A Glass, and Darkly
Chapter 14: No Easy Hope, Part II
Copyright© 2018 by The Outsider
29 August 2004 – East of Kandahar Airfield, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Dirt showered down over 1st Squad.
“DJ, go!” yelled Trace Dinkins. DJ hesitated. “MOVE YOUR ASS, DJ!”
That got DJ moving. The AK-47 rounds impacting around him did also, despite the threat from small IEDs scattered through the compound.
DJ’s M-4 chattered, spitting out covering fire as the rest of the squad bounded. 1st poured round after round onto the target house, trying to save the mission; red tracers made the scene look like one from science fiction. Two weeks of chasing this band of insurgents had those insurgents pinned inside; now 1st Squad’s premature detection threatened their successful capture. The platoon couldn’t afford to let them slip out the back and disappear again; the other squads rushed to block routes of escape around the sides of the house. DJ vaulted a low wall trying to get behind the building; Ruben Montes followed as backup.
A dust cloud appeared behind the wall the pair vaulted moments earlier.
“DOC! MEDIC UP!”
Jeff scrambled to keep up with Terry Nauert as both raced to the wall. Terry fired a long burst from his Mark 46 light machine gun through a window while Jeff scaled the wall and dragged DJ behind cover. Jeff didn’t have to look very hard for injuries; DJ’s left leg below where his knee should be was missing, and the stump pumped blood into the dirt. DJ tried to get up but his motor control was gone; he likely had a concussion too. Jeff tore the tourniquet off DJ’s armor, opened it in a wide loop, and cranked it down around the remains of DJ’s left thigh.
Jeff ripped open the shredded right leg of DJ’s BDUs. A quick scan revealed no other life threats, though a chunk of the man’s right calf was missing. He pulled his rifle into action and cut down an insurgent with a pistol running toward him. The uninjured trio looked for more threats but found none.
“Go, Doc! Get him out of here!” Ruben yelled.
Jeff tightened his rifle to his body. He hauled DJ up and across his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. He sprinted for an opening in the wall some fifty yards away; the rest of the squad covered his exit by pouring fire into the house. Behind another wall he lowered DJ to the ground. A pressure dressing over the stump to keep it clean during a detailed assessment; another over DJ’s right calf to cover the large hole in it. Jeff left the other shrapnel wounds covering the rest of DJ’s right leg alone for now. Cutting open DJ’s right sleeve Jeff scrubbed at the man’s arm to clean an IV site. While he attached the IV line his platoon leader, Lieutenant Snow, ran up with the RTO.
“You need dustoff, Doc?”
“I need it like yesterday, sir. DJ’s already lost a lot of blood. He’s about to get some blood expander, but he needs the real thing – and surgery – at the hospital.” Jeff started a second line as he talked.
“You got it. Sushi, switch over to the MEDEVAC freq.”
Ben Suchenski – the RTO – punched in the right frequency setting and handed the microphone to Jeff.
“Kandahar MEDEVAC, Kandahar MEDEVAC, this is Romeo Two Two Whiskey. I have a MEDEVAC request, over.”
“Unit calling for MEDEVAC wait one ... Break ... Romeo Two Two Whiskey send your traffic, over.”
Jeff gave Kandahar MEDEVAC the report on DJ’s condition known as a nine-line. He gave them only the first five lines of the report so they could launch the aircraft; he’d give the rest of the report to the medics on the coming chopper. He gave DJ’s condition as ‘Urgent Surgical.’ The MEDEVAC center read it back to verify they heard it correctly. Jeff confirmed they had.
“Roger, Romeo Two Two Whiskey. Return to three, one, two, seven, seven, and await contact from assigned MEDEVAC asset. E-T-A is two-zero mikes. Copy?”
“Romeo Two Two Whiskey, two-zero mikes, roger. Out.” Jeff turned to his lieutenant. “Now we wait, sir. Chopper in twenty mikes.”
“Right. Back to our freq?”
“Yes, sir. Dustoff will call us on three one two seven seven.”
“You heard the man, Sushi. Jeff, you need any help? We’re secure.”
“Can you spare one of the other lifesavers from somewhere, sir?”
“I’ll get one right over here.” The lieutenant clapped his medic on the shoulder and jogged away. Sushi stayed with Jeff to help communicate with the incoming chopper.
Norm Oteri ran up seconds later. He turned as pale as DJ when he saw his friend’s condition. He shook off the shock. “Whaddya need, Doc?”
