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Tuesday, 19 December 2023 01:00

My Life as a Woman

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My Life as a Woman

By E. E. Nalley

 

Prolog:

“Have you ever had a dream, Neo? A dream that you were so certain was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you tell the dream world from the real world?”

I know what you’re thinking. Why start with a quote? Especially a quote like that? Well, bear with me for a bit. You see, I love movies; that might be one of the reasons my dreams are so vivid. Some of them even have sound tracks and they’re almost always third person. There are those who claim I am over preoccupied with movies.

I get it naturally enough. For a while I even worked in the movies. Not what you’re thinking. Actually I’m a telecommunications and computer networking engineer by training. But, after 9/11 that industry, like so many others, took a pretty hard down turn, so I was forced to take whatever work came my way. So I took a job at a movie theatre, made it all the way to projectionist before I couldn’t stand it any more.

So, it’s only natural that I look to movies for a quote that fits the story I’m about to tell you. I can’t honestly say whether or not it’s true, or even real. All I know is I’ve been having dreams about myself, so real and vivid, and startlingly enough first person, that I have to write this. I hope that by writing this it will be either a catharsis and end the dreams, or else, allow me to wake up in that other world. The world of which I dream every night with more and more detail and solidity; the world in which I was born a woman.

My name is Ernest Nalley, and I write for the freedom of my soul.

A few short weeks ago, I awoke from a dream, unsure of whom or where I was. The dream was startling in its shortness and its simplicity. Yet, as I sat in my bed, struggling to awake and cold start my mind; it was filled with images, memories and feelings both fearfully alien and disturbingly familiar. Memories that were far more complex and detailed than the short images of the dream.

It is these memories that I will relate to you; the story of a life that never was? Or, perhaps I will tell you the story of a life merely asleep. The story that has unfolded to me every night since.

The story of my life, as a woman.

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Chapter One

I was born, Elizabeth Jean Nalley, on March 10, 1970 at Crawford Long Memorial Hospital, Atlanta Georgia, to Ernest Eugene and JoAnn Marie Nalley. My father had hoped for a son he could name for himself, as was the custom and fashion then. Only slightly crestfallen at the results of my birth, he thought to feminize his name instead. Fortunately, my mother detested the sound of Ernestine and thus I received Elizabeth.

Jean was close enough for dear old dad, thus I grew up with two names, and I could always know who wanted me, depending on the name being yelled. I cannot say much about my father, for shortly after the fifth birthday of my younger brother Stephen, dear old dad found other places to be, at the rather firm instance of my mother.

It was 1976 and we were looking at the prospects of being a broken family. That was popular then, and now, but making ends meet was always difficult. For my mom, the only answer to that was to move back in with her mother, my Grandmother.

Ah, what can I say about my granny; the last of the Great Southern Ladies? That would probably be the most accurate. I tell you, June Cleaver had nothing on Marie Amos. She could scrub a floor, sew a new wardrobe, and bake bread every day while still finding time for needle work before lunch. I wish I had half her energy, or organizational skills, or any of a few dozen admirable qualities of her.

I suppose I’ll have to settle for having been gifted with her temper, manners that are nearly a century out of date and a lack of a social life until I could legally buy beer. Do you know what a mayonnaise dish looks like? I do. And I can tell you where on a banquet table it should be placed. Sheesh, what a Martha Stewart I could make.

Uneventful is the best adjective to describe my school years. Boring is another good one and stifling is also an excellent choice. It wasn’t just because I was a girl, either. Granny was equally oppressive to Stephen and me. The few friends we were allowed to have were almost exclusively at school, during school hours. The house had only one telephone, and it was located in the dining room and I wasn’t allowed to use it. To be fair, neither was Stephen. I wouldn’t have gotten to go to my own prom if I hadn’t volunteered to help put it on.

Nothing is worse than going stag, as a young woman, to your own prom. I mean nothing.

And, for twenty one years, this was my life. Until, in late 1990, a little known of country named Iraq invaded an even less known of country called Kuwait. War, it was my ticket to a life and I seized it. Three days after my twenty first birthday, I was sworn in as Private Nalley and was off to basic training. Poor Granny, she was furious, but it’s funny how fate works.

The Army Years

“I, Elizabeth Jean Nalley, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the Untied States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

Happy birthday to me and I’m in the Army now.

The plane ride to Missouri was only the second time in my life I had been on an airplane. Being airborne is almost second nature to me now, but it was novel then, even in its boredom. I arrived at Lambert Field, St. Louis at about 10pm local time with the wonderful prospect of a two hour bus ride to the base ahead of me, but there was little that could deter my spirits. I was out, on my own, living life.

And I had an edge that would stand me in good stead, both in Basic and in the rest of my Military Career. My oldest Uncle, John, and youngest Uncle, Frederick were both already in the Army, for one, and Drill Sergeants for another. I was in the Drills heads from jump street and it was edge I intended to use.

I will spare you, dear readers, the utter and mindless agony that is Reception Battalion. Suffice to say I was issued my uniforms, signed many forms (the most disturbing of which were entitled Waiver of Constitutional Rights and the Last Will and Testament) and more than one anxiety attack by one of my sister would-be soldiers. That month, Delta Company, Fifth Battalion, Tenth Infantry Regiment was the rotation company to receive female trainees, so that’s where I ended up.

“On your feet!” screeched a harsh voice that echoed through out the wooden, World War Two Era barracks that made up the 459thReception Battalion. The voice belonged to Staff Sergeant Rodriguez, a short, overly angry Hispanic drill sergeant who would be the bane of my existence for the next eight weeks. Instinctively, I rose from my bunk and assumed the parade rest stance, which, along with my height at five eleven immediately caught her attention.

She stormed over, the Australian Outback Hat that was the symbol of her Drill Sergeant status serving as her smoke stack on the steam engine of derailment of my life. “Who told you how to do that?” she demanded.

One of the first things you should know about Drill Sergeants is that for the first three weeks or so, nothing you do will be right. Even if it is right, it’s wrong. Knowing this, I choice my next words carefully. “The IET Soldiers Handbook, Sergeant.”

“You being smart with me, Nalley?” she demanded, reading the name tape on my uniforms breast with some difficulty. I say difficulty because I was easily head and shoulders taller than she was, and, well, my bosom is my best feature. I wasn’t looking forward to the back aches I’d be due later in life, but at twenty one sagging and back aches were the least of my problems. The fact that Sergeant Rodriguez had to stand on tip toe to read my name tape was not helping my aspirations of being invisible.

“No, Sergeant. I am only trying to conform to regulations, as I swore to. I can’t do that without knowing them so I was reading my handbook, Sergeant.” As proof, I offered forward the small manual still in my hand.

The IET Soldiers Handbook is rather like Soldiering for Dummies, everything you ever wanted to know about basic soldier tasks, but were afraid to ask. Sergeant Rodriguez’s over-plucked eyebrows ascended her round face.

“Are you a college girl, Nalley? You think this is college?”

“No Sergeant, I don’t think this is college.”

“That’s good,” she fired back, “Because for the next eight weeks, you all belong to me.” She moved on to address the other girls, the bullet having been temporally dodged. “That’s right ladies; you all belong to me now. And I want my possessions out front, with their gear in five minutes. It’s time to join the Army now!”

With that, she swaggered out, leaving a group of dumbfounded looking young women behind her. I silently got my duffle from its place at the foot of my bed and began to struggle to put it on. The others clustered around me, I guess since the average age of them, not counting me was seventeen, and I kind of became the group mom. I was hit by a flurry of questions on the order of, “What does she mean?” “Are we moving?” “Why is she so mean?”

Finally I got the fifty pound duffle on my back and was able to get the girls quiet. “She means get everything you own, on your back like me and out front. Yes, we’re moving to our training company. Reception Battalion is only for processing in. And she’s mean because she’s a Drill Sergeant. If you don’t want her pissed at you, you’d better get your stuff and get out front in less than five minutes.”

I pushed my way through them and stepped out into the frigid late Missouri winter morning. On the black top was an idling Semi Tractor which had what looked like a cattle car attached to it. You’ve probably seen them on the highway, lots of little air holes on the sides, the kind of thing that if this wasn’t the US Government would be all sorts of illegal to use to transport people. It was here that I got my first looks at the Drill Sergeant cadre that would be the absolute gods of my universe for the next eight weeks.

Staff Sergeant Rodriguez you already know. She was thirty or so, had been married and divorced more times than I had actually had sex in my life at that point, and even though she was only middle high the organization of the company, she was to be the lead Drill for this cycle as the Company would be taking in female recruits. And that pleased her immensely.

The actual order of things was Commanding Officer Captain John Moon, Executive Officer 1stLieutenant Gregory Tera, Company NCO 1stSergeant Harold Pierceson, and the Training NCO Sergeant First Class Joe McCray. As you might imagine, none of these individuals were outside, let alone awake at this hour. Rank hath its privileges as they say.

Outside was Sergeant First Class Joe Wheeler, a tall, red headed bean pole of a man, whom I would learn hailed from Marietta, Georgia, just the proverbial few miles up the road. It was he who would give me my nickname. If you’ve ever been to Atlanta, you have probably seen an ad for the Nalley Automotive Group, which is the largest collection of car lots in the state. Nalley Chevrolet being the first and largest of the lots. Thus, throughout basic I was known as Nalley Chevrolet. Sigh.

I know what you’re thinking. The answer is, if I was related to them, I’d be selling cars, not joining the Army.

Sergeant Wheeler was the Platoon Sergeant in charge of the other Drills of 1stPlatoon, D Company, 5th battalion, 10thInfantry Regiment. Sergeant Wheeler had married a wonderful Korean lady while stationed there and was genuinely a decent human being.

Below him were Staff Sergeants Rodriguez, and Milton Anderson, the baby Drill of the company. Baby, as this was his first tour as a Drill. He was that short, rugged, but boyishly good looking kind of man. He wore one of those paper thin Errol Flynn mustaches and I would find myself liking him immediately.

Then there was Staff Sergeant Smith. Staff Sergeant Smith was thin to the point of being anorexic and his eyes were too large for his long, thin face. I’ve seen gymnasts that weren’t as limber as he was and, despite his lanky appearance, there was an air of Dangerous Mother Fucker about him. I would learn later that he’d fought in our invasion of Panama and had volunteered to be physically and mentally tortured in POW school. Twice. Like Staff Sergeant Anderson, Sergeant Smith was an Airborne Ranger.

Sergeant West was the odd ball of the group. He was much older than the others in a kindly, Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction kind of way. He was far too old to be a lowly buck sergeant, but I would never learn the circumstances of his life that led him to there.

As I shivered in the Missouri morning, looking over the men who would hold such a large amount of control of my life for the next two months, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. I was the first out the door of the barracks.

“Nalley!” came Sergeant Rodriguez’s strident voice from where she stood next to Sergeant Wheeler. It was like an Army American Gothic. “Get over here!”

I trotted over as best I could with fifty pounds of uniforms, toiletries, towels and the other impedia of being a new soldier all stuffed into the worst design of a caring system I had ever had the displeasure of wearing on my aching soldiers. Knowing full well it would make things worse; I assumed parade rest once more and said, “Private Nalley reports as ordered, Sergeant.”

Sergeant Rodriguez actually cackled. She turned to Sergeant Wheeler, who easily towered over me, which wasn’t something I was used to from men, and said, “Private Nalley is going to be our Super Duper Solider, Joe. How about that?”

“Where are you from, Nalley?” Wheeler demanded, badly concealing a grin at what was coming.

“College Park, Georgia, Sergeant. It’s a little south west of Atlanta.”

“I know where College Park is, Nalley. I’m from Marietta.” This, I could tell, would be bad. “Exactly where did you learn it is correct to stand at parade rest when speaking to a non-commissioned officer?”

“The IET Soldiers Handbook, Sergeant.”

Sergeant Wheeler was possessed of a remarkable control of his facial muscles. To this day I am impressed with his ability to make the most remarkable expressions. “I asked you exactly where you learned that, Private Nalley.”

This caused confusion, which must have shown on my face. Sergeant Wheeler generously elaborated. “On what page of the IET Soldiers Handbook, did you learn it is correct to stand at parade rest while addressing a non-commissioned officer?”

“Ah, I’m not exactly sure what page, Sergeant…”

“Wrong answer, Nalley Chevrolet! Drop! Push ups!” I struggled to get down into a push up stance with all that weight on my back. “When I ask you a question, Nalley Chevrolet you will know the answer. You will make it your business to know what I’m going to ask you, before I ask you so that you will have that information for me! Do you understand?”

“Yes sergeant!” I panted, struggling to do push ups, but struggling far harder not to laugh. Laughing at a Drill Sergeant was death.

Sergeant Wheeler grabbed my duffle and hauled me to my feet by it, demonstrating a remarkable strength from his wiry frame. “Get over there and stand in formation, Nalley Chevrolet.”

The girls and I were formed into something half way between a mob and a military formation with a great deal of yelling on the part of our new Drill Sergeants. Introductions were made on the part of our Drills, and then we were told to remove our duffle bags and hold them in our arms. I would never think there was more than one uncomfortable way to hold this bag, but I would learn there are actually three. This was number two.

Then we were herded, cattle-like into the cattle car. Now, Army Cattle Cars have benches in them to sit on. It would be some time before we were allowed to sit on the benches, but they were there. No, to make this trip even less safe, we were crammed into a car that was designed to hold about half our number, by some of us standing on the benches and the rest standing on the floor. And we where to stand, holding our duffle bags over our faces.

I thank my lucky stars that I don’t suffer from motion sickness, as the tongue lashing some of the girls who threw up got were probably worse than the sickness itself. I’m not exactly sure how long or far we rode in that trailer, but that was the point, we were being thoroughly confused as to where on the base we were. It was all part of the head game.

As it stood, we entered the trailer in darkness and when we were screamed out of it, it was daylight. What followed was in all probability only an hour or so, but it seemed like a life time of calisthenics. Body builders talk about working out until they reach muscle failure, the point at which your muscles simply stop working. It’s utterly exhausting and the first (but not last!) time in my life I would experience that level of tiredness.

During our little early morning work out, we were introduced to 1stSergeant Pierceson, an absolutely huge, brick bunker of a Black man. Dimensions fail utterly to assail the bulk of that man, but very little of it was fat. A lesser man would have needed a bull horn to be heard by all of us, but his voice carried in a manner that put electronics to shame. Finally, he was satisfied that we were too exhausted to move, so he called us to our feet once more.

“Now then, ladies, I am going to welcome you to the Army. For the next eight weeks you will learn what it means to serve your country. For the rest of today, the following is going to happen. When you are dismissed, you will be assigned your bunks, you will take a shower, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of ladies, it’s just a shower, and you will then report to the big bay inside. MOVE!”

Having been one of the first out of the truck, I was now in the back of the formation as we struggled around the building to the front doors on the other side. There was actually a coke machine in the lobby of the barracks which strangely comforted me as I was whisked past it and into a remarkably small room with only two bunks and two wall lockers. This, I must say, surprised me greatly.

I stood at the foot of my bunk and next to me was Gail Limpkins, 17, of Paducah Kentucky. Gail was a naturally sweet, if not overly bright, country girl. She did have ambition in excess and was determined to be the first member of her large family to successfully graduate from college. To accomplish this, she had enlisted in the reserves to take advantage of the Montgomery-GI Bill. As it turned out, I was one of four soldiers in my company of two hundred who were going to be Active Duty, full time soldiers. The rest were either Reservists like Gail, or National Guardswomen.

It was simple luck of the draw that Gail and I were ushered into this small room, the larger bunk bays being full by that point, thus Gail was to be my Battle Buddy. The smallest unit of infantry is the Combat Pair, or as it was more affectionately known, the Battle Buddy. Over the next eight weeks, Gail and I would learn just about everything there was to know about each other.

As we panted from this last sprint around the building, Sergeant Anderson entered our little corner of the Army universe, a sharpie permanent marker and a roll of standard masking tape in hand. The tape he used to apply to the wall lockers and the sharpie placed our last names on the tape. “Limpkins,” he said to himself as he wrote it on her locker. “Nalley” was added to my own, these he then opened. “Alright ladies, place your duffels into the locker. Place one of your pad locks here on this drawer. This is your personal drawer. It is the only part of this locker that is not to be arranged to any specific order. It will not be inspected, except for health and welfare inspections, and then only for contraband. It is my suggestion to you both not to have anything you are forbidden by regulations. The other lock is for the outside door. Both of these are to be locked at all times that you are not actively using them. Is this understood?”

“Yes Sergeant,” we chimed in unison.

“Place the keys on your dog tag chain. You will always have them on your person. Now, remove what ever toiletries you need, a towel and hit the showers.”

With that, he walked out where upon, we learned that our little home was next door to the day room of the Drill Sergeants which they used as their office. Great, right next door to hell. At least we were allowed a door to the room as, luck being what it was, Army regulations considered it Sexual Harassment for female soldiers not to have a private area to change in.

Gail slumped and smiled, extending her hand. “Howdy, I’m Gail.”

It wasn’t often that I was around another girl who was taller than me, and I could see that Gail and I were going to be friends. “Elizabeth,” I responded, taking her hand. For the next thirty minutes or so, getting ready with Gail was more like being in a boarding school than a first day at Basic Training as we chatted about all sorts background things which I have already related to you. It was not until we were back in our baggy Battle Dress Uniforms and our hair in wet, uncomfortable buns and in the big bay did the reality of our situation return to us.

The rest of that day, and indeed the rest of that first week were filled with (surprise!) more paperwork, calisthenics and the basics of drill and ceremony. There were letters and phone calls home, the latter collect from a bank of pay phones just out side the barracks in the quad.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been disappointed that Granny didn’t write to me until the fourth week of Basic and wouldn’t even speak to me on the phone for the first five times I called. She had always been the alpha female of the house and that I was doing something without her blessing meant I’d be ostracized for a bit. It did hurt though and Gail was a good friend to me to help me through it.

By the second day of Basic my worst fears were confirmed and all chances of invisibility were denied me. I was the oldest member of the platoon and a little judicious digging on Sergeant Wheeler’s part confirmed his suspicions of my coming from a military oriented family. Thus, as we assembled in our still laughable attempt at a military formation, he strode before us. “Nalley, front and center!”

Now, here was my quandary. I could move clumsily making myself look as ignorant of military procedure as my sister trainees, or I could move the way I already knew to be correct. It was a tough choice that I debated with myself for, but finally I realized that I was not then, nor would I ever suffer myself to be a liar.

I came to attention, took a step backwards from my squad, and marched to Sergeant Wheeler, making sure everything I did was regulation. I arrived before him, relaxed into parade rest scrupulously keeping my eyes from the boyish grin of glee across his face. “Private Nalley reports as ordered, Sergeant.”

“Nalley Chevrolet,” he greeted, but his voice was low and probably did not carry to the rest of the formation. Sergeant Wheeler was speaking to me and this was cause for a great deal of concern. “You be sure and write your Uncle Fred and tell him I said hello.”

It was with great difficulty that I kept my voice calm. “I will do that Sergeant.”

The grin on Wheelers face was feral and had nothing to do with humor now. “IET Handbook my ass,” he continued to whisper. “You ever fib to me again, Nalley Chevrolet and you’ll be doing push ups until I can see your outline in sweat on the floor.”

So much for my edge. “I did actually read the procedure on page 1-19 of the IET Soldiers Handbook, Sergeant Wheeler.”

“I’m sure you did, Nalley. But that’s not where you learned it, is it?”

I could see the jig as they say, was up. “No, Sergeant Wheeler.” He nodded, wither in my acknowledgement of being found out or the satisfaction of my answer, I don’t know. What he did do was call me back to attention and turn to face the formation.

“Platoon, you have been blessed by the presence of Private Nalley here. Private Nalley comes from well spring of soldiers the rest of you would refer to as a family. Both of her uncles are Drill Sergeants, her grandfather was awarded the Silver Star in World War Two and so on back. Yes, my job here will be that much easier now that Private Nalley is amongst you.”

That was probably the last thing I ever expected to come out of Sergeant Wheelers mouth. My face burned with embarrassment, but all I could do was stand there and stare between the girls keeping my eyes fixed on the walls of the barracks behind them.

“As such,” he went on, strolling almost casually around the formation, “I know there will be things that you are not sure of in the upcoming course of your training. Things which some of you may not feel comfortable coming to me or one of your other Drill Instructors with. I want everyone to know that you can bring whatever issue you might have to Private Nalley here. She will be serving as your Platoon Guide. Take comfort in that fact that your success or failure is no longer yours to bear alone. Your Platoon Guide will be there with you, either accepting our praise, or sharing your punishment. Yes a leader is only as strong as the weakest link in his or her chain. Private Nalley is the lock on First Platoons chain. And we’re going to see just what she’s made of.”

From there, a grinning Sergeant Rodriguez approached me and placed a black arm band with a set of sergeants’ strips sewn onto it onto my left arm. “Welcome to the Army, Drill Private,” she cackled as the band was secured. This did not really matter as I was already fully aware of my fate.

I had officially died and gone to hell.

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Chapter Two

In case you were not previously aware, Army life is an endless series of routines. The routines don’t change, they’re just added to. Our first week was simple basics of marching, proper saluting techniques and paper work. Not to mention the most rigorous calisthenics regiment I’ve ever been on. But paper work was gradually supplemented with class work of basic Army devices and history. Likewise marching grew into the fundamentals formation movement, road marching and procedures. The calisthenics were always there, however serving as the glue holding the routine together.

They were exhausting, but I was more than pleased with the results I was getting. At this rate, I’d be back to a size nine by graduation. Maybe less. And that was something I had resigned myself to never see again.

It was very difficult for me, not only was I responsible to learn everything my sister trainees were (coming from a military family doesn’t automatically mean you understand the inner workings of a claymore antipersonnel mine) but I was also saddled with making sure everyone else in the platoon did at least as well, if not better than I did.

I was only four years older than most of them, but there were times it felt like four decades. I can’t ever remember being as flighty and scatterbrained as some of these girls were. And my determination not to have to suffer a punishment with one of them was not winning me any friends.

In the third week of Basic we began Basic Rifle Marksmanship. We were given a series of hands on lectures on the M-16 rifle, its care, maintenance and operation. As it happened, that first morning I awoke with agony in my right heel, strong enough to make me gasp in pain and bring the concern of Gail. “What’s up, Beth?” she asked, her own mind freed from sleep by my discomfort.

I sighed and carefully lowered my leg to the cold concrete floor. “It’s this damn blister. I wonder if it’s ever going to get better.” I was about to stand and gather my toiletries for my morning absolutions but was stopped by Gail’s gasp of shock.

I looked down to see the entire back of my heal was puffy and red, from the bottom of my foot to nearly my ankle. That didn’t look good at all. “Beth, maybe you should see a doctor about this. That don’t look good. You sure as shoot’n can’t do the road march this afternoon.”

