This new kid, though, looks the part of a teenager in chunky Corps-issued prescription glasses, a teenager who spent his time divided equally between the ranch and a gymnastics class. He's mostly muscle, but the eyes are quick and curious, and he's got that flat west Texas accent that makes everything sound lazy. Must have driven his superiors nuts to hear him on the radio...he was a comms guy, like most of our guys...drawling out the coordinates of a fire grid.
He can't be more than 22 years old. When he first stepped foot here, he hadn't yet been assimilated; he still had that shrink-wrapped starved dehydrated look, tired but wired, sunburned ears and a level of alertness that wouldn't occur to someone not used to being shot at. That first day, he had his girlfriend and newborn baby with him, touring our offices, seeing where he'd be working for four times the pay with none of the risk. His girlfriend talkative and curious, filling in for his lack of small talk. Blonde, a fan of Camaros and sushi, really into the music I was playing ("Honey, that's TOOL, you'll love them!" like he was new to the planet). Now that he's been here a few months, he's hydrated, relaxed, and smiling all. The. Time.
Yesterday I'm in a room doing work, and there's a handful of guys there, three of whom are former Marines: one who'd been in Balkan and African and Mid East theaters, one who'd been in Iraq, and the new kid who'd spent most of his time in Afghanistan. They were talking about the things these young vets talk about: the mundane and precise nature of new-world combat vs. the way the world actually works on the ground. How they'd be called into an area, and given a textbook set of orders, and somehow carry them out perfectly despite actually being in an alternate universe, one not well described or understood by the orders, one that couldn't be seen by the drones or intel-gathering electronic bits. I've said it before: the ground war in Afghanistan is fighters from the 21st century fighting people in the 13th century, and the reality is wildly different from the high-rez maps provided by satellite.
This new kid, he was talking about being in a valley that was once so deeply and terribly controlled by Taliban that the locals were arbitrarily killed or raped or beaten or just fucked with in general when the local fighters would get bored. They'd lost their tribal leaders, and their teenager men were pressed into service or shamed into service or cajoled into service or had their mother's threatened to force them into service or just volunteered and the whole of the valley was lost to the Bad Guys, and these were really Bad Guys. The goal there was to remove the bad guys before the bad guys removed the population.
"So we're heading up this brand new road. There's a number of new hiways in that area, all of them smooth and really fantastic except for the bits every few miles that have been blown up by the Taliban. We're two squads, then a mile or so, then two squads. I'm in the second humvee. We get to the area we're supposed to patrol, and it looked like Colorado: grass and trees and blue sky, big rugged mountains. We get our patrol into place and move up toward this compound.
We're six or seven kilometers into the hike when we start taking fire. Radio back that we're taking fire after we take cover, and start the request to return fire. We can hear the first three parts of this while we're firing back...we're allowed to return fire, but it's best to clear it. We're sorting out the targets and doing the math while, ya know, shooting the hell out of the place, and all of a sudden, WHAM, the Sergeant next to me is down and my ears are ringing and I'm sort of cross-eyed. Find my glasses while checking myself for holes...the Sergeant is laying back coughing sort of chuckling..." to this point everyone in the room has had a sort of half-smile, eyes locked on the kid, but now they start to look at the floor and the smiles are dropping "...and he sort of gasps and yells 'FUCK, L.T. WHAT THE HELL JUST HIT ME?' overly loud, and I can't see blood or anything, but there's a shiny piece of his trauma plate exposed..." all the guys in the room make the same "phew" type noise and laugh "...and he's gasping but no holes. The radio is all chatter about a sniper, and fire is now being poured in earnest toward the front and the left-rear of our location. The second squad arrives firing, and we get our shit back together and start finding targets and doing the math again. I'm on the comms with some A-10 MA and I'm like calm. Like, everything is OK, sir, we're just pinned down by about a thousand bad guys and almost totally surrounded. No biggie" the guys in the room nod and chuckle, surrounded is where they do their best work. "One of our guys is shot, and then another, but that second one spotted the sniper. The Sergeant says, 'I expect that AK to be found and returned to depot for destruction' and I'm like roger that and we get a team together, drop everything, and head up the left slope under cover fire. The bad guys have no comms or we'd have found them, so when we get to the guy, he has no idea we're there, no one warned him. It's him and a shot caller, and a third guy about 200 meters away covering them...we found him first and put him down, then dropped the shot caller and the sniper, walked down, got the rifle and walked it back to the Sergeant. The A-10 had unloaded on the compound by then so second squad was just mopping up. I hand this Druganov to the Sergeant and he tags it and sets it aside, then looks at me odd. 'Marine, did you know you're bleeding?' and I didn't." The room erupts with laughter but the kid's face goes distant. "Yeah. I'd been nicked, something had hit the top of my left shoulder and gone through it and into my cheek, then out and through my glasses frame...tiny little hole. I got patched up and we walked up that valley, and all I could see was that tiny hole in my glasses frame for the rest of the hike. We cleaned up the compound, camped out for a week under moderate fire, and turned it over to the RMs that followed. The rest of that outing I was obsessed with that little hole in the left corner of my vision, so much that I tripped from not paying attention to the trail."
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