; after 30 minutes and many gauze pads later, Bard still lay bleeding.
Must’ve hit an artery, Fort reasoned.

“We’re gonna have to give you a tourniquet, Bard. Nothing else worked, so this is our last resort. You’re gonna be ok, bud. Firebird, bring me a stick. Estrella, get me a bandana.” As he carefully tightened the tourniquet, Fort couldn’t help but think of the last time he had applied a tourniquet: on himself in the abandoned house in the village. Back then, he applied it to poison himself with powerful narcotics. This time, however, he applied it to save a friend’s life.
Once the tourniquet had been applied and his injured limb had been elevated, Bard lay down to sleep. Feeling woozy from the loss of blood, Bard hoped his hand would heal without permanent damage. But the numbness in his fingers frightened him. My fingers have become so numb. What if my hand has to be amputated? Bard’s brain swirled a host of worst-case scenarios before falling into a fitful sleep.
Ensuring that Bard was asleep, Fort briefed the rest of his soldiers on Bard’s condition.

“Don’t let that tourniquet stay on too long. If it stays on too long, Bard might have to get his hand amputated. Firebird, you’re in charge of that. That thing shouldn’t stay on for more than 2 hours, got it?” Firebird nodded realizing the gravity of the situation.
“The good news is we don’t have to worry about dinner.” Fort said with a sly smile. “Who’s in the mood for roasted wildcat?”
The sun set and the squad were preparing dinner. Each soldier except for the injured Bard was scouring the desert for anything that might be used to build a fire. Firebird was so busy gathering kindling for the fire that he had forgotten to remove Bard’s tourniquet! With a sudden flash of panic, Firebird realized his mistake, dropped the kindling, and ran to Bard’s side. With tears in his eyes, Firebird removed the tourniquet, revealing that some of Bard’s skin surrounding his wound had turned black and oozed a nauseating yellowish liquid. Necrosis. The cells had been deprived of blood for too long and began to die. Knowing that he should own up to his mistake, especially since he was not the only one affected by it, Firebird called Fort over to examine Bard’s wounds. Firebird was grateful that Bard remained asleep.
"He doesn’t look good, Sarge,” Firebird whispered so as not to wake Bard. “You see…um…” Firebird’s voice faltered. “I kinda forgot to take off the tourniquet in time…” Fort sighed and rolled his eyes,
“Well, I hope you won’t forget next time!”

Firebird stood astounded.

“You mean, you’re not mad?”
“Why would I be mad? It’s not my hand that’s going to be amputated!”
Firebird’s face flushed with fear.
“I hope Private Bard heals up just fine. Whatever happens, happens.” Fort said nonchalantly. “Say, where’s that kindling I told you to get?”
“I must’ve dropped it when I ran over to Bard…” Firebird avoided Fort’s penetrating gaze.
"Well, go find it and let’s get this fire poppin’! We’ve got a cat to roast!”

The light from the fire lit up the faces of all who gathered around it. Grateful for its warmth and light, the soldiers felt unusually relaxed after the day’s dangerous events. Firebird was especially encouraged when Bard woke up and joined them around the fire. Bard, though worried about what might happen to his right hand, had to learn to eat with his left hand. The process was cumbersome, so he ended up eating slower than everyone else.

“Man, I can’t wait to get home!” DeeJay exclaimed. “First thing when I get home is I’m gonna get me some real food; none of this roasted wildcat crap!” All the soldiers laughed in agreement. The soldiers were so engrossed in their conversations that they didn’t hear the approach of rebel soldiers sneaking up on them.
Crack! Bob heard a nearby twig snap and put his finger to his lips in an effort to quickly silence the gregarious soldiers.

“What was that?”
“I didn’t hear nothin’. What you on about?” DeeJay wanted to know.
“I heard a tree branch or something snap. Guys, we’ve got company. Watch your six.” Bob directed their attention behind them. Turning around, they were greeted with a gang of 6 rebels. They looked armed, but made no aggressive movements. The rebels raised their hands to indicate that they meant the soldiers no harm. One of the rebels spoke,
“Salam!” Fort looked at the rebels and gestured for them to lower their hands; he knew they didn’t plan on attacking him or his men.

