Romero woke to the sensation of daggers piercing his nasal cavity. The sudden chemical jolt was of such a shock to his subconscious that he was propelled back to the realm of the living.
As his vision returned, Nathaniel could see sunlight shining high above him. The light was darkened as silhouettes of men loomed above and all around his limp frame. Terrified, and confused, he began to flail about wildly, punching and kicking at the air and towards the dark figures that surrounded him. He desperately groped around for his weapon, but it wasn’t there.
The shadowy figures descended upon him and held him down at the shoulders while another held down his legs.
“Easy there, Devildog. We gotcha’. The exercise is over, so let’s just tone down the bravado there. Good to go?” It was a familiar voice, but he was completely unprepared to be hearing it here. He was unprepared to hear anything at all. He was sure that he was dead.
“Romero, chill the hell out. It’s over. It’s over.” He knew this voice, too. He knew it well. It was Corporal Williams, his fire team leader.
He looked around and saw everyone from his fire team. His fire team leader had his legs, while the other two members of his team, Suicide and Kaiser were holding down his shoulders and arms. Doc Schubert was leaning over him holding the ammonia pack and a bottle of water in the other hand. The doc looked at Romero as he began to calm.
With a disconcerting grin, “Yeah, there you go. Now you’re coming back to us.”
Nathaniel scanned his surroundings, still overcome with bewilderment. The wrecked plane was gone. The debris was gone and the fires were gone. All the enemy soldiers were gone. No, that wasn’t true. Someone in one of their uniforms, a blonde haired man with a military high regulation haircut and about the same age as Romero was screaming at another Marine. The soldier was upset, but didn’t look like what Romero ever thought a prisoner of war was supposed to look like. Romero wanted to know where his handcuffs were, why he was standing and why wasn’t anyone detaining him? Romero realized the soldier still had his weapon. Why did he still have his weapon? Nathaniel began to get excited again when he realized this. Doc Shubert again interrupted his thoughts.
“Oh yeah, that guy’s pissed.” said Doc unconcerned. “You gave those FOF-TICK boys a real scare, especially your little friend over there. You can shoot holographic simrounds at projected images all day and everybody gets back up no problem like, ‘Hey Honey. Tough day at work. What’s for dinner?’ but if you had butt stroked that dude in the face like you almost did, he’d a been done for, for real.”
Romero just stared, dazed and confused.
The Doc saw the distant, still trembling look in his eyes. “Right…” he said. He wasn’t quite satisfied of the cognitive state of his patient. “Look PFC, I need you to take off your flak. I need to check to make sure that your impactor simulator vest isn’t going to deliver any more of those shocks you seem to love so much. I also need to check a few other things. Make sure you aren’t going to die or crack up on me.” He paused, unsure of the shaken warrior’s mental faculties. “You understand what I’m saying? You got me?”
Romero said nothing. He just stared around with a flighty, distant look in his eyes, frantically darting from person to person all around him. Little did they know, he was still in search of the downed plane that wasn’t there, which was never there, and all the Marines aboard.
“Ok. We’re going to take that flak off, you understand?”
As the Navy Corpsman’s hands drifted toward the clips on Romero’s flak jacket, panic suddenly overcame the young Marine again. He began breathing heavily, then gasped to the point of hyperventilation. He started kicking and punching again, restrained only by the aid of his fire team. All of the mental barriers holding back his animal strengths and impulses had been unbound. He was just a feral beast, cornered and panicking. Rabid. The four of them, his fire team and the corpsman, had fought with all of their collective wills, just to repress him and prevent him from doing further harm to himself or to one of them.
Just as he had freed one of his hands and was about to swing, another voice broke into the fray, roaring out and capturing the attention of every soul in the meadow.
“Devildog! Pull yourself together!”
PFC Romero and the other Marines froze in position. Fists halted mid-swing as everyone stared at this ominous form making its way over to the cornered Marine. It was Gunnery Sergeant Yafante. He had joined the unit not long before SERE II training and in that short time he had implanted himself deep within their souls and subconscious as the lone source of fear, pain, discomfort and every human indignity imaginable.
“Stand up Marine! Position of attention, right now!” Yafante bellowed like a possessed demon, or perhaps, something more reminiscent of Romero’s Drill Instructors from months before.
