A Glass, and Darkly
Chapter 12: The Nature of the Beast
29 May 2004 – Outside Fort Benning, Columbus, Georgia
Keiko sat on Jeff’s lap at their hotel in Columbus. Keiko and the kids flew down for the Memorial Day holiday with both sets of parents; the children slept in the adjoining room. Jeff would be part of the ceremonies on Monday honoring the fallen who gave their lives for their country. Their families were here to watch and be with him before he left to put his on the line.
“Keiko I can’t imagine this will be your favorite subject, but we need to talk about what I’ve put in place if I don’t come home.” He felt his wife stiffen. “I don’t want to put this off any longer.”
“No, you are right, Jeffrey,” Keiko sighed. “It is a subject which warrants discussion. I am guessing you have already set funds set aside for the children? The accounts we have been meaning to establish for them?”
“Yes, there are funds for each of their educations and separate, general trust funds. I’m also naming you my proxy in any business related to Neptune’s Forge; I trust Sacha to be honest with you and give you the pros and cons to whatever she presents you.”
“Does she contact you frequently?”
“We talk occasionally, but not with any frequency; she says she likes to keep me in the loop though, since we own thirteen percent of her company.”
“I do not understand how their products work.”
“I don’t either, Keiko, beyond the basic theory of fusion, that is. You have common sense, which is more important than technical knowledge for us at this point; thankfully, Sacha and her team have it as well. They balance that common sense with the daring needed to innovate.”
“Is there more?”
“Yes. My will leaves everything to you in the event of my death; that’s probably no surprise to you. There’s also a separate living will which makes your temporary proxy permanent, and spells out certain medical wishes, in the event I become mentally incapacitated as a result of injuries sustained.”
“And when you come home?” There was no ‘if’ for Keiko.
“There are certain parts of the wills which will automatically update if – sorry, when – I return alive and unharmed.”
Keiko asked no further questions, but sat silently in her husband’s strong arms.
“I am scared, Jeffrey,” she said in a whisper.
“I won’t tell you not to be, Keiko; part of me is as well. There are thousands of troops deployed right now and though the percentage of them who return wounded – or not at all – is low, it’s not zero. That low percentage is scant comfort to the families who are living with the aftermath; I know I don’t need to explain that to you or your parents.
“I want to see the kids grow up, finish school, and live their lives. I want to see the amazing people they will become. To see them fall in love, see them marry, and have children of their own; if they choose another path I will be happy for them, too. Most of all, I want to be by your side to watch that happen and grow old with you. I want to see your face when you hold our first grandchild for the first time.
“I’m leaving to fight a battle I believe our country should be fighting. The Taliban gave aid and comfort to an enemy, one which attacked us in the most brutal way; they both need to be put down and put down hard for that reason alone. The Taliban still hold the southern and southwestern portions of Afghanistan and, if what I hear in the news is correct, they still support active terrorist training camps in those regions. We need to make sure the Northern Alliance captures those areas and destroys those camps, or we need to do it ourselves. Our government seized all the Taliban’s assets they could identify in this country and shut off their funding sources. Our military operations are draining their bank accounts, too.
“To get through this deployment I need to be confident in my skills and those of the soldiers in my unit. We are trained as well as anyone out there. We train often and we train with intensity. Sometimes I think the saying ‘work hard, play hard’ was invented for people in the military, Rangers in particular. ‘Yea, though we walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death we shall fear no evil, because we’re the meanest sons-a-bitches in the whole damn valley.‘“
Keiko couldn’t hold her fears inside any longer; she began to sob. “Let it out, Keiko. You’ve been so incredibly strong these last three years. I know you’ve been putting on a brave face for our families, and for the kids in particular, but let what you’ve been hiding go.” Her tears soon soaked his shirt.
“I love you, Jeffrey,” she sniffed.
“And I you, my Keiko-chan. I’ve loved you since the day we met. I believe we still have many years together yet to come, in spite of my preparations.”
Former Rangers stood with active duty members on the shores of Victory Pond for the Memorial Day ceremony at the Ranger Memorial. Time may have softened some of the veterans’ bodies, but it hadn’t taken the fire from their eyes nor the steel from their spines; Jeff wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of their displeasure, even now.
