Proving Grounds – Part 12

As the weeks of training continued, he and his platoon felt more and more accustomed to what they believed to be the warrior way of life, the reality dawned on each of them in time that SOI would soon end. Like basic training, one could acclimate, in time, to the rhythm and regularity of the training environment. Training for what, though? Soon they would be getting their orders and be sent to the fleet. Perhaps they would even put their training to use. Some longed for getting their orders and an escape from the endless tedium of training for war to actually get a chance to use it. Those few seemed only to yearn for the real thing. Romero wasn’t quite that gung-ho. He didn’t lust for violence like some of them did. He was more worried about the future might have in store for him, if he would get into a good unit. He wasn’t alone in this. For others there came with the realization of their looming graduation day the fear of the uncertainty. No one really knew where they would be a year from then and that was unsettling. Romero wasn’t sure how he felt. He just waited and continued his training, putting the worries away, since the Marine Corps didn’t care about his opinion anyway.

Near the end of SOI, one of the instructors, a Sergeant, came into the squad bay and called the men into a school circle. He had a box with folders.

“Gents,” the Sergeant said, “You remember these? These here are the Service Record Books you turned in when you all got here, your SRB’s. Along with them, you’ll also find a copy of your new orders. After graduation, you all will be directed to meet up with others heading out to your same duty stations.”

He took out the box with manila envelopes and directed for the platoon’s squad leaders to hand them out. At that moment, the Sergeant pulled out his phone and pressed a few commands. Inside the lockers across the squad bay, phones could be heard chiming and buzzing.

“I’ve just given you all the itinerary information you’ll need to get to your next duty station. Those of you who won’t be staying on with us for follow-on occupational training will be reporting directly to your units.  These units will be your life for the next few years. They will be your family. Everything you learned here over the last two months will be used as the base of your training once you reach the fleet. Remember that these grounds have produced generations of the greatest warriors in history. You inherit that legacy and you represent the School of Infantry. Do not fail.”

The platoon gave out a hearty, “Aye-Aye, Sergeant!” as they each waited their name to be called and the chance to see what their orders said.

Romero was lucky enough to end up in the same platoon as Kruger again. His friend came over to his locker and they waited together. Kruger started the conversation by stating the one thing already on everyone’s mind.

“Dude, I just hope my unit doesn’t suck. You get in with a crap unit and your life is screwed for the next three years.”

Romero parsed his lips and nodded in agreement. The platoon squad leaders were handing out the packets from the boxes, calling out names one by one.

Deroest, Darden, Compton…”

Kruger continued.

“It ain’t even like you can a thing about, you know? You follow what’s in the orders, right? Not a lot left to say after that.”
Anders, Petrizzo, Kruger…

“Ah, here we go. Wish me luck, dude.”

Romero watched his friend walk off to collect his orders. Part of him was fatalistic about it. What he got was what he got. Part of him, though, was getting nervous.
Sheehan, Rangell, Sweeting…”

The pressure was mounting in his chest. He didn’t think it would matter to him this much. Whether it was just butterflies or true to life nausea he didn’t know, but a pit was forming in his stomach.”

“1/1.” Kruger said. “They’re pretty good right? Ha, I ain’t even leavin’ Pendleton.”
Romero.” Said one of the squad leaders finally.

“Good luck, dude.” Chimed Kruger as Romero stood up to take his orders. Taking them from the other Marine, he walked back to his rack and wall locker, thumbing the metal clasps on the envelope. Frustrated, he thought “It’s 2025. You’d think the Marine Corps wouldn’t be the last organization on the planet still using paper and manila envelopes.”  He was stalling. Standing in front of his wall locker, Romero swallowed his anxiety and opened the folder.

“What’da get?” insisted his friend.

Fox Company, 2nd Battalion 2nd Marines, the “Warlords” of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

The Sergeant walked over to Romero, “2/2, huh?” He asked as he spit a mouthful of chew into his cup.” Romero was mildly repulsed. “That’s a damn fine unit. They’ll make you into a good Marine.”

His words brought a hint of relief. Then, his lip still bulging with the tobacco that remained, he continued.

“You’re hella lucky, too. They’ll be deploying soon with the Second Marine Expeditionary Force. You never know, by this time next year there might just be a war going on and you’ll be one of the first ones to get to do anything about it. Know what I mean? You might very well be the first one of this platoon to see real combat. What you think about that, PFC?”

 


Me 3That moment when you get your orders to that first unit.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to think that you go to boot camp, they train you up and then you to war with those guys. Those that survive, go on to be the Sergeants and Corporals of the next batch of fresh meat. No, it isn’t like that.

We go to school and get all the good knowledge they can pump in us and then in the last few weeks, we find out where our destiny will lie for the next few years. I was in 29 Palms, training to work in the beautiful field of Comm. I was also married already, so my greatest fear was that they were going to stick me with Okinawa. Don’t get me wrong, Japan would have been awesome, but they don’t send junior Marines out accompanied. i.e. you go alone. We had already been apart for 9 months and I didn’t know what I would do if they threw another few years at us.

I lucked out, though, Camp Pendleton.

Either way, those first orders are a crazy adventure. You don’t have a clue where it’s going. Everyone wants something, but nobody knows what it is and once they get there, most just want anything else, but that is a different story. Getting your orders is that crazy moment when you finally start to see what’s inside the box that contains your miserable and/or awesome future.

Next week, we find out what Romero’s future holds.

Proving Grounds – Part 11

The two former boot camp rack mates, Nathaniel Romero and Joshua Kruger, gamed together for a few more hours, reminiscing of only a few weeks ago, as the car drove Nathaniel home. Finally, around four thirty in the morning, Nathaniel had to call the evening, said goodbye to his friend and fell asleep. His car arrived home safely, as it always did, and that is where Nathaniel’s mother found him the next morning, asleep in the driver’s side seat in their driveway.

From then on there was little left to do than what he was obligated. He hung around town another few days on boot leave. His family continued to strut him around like a prized show dog and when not being paraded, he slept. The bed may not have been as occupied as he had imagined it before, but it felt good to just sleep as long as he wanted without being required to stand at attention within five seconds of Drill Instructors screaming “Lights!” when it was still dark outside. He would only have another four days before reporting to the School of Infantry. He would sleep them away with the last ounce of blissful youth left to him.

When he left to go to SOI, he was surprised that his family didn’t act as broken up about it as when he went to boot camp. His friends didn’t even show up to see him away this time. By that point, it seemed, the novelty of him going off to the service must have been used up. Last time, he was only going to be gone a few months and then come home. This time he would be spending the next few months practicing the tradecraft of the warrior arts before joining with some unit destined for God only knows what. He might not return for another year, maybe more. Who knows, a war might begin tomorrow and he might never come back at all. This was a far more real a departure than boot camp, but no one beside him seemed to notice.

For another two months, he trained with the Infantry Training Battalion at the Marine Corps School of Infantry in Camp Pendleton, California, the same base he had trained out for rifle training and the Crucible in boot camp. Here he had became a Marine and SOI’s job was to make him a warfighter. Everything he went through at basic training seemed to be little more than the world’s most prestigious summer camp once he started infantry training. The forced march humps through deserts were longer, and the nights spent in their squad bays were fewer. They spent, what seemed to him to be almost their entire time out in the field. He found he was growing to not mind it so much.

From here, his training centered on advanced infantry tactics. He spent mornings in classes, set in bleachers where a plethora of lethal instruments were displayed before them and taught by senior Marines with painstaking detail. At training and practical application exercises, which followed, he found it fascinating the degree of flexibility that weapons like the Claymore mine could offer an infantryman, even decades after such weapons first saw combat. Midmorning saw the firing ranges, where they learned the implementation of every skill the Marine Corps could impose on their targets. He would lob ordinance from the M-203 grenade launcher and fire the M136 AT-4 Light Anti-tank Weapon. His best days involved heavy weapons, like the M2 Browning 50. Caliber Machine Gun. There were moments when he wondered how anyone would put this much firepower in the hands of a kid only eighteen years old. His afternoons were spent practicing maneuver warfare, squad based movements, clearing houses in mock villages, and calling in air support. In the evenings there would be the long treks through the desert back to camp and sleeping beneath the stars.

It wasn’t just a free for all. Every day, it felt like, he was tested. What they learned on Monday, they’d be tested on Tuesday. If you didn’t pass with an eighty percent efficiency, you had to do remedial. Fail again, and you might lose your specialty job class you were shooting for. The competition for leadership and bragging rights was fierce, as well. Everyone was out to prove themselves in world’s most lethal fraternity, and absolutely no one wanted to fail.

The environment didn’t lend itself to a quality learning atmosphere. The mornings felt bitter cold, especially as early November set on. In those early mornings, it was easy to feel like the king of fools for choosing this as a lifestyle. After daylight broke the precipice of the low mountain horizon, though, and the California sun beamed on his face, he felt peace again.

At the very least, he was no longer considered just a worthless recruit. He was now, however, a real Marine, and was treated as such. It was too bad that this did not mean a great deal, but there was at least a new impetus on what he was doing. Training was no longer about the show of discipline, learning how to tie boots or iron Charlie shirts. Boot camp made basically trained Marines, but the School of Infantry made the most lethal fighting men on the planet. On those brisk nights when he was surrounded by his friends and fellow platoon members, the other warriors in training, he slowly began to feel the change.

