A Charmed Life
Chapter 19: Until We Meet Again
Copyright© 2016 by The Outsider
03 February 1990 - Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Jeff Knox strode down the hallway of a different, yet similar, Army barracks. He hadn’t heard from Tom Pelley, one of his two best friends from training, since they jumped into Panama. Tom was assigned to Second Battalion, 504th PIR; this was his barracks. They kept in touch here and there, seeing each other occasionally around the base. First and Second Battalion were both in the 82nd‘s First Brigade. Both were on the same duty cycle, both jumped into Panama for Operation Just Cause. Jeff transferred down from Walter Reed to Womack in mid-January. The balance of the 82nd returned from Panama on the thirty-first but Jeff had been unable to reach his friend since. Multiple phone calls went unanswered.
Jeff checked in with TC’s squad leader before trying to see him; a courtesy to let the man know about the visit. Jeff stopped in front of TC’s assigned room and knocked on his door. He took a step back when it opened. TC was pale and much thinner than Jeff remembered him. There were dark circles under the man’s eyes, suggesting lack of sleep.
“TC...” Jeff whispered.
“What the hell do you want, Yankee?”
Jeff was taken aback by his tone. “I haven’t heard from you since we jumped; I wanted to see how you were doing.”
“I’m fine. Anything else?”
“I kinda wanted to know why you’ve been ignoring your phone.”
“Maybe it’s because I don’t want to talk to you!”
“What did I do?” Jeff asked the man he considered a friend.
“Leave me alone!” TC snarled. He slammed the door in Jeff’s face.
A stunned Jeff stared at TC’s door, trying to figure out what the hell just happened. Jeff noted the pictures on that door; they were of TC’s roommate, one of the soldiers the division lost during operations in Panama. Jeff was still trying to make sense of his interaction with TC when he felt a hand on his shoulder; the hand belonged to TC’s squad leader, SSG Alonzo.
“Tom and Ricky were close,” Alonzo explained. “Everyone in the company liked Ricky, but he and Tom were tight. I didn’t want to say anything before you came up. I was hoping that your coming by might snap him out of whatever funk he’s in.”
“I’ve never seen him like this,” Jeff said, shaking his head. “I guess I’ll head back to my own barracks.”
“How’d it go?” Ken asked, hearing his roommate return. Jeff didn’t answer Ken, causing Ken to look up. It was then that Ken looked up and saw the look on Jeff’s face. “Jeff? What’s wrong?” Again, no answer. “Jeff?”
Jeff dropped into the chair at his desk, looked at the ceiling and sighed. “You know how you called me at Walter Reed? Visited me when I was transferred down here to Womack?” he asked.
“I found out why I couldn’t get ahold of TC. His roommate was killed during Just Cause.”
“Yeah. He won’t talk to me. He slammed his door in my face.”
Ken nodded. “He’s gonna be angry for a while, I’m guessing. You can’t help him until he wants help.”
“I know,” Jeff said. “It hurts, though.”
“I don’t know what to do, Mrs. Pelley,” Jeff said to TC’s mother over the phone later that night.
“I know this is going to sound trite, Jeff, but Tommy’s got to want the help you want to give him,” Mrs. Pelley replied with clear resignation in her voice. She echoed Ken’s words from hours before. “We came up to visit him when he got back, but he pushed us all away, too; we cut our visit short. I guess we all just have to give him time to work this out for himself.”
“If you say so, ma’am.”
Jeff was still asleep in his bunk when the loud pounding on his door began. He was on medical profile; this meant that, unlike Ken, he was allowed to skip PT and sleep in. Ken could at least run. With a groan Jeff rolled off the bunk and made his way to the door.
Opening the door revealed a wild-eyed TC. “LEAVE MY FAMILY THE HELL ALONE, YOU YANKEE SONUVABITCH!” the man roared.
“Your family is worried about you, TC! Your mother and sister both called while I was at Womack to ask me to check on you! You ignored my phone calls after you returned, so I went to your barracks to do EXACTLY that!”
“I DON’T WANT YOU TALKING TO THEM!”
“Is that how I’m supposed to repay the kindness your family showed me last year? Ignore them? Blow them off?”
“LEAVE. US. ALONE!“
It was clear to Jeff he wasn’t going to get through to TC at the moment. He took a step back and slammed his door shut, frustrated. The pounding restarted before the echo faded. A look of anger settled over Jeff’s face as he tore his door open. TC had his arm back, ready to pound on the door again. The look on Jeff’s face made him pause.
“You’d best get your ass out of my barracks, Specialist,” Jeff said in the coldest voice he’d ever used. “In fact, if you’re not out of here in ten seconds - ten GODDAMN seconds - I am going to make sure you literally have your head up your ass! Now get out!” TC said nothing, glaring at him; he lowered his arm, turned and walked away without a word.
