Proving Grounds – Chapter 20

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

Me 3

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

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


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

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Proving Grounds – Chapter 19

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

“Well?” he roared.

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

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

“And why is it good PFC?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Corporal responded, “No, Gunnery Sergeant.”

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

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

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

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.” Williams again replied.

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

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

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

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant.” William replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, Gunnery Sergeant.”

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

“With me, Gunnery Sergeant.”

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


Me 3

 

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

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

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

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Proving Grounds Chapter 18

Romero woke to the sensation of daggers piercing his nasal cavity. The sudden chemical jolt was of such a shock to his subconscious that he was propelled back to the realm of the living.
As his vision returned, Nathaniel could see sunlight shining high above him. The light was darkened as silhouettes of men loomed above and all around his limp frame. Terrified, and confused, he began to flail about wildly, punching and kicking at the air and towards the dark figures that surrounded him. He desperately groped around for his weapon, but it wasn’t there.
The shadowy figures descended upon him and held him down at the shoulders while another held down his legs.
“Easy there, Devildog. We gotcha’. The exercise is over, so let’s just tone down the bravado there. Good to go?” It was a familiar voice, but he was completely unprepared to be hearing it here. He was unprepared to hear anything at all. He was sure that he was dead.
“Romero, chill the hell out. It’s over. It’s over.” He knew this voice, too. He knew it well. It was Corporal Williams, his fire team leader.
He looked around and saw everyone from his fire team. His fire team leader had his legs, while the other two members of his team, Suicide and Kaiser were holding down his shoulders and arms. Doc Schubert was leaning over him holding the ammonia pack and a bottle of water in the other hand. The doc looked at Romero as he began to calm.
With a disconcerting grin, “Yeah, there you go. Now you’re coming back to us.”
Nathaniel scanned his surroundings, still overcome with bewilderment. The wrecked plane was gone. The debris was gone and the fires were gone. All the enemy soldiers were gone. No, that wasn’t true. Someone in one of their uniforms, a blonde haired man with a military high regulation haircut and about the same age as Romero was screaming at another Marine. The soldier was upset, but didn’t look like what Romero ever thought a prisoner of war was supposed to look like. Romero wanted to know where his handcuffs were, why he was standing and why wasn’t anyone detaining him? Romero realized the soldier still had his weapon. Why did he still have his weapon? Nathaniel began to get excited again when he realized this. Doc Shubert again interrupted his thoughts.
“Oh yeah, that guy’s pissed.” said Doc unconcerned. “You gave those FOF-TICK boys a real scare, especially your little friend over there. You can shoot holographic simrounds at projected images all day and everybody gets back up no problem like, ‘Hey Honey. Tough day at work. What’s for dinner?’ but if you had butt stroked that dude in the face like you almost did, he’d a been done for, for real.”
Romero just stared, dazed and confused.
The Doc saw the distant, still trembling look in his eyes. “Right…” he said. He wasn’t quite satisfied of the cognitive state of his patient. “Look PFC, I need you to take off your flak. I need to check to make sure that your impactor simulator vest isn’t going to deliver any more of those shocks you seem to love so much. I also need to check a few other things. Make sure you aren’t going to die or crack up on me.” He paused, unsure of the shaken warrior’s mental faculties. “You understand what I’m saying? You got me?”
Romero said nothing. He just stared around with a flighty, distant look in his eyes, frantically darting from person to person all around him. Little did they know, he was still in search of the downed plane that wasn’t there, which was never there, and all the Marines aboard.
“Ok. We’re going to take that flak off, you understand?”
As the Navy Corpsman’s hands drifted toward the clips on Romero’s flak jacket, panic suddenly overcame the young Marine again. He began breathing heavily, then gasped to the point of hyperventilation. He started kicking and punching again, restrained only by the aid of his fire team. All of the mental barriers holding back his animal strengths and impulses had been unbound. He was just a feral beast, cornered and panicking. Rabid. The four of them, his fire team and the corpsman, had fought with all of their collective wills, just to repress him and prevent him from doing further harm to himself or to one of them.
Just as he had freed one of his hands and was about to swing, another voice broke into the fray, roaring out and capturing the attention of every soul in the meadow.
“Devildog! Pull yourself together!”
PFC Romero and the other Marines froze in position. Fists halted mid-swing as everyone stared at this ominous form making its way over to the cornered Marine. It was Gunnery Sergeant Yafante. He had joined the unit not long before SERE II training and in that short time he had implanted himself deep within their souls and subconscious as the lone source of fear, pain, discomfort and every human indignity imaginable.
“Stand up Marine! Position of attention, right now!” Yafante bellowed like a possessed demon, or perhaps, something more reminiscent of Romero’s Drill Instructors from months before.
With an automatic impulse to the command, Romero’s body followed instructions without thought. Almost instantly, he was standing, heels together, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. He might have just as easily been in formation moments before a parade, rather than being the one covered in the mud and muck of some Carolinian bog serving as a mock battlefield. Nathaniel was surprised his body would do that at just the simple command. Perhaps it only required the right person. His confusion at the involuntary control this man had over his body quickly transitioned back to fear of the individual currently marching towards him.
“Show some bearing devil! You’re acting like some boot straight out of the School of Infantry! Oh, that’s right. You are a boot straight out of the School of Infantry! I guess that explains why you went all Call of Duty on my training course and got a whole Marine Quick Reaction Rescue Squad killed in the process!”
Romero looked around confused. At first, he did not know what to think, then he remembered the downed plane. He looked over to see where it had crashed. The meadow was clear. There was no evidence of anything happening there, at all. Still lost in confusion, panic was starting to form again in his eyes. Yafante saw this.
“Romero”, Yafante broke in, grabbing Nathaniel’s chin and focusing it back on him. “Wake up! It was simulation! Holographics. It was all just a visualization on your visor. Blips on a screen. You think anybody’d give you a real Marine infantry squad to get killed? You think we’d give a whelp like you real rounds to fire at people? You think you could be shot three times and just stand here looking at me like some sort of moron?”
In that instant, Nathaniel remembered when he had been shot. He looked down to observe the wounds he had received from some unknown enemy in the forest. His hands groped around where he felt the bullet’s impact still, but there was no wound.
“Not real! Not real! Not real! It wasn’t real. You were never shot. It was just your electroshock training vest. You’re fine PFC. Position of attention right now!”
Romero snapped back into position. Suddenly, it began to dawn on him, it really was all just a simulation. He didn’t know when he forgot that fact or why. Perhaps it was the exhaustion, the simulated feeling of being someone else’s prey, or nearly being beaten to death with a tree. He wasn’t aware of it, but it had happened sometime after that. He stopped thinking about the fact that this was all training sometime after the creek, during the long slow march over the last few hundred yards, perhaps. His thoughts were held ransom by his focus on the force-on-force trainers, his enemy, and avoiding interception by the drones. Fatigued as he was, he drifted into a dream state then, more of a walking sleep; automation focused on his survival. When he finally reached the meadow, it was not just the end of an exercise; he really thought he was safe, having forgotten that he was never in any real danger at all. No longer riding a high of adrenaline, he passed out from exhaustion. He was only woken by the sound of the Valor playing in his headset on the speakers of his radio. It wasn’t just a virtual projection of a plane playing on his heads up display; it was his escape from a combat zone. When the plane crashed in front of him, it wasn’t just a projection of holographic pixels representing a failed objective; it was the grave of eleven real people, Marines, who he would never meet, not because they didn’t exist, but because they were dead. It wasn’t a training simulation. Once he reached that point, it was a real battle.