Discretion, they say, is the better part of valor. I struggled into my flip flop “shower shoes” and hobbled next door to the day room and knocked on the heavy door. “What?” came the voice of Sergeant Anderson from the other side. He had served as the Charge of Quarters the night before and was awaiting his relief so he could go home and get to bed.

“Sergeant, Private Nalley requests permission to speak.”

“Speak,” came his voice once more.

“Sergeant, I think I need to report to sick call this morning. I have a bad blister on the back of my heel from my combat boots.”

The door opened and Sergeant Anderson stopped, his mouth slightly open. Now I had not so much as run a brush through my hair, which was doubtless wild about my head, but I was also only dressed in my Army PT shirt and it’s matching grey jersey shorts we slept in. I had not even put on a bra yet, and as his eyes and my breasts were about on the same level I’m sure that was quiet an eyeful for him. I’m almost positive he’d never looked at the “Army” that way before.

Finally, he regained his composure and stood from the rolling chair he’d scooted over in to open the door. “How bad is it, Nalley?” he finally asked.

“I’m in a lot of pain and it’s very discolored, Sergeant,” I responded, bracing myself against the wall and raising my foot for his inspection. This seemed to further cause him some discomfort and I felt bad for him.

“This being day one, you realize you can only miss three days of BRM before you’re held back to another cycle, Nalley?” I nodded, not happy with either prospect. He nodded. “Alright, get dressed and I’ll call for a driver.”

For three weeks, I had been confined to the quad of D, 5, 10 not exactly sure where on the 200 plus square mile sprawl that was Ft. Leonard Wood I resided. This was the first time I could get a feel for where I was. So I got my hair semi-under control and changed into BDUs. As it turned out, I was a scant two miles from the post main gate and Ft. Leonard Wood Army Memorial Community Hospital. The only medical facility, it turns out, with into two hours and that was in St. Louis.

There are many a horror story about Army Doctors, and I would come to be more familiar with them than most. So I guess I’m quite fortunate with the luck of the draw I got as every member of the medical profession I met on post were of the finest caliber. (Pardon me a bit of military humor).

But, as with any hospital, there are the long waits of triage and trying to get comfortable with a foot injury in BDUs and sneakers is a nigh impossible task. So I kept my mind focused on the television in the waiting room and did my best not to whimper.

“Private Nalley?”

“Here, Ma’am.” I called, getting painfully to my feet and hobbling over. The nurse was a lieutenant, probably not much older than me and were we both civilians, I might have had a word with her over the way she stared at me. The disdain and incredulity fairly dripped off of her.

“First day of BRM, huh?” she asked, the tone in her voice did all her accusing for her.

“Yes, ma’am. I was hoping you could just give me a pain killer and a ride back out to my company,” I said in my sweetest kill’em with kindness voice. If there’s one thing I learned from Granny, you get more flies with honey, and this Army Nurse I definitely wanted to see squirming in the ointment. She sniffed, expecting something entirely different and led me at a brisker than necessary pace that I struggled to keep up with to an exam room.

“On the table.” I complied and began to carefully remove my sneaker. “How long has this been troubling you?”

“About a week,” I gasped, finally able to get the sneaker off and horrified by the sight of my blood soaked sock.

“Shit,” snapped the nurse, as she snatched a pair of clothing shears from the stand and proceeded to cut off my sock. “Why the hell did you wait this long?” she demanded. Before I could answer she cut me off with, “On your stomach.”

I heard the door open and her call out for a doctor to come at once. “Hmm,” I thought to myself, “This is going well.” Before so much as a “This might sting” I felt the cold of an alcohol prep wipe on my leg then the pin prick of a needle and thus began my first experience with morphine.

Ever had it? There’s this cold sensation that crawls up from the injection sight and right up the back of your scalp, faster than you can read this, you don’t have a care in the world. The rest of my doctors’ visit was something of a blur to be honest. Come to find out, my blister was so red because it had become a blood infection, which was coming up my shapely if I do say so myself leg and to top the whole bit off, the blister site was just this side of gangrene.

Another day, I’m told, and most likely I’d have lost my foot. So, grade A, aren’t really approved for humans yet antibiotics coursing through my veins and I was given a sneakers only order for two weeks and excused from the next three road marches. No running, no jumping, no heavy calisthenics of any kind. Ah, the joys of Army foot gear.

I arrived back at the barracks, not having eaten that day at all, just before dinner and ravenously looking forward to it. What surprised me was the most unpleasant and peculiar odor that seemed to permeate the barracks, that and the fact that everyone looked like they’d come off a three day binder. Bloodshot eyes were the norm, and more than one girl had a handkerchief as a fixture by her nose. “What’s going on?” I demanded, my painkillers having been reduced to Darvaset which at least kept me more lucid than morphine.

“Oh,” said Gail, having seen me come in she came out of the laundry room where there seemed to be a line of people wanting to use the washers. How odd. “Hi Beth. How’s your foot?”

“I get to keep it, which I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t followed your advice and gone today. What’s wrong with you guys?”

“What’s wrong with every trainee on the first day of BRM, Nalley,” exclaimed an overly joyous Sergeant Wheeler who appeared utterly silently by my elbow. “Today was gas day.”

That explained that. Today was the dreaded trip to the gas chamber, where we’d get our first experience with CS gas. Think of it as Mace and Pepper spray on crack. In addition to the burning, there’s retching and puking and about a years worth of snot flooding out of your nose all at once.

And I’d missed it, legitimately. “I saved some for you,” went on Sergeant Wheeler, that almost insane gleam in his eye. This statement caused a squeal from my sister trainees that reverberated through out the barracks and I still hear in my nightmares. But I was invincible. I had the holy grail of basic trainees; the doctors note.

“Anything to be a better soldier, Sergeant,” I said. “But, can you check with this? It’s my discharge from the hospital, and I wouldn’t want to be in violation of a direct order from a superior officer.”

The grin never left Sergeant Wheelers face as he scanned my papers, then looked up and handed them back to me. “Sorry, Nalley Chevrolet looks like the doctors going to spoil our fun for bit. But don’t worry, there’s plenty more where that came from.”

“I won’t, Sergeant.” And I hobbled back to my room, but inside I was leaping for joy. I was one up on Sergeant Wheeler. Further, I was confident of two things.

There was a God. And He loved me.

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The next morning it seemed I was still the only girl in the platoon with any kind of an appetite. So, as the others poked at their freshly re-constituted eggs and corn soup masquerading as grits, I ate with a single minded purpose. Today was firing day.

Today would be the first day we would fire live rounds from our M-16s. “Eat up, girls,” I admonished around a mouthful. “You’ll need it later.”

“You can eat,” admonished Gail, sitting across from me and picking fitfully at her toast. “You didn’t go through hell yesterday.”

“No, I almost lost my foot yesterday, but that doesn’t change the fact of what we’re doing today, does it?” I looked about at the mopey faces around me and forced a smile. “Aren’t you the least excited?”

Motivational speaking was obviously something I’d have to work on. “Come on then, if you’re not going to eat, girls, let’s get out side and get formed up.” I dumped my plate in the dish pit and headed out into the absolutely crisp morning air. I found myself alone outside, or so I thought.

“How’s your foot, Nalley?” came a voice off to my right. I turned and brought myself to parade rest as sitting on the steps to the mess hall was Staff Sergeant Anderson, sipping coffee from a thermos at his side.

“Much better today, Sergeant, thank you for asking.”

“At ease, Nalley. Coffee?”

“Please,” I responded, the Missouri weather being what it was, you either froze in the morning, but were comfortable the rest of the day, or were comfortable in the morning in your thermal gear and roasted the remainder of the day. I fumbled my canteen cup from its cover, under the plastic canteen the Army had replaced the rolled aluminum ones with a decade previously. Coffee was always welcome, as was this surprising display of what could almost be mistaken for camaraderie. “Thanks,” I told him, wrapping my hands around the rapidly warming metal.

“I’m glad to hear it. You realize you’re a damn fool for letting a foot injury get that far along, don’t you?”

“Yes Sergeant, I realize. I guess I’ve been so worried about everyone else, I let myself go. It won’t happen again, Sergeant.”

“Nalley, why are you in the Army?” It was the first time I was asked this question, but as you and I will both see, it won’t be the last. This time, however, I was more than a bit taken aback and took a sip of his excellent coffee and smiled my gratitude at him as I struggled to decide how I would answer his question.

“The Army is a way of life in my family, Sergeant. My oldest uncle, John, is a Master Sergeant in Colorado. He served two tours as a tanker in Vietnam. My youngest, Frederick is a Tank Drill Instructor at Fort Knox. My Grandfather was an infantryman in World War Two and switched to the Air Force for Korea. Past that, his father fought in World War One and I had a slew of relatives, mostly Confederates, in the War of Northern Aggression. My family have been soldiers forever it seems.”

“Is that your only reason? You know there are only four Regular Army recruits in the company and you’re one of them. Why aren’t you a Reservist or a Guardsman like the others?”

“The Army will be my career, Sergeant. I put in for Officer Candidate School at MEPS, so I expect to be here for some time.”

“I know.” He screwed the cap back on his thermos and stood up. “You know there is not a great deal of opportunity for women in the Army, don’t you Nalley?” I finished the last of the coffee and looked him in the eye for the first time since I’d known him. They were hazel and striking and didn’t hold a bit of malice.

“There’s as much opportunity as I make for myself, Sergeant.”

That brought his boyish smile to his face. “Hoo-rah, Nalley. You keep that fire and you’ll go far.” I wiped out my canteen cup and returned it, with my canteen to its place on my Load Bearing Equipment, which is a fancy way to say a web utility belt.

There was no further time for wool gathering, how ever odd between a Drill Sergeant and a third week trainee, as the company was slowly beginning to wonder out from the mess hall. From there it was a short march to the Company HQ and the issue of our rifles.

As I watched the last of the girls fall back into a formation, which by now, was actually military, I felt a bit of pride stir in my breast. Delta Company was less a mob and was turning steadily into soldiers. I brought myself to attention before Sergeant Wheeler. “Sergeant, 1stPlatoon weapons issued.”

“Inspection Arms, Platoon Guide.”

“Yes, Sergeant.” I preformed an about face and worked my diaphragm so my voice would carry. “Platoon! Inspection, Arms!” The air was then filled the clicking of metal on metal as fifty M-16s were checked for live ammunition all at once. Once more I turned back to Sergeant Wheeler. “Inspection complete, Sergeant.”

Sergeant Wheeler was never a man to hide his pleasure and a grin seemed in perpetual residence on his freckled face. “Roll ‘em out, Nalley.” For once, his grin infected my face with one of its own. Today was going to be fun and there was just no denying it.

A final time I faced the Platoon. “Platoon, by squad, roll out!” That caused a stream of young soldiers towards the awaiting, much hated, cattle cars, but this time things were different.

This time, there were two of them. This time, we would finally get to sit on those benches. We were finally becoming soldiers and being given a bit of recognition. The Drills themselves were changing, from common foe to mentors guiding us on the field of battle. This reverie wouldn’t last of course, and our new found detente would be shattered shortly by circumstances completely beyond our control. But that morning we were taking the first grown up step in our lives as soldiers after a countless number of baby steps.

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Chapter Three

Rifle Range Three had been carved forcefully from two ridges and the valley between them. From the south slope a series of chest deep fox holes had been permanently dug and lined with concrete. Over looking them was the tower from which the Range Safeties would oversee the first firing. From here the ground sloped away sharply to an odd grouping of earthen brumes every fifty meters, alternating left and right, which concealed the machinery which would shortly pop up hard green plastic mannequins which would be our targets.

These continued out to three hundred meters, the maximum effective range of the M-16. Three hundred meters, slightly less than three foot ball fields away, where a six foot man could be completely covered by a thirty second of an inch pin held at arms length.

For that auspicious occasion, 1stSergeant Pierceson was in attendance, as were a group a half dozen other Drill Sergeants I’d never seen before. We weren’t allowed long to consider this as in short order 1stSergeant Pierceson would command our undivided attention.

“Ladies,” he began in his growling voice. “Today you will become soldiers. The most basic task of a soldier is to kill the enemy. While you are all non-combatants, the mobility of the modern battlefield precludes any guarantee of your safety. As such, at some point in your careers as soldiers, you may be called upon to defend yourselves. It is here that you will learn that task. I want safety to be on every ones mind today. These are live rounds you’ll be firing. Sergeant Wheeler.”

“As I call your squad number, you will file to my left and collect four, fifteen round magazines which have already been loaded. You will place these magazines into the magazine pouches on your LBE where they will stay until you are instructed otherwise. You will then move down the range to the fox holes that have been dug, one pair of battle buddies per fox hole. Private Nalley?”

“Here Sergeant,” I chimed.

“Take over leadership of first squad and move them out.”

“Yes Sergeant. First squad, follow me.” And with that we were in short order clustered around the fox holes breathlessly awaiting our orders to continue. At least I was. I had never fired any kind of a weapon before in my life and I was in a strange mixture of excitement and fear of the prospect.

Gail, having practically grown up with a rifle in her hands, graciously allowed me first go in the fox hole. Then the public address speakers placed on top of the range tower boomed to life.

“Is there anyone down range? Is there anyone down range? Rifle Range Three is about to conduct a live fire exercise. IF there is anyone down range, please notify the tower by sight, sound or signal.” There was a short pause as we all scanned down range, looking for anyone who might have wondered into the valley by mistake. A valley which was about to be filled with the shadow of death. Then, the towers speakers blared to life again.

“Right side line safety?” 1stSergeant Pierceson waved from the far side of the Firing Line from me. “Left side line safety?” Sergeant Wheeler waved from just behind my fox hole. “Center line safety?” Lieutenant Tera waved from; you guessed it, the center of the range. “Tower is clear to the safeties, fire to commence in one minute.”

“Nalley,” ordered Sergeant Wheeler, “Move and lock your bolt to the rear and load one magazine.” I did so, with only small difficulty due to the design of the M-16 being biased towards a six foot male as opposed to a five eleven female. “Point the weapon down range and release the bolt. Rotate the selector switch to semi and line up on the fifty meter right target; that will be first.”

I made myself as comfortable as I cold in the hole, pulling the rifle into my shoulder and chanting to myself all the things I was supposed to remember. “Rear sight and target out of focus, front sight in focus. Breath and squeeze, hold until after exhale. Firm grip, cheek firm against stock.” There was a short blast of an air horn that I must say startled me and suddenly there was a little green man staring at me from just over the burm. I squeezed the trigger and was gratified to see the man disappear out of sight.

But luck was not to allow me to savor this accomplishment, as I held the trigger down, letting my self savor a brief moment of victory, the rifle discharged again. “One shot per target, Nalley!” shouted Sergeant Wheeler. “One shot, one kill, hundred meter left.”

Before I could argue the aforementioned target sprang into being. I reset my aim point, more than a little worried about the strangeness of two rounds being fired and once more squeezed and held the trigger down. Once more the target obediently popped back down, but three rounds left my rifle before I could jerk my finger off the trigger.

“One round, Nalley! One round! Don’t panic!” shouted Sergeant Wheeler. “One hundred fifty meter right up next.”

I was more than a bit saddened at being spoon fed the target sequence and wondered if this was deliberate or that target acquisition didn’t matter as much in BRM, just hitting the targets. I ran out of time for such thoughts as the predicted target was indeed up. I took up my stance again and fired.

There are a couple of minor differences between the M-16A1, which dates from the venerable Vietnam War and the more modern M-16A2. First, a tiny wedge of plastic was added to the pistol grip between the points of the middle and ring fingers. The pistol grip was now an open hollow plastic at the bottom, as apposed to a closed, but hollow plastic. The distinctive, smooth, triangular fore guards of the barrel were replaced with round ones with raised ridges every inch to aid the grip of the weapon in slippery conditions. The most important distinction between the two was that the A1 variant was capable of fully automatic fire; firing all the rounds in the magazine until empty on a single pull of the trigger so long as it’s held down.

After Vietnam, the Army decided that the common soldier would waste ammunition with a rifle capable of fully automatic fire, and so redesigned the weapon to be capable only of firing a three round burst. Either of these two options were the last setting on the selector switch, the other two being Safe and Semi.

I would discover that, while my rifle had been given the cosmetic upgrades to the A2 model, it did in fact date from Vietnam and was still a fully automatic rifle. I know this because as I held that trigger down it began to spit bullets at a distinctly frightening rate, and continued to even with my finger removed for the trigger. It was all I could do to keep the muzzle pointed down range until the magazine finally emptied.

“Nalley! What the hell are you doing on full auto?” demanded Sergeant Wheeler.

Safety being high on my list of priorities that day, I removed the magazine and set the weapon down before turning to Sergeant Wheeler. “It wasn’t me, Sergeant; it just did that on its own.” Sergeant Wheeler picked up my rifle, checked the position of my selector switch, and then held it up over his head.

“I’ve got you, Sergeant,” boomed the tower.

This was auspicious, my first day as a bona fide soldier, and I’d broken my rifle. This did not bode well for the remainder of my military career. I slumped against the back wall of the fox hole and did my best not to feel jealous of the other girls who were still shooting. “What happened?” asked Gail, yelling a bid louder than she needed to so she could be heard over the ear plugs we were wearing.

“You tell me, Country Girl,” I hollered back. “It just started spitting bullets.”

“I bet your sear is broken,” was her response, for all the illumination that gave me. I had no idea what a sear was, or how one broke it. I did not have much time for this as Sergeant Wheeler had called over one of the new, unknown Drill Sergeants and was speaking with him. Then he turned towards me and motioned for me to follow him.

I clamored out of the fox hole and followed him back off the range to the crushed gravel parking lot behind the range area. Parked there was a large truck, about the size and heft of an armored car. Beside it were two Military Police men with both pistols and M-16s.

By itself that was not particularly alarming. What was alarming was they both pointed those M-16s at us. “Halt!” one of them shouted. “State your business!”

“Sergeant First Class Wheeler. I have a disabled weapon here for repair,” he told the MP.

“Pick up your private, Sergeant and approach,” said the MP. Sergeant Wheeler turned to find me looking up at him belly first on the gravel.

“Nalley, what are you doing?” he demanded.

Embarrassed, I got to my feet. “Sorry Sergeant, I thought they were going to start shooting or something.”

“So you were just going to let me take the fire?” he demanded. I was worried for a moment, but a glance at his face showed he was wearing his trademark grin.

“You’ve got my rifle, Sergeant; there wasn’t much I could do.” That actually brought a laugh from him, the first I’d ever heard. And I liked his laugh, it was full and unselfconscious. He clapped me on the shoulder as we walked towards the truck.

“Soldier on, Nalley, that’s exactly what you should have done.”

The truck, it turns out, was a gunsmith shop on wheels. Inside it was complete with all the tools and enough spare parts to probably crank out a few dozen M-16s. Which was probably what had those MPs guarding it so edgy. The specialist in the truck confirmed Gail’s diagnosis of a worn sear and sear pin and had it repaired in about ten minutes.

As we walked back towards the range, I decided to press my luck and see if the camaraderie I was experiencing with Sergeant Anderson extended to Sergeant Wheeler. “Sergeant Wheeler who are those new Drill Instructors who are out here with us?”

A cloud passed over his normally sunny face. “Reserve Drill Instructors, Nalley. Here for their two weeks a year of training.”

“Ah,” I said. But I was more than a bit worried by what he found troubling about that. “What difference will a dozen more people listening to your instruction blocks make, Sergeant?” He favored me with one of those searching glances that before now I had taken as a warning sign that I was about to be in trouble. This time he just shook his head.

“They won’t be listening, Nalley. They’ll be instructing. For the next two weeks.”

From the way he said that, I had a very bad feeling we were in for some very rough sailing. I had no idea just how right I would be.

The rest of the day was uneventful, with me shooting 28 of the 40 targets we were presented with in the two minutes allowed. If that first day were our BRM test, I would have been rated as a Marksman, which was good enough to pass, but I wanted to do better. I felt that more was expected of me than just getting by. Before now I would have tried to say that it was my family that pushed me to do better. Now I wasn’t as sure of that any longer.

Gail, true to her Country Girl roots, stuck every target, 40 for 40, to the praise of the NCOs there. Following our first day shooting was our 4K road march, which I was under the impression we’d be conducting yesterday. Turns out, that was a bit of deception on the part of our Drills as the girls were at the gas chamber yesterday afternoon.

I was riding back in the Duce and a half, having been excused from the march due to my foot. As I sat in the back of it, minding the radio since I had nothing better to do and trying to keep my mind off the heat. I was swimming in sweat and felt awful for the girls who were marching in ruck sacks and full BDUs.

As I wondered how long this would continue, the radio came to life. “Delta510, delta 510 this is Tower One, do you copy, over?”

I picked up the code book I’d been given and flipped to today’s date. “Tower One this is Delta Seven, I authenticate Kilo X Ray, reading you loud and clear, over,” I spoke into the microphone. I was actually inordinately pleased that I had my very own radio call sign, but it’s never taken too much to make me happy. Comes from growing up poor, I guess.

The radio crackled once more. “Delta Seven, this is Tower One, roger your authentication. Advise Delta Four Wet Bulb at one one zero degrees heat factor fife suspend training, I say again, suspend training, over.”

Wow, this was getting bad. I keyed the mike again. “Understand wet bulb one one zero degrees heat factor fife, Tower One. Roger your suspend training order. Delta Seven out.”

“Tower One out” I scooted over to the rear gate of the duce and a half.

“Sergeant Wheeler?” I called out. It is with some incredulity that I comment on his state of health. I don’t know if it was because he was a DI and just that fit or some other method, but he wasn’t even sweating as he increased his pace to a trot to close the distance between the slow moving truck and himself. If I hadn’t seen it myself, I wouldn’t believe it either.

“What is it, Nalley?” he asked, easily keeping the new pace.

“Tower one just called, Sergeant. Wet bulb is now 110 and heat factor five. They’ve ordered us to suspend training.” He nodded as if expecting this and banged on the side of the truck to get Lieutenant Tera’s attention and flashed him a series of hand signals. Then he turned around and started walking backward.

“Company!” he called out, “halt!” The girls came to a ragged stop, looking very weary. “Fall out to the shade, Ladies. Remove your BDU tops, helmets and drink water”

Now, before you get indignant or unnecessarily excited about the prospect of two hundred topless, sweaty women, you should know that the Battle Dress Uniform is in four parts, not counting socks, boots and underwear. It is the top, or shirt like upper bit, the pants, the cover (hat) and the undershirt. The undershirt is, surprise, basically a man’s under shirt, only brown. And it’s considered being in uniform should the environment dictate it. Which, in this case it did.

As the Duce was now stopped, I clamored out of the back of it and walked over to where Gail was panting in the trees lining the road way. Knowing my canteens water would be marginally cooler by having been in the shade the whole time, I removed one and handed it to her. “How’s the march?” I asked, noting the deep, damp circles under her arm pits.

“Wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for this heat,” she responded, taking a long drink and passing the canteen back to me. I drank deeply as well. “How much we got to go?”

