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“Losing Friends”

by Ryan Stovall

_

The day after a mortar shredded his hut, the team was out on patrol.

Rick hadn’t slept. It felt like a hangover. The desert sun was too bright, the village children were moving too fast, their piping voices too loud.

As his team pushed into the little mountain village, more and more of the children clustered about him, hopping with nervous excitement. They called back to others still hesitating in the safety of shadowy doorways. Come out! Come see this smiling, friendly American!

“What is this, Lord of the Flies? Where are your parents, you miserable little cretins!” Rick growled. “You, Googly-Eyes! I see you checkin’ out my weapon! This is for when your dad and his buddies get their shit together and start shooting at us—I know they’re here somewhere. So tell me: Where are your parents?”

The light glared off the high, mud-brick walls. Fighting a headache, he forced his flat blue eyes to move, constantly sweeping the roof tops, the windows, the doorways, the corners.

“Where are your parents? Goddamn! The way you all are staring at me, I feel like a display at Ripley’s! What, have I got a dick growing out of my forehead?” he yelled. The children grinned and pointed, whispering to one another.

An older boy pushed forward. Pointing at Rick’s M4, he gestured for him to pass it over.

Rick laughed. “Ha! Jerry! Brad!” he called to his teammates, who were kneeling behind a low wall. “This one wants me to give him my weapon!”

He turned back to the boy. “No way, bud. Besides, why would you want mine? I’m sure you’ve got an AK or two stashed in that goat pen you call a bedroom.”

The boy hesitated, then grabbed one of the younger children by the shoulders and pushed him forward. Pointing to the child and then the M4, he again gestured for Rick to give him the rifle.

Rick stared blankly for a moment, then burst out with a more genuine laugh. “Oh my God,” he gasped. “Guys! Now he wants to trade me his little brother for my weapon! What the hell am I gonna do with a kid?” he asked the boy, laughing and shaking his head.

“You could use him as a sherpa, Rick,” Jerry said without looking around.

“Or maybe he’d cook for us,” Brad suggested. He too sounded tense.

His first offer rejected, the boy corralled a second wide-eyed child, shoved him forward with the first, and repeated his gestures.

Rick laughed again. “Christ! Now the price is up to two kids for an M4! You goofy little shit—do I look like a damn Taliban child rapist to you? I’m not interested in boy-toys, one, two, or twenty. In America we screw women, kid. Wom-en,” he enunciated.

“Maybe you should reconsider, man,” Jerry suggested, still not looking around. “Two little boys for an M4 isn’t a bad deal.”

“I’m sure if I was a Talib I’d jump at the chance—probably be a welcome change from the goats. No,” Rick said. “I’m sorry kid. I’m just not interested.”

“Rick!” Dan, their Team Sergeant, was hurrying back from the front of the column. “What are you doing? Get out of the road and behind some fucking cover!”

Rick’s smile vanished. Staying where he was, he fixed Dan with a cold gaze. “I’ve got every kid in this village ringed around me. The assholes might use them as shields sometimes, but they sure as hell aren’t gonna start blazing away at me now—not when the shoe’s on the other foot.” He spat. “Where I’m standing—this is the safest place in this whole fuckin’ valley.”

“Oh yeah? And what if you’re wrong? How are you gonna like putting that mob of kids back together after somebody dumps an RPG in the middle of it? You gonna enjoy doing that?” Dan shoved his way through the children until his face was inches from Rick’s.

“An RPG would be doing these poor little fucks a favor. Ain’t that right, kiddos?” There were answering smiles from all around. He glanced back at Dan. “Are we moving on, then?” Without waiting for a reply, he started walking. The children followed him.

Soon they left the village behind. On their left small fields of poppy and corn and of short-cropped grazing land replaced the high mud walls. A rocky stream cut a broad, shimmering gash through the fields, and sent out narrow irrigation ditches that turned and twisted as they followed the contours of the land. Patches of brush, tall grass, and stunted leaf trees filled every space too rocky or too uneven to cultivate.

