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"Time for your trial by fire," SEAL Chief Hampton said, gesturing for Baylee-Ann Thorn to follow him out of Operations. Hampton had met her CH-47 helo from Bagram Air Base. As he walked with her from Ops toward the SEAL compound, he told her how it was always below freezing in the morning despite its being a day in June in Afghanistan.
Bay tried to quell her nervousness. They traversed deeply rutted Humvee tracks outside Operations. Camp Bravo, an FOB, forward operating base, was thirty miles from the Pak, Pakistan border. It housed all types of black ops groups. Hampton led them toward a small concrete one-story building located near the edge of the CIA and black ops complex.
The Afghan sun was rising above the sharp, high peaks of the Hindu Kush Mountains. Bay was glad for the desert cammies and her soft cap since it was so cold. She removed her wraparound sunglasses as the chief of Alpha Platoon pushed open the door for her. Bay took a deep, steadying breath, feeling as if she were about to walk into a firefight.
Inside, she halted, unsure where to go. Looking to her left, she noticed seven SEAL shooters sitting and talking among themselves. They looked as if they'd just finished a patrol, sweaty, dusty and tired-looking. She felt exactly like them, flying out of Iraq and leaving her Special Forces, a team stationed near Baghdad, for this outpost.
"Follow me," Hampton said, giving her a smile of encouragement.
Bay felt slightly better, ignoring her exhaustion and following the tall, wiry Navy chief to the front of the large room. As soon as Hampton arrived, all talking stopped and the seven SEALs sat alert and focused. There were large wooden plyboard tables pushed off to one side. To her, they looked like planning or mission tables where the black ops SEAL team would plan their patrols. The SEALs sat on a few wooden bleachers at the other end of the room.
The room quieted as three Navy SEAL officers, who ran the platoon, entered the area from another doorway. Bay stood off to one side with Hampton as Lieutenant Paul Brafford, the OIC, Officer in Command, strolled up to the center. Every man in the room wore a beard in order to fit into the Muslim culture. Two other officers followed him into the silent room.
"Gentlemen, two days ago we lost Steve, our 18 Delta combat medic and sniper." His voice turned heavy. "It's a loss we didn't want to see happen, and I know we're all upset about it." He sat down on a four-legged stool, hooking the heel of his combat boot on a lower rung. "What I'm about to tell you is top secret. And Chief Hampton is going to be passing around a paper that you will sign, ensuring that this will be kept that way."
There was a murmur among the shooters, who collectively looked at the woman standing beside their chief. They rested their safed rifles, muzzle down, across their legs or chest.
Brafford said, "Unbeknownst to us, there has been an ongoing initiative called Operation Shadow Warriors. It is an experiment created by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to see if women, who are adequately trained for combat, can be successful under combat conditions. This operation has been ongoing for three years now, in Iraq and Afghanistan. You will read and agree to what you're signing. Basically, it says you won't ever speak a word about having a woman assigned to our platoon."
Bay saw the collective shock on the SEALs' faces. Chief Hampton passed the papers among them. Bay was interested in how the SEALs operated. There were three SEALs on the first bench, three on the second bench. On the last bench near the rear bulkhead or wall sat one lone SEAL. She was good at interpreting facial expressions and body language. Bay noticed the anger and disgust in the faces on the first bench of SEALs. They wanted nothing to do with her. The second bench of SEALs looked surprised. Bay saw something else in the expression of the SEAL who sat by himself. Interest. Curiosity. No judgment. At least, not yet.
Bay felt her skin prickle as the lone SEAL's green eyes narrowed speculatively, assessing her. He had a square face, strong chin, wide-set eyes and was deeply tanned from being out in the elements. His black hair was dusty, longish and reminded Bay of a raven's wing. He was tall and she felt coiled energy around him. His right hand rested relaxed across the rail system on top of his M-4 rifle. Even though he appeared to be at rest, Bay noted the tension in his broad shoulders. There was nothing casual about this shooter.
