Island Mine - Cover

Island Mine

Copyright© 2013 by Refusenik

Chapter 1

Wednesday Afternoon, November.

Waylon Eckermann turned the key and listened closely to his pickup truck's starter motor. It was a beautiful November day with just a hint of a cool breeze and not a cloud in the sky. Waylon had purchased the pewter colored truck six months earlier when he'd left the Navy. The used vehicle, with eighty thousand miles on the odometer, had taken a big chunk out of his savings.

As a first year student at Northwest Texas State University he was required to live on campus. There were no exceptions, not even for a veteran. The university believed the rule helped students integrate into campus life, and they would be more likely to graduate as a result.

Waylon's truck wasn't necessary, since he could walk to all his classes and nearby stores, but it was a symbol of freedom. He needed to be able to escape campus, and his idiotic roommate.

Ideally, he would have had his own room, but a fire the previous winter had seriously damaged the university's sole single occupancy dorm. As a result, all dorm residents were forced to double up, while second and third year students were encouraged to move off campus to help with the housing crisis. Waylon had lived in much worse conditions in the service, but he was a civilian now, and Leon, his roommate, was an eighteen year old want-to-be music producer and a slob.

Waylon tensed as the starter motor ground. He had stayed in shape after leaving the service thanks to the university gym, but let his hair grow out to emphasize his civilian standing. His brown hair and brown eyes made it easy for him to blend in. He was a little above average height, and his last girlfriend said he was attractive enough in his own way. He'd puzzled over the comment before deciding it wasn't something he could change anyway.

The truck started after a few anxious moments. The last thing he needed was a break down. His GI Bill money took care of most expenses, as long as he stuck to his budget. He wanted to concentrate on school, so he'd avoided getting a part time job. He did have a way of earning money, but it wasn't a regular gig.

He put the truck in gear and drove away from campus. He didn't have any particular destination in mind. He just wanted to clear his head. The prices at the corner gas station made him wince. He'd have to keep the trip short. He reached the outskirts of town, passing a city limits sign, and looked for a place to pull over. Levall, Texas, was a nice town with a population of forty-two thousand, not counting the eight thousand or so NTSU students. The city was founded in the 1830s by a regional railroad baron named Hanford Levall.

Waylon spotted a turn off and pulled over. Stretching his legs he dropped the tail gate and took a seat, his legs dangling loosely. He liked this part of Texas. Levall was located between Lubbock and Wichita Falls, with Abilene to the south. Northwest Texas Teachers College, as it was then known, was founded in 1919, with the idea of training soldiers returning from the First World War as teachers. The school, and its mission, had grown over the years, but its desire to serve veterans remained and that appealed to him. He had looked at the big state schools, but he didn't want to be yet another nameless face among fifty thousand other students.

He liked Levall immediately when he visited NTSU. The city reminded him of a nicer version of his hometown of Tyler, Texas, and the campus located in the heart of town was very convenient. NTSU's top rating with the various veterans' organizations sealed the deal. Some universities offered better services for veterans above and beyond their competitors. Waylon, and other post 9/11 veterans like him, took notice and acted accordingly.

He glanced at his watch. He had hours yet before his freshman Astronomy class meeting. The class was going to view the Leonids meteor shower, and had planned to meet at a farmhouse north of town. The weather looked to be perfect for viewing, if the meteors would cooperate. Waylon jumped down the from the tail gate and slammed it shut. Inside the truck cab he put the driver's seat back as far as it would go and got comfortable. He could get a good nap in. The peace and quiet of the truck was a welcome break. His roommate was nice enough, but there was a world of difference between them. The kid loved loud music, and at eighteen he hadn't figured out that nobody else was going to clean up after him.

Waylon fingered the small golden cross around his neck absently. The necklace had been one of the few things of his mother's that he had kept. A faint smile crossed his lips. His mother would have told him to stop bitching and deal with his problems. She had never been one to complain, not even after his father left them. Adele Eckermann had been a strong woman. His father, Ronald, left the family after Waylon's eighth birthday to "find himself." He found himself alright. In fact, he found an entirely new family in Orlando, Florida. As it turned out, Waylon had a half brother, Raymond, or Ray Ray as the one Christmas card he received from the new family informed him. Other than that one card, Waylon and his mother didn't have any contact with his father or his second family.

Despite the hardship, his mother made it work. Adele was the office manager for a Tyler dental practice. Growing up, Waylon never realized they were poor. He always had enough food, decent clothes, and very clean teeth. In later years, his mother joked that they had a long ways to look up, to even see middle class. He progressed through school on B's and C's, and baseball. He had little direction after graduation, but attended Tyler Junior College for three semesters. Locally they joked that it was the thirteenth grade, and it felt that way with so many students he recognized from high school attending right along with him.

