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Archive for March, 2010

The gritty, green haze revealed nothing out of the ordinary.  Everything was exactly as it ought to be.  The soldier glanced down at the on the ground in front of him.  Lifting the topographical map out of the dusty sand, he carefully folded it in half three times until only a one-tenth mile surface area remained visible.  He slipped it into the cargo pouch of his pixilated army fatigues and rose to his feet, careful to remain crouched behind the front passenger-side wheel of the Hummer.  Again, he scanned the silhouetted buildings along the horizon, ramshackle homes that by day revealed the scars and pockmarks of modern warfare.  Beyond the damaged buildings, the outline of the village’s mosque was visible, its prayer tower silent in the early morning dark, but still standing vigilant against the ideals of the western religions.  Turning slightly, the infantry soldier glanced toward the shadows of a nearby grove of palm trees.  Even with the bright moonlight, one would have easily missed seeing the professional soldiers with the naked eye.  Through his AN/PVS-7D night vision goggles, however, he made out the outlines of the four prone figures, fanned out in a circle that corresponded to the four points of a compass.

Overhead, the distant whomp whomp of a circling helicopter gunship could be heard.  It was a familiar and comforting sound that the soldiers had come to alternatively rely on and ignore in the past fifteen months, a deadly guardian poised to strike at any threat facing the men while outside the wire and an airborne security blanket covering their restless sleep between missions.  Whereas others prayed to a God for protection, he prayed to the Apache.  For nearly than a year, his prayers had been largely answered.  One more night, he silently pleaded, and then it’ll be all over.

Crossing the dusty road at a trot, he approached the silent and still soldiers.  Toggling the talk switch on his compact squad radio, Specialist Kevin Strickland whispered into the headset microphone, “All clear, Sarge…good to go.”

“Okay, Delta,” the team leader’s voice crackled through the headsets, his arm outstretched for the nightvision goggles Kevin held in his hand.  Taking them, he quickly clipped them to the front of his Kevlar helmet.  He toggled the microphone again. “This is Rally Point Lima.  If we get hit, we fall back to this point and regroup.  Let’s do this and go home, okay?”

“Roger that,” all four soldiers on the ground responded in hushed unison, as they noiselessly got to their feet.  It was a routine they had followed on each mission.  Kevin often wondered if he would miss it.  He doubted it, he quickly decided.

“Santori, take point,” the sergeant ordered, nodding through the darkness toward the shortest soldier.  At five foot five, Specialist Paul Santori was dwarfed by the other infantry scouts.  For what he lacked in height, though, he more than made up in brawn.  No one doubted his ability to keep up with the others.  He pulled his weight and then some.  And tonight, only he and the sergeant wore night vision goggles.  The others relied on their natural eyesight and the ambient night sky, unblemished by the unnatural light of the high-tech devices.  In the darkness, no one could see Kevin blinking madly, in a vain attempt to regain some semblance of night vision, the green haze of the NOD still spotting when he closed his eyes.

“Hooah, Sarge,” Santori whispered and stepped forward.  It was a role he was used to, one he actually relished, Kevin knew as his tent mate.   Through the shadows, Santori would physically lead the patrol along its assigned route, setting the pace and maintaining constant vigil ahead of the group.  If any dangers presented themselves to their front, it was his responsibility to halt the group, pass the warning and to await directions from the sergeant.  Through two hundred and four missions, he hadn’t let them down, and he had no intention of breaking that streak now.

Santori moved ahead, and Kevin waited for the group to spread out.  They were careful to maintain a separation of roughly thirty yards from the trailing soldiers.  The bright moonlight tonight allowed them to spread out farther than normal, reducing the risk of multiple casualties in the case of a rocket propelled grenade or improvised explosive device explosion.  And the squad radios that they each wore eliminated what in previous conflicts would have made for tough communications.  Still, the squad relied less on technology than on an array of hand signals to pass information back and forth amongst themselves as they moved.  Silence was their ally and an art-form they had mastered as a team.  Only the crunching of small stones under boots sounded as the patrol moved in a wedge formation that roughly mimicked the shape of Canadian geese migrating south for the winter.

Pivoting to check on the slowly deploying fan of soldiers, Kevin watched Santori turn forward and cautiously proceed away from the parked hummers.  Alpha squad would remain with the vehicles, poised to provide back-up if needed, as Delta crept away toward the maze of alleyways and boarded up shops that ringed an village’s marketplace.  The night’s mission was a simple reconnaissance patrol on two suspected Al-Queda safe houses in the village.  It was the type operation they knew well, and Kevin breathed easier with this reassurance.

On this night, Corporal Mitch Evans walked closest behind and to the left of Santori.  Whereas the point man carried a standard issue M-4 combat assault rifle, Evans traversed his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon toward the outline of buildings barely visible on the horizon.  With a rate of fire of 750 rounds per minute, in the event of a firefight, the squad’s safety lay heavily on Evans’s broad shoulders.  The mini-me, as the scouts referred to the SAW, was a formidable weapon indeed, particularly for keeping the heads of one’s enemies down.

