A Glass, and Darkly
Chapter 5: Déjà Vu
15 October 2001 – Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas
“I borrowed a couple beers at dinner, Terrance. Please excuse me while I step down the hall and return them.”
The sound of Terrance’s laughter followed Jeff to the latrine; while returning to their room he heard Terrance bark, “Hey! Put that down, Zambrano!” Turning into the room Jeff found an unknown man there holding the picture of Jeff’s family from his desk.
“Who’s the slope, Terry?” that other man asked Jeff’s roommate. First impressions are difficult to overcome; the mystery man now faced a hard time getting on Jeff’s good side, especially after opening his mouth again. “I bet she sucks a mean...” The mystery man didn’t get the opportunity to finish his statement. Jeff snatched the photo frame out of his hand and startled him; he hadn’t seen or heard Jeff come in.
“Terrance? You gonna introduce me to this asshole?” Jeff glared down at the man who’d been going through his stuff. At five-foot-eight the other man craned his neck up to look at Jeff’s six-foot-two frame.
“Frank Zambrano,” Terrance answered; his tone of voice made it clear he didn’t consider Frank Zambrano a friend.
“Get out of my room, Francis. Don’t ever touch my shit again. Better yet, don’t come back again.” Jeff made no move to get out of Zambrano’s way; the other man glared back. Neither moved for minutes. Zambrano blinked first: he snorted and left the room. Jeff kicked the door closed.
“Sorry, Jeff. He came in uninvited, and I didn’t think he’d start pawing through your stuff.”
Jeff waved off the apology. “You called him on it, Terrance; that’s what matters. You just meet him, too?”
“No, he was in my Basic Training cycle at Fort Sill.”
“Yeah, just my luck he followed me here, too.”
“That’s one off the list,” Jeff muttered while placing the family photo back on his desk.
“What list?” Terrance asked.
“The list of personalities you find in a barracks. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure if that guy is the barracks asshole or the barracks bully.”
“Yes.” Jeff raised an eyebrow; Terrance explained. “You asked if he was the barracks bully or asshole. The answer is yes; he seems to have the ability to be either or both when he wants to be.” Terrance shook his head. “Enough about the asshole. How long have you been in?”
“Four years, but like I said that was over a decade ago, Terrance. For the past ten years I’ve been an EMT and paramedic back in Massachusetts.”
“Are you an American Association for EMS paramedic?”
“If you’re an AAFEMS paramedic why didn’t they let you skip part of the training?”
“They gave me the option but I decided against it. AMEDD’s still revising the AIT schedule to account for AAFEMS certification; up until less than a year ago, AAFEMS certification wasn’t on their radar. If I skip they reassign me to a different cycle. Eventually they say the EMT class will be first so they can just start you when the Army-specific stuff starts.”
“You’re gonna be bored as hell during that part of the class.”
“I’ll still need to pay attention, Terrance, since AAFEMS has agreed to count AIT towards my re-certification in two years. I’ll need to pass that portion to get the credits.”
“How are you, my husband?” Keiko asked. “Are you settled in there?”
“I am, yes, Keiko. How are the kids?”
“The children still do not quite understand your departure, though Alexander has a better grasp on the circumstances behind it than the younger two.”
I’m not sure I have a firm grasp on why I left, either, he thought. “Yeah, concepts such as terrorism, religious hate, and collective fear are not something I’d expect kids under five to understand; I’m not sure I understand them all that well myself. How are you, Keiko?”
“I already miss you, my beloved,” she sighed. “I have grown quite used to your presence beside me at night over the last seven years; your absence is palpable.” Jeff said nothing for several seconds. “I do not say that to upset you, Jeffrey. ‘It is what it is,’ as you are fond of saying. What you are doing is important. Please make sure, however, you are one of the Rangers you help to return home safely.”
“I’m going to do my best on that score, don’t worry. What’s going on with that ‘Patriot Act’ stuff we heard about before I shipped out?”
“Some in Congress have finally slowed the adoption of the bill. It appears it was not even printed for review before a certain segment of Congress attempted to have it voted on; many admitted they had not read it before being ready to vote on it, either. It is currently stuck in committee.”
“I’m glad they weren’t able to ram it through; that’s a bit scary.”
