For God and Country, Geronimo
I shot bin Laden, but when I did, he shot me.
After our helicopter crashed in the courtyard, Jimbo and I rushed inside the house. We killed his son first, on the ground floor by the stairs. His name was Khalid. I should’ve known that then, but I learned it later. We shot him at the same time. I think I killed him, but Jimbo might have done it. Who knows. The kid wore a white T-shirt with the collar stretched loosely around the top of his smooth chest. He caught the first round in his thin and neatly clipped beard, right under the jaw. It hit him like an uppercut. As he fell backwards, the second round hit him in the stomach and knocked his legs out from under him, so instead of landing on his back, he landed on his face.
Jimbo rushed in front of me and up to the second floor. His wide swimmer’s shoulders filled the staircase. Sweat poured from underneath his helmet and down the thin points of his sandy blond hair. He wanted to get to the top first. (Jimbo had always been a dick in that I’m-gonna-shoot-bin-Laden-before-you kind of way.) We took the stairs two and then three at a time. We raced so fast that our rifles dropped out of our shoulders and lazily down to our sides. Jimbo’s pace slowed. I thought I’d catch him and maybe push by, but then he shouldered his rifle and fired. A pair of shots chiseled into the wall behind the second story landing. Little ricochets of dust kicked into the face of a tall man in a tan shalwar kameez and prayer cap. It was that fuck, bin Laden.
Since the raid I’ve read the accounts about how isolated bin Laden had become, and from that glance I can tell you it was true. He looked like what they said: a middle aged man who sat in a room, recording angry videos, hatching plans he couldn’t handle, and jerking off to a stash of internet porn he hid from his three Wahhabi wives—signals intercepts told us he deleted his browser history as often as twice daily. This struck a sympathetic cord in all of us.
None of this changed how badly I wanted to kill him. So did Jimbo, and after he slowed down to take the shots, he should’ve let me move past him, but he didn’t. He kept hogging his way up the stairs. We got to the landing and ran through the open door bin Laden entered. Inside two women screamed in front of a bed that occupied the center of the room. Jimbo tackled them, one with each arm. I don’t know why he did it. Later on, everyone decided that maybe they were wearing suicide vests, but who knows. Jimbo’s always been a violent guy, but aren’t we all?
That left me and bin Laden. Mano a mano. I couldn’t believe it, and in the second it took me to believe it, that’s when bin Laden shot me. He shot me from across the bed, and he shot from the hip. The round struck me square in the chest, right in my SAPI plate. It knocked me back two steps, and before I was certain it hadn’t gone through, I fired my first shot into the same spot on bin Laden’s chest. The round went straight through him. It didn’t knock him back. What it did do was drag him down, as though my shot had dropped him into the dunk tank at the state fair. I fired again, and as he fell the second round hit him in the forehead, just above the left eye.
Jimbo pulled himself off the two women, who began to wail. He shouted: “Lettichi lattat a harrack!” Don’t talk. Don’t move! Then he called over to me, “You all right?”
I reached down and felt my plate. Its center was hot. My finger burned when it touched the blossom of lead embedded in the ceramic armor. I breathed and it hurt. I reached under my body armor, and removed my hand. No blood. If there was no blood, then you weren’t hurt.
“Yeah, fine,” I called back to Jimbo.
“Holy fuck, dude.” He flipped the two women onto their stomachs, flex-cuffing their wrists. “You just shot Geronimo.”
I knew Jimbo hated the brevity code for bin Laden, but now it didn’t seem to bother him. The whole operation used a series of brevity codes from the Indian Wars, and Jimbo was a quarter Apache. To be honest, I didn’t like them either. I wished we could’ve used code words from one of the good wars. Maybe the brevity code for bin Laden could’ve been Hitler, or Lee—well, maybe not Lee, he was a good guy, just on the wrong side. I guess there weren’t that many bad guys in good wars, maybe we could’ve called bin Laden, Darth Vader.
I crossed the room with my rifle up, stood on top of the bed, and from my perch looked down at bin Laden. His eyes were no longer connected to each other; they hung loosely, like the eyes of my daughter’s American Girl doll. I pressed the dime-sized rubber button on my vest, which was linked to my radio. “For God and Country, Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo!”
The words would travel far, I thought. They’d be listening in the Situation Room, all the situation rooms. In the media and in the history books, they’d recount how a nation committed itself to killing a single man and through the work of millions of Americans over the course of a decade and at great expense we’d achieved that goal. Like when we put a man on the moon.
One giant leap for mankind—I was the new Neil Armstrong.
Fuckin’ a right, I was.