Mirroring Evan on the right side of the formation creapt Specialist Tony Gabrielski, the unlikely offspring of a Bronx prizefighter and a Russian émigré Jew.  Like Santori, his weapon of choice was the M-4, which he slung across his body with the barrel angled toward the ground to his left.  Although this position of the rifle put Evan in the potential crosshairs, Gabrielski bucked the sage advice of older veterans to carry it to the right.  He maintained that what was gained in safety paled in comparison to the speed and accuracy needed in an ambush.  When they first arrived in country, he had tried for several weeks to operate with his rifle cradled against his left shoulder, but never overcame the awkward discomfort of trying to twist and sight with his weaker side.  No, he argued, he was right-handed and would operate this weapon with his dominant and unusually accurate dominant side.  Left side or right side of the formation made no difference.  He’d do his job and do it right, a fact he had proved time and again in the past fifteen months.

Trailing behind Gabrielski , Kevin was the oldest member of Delta, aside from the sergeant.  At 25, he was only average looking as a soldier.  In fact, none of the squad looked the part of hardened warriors, certainly not as portrayed in blockbuster Hollywood pictures.  None were overly muscular, John Wayne wannabees, eager to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima or Guadalcanal, least of all Kevin.  His lean, almost skinny body looked to be more suited for accounting than soldiering, a deceptive appearance that he had found advantageous on more than one occasion when encountering others who might have reacted more aggressively toward a more menacing foe.  Faced with a diminutive and almost mousy figure, it was natural to underestimate the tenacity and controlled rage that he had learned to unleash at a moment’s notice.  This natural ability that had served him well in sports, developed and honed on the high school gridiron and hockey rinks.  And when the playing fields had been traded for the killing fields, the results were remarkably similar.

Tonight, his was the job of providing indirect fire for the squad, should they run into anyone unsavory.  An M203A1 grenade launcher, mounted underneath the barrel of his M-4 rifle, provided Kevin with the ability to drop 40mm high-explosive rounds onto the enemy from a distance of nearly to one and a half football fields.  In open terrain this was a formidable weapon, but he had quickly realized that in the dense urban city streets and in room-to-room searches, the launcher was little more than added weight.  In addition to the standard thirteen magazines of 5.56 mm ammunition for his M-4, he carried 36 grenade rounds spread evenly across his chest in a specially made ammunition vest.  But when he thought of the extra bulk, he found himself thankful for the warmth it provided on these cool nighttime missions.  The temperature difference between the desert day and night still amazed him after more than a year.

From the rear of the wedge formation, Sergeant Gassner quietly but effectively led the squad of scouts.  A fourteen-year veteran of the first Gulf War and a brilliant operational leader perfectly suited for balancing the rigors and demands of modern warfare with the personal touch of a supervisor who genuinely cared for his subordinates, he had suffered much during this his third deployment.  His first combat experience, Kevin knew, had been the easiest.  As a machine gunner assigned to the Army’s 3rd Armored Division throughout Operation Desert Storm, sporadic firefights during the 100-hour ground war provided all the glory any soldier had dreamt of as a teenager without any real danger.  And while Sergeant Gassner hadn’t envisioned ever returning to The Sandbox, the shock and awe of the initial push into Iraq in 2003 had also been accomplished with minimal personal angst.  A newly promoted sergeant with the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, Gassner had felt both relieved and proud to return home with no casualties, aside from an unfortunate private who tore his ACL during an impromptu football game a month after the invasion.

This deployment, however, had been the worst for the most experienced soldier with Headquarters (HHC) Company, 1st Battalion of the 151st Infantry Brigade.  The IED that had torn through the squad’s hummer, metal shrapnel shredding Private First Class Anthony Spitello’s body and wounding Gabrielski and Evans in their third month in Baghdad, had shattered Sergeant Gassner’s illusion of invincibility as a leader.  Spitello had died almost instantly, and although both of the wounded soldiers had rejoined the squad within a month, the seasoned leader realized that this war would be different from the others.  Gone were the easy distinctions of good and evil, friend and foe.  To his Cold Warrior mindset, the hidden insurgency, relying more on booby traps and random sniper fire than frontal assaults and direct engagement, dripped of cowardice and dishonor.  It seemed that every week someone from the Brigade had been killed by the cleverly disguised devices which were most often detonated remotely just the American convoys passed, a statistic that exponentially increased the frustration, rage and eventual hopelessness of his soldiers.

