I watch a hummingbird chase a grackle into the treetops. At first glance, I think it’s being chased by a large, fast-flying insect. The mangy grackle looks like it’s been through hell and shouts a warning that sounds like it’s choking on a cicada. The hummingbird pays no mind, and just as my eyes and brain confirm what I’ve seen, another hummingbird takes the left flank containing the screaming bird. My eyesight loses the combatants among the thick leaves and intertwining branches.
The tops of four large trees spill out in every direction from my suburban backyard, providing the perfect battleground for grackles, doves, sparrows, and hummingbirds. I’ve seen them all here. My backyard is like Top Gun for birds. It’s also the place I come to clear my head. It’s my rage … or peace garden. The place I come to reconcile memories before they become thoughts that feel painfully real. I come here to listen to music or a podcast, to have a drink, or hide my tears. I’m not a birder, although I am guilty of spending a lot of time craning my neck for the show.
Today, I listen to elevator music while on hold with Veterans Affairs mental health services: “Please stay on the line, your call is important to us and will be answered in the order in which it was received.” I don’t feel very important right now, especially to the VA. I’ve been trying to get through to someone for almost four weeks. I’ve lost count of how many times a digital voice has told me my call is important.
I’ve learned enough about my anger since returning from Afghanistan in 2012 to go outside when I feel that heater warming in my chest. I need a release. I need help. My eyes leave the trees when Blue, my old, gray hound dog, smears my calf with her wet nose. Hey, you okay? she seems to say with her tired eyes. I lean down and kiss the top of her head.
“I’m okay,” I lie. She sees right through me. “Our call is very important to them,” I say to her. Blue rolls her eyes and lays down in the shade. She’s been through this a couple of times.
I look back up at the trees. The hummingbirds have combined forces with a nomadic sparrow. It’s small and brown, and although not as agile as the hummingbirds, it’s a formidable opponent on their team. They’re containing grackles in a clump of lower tier branches. “Please stay on the line, your call is important to us … ”
A dragonfly escapes the trees and hovers over Blue, who’s clueless to the epic battle above her. I think of Sgt. Mondragon. We called him Dragon. He had the heart of a lion and a million-dollar smile. Fearless under enemy fire. He was shot in the face on Christmas Eve 2012. Dead before he hit the ground, I was told. “… and will be answered in the order in which it was received.”
The hummingbirds and the sparrow have established control of the lower branches, deftly whizzing around the grackles. Others have answered the distress call and gather along my back wall, singing that weird cicada chorus. One grackle tries to escape, but it dashes back to the safety of the branches when it is met by the tiny, sworded beak of a hummingbird.
Now the grackle’s squawking and an elevator rendition of some Chuck Mangione song is flooding my ears. I wonder why the VA doesn’t play calming music while on hold. A Gregorian chant or the Dropkick Murphys, anything but this. Two doves have flown in to watch the scrum. I said before I’m not a birder, but I’m pretty sure these two are married, or whatever version of a lifetime commitment birds honor.
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I think back to a day at the airport. The day I left my wife and four kids for Afghanistan. Our youngest was in second grade. I was too busy preparing for deployment to notice how leaving might affect him. I didn’t want to believe he understood what war meant. Maybe, I thought, he would be too young to remember much if something happened to me. There’d be time in his life for someone to fill the void. My wife and I were standing under these very trees when we talked about it. “If I don’t come back … ”
I snap out of it when I hear the elevator symphony play a tune from the 1970s. The kind of song that bounces around your head like a pinball with no escape. The grackles have formed a sizeable protest along my back wall. Are they planning a counter-attack? “Your call is important to us … ”
The sun is disappearing behind the mountains. Orange and blue hues paint the sky, giving the aerial battle a sci-fi appearance. I feel like my writer’s brain should be inspired. “Please stay on the line … ” I think about a young soldier I knew over there. His name was Joe. He was brave, hardworking, and intense. Joe was a model soldier with a young family, excited about his future.
Joe and I promised to stay in touch when his unit rotated home before mine. We connected on social media, but that’s all. Joe took his own life not long after returning home. “… and will be answered in the order in which it was received.” I wonder how many times Joe heard this same electronic voice. The sparrow is flying more independently of the hummingbirds now, hovering around the treetops, then diving hard and fast, keeping the grackles bunkered.
I think back to a day my battle buddy, Scott Yi, and I held each other tight, huddled together in a bunker. Rockets exploded the rooftops of buildings on both sides of us. Metal shrapnel and debris pelted our roof, and we knew we had to be next. We said our goodbyes. “Your call is important to us … ”
The hummingbirds have loosened their grip, letting the grackles slip from the branches one by one to the wall and the pines beyond. The doves slip out unnoticed and the sun disappears behind the mountain.
I think about the young soldier who joined us on patrol in a small village called Sar-e-Sang. Barely out of high school, she reminded me of my daughter. She joined the Army to be a parachute rigger or a supply clerk, I can’t remember which. But on that day she was neither. She was the youngest member of a female engagement team. After a few PowerPoint presentations and a briefing, the Army deemed her ready to engage the women of Afghanistan. She was terrified but tried hard not to show it. I already knew that combat would turn her bright green eyes harder and darker. “ … and will be answered in the order in which it was received.” I hope she’s one of the callers ahead of me.
I think back to the day I was blown up, the sun in the same place it is now. Just after dinner—tacos that night. The rocket landed within 20 feet of me. No warning. Just a loud and sudden SWOOSH as the earth rumbled toward me like a giant, dusty wave. The Afghan soldier in front of me took the impact. They got me, I thought before I was blown off my feet like a rag doll.
I landed on my head and shoulders and everything went black. Moments later, as Staff Sgt. Landon Henscheid treated my injuries, I felt sick, unsure of why I was there, what I was doing, what my place was in this madness. Landon was my friend, the best soldier I’ve ever known. At least 10 years my junior, he had an old Jack Mormon soul and always made me feel right again.
“You’re where you’re supposed to be right now, Robey,” he’d say, a cigarette hanging from his chapped lips and a Rip It energy drink in his hand. “Now, you need to get out of your head, so you can get back home alive and where you need to be.” He’d flick his cigarette, gesturing to the pictures of my family taped around my bunk.
A few weeks later, on a moonless night, we scaled a small mountainside during a mission, deep in the Taliban’s backyard. Through green and grainy night vision, I saw someone fall the equivalent of a one-story building onto their back. Before I knew it was Landon, I thought no one could survive that fall. Landon not only survived, he finished the mission. Days later he couldn’t pee. Or walk. His injury exposed a cancer that lay undetected and entrenched deep in his body, and he died at Walter Reed shortly after we returned home. I know Landon was angry he died in a hospital and not on the battlefield. That was just the kind of soldier he was. The best of us. I didn’t get to him in time. To tell him that I’m where I’m supposed to be … and that I love him.
The backyard lights flicker on and I look up just in time to see the hummingbirds disappear into the foliage. I wonder if I can be like the hummingbirds. If I can have the strength to flutter to and fro, always wrangling the dark memories like grackles choking on cicadas in my head, but graceful enough to give them passage. Am I strong enough? I think so. With the help of another hummingbird ramming its sharp narrow beak into the belly of the grackle. And maybe the occasional sparrow. Persistent, like Landon when he fell off the mountain, only to get up and finish the mission. Never letting the war or his injury get him down, always focused instead on where he was supposed to be.
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Blue lets me know it’s dinner time with her wet nose. I hang up my phone and wonder if the hummingbirds will be back to fight the grackles tomorrow. I know where I will be.