“Good evening, Mrs. Pelley,” Jeff said, his voice devoid of all joy. “I hope I didn’t interrupt your family’s supper.”
“Jeff? No, I wouldn’t have answered if we were still eating, you know that. Jeff, what’s wrong? Is it about Tommy?”
“Yes, ma’am. Ma’am, I’m afraid your son and I had words this morning.”
“‘Words, ‘ Jeff?” Jeff relayed the interaction with TC the best he could. “Jeff, I hope you know that there’s no way Tommy could expect you NOT to call us.”
“At this point, ma’am, I can’t say what TC expects,” Jeff sighed. “At the end of it all Mrs. Pelley, though TC is my friend, he is your son. He’s going to need plenty of support from your family to help him through whatever it is he’s dealing with. The best way for me to support him is by not making him feel that I’m spying on him.”
“Jeff, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that, for your family’s sake, I need to back off and not contact you for a while. I don’t want him turning on you.”
“Jeff, no...” She knew what was coming.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Pelley. I really am. I hope I’ll be able to reconnect with you, Dr. Pelley, Miranda and most of all TC, soon. All the best.”
“Jeff, please wait...”
Jean Pelley’s voice cut off when Jeff hung up.
Jeff made another attempt to visit TC the following week; he hoped they could both be more reasonable this time. He stopped to see SSG Alonzo again before heading to TC’s room.
Alonzo shook his head. “Don’t bother.”
“He’s still closing himself off?”
Alonzo shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s not here any more.”
“‘Not here any more?’ Where is he?”
“Transferred out. He left early this week.”
“Korea somewhere. I’m guessing the DMZ, but I’m not sure.”
Jeff thanked the sergeant and walked outside. He scratched his head for a moment before heading back to his own barracks.
“You know, people are usually dead drunk when they decide to do something like this.”
“That’s a sweeping generalization, Ken.”
“Okay, okay, fine.”
“It’s not like we’re getting our girlfriend-of-the-week’s name tattooed on our chests or anything. And it’s not like we weren’t there, either.”
“Can I help you gentlemen?” asked the shop’s owner when they entered.
“Yes, sir. What would be involved in getting this design done?”
The tattoo artist looked at the paper Jeff held. “Colors?” Jeff held out an 82nd patch and 1/504th‘s jump status oval. “The stars in the same color yellow?”
“Gold for the stars above the rest of design; a bronze color for this one here, if possible?”
“The outline would take a day, filling in the colors would have to be spread out over a few weeks. That bronze star might look better as a bronze-shaded silver one; solid bronze might get lost in the 82nd patch. You both looking to get this one?”
“To the 24th Infantry Division,” Jeff said in Japanese while raising his beer in salute. The two friends were sharing a final drink as roommates in late June.
Ken was no longer assigned to the 504th; he’d returned his issued equipment earlier in the week and signed out of the unit following his promotion ceremony this afternoon. He’d always be a part of its history, though. Jeff’s best friend would depart for his PCS leave in the morning. Ken would report to Fort Stewart and the 24th Infantry Division on July thirtieth.
“You’re taking this better than I thought you would.”
“No, I’m not,” Jeff groused. “I’m just faking it pretty well.”
“We knew this was coming, Jeff,” Ken reminded his best friend.
“That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“‘All good things must come to an end.’”
“Thank you, Geoffrey Chaucer.”
Jeff helped Ken carry his belongings out to his car after PT the next morning. He stood next to the car trying to think of something to say when Ken surprised him.
“Hey, you knowhow I took yesterday off to ‘take care of things in town?’”
“Well, what I needed to take care of wasn’t here in Fayetteville.”
“Where was it?”
“‘Charlottesville?’” Jeff noticed Ken looking behind him. He turned and almost feinted. Jeff saw the most beautiful thing ever walking towards him - Keiko Takahashi. He and Keiko agreed to NOT keep in touch, to not put pressure on their relationship.
Her freshman year was kind to her and she looked more mature; her looks were more womanly than before, less teenager-like. She wore a sundress that matched her dark eyes and hair and also flattered her figure. Her walk was strong, assured, while she approached. Jeff felt a sense of completeness as he gathered her in his arms and kissed her.
“Keiko-chan,” Jeff whispered.
“Hello, Jeffrey. I am glad to see you well.”
“And you, you are more beautiful than ever.”
“Thank you, Jeffrey. Our time is still years away but I wanted to see you, even if for only a few moments.”
“I am glad you did.” Jeff registered the “years away” she’d mentioned. He would bear whatever burden necessary to be with this woman in the end.
“I wish we had more time together today, but Ken and I must leave for the airport soon.”
“This was more than I’d expected when I woke this morning. I trust you when you say our future is coming.” They shared another kiss before Jeff turned back to Ken. The two friends shook hands.
Ken looked Jeff in the eye and quoted:
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother
“I proudly call you my brother, Jeff. I will be even prouder to call you my brother-in-law when that day comes.”
