When Rocha died, we all grew up. The war wasn’t a joke anymore. It wasn’t an old photograph or a worn postcard. It was our reality.
Rocha and a handful of others came to join the Company C deployment from Bravo Company. All of them were volunteers, like we were, but they were also about ten years younger than us. We had trouble swallowing that fact. There is something about getting a gun shoved in your hands and being thrown into a warzone that makes you scared for the kids only a quarter-way through their life.
Most of the Bravos kept to themselves. Rocha, though—if you hadn’t known the kid just started training with Company C, you would’ve thought he shared the womb with us. There was something about the way Rocha just pretended he was your best friend that made you believe it. Soon enough, none of us had to believe it because it was just a fact. Like when I caught Schmidt in the tail end of a conversation with Rocha, and after he walked away, Schmidt just kinda stood there, smiling and shaking his head, and I looked at that poor bastard and said, “Schmidt, my friend, you’ve been Rocha’d.”
Training was rough, but knowing it came nowhere close to what we’d see in Iraq was even rougher. I was sitting down one day with Rocha and Cruz after a brutal session of army crawls and obstacle courses and said, “We’re all gonna die there, aren’t we?” I just kind of let it slip out like a big exhale.
There were a couple seconds of silence before Cruz said, “Not all of us.” Rocha pulled his little green notebook and a pencil out of God-knows-where and started scribbling. We all knew by now that Rocha had that notebook filled with quotes. Anything he found funny or anything he wanted to remember. I wondered if he was writing down what Cruz said or what I said.
When we were flying somewhere over the Atlantic, word got around that our purpose in Baghdad would solely be a peace-keeping mission. It had been up in the air for quite some time, but this confirmation gave us that extra kick of hope we needed before we landed.
Once the plane touched down in Kuwait, they let us make phone calls before our long haul to Baghdad. I overheard Rocha on the phone with his mother, telling her that we were going to be safe and not to worry. Rocha had told me that joining Company C broke his promise to his mother that he wouldn’t volunteer. Seeing that dumb smile on his face while he told her the good news made my damn eyes water.
An hour after that phone call and a dozen hushed whispers later, we figured out they were lying to us. The whole country was going up in bombs. It was an unspoken worry that this was the second Vietnam, and we just told our families we were gonna be bottle feeding starving infants.
Three days in, at the buttcrack of dawn on April 9th, Silva woke us all up and asked us to get on our knees and pray. He was welcomed by a bunch of angry Fuck you, Silva's and some Go back to sleeps, but Silva wouldn’t shut up about it being Good Friday and Jesus’s sacrifices, so finally Rocha sat up in his cot and said, “Come on, guys. Jesus fuckin’ died for us. The least we could do is get on our knees and say a damn prayer.” So we all rolled out of our cots and bowed our heads and said a word or two, because Rocha had that kind of power over us.
It was later that day when the roadside bombs hit our four-vehicle unit. It felt like a sixteen-wheeler truck ran right over me, and soon I was lying in the dirt, staring at the blown-out window I went through. I looked to my right and saw Rocha take the gunner position in the Humvee still standing upright. That’s when the fire hit. Within four minutes, they were gone. We never saw the enemy, just their ammo. Rocha was slumped over his gun up in the truck. I knew he was dead. Nobody said anything. One by one, we all took off our helmets and put them over our hearts. Then we got on our knees and bowed our heads. From where I was, I could see Rocha’s green notebook where it must have fallen on the ground. I thought about how later, I’d add his quote to it—about Jesus dying for us and the least we could do was get on our knees and say a damn prayer.