We’d all imagined our chosen set of immortal words if we killed him. I knew Jimbo had picked a few, but I’d never ask him what they were. I wondered if he would’ve done better.
The rest of the raid force filled the room, everyone moving with a purpose: gathering DNA samples, removing hard drives, taking photographs. And everyone wanted to get a look. I was glad when they arrived and pushed me out of the way. I didn’t like standing there with bin Laden and his loopy eyes.
It took me fifteen minutes to fill a thick black Hefty bag with papers and computer parts. Then Jimbo and I headed outside; he was hauling bin Laden’s DVD player, and an old style TV set with rabbit ears. I didn’t know why the intel weenies wanted the stuff, but they did, and we looked like a street gang walking out of the house with it.
A Chinook idled in the courtyard. It was the replacement bird for the Blackhawk that hardlanded. Jimbo and I walked up its ramp and into the hull, which looked like the gutted inside of a school bus. The crew chief helped us throw our loot into a pile near the pilots’ cabin. Inside the darkness shook, and I felt nauseous from where bin Laden’s bullet hit. I wanted to step outside and get some air before we flew back to Bagram. Jimbo and I headed towards the ramp when the crew chief grabbed us. He shouted above the twin engines overhead, “STAY ON BOARD, WE’RE LEAVING!”
As he spoke, the rest of our guys piled inside. Four of them carried a thick black nylon body bag, two to a side, and loaded it into the middle of the hull. They crisscrossed thick white ratchet straps across bin Laden as though he might rise from the dead and hijack our aircraft. Jimbo and I sat next to each other, Indian style, and leaned against the stack of black Hefty bags and electronics. The Chinook vibrated with deeper and deeper groans until its twin engines managed to heave up our dead weight. Flying back was probably the most dangerous thing we did that night, but for whatever reason everyone relaxed in the darkness. I tried to relax too, but I felt my stomach tighten and I began to sweat.
Jimbo tapped me on the shoulder and grabbed my arm. He pressed a hollow shell casing into my palm and leaned towards my ear, “I PICKED IT UP FROM THE BEDROOM!” I looked towards him and his teeth shined broad and white even through the darkness. I shifted and put the casing in my pocket, and when I did, I felt a quickening from my stomach to my jaw. I upchucked all over myself and Jimbo.
In the darkness none of the others could tell where the stench came from. Jimbo wasn’t mad; he understood, and was a good enough friend to give me a swill of Pepto from his med kit as he helped clean me up.
When we finished taxiing on the concrete pad in Bagram, the Admiral, the General, and the important civilians were there to meet us. The Chinook’s ramp lowered and they all winced as the stench wafted out the back. But their grimaces soon turned to smiles. They thought the smell was bin Laden.
Before we could drag our loot down the Chinook’s ramp, the reception committee pushed their way among us and started pumping fists. The Admiral told every man, “I just spoke with the President and he plans to thank each of you personally.”
He shook my hand. He was very sincere and nice, but I saw him glance at the pink moustache across my lip. Then I felt nauseous again. Once the handshaking was over, we pulled the Hefty bags, TVs, and DVD players out of the helicopter and laid them in full display on the tarmac. We unloaded bin Laden’s body next, and placed him beside the loot. Everyone was very interested. We unzipped the body bag, and a crowd of craned necks strained to get a look. We shared a silent moment and then a couple of folks snapped official pictures, and the handshaking started all over again.
An older and firmly round fellow with a trim beard leaned his head back and fought off tears. The history books say that in ’69 the guys at mission control cried too.
I was done looking. I walked across the runway to the large hangar we were housed in. I stripped down to my gym shorts and stretched out on my cot. I lay there for a while with my eyes shut, palms up and ankles open, but it was tough to sleep. I felt light on my eyes and opened them. The first bits of day crept under the tin-walled hangar. I shut my eyes again, and the light receded.
Now, the room was dark, mud walled and damp. My rifle was in my shoulder in that familiar and powerful position. But it wasn’t my M4. It was a Remington Repeater, a very old rifle, like the Red Ryder BB Gun I’d had as a kid. Bin Laden turned to me, just as he did before. It all felt very familiar. He looked at me and asked, “Quien es?” I didn’t say anything and he asked again, “Quien es? Quien es?” I shot him down. He dropped and I felt a tight surge in my stomach that ran all the way up to my jaw.
I woke up.
A movie blared in the background. I ran outside the hangar. I didn’t make it to the toilet, but I made it far enough to puke in the dirt. Very little came up. I wiped my mouth and walked back inside. A few of the guys were gathered around a TV where Emilio Estevez played Billy the Kid. He raged, “You killed the boy, Patsie!” Another guy, who is only known for playing Pat Garret, replied coldly, “No, Kid. You did.”
