Proving Grounds – Part 15

Nathaniel found a small overhang of rocks and scrub to hide in until help arrived. Minutes passed as he waited. In the calm and quiet, and with nothing to do but wait, Romero could not resist the sensation of peace about him. It was perhaps the first he’d experienced since this operation began. In the lull, he began to feel the weight of the night and the morning bear down upon him. He felt his head grow heavy. His eyes began to close as he drifted from conscience thought, to another place beyond the battlefield’s meadow.

Nathaniel was caught in a waking dream; his training and instincts fought desperately to keep him half-awake, while his body drove him to hallucinations of his subconscious mind. He saw the girl from before he joined standing on the far side of the distant meadow. Her hair and her pleated skirt flowed in a warm and gentle summer wind. The meadow was peaceful then.

Then a noise suddenly pulled him from her. He looked to his right and there were the cheering boys with the recruiter, urging him to come over. He took a step towards them and a hand grabbed his shoulder whipping him around. A screaming, angry Drill Instructor roared at him incoherently, speaking in nightmare gibberish. Frantically, he panicked, not knowing what to do to appease the tyrant. Attempting everything he knew, he dove to the sandy dirt beneath him, and to his feet, and to the dirt again; crunches, flutter kicks, side straddle hops, before the Drill Instructor shouted something else and ordered him to march.

He marched until he found himself in the back of a plane. Tts back end was open and all his team was there, ready to jump, Corporal Williams, and Lance Corporals Kaiser and Fannon, who they called Suicide. Williams grabbed him and threw him out the back of the plane, still in flight, with Suicide throwing out Romero’s weapon, and Kaiser laughing manically. He flew backwards, with the sensation of freefall. It was terrible, until he embraced the feeling of floating through the air.

From behind him, he heard a buzzing sound. He turned around to see a drone spotter flying towards him. He dodged as the tiny copter flew past, turning for a moment to inspect him, then turning again to fly back to the plane. He watched the robot as it began darting at the plane, buzzing it and clipping at it with its propellers. Romero reached out his arm to help when he heard yet more buzzing. From all around him, a swarm of thousands of tiny flyers rose out from the trees and to the plane. They threw themselves at the plane, tearing it apart with their millions of tiny attacks. The monstrous horde disintegrated the plane and his team vanished with a gust of wind. As the dust of the plane and his team members evaporated away, the swarm’s attention shifted. They had all turned towards the helpless boy suspended in air.

He was terrified until he heard a loud crack next to him. His rifle began firing, engaging the targets he was too afraid to on his own. It was trying desperately to save Romero. One by one, the drones fell from the swarm, but there was no hope. As one fell, a thousand more rose up to descend upon them. As he floated on in a transcendental fall, he thought to himself, “Wait. This isn’t how they died.”

When he thought these words, Nathaniel turned in midair to see the meadow, now very far beneath him. He was still falling. Seconds drew by as treetop canopy branches rose up around him. He continued to fall as the leaves and needles of the pine scratched his face. Watching the ground reach up to devour him, he whispered aloud, “I’m going to die.” And again, “I’m going to die, again.”

Then the falling stopped as he hit the ground. He felt soreness throughout his body, from his twisted ankles, his battered knees, bruised back and damaged ribs, to a headache like he’d never known before.

“I’m not dead, yet.” He thought. “How?”

Romero rose to examine himself. Was he still truly alive?

He lifted himself up and looked around. Through the fog, he saw that he had landed in the muddy creek, just below the lonely tree. He peered into the woods and saw something move. What was this? His gaze focused closer and in the forested darkness he saw the glint of blackened gunmetal. There was a man in the woods staring back at him. The man was holding a weapon, raised it to his eyes and readied it to fire. There was a sudden muzzle flash. Nathaniel saw the round impact the dirt at his feet. It was odd, he thought, that he couldn’t hear any sound.

Romero looked around confused. He could see the movement of others in the trees. They were firing on him now, as well. He looked around to fire back. His weapon was missing. With that, he felt panic. Frantically, Nathaniel looked around for his wayward weapon, only to see it high above, a strange piece of fruit dangling from the lonely tree.

