They saw him go down and thought he might be dead. They didn't know for sure until a soldier rounded the corner and ran into a spray of Taliban gunfire to grab him, Army Spc. Justin Coleman, and drag him to their side of the battle line.
"What's the status?" Capt. Aaron Malcolm asked the soldier and a medic. It was July 24, 2009, in a remote mountain village in Afghanistan. The Army had taken control of the town from the Taliban, who were attempting to take it back. Shaking, the medic didn't answer.
Malcolm looked to the soldier.
He dragged a finger across his throat.
Coleman was dead.
Coleman kept candy in his pockets to hand out to the Afghan children. He spoke up when he thought others were being bullied or mistreated. He enlisted because he wanted a good education and to help people and see the world.
He was 21.
Malcolm felt like he was sinking. He'd read books on the philosophy of killing and what commanders should do when soldiers die. He studied the stages of grief. He wanted to be prepared, but in this moment he realized nothing could fully prepare someone for this.
"You know cerebrally that's going to happen: You're going to lose soldiers," Malcolm said Saturday while visiting Coleman's hometown of Hernando Beach, a village near the gulf in Hernando County. Malcolm, now stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., came for two events held in memory of Coleman: A stretch of Shoal Line Boulevard and a memorial at the VFW Post 9236 were both dedicated to him.
"It hit me really hard," Malcolm said. He knew Coleman for only three months, but the young soldier made an impact on him. Coleman did what he was asked and always volunteered to help. The only time he was reprimanded was because Coleman had been throwing candy to children from the Army trucks — like in a parade route, tossing bits of happiness in a grim place. Some Afghan parents were upset because they didn't want their children to have candy.
But Coleman still kept some in his pockets, for kids whose parents didn't mind.
Coleman spent a lot of time with the interpreters, learning the language and trying the local food.
"He cared about people," Malcolm said.
Coleman was an old soul and mature for his age — much like Malcolm, who is now 26. This was his first command, a platoon in the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team with the 10th Mountain Division. The mountain town was called Bargh-e-Matal in the Nuristan province.
The village was in a valley with a river that reminded Malcolm of a Colorado river; fast and swift. Thick cornfields bordered the town, stalks 7 feet tall, a good place to hide. The Taliban had the high ground. Every so often, they could come down from the mountains shooting. Coleman was guarding a building for soldiers to search for Taliban when he was shot.
When Malcolm found out Coleman was dead, he felt it could overwhelm him, the loss, but he pushed it down.
"You can't for a moment stop doing your job," Malcolm said. "We were still in the middle of the fight."
A week later, another soldier was killed in battle: Army Spc. Alexander J. Miller, who was also only 21. Miller was from Clermont, near Orlando.
Coleman and Miller remain the only soldiers killed under Malcolm's command. He has a large tattoo in their honor on his right side. It's of two soldiers kneeling with their names. He lifted his shirt to show Coleman's father, Al Coleman, a forklift driver who continues to grieve the loss of his only child. He spends much time at the VFW.
"That's nice," Al Coleman said. He and Malcolm spent Saturday by each other's side. He is happy to hear any stories of his son and pleased that someone cared so much about him, after knowing him only a few months.
Malcolm thinks of Coleman and Miller often, of their sacrifice, of making sure they are not forgotten. Malcolm has been stationed in the States for a year now. He's ready to be deployed to the war again.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected].