If...
by sarAdora
~~~~~~~

"Now if you load your rifle right
And if you fix your bayonet so
And if you kill that man my friend
The one we've called a foe"

~~~

"I killed him, Mama. I killed a man I didn't know," he wrote in his weekly letter home. "The Gunnery Sergeant says first kill is always the hardest. He says it was him or me and that the man I killed was the enemy. Maybe. But I don't feel good about it. Will Jesus understand? Will you ask Him? I'm afraid to."

"Okay, ladies," the C.O. barked. "Break time is over. Get your asses in gear. We've got a job to do."

In-country just a few weeks and already weary of war, they rose to their feet only because they had been commanded to do so, their heavy backpacks hoisted higher onto strong shoulders to ease some of its weight off of their backs. Each man perspired heavily but not one complained. Not long after the sun set, the desert would quickly cool.

"Forward!" the C.O. ordered and watched the young warriors - 18 to 21 years of age - far older in the ways of war than any young man or woman ought to be.

~~~

"And if you do it often lad
And if you do it right
You'll be a hero overnight
You'll save your country from a fight
Remember God is always right"

~~~

"Whenever you do wrong," his mama had said over and over again as she instilled the Bible's lessons into her children, "remember to tell Jesus and He will forgive you."

"Always?" her young son asked, clinging to her hand as they walked into church that Sunday morning.

"Always," she assured him, squeezing his hand tight so he knew she loved him no matter what life would teach him after he left his childhood home.

~~~

"You'll leave Parris Island as a marine or you'll leave in disgrace. Your choice, ladies!" the drill instructor reminded them every day. "You make me proud or you wash out - those are your choices. What's it gonna be?"

"Ooh-rah! Sir! Ooh-rah!" the recruits shouted the expected response.

And when the enemy fired on them... in that faraway place... away from home and loved ones... and his mama's chicken potpie... It was reflex that saved his life... reflex and hours of honing his skills... killing skills. Jesus was nowhere in sight.

~~~

"If you survive to see the sight
A friend now greeting foe"

~~~

It was the little kids that got to him, their big brown eyes and begging hands, their young faces etched in hunger and despair. It ate away at him. He shared all his care packages from home, the chocolate, the cookies, and the special taffy his mom made every spring... but he kept the clean socks and underwear. The kids hugged him and he hugged them back and because he had seen death in strange places... wondered which of them would grow up to kill an American soldier some day. It was a shameful thought and he begged Jesus to forgive him.

~~~

"No you won't believe in If anymore
It's an illusion
It's an illusion"

~~~

"I'm gonna take care of you when I grow up," he promised his mother, holding her hand tight his first scary day at school.

"I know you will," she smiled at her only son. "I'm counting on it. You're the man of the house now; your Pa would expect it of you."

His Pa... had been a marine, too. Killed in an unforgiving war leaving his wife to mourn for him... a wife, four daughters and an infant son. A grateful nation had given her a widow's pension, barely enough to cover life's expenses but they got by... somehow they got by.

He worked odd jobs after school, his small contribution helping with expenses and when he was 18 and taller than a tree and finished with high school, he joined the Marine Corps. His mama was proud of him when he graduated from Parris Island, took far too many pictures and made him blush when she kissed him in front of all his buddies.

He remembered that she wept when he went to war.

~~~

"No you won't believe in If anymore
If is for children
If is for children"

~~~

Two of his buddies got seasick on the way over, the ship carrying them encountering heavy rolling seas and rocking them. He noticed that the Captain stood ramrod straight with his arms folded over his chest, exactly like it showed in the picture books he had spent hours dreaming over as a child. He listened to their discomfort, brought them hot tea when they could sit up - his mama did that for him when he was a boy.

"Toughen up, girlie!" his C.O. had barked. "You think those jarheads would do the same for you? We're off to fight a war, damn it, not play nursemaid."

"Sir, yes sir," he had replied smartly and saluted the gruff old man.

~~~

"Building daydreams"

~~~

At first glance the desert was a vast wasteland, the horizon masked by endless miles of sand, the glare of the sun only slightly hotter than the heated land beneath their feet. The beauty of this particular part of the earth was lost on them - it was too damn hot for man or beast.

They moved out, plodded across the sand to waiting vehicles, large modern day covered wagons that would take them to headquarters and their campsite. Each step moved them toward their destiny, each step brushing the unforgiving sand into their pores. They looked at each other with grim hearts; their C.O. had told them to take long hard looks at their buddies. Their lives depended on each other - this was war.

~~~

"If I knew then what I know now
(I thought I did you know somehow)
If I could have the time again
I'd take the sunshine leave the rain"

~~~

The first sniper attack tested their training and whether they could control their intestinal tracts. Murphy, the big guy from the Bronx caught one in his thigh and he went down faster than a fresh one in an oyster bar. He shouted something ugly when he hit the ground and everyone darted for whatever cover they could find. The C.O. barked orders, his voice heard above the melee, the green marines automatically tuned to his voice.

