Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A soldier’s return

Wow! It’s been a while since I blogged about anything. My last post before this one went up in November 2012.
I’m not going to spend any time explaining or dwelling on things that happened in the meantime. For now, I’ll just say I’m back. And who am I? Well, if you read this and you don’t know me from anywhere else, I pretty much am what my public profile says: A Norwegian DBA (database admin), technology geek, owner of this blog and generally a nice guy who believes the world is big enough for all of us. Husband to one, father of 4 girls, dog owner, hobby astronomer and car detailer + friend to most people who want it that way. ;-)
One thing the profile doesn’t say anything about and that’s also never been on this blog before is that I’m also a part time soldier. IMG_9411Sadly, not everybody in this world share my view that it’s actually big enough for us all, so for a few days every year, I leave my normal life as Vegard behind and spend some days as corporal Hagen of the Norwegian Home Guard. In Norwegian, it’s called Heimevernet (HV), and since a unit patch is visible in the picture on the right, I’ll include that HV-09 is the regional HV command for Bergen and surrounding areas. And that’s as specific as I’m going to get about my unit affiliation at this time.

Now, those who know me in person or follow me on Facebook or Twitter may have noticed that I generally tend to be quite positive about those days and nights I spend with the Guard. In this blog post, I’ll also be touching in on some of the darker sides of any military organization, even though I’ll still contend that I’m doing something good and worthwhile here. And I guess this is where I should include some sort of disclaimer that, even though some actual policies and operational procedures are referenced, as a rule of thumb, you should assume that anything you read here is my own personal thoughts and opinions, not official policy of any kind. The last part of this post is a short story – that’s another thing I haven’t done here before. It is a work of fiction, but it’s based on my own actual experiences, actions and considerations during a training exercise. We’ll get back to that when we get that far (if you’re still with me, that is).

Right. So, as I was saying, I do tend to be positive. The Home Guard is meaningful to me. I do believe in it. And it’s not about hurting people, it’s about protecting people. And homes. And values and freedom and all that stuff…  My name – Vegard – actually means “He who guards the home”. (!)  So, I’m definitely in the right place here. Also, every time I go, I get to spend time with a bunch of really great guys and girls who know their stuff and never fail to get the job done ahead of schedule. We all know and like each other and we always share good times and good laughs when we’re together. So yes, I actually enjoy this stuff and look forward to it every year. And when I get home, I’m often seen walking around in uniform for hours afterwards, because honestly, the truth is I don’t really want to take it off. I consider it an honor and a privilege to be a Home Guard, even though it can also be a burden. I could most definitely have taken this a lot further than I have, but I have had other priorities in my life. 

The darker side of any military organization is – of course - that it is also about hurting people. I’m not blind to that, and I’m not going to pretend it’s not so. I practice killing people on a regular basis. But I actually spend much more time practicing not killing them. Learning to contain and control a situation and stop an escalation before it gets to the point of people killing each other. Or using non-lethal measures whenever possible. We Home Guards actually train to minimize harm – not just to the people we protect, but also whenever possible to the ones we’d be stopping. And the key word is stop. We’re not here to kill. Just stop them and we’re good. We’re actually not combat units per se. Sure, we do have a combat capability as light infantry units, but regular combat operations are not our primary mission. We can actually get sent into a lot of situations that are not war. That are just chaotic and disorderly and where we’ll be likely to encounter lots of civilians under scary, freaky or desperate conditions. Obviously, we can’t be going in with “weapons free” and a policy to “shoot on sight”, no matter how angry we are. We need to be strong and act firm, but we also need to keep our heads cool and our hearts warm and not go overboard with the use of force.
Like I said, just stop them and we’re good.

Now, for my next point, I may initially come across as just a little bit sexist here, but I’ll take my chances: I do have a soft spot for women. Especially if they’re clearly younger than myself. That really fires up my protective instincts and I don’t want to see them get hurt in any way. And no, this is not because they remind me of my own girls back home. I love my girls from here to Heaven, but this isn’t about them. This is something I’ve had in me since long before they were born. I’ll feel this way towards any girl, pretty much any woman. They’re not supposed to get hurt on my watch, whether I’m in uniform or not. So, does this mean, for example, that I think women should not be in the military? No, it doesn’t. I’m good with that. Simply put, I welcome women into any position where women want to go. I think of all the young women I know and there isn’t one of them who isn’t brave and strong and smart, with a big caring heart and a desire to go out and change the world for the better. There isn’t one legitimate reason to hold them back. I was about to say the sky is the limit, but that stopped being true a long time ago. Women flew on the space shuttles when I was just a kid. Women on the space station are no longer anything out of the ordinary. Women will some day go to Mars and beyond. And I’m good with all that. It is as it should be. But I still don’t like to see them get hurt. That’s just a thing I’ve got. But that’s my problem. If it can even be called a problem. I’m actually more inclined to call it a fundamental part of what being a man is all about, but I guess I could be wrong, as men have been known to be from time to time.

