Proving Grounds – Part 22

After returning to Camp Endurance, the Battalion’s make-shift camp city, William’s team finally got the much-needed rest they required, as did the particularly weary and war-torn Nathaniel Romero. The ground may have been cold and damp beneath his bedroll, but as soon as Romero’s face hit the pack he used as his pillow and his body lay flat on the sleeping bag, he was in another world. His sleep was alive with the replaying in his dreams of the night. In a thousand angles, variations, and endings, he fought the night’s battle over and over. Some of the outcomes were favorable; most ended in his death. He could feel the false puncture wounds from the simulation rounds even in his sleep. The feeling of being shot haunted him, but the ghostly injury became something he learned to live with, as it faded away, along with a busted shoulder and a few cracked ribs. In his dreams, he pushed on, ever adapting and overcoming, in spite of the constant presence of pain. His mind never stopped attempting to resolve his conflicted spirt, though his body didn’t move for another six hours.
Nathaniel read once in a book how the human race is an amazing thing. We are problem-solving machines. Even in our sleep, our time of rest, we build problems, problems which may not need solving, which may have no solution at all, because the problems themselves do not exist in any real or imagined worlds. Regardless, we spend the whole of our nights endeavoring endlessly to solve them. What miracles and nightmares they’ve concocted in our nightly hallucinations one can only imagine, but when the sleeper awakes it is rare that he should encounter an obstacle he cannot eventually invent a solution to overcome.
The next night, he and the rest of the team set out on their mission, for the second time. On this try though, as a result of Romero’s new experiences, Corporal William’s focus and leadership, the quick actions of Suicide, and the enthusiasm and cheerful spirit of Kaiser, they persevered and completed the exercise in just over two hours and twenty three minutes. It wasn’t the greatest time of any fire team in the platoon, but it was a good time.
With the test completed, they had only one final challenge before they could claim that they had completed SERE II training. Their final ritual, one last rite of passage, was a daunting ten mile night march down a worn road through the Carolina forests. Among Marines, it was called the Bataan Death March, though no official documentation would record it as such. It was a reminder of why the training existed. Memorial totems and monuments along the trail marked the struggles and tribulations of those who were left behind, and those who were taken by the enemy. They were the testaments of terrible instances of American men and women suffering brutal fates because they were unfortunate enough to become prisoners of war, or worse, killed under the custody of the enemy. It was a somber march, lasting through the darkest hours of the night.
The Death March finally ended as dawn began to break over the horizon. The haggard troop broke the gentle slope of the final hill just as the sun began to beam across their faces. The sunbeam reminded Romero of his night before, how different this felt. In spite of his body feeling physically broken, and exhausted beyond belief, his mind and his heart were alive and he felt confident again. It was good not to be alone. What a difference a day could make.
As they entered the Force on Force Tactics and Training Command’s compound, their instructors and their battalion’s staff greeted them. They were lined up on either side of the road clapping and cheering them in. The team was directed to make their way to the chow hall of the forty-five area where they cleared their weapons into a barrel and made their way inside. Inside, there were the few other fire teams of the platoon which had made it to the chow hall before them, waving them in with pride and directing them to offload their gear onto little wooden stands at the side of the chow hall. Before them lay a buffet of breakfast dishes the likes they felt they had never seen before. Sausages, steak, bacon and eggs, not the powdered, tasteless eggs, but real eggs; waffles, and pancakes, with whipped cream and every manner of syrup; not to mention all the fruit and juices anyone could ask for. There was even eight types of cereal, if that was what they wanted. No one would tell them to stop. They would gain back their strength, their stamina, and their spirit through the pure unadulterated medium of caloric intake. This was the Survivor’s Breakfast, one of the few honors of training in the fleet. It was ending a brutal training on a celebration. It was a grand feast so that they may honor what they had done.
As the hours wore on, the Marines continued in the mammoth feast. Most everyone went back for more. Some passed out on the table in heaps of exhaustion. Every twenty minutes or so, another team would darken the door, to the cheers of the restored and refreshed Marines who had completed the journey before them. Those who stayed awake carried on and reminisced of the adventures of their last three weeks at SERE. Romero’s misadventures quickly became legend.
They were all surprised when the Battalion Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ryder S. Irons, along with his entourage of officers and staff, namely his Executive Officer, Major Kraft and Sergeant Major Jones made the rounds to see all the Marines in reverie. The Colonel rounded his way to all the tables and cheered on the victors, congratulating the Marines for a good showing.
The procession made its way to Romero’s table. Nathaniel was terrified by the presence of the big brass. Irons lumbered over to the table and with a hardy Texas accent belted out over the chow hall a hearty,
“Oorah, Devildogs!”
Smiling, the Marines greeted their Commanding Officer in return.
“How you doin’, Sir?” smirked Lance Corporal Kaiser with his orange juice held high, speaking with a bit more familiarity toward the Colonel than Williams, or anyone else for that matter, preferred.
“I’m great, Devil! And how are all my Marines?” He asked.
“Been better, Sir.” He fired back with a snarky grin. Williams, Suicide, and the Sergeant Major stared daggers into the upstart Lance.
“Ah, shenanigans! You Devildogs got this on lock, I bet. I bet you could do this all over again easy with Bravo Company next week, couldn’t you?”
Feeling the looming presence of hate directed at him, Kaiser sat back down and joined the chorus of silence in response to the Colonel’s invitation.
Sensing the subtle reminder of the reverence for command had sunk in, Lt. Colonel Irons broke the tension he had created, “Ah, I’m just ribbin’ you devils. Now… where’s that Devildog who got his tail kicked by a bunch of trees yesterday?” The fire team broke in laughter as all eyes centered on the chagrined Romero. “Ah, so you’re the one, eh? Just tell me this, did that birch have it comin’?”
Romero hid his face in embarrassment.
“Nah, don’t you mind any of that, Devildog. I watched the video of last night. You showed some good heart and gung-ho spirit. It made me proud. No, I’ve never seen anyone nearly killed by foliage, but you showed heart there, warrior. Nearly made the Sergeant Major tear up with pride, it was so beautiful.” The audience looked up at the stone-faced grimace of their battalion’s senior enlisted Marine. No one in the battalion besides Yafante had so many Purple Hearts or seen as much combat. Not a soul believed even for a moment that he was about to shed any tears for Romero, or perhaps had he ever done so for anyone else in his entire life.
“Of course, then you downed one of my Valors in one of the most disastrous rescue calls I have personally, ever witnessed in my life. Thank God, they were all just a bunch of ones and zeroes. I don’t think my printer has enough ink for all those letters home.”
The Colonel’s notoriously morbid comedic sense left Romero mildly sickened with shame, yet again. Before he could sulk too heavily, the Lt. Colonel broke the mood a third time.
“That’s alright though. We’ll get you trained up real good so boot mistakes like that don’t happen again. Isn’t that right, Corporal?” he said, directing his focus on Williams.
The fire team leader replied resoundingly with a “Yes, Sir.”
“I know we will. Remember, the end of SERE II training isn’t the end of it. Once we get back to Lejeune, we’ve got annual training for those who haven’t completed rifle training and the gas chamber and we go back to the field next month. Then we have ITX at 29 Palms to get some practice in with Marine Air-Ground Task Force before we start pre-deployment block leave. After all that… it’s the big show and we’re shipping off with the MEU. We’re going to be balls to the wall for the next several months and SERE II is just the start. We gonna’ be ready?”
“Yes, Sir.” Came the voices of Marines from around the chow hall. The tiny fire team hadn’t noticed that their commander’s speech had attracted an audience. Whatever the case, his message had landed. This training was only the beginning. In a few months’ time, they would be off to sea and perhaps, to battles yet to be born.
As the Lt. Colonel cheerfully dismissed himself from the table and made his way to see the other Marines of his command, a thought occurred to Romero. At some point soon, the training really would be over. He would soon be on a ship somewhere, who knows where, just waiting for something to happen. The Marines existed in this state perpetually, and first to the fight, as the old posters used to say. The United States was at peace now, but the next war could start at any time, and it could very well be him fighting it.