As bullets flew passed him, impacting the muddy earth and the tree, and cutting the air all around, he reached for his weapon. When the Marine reached for it, the weapon moved away. The farther he reached, the more distant the weapon became. Looking up, Romero realized that it was hopeless. The hunters, vicious, snarling and in relentless pursuit after him beyond the tree shadows would be here to devour him soon. Terror took him over.

It was then, that he heard the sound of chopper blades. A helicopter hummed in the distance growing closer and closer. The leaves above the lonely tree danced as a powerful wind brewed in the forest.

“It’s a helicopter…” said Romero, still lost in his slumber. “It really made it…”
Then Romero suddenly became cognizant of the sound. It wasn’t part of any dream. His eyes burst open as he was jolted awake with the realization that he was dreaming up to this point, but that the sound of helicopter blades… they were real. His rescue had arrived.

“It’s the helicopter!” He said. “It’s finally here. It’s finally here. I’m getting out of here!”


Me 3Parasympathetic backlash.

In my research on warriors in combat for the book, I wondered across Lt. Dave Grossman’s books On Killing and On Combat. Grossman is one of the leading experts on what happens physiologically to a person’s body during combat levels of stress.

Among them that I found most interesting was the way that a person’s deep brain can drive the rest of body to perform at much higher rate than it was ever intended to under normal conditions, and all the side effects that come with that. It’s like stress making your body and mind are overclocked. The body is a wonderous machine, but that doesn’t come without side effects.

One of those side effects is what Grossman calls the parasympathetic backlash. After intense stress, a soldier backslides, passing even normal state to a point of complete exhaustion where all the strain the body hasn’t been allowed to deal with, suddenly takes over. This can be a deadly situation when the battle isn’t yet over, but only a temporary lull has been reached. Napoleon stated that the moment of greatest danger was the instant immediately after victory, and in the case of Romero, falling victim to it could just cost him his life.


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Proving Grounds – Part 14

PFC Romero was still running at a full gallop when heads up display started showing that he had reached the final leg of his personal crucible. It was well into the morning and warm enough that the cold long ago stopped being among his primary concerns. He wasn’t far away from the extraction point for which he and his team had set out to find hours ago. His vision tunneled toward this singular objective at the end of the forest. His display’s indicator finally showed the distance to the point where he would exfiltrate. That meant, thankfully, that he had under a quarter mile to go.

He knew, however, that the exfil site would be crawling with enemy troops. They were as anxious to prevent his escape as he was to get out of the forest. Having failed to secure their prey in the woods, the hunter teams would be moving to converge somewhere near areas a rescue could be mounted. Their only task from now would be in preventing him from reaching that point.

From that point on, he walked; he walked, and he listened.

The last few hundred yards were uneventful, pleasantly and surprisingly so, especially when one measures it against the rest of Romero’s night. For over an hour, Romero crept through that last stretch of forest. He could easily slink through these woods, moving almost silently over the wet leaves and moss covered earth. Hopefully that would grant him the evasiveness to avoid detection and prevent his capture. Hoping aside, what he needed was just a few more minutes of the Devil’s luck, because it was doubtful they still had aims of only capturing him anyway.

Romero had learned the sound of oncoming drones searching for his trail. He’d figured how to hide when he heard the buzzing of the tiny copters. His previous experiences reduced them to little more than a regular nuisance to him. There apparently were no infrared capabilities in the robotic beasts, so as long as he froze beneath some nearby bush for concealment, he wouldn’t be spotted. As fast and sturdy as the little killer machines were, they were easily detected and just as easily outmaneuvered by any vigilant enough prey. A camouflaged Marine was hard enough to find in woods like that, much less one hidden in the bush from a small camera flying overhead. The small screens, which their pilot viewed, gave little aid. By that point, they did little more than slow his progress further.

