Death and Love in Marjah
She was naked and tied to a bed when I first met her. Now, when I say met, it is a little deceiving. And when I say naked and tied to a bed, what I mean is that she was dirty, bleeding from her mouth, her lip was swollen, left eye blackening, and her hair looked like a rat's nest after a cat gets through with its occupants. Her hands were tied to the wooden headboard and her feet tied to the underside of the bare mattress somehow. Oh, did I forget to mention the five Taliban guys staring hungrily down at her whilst a sixth was dropping his pants to reveal a ... penis. It did not deserve much more of a descriptor than the medical terminology for it; at least that was what she told the rape counselor later.
Why was I there? Hmm, well, it seemed at the time that the bright boys at Intel had once again screwed the pooch. The big Marjah Offensive that everyone had been yammering about for months was finally supposed to start and of course they had to send someone in ahead of time to do recon and establish a forward observation base for artillery and air support. At least that was what the Lieutenant told us. That idiot volunteered us. He had been trying to get us killed for months, in fact. I know some would read this and think I was exaggerating, but the arrogant puppy actually told me to my face that the unit could only have one leader and it would better off if I would relinquish leadership, "willingly or by force." He was one of those officers from OCS (Officer Candidate School) who come out thinking they are just below God in the chain of command and that sergeants are merely there to make sure the troops do what the officer says. I found out later he was a college puke who got his commission because he spoke Arabic and was somebody important's kid.
Anyway, the brass wanted a Ranger team to go set up an observation post at this farmstead on the outskirts of Marjah. It was supposed to be abandoned, the last occupant having gotten killed when his kid got caught diddling the daughter of a rival clan. The rival clan had been looking for an excuse to leave the Taliban's side and join the Alliance. The kid was their excuse. They killed the entire clan and sought U. S. protection in return for their resources and fighters. The Taliban leaders in Marjah were pissed because the farmer was a supporter and grew poppy and food for them.
So there we were, in the middle of a freezing ass cold January, approaching the farm house when we heard a roar from inside followed by what sounded like the scream of a woman. The f•©king place was supposed to be empty. We saw no vehicles all that day and no movement. We later learned the vehicles were in the barn and the farmer had dug extensive tunnels below his outbuildings for his Taliban friends. At the roar I motioned the team forward in two-by-two formation to check all of the buildings. Just as they began moving, the Lt. ordered me, a direct and unavoidable order accompanied by a challenging glare, to take point. His excuse was I had the most experience, and it was true, but it was very flimsy and everyone gave wide eyes when he told me to storm the house.
So I sighed, prayed a guilty little prayer that he, not me, would take a bullet to the head, and moved forward with Specialist Raval behind me. That left the newbie Private First Class Fernandez with the Lt. as I steadied my breath, gripped my gun, and kicked in the door.
And like I said, there she was, naked and tied to the bed. I registered her but ignored her for the six males dressed in Taliban garb with AKs near at hand. Specialist Raval ignored her too. As did PFC Fernandez, despite being his first insertion while with us. I don't know who those guys were, but they were pretty good. For being surprised whilst engaging in what would have been gang rape, they were excellent. As my focus narrowed and zoomed, I shot the guy dropping trou and the only guy I saw with a gun in his hand as he raised it to point at her head. Raval took two others out as they scattered for cover, popping off random shots. Fernandez took out another as he poked his head out for a shot and I took the last guy as he tried to dive behind a table. We searched the house quickly and reassembled back in the main room where we realized the guy who got an aimed shot off had not missed. Lt. Vance was lying in the middle of the floor, eyes wide open, with a bullet hole in the middle of those baby blues.
"Specialist O'Malley, bring your kit and your camera in here please," I said over the unit radio. "Is everything else clear out there? We don't need any more surprises."
"All clear, Sarge, but the brass is gonna wanna talk to the Intel boys when we report back," Corporal Hall said, his voice giddy.
