A Christmas Wish
I think you might be real because I've heard talk about you, and even saw you once, I think. But since I can’t write anyway, could you tell my family I miss them? Even though this is just in my mind, I want my brother to know how much I miss him, too. So much. If you could, tell him they fixed me up after the incident, but I don’t know where they took him. Strangers come and visit me here, but I’m not told anything. Some I can’t even understand.
They took care of my hurt leg, and different people feed me and give me water. It’s way colder than I like, but I do get a place inside, so it’s good. They take me outside, too, and want me to show them the stuff I was trained to do. But I just can’t. It just feels wrong without my buddy.
I hope he is being treated as well as me, please make sure he's comfortable and well fed, too. Still, I miss him very much. Most of all, I just want to be home. Tell all my family I love them. Even if they’re still fighting, I want to be there, because maybe I can help. Please, if you can help me at all, would you make the stars look the same as before?
Gunnery Sgt. Johnson was led down a long hallway with steel doors on either side. It had to be climate-controlled or it would be much cooler. He had been in places like this, but never one in a foreign country. Even so, a chill ran up his spine. He knew there was a network of people keeping eyes and ears on the situation, but he was nervous. He simply didn’t know was what to expect next. The older man who had taken him to the door turned.
“It’s time, Gunnery Sergeant.” He was tall and lean with a white stubble on his head.
“Okay... okay, sir.” The younger corrected himself. His limp was just slightly noticeable.
“You tough?” The Colonel stepped up on his toes to get eye to eye. “I think... you are about find out.”
They stopped in front of a door that wasn’t locked, and the Colonel slipped the bolt and pulled the door outward. It was almost three-quarters open when it pounded back and him, and he had to hold fast to keep it from hitting him.
“Whoa!” The Colonel shouted, but it was too late. Max had been listening to them for awhile.
“Ooof!” Johnson lost a bit of wind as he was knocked into the hallway wall. “Easy!”
“I think you have the answer to several of your questions.” The older man smiled.
“Yeah.” He held Max up against his chest for a good long time, but held tears in check. “What have you been feeding him?”
“Well, Landstuhl does have a first rate facility.” The Colonel chuckled at him. “They took good care of you, too!”
“Yes, sir. First rate.” He nodded. “Not that I remember much of it.”
“For the best, probably.”
After proper greetings and affection, Johnson set Max down on the hall floor. The Kennel Master and handler talked while Max decided to have a sniff around. Neither bothered to tell him to sit. He got around to his buddies leg and stopped.
“I know, Max, you loved sniffing my dirty feet.” He tapped his left titanium prosthesis on the floor. “But you still got one left!”
“Oh, yes sir, he’d want to know where I’d been.” Johnson nodded. “Like reading the mail, I guess.”
“Uh huh. Not sure it’s any mail I’d read, though.” He chuckled and then let them have a moment.
“Well, we do have some paperwork.”
“Of course, sir.” Max was leashed, even though he didn’t need it, and they headed down the hall.
“Do you mind if I asked the circumstances of how the injuries happened?”
“Of course, sir.” He slowed and looked at the Colonel. “Respectfully, I see you have ribbon from the sandbox. See action, sir?”
“Combat? No. It isn’t exactly what I do.” He replied. “Does it matter?”
“Just in how I tell the story.” He continued, and walked again, but slower.
“Let’s just say I have fully seen the effects of it.”
“Understood, Colonel.” He nodded and began.
We were on a fairly routine patrol, even though no one had been on that particular road in awhile. The lead vehicle spotted something they didn’t like, and they called it in to the rest of the line. We had hills right and a deep draw left, giving us no way around it, so EOD would need to get it. Everyone was just sitting tight, and something up front blows. It turns out it wasn’t an IED at all, they’d just set it up to look that way. The blast was an RPG, but the dumbass who fired it missed, and it just tore up the road in front of us. We exited the vehicle and took cover on the port side, which was opposite the blast. There was fire from the hills, but it didn’t seem like more than one or two guys. A private was trying to move up the convoy for whatever reason, he should have stayed behind the APC. He went down ten feet in front of me, and I just went and grabbed him for a drag to cover. Max was right with me, got a bite on his pack and was pulling him back, too. Good thing neither asshat could shoot straight. All he managed to get was get my ankle, but he got Max, too.
