“Platoon Leader”

by Daniel Taylor

Hot breath floated in the freezing air like shots of steam. Lieutenant 2nd Class Christopher Wesley, Platoon Leader of 1st Platoon, Brimstone Company, watched his men shudder as the squad sized patrol moved in staggered formation down the main hardball that circled the Iraqi village. If someone in college would have told him that he’d be freezing his butt off in Iraq someday, he would have laughed in their face. The young lieutenant from Michigan shook out his numb hand.

Brimstone Company had assaulted the village in the early morning. But it was a dry hole. Al-Qaeda in Iraq had abandoned their strangle hold and fled before the Stryker soldiers arrived. As the armored vehicles surrounded the town, Wesley had been ordered to carry out the tedious dog and pony show of escorting an embedded reporter around. He had chosen his 3rd Squad for the task. The squad was led by Sergeant (SGT) Jon Lambert. Built like a Greek statue, Lambert’s body armor and gear made him look even more like a movie hero. He wore Oakley knuckle gloves with the finger tips cut off and kept his hair just within Army regulations. The men all called him Jon “Jason Fuckin’ Bourne” Lambert.

Bravo team staggered in the front. SGT Lambert was directing from behind Bravo as the embedded photographer they escorted danced around him snapping photos. The civilian was all over the place, but SGT Lambert kept him from straying off. Wesley followed next along with his radio telephone operator, Specialist Copper. On rear security was Alpha team led by Sergeant Mickey “the Mick” Walls. Walls was a short man with the build of a bulldog and the temperament of a badger with thorns in its lip.

“Keep your goddamn intervals,” Sergeant Walls berated his men. “A frag, let alone a fuckin’ IED, would get this whole fireteam blown up.”

Sergeant Walls was from Boston and Wesley couldn’t stand the accent anymore.

“Stop showin’ your ass for the photo guy Alpha Team,” Walls walked backwards so he could see his two rear guys. “Heads on a swivel, there’s still some fuckin’ haji playin’ sniper or some shit out there. I feel it in my bad knee.”

“Sergeant Walls,” Wesley called back. “Keep the chatter down, Copper’s having problems hearing the CO over the radio net.”

“Um, thanks for that intel sir,” Walls sucked his teeth, “but I think I know how to deploy my men. This isn’t my first tour sir.”

Wesley could feel Copper looking at him. Even through the cold the lieutenant could feel his face burning. Walls, you prick, he thought and mumbled a prayer of forgiveness for his foul language. As a new officer, Wesley had arrived at the unit as a “blank sleeve.” He didn’t have a combat patch on his right shoulder or a Combat Infantryman’s Badge. He thought his Ranger Tab would be impressive, the church folks his father ministered sure were proud of him, but the “Joes” could care less about it because as hard as Ranger School was, it wasn’t “real world.” The combat vets had all proven themselves to the infantry God.

Do I ignore Walls’ slight or put him in his place, Wesley wondered. The lieutenant knew that officers only had a few opportunities to lead men in battle. He wasn’t a lifer and the war had to end sometime. This was his only chance to be a grunt. He looked back at Walls one last time. It was a fine line between telling it straight and disrespect.

“The CO is sitting in a heated Stryker with the overwatch,” Walls bitched. “And we got units crawling all over this AO doing assaults and raids, and we get stuck doing this Mickey Mouse bullshit.”

It was true, LT Wesley thought. And what if those units doing the assaults run into something bad? They’ll need us, and our Strykers. Wesley refocused on the task at hand and thought about rebuffing Walls.

“Alpha Team’s good back there, sir,” Lambert said. “I need you up here, got something.”

Finally! Something. Wesley’s heart rate spiked, and he forgot all about Walls’ smart butt. He jogged up the middle of the formation. He wanted to run but tried to keep some of the composure that SGT Lambert always showed.

The leader of 3rd Squad was walking towards PFC Ethan Kantorowicz, or K, and Corporal Juan Rico. The men were taking a knee and K was pointing down the road.

“Rico, talk to me Corporal,” Lambert said.

“Right side of the road, hundred meters,” Rico spit out some of his Copenhagen he had tucked in his lower lip. “I figure all the foot traffic and wind pulled up an IED wire.”

“Let me see,” Lambert said as he brought up his M-4 equipped with a magnifying ACOG scope. “We got crush wire. It’s a victim-activated IED.”

Crap, I better start calling this in, Wesley thought.