As the five soldiers slowly made their way along the dusty road toward the village that still stood a kilometer away, Kevin could sense that the team was not fully focused on the mission at hand, and no amount of reminding would change that.  No, even his own thoughts flitted back and forth from the mission to their upcoming redeployment home, reunions with families and spouses, nights of premeditated partying and carousing design less for the fun and more for forgetting everything they had faced in Iraq, and back to the mission.  He struggled with his own thoughts of Erin, as he marched forward through the darkness.  He imagined the homecoming party she had promised to throw, and the private celebration afterward with only her.  He shook his head in disgust.  The spiraling thoughts and emotions made it impossible to stay fully alert, he realized, saying a quick prayer to the Apache in the sky for luck to be on their side tonight.

In silence, the squad pressed forward in the dark.  In the distance, a dog barked.  Santori’s left hand shot up, signaling a halt to their advance.  All five soldiers froze in place before slowly sinking into the dust, most resting their weight on one knee. Quick glances by all of them to their wrist watches showed that they had been walking nearly thirty minutes.  Kevin did the math in his head, concluding that they had likely covered slightly more than a kilometer.  A few seconds later, another bark shattered the night air, but this time seemed muffled, cut short with a sound like a muted grunt.

“Whatcha got, Santori?” Sergeant Gassner’s voice whispered into their headsets.  A solitary drop of sweat trickled down his forehead and across the bridge of his nose.  He hoped his subordinates couldn’t hear the nervousness in his voice.

“Nada, Sarge,” from the darkness ahead, Santori answered. “Just a dog barking, but nothing visible.  And we’re downwind, so it couldn’t have smelled us.  And that last bark sounded like his owner shut him up.”  His head slowly moved back and forth, scanning the huts that showed up as dark green silhouettes through the night vision goggles.  Nothing moved.

“Roger that.  Just keep a look-out as we move forward.  Just take your time, though….there’s no rush tonight, okay?”

“Hooah,” whispered the point soldier.  Hunkering down in the groove made by some sort of farm vehicle that had probably swerved off the road during the rainy season, Santori waited and watched.  He wasn’t about to take any risks, not so close to the end of their tour.  Since taking over point position after Spitello’s death, he had a 100% success rate for the squad, by which he meant that he hadn’t lost a single soldier on 204 consecutive patrols.  It was a peculiar statistic that he had invented to stay motivated and alert while outside the wire.  It was also a figure that he kept to himself.  He wasn’t about to jinx the squad.   Only Kevin knew of the streak, the result of an open notepad left on his cot two days earlier while sprinting to the latrine with diarrhea.  When Santori returned, Kevin had been leaning over the notepad. He had asked the point man what the hash marks meant.  Santori had explained, but only after forcing the grenadier to promise not to reveal his secret to the others.  Thoughts of the streak buzzed in his mind as he crouched in the dust.

After five minutes, Santori was convinced that all was indeed quiet in the village ahead.  Only then did he hoist himself up, half-turning toward Evans and slowly wind-milling his arm to the others.  Forward, Infantry, he gestured, mimicking the statue that guarded the Sand Hill infantry training area of Ft. Benning, Georgia.  He watched as the group carefully rose to their feet, slightly crouching in the dark night air.  There was little cover out here in the open, a fact about which they were all acutely aware.

Turning back toward the village, the squad moved out in unison, careful to avoid scuffing their boots against the sandy soil.  On the off-chance that the dog had heard them, the scouts needed to be extra careful to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

Santori’s back was turned when, out of the corner of his eye, Sergeant Gassner saw Kevin’s body jerk.  After a millisecond of pondering this strange spasmodic movement, the unmistakable sound reached the soldiers.

Crack!  A single shot rang out, the echo dissipating almost as quickly as it arrived.  As if in slow motion, the soldiers instinctively dropped to the dirt, faces pressed against the dusty earth, as if willing themselves to ooze into the rocks and rubble that littered the edge of the hard road.  Without hesitation, they began wildly returning fire, spraying the night air in panicked response.  Confusion about the location of the shooter was evident in the numerous arching tracers that blanketed a 180-degree arc in front of the scouts, angry glowing red lasers that bounced off rocks and momentarily lit the night sky.  Despite the deafening roar of the gunfire, a wet gurgling was heard over the scouts’ squad radio.  Kevin Strickland, his legs twisted awkwardly beneath his torso, lay still in the dry weeds that sprouted from the sides of the road.  Around his limp body, the sandy dirt slowly grew dark and sticky in an ever-widening circle.


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The Shagris

The repetitious thumps pounded his temples like a nasty hangover.  A week earlier, he’d have assumed the throbbing was just that.  The resilience of one’s college days quickly disappears when real responsibilities roll over one’s life like the never-ending crashing of the salty, Caribbean surf.  Not so much as a sip of alcohol in a week.  Not bad, he thought and his lips twitched in more of a grimace than a smile.  Nor would there be an adult beverage anytime in the near future.  Nope. Now he was all business.

