Staff Sergeant Tomlinson waved about his face in a methodical motion, letting everyone in the squad know to cease fire. The smell of powder was in my nostrils as I slowed my breathing, and allowed the ringing in my ears to cease once more. My eyes carefully scanned for any movement along our perimeter. It was a hodge-podge of small clearings amongst the major plant life of this maturing central highland jungle.
My mind’s eye kept rehashing the moments I shared with PFC Jensen. He was a newer guy to the unit, but he was quickly making a name for himself as a wise guy, a clown. It didn’t seem to bother anyone either because he was a pretty good soldier on top of that. He had only been in-country for about two months, and already he got to go home. Lucky son of a bitch.
I fought my heart to look back to see if he would get up, but my mind knew it would only cause me more trouble. Eyes off your sector, even for a second, could be costly. This was not a game. This was life in its purest form. Animal against animal. Mind against mind. However, we had it a little harder as humans. Ideal against ideal.
Monsters. We had taken the oath to become one as soon as we signed our names on the dotted line. At the time, we thought we would be heroes, traveling to distant lands to kill an evil enemy, quell a terrible foe. The longer we were kept from our home, back in The World as we called it, the more we realized our enemies were not much different than us, nor we them.
I could hear the faint chatter of our radio transceiver as our RTO sent and received SitReps and guidance from our higher headquarters. The Old Man’s distinct, gravelly voice could be heard through the RTOs handset. Captain Osborne’s voice trailed off as soon as the RTO voiced that we had a KIA-our own. His voice sounded strained as he gave the RTO additional guidance.
“Sarge,” PVT Paulson, our RTO, said in a high whisper. “CPT Osborne on the radio for you…he sounds pissed.”
SSG Tomlinson quietly made his way passed me, his Vibram soled combat boots making barely any sound as they pressed into the soggy jungle floor beneath us.
“Downtown 6, this is Spearhead Actual, over,” SSG Tomlinson announced quietly. “Paulie, I’m putting it on Whisper.”
SSG Tomlinson changed the settings of the radio so that the user could speak quietly into the radio, but the listener would receive the message as if the sender was speaking normally or louder.
“Spearhead Actual, Downtown 6. What’s going on out there? Over.”
“Six, we have one Kilo. Foxtrot November Golf. Zero Echoes Kilo, Whiskey, or Charlie. BREAK. Spearhead is down and happy, I say again, down and happy. Contact at coordinates Hotel Mike One Tree Niner Fife Seven Seven. BREAK. Echo is five to ten personnel, small arms, no show, and quiet, one hundred meters due east. Requesting further guidance, over.”
“Spearhead, this is 6. Prepare to copy BREAK….move to coordinates Hotel Mike One Two Fife Fife Seven Niner. BREAK. Be ready for exfil and evac. How copy, over?”
“Downtown, Spearhead. WilCo on all counts. Spearhead is on the move over.”
“Be careful and God speed, Spearhead. Downtown 6 out.”
“Spearhead Actual out,” SSG Tomlinson answered as he gave the radio handset back to PVT Paulson. He gave a small, short staccato of bird whistles, getting the attention of his two team leaders. Once eye contact was made, SSG Tomlinson brought up his chin a few times, and placed three of his fingers on his shoulder. This denoted a Sergeant’s rank to give the signal for his team leaders to assemble on him.
I could hear and see very faint rustling of vegetation, two men stalking toward our squad leader, and two other riflemen adjusting their prone positions to take up the slack of their team leaders’ empty sectors. I waited for the next move. The three wise men, bringing us through the depths of Hell, only to drag us back through it for another round. But we’d follow them, surely we would, and will.
It would be for one or more of a few reasons why I or any of my comrades would follow our three Sergeants. Any way one summed it up though, if you didn’t follow these guys, you would be out in the jungle all alone. Like I said, any other guy would have a different reason or motivation to follow his Sergeant, but on the surface, it was all the same end result.
I looked at the time on my wristwatch. It was nearly noon, and the sun was now high in the sky. Shadows from the jungle canopy were all around us, and in our formation. I watched as the more seasoned troops in our squad ensured they were not directly in a ray of sunlight while the younger, newer guys were completely oblivious to that aspect. I let out a faint sigh. There was nothing I could really do right now to correct this deficiency lest I called out, or made too much movement.
After a few more minutes of waiting in the prone position, my team leader made his way around to each of his five men, and the attached crew-served machinegun team we had brought along with us. When he finally made it to me, I was ready for him. He plopped down next to me, and before he could ask, I already had my status report ready.
“Down two mags, half on water, all equipment up, Sergeant,” I said quietly as my team leader looked over my firing position, and made a mental note of my sector.
