Heart of Steele

The sky was blue and clear above hundreds of pounds of steel and explosives rained fire on the unsuspecting buildings. After the dust had settled on the structural shells left behind and the menacing fighter planes soared off , the United States Marine Corps needed a battle damage assessment. 

The squad scurried onto the scene, following their training, taking precautions. 

David Jones was first in line, barely out of high school and leading his team as the pointman. The pointman navigates his squad through the Afghani terrain and apocalyptic scenes, always the first out in the open. 

At first, Jones thought it was a dead man lying on the ground. The tanned body only had scraps for legs and was lying still. Jones walked up and the unnamed Taliban fighter reached for his gun.

In one swift motion, Jones shot him twice in the chest.

Pop Pop

He was dead. Jones watched him die. The insurgent was already going to die, Jones, nor his team, were going down with him. 

*****

 In the early 2000s, a dark haired, skinny eight-year-old David Jones from Bowling Green, Kentucky brought in a Marine recruiter for career day in his second-grade class. That boy dreamed of growing up to be a Marine and for his 18th birthday, he signed the papers joining the USMC Infantry. Jones shipped out to Parris Island, South Carolina on Sept. 14, 2009, months after graduating high school. 

The South Carolina heat wouldn’t prepare Jones for the desert sun of the Middle East, and though his training instilled in him discipline and preparedness, he really didn’t take it seriously until he was out in the field, face to face with death. 

Jones served two deployments, both in the southern part of Afghanistan. In 2011, he served in Marjah, a city whose name he now has etched on his arm within a sleeve of military-themed tattoos. 

Among the tattoos on his arm is a steel plate, appearing to be bolted to his arm, with the name “Steele” in bold type, prominently displayed. Christopher “Steele” Meis died in Jones’s lap on March 17, 2011. One week before Jones’s 20th birthday.

*****

The midmorning Afghanistan sun was beating down and the sky was an unnerving shade of blue. Bullets started buzzing through the air not 15 seconds after Jones told Zachary Reardon, his buddy who was incorrectly in front of him, to duck into a trench.

The team exchanged fire with the attackers. Bullets flew, kicking up dirt and sand, whizzing around the Marines. 

The enemy was about 400 yards away peeking out from behind buildings, through windows, and above the roof. It was like playing Pop Goes The Weasel with lead and human flesh.

 The two opposing sides vollied shots back and forth, playing the game together.

The machine gunners were struggling to get their sights right, so the machine gun team asked for the others to lay down fire for cover while they ran closer. 

Machine gunners should never run first. The riflemen are quicker, have less gear. The pointman, Jones, should’ve been the first towards the gunfire. Under the stress of fire, they did what they thought to be the right thing. The machine gunners broke the line.

The remainder of the team let bullets rain on the other side, trying to cover Meis, Williams, and Owens while they charged forward towards a small berm up ahead. 

Meis fell.

“I thought, I remember clearly, I saw he fell and I was like ‘this fool done, tripped on his feet in the middle of a squad rush!’ and I started laughing and shit, then he didn’t get up.”

Jones kept shooting, mindlessly, not even aiming, transfixed on Meis, begging him to get up.

Sergeant Owens whipped around back to Meis,  and Jones saw they were sitting out in the open under steel blue skies, without even a cloud to cover them. 

He knew Meis was hit. Someone had to go help.

Their team leader came over the radio:

“We need someone to go get that guy out.”

Jones was one of the few with a smaller amount of gear strapped to him. He knew he had to go help.

Jones instructed Reardon, who was next to him and had a medical pack, to hand off his small machine gun for an M16 from someone else, then they rushed to assist.

The two bound together, running for mere seconds: “I’m up, they see me, I’m down,” the time it took to utter those words was all the time they had on their feet before hitting the dirt.

Back and forth, the two took turns, charging forward for nearly 75 yards to reach Meis, Williams, and Owens.

The whole time Jones is praying “Oh fuck, please save me, Lord.”

The two made it and the five of them were out in the open. Reardon laid down fire while they quickly unpacked the bag, giving Owens more supplies to work on Meis.

Jones took Meis’s head in his lap, holding his hand.

Jones tried to remember everything he could about him. He knew Meis was from Colorado, so he told him to just think about home. He told him that the helicopter was on its way, and that everything was going to be okay. Jones knew the fact that the bullet had gone in through Meis’s left collarbone, ricocheted around in his torso, and then exited through his back just above his hip bone meant that things were probably not okay. 

Minutes felt like hours. Bullets were hitting all around them in the openness of the field, Jones had no idea how they weren’t hit. The five of them were sitting ducks, working on their brother, hoping they didn’t get shot while Owens kept working on Meis.

“Meis, it’s gonna be okay, it’s just a simple fuckin’ chest wound.”

Jones knew it wasn’t just a simple chest wound. The inside of Meis’s torso was ripped to shreds.

“Just keep thinking about Colorado, keep thinking about home.”

