I’m sure many have heard of the term “1,000-yard stare”, a term used to describe the blank expression some get after experiencing war. And I will never forget the first time I knew for sure I had seen it. And it wouldn’t be the last.
Though it would have been nice to have a tougher, more physically impressive, AG (Assistant gunner) than Spaceboy, I could not have possibly had a nicer, more decent human being by my side in Somalia. And he actually was a pretty good soldier in that he usually did what was required of him and almost never let me down. Or if he did, I don’t care to remember.
Spaceboy had a rough beginning in life and had been in and out of foster homes as a kid growing up. He wasn’t a troublemaker; he was just someone who’d been kicked around through the system, trying to find his place in the world. Why he had chosen the Army, none of us knew. To those of us who knew him, though we genuinely liked him, he didn’t belong in the Army. He didn’t seem to have a “mean” side, a side that he could show in bad situations, one disconnected from his inner, truer self.
I believe it wasn’t long after the events described in the chapter “The Gift”, 2 days after in fact, that two Somali technicals were killed by our battalion in the same area during a similar night mission. After the sun rose the next morning, our battalion HQ wanted some soldiers to go on what I dubbed “brain detail”. That is, they wanted the bodies our dead enemies collected and brought back to base where they would perhaps be turned over to their families for burial. I’m not sure why Spaceboy was picked for this detail, or if the person deciding even knew upfront what the detail was, but it was something that changed Spaceboy forever. Something that probably still haunts him to this day, as I know it did the day he left the Army.
As we sat in the quiet darkness late on February 18th and early February 19th, radio silence was broken by an extremely excited individual announcing that he was going to take the bodies of these two individuals and put them on the desk of the local commissar. This is perhaps one of the strangest things I had ever heard in my life to this point, and certainly a little troubling. The person announcing this did not sound like he was “right” in his head to any of us as we all just looked around at each other with blank stares before trying to make sense out of what we were hearing.
The voice that replied to him on the other end of the radio, however, was calm, cool and collective. And, in charge; it was CONDOR 06, our battalion commander, LTC James Sikes. He ordered the person on the other end of the radio to stand down immediately. I don’t think any of us could believe what we were listening to, but I was relieved someone on the radio net had some sense.
The older I have become in life, the more guilt I feel for trying to laugh things off with Spaceboy, or being hard on him, though I honestly didn’t realize how broken he was at the time. In many of the several ambush missions we performed, he and I would often be up and manning the M60 together, and he would ask philosophical type questions or say strange things while using his vivid imagination.
“Slane. Why are we here?” he asked me one night while sitting in an ambush.
“Um. We’re waiting for the ‘bad guys’ so we can kill them….” I replied.
“No, I mean, in Somalia. Why are we here? What are we doing here?” he said.
This cycle repeated itself several times until I decided I had had enough.
“I don’t fucking know, Spaceboy. And, if you ask me that one more time, I will kill you myself.” I replied harshly.
While training in Death Valley at the National Training Center in June of 1992, Spaceboy had surprised us all when he suddenly started talking about how it looked like we were underwater, swimming or walking along the bottom of the ocean. He demonstrated doing the breaststroke through the water. We were all kind of in shock at first, but that soon turned to laughter when one of the NCO’s (non-commissioned officers – Sergeants) said something that I would often repeat to or of Spaceboy.
“Look! Its Space Boy Zoom and his dog Astro!” SSG. Pippen said.
Anyway, this particular task was something that started out very wrong from the beginning. You’d think the most traumatic and horrible part of this story would be the part that won’t be discussed in any detail, nor the focus here; the killing of these individuals. But, no, that really was just the beginning of a much, much darker story. At least that is my opinion.
It’s hard enough for people to see another human being who is dead. But the sight of a human being who was killed in combat can be exponentially worse. And in this case, it was. They had been shot so many times that they were little more than gruesome bloody sacks of flesh with brain matter all over on the wrong sides of their skulls. It’s difficult to look at what was once a living, breathing human being and reconcile that with what you’re seeing.
