Thursday, March 13, 2014

War Zone - A Short Story

Sergeant Padilla scanned the horizon with his binos, but he came up frustrated.  The fog that clung to the road prevented him from seeing further than 50 meters, so he was barely able to see the next HMMWV in his convoy, let alone the stretch of road ahead of him.

Picking up the hand mic to his radio he said, "All Warhog elements, this is Warhog 33.  Tighten up the formation and make sure you maintain contact with the vehicle to your front and to your rear.  If we have a break in contact, the enemy will use that to his advantage.  Keep your systems on weapons free.  33 out."

He looked back out of the bullet proof glass.  This was his third deployment to Afghanistan, and he knew the Taliban pretty well.  Padilla thought of them as little more than bandits, but they were devious bandits who used the terrain and good nature of his soldiers to inflict harm.  And they'd been particularly active in this part of the mountainous country.

"Sergeant, you think those fuckers are gonna hit us today?"

The question came from Private Shell, a baby faced young man that looked not even old enough to have graduated high school, let alone be a combat vet.  Shell joined the unit only three weeks before they moved out, but he'd gotten a baptism by fire.

"Probably," Padilla replied.  "They want control of the villages around here, and if they can convince the locals that they're a bigger badass than we are, they might get it."

Shell didn't take his eyes off the road as the fog turned into chilly mist that spattered the windshield.  "I don't know why anyone wants anything in this country, let alone this part.  They win the shitstakes lottery or something?"

"I don't know, and it doesn't matter.  Higher says we need to keep up our patrols and deny the enemy freedom of maneuver, so that's what we're going to do."  It wasn't his place as a soldier to go into his doubts about this with one of his subordinates, but Padilla didn't know either why folks around here cared much about this barren patch of rocks and mud - you couldn't grow anything, and it wasn't like there was some large manufacturing base near here.  It was just the same mud huts and scrawny trees that existed around here for the last 500 years.  Seemed like the same people too, fighting over the same silly shit.


The concussion from the IED blast knocked Padilla into the dash of his vehicle and dug the seatbelt into his chest so hard he knew he'd have marks for a week.  He also knew it could've been a lot worse if his had been the primary vehicle hit.

"Contact!" someone screamed over the radio.  "IED at the curve!"

Padilla was in charge of this four vehicle convoy, and someone set off an improvised explosive device at the front of his column.  As Shell rounded the curve and into the smoke that now mixed with the fog, Padilla could easily make out what was left of the lead vehicle.

Flames wrapped themselves around a twisted and blackened metal frame.  From the looks of it, the IED had been a pressure plate device of some kind and was attached to a bunch of explosives.  Shell screeched their HMMWV to a halt, and Padilla jumped out to try and get to his comrades.  Ignoring the cries over the radio to be cautious, he leapt into the smoke to try and see what he could do.  As more became visible in the wreckage, he quickly got his answer.

Not much.

Shredded limbs black with burns greeted him at the HMMWV door.  Padilla grabbed what he thought was an arm in order to try and drag the man to safety, but all he pulled back was blackened flesh.  The feel reminded him of the times his mama burned dinner and he had to grin and bear it.  Here, however, grinning was among the last thing on his mind.

Specialist West, the gunner on another vehicle, came over, but the young man stopped and stared as he got sight of what was left.  All he could do was mutter, "Jesus."

Flames continued to spiral around the HMMWV, and Padilla didn't know if there was anyone left.  However, he did know that if the flames finished consuming the truck, it wouldn't matter.  For the moment, it mattered - he made himself believe that.

Grabbing West by the shoulders, he shook the soldier and yelled, "Snap out of it!  I need your help."

The half second it took for West to regain his wits seemed like an eternity, but he finally came around and nodded.  He and Padilla waded back into the fire and started grabbing whatever their hands found.  Bits of uniform and stray pieces of flesh came out first.  The charred body of a buddy of his was next.  As he plunged his hands back into morass, nearly at his limit, he heard a scream.  And it was coming from inside the vehicle.

"We're coming!" Padilla shouted.

He had to push a broken radio out of the way, but Padilla eventually found the screaming soldier - it was Private Morales.  The kid was new to the unit, arriving after deployment.  Padilla remembered how scared the young man had been prior to their departure.  At the moment, it looked like his fear was justified.

Padilla suppressed a gag reflex as pieces of Morales caught on the door frame and tore from the soldier's body, but the Sergeant was determined to save at least one person, even if that person was badly damaged.  He ignored the whizzing of bullets in the air as someone opened up on the patrol.  He had to count on the rest of his squad to take care of it, for the only thing in his world right now was this torn apart private in his arms.

Morales' face looked like it was bubbling.  His screams turned to gurgles, but he kept breathing.  With one unburned eye, he looked into Padilla's face and asked, "Why?"

Until the day he died, Padilla wished he'd been able to answer that question.  For now, all he could remember was that it was just another patrol.

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