Me 3


The last chapter of Proving Grounds.

There was so much about this chapter I loved. I wanted to end on a high note. One thing readers may appreciate is that, though the training of The Next Warrior is fictitious, it has its roots in real training being done today.
During the final march out of the testing area, much of it will remind Marine Corps readers of their time in boot camp. Periodic stops at trail markers depicting great events are hallmarks of the Marine Corps experience during the grueling Crucible hike, as is the Warrior’s breakfast.
Of course, it wouldn’t really be a Marine Corps story without a visit from the CO. I actually had a hard time writing Iron’s because he is based off a real guy that seems like a fictional character, Colonel Wayne R. Steele ( Honestly, did his name have to be Steele? The man’s a living cliche. He’s also a legend, and my first CO, but that said, they have a way, if they are good, of command that both inspires and brings a unit together. I wanted to capture a little bit of that in Iron’s speech.
That said, Proving Grounds has been an amazing trip and I am excited to announce the next segment, due to launch in a few weeks: Disembarkation. Make sure to follow for more updates and the next chapter of The Next Warrior.

If you would like to support the creation of The Next Warrior, as well as get access to special bonus features, such as essays about the technology being showcased, author’s notes and commentaries on the story behind the story, as well as bonus artwork, become a patron of Jon Davis by following this link. Support the Next Warrior.