The helicopter blades rhythmically beat a war dance against the sticky humidity of the jungle air, and he cringed.  Then again, his cranium always throbbed when forced into consciousness before the first rays of light peeked over the hidden eastern horizon.  The only light this morning emanated from the two red bulbs within the vibrating aircraft, one positioned midway along the chopper’s olive green metallic inner derma and the other on the front wall, beyond which the pilot silently urged the two-bladed, lumbering beast toward its objective.  Obscured by a thick, black Velcro strap to mask any unnatural luminescence or inadvertent reflections, his wristwatch, had he cared to check it, would have read 0330 hours.  He kept it on twenty-four hour time, which actually made more sense from a timekeeping standpoint than the civilian 12-hour mode.  The time was irrelevant, though.  Only the darkness mattered.

The airframe of the old bird creaked audiblely over the thwop, thwop, thwop of the dual rotors.  Looking at the Spartan overhead, crisscrossed with yellow and red wires, cables and hydraulic lines, Sergeant Tucker’s thoughts remained darker than the pitch black sky beyond the few portal windows.  He’d never liked choppers, and the cylindrical body of the Chinook was even worse than most.  The pilot’s sarcastic, pre-flight reminder of a helicopter’s refusal to follow the laws of physics hadn’t helped any.  Who really wanted to hear that just before boarding a whirlybird?  Certainly not him.

Asshole, he thought as the aircraft banked slowly to the west.  The jungle coastline lay somewhere down and to their left, and somewhere amidst the tangled web of mangroves flowed the warm waters of the Shagris River – Shagris was Spanish for shark, he’d been told.  It fit, for where the wide river emptied into the southern Caribbean, its muddy fresh water swirled with the salty brine of the oceanic currents with just enough motion to attract tremendous numbers of hammerhead sharks.  None of that mattered, though.  If the soldiers ended up that far down river, the sharks would be the least of their problems.

All was silent, aside from the non-stop pounding of the aircraft’s engines.  With their bulky night vision goggles, Sergeant Tucker hoped the pilots would quickly spot the river ahead.  If not, it just prolonged the flight.  They would find it.  That wasn’t the issue.  And the quicker the better, as far as he was concerned.

“One minute!” the muted voice of the helmeted crew chief barely carried over the engine noise.  In fact, had Tucker not been jostled by the camouflaged figured next to him, he might not have heard the warning.  The pilots had spotted the river and, nosing the bulky chopper into a forty-degree dive, sped toward the slick blackness of the Shagris.  Tucker glanced at other warriors seated in pairs along the bulkhead, facing toward each other but separated from him by a stack of rucksacks.  He nodded, and in silent unison, the group rose from the cargo net seats and stretched their legs.  Usually only four of them operated together, but as of yesterday, the group had grown by one.

Shortly after noon the previous day, Corporal Jimenez, USMC, had sauntered onto the second floor of the barracks.  He was short, but made up for any lack of physical stature with an ego the size of Manhattan.  Without even asking, he had flung his duffel bag onto nearest top bunk at the end of the open squad bay, nonchalantly leaned his rifle against the iron frame of the bed and plopped down onto the musty mattress.  He said not a word to anyone, but the arrogance oozed through his attitude.  No words were needed.

Damn Jarhead, Tucker had thought even before seeing the reaction of his men to this intrusion.  He had intended to break the news to them earlier, and he wished he had.  Their faces said what went unspoken; their thoughts mirrored his as they glanced at each other.

Tucker had known better than to inquire about language barriers during the operations order that morning.  A legitimate concern, he felt, given that they were operating in the Panamanian jungle with little more Spanish ability between them than was necessary to order una mas cervezas. But to assign a jarhead?  Had he known that would be the solution, he would have kept his mouth shut.  Too late now.  He shook his head slowly before slumping against the barrack’s concrete support column and sighing.

For Tucker, when he allowed himself beneath the superficial interservice rivalry that existed between Marines and the Army, it all came down to tactics.  Both services were competent killers.  He knew that.  He’d even admit it after a couple cold ones.  But each branch accomplished their objectives in their own ways, following their own Standard Operating Procedures.  And that was the crux of the problem.

He had served with Marines before, but never without several weeks of alignment exercises.  Tactics needed to be discussed and reconciled.  Otherwise, you ran the risk of disaster.  If ambushed, the Marines would hunker down on the spot and open fire toward the enemy, while the soldiers would scream and go charging directly through the line of ambushing forces.  Without coordination, the reacting Marines would accomplish little more than wiping out the entire scout squad.  Yes, they needed time to ensure everyone was on the page, definitely longer than just a few hours, anyway.

