He never thought the war would be like this. A battle not just against the enemy bearing down on you with firepower and manpower, but a battle against the elements. Here on this slope the rain turns dirt into thick mud that clamps around boots, sucking a soldier back and trying to root him in place. It’s gritty, hard to work against, and this soldier has fallen more than once to his knees because of it.
It was their duty now to comb through the bodies left scattered on this hill to find soldiers still fighting for life. The pride of the military was that they left behind no-one who was wounded. But they had suffered hard, and now practically all surviving carried a wounded soldier across their back.
He finds a man, the gasps for air easy to pick up when the only other noise is solemn silence, the swish of rain and the buzz of flies as they feast and lay their eggs among the dead. He cusses, swiping at the flies crawling over the soldier - they are diligent, undeterred despite the rain.
This man he recognises, Lieutenant Buddy Miles, a friendly commissioned soldier who had yet to be hardened by war. And now he lay among corpses, mud smearing his uniform with blood, but the constant drizzle of rain refuses to let either mud or blood cake.
“Hey,” the soldier kneels down beside Buddy, who smiles despite the pain that surely radiates through him.
“You came back,” Buddy coughs, blood dribbling from the corner of his mouth but his eyes seem to light up regardless. The soldier smiles back, trying not to let fear and truth creep into his eyes and voice.
“We don’t leave behind our wounded,” the soldier says but his voice sounds hollow, as if he has chanted the words over and over until they have lost all meaning. “You’ve lost your legs.”
Buddy groans, his worst fears confirmed. The soldier suspects Buddy’s legs are the ones he sees further away, assuredly blown off by a mine. In the heat of firefight it’s impossible to tell the difference between cannons, mortars and mines - they all sound the same and they all hurt just as bad.
When Buddy returns home, he will be returning to a wife and two children. A wife who will be mortified more than pleased to see her injured husband. A wife who would then need to wait on him hand and foot, day and night. Help him dress, shower him, help him to the toilet. Wheel him to the car for him to clamber awkwardly into. His children would never kick the ball with their father again, never ride a bike together. Their father would be the man injured by war, who fought for their country and now watches the world move on while he cannot.
This was no way for a soldier to return home.
“We don’t leave behind our wounded,” the soldier says as he reaches down for Buddy’s dog tags. They lay upon his chest, silver smeared red, and the soldier yanks them off. Buddy’s eyes widen, full of fear as he reads the truth in the soldier’s eyes.
“You have honour,” the soldier bows his head, as if deep in thought, as if in prayer, and Buddy might think perhaps he heard a sob from the soldier.
The gunshot is loud, penetrating, breaking the hum of death that has settled on the slope, and Buddy is left staring up at the gray sky, eyes filling with raindrops. He will be celebrated back home as a war hero.