He was another newbie sent to the unit when the last Lt. got himself and four of us killed. Hall replaced my second, Sergeant Guerra, and was overdue for promotion. I know, corporals don't replace sergeants, but we were kind of the shit end of the stick in our unit. We got fresh bodies, not equivalent replacements. Spec. 4 Raval took over for Guerra and PFC Fernandez was replacing him in the unit structure, and so on and so forth. As a sign of how f•©ked up things were, I had a Staff Sergeant as my comm man, rather than him being my second. Just as well, he did not want the job as second anyway and Raval did. He was another one overdue for promotion.
I sighed again, took out my knife and walked over to the bed. "It's okay, ma'am, we won't hurt you," I told the woman in horrible Pashto. At least I think that was what I said. I cut her loose and put a discarded blanket from the floor around her to try to warm her as her skin was almost blue with the cold, a pretty neat trick considering she looked local. "My medic is coming and he will check you over."
"Thank you, Sergeant... , " she said in quavering, unaccented English.
It took me a minute to realize she was waiting for me to supply my name. I smiled at her and shook my head. "Sergeant is fine, ma'am. And who are you, if you don't mind me asking? Most Afghanis are not much on the unaccented English around here."
She started to smile but her lip split, making her grimace. Even as wrecked as she was, there was an almost otherworldly beauty to her that made me fiercely glad that none of these idiots survived. Given Hall's giddiness and the brass' proclivity for letting creeps go if they are useful, they were better off dead.
Her slim, broken-nailed hand rose to her lip to dab the blood. "I am Shameera Afghani and I work for Sky News," she said with a flaring sparkle to her eyes as she examined my face. It is a face that is pretty anonymous, despite being what my few ex-girlfriends have described as ruggedly handsome in a manly man sort of way. Straight, slightly Italian-looking nose, nicely spaced gray eyes, almost too firm chin, wide cheekbones, heavy brow without being too Neanderthalish covered by nice arching eyebrows, and boot camp-cut light brown hair with hints of auburn because I was overdue for a trim. On top of a six foot four, two hundred forty pound frame, I got no shortage of action state-side, when I wanted it. Problem was I hadn't seen state-side for any length of time in almost three years. This was my second Afghan tour in three years only separated by a tour in Iraq, two months in Italy, and two weeks in New Jersey when the folks died.
Anyway, I saw in her eyes what I had seen in a couple of other ladies' eyes after being rescued and I sighed. I was about to ask her what she was doing here when O'Malley came through the door and froze, looking down at the Lt.
"Shit! I never thought the bastard would ever die," he blurted out with fervor. He shook his head and looked up at Raval. "He's dead. Why do I need my kit?"
"Over here. Civilian got mauled pretty badly," I said, rising and going over to O'Malley. I lowered my voice and said, "Two things before you look her over. First, make sure that is your last disrespectful word on the Lt. She is a reporter and we don't need any more shit coming down on us because of him. Got it, Mal?"
"Sure, Sarge! Sorry about that, it just surprised me is all," the kid said apologetically.
I nodded and smiled before adding, "And second, use ranks only when talking in front of her. I want no way for her to track us, me especially, down after this."
He groaned in sympathy. "One of those, huh? Sorry again, Sarge. I will patch her up as good as I can. I can already tell she needs a couple of X-rays, a SART visit, and probably a CAT scan. Did they get in her?"
"I don't think so, but treat her like they did, Mal. Do what you can with what we have here and we will hump her out after I get in touch with base, hopefully on a bird," I told him, ruefully adding, "I doubt we will be staying if Hall was that excited. Pass on what I said about names to Raval and Fernandez while I go see what got Hall so worked up."
I turned back to the reporter and introduced Mal before heading out to see what Hall and the others had found. "Where are you guys at?" I asked over the radio, as I did not see anyone from the front door of the house.
"Head toward the barn, Sarge. You gotta see this!" Hall instructed, almost giggling in his joy over what they found.