“Hal beemkani mosa’adatuk?” Fort said in his best Arabic accent.
“Na’am. Ada’tu tareequi!”
"Ta’ala ma’ee!” Fort gestured for the rebels to help themselves to the roast meat and join his soldiers around the fire. Irate, Estrella shouted at Fort,
“The hell are you doin’? We’re getting paid to kill these bastards, not share our dinner with them! This goes against our standard operating procedure. You could lose your job over this!”
“I already have,” Fort said with a mix of resignation and humor. Fort continued, “Look. They say they’re lost and it’s clear they have no intention of fighting us. Where else are they gonna go?” All of Fort’s soldiers were astounded and somewhat offended by his acceptance of the rebels, those that he had been sent halfway around the world to kill.

“Are we going to kill these people because they don’t wear our uniform? We can conquer hate by loving the person next to us. The one thing that can never be defeated is love. I don’t care what these people look like. I don’t care where they come from. I don’t care what these people believe. I don’t care who these people are. The point is, they need our help, so how can we turn them away?” Fort pleaded. Estrella felt ashamed of himself. Just when I feel like I have Fort figured out, he pulls something like this…Whatever, he thought to himself. Whatever happens, is gonna happen. Estrella again took his seat around the fire. Each of the soldiers’ faces, both American and rebel, were reflected in the fire light. Fort turned to the rebel who first approached him and asked,

“Hal a’jabak?”
“Na’am, shukran.”
“Hal tatahadath lughat ‘ukhraa bijanib alearabia?”
“Laa, asif!”
Fort nodded. The rebels didn’t speak English, so he would try to communicate using gestures to make sure he was understood.
“What did he say?” Bard asked Fort.
“They don’t speak English. And they like the food.”

Seeing that everyone was enjoying the modest, yet satisfying dinner, Fort pointed towards the stars overhead and said,
“O dawn of the east, brightness of light eternal and sun of lightness and love, come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.” Uncomprehending but sensing the solemnity of the moment, each of the soldiers gave thanks in their own way.
“So!” Fort exclaimed. “We’re only about a mile away from the Salt Sea. Once we’re there, we’re one step closer to mission accomplished and going home. Which is probably what these guys want to do too.” Fort gestured to his dinner guests. Sensing a lull in the conversation, Firebird asked,
“Sarge, why did you become a soldier?”

“Because I love my country, sir!” Fort shouted with feigned enthusiasm. “Isn’t that what you were expecting me to say?”
Firebird blinked, not knowing what to say.
“I am a soldier because that’s my job. It’s a fun job, but it’s still a job. I get to travel the world, blow shit up, kill people, and get paid for it. Harsh, but true.” Fort’s words left his soldiers feeling cold.
“But you’re so good at it!” Bard interrupted. “You make it sound like you hate your job. Or, were you just being sarcastic?”
“Sure, I’m good at it. No one gets to the rank of Sargent without being a good soldier. But what’s the cost? I’m away from my family all the time, I’m missing seeing my kids’ grow up…And thanks to the friendly fire incident back in the village, I won’t even have a job when I get home. Fuck.” The longer he talked, the droopier Fort’s posture became. He seemed to be shrinking right before their eyes.

Sensing the heaviness in Sgt. Fort’s spirit, Estrella sought to lighten the mood.
“Wouldn’t it be great if all of us were out of a job?” Estrella question was met with blank stares.
“Um, no?” DeeJay answered honestly. “I kinda like the whole paycheck thing that comes with having a job…”
“No, no,” Estrella declared dismissively. “I mean, what would the world be like if soldiers weren’t needed anymore because war had become obsolete? I’ve always thought it would be cool to be a farmer; you get to work with your hands, just like a soldier, except you get to help things grow instead of cutting things down in their prime of life.” Estrella’s eyes flashed with an intensity that even Firebird hadn’t seen before.
“Oh, right. And I’m guessing you think it would be cool for munitions factories to be converted into history museums as a solemn testament to our ‘unenlightened age’?” Firebird said with raised eyebrows.
“Actually, that don’t sound half bad,” replied Sgt. Fort. “While we’re at it, we can abolish the family too. I mean, in this future world that we’re dreaming up here, we’ll all be one global family anyway.”
Bob balked at Fort’s last statement, saying, “That’s a buncha bull, dude, and you know it. Fact is, I got kids. I love kids. Most fathers do. And I can’t wait to see them when I get home.” Bob smiled with the mere mention of his children. “Now, I happen to like my kids better any anyone else’ because, well, they’re mine. All that crap about a “global family” is a nice idea, but it’s totally impractical and unrealistic. Are we really going to be expected not to show favoritism toward our own flesh and blood? I mean, family has to count for something. If we’re all family, then nobody is family because that word is being applied so broadly that it has ceased to mean anything at all.” The Bard thought Bob made a good point, although just what that point was exactly, Bard wasn’t sure.