~~~

"If only time would trickle slow
Like rain that melts the fallen snow
If only Lord if only
If only Lord if only"

~~~

"Damn these sons of bitches!" Johanson yelled and stood square, his legs apart while he aimed his heavy rifle toward the incoming gun fire. Sand and rock blew into the air when he shot up the roof of the beige stucco building that reflected the sun's glare.

"Get down, jarhead!" his C.O. screamed and dove straight for Johanson, tackling the feisty guy. "Jesus H. Christ! They don't make them stupider than you, boy! You want to die so soon? Hell! I'll kill you myself you ever do anything so stupid again!"

Clark Evans took a direct hit, his mouth immediately filled with death's red foam, "Mom?" whispered as he took his last breath. Manny Buci lobbed a few grenades toward the wall behind them, his face filled with grim satisfaction when several bodies blew out of the holes and craters caused by the blast. No one wondered if any of them had called their mother as they died.

~~~

"Oh I don't believe in If anymore
It's an illusion
It's an illusion"

~~~

The letter from home was a sharp stab in his gut. It was the one letter every one of them hoped like hell they'd never receive, "Dear John." Sally Mae was probably the prettiest thing on two gorgeous legs and a smile that made sunshine pale next to her. She couldn't bear the thought that he might die over here in this god-forsaken place, couldn't bear the thought that if he made it home, he'd be missing body parts, couldn't bear the thought that the Marine Corps was more important to him than she was. She'd move on and hoped he would, too.

~~~

"No I don't believe in If anymore
If is for children
If is for children"

~~~

His mama's letter came the next time they had mail call. She didn't mention Sally Mae but she did send several dozen of his favorite cookies - peanut butter/oatmeal raisin - with extra raisins. "You be sure and share these with your friends," she had written. "A bitty taste of home is good for the soul, son."

"Friends?" he murmured. "The guys that watch my back? My buddies, my lifelines," he remembered as he took his mother's words to heart. A bitty taste of home was good for everyone.

"Cookies from home, sir," he remarked to his C.O., offering the opened box to his superior.

The old man arched a brow and stared at the young marine and then took a cookie from the box. "Thank you, son," he said simply as he turned away, wondering if the boy would make it home.

~~~

"Building daydreams"

~~~

"Being a marine is hard work, son," his father had written in the letters he sent home. He was a baby when those letters arrived, his mother saving them for her son to read when he was older. "Be proud," he had said. "Make your mother proud and do your duty for God and country. And above all, keep your honor."

He and his childhood friends had played "war," a favorite game, large sticks for rifles, small stones for grenades and slingshots a favorite substitute for handguns. The "enemy" was unknown, without name or country and always someone to be wiped off the face of the earth. Ironically, he lifted his own face to the glory of God every Sunday...

~~~

"No I don't believe in If anymore
It's an illusion
It's an illusion"

~~~

Murphy got sent to Germany to recuperate and Tommy Atkins followed him when his shoulder took more shrapnel than could be removed at base camp. He yelled at Manny Buci when the boisterous marine shoved some kids away from him but they discovered one was carrying a knife... and about to rip into his gut when he offered them chewing gum and candy bars... Manny saved his life. "Manny..." he started to say.

And that's when the mine exploded, the one buried just below the surface of the scarred earth, blowing up in Manny's face.

They never did find all the body parts - not Manny's - not some of the children - the blast searing flesh and bone until there was little more than ash that was lost in the sand.

He survived. He didn't know why but he survived.

They didn't send him to Germany to recuperate. They airlifted him to a hospital ship and kept him sedated until his body began to heal. When he finally woke up, he screamed and couldn't stop screaming and they sedated him again. His last thought before oblivion took him was that he was still laying in that hot sand with Manny's dead eyes looking into his.

~~~

"No I don't believe in If anymore
If is for children
If is for children"

~~~

"War is not a game," was all he told his sisters while he sipped a cool one on a sweet summer day - back home - the taste of his mama's chicken potpie lingering on his tongue.

"Jesus saved you," one of them remarked, grateful that their baby brother had come home and in one piece.

"Jesus wasn't there," he replied, remembering Murphy, Clark, Tommy and too many others that died or were severely wounded. And of course, he remembered... Manny.

"Will you play war with me?" one of his young nephews asked as he aimed the would-be rifle in his hands, the large stick evenly balanced on the child's shoulder. "I'll be the marine and you be the bad guy."

~~~

"Building daydreams"

~~~

~ End ~

Mamas... don't let your babies play war. War is a terrible thing. It's because of war that we are privileged to honor our returning heroes. It's because of war that we are indebted to our dead and honor them.
~Sar~

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