Bay was used to relying on her intuition, which was finely honed by her years of living in the Allegheny Mountains with her hill family. This man was lethal in ways she couldn't imagine. Yes, SEALs, as she understood them, were at the tip of the black ops spear. They went out on patrol or a direct action mission and moved into harm's way. SEALs were intent on taking out HVTs, high-value targets. Bullets were going to fly when they entered the picture. Still, there was something about the lone SEAL that touched Bay's fast-beating heart. If she hadn't been so tired and stressed at being thrown into this awkward and unexpected situation, she might have picked up more about him.
"Okay, gentlemen," Brafford said, "you've read it. Now sign your life away so we can move on."
Bay stood next to the AOIC, a tall, lean second lieutenant, Reed Latham. The AAOIC, an ensign, Pete Scardillo, watched and listened. The chief had told her the SEALs were instituting a new officer training template. The AAOIC was a recent graduate and officer, but he'd be going out on every mission with the SEAL shooters, learning the trade. Latham critically watched his SEAL shooters. They were all enlisted men, Bay knew. Like her. Would they accept her or not? She'd worked with Marines and Army Special Forces in Iraq over the past three years. She'd heard about the clandestine SEALs, who had an awesome reputation of being a deadly force behind the scenes. Now, for the first time, she was getting a personal and up-front look at them. There was a lot of muttering and grumbling among them.
Hampton moved through the group, took the signed papers and walked over to the AAOIC and handed the sheaf to him. The chief then came and stood at Bay's side.
The tension in the room amped up. Bay felt every pair of SEAL eyes on her. She wanted to cringe inside her cammies and hide. This wasn't going to go down well. She could feel it.
"Chief," Brafford said mildly, "would you like to finish up introducing our new doc and getting her assigned a mentor?" He eased off the stool.
"Yes, sir," Hampton said.
All three officers left through another door. Bay tried to appear relaxed, but her heart was pounding now, with adrenaline leaking into her bloodstream. She watched Hampton take the stool with accustomed ease, his hands resting relaxed on his thighs as he regarded his men.
"I want to introduce you to your newest team member, Petty Officer First-Class Hospital Corpsman Baylee-Ann Thorn. She's a combat corpsman. She's been trained for a year by the Marines at Camp Pend-leton and knows the drill on being a shooter. Plus-" he looked over at her "-she's going to be one of our medics in our platoon. You'll find her competent. And I know that all of you are going to have to be flexible about having a female in our midst. I feel sure you guys can handle it. Be gentlemen and understand that because she's a medic, your life is in her hands. Got it?"
Bay saw a lot of unhappy faces in front of her. They didn't want a woman around. She could feel their anger, surprise and distrust of her being an outsider to the tight SEAL team. Swallowing hard, Bay kept her face carefully arranged. Somehow, with the chief's help, she was going to have to make this work. The SEALs were a badass group. None of them was smiling. All but one, frowning.
"Doc, why don't you come up here and introduce yourself? Tell the guys a little bit about yourself," Hampton invited, gesturing for her to step forward.
Oh, Lord, give me strength. Doc was the nickname every combat corpsman was called in the military. Bay stepped next to the chief. "Good morning," she said, "I'm Corpsman Thorn. I know my first name is a mouthful, so most folks call me Doc or Bay." She fearlessly met their black, flat stares. "I know this is an odd situation, but I promise you, I won't become a liability. I've been working for years over in Iraq with Marines and U.S. Army Special Forces. I know the drill."
Hampton intervened. "Well, I can tell you that Doc is a very humble person. She isn't going to brag on herself." He smiled a little over at Bay and then shifted his attention to the team. "Doc Thorn is the first woman to ever be allowed to go through and graduate from Army 18 Delta combat medic training. Almost two-thirds of the Army Special Forces guys who go through this eighteen-month course fail. But she didn't. She's used her skills for the last two years in Iraq combat situations and hasn't lost a man yet."