“Two miles, give or take” I responded, removing the map sheet from a thigh pocket of my BDUs I’d been keeping track of the route on. “We’re here,” I said, pointing out our position. “The barracks is here. But that’s straight line distance.”

“How’s your foot?” she asked, trying to sound innocent and failing.

“I didn’t ask for this, you know,” I snapped, then felt guilty and apologized. “I know it’s tough but you can do it, Gail. You’re my de facto Platoon Guide while I’m laid up.” She laughed and shook her head, taking another drink of the canteen I passed her.

“I have enough trouble worrying about first squad,” she responded. “It ain’t easy being your battle buddy, you know.” I nodded and we drank in silence for a bit, passing the canteen back and forth. A canteen has only two states of being in the Army, full and empty. If one is started, it’s drained, so as not to slosh and make noise. Finally, Gail sat up as I was screwing down the cap and pulled her BDU top over her shoulders looking crossly at the growing grey in the sky. “Is it just me or is it getting cold?”

I followed her gaze up and shrugged as I put the canteen away. “Maybe. That looks like a thunderstorm moving in. But the weather tower didn’t say anything about it.”

“Great,” groused Gail, “Now we’re going to be rained on too.”

“At least it won’t be so hot,” I offered.

“Hot?” demanded Gail. “Shoot, I’m putting my top back on. I ain’t worried about being hot.” And she did so as the temperature continued to drop. As I watched, girls were beginning to open up their ruck sacks and pulling out field jackets. And then the strangest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life happened.

They say if you don’t like the weather in Missouri wait five minutes and it will change. But that day, Tuesday, the 16thof April, 1991, after the time it takes two people who are hot and thirsty to drink one canteen of water, the temperature plunged from 98 degrees (110 with the humidity factored in) to 31 degrees.

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And it began to snow.

Sergeant Wheeler, who could be defeated by nothing I am sure, laughed and cried out, “God above how I love Missouri!”

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Chapter Four

The freak snow storm didn’t last very long, but long enough to cancel the road march. The girls got to ride back to the barracks along with me in a set of hastily ordered up Duce and a halves. Once the rifles were checked back into the company armory and dinner was eaten, Gail and I had retired to our room where I was preparing to renew the spit shine on my boots.

“It never ceases to amaze me how you can make these things look like patent leather,” she remarked as I laid out my Kiwi polish, the rag I’d bought from the Post Exchange for this purpose and the small cap of water from the latrine.

I shrugged. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing,” I replied, quoting my Uncle Fredericks oft uttered motto. “Besides, it’s not that hard. I can teach you.” She smiled and nodded, stepping out to get her own canteen cup of water. Having finished my prep work, I walked next door to retrieve the last item I needed, a cigarette lighter.

Trainees were forbidden flammable items, like lighters, so I had to buy one and have it stored in the day room. Before I could raise my hand to knock on the door, I couldn’t help but hear the raised voices from the other side.

“John, it’s just plain not fair. You can’t set up anybody to fail like that. This young lady has potential and I don’t want to see that exploited for a cheap display you want her to fail at!” That was the very angry voice of Sergeant Wheeler, but the voice that answered him I didn’t recognize.

“Joe, it’s because she has potential that I want her to be a part of it, but let’s be clear I don’t want her to fail. Do you think she can’t pull it off?”

“How should I know? She’s done a Cracker Jack job so far, but with the odds you’re stacking her up against I can’t see how anybody at her level could succeed.”

The other voice became angry. “If it’s as hopeless as all that, what the hell are you a DI for?”

“If I had her for the next two weeks, sir, I could damn near guarantee the job she’d do. But I don’t, do I? You’ve sure as hell seen to that.”

“Bullshit, Joe, don’t you lay that bullshit on me. You God damn know I don’t have jack shit to do with that rotation. That’s your mission Sergeant, and I expect you to carry it out. You read me?”

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Sergeant Wheeler’s voice became even angrier. “Loud and clear, sir.”

As fascinating as this conversation was, I felt I’d better knock before I got caught lurking out here, so I did so. “What?” bellowed Sergeant Wheelers voice, still holding a tone I don’t believe I’d ever heard before my inadvertent eavesdropping.

“Sergeant, Private Nalley re…”

“Speak, Nalley,” he cut me off, his voice noticeably calmer than before. That caused more than a bit of warmth to flow through me. Maybe I was being silly, but I was beginning to believe that Sergeant Wheeler liked me.

“Sergeant, I need my lighter that Sergeant Anderson is holding for me in his desk.”

“Open the door,” was his response, which I did. Inside, Sergeant Wheeler was seated at his desk, opposite the door and sitting next to him was a man I knew only as a name on my Table of Organization and Authority chart, John Moon, Captain, US Army. Delta Company’s Commanding Officer. And they were alone in the room, which meant Sergeant Wheeler had been shouting at him.

Captain Moon was about thirty, possessed of a swarthy complexion, which along with his dark hair and eyes lead me to believe he was of Native American decent. He probably owned the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen and I found myself liking him on sight. I was more than a little shocked that I had looked him in the eye on first meeting, something I had not dared to do with any of my Drills.

I stepped into the office and came to attention. “Courage and Fidelity, sir” I said, quoting our Regimental Motto. The captain stood to state his response.

“Regiment, Nalley,” then he sat back down and turned to Sergeant Wheeler. “Her lighter? You are letting the privates smoke in here?”

Sergeant Wheeler laughed, his good humor evidently restored. “She spit shines her boots. Her Uncle’s a tank drill and taught her. She does a good job, too. Get your lighter, Nalley, Milt left it out for you.”

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“Thank you Sergeant, Captain,” I said, fetching the requested tool and departed, closing the day room door once more.

For the next half hour I lost myself in the relatively mindless task of spit shining and teaching the process to Gail. Contrary to its name, spit shining doesn’t actually involve spit, but tap water and lots of elbow grease. The lighter is used to melt the polish in the tin and again on the boot once it’s been rubbed in with the rag dipped in water. Rinse and repeat, a lot, and you’ve got a shine like patent leather.

As we were finishing, I heard Sergeant Wheeler’s voice once more, this time at our open door. “At ease, ladies,” he said, forestalling our leaping up to parade rest.

“That’s a fine job, Nalley. You teaching Limpkins?”

“Yes sergeant,” I responded popping the cap back on my can of Kiwi and handing the lighter back to him.

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“That’s good, Nalley. Battle Buddies should share everything. Five minutes to lights out, ladies. We’ll be on the grenade range, tomorrow, so you’ll need your sleep. Nalley, Saturday I want you to give a class on spit shining to the company. Write up a lesson plan for your block of instruction and anything you’ll need. Have it on my desk by lights out tomorrow.”

Just what I needed, more work, but I was touched very deeply that I’d impressed him. “Yes sergeant. We’ll need some kind of a storage system for the lighters; I can tell you that right off the top of my head.” He nodded.

“We’ll work something out. Good night, Ladies,” he said, pulling the door closed behind him. Gail smiled at me.

“And you thought he didn’t like you.”

I chuckled as I returned my boots to their place in my wall locker. “He doesn’t like me,” I replied. “This is just one more thing for me to have to do. I’m the drill private remember? I’m not here to learn, I’m evidently here to teach.” We shared a laugh over that and turned in.

In the morning, we’d face the most dangerous portion of Basic Training.

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Wednesday dawned as bright and clear as every day with such a huge portent of danger lurking in it should. As I padded back to my room from the common latrine and showers we all shared, on the other side of the building of course, I found myself longing for a hair dryer. Male trainees had their heads shaved in basic and so certainly didn’t need them. And since the regulations were built around males, there wasn’t a provision for us. At least we got more privacy than the men did.

I hung my towel up on the hanger bar inside my wall locker so it could dry and once more began the slow, painful process of putting a bun in my wet hair as I thought about what lay before us. Every year, something like 200 entry level privates are killed in training accidents during basic training. Of them, almost 150 die as a result of an accident involving grenades.

There is no safe direction to hold a grenade in. There is only one way to handle a grenade, and that’s safely. Otherwise it will kill you. And everyone around you, in a radius of about 10 feet. Then everyone from 10 feet to about 60 it will maim or disfigure for life.

If OSHA regulations applied to the Army, the Army would never be able to issue a grenade again. Now, before you get the wrong idea, the Army has spent a lot of time and money trying to come up with an idiot proof way to teach privates how to use a grenade. The problem is nothing is private proof. The truth be told, every one of those accidents were probably due to some fault of the trainees own, not the instruction methods or content.

Grenades are just that serious.

And today, in one day, we would learn everything there was to know about them. We would get used to carrying them around; grenades are surprisingly heavy, and how to employ them in combat. All with inert training grenades, of course.

But the danger lay at the end of the day.

Before we left the range, every one of us would be required to throw two, not one, two live grenades.

There was not a great deal of time for me to lose myself in such depressing thoughts, for the demands on a trainees time are great and the amount of time in which to accomplish them limited. And before I really knew it breakfast was over, our rifles had been issued again, and we were once more riding on the cattle cars to Grenade Range One.

As you can imagine, Grenade Range One was one of the furthest away from the main portions of the base. The roads to get to it were really not engineered for tractor trailers making it a less than pleasant way to travel, right after breakfast. I spent the trip chatting mostly with Gail and the three other squad leaders of the platoon, keeping our conversation about anything except where we were going and what we’d be doing.

My first impression of the range was a strangely open area, two grassy fields that probably encompassed an area of about five acres each, framed by the dense thickets of the Mark Twain National Forrest in which the post sat. As the semis pulled to a stop and began to off load, I looked around, noticing a fairly wide trail went into the thicket on my right. Before me was a low cinderblock building that looked for all the world like the waiting line for an amusement park ride. Attached to this were the ranges tower and the parked vehicles of the Range Masters, the Instructors who would be teaching us grenades today.

Off away from both us and the tower building was a squat, brick building, ten feet on a side. It had only one door, which was steel and looked like a bank vault door even from this distance and no windows. Around it a wall of sand bags had been laid and toped with barbed wire. Around that was a barrier of concertina wire which began and ended at a U shaped concrete wall that had sandbags stacked around it. In the U were two MPs which were in the process of setting up and loading an M-60 belt fed machine gun.

This, I presume, was the ammo dump where the grenades were stored.

My time to take in my surroundings ended as Sergeant Wheeler approached. “At ease, Nalley. Get the company organized and in those bleachers,” he said, pointing to a set of aluminum bleachers like you might find at a soccer field.

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“Yes, Sergeant.” I told him, more than a bit curious why he put this task on me. Never the less I turned to my gaggle of sister trainees. “At Ease!” I yelled, getting their collective attention. “Alright, girls, fall out to the bleachers to my left. Move it out!”

As I trotted over with them, one of the Range Masters was already walking towards a podium erected before the bleachers, caring a box. We made ourselves comfortable on the bleachers and the Range Master began to speak.

Now, you should probably know that most Range Masters have this deep seated envy of Drill Instructors. They are not, themselves, DIs but I image more than one fancies himself as one. As such, they each try to out do each other with more and more spectacular stuns, which they feel, makes them honorary Drill Instructors. This particular Range Master (or as they were collectively known by the Drill Instructors, Range Bunnies) had decided that the Grenade Familiarization Course needed a bit of show and tell.

In his box was a sample of each type of grenade in the arsenal of the US Army. As he described each, they are Smoke, White Phosphorous, Chemical Agent, and Fragmentation; he set them off in the clearing behind him.

Smoke Grenades are about the size and shape of a can of Fosters beer. For their volume, they generate a phenomenal amount of smoke and we had to pause for several minutes for it to clear. As it did, I looked back over the bleachers towards the Range Tower. In a gaggle were all of our Drill Sergeants, talking with the new Reservists. And something about the distance they were keeping set off a little alarm in my head.

White Phosphorous grenades come in the same size and shape, and are used to destroy vehicles and equipment you are abandoning and don’t wish to fall into the hands of the enemy. The Phosphorous burns so hot that you can place one in the center of a WWII jeep and before you’ve gotten twenty feet away or so the only thing left is a big, shapeless lump of metal. For us, the range bunny set it on a 50 gallon drum that had been filled with concrete.

It melted.

The next he demonstrated was the training version of the M67 fragmentation grenade we’d be using today. They were identical in size and shape to the live “baseball” grenades, but had been cored out and where only armed with the detonator fuse which would make the “grenade” pop. To be sure, you could be hurt if you held it when it popped, but probably nothing worse than a bad burn. After the first two, this was nearly anticlimactic.

The last one he removed from the box was in the same class as the first two, being in size and shape. “This, ladies,” he droned on in his numbing nasal voice, “Is the ABC-M25A2 CS grenade. It is employed to disperse large gatherings of civilians or to disable enemy soldiers where their injury is not considered vital. It releases large volumes of the same CS gas you were privileged to experience earlier this week.”

Now, as you can imagine, there was an awful lot of fidgeting that began in those bleachers. That would explain why the Drills were so far away and that little alarm in the back of my head just went to a loud, full blown claxon.

The Range Bunny grinned. “And this is what one looks like in operation!” Then he pulled the pin and lobbed the grenade underhand right at us.

Now, all grenades in use by the US Army have a so-called “safety fuse” which is activated when the lever on the side of the grenade, called the spoon, flips off. From that point, four to five seconds later the grenade will go off. Now, it seems to me if they really wanted a “safety fuse” it would go off exactlyfour or exactly five seconds later. But they don’t. Once it’s off, you have no idea how long you’ve got before it cooks off.

Which is what made Michelle Metcalf that much braver.

As the rest of us were diving and scrambling to get off the bleachers and away from the gas that was coming, I was rooted in abject terror and saw it all. Michelle stood up and caught the grenade bare handed, in her left hand no less.

And then she threw it back.

The grenade sailed in slow motion back from whence it had come, to the widening horror of the range bunny. It got just even with his ugly head, about twenty feet or so from the bottom of the bleachers, and then it exploded, removing him from my sight in a grey white cloud of the hated gas.

And behind us, I could hear another explosion. As I scrambled off the back of the bleachers to put distance from myself and that cloud, yelling as I went for the other girls to do the same, I saw our Drill Sergeants, from their perch had exploded as well.

In laughter at the range bunny’s plight.

He stumbled from the cloud, coughing and retching, a trail of mucus stretching from his nose in one stream to just above the tops of his boots. What was coherent of what he was saying would not at all look nice in print, but it served him right. He was only reaping the fate he had sown for us. I did have the presence of mind not to laugh myself at his predicament, but some of the other girls did as I was getting them back together in a group, well up wind of the dispersing gas.

As I worked, 1stSergeant Pierceson materialized at my elbow. “Nalley,” he growled, his large face unreadable.

“Yes 1stSergeant,” I responded, immediately assuming parade rest.

“Which one of your girls threw that grenade back?”

Uh-oh. “That would be private Metcalf, 1stSergeant.”

“Metcalf, front and center,” bellowed 1stSergeant Pierceson. Michele trotted over and assumed the parade rest position next to me.

“Pri-private Metcalf reports as ordered, 1stSergeant.” I wish I could say I was feeling sorry for Michele as she was shaking like a leaf in fear. But, to be honest, I was not exactly a pillar of collectiveness myself. From the color suffused in 1stSergeant’s face, it seemed clear he was mightily pissed.

“Metcalf, do you have any idea what the fuck you just did?” demanded 1stSergeant Pierceson at the top of his considerable lungs. Michele looked like she was on the edge of tears, which, of course would only make things worse.

“N…No, 1stSergeant. I…”

“You what, Metcalf? Speak the fuck up, soldier!”

“I just acted with out really thinking about it, 1stSergeant.”

“Let me tell you what the fuck you just did, Metcalf,” continued the Sergeant. Michele couldn’t see it, I’m sure, as her eyes were full of tears she was very bravely holding back. But 1stSergeant Pierceson was actually smiling now. “You just saved the lives of everyone in your company. You used the enemies’ ordinance against him in an unconventional and therefore unexpected manner. This gave you the element of surprise and allowed your squad mates to safely evacuate the area. Hot Damn Metcalf, that’s the best piece of mother fucking soldiering I’ve seen out of this company yet. Carry on.”

Poor Michele about fainted in relief. “Yes 1stSergeant, I will.”

“Alright, ladies,” continued 1stSergeant Pierceson to the company. “Private Metcalf has given us a fine start on the day. Now, let’s learn how to throw grenades!”

The trail, we would then learn was a pretend “battle field” that had stations through out it, where we would learn the various engagement techniques with the grenade. It was here that we were given a slow walk through and taught the correct way to throw a grenade.

It’s not as easy as you’d think. For one thing, it’s thrown like a shot putt, from the shoulder, not hurled like the baseball it resembles. That’s a safety precaution. You hold the grenade one handed, with your thumb over the spoon the keep it from coming off by accident. As they’re fatter than you can hold with your fingers over lapping, if you cock your arm back for more leverage to throw it, you increase the likelihood the grenade will slip out of your hand and go off right behind you.

That’s bad.

I can speak with some authority on this due to an incident in which these techniques were being discussed between our new Reserve Drills and Sergeant Wheeler. One of the reservists was demonstrating the “correct” method to throw the grenade when he could stand the mistakes the reservist was making no longer.

“Sergeant,” drawled Sergeant Wheeler. “You are all eight up.”

Eight up is a military term for being incorrect in the worst way possible. I have no idea where it comes from, but it was in common usage there. That was not the shocking thing, however. What was shocking was that Sergeant Wheeler had spoken at all. If you’ve ever been in the Service, you’d know that everything is pinned up on layers of command and control. Orders start from the President and work their way down the chain, finally getting to us.

The first thing NCOs are taught in NCO school is you never, ever, contradict one another in front of anyone of a lower rank. The reservist became angry. “What exactly do you mean, Sergeant Wheeler?” he demanded.

“You don’t ever drop your elbow to throw a grenade. You could drop it. Come on, now, Sarge, you know better than that.” The Reservist’s face flushed with anger.

This was getting ugly. You see, contrary to any number of Hollywood war movies, the worst possible thing you can call a Non-Commissioned Officer, is sarge. A sarge is a deep ocean bottom feeding fish that lives in muck and filth it’s entire life eating the fecal matter of other deep ocean bottom fish. You can see how they’d take exception to being called that.

Now, of all the girls, I’d be willing to bet I was the only one there who knew exactly how vile a name Sergeant Wheeler had called the Reservist. I would not have long to ponder just where this was going to go for, as the Reservist was getting angrily to his feet the grenade slipped from his fingers and bounced to a stop just in front of the company.

I acted completely with out thinking.

“Grenade!” I yelled, throwing myself as forcefully as I could to the side, jarring my foot painfully as I did so and coming to a stop in bramble of thorny briar bushes. There came the soft pop of the training grenade going off and I looked up from the tangle I was in to see the whole company and all of the NCOs staring at me as if I’d just preformed a strip tease.

A couple of the girls in the back snickered. 1stSergeant Pierceson walked over, his cigar puffing lazily as he did so and offered me his ham of a fist to help me up. I thought I’d die of embarrassment. “Nalley,” he drawled, “You’re hurt bad, but you’ll live.” Then his voice shot up to its bullhorn levels as he wheeled on the girls. “The rest of you ladies are dead! You’ve been killed in a tragic training accident! Dieing cockroaches!”

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The Dieing Cockroach is a form of punishment, probably more dreaded than the perennial push up. One lies ones back, with ones legs and arms raised and bent at the elbows and knees respectively, wiggling them as if a cockroach in it’s death throes. While in this position, one must chant at the top of ones voice, “I’m dead! I’m dead! Tell my mom I’m dead!”

You’d be amazed how quickly your arms and legs feel like they’re made of lead. As I began the slow and painful process of de-thorning my BDUs, I heard Sergeant Wheeler quietly remark to the Reservist, “Just like that, Sarge.”

I could see now just how rough a road we had before us.

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Chapter Five

Being a soldier is a study of extremes. It entails long stretches of mind numbing routine and boredom punctuated by sharply defined moments of abject and absolute terror. Most of today had fallen into the former category. Interesting mentally and challenging physically, but all fairly safe. The dangers that occupied my mind were of the simulated variety.

But now that variety was well and truly behind me and all too real.

As I struggled to breathe in the body armor that had been strapped to me, binding in all the wrong places and suffering from having no tolerance for the female form, my attention was sharply focused on my waist.

On the LBE, in the front are two large, rectangular pouches which are designed to carry three, thirty round magazines for my M-16 each. Currently, they were both empty. But, cradled like eggs, are little pouches on either side of the magazine carriers, which are designed to hold one M67 Fragmentation Anti-Personnel Grenade. And at this moment in my oh so very short life, on either side of my womb were little eggs of death.

I realized I was staring at them since they’d been removed from the very ordinary wooden crate they’d been shipped here from what ever factory full of hard working people had produced them for me and been placed into those pouches on my belt. I couldn’t help staring at them. Something so small being so deadly.

This wasn’t at all like rifle marksmanship. There was a great deal of skill and a sense personal detachment involved with that. This was much more immediate and random. There was no skill involved with grenades, they just fell where they fell and started killing. I became worried I would be sick.

From this downward spiral I was snatched by a short, sharp blow to my helmet which staggered me and nearly knocked me down. I looked up into the ugliest face I’d ever seen. The Sergeant let go of my arm, where he’d grabbed me to keep me from falling over after he’d struck the top of my helmet. “Are you alright, Private?” he yelled. He had to; we were both wearing ear plugs against the noise and over-compression of the grenade explosions.

His face was a road map of pits and scars, the black skin mottled with a reddish tan scar tissue whose origins to this day I have no idea. I had a horrible feeling I could guess, based on the particular range he worked on, and the sickness threatened to over whelm me.

And then I looked into his eyes.

Eyes mean a lot to me. They always have and his were filled with concern, about me, about the girls behind me, and probably every other private that would pass this way. They wiped away the horror of his face and he became a thing of beauty to me.

“I’ll be alright, Sergeant,” I managed, determined not to look at my waist again until I had to. He smiled.

“What’s your name?”

“Nalley, Sergeant.”

He shook his head and extended his hand. “I’m Tom. What’s your name, girl?”

I took his hand and smiled. “Beth. It’s nice to meet you, Tom.” And that was the first time, in three weeks, that I had addressed a male by his first name. It’s funny how thoughts like that distract you.

“Beth, where you from?”

“College Park, Georgia. It’s kind of south of Atlanta, but not much.” He grinned.

“Ah I see, one those Southern Belles out here taking in nature.” I laughed, but there was still a hint of nervousness to it so I stopped. “I’m from Cleveland, went through Ft Benning a bunch of years back, and I do so love this Southern weather. Just not the heat.”

“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” I babbled without thinking. “You get used to when you’ve been here long enough, just remember to keep drinking water and stay out of the sun from noon to three.” He nodded as if being given wisdom from on high. I looked about and suddenly we were standing in one of the U shaped walls from which the grenades would be thrown. A moment before, it seemed, I’d been swooning by the tower in the waiting area with the other girls, now I was all alone with Tom and it was my time to pass or fail.