Yes, I do know that this “soft spot” can be exploited as a weakness by an enemy. I figure I can write about it so openly because it really is no secret that a lot of men are like this. (Even though when I come to think of it, I guess I only know one who would actually blog about it.  :-p   ;-)
As a friend of mine once remarked, “It’s the oldest trick in the book!” I know that. And I encounter it in training on a regular basis. The Norwegian armed forces officially don’t distinguish between men and women anymore, so I have encountered them both as “friendlies” and “enemies” more times than I can count. For me, it does add an emotional element that is not there when dealing exclusively with other men, but it’s nothing I can’t handle and I actually believe it can be a good thing in many situations. Through 17 years of Home Guard training, I have consistently managed to neither “kill” nor “be killed” in any of my encounters with female counterparts. That’s actually much better than I can say for my encounters with my fellow men, so I consider it proven that women are not the problem. And I’m also pretty sure my emotional reactions to their presence have actually helped me perform better in some situations rather than get them or me into trouble. I mean… in some ways, I feel even sharper, more alert and more determined not to let my buddy down if he is a she. And I guess I should add that I really trust her not to let me down too. I have never had a female buddy who screwed up or didn't know her stuff at least as well as the next guy, so if I know she's got my back then I know she's got my back and I don't worry about that anymore. I can still worry about her back, but I don't worry about my own.
As for the opposition, when it turns out that presumed hostile person approaching my position is a she, it makes me a little softer and more compassionate, more willing and perhaps better able to reach out and resolve things as peacefully as possible. I’ll still go hard if I have to, but it’s clear for all the world to see that it’s not my first choice and that I really don’t want to hurt her. And more often than not, she will respond to that and we’ll find a way to live and let live. At least that’s my theory. But I’m certainly not denying that there could also be traps and pitfalls here, even though I’ve been good enough or lucky enough to avoid them so far.

I think my greatest fear is to have a friendly or innocent woman get hurt on my watch because I screwed up, either failing to prevent it or actually hurting her myself. And I guess the ultimate nightmare for me would be to somehow end up shooting one – only to find out afterwards that she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Of course, it is pretty darn unlikely, but it’s a freaking scary thought that it could possibly happen at all, no matter how unlikely you think it is. During normal operations, I can only actually fire in direct defense of myself or a third person, as a last resort when lives are in danger. So, I would never shoot at a scared girl who was just running away from me, for example. Even if she was disregarding a direct order to stop, she would not be threatening my life or anyone else’s life by doing so. If I really needed to stop her, I would have to find some other way. I would not and could not just shoot her for not stopping.
But misunderstandings do happen from time to time and things could get ugly and dangerous if, for example, I thought a civilian was holding a weapon or misidentified a friendly who actually was, and then that person somehow freaked out or made a sudden move – or did not instantly know what to do or how to behave when that soldier suddenly started yelling…

Of course, one might ask what could possibly be hard to understand about the word “STOP!
But people who freak out don’t always act rationally at the time.
And if you’re a civilian happily minding your own business – and some military guy with a really big gun suddenly starts freaking out and yelling at you more or less out of the blue… perhaps it’s not so strange if you freak out a bit too…

Which is why we spend so much time practicing how to handle various confrontations and tense situations, because it’s so important that we don’t freak out. If we go in, we’re supposed to take control of the situation and make it a little safer, not even more dangerous. We can’t do that by freaking out and yelling and shooting left and right. We have to stay calm and act firm and confident, even when that’s really not how we feel at the moment. It’s easier said than done. But we have to try…

Right. Enough about that.
As I mentioned, I’ve been working on a short story. I call it a work of fiction, but like I said, it’s based on a scenario from an actual training exercise and my own actual experiences and reactions in that setting. It was training, so there were no real enemies out there in the dark and I had no real bullets in my rifle that night, but apart from that, I believe I felt, thought and did many of the same things I would have if it was all real. (I do have a pretty lively imagination and I like to go “all in” on these things and make it as realistic as I can.)

It’s a pretty dark story in many ways. But if I’m to say so myself, it’s also beautiful in some ways. I’m dealing with life and death here, but also love. And caring deeply for a fellow human being I don’t actually know. Technically speaking, dealing out death is disturbingly easy. And life is so inconveniently fragile and irreplaceable…   I’ve thrown in some words from the lyrics of the song “Whisper” by Evanescence. It’s a pretty dark and heavy song – fitting for the job I’m doing in the story and to some extent also fitting for my state of mind here. Not that I am in any way close to “losing it”, but even a healthy dose of fear and doubt can look pretty ugly from the inside of the mind experiencing it. Somebody once told me it’s actually a song about a dying girl and her fear of hell. I don’t know for sure if that’s accurate, but it seems fitting too.
If you want to hear the song, you can find a pretty awesome live performance here:
or the original version from the “Fallen” album here:

