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Somehow, a four-year science degree at Monash University qualified me to find out why a fit, six-foot tall kid with angry hair turned up dead and naked in the Iraqi desert. Aside from the obvious reason: he was a member of the 1st RAR, an elite group of Australian soldiers sent to the front lines of the infamous ‘war on terror’. A Special Forces boy. I signed up as a reservist with the 4RAR Commandos to pay for my college degree, working weekends and holidays to cover school fees. At the time I needed the money to survive. I didn’t think of it as filing divorce papers with my jilted ideologies. When you sign up as a reservist, you never expect to be rattling on a plane toward Iraq. And once you’ve gone to war, no matter what the reason, you don’t have a leg to stand on in a political rally, whether you’ve stepped on a landmine or not. All missions conducted by SOCOMD, the Command Centre for Special Operations in Australia, are top secret. The assignment was handed to me in person after a sideways glance in either direction an indication I would be filing the next five days in the vault of the brain responsible for separating action from reason or, god willing, memory. After a year in the military, a person develops a private office in the mind, complete with a well-ordered filing cabinet full of manila folders, locked by superiors. In this case, a twenty one year old was dead and his family would
The Way to a Man’s Heart
be told he was missing in action. The letter had already been sent. Not one page of my report would be discharged to the family. Not even when a disbelieving voice called the 1st RAR asking whether it could be a cruel mistake. Not twelve months later, when the family phone still gets answered by the second ring. Not even three years later when hope casts a shadow into an empty room full of clean clothes. When you join the 1st RAR you sign a twenty-sevenpage document that absolves all rights to be accurately represented in anything you do. Even dying. **** I was flown to Baghdad airport in the cavernous cargo hold of a C-130 military transport via Singapore, vibrating across the Indian Ocean to the sound of green rivets, clattering their way through the turbulence. Onboard were fifteen infantrymen and myself, waiting to see the Middle East for the first time. No inflight movie. No food. No service. But there was plenty of legroom and time to think. The curse of science is that it calls ambitious men to learn from everything, even what cannot be stomached. Hell, I didn’t even know the name of the young soldier I was about to cut up. According to the Army, that was irrelevant. They needed to know if he was tortured. If he had leaked any ‘Intel’. I should have said no. I wanted to convince the pilot to turn around and go back, but it was too late. The military never goes back. They don’t turn around. In military terms, going back is
retreating... admitting wrong. Accepting defeat. Not medal worthy behaviour. The turbulence was already working on my head, jumbling my thoughts like a half assembled puzzle; some of my reservations matched up, but most of them were upside down and backwards, and coming apart fast. The second I stepped onto the tarmac, my nose recoiled. The smell of death and burning settled like indigestion in my throat. On television, not a week ago, I watched the Prime Minister walk around Baghdad airport with a smile crowding out the rest of his features. There was no indication of the stench on his face. Incredible, I thought, Politicians have an arsenal of impervious faces. One for every occasion. Squinting into the bleached canvas of the Middle East, I was led to the morgue, one of the only walled structures among the tents and convoys of the Australian command centre. It is hard to refrigerate a tent, and the large air conditioning units on the side of the building were a dead giveaway. “Where did you find him?” I asked, beginning my assessment. The female sergeant assigned to escort me returned my question with glazed silence. Right, of course. Top secret. Must have been on a Special Forces mission. I tried another angle. “How did you find him… other than naked?” I pried. “I didn’t… someone found him the next day. On his back.” She
The Way to a Man’s Heart
offered, with tacit reluctance. “He’s in here”, she pointed to a door bearing a plaque reading: M08. A camouflage chair loitered outside the door. She sat down, giving me a disinterested look, “I’ll wait outside”. Hoping to draw in courage, I took a deep breath. It tasted more like fear, but looking around the complex, everything seemed safe enough. Locked down. Watched over. Carefully camouflaged from attack or scrutiny. I could procrastinate no longer. Entering the room, I closed the door behind me. For the next two hours, I would be the last human being to spend time with this soldier. Perhaps he could tell me something about himself yet. Next to the body, the instruments for autopsy were laid out on a stainless steel table. Situated next to them, a manila folder with a document sticking out the side like a tongue. Great. When is the brass coming in to tell me what I can and can’t make mention of in my report? I opened the folder, revealing three pages of photocopied medical reports. Every second line was blacked out with a permanent marker, including the soldier’s name. Ah, the brass has already been here. Only one of the unscathed lines in the report interested me:
March, 2003 - c/o chest pain
C/o was the abbreviation for ‘complained of’ and I wondered what
physical ailment had troubled this soldier prior to his death. As I began the examination, I quickly found the only overt trace of injury. A bullet wound, about three ribs below his right armpit, gaped at me with smug irony. He complained of chest pain a year ago. As there was no exit wound, the most difficult task was to find the bullet by tracing the path it made through his chest cavity. It would take me at least an hour and a half, and before I settled into the gruesome work, I needed to align my headspace. I stuck my head out the door. The sergeant still sat on her camouflaged chair, back straight, looking into the duotone array of tents. “Sergeant?” The air outside the morgue was only slightly better than the air inside. “Yes,” the Sergeant replied, apathetic. “Any chance you could get me a coffee?” My question was answered with silence. “It would help me to, ah, stay…” “My orders are to stay here with you,” she interrupted, shifting in her seat. Orders or no orders, she doesn’t want to get me anything. “If you prefer, we could go have a coffee together, in the mess, but I would rather get started, and the coffee helps the, um… the smell.” As she stood, I could sense I had won. “No, I’ll get you one.” she said, departing with a defiant stride. “Milk and two sugars,” I called after her, feeling my mouth
