American Culture

Scholars and Rogues Nonfiction: “Exit Wounds” by Travis Slusser

The exit wound is always larger than the entrance. Well, not always- bullets don’t obey rules but in my case this isn’t a bullet we’re talking about. This is tens of thousands of bullets. This is tons of ordnance dropped from the sky and buried along roadsides waiting mute and blind and seething for a convoy to roll past. My wound is a tiny white crescent moon on the web of my right hand. The white crescent of Islam, a symbol more powerful and holy and frightening than anything I could wrap my homogenized and X-Boxed American head around. It was a hot shell casing from the breech of the man’s rifle next to me. A Major assigned to train the Afghan police; he emptied all 7 of his magazines within minutes of the engagement beginning. That’s how I came to be out of the truck and in the midst of the dust and chaos of my first firefight. The Major and our squad leader next to him had gotten trigger-happy and were now calling out for fresh mags. I grabbed a bandolier off the back of the seat in front of me and ducked out the armored door of the humvee, hustling the ammo one truck length ahead to them, “exposing myself repeatedly to intense small-arms fire” as the report would later word so eloquently. I joined these two and gave them some covering fire as they reloaded, popping off about 20 rounds. At this point the searing hot brass landed right in the web of my firing hand and I yelled and shook it violently, dislodging the cursed thing, then went back to shooting up the hillside across the narrow valley.

That was August 7th, 2007 in the Ishpi valley, Kapisa province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. I was 21 at the time. My scar is little, but it is just the entrance wound. The exit wounds of almost all of us vets are still not totally healed and may never be. It’s far easier to go off to war than it is to come home and go back to “normal” which means you have to step in the same river twice, and be a person who no longer exists. I did this, for years. I fell back into my old job and loved getting to know my daughter who was 2 weeks old when I left for my tour. Things were good, don’t get me wrong but that’s not the whole story. It wasn’t long before my wife and I had a typical small fight about something in the kitchen, as married people will, and when I felt she was cornering me, literally I screamed in her face in a way that took her aback and frightened her, something she’d never seen in me before. She told me to get out and so I did, but our bond is a strong one and when she said that she meant only for a short time. After a 90 minute walk around the neighborhood, she was calling to summon me back to talk things over. There was the time a couple of years after that, when I went over to my guard buddies’ house after drill and watched football and got far drunker than anyone should in the afternoon. My wife called to tell me it was time to come home and I went off on her, our worst fight ever. The fight ended in me sobbing uncontrollably for over an hour, everything I thought I was done with from the deployment just flowing out of me.

There was much more after the day on the winding mountain road where I got my scar- there were dozens more firefights, in villages and orchards and fallow fields and dried riverbeds and on all manner of roadsides. There was the confessions of others, the gunner who implored God to not let him have hit the two kids he fired a burst at, there was the jaded infantryman, called up off of inactive reserve, telling me how he avenged his best friend’s death in Iraq by shooting 5 civilians walking by from a rooftop. It was different then, he said. It was a free-for-all right after the invasion, tales of stacking and burning bodies. There was the night our guys fired blindly into the tree line after an ambush and not long after the call crackled over the radio for me to hustle up the road, that someone was hit. She was maybe 14, it’s hard to tell the age of Afghan people, their lives age them so harshly, especially the women. She was hit twice, low in the abdomen with no exits. She was whimpering in pain but more concerned with maintaining modesty and more scared of us than her wound, she slapped and fought Doc F. and I as we tried to reveal her wound and tend to it. We got her bandaged up, she and her bewildered mother loaded up on a Blackhawk that came as if by magic idling on the rock-strewn hillside. I walked back up the road and a gunner calls out from his turret “Hey doc! Did you get to see her tits?” I was too wrung out to be offended or amused or anything else and so I simply muttered “Nope” And walked on back to my vehicle.

There was the kid from the 173rd who had decided to end it all. I say that because shooting yourself with an M4 carbine isn’t exactly a cry for help, though the way he did it was inept in his striving for a symbolic death. He had tried to shoot himself through the heart literally, awkward to do with a long gun. He hit high in his left chest, missing his heart and creating a nasty gaping sucking chest wound. He was flopping and tensing on the plywood floor in a neat dark pool of his own blood, little bubbles and a lighter shade of blood surrounding the jagged muzzle-blasted entry wound. His buddy had slapped a hemcon dressing over it. This dressing works by effectively cauterizing the tissue- not what you want for a wound involving the respiratory system. I simply said “No!” and ripped it off. By now my buddies Alvin and Greg were there, as well as Doc F. I took charge, something I’d never thought I could do. We got proper occlusive dressings on his entry wound, rolled him and found a tiny exit (this bullet broke the rules) and dressed that one. He stopped breathing and struggling and seemed to shrink into himself for a long moment where someone hit the pause button and you could hear a pin drop. I thought he was done but performed a jaw-thrust and placed a nasal airway. He took a deep lurching breath, having just swallowed his tongue for a second. By now the civilian contractor medics had arrived, and the MPs to investigate, as we were on Bagram airfield (the “rear”). The MPs kicked us out, said it was a crime scene. Guys were lined up outside to see what was up. Sgt. G offered his hand, I was going to shake it but saw my hands were covered in blood. I held them up in explanation and went off to wash up.

One last thing, one last mystery on this surreal yearlong journey: the white sheets. I never had a white sheet my self; I slept in a sleeping bag. And yet so many times that I saw corpses they were neatly covered with pristine looking white sheets. There were remnants on Afghan policemen whose Ford Ranger had run into a huge IED that had been meant for us (our patrol for that day on that route got cancelled a and we had never known why). They were lined up neatly in a military row, only boots and bits of grey-green uniform visible in the gravel. There were the 3 dead insurgents that the French brought to the roadside after they swept through a village, laying in the mud, but again with crisp looking white sheets over them. That’s more or less the way it was, and as extreme as it sounds now, it was just the 9 to 5, the daily grind and the thrill is gone. One accepts these things and one lives daily life, it becomes reality and you learn not to expect any different, you stop expecting to go home.

Then one day, you do. If you’re lucky.

1 reply »

  1. Travis, thank you. I fear that is all I have to offer for your sacrifices. Keep writing, your style is truly a gift. Connecting people in a real way to those places and times that few can really imagine is so important. Thank you.