Cover Art

Proving Grounds – Part 21

After receiving word that Romero would be psychologically stable enough to continue training after the night’s events from HM2 Schubert, and then seeing that Williams led the team off for their much-needed reprieve, Gunny Yafante walked back to his waiting Latvee. The Latvee was the command vehicle he and Lieutenant Grabowski used to maneuver through the platoon’s drills and keep watchful eyes on the teams’ progress through the obstacles. The Lieutenant was waiting for him in the front seat, scanning emails on his tablet. Yafante sat down in the passenger’s side and slammed the heavily armored door shut, rocking the vehicle gently.
The Lieutenant was nonchalant and spoke to Yafante over his tablet. “You seemed pretty hard on them back there, Gunny.” His tone denoted more curiosity than disapproval. Yafante, though, wasn’t keen on being questioned by anyone, regardless of whether they were his commanding officer or not.
“Yes, Sir.” Replied Yafante, feigning an equal ambivalence to the event.
After a pause where Grabowski realized that his Staff NCOIC wasn’t going to enlighten him willfully to why he had come down so hard on a Marine who quite obviously seemed to be close to the edge, the Lieutenant opened his tablet’s vehicle control program and set it to the field command tent. The vehicle’s engine started up and a few moments later, it began to move, following the waypoints programmed for it. Personally, Grabowski would have rather driven the Latvee manually, rather than leave it to some autonomous robot. He enjoyed the tactile sense of control, and rush from taking the vehicle off-road. In the autonomous age, however, such luxuries were unnecessary and seeing the overflow of messages from division headquarters to the supply shop he had to deal with, along with having a platoon to run, manning the wheel himself was one luxury few officers could afford. He stared off past the dashboard for a moment and then returned to the work awaiting him, both on his tablet and in the seat beside him.
While still half focused on his tablet and the scores of emails still needing his attention, he questioned the Gunny further. “It was an interesting choice, calling out a Marine on the verge of being a psychiatric casualty, I mean. I’m not saying that it didn’t seem to work, but I would like to know why you thought to do it.”
“Because he was about to be a psychiatric casualty, Sir.” The Gunnery Sergeant replied, his emotionless tone masking some sense of resentment to the question. He didn’t like being questioned by Lieutenants. This Lieutenant, though, wasn’t the type to endure being brushed away by anyone. Grabowski didn’t have much patience for insubordination, no matter how thinly veiled and most of all, from his staff NCOs. Also feigning composure, he spoke more bluntly to the enlisted Yafante.
“Gunnery Sergeant, you know I’ve been over your history at length. I know that you resent leaving the Raiders, but you know as well as I do, that the last decade has seen virtually all of the major operations go to special forces. The core infantry units are sorely in need of experienced warfighters. Simulation training like this simply won’t cut it whenever some new major conflict breaks out. For the good of the Corps, people like you are needed more here as instructors than on the field as front line operators.”
There was a second protracted pause where the two men sat for a few uncomfortable moments in silence.
“All the battalion officers know well about what you did in the Ukraine, Libya, and Burma. We know we are fortunate to have your experience. That’s why when I ask you why you do things, especially things like this, you shouldn’t treat this like some officer thinking he knows better than you, but as the commander of a unit which is looking for the knowledge you have.”
There was another pause. Grabowski broke the silence once again.
“And Gunny, so that we’re clear, you’ll remember that I was once an enlisted 03, an infantryman just like you before my time in the Naval Academy, so there won’t be any of this ‘butterbar’ and ‘climb my hashmarks’ business. I am not going to earn your cooperation any more than I already have. Your role until we deploy this Summer is to serve as my advisor in getting the platoon ready for anything we might face on the MEU. That means sharing whatever you’ve got, and frankly, Gunny, I’m not going to work this hard asking you each and every time. Now, why did you come down so much harder on William’s fire team, and that PFC especially, than you did anyone else in the platoon?”
Yafante sighed for long, reflective few seconds.
“It was Romero, Sir. The PFC.” He relented at last. “He was about to psyche drop. I’ve seen it before.”
He paused again, but this time Grabowski didn’t break the silence.
“The training can get real intense and what he put himself through was enough to push over any young boot. Fortunately, all he knows right now is training. For the last year, all he’s done is get yelled at by drill instructors, combat instructors, his Corporals, his Sergeants, and us. Being yelled at for doing stupid stuff in training is all he knows. It’s what he’s used to. In a way, he’s comfortable with being yelled at. It lets him know that it is all just training, and that someone is in charge. There’s a great sense of security for a young Marine in knowing that someone else is in charge.”
Though Grabowski’s eyes were still on his screen, they had long ago stopped focusing on it. He just listened intently.
“When his fire team died, he was all alone. So far, he hasn’t been all alone in an exercise, not before that. Few of them have, even some of the NCO’s. He was in charge and he wasn’t in control. Sure, he thought he could deal with it. They all think they are invincible and can handle anything. Just power through like a good Marine, and all that moto crap we tell them, but when the real test presented itself, he just didn’t have the experience yet to win, whether he had the willpower or not. Then, when he went on and on and on like he did, he forgot what was really going on. When that bird crashed down, his little world shattered with it. Like I said, it’s fortunate that he was young. All you really have to do in that case is yell at him and he’ll snap out of it. I’ve seen others who weren’t as lucky.”
“I see.” Said Grabowski, taking time to let the lesson sink in. “And the others?”
“Williams deserved it. New fire team leaders always want to show off with unnecessary heroics. That mentality comes from a good place, I guess, but it gets fire teams killed. That team had no situational awareness when this op began. Kaiser and Romero, moving like they had no sense at all, got Suicide killed. Kaiser, I have no clue what he thought he was doing. Moron probably just thought because it was all simulation rounds, he might get lucky and make a name for himself charging some enemy position. Getting lit up and feeling every one of those rounds with the sim-suit will teach him a lesson for next time. It’s a rare feat of stupidity to max out the suit by getting shot so many times that fast. Idiot’s going to get himself or everyone else on that fire team killed.”
Grabowski was concerned. He looked out of the window to the training area where his platoon was still engaged, spread throughout miles of the 76 Area FOF-TTC training grounds. He looked back down to his pad. “It sounds like you’re saying Williams doesn’t have control of the team. Should we give it to someone else?”
“No,” Gunny Yafante replied, “Williams is a solid Marine and a good fighter, but a young leader. There hasn’t been enough time to consolidate and line out the fire team, but I have faith it will happen. Fannon, he’ll make a good leader when his time comes. For now, they are all just young in their roles and young as a team. They’ll get there though, Sir. Nights like tonight will just help them get there faster.”
The Lieutenant nodded in acknowledgment. “Very well.” He took his eyes from his tablet and looked at Yafante. “And what about Romero? Do you think he’ll be OK?”
Yafante thought about what the question implied, as well as the possible ramifications of getting it wrong. It wasn’t asking if a Marine was going to be tired, or if he was just hungry, or even injured, where a simple few days of light duty would solve the problem. Grabowski wanted to know if they had broken the young man. He wanted to know if the young Romero was still fit to be a Marine, or if he had become one of the casualties of an era when the training for war itself was enough to leave one a hollow shell.
“I won’t lie, Sir,” Yafante finally said. “He grew up a lot last night. I’ve never seen anybody go through SERE II with that level of self-inflicted abuse. It hasn’t been that long since they reformed the SERE training to include a Force on Force survival exercise for deploying infantry, but in that time, few have survived the whole of the first night like that. There were times I wanted to laugh, and they’ll have a good time with it in the platoon, but honestly, he came close, Sir. There were points I thought we should have ended the training. Still, he kept getting up when most people wouldn’t have. Maybe he was just too stupid to remember that he was in a drill, or maybe he just wouldn’t give up, or maybe it was something else. He still makes all the dumb mistakes that young Marines make, but he’s got heart. You can train away the mistakes. You can’t train a person to just keep getting up like that.”
Lieutenant Grabowski chuckled, “Yeah, there were more than a few times I thought I was going to call the training, but he just kept getting up. He’s got endurance. He’s a damned fool, but he didn’t quit. I’ll give him that.”
In all seriousness, Yafante interjected something more. “It’s more than that, Sir. He has instincts. He knows how to survive. There were a lot of times he could have taken the shot, but he didn’t. He dropped low instead and survived. He even figured out how to avoid the drones all by himself. Probably he was just lucky the first couple of times, but I have seen this training done on a lot of good Marines. I’ve never seen a boot PFC figure out how to survive SERE Level B Capture the Flag training evolution for over eight hours on their first try.”
“It was a long time.” Replied Grabowski in agreement.
“No. Sir, I mean I’ve never seen that for a first timer.” He stressed the “never” so that the Lieutenant could really come to understand that what Romero had endured was, in fact, something extraordinary. “Look at the rest of the platoon. All the other fire teams have failed twice, even three times already tonight. Williams and the rest of them had just been doing remedial training at the MOUT site for the last seven hours waiting for Romero to finally buy the farm. They didn’t even have time for a second run.” He scoffed, “Ha. The exercise should have secured two hours ago. If we don’t get them some rack time soon after a day like that, you’d probably lose your commission.”
Half-joking, Grabowski laughed and replied, “So would you have me give him a commendation for it? He completely failed the trial and got ten Marines killed. Simulated Marines, but still.”
Yafante laughed with the Lieutenant.
“No, he doesn’t rate a Circom. We can’t reward failure, especially a failure as epic as his. I’m just saying he’s got potential. We need to watch him, though. He’s shaky right now. Good training will forge him into a good warrior is my guess, but strike too soon, too hard, too often while the steel isn’t yet tempered and when the metal is still too hot, it will break when it cools. I’m just sayin’ we need to watch him. Make sure he stays OK.”
The two men stared off in the forest and the winding path beyond the dash of the vehicle as it drove along on its predetermined route. After a few minutes of pensive silence, Yafante spoke again.
“Sir… There is something to remember.” He paused as he looked to the platoon commander, waiting for a response.
Lieutenant Grabowski looked up from his pad and to his Staff Noncom.
“Yes, Gunny?”
“Everybody fails the first night.”