As the dark and the cold faded with the morning light, Private Nathaniel Romero stopped feeling so attached to his old life. He stopped longing for the attention of women he would never have and which he discovered, he needed less, as well. This life, the smell of dust, sweat, and the mud, inundated with the sulphuric metal aftertaste of gunpowder and the sights and sounds of fire raining down from the skies… this was a good life. From time to time, he would look up his old friends from home and high school. Some were getting crap jobs in town. Many were enrolled in some community college with no name and offering little future. Romero reflected on this some nights. He would watch the moon set over the sea or distant mountains while standing fire watch on one such lonely mountaintop. Sometimes, he would have the chance to see the Super Cobras practicing their formations deep within the hills of Pendleton. They would open a barrage of fire and metal, decimating the old tanks and shacks built to absorb them. It invigorated him. It made him feel like a warrior to watch the stream of tracers pour from the gunships. As he provided watch over a hundred of his sleeping comrades before the next day’s training in the combat arts, in those few moments, he really pitied those other guys from back home. Sure, they were warm in comfortable beds and might be pulled out to attend class in some air-conditioned lecture hall, but after that so many of them would go on enduring lives that wouldn’t matter. It was sad in many ways, but Romero thought to himself that his was finally a life of meaning, one that he could be proud of, and so he began to embrace it.

“You gotta’ learn to embrace the Suck, gents.” This was advice the old combat instructors would tell them on those long cold nights or when humping the barrel of a fifty caliber machine gun six miles. That’s what Romero was doing now. He was learning to embrace the Suck.


Me 3Back to the grinding stone.

Recruits are stupid creatures. They think only as far as boot camp and then everything after that is a mystery. I wanted to illustrate that. Eventually, there is a time of awakening when recruits have to realize that there is life after boot camp and you have to eventually become a real Marine, with a real job. You have to get over the, more or less, childish fantasies of what being a Marine will be like and, as they say, embrace the suck.

Quite honestly, there is a lot about the military life that is terrible to endure. This will be the same in 2025 as it was in 2005 for me. It will be the same in 2525, I bet. The point is, being a Marine is hard work that is often ridiculously more difficult than anyone could rationalize, but you have to learn to embrace that. It’s the same for soldiers, and even those guys on the big boats, or (and I am trying very hard to stretch this one) the Air Force. There are things about the life that just can’t be communicated to outsiders in the civilian world.

Eventually, that novelty of being a new Marine wears off and you just have to embrace the blank check life you signed on for. Once you do that, though, you realize it isn’t so bad. You realize how much suck you can endure and you take pride in that endurance. At that point, you sort of get what it is that makes military veterans so special in the first place. It had nothing to do with boot camp, but on learning to enjoy the life that sucks… for Freedom!

Happy Veterans’ Day,

Jon


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Proving Grounds – Part 10

The emotional high of self-satisfaction was over. He drove around the city of Albuquerque for a few hours to gather his thoughts and occupy his mind. He considered that it would be a good thing if he were to wash his sorrows away with something to drink. Being only eighteen, however, he was still in the limbo of being able to fight and die for a country that didn’t really consider him a legal adult. He knew he needed something to wash away the malice building in him towards that smug charlatan boyfriend of that girl and the stupidity of Romero’s own motivations leading to tonight. He probably wasn’t going to get much sleep, that much he was sure of.

Late that night, reaching into the early hours of morning, he pulled into the parking lot of a gas and power station. It should be known that among Marines, whether in the field or in garrison, nothing can happen to a man found alone after midnight.

Romero drifted off, pondering how to spend the rest of this devastated night. Violence was first on his mind, violence towards the pesky moron now probably embracing the girl Nathaniel once thought his. A sinister smirk crept to his face, cracking the malevolent demeanor which had solidified there. Sadly, this option wasn’t available to him. Most options he wanted weren’t available to him. Since he was still as sober as a Baptist church mouse, he could see that almost every desire he might like to satiate would likely end his night nowhere else than the cell of the Albuquerque municipal jail. Perhaps much worse than this, a week later he would then be reporting the flawed decision-making when he stood in the office of his new Sergeant Major once he reported into the School of Infantry.

Romero would have none of that. He had survived boot camp by being the Marine no one noticed, quietly doing his job and never earning more attention than was obligatory for the Drill Instructors. He had no mind to change that now.

Instead, from the console of his car, Nathaniel pulled out a pair of glasses. They functioned as a holographic display. He also pulled out a tiny black cap, one like a rubber thimble, which he placed over the tip of his index finger. He laid back in his seat and turned on the glasses. As he sat in the darkness, holographic tiles began to load and place themselves on the ceiling of his car. Each tile was an application synced to his phone, still in his pocket. He rubbed his index finger with the cap on it against his thumb. When he did this, a curser floated across his vision, hovering over his apps. Gently rubbing his fingers maneuvered the cursor while pressing them together opened the applications.

Not knowing what else to do, he opened a few games to pass the time while he waited for inspiration and the motivation to move again. His default program before he went to boot camp was a flying simulation. In the glasses, when you rose high into sky, you really felt like you could reach out and touch the clouds. A gentle tilt of his head backward, up or down, or to the right and left, and you could soar in any direction you liked. When wearing the glasses it was easy for Romero to lose himself in other worlds. To players, everything felt so real.

Though he was still lying in the car, the game gave such an immersive sense of being there that if you jumped off a cliff, you could almost feel like you were really falling. Yes, perhaps he could jump off one of the cliffs.

No, that wouldn’t do either. While debate existed for years before Romero was born about whether video games on a small screen with so limited a field of vision and so narrow a spectrum of choices could bring about violence in children, when immersive holographic gaming became common those fears were manifest. There’s nothing like feeling like you are really there to warp a gamer’s perception of reality. Strict enforcement on simulated killing sprees and virtual suicide stemmed the tide of those susceptible to it. Fortunately for Romero then, his thoughts wouldn’t be on offing himself all night.

He liked the flying game, though. Tonight, he felt like losing himself to another place, just free to fall in the dreamscape.

He didn’t feel like progressing the plot or fighting any enemies right now, that is, besides those few poor digital souls who served as proxy for the arrogant and self-assured boyfriend. Once he’d dispatched and massacred enough of them to achieve a mild form of catharsis, he just played the free flight, souring through a fantastical world uninterrupted by the disappointments of the evening.

As Nathaniel rode the winds, he thought about the last time he played this game, or any others for that matter. It had been months ago. He’d had nothing like this at boot camp. The spartan accommodations left him completely isolated from the rest of the world. There were no phones, no internet, certainly no holonet glasses or gaming rigs. If the Marines didn’t need it sixty years ago in the time of pencil and paper, they didn’t need it at boot camp. He never was able to talk to any of his friends or family during that time either. All he ever had were a few printed out emails his family would send, from time to time to check on his progress and well-being. He had to reply back by writing to them, as in, by physically writing. He hadn’t written anything since grade school. He barely knew how to by the time he reached San Diego, but he adjusted. It wasn’t that the Marines didn’t have better forms of communication available. They were told they just didn’t need the distractions when what they had to learn was literally matters of life and death.

Suddenly getting his technology back, at times it seemed overwhelming. He’d spent a few days already doing little but surfing his social accounts and getting updated on his friends. Sadly, he found that in his three-month purgatory, some of his friends no longer came online. Some had simply moved on in his absence. Seeing where they were then, college, work, or partying it in the good life of being young with no ties or rules to follow, he no longer felt connected to anyone from home. It was a strange and disappointing discovery to see how fast relationships built over a lifetime could simply fade away in the span of a summer. Tonight made this painfully clear. In a way, sitting in that car beneath the energystation’s streetlight in the lonely dust bowl that was the city of Albuquerque, he felt more isolated and alone than he ever had in the many nights away from all of his old friends at boot camp.

So he flew. He made himself lost by floating in the serenity of a sea setting sunbeams over clouds cascading about the skyscape. He grew to embrace the peaceful loneliness as his thoughts drifted farther and farther from the evening in the real world.

He was jarred from his virtual dream when a text message came in through the glasses, overlaying the simulation and pausing the game.

Joshua Kruger: Hey, is this Romero?”

Nathaniel was surprised by the sudden message. At first he didn’t recognize the name, and wondered how whoever this was knew his. Then he remembered … Kruger. He clicked the texted message, and clicked another button for dictation.

“Yeah. Who is this?”

Nathaniel watched his words scroll in text across the window as he waited for a reply.

Joshua Kruger: Hey dude, this is Kruger, from 2094!”

Nathaniel had suspected it, but he wasn’t sure. Kruger was his rack mate for the whole three months, but in that entire time, none of them learned each other’s first names. As close as many of them were, the exchange of first names was remarkably superfluous, and never something that anyone actually even needed. Such pleasantries weren’t ever shared until after graduation when they traded social account information, making this very call possible. For some reason, he had never expected to hear from another one of the recruits so soon after they had left boot camp. It didn’t matter, though. He had also expected to be spending this time with people he grew up with, so who cared what he expected? When he realized who it was, it felt good to have someone to talk to. He felt like he had more in common now with Kruger than anyone else in the world.

“Hey man! How you doin’?”

“It sucks. My girlfriend’s dating some other dude and everybody’s done moved off to the city. I’ve just been playin’ Madden ’25 for like, a day now.”

Nathaniel felt disturbingly sympathetic.

“I know the feeling, bro. What’s going on right now?”

“A whole lot of nothing. Won the season already, Minnesota Vikings baby, Oorah! Anyway, got bored and jumped on the holonet. Said you just got on.”

“Yeah, I’m not really having the best night either. Remember that girl I talked about? I went to see her… didn’t go that well. Know what I mean?”

“Ha! I know what you mean dude. So you playin’ somethin’?”

Talking with his boot camp comrade made him forget his game was still paused.

“Oh yeah, Knightwing Chronicles.”

“That the one where you fly around and slash demons and stuff?”

“Yeah, pretty much. I’m was just sort of flying around before you buzzed in.”

“Cool. Hey, you played that new one they put out before we went to boot, Skyfury Squadron? You get to play a UAV pilot. You can either fight from the drone’s view or control everything from the remote pilot’s chair. It seems that seein’ as how you like flyin’ and all, and since I heard you were into military stuff, you might like it.”