I didn’t want to hang around. I wanted to sleep, but none of us could sleep. We were all strung out on adrenaline and purpose. I laid down on my cot and shut my eyes. The movie’s dialogue kept rolling, and I thought of the boy, Khalid, and how we killed him, and bin Laden and the Kid. I couldn’t sleep. I thought of the other boy, the one Garret killed who rode with the Kid. Bin Laden killed the boy, not us, and I slept and I dreamed.
Bin Laden stood in an adobe walled bedroom, his back to the door. I walked inside. He didn’t face me, but he asked over and over the same question the Kid asked into the darkness of his bedroom before Garret shot him down, “Quien es? Quien es?” Who is it? Who is it?
The Kid never knew.
We spent one more night in the hangar and then we flew back. I met my wife at home when she got off work. I’d been gone just over two weeks. By then everyone knew about bin Laden, but the details of what happened were top secret. There’s an unspoken rule that you can tell your wife everything if you want to, and I did, but she’d already figured that I was involved. Then I told her the thing she hadn’t figured.
“It was you?”
“Yeah.” I nodded, puffed my chest out, but then looked at the ground.
“What is?” I looked up, a little hurt.
“Nothing, I was just so sure it would’ve been Jimbo.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing sweetie, nothing. I’m so proud of you.” She smiled, grabbed my hand and patted it between hers.
“You can’t ever tell anyone.”
“I know, I know.” Her smile flattened out, and I could see her mind racing as she thought over what, if anything, this would mean for us. Her smile perked up again. “We should celebrate. Let’s go out; anywhere you want!”
“Of course, this is a big deal.”
“How about the Cobalt Grille; they’ve got a great steak.” As I said it, I wasn’t sure my stomach could handle steak, but I’d try.
“Don’t you think that’s a little nice for the kids?” she asked.
“Oh, you want to take the kids?” The disappointment was clear in my voice.
She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “I’m sorry hon’, but where am I going to find a sitter on such short notice. Why don’t we go to Applebee’s? The kids like it, and you can get your steak there.”
I took a bottle of Pepto with me. It bulged in the pocket of my Dockers and as I loaded our minivan I noticed my wife noticing it. When we got to Applebee’s, I slid into the sticky vinyl booth. My daughter bounced in next to me. The kids ordered pizza. I still wanted a steak, but I didn’t want to risk them seeing me puke. I ordered a salad, ate it, and in the bathroom snuck a swig of Pepto. I managed to keep the salad down, but I left the restaurant hungry.
I couldn’t eat much more than a salad without upchucking. After about a week, I started losing weight. We were scheduled to fly over to Fort Campbell to meet with the President and I was worried. I couldn’t be running off to puke at the drop of a hat. I mean, shit; I was the guy who shot Geronimo.
I went to see our squadron doctor about it. Inside the wax floored examining room, I sat up on the powder blue table with my shirt off. My tattoos were draped over my shoulders like a little old lady’s crocheted quilt, and a thin but undeniable ring of belly fat reminded me that I was closing in on forty. The doctor poked and prodded me with his thin cold fingers. He stuck his index finger in the red welt around the spot where bin Laden shot me.
“Why didn’t you tell anyone about this?” he asked.
“It didn’t bleed so I thought it wasn’t a big deal. The welt’s been getting better. That’s not the problem. The puking is the problem.”
The doctor took some X-Rays. He stepped out of the room and told me I could put my shirt back on. He was gone for a long time, and when he returned, he brought another doctor with him, a guy I’d never seen. Our squadron doctor was lean, well muscled, square jawed and blond. Even if he wasn’t a SEAL, he looked like he belonged. This other doctor wasn’t. His uniform was too tight and was wrapped around his doughy body like cellophane. He wasn’t balding; he’d finished and was perfectly bald.
The other doctor held up the X-Rays and examined them with a level of expertise that our squadron doctor didn’t seem to have. He pointed at the translucent white on black prints with a single sausage finger that was as hairy as some men’s chests.
“When the bullet hit you,” he explained, “it broke a piece of your rib off. That piece is lodged in your large intestine.”
“So that’s why I’m throwing up?”
“Yes, and soon your body will work the piece of bone out of the intestine.”
“So I’ll stop puking then?”
“Not exactly. You’ll pass the piece of bone in a bowel movement, but the scar that forms will likely be bigger than the bone. The scar is the problem.”
