FIVE YEARS AGO
“We are soldiers, and we live to pay the price only we can pay…”
-excerpt from Military fight song
Heat shimmer rises off of everything in the Middle-Eastern desert. The air here was so hot, it made every soldier feel like a potato mid bake. This was not the kind of hot a man from Arkansas was used to, also a heat that seeped into pores and drenched you in sweat, but rather the hot that made you feel like you were inside a volcano. People back home never believed the stories about the heat, but Private Jordan Kane now knew differently. He had been “in country” for only about a week and had only graduated Advanced Individual Training two weeks before that. Hell, a couple of months ago, he had been in High School. But now, he was in the sand, as the soldiers called it. He had been deployed right out of training, which was fine with Kane. He had joined the U.S. Army to fight for his country. But since he had been here, he had seen tire rubber melt in the heat, it was crazy. Kane already hated the sand. He was growing accustomed to the daily patrols, and even felt somewhat safe being with his squad, but this heat was just unbearable. It was ten in the morning and already one hundred and nineteen degrees.
Kane wasn’t even sure what they were doing here. They were in a building that the battalion picked this morning as a mobile Headquarters. Due to the presence of insurgents, and the prevalence of suicide attacks, the unit had to change its home position regularly. First squad had been called back from patrol after their squad leader, Sergeant First Class Calvin Ward, had received a coded message over the radio. No one heard the message but Ward, but the squad had moved out with haste. Arriving at the building, Ward had told them all to wait, and stormed into the command center set up in the next room. The squad lounged around the headquarters, grateful to be out of the heat for even a few moments. Flashes of angry conversation, even yelling, were bleeding through the walls and getting loud, but he couldn’t make out what was being said.
Suddenly, the door to the hallway flew open and Ward stomped out. Dripping with sweat, and an obvious anger welling up in his chest, he paused, looking around at his men. All of them (Kane included), began gathering their things. They knew the routine, Ward came out and they all double-timed it to wherever Sergeant Ward said to go. This was a pretty standard situation, but something seemed different this time.
“I only need a couple of you, everyone else at ease,” the squad leader began, “Johnson, grab the saw. Doc, full gear. Rodriguez and Kane, light gear.” Kane grabbed only necessary gear to head out, pleased that he would be considered valuable enough to be chosen.
The leader of Third Squad, Staff Sergeant Meyer, a man so inept at his job that he was an open joke in Jordan’s squad, stood in Ward’s way. With the rest of his team, Jordan turned to watch. Ward was a good leader and did not put up with the derision of a fellow NCO, so this was going to be interesting.
“You heard the Major, Cal” the pudgy NCO asserted. Kane never understood how a man kept overweight in the army, much less in this kind of heat, but Meyer managed it. He shoved his fat ass between Ward and the doorway, glowering at the better leader. “You aren’t going anywhere.”
With a calm that belied his seeming urgency and anger, Calvin Ward stepped in.“Zane,” Kane’s squad leader replied, “I am only going to say this once. I outrank you, but more importantly, if you don’t get out of my way I will beat your ass.” There was a silence that followed the statement, an uncomfortable and still moment.
Meyer blushed red, embarrassed by the watching eyes of lower rank. For just a moment, he stood his ground. SFC Ward got right up in his face, standing toe-to-toe with the doughy bastard. Kane contemplated the two men; they could not have been more different. Ward was three or four inches taller than Meyer and kept a meticulous military appearance. He was known to shave twice a day and sheared his head nearly bald at least once a week. He normally had a kindness and calm about him, sort of a trademark for SFC Ward. This was the first time Kane had ever seen him angry, and it was frightening. Ward’s neck was a color that Kane thought could only be achieved in the bright sun. His breathing was heavy, not from exertion, but from emotion. Meyer was disheveled; he had the growth on his face that they were allowed in the sand. His sweat pooled in every crevasse of his uniform, which fit him as poorly as a hand-me-down suit from a big brother. After a short pause, he wilted under the taller man’s gaze and stepped aside. Kane and the other three men grabbed what they were told and all left the building. Once outside, Ward turned to them.
“Okay, here is the deal.” Kane never ceased to be impressed with the way Ward spoke to them. He chose to explain himself to his team. This bred a level of loyalty others would never see. “I won’t lie to you, I am violating orders. Anyone who wants to turn around may, but if you stay, we have to move fast. Sergeant Craven’s squad is still on patrol, not responding to comms. We know where they are and the Major has declared that they were KIA by insurgents. I will not allow a fellow soldier, much less my brother-in-law and friend, to be left behind. The Major has called up airstrikes, we have very little time. I am going after them, I could use your help, but I am not going to order you to come.”
The team stared at him in stoic silence, waiting for orders. It was clear that they would follow..
“Okay, let’s roll, fast and quiet. Just follow my lead.” Ward took off at a rapid pace, but not down the street. He turned up an alley, and through a courtyard, moving so deftly and quickly, that Kane had to keep eyes on him not to get lost. Within a few minutes, they could hear the unmistakable sound of M-16 and AK-47 fire. A battle was ahead.
A wave of cool, air-conditioned air washed over the man as he walked into HQ. PFC Miles Damiano was an intolerable screw up. He knew that much himself, being in the sand did not change the fact that he did not fit in the Army. He had more dings on his record than anyone, but Meyer valued him as a scrounge, and that saved him. It was the only thing at which he had shown any ability in the three years he had been in the army. Scrounges got things, anything one could need, and Damiano was an excellent scrounge. The only man better was Corporal Johnson from First Squad, a guy equally ill-suited for military service. Fifteen minutes ago, Miles had passed Johnson and other members of First Squad as they tore off through some alley. He wanted to make a deal with Johnson, but had to wait in this stinking heat in the hopes of his return. The heat was intolerable, as it was most days in the sand. Stepping inside the temporary HQ to relieve the heat, he wiped the beaded sweat from his forehead as he removed his cap, and walked right into a shit storm.
“God Damn it, Meyer. I told you to stop him.” The Major was yelling in the NCO’s face. Major Eric Fine was a tall, muscled man with peppered hair and light-colored eyes. This was not the first time Miles had seen him yell at someone, but he had always treated Miles with a good nature. Meyer was getting a dress down of epic proportion. From the tirade, Miles surmised that Meyer had not stopped First Squad from going to rescue Second Squad, who the Major was insisting had already been killed. Seeing Damiano walk in, the Major grabbed Meyer by the shirt and dragged him into the command center room, slamming the door behind and leaving Miles alone in the outer room with the remainder of First Squad who were busy pretending they had not just seen that.
Miles went around checking on the needs of First Squad to see if he could make a little scratch while Johnson was away. For the most part, he was treated with disdain. He might make a sale or two, if Johnson ever shipped out. He was still working the room about twenty minutes later, when the door burst open and SFC Ward brought Staff Sergeant Craven in bleeding and cursing. Close behind were the other four men he had seen run off down an alley, three of them helping some injured soldiers and Johnson covering the rear. Johnson made eye contact with Miles and wandered close enough to whisper.
“Hey, bitch. Didn’t I tell you to stay away from my marks?” They both laughed, which greatly eased the tension while the rest of Johnson’s team carried their respective injured men into the medical room. It wasn’t long before the door to the command center opened and the Major and Meyer stormed into the medical area. What ensued over the next few months became a legend in the sand, as well as back at their duty station at Fort Carson, Colorado. It cost one man his position in the army, and another man any hope of advancement.