Camp Victory North, Iraq, 2003
Johnny, as usual, was beaten to the briefing room only by his commanding officer. Lieutenant Osborne was already leaned back in his folding chair, feet on the table and cup of coffee in hand, when Johnny walked in.
"'Morning, Sergeant," Osborne grinned.
"G'morning, sir. How's the coffee?"
"I wouldn't call it coffee. That'd give it too much credit. Still, it has caffiene in it, so it does the job."
Johnny poured himself a cup and took a sip as the rest of his unit began filing in.
"Gah. That truly is god-awful, sir. Still, like you said," Johnny shrugged, taking another drink and sitting down in an empty folding chair.
A few moments later, the small room was full of US Army Military Police. Osborne finished his coffee and stood at the front of the room.
"Good morning, soldiers," Osborne said.
"Good morning, sir!" a chorus of voices boomed back.
"A couple quick notes before we start. Corporal Reyes and PFC Woods are in medical. Seems they thought it'd be a good idea to say some derrogatory things about the Queen Mother. Wouldn't have been so bad if they weren't hanging with a couple of SAS guys at the time. I'm gonna need two of you to take over at the gate. Anyone wanna voulnteer before I assign someone?" Osborne scanned the room.
Next to Johnny, Corporal Lawson raised his hand. Osborne nodded.
"Lawson. Excellent. Sergeant Teal, why don't you back him up. We need at least one big, scary motherfucker out front, and that's you. No offense, Corporal Lawson, but hit the gym once in a while."
A low rumble of chuckles sounded around the room. Even Lawson laughed.
"Everybody else, same deal as yesterday. Overmeyer, Kendall, you can backfill for Teal and Lawson on patrol. Let's keep hydrated, people. Don't want any more of you ending up in medical. Dismissed."
* * *
Johnny didn't care for gate duty, but he could see Osborne's logic. Lawson was a tall, skinny kid -- not much shock and awe there. If anyone came up to Victory's gate unauthorized, Lawson wouldn't scare them. Johnny, though, already had a track record of freaking out the locals without meaning to -- the time he spent in the gym made him look mean. Some of the guys in his unit jokingly started calling him "Death Machine," a play on "Texas Death Machine," a band on Johnny's iPod. His size and looks came in handy when they were interrogating suspects on patrol, though. Locals usually told him what he wanted to know. They probably thought he'd break them in half if they didn't, especially after another soldier referred to him as "Sergeant Death Machine."
Of course, Johnny wasn't about to start smacking anyone around to get info. . . but if his size intimidated people, he called it a win. Scaring someone was infinitely preferable from having to fire on him.
It was a pretty slow morning out at the gate, which bothered Johnny. He wasn't used to not having much to do -- ever since his unit had marched into Baghdad six months before, they'd been busy every day.
"How you holding up over there, Sergeant?" Lawson asked, grinning and taking a sip of water. The kid wasn't big, but he was from Phoenix. He was used to the weather, which put him one up on Johnny.
"Walkin' on sunshine, kid," Johnny replied, gulping his own water.
"Man, this is just like home. Whaddya think, Sarge? 110? 115?"
"I think it's fucking hot. Beyond the point that numbers can express."
"Gotta say, I don't mind the break. Rattling around in Humvees was giving me a headache."
"I'd rather be out there. This shit's boring."
"I hear Reyes and Woods'll be back on duty tomorrow. They're not real banged up -- think they're just milking it to get a day off."
Johnny made a mental note to slap his two fellow MPs around for sticking him with this shit detail. He yawned and looked into the distance.
About 300 yards away, he saw a single man approaching on foot. The man was dressed in civilian clothes -- jeans, button-up, and boots. He wore a headscarf that obscured every feature of his face but his eyes, which were covered by a pair of wraparound sunglasses.
"Lawson. One o'clock."
"I see him, Sarge. Shout him off?"
"Nah. He's still a ways off yet. Let's just keep eyes on him."
Lawson nodded, and the two of them watched as the man ambled closer. He didn't seem to be in any particular rush, Johnny noticed. He toggled his radio.
"Front gate. I've got a lone male approaching on foot in Haji gear. Approximately 200 meters off. Advise."
Before a response could come back, Johnny noticed a strap running across the man's chest, and the barrel of a gun poking over his shoulder.
"He's armed!" Johnny shouted, instantly bringing his M4 into a firing position.
Lawson also brought his weapon up quickly.
"Stop moving! Ogaf!" Lawson yelled.
The man slowed a little, but kept coming.
"Shit, Sarge. What do we do? Do we fire?"
"That's a negative, Corporal. Chill out," Johnny said, then yelled at the approaching man, "Thib slaaHak! Weapon on the ground, now!"
The man slowed down further -- he was barely shuffling. He was maybe a hundred yards away, and Johnny could see he was swaying on his feet.
"Stop moving, man! Ogaf!" Lawson yelled again.
The man fell to his knees.
"Now the weapon! Throw it down! Thib slaHaak!"
At Johnny's command, the man reached slowly for the weapon's strap, unbuckling it at his chest. An AK-47 dropped to the sand behind him. "Going in, Corporal. Keep me covered."