The words “Never sleep, never die” are whispered in the background at the end of the chorus. They struck a nerve with me and I’ve used that line as a title for my story. Not long ago, the Norwegian Home Guard held an exercise called Heimdall. In old Norse mythology, Heimdall was the guardian of Bifröst, the burning rainbow bridge that connected Asgard (the world of gods) to Midgard (the world of men). His eyes could see to the ends of the world and his ears could hear the grass grow, and he would keep watch over that bridge until Ragnarok and the end of the world. That’s sort of what the Home Guard is supposed to be in modern day Norway: Always here, always watching and listening, always ready to go on short notice, come what may…
And that’s also where the song comes in…

Don’t turn away

Don’t try to hide

Don’t close your eyes

Don’t turn out the light

Never sleep, never die

OK, it’s story time…


Never sleep, never die

Situation: Due to an ongoing international crisis and high tensions between my country and certain foreign powers, the Guards have been called in to protect certain locations and facilities from infiltration or sabotage. My squad is performing guard duty at one such location. As our story begins, it’s getting late in the evening and I’m alone in the dark watching over a section of the outer perimeter while the rest of my squad are off doing a sweep of a ravine nearby where somebody thought they heard something a few minutes ago. My buddies are not far away and they shouldn’t be gone too long, but right here and now I am alone. I am standing between some trees on the southern tip of a small hill and I’m facing south, watching a section of the hillside leading up to my position along with a road passing to my left and a parking lot to my right. The road and the parking lot are lit up and there is snow on the ground. I have a good view of everything on or by the road, but to someone down there, I’m pretty much just a shadow among shadows…
About 40 meters to my southeast (on my left) is a bus stop on the opposite side of the passing road. The entrance to the parking lot is right in front of me and the parking lot extends about 100 meters off to my west (right) and south (front). Across the road and south of the parking lot are more trees and more shadows. I don’t know what’s out there right now. But in the far corner of the parking lot on my right, there are a couple of parked cars and a couple of guys standing between them talking. The rest of the parking lot is empty and there is no other activity that I can see or hear at the moment. My buddies are off sweeping a ravine behind me on my right. Another squad is off to my left somewhere. But again: Right here, right now, I am alone. I’m basically watching the two guys by the cars on my right, trying to figure out what they’re up to. If my buddies were here right now, we would probably send 2 or 3 guys down there to talk to them and check them out. That’s not an option at the moment. Not because I’m afraid to approach these 2 guys on my own, but because I would be taking my eyes and ears off everything else in this sector and leaving a gaping hole in our defenses if I left my position now to focus on just these two guys with nobody else around to cover for me. So, for now I have to stay put, wait and watch.  

Catch me as I fall
Say you're here and it's all over now
Speaking to the atmosphere
No one's here and I fall into myself

I hear a car approaching from the south. I watch as the lights appear and approach, then the car comes into view and proceeds to slow down and pull over at the bus stop. After a brief pause, a car door opens and 1 person emerges. I hear my own voice whispering a soft “Ooops…” as I realize the person is a young girl and I’m looking at exactly the kind of situation that I’m a little extra concerned about.
OK, here we go. Let’s stay sharp…
I’m guessing the girl is somewhere around 16 – 18 years old. She is tall and blonde and I guess some might call her just a little bit chubby. I just call her beautiful. And cute. And sweet. And… yeah, you get the picture: I don’t see anything wrong with her whatsoever. She’s just an absolutely adorable girl. And yes, I probably would say something like that about pretty much any girl appearing here tonight, because when I look at one, I'm not looking to find flaws or to measure her up against some kind of imaginary "standard"... But tonight is about this girl. And she is gorgeous. She is also here. Now. On my watch. She opens the trunk and picks out a blue and white bag. Then the car moves away, leaving the girl standing there alone at the bus stop.

Now it’s just her, me, and the shadows.
She doesn’t even know I’m out here among them, with a rifle in my hands, watching her every move right now.
And I don’t know if she’s an enemy or just an innocent girl.
There could be a weapon or a bomb in that bag for all I know.
But for now, without a shred of evidence even hinting otherwise, I’m assuming she’s an innocent girl.
And that means I’m supposed to protect her from harm. Common decency, military protocol, every law I can think of and my own personal feelings are all on the same page here. I feel something warm and sweet brewing deep inside me and look at her like she is the most precious thing in the universe. Actually, right here and right now, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what she is. And right here and right now, I have the best job in the universe – or close enough. Right here and now, it’s officially my job to stand here and watch this beautiful girl and make sure she doesn’t get hurt. It’s so beautiful I could cry. And at the same time, it’s so scary I could cry because, strictly technically speaking, it would be so easy to hurt her… Her body is full of soft organs and delicate structures. Handle her anything less than gently and you can do real damage in seconds. Like… I could quite possibly kill her by just throwing her hard to the ground or hitting her belly with my fist really hard. That just might rupture something inside her and cause internal bleeding and any combination of excruciating pain, loss of consciousness and slow death. She’s that fragile. We all are. And I don't want to even start to think about what this rifle could do to her. Or any other gun that could be lurking behind any of these shadows right now.