“The fuck you guys talkin’ about? Listen to you guys. Sayin’ how great it would be to be a farmer and how family is everything or it’s nothin’. What difference at this point does it make? We’re out here in some hellish desert, literally half a world away from anyone who gives two shits about us. Newsflash: we’re not farmers and I’m not Pete Seeger. It’s 2017, Lockheed Martin is still in business and will be for the foreseeable future. We’re soldiers and we’ve got a job to do. Maybe if we don’t fuck up too much, we’ll all make it home safe and we can all go back to our lives.” Bard’s caustic words hit Sgt. Fort square in the heart. He took great offense at Bard’s words; to Fort, this was his life, this was what he had dedicated so much of his time and energy to over the years. Most of all, Fort did care about his soldiers; Bard’s insinuation that he didn’t care hurt his heart.

“I’m hurt that you feel that way, Bard. Doesn’t the fact that I’m still here show you that I care? I wonder if you care, Bard. We’ve been together all this time and you seem to have learned nothin’.” Fort felt disappointed not only in Bard, but in himself. If he were a better leader, his method of communication would’ve been clearer and would have precluded misunderstandings such as these. No wonder I’m being stripped of all my medals when I get home. I’m no leader; I don’t even deserve to be a soldier. Fort sighed, disappointed with how his life had turned out.

“Sorry, Bard. Don’t take what I just said to heart. It don’t mean nothin’. All the ideals that we’re supposed to fight for; it’s all smoke and mirrors anyway. “Truth is, we’re just state-sanctioned killers.” Fort sighed with this new and uncomfortable realization. He quickly changed the subject to something he was far more comfortable and acquainted with: anguish.

“Sometimes it feels like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. On our shoulders. Like we’re the heroes and we’re supposed to save everyone. But who saves the heroes when they need saving?” Only silence followed Fort’s perspicacious question. No one knew how to answer the question, although it did make each soldier think about possible answers.

“Well, it’s been a helluva day, friends,” Fort said, gesturing to all those present. “Let’s all get some rest. Tomorrow, we’ll march to the Salt Sea. Maybe they’ll have a ‘copter waiting along with a big friggin’ banquet full of food, and we can finally go home. I’m not holding my breath, though!” Fort’s weak attempt at humor belied his weariness; he felt so tired that his inhibitions were lower, as if he were slightly drunk.
As the last embers from the cooking fire burned out, Fort found himself alone again with his thoughts. Sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, he’d lie on his back resting his hand on the back of his head and try to count the stars. He once counted to 1,143 before collapsing into sleep. On this night however, he noticed something he couldn’t remember ever seeing: A falling star. It flickered and then, like so many things in life, vanished.

With all eleven soldiers asleep except for him, the man with one hour to live felt the familiar tug of the Salt Sea. He knew this tug well; his own rifle had called to him in a similar way only a year ago, and seemed like it had a bullet with his name on it…Once again, the sea sang a siren song to him, and he fell under its spell; it seemed to be calling out his name, for him to walk out in the waves…
He took out a pencil, the same one he used earlier to kill the wildcat, and started writing on a crumpled up paper. Flattening it out as best he could, Fort’s ideas streamed from his brain through his arm and onto the page. He wrote quickly, as if he were taking dictation. After he had finished writing the note, he stuffed the paper into a small plastic bag, sealed it, and put it in his pocket.

