Authors: RJ Scott
For JSC, whose help was invaluable with Joseph.
Any mistakes are mine
And always for my family
"Chief, locate for CAS." The shout was passed down the line, barely audible over the gunfire, and into Chief Petty Officer Joseph Kinnon's ear. The lieutenant was situated higher up the steep incline, pinned in that position.
He was held down by the whine and thud of AK47 bullets that ripped and spat through the rocks of the mountain, but his message was loud and clear. They were trapped, and only close air support was going to solve this clusterfuck.
Joseph was by far the closest to the onslaught of Taliban forces and crawled on his belly to the viewpoint, only inches below an outcrop of rock and far too exposed for his liking. Gauging distance, he scrambled back to pass the intel.
"Danger close, five hundred," he reported succinctly, and slid sideways as some random shot snagged the rock to his left and gouged a path in the blackness.
Information passed upwards was fast, and the decision passed back just as quick. Despite the team locked down this close to the target, there wasn't another way out of this position. They had to call in close air support and chance getting decimated by friendly fire or killed by the large group of Taliban closing in. Joseph sent up a silent
plea the pilot of the F-16 in this airspace was one hundred percent accurate. Bad timing had led a group of Taliban to the same path they traveled, and the small SEAL team was paying the price. No way back up the mountain, and no way forward, the journalist they were here to extract had pasted himself flat against the wall with horror across his face; they were stuck. One well-placed missile into the middle of the Taliban forces and it would be enough for the team of six and the journalist to make it the extraction point.
The terminal controller exchanged brief glances with Joseph. Dexter was his best friend, and their relationship went way back before SEAL training, commonly called BUD/s. Joseph nodded. He knew exactly what was going through his friend's mind as he called in the ten-digit grid reference to command. Joseph lip read as Dexter added detail to the "danger close", forces-speak for telling the F-16 pilot there was the potential to kill the good guys too. Dexter ducked as the Taliban concentrated their fire on the cluster of rocks behind him. They couldn't know exactly where he was, but even random firing was sending bullets too close for comfort. Joseph rolled to his side and focused his fire on the flashes from the forces below them.
He just hoped it was enough to give Dexter the space to complete the message on the UHF radio.
Finally Dexter passed a message up and down the team, the LT nodded and indicated heads down. The missile would be there in three. Joseph didn't let up on his targeted shooting, and for a few minutes until "missile on target", he and the rest of the team would be ensuring focus was on them.
The reporter had been an easy extraction. Taken hostage by the Taliban, they'd been keeping him in a safe house in the mountains of Afghanistan. Intelligence had led the US to his location, and they had watched to establish a pattern for his captors. Pattern established, Joseph and his team were inserted three miles away, on the other side of a mountain ridge. It had been, in SEAL terms, an easy extraction, and the journalist had not only still been alive but was able to walk out fairly unhurt.
Then the shit hit the fan. With nothing more than bad timing, suddenly the team was pinned down by the sheer number of freaking Taliban coming at them with the barrage of small arms fire. They were fucked. Dexter signaled a "one" to Joseph and the others. This was it. This was win or fail spectacularly; what a way to go out. Fuentes sat on the journalist, their faces to the wall, hunkered down in a natural ditch formed by a crack in the earth between rocks. Dexter rolled and sheltered amongst the boulders strewn on the pathway. The LT and the rest of the team kept up fire until, one by one, they too took cover. There was no sense in letting the Taliban get any idea things were going down by giving out a ceasefire, and finally, it was only Joseph firing into the darkness in a random pattern. He glanced at Dexter, who held up a fist and then a five.
Joseph counted down, and at one, he took final cover, curled in on himself with his head tucked low, every part of him sheltered by Afghan rock.
No noise indicated the targeting of a five-hundred-pound bomb, but when it hit the Taliban, it was deadly and quick. The pressure waves pressed Joseph's eardrums, and he involuntary closed his eyes. The air rent about them, and the sound of violent roaring thunder shook the earth. As it threw debris high into the air, the low-end noise of the pressure wave rolled over the SEAL team, but there was no time to sit and wait to see if the hit had found target. Joseph was first, closest to the insurgents, and weapon high, he slid down the crumbling mountainside. The missile had done its work, but Joseph didn't look for that. He wanted an all clear, and with only a few on target shots, he indicated back that the team could follow. There was still some small arms fire from the few remaining Taliban, but it was nothing the SEALs couldn't handle, dodging forces and jogging with the journalist at the center. Dexter called in final extraction, and when Joseph slumped into the CH-47 Chinook, he closed his eyes. It would be days before his ears were back to normal. The helicopter dipped then took a wide low path over the Afghanistan flatlands.