As a group of soldiers waited around for instructions on what to do with the bodies, the person in charge, who we will not name, said possibly one of the most shocking things I have ever heard given the circumstances. Apparently he felt that rather than move the bodies somewhere and have them buried or turned over to the families for burial, that using the remains of the recently deceased to send a message was the right thing to do. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the bodies sat in plain sight of their family and friends for hours already. He wanted to hang the bodies from a tree near the center of town.
“I want to take these bodies and hang them in the center of town as a warning for anyone else who wants to make trouble!” the OIC conveyed to the group.
At this point, everyone stopped moving around and quit making any noise at all. Everyone was completely still, not quite sure if they heard him correctly. It was so quiet you could have heard ants fornicating from 100 meters away.
“What did he say?” someone uttered below his breath.
“He wants to hang the bodies up……as a warning” another replied.
It’s one thing to go half way around the world and kill people. It’s quite another thing to then decorate their villages with the corpses you produce. The already horrified Spaceboy was just slipping further into whatever confusion was racing rampantly through his mind. His face bearing a nervous grin of disbelief, his mouth partially open. He wasn’t alone, or if he was at first, he wasn’t now. Stringing up bodies to scare people isn’t part of our training, nor is it something we would have come up with on our own. Mr. Scary guy in charge must have had some really special training in psy-ops (psychological operations) and counter-decency. The entire scene was a blithe disregard for humanity, and a further desecration of innocence. And it only got worse from here.
The confusion, or rather the shock, of this scary order was short lived as he explained over the radio to whom I believe was the battalion commander, what his master plan was.
“[redacted]. Listen to me. I want you to load those bodies up and get back here to my location, ASAP. With the bodies.” The voice on the other end of the radio ordered, which I believe was the battalion commander. His RTO confirmed my suspicion during the writing of this book.
“Roger.” Mr. Scary guy replied.
Spaceboy now had the wonderful task of picking up the bodies, and loading them into a waiting five ton [truck].
“Ewe, gross. It’s all slimy.” He said of the body as he tried to wipe blood and brain matter from his hands. Something he would subconsciously repeat for weeks…..
After the bodies were loaded, Spaceboy was given one additional shock, one I believe sent his mind into a rat race of confusion from which he wouldn’t soon recover, if ever.
One of the other soldiers on brain detail jumped up, apparently in complete shock, and began bashing in the skull of one of the corpses as he frantically shouted.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for these stupid mother fuckers!” he yelled as he bashed open the skull at Spaceboy’s feet, covering his boots with blood and brain matter before being restrained back to his seat.
I don’t judge the individual who did this. Even if I remembered his name, I wouldn’t tell you. In all, it was a super fun adventure, as you can imagine. I don’t believe people have any say in how they respond to unimaginable shock, though his actions clearly added to the overall shock of the situation.
Spaceboy then had to ride back to base with the bodies. Not only did he have to ride with them, there wasn’t enough room left in the back for him to put his feet anywhere other than……on top of the bodies. Even if he could have moved, I don’t think he was capable at that point. It would be about an hour long scary amusement park ride for him with his feet on top of these corpses. Spaceboy was in shock. Emotionally, spiritually and in any other way imaginable. He was in complete shock.
By the end of brain detail, Spaceboy was a different person. For a few days (it seemed) he couldn’t stop talking about how the bodies felt and what they looked like or how he had to put his feet on them for the long ride back to the base. He couldn’t understand how someone could order him to hang the bodies in trees. He didn’t ask any philosophical questions like whether or not they had deserved the fate they met. He only questioned everything that followed their deaths. He questioned the person who gave the craziest and darkest orders we had ever heard. He questioned the Army and why he was in it, not being able to distinguish between the Army and the lunatic who wanted to hang bodies in trees. I presume to know that he probably felt betrayed and tricked into service in a twisted military, not being able to separate the Army from Mr. Scary. I get it. But Mr. Scary isn’t the Army, nor is he even a majority.
I have no training in psychology and at the age of twenty-two, was the last person on earth who was equipped to help Spaceboy deal with this incident. My replies were dismissive and harsh. Not because I wanted to be mean, but because the whole reality of it overwhelmed me. For me, the best way to deal with something like this was to just cut it out completely and to not try and understand it. To just act like it was like any other day and that the events were just part of that normal day. In other words, bury it and any opinions, thoughts or emotions concerning it like it never happened.
