Authors: Becky Riker
For my husband who encourages my bizarre research binges,
answers nonsensical questions, brainstorms with me,
and loves me enough to let me follow my dream.
– Military helicopter distinctive by its twin rotors with a capacity of the crew plus 55 passengers.
– Pronounced ‘cash,’ the Combat Support Hospital is a second line of medical care after the forward support medical battalion.
– The Judge Advocate General’s core is a branch of the Navy that deals with military law. The judge advocates act as legal advisors to their command.
– Military Police. They are the law enforcement division of the US Army.
– Meals Ready to Eat. These standard military meals do not require refrigeration or heating prior to consumption. The meals are typically high in protein and carbs to promote endurance. Most MREs consist of tasteless lumps of meat floating in a sauce. Due to the ambiguous nature of the meals, the liberal application of Tabasco sauce is recommended.
– Also called Afghani. It is commonly spoken in Afghanistan as well as northwest Pakistan.
– Military helicopter with a capacity of the crew plus 12 passengers.
– The Rocket-Propelled Grenade is a missile that explodes upon contact with its target. Because it is non-guided, the shooter must be within relatively close range of the target.
– A plastic roll-up stretcher that can be dragged along the ground.
The smoke in the aircraft had dissipated enough to allow Slater to see his team, but his brain would not allow him to understand what had happened. He released his belt and rolled from his seat. He tried to speak over the groaning and coughing of those around him, but his voice caught in his throat and produced a cough of his own.
He tried again, “Teague,” he coughed again. “You okay, Teague?”
A muttered curse came from someone to his left.
Lieutenant Hall spoke through the haze, “The major is over here, Captain.”
Slater looked down at his feet to make sure he could walk through the wreckage to find his commanding officer.
“He’ll be okay?” he approached the medical officer who was standing over Teague.
The chief’s head was tilted at an odd angle
Through the lingering smoke, Slater could still see Hall’s head shake in the negative.
“Major Teague,” Slater grabbed the shoulders of the moaning man, “can you hear me, Chief?”
Teague opened his eyes, “I guess third time’s a charm, Reed.”
Slater shook the older man slightly, “No, it’s not. You’ve just got a little scratch, sir. You’ll be up and yelling at us in ten minutes.”
Teague coughed; the effort evidently causing a great deal of pain. His whole body shuddered with the effort.
Hall moved away to evaluate the rest of the injuries. Slater knew better than to take that as a good sign.
Slater fought the rising nausea. He could see the sharp edges of something metal coming from the other officer’s gut. In the dimness, it was hard to tell whether the object was coming or going, but, judging from the blood trickling from Teague’s mouth, it had punctured a lung en route.
“It’s Joanie’s birthday tomorrow,” Teague’s words were fairly clear considering his condition and the mayhem around them.
Slater’s gut clenched. For the rest of her life, Teague’s little girl was going to associate her birthday with her daddy’s passing.
He glanced around for Hall, hoping the medical officer would be able to do something about the injury. Hall was busy examining someone else.
“Hang on for her, Teague,” Slater pressed his friend, “hang on.”
Teague didn’t hear the younger man’s urgings. He was already gone.
“Captain,” a voice spoke at his elbow, “I can’t feel my leg.”
Slater glanced down at the man, “You thinking it’s gone up and left you, DeWitt?”
The man choked out a laugh, “Nah, but I’m thinkin’ all this blood can’t be a good thing,” he held up his hand to show the Captain the evidence of his injury.
“I’ll get Hall. Keep pressure on it.”
“Hall’s with the pilots,” Garret spoke up as he crouched beside DeWitt, “What’s up?”
Slater left DeWitt in the hands of the other medical sergeant.
He wasn’t sure how far they had flown from the point where they were hit, and he had no idea what their outlook was. Were they surrounded? Was someone on the way? Had the pilots radioed command?
Slater moved through the Chinook’s wreckage to the next person. He had to step over packs, weapons, and debris to crouch beside the next victim.
“You okay, Emerson?” he asked the engineer. The sergeant didn’t answer.