It was when they were gone, however, that Romero felt the most unease. The quiet of the woods was unnerving. Silence in this place did nothing to provide the comfort of peaceful solitude. Here, it failed to dispel the suspicion of never being truly alone. The enemy knew these fields. They also held a mastery of stealth. Romero’s team wasn’t the first to die in these woods because of them. No matter how much faith he had in his own new abilities at avoiding detection, he knew his hunters were far better. They were master hunters, dogged in their pursuit. They were far better at hunting than he would ever be as the hunted. He could only pray those skills would fail them, to his most timely fortune.

Nevertheless, he continued onward toward the blinking beacon on his HUD. Closer and closer he crept, until he finally reached a thinning of trees. He knew he was close. He hoped with everything he had left, that beyond this clearing, he would find his beacon and with it, the ticket out. He crept to the edge of the wooded brush, daring to look out into the open. There was a meadow overlooked by a wooded hill. It was one a dreamy landscape; one which might have been a pretty site in the spring, covered in vibrant growth, flowers and the presence of peace – the type you’d bring a girl to, he thought fleetingly.

In the mid-morning of February, though, it was a dull earthy grey. The last of the morning dew still coated the grass and the first glimpse of sunlight pierced the overcast sky and the frozen cold. The merging of optimistic sunbeams and the winter morning’s dying chill left the meadow hanging in a still and quiet fog.

Looking out into the meadow, he saw the beacon shining. There was a green spot far off on the other end of the field. It was a holographic projection on his screen, illuminated to show where the rescue helicopter was programmed to intercept him. He finally reached the end of this wretched exercise in misery.

His fears released from him. He would make it home, he thought. All he had to do was call for the rescue. Carefully and with deathly softness, he pulled the PRC-197 from it’s Velcro pouch on his chest. The Velcro seemed to roar as the fibers ripped, one by one, from their comfortable housing. Finally, he had the pocket radio in hand and fingered through the touchscreen menus. It seemed damaged from one of his numerous falls, but not unserviceable. What horror if he couldn’t. He had no signal in, as was to be expected in his situation, but he could transmit. He could send out a message, a nine-line evac order to his location, and be picked up by the nearest bird. He set the order and broadcast the beacon of his own.

“It’s over.” He thought. “All I have to do now is wait. They’ll get me out of here. It will all be over.”


Me 3

Survivalism is about being just lucky enough to learn from your mistakes.

I recently read a book that has been on my reading list for quite a while called, “All Quiet on the Western Front.” The story follows a platoon of German infantrymen during World War I. All 19 and from the same school class. The story follows them as each dies, one by one in the brutal onslaught of war as it was fought one hundred years ago.

What I found to be striking were the parts of the story where the main character speaks so matter of factly about the tricks one has to learn to survive, such as how to play dead when being overran or that it may be all clear above the trenches, but there still may gas down below. It was macabre, but fascinating.

I really thought about Romero during those times, learning to survive being hunted. Sadly that experience didn’t make it to the rest, but this is the way of things. Hopefully we will see Romero make it to be able to teach others the tricks of the trade in the future of war.


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Proving Grounds – Part 13

Lying almost conscious in the mud of some creek in a forest far from any home he’d ever known, PFC Romero was broken, battered, exhausted, starving. Somewhere in the forest, he was also surrounded by men of battle and war machines tasked with finding and killing him. In the nether between the mercy of sleep and the burning agony of consciousness, his mind flashed on the year before him and what ultimately brought him to this bleak point in his life. Thinking back to his combat instructor’s enthusiastic prophecy, Romero thought very little of the romantic allure of real combat, at the moment. Fighting and warfare weren’t as glamorous as he had once imagined. There was more to being a warrior than fancy suits, medals, and sword posing for cameras, like the posters in his recruiter’s office.

There was fear in this place. There was fear, and hunger, fatigue, and waiting. There was endless waiting; waiting for the opportunity to move, waiting for word, hurry-up and wait, waiting for orders, waiting for help, and finally, waiting to regain consciousness, or perhaps, waiting to die. He was the living epitome of war – lost and lying in the mud of some river bed, his helmet began filling with the muddy water on a cold morning while be hunted down like a fox or mangy dog. He never imagined himself on the losing side of a conflict like this.