“Fuck Sergeant,” the baby-faced K said. “We’ve walked down this road already.”

“Yep…the whole damn Company did earlier today,” Lambert said.

Wesley could hear his heart beat between his ears.

“Freakin’ junk equipment. My radio’s not transmitting,” Wesley said, shaking his handheld. “Where…where the hell is my RTO? I need the Company frequency.”

“Here, I got it sir,” Lambert said reaching for his own radio in one of his front pouches.

“Copper,” Wesley growled. “Copper!”

“I got it sir, I got it,” Lambert tried again. “I’ll switch to the Company freq.”

Copper slammed down next to his lieutenant. Wesley took a hand mike and keyed it just as Lambert keyed his own radio. They looked at each other. Lambert smiled, annoyed. Slow down dummy, Wesley told himself.

“Okay sir, you do it,” Lambert smirked.

Wesley felt his face get hot and hoped no one noticed. “Brimstone Six, this is Honey Badger Six, over,” Wesley said, calling his captain.

“Okay goddamn it,” Lambert spun his index finger in the air. “Walls, Rico, get your guys. 5 C’s, let’s go. No more pissin’ around.”

Two hours later, Wesley watched as SGT Lambert screamed at the Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) techs. SGT Lambert was in front of their vehicle waving his arms towards the direction of the IED while talking to them through his handheld radio. Any EOD unit moved on their time. When defusing bombs, it’s probably best to have that approach. Wesley couldn’t blame them for taking two hours to get there. But this EOD team was new to combat and refused to get out of their vehicle. This made it an absolute joke trying to identify where the IED was located. SGT Lambert had gone as far as to throw a bright orange VS-17 panel next to the dang thing. Did that help? Nope.

It looked like Lambert had had enough. He stomped over to the passenger side.

“Sergeant Lambert, don’t put hands on,” Wesley said.

“I got this sir,” he mumbled.

Lambert smashed his gloved fist on the door. Bang bang bang. “Open the door,” he yelled above the whine of the engine. Bang bang bang bang. “Open the,” he scoffed and talked into his radio mike. “Open the door.”

The EOD leader cracked the door ever so slightly. He was a captain, or in Navy speak, a lieutenant.

“Listen goddamn it,” Lambert spit, “this is a cluster fuck and you know it. This is taking too damn long. Just get out of your damn vehicles and look at the fucking IED!”

Bless-id, what do they tell these people before they deploy, Wesley thought as he watched the screaming match. Both men were pointing out in the sector and then back at each other. Spit flew out of the Navy leader’s mouth as his driver just stared straight ahead. He looked like a kid sitting on his living room floor, between his parents as they threw furniture at each other. And Wesley knew that feeling well. These Navy officers weren’t used to being talked to like this. Not by an enlisted man. But Wesley understood that this wasn’t back on the FOB where you saluted every officer and moved on. This was outside the wire. On operations, rank didn’t mean anything. It was your position that counted. EOD was there to support them. You wouldn’t smile and salute the cable guy if your reception was bad. You’d make him do his job and fix the freakin’ cable! I’ll back Lambert up on paper if they try to cry about it.

Lambert made sure to open the door to their truck as wide as he could. As the light poured inside their truck, Wesley thought that they shrieked like that bald German at the end of that movie Nosferatu.

“And don’t forget to pull your heads out of your asses,” Lambert shouted as he slammed the door.

The sun was high in the sky now. Wesley looked around at his men pulling security. The soldiers had pretty much given up on trying to control the packs of children. They came in fours and fives, dressed in what Wesley could best describe as 80s style pajamas and big smiles.

Lambert yawned. The best squad leader in Wesley’s platoon had just wasted twenty minutes trying to guide their little “high-speed” robot to the IED location. The Navy techs still wouldn’t get out. Wesley had never seen other EOD units act like this. The EOD tech’s fearless leader had cracked his door just enough to get his arm out and force feed a little chuck of C4 through a shock tube. The techs wore Marine desert uniforms. Instead of the standard bulky helmets they wore what looked like bicycle helmets that were formed to the head and didn’t cover the ears. They were very comfortable and low profile. They also had high-speed looking short-barreled rifles and mountain boots. Such a waste of cool gear, Wesley thought.

“Fuck it,” Lambert said and picked the robot up. He walked it closer and then set it down in a direct line with the IED. “Now,” he said into his radio hand set. “Just fucking drive the bitch in a straight line.”