On their right the desert began abruptly. No living green showed in the brown, broken rocks and thin soil of the hillsides.

The children stopped at the edge of the village. “I’m gonna go find your fathers and fuck ‘em up!” Rick called back to them. He smiled and waved. “Stay in school!” Then he turned and took up his position with Jerry at the rear of the column.

For a while they walked in silence. “I wonder where all the men were,” Rick said finally.

“They’re here somewhere,” Jerry replied. “See that narrow spot up the valley? What do you think? There’s some great cover up in those rocks.”

“Yeah. What do I think? I think this is stupid. Whose idea was this?”

“Bush’s?” Jerry suggested.

“Ha! No, I mean today, this little walk. What are we supposed to be doing?”

“Talking to the village elders in Mir Khel.”

“Right. Well, let me tell you how that conversation’s gonna go: ‘How is security in your village?’ ‘Good! Security very good! No security problems here!’”

“Yep,” Jerry agreed. “Then: ‘Have you seen any Taliban?’ ‘Oh no, no no no! No Taliban here!’”

“If you listen to these village elders, you’d think we were in the wrong country. Like the Air Force made a mistake and flew us to Mali instead of Afghanistan.” Rick sighed. “You know, us walking to these little pow-wows is an awfully dangerous way to waste our time.”

Jerry nodded but stayed silent. After a couple of minutes he cleared his throat, and said, “You have to be careful talking to Dan like that, man. Just ‘cause you got shot in the leg doesn’t mean you can disrespect him like you did back in that village. He’s still the boss.”

“I don’t give a fuck,” Rick said. He looked away, out over the valley.

“Just show him a little respect, man,” Jerry insisted. “Voice your opinions, make your suggestions or whatever, but do it with some respect.”

“I don’t think you’re hearing me,” Rick said. “I really don’t give a fuck. Not about proper military etiquette, or Dan’s feelings, or whatever it is we’re doing here. We have one month left before we’re out of here, and the only thing I care about is that we all stay alive until then. So fuck Dan.  And if my attitude bothers you, well—fuck you too, man.”

An uncomfortable silence settled in. “Look brother,” Jerry said finally. “I know you’re still hurtin’ about losing Mel. But you can’t take it out on the rest of us.”

Rick took a deep breath. “I’m not. I mean, I know. I’m sorry. I just—”

He broke off. The rumble of an approaching vehicle filled the air. A gray van had rounded the corner behind them.

“Cover me.” Rick moved out into the road. Jerry quickly stepped to one side and knelt behind a large rock, his weapon raised.

Rick waved the vehicle to a stop. “Hey fellas!” He smiled at the driver before moving down the length of the van, peering in the windows. Eight sets of unfriendly eyes stared back. “Nice day for a drive, huh? You all headed to do some IED training? Or just out lookin’ for a friendly bunch of goats? Jerry!” he called, “they’ve got AK’s all over the floor in there!”

“They’re allowed to have ‘em.”

“I know, I know. Just watch the fuckers.”

Rick walked back to the driver. “Ok, fellas. Good luck with the goats. And if you’re interested, it looks like a great ambush site up in those rocks. We’ll be there in about, oh, thirty minutes. So you’ve got plenty of time to get set in place.”

He stood aside and grabbed his push-to-talk. “This is Nine-Seven. Van coming up from the rear. Eight military-age males with AK’s. Watch ‘em.”

The driver scowled, popped the clutch, and roared away in a cloud of dust.

When the air cleared, the front of the column had stopped and was kneeling along either side of the road. Dan waved Rick and Jerry up to join him. “Mir Khel’s on the other side of the valley. We’re gonna cross here and get in that chunk of brush.” He pointed. “Then we’ll work our way around to that next little valley—that’s where Mir Khel sits, about a click up. You two’ll bring up the rear as we cross?”