Romero chuckled. Of course Kruger knew he was into military stuff. They had lived together at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot for three months. The two talked for another hour about video games. All the ones they played growing up, the ones they missed out on over the summer, as well as exchanging news and rumors they had heard of upcoming titles. Romero had completely lost track of the time when he heard a knock on his door. He jumped in sudden shock after forgetting that he was alone in the middle of a parking lot in the desert. He minimized the screens and set the glasses to clear mode as he sat the seat up. Outside he could see a police officer, large built and burly, holding his lights to Romero.

“Could you roll down the window.” The officer said sternly. It wasn’t really a request. “I’ll also need your license and insurance information.”

Romero complied and pulled his insurance and license information for the officer to scan.

“What are you doing out here, son?” the officer asked menacingly.

“I’m sorry, Sir. I just pulled over for a sec and got started talking to someone. Then I just lost track of the time.”

There was a pause as the officer debated the validity of what Romero said. This was exactly the sort of thing Nathaniel didn’t want, any interaction with a cop during his boot leave. He just knew he was going to be standing in front of the Sergeant Major for doing absolutely nothing at all.

“All right, well you can’t just hang out here all night, so I’m going to need…” the officer stopped as he looked at the picture of Nathaniel’s license. In it, he was sixteen and had all his hair and the early buddings of post-pubescent manfuzz growing on his chin. The clean-shaven young man with the military high and tight looked little like the picture, but enough like him for the police officer to realize what would explain the transformation.

“You a Marine?” the officer asked.

Romero was surprised to get that sort of question then. He wasn’t very sure of what he was supposed to say.

“Yes Sir,” he replied hesitantly. “I graduated boot camp a few days ago.”

“Did you now?” he paused again and looked more closely at the picture, then back at Nathaniel. “Yeah, you can always recognize a Marine.” He  handed Romero back his phone with his ID and insurance displayed on it. “Listen, the only people hanging around places like this at 0230 are drug dealers and illegals. You don’t want to be around here in the middle of the night with no situational awareness, especially if one of them shows up. Nothin’ good happens in the desert after midnight. You hear what I’m sayin’?”

“Yes, Sir.” Romero replied.

“I’m gonna level with you, I came over here because I thought you might be one of those people up to no good, but seeing as how you’re just a knucklehead with no common sense, I’m letting you off with a warning so long as you head home. You get me?”

“Yes, Sir. Thank you. Sir.”

“Ha. You don’t have to call me Sir, son. I was in your shoes back in ’04. I did two tours with 1/8 in Iraq back then.”

The police officer was an old Marine. Romero never considered it, but he could see the high and tight just like his, which was shorter hair than one would normally see on a cop.

“Listen Devildog. Head home and stay out of trouble. The last thing you need is to get a ticket for being stupid on boot leave and spend the first day back in the Sergeant Major’s office.”

“Aye-aye, Sir.” Romero said it instinctively. Aye-aye was the reply when given an order in the Marines and was completely not appropriate in the civilian world. Being that it was muscle memory from the thousands of times he said it over the several months of following directions from strict authority figures – a practice which ended only a few days ago, he hadn’t become used to the way normal people spoke to one another yet. The officer turned around with grin.

“So we say ‘Aye-Aye, Sir’ to civilians now don’t we?” He said with a mocking chuckle. Embarrassed, Romero replied back, “No, Sir.”

The officer said to Romero, “Go ahead and head home, son. Stay out of trouble. Remember that you’re part of a brotherhood now and you represent all of us… so don’t be stupid.”

“Yes, Sir.” Nathaniel replied back.

The officer gave a wave and tipped his hat as he got back into his cruiser.

“Semper Fi, Knucklehead.” With that the officer started his car and drove off down the lonely stretch of desert highway.

Romero started to feel how late it was. He was going to take the officer’s advice, but he was too tired to drive. He set the car to auto so that it would take him on its own. After the car was on his way, he laid the seat back again. As he did, he noticed a new incoming message. It was Kruger.

So, like, you weren’t even aware that your chat was open the whole time did you?”

“What?” he asked before realizing that he never took off the glasses, and the entire conversation had been dictated to his friend in Minnesota. “Oh man. You heard all that?”

“Every word, dude. You said ‘Aye-Aye Sir’ to a cop? You’re, like, the biggest nerd ever! Seriously, when we get back to Pendleton, I’m tellin’ everyone at SOI that I was there when you became the biggest nerd ever to join the Marines. Did I mention you’re a nerd?”

Yeah, yeah, yeah… Anyway,” he was trying to change the subject. “You still want to download that Skyfury Squadron game? Seems I’ve been paid for the last three months, have nobody to spend it on, and a drive with three hours to kill.”

“Sure dude, but don’t think this changes anything. You’re still the biggest nerd ever.”


This was a big chapter. There’s a lot to talk about here. I liked this chapter more than many of the others. Part of that was because it basically happened one night while I was doing some of the final proof-reading during the last chapter. I just couldn’t make the boyfriend detestable enough with what I had before and after leaving the apartment, Romero literally had nowhere to go but back to SOI.

I felt like that sucked, but then the idea for this chapter came to me.

I think the important things that it touches are the nature that Marines and other veterans lose touch with their non-veteran lives. Everything develops a layer of wrongness to it, and for the most part, we only really come out of that when we learn to look to each other for support and companionship. I wanted the police officer and Kruger (my real life rack mate back in boot camp) to be those guys, both from Romero’s generation and mine, to bring Romero out of his funk.

It also wasn’t unintentional to bring in the mention of suicide into this chapter. Many veterans are failing to adapt to the real world, which goes much, much deeper than a jerk and a failed crush. For several years now, suicide has claimed more of us than conflict. You can blame the VA, which it is true, they have been let fail during a time where we needed them most. For me, I feel like it has a lot more to do with that boyfriend on the couch… people who offer their opinions on all sorts of nonsense, but really don’t know what they are talking about. All they end up doing is work to make us feel like monsters or like broken people. The truth is, it’s society’s problem, not ours. We hear about how wrong it is to build your perception on someone around stereotypes, but that’s what happens. When people have to live their lives living up to or shaking off the misconceptions of others, well… it gets hard.

That’s part of why I enjoyed writing this chapter. It has a moral to it, that veterans and active servicemen should turn to their friends and those who understand what they went through before retreating in and finding themselves in even darker places.

-Semper Fi

Jon


If you would like to support the creation of The Future of War, 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.

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Proving Grounds – Part 9

After cresting the summit of the mountain, and as Fox Company descended from the peak, Private Romero felt within his core – a transformation. Upon reaching the base of the mountain, he and the other new Marines would receive their Eagle, Globe, and Anchors, a small and innocuous trinket of no significant monetary value, but signifying the culmination of recruit training and the creation of a new Marine warrior. It was the mark of brotherhood to a militant cult, and fraternity of arms. After earning his EGA, and a well-deserved warrior’s breakfast, complete with all the waffles, eggs, fruit and juice he could stomach, the company was given a few minutes of personal time. They were to hygiene themselves and recuperate before preparations began for their graduation and the trip back to San Diego.

Romero took this opportunity to cleanse himself of the days of trekking through the sand and expeditions through the mud. He enjoyed a long, hot, soothing shower, the longest he had been given in his time aboard the depot. As the water flowed down his face, it carried with it the caked on dirt and mud as it eased the strain on weary muscles.

Leaving the shower, clothed in a small towel and with his shaving kit in hand, he had the chance to look himself in the mirror. It was the first time he had really examined himself in months. He was surprised to see that he had gained ten pounds; not of fat, obviously, but of lean muscle. His chin and jawline had grown defined and his leg muscles had become broad, as had his shoulders. His body, though exhausted, had become hard and he no longer held doubts over his martial capabilities or measurements of himself against other men. He finally looked like a man himself, one he didn’t quite recognize yet, but which pleased him nonetheless. He had pride from a new sense of self-respect he had never known before. This image before him in the mirror had become what he had set out to be three months ago; something others would respect. This was true, if for no one else, than at least within his own mind.

The final days of boot camp were mostly spent preparing uniforms for final inspection and in drill rehearsal for graduation. Graduation day was filled with all the pomp and ceremony only known to those who have marched in a military parade. The band was adorned in highest regalia, grand songs were played, salutes were rendered, and six hundred Marines, young and old, marched across the Parade Deck on display for excited family and onlookers from around the country. Nathaniel’s family, along with the families of hundreds of others, greeted their new Marines before finally departing from the depot. He was finally free to return home. Free of the constant presence of Drill Instructors, Romero would enjoy a much needed ten day leave, before setting off again, this time for the School of Infantry.

He arrived home the next day. After a sleep of the kind he had not experienced in three months, first on his mind was the girl who was with him on the day that he began this fateful journey. The lovely girl in the short pleated skirt was starting college only a short few hours’ drive away in Albuquerque. After his mother and grandmother had their turns showcasing their son to the entire town, Nathaniel left to see her. The young warrior set his sights to a personal mission, one he’d rehearsed in his mind many times already. As he made his way across the desert, he imagined the warm welcome he assured himself he was destined to receive.

Nathaniel would need that pride very soon. As it turned out, all that training to make him into a warrior of the modern age did little to grant him the necessary abilities of seduction needed to conquer any would-be lover. At his heart, he was still just a shy young man and not yet the fighting Casanova he believed himself to have magically become.

Nathaniel arrived at her apartment late in the evening. When she opened the door, his heart quivered when he saw her for the first time in months. Standing in the door with her short shorts, tight fitting crop top tee-shirt, and seductively adorned in a voluptuous shade of red lipstick, she still just as enticing and beautiful as ever and still rightfully the vision of his nightly imagination.

When he set foot in the apartment, what he didn’t expect to see, the last thing he expected to see, was the presence of a third someone else. He had imagined something private, quiet, and intimate. What he hadn’t expect to see was a man already present. She introduced him and he introduced himself as her boyfriend. He was a soft and unshaven mass of humanity, oozing from the edge of the couch opposite the chair where Nathaniel sat. With holes in his clothing dangling in shreds from his gangling and emaciated arms, and not looking as if he had bathed in at least a few days, Romero wondered how such a person could sit there with such a cocky, assuming look on his face. Oh, he was in a band? How… interesting. He’s a Philosophy Major? Stunning.