“Don’t panic, Beth,” Tom told me, pulling me back into his eyes. “When I tell you, you’re going to remove the right grenade with you left hand then place it in your right hand. You pull the pin when I say and you throw when I say, ok?” I nodded dumbly, trying to maintain my composure. “Look at me, if you think you’re going to drop the grenade, try to get it over this wall and go limp. That’s important, ‘cause I’m going to throw you this way, away from it. Get a big breath I’ll be right on top of you. Then I want you to scream ‘grenade’ until it goes off, ok?”

Again my head bobbed in a nod. “Now, don’t think about maybes, ok? You’re going to throw these grenades and show the other girls how to do it, right?” This time a nervous laugh escaped my lips. “Alright, Beth, remove your right grenade.”

With trembling fingers I undid the snap on the strap holding the grenade onto the pouch and slowly slid it out. Tom took my right hand up and put on the grenade, orienting it until correct. “Nice and tight now, that’s good. Now, take your left index finger and put it through the pin ring. Now, pull the pin.”

I’m embarrassed to say it took me two tries to get it loose. I guess the live pins are seated much more firmly than the trainers. Tom just kept smiling and encouraging me. “You got it, Beth. Take aim.”

I extended my left arm out and away from me at a 45 degree with the grenade up to my ear in some horrible mockery of a body builder’s poise. “Throw!”

“Grenade!” I screamed and heaved it with all my might, dropping to my left knee as I did so. A moment later there was a horrific explosion that made my ears hurt despite the ear plugs.

The loud speaker on the tower came to life. “Forty meters, good throw Nalley.” It was Sergeant Wheeler’s voice. I caught the lip of the wall and pulled myself up high enough to see the new hole I’d made.

The actual range was a dirt depression that had lines spray painted in five meter increments out from twenty which was the bare minimum you had to be able to throw it, other wise you would injure yourself. I was so caught up in the emotion of it; I couldn’t help but throw my arms around Tom and give him a hug. “Nothing to it, Beth. Now, you got your stride, girl, let’s get it out past that one. You ready?”

“You bet, Tom. Bring it on.”

“That’s the spirit, Beth, alright, remove your left grenade.” As so, a few seconds later I was once more on my knee, yelling, awaiting the explosion. When it came it was noticeably less than the first one had been.

Once more Sergeant Wheeler’s voice barked out from the tower. “Fifty five meters, Nalley! That’s the way to throw it!”

I was overjoyed as I once more ascended the wall and looked at the new hole, seemingly a much greater distance from my first try. I couldn’t resist yelling a wordless yell of triumph.

I had passed through the valley of the shadow of death, and emerged unscathed. I was on an emotional counter peak from the valley I had descended to just a few scant minutes earlier. As opposite as night and day. The fact that I was awarded an expert badge for the grenade for my effort was the icing on my cake of success. It the last moment of unmitigated joy I would feel for two and a half weeks.

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The girls and I made it off the grenade range without further incident, everyone at least qualifying the minimum Marksman, but we had an abundance of Sharpshooters and Experts, the other two qualification grades. Gail got the distance record for the company, managing to fling her grenade over one hundred yards and off the explosion area of the range, eliciting the thanks of the tower for that much less grass he’d have to mow.

After such a stressful day we had the remaining afternoon and evening off, which was spent giving our rifles a through cleaning. As we sat in our room, cleaning, Gail and I did our best not to listen in on the heated argument going on next door in the day room. It seemed that Sarge wasn’t very happy about Sergeant Wheeler undermining his authority in front of the company.

Never mind that everyone in the company would have been killed if the grenade he’d dropped had been a live one.

Sergeant McCray, the Training NCO had gotten involved in the ‘debate’ and finally it got all the way up to 1stSergeant Pierceson. Top, as most 1stSergeants are known (once you’ve earned the right to call them that) as usual was fairly balanced in his criticism, if the language he chose to employ was more than a tad vulgar. I won’t repeat what was said, but as Top pointed out, there was more than enough blame to go around.

For my part, I was more than worried about what these reservists were doing to my units’ moral, which was spiking up and down like a yo-yo. However, in my position, there was precious little I could do about it. So I did what any other private in my situation would do, I shut up and soldiered.

I did get my lesson plan written up and dropped off to Sergeant Wheeler before he left for the day, and he seemed pleased with my work. As for the storage system of the lighters, I included in my lesson plan that, technically, Kiwi boot polish was also flammable, hence as we could have that, why not have the girls pool some cash and purchase surplus Ammo cans which could be padlocked shut and stored in our wall lockers. This was how my Uncle Frederick dealt with the issue, and Sergeant Wheeler stated he would look into it.

The rest of the week was spent on the various rifle ranges, working on our marksmanship in preparation for the coming test in a little better than two weeks. In the evenings, it Nuclear, Biological and Chemical warfare class instruction and the rather aptly named MOPP suit, or Mission Oriented (Yeah, right) Protective Posture suit.

This bulky set of coveralls on steroids supposedly had an active charcoal layer sewn into it which would, in theory, protect us from radioactive fall out (maybe), Biological warfare agents (better than nothing…) and various chemical warfare agents (not on a bet). The only thing it did do well was add fifteen pounds of clothing and an impermeable layer on top of our BDUs which made getting heat stroke in the Missouri swelter that much more likely.

And on Monday we’d be running the combat assault course wearing it along with our gas masks. Tuesday, I was sure, would be spent in the hospital.

As the week ground on slowly towards my impending class, I ground my teeth in frustration at the constant and burgeoning incompetence of our replacement drills. For most jobs in the Army, I suppose, the reserve system of one weekend a month and two weeks a year worked. But for Drill Instruction it just seemed to break down.

There were times the formation was marched into a wall because they evidently had trouble telling left from right. In theory, these reservists were on call, should we find ourselves in a large scale war and need to ramp up training quickly to handle a draft. But if that ever happens, God help us, we’ll lose.

For my part, the rest of the week consisted of getting ridden almost as hard as first week. Wither it was due to their feelings of inadequacy at their own soldiering skills, or if as I was platoon guide that made me a transplant target for their anger at Sergeant Wheeler, I don’t know. All I know is I caught hell all that week.

Our unit esprie de corpswas going right into the toilet, and I had to just watch and let it happen. The worst of it was the one I had mentally begun to call Sarge after the dressing out Sergeant Wheeler had given him on the grenade range. For three weeks, I had felt fear of and a desire to outwit my DIs turn to a genuine respect and desire to earn their praise and approval. But that was all being rapidly undone.

And there was basically nothing Sergeant Wheeler or any of the others could do. The fact that I would be giving a block of instruction on spit shining Saturday seemed to set them off even more. It was one of the few instances where Top got involved and put his foot down. The class was on; end of discussion.

So Saturday came around and I found myself immediately after breakfast walking to the podium of one of the corrugated tin Quonset Huts that the classes were held in, trying very hard not look at Sarge and his cohorts glowering at me from the back wall.

I licked my lips out of nervousness and began. “Ladies, the following block of instruction you will receive is on the proper techniques of foot gear maintenance more commonly known as the spit shine. Contrary to its common name, this technique does not involve spit. This instruction will be conducted in a twenty minute lecture and demonstration, followed by a one hour hands on exercise. There will be a restroom break of fifteen minutes at 10:30 hours. Questions?”

“What’s the point?” demanded Sarge.

I was momentarily dumbfounded. “Excuse me, Sergeant?” I asked.

“I said what’s the point? Regulations only call for foot gear being clean and black. If you’re that desperate for shine, just buy Corframs from the PX.”

I couldn’t help it, I snapped. “Regulations also state that to pass one must throw two grenades no less than twenty meters and kill 25 out of every 40 enemy soldiers you shoot at. The point, sergeant, is pride. Pride of one’s appearance, unit, Service and country. And, I might point out, Sergeant, that regulations specifically forbid Corframs, or any other patent leather like foot gear.”

Before Sarge could get worked up, Sergeant Wheeler loudly cut him off, “Well said, Nalley. Proceed.”

“Yes Sergeant,” I replied and launched into the how-to and whys of Spit Shining. By the end of the hands on segment, the girls had gotten a good start on a shine that, with more work and constant upkeep, would be like glass. But my battles with Sarge were just beginning and I had the common sense to know it.

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Chapter Six

After a rousing sermon by our unit Chaplin, Captain Lamont Freeman, on Sunday, Monday morning dawned warm and sunny with already a hint of the heat to come later in the day. Sergeant Wheeler was in fine spirits as we were awoken by his loud calls though out in the barracks and his flip of the light switch in our room. “Nalley, are you and Limpkins decent?” he called out.

It must be rather galling for a Drill Instructor to have to ask permission to enter a private’s room, but it was just one of the joys of the new Army, for which I was genuinely thankful. Twenty years or more ago, I probably wouldn’t have had this opportunity. As I sat up in bed, making sure both myself and Gail were ‘in uniform’ I called out, “Limpkins and I are never decent, Sergeant, but your privates’ privates are covered.”

The door opened to his grin and call of, “At ease,” as he did so. He walked over to my side of the small room. “How’s your heel, Nalley?”

“Much better this morning, Sergeant. The blister is almost healed and the redness is gone,” I responded, turning up my heal as I said so for his inspection. He nodded, pleased.

“Good, that’s coming right along. Do you think you’d be up to wearing your boots today?”

I blinked. “I suppose I could, Sergeant, with a thick gauze pad as a cushion. But the doctor ordered me in sneakers for another week or so.”

“I know. But for the training today, you’d need to be in your boots. I can either give you a release for one day of light duty in them, or you’ll have to sit the training out.”

I pouted in frustration. “I don’t want to miss any training, Sergeant, but I don’t want an Article 13 for disobeying an order, either.”

“Don’t worry about an Article 13, Nalley; Captain Moon already has an exception for you, if you think you won’t further injure yourself. This is up to you, with no penalty either way.” I thought for a moment, even though there really was no decision to make.

“I want to do this, Sergeant. I’ll be in boots today.”

He beamed. “Good girl. You two get ready and Nalley? I don’t want you over exerting yourself. If you have any discomfort, I’m ordering you to cease training and notify me at once. Take your running shoes with you, just in case.”

“Yes, Sergeant, I will.”

“Saddle up, ladies, we’ve got a big day today,” he roared on his way out. I opened my wall locker to get my toiletries for my morning shower as Gail did the same. As I rummaged for body wash, shampoo, conditioner, towel and the rest I heard Gail becoming thoughtful beside me.

“You know, Beth,” she remarked as she rummaged as well, “I think I know why he likes you so much. It’s got to be your chest. You’re the biggest of us and he has the look of one of those types.”

I sighed as she laughed. “Don’t start, Gail. For one thing, he’s old enough to be my father, and for another he’s married.”

“How do you know all this?” I held my glasses out past the wall lockers door where she could see them.

“These work you know. I’m not wearing them for a fashion statement.” Army glasses are the ugliest glasses ever made. They’re universally referred to as BC (Birth Control) glasses as you’ll never, ever get a date wearing them. “He’s wearing a wedding ring,” I continued, shutting my wall locker door. Gail cackled as we walked down the hallway to the showers.

“Ah, the truth is out, you were checking out his availability!”

“Oh hush,” I told her, giving her a playful shove. “Not everything revolves around sex, Gail. You’re not helping break the country girl slut mold.”

“I’m not a slut,” she retorted as we laid our items down on the bench just out side the shower and began to strip. “I just have healthy appetites. You telling me our great, GI Jane Platoon Guide hasn’t gotten her cherry picked yet?”

I picked up my shower items and shuffled noisily to an open nozzle and turned it on, hoping for warm water. “What business is it of yours?” I demanded with mock indignation. “You trying to pick me up or something? I’m not that kind of girl.”

Before Gail could respond Sergeant Rodriguez’s strident voice echoed through the confined space of the shower. “At ease,” she bellowed causing all activity to cease. “Nalley, front and center.”

I hesitantly padded over, aware more than ever of my own nakedness. Coming to parade rest, I said, “Private Nalley, reports as ordered, Sergeant.” Now, I know I’m not a beauty queen by any stretch of the imagination. At that time I was probably a size 12-14, around 145 pounds or so. I had (and still have if I do say so myself) a nice proportional shape; if I had to guess I’d say I would have taped at 38DD-30-38. I’m not going to be appearing on Miss America, but to stand in front of a clothed woman naked made me even more self conscious. Add to that my hair is a deep reddish brown that falls half way down my back with blue-green eyes. Because of my wonderful Scot-Irish ancestry certain portions of my hair line are a much brighter red than others. And no, I don’t mean the hair line on my head.

“Nalley,” Sergeant Rodriguez said, an evil grin on her face, “I stand corrected.” I was utterly confused and struggling to keep my resentment of the current situation from showing on my face. “I bet Milt five dollars that you were padding your bra, looks like I was wrong. Carry on.” She left as my face burned.

I felt absolutely humiliated.

The shower was silent save for the running of water and the sloshing of my flip flops as I rejoined Gail at my shower head. She looked at the open door of the showers, out into the latrine, then back at me as I bit back angry tears, finally breaking the silence.

“Flat chested bitch,” she said. I couldn’t help but laugh with the other girls at that and felt such warmth for Gail. It was just what I needed to hear.

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After breakfast, we arrived at the Combat Assault Course, a half mile trail carved out of the forest by force with a series of obstacles artificially inserted through out it. Walls to be scaled, rope bridges over two foot depressions of mud, and various other ingenious soldiering bits we’d probably never encounter on a real battlefield. Still, for the most part it was going to be fun.

Like camp fire girls, but with attitude. Like all of the other obstacle courses we would run through out basic, we were walked through it first, being given blocks of instruction on the Army way to defeat each obstacle. The one I could see I’d have trouble with right away with was the wall.

The wall was a six foot plank thing of two by fours supporting wall flats on the other side. There was no purchase on the side we’d be coming from. Top it off with the fact we’d be taking the course “under fire” which meant we’d be carrying our M-16s in our hands as if we were attacking a fixed point.

Now, as you’d probably guess, I’m not big on upper body strength. But, as we were shown, to scale the wall we had to do it one handed, and left handed at that. I knew I’d get a dressing out when I failed, and that put a damper on my spirits for the rest of the walk through.

Still, there was nothing to do but soldier on. We trudged back to the start line and retrieved our M-16s where they’d been stacked and tightened the straps on our helmets. I got into the process of applying my game face as Sergeant Wheeler walked over. “Nalley, everyone ready here?”

“Yes, Sergeant, Delta Company ready for assault.”

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“Very good. Private Nalley, at the top of that ridge is an enemy strong point with a good possibility of chemical weapons. Take Delta Company and capture that strong point, with as few losses as possible.”

“Yes Sergeant.”

“Move out.”

I turned back to the girls. “Delta Company, follow me!” With a yell, two hundred would be female warriors rushed the course. The entire cadre had placed themselves at points through out the course, every so often grabbing girls who had become ‘casualties’. Each one hurt, but probably none more so than Captain Moon’s ‘grenade’ that took five girls at once in a clump.

I wanted to win and badly but as there had been no provision for us returning fire, there really was no way to fight back. The M-16s were empty, not even blanks and MILES gear. We wouldn’t start training with MILES for another week. And as I turned a corner, there was Sarge, Top and the wall.

I leapt and scrambled and huffed and puffed, but I just couldn’t keep my right arm and weapon from sneaking up and over the lip of the wall as I tried to get enough leverage to get over it. That’s when Sarge walked over and grabbed the barrel of my rifle and began a tug of war with me over it. “I’ve got your weapon, Nalley!” he shouted as we pulled back and forth. “What are you going to do?”

If Sergeant Rodriguez hadn’t humiliated me in the shower that morning, I’d never have had the guts to do what I did next. I worked my finger into the trigger guard and waited until the tug of war got the muzzle pointed at his ugly head and I yelled, “BANG!” at the top of my voice.

Sarge stared at me with an almost bewildered expression on his face as 1stSergeant Pierceson roared with laughter. “That’s a hell of an answer, Nalley! Fall down and dieing cockroach Sergeant! You’re dead! One shot, one kill, who rah, Nalley! Way to Mother fucking soldier.”

I didn’t get over the wall and was forced to slide back down, but it didn’t matter. Looking at Sarge flat on his back was worth every second.

The only obstacle between us and victory was gas hill.

The company turned the corner on the trail where it dog legged up a steep incline for the last hundred yards to a waiting Sergeant Wheeler. At the bottom of the hill was Sergeant Smith, who as he caught sight of us started yelling, “Gas! Gas! You are under gas attack!”

I was more than a little surprised that they were ignoring this fine opportunity to hit us with more of the hated CS gas. I would learn later that this portion of the training was to instill confidence in being able to breath under stress in the masks, and they wanted no interference with that. Fine with me.

The girls and I scrambled to put our masks on, lest they change their minds and started up the hill. Up till this point exhilaration was probably fueling my charge, but as we got further and further up the hill, I found it getting harder and harder to breath.

Then, halfway up the hill I couldn’t breathe at all.

I was faced with two choices, remove my mask, or pass out. The mask came off and Sergeant Smith materialized at my elbow. “Nalley! What the hell are you doing removing your mask?”

I looked at him and his expression changed from anger to concern. “I couldn’t breath, Sergeant.” I must have been turning blue. “I couldn’t get any air at all.”

“Put it back on,” he said, and once I had complied continued. “Anything? Any air at all?” I inhaled as hard as could but rapidly used up the air trapped between the mask and my face and began to shake my head violently. He took the mask back off and began to fiddle with the filter assembly. Once he got it off he tsked his teeth. “Just like I thought, your filter is shot. Get up the hill with the others and we’ll get it replaced back at the barracks.”

“Yes sergeant,” I replied, stuffing the mask back in it’s carrier on my left thigh and hoofing it up the hill. I contented myself with yelling the other girls up the hill once I’d arrived, every so often catching sight of Sergeant Wheeler looking at me. I was not sure then what held his interest in me, although I would learn soon enough, I couldn’t help wondering if perhaps Gail was right.

Ah the naiveté of youth. If you ever read this, Sergeant Wheeler, I apologize for ever thinking your motives were anything but professional.

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Chapter Seven

Basic training holds the two strangest notations of time flow. In the beginning it seems to take forever, but once it gets going in earnest, it gains a fluid quality. Before I knew it, two weeks had passed and we were finally rid of Sarge and his incompetent cohorts. I was preoccupied with trying to restore morale in the unit and enjoy the fun parts of Basic.

We finally were getting training with MILES or Multiple Independent LASER Engagement System (only the Army could have an acronym in an acronym). In a nut shell, MILES is laser tag for big kids. The M-16 is given blank rounds for sound, recoil and reloading, but fitted over the muzzle is a five pound LASER emitter. When you shoot, the emitter shoots out a beam co-axial to the barrel. Your LBE is now covered with sensors looking for the beams. If one hits you, it begins to squeal until you take the key from the transmitter (deactivating it) and putting it into the LBE which shuts off the squeal, but locks the key. Welcome to the afterlife private, you are dead.

Then one Thursday we were shocked and amazed to be given the whole day off, right in the middle of the week. And encouraged to sleep and goof off. Something was rotten in Denmark. A bit of intelligence gathering, masquerading as light conversation with Sergeant Anderson quickly shed a bit of light on the subject.

“So, Ms. Bond,” demanded Gail with a smirk as I returned from the day room. “What’s the story?”

“We’re doing the Night Assault Course tonight.”

The Night Assault Course, the coolest of cool, a huge simulation of everything we’d learned thus far. We would be making a night patrol through hostile territory, seeking out the enemy for engagement. It would all be done with MILES gear and brought as real as possible. I was beside myself with excitement.

Gail was significantly less amused. “Any idea how long we’re going to be out there?”

“No clue, but best guess is two or so.”

“And up at five the next day, right? Great. I’m taking a nap.” I must admit there were times I envied Gail’s ability to sleep at the drop of hat. I was far too wound up to do much more than rest, though out the day and welcomed the knock on the door followed by Sergeant Wheeler’s voice.

“Nalley, you up?”

“Yes sergeant,” I called, rising and coming as quietly as I could to the door. I probably needn’t have bothered, Gail could sleep through an A bomb. Outside was Sergeant Wheeler, and, to my amazement, Captain Moon.

“Come to the day room, Nalley,” said Sergeant Wheeler and I wordlessly followed. The rest of the cadre was there as well and I began to wonder if I was in serious trouble. Sergeant Wheeler sat at his desk and motioned me to the chair opposite it. “Nalley,” he began, “Why aren’t you resting?”

I couldn’t stop a grin from planting itself on my face. “I’m trying, Sergeant, I’m just too worked up about tonight. I’m really looking forward to it.” The grin faltered, “Am I in trouble, Sergeant?”

“Not for anything you did, Nalley,” was his cryptic response. He looked pointedly at Captain Moon and I followed his gaze.

“Private,” he began in his quiet voice, “Who is the commanding officer of this post?”

Well, that threw me for a loop. I hadn’t been quizzed on chain of command for four weeks or better. It actually took me a second to remember. “Major General Clayton Wesley, sir.” He nodded.

“General Wesley will be in attendance at the night assault course tonight, private, testing a new training theory of his. Delta Company will be on hand, with all of Fourth Battalion. You’re going to run the Night Assault Course together.”

“A kind of combined arms exercise, sir?” I asked. He blinked, but for a second I thought I saw approval in his eyes, but it was rapidly replaced by something very like guilt.

“Not exactly, private. Fourth Battalion will be the patrolling group.”

“So, we go after them?”

He sighed and that little alarm from the grenade range began to sound again. “Fourth Battalion will be hunting you, Nalley. General Wesley wants to train the privates against each other. He feels this will be more realistic training. You are being given command of for the purposes of this exercise an elite recon unit, feeling out the defenses of a rear area in addition to intelligence gathering and communications interdiction. For this exercise, you have already completed the interdiction portion and are attempting to withdraw to an evacuation point for airlift out.”

I felt a pit open up in my body and swallow my stomach. Captain Moon continued. “Fourth Battalion will be the force reacting to your raid, attempting your capture and or destruction. For you to win, you must reach the LZ and defend it for ten minutes.”

I swallowed. “Fourth Battalion has 800 men chasing me. How many do I get?”

Captain Moon wouldn’t look me in the eye. “1stPlatoon of Delta Company.”

“To hell with that, sir.” The words were out of my mouth to my own amazement, let alone everyone else’s in the room.

Fortunately for me, Captain Moon was faster than anyone else on the uptake. “I beg your pardon, Private?” he asked in his soft voice.

“What I mean, sir, and please forgive my language, is that if I’m this elite commando force, no Army in its right mind is going to send a platoon that deep in enemy territory. I respectfully request a squad of my choosing instead. A platoon won’t be fast enough and too hard to maneuver. Unless the purpose of this is for 800 boys to beat up 50 girls, but I would think that was a forgone conclusion, sir.” Captain Moon smiled.