Slater reached up and put his finger to Emerson’s neck. No pulse.
“It’s his neck,” Turner appeared beside him. “It must be broken.”
Slater scraped a hand over his face.
“You look like you’ve got some serious scratches there, Captain,” the weapons sergeant observed.
Slater was afraid to acknowledge the injury. He could feel the burning pain through his chest and along his left side, but he was more concerned with the large picture than with his comparatively minor injuries.
“Who else?” he asked, knowing Turner would understand.
“Broadlawn and Falton. They took some of the shots when we were hit.”
Slater eyed the door of the Chinook, wondering why he bothered eating before the mission. His breakfast felt like rocks in his gut now.
“Warden caught a piece of metal through the chest,” Turner swallowed and looked at his feet.
Slater glanced behind him to see the bodies of the men who had served with him. Now that the smoke had cleared and light was beginning to dawn, the carnage was more apparent.
“I’m sorry, Turner,” Slater referred to that man’s friend.
“One of the pilots has a slight concussion,” Hall came from the front of the aircraft.
“And the other?”
Hall grimaced, “Decapitated.”
Slater breathed through his nose, “And the rest of the crew?”
“Flight engineer and crew chief are both dead. The chief was only able to tell me they’d radioed our location before going down. Then he slipped away.”
Slater was losing count of the casualties, “Where’s Chung?”
“Right here,” the man in question spoke up from the doorway. He had been outside. “I think I’ve got a broken arm, but I’m good.”
Slater nodded to a seat, “Hall, take care of that. Chung,” he needed some information from the Intelligence Sergeant before they could make plans, “what does it look like out there?”
Chung grunted as the medic began wrapping his arm, “We’re pretty embedded in the trees. There’s a bluff to the west of us. If we had stopped another twenty yards further, we probably would all be dead.”
“Thank God for small miracles,” Hall muttered.
“Are we safe here?” Slater was trying to evaluate their situation from the new information.
“Since we’re hidden in the trees, we’re probably good,” Chung spoke through gritted teeth, “but we won’t get a signal out.”
Slater glanced back at Garret who was still working on De Witt’s leg, “So, we send someone to find a signal?”
“Our best bet for that is Porter and DeWitt,” Hall pointed out.
Slater knew DeWitt wasn’t going anywhere on his own steam, “We’ll send Porter and Turner.”
Turner spoke up, “Happy to go, Chief.”
The man’s use of that title killed a small piece of every man present. Teague was the chief, and Slater wanted neither the responsibility nor the title.
“I don’t think we want to divide,” Chung offered. “I think we’ve got a better chance if we’re together.”
“To where?” Slater was no little bit overwhelmed.
“There’s a cave about a hundred yards from here,” Chung pointed to the north. “It’s safe. We can set up communication and see about getting back to the mission.”
Slater nodded, “A hundred yards isn’t so bad.”
Slater recognized the hesitancy, “What’s bad about it?”
Chung made quick work of the explanation, “The bluff protects us on the west, but the east is pretty open for the first fifty yards, and I’m almost certain I saw somebody over there.”
“So, they know we’re here?”
“They know something is here. We can make it look like there were no survivors.”
“How do we get across the field?”
“There’s a berm. We go out low and crawl toward the bluff.”
Slater looked at DeWitt again, unwilling to ask if the man was going to make it.
Garret answered the question anyway, “He’s going to make it, Captain. Hasn’t even lost that much blood.”
DeWitt grunted, “As soon as the lieutenant gets this scrap metal out of my leg and gets me stitched up, I’ll be good to go.”
Slater snorted and looked to Turner who was gathering supplies as the men spoke, “You have any idea how long it will take to permanently disable the weapons we can’t carry?”
The weapons specialist shrugged, “We’ll leave the lightweight stuff and take the rest. The guns on the bird are already shot.”
Porter spoke up, “They’re going to be suspicious if they find our fallen with no weaponry. It’s a sure way to let them know some of us made it out alive.”
“We’ll start a fire,” Chung offered. “By the time they put it out and figure there are survivors with guns, we’ll be outta here.”
