Forward Operating Base Danger, Iraq, 2005
"Don't think I've seen you around here before, Sergeant," the large Captain said.
"No sir. I was in the convoy last night. I'll be heading back to Liberty in tonight's convoy," Johnny answered, snuffing his cigarette.
"That's still 10 hours away. They got you doing anything until then?" the Captain asked. His nametape read "Vasquez."
"No, sir. I was supposed to go back last night, but --"
"Yeah, then shit got FUBAR. I heard. So you're that guy, huh?"
"Yes, sir. That's me."
"How're you feeling?"
"Oh, I'm solid, sir."
"Five hours, sir."
"You have any experience on house-to-house?"
"It's a large part of what my unit does back at Liberty, sir."
"Maybe you can help me out, then," Vasquez said. "I got a few guys in my unit just outta boot. A little jittery, but good guys. They're going on a house-to-house in an hour -- their first. My Staff Sergeant who was supposed to lead their element broke his leg last night, so I'm down a man. You bored enough to take 'em out?"
"That's affirmative, sir. Sure beats sitting around here and staring at my boots all day, sir."
"Good man, Sergeant. Form up in an hour. Front gate."
"Copy that, sir."
Vasquez smirked and returned Johnny's salute, then walked off to the left. Johnny lit another smoke. As he inhaled, he got the feeling someone was creeping up on him. He spun and came face-to-face with Alex Kelley.
"Sorry, Sergeant. Didn't mean to sneak up on you. Force of habit."
"Hey, can I get one of those cigarettes? Lost mine in the wreck."
"Sure thing," Johnny said, tossing Alex the pack. "How's Holt?"
"He lost a lot of blood, but you got him patched up in time. He'll live."
"Good to know. The others?"
"Fine. Itching to go back out, but those are my guys. How long you out here at Danger?"
"Just today. You?"
"'Till the job's done, I suppose. At least until I scrounge us a new truck," Alex said, grinning.
"You're a man down."
"Not a problem, really. We'll handle it. You back at Liberty after this?"
"That's the plan."
"We'll look you up when we get back. Maybe hang out?"
"Rock on. I'm gonna go see Holt. I'll see you around, Sergeant."
"Likewise, Sergeant," Johnny said.
Alex headed off to the medical building, and Johnny finished his cigarette. He checked his gear and ammo -- all nominal, thankfully. The 1st ID armorer had been happy to resupply him.
With 50 minutes to kill until he rolled out, Johnny set off in search of breakfast.
* * *
"Sergeant Teal? You've got Team Charlie," Vasquez told him, nodding to five young men in desert fatigues standing by a Humvee.
"Roger that, sir."
Vasquez nodded and turned to address the entire platoon.
"All right, men. Today's a relatively simple one. We're looking for a Chechen insurgent organizer named Mikhail Ulanov, and we're going house to house. He's our main target," Vasquez said. "However, what do we do if we see illegal weapons?"
"Grab the guns, detain the owners," a young Corporal answered.
"Exactly right. Our eyes in the city have him in an eight-block radius in the northeast part of Tikrit. Now, remember this is a residential neighborhood. People live there. That means we do not fire unless we're fired upon, and we don't damage anything we don't have to, clear?"
"Clear, sir." The response came from several of the men.
"Also, we do have eyes out there in civvies. Be extra careful, and above all, be nice, yes?"
Again came a low murmur of affirmative responses.
"We're cornering in. I'm riding with Alpha from the West. Bravo, you're South. Charlie's got the East, and Delta's North. Let's roll out, gentlemen."
Johnny turned to his unit -- they all looked very young to him. Johnny himself wasn't exactly old at 24, but these guys didn't look old enough to have graduated high school.
"OK, men. Who's driving?"
"I'll jump on the wheel, sir," one of them, a tall, thin kid whose nametape read "Huntington" said.
"Right on. Let's go, gentlemen. City's not gonna search itself," Johnny smiled at them as he climbed into the Humvee's passenger seat.
Huntington got behind the wheel. As the other kids loaded into the Humvee, Huntington started the huge truck and pulled into line behind Bravo Team's Humvee.
"Sir?" Huntington asked.
"I'm a Sergeant, kid. I'm not a 'sir,'" Johnny told him.
"Sorry, Sergeant. We usually listen to music in the truck. That cool with you, Sergeant?"
"Long as your music doesn't suck, Private."
"It's a band called Texas Death Machine, Sergeant. They're --"
"I know who Texas Death Machine is. I'm not that old, for fuck's sake. Put 'em on," Johnny said.
Huntington plugged in his iPod. The opening riff of the song "Wanker" tore through the Humvee at high volume. Huntington moved to turn it down, but Johnny stopped him.
"Nah. This song needs to be played loud," Johnny said, winking.
"You're a fan, Sergeant?" Huntington asked. He looked a bit surprised.
"Since high school," Johnny said.
"Guys! New Sergeant's hardcore!" Huntington yelled back into the Humvee's back seat. Johnny laughed.
The Humvee column rolled through the front gates and out into the city. It took only a few minutes to reach the target neighborhood. Civilian cars tended to move to the side when they saw the huge trucks rolling through.
"OK, gents. House-to-house is easy," Johnny said. "Knock on doors, ask questions. Watch the eyes, the body language. If they're hiding something, you'll know it."
"'Cause they're nervous?" The question came from Patrick, a tiny pale kid.
