Best Defense

In his debut novel, ‘Old Silk Road’: A soldier’s hard memories of Afghanistan

Here is an excerpt from the first novel by Brandon Caro, who served as a Navy corpsman in Afghanistan in 2006-07.

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Here is an excerpt from a first novel, Old Silk Road, by Brandon Caro, who served as a Navy corpsman in Afghanistan in 2006-07. 

As soon as we were clear of the outer checkpoint at Bagram Airfield and headed south down the highway that connects Bagram to Kabul, I rested my Kevlar up against the four-inch-thick plexiglass front passenger-side window and allowed my heavy eyelids to finally close and stay shut.

I was listening to Lieutenant Grey and Mortin go back and forth about the value in hooking up with fat chicks. And while I was compelled to chime in with my two cents about Gomez, I was sure that would have redirected the focus of the discussion back onto me, which was exactly the type of thing I was trying to avoid.

Instead, I was lulled to sleep by the low vibrating hum caused by my Kevlar making contact with the window as we passed over relatively smooth terrain.

Whether or not this particular pass had been part of the Old Silk Road, I was never certain. I knew only that the further I traveled down any road in-country, any paved street or goat path, I inevitably moved further and further away from whomever I was when this journey began.

With eyelids closed, I did my best to push away the ugliness; to find that curled-up, vulnerable feeling alongside a past lover in my mind, or safely nestled between two loving parents.

I tried not to think of the things that gave me pause: the injuries I’d treated; the hurt I’d seen. The discarded, severed limbs, strewn about haphazardly like so many scattered pick-up sticks.

I also could not repel the image or the memory of the meat. The red meat. And I was perhaps unwilling to admit or acknowledge how closely the flesh, the flesh of my fellows, resembled the hamburger meat from the grocery store that I used to buy on Sundays for my dad before his ordeal at the World Trade Center. Not the first one, but the second. The big one. The one where they finished the job.

There were noises too that I tried to rid my thoughts of. Loud, earth-shattering explosions that I’d felt in my guts, followed by chaotic sound collages of panicked voices screaming commands or crying out in horror. Sporadic machinegun fire, theirs and ours, that sounded like the Fourth of July on Montauk.

There were other, more profoundly sad sounds I’d heard, sounds I’d tried my hardest to exile from memory. Mothers I’d heard wailing over what remained of their sons and daughters after an ambush, an IED, or an airstrike; killed by their side, or by our side, or by some unknown mixture of both. Those thoughts were hardest to submerge or ignore.

I tried also to resign myself to the predictable fate that I too could end up this way, or worse. I could live. I could be burned alive in the fires of the jihad and live out my days a walking corpse.

I’d seen them in the burn ward at Brooke Army Medical Center, when I did my clinical studies. Horribly deformed men, burned beyond all recognition, stalking the halls and walkways of the burn unit, responding as zombies to the enthused voices of the doctors and nurse staff.

There was a certain measure of satisfaction to be gleaned from the awareness and the acceptance that some things were beyond my control. In fact, most things were. This deployment was a period of transition, I thought. I was transitioning away from something, and toward something else.

As the vehicle hummed along, Lieutenant Grey and Mortin kept up their banter. They’d changed subjects from fat girls to beer. Mortin was saying he only drank light beer because he was constantly monitoring his carb intake, and Lieutenant Grey was calling him a pussy.

“I’m constantly monitoring my carb intake.”

“Pussy.”

Image credit: Simon & Schuster

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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