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"Your number's up, Luke," Sergeant Bucephalus warned.
Navy field medic Luke Collier looked up from what he was doing. Their Marine Corps company had just been choppered into Lar Sholtan in the Nuristan Province of Afghanistan. He stopped adding medical items to a cabinet he'd just hung on the wall. As he studied the grizzled thirty-year-old Marine Corps sergeant, his mouth curved. "I'm going to set up a Scrabble tournament as soon as I can, Buck. I know you like to play. And win."
The sergeant ambled over to the dusty desk where Luke was working. "I know you like your Scrabble tournaments because you win a pot of money, but this has nothing to do with it."
Outside the room was a small mud-and-rock structure where he and several other men from Lima Company had been assigned to sleep. It also doubled as his medical facility. Luke looked toward the open door. The early June sunlight was strong, shafts entering and making it easier to see around the Afghan hovel.
"What, then?" Luke asked. Tension mingled with urgency because Lima had just replaced another Marine company for the next year. The Afghan village of Lar Sholtan was a dangerous place. The villagers were equally scared of the Taliban and the Marines.
"Sit down," Buck said, and gestured to a nearby wooden keg. He pushed his fingers through his short brown hair. "I just got done talkin' with Captain Hall, and he's one unhappy dude. He's only happy that this assignment is gonna land in your lap and not his." He added a toothy grin, revealing that one of his front teeth was missing.
Frowning, Luke stared at the hillbilly-born Marine sergeant. Buck ran the company and had nearly as much power as the captain and the executive officer, Lieutenant Speed. The Kentucky sergeant was the glue between the officers and the one hundred thirty enlisted Marines in Lima.
"Uh-oh," Luke teased. "I guess this is a sit-down moment?" What on earth could Buck be talking about? Luke was on his third deployment in Afghanistan, and nothing surprised him much anymore. He set the bandages aside, pulled up the wooden keg and sat down.
Buck took the other keg, wiping the sweat off his darkly sunburned face. "The captain just got a call from Black Jaguar Squadron at Camp Bravo. You know about 'em, right?"
Searching his memory, Luke shrugged. "Not a whole lot. I've been stationed down south in Helmand Province for the last two tours. I know Camp Bravo is a big CIA forward operating base. They have a lot of stealth stuff going on. Their mission is to stop the Taliban from crossing into this country."
Buck settled his large, spare hands across the thighs of his desert camouflage utilities. "You've got good scoop. I've been over here for" and he held up his fingers and counted "three tours. Comin' here to Lar Sholtan is number four."
"You win that round," Luke said, enjoying the humor dancing in Buck's green eyes. He liked the hillbilly sergeant, but so did everyone else. His Kentucky drawl and his easy way of managing the Marines had earned him trust among the men. "For once, you look serious. This must be bad news."
Buck rubbed his hands slowly up and down his thighs. The heat was stifling, nearly a hundred degrees in the early afternoon. "Well, the cap'n sure thinks it is. But" and he shrugged a little "I don't necessarily think so." His grin widened considerably. "But I'll let you tell me how you react to the news."
"Okay, you got me curious."
"You're a scrounger by nature, so you always like knowin' the little details." Buck chortled.
"Every company has a scrounger," Luke said proudly. That was a person who could get items that no one else could. Luke had spent enough time in-country and knew the ins and outs at the U.S. military headquarters in Kabul. Anyone who needed anything came to him. Luke got results. As a field medic, he was trusted by the men with their lives. As a scrounger, he was a demigod who could perform miracles.
"Well, the cap'n just spent a half hour explaining what's gonna happen tomorrow mornin'."
"What is going to happen?" Luke asked, meeting the sergeant's foxlike smile. "Is this a person, place or thing?"
Chuckling, Buck pulled out his canteen and unscrewed the lid. "Naw, this ain't some Scrabble game, Luke. It's a person we're talkin' about. And I've gotta say, it's a sweet deal in my eyes. The cap'n thinks he's just been handed his biggest career killer to date." Buck guzzled some of the water. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he drank half of the contents. He then wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve, screwed the lid on and placed it back in his belt. "How'd you like to be assigned another field medic?"
Luke's brows rose. "Well sure. I'm busy 24/7. I could use another pair of hands around here. There should be four medics assigned to every company, but there's only me at Lima."