This truth drives me into madness
I know I can stop the pain
If I will it all away
If I will it all away

Don't turn away
(Don't give in to the pain)
Don't try to hide
(Though they're screaming your name)

Don't close your eyes
(God knows what lies behind them)
Don't turn out the light
(Never sleep, never die)

It’s cold tonight. I look around and listen carefully for any “out of place” sounds.
The woods are quiet. The road is quiet. Those two guys over by the parked cars on my right are still just standing there talking. I still wonder why they’re here. But I still don’t have any solid info either way, so I’m still just waiting and watching. I look back at the girl, who is just standing there by herself. I should go talk to her too, find out why she’s here and for how long, etc. But that’s not an option right now, for the same reason I can’t go down there to talk to those two guys on my right. I’m still alone up here.

As I watch, the girl suddenly turns away from me and starts digging in her bag for something. I tense a little and watch intently, quietly taking a few steps sideways to get a better view, but still keeping my rifle pointing down and off to my left. I have no idea what’s about to come out of that bag, but I do know that I’m currently not suspecting this girl of any wrongdoing whatsoever. She doesn’t even know I’m up here watching her right now and nothing she picks out of her bag could possibly be a threat to me right this moment. I do need to watch and see what’s going on, but I don’t need the rifle for that. It stays down, in the “safe” position, pointing nowhere near the girl, with the safety on and my finger off the trigger. Moments later, the girl pulls out a colorful scarf from her bag and proceeds to tie it around her neck, shuffling her long, blonde hair out of the way and opening up her jacket a bit to get the scarf in place inside it. Then she puts her knit mittens back on and just stands there looking cold, but peaceful for a while. She’s not acting nervous or wary of anything. She’s not watching or listening for signs of me in the forest practically right in front of her. She’s just standing there peacefully minding her own business, waiting for something or someone. She still doesn’t know I’m even here right now. And once again, I feel a jolt of something warm and strong and sweet coming from somewhere deep inside me. That’s an innocent girl if I’ve ever seen one.
I have no idea who she is, but this is very personal now.

I'm frightened by what I see
But somehow I know that there's much more to come
Immobilized by my fear
And soon to be blinded by tears

Actually, I’m not scared at the moment.
But as I stand here watching her, I get misty eyes just from thinking there are people in this world who would actually want to hurt this cutie. Or who just wouldn’t care. I look at her, and I think, my God, she’s so perfect and beautiful. Most women are when that’s what you’re looking to see. How can anyone want to hurt someone like her? How can anyone not care about her? How is it even possible that we live in a world where someone might plant a bomb near her and just walk away, or just suddenly show up out of nowhere and stick a gun in her face, just because she’s there and they’re angry about something she doesn’t even know about?!
These thoughts are painful.
But I have my answer, at least for tonight: Not on my watch.
As I look around us again, I feel the stock of the rifle resting firmly on my shoulder. It’s still pointing down and off to my left, but I’ve moved it forward and up a bit higher and placed the stock on my shoulder. It is now in the “ready” position. Safety’s still on and my finger is still off the trigger, but from this position I can raise it, aim it and be ready to fire in less than 1 second. And as I think again about some guy suddenly showing up out of the blue and pointing a gun at this girl, I know that if such a thing was to happen right now, I would actually shoot first and without warning.

I know some people think we can’t do that.
Some think we always have to give warnings.
These people are mistaken. The reality is that we are supposed to give warnings – if we can safely do that and still have time to prevent the attack if just a warning fails to stop anything. So, whether we actually give warnings or not and whether it’s just one warning or two or three or many… That depends on the situation: How dangerous is it and how urgently do we need to intervene? If some guy was to come at this girl with a knife right now and I could see him coming from 50 meters out, my first response would not be to shoot him in the head. I would try to warn him off, and if he failed to stop and I did end up having to shoot at him, I would probably aim for a leg or a shoulder because that would be enough to stop him coming at her with a knife, or at least slow him down enough for her to get out of the way while I ran in and tackled him. Guns are a totally different story. They can injure or kill almost instantly and from a distance, so if you show up with a gun in your hands, the critical issue is not where you are, but where you’re pointing the gun. We don’t point a gun directly at somebody unless we’re actually fully prepared to fire on that individual. It’s the last resort of the last resort, with no room for any further escalation short of actually pulling the trigger. If I see a guy pointing a gun directly at this girl, I will assume that means he actually intends to shoot her. And with that, the whole situation is beyond warnings. He has already taken it to the point where the next step is him pulling the trigger and this girl getting her brains or her guts blown out. There's just no way I'm going to stand idly by and allow that on my watch and I can’t trust him not to go through with it when he’s already taken it this far. So, we’re out of time and it’s game over for at least one of us. I’ll try my hardest to make that him and not the girl or myself. Also, unless I’m 100% sure he is the only bad guy around or that we can have someone on top of him within seconds, this is where I will actually shoot to kill. Unfortunately, if someone is determined to do harm, they can often still aim a gun and pull the trigger even if they’re injured. And keeping eyes on the one guy I’ve already hit is a pretty good way to get myself killed by the next one if there are more of them. So, simply put, I will not risk my own life or the girl’s life to protect the life of a gunman who is attacking us. And pointing the gun at either one of us counts as having already started an attack. I have to make sure and I have to do it fast. That’s the level we’re “playing” at when people start pointing guns at people. Sad, but true.