Tucker watched as the Chinook’s rear ramp begin to lower and the spray of the unseen river misted the air inside the chopper’s belly.  It was, of course, a moot point now, as he shook his head slightly.  Adapt, improvise and overcome, he thought, stepping toward the gaping darkness and peering into the blackness below.  He saw nothing.  Not the canopy of the dense jungle.  Not the flowing water of the Shagris.  Just a noticeably oily wetness that prickled his skin and clung to the greasy paint on his face.  He shielded his eyes, and squinted into the darkness.  Still nothing.

By the time he turned around and stepped back from the edge of the wobbling aircraft, he saw the others had congregated behind him.  Their arms holding tight to their olive green rucksacks, rifles strapped tightly to the bulging packs.  One by one, he quickly inspected their gear, his trained eyes searching for loose items, anything that could either fall out as they exited the helo or that might rattle and announce their presence once in the jungle below.

Step. Check. Step. Check.  He made his way past each of the soldiers, until only Corporal Jimenez was left.  Even in the reddish glow, his face had turned a sickly green color, and he hesitantly stood several feet behind the others.  Tuck felt his jaw tighten, and he motioned the Marine forward.

“Let’s go, Corporal!” His yell was barely audible, but his meaning unquestionable.  Jimenez inched forward, prompting another angry gesture from the sergeant.

The light at the edge of the ramp began blinking. Thirty seconds until the chopper reached the insertion point, which was likely already in view for the pilots up front.  Four tiny chemlights, tightly secured twenty minutes earlier to the outstretched Mangrove tentacles along the riverside by Navy Seals, marked the drop zone.  At least that was the plan, Tuck knew, but he was nervous.  The Seals had never let him down before.  He hoped this wouldn’t be their first time.

Taking his place at the rear of the group, Tucker’s eyes fixed on the flashing red lamp, until it froze, casting a solid greenish hue.  It was time.  One by one, the camouflaged soldiers stepped to the edge of the Chinook’s back ramp, tossed their rucksack into the darkness, paused momentarily and then stepped.  Five warriors in all.  In eight seconds, only the Sergeant remained on the chopper.  Tuck followed suit.  First, the rucksack disappeared into the black night.  Wait, one thousand, his trained mind recited.  A momentary dread coursed through his body, and then he too stepped into the nothingness….

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As the dark room came into focus, the moonlight streaming through the open blinds and illuminating all but the minutest details of the décor, Erin realized she was sitting upright in bed.  The down comforter and flannel sheets lay twisted and spilling off the side of the bed.  The recurring nightmare had left her panting and drenched in sweat, her t-shirt sticking uncomfortably to her breasts.  It was one of three dreams that tiptoed eerily into her conscience each night, lying dormant until exhaustion overcame the dread of the upcoming night and she drifted off to sleep.  In reality, it was the least disturbing of the three, but it was the most frequent, invading her psyche until she could recall it in excruciating detail.  This one wasn’t hard to interpret, a sense of guilt over something she could neither control at the time nor redo now more than a year later.  It was, Dr. Reynolds had explained, not uncommon to imagine traumatic events, even if one hadn’t been present for the actual tragedy.  Such professional confirmation seemed both idiotically simple and overwhelmingly comforting.  Yet the despite his reassurances, the dreams continued unabated.  And as always, as she sat in the darkness, her thoughts returned to last year.

The ringing of the phone had prodded her out of a deep sleep that night in June.  Exhausted from a week of wrestling with last-minute wedding details, Erin had retired at nine o’clock and was deep in the midst of a satisfying REM cycle when it rang.  Instinctively, her first glance was at the ceiling, where the time glowed from her projected alarm clock.  It was 1:43 a.m.  Her head collapse back into her thick down pillow, muffling a groan as she blindly groped for her cell phone on the cluttered bedside table.  The ringing stopped before her fingers found the phone.  Flipping it open, she read the display.  Private Number.  No message.  Still gripping the phone, she lay there.  Who would be calling at this time of night?

With only two weeks left before the nuptials, hers was a stereotypically frantic schedule of final dress fittings, meetings with caterers, florists and disc jockeys.  And as the future bride to a devout Catholic, Erin, who had been raised vaguely Methodist, attended countless meetings with the priest and various lay leaders of Kevin’s church.  She had confided in friends that these sessions felt closer to the Spanish Inquisitions than spiritual counseling, lectures ranging from the Sacraments to birth control.  But rather than protest the dogmatic brainwashing, she had elected, with prompting from the groom-to-be, to quietly acquiesce.  She sat quietly through the classes, collecting piles of religious propaganda in the form of brochures, videos and Vatican-approved books, successfully hiding her doubts and skepticism.  She could discuss them with Kevin after his homecoming.

