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Summer 2008
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Author: Joshua Lee Painter
Location: Baghdad, Iraq (Texas)

diamond icon Joshua Lee Painter is a 22-year-old U.S. soldier currently deployed to Baghdad, Iraq. He originates from Marble Falls, Texas. Joshua has served in the military for five years and is currently a sergeant. He has been a fan of fantasy fiction almost all his life and has aspirations to become a writer.

Haunting Dreams

The nightmares invade my thoughts at night. They relentlessly occupy the time in my life that should be free of stress and horror. They always start the same, whether I sleep on the hard ground or a soft bed. They always ask the same unanswerable questions.

The stifling heat permeates the tent, draining my energy and motivation before the day’s trials even begin. I stand up to clear my head and begin my first laborious journey around the hospital, a name it barely earns by modern standards. This collection of dusty tents connected together by planks and tarps does next to nothing to shield its inhabitants from the oppressive desert sun. The hot, dank air within has a sickening smell that becomes overpowering in the heat. It is everywhere, even in my secluded area of the complex.

As I walk down the hallway, the odors of death, decay, blood, excrements, staleness and sweat become stronger and more unbearable with every step. Fighting the urge to vomit has become a habitual exercise for me. Walking from ward to ward, I check on the patients that I am responsible for. These men and women are lucky to be alive, yet unfortunate to be maimed. They were brave performing their duties but are now undoubtedly afraid. Their terrible plight in the face of such horror serves to strengthen my own resolve to work diligently. They are a mixed rabble of soldier and civilian. They sit in their beds being fed by tubes and monitored by machines. Even the most optimistic is smothered by the dismal cloud of depression that hangs over the hospital. Some are unconscious, perhaps to remain that way forever. Many are awake and they fill their rooms with a haunting melody of stifled groans. I account for each patient as I walk from room to room. In one a man is covered from head to toe in bloody blackened gauze while the smell of burned flesh clings to him like a murky fog. Next door a man sits up with a look of profound sadness on his face as the phantom pains from his missing arm and leg remind him of what he lost. I annotate the doctor’s prognosis and attempt to transform all the madness I see into a simple pragmatic report. A report that seems more useless with every day that passes.

The noises of helicopters fill the entire area with a deafening clamor like a powerful hurricane. The swirling winds from the propellers slam into me as I run out to greet the helicopters. These harbingers of mayhem bring more victims of reasonless violence into my life. My heart is ready to burst from the effort of moving gurney after gurney to the emergency department. The room that was quiet moments ago is now filled with noise like the roar of an angry mob. I can do nothing but observe the chaos of the room as the doctors shout to each other over the cries of helpless people. The scene is an all-too-familiar rerun of events that happen night after night after night. The room becomes a horror to behold as blood spills on the floor like a river valley flood. A bloody, coppery smell mixes with the stench of bile, turning the room into a grotesque reddish bog of bodily fluids. The sounds of anguish die down as the doctors do their gloomy work. Soon the beep of machines, the babble of doctors, and the cries of patients become a low melancholy murmur.

The battle-hardened staff methodically and efficiently deals with this latest surge of the injured. The survivors are brought to the wards to join the ranks of their wounded brethren. I now have more patients to keep track of and more stories of tragedy to turn into cold, hard facts. The ones who didn’t survive are kept for a short time in a small, lonely morgue before being returned home to break the hearts of families. I find myself again at my desk, covered with the tears and blood of heroes. A single question hammers through my head for the thousandth time.

I am typing my report when the dreaded thunder of the helicopters returns. My heart drums in my chest as I awake in a tangle of sweat and sheets. I gradually recognize my surroundings as I slowly recover from my nightly torment. The torturous buzz of the helicopters echos through my head, asking the same haunting question as always. ”Why?"

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