“Probably the same one that got me. Part of it, anyway.” Johnson finished.
“How’s the private?” The officer asked.
“Oh, he’s fine, sir. Never got hit. He must have just tripped.” He scratched an ear. “What I was told, anyway.”
They stopped at the office door for just a moment, then entered.
“Well, as far as I know, it was only the two of you medivac’ed out.” The Colonel said moving behind his desk.
“You read the file, sir?” He had stepped into the office.
“That’s why they send them… for me to read ‘em.” He smiled. “But this one was kind of special.”
“Well, me and your partner there,” He sat and pointed at an empty chair for his guest. “We shared a plane ride to Germany.”
“You came in together?” The Gunnery Sergeant stopped and looked at Max. “Mind if I ask why?”
“Just a simple transfer. They asked if I’d run this place, and since I like dogs more than people…”
“It’s a perfect fit?” Johnson smiled. “And Max just happened to be along for the ride.”
The Colonel, his nameplate on the desk read ‘Stallworth’, reached into a cigar box and pulled out a Monte Cristo. He offered it to the handler, who politely declined, and then he return the cigar to the humidor.
“A perfect fit, indeed. But not all happenstance. Remember what night you went out?” He paused. “Well, I do.”
“Twenty-four December, right?”
“Spot on. A piss poor time to send anyone out, really. None of us expected wounded.”
“You were there, sir?” Johnson was incredulous. “When he came in?!”
“Gunny, I was the only surgical vet left that night, and I was playing Santa Clause to the local kids.”
“Imagine running into an operating theater dressed like that? I had to start dropping things off and gowning up!”
“You operated on my dog?”
“Wasn’t much, really. It was fragments, like you said.” The Colonel shook his head. “He… is fine. How about you?”
“I think I’m going to be fine, too, sir.” The Colonel nodded.
“Good then.” They both stood. “I wish you and Max the best.”
Gunnery Sergeant Sean J. Johnson, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, snapped a salute to Colonel Stallworth, while apologizing for saluting out of uniform. His salute was returned and the officer smiled. No apology needed. They left the office and headed to the lobby. Transportation home had already been arranged by a group back home, and after the office visit, both were now honorably discharged. All three stood at the curb outside the facility waiting.
“Want to hear a joke, Gunny?”
“A joke, sir? Sure. I’d love a joke.”
“Why don’t blind people skydive?” The colonel cocked his head and smiled.
“I have no clue!” He shrugged.
“It scares the shit out of their dogs!” They both laughed for a moment.
“Not mine, though.” He tussled Max on the head. “He lives for it!”
“Used to live for it, perhaps. You both need to retire from that… even as a hobby.”
"Suck it up and drive on!"
“Uh huh.” He pointed to Max. “Do you mind?”
“Oh, no sir. Please!” Johnson smiled. The Colonel took a knee.
“Max, you are one good patient, and a good dog.” He scratched under his ear. “It was good to meet you.”
The ride was courtesy of the US military, but instead of a transport, others had arranged for a more direct flight on a nicer ride. Instead of a military flight, they headed to a civilian airport with two tickets home. Johnson was cleared with Max, who would not be amused at a muzzle, to fly stateside. But Max was in the back of the vehicle, with his brother, and up next to him instead of down on the floor. He didn’t know they were in a safe place, but it was good. Max stretched just a bit on the seat and put his head in the lap of his handler. He wasn’t sure where he was going, or if the stars would look the same, but his wish had come true. Max was back with his best buddy, and he’d follow him anywhere.
WC:1657 (Plus what's below)
A special Christmas wish to all the military working dogs, handlers, and trainers.
This would have been impossible to write without patient people answering probably very silly questions. Thank you! Mistakes, of course, are mine.
If you'd like to read more about these amazing animals, or donate to a great cause, head over to https://mwdtsa.org/