I can feel my face harden to a stern frown as I’m thinking about these things.
But the next thing I know, Mr. Tough Guy melts away almost instantly as I look back at the girl and feel another wave of that warm, sticky sweetness welling up inside me. Wow. It appears I actually have deep feelings for this one. Even though I have no idea who she is.

Even without my personal feelings in the balance, her presence here is a game changer.
From the moment she stepped out of that car as a presumed innocent bystander, certain actions and options were instantly off the table because her life is more important than almost all other concerns. But to me personally, she is so much more than just a bystander. It’s actually more like she’s the reason why I’m even out here in the first place. Right now, right here in this little dark corner of the world, she is a living, breathing, thinking, feeling, warm and soft and inconveniently fragile physical embodiment of all that is good and pure in this world, all that is worth fighting for and protecting. It’s kind of like she’s an angel, maybe even a goddess right now in my own little personal universe. For her I could go to war in a heartbeat. Without doubts or second thoughts, without ever needing to pause to ask myself if she’s worth it. For her, right now, I feel like I could make a trip to hell, walk through it and return smiling and asking if she needed me to go again.

Obviously, someone who can put such a spell on me by just standing over there is clearly capable of being dangerous. And not just to me, but possibly to my whole outfit. She must be watched. And honestly, I should be watched when I’m around her, because I’m clearly in over my head and going off the deep end with the personal involvement and emotion. Or… am I? Actually, maybe I’m not… There is a method to my madness. I can explain exactly how I came to think of her as an “angel”, and it’s actually pretty reasonable when you look at it: I think of all the information I have about the ongoing conflict, the overall situation, the intel brief, our mission… In short: all I know about what’s going on and why I’m here, plus what I see and hear around me right now. And then I try to see her in light of all this. And that’s where I find that she comes out looking kind of like an angel: completely innocent and pure. None of this stuff is in any way her fault. And she’s also not doing anything wrong on my watch here right now.
And that’s all I need to know. 
I don’t care about the long list of sins she may well be guilty of. It’s not my place and not my job to be the judge of that. I deal with what’s before me and that’s just an innocent girl on her way somewhere, who happens to be in a place that could get dangerous and who probably doesn’t even know that herself right now. The angel metaphor is my own very personal twist, but other than that, I’m not crazy, I’m a Home Guard. If you’re not comfortable with the word angel, then let’s just call her innocent, or civilian, or non-combatant. Any of which mean pretty much the same thing. And no, I don’t feel guilty about adding a little emotional drama of my own on top of that. I believe we would be in much greater trouble, you and I, if I was somehow able to look at a beautiful girl like this - and not feel a thing. That would be cause for some serious concern in my book. But this? I’ll take my chances…  Always got me through so far.

I don’t know her. But I know I do love her in my own peculiar fashion. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t actually have a serious crush on her. It’s not like that. Not quite like that, anyway. This isn’t about me wanting to take her home with me. I know where my place is. I know it’s not with her. And I’m good with that. But I’ll still guard her like she is the love of my life here tonight, because that’s where we are right now. That’s what this situation calls for. It’s strictly for here and now and I’m not going to pursue the matter tomorrow or any other day for the rest of our lives, even if I do meet her again. But for the moment, it’s kind of like she is the love of my life. I don’t need her to know me. I don’t need her to thank me or to love me back in any way. I just need her to live. I just need her to not be alone in a dark place with sneaking shadows all around her. I need to keep her safe tonight and to see her leave here unharmed. That’s all I need. When we get there, we’re done, and I’m going to let her go. But right here, right now, in this moment and for as long as we’re both standing here alone together, I am her man and I will destroy anyone who would try to harm her.

I guess I got a little more emotional than I meant to.
As I check our surroundings once again, I sniff softly and briefly take my left hand off the rifle to wipe away tears with a black war glove. Then I take a deep breath while shaking my head as if to clear it, blink several times and exhale slowly. I’m OK. We’re good. Never been better.

She’s just standing there, blissfully ignorant to this whole thing going on around her.
-Or so it seems…

Could she be tricking me?
No, I really don’t think so.

But I could still be wrong.
I could still be wrong about all of this. 