Shaking my head, I walked over to the barn and walked into the darkness therein. I did not see anything at first and was about to call on the radio again when CPL Schmidt and Specialist Gomez appeared out of the dirt floor of the rather large wood and stone structure. I only saw them because their darkened forms obscured the larger bulks of several trucks and two sedans.
"Here, Sarge," Gomez said in his hoarse, gravelly voice. "Whatever Intel is using for eyes around here, they need a visit with my Uncle back in El Paso. This wasn't a deserted farm. This was a major cache storage depot. Hall and Ustinov are going through it now, but I think we need to have the Major bring some more folks out this way."
Sighing with irritation at how big a pooch screw this sounded like, I followed my men down the earthen ramp to see shadowy piles of stuff going back towards the other end of the long tunnel dug out beneath the barn. Hall was head and shoulders deep in a crate full of wood chips with PFC Ustinov holding his flashlight on him. The light showed a mound of pelts of some kind behind him and a crate of what looked like poppy next to the crate Hall was digging in. I saw other crates marked in Cyrillic and Chinese and Arabic and closed my eyes, pinching my nose. This was gonna take some serious explanation by the Intel weenies. You don't send a Ranger recon team to a farmhouse expecting it to be abandoned and accidentally find what looked like a major way station for goods smuggled into and out of the country.
"Please tell me I am not seeing this," I said with a growl.
"Oh, Sarge, if the judge back in Knoxville didn't still have me on probation, I would seriously think about retiring on some of this," Hall gushed, his round, heavily freckled face re-emerging from the crate. "Not sure what some of this is, but there is refined opium, raw poppy, weapons, ammo, clothes, uncut gems, you name it! Brass is gonna shit a brick when they hear about this! Intel f•©ked up royally!"
"Where are Jackson and the comm?"
"Straight back and around the right bend, drooling over a Mustang they somehow crammed down here," Ustinov answered with a grin. "Thought he was gonna nut when he saw it! Said something about it being a '67 or something."
"GT? They got a '67 Mustang GT in this tunnel?"
Hall nodded and grinned. "I swear he got hard when he saw it. The palest I ever saw a black man get. Probably wondering how he can drive it back to Shreveport."
Shaking my head, I sidled by the men and walked back and turned. The tunnel branched left and right, both ways crammed with more shit. All that kept going through my head were stories my uncles told about VC tunnels in 'Nam where the Viet Cong and NVA (North Vietnamese Army) practically lived for much of the war in the late sixties and early seventies.
I walked about a hundred feet down the right hand tunnel before I had to pull out my own flashlight to light my way. Another hundred and I saw the glow from Staff Sergeant Jackson's light. It was inside an honest to God '67 Mustang GT. It looked black on the outside with white leather inside. Jackson was running his hand over the leather passenger seat while looking over the console.
"Jackson! I need the comm. We got a civilian who needs medivac, Lt. is dead, and Major Kilbourne is gonna shit when we tell him about this place," I said as I got closer to the car. The tunnel was wider here, wide enough to turn the car around. Wooden posts and joists held up the earthen ceiling, showing that this took time, money, and engineering skills. The more I saw, the less happy I was with our situation. Somebody was going to miss those six bastards sooner or later and I wanted my men and the woman out of here when they did!
Jackson popped his head out of the car with a shocked look on his face. "Motherf•©ka fin'ly croak, Sarge? Woowee! Couldnta happen ta a nicer fella, ay Sarge? You see my cherie, here? If I t'ought I could get from dis here sandbox over ta Lou'siana, I might ser'sly t'ink 'bout desertin'." Jackson was one of the stranger guys I had ever served with. He claimed to be from Shreveport, born and bred, but just listening to him sometimes made me sure he was a bayou boy.
"I'm going to tell you what I told Mal, make sure you say nothing disrespectful about the Lt. around the reporter. Now get out here and give me the comm. Oh, and no names around her either, only ranks."
