This Memorial Day, continue reading A Thousand Stolen Moments by Connie Ann Michael. #MilitaryRomance.
They moved in a single file line to board the Osprey. Full packs weighed heavy on their shoulders, Kevlar vests secured underneath. Doogie often wondered if the plates would have been more useful on their boots since that’s where most of the damage was done. A chill filled the air as they moved into the night. It did little to deter the anxious perspiration of the men around her, the smell of sweat and dirt filled the bay of the helicopter.
The pilot banked to the left, and then to the right. Protocol for avoiding any ground attacks, but a sure-fire recipe for causing Doogie’s stomach to churn. She watched a man across from her turn green, and then pull out his air sickness bag.
After an hour, the ramp of the chopper lowered. A cold wind blew up into the cabin. In a few hours, the temperature would reach one hundred plus degrees, and she would be desperate for the coolness she now felt. The absence of windows made it impossible to see what was below, but it was easy to guess.
Sand and dirt.
The entire country was a giant sandbox. Except where the toys exploded. Doogie had sand in every crevice of her body. No matter what she did, the sand got in. She’d kept her iPod wrapped in plastic bags and in an ammo box, a feeble attempt at keeping the sand out, but it even worked its way in there, ruining everything.
“Sawyer, stay with Tahk. You’re bringing up the rear.” Raven’s voice filled her earpiece.
She gave a quick nod, and then elbowed Tahk in the side.
“Watch her,” Raven mouthed.
Tahk pulled his mic to his mouth and sent his words into Doogie’s ears. “Don’t worry, I got my eye on her pretty, little body, Chief.”
Doogie closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and banged it lightly on the wall of the helicopter. “Don’t the Marines have rules against sexual harassment? I know the Navy does.”
“We’re in Afghanistan, baby. There are no rules.” Tahk was the brother she never had, the one who never missed an opportunity to tease her.
The helicopter bay filled with words of agreement. “Forget that. You’re a Marine now. OORAH!”
The helicopter tilted forward, and then hovered just above the ground, kicking up a massive amount of dust. She adjusted her mic and earpiece and slid off the seat. In one quick movement, the row of men beside her piled out the door. She waited a beat before following Tahk out.
Doogie hit the ground, gun held at the ready. With a tug, her protector led her to where the group was congregating. Anti-aircraft guns started going off along the perimeter of the city. Red lines crisscrossed the sky as airstrikes began. She wasn’t worried. The unit was far out of range. Besides, the Taliban’s aim sucked. The only time a helicopter ever got hit was by pure luck.
By three a.m. the airstrikes were done. The helicopters were far away, and the stillness of the night returned. The U. S. Dropped three teams: Bravo, Charlie, and Echo. Over one hundred soldiers stood by to move in. Unfortunately, they’d been dropped into a recently irrigated field of flowers.
“Why the heck did they drop us in a swamp?” Doogie’s boots sucked into the mud of the poppy field as she sloshed through the tall stalks.
“Shoot.” She fell to her knees in the mud. Her excessive load pulled her to the side; she felt like a stranded turtle.
The man in front of her started to swear as he struggled to get his foot free of the thick mud. The silence of the early morning was punctuated by the clank of weapons as they moved forward.
“It’s a good thing the town already knows we’re coming because with the racket we’re making, we might as well announced it with a brass band.” Tahk’s deep voice rumbled.
Doogie made her way deeper into the foliage where the ground was firmer; the moonlit silhouette of Tahk her only guide. She stretched her neck side to side as her shoulders began to ache with tension. She anticipated the inevitable explosion of a miss-step onto a hidden IED. The poppies represented a huge profit from the drug trade, but she knew it wouldn’t deter the Taliban from littering the fields with bombs. The unit moved forward swiftly despite the risk.
Dawn was coming fast, and the Afghani spotters would wake up soon for prayer.
Charlie Company had conducted a helicopter assault to seize Five Points and the surrounding area nine days earlier. Supposedly clearing the way for their company, but a clear area could be reset with IED’s within hours. On past missions, they’d found a new IED in the exact spot they’d extracted one hours earlier.
“Watch your step, Doogs.” Tahk glanced back over his shoulder to check her progress.
“Watch your step ‘cause I’m following your footsteps.”