The two sat across from one another in the living room. After the rock star spent an uncomfortable amount of time eyeing Nathaniel’s high-and-tight haircut, he asked, “So you like to kill people and stuff?”

What kind of question was that? What type of idiot would ask a person such a thing? The mordant little comment left Nathaniel internally infuriated. Nathaniel didn’t need to find out that this swine was the girl’s current boyfriend to hate him with a fervent sincerity. Ironically, Romero was wondering then if a chop to the boorish oaf’s Adam’s Apple would, in fact, kill him or just keep him silent on the floor for a while.

“You know that all of you really just work for the energy companies, right? I mean, you should know that it’s your job to murder millions of people all to make the rich richer. There’s a book about it, ‘The war racket’ or somethin’ like that. Some old General wrote it. It would blow your mind. You should read it if you’re gonna fight their wars and all.”

“Have you read it?” Romero asked with glaring eyes at the pustule.

The other man paused with his jaw dangling stupidly. It seemed he hadn’t considered being challenged on the need to have a working knowledge on what he proselytized. Gathering himself, he regained back his snarky grin and said, “Nah, I already know that war is stupid, I mean, no offense. You just didn’t know any better before they got you in the system. It’s all just about neo-colonialism and taking over the world, anyway. I just hope you don’t get yourself killed for some rich man’s war or come back with a brain disorder after blowing up a village or something.” He laughed, “Hey. You should get with your bosses and try to tell them to talk about things instead of just having some drone bomb a school or something to bits.”

Nathaniel was seething. Caustically he sneered, “Thanks for enlightening me. I’ll bring it up at the next meeting.”

The boy was a charlatan, speaking on subjects he knew nothing about with some deluded voice of authority. Whatever truth he may have stumbled upon between his little band’s performances in the basement of whatever friends’ he had, were overshadowed by the volumes of politically bent misinformation in the deeper chasms of the internet. He was really just another twenty-two year-old stoner, living off his parents while couch-surfing from one friend’s house to another. His type were little more than arm-chair philosophers and self-appointed experts on all matters they took no actual part in, regurgitating it to others any chance they got. Romero was revolted that people like this were allowed to have influence. How, he wondered, could any girl be attracted to it? He was disgusting. Especially girls like her! He had enough grease in his hair that Romero could keep his weapon moving smoothly for weeks. She was supposed to have liked strong guys, manly guys… dudes with big arms. What happened to dangerous guys? The only thing that made this idiot dangerous was the risk of catching head lice.

The awkward and very unromantic visit lasted another hour or so, mostly spent ignoring the opining of the philosopher-poet and his inept peace propaganda. Still fully dressed and uncomfortably chaperoned, Nathaniel began to become aware that there was no point to him being here. He had overstaying a welcome. The girl had never intended for him to stay long and his spot was taken, anyway. Added to the sexual ambivalence of the girl whose attraction had occupied the nightly dreams of his entire last summer, were the glares sent his way by the soft and unshaven worm across the room. He gave none-to-subtle hints to move along between opportunities to belittle the militant. The guitarist Philosophy major made no attempt to hide his hands all over her, marking his territory like toy terrier pissing on all the furniture.

Romero had enough. Realizing that nothing was going to happen, not to mention feeling completely foolish for having believed it would, he left. He took with him little more than a friendly and deeply platonic hug, and a new and profound loathing for guitarists, Philosophy majors, and the unshaven.

Giving up his venture, he left to make the long drive home in painful silence. He wasn’t sure what he had expected to happen. Perhaps she was supposed to leap into his arms and then they would magically arrive in her bed. How had that worked so many times in his imagination before? Why did that even make sense?

This was what disillusionment felt like. This would be the first of many times he would see the reality of the choices he had made. As he sat down in the driver’s seat of the car, a new question began to brew.

What was he supposed to do now?

Proving Grounds – Part 8

The suffering of Nathaniel Romero and the recruits of platoon 2094 was not a unique experience among Marines. The scene was, in fact, common to all entering the depot. There is an art to the making of warriors, the Marines believed, and the United States Marine Corps considered themselves the foremost masters of the arts warriorcraft. They believed their methods, extreme as they may have been, were necessary in the making of Marines, undiluted and unfettered by the passage of time. Every action recruits endured was, itself, one of countless time honored rites and rituals, performed in a timelessly identical progression for every Marine entering the Corps. The pain, stress, fear, fatigue, and even the humiliation all had their place in the time-tested series of conditioning and mental training exercises in the creation of warriors. They bound each Marine to a history and a culture of lethality. Regardless of the technological advancement changing the world, of even that fielded in the battlefields of that day, the warriors of tomorrow undertook the same training, as had all Marines before them for over sixty years. Those who fired rifles in Khe San, cleared rooms in Fallujah, or were the forward observers for unmanned air strikes in Odessa, these same rituals were a constant for all Marines during their inaugural days of their Marine Corps career. Romero would experience these rites, one-by-one, eventually becoming indoctrinated into the most potently efficient culture of violence yet created in the history of the United States and among the most lethal the world had ever known.

In his progression from a boy to a warfighter, he would discover very early on that every action had a purpose. In spite of their seemingly mundane nature, each order was performed with intricate precision thousands of times over the next three months. Every attempt was part of the endless endeavor to meet the wildly impossible expectations of crazed lunatics the Drill Instructors 2094. Countless actions echoed in their daily activities, from the way his Drill Instructor’s pointed at them with their whole arm, fingers together rigid and extended, which was identical to the knife hand recruits formed when they trained in hand-to-hand combat, which was also the same as the salute they rendered. From the way recruits stood, the way they walked, the way they ate, to how they folded their sheets; every movement had some hidden significance to it and a goal, which had to be repeated and perfected.

Their training never stopped. It never even let up. Romero would march countless miles on the parade deck, enduring the bellowing shouts of Drill Instructors. On rifle ranges named after historic warriors, he would fire for days on end to make him lethal. He was pushed into a pool with full gear, fully believing he was going to die. He nearly broke his ankle on one of the hikes. Lessons were learned as he and the rest of platoon 2094 endured countless hours of his Drill Instructors’ perfectly rehearsed torture sessions. This, as well as hours spent on the Quarterdeck, facing a calisthenic barrage that shed any caloric and disciplinary excess they may have brought with them. Via gallons of lost sweat in the ritualized self-torment that was Marine Corps physical training, the troops every failing was exercised as well as having instilled a newfound respect DIs. Though they would not realize it, there was just so much to learn, so much that three months of round the clock routine hardly seemed time enough to prepare them to, perhaps, one day survive the combat situation.

Combat. “Would he be ready?” he wondered in the few quiet moments. Would he survive if put in that position? Would he ever need any of this at all? The Marines had a way of invading all of his thoughts with few, but those centered on warfare. If they had, he would have asked himself, more often in those early days, had he really just subjugated himself to this idea of becoming a person who was dangerous and something to be feared, putting himself through all this insanity just because of a stupid a girl? Of course, these stirrings often drifted to those of his and future, what little of it he knew, and to those of softer things. Sleep was rarely difficult the rigor of training, but in those few nights where sleep came less easily, he would imagine those glorious love fests and fantastical fits of passion due him upon his return home as a full-fledged Marine.

He was lucky that he didn’t have the time to waste like this often, as much as one would want to. Most other things were far removed from his mind, itself usually too occupied with the rhythm and demands of boot camp. He had history to learn, first aid to practice, weapons to clean, and endless shirts to iron, fold, and iron again.

There were moments Nathaniel found himself lost in his thoughts, those long nights serving fire watch. Throughout their training, recruits would stand or patrol hour-long roving stints around the base, challenging any possible guests that might grace the premises. The fact that the entire base was probably the most secure location in San Diego meant nothing. Security, let alone fires, had little to do with fire watch. This too was training. Regardless, on certain nights in the summer, he would look forward to getting the first watch. If he was looking in the right direction and at the right time, he could see fireworks exploding above a theme park a few miles away. It happened all throughout the month of July. It wasn’t much of a show from his window in the squad bay so very far from such a place. He could barely even hear the bombs bursting if he tried, but for some reason, when he saw the lights burst in the distance, it reminded him that there was still a civilization out there beyond the walls, the parade deck, and the angry men. On those lonely nights, he enjoyed thinking about how there were still happy people out there taking advantage of everything that civilization had to give. Caught in moments of idealism, it made him proud in a way. For the first time, he felt responsible, as if he, a Marine Corps recruit, lowliest of God’s creatures, were somehow part of providing that happiness for all those peaceful people.

Eventually, he acclimatized to the pace of his training, as did the rest of his platoon, finally coming together to adjust to the rhythm of warrior training by embracing the simplicity of life at the depot. As demanding as it might have been, all any of them really had to do was what they were told. As time went by, Romero found he focused less and less on if it was worth it and on the world outside. He just focused on the day-to-day tasks of training. He tuned out the noise of Drill Instructor barking, and just began to absorb the life. He became leaner and sharper. He learned to channel aggression he wasn’t aware he had. He learned how to shoot and how to move in a manner that seemed to be how warriors moved. He learned the history of the Marines, and whether he realized it or not, how to become one.

It was only then he would start to feel peace in the everyday, such as when the platoon practiced drill by marching on the parade deck. They marched for long hours in the summer sun, but from time to time, cool Santa Ana breezes carried in the scent of salty sea air from San Diego Harbor. On days like that, sometimes the Drill Instructors broke with their regular marching cadence to what was known as singsong. It was such a break from their normal barking, frogish tone that it came off as almost calming and melodic, a sensation that would prove fleeting only moments later when the platoon would change direction or be forced back to repeat a movement. In those few dozen steps it lasted, though, the change of cadence was an escape from the frenzied, yet monotonous grind of boot camp life aboard the depot. In those seconds he lost himself, he was at calm. Though surrounded by other warriors in training, it was as he was finally alone. In his little universe, there was nothing but himself, the rhythmic pace of the Drill Instructor’s cadence, and the sound of eighty footsteps marching in unison.

