Follow First Lieutenant Chris Spencer and Little League Company on a day of his rotation in this desert warzone.
Dramatis personae (in order of appearance):
First Lieutenant Chris Spencer
First Sergeant Brandon Grayson
Gunnery Sergeant Harry ‘Hal’ Douglas
Gunnery Sergeant Nathan ‘Nate’ Wilson
Corporal Simon ‘Si’ Baker
Private First Class Jamal ‘Eyes’ Owens
Lance Corporal Kenneth ‘Ken’ Dawson
Corporal Alex ‘Bambi’ Warren
Sergeant James Yates
Staff Sergeant Holly ‘Sexy’ Swain
‘Please don’t let me die today,’ First Lieutenant Chris Spencer said to himself, fingers pressed firmly on the photograph of his wife and son. He finished with a silent prayer, kissed both their faces and rolled out of his bunk to begin his morning workout. Twenty-five push-ups as fast as he could. Breathe. Twenty-five clap push-ups slightly slower. Roll onto back. Breathe. Twenty-five sit-ups as fast as he could. Lift legs. Breathe. Twenty-five crunches. Twenty-five bicycle crunches. Lieutenant Chris Spencer did this every day of his rotation – two hundred and thirty two days – and in just a couple of months’ time, he would be able to kiss his family’s faces for real.
Later. Chris was joined by the rest of his unit, new personnel and FNGs had just touched down in the desert ready to be deployed, and with any luck he could go back home knowing that the next batch of Marines would serve their country proudly.
‘Man, I hate the desert!’
‘Where’re you from Gunnery Sarge?’
‘Las Vegas, Nevada sir!’
‘That’s a fucking desert oorah!’
‘OORAH!’ the unit laughed as they walked, six strong to the CIC in the middle of the base designated Sanctuary. Its strategic location and importance to the liberation mission was to hold key parts of the city and bolster the newly formed police and security forces. The entire infrastructure of the city – the country too – disintegrated when the American forces moved in and though they worked night and day to resuscitate and rebuild, some of the locals were determined to prolong the task to its most difficult. The base was the New York of the war. It never stopped. The constant din of noise invaded even the most private of thoughts, so much so that those stationed here began to fear silence. Lt. Spencer reined in the laughter of his squad as they took their seats, nodding to the various squad leaders around. The marquee housed up to a hundred at any one time and was the site of most debriefings. The constant heat meant there was no way that walls would be used for anything but tactical appraisals of the confidential kind. Marines did not like heat.
‘Gentlemen, good morning, as you are no doubt aware, Overlord has set us the reinforcement personnel we’ve been waiting on for months now. Your squad leaders have been given detail on who and what they’re getting –’
Sergeant Grayson turned to Chris, ‘Hell yeah, about time…’
‘ – command has sat up and taken notice of Sanctuary. Thanks to the good work of squads Little League and Yogi Bear –’
Quiet cheers and high-fives rippled through the assembled ranks and Chris felt congratulatory hands grip and rock his shoulders. Little League was his squad. Not his choice of name though.
‘ – outstanding work, really. Things should get a little quieter around here but watch your sectors in the hot zones and never let your guard down. The insurgents are still out there, and so too in this man.’ The Colonel’s gun fingers pointed to the bearded, scarred face now on the main screen. The Marines shuffled in their seats, some muttered creative curses.
Nasir bin Khalisa al Jalani.
Better known as Anthony Palmer. The worst turncoat in the United States Marine Corps history.
Grayson turned to his lieutenant again, ‘It’s fucked up that we’re even here, but fighting our own?’