In the early morning darkness, numerous thoughts had raced through Erin’s foggy mind.  Rhonda, her first cousin and matron of honor, surely she would have left a message if she had called.  It had been a Friday night, though, which left the possibility of drunk dials from a number of friends blowing off steam from the week.  Perhaps the call had been from her younger brother, Mark, a camp counselor at a YMCA day camp in northern Wisconsin.  He too, would likely have been out drinking and carousing on a Friday night.  And he never left messages, preferring to simply call back later.  With every possibility considered and eliminated, her mind had sprung back to one question.  Why had it been a private number?  No one she new had unlisted phone numbers.  Maybe it had simply been a wrong number, the caller realizing the mistake when the voicemail picked up.  That must be it, she’d thought, setting the phone down and rolling back onto her side, snuggling under the down comforter that Kevin insisted was too hot for summertime use.

The ceiling display showed 4:48 a.m. when the phone woke her a second time.  Private Number was again visible on the display panel.

“Hello?” Erin had answered before the ringing ended, a feeling of dread building in her gut.  The call earlier may have been a prank, but no one called with good news or just to chat this early.

Instead of a voice, however, an abrupt sequence of shrill beeps, chirps and whistles announced the attempted transmission of a fax machine on the other end of the line.  Confused and still dazed from sleep, she’d hung up the phone, staring at the device in her hand.  What the hell? Again it had rung, with the same result.  Only this time, instead of simply hanging up, she’d pressed the power key until the phone chimed, shutting down completely.

She’d been annoyed and for the next two hours had tossed and turned, wishing desperately to sleep.  Her thoughts, however, had not of the phone calls.  Instead, they had instead fixated on the wedding day nightmare that had been interrupted right as she walked down the aisle.  In the dream, the ringing of a guest’s cell phone had prompted polite giggles from others in attendance.  She had glanced nervously toward her waiting groom at the front of the church, trepidacious about his reaction.  But at the end of the aisle was not her handsome groom, dressed in the all-white tuxedo they had chosen, Instead she recognized the silhouette of a soldier, his face turned away and crimson blood dripping slowly from hands that hung limply at his side.  Her wide eyes sought answers, as a deep red stain spread across the brilliant white runner that stretched the entire length of the church.  The ringing of the second call interrupted the nightmare.

Erin couldn’t remember a time in her life when she hadn’t known Kevin.  They had met in Mrs. Thompson’s kindergarten class, sharing the playground with twenty-five other five year-olds.  Over the next twelve years, their paths had intersected continuously, the way the individual strands of a girl’s braid cross each other over and over again.  When she was seven, Kevin’s parents had moved them into house just down the street, five houses away until a sixth house was built on the vacant lot in the middle of the block.  She could recount every Halloween costume he had worn, from the clown that first year to the football player to the soldier in the final years of trick-or-treating.

To say that she’d had a crush on him from a young age wouldn’t have been true.  In fact, her earliest memories of Kevin were of a skinny, little boy.  His ears stuck straight out from under an always present baseball cap that created a permanent ring of “hat hair” in his shaggy brown hair.  Her memories were validated by many childhood photos.  Kevin had been a pretty average, if not slightly goofy-looking kid.  His jeans, Tough Skins purchased at a local thrift store, quickly adopted a greenish-brown tinge around the knees, grass stains sustained from endless games of baseball, football or some sort of violent melding of the two.

Erin, on the other hand, had favored Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kids far later into childhood than most of her peers.  Her vast collection of dolls and other gender-specific toys provided her and Rebecca Starks, her first “best friend,” with hours of impassioned role-playing as they created the lives as married wives and mothers that they foresaw in their futures.  For the two of them, the throngs of pre-adolescent boys that roamed the neighborhood in search of mischief were little more than an annoyance.  “Eww, boys” they had typically exclaimed with awkwardly vivid sound effects of gagging and retching for emphasis when asked if they had boyfriends by even more annoying grown ups.

All that changed in middle school.  With pubescent hormones coursing through their bodies, an uncontrolled sprint toward years of acne and growth spurts, their interests changed as most do – toward boys.  Ewws changed to ohhs as quickly as summer gives way to the changing leaves of autumn and a whole new world blossomed before them.  Instead of dolls and tea parties, conversations turned, hesitatingly at first, but spurred on by both teenage curiosity and peer pressure, to crushes, love and sex.  Looking back, Erin was shocked and slightly embarrassed to think of the language she and her friends had used back then.  Shit and fuck exuberantly highlighted every sentence spoken amongst peers, skillfully thrown in as nouns, verbs and adjectives alike, often with little care for grammatical correctness.  And together at age thirteen, Rebecca and Erin had discovered the hidden, yet intriguing world of fantasy teen sex, little more than whispered tales of lust and masturbatory admissions.  And for both girls, it was Kevin who fulfilled those solitary fantasy moments.  His growth spurt in seventh grade, coupled with the early appearance of facial hair, a deeper voice and newfound muscles had attracted the attention of many a seventh grade girl.  And when confidence caught up to physical maturity in tenth grade, he had asked Erin out, producing more than the typical teen heart flutter.  Without hesitation, she had accepted.  Her response had been equally enthusiastic six years later, when as a college sophomore, Kevin had proposed.  Life was exactly as she had imagined it would be, high school sweethearts devoted to each other through college.  Years later she would admit the devotion related more to physical lust than actual commonalities in feelings, life direction or intellectual equality, but at the time all seemed perfect.