“It is, Jeffrey, particularly when you read some of the proposed measures included in the Act: indefinite detention of immigrants without a trial, designation of any group as a terrorist organization without cause, passing of domestic information to the Central Intelligence Agency in violation of their mandate to refrain from spying within the United States ... The list is seemingly endless and endlessly terrifying in its scope!”
“‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’ Once lost these civil liberties will be gone forever; the Founding Fathers understood that, particularly Franklin.”
“The pendulum is starting to swing the other way now that the shock of the attacks is beginning to lessen.”
Jeff offered another quote: “‘Eternal vigilance is the price of Liberty.’”
“Last night Soviet Chairman Vavilov offered to allow overfly rights to warplanes from the United States during operations against the Taliban,” Keiko mentioned. “He says it is better if the Soviet Union does not reenter Afghanistan given their past history there.”
“I saw that; he also offered any logistical support the Soviet Union could provide, including hosting American planes at their bases in that area. He’s right about them not going back in, though; I doubt any in this country would support returning troops to Vietnam for any reason. This is already going to be a messy fight. No sense adding to the issues surrounding it.”
With the exception of Jeff, Class 02-02’s ranks contained people who volunteered for the military before September 11th. All of the ‘youngsters’ as Jeff called them were stunned by how fast the course of their careers changed. Many were once angry like Jeff once was, though that anger had cooled with time and was now replaced by firm resolve. Others were flat-out scared by what might lie ahead for them; Jeff tried to catch those soldiers alone and help them talk it out on a peer-to-peer basis. One of their classmates – Zambrano, naturally – decided to channel his emotions into harassing Jeff. Jeff did the sensible thing and ignored him.
That only made Zambrano try harder, of course. He took every opportunity to make a snide comment or insult Jeff when he thought the drill sergeants couldn’t hear. Thursday afternoon, after the class drew their field equipment from Fort Sam’s Central Issuing Facility, Jeff approached the lead drill sergeant for their cycle.
“Excuse me, Drill Sergeant?” Jeff asked from the doorway to the man’s office.
“Yes, Knox?” Of all the soldiers in the cycle Jeff Knox was the least needy one, and the last one Dale Chin ever expected to see in his office after only three days. Chin waved Jeff in. “At ease, Knox. What’s up?”
“I’m sure you’ve noticed the treatment I’ve been receiving from one of my fellow soldier medics this week, Drill Sergeant.” Chin nodded with a dark look. “May I ask you to let me handle it tomorrow morning?”
Chin’s eyes narrowed. “That soldier’s not going to have an ‘accident’ in the latrine is he, Knox?”
“Negative, Drill Sergeant! I was thinking more along the lines of a peer-led demonstration during the APFT in the morning, Drill Sergeant.”
Dale Chin smiled a sly smile at Jeff. “You’re gonna smoke that guy aren’t you, Knox?”
“I’m gonna try my damnedest, Drill Sergeant.”
“He’s what? Half your age?”
“Almost, Drill Sergeant, yes.”
“Okay. I’ll speak to the other cadre and give them the heads-up. If tomorrow doesn’t take care of it we will later, understood?”
“Loud and clear, Drill Sergeant!”
0430 came early despite the 2100 Lights-Out call the night before. Jeff and Terrance fell in with the rest of the company wearing their PT gear and marched to the nearby fitness track. By 0515 the company divided into small groups for their first Army Physical Fitness Test at AIT.
Zambrano wasn’t in Jeff’s group but that didn’t stop him from continuing to make comments from the line next to Jeff’s; Jeff continued to ignore Zambrano. The younger man kept it up even as the two got into the front leaning rest position for the push-up portion of the PT test. Jeff rolled his eyes at Zambrano’s evaluator before concentrating on the grass in front of him.
“Go!” came the command from the company first sergeant.
Part of Jeff’s brain registered the count of his push-ups increasing with each repetition while he continued to knock them out. Part of it noted that Zambrano’s count remained at nineteen for three repetitions before increasing again; this meant Zambrano wasn’t meeting the standard for the exercise and those repetitions didn’t count. Jeff grinned and kept pushing. After two minutes Jeff’s count was one hundred two to Zambrano’s fifty-five. The results were almost the same for the sit-ups: one hundred eight to sixty-three.