The only other times Recruit Romero was free to his thoughts, were during the long hikes of his third and final phase of recruit training. For that, the recruits made their way to a base north of San Diego, in the wide openness of a former cattle ranch turned the most densely populated Marine Corps base on the planet, Camp Pendleton. The high rolling hills, deep valleys and open desert scrub of the base made it the perfect area to lay down hundreds of firing ranges and areas for recruits and Marines to practice the arts of war. There the recruits learned to fire, survive, and how to move and fight like Marines. This felt like the real warrior training he had wanted all along. There was little of the classrooms or the uniform and ceremony in Pendleton. There was less running scared of being fodder for some disgruntled DI who happened to look their way. This place was about transitioning from learning the culture of the Marines to being a true warrior. When he fired his rifle, stabbed some dummy with his bayonet or crested the precipice of some desert mountainscape, this was when he felt like a warrior, like a dangerous person. He was more than that though. He didn’t imagine himself as something to be feared. He was proud. He was proud of what he was becoming, what he had done and what he now represented. This place truly was about becoming a warrior.

His final moment of self-contemplation came during the Crucible, the fifty-four mile, three-day hike where all Marines endure the most intense physical tests imaginable. He would suffer through massive obstacle courses, pugil stick battles with the other recruits, night maneuvers, dehydration, the scorching sun. They would do all this carrying full gear and seventy pounds more in their packs and all on two stripped down meal packets and four hours of sleep. On the last day, they endured one final test, the Reaper. The Reaper was a ten-mile forced march up what amounted to a small mountain in the Sierra Nevada mountain range running through the base of Camp Pendleton. Setting out before dawn, they made their way to the precipice by ten in the morning. So long as he stayed at pace with the rest of the formation, he wasn’t bothered and his mind was free to wonder and just let his feet do the walking. It was at the peak of that mountain where he and all the others who had endured the rituals of violence and the rigor of recruit training would no longer be considered recruits. As they crossed the peak of the mountain with the rest of his platoon, he thought back to when he joined and the person he was three months ago. Yes, he felt dangerous now, but he felt like more than that. He felt like the Marine in the poster – someone with power and pride. Seeing the Pacific Ocean far off beyond the peak of the Reaper, this, he thought, was what it must have felt like to be a real Marine.


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Proving Grounds – Part 7

From the yellow footprints, Romero and the other recruits filed into another room, where they would each be checked for contraband. Their pockets were emptied and if they had anything to declare, they had one final chance to make it known. From there, the endless line of young men progressed through a long series of darkly lit hallways. They stopped every few rooms to receive some aspect of the first night’s treatment: the unceremoniously ceremony of losing all their hair, being issued their gear, and speaking to a small army of admin staff as they began the process of becoming “in the system” of the United States Marine Corps. This whole while, Receiving Company Drill Instructors barked at and berated the fresh recruits for every time they looked in the wrong direction or made even the slightest of false moves. Little did they realize that this process of standing in endless lines, filing endless paperwork, and being physically transformed into as uniform an individual as the Marine Corps could create, would continue for three more days. Those four days Romero and the other recruits would see little food and enjoy little sleep, but would be moving almost nonstop until the end of the receiving phase prior to the actual start of recruit training.

In those first few days of boot camp, fatigued and exhausted as the recruits were, their minds slowly began to embrace the subtle suggestions hidden among thundering cries of the Drill Instructors aboard the depot. “You are inferior,” bemoaned the overarching theme over and over, again. It was a simple suggestion, but in their weakened state, it sat, permeated, and it stewed. In the long hours of standing in lines while fighting sleep, and while waiting to be issued whatever piece of equipment they would be using over the next few months, their minds were free to wonder. In those long hours of silence broken only by the DIs’ pouncing on a recruit guilty of some incalculable slight, that suggestion of inferiority sank in. Eventually, though none realized it, each began to start believing the ideas delivered to them were true. They began to accept that there was a weakness in them and that they were less than the Marines who had come before, those who had already “earned the title”. On some subconscious level for all of them, they embraced the idea that they must change to live up to the obligation they had taken up. The recruits had to accept the inferiority inherent within them before they were truly ready to begin training.

As that first week wore on, Romero too passed that point. Throughout it all, he kept thinking about the fact that the real training hadn’t even begun. At the end of receiving, they would enter their first real day of training, T-Day 1 – Black Friday. That would be the day recruits meet their real Drill Instructors, not those simply overseeing them throughout receiving. These Marines would govern their every movement, as well as their every waking and unwaking second, for the next three months. Their only purpose, Romero kept telling himself, was to make each of them warriors. On the last night before training, Romero enjoyed little sleep – an unfortunate mix of anticipation and anxiety towards what the next day would bring.

On June 4th, 2025, that day finally came, Training Day 1. After nearly a week together since the airport and the yellow footprints, Nathaniel and eighty other recruits were told to quickly gather their gear and belongings, all packed into large green sea-bags, and form up outside the squad bay. From there, they were marched to a new set of barracks, far across the base. This one overlooked the massive parade deck. Romero had never seen anything like it. It seemed like it had to be the single largest slab of asphalt anyone had ever lain, nothing but half a mile of pristine slate grey real estate. Distantly, he could see another platoon marching through the corner of his eye. They movements were so crisp and polished, with such unison. They’d obviously been on the depot for months, almost real Marines by now. As for Romero and the other eighty recruits of his platoon, their training was only about to begin.

Once inside the barracks building, they were led to a large squad bay. Here the platoon would share a singular fate and become more intimately intertwined with one another than any of them would ever have believed before. Romero’s eyes first saw perhaps a hundred bunks lined along two aisles along the windows, with one centered between near a large opening in the front of the room. With only a few minutes, the platoon was directed to stow their gear in their assigned bunks, their “racks”, and then stand at attention when finished. Following this, they quickly filed into that large opening of the room and told to sit in a tight formation, legs crossed, facing forward towards a wall with a single door and one man standing by it.

As they sat waiting for whatever was about to happen next, in the distance, they could hear other platoons crying out in unison the “Yes, Sir!” and “Aye-Aye, Sir!” that they had so far heard many times before. The shouting didn’t stop as it seemed to go on forever. Silently to himself, Romero asked, “What were they doing?” as were all the other young men in the formation.

The Marine at the front began to speak. He was oddly soft spoken, Romero thought. They had already learned not to look directly at anyone, but with a quick glance, he noticed a shine from this Marine’s collar. He must have been an officer. He introduced himself as their Series Commander and welcomed the recruits, or at least gave what passed for a welcome. It seemed like one of other well-rehearsed speeches, only differing from the others by the relaxed poise compared to the Drill Instructors, with which he delivered it. Towards the end, he said the words Romero and the rest of the recruits had been paradoxically been waiting for and terrified of.

“You are now members of platoon 2094, Lead Series, Company ‘F’, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion. I will now introduce you to your Drill Instructors who are responsible to me for your training.” From the room at the front came three Marines wearing the grim faces and attire of the Drill Instructor. The figures stood at the front of the room in stiff, imposing, and erect in military stances. They stood this way as his speech continued on. Together the four Marines raised their hands as the Series Commander led the Drill Instructors in a creed meant to constitute their responsibilities to the platoon. They were to train them, discipline them, indoctrinate in them a love of both Corps and Country, and to demonstrate to them by example the highest standards of personal conduct, morality, and professional skill. This oath they swore before every member of the platoon they would be leading. Following the Drill Instructor’s Creed, the officer handed over command of the recruits to their Senior Drill Instructor.

“Senior Drill Instructor, take these men and make them Marines.”

The Marine saluted with a forceful “Aye-Aye, Sir.”

As the commander walked away, the Senior Drill Instructor, Staff Sergeant Clifton, screamed out for all the Marines to place their eyeballs on him.

Gone was the soft-spoken poise of the polished officer. Staff Sergeant Clifton roared with yet another deliberate show of hostile force and aggression that Romero was growing to expect of all Marines. What followed was yet another well-rehearsed speech where he demanded absolute effort and show the highest of military virtues, most notably discipline and spirit, and respect. Clifton’s speech was delivered with such an impossible force and intensity, that the recruits had no choice, but to be motivated, while also fearfully in awe of the man who stood before them. Then the speech ended.

What followed the Senior Drill Instructor’s welcome was nothing less than a torrent of hate and terror the recruits could have never imagined. The recruits were ordered across the squad bay as the Drill Instructors screamed with the pent up fires of a thousand angry suns. They dumped the recruit’s sea bags if they didn’t move fast enough, spewing all the belongings they owned out into massive mounds on the floor of the squad bay. They tossed the recruits bunks they would sleep on across the room. Bottles of soap, toothpaste and shaving gel broke and shattered, leaving the piles of personal belongings and issued gear trashed all over the floor. Then the recruits were marched around and around, back and forth, following every command of the Drill Instructors, though never fast enough, never loud enough, and never with enough of the ever loving intensity demanded of them. All the while the parade of pandemonium continued, recruits were kicking each other’s gear around in chaotic piles across the squad bay. Amidst the bedlam, they were again filed as fast as their collective feet would carry them to a pit of sand outside the barracks. The entire platoon was commanded to push up, flutter-kick, side-straddle-hop, and run in place until they gave out, basking in the precious moments when their sweat covered faces rested against the sand.

Finally, covered in sand and sweat, they filed back to the barracks and pulled out their canteens. They drank, and drank, and drank, drinking until they had proved they had finished every last drop, then they would refill their canteens, and drink some more. This cycle of what seemed to be mindless torment wouldn’t end until many hours later. They still had to return their home back to some semblance of normalcy after having been reduced to what could best be described, metaphorically, as a warzone. As the new recruits paraded around the room, being screamed at by terrifying men, Romero wondered what he had gotten himself into. Regardless of what he thought at that moment, they were still a long way from the end of T-Day 1. At least by that point he understood why it was a day known throughout the Corps as Black Friday.


