A Glass, and Darkly - Cover

A Glass, and Darkly

Copyright© 2018 by The Outsider

Chapter 7: The New and the Old

06 March 2002 – Cole Range, Fort Benning, Georgia

Jeff’s arms shook while straining to hold his fifty-pound rucksack over his head. The assigned task wouldn’t be difficult on a regular day, but this wasn’t a regular day. The cadre at the Ranger Indoctrination Program had driven the candidates hard for the twenty hours they’d been awake so far. The three days since Jeff’s class arrived at Cole Range were sharp departures from the first week of RIP. Those first days ended at 1700. The candidates slept in barracks. But if the cadre here stuck to the pattern he’d seen over the last few days, Jeff’s class wouldn’t get to sleep until sometime after midnight and then only for two or three hours at a simulated patrol base.

Ten candidates dropped out after the first day. The original class of one hundred sixteen candidates dwindled rapidly, more so when Cole Range began. Soon, just fifty-nine remained.

“Why don’t you just quit, old man? There’s a nice warm fire over there. We’ve got burgers and dogs waiting for you, too.”

Through the screaming pain and numbing exhaustion, Jeff recognized SGT Biggs’ voice – one of the RIP cadre – as he stood behind Jeff, out of view. SGT Biggs wasn’t the only member of the cadre trying to plant the kernel of doubt in his mind. They targeted everyone. In that there was no discrimination.

The RIP cadre’s job was to weed out those who couldn’t push past their limits. They delighted in telling candidates there was no quota. In fact there were times when no candidates graduated from from an RIP class. Jeff knew that the entire course was a giant mind game – they were testing him and his classmates. There was no way he was going to quit, however, no matter how inviting Biggs’ question sounded or how good the food smelled. Even as in-shape as Jeff kept himself, the combination of three endless days of physical exertion, of expending more calories than he took in, was starting to chip away at him. His internal struggle whether or not to quit troubled his mind. Although the voice urging him to quit was faint, it was there. It nagged at him. After two hundred four-count flutter kicks the cadre released the class for their evening meal of MREs – the burgers were for the cadre – and a nap. Jeff woke at 0530 the next morning mostly rested.

“How you holding up, old man?” Jeff’s current Ranger buddy, SGT Todd McKnee, asked.

Buddy assignments shifted to keep the pairs in alphabetical order after voluntary withdrawals and cadre drops. McKnee entered RIP to rejoin the Rangers. He was part of 2d Battalion from 1996-2000. He too reenlisted after the 9/11 attacks, but he refused to sign his contract until he was guaranteed another shot at the Regiment. He and Jeff were the only two candidates with prior military service, and the only two sergeants in their class.

“As the SEALs like to say, Todd, ‘The only easy day was yesterday.’ We can only suck it up and drive on until they let us sleep again,” Jeff muttered while they shaved.

The morning and afternoon passed in another blur of PT and ‘hitting the wood line,’ repeated half-mile sprints to the woods and back. RIP was to be endured to reach his final goal: a tan beret and a scroll-shaped Ranger unit patch. The men in charge at RIP were those who’d been there and done that. Jeff once smelled the smoke and saw the elephant too, but not as a Ranger. When he passed RIP he was sure he’d be in the best shape of his life.

That night the instructors put Jeff’s class through a new evolution: night land navigation. He did well at land nav earlier in the week, despite being a decade out of practice. His skills returned with a quick review. Everything else so far at RIP was done with a buddy, but students were sent out for night land nav alone and ordered not to speak to anyone. Jeff suspected the instructors would somehow try to confuse and test them while they searched for their waypoints. At the command to start he shut out the distractions and concentrated on his task. He was acutely aware that hunger and fatigue caused careless mistakes. Being able to perform while hungry and tired was a necessary skill in the Rangers.

All that mattered to Jeff was finding the waypoints on his card. Voices called out to him while he searched the forest for points. He ignored them. Jeff was the fifth or sixth person to finish which earned him almost a half-hour of rest. Todd finished right behind him. They watched another six soldiers pull themselves out of the class. Jeff figured they decided that RIP wasn’t for them, or perhaps they felt they committed some honor violation.

Some of the candidates prepped their rucksacks and other equipment Friday morning for an eight-mile road march. These men hadn’t kept pace with the RIP cadre on the six-mile road march the previous week. Four men dropped out before the march. Todd and Jeff had kept pace. They enjoyed another morning of sprints and upper body-focused PT at Cole Range instead. While the road march group trudged through their evolution, the RIP cadre surprised Jeff’s group with a lunch of flame-broiled burgers, chips, and soda to celebrate completing their week at Cole Range.

“Men,” SGT Biggs said while they ate, “you’ve earned this little shindig by being in the first group on the road march last week and by making it through this week. You’re halfway through RIP but you’ve still got critical evaluations ahead of you over the next two weeks. Don’t slack off. After lunch, police up your things and get ready to move back to the barracks. Use any slack time to check your equipment. When the road march group gets back and they’re squared away, we’ll head back.”