In all, he had only a few minutes of rest. Before he passed out, he was haunted by visions of the last year, a year spent in training for a war that hadn’t even begun when he enlisted. He joined for all the wrong reasons, but thought at least that he enjoyed the life of meaning that military service was supposed to provide. He woke the instant the chilled water from the shallow flow filled his helmet and bit his cheek with its stinging cold.

When he woke up, he remembered where he was.  His team was lost to him. He was being hunted like an animal. His body was numb, all except those parts enshrouded in pain.

That feeling quickly melted away, however, when he realized he couldn’t feel his weapon. A Marine in war never goes anywhere without his weapon. He slept with it in arm’s reach always. Now his was gone.

Where had it fallen? Was it far? Where could it be?

He lurched to his knees, seeking to find the wayward rifle. He couldn’t see any sign of it anywhere in the mud around him. Looking to the bank, he could see where he had landed, and the trail his limp body had made sliding down the ravine, but his weapon wasn’t in any of those places.

With his heart quickening, and while searching frantically, Nathaniel took a breath. A sudden pain spiked in his chest. Had he cracked his ribs? How had he done that? Then he remembered the tree. He had been struck by a tree branch, which caught him and threw him against the slope. He looked up at the tree again, still holding his chest underneath his heavy bulletproof jacket. There it was, his weapon, caught hanging in the branches above. He would have to climb to get it back.

Just getting to his feet was a task of agony as his body reprogrammed itself into working as it should. He took one faltering step forward, with just that simple motion pain coursed throughout his entire body. Climbing that tree to get his weapon would be his own personal Kilimanjaro. He slogged through the mud, limping and wincing from the pain in his chest. Finally reaching it, he looked up to see his weapon, just staring at him from maybe fifteen feet up. How was it possible that it could have gotten so high? He hadn’t considered that as it was, it was still a good ten feet lower than the cliff.

With his strong arm, Romero grabbed for the first branch nearest the ground and attempted to find a footing to climb further. With his second thrust he reached high with his left hand and felt the sharp pain in his ribs stab him mercilessly. Something was definitely wrong with his chest. He dropped back down to think of another plan. Perhaps he could jar it down with a stick or a branch?

As he concocted some sort of plan, the placid sound of a still forest and babbling water was disrupted by an ominous buzzing sound. Instinctively, he froze. It was the drone spotters. They were still searching for him.

The buzz was still very distant and it was moving away. They hadn’t found him. That fact alone restored him with a new impetus. Romero now fully understood the need to get on the move as fast as possible. Knowing well what his choices were, he gritted his teeth and went for the tree again.

The climb was excruciating, but there really was no choice in the matter. The injury to his ribcage cried out every time he tried to reach out with his left arm. After twelve feet, he was gasping for air, and shaking violently on the precarious branches. He reached out and grasped desperately to get a finger hold on the weapon. He reached again and failed, then a third time. As he began to consider jumping as a viable alternative, he heard the buzzing, this time, nearer than before. With one last desperate stretch, he reached out his hands and grasped the sling of the weapon. His moment of victory was cut short when his footing gave way and he once again went tumbling down the tree. He hit what he believed to be every branch on his way down, finally snagging one strong enough to slow his momentum. It mercifully righted him just enough to land on his feet with a thud before rolling to the ground.

He laid in the mud, yet again, trembling with frustration and pain. He looked to his left. The weapon he had flailed so desperately trying to secure was perched daintily beside him on the only dry rock amid all the muck and grime everywhere else. He reached toward it with the last outpour of stamina his body would allow itself to muster. In his last moment’s exertion, his outstretched arm fell limp with a splash. He felt he could go no further.

Why was he being cursed with such potent and unmitigated scorn? He contemplated just lying there, giving up and dying. Perhaps it was just simply too hopeless. Perhaps God was telling him, in a manner of absolute certainty that Nathaniel Romero was simply not fit for the warfighter’s life of trial and tribulation. Yes, that was it, he wasn’t meant to be a warrior. As he laid there, cold and in the mud, he faced the urge to curl up into a fetal ball, reject his mission, and resign himself to what seemed his destined fate. He was meant to die as something other than a real warrior. He was just chasing dreams of glory and women, pretending to be something he was not. He was just another stupid kid playing war hero.

