Semple and Andersen worked in the division's G-1 Casualty Section and were in charge of cataloguing the dead. They sat at their desks in headquarters and waited for e-mails to pop into their in-boxes, announcing the serious injury or death of another soldier who'd been scythed by the Grim Reaper while out on patrol. The reports came to them in capital letters, shouting in military jargon:
SOLDIER ON MOUNTED PATROL TRAVELING IN VICINITY OF AL-KARKH WATER TREATMENT PLANT FLAGGED DOWN BY IRAQI CITIZEN CLAIMING AN IED 200 METERS AHEAD. SSG HARDING AND TWO OTHER MEMBERS OF THE PATROL DISMOUNTED M1114 TO SEARCH FOR IED EVIDENCE. TWO ADDITIONAL SOLDIERS SEARCHED ADJACENT FIELDS FOR WIRES, BAGS OF GARBAGE, ANIMAL CORPSES, ETC. INDICATING LOCATION OF IED. SSG HARDING ALSO WALKED FORWARD, BUT REMAINED ON THE ROAD. IED WAS ONLY 30 METERS AHEAD OF SOLDIERS. AS TEAM MOVED FORWARD, IED EXPLODED, CAUSING IMMEDIATE AMPUTATION OF SSG HARDING'S FOUR LIMBS. FRAGMENTS OF IED ALSO PENETRATED SSG HARDING'S HELMET, RESULTING IN MASSIVE HEAD INJURY AND SUBSEQUENT DEATH. UNIT CONDUCTED IMMEDIATE CORDON AND SEARCH FOLLOWING THE ATTACK TO FIND RESPONSIBLE PARTY OR PARTIES AND DETAINED FOR FURTHER QUESTIONING ONE POSSIBLE WITNESS, THE INDIVIDUAL WHO ORIGINALLY WARNED THEM ABOUT THE IED.
When the e-mails with their wounds and smoldering body parts arrived in their in-boxes, it was up to Semple and Andersen to place a call to the Medical Treatment Facility that had received the casualty and verify a U.S. military doctor had officially determined the body was indeed dead. Until a doctor put his stethoscope on that blackened, suppurating chest and gave a tight, nauseous nod, it didn't matter who was weeping and wailing over the corpse of Staff Sergeant Hardingnot his loyal and sickened soldiers, not his commanding officer, not his mother, not even the Great White Bwana himself briefly pausing in the Oval Office to brush away a simpatico tear. Without the doctor's nod, he wasn't officially dead. And he needed to be officially dead before G-1 Casualty could enter him into the system and begin the transatlantic next-of-kin notification process, which ended with a chaplain and a casualty assistance officer, both of their necks tight and sweating against the collars of their starched dress uniform shirts, standing in the doorway of a home in Hinesville, Georgia, the sun having just swapped places with the moon, a porch swing knocking against the side of the house in the soft evening breeze, the crickets rubbing their legs together and bursting forth in symphonic prelude, the casualty assistance officer clearing his throat and starting his rehearsed speech: "Ma'am, I regret to inform you . . ."
Until then, there was nothing they could do except finish their cupcakes, wipe their fingers, and go back to playing computer solitaire (Semple) and leafing through the pages of an old People magazine (Andersen). Tom Cruise was, after all, in the midst of a very passionate, very weird affair with doe-eyed Katie Holmes. And then there was that vegetable girl, Terri Somebody-or-Other, who nobody had thought to ask before she went into a coma whether or not she would want her plug to be pulled. And Jesus, what was up with Michael Jackson going to court in pajamas? Day-um. America sure was a funny place to look at when you got far enough away, thought Private First Class Andersen.
Hovering unseen at the edge of the G-1 cubicle, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding watched the two privates toss a cupcake back and forth across the cubicle and thought, Oh, man, this isn't going to be easy. He needed a word, a simple little word.
That's all. Just those two syllables.
His life, at this very moment, depended on it. If, that is, you could call press releases a matter of life and death. Which, at this point in time, he did.
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