“Sure thing.”

They covered the open bottom land in a widely spaced and staggered line. It was easy terrain, but there was no cover—the green fields were flat and grazed to a fuzzy stubble.

A springy two-by-ten offered a bridge over the creek. But after the intel guy attached to the team lost his balance and tumbled in, everyone else was wading.

Dan called out from the far bank as Jerry and Rick approached. “Wade it,” he yelled. “Not worth risking a sprain falling off that board.”

“Fuck that,” Rick grumbled. He eyed the board for a second, sizing it up. Then he trotted quickly across.

Dan looked ready to explode. “Just because Private Snuffy can’t balance doesn’t mean I need to do this stupid walk in wet boots,” Rick said.

Jerry waded over. The rest of the team was already disappearing into a thick stand of leafy alder. The three of them followed. After a hundred meters a second smaller creek issued from a narrow side valley to their left. The team was gathered on its bank.

“Mir Khel’s up there about a click,” Dan said, pointing up the side valley. “My group: we climb the ridge here to provide overwatch and a comms relay back to base. Brad’s group follows the trail by the creek to Mir Khel and meets with the village elders—they should be expecting you. If either group takes contact, the other provides support. Understood?”

The two groups began to separate. Rick tapped Brad on the shoulder. “Keep your head on a swivel, man—if the village elders know you guys are coming, then so does everybody else. And that is one tight crack to fight your way out of.”

“What do you mean, ‘you guys?’” Brad asked. “You’re coming with us. It’s in the task-org.”

“What? I thought you were taking Rob as your medic.”

“We are. Dan’s sending him with us too.”

“What?!” Rick snapped. “Both medics in one group? Dan! What the fuck!”

“What?” Dan asked, looking around.

Rick took a deep breath. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure. Talk.”

“In private?”

“You got something to say, kid? You’ve been giving me pushback for a while, so now let’s have it out. You want to wear the daddy pants, well okay—let’s all hear what Team Sergeant Payne thinks we should do now. I’m all ears.”

The rest of the team froze. The intel guy’s mouth was hanging open.

Rick boiled over. “Fine. Have it your way. What the fuck are you thinking, sending both your medics up there?” He jabbed a finger toward the little valley. “And,” he added, looking over Dan’s group, “why the fuck do you have both the comms guys going with you?”

“What’s the problem, Rick? I thought you’d want to go to the village. Don’t you want to get in there, get some action, show everybody how much of a bad-ass you are? How even though you got shot, you’re still not scared? You aren’t scared, are you?” Dan sneered.

“Scared! You miserable fuck!” Rick yelled. “Is that what you think this is about? My fucking ego? Stop and think for a half a second, would you? I’ve got a leg still healing from being half blown off. But your plan is to send me up that slot canyon, where the only thing we can do if the shit hits the fan is break contact by running back down.”

He waved his arms wildly. “So there we are—the wheels are coming off! And I’m gimping along, slowing us down and putting the whole group in danger. Meanwhile, you guys get hit up on the ridge, and oops! both your medics are a click away, in Mir Khel! But at least you can call a medevac, or order up some CAS, because you have BOTH THE FUCKIN’ COMMS GUYS!”

Rick’s eyes blazed. “You know what I think? I think you’re the one who’s scared. That’s why you stayed with the vehicles the night I got shot—why you write yourself out of every risky op—why you sit back at base on radio watch while we run convoys. It’s why you want to take all the comms guys with you now—you’re afraid.”

He swiped at the spittle on his chin with the back of his glove and glared.

Dan stared at him. “You’re too young to understand, kid.”

“And you’re too old and soft to be running ops anymore, old man.”

They glowered at each other. Rick’s hands were visibly shaking—a vein was standing out in the middle of Dan’s forehead.

