The Best and The Brightest

Jan 2007, Content

I was dreaming about warm beaches and smiling women in bikinis when Jones shook me awake.

“What? What?” I sat up and looked around. White walls shone even in the darkness of night. Hawaii faded like a soft mist. I looked to my right. Jones stared at me.



“Hey, man, the commander’s going out.”

“What?” I blinked hard and looked at the red numbers floating in the air. 2:08. “Fuck. Why?”

“I don’t know,” Jones said. “But he’s getting dressed and wants to roll out ASAP.”

“Okay,” I slurred. I swung my legs over the side of the cot, my bare feet rested on the cold wood floor. “Can you wake the rest of the team up?”

“Already on it, man.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”


Sunny beaches a distant memory, I stepped onto the snow-covered Kosovo ground and walk to the operations tent. Outside, I started the massive Hum-vee to warm the engine and walked into the brightly lit tent. The night operations sergeant sat behind a wooden table. A giant map of our sector criss-crossed with colorful lines and circles hung behind him.

“What’s up, sergeant?” I said.

He looked up. “Hey, Herring,” he said and looked down to the papers in front of him.

I walked behind him, grabbed the safe key, took my bullets out of the safe, grabbed my rifle, and went back to the truck. The escort team was there, their truck idling just outside the tent. The driver came up to me. “Where’re we going?” he asked.

“Don’t know.”


“Nope. Jones just woke me up. I’m waiting on the commander.”

“Okay,” he said and went back to his truck.

My gunner and interpreter were in their seats when I got back. I drove for the commander of a Military Police Company–four platoons, around 140 soldiers–stationed in Germany and deployed to Kosovo for peacekeeping. The company had been in Kosovo for about four months and the Balkan winter had set in. Cold winds blew from the north and the whole sky turned gray and the earth died. It was rough.

Since the commander was the commander, his gunner got to sit in the back seat. Her normal position would have been sticking out of the roof behind a machine gun with the wind and snow blowing in on us. But the commander was from the south and wanted nothing to do with wind or snow. So she sat in the back seat sleeping mostly.

My interpreter was a funny guy with a big nose and black, serious eyes. He was Albanian, could speak Serbian, Albanian, English, and a couple other languages, I think. He was Muslim. Fasted during Ramadan, loved looking at the Playboys I would buy from the PX. He wore his helmet pushed back on his head and looked ridiculous in our baggy uniform.

The commander poked his head through the passenger door. He rummaged around with a small flashlight silently. He closed the door and went into the operations tent. The air was crystal clear, a full moon hung in the sky reflecting pale light off the snow, making the night glow.

“Vitina,” the commander said, climbing into the truck.

We rolled out softly on the fresh snow and headed into the country. After a twenty minute drive, we pulled onto the narrow roads of Vitina. We drove through the quiet town and past the UN police station. Dogs lounged on the sides of the road, they lifted their heads lazily, watched us pass.

The only place in town with electricity, the 82nd Airborne Division’s compound, was lit up and buzzing with activity. I pulled the trucks up next to a white building with no windows.

“Wait here,” the commander said and disappeared into the building. I got out of the truck, walked back to the escort vehicle.

“We’re waiting,” I told the driver.

“Okay,” he said. His gunner was in the backseat now wrapped up in a sleeping bag.

“You alright, man?” I asked him through the driver’s window.

“Oh yeah,” he said and smiled.

“What the fuck are we doing out here anyway?” the driver asked.

“Fuck if I know,” I answered.

“He didn’t say anything on the way down here?”

“Not a word,” I said and looked around. I saw two C.I.D. agents go into the building. “Hmm.”


“C.I.D.’s here,” I said.

“What?” he said and tried to turn his helmet-laden head to see. “What are they doing here?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Look, it’s fucking cold out here. I’m going back to the truck.”

“Herring,” my interpreter said after I closed the heavy door, “what are we doing out here so early?”

“Fuck,” I sighed. “I don’t know, man.”

“You don’t know?”