Jackson rolled his eyes with a wicked grin. "Anudder one o' does, Sarge?" he said as he handed me the comm.
Bunch of comedians I was serving with. "HQ, this is Bravo Foxtrot Zulu Two, over."
White noise and then, "Bravo Foxtrot Zulu, HQ, Alpha One here, go ahead."
"Alpha One, complete SNAFU, sir. Bravo Foxtrot Zulu One bought it and we got a major cluster f•©k. We found a civie and a major cache hidden under the farm. Civie needs medevac and I need to know what to do with this site, over."
"What kind of cache, Bravo?"
"Mostly smuggled goods, some weapons, some dope. It is a bloody bazaar down here, sir."
"What's the civie's situ, Bravo?"
"She is a reporter for Sky, sir. She was about to be gang raped when we breached. Not too serious, but definitely needs a look over and someone from SART, sir."
I could just hear the cursing that must be going on at HQ. The Major was a bit on the salty side, having been the son of a fisherman, and the Colonel was an old soldier with a large vocabulary in several languages. "OK, Bravo, this is what you need to do. Prep the civie as best you can for travel, set as many charges as you have and level that place, and hump out to your insertion point. We can't get a bird closer than that without tipping that you are there. If there is a large enough store there then they will eventually miss the hostiles you dealt with. Any prisoners, Bravo?"
"No, sir. They didn't give us the chance and we were not really in the mood after seeing what they were up to."
"Roger that, Bravo. Get to work and contact again when you are about a mile out from insert. Bird will be on standby."
"Roger that, sir. Bravo out." I handed the comm back to Jackson and motioned him to follow me. On my way out, I told Hall and Ustinov to find some more things that went bang, seeing as how we loaded for this mission with the idea that nobody would ever know we were here. I got back on the unit radio and told my guys what was up. "Listen up, gentlemen. HQ wants us to turn this place into a hole in the ground, so pack up, bring whatever demo you have to the PFC in the barn and get ready to hump back out to the insert point. HQ wants us back there for evac. You guys in the barn, take a few vids of what is down there, especially those foreign crates, for the Intel weenies before you set anything up to go boom. Mal, organize everyone to prep the Lt. for removal and make sure to pocket his dog tags. If you guys can kick that bed apart for pieces, we can litter him out. Before you prep him, look around for some clothes for Ms. Afghani. If she has her own clothes, great, otherwise make sure she is bundled up and ready to move. If you have to strip the Lt. and give her his clothes, do it. HQ wants her out of here healthy and whole. Get to work."
"Roger that, Sarge," chorused over the radio.
"You serious abou' no' givin' dis lady any more dan she has t' ID you, ain't you Sarge?"
I grimaced. Only Jackson would be blunt enough to call me on this. As nuts as he was, he was kind of like the unit's conscience. Especially mine. My very own lethal Jiminy Cricket in fatigues. Always to the point and keeping us straight with that sloppy bayou voice.
"Yeah, Jack, I am. This one hit all my alarm buttons when I cut her loose. As roughed up as she was, the first thing she tried to do was get my name. She is straight up Afghani, like the name suggests, but I'll bet she either left as a kid or was born in the U. S. and looks like she is as smart as they come, though how that tracks with her being here about to get gang raped by a bunch of Taliban flee fests is beyond me. I'm squicky over this one, so just humor me. I want no way for her to ID me when we hand her off to HQ."
"A'right, Sarge. I help where I can."
We were back at the house and Fernandez was just coming out with the few explosives that the rest of the unit was carrying. He jogged past on his way to the barn, grinning at me, his eyes dancing. "Ms. Afghani is asking after you, Sarge. Trying to get our names and ranks as well. If she had a pen and paper, she'd have about six pages of notes already, though we haven't told her anything beyond why we are here is classified, so we can't tell her anything."