With an automatic impulse to the command, Romero’s body followed instructions without thought. Almost instantly, he was standing, heels together, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. He might have just as easily been in formation moments before a parade, rather than being the one covered in the mud and muck of some Carolinian bog serving as a mock battlefield. Nathaniel was surprised his body would do that at just the simple command. Perhaps it only required the right person. His confusion at the involuntary control this man had over his body quickly transitioned back to fear of the individual currently marching towards him.
“Show some bearing devil! You’re acting like some boot straight out of the School of Infantry! Oh, that’s right. You are a boot straight out of the School of Infantry! I guess that explains why you went all Call of Duty on my training course and got a whole Marine Quick Reaction Rescue Squad killed in the process!”
Romero looked around confused. At first, he did not know what to think, then he remembered the downed plane. He looked over to see where it had crashed. The meadow was clear. There was no evidence of anything happening there, at all. Still lost in confusion, panic was starting to form again in his eyes. Yafante saw this.
“Romero”, Yafante broke in, grabbing Nathaniel’s chin and focusing it back on him. “Wake up! It was simulation! Holographics. It was all just a visualization on your visor. Blips on a screen. You think anybody’d give you a real Marine infantry squad to get killed? You think we’d give a whelp like you real rounds to fire at people? You think you could be shot three times and just stand here looking at me like some sort of moron?”
In that instant, Nathaniel remembered when he had been shot. He looked down to observe the wounds he had received from some unknown enemy in the forest. His hands groped around where he felt the bullet’s impact still, but there was no wound.
“Not real! Not real! Not real! It wasn’t real. You were never shot. It was just your electroshock training vest. You’re fine PFC. Position of attention right now!”
Romero snapped back into position. Suddenly, it began to dawn on him, it really was all just a simulation. He didn’t know when he forgot that fact or why. Perhaps it was the exhaustion, the simulated feeling of being someone else’s prey, or nearly being beaten to death with a tree. He wasn’t aware of it, but it had happened sometime after that. He stopped thinking about the fact that this was all training sometime after the creek, during the long slow march over the last few hundred yards, perhaps. His thoughts were held ransom by his focus on the force-on-force trainers, his enemy, and avoiding interception by the drones. Fatigued as he was, he drifted into a dream state then, more of a walking sleep; automation focused on his survival. When he finally reached the meadow, it was not just the end of an exercise; he really thought he was safe, having forgotten that he was never in any real danger at all. No longer riding a high of adrenaline, he passed out from exhaustion. He was only woken by the sound of the Valor playing in his headset on the speakers of his radio. It wasn’t just a virtual projection of a plane playing on his heads up display; it was his escape from a combat zone. When the plane crashed in front of him, it wasn’t just a projection of holographic pixels representing a failed objective; it was the grave of eleven real people, Marines, who he would never meet, not because they didn’t exist, but because they were dead. It wasn’t a training simulation. Once he reached that point, it was a real battle.
The Force on Force Tactical Training Command, FOF-TTC, calls Romero’s experience “going there”, and it isn’t an extremely uncommon event. When a trainee “goes there”, they endure the stress and the advanced simulation training aids to the point of becoming completely unaware that they are involved in a simulated exercise. Romero wasn’t the first to “go there” during Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape level B training, known throughout Marine infantry units preparing for global deployment as SERE II. He also wouldn’t be the last. Far from it. In fact, his example would be studied rigorously and the FOF-TTC Marine trainers and operations staff would attempt to replicate his experiences for future students of the program. They designed their training to push Marines to the rational boundaries of what could be forced upon infantrymen in the months prior to real life deployments. “Going there” was the ultimate achievement for a training battalion like the boys of FOF-TTC. It forced such a deep level of realism that, in theory, troops like Romero and the rest of his battalion were more ready for battle than any other unblooded units in history. Of course, actual force-on-force trainers like the Nebraska born Corporal Hicks were none too pleased when they faced the prospect of eating the butt stock of an M-27 rifle for a job that was designated strictly as “non-combat operations”.
Yeah, so I kind of lied.
The little iggit isn’t dead. The truth was, I wanted an opportunity to present all the themes of the book, as well as the main character with which it would be viewed, through the lense of how war shouldn’t be.
Quite honestly, except in the highest echelons of the special forces community, you never see the lone survivor making his way back valiantly. In the real world, that sort of thing could only happen as a fluke, which here it does.
This chapter also gives me the chance to introduce some of the technology that will be used later on in the book series. That said, I’m excited to have reached the falling action of Proving Grounds, preparing the way for my next segment – Disembarkation.
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