As time goes on, my psyche’s scarred by the various things I’ve seen, and the things I’ve done to stay alive. I use humor to hide the pain inside.
“Morning, Freeman.” SSG Jayme Willard walks into my room. “You are to report to the office for a briefing.”
“Morning, Sergeant. Am I going somewhere?” SSG Willard chuckles as he walks out of my room. “I guess I am about to find out.”
I push away from my desk and walk down the hall to my platoon’s office. Inside sits my platoon sergeant, and two people I don’t know. They look up as I enter.
“Morning, Freeman. How are you feeling this morning?” I force a smile. The two other people look on but say nothing.
“Fine, Sergeant. What is going on?” I am waved to a chair next to his desk. I sit and wait for whatever is coming down the pipe.
“These folk sitting across from you need help with something.”
I look at the representatives who are seeking help. Both are males in their forties or early fifties. They nod in my direction and I nod back. Both men have beards, although one is tall and slender, the other is of average height and built like a stonemason. Their eyes are soulless.
“Okay, Sergeant. Where am I going?”
“There is a troubled spot up north, and our friends have asked for some support in executing their mission. They require the best, you will go north and help them. The rest of us nobodies will stay here and carry on.”
“Pack for a minimum of three days, but you may be there for seven. Gentlemen, you can brief him on the rest.” The tall agent stands, I call him Stretch. He stares at me for a moment and then he begins his rehearsed speech.
“We have an area swamped with insurgency. They have access to small arms (rifles and RPGS), and they are executing anyone who disagrees with their ideology. We are the scalpel that will remove this cancer.” The average agent chimes in, I call him Goon. “This is a joint task force. Our mission is precise, there is no room for error. Meet us at your squadron headquarters at 1330 for a full briefing. We will see you soon.” I glance at my watch, it’s 1000.
“Roger, understood.” Both men stand and exit the room. My platoon sergeant nods and I follow the two men out. I pack an assault pack. I filled it with uniforms, extra magazines for my weapon, energy drinks, and clean socks. “Sometimes, there is no greater feeling than changing your socks.” I lie across my bed and wait for the next briefing.
Twenty minutes prior to the briefing, I leave my room and walk to squadron headquarters. As I walk in, I am greeted by the squadron XO.
“Are you lost, Freeman? What brings you up this way?” I chuckle. Major Williamson smiles and shakes his head. “What’s so funny?” I shake my head and look at the floor.
“Nothing, sir. I am here for the briefing.” Every time I see the XO, I can’t help but chuckle. When we were home in Texas, he complained about soldiers not saluting him. One day, some friends and I caught him at the commissary buying groceries. As he walked out, we stood a few feet apart from each other. Every two steps, he had to stop and salute us. Finally, he stopped and gave us all one salute. Angrily, he threw his groceries in the car and we never heard about saluting again.
“The briefing is down the hall, last door on the left.” I thank him and walk down the hallway. The door is open, people sit around a horseshoe table. I take a seat toward the middle. Stretch and Goon walk in and close the door.
“Okay, gentlemen. Let’s get down to brass tacks. We selected you to carry out this mission. You are the best and the brightest your unit has to offer. We can’t guarantee your safety, because we are walking into the jaws of hell. The odds of you returning to this place is nil. Does everyone understand? However, if we succeed in our mission, we will destroy a huge part of the insurgency and liberate the populace. Valhalla will sing our praises. Gather your gear, we roll out in fifteen minutes.”
We all stand to our feet and secure our gear. Together, we fall into step and walk to our vehicles. My riding buddy is a tanker from another unit. He nods at me, and I nod back.
“I am Hank, but everyone calls me Buster,” he said in the way of greeting. I chuckle and shake his hand.
“I’m Freeman, and no one calls me Possum.”
Buster laughs. “Why would anyone call you Possum?” I shake my head and open the door to my vehicle. “When I was young, my parents would rock me to sleep. When they put me in my crib, I would wake up. My dad started calling me Possum because I always faked them out.”