The Way to a Man’s Heart
creeping up at the corners. Most women I had met in the army were jagged like her - the only visible weakness, a desire not to show weakness. It would be interesting to see how she delivered the coffee without losing face. I pulled my head back into the room, and stood over the body, looking for any sign of bruising I hadn’t seen before. There was no indication of a struggle. No rope burns. No metallic residue from shackles or cuffs. The body seemed clean enough. Some mild bruising on the soles of the feet, but that was normal for a soldier accustomed to carrying 35 kilograms of provisions, weaponry and ammunition. Circling the corpse, I couldn’t shake the thought that something wasn’t right about it all. Maybe it was just my inner feelings about travelling the world with the wrong wardrobe in my suitcase. Some of the young guns in the army used to joke, saying, “The army is great, we get paid to travel the world and meet interesting people… then shoot them.” My philosophy about travel was a little less disturbing. I wanted to experience the world by immersing myself in a culture, not parading in a foreign attitude. I always felt travelling in camouflage is like wearing a big sign that reads, “Don’t try to make contact. I’m invisible here. Talk to the politicians back home, I’m acting on their behalf…” **** “What happened out there in the desert? What’s your name, mate?” I looked down at the young corpse, retracing any
information that might help me do my job and get the hell out of here. The crotchety Sergeant said they found him the next day in the desert, lying on his back. The next day… Why naked? I snapped on a pair of surgical gloves and picked up the scalpel to begin my work, starting at the entry point. Often, when a bullet hits bone, it either ricochets into an alternate trajectory, or fragments, sending four or five pieces in different directions. This projectile had made a clean entry point, with no bone damage. It travelled through the softer intercostal space between the ribs. It would have sliced through the cartilage with ease. I could expect to find the bullet intact. There was an unenthusiastic knock at the door and I paused, setting down the scalpel before I even got started. About time, I could use that coffee. It had been twenty minutes and I needed to take a break already. Peeling off my gloves, I rinsed my hands and walked to the door. My soapy right hand slipped as I turned the knob. Shit. I tried again with no luck. “My hands are wet. You mind letting me out?” I yelled, my face an inch from the door. A few seconds later, the sun blinded me as the door opened, revealing the Sergeant. She handed me a black coffee. “They were out of milk,” she smirked. Bullshit. “Sorry.” She offered.
The Way to a Man’s Heart
”That’s okay,” I lied, taking a sip of the acidic beverage. Damn it, she got the upper hand. Milk buffered the habit black coffee had of giving me a stomach ache, and now I was stuck. “Thanks,” I mustered. The Sergeant smugly took her position outside the morgue. My only rebuttal was to leave her there, staring out at the drab landscape, wondering how she ended up here, and why she blended into this wasteland of camouflage. I stared at her profile for a moment, imagining I was beaming the thoughts into her head. Instead, I ended up asking myself the same questions. **** After returning to the body, it took forty-five minutes to pry open the chest cavity, allowing me to pick up the path of the bullet on the inner side of the rib cage. Though I could already feel the coffee corroding my gut, I decided to take another swig. I inhaled a nose full of the heady, black perfume to sweeten my perception of the pungent air around me. The caffeine twisted my nerves, wiring my mind to continue. A dark red perforation marked the smooth outer wall of the stomach, a capital city among the blood vessel map of the serosa. Even if the bullet had missed the stomach, I would have cut it open to find any evidence of toxins or other damage. Methods of torture almost always include ingestion of foreign material. The first thing I discovered in the stomach was unexpected, but made sense. Ulcers. At least five, strung out along the folds and
creases of the inner stomach like oozing craters. That would explain the chest pain. Five ulcers. Stomach ulceration often causes chest pain similar to that of a heart attack. Brought on by stress, they would have been irritated by the military issue hot-box dinners, not to mention the war. Poor boy. “You just wanted a home cooked meal, didn’t you?” That was when it caught my attention. A bright, shining curve of gold, embedded within the stomach. What’s that? Unable to dislodge it with the scalpel, I reached for the forceps, keeping my eye on the unusual thing, half expecting it to retreat within the body like a strange, visceral animal. Blinking away the opaque fog the air conditioning pulled over my vision, I guided the forceps into the body, getting a firm grip on the edge of the odd discovery. I guided it out with forceps, until I could get a good look at it… a wedding ring. Though it was corroded by stomach acid, I noticed an inscription on the worn, inner curve of the golden band, ‘Johnny and Sarah forever.’ “Hello Johnny. What happened out there?” One thing I hadn’t considered until this point was how the bullet had entered the body, under his arm like it had. Johnny’s arm was positioned over his head when I came into the morgue, allowing me clear access to the entry point, but judging by the position of the wound, he must have had his arms up when he was shot. “Why did you have your wedding ring in your stomach, Johnny?”
