A Glass, and Darkly
Chapter 6: The Consequences of Choice
03 February 2002 – Camp Bullis, San Antonio, Texas
“The Greatest Show on Turf will crush your Patriots, Knox! My team’s gonna win this game!”
It would figure Zambrano’s a Rams fan, Jeff sighed to himself while rolling his eyes to Terrance. Today was Super Bowl Sunday; the New England Patriots would play the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI in a half-hour.
Charlie Company was midway through their end-of-AIT field training exercise at Camp Bullis northwest of San Antonio. The four-week FTX allowed the AIT cadre an opportunity to evaluate the soldier medics on the entirety of their training, both individually and in small units. Given the importance of NFL football in the US the cadre gave the cycle the day off, which was their first in two weeks. A projection-screen TV from the ground floor lounge in their normal barracks occupied one end of the narrow field dining facility.
The Patriots were the clear underdog in the game with the Rams favored by two touchdowns. While the commentators tried to be impartial during the pre-game shows, the implication they all believed the Patriots were about to be steamrolled was clear. Despite two weeks of Zambrano’s boasting, bragging, and inability to shut up far in excess of his norm, Jeff remained silent after the conference championship games. Jeff was thankful, however, that he had so little interaction with ‘Francis’ since embarrassing him at the first PT test.
“Where you from, Knox?” someone asked in a whisper. Jeff glanced to his left and saw SSG Gulbicki seated on the bench next to him. SSG Gulbicki was a recently promoted drill sergeant from another company also at Bullis; his company would start the field portion of their FTX in the morning.
“Enfield, Mass originally, Drill Sergeant; it’s near Springfield. My family and I now live near Fort Devens.”
Gulbicki nodded. “I’m from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Dad used to take my brothers and me to games at what was then Schaefer Stadium; my family’s been season ticket holders since the team moved to Foxborough. I hope to hell they do better today than in their other two Super Bowls.”
“You and me both.”
The Rams drew first blood with a field goal halfway through the first quarter. While Zambrano crowed loud and long over those three points Terrance – who didn’t have a favorite team in the game – commented, “The Pats are shutting the Rams down. If they can keep it up they could steal this game.”
The Patriots held a surprising fourteen-to-three lead at halftime. Zambrano appeared ill though no one asked what was wrong; Jeff almost suggested bleeding and leeches as a remedy but managed to restrain himself. He also let SSG Gulbicki be the exuberant Pats fan while he watched Francis stew.
In line for the halftime buffet Jeff muttered, “So far, so good. Let’s hope they can keep it up.”
“You don’t think they will, Jeff?” asked Zeke Gulbicki while they gathered their food.
“Bucky-bleeping-Dent? Up two runs, with two outs, in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Six while leading the Series three-to-two? You’re not waiting for the other shoe to drop, Sarge?” Jeff asked in reply, referencing heartbreaking Red Sox collapses in 1978 and 1986. “I’m hoping these guys prove me wrong, but it’s hard for this Boston fan to break the habit of expecting something to go wrong.” Zeke chuckled.
The Pats widened their lead to fourteen points with a field goal of their own in the third. The course of the game did the one-eighty Jeff expected on the next Rams possession when they scored a touchdown. Patriots fans thought their team jumped out to a twenty point lead at the end of the third quarter; the refs called back the fumble recovery and ninety-seven-yard return due to defensive holding. The Rams scored on the very next play.
“See what I mean, Sarge?” Jeff asked.
“No one likes a know-it-all.”
Zambrano started dancing around when the Rams tied the score with only 1:30 left in the game. “There we go! There we go!” he crowed while pointing at Jeff. “We’ll win this game in overtime!”
“You’ve been dealing with that guy since your cycle started?” Zeke asked under his breath.
“Well, not really. Up until now we’ve been avoiding each other.”
“Doesn’t seem like the kind who would leave you alone. How’d you manage it?”
“This old geezer maxed out on our first PT test while junior over there barely broke two-twenty.”
“You’re what, my age? Thirty-two?”
Jeff nodded. “Last August.” He looked back at the screen. “What did Madden just say, Terrance?”
“He thinks the Patriots should play for overtime.”
“Well, I think he should kiss my rosy red ass but nobody’s asking me my opinion. Play for overtime? Please! You play the game to win!”
“I agree,” Zeke added. “Go big or go home.”
Jeff and his buddies watched the Patriots run the two-minute drill to perfection as they marched down the field. The Rams fans in the room looked more nervous with each successful play; Zambrano looked downright frantic. Tom Brady, the Patriots’ rookie quarterback, spiked the ball at the Rams’ thirty-yard line to stop the clock with seven seconds left in the game.