In actuality, she merely adopted that lifestyle that she had observed in her mother, without consideration that this was a far different time and place then the Brady Bunch world in which her parents had courted.  As such, any disappointment or disillusionment within the relationship was quickly swept under the rug.  A wife’s role was to play the supportive partner to a dominant, and in her case often domineering, husband.  Doubts never entered her mind, perpetually wrestled from conscious corners of her existence, even when domineering bordered on abuse.

She had been surprised by her emotional response on the day Kevin had announced his enlistment in the Army National Guard.  He had been similarly surprised by the ambivalence she showed to what he considered a rather momentous decision.  His surprise manifest itself as rage, leaving her bruised and battered, injuries she hid well from her friends and family, ashamed and confused.  While she had been surprised that he would arrive at such a decision without consenting her, the subdued relief she felt at the prospect of his impending three-month separation at boot camp betrayed her true feelings.  Even word that his unit was to deploy to Iraq hardly fazed Erin.  By that point, her focus was more on fulfilling her vision of a future as a trophy wife than anything else.  And if that meant passively accepting his decisions and their consequences, she seemed resigned to that.

It was on the eve of Kevin’s deployment, however, that her emotional world began its slow spiral out of control.  Jostled amongst dozens of devoted military wives, she first experienced the painful emotions of the upcoming separation.  It was a feeling common for the others, even though she wouldn’t officially join their ranks until after the 15-month deployment, the bond formed was strong, the way she imagined hostage victims forever connected with their fellow compatriots.  It was a mixture of panic, sadness, fear and apprehension, although she couldn’t for the life of her figure out why she felt that way.  In fact, she had always prided herself on being completely objective toward the hurdles and obstacles life threw her direction.

For the first couple months, she felt isolated, afraid for Kevin’s safety and obsessed with news reports from Iraq.  Days would go by without word from him, sending Erin into a tizzy.  It was the unknown that got to her the more than anything, ignorance about what he was doing, what he was experiencing, speculations of atrocities and the horrors of war to which he as being exposed.  Most of all, her worries stemmed from the rumors and fears of other wives and girlfriends about the increased likelihood of birth defects for children of soldiers serving in the combat zone.  That was her biggest worry, the threat to a vision that she held so dear, a future picture-perfect life as a working wife and mother, two kids, a dog, and a comfortable house in the suburbs with a white picket fence.  If her picture perfect future was at risk, what else mattered, she figured?

“What types of things would he tell you during those calls?” Dr. Reynolds prodded.

“It depended.” Staring at the wood paneling as she always did, she picked at the swollen cuticles of the fingers on her left hand.  It was the worst of her many nervous habits.  “If it was a good day, he wouldn’t really talk about the missions.  But if it had been a rough day, it was almost like he needed to talk about it.  He would spend the whole phone call talking about the mission.”

In reality, the details of the missions, when Kevin did talk about them, were largely unintelligible to Erin.  It annoyed her that he seemed unaware of the acronyms that he threw about in conversation the way an American in Europe might assume that everyone spoke English.  It was an annoyance that she rarely revealed, though, instead just answering in “uh-huhs” and “really.”

“How did that make you feel?” his predictable questions made her wince.

“Just like a fucking therapist,” she interjected instead of answering.

“I’m being serious,” her therapist continued, “Was there anything that you felt when he would vent about those experiences?”
Erin paused before responding, “Of course, it was pretty shitty to hear about all the crap they went through, without having any way to make it better for them.  I mean, wouldn’t you feel bad in that kind of situation?”

Dr. Reynolds smiled, “Yes, I guess I would feel somewhat powerless in that kind of circumstance.  Is that what you felt?”

“Doc, I don’t know what I felt, to be honest,” Erin answered, surprising herself with how calm she felt.  “You’re asking me to remember exact feelings that I had at a time when I wasn’t being too aware of my feelings.  Doesn’t that seem to you to be a pretty difficult task?”

“Erin, it may be a difficult task, but I wouldn’t ask it if I didn’t think it was something that we ought to explore.  And I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think it was something you could answer.”

“Fine,” she said, her tone a mixture of surrender and exhaustion.  It annoyed her that he could possibly understand what he was asking of her.  “So, you want to know if I felt powerless?  Of course I felt powerless.  Here was my fiancé crying about the horrible things he was seeing and probably doing.  How could I feel anything but powerless?  It wasn’t like I could relate to anything he was feeling.  I wasn’t in the Army.  I wasn’t in Iraq.  And I wasn’t seeing death on a daily basis.  So, how does anyone possibly respond to such things?”  Like a trash compactor, her fist mashed the ball of tissue into an even smaller sphere of soaked pulp.