Me 3


The exchange between Yafante and Grabowski. I wanted at least one chapter that dealt with the leaders as more than just people who have it all together. You watch movies and all the people who have been in a while seem to work fluidly and effortlessly together, as if that all just happened by magic.

No, just like any other organization, the military requires people to learn how to build a team together. This chapter demonstrates that important element between the senior members of the platoon, the old warhorse Gunny Yafante and the new Lieutenant swimming up to his ears in paperwork.

If you would like to support the creation of The Next Warrior, as well as get access to special bonus features, such as essays about the technology being showcased, author’s notes and commentaries on the story behind the story, as well as bonus artwork, become a patron of Jon Davis by following this link. Support the Next Warrior.

Cover Art

Proving Grounds – Chapter 20

There was a long pause. The sound of wind through the Carolina forest echoed through the leaves.  That sound would resonate through the team’s mind as the sound of deep disappointment and shame, though not all in the same measure. Romero was sickened by the casualties he caused, virtual or not, as well as his ignorance in operating the gear, making him, in his own mind, a complete failure as a warrior. Williams was torn by the fire team’s utter devastation and failure as a unit, a fault lying solely on no one else’s shoulders.
The Gunnery Sergeant’s voice softened again. He no longer had the same sardonic tone, tearing his troops to pieces with his caustic little jabs. He was then the stoic Gunny they had come to know, the distant warrior of many battles.
“Do any of you know why we do Capture the Flag drills as part of SERE training?” he asked.
There was a silence. Yafante wasn’t sure if they really didn’t realize it, or if they were just too afraid of breaking the silence and being the one sacrificial lamb.
“We do Force on Force simulated fire exercises like this as part of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Level B to train small teams, like yours, that the lone gunman heroism will just get you and everyone else killed. You do this training to discover that the team is all that matters when you are 0n hostile ground. The Marine Corps has forced more and more lethality and responsibility onto the lowest echelons of their force. That’s you. The four of you command more devastating strength and killing power than a whole company of Marines eighty years ago. The Marine fire team is a specialized fighting unit, made exponentially more powerful by each one of you working in unison to survive and complete your objectives.”
There was a continued silence.
“Suicide, the Gunny called out to the fire team’s machine gunner, Lance Corporal Fannon, “What is the mission of the Marine rifle squad?”
Fannon replied with stolidity, “To locate, close with, and destroy the enemy, by fire and maneuver, or repel the enemy assault by fire and close combat, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“That’s right Su,” said the Gunny. “Fire and maneuver.” Yafante repeated. “Maneuver is just as important as the weapons we fire. It is the ability to overwhelm the enemy, not with superior force, but by being everywhere at once. To apply force, not like an axe, but like a scalpel and being exactly where your strength can do the most harm with the least risk to the team. Anyone can outgun someone, but eventually someone you don’t see will have a bullet or piece of ordnance with your name on it. Marines master maneuver warfare. We practice getting around them, and putting fire where they are weakest, or to escape needing to fire, at all. That’s how we win time, after time, after time. That’s how you win the ten-thousand little battles necessary to win the war. Sometimes, you won’t be in the advantage.”
The Marines stood in silence listening to the seasoned veteran, not only those of the William’s fire team, but all those in witness of it.
“Sometimes you will be the prey, the hunted, as all of you were tonight. Remember your history. In every war the Marines ever engage in, they go in numerically at the disadvantage, but in the way we trained for tonight, this is how we survive. You survive and there is no limit to the good you can do tomorrow. You die, and all that ever mattered about you is in the history books. Our way of fighting demands that you live. That’s how we ensure that everyone else loses. That’s why the Corps wants you to know maneuver warfare on the squad and fire team level to survive. That’s why they want you to know how to avoid being killed, or worse, captured; fodder for some insurgent agenda and propaganda machine, being beaten and mutilated in front of a camera, waiting to die in a basement of some country you’ve never heard of.”
That sobering thought lingered as Yafante continued.
“You have to work together in everything you do to keep each other alive. That’s all that Capture the Flag is about. You aren’t supposed to fight. You’re supposed to live. You didn’t fail today just because you didn’t get a packet to some LZ safely, you failed from the moment the first shot was fired. You failed from that moment when you let Romero go off alone. The first person shooter video game heroic, the lone wolf antics, couch combat and Iraq war movie myths you all grew up with is nonsense. It’s complete and utter garbage and the Marine Corps has no room for warriors who think that they are here to be heroes. That’s not how war works. That’s what makes money for charlatans and petty entertainers. They couldn’t care less about how war really works. You copy that nonsense in the real world and you’re all dead. Say it with me Marines, ‘XBox got it wrong.’”
It was a little absurd, some of them thought. The comedic nature of them making fun of an old gaming system in the middle of a series of hard-core war games had an odd way of breaking the tension that had been building in the air over the last several minutes. The Marines did as instructed. They chanted back his saying, with more than a little apprehension, “XBox got it wrong.”
“XBox got it wrong, Gunnery Sergeant!” they recited, this time crisper and with more vigor. For some reason, it was so ludicrous to hear the Gunny say it, and to then repeat it back, that the team felt uplifted, if ever so slightly.
“You all got to remember… you stay alive. That is your purpose throughout this whole training – throughout your whole lives in the infantry. You stay alive and you keep each other alive. Each time one of you falls, life becomes exponentially harder for the rest to succeed, until you reach that last man and your chances of winning are practically zero. You can’t die. Not a single one of you can die. You can’t let each other die. You have to survive. You understand me? Each and every one of you never quits, never leaves the team, and none of you ever lets anyone else on your team die. That’s what SERE training is all about… Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. Sometimes, you aren’t supposed to fight. Sometimes, you just got to live. You get me?”
“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!” The team shouted in unison. That is, they all spoke in unison, but one was much weaker in his response. Romero was still visibly shaken. He was standing as if in emulation of the walking dead. He was no longer in a state of shock, but he was done. Yafante could tell, whether the young PFC wanted to be or not, whether he would have admitted it or not, his body and mind were done with all of it.
After a moment in the silence, Yafante addressed Corporal Williams.
“Williams. Your team doesn’t move on until they complete the exercise. I’d like to see all of you stay until you can manage to get through these woods alive. As it stands though, I’m relatively certain if Romero takes another step, he is likely to die of exhaustion or become a psych-drop for getting all of you killed over and over again, not that any of the rest of you did any better or helped him with that. Last night was a wash.”
The team was sullen, but Yafante quickly interrupted the mood of the battered team. It was important to end their downward cascade before it bottomed out into a valley of self-loathing and blame. That sort of mentality, if left too long poisons the team, leaving only doubt in one’s own abilities and the abilities of those around you. It is the kind of mental state that erodes the collective psyche and the very unit cohesion that exercises like SERE II were meant to instill. The Gunny knew they needed to lick their wounds and move on from this night.
“Corporal, you’re to take your team and prepare for your next shot tonight. Get some chow and rack time. From you, I want an after-action report prepared and ready for the debriefing you will all have with the rest of the platoon at 2000. There, we will go over all of the numerous ways your team screwed up during last night’s debacle and how I expect you to succeed next time. There won’t be any of this super-warrior nonsense like we had already. I expect all of your team fed, rested, and hygiened before the 2000 formation. Oh, and Corporal, I want Romero to finish his physical with Doc Schubert. Make it happen.”
“Aye, Aye, Gunnery Sergeant.” Williams replied. Immediately, the fire team leader set to the new tasks at hand, eager to redeem the young team and wash away this complete failure. More so, the Corporal was as anxious to finally see the end of this day as anyone, besides perhaps PFC Nathaniel Romero. It’s amazing what a little bit of chow and the promise of a few hours of sleep can do for the mind.