It was no secret that Navy corpsmen were some of the highest casualties of the war. They were the ones who braved hostile fire to get to their injured Marines.
"Is this what it's all about? Another field medic is being rotated in here to help me?" Luke asked. What could be bad about that? Nothing, in Luke's opinion.
Holding up his hand, Buck said in a warning tone, "Now, son, don't get your hopes set too high. There's more to my story. Did you know there's a superse-cret group of women Apache drivers at Camp Bravo? They're called the Black Jaguar Squadron. When you see Apaches in this area, they're being flown by all-woman crews."
"Hey, that's cool," Luke said, admiring the whole idea. "I didn't know."
"Not many do. The woman who started the BJS is General Maya Stevenson," Buck said. "She formed a plan to have U.S. Army women flying the Apaches in Peru to stop cocaine from leaving that country to the United States. She went to the Pentagon and argued it could be successful. The boys, of course, said she'd fail. But the opposite happened. That was fifteen years ago. Since then, Maya Stevenson has proved having women in combat works and works well. She's a general in the Army, stationed at the Pentagon, and came up with another idea involving women."
"She sounds like an effective leader," Luke said. "I knew nothing about this."
"I know," Buck said. "Remember, this is a top secret black ops."
"What does all of this have to do with me?"
"General Stevenson is at Camp Bravo right now. She's spearheaded a new strategy plan through the Pentagon. JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command, has given its full approval."
Curiosity burning bright, Luke could barely sit still as the sergeant, who was well-known for his long-winded stories, took his own sweet Kentucky time. "Okay, okay, so how does it involve us?"
"You always want to ruin a good story, Luke. Ya can't sit still longer than two seconds. You're always flittin' around like a hummingbird."
"Guilty," Luke admitted, holding up his hands. "My mother blames it on the fact that I'm a Gemini, and they're the tumbleweeds of the world."
Buck laughed. "That sounds about right. Okay, so here's the scoop. General Stevenson asked women volunteers to train with the Marine Corps. This group of women came from all branches of our services. They went through one year of combat training and learned Pashto. Some are specially trained to go into the villages and befriend the women. Of equal importance, these gals could get information from the women that none of the men leaders could give the military. In other words, they're a brilliant intel weapon."
Luke sat thinking about the concept. "It's not a bad idea. Given that in the Muslim tradition here in Afghanistan, women are totally subjugated, they must hear a lot."
"Exactly," Buck agreed. "Women hear everything. They're married to the chief of the village. They talk to the other wives in the village. And you know from being over here, the chiefs of a village often play both sides of the deck with us. They do that because they're afraid of reprisals by the Taliban."
Luke became sad. "We've lost a lot of men to injury and death because a village chief would know where the IEDs were being planted by Taliban sympathizers, but they wouldn't warn us."
"Right on," Buck said. "But what if one of these women soldiers befriends the women of the village? What if she's able to get dental and medical help for a woman and her children? These gals are trained to make connections and then be there if an Afghan woman wants to speak with them. Muslim women aren't allowed to talk to male strangers. It's taboo. Why not use the women instead?"
"That's a helluva plan," Luke agreed, finding the concept fascinating. "Are we getting one of those women here? In our company?"
"Your mama didn't raise a dummy, did she? Yep, we sure are." Buck pulled out a notebook from his pocket and flipped it open. "This gal's name is Megan Tray-hern. She's a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman second class." He looked over at Luke. "Not all the women volunteers are in the field of medicine. They're all trained in first aid and the like, but Megan is a qualified field medic, so I figure that's gonna make you a happy man. She can actually help out the women and children in this village like you do the boys and men."
Brightening, Luke smiled. "Hey, this sounds great. She's the same rating I am." Finally, he'd have help taking care of the daily health issues of the men of Lima Company.
"Yep, she's your equal. The captain was happy to hear Megan was a field medic, but he sure as hell was unhappy about having a woman in an all-male combat company."
"I can see why," Luke said, thinking about his good fortune. "We've never had women in combat companies since it's against U.S. law."
"Yeah, yeah, I know all that, but General Stevenson argued women are already in combat whether they want to be or not. There are no more front lines. Congress just has to get over it, is all."
"Captain Hall doesn't think women can handle combat?"
"You got that right. Me?" Buck snorted. "This officer is a Northerner. He don't know hillbilly women at all. Hell, they can shoot just as good as any man, or better. They're tough, smart and hardy. Cap'n Hall is a rich city boy who has a very narrow view of women."