Finally Jerry stepped forward. “O-kay! Well—you guys obviously need to work this out, but this isn’t really the time or the place. Can we put a hold on this? What do you say we finish our business here, and you guys have a nice, friendly fight once we get back to base?”

Rick turned away, shaking his head.

“Dan?” Jerry said cautiously. “I really don’t want to take sides. But maybe there’s some sense to what he’s saying. What do you think about sending one of the comms guy with Brad, and we take Rick up on the ridge as our medic?”

“Fine. Sounds good,” Dan snapped. “Pick a the comms guys, Brad, and go. The rest of my group, follow me.” He turned, and immediately started toward the ridge.

Rick adjusted his med bag on his back and followed. “Take care up there,” he muttered to Brad as he passed.

Brad gave him a disgusted look and shook his head.

Climbing the ridge proved a scramble—truck-size boulders provided plenty of cover, but forced the group to crawl through the cracks and crevices between.

By the time they were high enough to see both the main valley and the approach to Mir Khel, Rick’s scar was throbbing. He leaned back against a slab of rock, taking the weight off his leg, and pulled out his binoculars.

There wasn’t much to Mir Khel, just a soft blotch of green trees and terraced fields squeezed between two steep slopes of pale brown rock. The other group was following a donkey trail cut into the hillside above the creek. They were already halfway to the village.

Nothing else was moving. Rick turned and swept his binoculars over the main valley. There was no one in sight.

“There he is. Partner up with him, will you.” Rick twisted around and saw Mike, one of the new guys, climbing toward him with the SAW. Dan was already walking away.

Rick indicated a nearby rock. “Make yourself comfortable.”

“Thanks man. This is a pretty good spot!”

Rick shrugged. “You can see a lot, at least.”

They sat quietly. Occasionally one or the other would raise his binoculars to scan the hillsides or the valley.

“They’ve reached the village,” Mike reported finally.

Rick glanced over. “This is Nine-Seven,” he said into his radio. “Brad’s group has reached Mir Khel.”

A pause, then Dan’s voice acknowledged. “Roger.”

After a while, Rick stirred. “How’s your leg where that SAW drum is banging against it?”

“Sore as hell!” Mike smiled. “There’s a bruise the size of a football on my thigh. How’d you know?”

“I’ve carried the SAW once or twice,” Rick grinned back. “After I tenderized my leg the first couple times, I started carrying it with just a starter belt.”

“I thought of doing that. But I like having the big drum there, just in case.”

“Suit yourself, bud. It’s your leg.”

They lapsed back into silence.

A few minutes later Rick heard footsteps. He expected to see Dan, but it was Jerry who poked his head up between the rocks.

“What’s up, brother?” Rick asked.

“Oh, not much. Thought I’d come and check on y’all.”

“A social call. How nice.”

“Sure,” Jerry said lightly. “Dan wants you down the hill, Mike. You see that gray rock, ‘bout thirty meters down there? He wants you there so the SAW can overwatch the big valley.”

Rick snorted. “Great idea—let’s use our belt-fed to cover an empty valley instead of where our guys are.”

Mike hesitated, uncertain. But Jerry nodded encouragingly and waved him away down the hill.

He settled onto a rock with a soft groan.

“How’re you holding up, old timer?”

“Tolerable, tolerable, thank you,” Jerry answered, smiling. “Getting old, it’s not for wimps.”

“I wouldn’t know.” Rick grinned. “And the way things are going, I doubt I ever will.”

Jerry nodded and smiled. Then his face became serious. “You have to stop riding Dan so hard, brother. Criticizing him in front of the young guys, like you done with Mike just now—that’s bad for you, bad for him, bad for the whole team. Even if you are right, you’ve got to keep it to yourself. It’s not your team—it’s Dan’s.”

When he spoke, Rick’s voice was quiet. “Problem is, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Most of the time, I am right.” He sighed. “I want someone to understand, man. It might as well be you.

“So here’s how I see it: if we were back home doing stupid admin stuff—filling out personnel rosters and range requests and whatnot—I’d shut my trap in a hurry.”

