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Why the hell did I volunteer for this?
The unspoken question screamed in Lance Corporal Bradley Gardner's mind at the very same instant the mosquito whined in his ear for the third time inside of a minute. Automatically he swatted at the side of his head, once again trying to drive the incessant bug away.
"Gardner," a voice hissed from a few meters to his left. "Keep quiet. You'll give our position away." The voice belonged to Sergeant Ronald Thurman, his squad leader.
What, and talking won't? Gardner had never met Thurman before the beginning of this past week, but it had taken him less than five minutes to decide that the Marine sergeant was a complete asshole.
Shaking his head, he reached up to wipe perspiration from his face. The sweatband he wore underneath his Kevlar helmet was soaked through, thanks in no small part to the oppressive August humidity. Summer heat, working in tandem with heavy rainfall in recent weeks had also given full bloom to armadas of mosquitoes that were out in force tonight. Even though Gardner had doused himself with insect repellent before leaving their unit's base camp, sweating had diluted its effectiveness.
Nothing could be done about it now, though. His thirteen-man rifle squad had established an ambush position and silence at this point was crucial to the success of their mission. If the information Thurman had briefed them with was correct, they would be encountering an enemy patrol while it was conducting its own security sweep of the area.
Looking to his left, Gardner regarded his companions, nestled as he was among the underbrush that conspired with the darkness to render his squad nearly invisible in the forest. They had taken up positions along one of the numerous trails that crisscrossed this part of the forest, arranging themselves in a line that followed the bend of the trail perhaps ten meters inside the trees. Thurman had informed them during their briefing that this trail led to an enemy camp.
The squad had fast-marched to this point along the trail, which Thurman had chosen as the ideal site for an ambush. They had established sectors of fire that allowed each Marine to interlock with the men to either side, creating a kill zone from which no member of an enemy patrol would be able to escape.
Like him, his fellow Marines had taken care to conceal themselves behind fallen logs, thick bushes, anything that could break up their outline and hide them from even the most attentive pair of eyes. A nearly full moon hovered in the cloudless sky, bathing everything in its soft, ghostly illumination. No one moved, spoke, used their flashlight, or even smoked a cigarette, as the telltale glow from even a cigarette butt could be enough to reveal their location. So long as they did not make any stupid mistakes, their enemy would never know the squad was here until it was too late.
His mind screamed the warning at him before his eyes even fully registered the nearly imperceptible motion up the trail. Perhaps fifty meters away, the movement was so slow, so methodical, that at first Gardner thought he had imagined it. Darkness could play tricks on the human eye, after all. At first his eyes registered nothing but a patch of forest, looking very much to Gardner like just another tree.
Then it moved again.
To Gardner's left, Thurman silently indicated that he had seen it as well, first pointing to his eyes and then down the trail in the same direction Gardner had been looking. The hand signal was unmistakable: Enemy ahead.
Now that he knew what he was looking at, Gardner could begin to make out the shadowy form of a figure walking slowly up the trail and hugging the outside curve of the dirt road where the shadows helped to conceal him. His steps were measured and precise, each one taken with care so as not to step on anything that might make a noise and reveal his presence. He carried his rifle with the barrel lowered and out in front of him as if searching for potential targets.
Behind the first figure, Gardner could begin to make out the form of a second and then a third, each man keeping an interval of five or so meters between himself and the man in front of him. As the front man continued to move slowly forward, Gardner counted until he saw that the enemy patrol numbered six in all. Was that all there was? Thurman had not given them any information on enemy size or strength. After all, it was their squad's mission to gather such intelligence.
And dispose of any enemy patrols they encountered, of course.
Gardner felt his right forefinger tighten on the trigger of his M-16 rifle. The barrel of the weapon was already facing straight ahead within the area defined as his field of fire, and he knew well enough not to move it to face the approaching patrol. He need not do anything but wait until the enemy soldiers entered the kill zone established for the ambush.
Come on, just a little bit closer.
Adrenaline rushed through his veins and his pulse pounded in his ears. Keeping his breathing under control was a physical effort as his body prepared itself for the coming firefight. He studied the movements of the enemy patrol, trying to determine his first target and anticipate where the soldier would be when the shooting started. The six figures were still moving in the same slow, deliberate manner, each man's weapon tracking in a slow arc from one side of the trail to the other in search of danger. The rearmost soldier was taking the added precaution of turning to look back the way they had come, looking for threats to their rear.
Gardner held his breath when, as the patrol came abreast of the hidden ambush positions, the point man looked in their direction. His brain knew that his squad was all but invisible, but that did nothing to stop the lump from forming in his throat when the front man looked directly at where he lay hidden among the trees.
A little bit more, he knew. Only a few more paces and the entire patrol would be in the kill zone.
Gardner thought he had imagined it as the first shot, Sergeant Thurman's signal to launch the attack, rang out. Then the brass casing from the round, still hot after ejecting from the sergeant's weapon, landed on his own exposed neck.