He looked at his weapon again. It seemed so peaceful there, sitting quite comfortably on its dry rock. It was like it didn’t even care about what Romero was going through. It seemed unharmed by the entire calamity that had befallen its master. It wasn’t broken and battered as Nathaniel felt at that moment. The rifle wasn’t covered in mud, filth, and now blood. It seemed so impervious. It seemed… smug. As it sat there, undaunted by the tumult around them, it mocked the young PFC with its invulnerability.

“What are you looking at?” Romero said, sneering at the unfettered rifle, punctuated with a string of colorful expletives.  The rifle said nothing.

“You think you’re so smart? You get us out of here.”

The rifle just stared silently into the distance.

“What?” Nathaniel exclaimed. “I’ve done everything. You know that?” His speech was slurred, as if drunk with misery or exhaustion. “I got us out when Corporal Williams, Su, and Kaiser bit it. I got us through the woods. I got us away from those guys shooting at us. I kept us from getting caught by the drone. I got you out of that damned tree. What have you done? Nothing! You just sit there, dangling from my shoulder… making me do all the work.”

The rifle was unmoved.

Romero lay there for a moment longer, gritting his teeth in anger.

“I could kill you right now if I wanted to. I could grab you by the muzzle and smash you against that very tree into a million pieces. I could…”

“Then do it.”, said the rifle.

Romero wasn’t prepared for that. Part of him knew he was dreaming, or perhaps… at least hallucinating. He knew that the weapon couldn’t really be looking at him in that manner, but hadn’t honestly expected the thing to reply. Perhaps he was losing his mind.

“Perhaps you are losing your mind, but that doesn’t change anything. You said you could smash me. Can you?”

Romero suddenly lost his sense of confusion to one of anger at the implication.

“I’ll do it.” Romero said. “You know I will.”

“I think you could. That doesn’t mean that you will. Pull yourself up and out of the mud and do it. Otherwise just lay there until you die of being so pathetic.”

Romero couldn’t believe his weapon’s brazen arrogance; it’s pure and utter stupidity, to insult him like it had. Enraged, Romero took a deep inhaling breath. The pain was gone from him in that moment and he threw himself to his feet. He slogged through the mud, stomping furiously toward the belligerent weapon. As he had promised, he grabbed it by the muzzle and marched over to the tree, which already had nearly killed him twice. He raised the weapon up and took the stance of a professional baseball player, up to level a ball out into the nose-bleed section. Perhaps he would get revenge on both of them.

“See? You could do it.” The rifle chirped in the moment before its demise.

Nathaniel paused. He looked at the weapon in his hands. What was he doing? Was he really about to punish his rifle for some ill-conceived plight he had put himself into? Was his rifle really just talking to him? Had he hallucinated the whole thing or had he really just lost his mind?

“Stay positive.”

He heard another voice. No, not just a voice. This was a memory. It was the sound of Gunnery Sergeant Yafante’s voice. “Stay positive.” It was the first class he gave for the unit in preparation for their pre-deployment Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training. “Stay positive” was the mantra they were supposed to repeat when in situations just like this; keep control of your breathing, focus on the task at hand – stay positive.

The buzzing returned. The seeker was going to be close this time. Romero slung his weapon quickly and bolted for the trees at the edge of the ravine. He had to climb up a particularly rocky ledge, one which gave his feet just enough traction to move while using roots dangling from the side of the river’s wall to pull himself up. Once at the top, he dove behind some bushes and waited for the drone’s passing.

