Romero’s mind was racing through periods of finely tuned alertness and a feeling of standing on the precipice of panic. In one instant, he was keen on every sway of the tiny ship’s churning through the water and the fracas of noise from miles outside the craft. In the next lull, he was given over to imagining the night that was to come with its many visions of horrific nightmares born from his imagination. As a sudden roar of another jet echoed far above the landing craft, his heart began to race again. He had no words for this feeling. It wasn’t fear. No, not only fear, at least. Fear was certainly there, but there was something more.
Gunnery Sergeant Yafante had told them of these moments, the moments when battle loomed and a warrior was given to a sort of hyper-vigilance that accompanies battle readiness. The sounds you heard were clearer, the lights you saw were brighter, and the smells were more distinct. An amplified experience of the world was about him then, a feeling he couldn’t discern from the alertness of his battle hardened Gunny, or if it was simply paranoid claustrophobia mixed with the nausea of seasickness. More than likely, he assumed it was a fear of the unknown terrors awaiting him once he reached the jungle beyond.
To ease his mind, he looked to his fellow Marines in the cabin of the tiny vessel. His fire team, each seated to either side of him was handling the tension in their own way. Lance Corporal Fannon, the one they called “Su”, short for Suicide, was asleep. How anyone could sleep in such an environment was beyond Romero, but Su was never one to give into the moment. He could sleep anywhere. He once said that an infantryman was always happy so long as he could get enough sleep. That’s all it really came down to, Suicide believed. Sleep kept you focused when you needed to be. Sleep kept you relaxed and it didn’t allow you to fret unnecessarily, burning calories getting psyched up worrying about things you had no power to control, exactly what plagued Romero now. It was as if the world never phased him.
Suicide was the Senior Lance of the fire team. Senior Lance wasn’t exactly something written on his sleeve or on any government document. Basically, whoever had been in the longest of those who weren’t yet NCOs in their own right, was the senior Lance Corporal and thereby received the mostly honorary title. Its chief honor, besides establishing the intramural platoon pecking order, was being the first one held responsible when one of the other Marines did something stupid. If there were no Corporals around, Suicide was going to get blamed for whatever idiocy was afoot with the other non-rates, either for being the instigator, which he almost never was, or for not preventing said stupidity from happening, a case which Kaiser provided him with often. It makes sense then, why he liked to sleep. It’s hard to blame the guy who just slept.
Being Senior Lance was nothing to let go to your head, but it meant that Su knew how to handle himself. He knew his role. He knew his weapons. He knew his job. It didn’t really matter that this was also his first combat engagement. If anyone would buy it on this deployment, they all believed, it sure wouldn’t be Su.
Romero looked up to him and did whatever he asked, though he rarely had much to say and never pulled what little rank he had. It wasn’t because Romero was still intimidated by Suicide… he was most definitely intimidated. Even after eight months of being part of this team, for Nathaniel, the longest he’d ever been with one, he still barely knew Su. No one honestly could say they knew him well. Of course, being introduced to a guy everyone calls Suicide doesn’t serve to give a presence of warmth and welcome. Regardless of the distance he held from everyone, Su was still well liked for the very reason why Romero listened so intently when Su had something to say. Whatever he said always just seemed like the smart thing to do. Call it respect, or call it admiration. In reality, people did what Su said, as much as a survival tactic as anything else.
Lance Corporal Noam Kaiser was a different matter. He was Romero’s closest friend in the squad these last few months. He’d been in a little while longer than Romero, a little under a year and a half when they set sail, but was the newest member of the team besides Romero. You couldn’t have made a person less like Su than Kaiser. As the squad sat in that horrifyingly cramped, hot, dank, and noisy cabin on the way towards a battle with an enemy they knew little about and in a place none of them had ever been before, perhaps to all of their certain doom, Kaiser managed to handle the stress in his own way. With all the sense of purpose God gave to a sixteen-year-old girl, he was cracking jokes on the squad intercom channels.
Of course, there was a logic in this, as well. Noam was a rich kid from the West Coast. His dad was a venture capitalist and he could have had it easy. Instead, he joined the Marines. Perhaps he had an outlook that made him see everything much differently than everyone else. It was almost like all this was just a show to him, like it wasn’t really real. It was as if there was nothing to get excited about, at all. He didn’t seem to notice the distant crash of ordnance outside the landing craft, nor the sounds of the vessel itself. He seemed almost oblivious to the imminent struggle they were all about to endure. He didn’t change at all. He would still be cracking punchlines even if the world was crashing down around him. It was all just part of the show. It seemed to Romero that some dealt with the stress by not acknowledging it.
“Never let the fear know you’re afraid.” He once said. “Make the fear afraid of your fearlessness.” He added.
This self-constructed barrier from reality made Kaiser a sort of platoon morale officer. He had a way of easing the other Marines. Regardless of what was going on, no matter how tired they were, or how miserable a day they had endured, or were still embroiled within, the tension melted off him. It was as if the platoon’s problems were just raindrops, and he was the only one with a raincoat. When the rest of the platoon was at each other’s throats, he had a way of cracking a smile and a joke that broke the moment. Some are wired to read a room. He was wired for their welfare, and would pick up on one when they needed to check out mentally, take a five minute vacation, and chill. These were all skills he long ago mastered, much to the ire of their fire team leader, Corporal Williams.