‘We’ll get that sonuvabitch, when he makes a mistake.’ Chris answered. Grayson nodded and touched fists with him. Overlord determined that tidying up the scandal of this turncoat, sweeping it all under the rug, was not a military manoeuvre. The politicking and their public image meant less than nothing out here in the shit. He was not just a deserter. Anthony Palmer left his Marine brothers, embraced the culture and name of the desert and began his mission to wipe out the invaders he had arrived with. He became the enemy. Nasir bin Khalisa al Jalani adorned dartboards and became the face of all payload weights of ordnance in Sanctuary. Everything to do with him was synonymised with negatives. Anything bad had ‘gone to Lincoln’ after his birth place Lincoln, Nebraska, this was a Sanctuary favourite after one of theirs first used it. Now it was as readily used and became so irrevocably Marine Corps as FNG throughout all deployments. Another was the ‘family of four’ situation. Palmer was both the son in and the father of a family of four. This indicated a situation’s insurmountable nature and subsequent failure, its ill-advised continuation and the execution of alternative tactical retreats if possible.
‘ – hasn’t authorised an offensive against him yet, so we gather intel. Squad Regis and Kelly are on the ground with our interpreters talking to locals who aren’t allied with al Jalani’s group. There are whispers that some don’t recognise his authority because he was one of us, but nothing further to warrant any action. It’s no family of four, of that I am certain. But gentlemen, you have your orders. Nobody die today, dismissed.’
Chris took the clipboard and led Little League to their transports.
‘How many newbies we got LT?’ Sergeant Wilson, the youngest, and one of three teenagers in the squad responsible for their designation asked as he took off his Mk. 11 sniper rifle and laid it on the ground to roll his shoulder. Chris waived the breach of new protocol of dropping firearms because of Wilson’s injury. A few months back, a joint operation with First Recon’s spec ops saw five companies descend on a possible hostile headquarters of al Jalani’s. Little League provided flank support and Wilson was on sniper overwatch in an armed personnel carrier helicopter. He took a bullet from a Dragunov sniper rifle just below his collarbone near his left shoulder. A bigger round would have earned him a discharge on medical grounds. He counted himself lucky he did not get sent home, but the scar tissue meant his shoulder would lock when still for too long. The worst thing was that al Jalani was nowhere in sight when they stormed the location, nor was there any sign that he was ever there. The last mission appraisal Chris thought he would be giving after the mission was a debriefing of a plan gone to Lincoln. But he did. From then on, Sanctuary’s marines no longer liaised with their native counterparts for intelligence. First Recon should not have fucked up like that and Chris almost lost a good soldier that night because of it.
‘Requested four, got four. One transfer, one with a jacket and two new recruits,’ Chris replied, scrutinising the summaries of the combat records, ‘here they come.’ Little League squad fell in behind their Lieutenant to welcome them.
‘Private First Class Jamal Owens?’
‘Fuck, he’s big…’
‘Says here you’re with the scout snipers, is that correct?’ Chris hoped these scores would translate in a live battle situation.
‘Yes sir, top of my class sir!’ Jamal smiled. There was not enough smiling going on in this war.
‘Outstanding, you’re Wilson’s eyes, next Lance Corporal Kenneth Dawson?’
‘Present sir, and I prefer Ken sir,’ a mousey looking soldier replied, his kit looked too big for him and he had all sorts of miscellaneous debris attached – nothing breaking regs though.
‘You were with Ordnance Disposal?’
‘Yes sir, is that a problem sir?’
‘No problem Private, can you fire that weapon when the time comes?’ Chris nodded at the M4A1 assault rifle hanging by his side.
‘Affirmative sir, you just watch me,’ his nerves lifted after that admission and Chris put his concern to the back of his mind… for now.
‘Good to know Ken, uh, who’s next? Corporal Warren Alex?’
‘LT, that’s Alex Warren not Warren Alex. Command got my details wrong which made my deployment a real… family of four?’ a slight soldier stepped forward, with a face too pretty for war.
The uneasy use of the Palmerism told Chris that the Corporal knew about Palmer which was good and that they were eager to impress which was not so good. Eager recruits never lasted long and – ‘Wait, you’re a girl?’ Si Baker, the squad’s transport officer piped in unexpectedly, stopping Chris’ thoughts dead.