Zambrano’s taunts dropped off after hearing how the old geezer did. Still, he believed he’d best Jeff during the two-mile run.
Jeff lined up far to the outside of the track when their turn for the run came around. Zambrano snorted, thinking Jeff would have to run much further on the outside than along the inside rail. One of the cycle’s young women joined Jeff at the far end of the starting line; they nodded to each other before the command to start.
Before the first turn Jeff led the pack and settled into a pace just off that of his sprints; only the toes of his shoes came into contact with the track’s surface while his long strides ate up the quarter-mile oval. He flew down the inside lane, passing the slower runners of his group by the end of his fourth lap. Jeff didn’t spare a glance or a breath for Zambrano when he passed him.
During his sixth lap Jeff noticed he was being shadowed. Sparing a glance over his shoulder he saw the young lady he nodded at earlier matching his pace; that was no mean feat since he was almost a foot taller than her. Jeff saw the other groups begin to line the edge of the track hoping to catch a glimpse of the developing race. The rest of their cycle began cheering them when they entered their final lap. Jeff knew he’d be tested by the woman pacing him by the end of that final four hundred forty yards.
She began her kick on the final backstretch, trying to pass him. She pulled even with Jeff and forced him to try and increase his pace as they entered the final turn. Jeff drew on what reserves he still had and searched for his normal sprint’s rhythm. The unlikely pair crossed the finish line at the same time.
Jeff wobbled to the outside of the track to begin a cool-down walk. He turned back to the starting line at the first turn and approached the woman who’d given him so much trouble; the dark-haired teen gulped lungfuls of air while holding her hands above her head. Jeff smiled and held out his hand.
“That was a hell of a run,” he said.
“Thanks,” she grinned back. “Mishka Gupta.”
“Jeff Knox. Track star?”
Gupta nodded. “Three thousand meters.”
“Shit, a ringer!”
Mishka smiled. “I’d have had you if my strides were as long as yours.”
“Damn right you would have! What’d we just run? Six-minute miles?”
“Just off that. I think I heard ‘twelve-thirty’ when we crossed the line.” She gave him a sidelong glance while they walked back to the scorers at the finish. “I’ve been hearing Zambrano give you the business all week, calling you ‘old geezer.’ Do you mind if I ask how old you are?”
“I turned thirty-two in August.”
“You just crushed that run! How did you do on the push-ups and sit-ups?”
“Maxed out on both.”
“A three hundred? Shit. The push-ups are always my weakest event; I usually top out at thirty to thirty-five, which is seventy-eight to eighty-eight points for me. I haven’t managed to crack two-ninety yet.”
Staff Sergeant Chin conferred with Jeff’s evaluator, Sergeant Donna Markoff, as the two runners approached.
“I think you took care of the problem, Knox.”
“We’ll have to see, Drill Sergeant. He really doesn’t concern me any longer; I’m aiming for my Whiskey-One ASI, so that’s all I care about right now.” A Whiskey-One Additional Skill Identifier would earn Jeff the chance to become a Ranger medic.
“You no longer mind because he no longer matters?”
“Something like that.”
Jeff sat at the desk in his barracks room over the weekend studying the standards for common medic tasks; Terrance was out doing extra running to augment their regular PT sessions. Music from Jeff’s iPod played softly over the small speaker on the desk. His foot tapped out the song’s rhythm of its own accord while he read.
Terrance stepped into the room with his t-shirt soaked in sweat. He closed the door behind him before noticing the music. He stood at the door trying to place the song.
“What’s that song, Jeff?”
Jeff looked up. “‘Would?’ by Alice In Chains.”
“Alice In Chains. They started out as a grunge band in the mid to late ‘80s but they’ve been drifting away from that. They’ve been sort of quiet over recent years due to their lead singer’s drug issues.”
“Jeff, I turned eighteen before my graduation in June; I wasn’t born until the early ‘80s!”
“I think we’ve already established I’m old, Terrance.”
“And you’re still the PT stud of the class, despite your age.”
Jeff shrugged. “If I make it to Ranger Indoc, the Special Operations Combat Medic course and Ranger School, I’ll just be a face in the crowd at those places.”
