Lieutenant Joe Schalker scanned the road in front of him. It was a hot day in northern Mexico, and there were miles to go before they reached the company perimeter.
“LT,” his driver called, “think the druggies are out there?”
“Maybe, but I don’t think they’ll bother us today.” His tone was almost one of regret. They hadn’t seen much action since this incursion, and he was too young to have been deployed in support of either Iraq or Afghanistan. Listening to the sergeants tell their stories made him burn with envy.
Something else made him burn – the sun. Being from upstate New York, Schalker wasn’t used to the intensity down here. Even though he reasoned that no time of the year would likely have been good to drive around the desert, why the President picked July for this action made no sense to him.
The continued stream of undocumented workers and drugs flowing across the border was causing enough of an uproar that the President had to do something. Some people were saying the US should just reinforce the border, while some were saying the country should let them in. Others were even calling for a full scale invasion akin to the 1840s. Creating a five mile buffer zone inside Mexico seemed like the best compromise.
Of course, no one liked it, especially the Mexican drug runner who the troops affectionately referred to as druggies. They initially tried taking on the US military directly, but one lopsided battle was all it took for them to scale it back to sniper attacks. When even those started getting taken out, the enemy resorted to the favored weapon of folks in other conflicts – IEDs. The weapons weren’t changing the tactical situation, but America’s sons and daughters coming back missing limbs – or, worse, not coming back at all – was definitely changing the political situation.
Schalker shook it off. Such matters weren’t for him to decide. At the moment, his chief concern was getting to the base outside of Hermisillo before it got dark. Looking over his four MRAPs, he called into his radio, “Bandits, let’s roll.”
The pace wasn’t fast, but it was steady. The patrol rumbled along at about 25 mph while the vehicle commanders in the bullet proof commander’s hatch looked around for anything that might be out of the ordinary. However, to Schalker, there seemed to be nothing out there but ordinary…miles and miles of ordinary.
That’s why the blast of the IED caught him off guard. The deep buried device went off in front of him and caught Sergeant Michael’s MRAP right underneath, lifting it off the ground by 40 feet. Although his own vehicle didn’t catch the full force of the device, the explosion still knocked his MRAP sideways and caused it to tumble over. The last thing he wondered before blacking out was whether or not the sun would bake him alive, or if he’d die before that.
The sun wasn’t on Schalker’s face when he woke up, but it was definitely still hot. He quickly discovered he couldn’t breathe through his nose with it broken in several places, but trying to take breaths through puffed and bruised lips wasn’t fun either.
“Eh, I see you’re awake, pendejo,” a voice said from somewhere in front of him. “We were starting to wonder if your brain turned to jelly. Good thing for us you weren’t too hurt…yet.”
When his vision finally came back into focus, Schalker managed to make out two others in the darkened room. The one who’d spoken was short, with a muscular build and whiskery face. He wore a white t-shirt, as opposed to his taller friend who wore a long sleeve plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up. That one had a cigarette dangling from his mouth and just stared at Schalker.
“What have you done?” Schalker asked. Even in his own ears, his voice sounded mushy. However, wanting to sound confident, he said, “The United States won’t tolerate you guys taking hostages from its armed forces. I demand you release me immediately.”
The command was met with a chuckle. “Listen kid, you can save that fake machismo stuff right now. I got a little boy your age, and he gets scared of his own shadow sometimes. You ain’t got the stones for what’s coming, so you might as well save the tough talk.”
Schalker’s heart leapt. The man was right – for all his bluster, the lieutenant hadn’t been in a real fight since he was 12. He talked a good game in ROTC, but this was a little too real.
Switching tones, he said, “What about the rest of my guys? Are they here too?”
“Those dudes? Nah, they’re all dead. The ones Big Betty didn’t get, we got with our guns. Picked ‘em off easy. Still, we’re happy as hell you’re still alive. We need you.”
“Gonna let you Yankee pigs decide if you live or die. They leave us alone and get out of Mexico, you’ll be fine. They don’t, you get to find out why the folks around here don’t like us too much.” He made a throat cutting gesture across his neck. “I personally don’t think they’ll do anything. You know, that whole ‘we don’t trade for hostages’ mess. Don’t matter – you getting your head lopped off on TV will make more mommas and daddies scream to pull out.”
They walked out of the room at that point. Schalker did all he could to keep from screaming, but a few whimpers escaped nonetheless.
His eyes were getting a little more used to the reduced light in the room, but he still couldn’t see in great detail. There was a little light coming in from a small window near the ceiling. The room itself was dirty, with a few shelves against the back wall and a heavy door just beyond. And it was hot, so very hot. He’d heard stories of prisoners in the Philippines during World War II being put into hotboxes for punishment and reckoned this must’ve been close.
They left him there for a long time, but how long, he didn’t know. Some flies buzzed around and dabbed at his sweat while he waited. His hands were bound behind him, so he couldn’t swat. It just made the time even more unbearable.
When they finally returned, both men wore black masks, and one carried a video camera. He set up a light in the corner and turned the video camera on before coming back in front of the device. The first man drew a long knife and started to speak. It was in Spanish, but Schalker understood it well enough.”
“You sick American pukes come in here uninvited and think you can threaten us? You bunch of hypocrites. You demand our drugs and then get mad when we deliver. You say you’re based on capitalism, but you know no such thing. You are not wanted, and if you don’t leave, we’ll send even more of your people to their graves. Not too many – someone’s gotta buy our stuff…like we both know you want to.
“This fool here is only one, but I’ll bet he has someone missing him. If America isn’t pulling back by sundown tomorrow, I’ll cut his head off and use it as a soccer ball.”
