Roy and Andrew van Wey in Husaybah, Iraq. Photo courtesy of the author.

“They Didn’t Make It?”—When Your Brother’s Homecoming Starts in a Burn Ward

I notice the oven-like heat as I enter the room; a wall of thick, 95-degree air shocks my lungs.

Black plastic covers the entire place, like a room that is about to be painted. The sheeting rustles as I shuffle over it in hooded shoes.

Then I notice the smell, not at all unbearable: the smell of shit and festering wounds. Not at all unbearable, it is my own brother’s waste matter and maimed flesh.

As I walk toward the bed, two sullen pits meet my eyes. Aside from his chest, which rises and falls quickly with short, labored breaths, those sullen eyes are the only things that move on my brother’s body.

Bandages cover my brother Roy from the neck down. Tubes run in and out of his broken form. A tube for shit, a tube for piss, and various tubes for miscellaneous fluids, such as sodium chloride solution.

He breathes and he wheezes, and some phlegm gurgles at the hole in his neck adjacent to the voice box.

And then he speaks.

“Hey Andy … How you doing?”

What is left of his once-bountiful lips hardly moves. The box emits an artificial voice reminiscent of a Martian from some shitty 1950s sci-fi movie.

“Hey Roy,” I smile from underneath my mask. “It’s good to see you, brother, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you …”

His deep brown eyes stare searchingly into mine, as if to ask me something. I am leveled by his gaze and, still smiling, tears begin to flow steadily down my cheeks, mixing with the inevitable snot that accompanies them in a small, salty pool inside my face mask.

Roy and Andrew van Wey in Husaybah, Iraq. Photo courtesy of the author.

Roy and Andrew van Wey in Husaybah, Iraq. Photo courtesy of the author.

“Mom said you were having a hard time with this,” he says in a tone both robotic and melancholy. “Don’t … feel bad about what happened. … There’s nothin’ … you coulda’ done. …” He tries to swallow before finishing, “Even if you were there.”

He wheezes to catch his breath; the long speech has taken a lot out of him. His parched tongue protrudes through his cracked lips. A foam as thick as cotton hangs impudently on the tip. I grab the sucking tube—I don’t know the proper name for it—and suck the spit from his tongue.

Gently, I probe around the corners of his mouth to look for more of the viscous saliva.

“Is that good?” I ask.

He replies with the slightest nod from his head.

My baby brother, mangled and invalided, has just comforted me, for my pain and sorrow. Him, laid up and fucked up, and me, lamenting like a blubbering wuss. I am at once weak and feeble.

“It is the way of things,” I say.

“Yeah, I know. It’ll …” he wheezes, “be all right.”

I want to hold his hand, but they are wrapped in so much gauze that they look like two white clubs. I caress what would be his right hand with my fingertips.

“It’s good to see you, brother.” I smile.

“Rex is here?” Roy asks.

I nod. “You want me to get him?”

“No, send Cassi,” he says.

His wife has been sitting in the corner of the room the entire time. Without a sound, she leaves to get our brother.

“Come here,” Roy says.

I get as close as I can to what used to be his ear.

“Closer,” he says. I strain, bending over the bed, and I hold myself up with my hands.

“Watch … the tubes,” he gasps.

I look down, adjust, and lean over, inches from his face.

“The rest of the guys …” he wheezes and his breathing becomes more rapid. Now I know why he sent his wife away. “They didn’t make it?”

He knows I won’t lie to him. We are both warriors. We understand each other. And had our roles been reversed, he would not lie to me, either.

Andrew van Wey, left, and retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen at the Cowtown Warriors’ Ball. Photo courtesy of the author.

Andrew van Wey, left, and retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen at the Cowtown Warriors’ Ball. Photo courtesy of the author.

He has probably asked everyone who came to visit him, hoping for a good word. And they, no doubt with good intentions, had either lied to him or tactfully sidestepped the issue. Now, all he wants is to know. All he wants is the truth.

“They did not survive the blast,” I state.

We were never a family to sugar-coat shit and call it cotton candy. He has the right to know; they were his men. His team. His first command.

My prince, my savior, my baby brother. But I shouldn’t compare him to Jesus Christ. J.C. spent only a night in hell.

My baby brother, Cpl. Roy van Wey, had lost his whole team and most of his skin in the brutal flash of a microsecond. And as any good noncommissioned officer would, he demanded to know the disposition of his men.

“Rest easy now, brother,” I say. I touch his forehead, the only part of his face not burnt. “Deep, slow breaths … there you go …”

“Tell Zoucha … I’m sorry about … his broth …” He wheezes and the phlegm gurgles. I grab the sucking tube and go to work. A nurse comes in and changes one of the bags of fluid. He also cleans up the sputum around the hole in my brother’s throat and adjusts some device that is connected to him. I thank the nurse and he leaves.

Zoucha, our mutual friend and comrade in arms, served under me last time we were over in Iraq. Roy served under him. Zoucha’s little brother, a young Marine, was on Roy’s team. The explosion killed him.

Roy looks at the ceiling. His eyes are glassy and still now.

Andrew van Wey with his son, Maximilian. Photo courtesy of the author.

Andrew van Wey with his son, Maximilian. Photo courtesy of the author.

I continue standing over him. Rex has joined us, and we speak of many trivial matters. After about an hour and a half, Roy writhes in his bed. I ask him if he hurts, an asinine question; I know, and he says yes.

I yell for the nurse and request something for the pain. He accommodates us with a shot of Dilaudid and leaves again. When the drug takes effect, Roy speaks less. His eyes roll back in his head. He can’t completely close them because he is missing some of his lower eyelids.

The nurse returns to cut off the elastic bandages around Roy’s legs and we help him. It’s best we go now and let him rest.

I stand at the foot of the bed, just looking at him. He does not see me anymore. He is dreaming and waking as he fights the drug. He does not want us to go, he says. His eyes roll back in his head again.

I stand and look at my baby brother. With his eyes half closed, he looks dead. Most of his nose is gone. His lips hardly cover his teeth, giving his face the sardonic grin of a skull.

He looks as though he hangs on an imaginary crucifix; his arms stretch out and form a “T” with his body. My prince, my savior, my baby brother. But I shouldn’t compare him to Jesus Christ.

J.C. spent only a night in hell.

I see the foam forming in the corners of Roy’s mouth. I grab the tube and go to work.

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Andrew van Wey

Andrew van Wey

Andrew van Wey, “Van” to friends, was born in Dallas, Texas. He joined the Marine Corps in 1998 and was assigned to 3rd Bn 6th Marine Regiment, where he served during peacetime for the majority of his first enlistment. He embarked on the maiden voyage of the USS Bataan and afterward endured a stint in Correctional Custody Unit making big rocks into little rocks. After 9/11, he became well acquainted with the fact that they served bread and water in the brig of the USS Bataan. He also completed a combat tour in Afghanistan with Task Force 58 and was known as “The man who knows how to get things.” He was honorably discharged in 2002. In 2003, he was recalled and served (under duress) for about six months at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort as a hated MP. In 2004, he was recalled again and served with 1st Bn 7th Marine Regiment in Husaybah, Iraq, on the Syrian border. In 2005, he was honorably discharged for the third and final time from the Marine Corps and was (somehow) awarded a Good Conduct Medal. He now writes war and crime stories because he thinks he’s Mickey Spillane.

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