On a whim he'd stopped at a Navy recruiter's office. He'd been stuck in traffic, on his way to register for the new term, and had taken a shortcut through a strip mall parking lot. Spotting the recruiting station he stopped in. He took the screening test, talked it over with the recruiter and signed up. To his surprise, his mother was very supportive when he told her what he had done, saying that military service might be the best decision he'd ever made.

A month later, he left for boot camp at the Navy's Great Lakes, Illinois, training center. He'd signed a contract for a three year hitch, the least amount of time he could get away with. It had some drawbacks. He wouldn't get the advanced training offered to other recruits and would serve in whatever capacity the Navy desired. He imagined that he would be scrubbing toilets on a ship somewhere. The tradeoff was that he'd receive full GI Bill benefits in exchange for three years of active duty service, and five years of active reserve duty afterwards.

Boot camp wasn't a pleasant experience, but he tolerated it. After nine weeks the rest of his recruit company departed for their various training schools. Waylon, and a few others, were left behind to wait for their assignments. They were unskilled labor, and most would be sent to various ships throughout the fleet. The Navy did let you fill out a 'dream sheet' indicating where you'd liked to be stationed, but as the name implied it had little relation to reality. Waylon put down Japan, Italy, and England as his preferred choices, but was pessimistic about his chances. All were shocked when their orders came through and Waylon was assigned to a cushy billet at Naval Station Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He put it down to his seniority, small as it was. He'd entered the Navy with enough college credits to gain an automatic pay grade bump over the rest of the recruits.

Hawaii was a paradise, but a bit rough around the edges if you weren't careful. It was an expensive duty station for a sailor fresh out of boot camp. Surrounded by military history, Waylon spent the first ten months at Pearl running a floor buffer, painting, and any other miscellaneous tasks the facilities maintenance supervisors could throw at him. He shared quarters with three other junior sailors, and got along well enough with them. His second month in Hawaii he visited the Arizona Memorial. It was a surprisingly moving experience, standing on the memorial overlooking the watery grave and still leaking oil of the USS Arizona. He couldn't help but feel a connection to the sailors entombed there. His tour group on the boat ride to the memorial had been made up almost entirely of Japanese tourists. They were polite and gave him shy nods when he made eye contact. He wondered what the young Japanese tourists felt when viewing the memorial.

He had a welcome change of duties when he was reassigned to the motor pool as a driver. He drove a ubiquitous white government van all over the port facility and nearby Hickam Air Force Base. He'd make the occasional trip to the Honolulu airport to pick up arriving personnel, or shuttle officers over to the big Pacific command center at Makalapa Crater. It wasn't challenging work, but at least he got to go places, and he didn't have to buff quite as many floors.

Waylon had been looking for direction from the Navy, and a bit of personal discipline. His low skill duties weren't challenging, and he still felt aimless. His chief encouraged him to strike for a rating, a method of achieving the naval equivalent of a military occupation specialty without going through formal schooling. Chiefs run the Navy, as they like to tell you, and it was true for the most part. A chief is a senior enlisted rank, a sort of middle management between the lower enlisted ranks and the officers. They have the seniority and experience to get things done. There were good ones, and bad ones, as in every other field. Waylon's chief was a good enough sort, but his main overriding goal was to reach his twenty years and retire. The chief was paranoid about being caught in one of the many potential scandals that could ruin a Navy career, and thus his retirement. In the modern Navy that could mean anything from a drunk driving charge to a claim of sexual harassment.

Waylon considered his options, and for no reason other than it sounded interesting, he started studying for the Master-at-Arms rating by correspondence course. There were all sorts of military skills that you could learn via correspondence if you had the time. Those in the Master-at-Arms rating were the Navy's police and security force. In all likelihood, his three year tour of duty would end before he'd qualify, but it kept him busy and the chief happy.

When he turned twenty-one he discovered the girly bars that clustered around Waikiki. He went a little wild and spent a lot of time drinking and partying off base. His monthly calls home became more erratic, and his supervisor told him that he'd better shape up or he was headed for trouble.

Everything changed one spring morning. He was hung over when he got the message to report to the chief's office.

The chief looked at him grimly, "Son, there's no easy way to say this, but we got word through the Red Cross that your mother died."