"Well, they're nervous because big guys with guns are at the door," Johnny told him.
"Right," Patrick said, nodding.
"OK, Interrogation 101. Eyes up and to the left, they're probably making something up. Lying, really. Up and to the right, they're just trying to remember. Eye twitches are a good indication you've asked something they don't want to answer. Fidgeting, excessive body movement, same thing. Good?" Johnny said. His men nodded. "All right. Let's talk to some locals, then."
* * *
Johnny woke up. He was looking at the roof of the Humvee. Private Patrick's face floated into view -- the pale kid looked worried. "His eyes are open!" Patrick yelled. Johnny got the sense that the Humvee was moving fast, but they didn't seem to be under fire. He closed his eyes -- just for a second, he thought -- when he opened them again, he was staring out at what looked like a hospital ward.
"Sergeant Teal. Welcome back. How're you feeling?" a man in BDUs asked. He had Captain's bars on his lapels, a stethoscope around his neck.
"All right, I guess. Groggy. Bit of a headache. Don't really remember how I got here."
"Yeah, the drugs explain the groggy feeling. The concussion's probably responsible for the rest. What's the last thing you remember?" the Captain asked, taking a seat by Johnny's bed. Johnny could see the caducius on his other lapel now, along with his nametape -- Phillips.
"We were on a house-to-house," Johnny said. We were about to link up with Bravo squad near the center of the target area. I noticed a car -- a Mercedes. Its rear axle was way too low."
"Then?" Captain Phillips asked.
"Then. . ." Johnny tried to remember, but the image of the car was where the story ended in his head.
"The boys that brought you in said you turned around to warn them off the car when it exploded about five feet behind you."
"You were pretty lucky, really. The blast knocked you 20 feet, but your helmet and body armor took a lot of the shrapnel," Philips said. "We took a small piece out of your lower right leg, and another out of the back of your right arm. You were on fire for a few seconds. Your boys put you out pretty quick -- your uniform's shot, but you only got minor burns."
"How long until I'm on my feet?" Johnny asked.
"Like I said, you were lucky -- let's not push it now. I'd like to keep an eye on you for at least the next 24 hours," Phillips told him.
"I'm due back at Liberty tonight," Johnny said.
"Nope. You were due back at Liberty last night. I've already spoken to your CO. He's ordered you to stay here until I release you, so there's no point arguing. There's another convoy to Liberty tomorrow," Phillips said.
Johnny didn't really want to stay in bed another day, but Phillips was right -- no point in arguing. He wasn't going to talk his way out. Not with orders from two senior officers. He sighed.
"Got a magazine or anything?" he asked.
Over the next few hours, he shifted a lot. It was tough to get comfortable thanks to the burns on the back of his legs. Still, Johnny knew he could've gotten a lot worse than he did. He'd seen plenty of guys killed by car bombs and IEDs, so he supposed the discomfort and the crushing boredom was a small price to pay.
It was a welcome break in the monotony of fidgeting and staring at the wall, then, when Riley Cohane and Alex Kelley came in that afternoon. Both were dressed in civilian gear, and Alex was carrying a few envelopes in his right hand.
"There he is," Riley greeted, smiling wide. "You're one tough motherfucker, you know that?"
"Nah. Just lucky," Johnny said. "Besides, being tough to destroy runs in my family."
"How're you feeling? Doc says you lost a fair amount of blood," Alex said.
"Tell you the truth, I'm feeling kinda bored. Otherwise fine. Headache's managable, burns are minorly annoying. . . but I feel pretty much functional."
"Good man. We rode out to Liberty last night. Picked up our new truck, and we ran into your CO. Nice guy," Riley said. "Sent along your mail with us."
Alex handed Johnny the envelopes.
"Top one looks like it's from a girl," Alex grinned. "That ought to cheer you up."
Johnny checked the return address -- Germany.
"It's from my wife," Johnny told them, opening the envelope.
"No shit. I didn't know you were married, Sarge," Alex said, smiling.
"Two years now," Johnny mumbled, reading. "Though it'd appear I'm not anymore. She's filed for divorce."
Alex's smile fell from his face. Riley sighed and shook his head.
"Well, Operation Cheer Up Sgt. Teal is a clusterfuck so far. I'm guessing you shouldn't read this one."
Riley held up another envelope -- this one looked like it was from a law office. Johnny put out his hand, and Riley gave him the letter. The return address on this one wasn't from Germany -- it was from his hometown in Omaha. Johnny opened the letter and read.
"Well. . . at least these aren't divorce papers," he sighed.
"Well, that's good," Alex said.
"It's from the family lawyer. My father just died."
No one spoke for several minutes. Finally, Alex pulled out a pack of cigarettes and offered it to Johnny. He lit it and took a deep drag. An orderly came running.
"You can't smoke in here!" he yelled.
"Fuck off," Riley growled. The orderly stopped dead and backed away.
"Sorry, Sergeant. We didn't mean to be the messengers of bad news," Alex apologized.
"Not your fault, guys. No worries."
"Still. We feel like shit about it," Riley said. "What can we do to make you feel better?"
Johnny felt a bubble of rage expanding in his chest. He looked at Riley and Alex.
"You can get me out of here and get me something to shoot at," he told them.
Riley smiled wide. His white teeth gleamed in the midday light.
"That we can do," he chuckled.