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Sketching Elijah: Bullet Wounds Got a Sniper Out of the Army—But He Still Wasn’t Free

March 29, 2016
by Marica Petrey

I’d been sitting there for 30 minutes staring at my Arabic homework when Elijah texted me.

What do you think about getting together around 5?
OK where you wanna meet at?
I’m studying at Peet’s on Telegraph if that’s cool with you

As usual, I’d chosen a small table close to the wall and sat facing the entrance so I could see who was coming in and out, and had something solid at my back. Soon, I saw Elijah, ruggedly handsome, walking in that way of his, head pressed forward slightly. He crossed the street and the bells on the glass door jingled as he opened it.

I waved him over. As he sat down, someone complimented his shirt—a black tee with Obama’s face on it and the word HOPE printed in huge letters underneath. It was election season in 2008 and Berkeley did feel hopeful. Elijah put his Arabic workbook on the table next to mine.

“Sup? How’s your friend?” he asked.

“OK,” I shrugged, “Seemed better the last time he called. He’s been out for a few days though. Hard not to worry all the time, whenever he gets back from a mission he’s different. Changing.”

“He’ll be OK. When you’re out there you have to compartmentalize everything. Your thoughts, your feelings. Otherwise you won’t survive as a soldier. All you can do for him is be a good listener.”

I soon realized that Elijah hadn’t come to study, he’d come to shoot the shit. A 26-year-old transfer student I’d met in Arabic class, Elijah had been a sniper in the Special Forces. After eight years and tours in Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, a few bullet wounds had finally gotten him out of the Army. He’d made his way through community college and into UC Berkeley, an impressive accomplishment for someone who’d dropped out in the 9th grade.

I was just 19 then, but Elijah and I had connected over shared interests and a similarly dark sense of humor. The “friend” in question was my best friend, also a sniper in Afghanistan. Being around Elijah made me feel more hopeful about his fate.

We spent the entire evening talking. He described the unglamorous life of a sniper. Spending 2–3 days in hiding with a partner, barely moving. Watching, waiting, and pissing right where he sat.

“So how do you feel now?” I asked.

“How do I feel? I feel conflicted. You never forget anything, you never forget.”

We rambled and joked about other things too, how stupid middle school was, about growing up poor, remembering how Army recruiters would swarm the “ghetto” schools looking for recruits, and about what a culture shock Berkeley was….

I learned the news when I walked into our department’s study room; someone had written “RIP Elijah W” in large white letters. I turned numb and felt my breath shorten. I walked out.

Slowly, the conversation turned into a monologue. Elijah had found someone who would listen, and he wasn’t going to let go. He unrolled memory after memory, all coming back to how he’d gotten the short end of the stick; he was the runt, he was teased, never the favorite. Once when he was 7, his auntie baked a pan of frozen chicken nuggets, but had ordered him and his older cousin to wait until dinner. His cousin ate them, blamed it on him, and when the auntie came back, Elijah took the beating.

“And on top of that, I didn’t even get one chicken nugget!” He laughed. But his eyes didn’t.

He was still going when the baristas began to flip over the chairs and stack tables.

“I guess we should get outta here?” I said, feeling a little impatient by now.

It was dark outside and it had begun to pour. I hugged him goodbye and hurried across the street when he called out, “Hey, I know you’re a big girl, but do you need an escort?”

I turned and looked. He was waiting across the street and seemed bewildered, like he wouldn’t know which way to go if he didn’t walk me home. I’d enjoyed the evening, but I’d also had enough of Elijah for one night. And yes, I was a big girl.

“No thanks, I’m good.” I shot him a smile and turned.

A week later, he was dead. Suicide. Bullet to the head. No note. I learned the news when I walked into our department’s study room; someone had written “RIP Elijah W” in large white letters. I turned numb and felt my breath shorten. I walked out. Then I walked back in and re-read the words. After that I just walked and walked, I don’t remember where. When I finally got back to my apartment, close to midnight, I sat on the floor and sketched his portrait from memory. I tried to imagine him sitting across from me, tried to remember the way his hands moved gracefully as he talked. I shaded until I could feel those big sad eyes staring back at me. I wouldn’t cry. I felt so angry. Why did you do this? I hate you. I hate myself. We were supposed to hang out again.

Now I’m 26, the same age Elijah was when he killed himself. I’ve kept that portrait hidden, but come across it now and then when I’m rummaging through stuff. Every time I see it, I pause and try to grasp what he must have been feeling. I think about the irony of his Obama shirt. I think about how half of my best friend’s squad in Afghanistan eventually committed suicide, and how the others are dead now too. I think about how postwar stories are often just as bad as war stories. But mostly, I think about the moment I could have said “yes,” and listened to Elijah for just a few minutes longer. 

Marica Petrey is a filmmaker, performing artist, musician, UC Berkeley graduate and former intern at California.

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