“Private, by the end of things tonight, I want to be able to figuratively thumb my nose at General Wesley. I’ve chosen you based on what your sergeants have told me and other sources. You want to do this with a squad, that just makes it sweeter for me. What else do you request?”

“Two MILES equipped 50 caliber Ma Deuces and as much ammo as we can carry. Four CS grenades a girl, night vision goggles around and it would really make my day if you told me there were MILES frag grenades and Claymores.” They roared with laughter at my spunk and I could see Sergeant Wheeler’s eyes flashing in pride.

Captain Moon opened up his dicker. “One M-60, with two thousand rounds. The fifty caliber is not an antipersonnel cartridge, private, you know that. All grenades of yours have been expended, but ok on the night vision. No such thing as MILES baseballs and Claymores, sorry.”

“If you want to nick pick, sir, neither is the 7.62 NATO. Three thousand rounds and four CS grenades,” I retorted.

“Three thousand rounds, no grenades, private. Generals orders.”

“Ah, so, in fact, I am meant to get my pink girly butt spanked, sir?”

“You have a problem with that, private?” demanded Captain Moon.

“No sir. But I feel I must inform the Captain he should begin my Article 13 paperwork, sir, because it is my intention to royally piss off General Wesley and win, sir.”

Sergeant Wheeler spoke up. “You worry about wining, Nalley, I’ll worry about paperwork. Get your team together and get your game face on. We roll to the course at 1800.”

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“Yes sergeant.”

Oh boy, me and my big, fat mouth.

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Gail was not happy to be awakened while it was still daylight. And, I knew, she’d be even less happy with the news I was going to lay on her. “What?” she demanded, more than a little groggy.

“Go get the other three squad leaders, Metcalf, and have the girls bring two of their best squad members and meet me in the big bay.”

“What the fuck?” she demanded, wiping the sleep from her eyes. “What’s up?”

My eyes must have shone. “We’re pissing off a general tonight, Gail. Move it.”

Now I know I had her worried, but she got up and began to pull on her boots. I left and listened by the day room door to make sure everyone was still in there, then crept as quietly as I could to the Charge of Quarters office, praying it was unlocked. It was.

I slipped in as quietly as I could and quickly crossed the room to the file cabinets on the far side. I opened the one I wanted and began to quickly ruffle through them. My heart was pounded in fear of getting caught and it seemed to take forever to find what I was looking for. Once I had it, I stuffed it my thigh pocket on my BDU pants and crept out as quietly as I could.

The Big Bay was the largest of the bunk rooms, right off the main door of the barracks and was filled with unused bunks and wall lockers pushed against the walls. The drills liked a large open room everyone in the platoon could fit into, so it was never used for a living area, just meetings.

The others had assembled by the time I came in and I felt their stares as I walked over. Michele Metcalf was the first to speak up as I sat down on the floor with them. “Beth, what gives? Gail said something about we’re pissing off a general? Did you finally snap or are you just on your period?”

I laughed with them, and then got serious, hoping to get them as angry as I was. “Tonight we’re going on the night assault course. Except we’re not going to get to just run it with the drills like we thought. General Wesley is bringing along Fourth Battalion. For tonight, we are an elite commando force deep in enemy lines trying to get to a helicopter LZ after a penetration raid. Fourth Battalion is going to try to stop us from getting to that LZ.”

Sara Cunningham, the third squad leader was incensed. “A whole battalion against our company?”

“No Sara, a whole battalion against the ten of us.”

There came a collective cry of, “WHAT?”

“Calm down,” I told them. “Yes, Fourth battalions’ 800 little boys against the 10 of us. And we’re going to beat the pants off them.”

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“How?” complained Jenny Galway, one of Gail’s squad members. “They’re bigger and stronger than us.” Gail thumped her on the back of her head.

“Jenny, you dumb shit, we’ve got guns.” She scolded her.

“So will they,” retorted Jenny, rubbing her head.

“Not machine guns they won’t,” I told them, recapturing their collective attention. “We’ve got to do this smart ladies, because the dumb boys have numbers on us. So, we’ve got to use our weaknesses as strengths. There are more of them, so that makes us more maneuverable. They’re going to be over confident so we have to keep them off guard, hitting them where they don’t expect it, and moving before they can respond and hit us with their numbers. We have three advantages over them and we’ve got to play on them.”

“What advantages?” asked Sara.

“First, Gail, you’re going to be issued an M-60 machine gun instead of your rifle. We’ll have three thousand rounds for it and we’ll all have to help carry that ammo. The boys won’t expect the volume of fire of a belt fed machine gun on our side, so that’s one. Two, we’ll be able to see and they won’t, we’re getting night vision goggles, and they’ll be depending on flash lights and illumination flares.”

Gail rubbed her chin. “You know, we just might pull this off…”

I retrieved my stolen prize from my thigh pocket. “And three, we will know the terrain, and they won’t.” On the floor in front of them I laid the United States Geological Survey map sheet I’d purloined from the Charge of Quarters office of the five square kilometers of the Night Assault Course.

Gail’s eyes went wide. “Where did you get that?” she demanded.

“Quiet!” I hissed. And in a much lower tone myself I whispered, “I stole it from the CQ office.” That caused a tittering of the group as we clustered around the map and started working out our strategy.

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“On your feet!” bellowed Sergeant Wheeler, echoing through out the rolled tin amphitheater we were sitting in. There was a rumble as one thousand people got to their booted feet which fell to silence as General Wesley walked to the podium. He was in good shape for a man his age and carried it well. It was clear that about the time I was getting born, General Wesley was quite a hunk and I would have liked him if I wasn’t so damned pissed at him for this situation.

“Take a seat,” he called in a strong baritone that I was sure didn’t need the PA system he was using. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are privileged this evening to take part in a new, inter-unit training method being tested here for the first time. This evening, both 4thBattalion and Delta Company of 5thBattalion are at the same stage of Basic. Your skills as soldiers are approximately the same. You will be fighting each other, over the night assault course. The winner, this evening, gets a three day pass good into Rolla and a break from training until Monday. Also, Friday night you’ll be my guests at Greasy Apron buffet. The looser will contemplate death and dieing at the sand pit tomorrow, for the PT of their collective lives.”

Gail ribbed me with her elbow. “Nobody said anything about this,” she hissed. I shook my head; it was news to me as well.

General Wesley turned to Captain Moon. “Captain, who have you chosen for the aggressor side?” Captain Moon took the microphone from the General.

“Nalley, you and your team, front and center.” The girls and I got up and trotted down to the cat calls of 4thBattalion until one of their drills put a stop to it. General Wesley looked surprised as I reported for the squad.

“John, what’s this? You have a leadership team?” Captain Moon wore the most evil grin I’d ever seen on his face.

“No sir. Private Nalley and the ladies behind her are the aggressor force.”

“One squad? You were authorized the whole company.”

Huh? I thought to myself.

Captain Moon nodded. “This is Private Nalley’s request, sir. She felt that one squad was all she needed to defeat 4thBattalion.” That statement brought a chorus of boos from the boys and a look of frank amazement from General Wesley. Meanwhile, I was doing my best to keep the rage I felt from showing on my face. I’d been ratted out.

General Wesley turned to me. “Private Nalley?” he asked. I stepped forward and tossed off my Sunday salute.

“Courage and Fidelity, Sir!”

“Regiment,” he responded, returning my salute. “At ease. Is what the Captain telling me true?”

Oh, I hate decisions like this. “Yes sir! We are prepared for battle sir.”

Clearly, General Wesley didn’t think so and that made me even more determined than ever to beat him. “Very well, Private, you girls go and get your equipment issue. You’ll have a five minute head start, and then 4thBattalion will be after you.”

“Yes sir.”

Captain Moon moved the microphone in my direction before I could depart. “Is there anything you’d like to say to 4thBattalion, Private Nalley?”

Oh, God forgive me, I just couldn’t resist. I turned to them, sitting on the bleachers and blew them a kiss. “Think warm thoughts about us on the sand pit tomorrow, boys.” Well, that put a fox in the hen house and brought forth the strangest collection of cheers from the rest of Delta Company and jeers from 4thBattalion.

Captain Moon followed us back out to the Duce and a half where our gear was being handed out. As we crammed magazines everywhere we could stick them and Gail was getting used to the weight of the M-60 he walked over to me. “You pissed, Nalley?” he asked quietly.

I clipped the night vision goggles to their place on my helmet and looked at him, deciding how best to answer. My anger won out. “What, the hell, do you think, sir? You made me out like some kind of GI Jerk in there, and the girls suffer because of me if we lose? That shit ain’t right, sir.”

“You get as mad at me as you want, Beth. You take that anger and you focus it at 4thBattalion and you make me proud.”

“Fuck you Captain Moon. I’m going to beat 4thBattalion, but not for you.” Wow, did that come out of my mouth? Gee, thanks for that temper, Granny. I was up the proverbial creek this time. Captain Moon just laughed.

“What ever you have to say, to make it ok, Nalley. Carry out your orders, Private,” he said, falling back into his command personae. I actually saluted.

“Courage and fidelity, sir.”

“Regiment!”

And with that, the girls and I turned on our goggles and hustled up the trail. After about fifty yards, or so, I called them to a halt and looked back, making sure the area was disserted. It was. “Gail, take the squad up to the road and wait for me there. And don’t wrap the ammo belt around your arm like that, Rambina, when you fire it, it’ll take your arm off.”

“Where are you going?” demanded Gail as she draped the belt over her LBE strap on her shoulder instead.

“We’re here gathering intelligence, right? I’m going to go gather some. Meet you at the road in five.” I put my hand out for our huddle hand clasp and the others joined mine.

“Girls rule.” And then I was trotting back down the trail as quietly as I could. I crept across the open field to the back of the cinder block wall supporting the amphitheater and eased ever so slightly up until I could look in the window. General Wesley was giving the motivational speech of his life to 4thBattalion, calling everything from their parentage to their collective manhood into question if they couldn’t whip 10 girls in the dark.

Then he said what I was waiting to hear. “Alright, men, for the infiltrators to reach their landing zone, they must pass a check point that friendly forces are holding. As you reach it, you’ll be challenged for the pass word. The passwords this evening are coffee and cup. Work it into a sentence with guards, in case any of the infiltrators are in the area.”

I laughed silently to myself. Practice what you preach, General, I said to myself and turned to catch up to the squad. I’d positioned myself next to the equipment duce and half to give cover to my back as I spied on the boys’ briefing. As I turned, my eyes fell on three wooden crates that weren’t there when we’d left. They were marked US Army ABC-M25A2 CS Grenade 60x1.

Three cases of CS Grenades, one of which was opened and oh so inviting… I kept my cackle of triumph to myself and carefully lifted the center grenade out. One wouldn’t be missed; ordinance went missing from ranges like this one all the time. And then I ran as if the devil himself was after me.

After a few minutes I was breathless, but at the aforementioned rendezvous, pleased to find the girls hiding as I’d instructed them. “Who goes there?” hissed Gail’s voice from behind me. Better and better.

“Girls rule,” I whispered back. “Let move, ladies, displace to the ridge up ahead. Sara, stack the girls over lapping on both sides of the trail, V formation back down. And put your masks on ladies.”

“Masks?” asked Jenny. I held up my purloined grenade and they all giggled. This wasn’t going to be fair at all. We moved, quietly dropping into our ambush as we went and I waited at just below the crest of the ridge so I wouldn’t silhouette.

We were about half a kilometer from the start point, with well over 2 kilometers to get to the LZ. Far enough from the theater for the boys to be getting sloppy, and far too soon for them to be expecting the hell they were about to step into. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Five minutes later I saw the brilliant white light of unfiltered flash lights making their way up the trail. And then I began to hear them from about seventy meters away. What complete and utter idiots.

“Too bad we can’t give the broads a taste of POW status,” came a thick Boston accent.

“That’d be the first time you ever got laid, Handrenos,” quipped another.

“Let’s just kill the bitches and figure out how we’re going to use that three day pass,” chimed in a third. They’d reached the bottom of the hill and with a soft whoosh I released the spoon on the grenade which went fling off to my right. Then I squatted on the trail and let it roll down.

I watched the grenades travel down the trail as I rotated my selector switch to full auto, an evil grin behind my gas mask. The one called Handrenos called a halt and I realized he had the better part of a platoon with him. “Youze guys hear something?” he called out in his heavy accent. Then he looked down where the grenade had come to a stop at his feet. “SHIT!” he bellowed and the grenade exploded.

“Open fire!” I screamed and the ridge came alive with gun fire.

Now, when you’re caught in an ambush like this there’s only way to get out alive. And that’s to rush towards it, getting behind your attackers. I guess their drills hadn’t bothered to bestow that particular nugget of wisdom on them as coughed and gasped and the squeals on their MILES gear began to drown out our gun fire.

“Displace!” I yelled, Gail and me providing cover fire for the girls as they clamored past us over the ridge. Swapping to a fresh magazine I looked over at Gail, wondering as I looked at her mask if she was grinning like I was. “Let’s move it,” I told her as the last of the squad hustled by.

Then we turned and followed our sisters, leaving poor Handrenos and his fellow dead men wallowing in the gas.

And so it went for two hours. We laid ambush after ambush, using very similar tactics and our knowledge of the terrain to our advantage. After an hour we began to strip the boys of their magazines once we’d ‘killed’ them and more than one had a CS grenade on him which also become captured ordinance to be used against the enemy.

Finally we called a halt to catch our breath and check our ammo reserves. “I’m about out,” said Gail, feeding her last belt into the M-60 and charging it.

“We’ll get you a rifle off the next batch,” I told her, as we took this lull to get some water and brief moment of rest.

Michele asked, “How many do you think are left?” but all I could do was tiredly shake my head. Marching two kilometers was a lot different than fighting over two kilometers. I was tired and sore.

“Dunno,” I gasped. “But, win or lose, ladies, it’s been a hell of a run.”

“Don’t you go soft, Beth,” admonished Gail. “We’re here to win, remember?” I laughed and nodded.

Jenny Galway was looking off in the distance of the landing zone. “Is that a fire?” she asked, pointing. I looked, unsure of what the source of the light was, but we were close enough now if we risked another engagement we’d be attacked on both sides. Not something I wanted to risk.

“Ok, ladies, next on our to-do list is to take that check point. Everyone ready?” They nodded as we got to our collective feet. “Put your masks on, girls, it will, I hope, give us just enough of surprise to take them quick and quiet.”

We clamored back into our masks and trudged off cautiously. We got close enough to see with the night vision what we were up against. There was a little wooden shack looking completely out of place in the woods, about two hundred meters from the open ridge that was our landing zone. There was a bonfire that had been kindled against cold of the night and in its light I saw Sergeant Smith, Sergeant Rodriguez and wonder of wonders, General Wesley with a pair of MPs. A plan hatched in my mind.

I turned and whispered to the others. “Take off your night vision, girls. I’ll do the talking and nobody shoot before me unless they do.” They nodded and complied with me. “Gail, you come last and keep that 60 low so they can’t see it.” She nodded, and we stood and walked in full view toward the check point. The MPs drew their pistols.

“Halt! Who goes there?”

“Private Handrenos,” I hollered, lowering my voice as many octaves as I could, hoping the muffling effect of the mask would be enough.

“Advance to be recognized,” ordered the MP. We shuffled forward. General Wesley waved the MPs back.

“You boys want some coffee?” he asked.

“Sure thing, sir. We’ve got cups.” General Wesley waved us forward as the MPs holstered their pistols once more. My heart pounding I got as close as I dared then snapped my weapon up, covering the MPs and hissed, “Don’t make a sound, boys, and hands up!”

General Wesley was genuinely amused as he stood cautiously from the bonfire, his hands at his shoulders. “Private Nalley,” he greeted. “Aren’t you resourceful?”

“It’s a pleasure to see you again, General,” I responded as we took off our masks one at a time to keep our cover on the MPs. “I’ll take that side arm, please, General.”

He laughed. “Ah, the dishonor of being a POW,” he said as he carefully removed the weapon and presented it to me. I shouldered my rifle and used his pistol to cover him.

“Tie them up to the trees,” I ordered. The MPs looked decidedly angry at their predicament. “Gail, bind the Generals hands behind his back, please. He’ll be coming with us.”

“Yes ma’am,” she said with a grin and complied. I walked over to Sergeant Rodriguez and Sergeant Smith, losing a battle with in myself. “Galway, bind Sergeant Smiths hands as well, he may have intelligence. He’ll be joining us on our helicopter ride.”

Sergeant Smith didn’t know whether to be angry or proud, but his indecision made it easier for Galway to tie his hands. Then my gaze settled on Sergeant Rodriguez. Jenny looked up at me as she finished with Sergeant Smith. “What about Sergeant Rodriguez?”

I shook my head. “She’s not going to know anything useful. Strip her to her underwear and tie her to the tree with the MPs.” To this day I wish I’d had a camera for the look of rage, indignation and maybe just a hint of fear on her face. I’d have that picture framed where I could see it everyday.

And, come to find out, there was bra padding going on in Delta Company.

Oh, to be sure, I’d regret deeply losing that battle with myself that night. But for the next few hours, it was my greatest victory. We got our POWs on their feet and withdrew to the LZ where I set up a defensive parameter to defend the hill for my required ten minutes, wondering how long I could do it and how many more of 4thBattalion were left.

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Once I had the girls in their positions, I tied the Generals right ankle to Sergeant Smiths left, they could move if they worked together, but not quickly and certainly they wouldn’t be able to over power us. Satisfied with that, I stuffed a pair of OD brown panties into each of their mouths from my ruck sack to keep them quiet and worked out the bulky field radio I’d been lugging around to call the helicopter. “Windmill one this is Southern Belle, Windmill one, this is Southern Belle. I authenticate Hotel Uniform. Ready for extraction, over.”

Sergeant Wheeler’s voice came from the speaker. “Southern Belle this is Windmill one, roger your authentication. ETA LZ 1 One Zero minutes, over.”

“Southern Belle out.”

And then there was nothing to do but wait for the attack. I began wishing I’d taken more of those CS grenades when I had the chance. I did my best not to think about how awful it would be to get this close and fail. I kept my eyes sweeping all directions, incase the boys got smart and flanked us.

The time just kept drawing out and out it seemed a life times worth passed on that ridge waiting to be jumped any moment. I jumped from fear when the radio on my hip crackled to life once more. “Southern Belle this is Windmill One. Pop flare and illuminate your position.”

I worked the flare I’d been given from my pocket and fired it off over my head. In the red light of the flare I saw the strangest thing I think I’ll ever see. Sergeant Wheeler was at the base of the ridge, both his arms out from his sides looking like a kid playing at being an airplane. As I watched, dumbstruck, he ran and weaved up the ridge and when he got close enough I could hear he was bellowing “Whup whup whup” at the top of his lungs, making helicopter noises.

I suppose I shouldn’t have expected a real helicopter for this. We still weren’t sure how long we were going to be in Iraq at this time and everything was being rationed in the Army. But I surely wasn’t ready to see that.

We got General Wesley and Sergeant Smith up and trotted over to our “helicopter”, then had to run behind him as he took us over the ridge where, low and behold, was the amphitheater. We’d made a complete circle.

We entered the amphitheater to the roaring cheer of Delta Company and the sullen looks of the fatalities of 4thBattalion. And that’s when it hit me. I had engaged and killed 800 men with 10 women, and not suffered a loss.

One squad had annihilated an entire Battalion.

I was dizzy with glee as I accepted the congratulations of General Wesley, once he was untied and my panties taken from his mouth, and the rest of the cadre. Well, everyone but Sergeant Rodriguez, but at least she didn’t spoil my night of glory.

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Chapter Eight

Upon waking the next morning, I was greeted by the bellow of Sergeant Wheeler yelling for us to “Toe the Line.” Down the side of the wall, opposite of Gail’s and mine room a yellow line had been painted down the floor. Whenever the sergeants wanted to inform of us something en masse they shouted that from the office and the rest of the platoon had to carry the call to the far side of the barracks.

In short order the platoon was assembled, still in our Army PT shirts and shorts, most of us looking the worse for the late night, but every girl had a smile on her face. “Good morning, ladies,” greeted Sergeant Wheeler as he emerged from the day room and shooed Gail and Jenny from in front of the store room door where they normally stood.

“Well done last night, everyone. I’ve been ordered to pass along General Wesley’s commendation for your collective effort and especially the finest aggressor squad that’s ever run the Night Assault Course.” I blushed as he joined the girls in a round of applause for us.

“Now then,” he continued, “after breakfast I’ll be passing out some three day passes. These are good for Rolla, for those of you that don’t know, that’s the Podunk little strip mall of a town right out side the main gate. Normally, I’d advise you of the areas that are off limits there, but since all three of them are brothels pretending to be day spas, I don’t think that will be an issue.”

We giggled. Rolla had two whole stop lights, one grocery store and a Greyhound bus terminal. But it was evidently big enough to support three separate brothels. Oh I know their stock and trade were soldiers from the base but let a girl have a moment of fun, will you?

Sergeant Wheeler continued as he took a key from his pocket and unlocked the storeroom door. “And since you’ll be going past the sand pit, you’ll want to look your best for 4thBattalion. You are to retrieve your personal bags and authorized civilian clothing for the next three days. When that’s over with, we’ll collect everything up Sunday night. In the meantime, you can keep your things in your wall lockers. Step forward when I call your name.”

Wow! For the first time in five weeks or more I would be dressing as a woman again. I found myself more excited about that than any portion of basic I’d had thus far. I positively couldn’t wait. Gail and I got our bags and retreated to our room as I opened mine, thanking heaven I’d brought a few of my favorite items with me to basic in anticipation of getting to wear them when I arrived at AIT or Advanced Individual Training which would be where I was bound for after Basic.

“It sure feels weird looking at this stuff,” said Gail as she dug into her suit case. “It’s like looking at a different person’s life.”

I took my prized possession from the bag, a black leather miniskirt and hugged it. “I don’t know, Gail, I’ve been missing this!”

She rolled her eyes as I held it up for her examination. “And you bitch about me having a slut image?” she demanded. “Does your mother know you own that?”

“Are you kidding? I saved a month for this and spent two hiding it from her.” We shared a laugh as we sorted through things and I checked my purse, trying to remember what all I’d put in it. I removed my drivers’ license and military ID card from the man’s wallet I’d had to buy and put them into my normal one I’d left in my purse. The man’s wallet I tossed into my personal drawer in my wall locker.

Why do I own a man’s wallet you might ask? How many woman have you seen in BDUs and a hand bag, eh?

We hit the showers and had breakfast, getting our final march for three days back to the barracks. Then it was time to finally get ready. I settled on a black tank top that went well with my skirt and began to get used to having my hair down again. I topped this off with 3” ankle boots and I felt like a woman again. Gail preferred comfort over style and had opted for a flannel shirt and jeans which she changed into as I cleaned my contact lenses, relishing thoughts of three days without those God-awful glasses on my nose.

“What do you want to do first?” she asked, finishing up her buttons on her shirt and tying it off under her bosom, baring her navel. I struggled with the first lens.

