By Katherine Tomlinson
Disclaimer: This story was “inspired” by the Ft. Hood shootings and has been in my “fiction, incomplete” file for some time. In the wake of the mass murder in Arizona, I pulled it out and finished it. I know it’s a disturbing story; it came from a place filled with disquiet and dread. For me, the lesson of the tale is that nothing is as simple or as simplistic as it seems.
In theory, it’s not that easy to gain access to an Army post if you’re not supposed to be there. If you don’t have a DOD decal on your windshield, you’re directed to the Welcome Center and asked to show a valid driver’s license, proof of insurance and registration on the car you’re driving. Then you’re asked to produce some kind of documentation identifying you as someone with a legitimate reason for being at the gates of a military installation. Then, and only then, are you allowed to proceed to your destination.
There was nothing about the visitor that pinged anyone’s radar. He said he was there to cheer up a friend who was in the hospital. He had brought gifts—a stack of paperback novels, mostly thrillers, and a fruit basket heavy on pears. The soldier’s name was in the database, so there was no reason not to let the visitor through. Afterwards, they discovered the guy whose name he’d used was just a guy who’d been in a bar one night, shooting the shit with a stranger one stool away. The ID was fake, the documents forged on a laptop and printed on a cheap Samsung printer.
The visitor had popped the trunk and the glove compartment for one MP while he chatted with the gate guard. Later the guard would be unable to remember any details of the man’s face but he did remember the car was very dirty and the guy had made some banal remark about the weather. Hot enough for ya?
Security cameras tracked him as he made his way to his objective. It was clear he knew where he was going, had either been on the post before or memorized the map that was conveniently available online. Used to be, stuff like that was classified; nowadays anyone with a computer and Google Earth can find all the information they need to cause some serious trouble with just a couple of mouse clicks.
The visitor stopped near a row of barracks where a group of men and women were gathering in preparation for a run. They were forming up, getting into lines when the guy cut through the line and detonated the explosive vest he was wearing beneath his loose-fitting seersucker suit.
The bomber’s legs went one way, his head another and everything in between simply disappeared. Eighteen soldiers died instantly, three later died of their wounds. The blast also killed an Army wife coming out of the PX with a pregnancy test in a bag. Her autopsy would later confirm what she had suspected—she had been two months pregnant.
The guy was identified before the last of the bodies were removed from the killing field. His name was Michael Joel Herndon. He was 46 years old, owned two dry cleaning stores and was divorced. His ex-wife lived out of state and when contacted by the authorities, claimed not to have seen or talked to him in more than three years. When the press descended on her, she fled her house and moved to an undisclosed location.
Most of the dead soldiers were either black or Hispanic and because the bomber was white, it was assumed he been motivated by racism.
His employees at the dry cleaning stores, who were mostly African-American women---disputed this characterization of the late Michael Joel Herndon. One of the women, Eva Lee Robideaux, said she had intimate, personal knowledge that he was not a racist, but admitted that he’d never seemed like a killer either.
Two weeks after the massacre, a Methodist minister named Lawrence Sadler showed up at the gates and asked to see the people in charge of the investigation. He said that he had information that might be helpful to them. But first, he wanted to speak to the Protestant chaplain stationed on the post.
Major Paul McHattie, a Presbyterian by faith, met with the minister and left the meeting ashen and close-lipped. The investigators brought Reverend Sadler into a small room with chairs and a barred window and had him wait while they scrounged up a television so they could watch the video that the minister had brought.
Rev. Sadler had watched the video through three times and he told the investigators that the tape had been made by Herndon, who was one of his parishioners—a deacon in fact—and mailed to him in care of the church.
Sadler told them the tape was both an explanation for his act and his last will and testament. The lead investigator told the minister that they’d judge the content for themselves and pressed play.
On the video, which was made on a camera older than the youngest of the investigators, Herndon is sitting in a chair facing into the lens.
I know you won’t understand this, he says, but I have been granted a vision.
“Great,” said the lead investigator, “another nutball on a mission from God.”
I have been shown the book of life and read the names therein.
“Therein?” said the youngest investigator, who was seriously creeped out by the man’s demeanor, which was calm, sane, and ordinary. The youngest investigator was still young enough that he liked things clear cut. He wanted crazy people to act crazy.
“Ssh,” said the lead investigator.
The names of 21 people have been revealed to me and I have seen the dates of their deaths. All of them will die in Afghanistan after being posted there, and their deaths will be recorded and mourned and forgotten. This is unacceptable to me. And so, with God’s blessing, I have taken their destiny into my own hands.
“Oh my God,” the lead investigator said. Rev. Sadler glanced at him but said nothing.
It is time that the country understands the cost of the butcher’s bill. Twenty-one deaths one by one seem to be acceptable. Twenty-one deaths all at once send a message and invites debate and discourse. It is my intention to bring the matter to light.
No doubt I will be called a murderer but that is inaccurate, for these people were going to die anyway. If you must give me a label, call me a “pacifist,” for that is what I am. I ask for your forgiveness but I act in the knowledge that I am doing God’s work here on earth.
There was silence on the tape and the lead investigator reached forward to hit the “stop” button. Reverend Sadler stopped him. “There’s a little bit more,” he said. The investigator withdrew his hand and listened.
I’m sorry about the woman, Herndon says on the tape. She was not meant to die at my hands, but would have suffered a stroke delivering her baby nine months from now.
“Holy fuck,” said the youngest investigator, which would normally have drawn a reprimand from his superior.
The lead investigator punched “eject” and the videocassette slid out into his hands. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention Mr. Sadler,” he said.
“I felt I had to,” the Reverend Sadler said and took his leave.
The moment he was out the door, the lead investigator began pulling the tape out of the cassette, stretching and breaking it as he did. The youngest investigator looked at him in puzzlement.
“The mission in Afghanistan is righteous,” he said. “Herndon was a whackjob,” he added. “This tape,” and here he threw the cassette on the floor and stomped the plastic case until it broke into shards, “never existed.” He shot a look at the youngest investigator.
“Are we clear?”
Two days after Sadler’s visit to the Army post, an IED killed 34 people in Afghanistan, including three civilians. Their deaths coincided with the verdict in a celebrity murder trial and were buried in the news except for stories in the hometown newspapers of each of the deceased. One news cycle later, the deaths were old news.