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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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