His words were lost as thunder roared from the forest in the form of the sharp metallic reports from the squad's M-16 rifles. Gardner felt his own weapon buck slightly with every pull of the trigger, though most of the recoil was absorbed by the large metal spring inside the weapon's stock.
The effect of their attack was immediate.
"Ambush!" somebody yelled from the road as the six soldiers at first ducked instinctively and then turned in the direction of the incoming fire, leaping from their exposed positions on the dirt road into the shallow ditch separating it from the tree line. Gardner saw the muzzle flashes of their weapons as they opened fire in retaliation.
Their opponents were in the woods now, closing on their ambush positions. Gardner heard the crunch of twigs and leaves beneath their boots as they plunged toward where he and his squad remained situated between the trees. He saw movement to his right and swung his rifle in that direction, pulling the trigger as he did so. The dark figure heading in his direction ducked behind a tree at the sound of the round going off.
Then the first casualty came.
A shrill high-pitched whistle pierced the air, easily heard over even the sounds of their weapons fire. No sooner did Gardner register the noise than a second shriek followed, signaling another kill. Damn it, they were winning! This thing would be over in a minute or two.
Then another wailing screech filled the air and he realized it was coming from his own body.
The Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, or MILES gear, was a series of sensors attached to a harness he wore over his combat gear. Originally developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, MILES systems had long since become standard equipment in military training exercises for simulating ground combat. The sensors, working in conjunction with a special laser transmitter attached to the barrel of their weapons, allowed trainees to employ their respective weapons as they would in a real battle situation. When triggered by the sound of a blank cartridge being fired from the weapon, the laser transmitter emitted a special coded laser beam that, when registered by one of the sensors worn by another mock combatant, recorded a hit or near miss as appropriate.
Bradley Gardner's sensors were registering a direct hit.
He had seen the figure emerge from behind the tree less than three meters in front of him, but he had been a sitting duck with no way to get his weapon turned fast enough before the intruder opened up on him. Then there was the telltale muzzle flash just before his MILES vest betrayed him.
"Bang," the intruder taunted him, barely audible over the racket his MILES vest was creating. "You're dead."
Gardner was about to offer a colorful reply when he was cut off by weapons fire from his left. Then the intruder's own MILES gear started to shriek, followed by a similar sound uttered by its stunned wearer.
"You're dead, too," Sergeant Thurman said, stepping forward and firing another blank round at the other man for emphasis. "You're supposed to attack through the ambush, and keep attacking until all the ambushers are dead."
Corporal Daniel Melendez nodded as he stepped forward to allow Thurman to deactivate his MILES vest, which was still shrieking its death wail into the forest night. The sergeant inserted the key into the special lock on one strap of the man's harness and turned it, silencing the irritating signal.
Melendez shrugged as he stepped back. "I know all that, but when I heard all the vests going off I figured it was over." He smiled at that, the white of his teeth contrasting against dark skin further concealed under layers of green and brown grease paint.
Thurman was unimpressed. "All of the vests belong to your group, all but one that is." The sergeant cast an annoyed glance in Gardner's direction as he waved him over and deactivated his vest as well.
Gardner did not bother with a response. He was just happy that this little exercise was over so they could hot foot it back for the beer and pizza Captain Douglas had promised. It would be their last night here before their unit returned to Kansas City and each of the Marines, most of them reservists performing their annual two weeks of active duty, returned to their mundane, everyday lives.
At least I'll get to sleep in a real bed and eat real food.
Still, he had to admit that this was more fun than his normal job. He could handle the lousy food, the long hours, and living in a tin building for the last two weeks. Even dealing with people like Thurman, who was an auto mechanic in his regular civilian job and who took certain aspects of Marine Corps life much too seriously for Gardner's taste, was not really that difficult. Working as a hospital payroll administrator back in Kansas City and dealing with irate employees who confronted him with discrepancies in their checks just did not have the same appeal as running around in the woods and playing "war."
"All right, huddle up," Thurman said, and Gardner and the rest of his squad moved in closer to the sergeant along with the six members of the "enemy patrol" that they had successfully ambushed. All of them members of the 24th Marine Regiment, a reserve unit based in Kansas City, Gardner even counted several of the Marines as friends of his in civilian life. Like he and Thurman, none of them possessed an infantry-related job classification. They ran the gamut from computer technician to radio operator to administrative clerk, though there were also several Marines in the unit who were armorers or mechanics, trained to repair and refurbish various types of military weapons and vehicles.
All of that was forgotten during the past two weeks, as the fifty-three Marines had marched, run, and crawled over nearly every square inch of godforsaken real estate that was Camp Growding, the National Guard reservation located three hours south of Kansas City near the small city of Neosho, Missouri. The reservation was one of the few areas within a reasonable distance that contained the necessary firing ranges and other facilities the Marines needed to complete their combat skills refresher exercises.
