“Be vigilant, C.” Pulanski yelled over the sound of the gunfire. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
He turned in the direction of the mud hut that was about twenty feet away. We had to get there. It was the only way to ensure everyone stayed alive today. Before he took off, he turned back to me with a smile on his face and winked. Then he was gone, crossing the gap. I dove down into the space he had just vacated, and began firing at the mud wall the enemy was hiding behind. I fired bullet after bullet hoping it would protect him, but it didn’t work. He made it half-way, then froze. His back arched, and his body slowly crumpled to the ground.
“NO!” I screamed, leaping to my feet and sprinting towards him. Bullets zinged around me. Two hit the dirt right in front of me, but I didn’t care. I knew better than to endanger my own life, but last time I checked my life belonged to me. Time seemed to stop, as I ran to him. The bullets were still whizzing past me, and I could still hear the yelling of my fellow Marines, but it sounded so far away. All I could focus on was getting him to safety. Another bullet! This one was much closer to my head than the last. I had to fire back a few rounds, but doing so could jeopardize ever saving Pulanski. I dropped to the ground in the middle of the empty street, and fired four rounds at the wall. Then, I jumped up and sprinted the rest of the way to him. My shots would only deter the enemy, but they would recover soon. I fisted a handle attached to his body armor, and darted for cover. His body was dead weight, as I tugged him towards the mud hut that provided some protection from the bullets trying to take both our lives, if he even still had his. That thought sobered me, and I began moving with even more purpose now. He may no longer be alive, but I didn’t have time to check.
“C, hurry!” Bonko yelled from the side of the mud hut. He fired a few more bullets towards the enemy’s position, giving me just enough time to pull Pulanski the rest of the way to the backside of the hut.
I laid him down on the sand as gently as I could, and grabbed for my First Aid Kit. I quickly located the gauze inside and hastily tore at the plastic packaging. Soon it was free, and I started stuffing the gauze into Pulanski’s neck wound and tried to put as much pressure on it as I could. Blood was spurting out, and he had already lost a lot. The evidence of which was a long, thick streak covering the sand I had just dragged him across.
“Hold on, man. Just hold on.”
He was the only reason I’d made it through six months in Afghanistan. I couldn’t lose him, not yet. Not ever.
The blood pounded in my ears as I pressed the blood-soaked gauze harder against Pulanski’s throat.
“You’re gonna make it, Pulanski!”
Blood covered everything —me, his suntanned skin, the sand beneath us. The bullet had severed the carotid. I’d seen the arterial spurt. I knelt over him, pressing down on the wound, praying that life would return to those vacant, brown eyes. Bullets rang through the air. I felt Bonko slide down beside me. But there was no saving him, even if we could get him back to base.
“He’ll make it, C.” Bonko said, reassuring me with a hard squeeze to my shoulder.
I grabbed my rifle from the sandy ground and noticed the blood on my hands. I stood and ran to the corner of the mud hut and dropped to my stomach on the sand. Three Taliban soldiers were charging us spraying bullets as they neared our position. Bullets were everywhere. I peeked around the corner of the mud hut and sighted in on the man on the right. I fired two shots straight into his chest. Blood sprayed, and he fell backwards. I muscled my sights to the man in the center. Two more shots. Again, blood flew and he was down. Without even thinking, I moved my weapon to the final man. This time I didn’t aim for his chest. One shot rang out. The bullet struck him in the head, just above his nose. He paused for a moment. Shock covered his features. Slowly, his hands released his weapon, and he fell forward to his knees. Then forward still until his face hit the ground.
For a moment, I just stared at their bodies. Then, I took my finger off the trigger, and clicked the safety switch. I looked over at Pulanski. Bonko was reaching to close his eyes.
I don’t know if I yelled or sobbed or whispered that word. Bonko stopped, and I stood quickly and strode to him.
“C, I can’t pronounce him dead, but I need to close his eyes. I can’t take them staring at me, not like this.”
I heard the sadnessin Bonko’s words and saw that he was crying. His cheeks were wet and flushed, and his normally jovial blue eyes were filled with pain. I grabbed his hand and together we closed Pulanski’s eyes.
Then Bonko moved away from me, and I knelt over my friend. For a moment, I just stared at Pulanski’s face, and as I stared, I remembered what he always said whenever we’d lost someone. “The lost aren’t forgotten, C. Only the forgotten are truly lost.” As I remembered these words and stared at his peaceful face, I laid my hand on his heart.
“Be vigilant, P.” I whispered. “I’ll see you on the other side.”