“I guess we should get a feel for the town, first, and figure out where this Greasy Apron is. A free meal is a free meal.”

“Make sure you bring money for cabs,” she reminded me, closing her wall locker as I got the other lens in. “I wish I had my car here.”

Further wishing was cut off by Sergeant Anderson’s voice. “Toe the line!” Gail and I exchanged wondering glances and wondered out and joined the girls on the line. There was now a wild assortment of color and style in that hall. Uniformity was absolutely a thing of the past. Poor Sergeant Anderson had trouble recognizing the girls and finally gave up and just called names and had them come to him to sign the authorization lines of our passes.

When he got to my name I couldn’t help being self conscious. I’d always been taller than he was, but now in heels it was accentuated further causing him to have to cock his head up to look me in the face. “Nalley,” he demanded, “Aren’t you tall enough without heels?”

I blushed. “Sorry Sergeant, but they bring out a really nice curve in my legs.” His eyes bobbed down, and then shot back up as he handed my pass back to me along with a set of keys which surprised me.

“So they do,” he muttered. “Follow me, ladies, your chariot awaits.”

We all followed him out front where there was a duce and a half parked out front. “Here we are, ladies, give Nalley a destination and a time. This is yours for the weekend, compliments of General Wesley.” Well, it wasn’t going to win any awards for style, but hey, it was free. We cheered a thank you to Sergeant Anderson and the girls piled in.

Lucky me for being 21 and a licensed driver. I get to play chauffer. We all decided a trip to the local outlet mall was in order and off we rumbled. Call me a sadistic bitch, but I just couldn’t resist taking the long way to the main gate.

Past the sand pit.

Now, the sand pit is the lake of fire in the physical hell that is basic training. Like its name implies, it’s just a two foot deep depression that’s been back filled with beach sand. Sand was used for two reasons, one it gives so you have a very low impact medium on which to do calisthenics. The other is it gets everywhere. The longer you work out, the more places it gets. You feel like you’ll never be clean again.

As we rolled by, I couldn’t resist tooting the horn to get 4thBattalion’s attention as they were worked over by their angry and humiliated drill sergeants. If looks could kill, the stares we got, both from DIs and privates alike would have wiped that duce and a half from the face of Gods Green Earth.

Gail and I high fived once we were clear and everyone was in high spirits as we rumbled off post in to the roaring metropolis that was Rolla, Missouri.

As near as I can guess, no one actually lives in Rolla. The town had no suburbs or houses that I ever saw. But there were all kinds of restaurants, fast food and otherwise, motels and a good sized collection of outlet and name brand bargain stores. And, promising a wonderful time later we learned, a Native American Reservation across I 44 in Waynesville which had a casino. Oh sure, probably not Vegas, but better than where we were.

That certainly bore investigation after dinner and perhaps for Saturday. Gail and I spent most of the day window shopping in the various stores. I found out that the Greasy Apron was in with this mall so the girls could walk to it for dinner, which would take place at 1700 (5:00pm to you). I resisted buying much, not having anywhere to put it for one, and not being able to wear it for some time for another.

At least until I got to the Fredericks of Hollywood outlet that was.

There I found an absolutely stunning peasant-type silk brocade outer corset in a blue and black pattern I just had to own, and so I did and changed out of my tank top for it. I felt like a million dollars in it and had a wonderful time fighting off the advances of the local hicks for the rest of the afternoon.

Black toothed hillbilly in a John Deer Hat: “Would one of you two girls like to marry me?”

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Me batting my eyelashes coquettishly: “Why sir, if you were the last man on earth, and Gail and I were the last women, it would be my duty and pleasure to become a lesbian.”

Hillbilly looking confused: “What’s a lesbian?”

Gail, getting angry: “Fuck off.”

Towards the latter portion of the afternoon, Gail and I contented ourselves with the Super Walmart that was attached to the strip mall. Gail, I would learn, had a thing for trashy bodice ripper romance novels and was buying a few for AIT. As I was teasing her over her reading selection a voice I wasn’t expecting sounded from behind my shoulder. “Never make fun of someone else’s choice of entertainment, Nalley Chevrolet,” came Sergeant Wheeler’s voice.

I turned, more than a bit surprised and was half way to parade rest before I could catch myself. Sergeant Wheeler looked substantially less intimidating in a flannel striped shirt and jeans. And his hair was even redder than the promise of his eye brows had been. Beside him was a lovely, oriental woman, dressed rather similarly who was actually shorter than I was. “Good afternoon, Sergeant Wheeler,” I greeted, echoing Gail.

“Nalley, Limpkins, I’d like you to meet my wife, Kim Tae, Kim, this is Elizabeth Nalley and Gail Limpkins.”

We shook hands, me wondering how such a soft spoken woman kept her sanity around enthusiasm in a bottle Sergeant Wheeler. “Mrs. Wheeler,” I greeted.

“Ma’am” was Gail’s introduction.

“That’s a lovely corset,” she observed with a small smile. “But don’t you get enough torture from my husband?” I blushed head to toe. If I’d known this would be meet the family night, I would have worn something else.

“A girl my size needs all the help she can get, ma’am. Kind of like the help I get keeping my professional life in order from Sergeant Wheeler.” Ah, making fun of yourself, the great social lubricant. Mrs. Wheeler, for her part, said the socially required oh you’re fine don’t worry about it line, but that was in fact easy for her to say. It’s always easy for a size 4 to tell a size 14 not worry so much about her appearance.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but love for Mrs. Wheeler. She’s a sweet and nice person. I just was envious as hell over her dress size. Ok, so I’ve got love and envy, but it’s all good. O’ Vay, if I were Catholic what a confession I’d have to make.

It was, in fact, more than a little weird being social with Sergeant Wheeler like this. Gail and I struggled to keep our answers from being monosyllabic but we were feeling very awkward over it. Sergeant Wheeler, true to form, was at ease where ever he was, and in his own way did his part to make us comfortable by ignoring our discomfort.

So, after twenty minutes of chit chat in the book isle of Walmart, Sergeant Wheeler looked at his watch. “We’d best be going. You ladies don’t want to be late for General Wesley’s dinner.”

“Will you be there, Sergeant?” asked Gail. Sergeant Wheeler nodded.

“Entertaining is all part of the job, privates. Just because your work day is over, doesn’t mean you’re off duty. Shall we?”

So we got our selves through the check out line and Sergeant Wheeler graciously gave us a lift to the restaurant where the girls and the cadre were already beginning to assemble. Fortunately, this being a fairly folksy kind of place, I was actually a bit over dressed. Better that than under.

In fact, Captain Moon was the most dressed in his slacks and polo shirt, and blue jeans were the uniform of the evening. General Wesley had reserved the meeting room of the Greasy Apron for us, and I didn’t want to think about what this evening was going to be costing him with a guest list over two hundred. But, hey, it was better than feeding the entire 4thBattalion.

General and Mrs. Wesley greeting everyone as they entered, in a weird cross between a beardless Santa and Mrs. Claus and some Country Club Republican at a fund raiser. It was all quite surreal. Gail and I kept our chit chat with the general to a minimum, more than a bit amazed with the generals’ memory. He could put a complete name to each face as he introduced everyone to his wife. I renewed my promise to myself to continue the work our regimen I’d begun in basic as I felt like meeting Mrs. Wesley was meeting a thirty year older version of my self.

The buffet was huge and obviously catered to the appetites of the posts personnel. I kept my portions small; my indulgence of the evening being a coke, the first time in five weeks carbonation had crossed my lips. I was in the process of sitting down with Gail and the rest of her squad when Captain Moon appeared at my elbow. “Elizabeth, General Wesley and I would be honored if you would join us at our table.”

Out of the proverbial frying pan. Thinking quickly, I responded, “I’d be honored to, sir, however I feel I shouldn’t abandon my battle buddy.” An evil grin spread on the captain’s face.

“Quite right, Elizabeth. Battle buddies should do everything together. Gail, would you join us please?”

Gail faltered but recovered quickly. “Ah, um, certainly sir.” As she gathered her plate and followed behind me, I heard her angry whisper of, “Thanks a lot, buddy.”

I could only shrug my shoulders in innocence. We arrived with me next to Mrs. Wesley, across cattycorner to the General. Gail sat at my right and Captain Moon across from me. Rounding out the table was, to my surprise, Sergeant and Mrs. Wheeler. General Wesley took a gulp of his coffee as we approached and wiped his mouth. “Ah, Gail and Elizabeth, welcome ladies.” I got settled and my napkin where I wanted it in my lap.

“Thank you, sir. It’s a privilege to be here.”

The general chuckled. “Ah, the privilege is an old man enjoying the company of two beautiful young women. You two find everything on the buffet alright?”

Gail snorted. “I depend on Elizabeth’s orienteering skills, General. I figure she swiped a map sheet for that buffet.” There was polite laughter as I blushed, wondering if Gail was trying to get me in trouble for my theft of the map of the night assault course.

“Yes, the Corps of Engineers assisted in its construction following an appropriation from Congress,” retorted the General. “In any event, I’ve been looking forward to this evening for the better part of three weeks.”

I swallowed some of the excellent mashed potatoes. “Is this something you do every cycle, sir?” General Wesley shook his head.

“No, this evening coalesced after Captain Moon brought you to my attention. I wanted to get to know a young soldier who achieved such a remarkable success. It’s no small feat what you did last evening, Elizabeth. I’m interested in hearing your strategy for it.”

“Clayton,” chided his wife, “let the girl eat. You can talk shop over coffee.”

I took a sip of Coke and relished the forgotten flavor. “Well, to abate the Generals curiosity until then, I simply laid a series of displacing double reverse V ambushes in the Viet Cong model, accounting for terrain. Keeping in mind I was vastly out numbered, but had the advantage of knowing the force against me exactly, I thought the Viet Cong model fit the situation the best.” I would have said more, but everyone was staring at me and I began to feel extremely self conscious and so directed my full attention to my meat loaf.

General Wesley chuckled and turned to Sergeant Wheeler. “Joe, how many privates have you trained who could define a displacing double reverse V ambush, let alone properly deploy one?”

“Clayton,” warned his wife again. It began to look like I needed to add a new name to my Chain of Command chart. Gail leaned closer to me.

“What is a displacing double reverse V ambush?”

“What we were doing last night,” I shot back, returning her grin. The Generals wife, whose name was Mary, struck up a conversation with Kim Wheeler and they were evidently quite chummy. Large portions of it were in Korean, which Mrs. Wesley was evidently fluent in. I couldn’t follow those portions, but I got the feeling they were pointed comments at the men at the table, who had taken up college football, the South’s Other Religion, as their topic.

Finally, plates were being cleared and my reprieve was up; coffee was being served. General Wesley took a silver case from his jacket and opened it, revealing it to be a cigar case. “Gentlemen, would you care for some captured ordinance?”

Captain Moon took one, but Sergeant Wheeler declined, evidently on some other kind of personal reason than being a non-smoker as the General apologized for offering, then asked if he minded. He didn’t. To my frank amazement, Mrs. Wesley joined him, although hers were significantly smaller and she offered to Gail and me.

Intrigued, I accepted and finally got the captured ordinance gag. The makers mark on the wrapper listed Havana. So I found myself in a buffet restaurant, vastly out ranked at my table, getting my first cigar going and enjoying the rich flavored smoke immensely. “Now, then,” remarked General Wesley, satisfied both his cigar and his coffee were to his liking. “If the Mrs. will allow me, let’s talk shop.”

Mary smiled and gave a slight nod of approval. “Elizabeth, I’ve had my eye on you for some time, ever since John here,” he motioned towards Captain Moon, “let me know that he had a first rate trainee coming through.”

Captain Moon rather loudly cleared his throat. General Wesley, obviously not used to being interrupted, stared at him for a moment, then seemed to understand and fished out his wallet. A number of bills whose denomination escaped me were removed and changed hands.

It’s an interesting feeling being someone’s wining horse and I was not entirely sure I liked it. “In any event,” continued the General, “Captain Moon and I devised something of a test for you, Elizabeth, and I’m frankly amazed at how well you’ve passed it.”

“I passed it, sir, because I followed battle proven tactics from a group used to fighting larger forces. It’s nothing special.” I was becoming uncomfortable under his stare and sought to obfuscate myself behind a cloud of smoke.

“Elizabeth, knowing the tactics of the Viet Cong from some one as young as you are is startling enough. That you had the skill to employ them successfully tells me a great deal about you, and your capabilities. Indeed, I could only wish you were male. The combat arms branches of the Service need skilled leaders like you.”

“With respect, sir, I think we both know there’s no such thing as a non-combatant on the modern battle field. And the more we pretend that the harder it will be to win wars.” That’s me, the feminist pioneer. Guns and tampons will save the world.

“You’ve convinced me, Elizabeth, but then I’m just an old engineer. I don’t make policy, I carry it out. Tell me, though, why did you join the Army?”

Well, here we go again. General Wesley got a slightly more polished version of the answer that Sergeant Anderson got, but then I wasn’t as relaxed or as sure of myself as when he got his. The General listened attentively, nodding as I paid tribute to family and ancestors but the look on his face told me it wasn’t exactly what he wanted to hear. Finally I wound to a halt so he could clarify his question.

“What I suppose I really want to know, Elizabeth, is why did you enlist? Why didn’t you seek a commission?”

“Quite honestly, sir, my grade point average wasn’t any where near what it should have been to go after an appointment to West Point. I have applied for Officer Candidate School for after AIT, but I really wanted to come up this way. I feel no one who hasn’t followed can be a good leader. They don’t know what their men need on a personal as well as a professional level.”

“Do you feel you’ve learned that lesson?” he asked pointedly. I was unsure wither or not I’d offended him with my response, but he did want my opinion, warts and all.

I shrugged. “I know I am learning it. Who is to say when I will have learned enough as common soldier to be an effective leader?”

Clayton Wesley snorted. “I am.”

“Sir?”

“Elizabeth, the Army needs every committed soldier it can get. I see in you the potential to be one of the greatest soldiers of my life time.” I couldn’t help blushing fiercely under praise like that. “Monday, I want your gear packed and you’re to report to my office with it at noon. Sergeant Wheeler, can you see to that?”

“Yes sir,” was his response. I was confused.

“Am I being dismissed, sir?”

He chuckled, deeply amused. “No, Elizabeth. I’m a graduate of West Point, and, as such I have an appointment I can make to the academy. You’re going to West Point as my appointment.”

“I can’t, sir,” I said quietly, elated and remorseful at the same time.

“Why not?” Demanded Wesley.

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“I’m too old, sir. I’m 21.”

“Don’t worry about that, Elizabeth. There are waivers for your time on activity duty.”

“Yes sir, I know sir. I’m still too old. I reported for active duty on 13 March 1991. Three days after my twenty first birth day. Even with the waiver for basic and reception battalion, I’m still out by three days.”

General Wesley blinked. “Well God Damn it.” The General thought furiously for a moment, looking for some way around the problem. While this went on I exchanged glances with Gail, who was evidently as stunned as I was at this turn of events. It’s not everyday something like this happens to you, after all.

For my part, I took another drag on my cigar and held the smoke in my mouth as I tried to get a handle on exactly what was going on and why. As I looked back, I began to wonder how long this little conspiracy had been chugging away around me. As far back as reception battalion? Further?

Finally, General Wesley spoke up again. “I could wish your choice of timing enlistment had been a bit sooner, Elizabeth,” he admitted with a rueful grin. “In any event, I am going to approve your application to Officer Candidate School. You’re going there once you graduate from Basic.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, not sure what else to say.

“You keep in mind, now, until you graduate; you’re just another private, young lady.”

“I maintain no illusion to the contrary, sir.” He smiled.

“Not that I think you do, but there are formalities. Now, have you given any thought as to what, as an officer, you’d like to do with your career? I understand your enlistment is for AIT at Goodfellow Air Force Base for signals intelligence. Was there a reason you chose Intel?”

“It was the only MOS I was offered, sir.”

General Wesley looked cross. “What do you mean it was the only MOS?”

“According to MEPS, sir, I am completely color blind, and as I made a perfect score on the ASVAB it was the only MOS I was told that I physically qualified for.”

“You’re color blind?” I laughed and shook my head.

“No, sir, I said that according to MEPS I was. For example, the corset I’m wearing is a black and blue brocade and Sergeant Wheeler’s hair is a brilliant red. Gail’s, in contrast, is blond and I’ve been admiring your wife’s turquoise blouse all evening.”

Sergeant Wheeler chuckled, but General Wesley seemed confused. “Her score is what did her in, sir. Signals Intel is a very difficult MOS to fill. Since Nalley got through security clearance, they use ‘color blindness’ to shoe horn candidates into that MOS since her ASVAB scores were high enough.”

“Ah, well that won’t be hard to clear up. So, have you given thought to your career, Elizabeth?”

Wow, how many times have you had a conversation over dinner with someone who has the power to shape your entire life? I had a few vague notions of what I’d like to do, but honestly I was counting on several months to a year before I had to make this decision. Still, here was a magician with a magic wand to make all my dreams come true and all that. This was not the time for indecision. “Yes sir, I think I would like to fly helicopters. After Sergeant Wheelers performance last night that looks like the most fun in the Army a girl can have.”

That brought a round of laughter to the table and I had a sense that a door in my life had been opened. Where it would lead I wasn’t entirely sure, but it was a journey I was looking forward to taking.

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Chapter Nine

It’s true when they say that time flies when you wish it would slow to a crawl and could savor every moment. Before I knew it, my new favorite corset and skirt were locked away once more and it was back to the drabness of jungle camouflage. A week after our luxurious three day pass, General Wesley stopped by the battalion and made a great show of presenting me with the Second Lieutenants bars he had first worn fresh from West Point.

They weren’t pined on of course, but I felt so honored to have been saluted by the entire training company, Sergeants and all.

Many are the times I have wished for video tape of this event, but the movie in my minds eye will have to do. Then it was preparation for our upcoming bivouac, the final week of basic spend “in the field” as if under battlefield conditions. It was exhausting, but exhilarating at the same time, there were times I had to remind myself what was happening was only training, not the real thing.

The most joyous piece of news we received was that our extraction from Iraq was now assured and it was extremely doubtful there would be any kind of escalation in the conflict. For this, and our incredibly low losses in the war we were grateful.

No one prays for peace harder than a soldier.

And as the days and nights of bivouac blended into short stints of sleep, heart pounding excitement and long stretches of waiting, I was roused from what little slumber I could get in my tent with Gail by Sergeant Smith’s voice. “Nalley, get up.” A kick from his boot to mine got me slightly more awake than I had been. “Nalley!”

I sat up and tried to focus on his wiry form. “Yes Sergeant?”

“You and Limpkins get up and outside in five minutes.”

I looked at my watch and was able to bring its luminescent dial into focus. A scant two hours had passed since I'd lain down. Nearly twelve hours of wakefulness before that was taking its toil. I faltered. “I’ve only been asleep two hours, sergeant, I don’t know if I can go on.”

For the first time I’d known him, Sergeant Smiths face held sorrow. “I know, Nalley. Milt has coffee for you when you get out here and I give you the SITREP.” Then the flap closed and I was in darkness again.

It took nearly three minutes to get Gail to my state of wakefulness and we were in all likelihood late when we stumbled into the pre-dawn chill and shivered our way over to the sergeants at a fire they’d made. Even the super human Sergeant Wheeler looked to be a bit worse for wear at this hour and the coffee was welcome. Sergeant Wheeler was blunt.

“The base has been put on alert. We got a report from the FBI that there may be a break in attempt at a military post somewhere in the US. As a stop gap while the MPs get organized, Nalley, you, Limpkins and first platoon are going to guard Ordnance Depot Four. You’ll be relieved in about five hours, after that, we’ll be suspending training for ten hours so you can all get some sleep.”

The coffee got my brain going and I became horrified at what he was saying. I did my best to keep that horror from my face. “Is there a sign/countersign, Sergeant?” I did ask, hoping the unsteadiness in my voice would be attributed to the cold.

“No. You’re to detain anyone you find in the area that you do not already know and wait until the Sergeant of the Guard, Sergeant Smith, brings your relief. You’ll keep using Delta Seven as the radio sign with the squad leaders of the other squads Eight, Nine, Ten and Eleven. Report anything you find as suspicious.” He smiled then, trying to cheer me up. “I’m sure it’s just a false alarm, Nalley. We’ll have you back in bed in no time.”

As you can imagine, the girls were even less happy about the situation than I was. But, in short order we were all shivering in duce and halves rumbling somewhere on the base. We fell into a routine of dropping off a squad, radio checks and then rumbling off again. I began to realize this depot was huge. Then it was First Squad and my turn and as Sergeant Smith opened the crate he’d been carrying all hope that this was some elaborate training exercise vanished.

It was Gail who found her voice first as Sergeant Smith began passing out the magazines. “Sergeant, these are live rounds.”

“Yes they are, Limpkins. Lock and Load, ladies. You have each six thirty round mags and two hundred loose rounds. For God’s sake, if you shoot at something, know what you’re shooting at. I’ll be making a circuit. Report anything you find.”

Then he and the duce and half were gone and we were alone in the night. “Gail,” I said, taking charge and trying to put the girls at ease, “you’ll be with me. Battle buddy pairs, ladies and let’s spread out and check these buildings. We’ll meet back here every hour. Jenny, you’ll take first squads radio, your call sign is Delta Eight, and I’m Delta Seven. Let’s stay alert, girls.”

If you don’t already know, Ft. Leonard Wood is the headquarters post for the Army Corps of Engineers. Ordinance Depot Four was about two miles on a side and held row on row of one hundred meter warehouses filled with everything Engineers used to build or destroy things. Automatic weapons, explosives, primer and det-cord and practically everything else you might imagine. And from what I could tell the only thing between them and someone who wanted them was a steel door and a master lock. Add to that the fact that Ft Wood was an open post and anyone could just drive onto it with out being stopped or challenged.

Gail and I became nervous at the prospect of what we would find. “This is the most idiotic thing I’ve ever seen,” she remarked as we walked our first circuit, checking the doors. “You’d think there’d be more security in here.”

I could only nod as we approached our second door. Its padlock was missing and the door was partially open. “Oh shit,” I breathed, pointing. We unlimbered our M-16s and slowly approached the door.

“What do we do?” asked Gail. I unlimbered the radio.

“Delta Seven calling Delta Six, unsecured door found, over.” We waited for several tense moments, being greeted with silence. “Delta Six this is Delta Seven, do you read me, over?”

The only sound we heard was a dull clang from the far side of the building. “Did you hear that?” she asked me in a tense whisper. I nodded and returned the radio to my belt. I held up my rifle as I rotated my selector switch to semi so she could see me do it. She did as well.

We crept as quietly as the gravel would allow us to, to the corner of the building, terrified of what we would find there. It was at this moment I made the gravest mistake of my short life as a soldier. I led with my weapon around the corner.