“I don’t think there is any particular response that’s expected at those times,” Dr. Reynolds tried to explain.  “It’s natural to feel overwhelmed when one is expected to show empathy, but without really understanding the entirety of the experience.  How could you possible know what it’s like to be in combat?”

However, Erin did know more than she let on.  Kevin had told her enough to help her understand.  What he couldn’t explain, he showed to her on video, nearly daily clips uploaded and emailed to her.  It was a horror that she had resisted at first.  But eventually, she had watched in morbid curiosity.  And from that moment, the digital horrors haunted her dreams, images she couldn’t forget, no matter how hard she tried.

In therapy, however, silence was her ally and her answer.  But it was not the only answer.  Once again her eyes were tightly shut and her head shook slowly from side to side.  No, she wasn’t ready to relive those dreams, not prepared to share what she knew of the atrocities Kevin had revealed to her in those videos.

Dr. Reynolds cleared his throat, the silence rebounding before rushing back across the room the way saltwater churns to reclaim its sandy clutches with each breaking wave.  Through the slightest slits, Erin could see him watching her, and it made her uncomfortable.

Why does he do that?  Why doesn’t he say anything?  He just sits there in silence, knowing it drives me crazy!  Fucking bastard! She sighed, but this was not a sound of resignation.  No, she was testing his reaction, seeing if she could prompt some sort of response.

His gaze that had held her so steady had dropped to his notepad when she sighed, as if the air escaping her lips had forced his eyes to release their discomforting spell on her.  She had seen it and a flutter of exhilaration leapt silently from her gut into the upper reaches of her throat.  A slight smile appeared on her lips, just a quiver of the moist corners of her pursed scowl, but a smile nonetheless.  It was a small victory on the battlefield that she strode each and every day like a soldier in her own right, loyally facing wave after wave of mental machine gun fire with the mindlessness required for survival.  After all, the soldier who questions the logic behind repeated frontal attacks on a fortified enemy quickly loses grasp on his very identity.  So, too, for Erin to contemplate the emotional turmoil would be to dissolve her identity as an independent, free-thinking woman.  The little battles, no matter the source, were her foci and her primary joy these days.  And while just the hint of contentment slowly spread across her lips, inside she felt the comfortable warmth of full-fledged happiness.  It was short-lived.

“Erin,” Dr. Reynolds’s voice interrupted her satisfaction, “how long do you want to keep this up?  We’ve been meeting for almost a year, but I’m not sure from a professional standpoint, that we’re making a lot of progress.”

Silence again descended on the pair.

“I realize that you started therapy to appease your mother’s concerns,” he continued, “ but I really do want to help you.  And despite your courageous front, I do believe that deep down you are hurting.  Unfortunately, unless you are able to acknowledge a desire to address issues, to grow beyond those things in your past and move forward, I’m not sure there’s much point in continuing these sessions.”  With that, he was silent again.

A gentle and yet vile heat spread from the backs of her hands up her arms and across Erin’s face.  The exultation that had danced its way up her esophagus moments earlier pirouetted and twisted its way back down into her bowels, transforming as it slithered through her core, shock that quickly continued its path into defensive anger and ultimate rage.  It simultaneously choked and nauseated her in wave after wave of paranoia.

What the fuck?  WHAT the fuck? You’re giving up on me, Doc? Her jaw methodically snapped open and shut, but no sound was uttered.  Her vision clouded and she blinked rapidly, willing the tears back to their cistern.

“You know something, Dr. Reynolds?” she whispered toward the shimmering figure across the room.

“What, Erin?”

The bitterness of bile slowly inched its way from her back of her throat onto her tongue, and her mouth suddenly felt sticky and sickeningly dry.  A forced swallow scratched at her throat and for a moment she panicked at the thought of vomiting.  Again, her mouth flapped in silence, spasmodically at first, but slowly with more control until movement ceased entirely, her lips hovering half open.  Her vision cleared slowly and the tears that had perched on the precipice receded, replaced with an icy stare.  It was Dr. Reynolds’s turn to be uncomfortable, and it pleased her to watch his growing discomfort.  The corner of his eye twitched.  Is he scared of me? She smiled.  Staring directly into his eyes, she saw him look away the way a submissive cur silently acknowledges his place in a pack.

“Fuck you!” she exclaimed in a quiet, controlled voice.  Rising to her feet, she snapped up her backpack and stormed across the small room past the middle-aged therapist, who seemed to cringe as she strode by.  Pausing at the doorway only long enough to drop the crumpled tissue to the floor, she never looked back.

I don’t need this shit.  Fuck this.  Fuck him. And fuck you, Mom.  This time, she didn’t stop at the receptionist’s desk.  She didn’t schedule another session.  What’s the point, she thought.

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