"Shit," I muttered under my breath, causing the ever sharp-eared Mexican to chuckle. I went into the house and saw that Raval had gotten the Lt. wrapped up in some bedding from one of the other rooms and assembled a litter from the bed. Ms. Afghani was standing, pale, bandaged, and dressed in a mix of the Lt.'s clothes and her own. She was still clutching the blanket I had wrapped her in around her shoulders and was shivering. I motioned Mal to check her out again as I went through the few rooms, just making sure we did not overlook something the Intel idiots could make something of later. Judging by how unlived in this place looked, I doubt they were here long, especially if they had not gotten around to raping Ms. Afghani before today. As beat up as she was, she was not beat up enough to have been in their care and in one place for long. They had either been moving her frequently or they just grabbed her.
Walking back out to the main room, I motioned Mal over to me. "How bad is she?"
"Pretty bad, Sarge. I think she is finally going into shock. We need to keep her warm and get her to a hospital soon. She has some injuries I can't do anything about. I wrapped her ribs 'cuz I am pretty sure at least three of them are broke. I washed out the back of her head but any bandages I have won't stay on long so I put some liquid skin on for now. She also has a sore ankle that I think is either sprained or she has something broken, not sure. I am sure of the mild concussion, but the docs will have to check her out to be sure it is not worse."
"Can she even walk?"
Mal looked back at her with a judging eye before turning back to me and shaking his head. "I don't see how she gets far on the ankle and with the concussion and shock. I think we are gonna have to trade off carrying her, but there is nothing left in here to make a litter. Not quickly."
I hit the unit radio and asked, "You guys in the barn, there anything down there to make another litter?"
"Wait one, Sarge," Hall said. After about three minutes he came back on. "Not really, Sarge. I mean we could take apart some of these creates, but we got no hammers, nails, string, nothing to hold it together for long."
"And even if we did, it would take time we do not have, right?" I asked wearily. "OK, you guys hurry it up and meet us out front. Lt. is all wrapped up and we are out of here. We gotta a long hump out to the pick up."
"We are done in here and are heading up now, Sarge," Hall replied as Fernandez came back in the house with Jackson.
"I'll carry her, Mal. If I get tired or start having trouble keeping pace we will talk about passing her off," I told him with serious eyes. "Specialist, PFC, you guys get first crack at carrying the Lt."
Raval and Fernandez groaned and went over to heft the Lt. I went over to the reporter, almost cringing with whatever mojo she had going on that was twitching my Irish senses. I used to laugh at my grandpa when he would look at someone and make snap judgments on them. Now I was doing it.
"Ms. Afghani, we are getting ready to go. We have quite a ways to walk, so I am going to carry you. My medic says your ankle is hurt, you are going into shock, and you have a concussion. If I begin to tire or slow, I will have to hand you off. I need you to be still and quiet as you can on the way. Marjah is not far and is full of people who will be highly pissed when this place goes up in flames. Any questions before we leave?"
She smiled up at me, wincing at her split lip. "No, Sergeant. I understand and will cooperate. You have been very courteous and kind under the circumstances," she replied.
I know this is a strange time to be describing her, as I started out by saying we met when she was naked and tied to a bed, but I was about to touch that very beautiful body for an extended period of time. She was a slight, athletic woman, just over five and a half feet tall, probably not much more than one hundred pounds. She had a trim figure with a nice but soft musculature, as if she lifted weights and ran, but for shape not definition. She had long black hair that still looked like a rat's nest over a smooth forehead and brown skin not much darker than a decent tan. Her face was triangular, with sharp cheekbones and firm jaw line running down to a firm, rounded chin. Her liquid black eyes looked at me with trust, gratitude, and a passionate determination that gave me the willies. She held up graceful arms covered by the Lt.'s jacket and the blanket and I lifted her gingerly, mindful of the ribs.
"OK, gentlemen, let's move out. Sergeant, tell the men in the barn to meet us out front and remember both my orders and that we are in enemy territory until we get on that bird," I said even as I was both shocked at how light the woman was and reveling in holding her. Squicky, definitely squicky.