While Jeff and his mates heard the names of the fallen, the older men remembered the men behind those names. Men who scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc teared up at the memories of friends, fellow warriors, sixty years after D-Day. Jeff saw Keiko, in the stands watching the proceedings, bow her head while remembering her brother; he hadn’t been a Ranger but this day was set aside to honor all of the nation’s fallen. By this time his three kids knew he would deploy next week. He was glad they understood why they were here and not lying on a beach somewhere.
Regimental headquarters and 3d Battalion hosted a cookout for everyone after the ceremony. This was the battalion’s informal sendoff. Jeff’s kids found ready playmates in the other children at the party; shrieks and the sound of young laughter filled the area. Active Rangers who hadn’t deployed before listened to the stories told by both former and current Rangers who had; the stories were of their departed friends, of the shit they pulled in the barracks and off-post together – not combat – for the most part. The men cried because they laughed so hard at some of the stories.
The wives and girlfriends sat in a quiet, gloomy group thinking about the impending separations. They would soon say goodbye to their men; some would never see them again. Those who lived through a deployment before put on brave faces and tried to comfort those who hadn’t. Keiko, Mayumi, and Marisa were silent; the only extended deployment experience two of them could share would be the kind none of the other families wanted to think about.
When Jeff’s family gathered back at the hotel the men noticed their wives were very quiet. Nothing was said while the children were awake; neither of the mothers said anything until they were in their rooms with the dads. In contrast Keiko remained silent for the entire night, even when curled up next to Jeff in their bed. Jeff could feel her tension, her not wanting to unload her fears on him again this close to his departure.
Army and 3d Battalion flags whipped in the breeze. Colored campaign streamers fluttered above those flags; they flashed and snapped in their own rhythm. The battalion stood at ease in formation on the parade field listening to the muckety-mucks speaking from the podium. The soldiers’ thoughts were of their deployment less than twenty-four hours away, not the speeches.
Their separation – once months away – now loomed over the families sitting in the stands like the crest of a giant wave; they once hoped it wouldn’t break over them, but it was now inevitable. The speeches sounded good on TV but stole dwindling time from the soldiers and their loved ones.
Finally the command ‘FALL OUT!’ came. The unit dissolved into individual family groups. Wives and children clung to their soldiers after the ceremony. Most drifted away to be alone; the Knox family was no exception. This was 3d Battalion’s official sendoff and its Rangers would load onto the C-17s taking them to war early the next day.
Jeff’s family stayed in Columbus to be with him as much as possible before he deployed. Keiko would use up her time off because of two days’ delay in the battalion’s departure, but her principal told her not to worry about it. Carl Hammond wasn’t a veteran but, as the principal of a school where almost twenty-five percent of students had at least one parent in the military, he understood the stresses of a family facing deployment. Keiko, who hadn’t been out at all this school year, earned considerable leeway.
Keiko and the kids drove Jeff to the 3d Battalion area the next morning. No one there raised an eyebrow at the sight of Jeff carrying his daughter over from the parking lot; other Rangers repeated the scene numerous times before the 0700 assembly time. He put Sabrina down so he could say goodbye to the boys.
“I love you guys,” Jeff said to Alex and Ryan. “You take care and I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Figures you’d leave while the Sox are doing so well,” his oldest, now seven, remarked while fighting tears.
“We’ll go to Fenway together after I get home, Alex. I’ll get some awesome seats and we’ll all go, okay?” Alex nodded while trying not to cry; boys don’t cry, he kept thinking. “You’ll have to sit through a Bruins game at the Garden with your brother and sister in return, though.” Jeff noticed the looks on both boys’ faces. “It’s okay to cry, guys. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.”
Ryan – near tears himself – shook his head. “Mom and Sabrina will start if we do.” Jeff ruffled their hair before turning back to his daughter.
“I love you, Princess; I’ll write as often as I can.” Sabrina nodded, burst into tears, and nearly popped his head off with a hug around his neck; that set everyone else off. When their tears stopped, Sabrina stepped back to let Jeff say goodbye to her mother. The boys put their arms around their sister to comfort her.
Keiko kissed Jeff harder than she ever had in her life. “Come back to me, Jeffrey,” she pleaded in a whisper.
“3d Battalion! FALL IN!“ echoed through the area before he could reply.