Waylon barely heard the rest. The Navy gave him compassionate leave, and a priority category for travel aboard a military transport. It was traditional to offer 'space available' seating to military personnel and their dependents, when it didn't interfere with the aircraft's mission. It would save him a ton of money flying home and back. He hopped a C-5 Galaxy, a gigantic Air Force cargo jet, from Hickam airfield to Travis Air Force Base in California. The rear upper deck of the Galaxy could fit seventy passengers with airline style passenger seating, it was alright except you sat facing the rear of the aircraft. From Travis he caught another Air Force flight to San Antonio. Once there he grabbed a taxi to the civilian airport, and paid a couple of hundred dollars for a commercial flight home to Tyler.

He went through the funeral preparations in a daze. His mother had died from a stroke, but learning the cause wasn't any comfort. She had been the one thing in his life that made sense. At least she hadn't suffered. It was a small funeral attended by a few friends and distant relatives. An aunt from his father's side of the family showed up and tried to corner him about who was getting money from his mother's estate. He took great pleasure in seeing the crass woman thrown out of the church. His father of course, was a no show. He hadn't expected him to make an appearance since it would have been the human thing to do.

He had thirty days compassionate leave, but only made it to day sixteen before he decided to leave Texas and return to duty. He'd done all he could. Without his mother there was nothing for him in Tyler. He'd cleared out her small apartment, and put a few things in storage. The rest went to Goodwill or to local second hand shops for sale. There was a modest life insurance policy and a small bank account to deal with. He'd had to retain a lawyer, and suspected that most of the money would end up going towards the lawyer's fees.

It took two days to get back to Hawaii. He ended up going to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, by bus, to catch a flight to California, and ultimately Hawaii. He spent a lot of hours in the military air terminal waiting to catch that first flight, and it gave him a lot of time to think. He hadn't liked what he'd become. He had gotten puffy from months of recreational drinking and swore that he'd change. By the time he deplaned at Hickam Air Force Base, his uniform smelled and he needed a shave.

Back in his barracks room, he showered and shaved carefully. He changed into his best regular uniform. He made sure his shoes were polished and walked to the administrative offices that serviced the command he was assigned to. He checked in off leave, and requested permission to see the section chief. He hadn't been expected back for another couple of weeks, but the request was granted.

The military was fighting the War on Terror, although you wouldn't know it in sunny Hawaii. Iraq and Afghanistan were a world away. It might have been guilt over his mother's death or disgust at his recent behavior, but Waylon desperately needed to do something worthwhile. He told the chief he wanted to volunteer for the inauspiciously named Navy Individual Augmentee Program.

"Son, are you sure? You've just returned from compassionate leave, I wouldn't want you to make a decision you'll end up regretting."

Waylon could still remember the look of concern on the chief's face.

He was honest with him, "Chief, I need to do this. If I stay here I'm liable to end up in trouble with you or in the brig ... it's time I grew up."

The chief stared at him for a while before nodding his head and agreeing to run the request up the chain of command. The chief told him to return to his duties, and that it might be a few days before he heard anything.

The reason for the chief's concern was simple. The Individual Augmentee Program was the Navy and Air Force's response to an Army problem. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had overloaded the Army. Navy and Air Force personnel were being trained to fill Army needs, taking on all kinds of non-combat duties, and even a few specialized combat roles. If accepted, Waylon would not fill a combat slot, but in the War on Terror combat could come to you even in the unlikeliest of places.

His superiors were surprised at the request, but after an additional meeting, this time with the command's executive officer, his name was submitted for review. Two weeks later he shipped out to San Diego. In San Diego he was run through an exhaustive physical. His records were brought up to date and he filled out a revised will. He spent five days being processed by the Navy before he was turned over to the Army at the largest military facility he'd ever seen, Fort Stewart in Georgia. He was issued new gear and spent three and a half weeks learning how to integrate into Army life. For the Army, the Navy and Air Force augmentees were curiosities that they enjoyed training 'the right way' to overcome their parent services' deficiencies. The trainers were combat veterans and put them through extensive weapons familiarization and maneuver training. Translated to English, when Waylon wasn't at the firing range, or in a classroom, he ran in combat boots and learned the ways of the Army while carrying a heavy rucksack.

Three weeks may not have been a lot of time, but the condensed training was intense and Waylon was determined to make the most of it. The Army decided he wouldn't be a danger to himself, or them, and put him on a crowded charter flight to Kuwait along with a couple of hundred deploying soldiers. He spent two weeks in Kuwait getting acclimated to the heat and receiving some ad hoc training, but he still had no idea what the Army had in store for him. He could end up working in a supply depot or driving a truck, it all depended on what the Army needed.

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