"Copy that, Sarge."
Johnny kept his M4 trained on the kneeling man as he ran to him.
"Hands in the air! Irfa eedeyk!" Johnny shouted as he ran. The man raised his hands. Johnny covered the last fifty yards in seconds.
"Face down on the ground!" Johnny yelled.
"You can stop with the shitty Arabic phoenetics. I'm American," the man said weakly.
He fell forward, his face in the sand. Johnny quickly zip-tied the man's hands behind his back and hauled him to his feet.
"'Fraid I'm not gonna make it to the gate without help, Sergeant. And could you take this damn scarf off? Havin' trouble breathing."
Johnny pulled off the man's scarf and sunglasses. He did, indeed, appear American -- black hair and beard, blue eyes, sunburned skin. Johnny started to search him anyway.
"What are you doing, Sergeant? You can see I'm obviously an American," the man complained.
"Three words, sir. John Walker Lindh."
"Oh, come on. I'm not one of them. I'm a Sergeant, First Class, U.S. Army, for shit's sake."
"If that's true, then you know I have to check you for explosive devices. Got any I.D. on you?"
The man scowled and shook his head.
"I was on a covert surveillance. We don't carry I.D. or tags on those."
Johnny toggled his radio.
"He's clean. Come on in."
Lawson led several more soldiers from the gate to Johnny's position. Two soldiers grabbed the man under the arms and carried him off.
"Fucking cops," Johnny heard the man mutter as the soldiers dragged him toward the gate.
"Well. . . that certainly was odd," Lawson said.
"And you were convinced gate duty would be boring," Johnny said, shaking his head.
"Uh, that was you, Sergeant," Lawson told him.
"Don't contradict me. I outrank you."
"That's affirmative, Sergeant."
Johnny chuckled as the two of them walked back to the gate.
* * *
Reyes and Woods were out of medical and back on the gate the next day, and Johnny and Lawson were back on patrol. They spent most of the day kicking down doors in buildings suspected of holding militia weaponry. The haul was decent, but not spectacular. They returned to Victory that night with a small quantity of explosives and about 50 siezed AK-47s.
After debriefing, Johnny headed home. "Home," at least for the moment, was a small room he shared with nine other MPs in what had been an Iraqi government building. He stowed his gear and helmet under his cot and headed for the mess hall -- he wasn't hungry, but he couldn't remember when he'd eaten last. Just the fact that he couldn't remember told Johnny that the heat was fucking with him more than he wanted to admit.
The mess hall was full when he got there, so Johnny took a spot at the back of the line and waited. A few moments later, he heard laughter. It was coming from behind him, and Johnny turned around to see a group of young soldiers trying (and failing) to hold in another laugh.
"Something funny, Specialist?" Johnny asked the soldier in the front of the group. His nametape read "Kelley."
"Oh, no, sir, Sergeant. It's just. . . well, we're all real happy you're out there, protecting us from our own guys."
The soldiers exploded in laughter. Johnny stalked right up to Kelley, standing toe-to-toe with the young man.
"Think you might wanna rephrase that, Specialist."
Kelley just grinned, taking a step back and putting up his hands. Johnny was ready to fight if the young man made a move on him.
"Kelley! Back the fuck off right now, soldier!" someone bellowed, pushing through the line.
Johnny recognized the man he'd arrested at the gate. He was clean-shaven now, and dressed in BDUs. Johnny could see from the man's rank insignia that he was, indeed, a Sergeant First Class. The nametape on his chest read "Cohane."
"Aw, just having a little fun with the Sergeant here, boss," Kelley said, smirking.
"Fun stops right now, Kelley. You address a superior NCO like that again and I will personally beat you stupid, you get me?" Cohane growled.
"You're the boss, boss. No hard feelings, Sergeant." The smirk had yet to drop from Kelley's face.
Cohane pulled Johnny aside.
"Apologies about him. I'd blame it on lack of sleep and too many uppers, but he's like that on a good day anyway."
"No harm done."
"Also, gotta apologize about my attitude yesterday. I was seriously dehydrated and I'd been dodging hostiles on foot for two days. You were just doing your job, and I get that."
"Again, no harm done, Sergeant."
Cohane smiled wide and pounded Johnny on the shoulder.
"Good man. Now, you keep your guys out of my guys' way, and we'll get along just fine. Deal?"
Cohane didn't wait for a response. He simply turned around and melted back into the sea of deset camoflauge. Johnny shook his head.
"Asshole," he mumbled under his breath.
Johnny got his food and found a spot next to his pal Geoff from the motor pool.
"Dude, what are you doing fucking with those guys? Those're Deltas, man."
Johnny shook his head and started shoveling in food.
"They're not Deltas. Special Forces, sure. Not Delta."
"What makes you so sure?"
Johnny tapped the nametape on his chest.
"On the rare occasion they're in uniform, Deltas don't have 'em."
"You sure about that?"
"Pretty sure, yeah."
"Hope so. I'd hate to have Delta Force guys pissed off at me."
Johnny just sighed.
He suddenly felt like he was back in high school, and he'd just pissed off the popular kids.
And his appetite was gone. Again.