Slater nodded. It was a good plan.
He turned to Garret, “Get DeWitt ready for transport. Porter, you and Chung get that fire ready to go. Turner, make sure we’ve got all the weapons we can possibly carry. You and Hall are taking the first stretch with DeWitt, so load up accordingly.”
Hall spoke up, “I’d like to take a look at your injuries, Reed.”
Slater brushed him off, “It can wait fifty yards.”
Hall pulled out a bone cutter, “You drag that side of yours for fifty yards, I won’t be able to do anything about it.”
Slater glared at the man but ripped open his shirt and pressed his vest away from his injury, “Make quick work of it, Hall. I want to get out of here before anyone comes to investigate.”
“The gash is a little further down, sir,” Hall was inspecting the damage, “You’re going to need to drop ‘em.”
Slater loosened his belt and shoved his pants and shorts off his left hip.
Hall raised his eyebrow.
“You know if you weren’t so pretty,” Slater shot at his medical officer as he lowered his waistband further.
Turner moved to stand between his new commanding officer and the cockpit, “Uh, Chief, about the other pilot.”
Slater hissed at the antiseptic Hall sprayed on him, “Yeah, what about him? I nearly forgot we had him.”
“That’s just it, Captain,” Turner leaned a little closer, “It’s not the guy – it’s the female.
No matter that they were in a war zone or that Hall’s attentions to Slater’s wound were absolutely necessary, the patient felt a nearly irresistible urge to cover himself. He glanced over Turner’s shoulder at the woman coming from the cockpit. She glanced at what was going on and quickly turned away.
Slater glared at Turner. Of course it wasn’t his fault, but somebody was to blame.
Hall finished the work on Slater’s hip first, so the Chief could pull up his pants.
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name, Captain,” he spoke to the woman’s back as he buckled his belt firmly.
“Captain Anna Barnes, sir,” she spoke clearly.
“I’m betting this isn’t what you had in mind for today, Captain Barnes,” Slater bit a cheek to keep from crying out as Hall drew a needle through his flesh.
“I know better than to expect anything, sir.”
“You do much work with the Green Berets?”
“This is my first,” she admitted, her back still turned.
“Did you land the craft or was that the other pilot?”
“That was me.”
“Good work,” he knew it wasn’t an accident they had put down where they had, “Are we out of fuel?”
He looked at Chung, “See if you can use what’s left to make a good blaze.”
He could see her sigh – even if he couldn’t hear it.
“You disagree, Captain.”
“No, sir,” was she smiling? “It’s just a pity to lose the aircraft.”
“It’s more of a pity to lose seven men and risk the lives of eight more,” he snapped.
She didn’t respond.
Hall finished what he was doing, “That should hold for now, but we’ll need to reassess it once we get to the other side.”
Slater repositioned his clothes, “All ready to move out?”
The men shot back their agreement.
Captain Barnes approached Slater, “Captain Reed,” she began, “I apologize for my seemingly heartless response.”
“Don’t worry about it, Barnes,” as he spoke, he looked at Teague, his friend and mentor, one last time, “we all say things under stress that we normally wouldn’t. Are you ready to go?”
She nodded as she adjusted the straps on the pack Turner had given her, “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
He grimaced and nodded. Stepping to the door he faced his men, “Flying V, men. DeWitt at the center.
Since the chopper was canted to the side, away from the door, Hall and Garret had to lift DeWitt down to the ground before fastening the drag strap.
The men dropped to the ground and lined up as directed. To her credit, Barnes was flat on her belly as fast as any of the men.
“Who has the tags and the letters?” Porter asked as the group crawled to the berm.
“Turner,” Slater’s words were hushed.
“Letters?” Barnes looked confused.
Slater reminded himself it was not her fault she was out there – untrained – with them.
“Most of us keep our latest letters in our chest pocket. We know someone will get them along with our dog tags if our body has to be left behind.”
“Oh,” she pulled herself forward.
The group inched along. Slater could feel the grit between his teeth, under his collar, in his sleeves. It was amazing to him how, despite their imminent danger and the more severe wound on his side, he could be so irritated by the grinding of sand into his elbows as he dragged himself across the ground.
