by Graham B.
A soldier confronts his own views on women in combat.
|First Lieutenant Christopher Harkness’s eyes squinted invisibly behind his ballistic specs as he watched the six prisoners being led away. He adjusted the sight on his rifle for outdoor lighting and examined the explosives cache the platoon had found inside the compound. Sergeant Lane was minutely examining them for booby traps, but didn’t expect any trouble, and said so.
Six men, locals, hardened by endless wars in their homeland now led away to an unknown fate, their hands zip-tied behind their backs. As he watched them being led back to the platoon’s vehicles, just visible around the bend in the road, Harkness wondered what the Afghan National Police would do with them once they were turned over.
Most likely process them, and then set them loose, he thought, or kill them. Depends on what families the Afghan cops are from.
“Lane, how ‘bout it, huh?” Harkness pulled at the front of his armor, allowing precious fresh air inside to cool his chest. “Can we move it, or do we blow it in place?”
A restless wind skittered through the valley, kicking up dust devils as Lane came trotting out of the compound.
“I think it’s safe, sir, but why take a chance?” he said. “Let’s blow it right here.”
“Command wants us to avoid unnecessary damage to the locals’ habitations.”
“The locals can fill their habitation up with camel shit for all I care,” came the strident voice of Corporal Johansson as his hulking shape rounded the far corner of the compound. “All clear on the south end, sir. And if you ask me, if these people didn’t want their shit blown up, they wouldn’t let these assholes keep their bombs here.”
“I didn’t ask you, Johansson,” Harkness replied. He turned to his platoon sergeant, Greg Voss who had just completed their report to Battalion about the incident on the hand-held MBITR. “Get a detail together and get that stuff to the truck. The EOD guys are going to want to look at it. We haven’t encountered these types of mines before in this grid.”
Voss nodded, and placed the radio into his assault pack. He pointed at Johansson. “You, with me.”
Johansson threw up the hand not holding his rifle. “Aw, come on! I had to carry the damn Mark 19 around all morning!”
“And you’re not carrying it now, are you?”
Grumbling, Johansson followed Voss into the compound and toward the deadly pile.
Sergeant Lane was tapping on his rifle, trying to knock the ever-present dust out of its innards. Satisfied, he slung it across his chest.
Dust, Harkness thought. It gets into everything. My gear, my kit, my ears. Sometimes I even taste it in the water.
He squinted at the sun, now thirty degrees above the horizon. It would be dusk in a few hours, even sooner when the sun dipped behind the large hill to the West, and the platoon still had half the village to search.
“On me!” he cried out, spinning his right arm in a circle. “Let’s go! Let’s go! We’re not done here! “
Airman First Class Shelly Sims came running up to him, weighted down with her weapon, kit, armor and fifteen pounds of photography gear.
“Sir!” she called breathlessly. “I need to get up on top of that hill! It’s a perfect overview of the village.” A few strands of her blond hair had managed to escape her helmet and trailed in her wake, despite the scarf she wore underneath the helmet to protect local sensibilities.
“Sims, I can’t spare anybody to escort combat camera right now.”
“This is perfect! Look, it’s only about five hundred meters. I’m armed! I can take care . . .”
“I said no, Sims. Stay with the platoon.”
Sims’s mouth drew a straight line above her chin strap. Her eyes were unreadable behind her specs, but Harkness knew she was irate. Too bad. Safety came first, the safety of everyone present, which was his responsibility and his alone.
Sims began shooting Voss and Johansson with her Nikon as they gathered up the contraband explosives.
Harkness asked himself for the thousandth time the same question he did whenever he saw a woman with a rifle. Did she belong here? Could she keep up with the guys? He thought back to his sister, Delia, safely at home with her husband in Indiana. What would she think? What would she do in a combat situation?
There are no damsels in distress here. Only warriors. The thought bubbled up from his past, uttered by a Sergeant Major who Harkness had encountered during a tour in Iraq. He wasn’t sure he believed it.
The thoughts blew away like so much dust as Harkness led his troops in a search for the enemy, in a village older than his own country.
The sun had dipped behind the western hill when they cleared the last hamlet. Harkness was preparing to rally his men when heard the unmistakable report of an M-4 rifle from the top of the hill. It was answered by the rapid fire of an AK-47. More sporadic shots rang out as Harkness’s platoon reacted automatically, training their weapons on the sound, but seeing no targets.
Who the hell was up there? All of his people were right here in. . .
He looked around, and realized he was down one Air Force combat photographer. Cursing he called on the platoon to report.
“On me! On the double! Right the fuck now!”
The tightly-disciplined infantry platoon assembled within seconds.
No combat camera.
Sonfabitch! Sims ignored my order!
“Where’s the camera?” somebody asked.
“Bitches don’t belong in the field,” said another. Harkness thought the voice was Johansson’s.
“Listen up! One of our own is in contact up on that western hill! Voss!”
“Take the second and third squad up the south ridge. The rest of you are with me. Watch out for Sims, and remember to use your codes for ID. Move!”
The gunfire had already stopped when the platoon split in two and advanced up the hill. As they labored up the rocky slop, Lieutenant Harkness thought back to the last time he had seen a woman under fire. It had been during a convoy run in the East, during his last combat tour. A female soldier had manned the gun turret in the truck in front of him. When the convoy came under attack, all turrets had gone hot. It was over in less than a minute, and there wasn’t much to do when the unit dismounted to investigate. Harkness hadn’t actually seen the female gunner in action, but white smoke drifted from the barrel of her Browning M2 machine gun the same as all of the other gunners. How had she performed? Harkness didn’t know. How would he feel if she hadn’t been up to snuff? How would he handle it if she had been KIA? Unbidden, an image of Delia popped into his mind, firing a rifle at an unseen enemy, her terror-stricken face smeared with dirt and blood.
Harkness shuddered, shook the thoughts from his mind and pressed on up the hill. Somewhere beneath the cool, hard exterior curdled a feeling of dread at what he would find at the crest.
Sims, you’d better be alive. The gruff thought was something he might have muttered aloud, had he been able. As they neared the top, the platoon slowed, keeping a line abreast, weapons trained on the top.
Harkness slowly approached a rocky outcropping, a likely place for a photographer to shoot the village from. A figure slumped there, backlit by the setting sun and unmoving.
No, no, no. . .
Airman First Class Sims, lay prone on her stomach, hunched over the rifle clutched in her hands. Next to her rested her Nikon, two empty magazines, and dozens of expended brass casings.
“Sarge!” It was Voss, approaching from the western ridge. “Clear to the west! And you should look at this!”
Still wary, Harkness approached Voss, and looked where he pointed.
Four Afghan men lay dead fifty meters away, their blood congealing with the dust. A heavy machine gun squatted between them like a large snake, along with three Russian-made assault rifles. Expended brass glinted in the fading sunlight.
“Sarge, these guys would’ve slaughtered us if they had gotten this heavy crew-served into position,” said Voss.
“Holy shit,” whispered Johansson. “Combat camera took ‘em out.” He looked over at Sims in awe.
Sims’s blue eyes were still open, staring blankly over the bleak Afghan landscape. Her helmet had come askew, and the wind rose and whipped her blond locks about her face.
Harkness lifted his eyes to the sky, then closed them. He tried to recall an image of his sister and failed, seeing only Airman Sims, trying to juggle camera and rifle as she dismounted an armored truck only hours before. The men were already setting up a perimeter on the hilltop, but there was no sign of any other hostile movement, and the encroaching darkness threatened to chase the platoon back to their vehicles. Harkness gestured to Voss for the radio and began making his report.
Word Count: 1528