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,


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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


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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 1

Private First Class Nathaniel Romero’s trigger finger trembled nervously as it rode the edge of the trigger guard of his M-27 rifle. He was cold that morning. Enveloping him was the bitter cold of a pre-dawn chill from the heart of February. He wasn’t trembling from the cold, though. He had been maneuvering for the past three weeks and knew how to deal with cold. He was cold; yes, of course he was cold, but he was also hungry, exhausted, and bruised, as well. He was weary, but that also wouldn’t explain the trembling.

Nor would the fact that he was then alone in those woods, lost deep in a foreign wilderness. He was also alone. He was, at that time, miserably alone, for he was the last one left of his four-man fire team. By then, it was only him slinking and crawling his way through some terrible forest in the hopes of reaching an extraction point that, his only hope of rescue, still a few kilometers away. That, of course, depended on if his sensors were to be believed. They had been wrong before, but they were all he had left.

Perhaps it was the cold, which made his body quiver. Perhaps it was the pain, fatigue, and the terrible pain of going through it all by himself. Perhaps he was just reaching his limit. Probably, though, the trembling he felt had more to do with the others he shared this forest with him that made his body quiver. Alone, truly alone, he wasn’t. Those that killed his team were still in the woods with Romero, a full platoon of them. They were well-trained and well-equipped infantrymen; professional gunman. They were hunters of men. They knew these woods. They knew he was somewhere within the thickets and they were scouring the forest relentlessly, with Nathaniel as their prey. Their mission was simple; to prevent him, through any means possible from escaping these woods with his package, a data packet detailing their recent maneuvers, operations, commanders, and troop strength, a holy grail for counterinsurgency efforts and the very same packet the rest of his team died for in the attempt to keep it protected. Simply, his mission was to escape, and theirs was to prevent him doing so.

Nathaniel had already lasted much longer than most nineteen year olds would have in this situation. He too was a warrior, not yet a seasoned veteran, but a professional warfighter nonetheless. In a way, this forest was his proving ground. The last nine months had been little more than the constant repetition and rhythm of training, preparing for battle and events such as this. Exhausted as he was, his body was moving on its own volition. The countless hours of rote drill and reiterations had made his body a machine with the ability to continue on long after his mind would have otherwise told him to give up. Steadily, he crept his way through the forest, his feet persisting after fatigue had robbed his mind.

It was his mind, though; had he yet acquired the mind of a warrior? Would he kill if he needed to, if the opportunity presented itself? Would he be ready… in that moment of testing?

As Romero continued to creep through the thick brush, he turned a corner behind a tall tree. There, standing in front of him, were the eyes of none other than one of the enemy troops staring directly back at the lonely Marine. They met one another suddenly in equal surprise. Together they paused for a time, each as unprepared to have the other delivered quite so easily as this. The two warriors stared at one another in an eternal second as their training sought to override their instinct to simply turn and pretend the encounter had never happened at all.

This ground was only an unassuming corner of the forest before the two made it fateful. Perhaps, had they both not chosen to be warriors, had they both not saw fit to fight; had they been bakers, or dentists, priests, or businessmen, they would have met under different circumstances. Perhaps they would have had much in common and even lived fondly knowing each other. Maybe they would have just never met, blissfully unaware of the other’s existence, not unlike any of the other eight billion people who would lead entire lives with no need to ever shoot at each other. These two didn’t have such luxuries that day. Unfortunately, they had already given up such pleasant lives of passivity. They had no hate for one another as individuals, but that was irrelevant, because there they stood – together.

They each had missions that morning and both mutually exclusive to the other’s welfare. One was hunter, and the other the cornered prey. Him or me. His mission, or mine. Realizing this finally, the gunman looking at Romero began to raise his rifle to his face.

In that instant, Nathaniel no longer suffered from fatigue. He wasn’t still feeling the strain of hours in tedious motion through the forest muck and the cold was no longer a driving concern. He wasn’t concerned anymore about his status as the last man of the fire team. He was fully alert and reacting on his body’s hard drilled instincts aided greatly by the chemical cocktail of adrenaline, testosterone, and sharpened to a fine edge by a healthy dose of terror when he saw the enemy weapon’s trajectory graze his own.

“Contact Front!” he screamed as he ducked away and attempted to ready his own weapon.

He instinctively gave the call to arms when he saw the enemy rifleman prepare to fire upon him. It did not matter, though. There was no one left in his team to hear it. They were all dead. He alone was left to navigate the woods, with nothing but a few kilometer to his rescue and three infantry squads on the hunt for him between it.

At least, at one point they had been searching for him, until that is, the second when he and this warrior crossed paths. At that point, he was not being hunted anymore. They had found him. What began as a single shooter lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Romero attempting to stalk his way through the woods would quickly became an entire platoon of the world’s most deadly trained warfighters alive, and all with their sites, quite literally set on the lone Private First Class Romero. His only hope then was to slip away, somehow, from under the crushing weight of the small army descending upon.