Slater grabbed at Porter’s foot to signal him to stop. Porter did the same for Barnes. Soon the formation was at rest. Slater looked behind him. They had moved about fifteen yards.
“Switch,” he nudged at Hall behind him.
Hall released the drag strap from his own form, but stopped as he and Slater passed each other, “It’s not a good idea for you to be dragging, sir.”
Slater snorted and fastened the loop to his carabiner clip, “Switch with Porter.”
The left side of the V mirrored the actions of the right, and, within a minute of stopping, the squad was on the go again.
It didn’t take long for Slater to realize Hall was right about injuring himself further. He could feel the quick patch up job. The bandage rolled a little south with each thrust forward. He wondered why Hall even bothered with stitches. They were certainly all ripped out by now. There was nothing to do about it while they were in the open field, however. All was quiet now, but nobody knew what was on the other side of that berm.
Chung wasn’t able to drag DeWitt because of his broken arm, and there was no way Slater was asking – or allowing – the woman to drag the injured man. She seemed to be doing pretty well with the crawl, but he had no intention of weighting her down. It was bad enough that Turner gave her full weaponry.
At the next switch, DeWitt suggested he could move himself, but that idea was shot down. Also rejected was Captain Barnes’s suggestion that she take a shift.
“I’ve certainly dragged people before,” she argued as she remained where he positioned her.
Hall glanced up at her, “You’re not going to make this into a gender issue are you?”
She snorted, “I figured it was more like special-forces-or-not-special-forces.”
“It is,” Slater spoke from his position as he gave to signal to begin moving again, “that,” he blew out a mouthful of gravel, “and you’re a woman.”
“Nice to know where I stand,” she grunted.
“Technically,” Chung huffed through his pain, “you aren’t standing.”
“Enough talking,” Slater reprimanded.
They changed positions three more time before reaching the base of the bluff. When the squad was assured they were hidden in the trees from whatever may be on the other side of the berm, they rose from their positions.
“How’s the arm holding up, Chung?” Garret crouched next to the man.
“It feels great,” he lied, holding it out for inspection.
Hall glanced up from where he was looking at DeWitt’s leg, “Glad to hear it – you’re better off than me. My whole body feels like sh – ”
He stopped short as he looked over at Captain Barnes. Slater’s eyes followed Hall’s.
Barnes was leaning against the base of a tree, working the straps of her helmet. She pulled it off and a thick braid of dark hair tumbled out. Her hair was damp with sweat, so it looked black, but Slater assumed it was some shade of brown. She unzipped her jacket but did not remove it. Slater was grateful for that. There was nothing feminine about the ugly brown t-shirt she wore beneath, but it surely displayed more of her femininity than the bulky coat.
Having a woman in camp was not going to be a good thing. It wasn’t because the chief was any sort of chauvinist. Having a mixed-gender team simply complicated everything; sleeping, formation, and taking care of personal needs were easier with a single gender.
“Are you able to get through, Porter?” Slater asked the communication sergeant.
“Not yet. At the very least, command knows where we are.”
Barnes looks up, “You aren’t thinking of staying here until someone comes back to get us,” she frowned as she pointed to the flaming aircraft, “as soon as that dies down, they’ll be looking for whoever was not on that chopper.”
Porter didn’t disagree, “By ‘they,’ I assume you mean the hadji, and not our guys?”
Slater cleared his throat at Porter’s choice of words.
Barnes raised an eyebrow, “I meant whoever it was that shot us down.”
Porter shrugged, “Maybe they’re looking, but maybe not.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Chung was looking at his map, “we’re wearing GPS devices.”
“Handy,” Barnes commented, “are they in your uniforms?”
“Nah,” DeWitt was leaning back on his elbows, “they’re inside us.”
Barnes looked horrified.
“Sergeant DeWitt,” Slater rolled his eyes at the man.
Most of the men chuckled.
Slater looked up the hill, “Before we all make our way up to the ledge, let’s have a look at what’s up there. Hall, you and Chung go look at the situation.”
