Our classes always start with a video clip. An MQ-1 Reaper hovers over an area, and surveils a group of military aged males (MAMs). We listen to the pilot talk. He’s cleared to engage. A hellfire missile darts across the screen in milliseconds. A large explosion. MAMs dead, flung about the desert earth. The class cheers.
“Today we’ll be discussing the law of war”
Sometimes it’s an AH-1W Super Cobra. An attack helicopter mounted with a 20mm Gatling gun. Its loud whir gives warning to a group of MAMs trying to make a run for it. They “squirt.” Run off in every direction. The pilot gives pursuit. Multiple round bursts trace their way onto the targets until every last one of them is dead. Lifeless. A few more rounds are fired off for good measure. The class roars.
“Today’s period of instruction is close air support”
It’s like watching our favorite football team score another touchdown. We never really know what’s going on in these video clips. A pilot somewhere engages a target and destroys it. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia. Some place with desert. We never know. We never know the full story. I’m dreaming. I’m thinking. I’m remembering.
I remember the first time I met Jay. He showed me this video on youtube. It opens to the sound of gunfire echoing off concrete walls. It’s the familiar snap, crackle, and pop of American five-five-six.
Inaccurate seven-six-two thuds, its rounds crashing just short of the cameraman’s on-screen subjects, peppering them with dirt, rocks, adrenaline.
A group of soldiers huddled behind a brick wall. One of them fires his M-4.
The others just sit there. They seem relaxed leaning there against the wall. One of them calmly shouts into a green radio. A building just out of view implodes. The sky is blue, and the sun shines brightly. Soldiers on screen smile. Palm trees dot the background.
Jay says to me “I took that video. Fucking good times man.”
He wears an Aloha shirt, billabong board shorts, and a pair of Reef sandals. Oakley sunglasses atop his greasy black hair. He is short, and stocky with a perpetual five o’clock shadow beard. I meet Jay after my first deployment.
Two weeks of leave after nine months overseas. I’m moving into a new loft in downtown Honolulu. Jay introduces himself to me while the landlord shows me around the building.
“You Marine?” he asks
“Was a medic in Iraq and Afghanistan”
The landlord apologizes. She asks him to leave. I say it’s okay. Jay offers to help me move in. We click right away. I soon find out that Jay is the real deal. A retired Army Ranger with real combat experience. He likes to tell stories. I like to listen.
Jay also likes to read, and he likes to talk about the ancient Greeks, and the “History of the Peloponnesian War”, and he likes to quote Thucydides, and sip whiskey straight from a plastic cup, and smoke cigars non stop.
And while I am on leave, Jay and I hang out at the bar downtown. Every night we go out to meet women. Every night some new woman falls in love with his stories. He is loud, boisterous, and confident. He is rude, and he is mean.
At first he says really sweet things to the women we meet. He says hello, and offers compliments. And as he drinks more, he gives more compliments. Until he drinks so much he erupts. Out burst a stream of expletives. His victim breaks down into tears and frantically runs away fearing for her own safety. His language is offensive, indecent, vulgar. “Look at that fucking cunt” he says.
Jay likes to make people cry. And he likes to laugh when he sees how he’s hurt people. And he likes to watch youtube videos showing bombs destroying buildings, and crew served weapons collapsing walls. And explosions. And death. And the pain associated with powerful loss that can be derived only from a hate so deep, it is other worldly and mystical.
Jay enjoys harming innocent people unprovoked. It is something familiar to him.
I soon begin to distance myself from Jay. Over the course of one week, I realize Jay needs a kind of help I am incapable of providing. He is dangerous. He is to be avoided.
Jay knows this before I do. And he is in pain. And you know his deployments are a cause of pain to him. And his life is a life riddled by an undiagnosed PTSD. And as far as I am concerned, I am just a stranger. But Jay does not see it that way. I am his friend. I am supposed to help him.
Jay has a fiancé who is divorced. She lives with her 13 year old daughter in a ground floor apartment up on the hills overlooking Waikiki. Her name is Alicia. I meet her one morning when she drops by for breakfast with Jay. I introduce myself to her. And I smile because I trust that she can help him. But I am wrong. She can’t.
Jay met Alicia through Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Against the rules, and their better judgement, they decided to date. Later, they were engaged. She tells me this with a nervous grin. Something’s wrong. I am not quite sure what it is.
I’m not sure Alicia is ready to marry Jay. But it is none of my business and I try to stay out of it. But Jay won’t leave me alone.
He starts to come over to my apartment everyday with something new. A bookshelf. A table. A new chair. Some pots and dishes. A book that “you have to read” he says. Later, a stack of books and DVDs, that “you have to check out man.” Jay starts to come over to just leave stuff in my apartment. And I think he is crazy for shedding all his belongings.
One day, he gives me a business card. On it is the name of a Navy Lieutenant Commander. Jay tells me I should give the guy a call. He says this guy is a former mentor of his. The Lieutenant Commander is “someone nice to know” he says. I throw the card away. I don’t understand what it is Jay is trying to tell me.
Fourteen days go by. I check in off leave. I start locking my door, and ignoring Jay. I report back to duty. And then it happens.
I hear from my landlord that Jay broke up with Alicia. And for a few days, I don’t hear anything from him. I don’t look for him. In fact, I sigh with relief because I think our short friendship is over. I’m wrong. Things are far from over.
Jay knocks on my door. I ignore it. The knocks become louder. I crack the door, he bursts in. He is clutching a pistol in his right hand. He is animated. He has a cigar in his mouth. My friend Phil and I both look at each other. We ready ourselves to tackle Jay. With his eyes, Phil asks if this is the guy I told him about. I nod.
Jay picks up on this. He racks the slide back to show us the pistol’s empty chamber and magazine weld. Clouds of light gray smoke billow up inside the apartment. He asks us if we have any ammunition. None of this makes any sense to either of us. Jay stares at me impatiently. We can tell he is plotting something. Phil and I are alert.
He asks for a ride. We say no. He leaves. I lock the door. It is close to midnight.
Today, we’re getting a series of briefs on targeting. It’s part of our mandatory pre-deployment training. Distinction. Collateral damage. Target nomination. Verification. Another video. A building implodes. My phone rings. It’s my landlord. “Have you seen Jay recently?” she asks.
“Yeah, he came over last night. Why?”
“Jay’s dead.” Everything around me goes silent. I’m dizzy.
She goes on. “Just after midnight last night, Jay went over to Alicia’s. He killed her, her daughter, and their dog. Then he killed himself.”
I am in the classroom. Cheers. Another building collapses. I see Jay smiling, showing me that video he took.
This story was originally published under the title “Jay” by Tulip Tree Press and won Honorable Mention in the 2017 Stories That Need to Be Told anthology.