Part 2 in the series.
|In Death's Den
The following is based on actual events. Names and locations have been changed.
The rain fell in sheets as I exited the Bus that hauled us all to embark on our latest mission. We traveled by a bus that looked like any other public transportation in the city. The bus would not be singled out like a military vehicle. Another reconnaissance mission, 15 in as many days. Our location...well, yet again unable to contact my family to tell them where I am but not a part of the world that we are welcomed in. It seems as though I have been away forever. I have forgotten the feel of a mattress or the smell of freshly washed sheets. All I know is mud and rot and unbearable heat and humidity when the sun does break free of the strangle hold the clouds seem to have on it.
Captain Able had called us out for muster at 0300 and briefed us on intelligence received about a possible terrorist plot against the Embassy in this foreign place. The Intel was deemed credible because we had thwarted an attempt only 2 months prior to this based on Intel from he same source.
The problem with paid informants is that they'll work for anyone who has money and apparently our money wasn't enough. The Terrorist cell was supposed to be working out of a remote location just five miles outside of the city. We were bussed into a drop zone 4 miles from the suspected location and nine miles from town as to not raise any suspicions among locals and to defend against the possibility of terrorist informants living in the villages and farms surrounding the area. Our uniforms give no clue as to the country of our origin and hygiene was a forgotten luxury. As far as anyone could tell we were the terrorists and well armed.
Each of us who worked on this team did so with the knowledge that if we were killed here that our families would receive a visit from some officer explaining how we died in some tragic accident during a training exercise and that our death was mourned by a nation. They would tell our families that they have every reason to feel pride, as we would have died in service to our country. A hero's death, not a bad way to go but I have no intention of dieing here. Each man with me was intent on making it out of this sewer of a country and would do everything in their power to make sure the rest of us went with them.
I recall LCpl David Randolph. Randolph was a 6'2, 240 LB former college Football star. He had played for an NAIA school because his grades weren't good enough to get into a bigger college. He was a Marine reservist at the time he was in school and had lost his temper with one of the Coaches and created a human pretzel with him. At the court proceeding the Judge had been contacted by Randolph's Command and informed him that if he transferred to the Fleet (active duty) that the charges would be gone when he finished his four year tour. Randolph took the offer and quickly found his place in life, right here with the rest of us, rooting out terrorists in filthy back water countries where everyone you came in contact with didn't care if you lived or died. I have spent a lot of time with Randolph and couldn't ask for anyone better to watch my back.
We moved forward through the rain and mud with all of us walking abreast at 25-foot intervals. The trick was to keep the man on your left and right in your peripheral vision and your eyes open for whatever might be at your feet and in front of you as well in the trees and foliage that were so thick here. This was no easy task but it could mean the difference between life and death for all of us.
The decay and rot filled my nose, it was as if the rot were creeping inside of me and working from the inside out turning me into one of the undead creatures portrayed in movies. Maybe that was why they referred to us as the Shadow Squad. We were always walking in the shadow of death and yet we never died. With the rot came the insects, mosquitoes and flies that not even the rain could abate. Mosquitoes that had an appetite that was never satisfied and flies that seemed to crave human flesh, providing further evidence to our walk on the edge of Death's holding. I waited any moment to see Cerberus guarding the entrance to Hades as we moved along toward our goal.
Covering the miles through the foliage was slow and tedious. Each step was labor as we moved the foliage carefully to mask our presence. After six hours we found signs of activity. At first the only clue to their presence was footprints in the mud. The rain had stopped and the clouds were quickly letting go of the sky. The tracks were not filled with the rain that should have fallen in them if they were over an hour old. These tracks ran perpendicular to our path. Captain Able started the hand signal to stop and get down. This signal was passed silently down our line. You see the dead cannot speak and those who walk with the dead learn to listen to the silence and hear as well as anyone with perfect auditory sense.
The minutes passed like hours as I waited for a sign to continue forward, a sign that something was not right. It was then that I heard the rustling of the foliage and under-growth behind me. The silence that I thought I knew was suddenly filled with the sound of my own blood passing through every vein and artery in my body. I was well concealed in the greenery of the landscape. I pulled my Ka-Bar from its resting place over my heart, prepared to make this encounter as silent as possible. I had already worked out the logistics of the meeting and knew exactly how I would dispatch this enemy. How dare he interrupt the silence of death's den, it was up to me to insure that he was silent evermore.