Me 3

Here we get into one the chapter that deals with something that is near and dear to my heart – blaming people who weren’t even there. Marines know well the suffering that comes with command. Anything your boots did, is your fault… good or bad… even if you weren’t even there. That’s just the way it goes.

That said, this chapter does start to turn it around, we start to  the motivational element of training and why Gunny shines. Hope you enjoy it.

If you would like to support the creation of The Next Warrior, as well as get access to special bonus features, such as essays about the technology being showcased, author’s notes and commentaries on the story behind the story, as well as bonus artwork, become a patron of Jon Davis by following this link. Support the Next Warrior.

Cover Art

Proving Grounds – Chapter 19

Gunnery Sergeant Yafante’s shouting continued. “It’s good, this was all just a simulation, wasn’t it Romero?” He paused, waiting for a response from the young Marine.

“Well?” he roared.

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!” replied back the PFC instinctively.

Yafante’s posture took on a distinctly forceful stance as he growled caustically.

“And why is it good PFC?”

“Because I died, Gunnery Sergeant,” the young Marine responded meekly.

“No!” retorted the aged warrior condescendingly. Yafante’s arm shot out, outstretched with his hand and fingers elongated and pressed tight to one another, forming a knife hand solid enough to cut steel. He pointed with his whole arm straight at Nathaniel’s face, unignorably inches away from his eyes.“Everyone’s dead, PFC. What makes you so special?”

“Aye, Aye, Gunnery Sergeant.” Romero said.

“Aye, Aye? What, did I give you an order? I said, ‘What makes you so special?’”He looked deeply, piercingly into Romero. His presence was like nothing any of them had ever seen before. Normally, he was a calm and collected force that lumbered around the bay or in the Non-Commissioned Officers’ offices. He rarely said anything louder than normal conversation. He could be relentlessly dogged in his training, some might go as far to say ruthless or even sadistic, but never raised his voice or broke a sweat about it. The Gunny was a true stoic warrior when he wanted to be. This man was nothing like that, though. They’d seen him get into the training before, but never break his detached stare as he led it. This Yafante, the one beating down Romero with every word, was like a beast on the end of a chain, barely restrained by some force none of them could see. The rest of the Marines there on the training grounds found themselves staring silently, intimidated by this new side of the veteran warrior they had never truly known before.

Nervously, Romero looked at the Gunnery Sergeant and shakily answered the Gunnery Sergeant’s question of what made him special?

“I’m not.”

“That’s right PFC. You’re not special.” The Gunny was snarling as the words seethed through his clenched teeth. “You’re no more special than all those other Marines in the plane you crashed. You’re no more special than the pilot, or the eight grunts either. You’re also no more special than the rest of your little fire team. Wonder how they turned out?”

This time Romero said nothing. He just stood silently and stared past the Gunnery Sergeant, far off into the distance at the empty field where the imaginary plane and its imaginary crew had crashed not long ago.

Yafante’s tone shifted. His stance softened and he began to pace around Romero and among the other Marines. He wasn’t the raging beast anymore. Now, he was venomous.“But that’s not your fault, is it PFC?” For a moment, Romero puzzled over the question. Romero’s team, then standing silently watching from a few feet away, didn’t miss the Gunny’s implication. They knew well what was coming, as they had already endured hours of it before this. “Williams!” barked the belligerent platoon SNCOIC.

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!” shouted Corporal Williams in response.

“So, it seems that the first thing you do when we give you a fire team is get them all killed? Is that what happened?”

“No, Gunnery Sergeant.” Romero’s fire team leader replied.

“Oh? That’s what seems to have happened to all of us watching the massacre. Still anyone left in the woods you’d like us to know about? Is there still some mystery Marine on your fire team I have forgotten? Did one of your Marines make it through and I simply didn’t notice it?”

The Corporal responded, “No, Gunnery Sergeant.”

“So then… your whole team is now officially dead?”

Accepting defeat, Williams relented, “Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.”

“And not only that, your PFC was so ill-trained, he didn’t even think about the fact that sending out a low-frequency ping would alert everyone within twenty miles to his exact location… including the enemy.”

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.” Williams again replied.

“I’m just curious if he even knew how to fix his screwed up radio after that tree, much less call in the 9-line through the secure channels. Who on your team can do that, Williams?”

“LCpl Fannon and myself are trained to troubleshoot the PRC-197s and we both know how to call in secure frequency 9-lines.”

“Oh, just the two of you? Then don’t you think it would have been wise if either of the two of you had lived rather than the boot fresh out of the schoolhouse with only the basic knowledge of the radio systems?”

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.” William replied.

“Why, might I ask, weren’t your other two members trained up if only the two of you knew how to do it? Do you think that all there is to running a fire team is PT and gear inspections?”

“No, Gunnery Sergeant.” Said the team leader ashamedly, still trying to maintain some sense of composure.