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Proving Grounds – Part 6

A few months after that first meeting with SSgt Nobles, Nathaniel Romero found himself sitting in the USO of the San Diego International Airport. He was one of perhaps another hundred other young men. Each one was around eighteen, and most fresh high school graduates. Each had flown in over the last day from across all the United States west of the Mississippi River.

They were nervous. Each looked around to one another, asking questions to pass the afternoon, “Where are you from?”, “What is your MOS going to be?”, “How long were you in the DEP pool?”, “Have you ever had an MRE?” It was all just meaningless small talk to ease the tension mounting as the afternoon gave way to evening.

Then the evening came and the sun began to set. As day faded to dark, a series of buses pulled around to the back door of the USO. Many didn’t notice at first, but a door opened to the outside and from it, a man slowly walked in. A hush passed throughout the crowd of young men as none missed his entrance. He was dressed in the khaki shirt and dark green pants of a Marine, with the rank insignia and campaign ribbons to show he was a seasoned warrior. What set him apart from the other Marines the boys had so far seen… was the headgear; a distinctive covering one would expect to see on park rangers. The “Smokey Bear” was the distinctive adornment of Drill Instructors, the troop leaders who would be overseeing all of their training over the next three months aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.

The Drill Instructor marched to the center of the USO. When made his way in, for some reason, all the recruits knew that any time to turn back was over. Boot camp had just begun. There was utter silence as the hundred sets of eyes ceased whatever else they were doing and anxiously watched his every move. He stood near the desk of the USO and in a deep, raspy voice projected out to the entire USO,

“Everyone here to begin Marine Corps recruit training grab whatever gear you brought with you and get on my bus right now!”

The room was in an instant a flurry of action as every one of the recruits grabbed whatever they had brought with them and filed through the glass double doors as fast as possible in such confining spaces. Once outside, more Drill Instructors were barking instruction, herding the mob into single files onto the buses, where they were to place their heads between their knees and not to raise their heads until ordered to do so. From there, they sat in silence, waiting for whatever was supposed to come next.

The buses drove from the airport for what seemed a remarkable span of time and with a surprising number of turns, considering that the recruit depot literally shared a fence with the main landing strip of San Diego International. The boys cheered a few hours ago as they looked upon its grounds when the plane touched down. When they were on the bus, however, they just sat in silence, anxiously awaiting their arrival on the depot and a new life. Finally, the buses came to a stop. None of the young men moved. They simply did nothing. They only waited, sitting still and in complete silence, but listening to every sound beyond the steady engine hum.

Romero, then overflowing with anxiety over what he knew was about to happen, heard a set of footsteps moving back and forth. Minutes ago, he wanted something, anything to happen to break the tension. That something made itself known with the very deliberate sound of an assertive foot stomping on the first few steps of the bus. A man’s voice shattered the silence with another raspy roar like the Drill Instructor in the USO.

“All right, everyone put your eyeballs on me! Aye-Aye, Sir!” he roared.

The recruits synchronously looked up and repeated back, “Aye-Aye, Sir.”
He screamed out with a terrible, biting, bellowing shriek, “Open your freaking mouths! Aye-Aye, Sir!” The veins in his neck and temples pulsed as he reddened from intensity.

This time they all roared together and with fear-induced vigor, “Aye-Aye, Sir!”

Again, he repeated the command to speak louder, “No! Aye-Aye, Sir!”

Again, they repeated back, this time a little louder, a little crisper, and with more intensity of their own, “Aye-Aye, Sir!”

“Right now you are aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Receiving Company! From here on out, the only words out of your mouths will be ‘Yes’ or ‘No, Sir’ when asked a question or ‘Aye-Aye, Sir’ when given a command! Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir!”

“When I tell you to, and only when I tell you to, you’re going to stand up, you’re going to grab all your belongings and you’re going to exit my bus! When exiting my bus you will  power walk. Power walk is one step slower than a run, and one step faster than a walk. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Ok! Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir!”

Romero was surprised that, of all things, he was being taught how to walk as soon as he reached Marine Corps boot camp. He thought that the idea of rebuilding a recruit from the bottom up was really only a joke, but the Drill Instructor gave no time to contemplate the reality. His speech continued uninterrupted, and Romero was too terrified of missing an instruction to worry about his own unimportant queries on Marine Corps walking protocols.

“When you exit my bus you will file off onto my yellow footprints from front to back, then left to right! You will take all your belongings and put them on the ground in front of you! Nothing will come out of your pockets. I repeat. Nothing will come out of your pockets. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Ok! Do you understand?”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Ok! Get louder! Do you understand?”

They didn’t understand. In truth, they understood so very little of what was happening up to that point. The vast majority of what was said on the bus would be lost to them, as would most the rest of the night. All that would remain for most of them would be the deep memory of being completely lost.

“All right, Get off my bus!”

“Aye-Aye, Sir!”

What followed was absolute chaos. Little did Nathaniel Romero nor any of the other ninety young recruits that night know that it was actually a meticulously choreographed chaos, but for them it was pandemonium like nothing they had ever known before. From the moment Romero’s foot hit the pavement on MCRD San Diego, all he was cognizant of was the constant presence of men screaming as he ran as fast as he could to reach the yellow footprints. The painted stencil markings of more than a hundred golden foot soles were organized in formations, perfectly aligned rows and columns, each identically touching at the heels and flared, guiding the new recruit to his first position of attention.

Romero and the others were still lost, but screamed into their locations by a constant barrage of the instructors’ grotesquely willful directions. All ninety of the recruits that had just arrived were filed into formation on the yellow footprints, a feat which took all of fifteen seconds and which would have been impossible only two weeks ago when they were just high schoolers. Each of them stood silently gripping whatever belongings they had brought with them to their chest. Like statues, they all attempted to be the least noticeable human in the formation, hoping not to be like those others who had already attracted the terrifying attention of the bellowing, tyrannical instructors.

Another Drill Instructor purposefully marched to a small podium directly in front of the formation as it stood. From the podium, he addressed the formation. This Drill Instructor gave a speech where Nathaniel and the other recruits were told how to stand, how to walk, how to move, how to scream, and mostly… that everything done over these next three months would be done with speed and intensity. By the way this man spoke to him then, he saw such intensity demonstrated flawlessly. He cried out in a scream like nothing Romero had ever heard, as if someone had endured a lifetime of rage and bottled its potent essence into this one moment in time to be delivered by this one man. It was as if he speaking to each and every recruit individually in a roar that was crisp; not savage, but focused, shrill, and with lethal precision. Every word was perfectly enunciated, but by no means anything less than the cry of a terrible beast perhaps waiting to attack.

The whole time that the Drill Instructor on the podium gave this speech, there were more drill instructors pacing, like rabid and starving hyenas at the end of a chain, around the formation. They ensured that every recruit was focused intently on nothing else but the man in front and his every word. Whenever a single set of eyes strayed, they pounced on their prey with merciless disregard to personal space or individual human dignity. Regardless of whatever the Marine in front had to say, they were the focus, as every recruit did whatever they could to disappear altogether and avoid the very personal attention the men around were eagerly dishing out to their peers.

The Drill Instructor in front continued his speech without flinching and undaunted by the vicious cries of other instructions. At his command, the formation quickly shifted to another set of footprints, this time facing a large red sign with gold lettering. The boys were commanded to take a knee so that each and every one of them could clearly see the sign as the man on the podium began to read it aloud.

The Drill Instructor’s speech continued on to include a reading of what amounted to the recruits’ Miranda Rights as per the articles under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. This, like so many other things, was lost to Romero. He understood very little of the instructions being given or of the commands he was told. He was still almost completely embraced in an artificially engineered state of shock. He was in a state of confusion and fear, just trying to keep from being noticed, as was every other recruit there. The message he took from this thirty seconds was that he had some rights to something, but more importantly, that there was a very clear list of all the offenses recruits commit that could get thrown in jail, should they failed to live up to expectations as a Marine Corps recruit aboard the depot.

Romero’s only survival tactic that first night was moving with as much of the speed and intensity demanded of him as he could, in hopes that he would never be singled out by the voracious circling wolves for any reason. He would remain in this state of mental alertness, at times bordering on panic, for the rest of the night and, in truth, much longer after he had stood on the yellow footprints.

Forever etched in his memory were those first five minutes in the Marine Corps, ending only after he and the other recruits were filed into a large building each passing underneath a sign which read;

“Through this portal walks the future of the United States Marine Corps.”


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Proving Grounds – Part 5

“Sweet.”

Romero thought to himself while lying in bed that night. The word sat caustically in his mouth. The moonlight shone through his window, illuminating his room as his thoughts stirred ceaselessly. He always had a hard time sleeping and tonight his thoughts were centered on the day’s events at the mall.

As he laid there, he thought about how humiliating it had all been; to be shown up by those ogres, trying to be wooed by that goofy recruiter, and worse, being called “sweet” and “nice” by the girl he wanted, but was then obviously unavailable to. There is no single word in the English language that man wants to be called by a woman he lusts for than “sweet”. To her, he was just a free ride to the mall. Before he knew it, she would probably be calling him to drive her and her dates around so the guy could be free to cop a feel while he drove. She’d never see him like he saw her. What girl would? They wanted, what had she called it? Dangerous.

Perhaps it wasn’t dangerous they were really after, but just a real man, someone to make them feel safe or someone reliable, or maybe just someone tough. She said dangerous though. You couldn’t just be that type of person. You could be reliable and make them feel safe, and you could even be tough. But she didn’t really say any of those words… she said “dangerous”, the type of person others respected, even feared, just by looking at them. That’s what she wanted, not someone like him.