"I don't see her as a problem, Buck. Afghan women here won't talk to us. Megan might be a real resource."
"I think so, too, but the cap'n is sour on it. He's worried this woman will get kidnapped or killed on his watch."
Luke could appreciate Hall's dilemma. "If these women have had a year of training in combat and weapons, that should minimize the risk."
"You'd think," Buck said. He tore off the paper with the notes scribbled across it. "Here, you're gonna need this. The woman doc is flyin' in by CH-47 tomorrow at 0800. You're to meet her. The cap'n wants her to stay with you. You're in charge and responsible for her."
Luke laughed. "Oh, great! So if she gets injured or killed, it's my fault?"
"That's about it in a nutshell, Luke. Hall wants nothing to do with her. Out of sight, out of mind."
"Okay, so I meet this woman. What then?"
"Well, she's assigned to this house. She's now one of the boys. No special treatment, okay?"
"Okay." Luke was suddenly excited by the promise of a woman, a field medic, living among them. "I'll take care of her."
"Yep, you will. I'm sure her needs as a woman will be different from ours. I'm havin' some Marines build an outhouse and a private shower stall for her."
"That's special treatment. The Marines probably aren't happy about it, but it would give her some privacy."
"I like women. I don't see that as treating her special," Buck said with a wily grin. He rose and picked up the rifle he'd leaned against the dusty table. "And I know how strong they are. My only worry is you won't respect or admire them like I do. I don't want you pul-lin' a Hall on me."
"No worries on that score, okay?"
"Okay," Buck said, settling the helmet on his head. "But if you got problems, come to me first."
The shaking and shuddering of the CH-47 helo deepened as it began its descent into the valley toward Lar Sholtan. Megan sat tensely in the nylon-webbed seat squeezed between the aluminum hull and a large shipment of pallets beneath netting in the center of the bird. The loadmaster, a young blond Army spec, sat opposite her. He seemed bored. Looking to her right, Megan felt relief. Her cousin, Captain Rachel Trayhern-Hamilton, was flying. Next to her, in the copilot's seat, was her husband, Captain Ty Hamilton. They were recently married and were now assigned to the Black Jaguar Squadron. Megan's red-haired cousin was guiding the huge, unwieldy workhorse helicopter into a circle to land.
Megan saw glimpses of a wide valley notched between two huge mountain ranges. With her helmet on, she could follow chatter between the Marines on the ground and the pilots in the cockpit. Everyone was looking for a flash from the slopes of the mountains. This could indicate that a Taliban soldier had fired a grenade launcher or rocket against the incoming helo. There was tension in everyone's voices.
Megan held her medic pack across her lap. The shuddering of the helo and the roar of the two mighty engines above them made her anxious. Would she get on the ground in one piece or not? Craning her neck, Megan could see the blue of the sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. Below, she spied the sharp, rocky brown mountains. Everything looked dry and dead, like a desert.
The helo jostled as it hit an early updraft of heat from the valley below. As she gripped her pack, Megan's heart sped up. Her cousin dropped the helo swiftly toward the ground. If it hadn't been Rachel at the controls, Megan would probably have screamed. She held her breath as the aircraft dropped out of the sky. At the last minute, Rachel flared the helo, the nose coming up. In seconds, all Megan could see was yellow dust rising in thick clouds around them. Rachel had warned her this would happen. It blinded both pilots and they had no instrumentation to tell them how close they were to the ground except for an altimeter.
Breath exploded from Megan as the wheels touched the earth. She felt relief. The helo sagged and suddenly the engines were cut. The shaking stopped, the blades whirling more slowly.
The loadmaster was up and hurrying toward the descending ramp. Megan saw Rachel unstrap and squeeze out of the cockpit. She grinned at Megan and gestured for her to get up and move out of the helo. Haste was part of their life here.
Megan quickly jumped up, held on to her pack and hauled her duffel bag behind her. Rachel picked up the other strap and they carried the heavy bag down the ramp.
The dust still swirled and moved around them. Megan coughed and choked. Bits of dust got into her eyes as Rachel guided her off the ramp and toward some unknown point she couldn't see. Eyes watering, Megan felt the tears running down her cheeks. Hurrying, the duffel bag weighing more than ninety pounds, Megan followed Rachel. She was amazed her cousin seemed to know where she was going.