‘Uh yes sir, didn’t know the Little League was a boys’ only club sir.’
‘An Alexandra? Just when we asked for manpower!’ Gunnery Sergeant Harry ‘Hal’ Douglas joked to Corporal Warren’s discomfort.
‘Don’t mind Hal, Bambi. Where he’s from, the only women he sees, take off their clothes for a living… yes his mother too,’ Grayson added, shortly followed by the finger from Douglas.
‘That’s enough Marines. We’ll finish introductions en route to the checkpoint we’re defending. Load up!’ Chris interjected as he took his place shotgun. Si got in the driver’s seat and removed his helmet, replacing it with a Rangers bandana. Little League’s RTO never drove with the protocol helmet, not even the threat of a court martial dissuaded him. Eventually a team leader meeting agreed on certain leeway grants in the appearance standard. It was not an issue worth pressing hardball when unit morale was so tied to the outcome. Baker took it as a personal victory! Sergeants Yates and Wilson took the back seats as Alexandra took the Mk. 59 turret position. ‘Move out, maintain dispersion and cruising speed, Sanctuary wants us operational at that checkpoint at 1300 hours for an RTB at 1630 hours,’ and with that order, Little League’s two humvees drove towards the north of the city.
‘Man, I hate the way they look at us. You’d think they would’ve thanked us after everything here had gone to Lincoln and then we swoop in and damn save the day…’ Harry said from his gunner position on the squad’s second humvee.
‘Tell me you wouldn’t look at them the same way if they’d invaded your country,’ Sergeant Yates replied. In the ride over, Little League were introduced to their other New Yorker – a ‘fucking Islander’ in Si’s words – a veteran of the big assault on the Equatorial islands.
‘Like they ever could invade my country! Look at the dictionary, that’d be the meaning of a ‘family of four’. Besides if you’re such a conscientious objector Yates, why are you here?’ Si laughed from his driver’s seat.
‘My job Baker… my job.’
‘Oh? So you couldn’t wait to come to another heathen nation gone to Lincoln and slaughter the infidels in the name of our Lord, the Stars and Stripes and President?’
‘The slaughtering’s the best part of us being here!’
‘So cold Yates, jeez. I bet you bathe in the blood of women and children in your off duty hours.’
‘It gets me off, and keeps me looking young.’
‘Can it boys! As long as we smile and ‘we come in peace’ the shit out of them, we’ll be outta here soon,’ Alex said as she waved at a boy transfixed by her. He ran away. She bit back the insult and continued surveying the population trying to go about their everyday lives. There were holes in the road and pathways from the initial occupation but the Americans had begun reconstruction quicker than they would back home. She thought it was sad that they could not win the trust of the locals but trust, really, was asking too much right about now.
‘Yes, Private First Class Owens,’ Chris responded whilst surveying a permit to pass through the checkpoint. The two men spoke in their language at a rip-roaring pace that Chris did not bother looking at them to do the smile and nod response. He just assessed the identification and then returned it when nothing was out of sorts. They did not stop talking even after they passed through the checkpoint.
‘I see a group of foot mobiles at our 10 o’clock, second floor of the big white building with the blown out wall that could’ve once been a school.’ Everyone turned to see what Jamal was designating with the magnifying scope on his M16 and it was a group of foot mobiles though their numbers were unclear. What they were doing though, no one could tell.
‘Anyone else got eyes on that position?’ Chris raised his voice.
‘Negative LT, it’s too far away,’ Alex answered as she wheeled her turret round to see and Harry echoed her statement.
‘Jamal go with Wilson, take your spotting scope and the Mk. 11 and confirm that position of foot mobiles from a better position. I want to know how many nose hairs they have. Take all necessary precautions when you’re Oscar Mike, the ROE remains only if you’re fired upon first, oorah?’