Romero could see the copter this time. It was following the river’s path and moving much slower than before. Its masters were searching much more carefully this time. They must have lost him completely and were making methodical sweeps to regain his trail. The drone drifted towards the point where he had fallen from the tree before. It listed purposefully over the tree, then the mud hole he had lain in, and the loosened dirt where he had slid down the small cliff’s face. Perhaps it sensed it was on to something. The drone drifted slowly. Then it stopped. It tilted downward, its camera faced toward the deck and the evidence of his near death experience. It lowered down and investigated the mud below where he was. It panned around, first looking at the mangled tree, then the broken earth along the cliff where Romero had fallen, then at the muddy ground where he had lain, disturbed unnaturally by his crawling and flaying about. Through the optical lens, the pilot of the drone must have seen Romero’s telltale footprints. They led right from the tree to right where he was.

“Dammit!”, Romero thought, crouching low behind the tree near him, just barely able to see the tiny quadcopter through the bushes. He crouched down as low as he could behind the bushes.

The little drone appeared excited with its discovery. As the devil hovered, it tilted and pitched to point its camera along the foot track’s path and leered over until it pointed straight at the PFC. It rose suddenly into the air then screamed into forward action following the direction of the tracks. It was looking down directly on Nathaniel’s position. Romero froze again as the deceptively deadly drone flew at him.

Romero’s focus shifted to the rifle in his hands. In seconds, he would have to shoot down the drone if it found him. They would already know where he was, but at least taking out the seeker would let him move momentarily without its vigilant gaze. Surely, more would be along behind it, but he would buy himself at least a few more minutes. He gripped his weapon, thumbing the safety as the little copter drew piercingly nearer.

His eyes locked on his weapon. In the last second, as Romero’s body tightened instinctively before he would have taken aim and dispatched the flying nemesis, the copter’s flight carried it directly past him. It went right over him and on as if he weren’t even there.

The pilot of the tiny drone must have followed the path of the footprints, ending at the tree line. He must have assumed that the prey had already escaped into the forest and moved on some time before. He was completely unaware that Romero was right beside the riverbank at that very moment. PFC Romero had avoided the drone’s eyes, yet again. It soared with enthusiastic ignorance as to just how close it had come to finding him.

As it flew on, Romero’s jaw hung with shock and amazement.

“Stay positive, huh?” he said through a nervous chuckle, “Well… that’s something good at least.”

He could see the direction the drone was moving in. It was going along a path back towards where he had come from. The young PFC certainly couldn’t go that way. He’d have to find another route to the objective. Also, they had a much more recent grid location on where he had been. They would be gathering soon at the tree beside the creek, and would be on him soon if he stayed. He’d have to start moving again.

Romero again oriented himself to the destination he was directed to find. It was not far away by then, but he couldn’t go directly to it, not anymore. The troops who tried to catch him before would likely be covering everything between where he was then and where he needed to go. He decided it would be best if he took a wide arc, and attempt to come around the side. It would take more time, but so what if it did? All he cared about then was surviving to see the end of this mission.

He began to move at a stiff pace. Invigorated by what appeared to be good luck in another capture evaded, his pain seemed to subside and he was propelled by a strong second wind, or perhaps it was by then his third or fourth. As he ran, Nathaniel thought about the “conversation” he had with his rifle and how he had pushed himself to the brink of insanity to get up. Had he not, that drone would have found him. For a moment, he was very thankful for his brief hallucination. Best, he thought, to keep that story to himself.

As he bounded through the forest, he said with the first smile he worn in hours, “Okay Rifle, that was embarrassing for the both of us. I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”

The rifle quietly smiled to itself, and acknowledged him with its continued silence.


Me 3Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

To give you guys something to do over the holiday, I’ve given out a special long article to say thanks for following and also to celebrate rejoining Romero deep in the mess we left him in three months ago.

This episode was an experiment to me. I wanted to see how far I was willing to push a kid who was just pushed too far. It’s funny what a mind can do after days of experiencing hardship, and not the sort of hardship a writer who needs to work harder on his work, but the kind of a Marine lost in the woods being chased by enemy everywhere with no water and days of exhaustion. That said, one might expect things to get weird for the poor guy.

I doubt that Romero is at the point of suffering a full on psychologic episode, but if things don’t start going his way soon, he might just get there soon.


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 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?