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Under Phil's command, his two-hundred-man company of soldiers had advanced on a series of targets representing enemy strongholds. The men had maneuvered for nearly an hour, firing live rounds that ripped through the cardboard facsimiles of enemy soldiers while the unit's heavier weapons shot at mock-ups of armored personnel carriers and enemy tanks. The mission had gone like clockwork with nary a glitch, but only minutes before the completion of the exercise everything had come to an unexpected halt.
Heart hammering in his chest, Phil leaped from the Bradley from which he had led the attack and ran toward the small rise on the so-called battlefield where a group of men clustered. Behind him, the executive officer and First Sergeant Jerry Meyers followed Phil's lead.
A frenzy of activity erupted as men exited their vehicles. Foot soldiers stopped their forward advancement and looked around as if trying to find a reason why the attack had been halted.
In the distance, a field ambulance raced along the rugged terrain and screeched to a stop near the small rise. A team of medics disappeared into the sea of camouflage uniforms that had gathered.
Moments earlier, the blasts of 25-millimeter chain guns and the staccato fire of the M-4 carbines had filled the February evening in a mounting crescendo until the captain's order halted the Bradleys and suspended the battle.
The governor of the State of Georgia and his entourage as well as military personnel from post and a select group of local civilians had watched from the reviewing stands and bleachers as C Company, Second Battalion, Fifteenth Infantry—Phil's company—had advanced on the targets.
One face had stood out from the crowd. Special Agent Kelly McQueen was blonde and blue-eyed and had been assigned to guard the visiting dignitaries. Along with the military police, Agent McQueen was, no doubt, currently directing the VIPs out of the reviewing stands and escorting them into vans parked by the roadway. Without delay, she would escort them to the airfield on post where a plane waited to fly them back to Atlanta.
In similar fashion, the crowd of onlookers in the bleachers would be herded aboard buses for transport back to the main post area. Every effort was being made to maintain calm and order. No one wanted panic to ensue or to alert the public that anything out of the ordinary had occurred. The falling darkness and mass of soldiers gathered around the incident site would keep curious eyes at bay.
God willing, no one would realize the magnitude of the problem downrange. Not that Phil would count on the Lord. After everything that had happened in his childhood, he had vowed long ago to make his own way in life.
To this day, he refused to acknowledge a so-called loving God who allowed his father to go to prison and his mother to care more about her career than her twelve-year-old son whose world had come crashing down around him.
The same feelings he'd had as a young boy were bubbling up within him now. What had gone wrong?
Phil increased his speed, ignoring the dust stirred up by the Bradleys that had rumbled across the range. The smell of cordite and smoke, produced from the exploding rounds, mixed with the dirt-clogged air and hovered over the range, painting the desolate terrain in an eerie veil of gloom.
Nearing the crest of the rise, he pushed through the throng of soldiers that had taken part in the training mission. They now stared with wide eyes and drawn faces at the medics who feverishly tried to bring the soldier back to life.
Phil's gut constricted as his eyes focused on Corporal Rick Taylor, First Platoon. The medics had removed the outer tactical vest that had protected Taylor's chest but not his groin, where a bullet had ripped through his flesh. Blood—too much blood—soaked through his uniform and mixed with the red Georgia clay. One of the medics jammed a handful of gauze squares into the open wound, stopping the flow of blood as a second man pushed down on Taylor's sternum. A third cut through the sleeve of his uniform and searched for a vein.
The trio worked feverishly, but Taylor's limp body failed to respond. Eventually, the medics sat back on their haunches and shook their heads. The leader of the team turned doleful eyes to Phil. "There's nothing more we can do."
"You can continue CPR," Phil demanded. A mix of anger and determination swelled within him.
"It's useless, sir."
Their refusal to follow his command frustrated Phil. He shoved them aside and dropped to his knees beside the fallen soldier. Fisting his own hands, he pushed down on Taylor's chest.
"Sir, please." One of the medics tugged on Phil's sleeve.
He jerked his arm away. "I won't let him die."
The gathering of soldiers pressed in even closer. Phil glanced up at his first sergeant. "Clear the area."
"Yes, sir." Jerry Meyers raised his voice. "You heard Captain Thibodeaux, let's move it."
The men—officers, noncommissioned officers and enlisted men—backed away from the death scene and lumbered toward the edge of the range.
A second medic attempted to pull Phil away from the fallen soldier. "He's gone, sir."
Twisting out of the soldier's hold, Phil blew two quick breaths into Corporal Taylor's mouth. He hadn't lost a man in Afghanistan. He would do everything in his power to ensure he didn't lose a soldier stateside.
Once again, Phil interlaced his fingers and pushed down on Taylor's chest as he continued to count. "And one and two and "
Someone knelt in the dirt next to him. A heavy hand rested on his shoulder. "Phil, it's over. You've got to stop."
He glanced up to see his battalion commander's face lined with concern.
"You hear me, son?"
Lieutenant Colonel Ken Knowlton—tall and lanky, with a pointed nose and penetrating eyes—placed his hands firmly over Phil's doubled fists and lifted them off the fallen soldier's chest. "You tried your best, Captain. The good Lord called Corporal Taylor home."
Phil jerked out of his hold just as he had done with the medics.
"Listen to me, Phil. You've got to stop. It's over. There's nothing you can do to bring him back."
His commander's voice was firm, and his words cut like a knife into Phil's heart. As much as he didn't want to comply, Lieutenant Colonel Knowlton was right.