The Way to a Man’s Heart
I rinsed the wedding ring off, placing it on his finger. A perfect fit. “And why did you get shot if you had your arms up?” I sat the ring down and resumed the task of finding the bullet. Deeper into the chest, I could see a hole in the pericardium, the sack surrounding the heart. Like a bloodhound nearing the quarry, I cut deep into Johnny’s heart before the scalpel found the bullet for me, wedged between the left and right atria of the heart, right in the centre. Even if the projectile hadn’t severed the Purkinje fibres, the biological pacemaker that stimulates the heart to strike an incessant rhythm, the stomach acid would have killed Johnny within a few minutes, leaking into his abdominal cavity, causing irreparable organ damage. I placed the bullet into a small, stainless steel bowl and began taking organ samples to test Johnny’s biochemistry. Heart, liver and lung reduced to flesh in vials. I leaned on the edge of the table to steady my nerves. “We’re almost done, Johnny, almost done. Hang in there.” It didn’t look like Johnny had gone through any torture, except being away from Sarah’s cooking, but before finishing my report I picked up the bullet, turning it over in my hand. Up close, I could see a small piece of fabric stuck to the soft lead tip of the bullet. Using tweezers to extract the piece of cloth from the bullet, I fixed it to a slide mount and slid it under the microscope. As the fibres came into focus I could tell this was a rough-hewn fabric, perhaps
linen. Johnny was wearing something when he was shot, and it wasn’t his khakis. This brought up another issue. No sunburn. If Johnny was naked when he was shot, and wasn’t found until the next day, his skin would be cooked, whether he was alive or not. Someone undressed this soldier, but why? “What happened out there, Johnny?” I couldn’t be sure why he was wearing Arab linen, but considering he swallowed his wedding ring, he must have been captured. A gut instinct to save something precious. “You almost escaped, didn’t you? Well done.” Wait. In the distorted reflection of the stainless steel bowl, I caught sight of markings on the side of the bullet. I adjusted the microscope to accommodate the bullet, slowly positioning it beneath the eyepiece. Three letters came into focus as I rotated the markings into view…
The finding made me queasy. The whole desert scene painted itself across my imagination, revealing a story I wasn’t sure I was ready to believe. ADI Limited was the manufacturer of bullets for the Australian Defence force. Johnny had been shot by one of his own comrades,
The Way to a Man’s Heart
with his hands held high. The family would never see my report, but this soldier was no longer nameless to me. Johnny was a man in love with Sarah. He hungered for home. Yes, my report would be buried with Johnny, but there was something I could do, something right. Sure, I might risk being court marshalled, but hell… there were more important things to worry about. I washed my hands and prepared to go, dumping the rest of the coffee down the sink. “Bye Johnny. Nice to know you.” **** Sure enough, the hormonal Sergeant followed me around for a few more days until she was all too happy to lead me back to a plane waiting to take soldiers home who would never be the same. As I walked across the tarmac, I couldn’t help but smile, knowing I had regained the upper hand. All the way to the plane, I thought of that ring, jingling away in my pocket, a new assignment in the air. Except this time, I would dress down and blend in. Act on my own behalf. I had to find a woman named Sarah, and give her something precious… some peace of mind. Damn the consequences. On that return plane ride, I spent a lot of time thinking about Johnny. I wondered what kind of man he was, and what kind of food he dreamed of back home with that wedding ring digesting away
inside him. I wondered why a shot was fired at anyone with their hands above their head no matter how they were dressed, and how that Australian-made bullet knew that the best way to that man’s heart was through his stomach.
The Way to a Man’s Heart