Jeff was at a loss as how to respond at first. He then remembered an old Irish prayer:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
They embraced, wishing each other well. Jeff gave Keiko one more kiss; he then watched the two siblings drive away. It was every goodbye Jeff ever experienced rolled into one.
The sounds of saber-rattling dominated the summer. The U.S. and Iraq were sniping back and forth over the subject of Kuwait, a small, oil-rich emirate in the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, was the personification of the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend;” he’d been acceptable to the U.S. during the Iran-Iraq war, but he was less so now. Jeff noticed an increase in training tempo during Training Cycle in mid-July. Iraq invaded and subjugated Kuwait, its “nineteenth province,” on August 2, 1990; the forced annexation took mere hours. For Jeff it was one more case of déjà vu all over again; he’d seen the same type of escalation before Panama. Second Brigade was the duty brigade and shipped out within hours of the invasion. Third Squad was well-prepared when the deployment orders were issued to the rest of the 82nd Airborne.
The 82nd was little more than a speed bump in the desert until their pre-positioned equipment arrived; arrival of various armored divisions made the “Desert Shield” more than just a name. Jeff celebrated his twenty-first birthday by running through a platoon-level training exercise in full chemical protective gear; the Iraqis had a reputation for using chemical weapons. It took multiple showers to get the charcoal from the MOPP gear out of his skin.
The Soviet hardliners in Moscow, only recently returned to power through a successful coup, were opposed to any sanctions against Iraq. The U.S. used the absence of the Soviet U.N. ambassador to ram resolutions authorizing the use of force against Iraq through a Security Council meeting at the end of November; resolutions condemning Iraq and approving sanctions were also passed in the General Assembly. The Soviets could do little more than watch the growing tide of displeasure with Iraq; the Security Council vetoed any attempted reversal of previous decisions. The Soviets touted the strength of the Iraqi military hardware which they’d provided. Both countries predicted sad times ahead for the U.S.-led coalition.
The 82nd held its place in the desert for months, running exercise after exercise. NCOs from every allied unit maintained a delicate balance of readiness: too much training and their units would lose their edge, too little and they wouldn’t be ready when combat began. The Soviets continued to laud Iraq’s military capabilities and its place as the fourth largest army in the world; the confidence they displayed early on started to wane as Desert Shield continued. The two sides hurtled headlong towards the deadline for Iraq to pull out of Kuwait; the point of no return was the middle of January, 1991. The deadline passed without the U.N.-mandated withdrawal. The world held its breath.
Desert Storm began with a massive air attack at 1800 Eastern Standard Time on January 17, 1991. The recently launched Cable News Network made its name by scooping the Big Three networks; their live reports from Baghdad while the first bombs fell captured the attention of billions of viewers. Coalition forces breached the defensive sand berms far to the south of the Iraqi capital on February twenty-fourth; the intervening weeks saw thousands of Coalition air sorties flown and millions of pounds of ordnance dropped. If it moved, it died; if it didn’t, it died faster.
The Coalition’s iron fist smashed the world’s fourth largest army in just over four days; it became the world’s largest collection of scrap metal under the onslaught. The 82nd Airborne was tasked with securing the area around Tallil, Iraq when the ground war stopped at the end of February.
Jeff was exhausted after two weeks of clearing bunker after Iraqi bunker. The 82nd was still camped in the desert; he’d been spitting sand and dust for seven and a half months. Maybe he could transfer to Fort Wainwright, Alaska, for his next tour.
“Hey, Sarge!” came a shout from behind Jeff. He turned to see one of his soldiers, Mendoza, jogging over to him. “Sarge, the Captain wants to see ya over at the CP.”
“Okay, thanks, Ricky.” Jeff headed to the company’s command tent, making sure he was as squared away as possible. Jeff ducked his head while he entered the tent and looked around for his company commander. His company chain of command all stood near the captain’s desk; this was either going to be very good news, or very bad. Jeff made his way over to the group after removing his helmet. Jeff drew himself to attention in front of the desk.
“Sir, Sergeant Knox reports.” Jeff did not salute since they were in a combat zone.
The captain, who was also standing, nodded at him. “At ease, Jeff. Have a seat.” Captain Matthews motioned to the cheap metal chair next to Jeff. Jeff did so, looking around at the somber faces of the other men before turning back to the captain. CPT Matthews sighed. “Jeff, there’s no easy way to tell you this, but I’ve just received word that Ken Takahashi was KIA two weeks ago during the Ground Phase, back on 28 February.”
Jeff felt like a giant punched him in the stomach. He couldn’t breathe and his vision started to gray out. He put his head in his hands and tried to keep his composure. Ken Takahashi was his roommate from the day Jeff reported in to the 82nd to the day Ken transferred out it, almost two and a half years; they preferred to forget about Campbell. Ken was his best friend, a man he’d called “brother.” Today was to have been Ken’s twenty-third birthday.