Before I got around it myself, a hand came from the other side and grasped my rifle by the barrel. If I hadn’t been as tense as it was, I most likely would have lost my grip on it, and thus began the single most important bout of tug of war of my life. As we struggled over control of my weapon, he came around the corner, a large, burly man dressed in camo but not a uniform. In his other hand was a short sword masquerading as a knife and it was rapidly descending towards my throat.

And some point in this struggle, my finger had gotten into the trigger guard and as he gave the rifle an almighty yank, he pulled it flat against my trigger finger.

Truth be told, I didn’t even hear the rifle go off. The man and I were about the same height and I found myself looking into the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen in my life before or since. Then I was splattered with something warm and wet and he crumpled in a heap at my feet.

Then hell itself broke loose.

There were the reports of gun fire seemingly from everywhere so close together it was impossible to determine how many there were. It was all Gail and I could do to run to a drainage ditch near by and throw ourselves into it. “You shot him!” she yelled at me as bullets zipped by and impacted in the gravel around us.

“He tried to kill me!” I yelled back as we hunkered down in the ditch. The weapons fire showed no sign of stopping. “Cover fire!” I yelled at her as I worked to get the radio out. I finally did as she quite calmly began short bursting back at who ever was trying to kill us. “Net call, net call,” I yelled into the microphone. “This is Delta Seven. We are under attack by unknown number in vicinity of building OD4-46A. Require immediate assistance.”

“Why don’t they answer?” she yelled. But, before I could answer, she shouted again. “Beth I need your help, there’s too many of them!” So the radio went into the dirt and I began to fire back at anything that moved.

After what seemed a life time, I yelled, “Last mag; cover me while I reload some!” Then we noticed how quiet it had gotten.

“Did…did we get them?” she asked me in a ragged whisper that seemed impossibly loud in the silence.

“Stay down,” I hissed back. “Give me your loose rounds and your empty mags so I can reload.” And for several minutes all I did was franticly push rounds into magazines as fast as my cold and shivering hands could. I was covered in his blood.

I handed her back her filled mags and stuffed my own back into my ammo carrier. For several minutes the only sound had been our breathing and the scraping of metal on metal. “Try the radio again,” she suggested. So I retrieved it from the dirt and did so.

“Net call, net call, this is Delta Seven does anyone read me?”

Only silence greeted my request. Gail’s pale face went ashen. “You don’t think that we…?”

I violently shook my head. “I shot a man. And I didn’t know him and he was trying to cut my throat. We didn’t.”

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“What…what do we do now?” she asked me. My hands were shaking, from cold or adrenaline I didn’t know.

I swallowed to try to get control of my emotions. “We’re gonna have to check the buildings for more of them.”

“Beth I don’t want to…” she started, and I could hear panic rising in her voice.

“We have to, Gail. I’m going to run to the corner while you cover me, then I’ll cover you.” I could see in her eyes she didn’t want to but she would. Then I clapped her on the shoulder and ran as fast as I could to the corner of the building where this had started.

Then the smell hit me.

Hollywood doesn’t show you what happens when someone dies. They loose control of their bladder and bowels and soil themselves. I nearly threw up. Then Gail was beside me painting raggedly. “Look,” she told me. “You must have gotten them both with your first shot.”

I turned and looked at the bloody pile that used to be a man and followed her finger past him about forty meters to another body sprawled on the ground I hadn’t seen. She was right; the first bullet had struck Blue Eyes in the throat and traveled past him to the other man. As I realized what I had done the strangest feeling in my life swept over me.

I had taken two lives. I was bathed in a feeling of warmth and power that totally encompassed me. It was better than anything I had ever felt before. Better than the nicotine buzz of the cigar, or the morphine or sex. I liked this powerful feeling and realized I could get addicted to it very easily. And that thought sickened me. I concentrated on my revulsion with myself to fight the power.

As we worked up the courage to begin what we had to do, the radio on my hip squawked and we both jumped in freight. The voice in it was faint and badly garbled, but it was recognizable as Sergeant Smith. “Delta Seven, this is Delta Six, do you read me, over?”

I fumbled it out and put my back to the wall as Gail get trying to look everywhere at once for someone to shoot. “Delta Six, this is Delta Seven, reading you faint with heavy static. Need immediate assistance, do you read me, over?”

“Delta Seven understand immediate assistance, reading you faint with heavy static. Be advised base transmitter booster tower destroyed. What is your situation, over?”

“Have,” I swallowed and forced myself to go on. “Have engaged unknown number of hostiles in vicinity of OD4-46A. Two known down, no friendly casualties at this time. Requesting permission to withdraw and regroup first squad to a more secure location, over.”

“Net call this is Delta Six, sound off everyone reading me.”

“This is Delta Eight reading you faint with heavy static.”

“This is Delta Nine reading you loud with some static.”

“This is Delta Ten reading you loud and clear.”

“This is Delta Eleven reading you loud and clear.”

I breathed a sigh of relief as I heard each voice. Then Sergeant Smith came back on, a bit clearer. “Delta Eight regroup with Delta Seven at drop point. All other persons regroup to drop point and maintain squad strength until further orders.”

“Delta Eight, wilco.”

“Delta Seven, fall back to drop point and hold until relieved.”

“Delta Seven, wilco.”

Gail and I shared a frightened glance then moved as quickly and as quietly as we could back the way we had come. On the way we passed six bodies. None of them were breathing or had wallets or any kind of ID on them. Their weapons were a wild assortment of rifles and submachine guns and a dissimilar assortment of pistols. Two had grenades which I took. They were both M67 Fragmentation type.

Our hearts pounding, we arrived at the drop point as the others were getting there as well. “Into the drainage ditch!” I yelled on the run and the girls quickly complied. “Everyone pick a different direction to watch. Fire if fired upon.”

“Beth, what the hell’s going on?” demanded a terrified looking Jenny.

“Get your head down and keep watch!” I snapped at her. She fell like a puppet whose strings had been cut and crawled into a direction. I hunkered down the best I could and kept talking. “Some idiots are trying to break in here. Gail and I have already been shot at. Keep your eyes peeled and your heads low, this isn’t training.”

“Beth!” hissed Gail, “There’s a vehicle coming.” I looked in the direction she was pointing and saw a duce and a half rumbling up the road. Only a few hundred meters away. I stood full erect and took aim, screeching at the top of my lungs in my own panic at what might be coming.

“Stop that truck! Stop! Put your hands out where I can see them!” The Duce and a half locked up its breaks and skidded to a stop in the gravel. Two pairs of hands stuck out from either side. “Cover me!” I shouted to the girls and began walking the remaining distance, my heart pounding in my chest. Before I got close enough to see inside the truck I heard Sergeants Smiths voice from inside.

“Nalley! It’s Sergeant Smith! Lower your weapon.” I nearly fainted with relief. I got my weapon into a safe direction and ran the remaining distance to the truck. Sergeant Smith was clamoring out, his pistol out and his eyes sweeping the area constantly. “What happened, Beth?” he asked, his voice was tense, but his use of my first name unlocked my lips and I babbled out what had happened, bursting into tears towards the end.

Then he did the most un-Air Borne Ranger thing he could have. With his free hand he swept me into a hug and I shook into his wiry frame with sobs. “Was anyone hit, Beth?” he asked in the calmest voice I had ever heard him use. I shook my head into his shoulder.

“Pull yourself together, lieutenant,” he told me, though his surprisingly strong embrace didn’t lessen any. “You’ve got to be strong for your girls. We’ve got to get them safe first.”

I took several gasping breaths and when I started to pull back he let me. I wiped my teary eyes and struggled to get a hold of my wildly conflicting emotions. “I’m sorry, Sergeant, I just…” then I ground to a halt, not sure how to put my feelings into words.

He smiled for the first time I’d ever seen. “I know. I know.” He rubbed my shoulder and then reached back into the duce and a half for its more powerful radio. “Tower one, this is Delta Six. I have confirmed hostiles in Oscar Delta Four, requesting immediate re-enforcement and close air support, over.”

A voice sounded from the speaker. “Delta Six, this is Windmill One, am en route to your position for both requests, ETA one minute, over.”

Sergeant Smith looks at me. “Helicopters coming, Beth. Windmill One this is Delta Six, roger your ETA. Be advised friendly duce and a half and forces in vicinity of Oscar Delta Four-One Six Alpha, over.”

“Roger Delta Six. We have you in visual. Tell your girls to get small in their holes. If something pops up, we’ll take care of it.”

I turned and yelled back at the girls. “Get small and keep your heads down!” Then the helicopters, six of them, were on us, with men fast roping down as they hovered, and began to circle like angry bees. A contingent of our re-enforcements led the girls back to the duce and a half which I learned was full of the rest of the platoon. As we shivered and clustered around the silver bullet of coffee that Sergeant Smith had brought us, we finally began to feel safe again.

This feeling was confirmed by the approach of a captain who was leading the re-enforcements who walked up. “The area is secure, Sergeant Smith. Looks like your girls got them all. Fine job ladies, there were twelve of them. Who did the shooting?”

Gail and I hesitantly stepped forward. “I did, sir. With my battle buddy here. We were ambushed by the corner of the building.”

He smiled. “You two did a fine job tonight. I’ll be recommending commendations in my report. You and your girls are dismissed, Sergeant. Good job.”

“Thank you, sir,” responded Sergeant Smith, saluting. Then the captain was organizing his men for the clean up and item by item check of the whole depot. That was a job I didn’t envy him. “Mathews,” called Sergeant Smith to his driver, “take a seat in back. Nalley and I are going to have a chat on the way back to camp.”

“Yes, Sergeant,” was his reply. I climbed up into the passenger side of the duce for the first time feeling completely and emotionally drained. In short order, it was fired up and rumbling along back to our camp.

I got my seat belt on and fiddled with my hands as I dreaded what was coming. I was certain Sergeant Smith was angry with me. Hell, I could think of almost two dozen things he had every right under the sun to be pissed with me about. He said nothing for the first few minutes until he was clear of the Ordinance Depot. Waiting for the dressing out I knew was coming made it so much worse.

Finally we were on the main road and I heard him sigh. “How do you feel?” he asked me in a remarkably calm voice.

“Cold, Sergeant.” He leaned down and turned up the heater on the Duce.

“Better?” he asked. I nodded. “You’ll sleep like a baby when we get back. If I were you, I’d relish it. It will be the last good night’s sleep you get in a while.”

I couldn’t believe how this conversation was going. “Training gets worse the closer to graduation?” I asked quietly. He actually laughed.

“Nalley, you’re a combat veteran now. You’ve killed. You won’t ever be the same. Trust me, I know.” As I bounced beside him in the truck, staring at the trackless forest around us, I realized I had pegged him as different from the other Drills as soon as I’d laid eyes on him. He was a killer. And now, so was I. “Not what you were expecting was it?”

I shook my head and swapped out my helmet for a wool stocking cap. “I thought you were angry at me for the mistakes I made.”

“What mistakes did you make?” he asked. Before tonight, I would have thought he was being cagy and I would have been more circumspect in how I answered him. Now I felt strangely connected to him and held nothing back.

“I shouldn’t have broken the squad up after drop off. I shouldn’t have investigated on my own with Gail when I found the open door. I shouldn’t have checked out the sound when I couldn’t get anyone with the radio. I shouldn’t have led with my weapon around the corner. I almost got everyone killed. I didn’t pay enough attention to where the drop off points were. I almost fired on friendly forces in a panic. I lost control of my emotions in front of my subordinates. I did everything wrong, didn’t I?”

“No. Close, but no. Your entire team is alive and uninjured. Do you know what the worst of that list is?”

I nodded. “Losing control of my emotions.”

He seemed thoughtful. “Why do you say that?”

“I lost the confidence of my troops because I let my emotions get to me. I cried like a baby trying to tell you what was going on. That took time we might not have had. I could have cost lives being a stupid, whiny bitch.”

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“That is your greatest problem, Beth and you damn sure better get over it before you get your commission.”

I was more than a little taken aback. “How do I get over being a bitch?”

That tickled him and he barked out his laugh again. Even his laugh was threatening. “No, Beth, you don’t get over being a bitch. And that’s not your problem. Your problem is you’re afraid of body count. You’re going to be an officer and you’d better get used to the idea of ordering people to die. There’s no such thing as a zero body count mission. You want to be a good officer? Learn that and quick. When you can look a man in the eye and order him to do something you know will end with his death and you’re certain it’s the only way to save a greater number, and then you’ll be a good officer, girl. Not a second sooner.”

“Oh,” I said, numb now and it was all I could think to say. I was so eloquent tonight. “But, I’m a non-combatant. You think that’s the most important thing I’ll have to do? I can’t even be in a combat zone.”

“You’re going to be a helicopter pilot, right?” he asked. I nodded. “What do you think you’ll be doing every time you drop a team in an LZ? You think they’re all going to come back? Are you going to sit there and get shot waiting for a straggler at a dust off when doing so could kill everyone already on board?”

“I…” I started and ground to a halt. “I guess I hadn’t thought about it.”

“Do so. Make sure this is what you want to do with your life, Beth.”

I felt a tear roll down my cheek again and angrily wiped it away. “You don’t think I can do this, do you?”

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He stared at me with his big, bug like eyes then turned back to the road. “I think you have the potential. I think you’re at a crossroad you shouldn’t be at yet, but you are and there isn’t shit any of us can do about that. I think before you step onto one of those roads you damn sure better know what’s down it. Tonight, that’s what’s down the soldier road. But more and worse with bad food and worse pay and divorces from spouses who don’t know what the fuck you’re going through. That’s the Army road, Beth, lumps and all. You’re a really smart, really pretty girl. Make sure that’s what you want out of life.”

I sniffed. “If it’s as bad as all that, why are you here?”

“Because making a difference to me is more important than all of that. I’m not smart or good looking, but I’m smart enough to know both. And to know this is where I can make that difference. One kid at a time.”

We pulled to a stop, back at the camp sooner than I thought we would be. Sergeant Wheeler was walking forward with Sergeant Anderson looking concerned. “Was Matthews hit?” he asked as we got out of the truck. Sergeant Smith shook his head.

“I just wanted a chit chat with Nalley here. Nalley, get the girls to bed, I’ll fill in Sergeant Wheeler.”

“Yes Sergeant,” I responded a bit woodenly as I walked to the back of the Duce and dropped the rear gate. “In to bed, girls. No training for ten hours. Everyone get to sleep.”

The platoon clamored down and one by one they hugged me. Gail was last and smiled at me. “You did good, Beth. Don’t you doubt that for a second, okay?” I felt a grin pull at my cheeks and a tear escape my eye as I nodded.

“Nalley?” came Sergeant Anderson’s voice. I turned to face him as the girls filed past. He held something in his hand which he presented to me. It was General Wesley’s cigar case. “Compliments of the General along with his congratulations.”

“Word travels fast,” I murmured as I took it. Feeling numb and empty. I opened it to find it filled with a dozen of Mrs. Wesley’s smaller cigars. I looked back up at Sergeant Andersons face. “Please send the General my thanks, Sergeant.”

He smirked and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Tell him yourself if you’re up to it.”

I followed his thumb to see the General in BDUs conversing with Captain Moon and Sergeant Wheeler. I looked back at Sergeant Anderson. “Sergeant, this wasn’t some crazy, elaborate training exercise was it? Did…did I kill people tonight?”

“Yes, Nalley. Yes you did.” Was his response and I felt the numbness and emptiness grow within me. Then he turned and walked back to the bonfire around which the rest of the cadre was clustered. I stared at the Duce for a bit, contemplating the death of Elizabeth Nalley, civilian. I knew, in my heart of hearts, there would be no way I could go back to being the carefree girl I had been. I was changed now, removed forever from the life I had led.

I was sad to see her go, and hoped that I could keep the best of what she had been in me. But I knew that the life she might have led was gone as surely as the blood that I was still spattered in. I looked down at my BDUs and laughed, laughed at the sight I must be.

I stripped off my doubtlessly ruined field jacked as I walked over to my rucksack by the tent I shared with Gail. As I pulled out my spare I listened to her soft snoring from inside and smiled. As I pulled the jacket on and zipped it up, I offered a prayer up that Gail’s life would not suffer the disruption mine had.

Then I removed one of the cigars from the case and slipped it into my pocket as I walked to join my fellow soldiers by the bonfire in search of a light.

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Chapter Ten

As I stood at attention at the head of 1stPlatoon for what was likely the last time, hoping the pumps of my dress green uniform weren’t going to give me too much trouble in the soft grass of the parade ground, I felt a sense of pride in our collective accomplishments as a basic training company and in the fact General Wesley himself was the key note speaker at our graduation ceremony. As he took the podium, resplendent in his own dress greens, my eyes drifted over the crowd, picking out the members in it here for me. My mother, grandmother and brother of course, Granny looking appropriately regal, but I think I could see the slight displeasure of losing another member of her family to Uncle Sam. It was with considerable pride that my eyes met my Uncle Frederick, in his own dress greens, his drill instructor hat letting me pick him out from the crowd easily. He nodded his approval and I fought a smile. Then, General Wesley’s baritone brought my attention back to the podium.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he began, “This is great day of celebration. Eight weeks ago, your daughters, sisters and wives left you, to tackle one of the greatest challenges available to a human being. They put aside a large share of the freedoms you enjoy and sought to learn and prove themselves worthy of wearing the uniform of the United States Army. Today, eight weeks later, they stand before you again, more than they were before. Now, they are soldiers, each and every one, having proved themselves to their instructors, to me, and perhaps most importantly, to themselves.

“Despite the uncertainty of the world, and indeed, the uncertainty of the Army in that world, they now know they have earned their place among their brothers and sisters in arms. They have formed themselves into a team. Dependant on each other, countering an individual’s weakness with the strength of the group. Yet, every team has a leader. Today, in special celebration, I draw your attention to the leaders of Delta Company, Fifth Battalion of the Tenth Infantry Regiment. They are Captain John Moon, commanding, 1stLieutenant Gregory Terra, executive officer, 1stSergeant Harold Pierceson, and Sergeant First Class Joseph Wheeler.”

“These are the magicians who have transformed your loved ones into soldiers.” Here the General was forced to pause as our cadre received a well deserved round of applause. “More over, teamwork generates leaders from within the team. You may notice some of the young women standing apart from their team mates. These are the leaders you did not know lived among you, who rose to the challenge and in so doing, assisted their fellow soldiers in rising to the challenge of Basic Training as well. And, in every team, there is always the one who can inspire greatness in all.

“Ladies and gentlemen, in my thirty years of service, to meet such a leader as I am about to introduce you to is rare. And I am all the more privileged to both have known her and to introduce her to you. Some of you may already know her, yet all you should be proud of the greatness she inspired in her Company and in herself. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, Private Elizabeth Jean Nalley.”

I blushed from the soles of my feet to the top of my hair. Never in my whole life was I as embarrassed as at that moment. I felt every eye on me as the General had me called forward to the podium. And, as I marched there, I noticed my Uncle Frederick making his way down as well. Arriving at the podium, I saluted the General, and was made once more to face the crowd.

I noticed that my uncle, Sergeant Amos, as I must now say, held the family bible in his hand. It was all I could do to keep from burning as the General went on about how I had distinguished myself and how rare a treat it was to see a new officer commissioned. He handed me my diploma and we shook hands and I felt positively week in the knees as my insignia were removed and replaced with the correct officer versions, along with the pale yellow bars the general had first worn, so long ago. Then I was placing my hand on the bible, which Sergeant Amos held and repeating after the General.

“I, Elizabeth Jean Nalley, having been appointed an officer in the Army of the United States, as indicated above in the grade of Second Lieutenant, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; SO HELP ME GOD.”

“Congratulations, Lieutenant Nalley,” stated General Wesley and shook my hand as the crowd broke into applause.

Then it was just standing on the podium with my Uncle while the girls were called up one by one and given their own diplomas. As the line marched by, Frederick leaned slightly closer and whispered, “You know, Beth, now you’ll have to draw a complete new set of uniforms.”

My eyes rolled as I kept returning the salutes from my girls as they left the podium, my arm beginning to feel like a lead weight as I whispered back, “Yes, and I just got these tailored too.”

“Welcome to the Army,” he whispered back, and I think I heard him chuckling. Ah, if only clothes would be my greatest worry in the years to come.

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As luck would have things, the ever prepared Sergeant Wheeler had had the foresight to have a new uniform drawn from supply and decked out properly so I was able to change into it for the reception dinner that evening. So, as I got changed, he and my other instructors were getting to know Uncle Frederick. Now, my uncle Frederick was 31 then, and the aforementioned tank drill you may remember I mentioned towards the beginning of this narrative. To give you a good idea of him, picture a guy who is perfectly in shape, around 6’2” and looks movie star good in a uniform. That’s Dutch; as he is other wise know as. Being separated in age by only nine years and handful of months, I’d honestly looked on him my whole life as a kind of big brother I didn’t have. Out ranking him now, was going to be extremely awkward I could tell. But, I was sure he was very proud of me.

I finished the final bit of clearing out my wall locker as Gail beside me finished her own. For the last time I closed the door and our eyes met. A slight smile brightened her face at the sadness of our parting. “So, Ma’am,” she began, “Where are you off to now?”

I chuckled as I got my duffle closed and my linens neatly arraigned at the foot of my bed for pick up. “Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning. Then I’ve got to get enrolled in a college and complete my degree. Then, I guess Ft. Eustace for Rotor Wing Aviation School. You off to mechanic school, right?”

She nodded. “Yep. Hummers and Duce and a halves will be my stock in trade. You got my contact info safe?”

I patted the breast pocket of my uniform. “AIT and your permanent mailing address. You keep in touch, you hear?” Gail nodded again and swept me up into one of her huge hugs. Try as I might, I’d never get my arms all the way around her.

“Beth you go knock them dead. I’ll have your back anytime.”

I could tell this would get sloppy and emotional at the drop of a hat, so I clapped her on the back and stepped back. “The poor souls who get this room next cycle will have some pretty big shoes to fill. You take care of yourself, Gail, and you get your butt through college, that’s an order.”

She braced and saluted. “Yes ma’am.” I couldn’t keep a grin from my face as I returned it. “Take care, Beth,” was her parting salutation as she shouldered her duffle and left, her parents waiting for her just outside. I followed, turning left to the day room whose door stood open.

“As you were,” I ordered before anyone could jump to their feet and feeling rather odd at giving orders to the gods of my universe. The universe of basic which was now well and truly over. A line of congratulatory hand shakes formed, which I took, looking about. “Where is Sergeant Amos?” I asked, noting his absence.

“Out front, smoking, ma’am,” was Sergeant Wheelers response, a grin on his boyish face.

I nodded and cleared my throat. “Gentlemen, you most likely don’t hear this enough, but I would like to personally thank you all for your instruction and diligence over the last eight weeks. You are all a beacon lighting the way for the Army. And, Sergeant Smith, I’d like to apologize for using my underwear as a gag.”

He grinned for the first time I’d ever seen. “The hallmark of a good soldier, Ma’am is to make use of all available resources. Besides, it was the best time as a POW I ever had.”

