Here’s the opening to an incredible piece of journalism in Altanta Magazine. The article details the life story of Doc Hullender, a young Army medic who gave his life trying to save the lives of others. The author, Thomas Lake, is a great storyteller:
The man and the woman left the garden with the flaming sword behind them and they went out to till the ground. And wheat grew on the plains of the Fertile Crescent, and Babylon rose from the edge of the Euphrates. To the north in the latter days there was a road called Route Parallel, because it ran along the Euphrates, and there men sowed a new crop. In that mud they laid bombs.
Thunder came from the ground one hot afternoon, filling the blue sky with dust, and Kalashnikovs popped and flashed from the palm groves by the river. When the air was clear again, the American soldiers saw one of their own men lying in the road.
The captain ran through gunfire to reach him and saw what the bomb had done. He and the medic administered black Velcro tourniquets and pressure dressings. They scooped the Copenhagen out of his throat to stop him from choking and pumped clear fluid through his veins to stand in for the missing blood. Meanwhile a sergeant set up a belt-fed M249 machine gun and raked the palms with twelve rounds per second.
A Black Hawk medevac whirled in from Baghdad, and with it came an Apache gunship. The Apache strafed the palms so thoroughly that something resembling a human torso could be seen hurtling through the air. The captain and the medic and two others loaded their wounded man on a stretcher and hauled him through the mud to the Black Hawk. There he sat up, breathing hard, eyes wide open, and then he lay down again. He had mailed his last love letter a week earlier, and it had yet to reach his girl. He had chosen a name for a son.
The Black Hawk took off at 12:33 p.m. and touched down eight minutes later at a combat support hospital in Baghdad. The doctors revived their patient and replaced his blood, but he crashed again. They cracked open his chest, massaged his heart, brought him back for a few more minutes. And then he was gone.
Back at the base, when the news trickled in, another captain ordered fifty aluminum bracelets inscribed with the following message:
SSG MICHAEL R HULLENDER 1-501st PIR US ARMY KIA 28 APRIL 2007 ISKANDARIYAH, IRAQ
The captain put out a sign-up sheet. He got fifty names almost immediately. He ordered fifty more bracelets, then fifty more. They were ten dollars each. His wife asked about all those charges on his credit card. Fifty more. Fifty more. He ordered almost 500.
Many soldiers were dying in those days at Forward Operating Base Iskandariyah. The captain attended more memorial services than he could count. None were as crowded as Michael Hullender’s.
Back in the States, a friend bought Michael’s rusty Jeep Wrangler and attached a new license plate that said HULLENDER. His fiancee’s old boyfriend named a speedboat after him. At least two men suffered the pain of electric needles to have monuments to Michael painted under their skin.
He was buried on a cloudy afternoon in Buford, thirty-five miles northeast of Atlanta, not far from where he grew up. His father stood in the grass under a half-raised American flag and stared at the long metal box. Behind him stood Michael’s sister Amy, in a black dress, going numb from the pain, and behind her was Michael’s mother, who had retreated so far into her own mind that later she found herself asking if anyone had played taps. She was touching the shoulder of her daughter Lisa, Michael’s oldest sister, who for years had played the role of his mother, who had once dressed him up as a girl because he was so pretty as a small boy, and who had voted for President Bush in 2004 for one reason: She thought he would keep Michael safe.
Guns sounded and prayers were said. The casket sank into the earth. Hours later, Michael’s old friend Chad Vincent returned to the grave and pulled rocks from the clay, to make a softer blanket.
I was there too and I cried as hard as anyone, partly from guilt, because I stayed home while he went to war. I knew Michael when we were boys; his family attended my father’s church. We were never close friends—in fact, he once backhanded me in the face after I smeared him with a blackberry—but I always looked up to him, especially after he became a soldier, and I found myself wondering what really happened over there. People say nice things when someone dies, especially when that someone has a flag on his casket. I wanted to know the truth, down to the last detail.
I called Chad Vincent last November, because I’d heard he was one of Michael’s best friends in the Army. I told him about the story and asked if I could visit him in Texas.
“Anything for Mike,” he said.
Anything meant he took two days off work and drove forty miles through the horror of Dallas rush hour to pick me up from the airport. It meant he put me up in his spare bedroom for three nights and took me out for enchiladas and got angry when I tried to pay for anything. It meant he drove me back to the airport, walked me inside and handed me a parting gift.
To understand the meaning of that gift, you need to know a little about Chad. Before the day his parachute collapsed and he landed hard enough to crack his spine, he was an Army Ranger. Men become Rangers by surviving nine weeks of emaciating misery. Sometimes they get two hours of sleep; sometimes they don’t. Maybe they get one meal a day. They crawl through mud under barbed wire and drag machine guns up mountainsides and rappel down icy cliffs. They do infinite push-ups and flutter kicks. They fall from planes and land in trees. They risk snakebite and frostbite without complaint. Chad went into Ranger School 160 pounds and came out 120, and for that he earned a black cloth patch barely an inch wide with the word RANGER embroidered in gold. Anything for Mike. Chad pressed his Ranger tab into my hand, even though I’d done nothing to deserve it, as a token of thanks for telling Michael’s story. When I tried to give it back, he said I had better keep it or I might fly out of Texas with a fresh black eye.
So, the story. There were two main questions. How did Michael come to inspire such loyalty? And how did he come to die on the floodplain of the Euphrates? I looked closer and saw they were the same. Answer one and you’ve answered them both.
And then I came to another question, a much deeper one, older than patriotism or organized religion, even older than war, though a few minutes younger than killing.
It was first posed thousands of years ago in the Fertile Crescent, in the land that would become Iraq, on the same ground where Michael Hullender took his last steps.
Read the rest — it’s worth the time.