For good measure, the man put the knife against Sckalker’s throat and pricked out a dribble of blood. Once that was done, the second man went back to the camera and switched it off.
They quickly gathered the equipment and headed for the door. Just before slamming it shut, the first man said, “Sweet dreams – they’ll be your last.”
The clang of the door went through Schalker’s mind as well as the room. He knew he needed to do something, but his battered body and the ropes that held him kept him from doing much. He sat there as darkness flooded the room and night fell.
He tried twisting his hands, but the ropes didn’t move. Once that didn’t work, he tried rocking the chair he was tied to, succeeding only in tipping it over. On his side, a sharp pain rose through his body as his IED injuries took hold.
However, once that pain subsided, he noticed a new one. It came from the palm of his hand. Feeling around, he discovered why – rocking the chair exposed a small metal shard on the chair, and it sliced into his flesh.
He’d never been so overjoyed to be cut in all his life. Yes, cutting through the ropes would be a long process, but the possibility gave him hope. He worked his wrists until he was sure the ropes were over the shard. He knew he needed to cut through either the ropes or his arms if he was going to survive.
But the cutting became tedious. It was hard to tell if he was making any progress, and the night just wore on and on and on…
As the faintest glimmer of purple entered the room through the window, he felt the ropes break. His wrists and arms were stiff, but he didn’t know if that came from the ropes or the IED. He hurriedly untied his legs and stood, finally free of the chair. The window was his first thought, but as he looked at it, his hopes took a turn for the worse. It was bad enough that the window was high against the celing, but there was a series of bars across it from the outside. His only way out now would be through the front door.
Stumbling to the door, he put his hand on it. It was metal and felt heavy, but the knob turned smoothly enough. Schalker weighed whether or not to wait for someone to come in and check on him, but he didn’t know if the next time they came in would be to decapitate him. Deciding the risk was too great, he pulled back on the door.
To his amazement, not only did it give, but it did so pretty quietly. He glanced down the hallway, which wasn’t any better lit than his room, and saw it came to an opening 20 feet later, where he could hear the sound of a TV.
Schalker crept down the hallway and, taking a deep breath, peered around the corner. Three men were in the next room, sprawled out on the floor and watching a Mexican soap opera. The closest man was right next to the wall in front of him, and the door to escape was on the far side.
There was no way to run through the room without being tackled. At that point, he knew he’d be dead. There was only one way out – audacity.
Spinning around the wall, he kicked the closest man in the side and then reached down and punched him in the head. While down, Schalker grabbed a knife that was on a plate the man used to eat whatever he had for dinner, and he shoved the knife as hard as he could into the man’s chest. He pulled the knife out and jammed it two more times into his opponent, once in the shoulder and once in the side of his neck. Schalker then reached for the AK-47 on the ground.
The other two men were shocked by Schalker’s sudden appearance, but they finally reached for their guns, one of them even managing to get off a shot. The bullet knocked the plaster off the wall behind the lieutenant.
Schalker prayed the weapon wasn’t on safe. He was unfamiliar with the AK-47, and the time needed to find out if it’d fire or not could cost him dearly. However, his captors were either supremely confident in their abilities or fanatically stupid, for the weapon spat several bullets that Schalker guided onto his target. The first man spun around and fell on his face while the second man was caught as he lay on the floor.
Finally taking a breath, Schalker hadn’t even realized he was panting. The adrenaline still flowed through his system, but it was coming down. He knew he’d need to leave soon, because if someone was around, they’d have heard those shots.
A small truck stood guard outside, and he had to fumble through the dead men’s pockets for the keys. Fortunately, the keys were in the second man’s pocket he searched. He rammed the keys into the ignition and floored it. He had no idea which more Americans were, but he used the rising sun to gauge direction and headed north.
There weren’t even paved roads out here, just cuts in the desert that felt like roads. Before too much longer, he saw a glint of sunlight on the horizon – MRAPs!
He sped towards safety, but he forgot that troops around here were a little edgy, and they fired a burst of .50 caliber machine gun fire over his vehicle. Schalker slammed on the brakes, made sure his weapon was in the seat next to him, and got out.
“Don’t shoot!” he shouted. “I’m an American!”
He knew he’d be difficult to identify at this distance, but he hoped whoever was out there had binoculars out. It was something he made sure his own soldiers carried on every patrol.
Dust trails soon told him that they were on their way. Two vehicles stayed at whatever checkpoint was out there while two more lumbered forward. It was a technique Schalker knew was intended to provide covering fire to the oncoming MRAPs if they needed it. He hoped they wouldn’t be trigger happy.
The MRAPs stopped about 50 feet from him. Someone got out and shouted, “Who the hell are you?”
“Lieutenant Shalker, 5/20 Infantry. I’ve been held by the druggies.”
A grin spread out over the face of the soldier who had his weapon trained on the lieutenant. “Sergeant Mills, 1/502nd. Damn glad to see you, sir!”
They took him back to their checkpoint where the medic started treating his wounds, Now that the adrenaline was wearing off, Schalker was becoming acutely aware of his injuries. His body felt like one big ache.
The sergeant got on the radio and called headquarters. It took some doing, but they finally managed to convince the captain of who they had. Schalker was quickly picked up and taken to a field hospital near Juarez before being flown back to the United States.
The next few days were a whirlwind. He was treated and taken off to every press conference that could be called. The story of an American soldier who escaped the druggies was propaganda gold to the military. He smiled as best he could and answered the questions he was allowed to, but he felt a bit like a show pony. He had no idea if they’d let him go back to his old company, but he hoped they would. After all, there was still a war to fight.