With great effort, Sgt. Fort schlepped all 6 of his soldiers’ 50-lbs rucksacks all the way to the shore of the Salt Sea. Even after 3 tours of duty and even more years in the army, Sgt. Fort never could get used to the sheer amount of weight that each soldier was required to haul. Wiping sweat from his forehead, he contemplated the waves’ ceaseless journey from sea to shore, and back again. He felt like he was an anonymous, unimportant, drop in the ocean. All he wanted to do was trade his life for a new one. A new life. A better life. One where he wasn’t always haunted by his past. Sure, he was a good soldier, but what difference did that make? It didn’t change the fact that he didn’t have a job once he returned home. It didn’t change the fact that he felt like he never spent any meaningful time with his family. It didn’t change the crushing weight of guilt that assaulted him every May 18, the anniversary of his dear friend Captain Chris’ untimely death… Why was he still alive when many of his comrades, including Captain Chris in Company C, were dead? What right did he have to keep on breathing? How could he ever wash away the guilt that weighed on his conscience for killing his own innocent men, those few soldiers he had sworn to protect? How could he ever live with the shame that his abusive aunt heaped upon him so undeservedly as a child? And how could he ever be the positive role model to his own children that he so fervently wanted to be when he never could quite quit kick that pesky heroin habit that dogged him no matter where he went? His mind would never, ever allow him to forget such terrible incidents, even if not all of them were his fault. His soul felt irredeemably stained; soiled with the blood of innocents. Let me just do everyone a favor; everyone will be a lot better off without me…

Tears forming in his eyes against his will, Sgt. Fort sat down where the watery foam washed over sand. Trying to steady his mind in preparation for his final act on earth, the great-hearted man rested his head in his hands. How many tears did someone have to cry in order to make such a large salty ocean like this one? Tears fell like rain down his face again. Lowering his head in a final act of surrender and ultimate despair, he mumbled to no one in particular, Please forgive me….

Rising up from his knees, the man of pain used paracord to tie all the rucksacks together before tying them to himself. Surely, the symbolism of these heavy, lead-like weights would not be lost on those who would eventually find his body…
Ensuring that his note was still snug inside its plastic bag, the man with seven minutes to live took one last breath and walked out into the Salt Sea. Just as Fort’s body ceased struggling for air, the last spark from the fire went out.
A soft rain fell the morning Fort’s body was discovered submerged in the normally buoyant waves of the Salt Sea. It seemed even the angels wept that day…The date was July 20.


#3

This is Not the End; This is Not the Beginning

Now reduced to 5, some weeks later, Fort’s soldiers found themselves in a magnificent house of worship in Fort’s hometown to honour their fallen friend. It was the lonely hour of 4AM, the darkest part of the night.
Notably, Firebird had lost one of his hands due to the tourniquet being left on too long. The soldiers’ family and friends filled nearly every seat in the building, nearly one thousand souls. Each attendant held an unlit candle. Fort’s wife Lindi and stripling son Hawk, were also in attendance. A lonely candle flickered on the altar; it was the only source of light in the entire room. Estrella was the first to approach the pulpit to speak.

“My name is Corporal Miguel Estrella. I was second in command in Sgt. Fort’s squad.” Estrella paused briefly before launching into his prepared spiel.

“That’s not him,” Estrella pointed to the urn sitting on the altar. “I will be the first to point out that the contents of that urn is not the soldier and friend I knew. Sgt. Benjamin Fort was much more than a soldier. He was a leader, husband, father, and for me, a friend. His passing is tragic and baffling. But, I think we all here would be remiss if we didn’t try to learn something from this tragic situation. Sgt. Fort’s death taught me a profound lesson that I’d like to share with you tonight.

“I first met Sgt. Fort a few months ago after I got assigned to his squad. When we were first getting to know each other, he made no secret of the fact that his childhood was less than ideal. I think at least some of Fort’s choices stemmed from this difficult childhood as sort of a coping strategy; a way of trying to deal with the hard things he had experienced as a child, and undoubtedly, the challenging experiences and split-second decisions that every soldier makes daily on the battlefield.

"Sgt. Fort and I were soldiers, and, like many soldiers will tell you, nothing can cement a bond faster than the rigors and deprivations of war. We became fast friends, we shared our lives together. We talked about our families, what we missed most while on tour, the pros and cons of having military careers, and what the world might look like if war became obsolete. We cried, we laughed, we disagreed, and affirmed one another…
"Sgt. Fort was well acquainted with the shadowy side of life, but this was by no means his entire personality; he had a sense of lightness and levity about him. Sgt. Fort was always cracking jokes. He loved to laugh and make us laugh. Even the most desolate of deserts couldn’t staunch his humor. It’s one of the things I’ll remember most about him: how he was able to maintain a sense of cheerful playfulness under the most stressful of circumstances. And in the light of this ever-present humor, his death only becomes more puzzling.

