SIBENIK, Croatia -- In the dozen or so years I spent as a child exploring the woods of my small Southern town of Elgin, S.C., I never had to worry about finding a mine that could sever my legs, blind my eyes or steal my life.
Maybe that explains my personal apathy when the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) sent me to a class before our deployment to learn about the fatal explosives so common in places not like Elgin, S.C.
I listened to the speaker, a government civilian and mine warfare expert who pointed out and identified mines laid about a table, but only because falling asleep would have yielded possible humiliation. I even managed to escape the class early, using those extra minutes to get a jump on the line at the base Burger King drive-through that always seems to stretch around the building.
Paul would not have been so anxious to leave. It was a mine not unlike the many on that table that tore the mass of his left hand away from the wrist. It also dulled his hearing and etched hundreds of scars about his body; the largest of these being a shoelace-thick disfigurement that reached wildly from his temple, across the left side of his face, and ended somewhere past his collar.
Paul was not from Elgin, S.C.
I met Paul, a Croatian Soldier, in his native country when our unit was training with the Croatian military. I don't know Paul's real name. I have a poor grasp for foreign language, and when I tried to say his name in Croatian he just shook his head sadly. Paul seemed the only version of his name I could manage without stuttering.
When Croatia fought against the Yugoslav Army for their independence in the early 90s, Paul was there. He didn't say much about his experience during the war that branded his body, other than he encountered the mine on a routine patrol.
Mines and other explosive devices were commonly used during the war. At the range where I met Paul, minefields yet to be cleared flanked us on either side and were marked off by yellow tape.
I knew that in many of the areas throughout the Baltic region, live mines remained buried from previous conflicts. In 1999, the Department of Defense even produced a comic book to educate children from that area on the dangers of playing in unknown areas. But knowing and seeing are two different things.
Before meeting Paul, contact with mine warfare seemed a lot like winning the lottery. It happens to some people, but never to me or anyone I know. But it happened to Paul, it would have happened to me if I had walked five feet from my tent and past the yellow tape and it happened to hundreds of thousands of Croatians roughly half a decade ago.
I was apathetic when I attended a mine awareness class almost six months ago. I'm not so apathetic now. In life, especially the life of a United States Marine, one never knows where they'll end up. For every place like Elgin, S.C., there exists a place where a walk through the woods could mark your last steps.