All the SEALs looked at one another, doubly shocked. The 18 Delta combat medics were the golden hour in a field of combat. They saved lives that regular combat medics were not trained to do. Nearly all SEALs who were medics were graduates of 18 Delta. The looks on their faces turned to grudging respect.
Gabe Griffin smifed a little to himself. Chief Hampton was smart. Bay showed her humbleness and yet nailed the disbelievers in the team with the one thing that counted: a damn good medic who could save their sorry ass if they got shot out on a patrol or mission. About half the SEALs sat back, seriously digesting the info. Baylee-Ann Thorn's soft drawl wasn't quite Southern, so he wondered where she was from. He liked her husky voice, her confidence as she stood relaxed in front of the group. For a medic, she was a good height and weight. Bay, as he decided to call her, was probably around five feet ten inches tall. In a firefight, this woman could haul a SEAL to safety if she had to. Adrenaline would make up the difference.
Still, as Gabe listened to her background, he was struck by how innocent Bay looked. She had light brown, slightly curly hair, pulled back into a riotous ponytail. With intelligent blue eyes, a nice mouth and kind-looking face, she wasn't typical of a combat SEAL. She wasn't beautiful. Rather, natural and at ease with herself and who she was. Gabe liked her easygoing nature, and as he studied his team, he saw a couple of the guys losing their bristling demeanor.
Yes, Bay certainly had a nice voice. The kind of voice you'd want around if you were bleeding out and going to die in two and a half minutes. You'd believe anything Bay told you because you trusted her and trusted her incredible training. Gabe wondered if her personality would be able to tame the animals in this squad of eight shooters. They all sat alert on their benches, listening closely to what she had to say.
Chief Hampton looked at the team. "Thanks, Doc," he said. "I want to welcome you to Alpha Platoon. Do you animals have any questions for her?"
"Yeah, I sure as hell do," Hammer, who sat on the first bench nearest them, snarled. "Just what the hell was the Navy thinking? Putting a woman in our platoon? I don't care if this is some top-secret op or not. It's insane."
Bay winced inwardly at the tall SEAL's angry comment. He had disgust in his eyes. She felt his emotions strike her.
Hampton sighed. "Hammer, stand down. This is not her fault. Doc did volunteer for this experiment. Keep in mind this op has been ongoing for three years and it has been very successful."
Hammer glared at the chief, challenging him. "Have there been any other bitches assigned to a SEAL squad?"
"Knock off the disrespect," Hampton growled. "The answer is yes. And you wouldn't have heard about it through the grapevine because every man signed that waiver, promising to never speak of it to anyone. Not even to other SEAL squads or platoons."
Hammer lifted his chin. "She's going out on our patrols with us?"
"That's what a doc does," Hampton replied in a reasonable tone.
"That's friggin' babysitting, Chief!" Hammer protested loudly. "It's not like we don't have enough on our hands watchin' out for the tangos, the goddamn IEDs and the rest. Now we have to watch out for her ass, too? She's a major distraction and that can get us killed."
Bay put her hand out and briefly touched the chief's shoulder. "Chief, if you would allow me?"
Hampton shrugged. "Go for it."
Gabe sat back. Bay Thorn's blue eyes narrowed slightly and her wide, soft mouth thinned. He was surprised she'd take on a SEAL, expecting her to hide behind the chief and let him do the fighting for her. That impressed him.
Bay met Hammer's black glare. "I have never worked with SEALs, that's true. From what I've heard about you guys over the years, y'all are heroes in my eyes."
Gabe watched the team preen to a man, as if stroked by her long, narrow hand. They were warriors. And they had the confidence and training to rightfully feel that way about themselves. It was always nice to hear someone consider them heroes and tell them to their face, however. He watched Bay with fascination, wondering how she was ever going to handle this male alpha wolf team.
"The chief was right. I am trained for combat. I also have a yearlong immersion course in Pashto. I hope to be of help in different ways to you. I'd much rather be a terp, translator, for you, or another gun in the fight, than have to save your hide once you took a bullet out in the field. But I can do that, too. Like you, I'm multi-skilled and consider myself an asset."