“You do realize that for that very reason, Romero was a dead man from the moment you two fell, right?” He asked again.

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.” The fact had been made painfully obvious during that long night, where they had done dozens of remedial drills until Romero finally came to his unfortunate end. Every few hours, they received updates on his progress, realizing the entire time that, unless some miracle were to occur, he wouldn’t stand a chance, given his knowledge and experience, or rather, his lack thereof. The failures had eaten away at the young team lead, who by the dawn, grew to wish Romero would just get himself waxed so the night could finally end. After it had finally happened though, and they saw Romero quivering and flailing about after enduring a death march like none other, Williams felt nothing but regret in wishing for the death, virtual or not, of one of the members of the team. Seeing him fall was a bitter pill to take. The sense of failure and betrayal like the eating of poisoned daggers. Seeing the rest of the team wasted, and having it all perfectly spelled out for the platoon’s most junior Non-Commissioned Officer, the echo of the wish to see another Marine fail was almost too much for the team leader, barely even twenty years old by then.

“And would you like to tell the congregation why you elected not to teach everyone in your fire team how to properly use the PRC-197, especially considering half of you already knew how?” The Gunny hissed. There hadn’t been a conscious thought to ignore the lesson. Everyone else around knew this. It was just one of the thousands of lessons required to face nights like tonight; one that, unfortunately, the team just simply had not yet made it to. There will always be far more to learn than can ever be taught. As a team leader, though, Williams had been told countless times over, “It isn’t what you know that will get you killed. It’s what you don’t.” Regardless, here the team was, beaten and obliterated, all made painfully aware of the costs of even a moment’s complacency.

“No excuse, Gunnery Sergeant.” Said the Corporal again.

“No excuse, Gunny. Roger that. No excuse. And not only that…” Yafante jeered,“but your whole team seems to believe that this is some sort of video game. They think because it isn’t real here that they can just run out like they’ll get a second chance in the real world.”

“No, Gunnery Sergeant.” Williams still had a stubbornness even after the beating already endured.

“Oh?” The Gunnery Sergeant’s voice was yet more venomous and caustic upon hearing his young Corporal’s reply. His words were about to bite the junior Marine very deeply. “Your senior non-NCO, Lance Corporal Fannon, your machine gunner and the only other one, besides you, who seems to have a clue what is going on in this fire team, bites it first because your team doesn’t observe proper light discipline over the two boots. Thirty two seconds later, with you still flailing about, not knowing what to do, Kaiser goes down making a suicidal glory charge on some enemy he can’t even see. Next thing you know, you and Romero are running through the forest before you try to make some last stand for him to get away. Tell me, was you getting yourself killed the smart thing to do? Was it supposed to be heroic or something?”

“No, Gunnery Sergeant.”

“No, it wasn’t smart, but it was heroic. You all want to be heroes. They might make a movie about what heroes you all were today. You know what happens to heroes in the real world, Williams? They get their teams killed. Tell me, would Romero have been better off alone, or with his fire team leader there?”

“With me, Gunnery Sergeant.”

“Yes, especially considering that he’s still so boot that he nearly got himself killed three times on some five hour death march against people who can’t even fire real bullets. To top that off, he even miraculously managed to figure out how to take out another eleven Marines and a one hundred and five million dollar aircraft, before buying the farm himself, which is to say the least about losing the package, I guess, just to prove how complete a mission failure one could achieve in a single night. Isn’t that right, Corporal?”

Me 3


Continuing with the “Old Corps verbal beatdown of Gunnery Sergeant Yafante”, I wanted this chapter to really spell out how everything that most people associate with military life and combat really makes no sense when you really think about it.

As a teacher who has served in war, I spend most of my time explaining, you guessed it, how X-box got it wrong. I’ve explained I have no idea how many times how Call of Duty makes no sense, but yeah can be fun in multiplayer. Just don’t try that stuff in the real world.
The unique nature of the FOF-TCC training is that, you sort of can try that stuff in the real word. I just finally got to show readers exactly what would happen if they did try to live their life like a video game. Next week though, we deal with the real Marine responsible for the failure of the fire team, Corporal Williams.

If you would like to support the creation of The Next Warrior, as well as get access to special bonus features, such as essays about the technology being showcased, author’s notes and commentaries on the story behind the story, as well as bonus artwork, become a patron of Jon Davis by following this link. Support the Next Warrior.

Cover Art

Proving Grounds Chapter 18

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”.

Me 3

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.

If you would like to support the creation of The Next Warrior, as well as get access to special bonus features, such as essays about the technology being showcased, author’s notes and commentaries on the story behind the story, as well as bonus artwork, become a patron of Jon Davis by following this link. Support the Next Warrior.