Don't turn away
(Don't give in to the pain)
Don't try to hide
(Though they're screaming your name)
Don't close your eyes
(God knows what lies behind them)
Don't turn out light
(Never sleep, never die)

Minutes go by without any new developments.
Those two guys are still talking on the parking lot.
The girl is still just standing there.
My buddies should be getting back any time now.
I’d really like to talk to this girl. I could do so from right here. I’m actually so close that I could just speak up and she would hear me. But somehow that’s not the way I want to do it. I don’t want to be a booming voice from the shadows, startling her. If we’re going to talk at all, I want it to be up close and personal. I want to look her in the eye and I want her seeing mine. I want her seeing my friendly smile and knowing that as long as she does not threaten me or that which I am here to guard, I will never hurt her, threaten her or force my will on her in any way, even if she is alone in a dark place and I am a stranger with a big, bad ass rifle. I want her knowing that as long as I’m here, she is not alone and the shadows can’t threaten her if I have a say in the matter...
If she can't see me like that, then I don't want her to see me at all.

Even as I’m thinking it, I’m momentarily cringing inwardly as I’m shaking off a mental image best described as a waking nightmare or a short glimpse of hell. I imagine seeing her writhing in agony as a whole series of gunshots rip and tear at her body. I hear her cry out in pain and fear for her life. Then I see her broken body just lying there bleeding in the snow, and I imagine myself running up to her… 
It’s pretty gruesome…  She’s just lying there all torn up and just… blood everywhere…
I can’t believe we did this to her. I don’t actually know who “we” are at this point, but I’m holding myself personally responsible, as it happened on my watch. I kneel beside her and I see my own hand reaching down and brushing some hair from her face before gently touching her shoulder. Then I hear my own voice whisper, “I’m sorry…”

This is what must never be.
This is what hell would look like.
And I’m not sure it would even matter if it was my bullets or someone else’s hitting her.
Like I said, it’s my watch.

Fallen angels at my feet
Whispered voices at my ear
Death before my eyes
Lying next to me, I fear

She beckons me, shall I give in
Upon my end shall I begin
Forsaking all I've fallen for
I rise to meet the end

I’m not here just to meet the end. I’m here to help shape it.
The angel is still standing. There is no death before my eyes and I aim to keep things that way.
And I have no intention of forsaking anything except a night’s rest closer to home.
I can live with that.
Tonight, I can pretty much live with anything as long as I’m not letting her down.

I tense as I hear the soft whisper of snow falling off a tree somewhere off to my left and immediately spin around to face the source of the sound and drop to one knee, forcing all other thoughts aside as I focus my attention in that direction. What’s going on over there?  Did something just move in there between those bushes? I watch and listen for several seconds without catching anything, then start to wonder if maybe I heard a different kind of sound behind me… I’m getting a little paranoid here, turning uneasily back and forth several times, keeping the girl within my field of vision at all times to make sure she’s not threatened or suddenly up to something. She isn’t. She’s just standing there. It’s actually pretty soothing and I remind myself several times that this could still be part of a trick… She could actually be there to divert my attention and to just stand there looking peaceful and soothing, getting me to relax when I shouldn’t – or focus on guarding her while the real threat is elsewhere… I ponder that one for several minutes while I watch, listen and wait, but don’t see or hear any more signs of trouble.

Once again, I decide to give her the benefit of the doubt. That’s an easy call when I don’t even feel like there is any doubt in the first place, but at least I thought it through a few more times, checked carefully to see if I had missed any important evidence, waited several minutes and still reached the conclusion that she’s just an innocent girl at a bus stop and I don’t have anything that suggests otherwise.
So, now there is even less doubt.
Finally, after several minutes, I call off the alarm and stand back up.

And as I stand here watching her, I slowly ease the rifle back down into the “safe” position.
I know I’m lowering my guard here and increasing my own reaction time with 1 or 2 seconds, but it reduces strain on my own muscles and I look a bit less menacing if someone should see me.
It just seems right under the circumstances.

Then, as I’m checking my surroundings again, a twig snaps somewhere in the snow under one of my boots.
That’s the loudest sound I have made since she got here and as I turn back her way, for the first time, I see her looking intently in my direction. I’m not sure if she can see me or not. I know she couldn’t possibly miss me in daylight. We are that close and I’m not that well camouflaged. I’m frozen in place for a few moments as I’m trying to decide what to do. Part of me wants to wave happily and say hello. Another wants to duck behind a bush and stay hidden, but I know she would almost certainly catch that movement now that she’s already looking this way. I settle for staying quiet and allowing her to decide what happens next. Then, still looking my way, I see her reaching for something in one of her pockets…
Uh, oh…  Now what?
Part of me is jumping and thinking “Weapon?”
But most of me still trusts this girl and sees nothing threatening about her features as she reaches into her pocket and starts pulling out a black object…
The thought crosses my mind that I could still be wrong, she could be pulling out a pistol and that I could still get my rifle aimed at her faster than she could aim a pistol at me - but not for very much longer unless I start making that move soon…   And I’m still holding off… 
My mind starts racing and the next few moments seem to drag on for quite a while…
This is where I would start calling out the warnings… ordering her to stop… repeating the order and threatening to shoot… then bringing up the rifle…
Should I set this into motion now?
No! She’s just a girl on her way somewhere…
I see a small pile of snow on the opposite side of the bus stop from where she’s standing now.
If I was to fire warning shots, that’s where they would go. Close enough to give her a serious scare, but from this distance still far enough away for her to know I wasn’t aiming at her…
Then, if all of that didn’t stop her…
Awwh, the poor thing! Imagine how scared she would be…

