I had to shoot this kid.
Because a Sergeant protects his section — end of story. Especially when stuck in a six-month stint in a part of the war-torn, former Yugoslavia known as Croatia. Though no one has heard of it. The media is too busy reporting on Bosnia-Herzegovina. We were supposed to act like castrated, politically-correct errand boys at the same time keep the battle-experienced Croatians and Serbians from killing each other.
Not just killing. Torturing, raping and a host of other nasty things that we Canadian soldiers had to hear about. Then stand by and do nothing.
The Rules of Engagement (ROEs) were very clear that we could only shout warnings, cock our rifles, shoot in the air, shoot in the ground and only shoot at someone if we were in danger.
But, there was not even fine print about what to do when riding along a dusty desert road, in an armoured vehicle and a boy runs at you with a Russian-made, M81 rocket-launcher that was a danger to me. Not to mention the M113 Armour Personnel Carrier and my section riding in it. Here was five or six of us or maybe eight and I don’t know to this day why I was the only one seeing a boy running towards us with a light-weight, disposable rocket launcher.
There was never any information about kids and rocket launchers. Land mines, yes. Home made bombs, yes. Croatian and Serbian soldiers and civilians with pistols and AK47 rifles, yes. Big sniper rifles with silencers on them, yes. Oh yeah. It was all part of the briefing and training before we stepped on that plane to take us to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Croatia.
I was a Sergeant in charge of a section of eight soldiers. We were a mix of regular army from the 2nd Battalion of the PPCLI out of Winnipeg and army reservists from PEI, Newfoundland, Alberta and B.C. I was in charge of leading, administration, logistics and discipline.
Except now it was time to kill this kid. Shoot the stupid kid as he runs towards us with a rocket launcher that is well-known to go right this APC we are riding in and probably cook to death the soldiers inside. I have to shoot him or he will kill all of us. If I do survive, I would tell mothers, fathers, wives, girlfriends and children that their sons, husbands, boyfriends and dads are dead because I could not pull a trigger and protect them. Otherwise, my proud act is shooting this stupid kid, who is really kicking up dust, running hard with this tank-killing tube. I must shoot him.
I did not always think like this. Once upon a time, I was a curious kid, a teen who had lost his job as a dishwasher because the schedule conflicted with karate lessons. My mother suggested that I join the army reserves. She had served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, as did my Father — so I was told. My three uncles served in the navy and army, though I had only met one of them.
So, I joined the army reserves and later the regular army and became a paratrooper. Then back to army reserves and the boring civilian world. So, when a chance to help keep the peace overseas came up, I jumped right in.
Did the army training cost me? Yeah, in poor grades, broken relationships, back aches and sore lungs from breathing in CS gas, smoke bombs and the probable bauxite dust from that red clay and sand that we were filling those 40 pound French sandbags in Croatia with. Croatia, where I lost a few ammo packs of innocence. Where I found myself snatching my cocking handle of my C7 rifle and bringing up my rifle to stop that M81 or M79 or whatever Russian, commie-made launcher designed to go right through the M113 that I was riding in. Was I the only one that saw that kid bearing down on us, swinging that Kremlin bazooka around?
I might have been smarter with my career path and used it to get me through university or college and nailed down a high-paying career, while vigorously dating. Student loans be damned. Better to enjoy myself and pay off a debt later than burn out.
Then there was that kid. The one with the rocket launcher, planning to take all of that away from me with a squeeze of a trigger. I hook the two fingers of my right hand over my rifle’s cocking handle and swing my barrel in the boy’s direction. So young. So damn young.
I had to thank the army though. It has shown me the best and worst in people and has given me solid friends for life. I have lost friends to illness, accidents and suicide. I have also seen my recruits and friends go on to great careers and get married. The army has trained me to accept hardships (God bless the Airborne) and keep going when things seem hopeless. One of my fondest memories was being on my Infantry Section Commander’s Course (ISCC). We were wet and cold, missing food and sleep for 24 hours and sitting in the back of a large truck. One of the guys, reached through a small opened window to the driver and threatened to beat up the driver if the driver did not give up his food and drink. So, 11 of us all shared one apple and one beer. That apple was sweeter than any pastry and that sip of beer was better than single malt scotch. The aroma of apple and beer hung in the air until the truck started moving and the saga continued.
Then there was that kid with the rocket launcher, about to take all of that away from me in a single squeeze of his trigger. Yet, a quick, well-trained squeeze of my own trigger would curse my soul for life.
But he is quicker and the rocket launcher swings towards me first so I, personally, am looking right down the tube. Right through the gawd-forsaken tube. Through the EMPTY tube.
The little moron had run at me with an empty rocket launcher.
My heart is going like a jack-hammer on a hot summer road while my two fingers are hooked over my cocking handle. I notice a couple of Serbian guys, sitting on some stairs, laughing at the spectacle. Those stupid bastards had no idea how close that young boy came to being killed or shot at. Laugh away you bunch of brain-fried cave men.
When I got back to headquarters, the patrol report took longer than usual. At least after my hands stopped shaking. After that incident, it was a day-by-day, hour-by-hour count to leave that place.
When I returned to Canada, I worked harder than ever to make something more of myself. I bought, managed and lost properties, got through university, ran three more marathons, fell in love, got depressed, taught fitness, was a guest on national CBC radio, won a kick-boxing championship (age 40) got married, climbed Mt. Rainier, had a daughter, got divorced, wrote books.
Still going at age 61. Will never forget that new lease on life from the kid with the empty rocket launcher. Maybe I will find him one day…
And shake his hand.