“I will, Keiko. I love you.” Jeff kissed her again before he hustled away to join Bravo Company.
Keiko knelt behind their three kids and hugged them while they watched their father march away.
“I’ll be glad to get off this damn plane,” Rick Mendoza said for the third time that hour.
“Careful, Rick,” cautioned Jeff. “You’re gonna hurt the nice Air Force crew’s feelings.”
“With as long as we’ve been on this flight, they’re probably ready to open the ramp and tell us to get out and walk from thirty thousand feet up.”
“We had that layover at Ramstein.”
“That was so they could pump the toilets out.”
“We got real food out of that layover instead of another MRE.”
Rick snorted. “MRE – three lies for the price of one. And that ‘meal’ wasn’t more than a drive-by; we barely sat down! I think we got more time to eat at Airborne School!”
“You’re not going to be Debbie Downer for our whole deployment, are you? That’ll make for a long twelve months.”
“If I can’t bitch to you, Bones, who am I going to bitch to?”
“I thought bitching went up the chain of command?”
“Yeah, but you’re not in my chain of command, so it’s even better. I can bitch to you all I want!”
“It’s gonna be a really long year I see,” Jeff replied while massaging his temple. The Air Force crew began passing the word they would land in ten minutes.
The C-17 bumped down on the unseen runway; there weren’t any windows in the -17’s cargo area Jeff could see out of. Bravo Company formed up on the tarmac behind their plane and began marching toward the terminal building. A breeze from the northwest brought an unpleasant odor.
“Okay, that’s vile,” commented Emilio Reyes, a private on his first deployment.
“Yeah, I don’t know what Geddy meant when he sang about ‘the fragrance of Afghanistan,’ but I’m sure that wasn’t it,” Jeff replied while biting back the urge to vomit.
“Who?” Trace asked.
“Geddy Lee, the lead singer of Rush. That’s one of the lines from their song ‘A Passage to Bangkok.’”
“Then what the hell is that?” Reyes asked.
“They’re probably burning the dried fecal matter from the latrines.”
“The shit, Emilio, the dried shit from the latrines,” Jeff said. “Where do you think the phrase ‘shit detail’ comes from? They must have older model deployable latrine recyclers here. With those models you have to manually remove the ‘solids,’ douse them with diesel fuel, and light them on fire; they send the recycled water to the fusion generators as fuel. The current models incinerate the solids internally; ultra-high temperatures and a two-stage incineration process eliminates most of the smell, too.”
“How do you know so much about the latrine units, Doc?” asked DJ Schultheis.
“Ensuring proper sanitation in camp is part of my job description, as is knowing how to achieve that.”
Bravo Company and the rest of 3d Battalion marched through the gates of a sprawling fenced-off area with several large tents. Bravo remained inside the area and in formation for five minutes while the other companies filed into some of those tents; they were told to hold all questions as they waited. A tent large enough for their whole company was their destination after the wait. An officer stepped to the front of the tent.
“Men,” he began once Bravo Company sat, “my name is Captain Sears from CENTCOM J-3. Welcome to Afghanistan and Bagram Air Base. When you leave this briefing you will be given one full magazine for your M-4s; those of you carrying an M-9 or M-11 will get one mag for that weapon as well. No ammunition will be issued for your machine guns, nor grenades for your -203s, while inside the wire; you’ll get that before you leave for any missions. You may seat the magazines in your weapon, but your weapons are to remain on ‘safe’ and you will not chamber a round.
“We are seeing an increase in what we’re beginning to call green-on-blue violence; that is ‘trusted’ Afghans in uniforms opening fire on US or allied forces. The policy of unloaded weapons inside the wire left those blue forces helpless, hence the change. The north, south, and west sides of the base – the sides of the base closest to the city of Bagram – currently have completed barrier walls of offset, back-to-back HESCO bastions topped by a third. The perimeter wall is not yet finished to our east, though that gap is closing every day and is controlled with rolls of concertina.”
There’s a cozy thought, Jeff thought. The possibility of enemy inside the wire – just what we need.
“The Taliban still hold most areas in and around Kandahar and Helmand Provinces. The Afghans have not experienced much success in rooting out the insurgents in that area. To date US policy has been to provide support to the Afghans without directing their policy in their country; that is about to change. We will be taking the fight to the Taliban rather than hanging back and waiting for our hosts to take care of things.