“Help me check for other injuries, Otto. We’ve got less than twenty minutes before dustoff arrives.” The pair found a shallow shrapnel wound to DJ’s belly, but the jagged metal hadn’t penetrated the muscle fascia protecting the abdominal cavity; the metal piece fell out of DJ’s shirt when they pulled it open. When they removed the dressing covering DJ’s stump to flush dirt from the wound he began to scream.
“What’s he yelling?”
“Gibberish, Norm. He’s concussed. I’m going to give him some Versed to calm him down.”
“Why not pain meds?”
“Opiates can raise intracranial pressure. Benzodiazepines don’t and the Versed is also an amnestic; he won’t remember a damn thing about the injury or transport after I give it to him. He’s lost a fair amount of blood so we probably don’t have to worry about his ICP, but his pressure’s too low to add opiates to benzos; the combo might drop his pressure even more. I don’t want to take the chance.”
“Hey, Doc,” Sushi called, extending the radio mic to Jeff.
“Dustoff Seven One to Romeo Two Two Whiskey, over.”
“Norm.” Jeff handed Norm an infrared strobe and pointed where he wanted it placed. “Dustoff Seven One, Two Two Whiskey. We are marking the west edge of LZ with an IR strobe; I say again: marking west edge of LZ with India Romeo strobe, over.” Jeff described the LZ and the unarmed medical chopper set down two minutes later. Armed escorts circled overhead. Jeff, Norm, and two of their platoon-mates carried DJ’s stretcher to the waiting chopper. The chopper’s flight medics took Jeff’s brief report and climbed inside. Jeff jogged back to the platoon as the chopper flew off.
“He gonna be alright, Doc?” 2LT Snow asked.
Jeff shrugged. “Above my pay grade, sir. Norm and I gave him the best care we know how to; the flight crew and the docs at K-town will do the same.”
“Good enough. Our ride will be here in ten. Let’s get ready to get the hell out of here.”
“Where’s he headed next?” Rick asked while he and Jeff watched the Air Force C-17 loaded with wounded claw its way into the sky.
“Landstuhl. Probably Walter Reed after that. He’s looking at a long rehab with his good leg as it is, never mind the one he’s missing.” Jeff sighed. “When are we getting the hell out of here?”
“To go back to Bagram? About two weeks.”
“Not frikken soon enough,” Jeff muttered.
“It’s not like that area’s a vacation spot, either.”
“I can do without an op every night, Rick.”
“You and me both, brother. At least there we’ll catch a night off once in awhile.”
They made their way back to their tent. One of their fellow Rangers there sat on his bunk rubbing at his neck as they reentered.
“How you doing, Monty?” Jeff asked.
Ruben Montes continued stretching his neck. “I’m okay, Doc. Nothing eight hundred of ibuprofen won’t take care of.”
“More? You go easy on that stuff. You start shitting blood and it’s time to back off for a few days.”
“A decade and a half of medical training and that’s your advice?” their platoon sergeant asked. “‘Back off if you start shitting blood?’”
“You wanna butt out, Rick? This is a private, patient-provider type of discussion here.”
“I think one of my guys passing out in the shitter falls under things I need to know.”
“He hasn’t passed out yet so, no, you don’t need to know unless and until he does.”
“Anyway, you said you think DJ was distracted, Monty?” Rick asked, changing the subject.
“Definitely, Sarge. Normally he would have spotted that IED, but that skank from home told him she was pregnant just before we went out on the mission last night.”
“Why would that distract him? Didn’t you tell me your girl’s pregnant, too? You haven’t lost your focus.”
“Roma’s going on four months pregnant, Sarge; she told me just before we came down here last month. She and I got it done before we deployed. The skank told DJ she was one month pregnant, the stupid bitch. Unless DJ took a flight home and came back without us noticing, someone else’s plugging her.”
“Wonderful. Jody’s got his girl and gone,” Rick muttered, paraphrasing a line from an old cadence.
“Someone keep an eye on Terry,” Jeff cautioned. “He’s gonna be lost without his partner in crime.”
“Never thought I’d miss this place,” Terry Nauert muttered when they walked into their old tent at Bagram.
“Home sweet home...”
“Right, Doc,” Trace snorted. “I’m surprised they still don’t have those plywood B-huts finished.”
“I’m glad they don’t, Trace.”
“We need to get the job done and get the hell out of here. The last thing we need is to start getting comfortable here; that’s just inviting mission creep.” Jeff sighed. “Rick, when are we getting the new guy?”