Even as I’m waiting to see what that black object really is, some dark corner of my mind somehow finds the time for another waking nightmare…
I’m still standing right here, but somehow I can see the girl “up close and personal” like I’m down there right in front of her. I see her hand pulling the black object out of her pocket. It’s some sort of gadget, I think. Not sure exactly what kind, but I already know it’s not a pistol. I see her begin to lift it up and know I’m about to get a better look when suddenly, there is a loud bang and a sickening muffled thump as a bullet slams into her chest! I freeze in shock, then pale even further as I realize I’m pretty sure the gunshot came from my position!
My mind protests. No! I didn’t do that! I would never shoot her! And even if I did, I wouldn’t aim there!
A crushing feeling of complete and utter despair sets in as my mind begins to connect the dots and it dawns on me what must have just happened… But… But that’s impossible! I know she wasn’t aiming a gun at me!! Somehow, I must have seen something - or thought I saw something – that made me freak out, skip all the warnings and just…  BANG!  How could I do that? I could have sworn that was absolutely impossible in this situation. That I would never do such a thing. That I could never do it. But... it looks like I just did!
Oh God, what have I done?
It’s done.
Her eyes widen in surprise and pain just as the blood starts gushing out through the tear in her jacket. She opens her mouth, but she can’t scream because the air is already forced from her lungs. Gasping, she takes an unsteady step backwards and starts raising her hands as if to protect herself, as if her outstretched hands can somehow stop the next bullet. There won't be any next bullet. But the harm is already done. And as the black object falls from her hand, I can see that it’s an iPhone.

She was just picking up her phone from her pocket… and now I have killed her for it!

She manages a soft whimper as she looks down at the blood spurting from her chest and begins to realize just how badly I have hurt her. She tries to clasp down at the wound with both hands, but the blood keeps spilling out between her fingers. And I know there’s a bigger and uglier exit wound on her back, because that bullet would not have stopped inside her body…  She begins to shake her head, a look of fear in her eyes. Then she somehow regains her composure for a few seconds and just stares at me in disbelief… Obviously, she doesn’t understand. Obviously, nothing in this situation makes any sense to her. And obviously, this is by far the coldest, cruelest, most terrible thing anyone has ever done to her. I see tears in her eyes and she's clearly struggling just to breathe at this point, but she's still standing and she continues to look me straight in the eye... And even in this scene from hell, she continues to look like an angel in my eyes. So incredibly beautiful... So strong. So graceful and so dignified, even when she’s so totally lost and hurt and alone and afraid in the dark that it’s physically painful just to be near her.
And the only other human being around is the one who just put her in this position.
I did this. And I know she wants to ask me…  Why?
I begin to shake my own head as my eyes fill up with tears. I don’t have any answer. Nothing in this situation makes any sense to me either. She’s a lovely girl who never did anything to cross me or threaten me in any way. She’s dying on my watch because I screwed up beyond all reason. That’s all there is to it.
So, this is how it ends. I still can't believe it either. I look into her eyes and desperately search for something that just isn’t there… I never meant for anything like this to happen.
You know that, right?  Oh God... No, of course you don't...  We’ve already established that.
To her, I’m just the guy who showed up out of nowhere and just shot her with no warning and for no reason.
That’s what I’ve become.
I can't stand it. I can't stand looking at her now and knowing I'm the one who did this to her.
But I force myself to face up to it and keep looking her in the eye.
At least I owe her that much. And it's only fair that I should suffer.
She can't take much more of this. At least I can stay with her until...
Until it's over.
With tears streaming down my face, I manage a soft whimper of my own.

“I’m sorry.”

It seems like such an empty, useless phrase in the face of the sheer immensity of the harm I’ve done and the pain I’ve caused. But at least she gets to hear me say it. At least she gets to see me cry…

Evidently, I’m not a Home Guard anymore. I am a murderer.
And my victim is the one I called an angel and swore to protect.
The one I said represented all that is good and pure and worth fighting for.
That's what I've killed here tonight.
And for no reason at all. She was just picking up her phone... 
This is the end of the world for us both right here. It's all over.
There's no coming back from here.
She is dying. And I already am in hell.