“Control det in ten, nine, eight,” cracked over the radio as Lambert and LT Wesley took a knee behind EOD’s vehicle.

Wesley shifted uncomfortably, his back aching. Come on already. He started panicking inside. What if the men aren’t in good enough positions? What if falling debris smeared somebody?

“Four, three, two.”

What if the…Wesley’s thoughts disappeared as the ground shook and the explosion ringed his ears. Jesus save me that was loud!

Freakin’ Navy, Wesley thought. The CO was pressuring him to collect bomb evidence because of higher authority breathing down his neck. EOD, the subject matter experts, refused and moved out.

“The CO really wants that blast evidence,” Wesley said.

“We’re not wasting more time picking up garbage,” SGT Lambert said.

Wesley nodded and 3rd Squad continued down the road so that their reporter could get his pictures.

“Brimstone-Six,” Wesley said into his radio. “That’s a negative. I can’t have the men collecting evidence without a proper crater analysis, over.”

“Come see me after you wrap up the escort mission,” the CO replied. “Six, out.”

Roger that, Wesley thought bitterly. He knew what that meant. Did he have to do it over the Company net like that? Every LT and Sergeant in the Company heard that crap.

Another hour went by and Wesley had Lambert turn the squad around. The men were growing restless. Wesley knew they were on their last legs. He led them back towards home despite the reporter’s protests. No one cared about his pictures but him.

Now I got the CO on my butt about stupid blast evidence. It’s just dumb, nonsense. The lead element called back that they were near the IED blast site. SGT Lambert made them circle around it with a wide berth. Then Wesley saw a wire sticking out of the displaced earth. Blast evidence, Wesley thought. As the men moved around him, like a hawk to a mouse, Wesley swooped down and grabbed the wire and pulled with all his might. The wire wouldn’t budge so he yanked on it harder, his weapon dangling on its sling as he pulled and yanked. “Sir, um, lieutenant,” Copper said looking around for help. “You shouldn’t do that sir.”

It reminded Wesley of pulling weeds with his mother in her garden. When they won’t budge, you just had to pull harder. With a long grunt, Wesley jerked his body up and could feel it giving. The wire snapped and came loose in his hand. Yes. I can say I got something.

“Jesus!” SGT Lambert ran back to his Platoon Leader. “Goddamn sir, don’t do that again.”

Almost dazed, Wesley took the metaphorical slap to the head and came back to Earth. “Um, huh, we’re getting this blast evidence dang it. Lock down the south again. What’s this thing Sergeant,” he asked and stuck the end of the wire in his squad leader’s face.

Lambert moved his head back for better focus and pulled his black eye protection down to examine the find. It took him almost twenty seconds to register the twisted red and black wires. At the end there was still a blasting cap and a powdery goo-stuff.

“Holy shit sir, that’s the fuckin’ blasting cap.”

Wesley’s heart dropped. EOD didn’t blow the IED up!

The color drained from Wesley’s face.

“Oh, shit sir, you could have killed us all…woot, woot,” Lambert burst in sudden laughter.

All the men did the same. Wesley felt like he was in the middle of a three-ringed circus and he was the clown on the little tricycle.

“Oh my God sir, you almost killed me,” Rico said with a chuckle that quickly faded. “I got a family.”

“Did you see that,” Lambert asked to the cheers and claps of his men. He snatched Wesley up in a head lock, miming a noogy.

The infantry soldiers circled around the LT and security almost evaporated as the IED lay impotent not two feet away. The men had now discovered that the monster under their beds had no teeth and couldn’t hurt them any longer. Now it was a joke.

“My LT is the shit,” Copper yelled, stomping his foot.

Wesley half-smiled nervously as SGT Lambert released him. He felt dizzy. He looked at the blasting cap and almost puked but held it in for the men.

“Hold on hold on,” SGT Lambert chuckled. “I’m bout to blast Navy EOD over Company freq. I hope the whole battalion net is monitoring this.” SGT Lambert held the mike up to his mouth and then choked back a laugh. “Okay, hold on, hold on.”

Their squad leader danced in place and shook his arms out like a boxer getting ready to go in the ring.