He paused, searching for the right words. “But we’re not back home. We’re in this shit hole. And fuckers are trying to kill us. And Dan . . . he’s not getting it. Half the time he’s so afraid of getting himself hurt that he plans our missions around covering his own ass, while the rest of the time . . . It’s like he thinks we’re on one of our trips to Africa—like we can just grab some beers, cook some food, chase some Peace Corp ass, train a few gungies.”

He paused again. Jerry waited patiently.

“But this is fuckin’ war, man,” Rick said finally. “I mean, for Christ’s sake—am I the only one who remembers Mel?” He made eye contact for a second, and Jerry was surprised to see tears welling up in the younger man’s eyes. “I can’t . . . I can’t let that happen again. I saw it coming—I knew what we were doing was a bad idea. But I didn’t speak up—I just let it happen. And it tore me up so bad when it did.” He sniffed, spat, and cleared his throat.

“Guys have been wondering why I came back,” he continued. “Everyone knows that the doctors and our command both said I could stay home for the rest of the tour.”

“Dan thought you should,” Jerry said quietly. “He said you coming back was a mistake.”

“Maybe it was. But see, Dan doesn’t understand why I came back. He thinks I’m here prove how tough I am, that I came back to show everybody what a badass Rick Payne is—leg all mangled, but here he comes, ready for more.

“But that ain’t it at all, man.

“I came back because I have to keep the rest of you from getting hurt. ‘Cause you know what I realized, what I learned the day Mel got killed? It ain’t dying yourself that’s the worst. Not even close—dying’s nothin’.”

Rick was looking down at his feet. “No—the worst is watching a teammate die, and knowing you could have said something to prevent it. That’s the worst pain I’ve ever felt, that I’ll ever feel. And it never stops. That guilt, man—it goes on hurting forever.”

He took a deep breath that seemed to catch in his chest. “So I’ll repeat what I told you earlier, and hopefully it’ll make more sense now. I am aware that Dan is the team sergeant, and that he outranks me, and that he’s been in the Army almost longer than I’ve been alive.

“I don’t give a shit. Bottom line, he doesn’t have a clue tactically. So I’m gonna keep ‘riding him’ as you put it every time he makes a suspect decision. And if it tears this team apart, makes everyone hate me for the jumped-up know-it-all they see me as, I don’t care. All that matters to me is getting everyone out of here alive.”

Jerry was quiet for a while. “That how you really feel?” he asked finally.

“Yup.”

“Not gonna change you mind, am I?”

“Do you really want to? Do you really want me to shut my mouth and just, what—hope that nobody else gets shot?”

After another pause Jerry gave a little shrug. “You’re gonna lose all your friends on the team, brother. You should hear what they’re saying—”

He broke off. Rick was chuckling. “Lose them because they think I’m an insubordinate asshole, and they despise me? Or lose them permanent-like, the way we lost Mel—bleeding and weak and scared, and knowing he was dying? If those are my choices, well—it’s a no-brainer.”

“You need to just cool it, Rick.” Jerry stood slowly and stretched. “I’ll send Mike back up.”

Rick shook his head, his eyes distant. “Unbelievable—I’m not sure you heard a goddamn word I said. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s just like with Dan—you weren’t there. You weren’t down in that wadi with the bullets cracking all around you, clipping the leaves off the trees next to your head. You didn’t see Mel’s eyes fog over, didn’t smell the blood and raw flesh and death-sweat pouring off of him. All you old guys’ experience doesn’t mean shit— you weren’t there.”

“Fuck you, kid! You think the rest of us aren’t hurting? Go fuck yourself.” Jerry turned abruptly away and stalked down the hill.

Rick gave a pained smile. “That’s the spirit!” he called after him. “Don’t worry, brother! I’m not changing a thing. I’m still gonna do whatever it takes to get us all out of here!”