“Like many of us here, I have so many questions. I know most of them will probably never be answered. Standing here, I feel a sort of pressure to make some kind of a statement to you all that explains this tragedy in a way that makes sense. I won’t pretend to know why Fort made the choice he did. Not I nor anyone else has the answers that our hearts so fervently crave tonight. I cannot provide any sense of resolution nor can I ameliorate the anguish that I know we are all experiencing.

“I only have one thing to offer you as we sit here in this dark room together: we must try to learn something from this tragedy. Perhaps then, Sgt. Fort’s death will not be in vain. Suicide is a very real issue that many soldiers, both on and off the field must contend with. For whatever reason, their souls become tattered and frayed due to the violence they have seen and experienced. Soldiers who are lucky enough to leave the battlefield and return home inadvertently bring the war home with them. Despite the fact that they have fought a war externally, they arrive home and end up waging war internally against themselves in an effort to cope with what has happened to them.

"In the media nowadays, much is made of anti-war protests. It is easy to picket a war that hasn’t yet happened. But once ‘mission accomplished’ has been declared and the troops have been shipped home, few realize that there is still a war going on in the hearts and minds of many veterans. Like I said earlier, I don’t have the answers. I don’t have a list of 5 signs that mean your loved one might be suicidal or 5 steps to take when someone tells you they’re depressed. The people who come up with these lists have their hearts in the right place. However, you and I both know that life is far, far more complicated than a simple 5-step solution. I don’t have the answers, and I know how uncomfortable and frightening that realization is. But it’s clear that the so called “solutions” that our society is currently implementing isn’t enough. We need much more than a list of possible signs of what to look for.

“Maybe part of the answer lies in our learning to care for and about one another. Back to basics. In basic training, all soldiers learn what it means to be a soldier: ‘A soldier never quits. A soldier never accepts defeat. A soldier treats everyone with dignity and respect and expects others to do the same. A soldier’s job is never done. A soldier never leaves a fallen comrade.’ It is this latter exhortation that I’d like to examine here.

“For me, the values instilled in us during basic training apply both on and off the field. Not one soldier from Sgt. Fort’s squad left his side, ever. Not even once we brought him home. You see, the words ‘fallen comrade’ can have a traditional meaning (usually applied as a euphemism for ‘one who has died in combat,’), but I’d like to suggest another possible meaning: a soldier can be fallen in mind and spirit without being ‘fallen’ (aka dead) in body. In other words, if I know that a fellow soldier has a heavy heart for whatever reason, I don’t leave that soldier’s side until I know they are/will be ok. Even if we only save one life by doing this, it’ll be worth it. Looking out at all of you here tonight proves that even one person can have a profound impact on someone’s life. It’s clear that he affected all of our lives. Maybe if we lived by this extended definition of ‘fallen comrade,’ suicide might be less of an issue in our society.

“Before I give Private DeeJay the floor, I’d like to leave you all with one final thought. As a proud soldier, I have taken a pledge that I will never do anything that brings dishounor upon my uniform, unit, or the military in general. If we work to raise awareness of suicide especially among our fellow soldiers and veterans, then I think we are upholding our pledge and honouring Sgt. Fort’s memory. May the way we live our lives make Sgt. Fort proud, even as he looks upon all of us here tonight. Thank you.”

Corporal Estrella gathered up his notes that he had laid on the pulpit and sat down next to Private DeeJay. DeeJay stood up and approached the pulpit confidently, as if he had given public speeches for a living.

“I’m Private DeeJay. What I’ll remember most about Sgt. Fort is his vulnerability and how easy it was to relate to him. Like Corporal Estrella mentioned previously, soldiers bond quickly on the battlefield. I think one of those reasons is because you spend so much time together in close proximity. Sometimes you can almost finish each other’s sentences because you just know how each other thinks.

