VOLUNTEER: CHAPTER I
photo by Buck Sargent
The following is the initial installment in an original American Citizen Soldier serial novella. Additional chapters will be posted sporadically, or as written.
1. someone who works without being paid
2. someone who does something, especially something undesirable, without being forced to do it
3. someone who has offered to serve in one of the armed services rather than being required to join by law
One volunteer is worth ten pressed men.
-Admiral Horatio Nelson
British Royal Navy
He thought for a moment he had lost consciousness.
He couldn’t see, he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t think—actually, he thought he had died in that first incoming round of volley-fired RPGs. He could recall an IED exploding up ahead of the convoy, and he had adjusted the focus on his NVGs to spy the green outline of a plume of smoke rising above the lead humvee.
There was a flash, then stillness.
Yet, Sergeant Clifton Colby still had his sense of taste, which is what alerted him to the fact that he was still very much alive. He could taste his own blood from a missing bottom molar. He would later learn that it had been jarred loose from the blast of a concussion grenade that had exploded on his squad leader’s ammo pouch, killing him instantly. It must have taken a direct hit from the enemy AK fire that suddenly erupted from the tree line off
to their nine o‘clock position.
An unseen enemy, blending into the population and co-opting advanced American tactics of striking from beyond visual range and using remote detonation to keep fighters out of harm’s way.
The IED was only a decoy, designed to corral them into the “kill zone” and distract them from the real threat to follow. Unconventional Warfare 101.
Colby still couldn’t hear. He’d remembered his earplugs, fortunately, preventing his eardrums from being severely ruptured by the blast, but his Kevlar helmet and NVGs were gone. He felt alongside his body -- his short-barreled M4 was still there, wolf-strapped to his vest. All he could do until his natural night vision slowly returned was stay low and wait for the opportunity to return fire, if he lived that long.
He prayed for that opportunity.
Something slapped hard into his calf muscle and for the first time he felt a surge of pain. Pain was good. It meant you were still breathing. Ironically, being wounded can actually help keep you alive in combat.
People have one of two reactions to being shot.
One, they get scared and start to panic. Panic in combat is the kiss of death. Once it takes over, you’re done. Box you up and ship you home.
Or two, they get mad. As in, royally fucking pissed off. As in, who does this son of a bitch think he is, shooting at me? These type of people are dangerous to shoot at. Because even if you drop him with a three round burst, the bastard isn’t going to die until the adrenaline coursing through his veins wears off and his body realizes it’s lost three pints of blood charging your position.
Colby wasn’t one of those people. He panicked.
Another bolt of lightning tore into his left upper bicep, nearly shredding it from the bone.
As he lay paralyzed from the blunt force trauma he felt someone run there hands over his limbs and torso, and then the cinch of an emergency field dressing being tightened around his lower leg. Another followed on his useless, mangled arm. This one as tight as a tourniquet.
A meaty hand slapped him roughly on the back—good to go—and then vanished as quickly as it had appeared in a sudden flash of light and dust. A streaking RPG vaporized the platoon medic where he stood, a pink mist suspended in the air. Sergeant Colby’s guardian angel to the end, the medic’s body had apparently shielded him completely from the effects of the blast, except for a few stray chunks of shrapnel that embedded into the rear ceramic plate of his body armor.
Later he would overhear a field surgeon commenting on those chunks that turned out to be fragments of bone and skull; bits and pieces of his guardian angel.
His hearing was slowly coming around. The sound of firecrackers was all around him, getting louder by the second. He could smell the unmistakable stench of burning flesh, and instinctively patted himself down just in case.
Nope, not me. At least he had one thing going for him.
The mad fusilade of American rifle fire around him now stopped as abruptly as it had begun, allowing competing sounds to now be heard over the din of battle.
The pained cries of men. The wailing of women and small children, those first desponders, already out of their homes to mourn their dead. Colby rolled onto his right side. Civilian bodies littered the sidewalk. A popular hahji shopkeep kept late hours peddling tobacco and chy tea to fellow Muslim insomniacs.
Collateral damage. The cost of doing business in the Middle East.
The bastards picked this spot to hit us for a reason. More carnage, more chaos, more mayhem. Anarchy. Victory.
The idiot shopkeeper probably watched them dig the hole for the IED up the road or plant it in a parked car and never said a damn word. Now he’s a bloody smear, along with his clientele. Here, the customer is clearly not always right.
The moonless sky was now abuzz with invisible activity, as blacked-out orbiting Apache gunships and low-flying Kiowa Warriors criss-crossed the target area, impatient to get into the fight but powerless to assist the boots on the ground.
Out of the darkness appeared a set of kneepads, it’s wearer grabbing him under the arms and hoisting him up on a shoulder in a fireman‘s carry. The pain of being carried in this fashion was unbearable. He could feel the jagged edge of his cracked fibula stabbing through the skin of this calf, threatening to protrude further with each successive jolt.
He opened his eyes briefly and caught a sideways glimpse of another casualty being dragged out of the street by the backstrap on his vest. This guy was limp, all dead weight and dragging limbs.
The silhouette of another behind them was moving under his own power, holding a riggers belt tight against his upper arm with his free hand, screaming and cursing the whole way. He could vaguely make out someone yelling his name behind them, but Colby could barely breathe in this position much less talk.
Those who could scream would probably make it, he figured. The quiet ones had already lost too much blood to make much of a fuss.
The young sergeant performed a quick mental calculus and decided not to be quiet.