“Should be here today or tomorrow.”
“What’s his name again? Alphabet?” Nauert asked.
“Har, har, Terry. Blajewski, if you must know.”
“Wait, who did this kid blow?”
“Still not funny, Terrence,” Rick replied, crossing his arms.
“Hey, guys?” Lieutenant Snow called while stepping into the tent. The platoon snapped to attention but he waved them back to at ease. “There’s a USO show tonight, a concert. I grabbed tickets for everyone while I was over at the garrison office, if you guys are interested. Lord knows you deserve it after the past month.”
“Thanks, sir,” Rick answered for the group. 2LT Snow was sharp for a butter bar; he let the NCOs manage the minor details of the platoon while he kept his eyes on the big picture. He also took care of his Rangers. “Who’s playing tonight?”
Jeff smiled when he heard the answer.
“They put on a really good show.”
“That they did, Rick,” Jeff replied. “Not my normal kinda music for the most part, but you can tell they love to play.”
“Not your normal kinda music? You mean because it’s from this century, Doc?” Nauert asked.
“You’re cruising for a bruising, Terry.”
“You know, Doc, we coulda been through the line and back in our tent by now if you’d’ve let us get up by the stage, rather than having us stand in the back.”
“Is it past your bedtime, Terry? You don’t have to stand in line to meet the band, you know? You can always head back by yourself.” Terry smirked at him but didn’t leave.
“Why did we stand in back anyway, Doc?”
“We weren’t ‘in back,’ Stan; we were in the middle of the arena near the soundboard, remember? Acoustically, that’s the best place to see a concert.”
“‘Acoustically’ that place was like a cardboard box!” complained Shawn Engle, one of Enos’ machine gunners.
“So think about how it would have sounded standing somewhere else. Turn around, guys. We’re finally at the tables.”
That night’s band sat behind a series of tables signing autographs. Progress through the line was slow due to the number of photos they also allowed the service members to take. The band couldn’t say no to requests from their country’s fighting men and women.
Jeff shook hands with members of the band, thanking them for coming to Afghanistan to play for the troops; they in turn thanked him for putting himself in harm’s way in their name. Jeff made his way down the line of tables collecting the signed pictures until he reached the lead guitarist’s table.
“Who should I make this out to... ?” the man asked, his question fading when he looked up and recognition dawned.
“With as long as you played tonight and how many photos you’ve probably signed by now, I’m surprised your hand hasn’t fallen off yet, you dried-up old has-been.”
“Wha ... wuuh...”
“You always this articulate these days, George, or you still dealing with jet-lag?”
George Adler stood, came around the table, and wrapped the man he considered his savior in a bear hug; his eyes watered while he slapped Jeff on the back over and over. Jeff’s platoon and the other servicemen and women stared at them in shock. The two friends separated smiling at each other.
“You look good, George. You lose some weight?”
“A little,” George said, smiling again. “Kelsey’s got me on a diet. What about you? Did you swallow a set of weights or something? You look even bigger than when I last saw you in 2001.”
“I had to show these kids I could keep up,” Jeff replied while hooking his thumb at his platoon.
“George?” Kelsey Goodacre asked as she stepped up to the two friends. She slipped her arm around George’s waist; he did the same to her in return.
“Kels, you know the Jeff I always credit with saving my life? This is him!”
The gawkers’ shock grew when Kelsey Goodacre, the biggest crossover artist in American music, pulled Jeff down to kiss him on the cheek and give him a hug. The trio looked back at the now-stalled line when she released him.
“I should let you two get back to work,” Jeff said.
“You think you’re just gonna show up like that and disappear again?” George protested. “How many of your friends are here with you?”
“My whole platoon. About forty of us.”
George looked at Kelsey who nodded before walking away.
“Was it something I said?”
“Actually, Jeff, yes it was. She’s going to find our senior production assistant so you and your platoon can wait for us where the after party’s supposed to be. Like I said, you’re not getting away that easily.”
“I can’t believe you know George Adler!” Rick said shaking his head five minutes later while they waited for the band.
“I’ve known him for ten or eleven years, Rick, but haven’t seen him since the summer of 2001.”
“How’d you meet him?”
“I’d rather not violate federal law by telling you. George can if he wants when he gets here.” The platoon stared at him in silence.
George, Kelsey, and the rest of the band stepped into that silence a minute later. More back-slapping followed their arrival. Jeff introduced the platoon before sitting back down.
“How are Keiko and the kids?”