Jeff and Todd weren’t class leaders or subordinate leaders that day but they were always expected to set an example as NCOs. They made sure their gear was squared away, helped the rest of the winners group check theirs, and helped with the road march group’s gear when they returned. Forty-five men boarded the bus back to the barracks. Then three more dropped out.

The final week of March found Jeff enjoying early spring weather in Central Massachusetts. A delayed fifth birthday party for the boys doubled as a welcome home party. Jeff would be home for one week before reporting back to Fort Benning. The 3d Ranger Battalion would be his new unit after they returned from their current deployment and he completed the Special Operations Combat Medic course at Fort Bragg.

Jeff’s combat medic course wasn’t scheduled to start until July 1st. His friend Donal waited for his RIP class to start on April Fool’s Day. Assuming Donal graduated, they’d travel to Fayetteville together. The six-month SOCM course would finish by the end of the year. They’d complete a compressed version of paramedic school, along with extra training, and would complete clinical rotations at a Level One trauma center. When finished, they’d have a knowledge base equivalent to that of a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant.

Jeff experienced another moment of déjà vu standing on a porch in Greenwich, Massachusetts during the middle of his week home. He visited with his friends Kathy and Jack earlier that morning before driving to this house after lunch. He tapped the brass knocker to announce himself as he’d done here so many times before. He smiled at the person who answered the door.

“Hi, Jeff,” Jane Donnelly said, wrapping her daughter’s longtime best friend in a hug.

Jane was first among his friends who told him he was crazy to rejoin the Army when he had a young family to look after. She’d been among the first, however, to also call and apologize.

“Hi, Mom,” Jeff joked before kissing her on the cheek.

Jane hugged him harder. He and Heather considered themselves siblings at one point so they had called both mothers ‘Mom’ for a while. Jane still thought of him as him her adopted son.

“Thanks, Jeff,” Jane sniffed, wiping a tear from her eye.

He kept an arm around the shorter blonde woman while she led him into the living room. There a white-haired copy of Jane rose from the couch to hug him. Every time he saw Alice Cavanaugh Jeff thought Jane and Heather owed their good looks to her.

“Hi, Jeff.”

“Hi, Alice. You haven’t aged since the day I first met you.”

“I should hope not! I’m still twenty-nine!”

“HEY!” barked the other occupant of the couch. “You muscling in on my girl, Airborne?”

“That’s ‘Ranger’ now, Colonel,” Jeff replied, shaking hands with Tom Cavanaugh.

“Congratulations, Jeff, but no more of that ‘Colonel’ nonsense, okay? You’re not that scared nineteen year-old kid I found standing in my office anymore.”

Jeff first met Jane and Heather in December 1988 when the former piloted his plane home from North Carolina. They then gave him a ride from Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee to his family’s annual Christmas party in Dana. The ladies enjoyed four hours at the party, then invited him to dinner at this very house the following week. Once here Jeff learned that Tom Cavanaugh was an Army vet, a former commander of the parachute infantry regiment he served in at the time. Between Tom and Alice they nearly scared the crap out of him that night.

“Roger that, Colonel.” Tom wagged a finger in warning. They shared small talk until Alice asked the question Jeff expected.

“Jeff, still no word from Heather?”

He sighed and shook his head. “I’m afraid not, Alice.”

“I have no idea what’s wrong with that girl,” Jane muttered.

“It is what it is, Jane. When she and I decided that we’d be better off as brother and sister than boyfriend and girlfriend, I told her I’d be her brother for as long as she’d have me. Maybe that’s run its course? I can’t force her to talk to me, and I’m not going to her house to pound on the door! I’d like to be part of the Ranger Regiment for a little while before they toss me out for conduct unbecoming.”

“What she’s doing is wrong!”

“She feels what I’m doing is wrong, Jane. That’s her reality, whether we agree with it or not. If I push, what happens then? I don’t see too many people afraid to speak their minds in this room and I know the apple didn’t fall far from the tree with her. I want my friend back as much as you want her to talk to me again, but it has to be her choice, Jane.”

“Good morning, sir,” the young woman at Brophy EMS said when the visitor stepped into the lobby. “How may I help you?”

“Is Sean Brophy in?”

“Do you have an appointment with Mr. Brophy today?”

“No, not today.”

“I will have to see if he’s available to meet with you in that case. If you’ll give me your name I’ll see if he has time to see you, sir. Feel free to have a seat while I do so.”

Jeff nodded and sat where he waited for his first interview with Seamus Brophy in 1993. Like that day he didn’t have to wait long. Within a minute of the receptionist’s call to his office, Sean burst into the lobby. Jeff rose to meet him. Sean ignored his outstretched hand and embraced his friend.

“Holy shit, are they feeding you cement?” Sean asked, squeezing Jeff’s bicep.

“The workouts got a little intense during Ranger Indoctrination.”

“You think?”

“Are you going to say hi to me, or just ignore me for the rest of your visit?” a different voice asked.

Jeff looked behind Sean to see another of his former partners, Shawna LeStrange, smiling at him. He hugged her, too.

“I expected to find this misplaced Southerner here, but this is an added bonus, Shawna. How have you been?” Sean McNeil Brophy was born and raised in Clinton, North Carolina and earned a business degree at Duke before moving to Boston.