“Yeah, okay, old timer,” Terrance chuckled, grabbing his shower stuff. He cocked his head. “Do you have that song on repeat?”
“Yeah. There’s this one part of the song I really identify with right now: ‘So I made a big mistake / Try to see it once my way.’”
“You’re talking about your reenlistment, aren’t you?” his roommate asked, drawing a nod from Jeff. “But you don’t see reenlisting as a mistake despite what your friends have said, do you?”
“No,” Jeff said, a sad smile on his face. He turned back to his studying.
The cadre introduced the skills of an Army medic in the time-honored fashion of crawl-walk-run, also referred to as ‘hear one, see one, do one.’ For the majority of the class the information was new. For Jeff it was about half and half; the medical side he’d seen many times before but mixing it with the tactical environment was new. Tactical EMS was an idea that was just beginning to interest him in the civilian world before his departure from it. Also new was the idea he may need to care for up to four patients at once in the back of a Humvee ambulance, twice as many potential patients than as a civilian.
Many of Jeff’s fellow students approached him for clarification on class topics once they heard he was a civilian paramedic. He was able to explain things while also explaining that how they needed to be able to evaluate and treat a casualty – in a tactical environment – was new for him.
His classmates also wanted to hear his war stories of civilian EMS. Jeff cautioned them that pediatric casualties would be the hardest ones to face. When the others reminded him there weren’t many pediatric soldiers in the Army his friendly demeanor evaporated.
“So none of you think you’re gonna deploy after the attacks in September?” Jeff asked with an edge to his voice.
“Well, some of us will, sure,” replied Altti Niklasson, a nineteen year-old farm boy from western Minnesota.
“And you don’t think there will be kids caught in the middle of the fighting, Al?” The others sat back when they saw a look settle over Jeff’s features. The friendly, outgoing man they came to know since the start of AIT vanished in an instant, replaced by one who looked drawn and tortured; the visitors left his room as fast as they could.
Terrance stared at his roommate while the others left. Jeff looked much older than the thirty-two Terrance knew him to be. “When?” he asked once they were alone in their room.
“Two summers ago,” Jeff replied in a hollow voice. “It was the call that pushed me off the road and into the office. I needed counseling afterward and I was doing okay with it until now.” He scrubbed at his face. “Shit, it just hit me like a damn hammer while we sat here.”
Jeff looked at the young man across the room. “The part that unnerved me the most at the time, Terrance, was that my kids were the same age as the two we transported that day. Those two little girls were severely beaten by their mother’s boyfriend while she was at work.” Jeff looked down the hands which he’d begun to wring during his explanation. “Their mom worked at a coffee shop our company’s ambulances frequented; she was a favorite of the customers for her upbeat and friendly personality.”
“Did the girls make out okay?”
Jeff didn’t respond at first, staring at the wall without seeing it. Terrance waited him out. “The younger sister, Ruby, did; she started preschool this year at the same place where my kids go, though she’s in a different group.”
After a minute Terrance asked, “And the older sister?”
Jeff sighed. “Liliana Josette Sepulveda was pronounced dead on 15 July 2000, minutes after my partner and I got her to a hospital in Boston; she was laid to rest a week later in Medford, Massachusetts. She was three, Terrance, the same age as my two sons at the time. My daughter is Ruby’s age.”
“That’s the demon that’s chasing you, isn’t it?”
“One of ‘em. I’m on reasonably good terms with this particular one now, so it should retreat now that I’ve acknowledged it tonight.” Jeff turned back to his desk and closed the books on it. There was no way he’d get any more studying done that night.
The AAFEMS EMT upgrade portion of Jeff’s AIT class began the week before Christmas 2001 and would stretch for four weeks, until January 18, 2002. He and the rest of his class would have the week of Christmas off, then return; not ideal from a teaching standpoint but from a personal one it was. Jeff would take a chartered jet home from San Antonio’s Stinson Municipal Airport the morning of the twenty-second; he’d return on the thirtieth.
Staff Sergeant Chin pulled Jeff aside after the end of PT before the first day of class. “Knox, you know we’re starting that EMT upgrade class this morning, right?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant?”