As Nathaniel’s eyes passed over Noam, his fellow LCpl made a clandestine motion. With his index finger, he pointed down to the deck. That was a signal, an unspoken sign used by the Lance Corporal Underground. It meant, “Drop to chat”, meaning to adjust the channel on their helmet’s ANPRC-197 radio to one that wasn’t being used. During operations or in training, this was how Marines of the Underground were able to speak freely between themselves when they didn’t want anyone else, like the NCO’s, eavesdropping in on the conversation.
Romero adjusted his frequency to a clear channel, which Kaiser had initiated and invited him to.
“What is it?” Romero insisted. Both were whispering. No one else could hear them once they dropped to their own frequency, but that wouldn’t stop anyone from hearing them through their helmets if they were too loud. They were supposed to be functioning under energy and signal discipline during the cruise. For that reason, wasting power on idle conversation, particularly in route to a full blown battle, would have been… frowned upon, by Command… not to mention the fact that their fire team would probably get a buttstroke to the face were it to be known what they were doing.
“Hey Boot.” Kaiser said to him.
Boot was the derisive term given to the newest member of any team within the Marines. It was a reference to them being fresh out of boot camp and being called “a boot” was tantamount to being equated with an infant. This honorary title, not unlike the Senior Lance Corporal, but ashamedly different, lasted until no later point than when there was someone newer than you. Kaiser had only been with the unit four months longer than Romero, and Nathaniel arrived nearly nine months ago. He’d hoped by now he’d have had a new nickname than to be constantly reminded of his station within the platoon every time someone needed him. It didn’t matter what it was you were doing, you were the boot at it until someone even more boot than you showed up. Since Romero was the last to join the squad before they set sail, he was to remain “the boot” for at least four more months or until this war they were sailing straight into was over.
“Hey Boot, I got a question.” Kaiser repeated. “Which one would you rather have: Evonaska today or Miley Cyrus in 2015?” said Kaiser.
“What… what are you talking about?” asked Romero.
“You know, Evonaska… with all the piercings and the face spikes? Or Miley, from before all the surgeries? If you could have one to do whatever you want, which one would ya?” replied Kaiser. Somehow, Romero could hear his lecherous sneer through the radio.
“I don’t know! Aren’t they the same person?” asked Romero.
“Yeah, but Old Miley was back before she had all the surgeries and got all weird with the name change and metal in her face. I like the weird Miley.” he said.
“I don’t know. I was just eight in 2015. Are we even allowed to be talking on this channel?” Romero asked.
“Whatever, dude. It’ll be fine. Now answer the question. Young Miley, or Weird Miley?” insisted Kaiser.
“Weren’t they both pretty weird?”
“Answer the damned question!”
Just then, Kaiser’s head was racked violently from the impact of the butt-stock of an M-4 assault rifle. The back of his head struck the bulkhead behind him as Noam was overcome by dizziness and the surge of pain that rode down his neck and spine. In a few seconds, once the impact shock began to wear off, he suspected he somehow knew the source of that deadening stroke.
“What part of energy discipline don’t you understand!”
Standing with the weapon in hand above Noam, was their fire team leader, the esteemed Corporal Williams.
“We’re almost to the damn beach and you’re burning charge on stupid bullshit nonsense! Lock it up right now or I’ll have you both charged.” The Corporal’s visor was backlit, showing every detail of the stabbing scowl delivered to both of them, not diluted by either the visor or the darkness of the tiny boat. “We are about to start a damned war and you two are off in Never-Never-Land daydreaming because you’re bored. Get your damned heads in the game before you get the rest of us killed you two worthless morons.”
Having dealt with the brief interruption, Romero’s fire team leader was perhaps a thousand miles away, just as before. When not cracking the whip of the cruel taskmaster, Corporal Williams sat in perfect stillness, head rocked back and seemingly disconnected to what was taking place within the transport. Likely, their leader was focused on the intelligence reports and objectives laid out for the company before disembarkation. Most likely, Williams was deep in the command net, listening to the NCOs’ observation channel, or reading the updated field data intelligence that streamed into the Marines digital uplink, beaming directly into all their visors.
The command net would be lost on Romero. He couldn’t focus like that, not now. His thoughts were elsewhere.
Nathaniel wasn’t one of the lucky ones. He had no system to deal with the anxiety other than to just weather the storm. He couldn’t just fall asleep whenever the moment suited him like Su did, nor could he casually disconnect from his problems by cracking jokes or getting himself in trouble, as Kaiser seemed to enjoy. Nor could he immerse himself for hours in battlefield intelligence reports and map reading like their illustrious leader, Corporal Williams. As a bursting bomb reverberated through the hull of the tiny craft, sending a shiver up his spine, all he could think in that moment was what had brought him to this night.
It takes all kinds. Several of the followers have been asking about the other members of the team, namely Williams, Fannon, and Kaiser.
The fact is, the “Lone Survivor” stories are only so special because of how extraordinary they are. The fact is, a real war story should revolve around a team. That includes the hardass Corporal, the stoic and reliable senior lance, and the boot, and the comic relief.
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