“They’re good, George, thanks. It’s been tough getting by with only the occasional sat phone call and emails, but Keiko’s been trying to keep me up-to-date.”
“Any recent photos?”
“Most are back in our tent, but I’ve got one of our whole family from before we deployed in my pocket here.”
“The kids are so big! How old are they now?”
“We deployed before Sabrina’s birthday in June; she just turned six. The boys turned seven in March.”
“Keiko hasn’t changed.”
“Are you kidding? Her parents still look the same as when I met them in ‘89! She won’t change if she lives to be one hundred!”
“Jeff,” Kelsey broke in, “we usually have something to eat after a show. There’s plenty of food coming; would you and your friends like some?”
“Thank you, Ms. Goodacre...”
“Kelsey,” she insisted.
“Kelsey. You won’t hear any of these Rangers turn that down, that’s for sure!”
The Rangers mixed with the band and crew in the buffet line, laughing and joking with them. When they found seats around the room, Terry kept the seat next to him open. One of the crew went to sit in that seat.
“I’m sorry, that’s for...” He stopped mid-sentence. “Two weeks. You’d think I’d remember by now,” he muttered.
“How long have we all been together as a unit, Terry?” Stan asked. “Plus this is the first time we’ve had the chance to let our hair down since we put him on the plane.”
“Who was the chair supposed to be for, Jeff?” Kelsey asked.
“Our friend DJ. Dieter Joachim Schultheis.”
“What happened to him?”
“He lost a leg to an IED blast while we were in Kandahar last month.” Many of the band and crew blanched at Jeff’s blunt, matter-of-fact statement.
“Is he going to be okay?”
“Should be, Kelsey,” Jeff shrugged. “Norm and I got him stabilized and on a chopper after the blast. Docs at the hospital down there made sure he was stable, did some surgery on the stump of his left thigh and the hole in his right calf, and then shipped him out to a military hospital in Germany. He’s looking at a long rehab stint at Walter Reed Hospital in DC.”
Silence descended on the people in the room.
“My God...” Kelsey whispered while wiping a tear from her eye. “The sacrifices all of you make...”
“Ms. Goodacre, DJ is my best friend but he wasn’t the only person deployed to this country to make a sacrifice,” Terry said gently. “There are people in this very room who have also sacrificed, and I’m not counting myself or my fellow Rangers.” He leaned forward in his seat. “You, you and your band, the crew, you all have sacrificed to come here and play for us. Sure you can draw comparisons about the sizes of our sacrifices, but being here has cost each of us something, or will.”
“I hope it won’t cost anyone else here too much,” she replied.
“‘No easy hope... ‘“ Jeff muttered.
“Here he goes again,” Josh laughed, giving the guys a small smile.
“What’s that?” George asked.
“It’s Kipling, right?” Toby Blom, the drummer, asked.
“Exactly,” Jeff said, surprised. “From his ‘For All We Have And Are.’”
“Who?” George asked.
“Rudyard Kipling,” Blom explained. “A British writer known for many different kinds of works – journalism, poetry, prose, short stories, even children’s books – at the end of the Nineteenth and start of the Twentieth Centuries. The story Rikki-Tikki-Tavi was itself an original part of The Jungle Book, which was written by him.”
“He was known informally as ‘The Poet of the Empire’ at one point,” Jeff chimed in.
Blom nodded. “I studied English Literature in college, but dropped out to play music. I remember that one from a class on how writing is used to sway opinion. Powerful.”
“What’s the line you were thinking of, Jeff?” George asked.
Jeff ignored the smirks from his fellows and quoted the entire stanza:
No easy hope or lies
Shall bring us to our goal,
But iron sacrifice
Of body, will, and soul.
There is but one task for all
One life for each to give.
What stands if Freedom fall?
Who dies if England live?
“He’s a barrel of laughs, isn’t he?”
“Wish in one hand, shit in the other, and tell me which one fills up first, guys.”
“Mellow, Doc. Mellow,” Rick laughed. The other Rangers joined Rick’s laughter; the musicians did also, but with a nervous edge to it.
The time in the band’s company started to wrap up on that uncomfortable note. The Rangers posed for a picture with the band, collected the t-shirts which were offered, and filed out of the room. Jeff lingered to say goodbye to his old friend.
“It was good to see you again, Jeff. You’ve got a lot of good things waiting for you at home. Be careful.”
“Trying my best, George. Trying my best. Any chance you can send a copy of that picture to Keiko? I won’t tell her we ran into each other here so you can surprise her with both the photo and the email.”