We assembled in the yard and began the march north. It was just after dark when we stormed the house. It took us about an hour to do what we had to do there before leaving. We saw and then heard the farm go up about five miles out. The march north was a long one. Dawn was pushing our shadows to our left before we got to the contact point. I only took one half hour break in carrying the reporter. After shaking out my arms and walking for a little while without the extra weight I was good to go until we were close to the extraction point. I had Jackson hand me the comm during a rest a mile out. I called in and got the Colonel himself. He had gotten my earlier report that morning and informed me that the bird was about thirty minutes out from the extraction point. I handed the radio back and we double-timed it.
I never saw a helicopter that looked as beautiful as that Blackhawk did. We were in a depression not far from the landing site, huddling for warmth, when Fernandez heard it. He set the strobe and quick-timed it back into our little hole in the ground. We got Ms. Afghani on the bird before putting the Lt. in and hopping in ourselves. What a cluster f•©k!
We were all in debrief for a long while and by the time the Intel weenies and brass were done, I was wrung out. I hit the showers and then crashed.
Two weeks later, in February, they went into Marjah hard. Our unit got cycled stateside, finally. Then they scattered us to the four winds. I was honored to be sent to West Point to teach the future officers who would hopefully learn to heed the advice of their non-coms. Jackson wound up on the Horn of Africa, messing around with the Somalis. Raval got promoted and sent to Iraq with Fernandez for the fun and games winding down there. O'Malley wound up in Central America. Knowing my government like I do, probably Mexico. Hall found himself in the Philippines and Indonesia teaching them how to fight Abu Sayyef and Jemaah Islamiah. Schmidt found himself perfecting his sniper training by killing cartel/FARC members in the jungles of Columbia (and probably Venezuela). And Gomez and Ustinov were sent to Yemen. I got to spend almost two semesters relaxing in upstate New York teaching hand-to-hand and small unit tactics to officer cadets. I also got to spend some time on the shrink's couch. It was either that or they would find a reason to cancel the promotion and orders back to Iraq I was scheduled for and cashier me. The Commandant informed me of that after I practically bit the head off of a third year about a month into my first semester there. I have to admit, the doc helped, a lot. It took me a few weeks to realize how wound up I still was and he helped me come down and relax into stateside life. Or at least enough that I was not chewing out the cadets regularly.
Near the middle of my second semester at West Point, I got a call from my sister Maeve. She still lived in New Jersey, which was where mom and dad were buried and aunts and uncles and cousins still lived. She had a couple of rugrats of her own, though her husband, a two-timing loser mechanic who was politely but firmly told to get the f•©k out of the state after the first time I saw her with a black eye, was no longer an issue. I liked my niece, she was a pip and smarter than her mom, though she unfortunately already knew that at eleven. My nephew was thirteen and a little odd. Always sick, so he was homeschooled, the boy was smart in some things and dumber than dirt in others. He was acing math and science but could not write a one page letter that another person could intelligibly read or remember when the Revolutionary War was, or even who it was between. He was probably going to wind up working for NASA while my niece was going to be deciding whether NASA would get any money.
Anyway, my sister called sounding a little odd, asking me to come see her before I skip the country again. I had gotten word on my orders that week, so I found it odd that she knew I was heading back to Iraq. We don't talk much. I stop by on the holidays when I can, but that was pretty much the extent of our relationship. My niece Alexandra's birthday was about a month away and my nephew Sean's was a month earlier so I decided to stop by the store before I went. I loved my sister and her kids, but I was not really a family man, even when I was a kid. Probably why I was a good sniper before I was a Ranger, and why home was the barracks when I was stateside or in Europe. Hmph, probably wind up retiring to some wooded cabin in the mountains somewhere out west after my thirty was up. But for now, home was where my sister lived and I was going home for reasons of which I was not too sure.
And it was the night of my sister's call that I began dreaming about her, Shameera, for the first time in a long while.