For the rest of our time in Somalia, I would routinely see Spaceboy’s blank stare, his eyes like a window with no light. He had the stare that we had always heard about. The 1,000-yard stare. His questions of why were there and what we were doing never stopped, and ultimately, I never killed him for asking, though I kept threatening for the sake of my own sanity.
Spaceboy was also chosen to be one of the few soldiers to get R&R (rest and relaxation) leave in the Kenyan city of Mombasa. Mombasa was notorious for being one of the prostitution capitals of the world. However, I’m not sure Spaceboy had even ever had a girlfriend. And he didn’t drink very much, so his time was spent buying worthless trinkets at premium prices. Something he did a lot in the states as well. He was mostly uncomfortable while in Mombasa because he didn’t understand why they wouldn’t let him take his rifle. Like many of us would feel once back in the states, he apparently felt naked and vulnerable without his weapon.
Back in the states after Somalia, Spaceboy tried to get counseling and help to cope with his overloaded mind and soul from this and everything else he had experienced. Apparently the Army psychologist he dealt with on the base was even more ill equipped than me to help Spaceboy, something he was extremely frustrated about.
“They just keep telling me that nothing is wrong with me…. it’s pissing me off” He would tell some of us.
“Well, did you tell them that you’re coo coo for Cocoa Puffs and you shit Fruit Loops?” I jokingly asked.
“he he he, whaaaaat?” he replied, seemingly proving my point.
I’ve always regretted saying that to Spaceboy, even though he knew I was kidding. It’s just the way we all were with each other. Like a bunch of brothers always picking on each other, but the first to step up and defend each other from outsiders. And, I too have felt a bit coo coo for Cocoa Puffs and shit plenty of Fruit loops over the years. On one hand they were right. There was nothing “wrong” with Spaceboy. His feelings and reactions were a completely normal response to a completely extraordinary and a very not normal circumstance. His trying to deal with it was also healthy. He recognized the need to deal with it, which is more than I can say for myself or anyone else who just buries terrible things that bother them. No matter how deep you bury them, they will eventually resurface. And when they resurface, they will likely cause ten times the amount of issues they would have had they not been buried for so long. However, it is a survival mechanism for a soldier to bury things he’s uncomfortable with, usually after he’s made or heard a few uncomfortable jokes.
Spaceboy gave counseling an honest try and it failed him. Not long after I made sergeant, I passed Spaceboy as he was walking to the parking lot with boxes of his possessions.
“Hey, bud, how’s it going? What are you up to?” I asked.
“Hey, Slane. I’m leaving. I’m going home.” He said.
“Ok, man. Take care of yourself……” I replied after hesitating briefly.
I was pretty sure he meant he was going AWOL, though I could technically deny “knowing”. Maybe he was just going on leave and I was unaware. I had plausible deniability. And I hoped Spaceboy could find the answers he was looking for. As I thought about the type of discharge they would ultimately give Spaceboy, I got angry. He had served about 75% of his enlistment and had served in his country in combat. He was wounded in a way that they couldn’t treat and left to find his own treatment. It didn’t seem fair that he would be given anything less than an honorable discharge. I hoped that something would happen and he would be helped and given an honorable discharge, but I was pretty sure that isn’t how things would play out.
“I was pissed off about Spaceboy for going AWOL……. But, I wish I could find that little bastard and give him a hug.” Interview with Spc. Rick Beem, A co. 1/87 Infantry, 1st platoon SAW gunner, December 2015.
We received letters from Spaceboy for the next year, asking the commander to forward his mail. Apparently he was clueless about going AWOL and then telling the military where, exactly, you are AWOL at. Might as well end each letter with “PS – send some MP’s to come get me whenever you’re ready!”
For his time in Somalia, Spaceboy did his job and looked out for us while we looked out for him. He was a good soldier and he never let me down as my assistant gunner. Though I will always feel that I somehow failed him in return. I blame his condition on nothing short of piss poor leadership on the part of the OIC that day.
Copyright© 1993-2016 by Bravo Charles/Steve Slane