A Defining Moment...
Another page in the scrapbook has a clear acetate pouch. Stuffed inside is a thick, folded sheet of blue paper. An Iraqi ballot I stole on January 30th 2005.
The sound of mortar fire fills my ears. The desk dissolves. Suddenly, I’m kneeling on a road, a palm grove to my front. Iraq. Election Day 2005.
The bullets are flying.
My squad runs through the searing heat and forms a wall of flesh and Kevlar between the incoming fire and the citizens standing in line behind us. They’ve turned out in their finest clothes to wait for the opportunity to cast a vote. For most, this moment is a defining one in their lives. They’ve never had a voice before. This means something to them, and they have used the moment as an object lesson for their children. They appear nervous and take photos. The kids stand with them in line, viewing first hand this revolution in Iraqi civics.
As they came to line up earlier that morning, the men thanked us and clasped their hands over their heads, striking a triumphant pose. Some of the women cried. The kids were on their best behavior.
The gunfire began that afternoon. Insurgents started to shoot them. My unit ran to the road and formed a protective position between the killers and the citizens going to the polls. As we scanned the palm grove in front of us, bullets cracked and whined, then mortars start thumping around us. My squad pushed into the palm grove. I stayed on the road, overseeing their movement and coordinating the heavy fire from the Bradleys.
The firefight ebbs. The mortar fire ceases. A few last stray rounds streak past. A cry from behind causes me to turn. Lying in the road is a young Iraqi woman. I run over to help. She’s caught a round just below her temple. Her stunning beauty has been ruined forever.
She cries, “Paper! Paper” over and over until the ambulance arrives to take her away. An old lady emerges from the schoolhouse-turned voting site, sheets of blue paper in hand. She gives one to the wounded girl, who clutches it to her like a prized possession even as the ambulance carries her away.
The ballot was her voice. All she wanted was a chance to exercise it, just once, before she died.
The old woman returns to the school house, but drops another ballot along the way. It drifts in a gentle breeze across the bloodstained asphalt. I stoop down and pick it up. It is all in Arabic, and I have no idea what each set of candidates advocate. That’s not my place, and it doesn’t really matter. I helped make this day happen. This ballot represents the reason why we’re here, why my friends had to die.
Carefully, I fold the ballot up and put it in my pocket. Even though I was 29 at the time , I’d only voted once.
I had taken something so precious for granted for far too long.
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