“Each of us knew we may be asked to lay down our life for our brothers. But the cost to my soul is more than I can bear.”
He sat, slumped against a wall of grey brick, the labored breath of his comrades cutting through the silence. The sounds of battle have faded off into the distance, replaced instead but the unnerving quiet of a dying city. There were ten of them when they left the front gate of Forward Operation Base that morning, just as they had nearly one hundred times before. Every day the same routine. Wake up, goto the bathroom, shave, check your gear, grab some chow from the Dinning Facility, then off to the intel brief at the Operations Center.
Everyday was the same. Everyday was one day closer to heading home. One day closer to waving goodbye to this shit hole for the last time. But not this day.
That morning after chow, the Brigade Battle Captain gave them their patrol route, one of ten they rotated through in an effort to deceive the enemy. But even this pattern became predicable once the tedium of war began to set in.
Complacency Kills….. I should have seen it
According to intel the route was green, as they had seen no movement along that road in several weeks. “Should be a cake walk”, said the Captain as he handed over the latest imagery to him. “See you tonight for your debrief.”
Thoughts of what happened next rushed through his mind as he tried not to quiver, clasping his hands tightly above his head and folding his elbow downward along his face in an effort to escape. As if drawing himself deeper into his own thoughts would make everything less real. Maybe, just maybe, it was all a bad dream.
He could still smell the the gun powder, taste the smoke and embers of the fire that followed the explosion, hear the screams of shock as steel ripped flesh and the first man fell. They call it the mad minute for a reason, for it is the single, most pure moment of chaos he had ever experienced. Once it began, every fiber of his being told him to run, but he was responsible for his men. They were expecting him to bring them all back alive. Something impossible to promise in a time of war.
With his mind still drifting, a blood covered hand touched his shoulder, “Sir, Draper’s bled out. Nothing more I can do.”
He looked up from the ground, glanced at the hand upon his shoulder, then surveyed the space before him. There were nine men huddled into this small room. Each of them pressed up against one of the walls, carful to avoid silhouetting themselves in front of the windows, or various spider holes which pockmarked the concrete walls. Crouched next to him was Sergeant Myer, his uniform coated in a dirt, soot, and blood. His eyes were sullen, yet steadfast. He did not seemed troubled by what had just happened, simply resigned to it.
In the rear of the room, near a barred door, lay Draper. Empty IV bags, and used first aid dressings were strewn about the floor. His clothes lay in tatters after SGT Myer cut them open to better treat his wounds. Beneath the clothes, his limbs had been ravaged by the blast, flesh torn from bone. SGT Mayer had done what he could to stem the tide, but there was just too much blood and no way to stop it all.
His eyes passed from Drapers, which had begun to glaze over white, to each man in his Platoon. It seemed to him that each was struggling to reconcile what had happened. Some faces were drawn in tightly, their brows furrowed in anger, lusting for revenge. Others sat wide eyed, staring off into the coming darkness. Still more sat peering out of the corner of the windows, pulling security and looking out for any enemy movements, as they were trained to do.
As they were trained to do…
Eventually his eyes came back to rest on SGT Myer, who looked at him with a sense of understanding. Wordlessly he nodded at SGT Myer and rose slowly to his feet. He knew that all were looking to him for a decision, looking to him for assurances that they were not going to die. Looking to him to suppress what had happened, and do what needed to be done.
Grasping his weapon from where it had been resting along the wall, he drew back his bolt to ensure a round was still chambered. As he did so, he took his feelings of regret, remorse, fear, and anger. Put each in its own box and hid them away deep inside his mind. In time, the seals would begin to crack, and the boxes would begin to leak unresolved emotions that would had to be dealt with. In time he would fall to his knees, screaming to the heavens for salvation, but there would be no answer.
But now was not that time. Now a leader must do what is expected. Do what he was trained to do.
Motioning towards the rear of the building, he cleared his throat and spoke in a clear, untrembling tone. “Allden, check the alleyway around the back of the house to make sure its clear. Falicaro, prep Draper for movement. Everyone else, cross level ammo, check your sensitive items and get ready to push out.“
Each man quickly snapped back to the task at hand and began moving with a renewed sense of purpose, as Allden unbarred the door to the rear of the building and peered cautiously down the darkening street. Lights flickered along the trash strewn alley, but betrayed no movement. Behind him, Falicaro and another Soldier began laying out a field liter on which to carry Drapers body, as the rest of the men passed half loaded magazines between each other, checked the remaining belts for the M240B, and prepared to move.
Taking a deep breath, he walked to the rear door and knelt beside Allden as they finished their preparations. SGT Myer fell in behind him along the wall, gripping his shoulder to let him know he was there, ready to follow.
As the last of his men gathered their gear he spoke once more in hushed tones, “Stack on me. Once we move into the alley we will bound by teams back towards the rally point. Stay sharp, and cover the rooftops. Questions?”
They all stood silent as each man’s pulse began to race. One by one they lined up, ready to move out. He looked from man to man, then turned back towards the door, peering over Allden’s shoulder. Night had come, and the lives of his remaining men were in his hands. There was no time to second guesses, no time to “what ifs”.
“Ok, lets go.” He whispered as they began to file into the street.