The New England field goal unit ran onto the field. “This guy’s been automatic all season,” Jeff commented about kicker Adam Vinatieri. “Totally en fuego. Unless the kick’s blocked, we’ve got this.” Jeff’s leg bounced up and down in nervous anticipation while the Pats lined up.
Everyone in the room leaned forward on the edge of their seat during the final play. Snap made, ball down, kick away, and Zeke Gulbicki and Jeff bounced out of their seats screaming their fool heads off when the ball sailed through the uprights as time expired. The Patriots were Super Bowl champions. Weeks later Jeff would hear the hometown radio broadcast of the final play; long-time area sports reporter Gil Santos channeled his inner Al Michaels with his exuberant call of “IT’S GOOD! IT’S GOOD!”
Lost in the celebration of the soldiers rooting for the Patriots was Zambrano’s temper tantrum at the end of the game. Jeff didn’t see it but he did see the result: nacho cheese and red bug juice flowing down the projection TV’s screen. Zambrano pumped out pushups with SSG Chin standing over him.
“What are you gonna do now, Zambrano? What are you gonna do?” SGT Kimball, the lane grader, barked; Class 02-02 was still on their final, capstone field training exercise. Zambrano looked around while on one knee, trying to comprehend the tactical situation around him. Artillery simulators whistled and exploded forward of the student platoon’s position, ‘landing’ closer with every second the unit remained motionless. The cadre designed the tactical situation to be the first stress event of running a casualty extraction exercise, something interesting to test reactions on the way to the objective. After the training they received in Basic and two weeks of similar scenarios on this FTX, the young platoon leader shouldn’t have locked up like this.
“Gupta!” SGT Kimball yelled to the assistant platoon leader after another fifteen seconds of Zambrano’s confusion. “The platoon leader’s dead! You’re in charge now! What are you going to do?”
“BOUND RIGHT, ONE HUNDRED METERS!” she barked without hesitation. The platoon complied before the echo died. Once out of the artillery target area, Mishka Gupta briefed her squad leaders on what she wanted and got them moving again within seconds. The platoon reached their objective ten minutes later and without further incident. The objective, a mock village, was deserted except for two casualties. Mishka set security, directed two of her medics to begin treatment, and prepared to evacuate the casualties.
A half-hour later the platoon sat in the After Action Review area at the end of the scenario’s lane; they ate a quick lunch of MREs while SGT Kimball spoke to the OPFOR soldiers. She turned back to the student soldier medics once the OPFOR finished their initial brief.
“Nikalsson, what did you see?”
The AAR took a contentious twenty minutes. The final consensus was the patrol wouldn’t have accomplished what it did if Zambrano continued as squad leader. Zambrano argued loud and long that the rest of the platoon played favorites; he claimed they liked Mishka Gupta more than him. While this was true, it was also true that she was a better medic and leader than he.
“You just made the list, lady,” Jeff muttered to Mishka while they marched back to bivouac area.
“I see your education is lacking.”
“‘Not outdated’ is what I’d say instead,” Terrance muttered from behind him.
“Stripes is a culturally important movie! You two have probably never seen Caddyshack, either!” Jeff saw blank looks on both faces. “Damn kids.”
“You wanted to see me, Drill Sergeant?”
“Come on in, Knox,” Dale Chin waved him to a chair. “Have a seat. Nice job on the FTX; your lane graders had good things to say about your performance, not that it’s a surprise you did well.”
“Thank you, Drill Sergeant.”
“I also wanted to let you know that your request for Special Operations Combat Medic training has been approved, pending your successful completion of the Ranger Indoctrination Program.”
“Thank you again.”
“You’re probably looking at Soldier of the Cycle too, you know?”
Jeff blinked. “Um, about that, Drill Sergeant? I’m not sure that would be fair to the other soldier medics.”
“Why not? You’ve certainly earned it. Best PT scores of the cycle, best classroom scores of the cycle, best marksmanship, best skills evaluation. Are you seeing a pattern here?”
“Drill Sergeant, I’ve been an EMT for more than ten years. I’ve been shooting an M-16 or M-4 for fifteen years. I’ve been working out like a fiend since the time most of these kids were born. I don’t think the others should be judged in comparison with me. I believe I should be excluded for the reasons I’ve listed.”
SSG Chin regarded his top student. “I’ll have to consider your request, Knox. In the mean time, make sure your uniform is squared away for graduation Sunday. Don’t forget, you’ll no longer be eleven-bravo by then; you’ll need to take off the infantry’s blue cord and disks.”
“Understood, Drill Sergeant.”
Jeff walked back into his room and found Terrance checking his own Class-As.
“You just missed Zambrano,” Terrance commented.