“Before you guys start catching up, let’s go to my office and let Terri have the lobby back.”

Those who worked in the Malden office before Jeff’s departure for DMD two years ago sprang up to greet him. Walking to Sean’s private office took almost twenty minutes.

“So you’re a Ranger now?” Sean asked once his door shut.

“Well, I’ve made it to the Regiment, Sean. They say that it’s harder to stay there.”

“Like that’ll be a problem,” Shawna snorted.

“I’ve still got probably a year of training before I make it to being an official Ranger medic, Shawna. I have to make it through both upcoming courses. Then I have to get up to speed to be a useful part of my unit once I get there. Training is constant in the Regiment. Even more so now. I’ll have to meet and maintain the standards.”

“You’re still not done with training?” Sean asked. “Does that add time to your enlistment?”

“No, I signed a four/four contract – four years active duty and four years inactive reserve. I’m headed to my Special Operations Combat Medic course in July. That’s six months of training. Ranger School after that is another two months of training. Depending on their class schedule it could be close to a year before I’m finished and at my unit. The time spent training won’t add time to my enlistment unless I have to repeat part of either course. I owe the Regiment twenty-six months once I finish SOCM. Anyway, how are things here?”

“Good, despite a gaping hole in one of our divisions’ management team.”

“Come on,” Jeff replied. “It can’t be all that bad, can it?”

“It’s okay,” Sean admitted. “I’d be happier if you were still out in Shirley running things. Your team’s taken up much of the slack out there and Dad and I are about ready to name an interim operations manager. We forget how nice it is to have someone else looking after all the daily details until they’re not.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Sean looked at his friend from across his desk. “There are no guarantees in life, remember?”

Jeff’s brief visit back to the civilian world ended before he got the chance to fall back into that life again. In a way it was a blessing. He wouldn’t have to re-acclimatize himself to the military like in October. His week was long enough, however, to let him catch up on the happenings around the country.

Jeff learned the administration was trying to link other countries in the Middle East to the September 11th attacks, more specifically Iraq.

“Which is crap,” he muttered to Keiko while they watched the news the night before he returned to Fort Benning. “The Iraqis couldn’t find their asses with two hands and a flashlight right now! They’ve only just poked their heads up after a decade-long civil war! There’s no ‘government of Iraq’ to have ties to Al-Qaeda or Bin Laden!”

“I do not see how they are drawing these conclusions either, Jeffrey.”

“At least the President made the effort last year to distinguish between the terrorists and the typical followers of Islam. I don’t think even the mullahs in Tehran would go so far as to side with those thugs. They may call us ‘The Great Satan’ but openly siding with terrorists would be beyond the pale.”

Keiko hugged Jeff harder. “Your class will not finish until the end of the year?”

“If the coursework doesn’t kill me before then. It’ll be the equivalent of half of medical school condensed into under a year, if you count the clinical rotations.”

Keiko shivered at the phrase ‘kill me.’

“And then?” she asked.

“Sorry,” he said in response to her shiver. “Ranger School. That’s another two months, if it fits into 3d Battalion’s combat rotations. I don’t hold an infantry MOS any longer but I am an NCO, so I think that means I’ll go before I report to my company. I’ll find out for sure when I get back to Georgia.”

“Will you be allowed visitors?”

“I should be, at least while I’m in the classroom portion of the training. I hope to be able to stay in contact better than during RIP, too.”

They sat in silence for a moment.

“Each day that passes brings you closer to the day you will go to war,” Keiko whispered.

“I can’t promise that I won’t get hurt, Keiko, but the guys I’ll be with are some of the best in the world at what they do. I’ll be as safe as I can be in that environment.”

Keiko burrowed further into her husband’s arms. Taking care of the kids and focusing on her class lesson plans helped keep her mind off where Jeff was headed. The quiet times were when the worries about the dangers he faced crept in.

Keiko fell in love with Jeff the moment they met in his barracks room at Fort Bragg. Her brother Ken told his family how Jeff became his friend within days of reporting in, and soon became his best friend. Then his roommate and Keiko fell hard for each other the weekend she visited. At that point Jeff still had two years to go on his enlistment. Keiko had just finished high school and would be at the University of Virginia until 1994. Years of separation, other relationships, and even Ken’s death hadn’t kept Keiko and Jeff from marrying in 1996, only two years after reconnecting.

Jeff was Keiko’s life partner in every way. She could no more imagine her life without him than life without the children. Wrangling three children under five years old by herself wasn’t any fun, but having her parents next door made things so much easier. The children were showing themselves to be the product of their parents’ guidance, love, and attentiveness even at their young age. Keiko hoped his reenlistment would not cause Jeff’s influence to diminish.

Keiko knew she came unhinged the day of the September 11th attacks. Her behavior that day still surprised and concerned her. Since her parents’ safe return that dark day she’d held herself together. The exception to that was when Jeff announced he would return to the Army. Her friends and family knew Keiko as a tough, strong woman. While this was true something she recently heard was also coming true: “She’s strong but she’s tired.” She had no choice but to remain strong for her family especially with her partner absent. She couldn’t afford to let her fears and weaknesses show right now.

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