Sometimes, as soldiers, we are forced to make life-and-death decisions. Occasionally, the outcomes are tragic, and we have to live with them for the rest of our days. This is the story of one such event. 

Editor’s Note: What you are about to read is a work of fiction, but it is based, in part, on actual events and the observances of real tier-one operators. It is a cautionary tale. –GDM

I had been in Bosnia too long. It was a damned gloomy place that reminded me of my dreary college days in Pittsburgh. Always overcast, always wet, always cold.

You can get depressed living in a place like that for too long, and, as much as I am loathe to admit it, the blues had started to take hold. You weren’t supposed to get the blues in the Unit, but that didn’t matter as I hadn’t planned on ever telling anybody.

I’m only telling the story of what happened on 9 MAR 94 to help purge my brain once and for all of the horror I invoked that morning. A horror that I’ve kept compartmentalized these long 30 years. Sure, I’ve managed to keep the monster bottled up for the most part, but then there are those nights when I relive it all again. Waking up at 3:00 AM in an ice-cold sweat, pounding the bed with both of my fists, wanting to take it all back.

Our safe house looked like any other in the heart of Sarajevo—ancient, made of stone, and with a reddish clay tile roof. After all, the idea was not to stand out. It sat perched towards the top of a hill, where I began and ended my daily run. That was the only time of the day I was alone with my thoughts, where I could pump out some endorphins and feel good again. I never missed it.

It was a Tuesday, about an hour before sun up. The intel guys told us to be sure to be back in the safe house before daybreak because somehow word got out on the street that there were Americans in the area.

The Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), who happened to be laying siege to the city at the time, would likely not treat us well had we fallen into their hands. Besides, we were given strict orders not to cause an international incident because we weren’t supposed to be there in the first place.

That’s why I took to the awkward practice of running with my 1911 gat carried at the small of my back. Not exactly comfortable, but you’d be stupid to be out and about without it.

My run started out simply enough, picking up speed through Kazandžiluk street, thoughts of home, my wife, and kids starting to flood my mind. Checking out the omnipresent Sarajevo Clock Tower, built centuries ago during the Ottoman Empire era and rebuilt multiple times since. Cruising through the narrow cobblestone streets, my brown Army-issue t-shirt was clinging to my torso, soaked with sweat.

I pass a local bakery, and the smell of freshly baked somun and pastries fills the air and makes me hungry. I’m hitting my stride now and making good time on my five-mile run. The endorphins are beginning to work their magic, and I feel good about the day.

The narrow side streets of the city weren’t very well-lit in those days. I suppose they’re still not. But shapes and shadows were starting to be borne of the darkness as the sun sat just below the horizon.

The Army had taught me that this part of the day was known as “beginning morning nautical twilight,” but we never called it that. We just referred to it as BMNT. It’s a good time for stealthy operations as there is just enough light to make out your surroundings if you squint hard enough, but you can still remain easily hidden.

As I neared the base of the hill to our house, I kicked into a full sprint. What kind of run would it be if you weren’t tired at the end and drenched in sweat?

I remember passing a stray dog as my thighs started to burn from lactic acid buildup. About 100 feet from the house, I broke into a jog to cool down a bit and lower my heart rate. Slightly bent over and sucking air, I walked toward the front door with an odd and unexpected sense of apprehension.

Had something moved by the side gate? There was an old, rusted metal gate about 20 feet from where I stood, in the space between our safehouse and the neighbors on the left side. Someone had bumped the gate, causing an unmistakable but nearly silent metallic “clink.”

Reflexively, I rested my right hand on my 1911, warm and wet with sweat, at the small of my back.

The following happened in about 3 seconds of real time, but as I relive it, time forces it on me in slow motion.

A figure moved forward from total darkness to shadow; it held what appeared to be a Serbian CZ M70 pistol raised into a firing position and aimed directly at me. I swear I saw a finger move toward the trigger. After that, everything was muscle memory as I drew my 1911 and fired three consecutive rounds center mass at the dark blob.

It dropped, and I approached ever so cautiously, still looking down the sights, my finger on the trigger.

Everyone in Sarajevo must have heard those shots as the horrible sound echoed off the stone buildings and streets in the early morning calm.

Then, I got a good look at his face in a stray beam of light.

“Oh, fuck. Oh, no, please God, no!”

I thought to myself, trembling slightly from the adrenaline. There lay a blue-eyed boy with jet black hair, all of about 9 or 10 years old, dead, blood streaming out of one corner of his mouth. I had obviously caught him in the neck with one of the rounds. Not far from him was a water pistol; it was empty.

Then all hell broke loose as the door to the neighbor’s house flung open, and the 30-something woman in a robe saw her son shot dead by the gate. Her wailing pierced my soul and has taken residence there ever since.

My teammate, we called him Brick, opened our door, took one look at me and one look at the child, and simply muttered, “Fuck”, immediately followed by, “Get in here.” as he motioned toward the front door.

I could already hear someone inside on the radio calling for our immediate extraction. That was the plan if something went sideways, and this was just about as sideways as it could get.

I spent the next 30 years, on and off, wondering why. Why did he have a gun? Well, he was a boy, and it was a toy after all, and we were in a war zone. He saw men with guns every day. Maybe he wanted to emulate them. Perhaps he wanted to be a soldier one day—the irony.

Why was he outside before sun up? Hell, his mom was probably sending him to the store for some milk and fresh pastries before school. No big mystery there.

But why did it all happen at the same time, in that place? The answer to that question I’ll never know.

It’s the first question I plan on asking my maker.