“I vividly remember shortly after we entered the desert on our journey to the Salt Sea, we were telling stories to each other. And Sgt. Fort told us about an unhappy incident during his childhood. He told the story with such a sense of vulnerability; it wasn’t like he was trying to gain our sympathy…I think he told us about his difficult childhood in the hopes that it might help us, to remind us that they weren’t alone. Even if we hadn’t had a similar experience, we all know what it’s like to be treated like less than nothing. I think everyone at least once in their lives knows what it’s like to feel judged, discriminated against, or despair. And in that sense, I think we all related to Sgt. Fort on a very deep level: we find our story in his story. Not only did he have an incredible sense of vulnerability about him, but he also used his negative experiences to help others. Sgt. Fort is an inspiration for us to go and do likewise.” DeeJay saluted his fallen friend and then concluded with the words, “Sgt. Fort, you will be forever missed; I’m grateful for the time that we spent together.”

Bob was third to stand up and share. “Hi. I’m Private Bob. When I was thinking about what I’d say here tonight, I was surprised to find out that Sgt. Fort had a son named Hawk. As a raptor, the hawk is a bird known for its keen eyesight. I’m glad I got introduced to his lovely son earlier tonight.” Bob gave a friendly wink at Hawk before continuing with his prepared speech. “Well friends, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as the saying goes. I see that Hawk takes after his namesake. Sgt. Fort must’ve had some kind of foresight into who his son would grow up to be. From my brief time with Sgt. Fort, I saw that he was a man of vision.

“I’ll never forget the last conversation we had. He wondered what the world would be like if war became obsolete. He thought it would be great if the now-obsolete soldiers became farmers and the weapons factories got turned into museums as a reminder of our current ‘unenlightened age.’” The audience chuckled at Bob’s absurd joke. “I thought the whole idea was absurd, and I told him so. But now, having seen the violence and tragedy of war up close, I’m starting to think that maybe Sgt. Fort’s vision isn’t so absurd after all; that maybe, it’s full of wisdom. Maybe it took a soldier with experience - one who had undoubtedly experienced the horrors of war first hand - to envision a world in which this level of barbaric violence and state-sanctioned murder is no longer necessary. Perhaps only a soldier who had seen his friend get murdered by other people who happened to be wearing a different uniform is the only one who could convince us to finally put down our weapons for good and see the insanity of our society.

“That’s what I’ll keep in my heart: I want to live in a world where soldiers and war are no longer necessary. Coming from a soldier like me, that might sound hypocritical. But thinking back on my own experiences in Sgt. Fort’s squad and the violence that we all encountered, maybe my admiration for Sgt. Fort’s vision isn’t so absurd after all. Thank you, Sgt. Fort, for giving me a new vision and the courage to take steps to make it a reality.” Bob saluted his leader and then sat down.

Firebird got up, sporting a prosthetic arm; his injured arm had been amputated. “Hi everyone. My name is Private Dawid, but everyone in Sgt. Fort’s squad called me Firebird because I’m from Phoenix, Arizona.
“I think I might be the only soldier from Sgt. Fort’s squad that can say that Sgt. Fort literally saved my life. As you can see, I’m missing my right arm. I’ve been fitted with a prosthetic so you can hardly tell the difference just by looking at me. But every moment of everyday, I never forget that I’m missing a limb. However, I can stand up here tonight and honestly tell you that I feel like a whole person. The fact that I’m ‘disabled’ doesn’t make me any less of a person. And I have Sgt. Fort to thank for giving me the courage to get up every morning and persevere despite my challenges. Let me tell you the story of how I got this new found courage.

“We had been trekking in the desert for quite some time when, out of nowhere, a desert wildcat (which looks like a miniature cheetah) came bounding out and pounced on one of my fellow soldiers. I saw that one of my friends was in trouble, so I rushed over and then the wildcat began attacking me instead of my friend. As you can see, the wildcat did some real damage to my right arm. But it was Sgt. Fort who delivered the fatal blow to the wildcat. After I got home, doctors took at look at my injuries, and, well, I’m sure you all know the rest.
“But I’ll never forget Sgt. Fort’s heroic actions that day. If he hadn’t killed that big cat, I might’ve lost a whole lot more than just my right arm. So thank you, Sgt. I’m grateful for your heroic actions; you saved me. The fact that I’m still alive makes me want to pay it forward. I hope that I can someday help people and make a positive difference in others’ lives, the way you do for me. People tell me that I have every reason to be depressed and angry at the world. But I know that if I didn’t try to change the world, the way you changed mine, then I might as well have died out there in that desert. So, every day I try to make my life count. I try to live with courage so that I can inspire others just like you still inspire me. Sgt. Fort, I owe you my life. Thank you.” Firebird saluted his dear friend and then sat down next to Bard.

