It is quiet here—so quiet I can hear each breath as it leaves my lungs. The shots and falling bodies have silenced the birds. I am lying at the base of three Socotra dragon trees. Ironically, their nickname is dragon blood tree. They get their name from the red sap that runs down their trunks. It is the same color as human blood. Right now, I seem to be competing with the trees to see which one of us can turn more of the pale rocks from white to red.
Raindrops begin to fall from the sky. They are lightly misting my face, but thankfully, not affecting my vision. They are cool and soothing as they run down my cheeks. A few drops run towards my neck and mix with the blood. I cannot feel them after they reach my neck. If it were not for the rain on my face, I would not be feeling anything right now. The rest of my body is just tingling with what feels like a light electric shock. I am not sure if I will get any feeling back before I die.
I am surprised to find myself completely accepting of my fate. Either I am in shock, or the Navy has done a fine job of turning me into a piece of military equipment. I do not have time to analyze everything right now, but I do want to summarize and file the details of my day before I slip into unconsciousness.
From the day I entered active duty, I found peace by cataloging, and permanently filing everything that happens in a day. It helps me sleep and keeps me from dragging old baggage into the next day. I credit this habit with keeping me sane for six years lived in war zones.
For some reason—perhaps it’s the realization I only have a few minutes to live—I am struggling to shut things down. There is a debate inside my head, and I feel like the third party to a conversation between the two cerebral hemispheres of my brain. They are battling to control the few thoughts I have left.
The hyperactive right brain, known for processing emotion and self-reflection, is insisting I feel something. It begins the discussion: “You are a war hero, and heroes get shot sometimes. You knew this when you signed on. Be proud you are not dying in vain. You just freed six prisoners of war—well, not of a war per se—a conflict. No, that’s the wrong word to use with you. Your grandfather was a soldier in what the political machine likes to refer to as the ‘Korean Conflict.’ When you were a child, he would tell you that he did not spend 18 months trudging through rotting rice fields and dodging bullets to settle a ‘pissy’ little conflict. ‘If your life’s on the line, by God, it is a war!’
“You always agree with your grandfather. You admire him. You share his name. When you were a child, your mother told you to feel honored by a name modeled after such a great man. When she wanted to guilt you into accompanying her on the drive to the country to visit her father, she would be sure to mention he could teach you how to be an American war hero. A big burden to carry at thirteen.
“For the purpose of full disclosure, you weren’t actually told you had to carry this burden. There was no discussion of your responsibility to rise to anyone’s expectations. Teenage boys just think this way—especially the responsible ones like you. In the early years of your basic training, you told your bunkmates someone should warn the mothers of the world not to drop this kind of “war hero” info-bomb on a teenager. A simple, “You are named after your grandfather because you resemble him”—or, “you are carrying on a great family heritage”—would be enough to get a kid into a car.
“If your mother had not bound you to your grandfather’s legacy by giving you his name, you might not be here right now. You might not have felt obligated to join the U.S. Navy. You might not have set your sights on becoming a Navy SEAL. You might not have volunteered for the secret mission in Yemen to free the POWs. And, you might not be here dying with a bullet hole in your neck.”
I stop the right brain as if I am a judge on a court bench, overseeing the death of Grayson Cunningham. “Stick to the facts, Mr. Cunningham. I will only warn you once. This is not a theatrical stage laid out for your emotional outbursts.”
“I retract that last tirade, Your Honor. As I stated in my opening comments, Grayson, you have received a fatal gunshot wound and are dying. Know that you are dying a hero of war. Your mother will be proud of you. She will display great strength through this. She will not cry when they take the flag from your coffin and place it in her arms. She does not cry in public. ‘It just spreads the grief. Heroes detest grief that is spread for their honor.’ This is what she told you at your father’s funeral when you were only six years old.
“Your grandfather will be proud too. He will hold your mother’s hand as they lower you into the ground. He will salute as the trumpet plays Taps. He will make sure no one labels your mission today as a ‘military exercise.’ You saved lives today, G-Man. May you sleep in peace. Your Honor, I rest my case.”
I am fighting to not succumb to emotion. I am not comfortable with it in any situation—especially when on duty. I push my feelings deep and open the channel to my left-brain where pragmatic logic efficiently settles matters. “Admiral Cunningham, difficult or not, you must face what you did that cost you your life. You knew you were supposed to keep your head down and expect weapons aimed at you. The purpose of the bullet on the ground was to end your life. It, and its shooter, did just that. The sniper from the Yemen tactical team saw you as a threat—a very capable and significant threat—to his mission. He had his sights on you while you had your sights on the guards. He was aware of you, but you were not aware of him. This is why he was able to take you out. Protocol was deviated and you are paying the ultimate price.
“In your defense, you kept him from succeeding as well. His assignment was to thwart any rescue attempts for the American prisoners. You made the operation a success with a flawless execution of the details on the rocky ledge. You took out the Yemen guards one-by-one with a silencer and they fell neatly with six quick shots. Your accuracy and pace did not allow the guards enough time to return significant fire. Your ground team got in, loosed the men from their chains, and helped them to the chopper that the Navy had grounded on the plateau. The Yemen government is none the wiser—and will not be until after all Americans are safely back on the ship.
“Sadly, after your successful mission, pride got the better of you. You stood up to scan the area with your binoculars to make sure this was a contained in-and-out job. That is when he hit you. You made the mistake of ruling out a sniper on their side. You did not think anyone could out-do you when it came to rescue missions—certainly not a Yemen soldier. This is why you are dying, my man. Let us pray, for the sake of your honor, that your team does not hold the chopper for you. We will hope they come to the quick conclusion that you have dropped and get out of here fast. Your Honor, I rest my case.”
Normally, I thrive on tough love when dished out by the logic of my left brain. It has kept me alive on more than one occasion. Right now, it seems pointless to assign blame or to accept criticism. I cannot decide which version serves me better. Screw it! Things will go unfiled today.
Now that I have slowed my mind to focus, I can feel the warm air as I struggle to pull it in. It hurts now—just as it did in the training pool. I feel as if I am breathing through a heavy wet towel draped—no, glued—tightly on my face. It is a blessing that my labored breathing is weakening me. It keeps my panic in check.
My slowing heart rate tells me I am down to my last minute. A few tears pushing their way from my tear ducts. They join the trail of raindrops and blood. This is really the end. For the first time in my life, I am thinking about my death. For as long as I can remember, I have believed in life after death. I have never doubted there is a Creator behind all of Earth’s madness. Raised by a Christian mother who revered the Bible, I spent most childhood Sundays in church. I pray—not as much as I should—but it seems to be a good idea right now. As my grandfather used to say, “Can’t hurt; might help.”
I spot a small ray of sunshine cutting a sharp line from the clouds directly to the limestone. This seems to be a good thing to focus upon as I say my final words. All I can get out is a soft whisper. “Heavenly Creator, it’s me, Grayson. I’m out of time here, but I’m sure you know that. As men go, I’m far from perfect, but I am sure you know this too. I tried to do you proud today by getting those men home to their families. I hope you don’t judge me for killing 133 men in battle. It was the duty I was given. Thank you for my family, for my war buddies. I would thank you for love, but the one girl I cared about slipped through my fingers before I could tell her how I felt, before I could protect her.
“I hope you’ll accept me into your Paradise. Take care of my mom and my Grandfather. Heck, I am coming there to be sure that you do. I do not know what happens next, but I am not in pain—and I am not afraid. That’s a good thing I guess—since I only have seconds to live.