The Force on Force Tactical Training Command, FOF-TTC, calls Romero’s experience “going there”, and it isn’t an extremely uncommon event. When a trainee “goes there”, they endure the stress and the advanced simulation training aids to the point of becoming completely unaware that they are involved in a simulated exercise. Romero wasn’t the first to “go there” during Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape level B training, known throughout Marine infantry units preparing for global deployment as SERE II. He also wouldn’t be the last. Far from it. In fact, his example would be studied rigorously and the FOF-TTC Marine trainers and operations staff would attempt to replicate his experiences for future students of the program. They designed their training to push Marines to the rational boundaries of what could be forced upon infantrymen in the months prior to real life deployments. “Going there” was the ultimate achievement for a training battalion like the boys of FOF-TTC. It forced such a deep level of realism that, in theory, troops like Romero and the rest of his battalion were more ready for battle than any other unblooded units in history. Of course, actual force-on-force trainers like the Nebraska born Corporal Hicks were none too pleased when they faced the prospect of eating the butt stock of an M-27 rifle for a job that was designated strictly as “non-combat operations”.


Me 3

Yeah, so I kind of lied.

The little iggit isn’t dead. The truth was, I wanted an opportunity to present all the themes of the book, as well as the main character with which it would be viewed, through the lense of how war shouldn’t be.

Quite honestly, except in the highest echelons of the special forces community, you never see the lone survivor making his way back valiantly. In the real world, that sort of thing could only happen as a fluke, which here it does.

This chapter also gives me the chance to introduce some of the technology that will be used later on in the book series. That said, I’m excited to have reached the falling action of Proving Grounds, preparing the way for my next segment – Disembarkation.


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

Cover Art

 

Proving Grounds – Part 17

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

 


Me 3

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

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


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Proving Grounds – Part 16

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

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

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

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

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


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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.

Cover Art

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 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


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