“Like Iron-Filled Tears”—My First Time Seeing a Dead Body in a Combat Zone
The body was lying on an army field stretcher, nestled between the olive green metal bars, drooping lifelessly on the black mesh fabric. I could see black tufts of hair sticking out from the blue tarp they’d used to cover the body. Congealed blood and dirt sprinkled throughout his hair like a deathly version of confetti. Slowly, small pools of blood began collecting underneath the stretcher, each drop clinging to the body in vain before succumbing to gravity. Drip. Drip. Drip.
An elderly Afghan man wearing a dusty brown shalwar kameez stood over the stretcher. He mumbled Pashtu while one of his stubby hands rubbed the back of his neck exasperatedly, gesturing aimlessly with the other. He kept pointing dejectedly between the lifeless body and desolate land outside the combat outpost’s HESCO walls.
He paused, soaking in the translation. Our interpreter explained to our small gathered group—a military physician assistant, a few infantry medics, and myself—that the man was the father of the deceased. He was looking for compensation for his son who had died at the hands of a neighbor after disputing land rights. The father had brought the body to the outpost in the hopes that it might garner sympathy from the Americans. Maybe we’d help with retaliation or possibly provide a payout to help alleviate the burden the family now faced—one less set of hands to help out in the fields.
The weary old man grasped the end of the blue tarp, snapping it back to reveal the lifeless face of his dead son, whose bloodshot eyes stared blankly at the endless Afghan sky. The son’s mouth was gaping open, the expression of horror from the moment he’d taken his last breath set on his face. I could see now that a sizeable chunk of his scalp was missing; his brain matter, flesh, and bone were mangled in a thick, mushy mess. The father gestured again between his deceased son and the barren land beyond the outpost’s walls, imploring us, it seemed, to intercede, to pay up.
This was the first dead body I’d ever seen. Standing mere feet from the corpse, I was struck by an awful ambivalence. Certainly, people die every day; and yet, being so close—physically and chronologically—to the death of this farmer who had died for disputing his property lines felt surreal.
Unlike back home, where death feels sterile and hidden from public attention, or combat KIAs, where emotion and chaos fill every space with immeasurable density, this felt uncomfortably normal. As though untimely death was so rampant and expected in Afghanistan that bartering over your son’s freshly dead body barely merited a raised eyebrow or a second thought.
As our interpreter finished translating, everyone became fixated on the stretcher and the dead Afghan corpse. The drops of blood continued to slowly drip, staining the wooden deck below. Drip. Drip.
The silence was eventually broken by the physician assistant, his words snapping my attention back to reality, shocking my senses awake. His voice was focused, deliberate, but tinged with remorse. He explained through the interpreter that it wasn’t U.S. policy to intercede in tribal disputes, and that the U.S. made payouts only if U.S. forces were involved in the death. That’s fairly well known in Afghanistan; the father had to know that.
Looking at the father, the physician assistant shrugged his shoulders, his lips slightly down-turned, cocking his head to one side as if to say, My hands are tied, I’m sorry.
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The elderly Afghan man stared at the physician assistant, his brown shalwar kameez flapping loosely in the gentle wind. His hand stopped rubbing the back of his neck; his other lay limply by his round torso. He seemed frozen, or at least at a loss for words.
The physician assistant recommended the father speak with the local Afghan elders and district governor—perhaps they could help? The interpreter initially matched the tone and tenor of the physician assistant’s intention, but by the end of his translation, the words seemed to come across hurried and impatient.
Again the group froze, transfixed by the corpse lying on the wooden deck outside the outpost’s trauma center, a modest plywood hut. Watching the blood continue to drip, I kept imagining all the little droplets that marked the journey from his small farming village to our little base. His blood continued to seep from his gaping wounds, staining the ground like iron-filled tears. Drip.
The father hung his head for a moment, as though he were deciding whether it was worth it to push us harder or to just give up. He snapped his head up and began hurling impatient Pashtu at the Afghan men who’d driven him onto the outpost in their ragged old Toyota Hilux. The men moved deftly, grabbing the ends of the stretcher then whisking the dead body away to the bed of the truck; the blue tarp whipped in the breeze, snapping back and forth like the rapid movements of Afghan men who departed with obvious indignation.
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They were gone in the blink of an eye. One minute we were witness to a father bartering over his son’s dead body; the next, we were watching the trail of dust as their broken-down pickup sped away.
I stared at the pool of congealed blood on the wooden deck. It looked so mundane, like red wine the father had spilled and left behind for someone else to clean up.