‘Oorah LT, moving,’ Nate and Jamal ran from their positions, replaced by Dawson at the front right side of the squad’s second humvee and Grayson on the gate duty. Chris nodded to Dawson, to reassure him, and he smiled back before checking his sectors.He almost looks like he isn’t scared, good,Chris thought.
‘I don’t like it here Chris… it’s too open. Too many hostiles.’
‘I know Brandon, but al Jalani doesn’t control this part of the city… it’s friendly.’
‘Nowhere’s friendly in this fucking place,’ Alex said to herself.
‘Little League actual, this is Sanctuary actual over,’ the comms device in the humvee sounded.
‘Yates, you take over,’ Chris moved to his humvee to Yates’ ‘oorah’ and picked up the phone, ‘Sanctuary actual, this is Little League actual, send your traffic over.’
‘Be advised, a recon drone has confirmed a large amount of civilian activity in your AO, how copy?’
‘Affirmative Sanctuary actual, it’s market day, over.’
‘Roger that Little League actual, stay sharp, we don’t want any excitement.’
‘Roger that Sanctuary actual, I would love nothing but okaying goat shipments in and out of the city!’ Chris said as a queue started to form at the checkpoint, ‘Sanctuary actual, though I love to chat, if there’s nothing in particular…’
‘The recon drone has also confirmed the queue at your checkpoint Little League actual, report back during some down time Lieutenant, Sanctuary actual out.’ Chris put the receiver down and stepped out behind the humvee to assist Yates in the checks.
‘I think he likes you LT,’ Alex said from atop the humvee.
‘Who, the Colonel?’
‘Fuck no, this guy!’ Alex almost pointed at the man in question with her turret but caught her arms before doing so. She meant the guy who obviously had no concept of personal space as he stood alarmingly close to Chris during his identity check. He spread his arms out, inviting a frisk. Brandon flicked the safety off his M16 and moved to stand behind him.
‘You don’t need to be frisked, the metal detector hasn’t detected anything,’ Chris said slowly to him and gestured to the metal detector and that he go through.
‘No, no, you check me! You check!’ he responded in the thick native accent, keeping his arms outstretched despite Chris’ best efforts to lower them.
‘See?’ the two humvees started to laugh as Chris tried to discourage this man’s desire to be frisked and usher him through the checkpoint. They compromised on an awkward hug and he was sent on his way much to Chris’ relief.
‘I almost, almost wish he was strapped. I would’ve been justified in shooting him, Jesus.’
‘Don’t worry LT, if he was an Alpha Papa and strapped, I had you covered oorah!’ Brandon said showing his deactivated safety.
‘Oorah, Brandon.’ Chris breathed a sigh of relief. Alpha Papa was the phonetic alphabet’s A and P: Anthony Palmer’s initials had become the Palmerism for a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In other words, a fucking traitor.
‘You were wrong about one thing Bambi,’ Harry called over to Alex, ‘maybe the people here are too friendly!’ he shot her a disarming toothy smile and she could not summon the fight in her that usually followed being called ‘Bambi’. She also wanted Gunnery Sergeant Douglas to be right about the people.
Before confirming time’s elapse on his wrist timepiece, his only indication that time did not stand still in this godforsaken place was that the unrelenting heat had dropped a few degrees and a dusty breeze had picked up in its place. RTB in just over 30 mikes, Chris thought walking back to his humvee passenger door to take the comms device receiver once traffic started to lessen. Si had already relayed the call to Sanctuary actual.
‘Welcome back Little League actual, efficient work as always Chris.’
‘Thank you Colonel, it never feels like it.’
‘Making the best of a bad situation Chris, that’s why my Marines are making inroads all over the desert.’
‘Chris, give me a no BS call, how’s the mood over there?’
‘No BS? well Col–’ Chris’ response was cut short as he heard a whistling sound he had been trained to recognise.