Their drop off was three kilometers from the edge of Marjah. The coolness of the early morning did little to ease the heat her body created from carrying packs more than her body weight. The temperature continued to rise with the sun.
Doogie tugged at the scarf around her neck. Although the Marines did not require her to cover her head, she felt it was important to respect the locals’ beliefs. Doogie reached out to touch the head of a tiny stuffed bulldog bouncing from the top pocket of Tahk’s backpack. “Hey, Fifi. Make sure your sniffer is looking out for us.”
“She’s always sniffing, Doogs. Don’t worry. She’s never let me down.” Tahk smiled his big smile and winked at her.
Tahk’s smile disappeared as he raised his hand. A movement telling Doogie to shut up and stop. Movement from the left caught her eye, and she took a knee. Silently, she raised her weapon.
Tahk dropped his hand. “ANA on the left.”
The ANA had been trained by American troops since the beginning of the war. They needed to be able to step it up; the unit expected them to take over when the U. S. left. Doogie had seen them in action and wasn’t sure how secure it made her feel with them at her flank. Since they’d been at Camp Dietz, she’d treated one of her soldiers for a shoulder wound and another for a bullet to the foot, both accidents with the ANA. Apparently, the ANA were having difficulty with understanding the basic rule of gun safety . . . never point a gun at someone, unless you’re trying to shoot them.
The ANA were supposed to accompany them into the city. The U. S. government’s goal was to give the Afghanistan Army the support they needed to help them set up the “government in a box” project some politicians thousands of miles away created. But she’d seen the army at work. It would be a long time before they would be able to function on their own.
The two teams converged. The pale green light of small glow sticks illuminated the mud at the base of the poppies. The ANA’s pockets overflowed with the chemlights. Snapping them, they placed the infrared sticks wherever an IED sat.
They began to move forward, letting the ANA integrate into their ranks.
The harsh whisper of, “Crap,” came through their headsets.
Tahk stopped. Everyone stood perfectly still . . . waiting.
Raven’s calm whisper crackled through. “Donny stepped on something. Tahk move forward.”
With a sad grin, Tahk left Doogie standing ankle deep in the mud. Missing an IED wasn’t unusual. However, most of the time they heard a snap like a twig, then boom. No boom meant someone just got very lucky. They called them toe-poppers. An anti-personnel IED designed to blow off limbs.
Doogie pushed her mic to her mouth. “Tahk, you need me?”
The stacks rustled to her right. She lifted her rifle.
“Sawyer?” Raven’s raspy whisper filled her head.
“Here,” she whispered just enough so the mic would pick up.
“Off radio,” he responded.
She covered the small, black knob with her hand.
With hardly a sound, Raven stepped through the poppy stalks. “You okay?”
“Just holding ‘til Tahk gets back.”
“Good.” He turned in a circle, checking the area.
“What was it?” she asked.
“IED. Didn’t go off. With all the mud I think it misfired.”
“He’s okay?” She already knew the answer; if he wasn’t she would have been called forward with Tahk, but she asked anyway.
“Tahk will take care of it.” He paused. “We’re breaking off this group. Probably tomorrow. See the rooftops over there?” He pointed with the muzzle of his gun. “We’ll head that way. I’m taking an SKT team. I want Tahk with me, so you’re coming, too.”
“SKT, Sir?” Doogie raised an eyebrow.
“Small kill team. We’ve been given a target.” Raven walked perpendicular to the path they were on, motioning her to follow. He replaced his mic, and then stopped. He moved closer—his hand raised. Her breath caught at the thought of him touching her. He gently placed a loose strand of hair behind her ear; then ran the back of his hand down her cheek. She froze at the intimate gesture. They were in a war zone. What was he doing? Why did her knees feel like Jello?
Raven’s hand lingered for a moment before he spoke. “Regulation says to keep all hair under your helmet. Blonde is distracting to the ANA.”
“Yes, Sir. Sorry.” Her voice stuck in her throat. His words were confusing. She never wore her hair under the helmet. Her long braid always hung down her back. A few loose strands would hardly be a distraction. Doogie shook off his strange behavior. Moving forward, she followed Raven to where Tahk stood waiting. They hadn’t gone more than a few feet before the distinct snapping noise came again.
“No way. I stepped on another popper,” Donny’s angry voice came through their radios again.
Doogie hoped Marines fell under the same rules as cats—at least then he’d have seven lives left.
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