In Bosnia, we can and will succeed because our mission is clear and limited and our troops are strong and very well prepared. But my fellow Americans, no deployment of American troops is risk free, and this one may well involve casualties. There may be accidents in the field or incidents with people who have not given up their hatred. I will take every measure possible to minimize these risks, but we must be prepared for that possibility.
President Bill Clinton November 27, 1995
Mud covered my boots, splattered my uniform and served as an unavoidable annoyance every single day of our Bosnian deployment. Like a constant, unwanted companion, everywhere I stepped, I found more of it. After the day I’d spent in a remote farm field, thick clumps of the brown sludge, gunk that looked more like something you’d see in a baby’s diaper and equally as gross, completely covered what had been spit shined boots only a few hours before.
I opened the door of the trailer and held onto the frame for balance as I kicked and scraped my boots against the steps to get rid of the mud. As bad as the clumpy, wet stuff is, dried out, the mud turns to a fine dust that wrecks equipment like my video camera, computer and M16. So, like every time I walked in my door, I took my time, working to free my boots of as much mud as possible.
Finally, I stepped inside the trailer, glanced toward Delray’s cot where it’s tucked next to the wall, and saw her feet. The hot pink color on her toenails almost glowed from across the room. The night before, she had borrowed my nail polish and given herself a pedicure. I wore the same color on my toes. When you wear combat boots every day, things like that become more important; painting your toenails, wearing pretty underwear, girly things, reminders of your femininity.
The sight of those hot pink toes resting there on her cot made me grit my teeth and kick the trailer door closed. I thought she was asleep. She knew that if I ever caught her napping in the middle of the day, she would catch hell.
“Get your ass up, Delray,” I said.
I didn’t raise my voice. Just said it like I meant it and assumed she would scramble up and make an excuse.
I hefted my Betacam onto the edit table, pushed aside the keyboard and mouse and propped the tripod against the wall. When I took my Kevlar helmet off, I had that momentary feeling of lightness that happens each time the weight is removed from my head, as if, without the heavy lid, I’d lose my tether to the ground. I pulled my M16 from where I wore it slung over my back and stuck it in the weapons rack by the door, then ripped the Velcro closure of my flak vest open and just let the damn thing slide down my arms onto the floor with a hollow thud. I sighed at the shock of frigid air on my sweat soaked BDU jacket.
My video editing equipment and Delray’s graphics computers were the reasons we rated an air-conditioned trailer. Delray liked to keep the place almost refrigerator cold and I let her.
By this time, with the noise I had generated, I figured she would have been up, mumbling an excuse for why she’d been lazing around. Sleeping during the duty day. Are you kidding me? When I looked toward her rack, she still hadn’t moved. I took a step toward her, ready to say something, to give her the dressing down she deserved but then stopped, my words caught. Something wasn’t right. I stared at her frozen feet until her unnatural stillness fully registered.
In that moment, the air conditioning felt too cold. I finally noticed the foul air in the small trailer. A familiar cloying stench I’d smelled before. Here, in my temporary home, it was ugly and intrusive. I shuddered and moved toward her.
I leaned over her shelving unit and saw her face for the first time. “Holy shit.”
I stumbled away until my back hit the wall. My chest heaved. I struggled to breathe. I heard a noise that sounded like a whimper, then realized it came from me.
My gaze flew around the trailer, focusing on the computer desk, my cot on the other side of the trailer, back to the computer desk, on anything but Specialist Virginia Delray. When my breathing slowed, I knew I had to get confirmation.
I inched toward her cot, preparing myself for a better look. Most of her body had been hidden by the make-shift closet she had fashioned from old wooden crates. Her entire face looked bloated and grayish white, except for her lips, which were blue. She didn’t look human. More like a wax museum horror display, a freaky mannequin with short bleach blond hair spiked wildly around her head. Her eyes bulged open with little red dots of blood throughout the whites. She wore her PT uniform, the one issued for physical training sessions, a grey hooded sweatshirt jacket, with big black letters that spelled Army across the front, and grey sweatpants. Her shower shoes, a cheap brown terrycloth towel and her sleeping bag sat bunched up at the end of the cot, as if she had kicked and fought. Her hands were at her throat and I could see blood and gunk under her fingernails. They were jagged and broken.
A yellow safety reflector belt, issued as part of our PT uniform, cut deeply into the flesh around her neck like a garrote. Usually we wear the belt draped diagonally over the shoulder and then clipped on the side at the waist. Someone had used the belt like a tourniquet, cutting off Delray’s blood, her breath, her life.
I stood staring at her for what seemed like hours but was probably only seconds. Gentle rain tinkled against the roof. A group of people walked by outside the trailer, one laughing loudly, several others joined in. I wanted to shout at them to shut up. Didn’t they know what had happened here? Obviously, no one knew. My pulse slammed in my temples. I must have been holding my breath, because when I finally did inhale, I got a strong whiff of that rank smell tinged with urine and realized she must have pissed herself in the struggle.
That’s when it finally registered that Virginia had been murdered.
Closer to her cot, the fetid air held the familiar sickly sweet odor that coated my nostrils and made bile rise in my throat. An image flashed in my head of when I had smelled that odor for the first time, at the mass grave mission I had been sent to record. I videotaped soldiers in white paper overalls and surgical masks, using small spades and brushes to painstakingly reveal sixty-two men and boys, piled on top of each other in a trench outside a small Bosnian town. They were strangers, those dead people, but the indignity of their disposal never left me. Neither did the smell.
Specialist Virginia Delray was no stranger. She was my soldier. My responsibility. While we weren’t friends, far from it, I didn’t think her the type of person who could rouse such a violent response from someone. She hadn’t deserved this.
She would not have liked the wax-like appearance of her skin. She liked to compare her tan with my naturally brown color. Holding her arm next to mine, she would smile and say in her Mississippi, tinged accent, “I’m almost as dark as you, Sergeant Harper.”
“No one will ever mistake you for a sistah, Specialist Delray. Give it a rest.”
I shook my head at the memory, then swayed, almost losing my balance. I had been standing there stiff, my knees locked, my fingers curled into fists. Taking a couple of shaky steps back, I leaned against the wall again. It reminded me of how I felt, staring down at that mass grave. Powerless in the face of evil and sickened at what we’re capable of doing to each other. My thoughts spun out of control until they landed on what to do next.
My legs felt too stiff and heavy to carry me, but I forced them to take me back to the desk. I had to move, had to report this.
I put my flak vest back on, put my Kevlar back on my head, and picked up my weapon from the rack, settling it across my back. At the door, I turned and looked again at those hot pink toenails. I opened the trailer door, took in a deep trembling breath of fresh air and went out to report that Specialist Virginia Delray lay murdered in my trailer.