Our squadron doctor put his hand on my shoulder, making his own addition to the prognosis, “The scar will form a permanent intestinal obstruction. It won’t do any real damage to you, but the vomiting may not subside, at least not for a while.”
“Can I stay in the Navy?” I asked, my desperation obvious.
“We’ll watch it, but I don’t think it’ll be much of a problem,” said our squadron doctor, speaking quickly.
The other doctor frowned.
The next day the whole raid force piled into a windowless conference room at Fort Campbell. We sat in rows of grey steel fold out chairs that faced a model of the compound in Abbottabad. We got there four hours early. The President was scheduled to arrive at noon, which was perfect. I’d brief him on an empty stomach, before lunch.
The officers rehearsed who would say what as we presented the details of the raid. Everyone agreed that if the President wanted to know who killed bin Laden and who called, “For God and Country, Geronimo,” I would volunteer myself. But if he didn’t, I’d anonymously describe how the upstairs of the compound was cleared and bin Laden’s last moments.
Once the rehearsals were done all the presenters, including me, sat in the second to front row of seats. The President and his staff would sit in the front row. Jimbo sat behind me, and patted me on the back with his heavy tomahawk of a paw. I turned over my shoulder and smiled at him. He pulled out the empty shell casing he carried from the raid and waved it at me. I smiled again.
The President came in and our squadron commander called, “Attention on deck!” We all jumped from our seats and stood rigid as plank boards. The President strutted down the center aisle. He grasped our squadron commander’s bicep and shook his hand. Then he whispered something in his ear. Our squadron commander smiled and called, “At ease. Take your seats, gentlemen.”
About five minutes into the briefing, one of the Secret Service Agents walked down the center aisle, kneeled, and delivered a tuna fish sandwich to the President. Lunch had been planned for after the presentation, my weak stomach was counting on that, but the Fort Campbell chow hall must not have passed muster with the Secret Service’s food tasters.
While the President chomped on his tuna fish sandwich, the Blackhawk pilot explained the details of his crash. The conference room suddenly felt very warm, and I wondered if the AC had gone out. The thick fish smell wafted through the soupy air, and my skin went clammy.
Our Pashto interpreter explained how he had pretended to be a Pakistani policeman when interested crowds approached the compound. The President continued to chomp on his sandwich, and now I was sweating. I started to squirm in my chair and Jimbo put his hand back on my shoulder to settle me down.
Now the lead breacher explained how he cut through the steel doors bin Laden used to seal himself into the compound at night. He described in painful detail the composition of the bars and the heavy shackles on the pad locks.
I felt the tight rush from my stomach to my jaw. I stood, and without looking at anyone, charged past the pinstriped Presidential Staffers, past the dark suited Secret Service and out the tan double doors of the non-descript brick building. I upchucked into the green grass, and once my stomach was empty, I dry heaved for a while.
Finished, I sat in the grass with my knees up and leaned against the building’s white wall. I breathed sloppily through my mouth, hung my head between my legs, and spit every so often. After about twenty minutes a small convoy of SUV’s pulled up, and a crowd of Secret Service loaded the President inside. Before he sped off, I pulled myself up. I didn’t want to be on my ass when the President departed.
As soon as the convoy left, Jimbo came out of the double doors.
“You all right, dude?”
I spat in the grass again. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Jimbo sized me up from head to toe. “You sure?”
I nodded. “So how’d it go?”
“Good, I guess.”
“Did he ask?”
“Nah, it was strange. He really seemed to not want to know. You’re off the hook, hero.” Jimbo smiled at me and then added, “He did mentioned how relieved he was when he heard, ‘Geronimo,’ come over the live feed in the Situation Room.”
I nodded again.“He also asked if with all the shooting any of us got hurt.”
I looked up at Jimbo, my face pale and showing the ten pounds I’d lost since the raid.
Jimbo looked down the road where the convoy had driven off. “We told him we were all fine. He said, ‘Thank God for that.’ He also gave each of us one of these.” Jimbo reached behind the door and pulled out a large frame.
“Bin Laden Wanted Poster, nice.” I said.
“Yeah, check it out, the entire cabinet signed it.” Thick black scrawls surrounded the frame’s border.
“What’s the matter: you don’t like it?”
“It’s not that.” I said.
Jimbo plopped the wanted poster in the grass. He checked over both shoulders to see if anyone was around. Then, from a pocket inside his camouflage top, he pulled a hidden stainless steel flask. He raised it up, toasted us, and took a swig. He passed it to me. I had no guts left to puke up so I toasted us and drank, too. Jimbo had filled his flask with Pepto.