“Nope. They don’t tell me shit.”

He laughed. “It’s three in the morning,” he complained.

“No shit,” I answered. “I know what time it is. You’ll be able to sleep tomorrow. He won’t be going out after this,” I motioned to the commander’s empty seat.

“Yeah,” he said distantly, already on his way back to sleep. “But I was already asleep.”

I laughed and looked out the window and took my helmet off. The warm air blowing from the vents in the dash felt good. I was ready to go home. Kosovo wasn’t really dangerous. It was tedious. And I was ready to be back in garrison with a soft bed and dry clothes. I longed for the world of patrol cars, traffic accidents and bar brawls. I was tired of loud, leaking trucks, weapons checkpoints and ethnic violence. I wanted to be sitting on the side of the road, listening to music, my radar gun aimed, the soft dash lights the–


“Yeah,” I looked over. “Yes, sir.”

“Let’s go back.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I put my helmet back on, put the truck in drive, and slowly moved away from the compound making sure my escort was following.


The next afternoon after waking up, I went to see a friend in supply.

“Hey, man,” he said when I walked into the tent. “Did you hear what happened?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I just woke up.”

“Some sergeant murdered a little Albanian girl,” he said.

I looked at him. “Get the fuck out of here.”

“No, really.”

“How the hell do you know?” I asked. “You never leave this tent.”

“Bryant was by earlier. He told me.”


“Bryant,” he repeated, looking at me pleadingly. “My buddy up at Headquarters.”


“Seriously. In Vitina. Yesterday.”

I looked at him closely. “Vitina?”

“Yeah, man. Vitina.”

“I was just there last night.”

“What time?”

“Around three.”

“C.I.D. brought the guy here around five this morning,” he said.

“Whatever,” I answered. I was hungry and tired of listening to him. “Ready to eat?”

“Yeah,” he said, putting on his hat. “Let’s go. You just getting up?”


Later that afternoon, I sat in the operations tent waiting for dinner. The operations sergeant had a copy of a report.

“Want to see this, Herring?” he asked.

“What is it?”

“It’s the M.P. report from last night.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Let me see that thing.”

It told a brutal story.

A staff sergeant in the 82nd Airborne. A squad leader. In charge of twelve soldiers.

Late morning, the staff sergeant goes out with a truck and a junior soldier. The sergeant orders the private to stop on a secluded trail next to a frozen creek. The sergeant jumps out of the truck, picks up a bundle, throws it into the back of the truck, orders the private to drive back into town. Once in town, he tells the private to stop. A large apartment building stands next to the parked truck. The sergeant grabs the bundled blanket and runs into the building. Back in the truck, he tells the private to drive to their compound and orders him not to say anything about their “secret” mission.

That night, the private can’t sleep. Something isn’t right. After midnight, he wakes his lieutenant, tells him what happened earlier, about the secret mission. The Lt. takes a squad to the building. They find her in the basement. Military Police are called.


A Staff Sergeant in the famed “All American” 82nd. A squad leader. In charge of 12 elite Infantry paratroopers. Raped and murdered an eight year old girl.

And we expected the country to explode.

But it didn’t.

Three days later, the American commanders gathered their vehicles to convoy to the funeral. The girl was with us. We brought her back for forensic tests, her body now a crime scene. We were driving the evidence back to her family.

My interpreter was in his seat. “So, what do you think?” I turned around and looked at him. “Will there be violence today?”

He stopped humming and dancing his head and looked at me. “Violence?” he asked, his dark brow furrowed. “Why?”

“Because of the girl.”

“Oh, her,” he said and looked out his window towards the snow-capped mountain looming over Southern Kosovo. “No,” he answered. “The people here are used to this. They hoped the Americans would be different, but they didn’t expect you to be. No one will riot.”

I turned around and looked out the windshield. The girl’s small casket was loaded into the truck in front of me. I watched the snow fall on it, turning the bright pine wood dark–that made me shiver, that made the day very cold. We drove into town, buried her, gave the family some money, and left.

What more could we do?

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