The enemy trooper let loose a burst of fire on Romero. Both scrambled as his rounds sped past the young Marine. Romero was frantically attempting to return fire, as well as scurrying to some semblance of defensible cover. As the sound of the first round cracked past his head, he collapsed back behind a tree, stringing out a barrage of internal expletives to ease his mind.

He knew the enemy’s capabilities. He knew that the enemy used equipment with the same abilities as his own. Once the on-board sensors were able to lock onto their target, being the young Romero, he would be tagged in their network monitoring system. From there his location would be uploaded and tracked, relayed to the entire formation. They would all be graced with a beautiful map right to him, able to ambush and overwhelm him from every imaginable direction at their leisure. Worse, once their on-board computers had his location, they could just call down for the unmanned observation assets, air strikes, indirect fire, and a whole host of other capabilities specifically designed to bring about his gruesome and instantaneous demise.

He had to get out of there fast before that first one locked on him. In spite of the bullets already flying his way, the enemy soldier didn’t even need to shoot him. So long as he simply looked at him long enough, Romero was surely dead.

Knowing little else to do, PFC Romero sprang out of the tree and lay down a short burst of his own. He didn’t care if his shots made contact. He just needed to create the illusion of a threat by providing his own covering fire. So long as his fire was enough to send the other soldier already perusing him to duck behind some cover and break his optic’s concentration, the young PFC would have a chance to escape into the woods before a flood of enemy troops rained down upon him.

He fired one burst after another as he bolted from behind the tree. He saw the enemy trooper dive behind another tree. Romero glided with his weapon up firing another three round burst, and another, and another. He kept his eyes on his enemy while he simultaneously transitioned from a gracefully smooth combat glide to the full on sprint of a frightened rabbit in flight. Turning around he found himself running full speed through the forest. He heard shots crack to his side, barely missing him. While maintaining his desperate sprint, he glanced behind him for only a moment to fire a haphazard burst in hopes of quieting his enemy once again.

Romero kept running regardless. He dashed another twenty yards before more fire came in from his rear, this time off wider to his right. Was there a second soldier now? Still not stopping, he raised his weapon again and fired off another random burst behind him. Three more rounds and clunk. The bolt locked to rear as he heard the loudest sound on any battlefield. Romero’s weapon was dry, he had fired the last of his ammunition in the magazine.

Cursing violently in his mind at his own stupidity, spraying and praying his way to an early death, he fumbled for the magazine pouches strapped to his chest. He’d never done a magazine exchange at a full speed sprint through a mud soaked forest. He fiddled frantically with the Velcro flap and attempted to pull out his next batch of ammunition. His hands slipped as the rest of his body leapt, bounded, and sprinted through the forest. His instincts kept him from slowing down, but he was failing to secure a second magazine.

Finally, he was able to gain a finger hold that didn’t slip from his gloved hand. He pulled the magazine from its pouch and placed it over the top of the spent magazine seated in his weapon. With his trigger finger, he pressed the magazine release for the spent mag. It released and he grabbed it over top the new rounds. Having both in hand, he pulled the old magazine from its seat and attempted to place the new mag in with one steady motion, just like he had rehearsed a thousand times before with his combat instructors. His hand fumbled over the magazine well, the top of the fresh mag sliding back and forth, clunking across the open port at the bottom of his rifle.

Running as he was when he attempted to seat the new magazine, he found it impossible to find the magazine well. He was furious with himself for letting himself run dry at a time like this. He just couldn’t place the new magazine in while running full stride, an admirable feat for even a seasoned veteran. The only way he would make the connection would be to look down and make sure that it was seated correctly. For only a second, he glanced down and guided the new magazine in. The metal on metal slid past one another with a sharp scraping sound, followed by a clack when it was fully inserted followed immediately by a rejoiceful click when magazine catch took hold of the fresh new magazine. He gave a slight tug to make certain it was in then reached around and slapped the bolt release with his non-firing, sending the bolt of his weapon forward and chambering another round. The bolt hurled through the upper receiver and landed with a clunk. The weapon was deadly again.

Then, he thought to himself about how he hadn’t heard the other shooter fire on him for some time. Perhaps he had lost him and that he was in the clear.
As he looked up from his restored weapon, Nathaniel felt a sharp pain to his head. It was an agonizing suddenness. In an instant, he was dizzy and disoriented. He saw stars as his vision blurred and then faded to white. His knees gave out from under him and he fell to the ground with a violent crash. As he fell the consciousness slipped from him, the last things his waking mind would recall was asking himself meekly,

“What happened?”

“What is this pain in my head?”

With his last fleeting thoughts he groped in the darkness for a grim realization of what had happened to him.

“Did I lose?”

“Did they get me?”

With that final thought, PFC Nathaniel Romero’s head landed hard on the ground beneath him, though he did not notice. His white vision faded to black and then he slipped away.

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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