This is the first in a two-part story. . .
The mess-tent swells with early morning chatter. An open space on the picnic-style table a few rows to my left beckons me. I set my breakfast down. The other marines glance up and go back to their conversations.
The man across from me, his name patch reads Sgt. Meyers, says to the hispanic officer I sat next to, “The old guy is doing better.”
The marine next to me shakes his head. “After a cheap bottle of penicillin? How long was he sick?”
“His grandson said for months.” Sgt. Meyers’ blue eyes flashed. “Did you see the kid’s face light up with the new school supplies? School supplies, man. My kids back home would be whining about having to go to school at all. The fact he gets to be the hero of his village for bringing back enough for all of the kids.” Sgt Meyers returns his gaze to me. “How’s the food, Private Donnelly?”
I nod, my mouth full of hash browns and scrambled eggs. I swallow, mom’s conditioning coming through. She’d slap me if I talked with my mouth full. “Real good, Sergeant.”
“You meet Staff Sergeant Ortiz?”
I turned my head to properly look my superior in the eye. “Briefly, Sergeant. When I first got here.”
Ortiz rested his elbow on the table, pushing his tray a few inches. “You ready for your first outing tomorrow?”
Colorado, where I’m from, is an arid climate, but it is nothing compared to Afghanistan. The wind is almost constant and the hearty vegetation only grows at certain elevations. I’m stationed at Camp Blessing. The tents and tan buildings blend into the color of the sand. The desert floor heats like a hot plate during the day, frying through the soles of my boots if I stand still long enough. Night cools to a frigid thirty-five degrees. I still get the chills as I turn in.
We prep for our first venture into the Hindu Kush, mainly to overlap our presence with the battalion who’s going home next week. Meet the locals, hand out much-needed supplies to villagers cut off by the Taliban, perhaps get some new intel.
The truck rumbles up the narrow mountain pass, more of a cart trail than a road, but it’s the best road we’ve got. I keep my eyes trained on the mountainside to my right, watching for traps and snipers. Nothing green to hide behind, but plenty of holes and rock outcroppings. The truck’s engine should deafen me to anything, but the thought of ambush is pushing my heart into my ears.
The road degrades until our driver, Nowicki, is forced to stop.
Ortiz jumps down from the passenger seat. “End of the line.”
We all jump out into the dust. The scent of scarce desert plants and a trace of water swirl on the breeze. I hitch up my pack.
“All right, ladies,” Ortiz says. “Another five miles and we’ll be at Macy’s.”
A few chuckles echo across the canyon as we line up.
The first two miles or so seem almost like hiking at home, minus the scrub oak, pines, or pretty much anything living. It isn’t until we approach the first settlement, and dwarfed trees, that the guys grow quiet.
Ortiz signals for us to stop and squat. The guy in front of me, Kline, points to a precipice overlooking the river far below. Ortiz checks the spot through his binoculars.
“Are you sure you saw something, Peters?” Ortiz adjusts the focus.
“If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’, Sergeant.”
A sniper’s shot kicks up dust just between Ortiz and Peters.
My heart, already pounding away between my ears, doubles its pace. I grip my SAW.
Ortiz signals to Kline, who has set up his scope and is currently searching for the sniper.
Kline reports the coordinates to our own sniper. The rifleman, Martin, squeezes the trigger. He waits for confirmation through his own scope. After several minutes we move.
Another bullet whizzes by, between Kline and me. Kline, without a reaction to almost getting shot, smiles and reads the coordinates to Martin.
The shot is clean. What appears as red dust sprays up and back from the boulder the gunman was hiding behind.
Martin lowers his weapon. “Where there’s one there’s always more. Keep an eye on the whole ridge as we march on.”
Kline nods. “I’m sure that whole side is swarming with ’em.”
Village children come out to greet us from what seems every door. Only Peters knows some of the language, enough to give medicines and supplies to the locals.
In turn, the burka-clad women offer tea, bread, and dried apricots.
Peters talks with the other Afghani interpreter and the village leaders. Making friends, I hope.
“What do you think they’re cooking?” I ask Kline. He casually points at a goat as it passes by us in the street. But the smell of bread is what catches me, a homey smell that embraces us. The apricots are unlike the store-bought I’m used to, solid honey exploding sunshine in my mouth. At once the smells and tastes relax me.
I unload a dozen deflated soccer balls and a hand-pump. The boys take turns inflating them all. A little girl, to small for a burka, toddles over to me. I open the flap on my leg and hand her a sucker. The little girl shows me her rag-doll. I give it a small hug and hand her back. The smile of thanks spreads first from her black eyes to the rest of her face, erasing her innocence to reveal the beauty she will grow to be. If the Taliban allow her to live that long.
A soccer ball bounces off my knee. I rise and kick it back to the boys. They chase it, laughing, and kick it back to me. I never trained to play soccer in full gear. I give it my best.
A few rounds with the kids and we’re called together.
Ortiz squats in the middle of us. “Listen up. We get these folks what they need, and between Peters and Nowicki, they’ll get a list of what else they may need next time we’re up here. Anything else, gentlemen?”
Both Nowicki and Peters shake their heads. Nothing we can discuss at our present position.
Ortiz stands at attention in the front left corner of the quonset hut, his dark eyes flashing around the room as he waits for his C.O. to begin. We all follow his example.
Master Sargent Taggert strides into the room with a wave of the papers in his hand. His neck is deeply sunburned. What appears to be a tan is actually millions of freckles covering his arms and face. “At ease, men. Thanks to our little patrol yesterday, we have good intel that we have hostiles in the caves overlooking our favorite villages. Even better is that some of those hostiles are the kind our government want alive in Gitmo.”
Over the course of the next hour, we are assigned quadrants and dates for patrols. I knew it would be big, but I had no idea. We’ll be at this particular assignment for at least six months. It might take us all the way to when my deployment is over.
To be continued . . .
Jennifer Harrelson writes a variety of genres, from children’s books to horror. She resides in her native Lakewood, Colorado with her husband and fellow native, and two daughters.