She finally loses her balance and stumbles backwards a couple of steps before she somehow manages to pull it all together one more time and remain standing. She even takes a small step towards me. Then she shudders and appears to freeze for another few moments, just standing there gasping and staring at me with a look of absolute panic in her eyes… This is it. She really can’t breathe now.  I want to reach out for her, but it’s like I’m frozen too. I can just stand and watch. Finally, I see a great sadness in her eyes as we both know it’s too late and it’s over. And as I see her start to fall, I really wish I could run to her and just hold her in my arms so at least she wouldn’t have to die alone out here in the cold among the shadows…

Catch me as I fall
Say you're here and it's all over now

Actually, I can do better than that.
It seems there was a coming back after all, but only because I never did fire that bullet in the first place.
I'm still standing here watching her from my vantage point between the trees.
And she's still standing down there, looking all cute and peaceful... still blissfully ignorant to all of this. She still doesn’t even know I’m here. And even though I'm holding it firmly with both hands, my rifle is still in the "safe" position, pointing down into the dirt off to my left, nowhere near her, with the safety on and my finger off the trigger. It seems I am still a Home Guard after all. And she is just reassuring me that I've been right about her all along. The black object in her right hand is an iPhone. I feel a rush of relief thinking I have made only good calls here and we’re still good, followed by another wave of that warm fuzziness as I look at that beautiful human being standing there in front of me... 
And then comes an almost unbearable pang of guilt...
She’s just picking up her phone out of her pocket.
That’s a perfectly normal thing for a young girl to be doing this day and age. The thought wouldn’t have even crossed her mind that she was doing anything that could possibly be even remotely dangerous.
And yet, here I was…   
The guilt feeling hits me like a tsunami. It knocks me off balance, pulls me away, drags me under and crushes me until I’m quietly gasping for breath. I know that I have protected her. I never did yell. I never did raise the rifle. I never did let her down. But I am tortured by guilt and grief knowing I even thought about doing such things to her when I already knew all I know...

As I watch, she proceeds to place a call. She is no longer looking my way and from her expression and tone of voice, I can tell she’s talking to a close friend, maybe even a best friend. Definitely someone who has no idea that somewhere out here in the shadows is a guy who just fantasized about shooting her best friend to pieces and watching her die out here among the shadows, basically just because she was here in front of him right now. I bite my lip and try to swallow the lump in my throat, then shake my head as if to clear it of these troubled thoughts.

Don't turn away
Don't try to hide

She’s just standing there in plain sight.
I see her face. I see her hands. I hear her voice.
I know she’s not up to anything nasty. She never was. And she keeps reassuring me.
All I have to do is look and pay attention.

As a soldier, I am wielding a terrible power on behalf of my people.
There are times when that can be legitimately put into action.
But most of the time…
Actually, all the time…
My main job is to hold it back and to not unleash it on someone like this girl.

Don't close your eyes
Don't turn out the light

Mostly, I’m busy protecting her from me screwing up.
Getting the wrong idea about something.
Or missing something important.
Or getting sloppy, or not communicating properly with my buddies.
Or something… anything… any time…

Basically, If I screw up, she gets hurt.

That’s a lot of weight on my shoulders.
But I have held up OK so far, in spite of all my fears, doubts and emotional drama.
Maybe even because of them.
And I’m still here. Waiting. Watching. Listening.

Never sleep, never die

She’s still over there. Talking and giggling with her friend over the phone. A perfectly normal and adorably cute teenager minding her own business and passing some time at a bus stop. 
She really has no idea...
It is as it should be.

And I'm still standing here watching this bridge.
This living, breathing, burning rainbow that connects this world to the heavens in so many ways none of us can ever fully understand. I'll stand here all night if I need to. And if you ask me how I feel about it, the answer is: Grateful.
That's the kind of love I feel for her.
Not, "I want to take you home tonight", but more like, "I'm really grateful to have you in my world and I'll do anything to help you stay a while". No strings attached. She doesn’t owe me anything.
It is an honor and a privilege for me to help her any way I can, and I am actually grateful to her for the opportunity – even if she doesn’t know she gave it to me in the first place.
So, I’m standing here, watching her, with a little smile on my face.
And all around us is darkness and shadows.

God knows what lies behind them

I turn away from her and do a full 360 scan of my surroundings, seeing or hearing no signs of imminent danger.
Those two guys are still over there on the parking lot. My buddies still haven’t returned. I’m not alarmed, as it hasn’t been that long and I haven’t heard any “bad” sounds from that area either. They probably just got busy checking something a bit more carefully, or they actually found something and got busy dealing with it. Either way, I’m in charge here. And I know I’ve made some good calls here tonight. It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride for me, but no one else has suffered for it. No one’s hurt. I’ve kept my cool and done my job, and I’m still on top of things – in spite of me and because of me. We’re still good here. I’m not perfect, but I’ve still got this. We’re in the clear here for now. But that could change any moment. And I’m alone here until further notice.
So I keep watching.

Never sleep, never die

I turn to face the girl again as I hear her finish her phone call.
I take another deep breath and exhale slowly, my breath creating a very short-lived little cloud of mist in the cold air between us. I see a similar cloud coming out of her mouth as we’re both standing here waiting…

We’re good, you and I.
We don’t have any problem with each other.
But it seems we’re both caught here in this mess…

Servatis a periculum
(Save yourself from danger)

Can we save ourselves?

Servatis a maleficum
(Save yourself from evil)

Can we save each other?

Servatis a periculum

Will anyone else come here and save us?

Servatis a maleficum

Can either of us be saved at all?

Servatis a periculum

I’m trying here…

I’m really trying…

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