“No, I didn’t miss him at all.”
Terrance chuckled. “He was in here complaining about people not helping him while he’s been here.”
“‘You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.’”
“You’d think someone would have already told him that.”
“You’d think. When are your folks getting here?”
“Friday night. How about your family?”
“Cutting it a little close.”
“Keiko’s not on vacation until next week, the week of Presidents Day, so they won’t leave home until Saturday morning. Our parents are coming down with her and the kids.”
“I almost forgot to ask, what did the Drill Sergeant want?”
“He wanted to tell me I’m headed to Benning next.”
“So you got your RIP and SOCM slots?”
“Well, the latter is dependent on the former.”
“Ma’am, Sergeant Knox reports!”
“At ease, Knox. Have a seat,” Captain Mag Uidhir said while motioning to the chair in front of her desk.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Sergeant Chin told me something interesting this morning, Sergeant Knox,” she continued, gesturing over her left shoulder at his lead drill sergeant who stood behind her.
“Yes, ma’am?” Jeff knew what she’d been told but he played along.
“He said you’re a shoe-in for Soldier of the Cycle. I don’t find that surprising having seen your records, but what I do find surprising is your request not to be considered for the award. You made such a request, did you not?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did.”
“May I ask why?”
“Ma’am, if you’ve read my records you’ve seen accounts of my performance at Basic, AIT, and Airborne School in 1987; I’ve had my turn. You’ve also likely heard that I’ve been an EMT or paramedic since late 1991, over ten years now. I hold instructor credentials in the certifications paramedics are required to maintain in Massachusetts, and some optional ones: CPR, ACLS, PALS, PHTLS. I’ve been shooting half my life, and working out the way I do for two-thirds of my life. Respectfully ma’am, I feel my fellow soldiers should be judged on an even playing field by eliminating me from it.”
Captain Mac stared at Jeff while tapping her pen on her desk blotter, the look on her face unreadable. “Sergeant Chin?” she called in a soft voice, not taking her eyes off the soldier in front of her.
“Sergeant Knox is not to be considered for Soldier of the Cycle.”
“Knox, if any of your classmates find out about this discussion you’ll road march to your next post. Am I clear?”
“Yes, ma’am. Crystal clear, ma’am.”
Terrance was out Friday night having dinner with his parents who flew in from California for graduation. Keiko, the kids, and both sets of grandparents would arrive around 1400 the next day while Jeff and his class practiced for Sunday’s ceremony. With any luck both families would meet after that.
Jeff checked the awards placement on his Class-A blouse using a small metal ruler. He cast a critical eye over the seams and patches, looking for loose threads. The only items to catch his eye were the enlisted medical branch insignia on his left lapel replacing his infantry crossed rifles, and the missing infantry blue cord and discs. He sensed a slight wrongness while he looked at the uniform due to that, but the feeling would fade in time.
“You bastard,” Zambrano snarled from Jeff’s doorway.
“I don’t know about your parents, Zambrano, but mine are married,” Jeff replied without turning. He was baiting Zambrano and he knew it.
“I should have had that SOCM slot!”
“In what universe?” he snorted while turning to face the door. “You wouldn’t make it through the first PT session.”
Frank Zambrano then did something stupid: he clenched his fists and advanced on Jeff.
Jeff squared himself up to face Zambrano. This’ll be interesting.
The barracks rooms assigned to Charlie Company were small, about twenty feet by fifteen; that space was reduced further by beds, closets, and desks. Jeff slapped Zambrano’s punch aside and shoved him back out into the hallway. Zambrano braced himself to rush in again; he took one step before he jerked to a stop when someone grabbed him by the collar.
“And just what the holy hell do you think you’re doing, Zambrano?” growled Dale Chin. “You just bought yourself time in the stockade.” Chin dragged Zambrano back into the hall.
If assaulting Jeff was stupid, taking a swing at the drill sergeant was insane. SSG Chin pinned Zambrano’s arms behind his back and slammed him to the floor. Altti Nikalsson and Ralf Pavlovic responded to the shouting. The two largest soldiers in the barracks, they helped SSG Chin frog-march a still cursing and struggling Zambrano from the barracks. Jeff watched them leave.
“Winner, winner, Big Chicken Dinner,” came Terrance’s voice from behind Jeff.
“Actually the penalty for assault on a superior NCO is a dishonorable discharge, not a bad conduct discharge,” Jeff replied, correcting his roommate’s theory on how Zambrano would now leave the Army. “Conviction would also come with forfeiture of all pay and allowances and three years’ confinement regardless of whether or not Zambrano connected with his swing. That’s UCMJ Article Ninety-one.”
“Why am I not surprised you know that? You seem to know everything else.”