DeWitt scratched his head, “Too bad Emerson’s not here. He loves the spelunking scene.”
Nobody corrected the man’s present tense reference to his dead team member.
It didn’t take long for the men to return.
“There’s plenty of room up there,” Hall offered his opinion, “but there’s also ashes near the entrance.”
“Is that bad?” Barnes spoke from her place by the tree.
Slater glanced over his shoulder at her, “Maybe not.”
Chung responded more bluntly, “Could mean there’s been Taliban around these parts.”
“Could just be some shepherds,” Slater was annoyed with his intelligence specialist.
The captain rose and brushed the dirt from her uniform, “How can you tell?”
Hall shook his head, “We can’t; so we keep watch.”
Barnes breathed in deeply before nodding, “Okay. What would you like me to do?”
Slater wanted to tell her she could just stay out of the way, but he thought better of it.
“Can you handle Garret’s pack?” he nodded at his medical officer.
She reached for the pack the man was already taking off.
Slater issued directives to the rest of his men while attempting to keep an eye on the woman. She managed to strap herself into Garret’s pack and pick up the weaponry she had carried across the field. She might do okay.
“Into the Sked,” Garret smirked at DeWitt and pointed to the rather crude transportation device.
“Unh huh,” the injured man shook his head, “I went on one of those things during a training exercise. I’d rather pull myself up by my teeth than get into one of those coffins.”
“May as well get it over with, DeWitt,” Slater checked the area to make sure they hadn’t left anything behind. Everyone had gotten their MRE wrappers; no personal items had fallen from pockets.
The squad trudged up the bluff, dragging DeWitt behind. He wore a mask of pain the entire trip, but he didn’t make a sound.
Slater kept to the rear with the Sked, “You okay? They’re not burning holes in your britches are they?”
“Holes?” Barnes grabbed a small tree to pull herself up.
“The bottom side gets hot,” Hall grunted as he pulled his share of the weight. “It’s the friction.”
The trip up the hill took almost as long as the trip across the field.
Garret and Hall released DeWitt from the Sked and rolled it back up. The injured man looked like he was in more pain than before
“Chung,” Slater forced his attention to a more pressing topic, “where are we, and where do we want to go?”
Barnes answered the question, “We’re about twenty miles south and a little east of Muzaffarabad.”
Slater glanced up at her, “You must have circled back a little.”
“I didn’t want to be too far away from the planned drop point.”
Slater nodded, “Good thinking.”
Chung continued, “I think we should try to complete the mission.”
Slater wasn’t surprised the man thought that way. As far as Slater knew, the intelligence sergeant didn’t understand the meaning of fear.
“Do we have any hope?”
Chung pointed his chin at DeWitt, “We’d have to leave those two here.”
There was no question as to who the other was.
Captain Barnes didn’t flinch, “You’re only eight miles from where they are passing through. You certainly have a chance of intercepting them.”
It occurred to Slater that Captain Barnes did not know what she was suggesting.
Turner spoke up, “We’re going to have to skip the Xuereb. We don’t have the man power.”
Slater knew the brass wanted the courier almost as much as they wanted the team’s main target. He wished he knew what Teague would do in a situation like this.
“Turner’s right,” Chung offered as he moved rocks around to make himself more comfortable in his allotted space. “We can’t afford to separate. We run the risk of losing the package.”
It dawned on Slater right then that he knew exactly what Teague would do. He would listen to his men’s reasoning and base his decision on logic. He realized Chung and Turner were right. They could perform the mission, but they would have to forgo the secondary plan. There was only one problem.
He turned to Captain Barnes, “You realize you’d be stuck here until we get back with Hanbali?”
“Hanbali?” she frowned.
Chung frowned; Turner cleared his throat.
“It’s our package,” Garret took the chance to flash a grin at the woman.
Slater rolled his eyes.
Captain Barnes didn’t respond to the man’s attention, “Your package is a man?”
Slater looked at Hall who shook his head.
“It’s irrelevant right now, Captain. I just need to know if you can protect yourself and DeWitt while we’re gone.”