As I waited I heard a low, barely audible version of my name. "Brothers" It came. I recognized the voice of LCpl Randolph. I low crawled through the mud and rot toward where the voice had originated. For Randolph to break the silence something big was up. Randolph let me know that Captain Able wanted us to close ranks and walk in tandem with the Man to our right. The information was passed down the line via the comm units each of us had so I couldn't understand why Randolph hadn't contacted me that way or why I hadn't heard Captain Ables orders. Our SOP was radio silence unless contacted by Captain Able or we needed to pass on information vital to the completion our mission. I didn't have long to ponder the mystery as I heard the first of the many rounds that would be fired at us that day.
The first round seemed to pass inches from my head. I was already kneeling so getting up close and personal with the rotting ground was my only option. I quickly crawled in the direction that I thought the shot had come from so that I could try and locate the shooter. The undergrowth was so thick that an Elephant could stand still and I wouldn't be able to see it. I called Randolph using the comm unit mic that was wrapped around my throat. It used the vibration of my voice box to amplify my voice to anyone else on the same net.
"Echo Three Romeo. I'm five meters to your North. Move forward and take position to my left" Silence returned my call. "Echo Three Romeo. Move forward five meters and take position to my left"; Again, My own heartbeat was the only response that I heard. "Randolph, Come in".
I regressed to the area I was in when the first shot made its presence known. As I moved along I began to here a sound not unlike the sound of water leaving a bathtub. A gurgling that made my blood run cold. That's when I saw him. Randolph was lying on his back not moving. Each breath that he attempted to take was choked by the blood in his mouth and throat. The bullet that had just missed me had struck Randolph in the Chest just a little left of center. I knew it had gone through his heart and lung. Each labored pump of his heart poured more blood into his lungs. He was drowning, drowning in the very fluid that was required for life. I worked quickly to bandage the wound, using the plastic wrapping of the field gauze the seal the sucking chest wound and then wrapping it tightly and tying the knot as to put direct pressure on the wound.
"Oscar Three Alpha, Oscar Three Alpha", I called over the com, "Marine down. Need immediate Med Evac, Request nearest coordinates for personnel extraction"; Again Silence. "Oscar Three Alpha, Oscar Three Alpha. Do you copy?";
That was it. This time we hadn't just brushed the edge of deaths territory we had entered it and silence had over taken us all. It was apparent that our comm was down and no one was able to hear me or I was unable to hear them. My only choice was to leave Randolph and move toward Captain Able's position. I would have to return for Randolph and get him out after I had secured contact with the rest of the team.
I began my low crawl in the direction of Captain Able's position. I had moved about 10 meters when I heard voices. I stopped my progress and listened. Then more shots rang out. the rounds were like some kind of surreal lawn mower cutting down bushes and plants as they flew through the foliage. I had my weapon and was ready to engage, I began to see the greenery move and rustle as a large unfamiliar figure crashed through moving about five meters in front of me. I trained the rifle on him and fired 2 quick shots dropping him in his tracks. I waited to hear his movement and heard more shots further ahead of me. That's when Cpl Rankin broke through the brush and fell under cover about two meters to my right. "Rankin", I whispered. "Rankin, it's Brothers";.
"Brothers, Captain's down" he responded, "We have at least 4 unfriendlies in the wire";.
'Nope Just 3 now", I said. "One of them is in the undergrowth about 5 meters to my left"
I conveyed the condition of Randolph and learned that Captain Able was shot in the upper shoulder and was able to walk but was Combat ineffective. More shots rang out and my radio crackled suddenly to life. It was LCpl James Hightower, a Mississippi native who had joined the Marines two years ago to get out of the swamps of his home state. His trade-off didn't have the value he had hoped for as we had spent as much time in swamps as out in the last nine months. Hightower let us know that he had put down two from his position and that the third had run out in our original direction of travel.
We had been compromised and this little skirmish wasn't intended to take us out but to stall and allow time for their friends to get out. Our informant had been working both sides and making money from each. Randolph had slipped into the cradle of death by the time I reached him. We carried him out while helping Captain Able. We found a clear extraction point and called in our coordinates to command for a Chopper extraction. We made it out and back to a civilized area. Our informant was never found. He probably slithered back into whatever sewer he had come from.
Randolph's body was shipped home and his family received a visit from a Marine Lieutenant, informing them that he had been killed by friendly fire during a live fire training exercise. He told them that Randolph had died in service to his country and of course, as they mourned they were proud of his service.
We mourned Randolph's passing in the way we always did, a gallon of whiskey and too many beers to count. The pain was numbed and reality was altered for a little while, at least long enough to maintain sanity.
No one ever determined why the radios stopped working for the short time that they did. Maybe it was deaths' way of creeping in , Silent and unseen.
I have never forgotten Randolph or any of the other men who were with us on that op. I have never been able to bring myself to contact his family, as I would feel like I was lying to them. This isn't the last time I will mourn the passing of a friend but for now he is the only one. Who knows, Maybe the next man to be mourned will be me?.