Bard was the last to speak. With a single sheet of paper, he stepped up to the microphone. “My name is Brad, but due to a misprint on my nametag, my friends all call me Bard.

“I feel humbled hearing all of these really inspiring stories and the powerful impact that Sgt. Fort had on all our lives. Everything from embodying what it means to be a soldier, to the powerful insights brought about by our conversations, to a new, more hopeful way of seeing the world, to going through immense physical suffering and persevering because you’re grateful for what you still have in life…

“My reflection isn’t really about any particular incident. Sgt. Fort apparently wrote a note the night he died, stuffed it into a plastic bag, and put that bag in his pocket, which is where we found it. These were his last words to us, and I think they’re important enough that I read them here. It says:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.’

Bard paused as he finished reading the note so that the audience had time to absorb its full meaning.

“I think I speak for everyone who has spoken here tonight when I say that I’m proud to have known Sgt. Fort. The lessons that he taught us will stay in our hearts forever. And in that sense, he’ll always be with us.” With this final statement of truth, Bard sat down and Estrella stood up to conclude the memorial service.

“People say that music is a universal language. Since this seems to be the case, I invite you all to join me in singing. Sgt. Fort once compared a battle to a symphony: everyone has their own part to play, so please don’t be shy about joining in.

“There may be some people here tonight who don’t speak English, and that’s ok. Music transcends all barriers. You might be wondering why each of you was handed a candle as you walked in here tonight. As we sing, were all going to pass the candlelight to each other. You’ll notice that there’s only one lit candle here. Everything starts from One Source, One Light, but it doesn’t end with One Light. The One Light splits off into two lights, then four, and so on, until all the world is filled with light. There is a Light in every beating heart that dares to defy the darkness that always threatens to take away our joy, our love, and our hope. As the light makes its way from person to person, remember that everyone here has a light that shines within them. That’s what each candle represents. And each of us has the power to rekindle the Light in one another with our words and deeds. We can encourage one another in hope and love. We can take steps to prevent the monster called Suicide from claiming another life. In this way, we honour Sgt. Fort’s legacy and make him proud.”

Taking an unlit candle, Estrella walked to the altar and used the lonely flickering candle to light his own candle. Having lit his candle, he held his candle at an angle so that DeeJay could light his candle. In this manner, what began as a single, solitary flame multiplied until every person in the darkened room held a lit candle in their hands, symbolic of the brilliant love that burned in every heart. Tears formed in nearly everyone’s eyes: it was a powerful sight to see the candle flame gradually make its winding way around the room until the entire room was awash in Love and Light.

When the memorial service ended, each person left the house of worship with their candle still lit; each person had been empowered to take their love and light into the world and make it a better place in honour of their fallen friend. As each person exited the building, not one failed to notice that dawn with her rose-red fingers was gradually conquering the darkness, bringing hope to every heart.

The remaining members of Sgt. Fort’s squad also felt the exhilaration of a new day, a new dawn, one more light that dared defy the devilish decree of infernal night in its futile attempt to snuff out any flicker of love or light. They felt the bourgeoning light upon their faces, and their hearts felt strangely warmed. They knew not whether they would ever return to the battlefield, rifle in hand, but they knew that they would never forget the lessons their friend taught them.

Out of the corner of his eye, Estrella spotted a morning dove as it cooed and flew toward the sunrise. He felt peaceful and smiled as he watched the bird disappear into the sunrise.

The End


#4

An awesome story!


#5

My story is. When I started to go though a lot in my life and having dark though in my head. One day I was looking at tv and seen Chester for the first time and his voice seem to bring me up and ever since then I start to listen more and more of hem then in no time he inspired me to start singing and I’ve been. Then I had a chance to meet Chester in nj I was not that far away . But I couldn’t go at the time. But because of his voice and his beautiful smile I feel loved. .I might not have meet hem but some day .I get to be with hem in my heart.