“That’s the miracle of digital photography, Jeff. It’ll be in her inbox before she goes to bed tonight, probably before you go to bed.” George paused. “Don’t let this place change you too much, Jeff. I didn’t want to say anything in front of your friends, but there’s an edge to you now I didn’t see before I left Boston.”
“I’m trying there, too, George. I can see that edge myself, but can’t really do anything about it right now. I need to have that edge to survive here.”
George didn’t have anything else to say. He slapped his buddy on the back before they parted.
The up-armored Humvees crept down the wide, dry riverbed; they carried 2d Platoon closer and closer to their objective in the pitch black. The only thing which might give them away now was the noise from their muffled exhausts and the crunch of their tires. The drivers, Rangers from the battalion support company, stayed with the vehicles while 2d Platoon crept away.
The Rangers detected a dog before they crossed the open field between the riverbed and the compound, one placed as an early warning system. Their designated marksman ‘neutralized’ it with a suppressed rifle from a distance; the Afghans didn’t have an ASPCA the Rangers would have to worry about.
1st and 2d Squads would be the assault team this night. They slipped into the building undetected. The team captured that night’s target without incident, without anyone inside waking before they wanted them awake. Still, Murphy’s Law being what it is, the Rangers didn’t get away unscathed.
“Medic up, base of the first floor stairs,” was the calm radio call.
Jeff dashed inside to find three Rangers standing around a fourth.
“This isn’t a good place to try and take a nap, Stan.”
“Kiss my ass, Doc,” Mauer groaned from the floor. Stan’s left shoulder hung at an odd angle. His nose bled, also misshapen. Through his visor and the dust on Stan’s face Jeff could see the man was pale.
“What happened, Stan?”
“One of the mud stairs crumbled as I was coming down and I lost my balance. It’s okay, though. I broke the fall with my face.”
“Ticketmaster, you on, sir?” The lieutenant’s call sign changed after the concert; the enlisted Rangers only used it on missions and never inside the wire.
“Right here, Doc. What do you need?”
“A Humvee cleared and brought up for a casualty on my foldable stretcher, sir. Leg and shoulder injuries from a bad landing.”
“Two minutes and you’ll have it.”
“Roger. Thanks, sir.” Jeff looked up. “Otto, start getting Stan’s gear off, carefully; his shoulder’s probably dislocated.” Jeff pulled out a pair of trauma shears to cut the leg of Stan’s BDU trousers.
“Can I go back in, Coach?” Stan tried to joke.
“Be about six to eight weeks, kid. Your face will scare children for longer than that, unfortunately.”
“That’s nothing new.”
Jeff nodded. “You’ve got a broken nose and dislocated shoulder at least. The way you’re gasping every time I move this foot I’m guessing you broke your ankle, too.” He looked Stan in the eye. “Your boot has to come off. We’re gonna start an IV and give you some pain medicine first, but then I’ve gotta be able to check your ankle and foot with my own eyes; I have to make sure you’ve still got good blood flow there.”
“Mrs. Mauer’s little boy ain’t gonna argue with that plan, Doc. The ankle’s already effing throbbing!”
Jeff heard the Humvee pull up outside while he worked but kept getting Stan ready to move. He and Norm Oteri prepped their buddy for the almost twenty-five minute ride back to Bagram. Once Stan’s ankle was splinted, wrapped, and he was flying high on pain meds, Jeff nodded to the others; they carried Stan out to the waiting vehicle.
“Someone tell the Highway Department their road sucks,” Stan muttered during the ride. Jeff patted his good shoulder.
An hour later Jeff stood at a light box studying an X-ray of Stan’s right ankle.
“Classic fracture-dislocation,” a familiar voice said.
“What’s up, New Hampster? Haven’t seen you in a while.” Jeff shook Mickey Kasperson’s offered hand.
“Oh, you know, I’ve been out and about doing good works at the behest of our benevolent leaders.”
“Hmfph,” Jeff snorted.
“One of yours?” Mickey asked while nodding at the image.
“Yeah, one of our fire team leaders. Took a tumble down a bad set of stairs tonight. Broke his nose and dislocated his shoulder in the fall, but this ankle is what will keep him sidelined for about two months. Stan’s lucky we aren’t still using traditional NVGs or landing face-first with those in place would have snapped his neck.”
Mickey nodded. “You guys get out of Kandahar in one piece?”
Jeff shook his head. “One of my combat lifesavers lost a leg. Needless to say he’s back in the States now.”