Then he thought about that poster, the one with the Marine with his sword. He held the sword right up to his hat. His medals were glinting in some light, red ones, tan ones, blue ones, and green ones. Nathaniel wondered if they were all from some big combat mission somewhere, some big war like the ones from when he was a kid. The Marine looked like he didn’t even care about that. He looked like there was something else deeply on his mind, like he was reliving one of those battles or something, or like he was getting ready for another one. He had rugged, jagged features and a thick neck, not unlike SSgt Nobles. He looked like people might fear him. He looked dangerous. Yeah, that guy was dangerous enough, but he was clean; clean shaven, clean haircut, all his medals and ribbons perfectly in rows while he stood like a statue. Nathaniel had always viewed guys who joined the military as just a bunch of guys who wanted to kill people, a bunch of stupid apes, and like a bunch of murderous fiends wanting to get away with murder. That guy in the poster though, he didn’t look like that either. He looked under control. He looked like you could trust him, no matter what he might have had to do. He didn’t look some barbarian, but like he would take care of his friends. He looked like someone who others would respect.

Nathaniel Romero was none of those things. No one respected him. No one feared him. There was nothing dignified or heroic about him. He could run. Who fears someone for running? More than that, he was scrawny, and still looked like a little kid. He didn’t have a rugged chin or chiseled features. He had no muscles and he could barely do three pull-ups. There was nothing to be feared here. He was that guy who drove girls to places hoping to friend them so hard they would want him back. Seeing the way his perpetual never-more-than-friend talked to him today, he realized his uber-friend approach would never get anything done with girls all the guys want. He needed to be a man. He wanted to be feared and respected like that guy in the poster. For a moment, at least, he wanted to be that guy in the poster at the recruiter’s office.

A few day later, Nathaniel walked into the recruiter’s office.

“Hello again.”  said SSgt Nobles. “Glad to see you back.”

After a few minutes of awkward pleasantries, Nobles asked the question.

“So how can I help you today, son?”

Nathaniel looked again at the poster of the Marine and sat down at the chair across from the recruiter’s desk. He looked the recruiter squarely in the eyes.

“I want to be a badass.”

There was a long pause after that. Nathaniel didn’t know if the recruiter thought he sounded like an idiot or if he was about to laugh him out of his office. SSgt Nobles placed his hands together in a loose fist on his desk, raised them to his face and leaned on them before returning an unflinching stare. He didn’t laugh. In truth, he didn’t take Nathaniel’s statement as anything less than the most serious utterance ever made.

“Well, son… actually, what’s your name?”

“Nathaniel.” He answered.

“Last name, Nathaniel.” Replied the Staff Sergeant.

“Romero.” Nathaniel answered again.

“Well Mr. Romero, I can honestly tell you, you’ve come to the right place. Ever thought about what you want to do, like for a career?” He asked.

“I want to be dangerous. I want to be dangerous and respected.”

There was another pause. SSgt Nobles sat back in his chair and looked over Nathaniel Romero, sizing up the young man.

“I see.” said the recruiter, followed by yet another thoughtful pause.

After a time of looking over this person who sat in front of him, Nobles asked Romero,

“Mr. Romero, do you have any idea what an ‘o’-three-eleven is?”

Romero raised his eyebrow with a perplexed look on his face.

“No.” he answered.

SSgt Nobles smiled, “0311s, Mr. Romero, are some of the most feared and admired warriors on the planet. If you want to be those things – feared, admired, respected, I guarantee you no one else is going to get you there faster than the o-threes.”

His interest peaked, Romero asked, “So what is an o-three-eleven?”

Nobles moved his hand to the sleeve of his pressed khaki shirt. He pushed the tightly fitted short sleeve of his left arm up to reveal a tattoo of a zero and a three. He turned and looked at Nathaniel again.

“0311s, Mr. Romero, are the Marine Corps Infantry.”


If you would like to support the creation of The Future of War, 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.

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Proving Grounds – Part 4

It was all to impress a girl. In hindsight, it had all been to impress a girl.

Two years ago, Nathaniel Romero was just an average and unremarkable kid in his last year of high school; just another nobody with no plan and no real idea of what to do with his life. Closer pursuits occupied his mind.

On one unassuming day, a girl called him asking for a ride to the mall. He wanted desperately. She was a flirt, the kind of girl who smiled at everyone and especially the boys. She laughed at all their jokes and then called them for rides and the little things some girls often feel they need to get by. She was the kind who owned thirty shades of lipstick from the subtle enticement of her Nearly Nudes to the vibrancy and voluptuousness of a Fire Engine Red. Though you’d never hear her say it, she loved when the boys centered their attention only on her and she would never turn down a compliment. On that day, she was teasingly wearing a miniskirt, showcasing long, toned legs Nathaniel fought hard not to gawk at every time she wasn’t looking. He was absorbed by her grace and beauty, and hopelessly enthralled by her charms… as were so many others. When she asked for a ride to the mall, he was all too eager to answer her the request.

As the two entered the mall, they passed the wall of recruiting offices. A group of boys wearing Marine Corps tee shirts stood beside a large pull-up bar, painted red and wrapped in white tape outside one of the offices. They were rooting and cheering as the boys each tried to do their pull-ups. The recruiter, wearing a tan shirt and blue pants with a red stripe down the side, marked with dozens of other official looking military regalia watched and counted out. His voice echoed throughout the corridors as he projected far louder than was needed if the goal was only to he heard by the few boys immediately in front of him. It was hard to miss the spectacle.

“Twelve… Thirteen… Fourt-… Nope, kipping.”

“Freakin’ morons.” Romero said to the girl, laughably mocking what, to him, was a Neanderthal sort of machismo. “Like pull-ups are going to help them fight a war with guns and robots.”

The girl in the pleated skirt didn’t seem to agree. She looked over at the boys, watching their show. After she had an eyeful for herself, she dismissed Romero’s comment with a, “Humph.”

Indignantly and with a bit of surprise, “What?” Romero asked.
“I think it’s hot to see guys like that. I like big arms.” She said. The girl watched another boy, this one also about their age, mount the bar. His arm muscles flexed a little more than what seemed necessary for someone still in high school. After an admittedly impressive go at the bar, the recruiter yelled “Twenty!” The boy dropped to the floor, chest out – like he had just personally won the war on body fat. The other boys clapped, congratulated him, and cheered him on like a returning war hero.

The girl in the mini-skirt bit her lip, hinting at less than subtle thoughts.
“Did you see that? That’s so hot…” she said to Nathaniel, her excitement, only just barely contained, eroded his manhood. He was taken for a moment by her flippant callousness. Jealously, Nathaniel wondered if she even remembered he was there. She had, but in truth, she gave little more thought to him than she would give to her phone or her purse.

From across the hall, the recruiter’s focused eyes zeroed on the lingering stare of the two overlooking his potential recruits.

“Hey!” he said, calling out to Nathaniel.

Awkwardly, Nathaniel looked around, searching for someone else who the recruiter may have been talking to. He saw no one, and pointed uncertainly to himself.

“Yeah you.” Replied the recruiter. “You think you’re up to it? Want to give it a try?”

Everyone was looking at him then. He looked at the girl who gave him a look that implied, “Go on. Impress me.”

Nathaniel marched up with all the bravado he could fake. His father’s Latin blood refused to allow his pride to deny such a public challenge. That didn’t mean he was excited about it. Unfortunately, he was not the particularly imposing force to behold that his father was. He was little more than five feet eight inches and maybe one hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet. He had is father’s dark Hispanic complexion and his deep cleft chin, but lacked that rugged manliness that he hoped to one day inherit. Instead, he was small framed… like his mother, and with her green eyes and red hair. The only athletic thing he had ever done in his life was running. He could run like the wind, and he could run forever. He had made All-State in cross-country, but runny, all by itself, wasn’t that impressive of a feat. He was just a little guy; certainly no a warrior.

He felt surrounded by all the boys on his way to the bar. They were getting ready for the military life and he could feel their judgmental, dismissive eyes upon him. With a deep breath, he looked to the imposing, iron rod, jumped and mounted the bar. What he lacked in physical strength, he made up for in tenacity. He wouldn’t refuse a challenge, and certainly not in front of such a beautiful girl.

The recruiter explained the rules.

“Straight up. Straight down. Your chin must clear the bar. If your legs swing to help you get up, that’s a kip. There’s no kipping. Any questions?”

Nathaniel shook his head. The recruiter asked if he was ready. With a look of determination and through pursed lips, he nodded his head.

“Begin.” said the recruiter.

Nathaniel pulled with everything he had. He found the first one to be easier than he had expected. His chin touched the bar and climbed just over it. “One.” The recruiter counted aloud. Nathaniel relaxed back to the downward position, dangling by his arms. One of the other boys in the procession said something about him kipping on his way up. The recruiter waved for him to keep it to himself. Nathaniel pulled again, this time noticing a strain he hadn’t felt the first time. It was much harder on the second pull to reach the bar. He pulled until he got close enough and stretched his neck. “Two” said the recruiter again. He dropped back to the dangling position, this time so hard he thought he would lose grip of the bar. Not wanting to give away his moment of weakness, he gritted his teeth and tightened his grasp. He looked up and began to pull. He made it half way when he felt the unstoppable force of his body no longer able to perform. His mind told his arms to keep moving. They, however, denied him the privilege of obedience. With a furious fit of what last reserves of strength and determination he had, he gave a last push to try to overcome the bar and his body’s silent revolt. He inched slowly, ever slowly, as he stretched his neck and reached his chin desperately towards the bar. His teeth were bared, as the tendons in his neck were taut. As his body curled and writhed to break the precipice of this humble hurdle, he started to shake. Finally, at the end of his humiliating climb, he heard the recruiter.

“Three.”

He dropped down and fell from the bar, barely landing on his feet. He was shaking a little and his face was beet red. It was humiliating. The recruiter didn’t seem to notice, however.