"So," Dexter started on a shout that broke through his team's fractured hearing, "I'm thinking of asking Emily to marry me."
And there it was. Normality after facing chaos and death. It was what SEALs did. They fought, they extracted, and they were the best. But, at the end of the day, they had survived and were alive. Listening as his best friend received advice from the team on how to propose, Joseph felt a twinge of something inside. The adrenaline inside him was trickling away and the reality of his life was replacing it in every single cell he had.
An empty apartment and a month of sleep. The sleep sounded good, but the empty part? That felt like shit.
* * * *
The deck of the C-17 was freaking freezing, and not for the first time in eight hours of hell, Joseph wished he had two sleeping pads under him and not just one.
Ramstein Air Base might be five hours in the past, but that meant at least another two or three until landing at Oceana Naval Air Station on the east coast. He was supposed to still be sleeping—that was the only way this enforced downtime worked for him. The Ambien had apparently long since lost its ability to send him back to sleep, and he was now way past wide awake. Everyone wanted to go home, but it was at moments like this, he wished for some magic way to blink and suddenly be in his own bed. The imposed cramped space was necessary if he wanted to get home, but he was a man of action, and all the clichés applied to him in spades. He wasn't the man who sat still; he was the one who paced. He never walked; he always ran. Sucking it up until they landed was his only option.
Still, he was tired enough to allow a small amount of self-indulgent misery at the cold and the smell and the aches that filtered through his determination to not complain.
His hip ached from lying on his right side as they crossed the ocean away from Basram to Germany and, with only a few hours break, onto the continental US. He was a SEAL, and his body had been through one hell of a lot, certainly more than the discomforts of sleeping in a C-17 cargo plane. The thought of what he normally put his body
through and how much pain he could handle never failed to amuse him when all he could think of now was how freaking sore he felt all over. Thank goodness for small mercies that the vibration of the plane had lessened as soon as they hit cruising altitude. He hated the way the throbbing of the huge engines coursed through his body and rattled his bones. Twenty-six years old and his body felt like he was forty.
Cursing his inability to sleep, he half rolled to take the pressure off his hip and stopped only when he felt one of his team behind him. He couldn't even recall who had grabbed the space there, but by the snoring, he assumed it was Dexter. His best friend was always watching his six and had done until they passed out the same week in BUD/s. Gritting his teeth, and with the comfort of his best friend's breathing so obvious behind him, Joseph relaxed each muscle, resolutely ignoring the belt on his multi-cams digging into skin. He finally found the place inside him that allowed him to sleep perched on rocks or in caves with aerial assaults streaking the sky. He moved to that single and vital place where fighters in combat zones found themselves in, where they hoped they would be safe.
The changing quality of the engine noise was the first indication they were stateside, and he woke to a crouch in instant awareness. Clearly he had managed another few hours of shuteye, much to his shock. Expectation shot through him at the thought of standing on US soil again, and he stretched tall to work out some of the kinks. To sleep in a bed, eat food that wasn't out of plastic, and to catch a breath was what the next thirty days were about.
Lonely or not.
"N'thuck." The words were mumbled in half sleep, and that was the first sign Dexter had pulled himself out of an Ambien and painkiller haze. Joseph moved as best he could to face his friend and blurted out a laugh at the sight before him. Dexter had taken a hit to the face by flying rocks, and the bruising was bad. The area around his friend's nose was swollen so badly his eyes were squinting and only half open.
"You look worse than shit," Joseph commented dryly.
"Thuck you," Dexter replied.
"Emily's gonna take one look at you and decide to marry me instead."
"Not your gay ass," Dexter countered.
Joseph laughed. His whole team knew about his preferences. It wasn't that he was out to everyone in the service, but SEALs had trust. Your team was your life and
held your life. Not one person in the team judged him for anything less than his skills or the SEAL acceptance that one day they might die for each other. Around him the rest of the team started pulling together sleeping bags and packs, and Joseph cast a brief look over at Adams, who remained in the green stage of post alcohol/Ambien mixing but who somehow managed to sport a broad and blinding grin. As the C-17 banked for final approach, Joseph took his seat. The landing was smooth, the rocking motion as the brakes engaged jarring, but the actual stopping itself was heaven. The plane rolled to journey's end at just before zero one hundred, and then the small band of SEALs trudged tiredly from the plane.