And to fear. ‘RPG! RPG!’ Alex’s girlish yell came in before Chris’ mind finished processing his response and his thoughts were wrenched from him as he hit the broadside of his humvee and lost his footing. A ringing took over, preventing any kind of thought process as he felt himself being dragged into cover. His sight started to level out as he saw Brandon crouched near him firing his weapon single shot on axes that showed that they were surrounded.
Eyes, the nickname Jamal earned following his achievements in his class made even more sense in his new role as Spotter, and Wilson had cleared the apartment building room to room, repurposing it as their overwatch position giving them a panoramic view of the checkpoint and the building of interest with the foot mobiles. Thankfully there was no one to clear. Wilson deployed his Mk. 11 in front of a second floor scaffolded floor-to-ceiling window. Once the bipod support was set up he lay down, his left hand taking off the cover of the scope before settling down resting the butt of the rifle in the crook of right shoulder and collarbone. He rolled his left arm a few times to keep it limber as Eyes set up his scope beside him. ‘Range… 250m. Wind coming from the South East, approximately 4 knots.’
‘You’re gonna have to be more than approximate Eyes,’ Wilson said as he calibrated the scope to accommodate for the range.
‘…5 knots Gunnery Sergeant, confirmed.’
‘Taking these fuckers out, I have a shot!’ he slowed his breathing before taking a deep breath.
‘Take the shot!’ Jamal said as Wilson signalled and then reduced the RPGer’s head to a bloody mess with a 7.62mm round from his Mk. 11. ‘GET SOME!’ The semi automatic sniper rifle lit the position up as the other RPG team in there was taken out.
‘Tangos down,’ Wilson declared as he exhaled that breath, they moved to a higher floor to get a better firing position.
‘Hang in there Chris, backup’s on the way! Shit, our hopes of boring have gone to fucking Lincoln now!’ Grayson shouted over the gunfire. As if Lincoln, Nebraska had ever been the venue of excitement, Brandon thought and a small smile broke out behind his gritted teeth of concentration. Was that irony? he never knew exactly what it was. Chris’ sensual recovery was elusive, the RPG’s explosion was a foot from him, chucking pieces of the floor that connected with his chest and helmet. He had barely enough cognition to see bullets puncture Grayson as he fell. His right leg gave way first with what might have been one or several bullet wounds before his chest was the target of a more concentrated barrage of gunfire. Both sets of impacts treated his body like a ragdoll, the physics pulling him face first to the ground before throwing his body backward. He lay motionless, his face thankfully turned away.
‘Enemy technical, on your six Warren!’ Wilson spotted from his overwatch position and Alex spun her Mk. 59 turret and fired a steady barrage at the vehicle carrying what must be al Jalani’s militia. She yelled as she fired and the car veered right and hit stationary vehicles on the side of the road, its passengers slumped and motionless filled with lead.
Chris woke and sat up sharply and immediately regretted the rash action, as his wounds ached all over. He felt truly rough. As his head rested against what must have been the infirmary’s bed, he turned to see Sanctuary, all of Sanctuary, mobilising.
‘Lieutenant Spencer?’ Chris turned his head to the combat medic checking his fluids.
‘What’s going on out there Sergeant Swain?’ he remembered marines who joked about wanting to shoot themselves just so ‘Sexy’ Swain would tend their wounds.
‘Overlord has given the green light to a major offensive mission. We’re going after al Jalani...’
‘My squad need me!’ Chris said as he processed Holly’s sentence. He began to fiddle with the drips fastened to his arms but his fingers disobeyed his orders and they flapped helplessly against his arms. Sergeant Swain moved closer to him and began calming his movements so as to not aggravate his injuries further. For the first time in four months, there was no Palmerism that could accurately capture his emotions. He was somewhere far worse than Lincoln, Nebraska.
‘No Chris. Your squad need you right here, alive. You’re all going home,’ he watched her step away once he was settled again and followed her eyes. Their destination: eight coffins and the folded flags resting neatly upon each. His bandaged hands came to rest over his eyes, his crying drowned out by the mobilising of the Marines…