The training, which consisted of weapons firing, small unit tactics, chemical warfare defense, and other "battle skills," was an annual requirement for all Marines, male and female, be they active duty or reservist. Even those like Gardner, whose military occupational specialty was that of a disbursing clerk, were required to demonstrate proficiency in a variety of infantry skills. This was in keeping with the Corps' longtime philosophy that every Marine, regardless of specialty or job assignment, was a rifleman first and capable of deployment to front line combat situations if needed.
"Okay," Thurman continued, indicating the leader of the now dead patrol, Sergeant Anthony Bonniker, "since you all are out of it, you might as well head back to base camp." Hitching a thumb in Gardner's direction he added, "Take Gardner with you. The rest of us can keep on with the game." He smiled at Bonniker. "I don't suppose you'd want to tell me where your camp is, would you?"
The war game was straightforward. Most of the Marines were divided into two teams and tasked with establishing a headquarters at designated locations in the forest. The two groups were then given orders to send troops into the woods in attempts to find their "enemy's" headquarters and capture it while at the same time defending their own base from being taken.
"Sorry, dude," Melendez said, speaking up in lieu of Bonniker, "but you already killed me, and corpses make for lousy interrogation. I'm sure that's in the handbook somewhere." He and Bonniker exchanged grins, the young Mexican's droll delivery eliciting laughs from the rest of the group. That is, except for Thurman, of course, who so far as Gardner knew possessed no sense of humor whatsoever.
Bristling, Thurman said nothing, instead waving the rest of his squad to follow him as he moved off deeper into the woods. "Get moving," he called over his shoulder at the others, and Gardner could see that he was none too happy about being the target of the joke. Undoubtedly, the sergeant would have more to say on the subject when he had the chance to talk to Melendez alone.
"Sergeant Bonniker," a voice said from behind them. They turned to see a young private who Gardner remembered was named Nickerson. He had been given the task of carrying his team's bulky PRC-77 radio. Each squad moving through the forest had been given a radio in order to keep in touch with the base camp, as well as add an additional layer of realism to the war games, with the opposing base camps able to coordinate the movements of their roving patrols. They would also be used to recall any teams that might still be out in the woods once the games were officially declared over.
Bonniker turned to face the private. "What's up?"
The younger Marine was holding out the radio's handset, a look of puzzlement on his face. "I can't get a clean signal on this thing. I've looked it over and everything's still set properly, and there's no sign of anything broken, but I can only hear about every other word. Everything else is garbled."
Shrugging, Bonniker said, "Well, it's not like we're lost or anything. We'll have the comm folks check it out when we get back. Considering how old the damned thing is, I wouldn't be surprised if it was finally going toes up."
A relic from the early days of the Vietnam War, the PRC-77 had long ago proven its reliability in even the harshest of environments. Though it had since been superceded by newer models with greater range and ability, Marine Corps budgeting realities meant that a unit of reservists from Kansas City were unlikely to receive the newer equipment anytime soon. Therefore, they made do with what was available and in this case, it meant using a radio that was nearly twice as old as the Marine carrying it.
Bonniker gave the order for the team to move out, leading Gardner and his men back onto the trail. Gardner walked alongside Melendez, and once they were on the road the corporal turned to him, a mischievous smile on his face.
"Something tells me that Thurman's not going to want to share a slow dance with me at the party tonight."
Chuckling, Gardner shook his head. "He definitely takes this stuff seriously, that's for sure. I have to wonder why he didn't just sign up for the infantry in the first place."
"Better him than me," Melendez replied. "This stuff is fun, but only in small doses. Otherwise, leave me with the computers." The corporal's normal specialty was repairing computers, desktop and laptop models that had evolved from items of luxury enjoyed by high-ranking officers to vital tools used by nearly every facet of the modern-day military. Every unit, whether stationed in an administrative office or deployed to a forward combat area, used computers to compile, store, and transmit information.
"Didn't you used to do this full time?" Gardner asked.
Melendez nodded. "Four years. Got stationed in KC and ended up staying there until my time was up." The Marine Corps maintained a small presence in Kansas City, the location of its main finance center, tucked away inside a gargantuan government building in the south part of the city. Pay and personnel information for all active duty and reserve Marines was stored there, overseen by a group of military and civilian programmers and analysts who maintained and safeguarded each Marine's personal and financial information.
"Then I got out and took a job downtown," the corporal continued. "The pay is better, that's for damn sure. Part of me missed the Corps, though, so I decided to stay in the reserves." Shaking his head, he added. "I didn't think they'd actually make us do this stuff, though. A reservist computer tech is about as low on the combat totem pole as somebody can get."
That made definite sense to Gardner. "Yeah, no kidding. If it ever comes down to us having to win a war, America is in deep shit."
Copyright © 2003 by Dayton Ward