The longer and longer Jones watched Meis, the more he realized that Meis wasn’t going to make it. Jones could see the life start to leave his baby blue eyes, eyes that matched the sky above them.

*****

When Jones first got into the Marines, it was everything he had hoped it would be, he loved nearly every minute. He loved its rough and tough attitude, and the perks that come along with being a Marine Infantryman: the respect, the comradery, the pay.

Through his four years and nine months in the United States Marine Corps, Jones learned a new level of trust, and a new kind of relationship with those around him. Though Jones and Meis weren’t the best of friends, relationships in the military are different than those in the civilian world.  

At the Bowling Green VA Clinic, James Pierson describes the idea of “battle buddies” like this:

“They go through basic training and  AIT, and in basic training, they basically brainwash you, at least that’s how it was in my day,” Pierson served in the National Guard and now works as a licensed clinical social worker. “They’re trying to train out of you that basic instinct for individual survival. And they train into you a new instinct that says ‘your survivability depends on how well you take care of the guy next to you.’”

Pierson said this training creates a bond between the men who fight together, live together, and are stationed together, that is stronger than that of fraternal twins, colloquially referred to as “battle buddies”.

Soldiers are purpose-built for war, according to Pierson. They are purpose-built to have these relationships for mission completion, mission success, and survivability. There is strength, safety, and security in numbers for soldiers, then they are sent home individually, leaving veterans without that sense of safety and security.

Pierson, in his tiny, dim office on the interior of the building, attempts to reconfigure the way veterans think, including Jones, who was one of his patients for a period of time. Of Pierson’s nearly 240 patients, around 90% are suffering from PTSD.

“My job is to sit in this little office and hear some of the worst things you never want to believe,” Pierson said. 

*****

Jones doesn’t boast that he served in the Marines, though he wears his service on his arm in a sleeve of tattoos. He says that the Marines shaped him into who he is now, and gave him a new idea of trust and reliance on other people. 

“I miss it a lot. But the only thing I really miss are my friends. I miss having that security. Because I don’t feel like I can really trust any of my friends here. Like even Brandon [Jones’s roommate], I love him to death, but I don’t think if it really came down to it and I had to go stacking bodies, I couldn’t be knocking on Brandon’s door to come help me. I’m kind of a wild motherfucker and I need a wild motherfucker best friend.”

Now 28 years old, Jones lives simply, spending his time finishing up his classes at Southcentral Kentucky Community & Technical College and working at Magna International, Inc as a welder. This spring, Jones will graduate with a degree in welding and he plans to continue that job until he retires. 

For the most part, Jones has been able to adjust back into civilian life.

However, Jones talked about how some of the people he served with couldn’t transition back into normal life, some of them even committing suicide.

According to Pierson, for many veterans, coming back into civilian life is one of the hardest parts of military service. “Going into war and experiencing insanity, and then coming back into normal life after experiencing insanity is a hell of a thing,” Pierson said.

Jones is now working towards saving money. He believes is perfect happiness: a wife and a family, out in the country with a little land, and a small farm to run, much like what he grew up with, and he’s saving towards that goal. 

Although now, Jones is often bored with life, having already completed his life dream.  “What do I do now? I accomplished everything I wanted to. Joined the marine corps, got to go fight, got to go kill, got to go do all that stuff. And now it’s just like fuck? What now?”

Jones’s seemingly boring life leaves him plenty of time to think and mull over what has happened to him. Remorse over Steele’s death affects him more than it did before. Jones knows that in their training, the machine gunners were never supposed to go forward first, never supposed to be in the front of the line. The riflemen, like himself, should’ve run up first and laid down fire to cover them.

“That was supposed to be my team running, I was supposed to be the one in the front, and I wasn’t. It was his team running, with him in the front. That shouldn’t have happened. I’ve thought about that a couple of times. Like what if that had been me? Why did they get to? Why didn’t my team run when we knew better? And we knew we were supposed to run?”

 When Jones and his team came back from their deployment in August 2011, the Meis family were there to meet them. Meis’s father walked up to them, professed his gratitude and love for the men who tried to save his son. He broke down into tears. The scene always stuck with Jones.

“I didn’t bring his child home and now I have to sit here and watch him cry and tell me it’s okay. That always got to me. That still gets to me. You don’t want to sit and watch a full grown man sit and cry over his dead son that you watched die.”

*****

On that hellishly hot Thursday in the middle of the desert of southern Afghanistan, David Jones held Christopher Meis’s head in his lap. At some point, Jones reached up and adjusted his sunglasses smearing a bit of Meis’s blood on the bottom part of the lens, just enough to be in Jones’s field of view. 

For weeks after his death, that blood stayed there. A piece of Meis stayed with Jones everywhere he went. He used it as motivation, a motivation to keep going. There was no boiling rage, no need to avenge his brother, but just a reminder for Jones of the way that he and his brother’s lives were intertwined.

Eventually, rain fell from the sky, the sky that matched Meis’s eyes, and washed the blood away.