“While other units will concentrate on patrolling, getting to know the people in their AORs and the main enemy strongholds there, your battalion will be CENTCOM’s troubleshooters; your combat power will be brought to bear in areas where we’ve run into difficulty. Two companies will be assigned to the four southernmost provinces, while the other two companies will be responsible for necessary missions in the rest of the country.”
“I wonder how much door-kicking we’ll do on those ‘necessary missions?’” Rick asked under his breath.
“Our fair share, I’m sure,” Jeff replied in the same manner.
“‘Bad boys, bad boys, whatchu gonna do? Whatchu gonna do when we come for you? Bad boys, bad boys... ‘“
“This ain’t TV and this ain’t COPS, Rick. I won’t be readin’ anybody their rights.”
The briefing lasted another few minutes before the captain cut them loose. The company filed past tables outside and received their ammunition allotment. They were directed to 3d Battalion’s area once back in formation.
“Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home,” Jeff said while tossing his duffle bag on a cot inside 2d Platoon’s temporary tent.
“What did you guys call this kinda place back in the day, Doc? A ‘hooch?’”
“Nauert, I’m gonna dropkick you right over the perimeter wall; I was not in Vietnam! I did spend close to seven months in GP-Large tents in Kuwait and Iraq during the Gulf War, however. This place is like the Hilton compared to those places! It’s even got a floor that’s not dirt!”
“Half a year in a tent?” Reyes asked, clearly displeased with the prospect.
“Not exclusively, no. I did spend about a week sleeping in a Bradley; I’ll take the tent over that any day.”
“Suck it up, Emily!” Nauert yelled from the other end of the tent, using the nickname Reyes earned because he whined too much one day; Emilio flipped him off. “It’s only gonna be six weeks or so before we’re in those plywood B-huts they’re building. We just gotta wait our turn. Hell, at least there’s air conditioning!”
Jeff walked into the base hospital along with the other battalion medics and their PAs the next day. One of 1st Batt’s PAs led them on a tour of the facility, pointing out where they could restock their medical supplies; 1st Batt would rotate home in a week, after 3d settled in. The hospital was a series of interconnected rigid-wall tents complete with climate control. They even had an ICU wing with air purifiers.
“This hospital is the equal of any trauma center in the continental United States; it might even surpass them. We see more trauma here in a week than the largest centers stateside will see in a whole year. Like our country’s past conflicts what we’re learning here will be used to improve trauma care back home.
“The staff here is highly motivated and they are among the sharpest clinicians I’ve ever met. The level of trust our battalion’s medics enjoy regarding their skills in the field is unmatched anywhere. Be straight with these people. They will be as exhausted as you will be and tempers will flare over the course of your deployment, but do not take it personally when it happens. They will also be genuine when they apologize for their attitudes later. Remember, we’re all here for the same reason.
“Casualties from the south come north to us or one of the other allied combat support hospitals to get them away from the heaviest fighting; those requiring care in the far north go to our CSH near Dushanbe in Soviet Tadzhikistan. Those of you who will be stationed away from Bagram will be based out of secure compounds within HH-60 flight range of here or other compounds. Many of those compounds will also host forward surgical teams to stabilize your casualties before they’re evacuated to a CSH.
“Helicopter evac here is very good, but there’s a lot of ground for them to cover. If you need to call for dustoff be aware that you may get an Army HH-60, an Air Force MH-60, or one of our allies’ choppers depending on where you are. All the flight medics in-country have been around the block if they’ve been here any length of time, and some of them have been around the block multiple times. There will not be a time where you get two wet-behind-the-ears medics or PJs on the same aircraft, regardless of which nation they’re from.
“Those of you with previous experience, whether it be civilian or military: watch your new folks. Watch everyone for burnout; watch for that thousand-yard stare. Be persistent when you recognize it in your Rangers and try to help them. Be accepting if someone recognizes that in you. You are the ones who will understand what each other is going through; no one else will come as close to understanding later.”
Jeff noticed a small medical library space within the hospital; he learned they were welcome to – and were expected to – take advantage of any of the hospital’s available resources if they had questions during their tour in-country. This included asking hospital staff if they had questions as well.