* * *
Sean Gibson and Cliff Colby had been best friends since freshman year at Penn State. They had been trying to date the same petite blonde sorority pledge, yet here they were six years later -- college mixers long behind them and flighty co-eds long forgotten.
They were more than friends now -- they were brothers. Each of them had grown up with three or more women in the house, thus requisite male bonding had always been in short supply.
Now both of them had it in spades.
Sean had been the first to visit the recruiters two days after 9/11. He had always been the firebrand, the one to dive into things headfirst and ask questions later. Cliff was slow to test the waters, but where Sean was concerned, rarely would he fail to follow behind.
Besides, he knew better than to try to talk him out of enlisting. Sean grew up in New York City, his entire extended family hailing from one borough or another. Eleven cousins and one uncle rode the 87th floor of 1 WTC to the ground that cloudless Tuesday morning. Some may even have jumped rather than face the inferno, hundreds of gallons of jet fuel and molten steel raging throughout the floors below.
For their part, the Colby clan had been unscathed on that fateful day but not unmoved.
Goodwin Colby had served as a midshipman aboard a destroyer in the South Pacific, a mere lad of 17 when he stood in line to sign up with the Navy three weeks after Imperial Japan bombarded Pearl Harbor.
Uncle Robert Clifton Colby landed with his fellow Marines at Da Nang in the late summer of ‘65. He was returned home to his parents in Shelton, Pennsylvania on Christmas Day. A bicycle path there still bears his name.
Cliff’s father Gordon “Guy” Colby had been too young for service in Vietnam, though he later spent the entirety of the Reagan/Bush years in the Reserves. Exhaustion and poor circulation medically retired him following a six month stint in the Saudi Arabian desert during the run-up to Desert Storm.
Though none had been career military men, service to country ran deep in the Colby line. Cliff Colby instinctively knew he could not avoid it forever -- it was in his blood -- and now here it was, beckoning at his doorstep.
Sean’s family history was one nearly devoid of military service, though it contained at least half a dozen Irish rebellions spread over two centuries. An adopted Thomas Kiernan Gibson was believed to have fallen at Chancellorsville for the Union side but had left no wife or children and no legacy other than an historical footnote: the top of his head can barely be made out among a group of regulars photographed with President Lincoln in Maryland circa 1862.
This was according to Grandma Gibson, of course. The same Grandma Gibson who had saved every newspaper, Parade magazine, and empty butter tub she had accumulated in her adult life. The same Grandma Gibson who had proudly displayed in her home a framed typewritten reply to an angry letter she had sent to the Washington bureau of the F.B.I. in 1969, frustrated with the unruly antics of the counterculture and the governments languid response.
Sun Tzu once wrote:
To subdue the enemy without fighting is the
acme of skill.
J. Edgar Hoover
“I’m gonna do it, Cobe.” These were the first words out of Sean’s mouth when he returned to their shared campus apartment in early October of ‘01. He had attended more funerals in the previous week than most do in their lifetime. “This shit is for real.”
Cliff sat at his computer, never averting his eyes from the screen. “You pick a branch? Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines? Coast Guard? Peace Corps? Park ranger?”
“Army Ranger.” It wasn’t a question, more of a sigh. “You have to jump out of planes for that, you know.”
“I know,” he said.
“You know.” Another sigh. “In the Navy you’d never have to leave the ship.” Cliff’s life was fast-forwarding in his mind, static line in hand, eyes clamped shut, stomach in his throat.
“Dude, if I’m gonna do this, it’s gotta be all the way. No half measures… no ‘chillin in the rear with the gear’… all the way.” Sean waved his arms around a lot when he talked, and right now he was a human windmill of adrenaline.
“You heard what the President said. This wasn’t just another terrorist attack -- this was an act of war. Your grandfather would have said the same thing.” Sean was in his full salesman mode now.
“Yes, and my grandfather would have -- did -- join the Navy and not slogged around a hundred pound pack and slept in the dirt.” Cliff wondered if they had internet in the Middle East. Had they heard of the internet in the Middle East?
“Whatever, man. Back then, the Navy was where all the action was. Try and name another country today with aircraft carriers.”
“I’m sure the Brits have at least one…”
“Come on. The point is, this is the best route for me, by far. A minimum of time spent training, then right into the breach. It’s a no-brainer.” Sean sat back on their couch and flipped on Fox News. O’Reilly was already well into his opening Talking Points memo.
“What are you, Henry V now? Don’t start quoting Shakespeare to me, pal. You barely even passed that class.” Cliff removed his glasses and began to clean them with his shirttail, the way he did whenever he started to get worked up about something. Something usually involving Sean.
“But you’re right about the ‘not needing a brain’ part, Scarecrow. Have you told your mom yet?”
“Dude, I just finished telling you. Besides, she’ll understand. She always does.”
“Right. Like the time she ‘understood’ when you wanted to drop out mid-semester sophomore year and race dirtbikes…”
“Look, Cliffy,” he said. “She's got enough on her plate right now. My family's just been decimated, man. But I’m not dropping out, alright? We’ll both be done in January, and then we can ship out. Just wait, you’ll see I’m right,” he said. He reached back for the cable remote and turned up the volume.
Cliff took his hand off the mouse pad and reached for his soda perched on the monitor. He finally swiveled to face Sean, already in full channel-flip mode. “What do you mean, we?” he asked.
Sean kept flipping. “Oh yeah, I meant to tell you.” He unconsciously began scratching his three-day beard -- the way he always did when he was about to nonchalantly drop a bomb on you -- and as he always did, Cliff braced for impact.
“I told the recruiter it was a package deal.”
COPYRIGHT 2005 BUCK SARGENT