“Not bad for a first try. You know, three is all you need to make it into the Marines. Ever thought about your future, son?” said the recruiter.

A confused look highlighted Nathaniel’s face. Join the Marines? Why would he do something so stupid? He didn’t want to be rude, as much for social courtesy as for the fact that he was literally surrounded by young men who had done just that. Internally, though, he scoffed at the idea. That was when he looked back to the girl in the mini-skirt, the same one who pushed him onto that bar with her seducing eyes. She did not seem interested anymore, since now she was off talking to one of the other guys standing around the bar. After all that, she didn’t even notice. A snarl grew in his eyes.

“Ah…” said the recruiter. “So that’s what you’re after.” He looked at Romero with a grin before leaning in and whispering to him. “Well, I can tell you what will keep her attention.” He pointed to a poster hanging in his office, beyond the big window with the Marine’s logo on it. It was of a Marine dressed in a dark blue coat with medals, gold buttons, red and gold markings, a big white hat, and most notably, holding a sword. He had a sword. Nathaniel found himself perplexed by the fact that he had a sword. Why would he need a sword? What would he possibly do with a sword? That made even less sense to Romero than the pull-ups. Still, it was impressive. The Marine looked focused and distant, dangerous, but dignified. “You earn one of those and any women you want will be on you like…” The recruiter caught himself and pulled back his mildly lecherous smirk. “Think of it this way, by the time you earn the title and one of those coats, three pull-ups will be like nothin’, but by that point, you won’t need to do any more pull ups to keep a woman’s attention.”

Nathaniel stared at the poster as the boys around him conversed among themselves, and of course, with the girl in the mini-skirt.

“I’ll tell you what, let me see your phone.”

Nathaniel gave the recruiter his phone. The recruiter took it and opened his own. He said to the phone, “Give contact info; keywords: Military, Marines.”

He bumped the two phones together and Nathaniel’s made a chime.

“There you go. Whenever you’ve got questions, just search your contacts for Military.”

Nathaniel looked at the new contact. S-S-G-T Brandon Nobles.

“What’s S-S-G-T mean?” he asked.

“Staff Sergeant. I’m Staff Sergeant Nobles. Don’t be shy to give me a call. I have to take these boys out for a run, but I’ll be seeing you later. Have a good day, you hear? Poolies, form up in the parking lot.”

Nathaniel watched as they all filed outside. It was a bit ridiculous to see nearly grown men act that way, but he was a bit envious that they had something that they cared about way more than he cared about anything. Dejected, he went back to the girl who honestly didn’t care anymore, at all.

“That was fun.” She said as she watched the last of the boys leave through the mall’s exit. “I got one of their numbers! He said he was going to be…” her voice faded away to Nathaniel as he wished he could just have skipped the whole event. He really didn’t want to hear any more about her fascination or about if she had some new crush. He noticed, then, that she had grown silent. Not wanting her to realize he hadn’t been listening, he blurted out the first thing that came to his mind.

“That’s awesome.” The girl was oblivious to the sarcastic cynicism in his voice.

“So, you thinking about it?” She asked him.

“Thinking about what?” he asked.

“You know, joining the Marines?”

He was surprised at the question. “I don’t think so. I don’t need all that mess. People telling you what to do all the time, getting yelled at, and those stupid haircuts.”

“High and tights.” She replied.

“What?”

“They’re called high and tights. That guy told me all Marines get high and tights once they are in boot camp. I think it’s hot.” She bit her lip again and made a coo.

He paused for a moment. She spoke again.

“You’re probably right. It’s probably best you didn’t. You really wouldn’t fit in.”

“Why not?” He exclaimed. “I could do it just as good as any of those losers.”

She said with a sympathetically dismissive tone, “Nah. You’re just a nice guy.”

“So? That doesn’t mean anything.”

“It’s not really that. You’re just…” She paused, looking for the right words. “You’re just not dangerous, you know? I don’t see you ever being able to hurt someone if you had to. You’re just too nice.”

She tried to say it as a compliment, but it wasn’t. Every word cut him at his manhood, and yet she continued relentlessly.

“There’s nothing wrong with that, you know, just being a nice guy. You’re that type guy that a girl can just call to give her a ride to the mall for no other reason than because he’s sweet. That’s it. You’re not trying to get anything else out it. You don’t know how nice it is to just have a guy friend who’s nice. You’re, you know… sweet.”


If you would like to support the creation of The Future of War, 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.

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Proving Grounds – Part 3

Romero instinctively froze like a frightened rabbit, as if he were a stone that had been born to this patch of earth eons ago. The boot, and the hunter it belonged to, landed a few inches from where he lay. The soldier stood looming over Romero as three more troops came running up from behind, as well. It was an entire assault team.

The three other fighters outside of Romero’s view seemed to continue running passed. The soldier standing above him didn’t come down on the trapped animal either. They all seemed to be acting as if Romero hadn’t been there at all. They must have been following the drone in hopes that it would find and intercept him. They, however, were no luckier than the tiny copter. They just kept running, never realizing the helplessness of their prey behind them, and for one of them, beneath him. As the others moved deeper into the woods, the hunter scanning the forest above Romero took off, as well. He departed to continue the chase along with the others. When his boot launched inches away from the petrified PFC, it splashed more mud in the Marine’s face. As the splashes of mire speckled across his cheeks, the young Romero expelled the desperate breath he’d held these last few agonizing seconds.

Once they were far enough, Nathaniel slowly and quietly picked-up his rifle. He cautiously raised above the bush to watch his aggressors leaping and bounding effortlessly through the woods away from him, completely unaware of their oversight. Though he hadn’t prepared for this, he realized that he, for once, had found himself in the position of ambush. Seeing nothing but the backs of his enemy, he nervously shouldered his weapon and brought it up to his face as he steadied himself. While lying prone on the forest floor, he lined up the red dot on the center of his rifle’s optical scope on the closest one, the last of the group to pass him. When his finger began to slowly pull the trigger, he contemplated killing him, but also what it would take to kill the others. He’d have to get off at least one well aimed shot, right off the bat. If he was successful, that would take care of one, maybe he would have time to get a second.

He thumbed his rifle off safe and engaged the trigger mechanism. “Slow-steady-squeeze.” He recited. His finger tightened as he slowly continued to pull back on the trigger. He exhaled as he adjusted, following his prey. He was now the hunter, so it seemed. He continued to pull back on the weapon’s trigger slowly and deliberately, just like his coaches on the range had taught him to. He had to make this first shot or nothing else would matter. A millimeter more with his finger and he could feel a clunk within the weapon. It was the faintest of measurements, only noticeable because he was intimately involved with this instant, but he felt like he could feel the weapon preparing to fire with the last tightening of some last spring before the firing pin released, sending his round to meet his target.

Romero paused as he saw that it was getting harder to aim. His forward hand holding the rifle steady was shaking again. He hesitated and he let go of the trigger. Out of breath, he took in a deep gasp of air. He had lost the target. They were moving quickly away from him and he wouldn’t get as good a chance to get the surprise attack he needed again.

What would that matter though? What was he honestly planning? Was he just going to take down all four, all alone, with no back-up and no covering fire? He might get two, before one laid down suppressive fire, pinning him down while the other flanked around for the kill. Even if by some miraculous feat he killed all four, the firefight wouldn’t be over soon and before long the rest of the platoon would be on him to take their vengeance. It was hopeless to start a fight with them. He would be dead no matter how lucky he might have been following that first shot.

He watched through his weapon sites as the four disappeared into the thick woods. They were obviously in chase of him, but had no idea that they come within a heartbeat of finding him. In truth, this was the best thing that could have happened to their target. They were searching where he wasn’t. Nathaniel gathered himself and decided it would be prudent to allow the four, simply, to continue undisturbed and ignorant of their mistake. Once they were a safe distance away, Romero slung his weapon over his shoulder, placed his hand back on the pistol grip, flipped down his visor, and attempted again to make his way to the recovery point.

Not wanting to meet with these four or their like again, he decided to make a new route instead. He bounded perpendicular to the direction his hunters were heading in hopes to put as much distance as possible between himself and those so eager, it seemed, to do him harm. If he was reckless he’d be lit up, and become just another failed statistic like his friends. He was taking the long way this time, but given his current difficulties, being slow and clever was going to be the only thing that would prevent him from being dead and stupid. As Nathaniel Romero saw the world then, he’d much rather prefer being slow than to be dead.

He knew he wouldn’t last long if he didn’t stay on the move, though. He was running through the forest, still desperately in flight, weapon clasped firmly in his hands. Thinking deeper about it, he began to realize that he was barely aware if he was actually still running toward or away from the enemy soldiers, or perhaps even, to others yet undiscovered. In a moment of insecurity, he looked back to see if he could see anyone behind him. To the relief of his constant nagging sense of insecurity, he was still alone. He felt safer being reassured. Safe, though, is a relative term. He had indeed avoided the soldiers for a little while, but the forest has other dangers all its own.

Romero’s feeling of temporary relief, however, was robbed from him in the next instant, as his intended step failed him. Instead of making contact with the solid Earth below, his foot kept going onward into nothing but a void. No longer quite as concerned about the imagined soldiers behind, Nathaniel turned back and, to his horror, witnessed nothing but a pure fall from a ravine he had unwittingly failed to see while his attention was to the rear. He was then falling at the speed of terror toward the nearly dry riverbed, perhaps thirty feet below.

Fortunately for Romero, yet another tree reached out to meet him. This one plucked him from the sheer fall and threw him colliding into the mud cliff in a bone breaking collision. The impact beat from him all but the last shreds of life he had remaining, but narrowly prevented what would otherwise have been his demise in full. His limp body slid down the ravine’s wall to the edge of the stream below. As he lay there with an almost broken body in the muddy water, he thought about how he had found himself in this terrible, terrible place.

“That stupid girl.” He muttered.


If you would like to support the creation of The Future of War, 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.

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