“Okay, here it goes,” SGT Lambert keyed the radio and spoke into his handset. “Brimstone Six and all Trident EOD elements, this is Honey Badger Three-Actual. Break.” He snorted with laughter and bent over at the knees. He sucked in a deep breath and keyed the radio again. “I just wanted to inform everyone that Trident failed to detonate the IED and that it was sheer blind luck that saved our lives. The IED is now disabled and needs to be blown up properly before someone reuses the 105mm explosive device on us again. Honey Badger Three-Actual, out.”

EOD’s were going to be salty as all get-out about that, Wesley thought as everyone laughed.

“I’m not even going to listen to the reply,” SGT Lambert said and turned down the volume on his radio. “Fuck ’em.”

“Fuck ’em,” the men cheered.

After making sure there wasn’t a secondary device, the enlisted soldiers had decided to make things easier for EOD this time and dug out the ground around the explosive ordnance.

“Here’s your elusive IED,” Rico said, dusting off his hands.

“Hey sir,” SGT Lambert said, “you’re the only officer I know who has disarmed an IED with his bare hands.”

The men cheered again and Wesley smiled. Yeah, but I know I messed up Sergeant. I know.

“Fuck EOD,” Sergeant Walls’ silly accent cut through Wesley’s brain. “If ya wanna disarm a nuke we’ll give the LT a hammer.”

Messed up big time.

“Oh dude, that was so surreal,” the reporter shook his head, letting his camera hang around his neck. “I could have died. Just so surreal.”

“Shut the fuck up guy,” SGT Lambert said, snorting. He turned to his men with his thumb pointing back to the reporter. “This motherfucker right here.”

“Hey don’t worry,” Copper said. “Your beard would’ve caught the blast.”

“Hey camera guy, check this out.” A soldier named Bautista started miming masturbation while simulating t-bagging the IED with deep squat thrusts. “Take a picture of this.”

Things further degraded into a game of Ring Around the Rosy, Pocket Full of Scare the Shit out of the Reporter. Copper handed off his weapon and executed a hand stand on the bomb. Williams and Walls did the running man on it. SGT Lambert convinced Lieutenant Wesley to take a photo with their smiling faces inches away from the explosive.

“Looks like we have a stack of 105 rounds fused together,” Lambert chuckled as he examined the bomb closely. “Reinforced with concrete. Got about eighty pounds of HME underneath.”

Alarm bells of ‘Oh crap oh crap’ rang through LT Wesley’s head. That’s a serious bomb. Wesley replayed his actions. The bomb had been in the center of the squad formation when he had tugged on the wire. There wasn’t a doubt in Wesley’s mind that if he would have set the thing off, they’d all be street grease. He popped up, dusting off his hand. A soldier handed him his rifle.

“Okay, okay,” Wesley shouted. “Fun’s over. Dig into actual security positions.”

The laughter died out and the team leaders moved the soldiers into position. Copper pushed up to the LT, shoving a hand mike in his face. “It’s the CO sir, it’s important.”

“Honey Badger Six, get your platoon back to the Company rally point,” the CO said over the radio. “A unit developing a combat outpost at the edge of the Task Force area is radioing that they’re in danger of being overrun. I guess air support alone ain’t cutting it. It’s priority. We’ll brief on the way.”

Wesley barely believed what he heard. “Good Copy, over.”

Wesley took a breath. Life worked in funny ways.

“SGT Lambert,” Wesley said. “We got another unit in danger of being overrun. We’re the closest available help. The whole Company’s going right into the thick of it. Mark the IED for follow on forces enroute to here.”

“Roger that sir,” Lambert turned back to Wesley. “Sir, forget about the IED. I know it’s going to bother you. Just learn from it. No one got hurt.”

As SGT Lambert started barking directions and the men rounded up, Wesley looked at the IED. Why did I do that? It was as if something possessed him and made him leap upon the crush wire. No thoughts, just blind devotion to policy. “Get the evidence” he could hear the CO’s voice over the net. But why the heck did I keep pulling up at it? He was out of control in that moment and he knew it. I’m their Platoon Leader for God’s sake. Maybe stress caused his stupidity, he didn’t know. Lieutenant Wesley looked back at his men, watching SGT Lambert counting them into a newly arrived Stryker armored vehicle. He was the so-called leader of these men, these infantry soldiers, these combat warriors. They deserved the best and now they were going to need it. Father above please watch over my men and give me your guiding hand in my decisions. He looked back at the IED. God give me the resignation and determination to do better. Amen. Wesley looked away and the fear dissolved. He promised himself that from now on, his men would get his best. It was a promise he would keep.