A lump clogged Phil's throat, and his eyes blurred. He blinked to clear his vision and focused on Taylor's ashen face.
Knowlton's hand on Phil's elbow encouraged him to stand. Struggling to his feet, he turned his gaze to the thick patch of tall pine trees that rimmed the edge of the training range. He didn't want anyone, especially his battalion commander, to see the moisture that stung his eyes.
He swallowed down the mass of burning bile that had risen from his stomach and, with clenched jaw and sheer determination, turned back to his commander. "I I can assure you, sir, I'll get to the bottom of this."
Knowlton nodded his support. "Talk to the men, Phil. Find out what happened. Determine if anyone had a grudge against Taylor."
Phil tensed. "Morale is good in the unit, sir. We haven't had any problems."
"That's how it seemed prior to this mission." The commander patted Phil's back. "But now everything has changed."
A fact Phil realized all too well. His focus for his entire career had been on doing what was right. His men called him a hard taskmaster, but he allowed no one to deviate from the rules he put in place—rules to ensure the safety of his men and the successful execution of each mission.
His decision to run an inherently dangerous live-fire exercise after putting his men through four strenuous days of intense, round-the-clock tactical training in the field would come under scrutiny. Fatigue led to mistakes, which is what some people would assume played into today's horrific accident.
Had there been a safety breakdown today? Phil had controlled the advancement and was responsible for everything that happened to his men on the simulated battlefield. Could he have inadvertently put Corporal Taylor in the line of fire?
He had been over the operations order that outlined the battle plan numerous times before the live-fire exercise. Tonight, he would retrace what he had done to ensure the checkpoints and phase lines and boundaries were correct.
That attention to detail had served him well and served the unit under his command well. But as quickly as a round exploded from the barrel of a gun, everything had changed today. Just as Lieutenant Colonel Knowlton had so pointedly mentioned.
"The Safety Officer has made a recommendation that an investigation be initiated," the battalion commander said. "The CID will begin their investigation tonight."
Working hand in hand with the military police on post, the Criminal Investigation Division handled all major incidents and crimes that involved the military. Because a soldier had died, it was a given that the CID would be called onboard.
"We'll let the CID help us determine what happened," Knowlton said.
"Yes, sir." Phil saluted his battalion commander's retreating figure, then raised his hand to his forehead a second time in response to his first sergeant's salute.
Of medium build and pushing forty, First Sergeant Jerry Meyers' face wore a perpetual frown that seemed appropriate at the moment. He lowered his voice so only Phil could hear. "An agent from the Criminal Investigation Division is on the way, sir."
"Have the platoon leaders bring their men into formation on the edge of the range. No one leaves until I give the order."
The sergeant nodded. "Yes, sir."
"Taylor was part of First Platoon. Tell Lieutenant Bellows to keep his platoon separated from the rest of the company until I personally talk to the men."
"I'll pass that on to Lieutenant Bellows and notify the other platoon leaders to gather their men, as well." With a quick salute, the first sergeant double-timed to the far side of the range.
Footsteps sounded to Phil's left. He turned and spotted Jamison Steele walking purposefully toward him with an officer and enlisted man in tow. Phil had run into the CID agent at the Fort Rickman Club on more than one occasion and was impressed with his levelheaded attention to duty. If Jamison had been assigned to investigate the training incident, Phil could breathe a sigh of relief.
After a perfunctory greeting, Jamison introduced Major Bret Hansen, the medical examiner and pathologist at the hospital on post. The two men shook hands before the ME donned latex gloves and stooped to examine the body. Jamison also introduced Corporal Raynard Otis, who strung crime-scene tape around the area where the body lay and began to search the ground for evidence.
As the two men worked, Phil turned to the CID agent. "You've been assigned the case?"
"Negative. I'm here to secure the range and assist Major Hansen." Jamison looked over his shoulder toward the bleacher area. "Special Agent Kelly McQueen will be handling this one."
Phil's heart thumped against his chest as he followed Jamison's gaze and recognized the very determined complication walking toward them. More than anything, Phil didn't want his focus swayed off course by the pretty face that seemed to pop up everywhere he went on post.
Phil had heard some of the single officers grouse about the attractive CID agent. Her good looks weren't the problem. It was her no-nonsense attitude. A number of guys called her the Ice McQueen. And the fact that she'd won the Outstanding Marksmanship Award was off-putting to some.
Easy enough to understand their frustration. Kelly was an anomaly. Beautiful yet aloof, and 100 percent focused on her job. Phil had to admit he admired her for maintaining her distance from many of the men on post whose interests revolved around her pretty face instead of the strength of character she undoubtedly possessed.
He also understood her desire to keep her personal relationships separate from her military career. He had vowed long ago to never get involved with female personnel. When and if he settled down, it would be with a woman who wanted to be a stay-at-home mom with a houseful of children to love. Somehow that didn't go hand in hand with a career military gal who needed to be at Uncle Sam's beck and call.
Kelly McQueen might be good at what she did, but Phil had to keep his focus on the investigation and not the special agent. He didn't want sparks of interest to interfere with the work ahead. Instead, he wanted an answer to the question that pinged through his brain. How had one of his men shot and killed another soldier in the unit?
Biting down on his lip, he steeled himself to the ironic twist of events. Phil didn't need the Ice McQueen in his life. No matter how attracted he was to her.
Posted April 20, 2012
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