“Good shit, Wagner. Keep hydrating. Alpha Team’s gonna get Jensen tagged and bagged, and we are out of here,” Sergeant Jefferies said with an equal lack of volume as he looked over my gear. “Heading home.”
“You mean…home home?” I asked facetiously.
“Smartass,” he said with a small grunt as he raised himself off the ground, and made it over to the next man in our fire team’s line.
I bit the mouth piece of my hydration system, and slowly drew in some of the now warm water. Sweat had been soaking into my green fatigues all morning, and by now, the sweat had made it down to the top of my boots, the cushioned tops now completely wet. I could feel the weight of my body as I leaned on my elbows, my lower back beginning to ache as my torso strained into an upward slant while I watched my sector.
By now, the fragmentary order(FRAGO) that our squad was “exfiltrating” the area was rattling around everyone‘s mind. I relished in the thought of a hot meal, a shower, a fresh set of fatigues, and my sturdy cot. At the same time, however, a part of me wouldn‘t come back. It left with me the first time I had left base, and had stayed outside the wire.
While on my first op this deployment, I realized an unusual comfort I possessed while out on patrol. It was sort of a one-with-nature thing, I guess one could say. I was out here, in the field, doing what I was trained to do, but now, I would be going back to what felt like a box, a holding area. A place we would stay before they unleashed us back into our realm.
I broke eye contact with the jungle in front of me, and stared blankly at the ground beneath my face. The small world of organisms only a few inches from my eyes. Small bugs moved about along the wet ground, darting in and out of the nooks and crannies of the dead vegetation that had turned into soil. My thoughts drifted back to Private Jensen. I couldn’t even remember his first name.
A hand lightly slapped the side of my helmet. It was Jefferies. “Let’s go, daydreamer,” SGT Jefferies said sternly as he lead the rest of Bravo Fire Team west.
We were going back from where we came. One by one, the squad rose from the ground, each man covering the movements of his buddies in case the enemy decided to return. The newer of us doing all this less smoothly, a few almost getting caught on foliage they had been laying on.
We moved tactically across a man made, very linear break in the foliage, evidence that we were close to what may have been-or perhaps still was- a communication trail for the enemy. We always moved perpendicular to linear danger areas, and skirted the sides of large open areas.
My mind still wandered back to that secret place it kept undisclosed to anyone else. I had tried to keep the thoughts at bay, but the longer I was in combat, the more I realized something about life. It is all chaos interwoven into a wonderful cloak of false security and order. Out here, on the battlefield, man is at his best, even though, in a civilized world, he would be at his worst.
We use our most primitive, and well practiced skills here. Murder, living off the land, living in the land, becoming part of the land. Back in “The World” as many of us put it, where skyscrapers rip across the skyline, and where pantyhose, soap, and loud, obnoxious music dominate the senses, we are but just another small part in a machine that we created and can no longer control. But here, every step we take, every choice we make affects us. One wrong move could deny us the rest of our lives.
After about an hour of trudging back toward our insertion point, we called higher headquarters once more. As the RTO worked his commo magic, I found myself dozing while lying prone in my spot in the circular defensive perimeter. My mind wandered once more to the memories of yesteryear, or perhaps the good times with good people back inside the wire.
The card games always ended abruptly, now that I think about it. The chips were never the same way when we got back. Always getting hit whenever we played cards. Like clockwork, one of us would be on a roll, and either the sirens would come howling to life, or there would just be a loud thump, or crump, or some sort of bang. If it was small arms fire, nine times out of ten, we were in deep shit.
After another half hour of waiting, fighting off the Z Monster(falling asleep), batting away the large mosquitoes, and other flying insects of the region, and counting the times a rivulet of sweat would roll down our torsos, through our gear, and into the ground beneath us, we were about to be in the air. Our birds had arrived to pick us up. Similar to a different war a few hundred years before, these things had a distinct sound, only this time, one couldn’t hear them for miles and miles before finally hitting the insert or extract point.
Purple smoke, cold LZ. Staff Sergeant Tomlinson pulled the pin of the smoke grenade on the left side of Private Paulson’s Manpack radio. The right side held a similar smoke grenade, but it was red. The two large, hideously olive drab flying machines whirred to the ground methodically, coaxed downward by a pilot’s fine touch, and the direction of Sergeant Jefferies. Within a minute and a half, all personnel, along with Jensen’s corpse were aboard, and we were swooped a few thousand feet into the sky. I was alive. I was happy. I was tired. I placed my helmet beneath my butt, ensured my weapon’s muzzle was pointed squarely at the floor beneath me, and I closed my eyes. The sweat all over me began to dry, the rush of air through the fuselage caused it to cool me down during the ride back to base.
I can’t recall how quickly I fell asleep.