“Man, that is a great story.” I look him in the eyes. My mouth tightens into a mirthless grin. “Yeah, and if you tell anyone, I will make sure you don’t tell anyone ever again.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“Sure. I’m joking. According to Stretch and Goon, we are dead already. We just don’t know it yet.”
“Do you think it’s that bad? Are we all going to die?”
“Only the Lord knows. I guess we will find out.”
Hours pass, but we finally make it to our destination without incident. My new home for the next week is a small camp with a few scattered buildings. Hank and I walk to our assigned hooch and throw our gear onto a bunk near the doorway. A Marine sticks his head in the doorway and looks at us.
“Y’all with the newly arrived task force?”
“There’s a formation in five mikes at the motor pool.”
Hank and I walk to the motor pool. Hank is a good ole boy from Alabama. His accent is thick enough to cut cane syrup. A good natured man, he hasn’t missed an opportunity to smile, except for now.
“I guess we are about to find out what they want us to do.”
“Yep. I’m sure it’s what they always want us to do. Find the enemy, destroy the enemy. It’s a straightforward job.” Hank guffaws.
“Where are you from, Freeman?”
“Hattiesburg, Mississippi.” We walk up to the gaggle of people standing around a Humvee. Goon stands on the hood, his Ray Ban shades shining in the late afternoon sun.
“We go into the city in three days. The city has insurgents and civilians in it. The point of this task force is to limit civilian casualties, while removing the threat of the insurgency. The DFAC is in the center of camp. A shoppette is next to it. Make liberal use of both.”
They dismiss us. Hank and I walk toward the dining facility. “Hopefully, the chow is better here.” We walk into the air-conditioned tent and stand in line. Shepherd’s Pie, mashed potatoes, gravy, and various other foods are on the line.
Grabbing a tray, the cooks load our plates, and we walk to the nearest empty table. In the background, a television plays the news. ‘Experts’ spout their opinions as truth concerning the war. “This war is being carried out on a false premise” one military ‘expert’ shouts. Hank looks up from his food.
“Whatcha wanna bet, the ‘expert’ has never even made it to a combat zone, much less picked up a rifle and fought for something he believed in.” I nod and try to swallow a mouthful of mashed taters and gravy before responding.
“Mmmhmm, you’re right. It’s easy to sit at home and spout off at the mouth, when someone else’s kid will go fight the war. These fools make me sick.”
“Let’s change the subject. I hate politicians and the media. Who’s your favorite team?”
“Pro or college? Football, baseball, basketball, or soccer?”
“Um, whatever you want to talk about Buster.”
“Well Possum, I like college football. Ohio State is my favorite team.”
“Ugh. That alone is worth a bullet. Why Ohio State?”
Hank laughs. He wags his finger at me. “The tradition man, plus I went to college there.”
Laughing, I took another bite of my Shepherd’s Pie. “Fair enough.”
“Who is your favorite team, Freeman?”
“College football? Alabama.”
We finish our meal and head back to our bunks. The night air is a cool 90 degrees, the moon is full. As we walk in silence, we hear indirect fire coming in. Both of us fall to the ground and cover our heads. The mortar hits a building and explodes. Jumping to our feet, we rush to where the explosion occurred. Emergency personnel help us pull people to safety.
“Wow. Looks like they know we are here. Guess they didn’t want us to get bored before we kill them.” I look at Hank, his face is grimy. His eyes are cold, and his mouth is in a hard line. “Yeah, Hank looks like he could kill somebody.”
“Well Buster, boredom isn’t an issue.” The fire is quickly put out, and our casualties treated. Together, we walk from the ruined building, and make our way to our bunks. I throw myself across the single mattress and close my eyes.
“That explosion is just a small taste of the hell we will face. Might as well sleep while I can.”
It doesn’t take me long to figure out that hell isn’t just a place, but also a state of being.