Cover Art


Proving Grounds – Part 17

The young Nathaniel Romero stood in horror and watched the petrifying spectacle of the dying bird. As the engine of the V-280 Valor erupted into flames, molten shards of burning metal mercilessly rained from the wing and onto the once serene forest meadow below. This plane was supposed to be the vehicle to serve as his exodus from a battle he had no chance of surviving. That exodus was now falling, desperately fighting to maintain control. The right propeller stopped spinning after another internal explosion violently hurled chunks of itself off as shrapnel in every direction. Out of control, the dead wing fell. It pulled the plane down as the V-280 sank in the wing’s direction. As it did, the opposing wing, with its still functioning engine roaring at full capacity, continued to lift the opposite side. The result was an aircraft, caught in a death tumble, spiraling side over side to the ground, all the while still loaded down with a full complement of a squad of Marines and its doomed crew.
Trapped in his own spiral of disbelief, Romero watched the condemned flight helplessly. Watching it fall, he had not yet realized that the plane was falling towards him. Seeing the hopeless vehicle crashing down upon him, Nathaniel became aware enough to flee from the out of control aircraft. What once was his salvation was now the bearer of his destruction. In his own flight of desperation, he dove behind a large rock formation. From beyond the granite cover, the plane crashed, filling his helmet with a wretched warrior’s death song – the tumultuous ballad formed from the roar of impact and twisted metal screaming.
When the sound died and it seemed the chaos was over, he gathered the fortitude to open his eyes and observe the gravitas of his position. What Nathaniel bore witness to was his once peaceful meadow with its calm green grass and grey haze, then overcome by the vibrant reds and bloodstained crimson emanating from the ignited fuel of the downed Marine Corps transport.
Nathaniel was trembling. The shaking of his hands had become a full body quake when he saw the mangled wreckage. In a moment of forsaken lamentation, tears began to form in his eyes, blurring the woeful spectacle. The tears, though… he wasn’t sure exactly what the cause of them had been. They may have been falling for the Marines inside the plane, all surely dead; or, more likely for himself, now staring bleakly at the reality of his own imminent demise. Perhaps he had simply endured too much, and there was no deeper reason than that.
Before giving himself over to the call to abandon all hope and sensibilities, he heard a crack and saw a patch of dirt fly beside him. On the verge of hysteria, he looked down at this curiosity amidst the chaos. He looked at the upturned dirt patch, a narrow scar on the surface cutting the grass. It was hard to see with tears still streaming from his eyes and obscuring his vision and the readouts on his view screen. While still at a loss, he stared at the little patch of earth immersed in dancing seas of red. Then another patch flipped up beside him. This one was closer, followed by another and another.
Softly he whimpered to himself, “They’re shooting at me.
He was becoming overwhelmed with the sensation of disbelief. He had endured so much by this point. How could his misery not yet be enough? Why did they long to hurt him so much? Why would any human seek with such a fervent, evil desire to make him suffer such desolation and pain?
Romero was immersed in the supreme human fear.
It is that fear that all humans truly fear most. The greatest human fear is greater than the fear of pain, greater than starvation or discomfort, even for most, greater than death. The supreme human fear is that of being ultimately rejected by one of your own kind. It is the fear that pushes one to hide rather than face the scorn of others, to run from conflict, and to hide from those times when other men may judge you among the lesser. Humanity seeks kinship among their own. They seek acceptance, and they seek love from others. It is the horror of a social species such as man to be unwanted, unloved, hated. The denial of humanity is to hate – to wish pain upon others unmercifully. Hate is to take pleasure from the pain in others; to see men die and take joy from it.
They’re shooting at me.” He whispered solemnly.
Why would they want to shoot at me? How could he be hated so deeply? What had he truly done to invoke such wrath? Why would they work so hard, fight so hard, just to see him die? No, not just to die; why did they want him to suffer before they took from him his very life?
He had completely lost the understanding that he was in a battle, and that in this place, on their land, he was the enemy. He was no longer a person to them, just a faceless, motherless enemy. To be an enemy meant that no amount of suffering could not be imagined, because being an enemy meant being less than human. No greater suffering has man inflicted on others who he believed were less than human, and for this reason the fear of one’s value as a fellow human being rejected, for any reason, is why it is the supreme human fear.
Romero’s hands began to shake again around the pistol grip and the forward grip of the weapon. He hunkered down behind his rock, giving in to the call to die.
It was then that he saw something in the trees. It was a man shaped object darting behind a bush. Piercing the veil with eyes focused through the haze of smoke and tears, he could see a man, a soldier, preparing to fire on him.
A fire began to form in Nathaniel Romero. His time suffering was through. Mentally, he gave in to the morbid curiosity of why anyone would want him to die so much. They hated him. There was nothing else he needed to know. They blamed him for whatever travails they had endured and now he was the proxy for their wrath. They hated him. It didn’t need to make sense anymore. This is the nature of hate. It is the desire to gain catharsis for suffering through vengeance in the realization of the pain of others. This was how young boys became killers – they learn to hate for no other reason than that others have told him, “There, that man is your enemy.” This is how killers were born; absent morality, absent reason, and in the absence of seeing value in other people. Though only instinctively, only on the animal level, Romero understood this, and he understood them, because Nathaniel Romero hated them too.
With rage in his eyes, he leapt from his cover and raised his weapon to his head. He fired with the full graceful violence that had been conditioned in him for many months of warrior training. He fired with accuracy and lethal precision. This was violence of action, an overwhelming ferocity, which forced the young soldier behind a tree to cover of his own. When Romero no longer saw his face, he dashed towards the man. If no other means were available to him, he would simply bash this villain’s skull into the dirt, into a bloody remnant of human mass. This was no longer a person to Romero. That thing was just a means for vengeance, the last available to him.
Still firing viciously, the enemy soldier attempted to lay down return fire to cover him while he frantically attempted to flee his inadequate hovel. He wanted to send Romero to cover of his own, pinning him in so that others might overtake the young Marine while this soldier held him down. Romero recklessly ignored these attempts, unheeded as the sound of rifle rounds cracked past and beyond him. Like a madman, Romero just charged through the sporadic bursts, unloading his own unrelenting barrage. Once the enemy soldier realized that little was going to stop the Marine, he dove to find a better place with which to carry out this duel. As the soldier fell for cover, one of Romero’s rounds clipped the soldier in the arm and he fell back, now stumbling in the open.
In seconds, Romero was on him. Neither of them were still firing. The soldier helplessly looked up at Romero as the Marine looked down on this enemy with a vengeful murderous intent. PFC Nathaniel Romero raised his rifle far above his head, aiming the buttstock at the soldier, ready to give the killing blow. For a moment, Romero relished in the terrified plea emanating from the young soldier’s eyes.
“Please don’t kill me.” they begged. Romero recognized the look of those eyes. They were his own only moments ago. This was what vengeance would feel like, he thought, to see that look on someone else. There was more though, he knew those eyes, those in particular. They belonged to the soldier from the woods hours before. He was the one Romero had stumbled upon and whom he had exchanged fire with. Perhaps it would have been a better world if this man had shot Romero there in the forest. Oh, but what a beautiful world it would have been had the two met in a place where violence did not exist. In that other world, the two may have been friends. That blissful fantasy, however, was not the case. They were warriors and this was a war. One of them had to die.
Romero looked down at the man in his terror and raised his weapon to deliver the final blow. He was now a killer. He was willing to kill, where before he couldn’t know. More so, he wanted to kill. He wanted to end this enemy, his hunter, and the killer of his friends. He no longer wanted to be that timid boy, so terrified of the rejection of other humans that he was afraid of simple girls. He would kill. He wanted to kill this person. This forest, this patch of earth doused in flame, this was his proving grounds.
As the hammer began to fall and the boy named Nathaniel transitioned into something else, something more violent, more cruel and… dangerous, another thing happened. Romero felt a sudden shock in his back; a sharp jolt of pain, that gave him pause. That initial bite was followed by another in his side, and then another in his arm. His arm stopped obeying his commands; he could no longer wield his mighty axe. The weapon just hung in the sky above him as his arms went dead and then fell to the ground. Romero followed behind it, collapsing to his knees. The other soldier grabbed his own rifle and ran away to the forest as Romero fell in shock. Pain surged throughout his body, gripping him tighter, and tighter, and tighter. He was overcome by the pain, as well as confusion, wondering what had happened to him.
Alone again in the forest, the only sound Romero could recognize was the crack, crack, crack of rifle fire and the pinging of errant ricochets on the trees, rocks, and earth around him. The noise faded away into the roar of jet fuel fire and the crackling ammunition cooking off inside the carcass of the downed fuselage. As he looked away from the wreckage, it too faded away into nothing but the sounds of the forest all around. In the silence, he saw the sea of vibrant reds and greens fade, first melding into browns and greys before giving way to a formless nothing.
As his head struck the earth, Nathaniel said to himself in one last lament.
“They killed me… I’m dead.”


