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By Joseph S. Pete
Snake blood splattered across the hot sand before anyone even knew what the hell was even happening.
A burst of AK-47 fire roared out of nowhere as the platoon patrolled the quiet town with a contingent of Iraqi Army trainees, recruits who were raw and untested and often noticeably undernourished and hollow-eyed. The world froze. All the soldiers dropped, took cover and started scanning down the barrel of their rifles. Kids scattered off through the sandy, unpaved streets. Sweaty men in dirty dishdashas who lingered all day on the street corners because of the abysmal state of the economy crouched behind Opels and ducked behind walls.
The sudden burst of gunfire jarred everyone and anyone, from the neighborhood kid kicking around a soccer ball to the most battle-hardened veteran.
It turned out, a new Iraqi Army enlistee unloaded an entire Kalashnikov banana magazine, all 30 rounds, at a serpentine snake he had nearly stepped on. He killed it dead as an arid, flaking snakeskin, made the sand wet with its entrails. The town they patrolled day after day on the same route was petrified. The soldiers were incredulous. A light breeze blew down the block, which was enveloped in silence.
Sgt. Hansen suddenly started to laugh when he realized what happened. He belly-laughed at the sheer absurdity of it until the greasy-haired Iraqi lieutenant strode up with a handgun in his outstretched arm, pressing the barrel to the trigger-happy soldier’s temple.
Holy crap, Sgt. Hansen thought too late, before his body could react, as if his mind were separated by a thick aquarium wall from the real world.
Were his reflexes that stunted? Was it all unfolding too fast?
“No,” he cried out as time stilled, as a gunshot erupted in a flare of flame, unfurling in slow motion as the lieutenant iced that interchangeable underling as sure as the rank-and-file recruit snuffed out the serpent that has slithered into his trudging path. The Iraqi soldier dropped to the ground in a red mist.
It happened so fast Sgt. Hansen hadn't even thought to yell out in Arabic instead of English.
Everyone started screaming. The Americans whirled around and leveled their carbines at the lieutenant, who shouted back at them while gesticulating with his pistol. The balaclava-clad translator tried to insert himself, waving his arms and shouting as loudly as everyone else.
Amid the clamor, Sgt. Hansen approached the dead Iraqi soldier to see if he were really gone or if there was any hope of revival. Maybe he could press a tourniquet to the wound and hope a medevac showed up in time. Maybe the round blew clear through his skull without tunneling through too much gray matter; maybe his heart was still pumping. But it was too late; it was clearly too late. The sand was wet all around him.
No amount of therapy or beer or teary rationalization in the coming years would ever expunge that scene from Sgt. Hansen’s mind. It played as if on loop, as though the film got snagged in the projector. It was an image he could never drown out, one that would resurface unexpectedly as he was startled awake in the wee hours of the morning, clammy and pallid.