"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." - Lao Tzu
It's been twenty years since I saw Africa and I can still feel the heat of the sun and the grain of the sand between my fingertips, slipping back into the ground like an hourglass running down time.
Perhaps I've tried to block it out for memories seem to stay most vibrant when locked away in the back of your recollection. We lost years of our past there, time we can't give back to our current lives, years that aged us beyond the normal passage of hours and days.
We lost men, too. The first man who completed our group of four, a senseless, instant death on a routine patrol. We'd been friends since basic training, long before I met the others. I've never forgotten his face, nor the weight of his body in my arms as I lifted him from the crimson sand. I vowed that day to never let another man under my command become more than a subordinate. To never become a friend.
Time changed that. It was Hitch who got to me first. He never complained, never even cried out all those times he was hurt. He was little more than a kid, and I guess he reminded me of a younger brother, always making you laugh despite yourself, chomping on gum like a little boy at a circus, a habit as annoying as it was somehow a part of him you grew to expect, to miss years later. Then Tully, the quiet one with a soft-spoken wisdom that could make the burden of command somehow lighter. And finally Moffitt, watching my back, the fourth piece completing us.
It's the reunion tonight. Twenty years since we last touched Africa, twenty years since we went home, and left a part of us buried in the sand.
A war doesn't end like a switch thrown on a lamp, no more than a soldier becomes a civilian simply by handing him his discharge papers. There are times when a snap of a twig sends me to the ground, the backfire of a car and I reach for a gun I haven't carried in two decades. On hot days when the sun drives against the ground I see only golden sand and three faces looking back at me.
I haven't seen them since that day but I've kept in touch, a letter here, a phone call there.
Tully opened an auto shop in his old hometown, last I heard, making a go of it. Plenty of girlfriends over the years but never found "the one". No kids but he spends his time with his nephews and nieces, all red-headed little terrors that, reading between the lines, I can tell he loves with his whole heart.
Moffitt teaches history at an Ivy League school, married ten years now to a fellow teacher. One son, nearly eight and the apple of his father's eye. The spitting image of Moffitt's brother, and his namesake.
And Hitch. He's been in and out of veteran's hospitals since the war, his left lung weakened from a bullet that nearly took his life just a week before the campaign ended.
He married a nurse just two months later, no doubt charming her even from his sickbed. Three little girls, all stair-stepped, and not so little anymore. The last photograph showed beautiful young women with their father's blue eyes. He's done all right.
I came back after the war expecting to jump right back into life. I guess we all did, as if hoping hard enough would make it easy. There weren't as many jobs opened as we'd been promised, not as many handshakes and warm words once the celebration died down and life resumed. I married the first girl I dated when I got back, held it together for almost five years before it all fell apart. There's no one to blame. It was the nightmares that drove the death blow at the end, years of screaming, wandering through the house, calling out names I'd never explain, lost in places I'd thought forgotten.
How do you describe taking dogtags off the man who was your best friend, leaving his body in a pile of corpses that had once been men? How do you explain holding your driver in your arms as he fights for breath, stumbling into camp with him, not knowing if the next breath is the last, a final twitch and his fingers clutched in your uniform will fall limply to your side? How do you tell someone that you, a hardened soldier, cried when the surgeon told you he would live, cried because if the war hadn't ended a week later he'd been back out there a few months later, more bullets ripping into his chest?
The only thing left between us after that was Meg, born late in our marriage in the futile hope that a child would heal all wounds. I have no regrets. I didn't know it then but she's the reason I fought, the reason I went to a strange country and killed men I didn't know. Every time I see Meg smile, see her free to laugh, to walk to school without bombs falling around her I understand.
I'm at the door finally, hand hovering above the handle. I'm almost frightened to touch it, afraid to open the door and look inside, remember those years beneath the sun, remember the blood and sweat and the sound of bullets.
It opens for me. It's been twenty years but I'd know him without a second glance. His hair is still gold, slightly touseled like the boy I remember. The grin is the same, hiding some of the constant pain lines bracketing his eyes. He transfers the cane to his other hand to clasp mine. "Sarge." There's so much in that word, memories of battles, of lying in the sand waiting for death, clinging to life by your fingernails. Memories of hands clasping yours, hands staunching the blood and holding in your life. Moments when young men became old, when bonds were forged that not even death could break.
"Hitch." I clasp the hand firmly, follow it by a hug, mindful of his damaged chest.
Moffitt is next, taking my hand in a strong grip. There's threads of grey creeping into his temples but the clear gaze is as vivid as ever.
I see Tully behind him, hanging back respectfully, eyes filled with a sort of awe, a look I can't understand. It's honor, for me? I did so little in the war all in all. There won't be history books written about me, medals awarded. But then I know it doesn't matter. I have my awards.
Three medals. Lives that touched mine, lives I've forever connected to, entwined with as if we'd been born together. Tully. Moffitt. Hitch.
Their friendship is all the honor I'll ever need.