Me 3

Look, I’m not going to lie. Some days suck more than others.

This final flight of the V-280 and Romero’s last stand were important for me. I wanted to see if I could deliver on desperation. There isn’t much left to say, but I hope you enjoyed Romero’s journey and his proving grounds.

If you would like to support the creation of The Next Warrior, as well as get access to special bonus features, such as essays about the technology being showcased, author’s notes and commentaries on the story behind the story, as well as bonus artwork, become a patron of Jon Davis by following this link. Support the Next Warrior.

Cover Art

Proving Grounds – Part 16

The sound of chopper blades slicing the wind shook Romero from his ill-timed, exhaustion-induced slumber. The indicator on his heads-up display showed an incoming V-280 Valor. It wasn’t a helicopter, but something better. It was the Marines’ new tilt-rotor insertion aircraft, a smaller version of the old Ospreys. Inside would be enough men and muscle to level the forest, a team of Marines ready to lay waste to the enemy in pursuit of him. They could burn the wilderness to the ground along with everything it. He had lost all concern for what happened to the forest. All he cared about was that getting to that bird meant his operation was over.
The Valor finally appeared over the trees. It was coming in fast. The plane’s wings began tilting as the large propellers shifted, transitioning its forward momentum slowly into a hover over a clear patch of grass before it began its final descent into the meadow. The plane was on the far side of the glade, about one hundred yards from him then. It was just beyond his reach.
As the plane began to descend, Romero abandoned his makeshift shelter. With his weapon in arms, he began a desperate sprint to the landing point. The PFC was ecstatic at the sight of this marvelous machine, as if a metal angel descended from on high to deliver him from tribulation. He just knew that in a matter of moments he would be done, secure and on his way to some de-briefing, having successfully completed his mission. He looked up to see the pilot’s cockpit. From there Romero saw what he imagined to be the pilot inside, looking back down at him. It seemed like he was watching Nathaniel run, greeting him with the warm embrace of security he had not known for such a long time then. “It was over,” the young Marine thought.
As the soles of his boots pounded the ground in an Olympian’s gallop, Nathaniel was suddenly stopped, when, to his horror, his greatest fears became realized. He was distressed to see the plane lurch upward, as if pulling its hand away from the discovery of a venomous snake, poised to deliver a fatal strike. Aghast by the threat of unseen terrors snuffing out his own life, he continued running in pursuit of the fleeing airlift. It was then he saw a faint movement from the peripherals of his vision. It was on his far right amidst the bush. In the forest, beyond the veil of the trees, a soldier, the snake, readied a weapon, directed not toward Romero, but towards the Valor aircraft.
Still sprinting, Romero saw a mote of grey streak across the meadow and burst suddenly beside the midair beast. The thunderclap roared throughout the forest and throughout the young Marine standing below. It was only a moment, one desperate and chaotic second; a trail of smoke, and the sound of a rocket-propelled grenade’s frightful cry as it burst next to the Valor’s engine. Romero stopped dead in the middle of the clearing, unsure of what he had seen, but instinctively aware that something terrible had happened. He was desperately trying then to fathom what had befallen him. Seeing the debris flying, as the plane reeled in air, Nathaniel was overwhelmed with shock and disbelief.
At first, the plane seemed to be rocked by the explosion, and being thrown from the sky seemed a real danger. Then it began to steady, and listed shakily to a hover and then to a controlled ascent. The explosion damaged the V-280, but it would recover. The plane, however, had no chance of landing here. Romero would receive no deliverance from this bird with its broken wing today. Fleeing to put itself out of enemy weapon’s range, it started to rise again into the sky.
“No! No! No!” Romero whimpered out in a forlorn cry. “You can’t leave me here! Take me with you! You have to take me with you!”
The plane was gaining altitude again as it recovered from the attack. It was indeed going to leave Romero behind. Regrettably, no pilot would deny the morbid calculus that there was no justifiable reason in risking the lives of an entire flight crew and rescue team for one doomed Marine. The plane began to move away, taking with it what one would believe to be Romero’s last hopes.
Staring in shattered disbelief, Romero’s heart sank as he stood alone in the field. It was at that last desperate moment, when all he could do was stare at his failed rescue, flying higher and higher, that a second stream of smoke tore through the sky. A second explosion, one borne from a second round and yet another hidden soldier, ripped across the sky over the meadow, utterly destroying the engine closest to Nathaniel.

Me 3The Bell 280-Valor will be the next generation of Marine Corps infantry aviation.

The Valor is the next step from the Osprey, a plane that had revolutionary systems and changed much of the way we fight. It’s tiltrotor meant that a plane could begin to act like a helicopter when it needed to. While not as a fast as other planes, it’s ability to mimic the capabilities of rotary wings meant that it could operate in places that the fixed wings weren’t. For one, wind patterns in mountains prevent many helicopter units from being able to be fully utilized at great distances. The Osprey and the Valor cut through that obstacle. Added to this, it provided infantry support, revolutionized by the helicopter in Vietnam, more than twice the range, and at twice the speed of rotary wings.

The Osprey had problems though. It was horrendous to fly and it’s role wasn’t clear early on. Once computerized, fly by wire systems began to have a more active role in piloting, it became a flexible and powerful platform.

The V-280 will be the next step up from the aging Ospreys. Set to make their way onto the battlefield in the early 2020s, they will be a smaller, sleeker combat system. They will allow the military to begin retiring the Ospreys, but even will have the ability to replace the Army’s Blackhawk fleet, as the new V-280 will (hopefully) provide the same capabilities, but much faster, fly much farther, and perhaps allow Marines and soldiers to do more with less than the already great aircraft available today.

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Cover Art