I joined them in their laughter, and then sobered as Sergeant Wheeler called them to attention. “Courage and Fidelity, Lieutenant Nalley,” he said, quoting the regimental motto as he saluted me. I returned it.

“Regiment, Sergeant First Class Wheeler. Soldier on, gentlemen and God be with you all.”

I took my leave of them and walked slowly to the back door of the barracks, the forbidden door for the exclusive use of the training cadre, determined to use it just once as I removed one of my cigars. Having gotten my cover to my liking I stepped through to find Dutch smoking a Lucky Strike there in the shade, meeting and greeting the parents as if one of the drills of the company. Close enough for the parents and family milling around there; they’d never know the difference.

“Good afternoon, Ma’am,” he greeted, switching his cigarette to his left hand and saluting with his right.

“A fine day, Sergeant,” I responded, grinning, and offering one of mine.

“Since when are you a smoker?” he demanded taking it and secreting it to an inner pocket for later.

“Oh, since about three weeks ago,” I responded getting the cigar going off the light he provided. He looked at me side long.

“Granted I haven’t been a Drill for a couple of years, but in my day, on my company grounds, privates don’t start smoking.”

I tried to blow a smoke ring and failed miserably. “Well, Sergeant, as you well know, when a commanding General offers gifts, you accept and make use of.”

“Roger that, Ma’am.” He noticed me glancing around and put me at ease. “Your mom and the others went back to the motel. Of course, you won’t be able to keep that cat in the bag very long.” I exhaled the drag and sighed.

“I know. But, better later than sooner. Thank you for coming out. It means a lot to me.”

“Can’t think of a better way to spend leave than seeing my favorite niece graduating from Basic and getting her butter bars at the same time. Congratulations, lieutenant,” he said, rolling the rank over his tongue. I grinned anew.

“So, you’re going to be a helicopter crew chief now? Quite a shift in gears from a tank commander.”

“Unless you’re doing something really spectacularly wrong, tanks don’t fly. And I’ve always wanted to.”

“I might have some work for you, then. As I’ll be going to Rotor Wing Aviation School as a pilot in few years.”

“Any time,” he answered and I felt his genuine honesty at the sentiment. I swelled with pride as his approval was something I had long sought with out ever really knowing why. It was that approval that would carry me through some of the most difficult times of my life.

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Chapter Eleven

Five Years Later

I was finally getting used to wearing uniforms again as I gathered my belongings from the pile they’d been stowed in at the rear gate of the C-130 Hercules that had brought me the last stretch of the way from graduation at Ft Eustace to arrival at Camp Patton, better know previously as Sarajevo International Air Port, Bosnia. Four years of college and the better part of a fifth learning the ends and outs of being a helicopter pilot lay behind me, and now, I was finally ready to begin my career. Even if that meant living out of an air field masquerading as an Army Base in the middle of a country in the midst of imploding.

The crew chief of the Hercules returned my pistol magazines to me, which I replaced in their carriers on my LBE and shoved the remaining one into my M97 Beretta. So much for being a noncombatant barred from setting foot in a combat zone, I thought to myself with a smile. He pointed at the pile of belongings from the plane and hollered to be heard over the engines of the aircraft. “There’ll be a driver from the motor pool along in a bit, Ma’am. You can catch a ride with her.”

“Roger that, Chief. Have a smooth flight back.” Then he was trotting back to his air craft to finish up the refuel checks and get out of the hell I’d spent five years getting ready to get into.

I got my sun glasses on and looked further down the tarmac of the run way that was serving as the rotor park where a line of UH-1K Iroquois (the ever popular “Huey”) and a much smaller number of UH- 60 Blackhawks. I’d be getting to know the ladies better shortly and honestly I couldn’t wait. The Hueys were showing their years but from this distance seemed to be well looked after. In contrast, the Blackhawks were show room shiny and I felt a metaphor like kinship to the new birds wanting to prove themselves.

From their direction, I saw a Humvee roaring towards me and guessed correctly it was my ride. Well before it reached conversational distance, I heard the refrains from Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill blaring from inside it and I wondered briefly how the driver had wired a CD player into the hummers’ radio. It came to a stop and the driver got out, a grin on her tanned face as she tossed me a salute I caught.

“Nice hat, Ma’am,” was her greeting, referring to the black, wide brimmed Cavalry Officer’s hat I was wearing. It wasn’t strictly regulation, but it had never been removed either, never mind that the Army hadn’t fielded horse cavalry in nearly a century. A huge grin split my face as I caught her up into a hug, delighted to see her.

“Gail Limpkins, as I live and breath, why didn’t you tell me you were coming to Bosnia in your last letter?” I demanded. She kicked her baseball like BDU cap back on her head in a familiar gesture.

“Hell, Beth, I’ve only been in Country for three weeks. I figured by the time I could send it, you’d been gone from Ft. Eustace. And I had more than a hunch you’d get shipped here. We can’t seem to keep pilots around here and we’ve already been through five birds.”

“Ouch,” I said, as I gathered my belongings from the pile and loaded them in the back of the Humvee with her assistance. “How’s my goddaughter?” I asked as a change of topic. There would be time for morbidity later. Now was the time for catching up with my best friend.

“Full of life, missing her godmother and pissed as hell Mommy went to war.” She ticked off efficiently tossing the remains of the pile into the vehicle. As she closed the trunk lid, the base shook from a tremendous explosion about a kilometer away on the far side of the post from us. I had thrown myself to the tarmac, but Gail was still standing. “Mr. Milosevic sends his greetings, Lieutenant. Forty millimeter mortar from the ridge line up there. 2ndArmor scrapes them off and once or twice a week they move back in, you’ll get used to it.”

As I stood back up, I noticed an M1 Abrams rolling in the direction of the ridge Gail had pointed at. After a moment, it began to fire a blast from its main gun in a spread of about twenty seconds and thirty to fifty meters on the ridge by my eye. No further mortars were forth coming. Gail arched her eyebrows in mischief as we climbed into the Humvee. “Shows over till next week.”

“This happens once or twice a week?” I demanded. Gail forced the Humvee into gear and got it moving towards the tents that were serving as the bachelor officers quarters clustered around the remains of the airport terminal.

“It’s been a slow month.” She assured me.

linebreak shadow

In the squadron commanders office, I came to attention, with Gail, who you may be interested in knowing was now Sergeant Limpkins. “Lieutenant Elizabeth Nalley, reports for duty, sir.”

“At ease, take a seat,” he ordered, extending his hand across the table, “Charles Falcon,” he introduced and I took his offered handshake. It was firm, but obviously controlled, so as not to cause discomfort. How gallant.

Charles Falcon was in his early to middle thirties, and a major. His black hair was streaked through with grey and showed the stray lock patterns of one who wore a helmet quiet often. He was Native American, of the Comanche Nation and devilishly handsome with his sharp lantern jaw and shoulders even BDUs couldn’t conceal. His brown eyes were getting worry lines and the strain of command was starting to become visible on his face. I liked him basically on sight.

He opened a drawer on his desk and took a packet from it, and tossed across the desk. “Congratulations on your promotion to first lieutenant, Nalley. Here’s your new kit and you’ll be taking over command of second flight.”

“Thank you, sir, but I’ve only been on active duty as a Second Lieutenant for about nine months.”

“Time in grade is time in grade, lieutenant, and don’t thank me yet. As of this moment, you’re the only operational pilot in second flight. The rest are either in the infirmary or on their way stateside in “C” class.”

“Oh,” I replied, more than a little subdued. “C” class meant “Cargo”. Those going that way were traveling in boxes… Major Falcon continued.

“Second Flight is currently involved with downed pilot extraction from the nearly constant air raids Our Glorious Leader feels will get Mr. Milosevic to see the error of his ways and turn himself in. Have you been following this little camping trip on CNN, Lieutenant?”

“Bits and pieces, sir. Down time at Ft Eustace was few and far between.”

“I hope you had your nose to the grid stone, Nalley, you’re going to need every trick you learned there. CNN is getting the official loss reports. For the real deal, multiply what you’ve heard by about six.”

Oh, shit. I cleared my throat. “I’ve been studying the terrain maps of the UN Safe Zones on the way over, sir. I will do my best to get up to speed quickly. Do we have any idea when I may be able to get some flight time to get a better feel for the area?”

He snorted with sarcastic amusement. “Probably this afternoon, there’s an air strike planed for 1500.” Abruptly he changed topic. I’d learn at some time later to keep up with his rapidly moving mind. “I was reading your file once I received it from PERCOM. I understand you and Sergeant Limpkins were battle buddies in Basic? Would you care to explain to me how that happened?”

I cleared my throat with a laugh. “I put in for Officer Candidate School at MEPS when I enlisted, sir. I guess I impressed my superiors as my request was granted before I completed Basic. But, yes sir, Sergeant Limpkins and I were battle buddies.”

“I take it to mean that you two are friends?” I nodded and he turned to Gail. “Good, Limpkins I want you to be her shadow. I’ve lost too many pilots as it is. When she goes out, you play door gunner, roger that?”

“Hooha, Major.”

“Here’s the no shit assessment, Nalley. You keep your butt in one piece and this assignment with my glowing reviews will take you just about wherever you want to go in the Army. You get sloppy and you’ll be catching a flight home C Class. If we can recover you that is. I already have two MIA as it is. Whether I think you should be here or not, you’re here and I need every pilot I can strap into a chopper, read me?”

“Loud and clear, sir.”

“I’m not generally a prick or an asshole, you keep your nose clean and you won’t ever find out otherwise. Now get your shit stowed and get out to the flight line in case we have to go bail another Zoomie out of a mess.”

I stood and came to attention once more with Gail. He waved us out and I gathered my new rank kit and followed Gail out. “Charming fellow,” I commented as I worked my old insignia off and began to apply the new.

“Like everything else around here, you’ll get used to him. I’ll run you by your new quarters and let you get into your flight suit then I’ll run you out to the flight line.”

“You know off the top of your head which birds Second Flight has?”

“That’s easy. Second Flight is Hueys, first are the Black Hawks. But they only do VIP shuttle duty.”

“Great. We’re sending air frames older than I am out to get shot at, but the new birds sit and wait for Very Important Pukes. Is there a logic I’m missing somewhere in that?”

We came to a stop at the tent that would be my home away from home for the foreseeable future. As we shuttled my meager belongings into it she answered. “Yep, the Army feels they got their monies worth out of the Hueys so if they get shot down, so what? But the Black Hawks look good for the press, so they get saved for them.”

“Thank you very much, Mr. President.” I responded, dryly. I pulled out a flight suit and quickly added rank insignia to it on the cot. “When’s the last time you put rounds through a 60?” I asked, stripping off my BDU top and sitting to get my boots unlaced. She stowed the rest of my bags in my locker as she answered.

“Three days ago. About a thousand irregulars rushed the gates and damn near overran the MPs manning it. We got the all call and just about everybody came to help. It was a pretty close thing. I’m getting a commendation medal out of it.”

“Congratulations. You got a flight suit?” She shook her head and I tossed her one of my spares. “Here you go.” Gail laughed.

“Like my fat ass will fit into one of your tooth pick uniforms.”

“They’re one size; they adjust even for beached whales like you. See?” She smiled me a sweet smile that meant exactly the opposite and began to adjust the uniform out to its maximum sizes. “How long is your hitch here for?” I asked as I stepped into mine and then back into my boots.

“The duration of the Army’s requirements,” she quoted. “What ever that means. You?”

“Pretty much the same. I could wish the circumstances were different, but it’s great to see you again.” I zipped mine up and noticed hers was as well. “Well, Sergeant, let’s head to war.” I grabbed my flight helmet from the top of my duffle and followed her lead back out to the Humvee and a surreal ride out to the flight line to strident voice of Atlantis Morissette.

The ready one aircraft wasn’t hard to pick out, as it was the one that had several ground crew crawling over it, making sure she was flight worthy to the direction of the crew chief, a rather large, imposing bulk of a black man, several years my junior. Based on the TO & A I’d been reading on the way over I knew this to be Sergeant Leroy Samuel, or “Big Sam” as he went by either to his face or on the radio.

Big Sam was newly twenty one and had been a crew member since he’d enlisted at sixteen. Since that time, he’d been making a tourist spot of just about every where the Army was camped out where he could be shot at. Whether he had a death wish or a simple phenomenal run of bad luck I never knew. But he was good at what he did, and approached everything with a huge smile.

It was that grin that caught my eye as he approached the Hummer as we came to a stop, well outside FOD range. I returned his salute as we got to conversational distance. “Carry on Sergeant, Elizabeth “Southern Belle” Nalley, glad to meet you.”

“You just call me Big Sam, Lieutenant. You just ship in?”

“I ain’t been here an hour yet, Big Sam, and I’ve already been kicked up stairs and put in charge. I’m taking command of Second Flight. What’s the status of this bird?”

He saluted again. “Roger that, Skipper. One Oh Seven has hydraulic problems, but she’s the best of the flight. One hundred has a bad tranny, One Oh One’s anti torque linkage is no good, One Oh Two is shot to pieces and she’ll be down for about a month while we get parts. One Oh Three and Four have assorted electrical problems, Five’s radio doesn’t work and Six’s avionics are out.”

I swore colorfully and long. “What, the fuck, works in this flight, Sam?”

He just grinned. “We’re being all we can be, skipper.”

I jerked a thumb at a chuckling Gail. “My shadow here is Limpkins. Big Skipper feels I need a body guard; she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Make arraignments that she rides right rear when we go out together.”

Sam shifted his attention to Gail and stuck out a ham of a fist. “You get air sick tall girl?”

“I haven’t so far,” she replied slowly.

“Ok, when you do the first time, just make sure you puke into your shirt and not my bird. Otherwise, you’ll be cleaning it up.”

“Thanks, it’s great to be here.”

Big Sam turned back to me. “We going out today, skipper, or we just getting jerked around for the fun of it?” I pulled my helmet on and began to walk the short distance to One Oh Seven.

“What, you think I’m in charge of this cluster fuck, Sam? I just work here. Give Limpkins the nickel tour while I check with the tower.”

“Roger that, skipper.”

I got into the right hand set of controls and got the communications gear in my helmet plugged into the bird and checked the signal book so thoughtfully enclosed with my kit supplied by Major Falcon which I’d stuck into the clear thigh pocket of the flight suit. I powered up the radio and the other subsystems and set it the required frequency. “Patton one, this is Red One Oh Seven, checking into the net. How do you read?”

“Reading you loud and clear, Belle. What’s your status, over?”

“Preflight being completed. Be advised crew chief advises hydraulic issues, but feels Red One Oh Seven air worthy over. Do you have status of operations today, over?”

“Roger your hydraulic issues, Red One Oh Seven. Negative on your status request, please stand by.” I sighed.

“Red One Oh Seven standing by.” To pass the time, I began the control preflight sequence and tried to get a feel for what Big Sam called “issues”. The cyclic, the “stick” if you will, in front of me was a good bit more mushy than I liked but the collective beside it to my left seemed ok. The tension in both the pedals seemed good. “Sam, what’s the deal with this bird, we gonna be ready or what?”

“Hey sarge, I found the leak!” came a voice from one of the specialists on top of the Huey. “The aux pump forward seal. You want me to pull it?”

I was compelled to stop further ease dropping by the squawk of the radio in my ear. “Red One Oh Seven, Patton One.” I switched the microphone to voice activated.

“Yeah, go with comm., Patton One.”

“Commence your preflight start and advise take off readiness over,” came the voice. Hell and damnation. I took the helmet off and climbed out. Sam was now up on top of the Huey with the specialist by the engine compartment.

“Sam, we’re out of here. We good to go?” I yelled up to him. I saw him say something to the specialist, but that was lost to my ears and I watched him clamor down beside me.

“I got him patching that leak, but I’d feel better if we could snatch that unit. We got time?” I shook my head. “Then a patch will have to do. Let’s do it.” We walked about the air craft, removing the red “REMOVE BEFORE FLIGHT” ribbons on each item of the inspection. Short of the aux pump the bird was ready to fly. As we finished, the specialists on top of her came down and saluted.

“She’s patched as good as we can do, ma’am.”

“Roger that. See you boys in a few. Go ahead and requisition a new pump and be ready to pull it when we get back.”

“Yes ma’am.” Was his response.

“Lock and load and turning over,” I called as I climbed back into the right hand place. I couldn’t hear them reading their weapons through my helmet and even if I wasn’t wearing it, the whine of the engines beginning to turn over would have drowned them out. In short order the RPMs were where I wanted them and I was finally satisfied the bird would be ok. “Patton one Red One Oh Seven, requesting clearance for take off and course, over.”

“Red One Oh Seven, clear to take off altitude seven hundred AGL compass two four zero degrees at one zero zero air speed, advise forward air control in one fife minutes at frequency Bravo, over.”

“Patton One understand seven hundred AGL compass two four zero at one zero zero, advising in one fife frequency bravo, over.” I brought the throttle up and began to draw the collective up while nudging the cyclic forward. One Oh Seven came up by her tail and nosed forward, quickly gaining altitude. Then a different voice came across the radio, one I recognized as Major Falcon.

“Red One Oh Seven, you have a safe trip.”

“Roger that, Big Skipper.” Then in short order, the fence of the air field was behind us and nothing before us but the rough hilly regions of Bosnia. I reached up and set my microphone back to the intercom setting to listen in on Big Sam and Gail.

“So, what are we doing?” came her voice.

“You are going to watch everywhere that the skipper can’t, that means everything from three to six o’clock forty five degrees up and down. Anything that’s a threat to us, you yell out. If it’s a navigational hazard identify it if you can and about where it is. If it’s some asshole with a gun, you tell us that. Skipper will tell you if we’re free fire or not. If we are, you don’t wait for answer if you see something. Call it out and waist the bastard. Otherwise, wait for her ok to shoot.”

“Ok, but what I meant was what’s the mission?” I choose that moment to break into the conversation.

“We’re moving north west into the range of a forward air controller, probably in a bronco, who will hold us in a pattern while he directs the air strikes from the air force. If one of them goes down, we go in and get him out. They do their job right; we just fly in a big circle for the fun of it.”

Sam’s voice came next. “Contrails at nine o’clock high, skipper; looks like F14s at about five thousand and B52s at twenty thousand.” I brought the Huey into a bank right so I could see the contrails out the left side of the aircraft. Sam’s estimates were pretty spot on by my eye.

“What happens if we get hit?” asked Gail.

“This,” I said and took my feet off the pedals. Immediately, the Huey began to spin opposite the direction of the rotor blades before I slowly restored pressure to the pedals. “You hold on and when we’re close to the ground, you decide whether you want to jump or take your chances on the way down. You’ve got about a fifty fifty shot either way.”

“Beth, if you do that again…!” she howled and I felt a smirk pull at the corners of my mouth. I debated with myself about letting the bird spin again, but decided against it. Instead, I cocked my head back at her, just catching her in the corner of my eye.

“What? You’ll puke? You heard Big Sam; best keep it in your shirt.” She gave me a solo finger salute, but was grinning. I returned it then went back to sweeping the country side ahead and below us, thinking what a nice place to visit this would be if it wasn’t in the middle of a nasty civil war.

Fifteen minutes of fairly pleasant flying in what was essentially a war zone passed without incident before I tuned my radio to Bravo Frequency. “This is Red One Oh Seven calling Blue Four Oh Four, checking in to your net, over.”

“Red 107 this is Blue 404, adjust to heading tree fife one and slow to niner zero maintain your present AGL.”

“Red 107 wilco,” I told the voice. I checked the frequency and code log that was in the clear pocket in my left thigh. What an interesting collection! We had Navy Tomcats off the Ronald Regan, out in the Adriatic Sea, Air Force B-52’s from Camp Patton, and Army Helios from same. All we were missing were the Marines and the Coast Guard. As I listened to the chatter on the radio, making minor adjustments as the FAC directed, I was becoming increasingly worried about the mushy feel to the cyclic.

Those fears were put completely from my head by Big Sam’s shout over the intercom, “SAM contrail! Nine O’clock outbound!”

“Blue 404 SAM in the air!” I told the control as I dogged back towards the missile so it wouldn’t pickup my heat signature. The rear of the Huey is the hottest part of it.

“Blue 404 to all units, free fire, I say again, free fire.”

“Live and free!” I said over the intercom, as I watched the contrail connect with a Tom Cat about ten miles from me. “Blue 404, Red 107 Splash one Tom Cat, two in the air. Request to extract.” Without waiting for an answer I urged the Huey up to her top speed towards the parachutes I could see on the horizon.

“Red 107, I read all birds go.”

“I can seethe chutes in the air, Blue 404. Am inbound.”

“Red 107 stand by on your pattern while I confirm.”

“Blue 404 I repeat I have visual on the angels, approximately two miles from SAM site.”

“Red 107 stand by.”

I continued my direction of travel towards the parachutes which, after all, were only about fifteen degrees off my pattern. If I lost sight of them in the woods, I don’t think I could find them before who ever had shot at them did. Interesting, five years of training to throw my career away on day one. I noticed a rather angry red light on my ECM board and barely had time to yell, “Hang on!” before I nosed the Huey down in an angle probably outside of its performance envelope.

The Surface to Air Missile zipped by over head, missing us by a mere ten feet or so. “Red 107 taking fire,” I reported to the controller. “Big Sam, kill those sons of bitches!”

“I’m working on it skipper,” he told me in a fairly calm tone. The skids of the Huey were dragging tree tops so close was I flying, but, with any luck, I was too close for those assholes with the rockets to get a good bead on me. The parachutes were close enough now that I was sure I’d be orbiting where they ended up when they got there. Fortunately, that was a fairly sizable clearing.

“Stand by for suppressive fire,” I ordered Sam and Gail. I started my orbit of the LZ as the first of the chutes was just above my altitude. I was close enough to him to make out his jubilant thumbs up.

“Red 107 do you have visual of Popeye 42?”

“Blue 404 I believe Popeye 42 was the hit I saw. Have visual of two friendlies at my AGL. Be advised, Blue 404 my AGL currently…” I checked the gauge. “One Two Zero, over.”

What?” demanded the controller, and then a different, older sounding voice I didn’t know replaced him. “Disregard previous Red 107 you are go for your friendly.”

Wow, somebody in this out fit has a brain! “Roger,” I told the controller. “Cover fire,” I told my gunners as I brought the Huey sharply down into the clearing. The two pilots scrambled over to me as I did my best to look everywhere at once. Gail was happily trimming the trees back, along with anyone who might be in them as Sam urged the two to more speed.

I felt them clamor aboard, one into the left hand place. I spared him the briefest of looks, (What a hunk!) as I snapped, “Stay out of my way,” and snatched us skyward. “Blue 404, Red 107 is out bound plus two.”

“Roger Red 107 you are cleared out bound to Hawk Tower Approach. All units go to path two. We are Ivan. I say again, we are Ivan.” Thus ended our little adventure in flying. Everybody was scrubbed as I was moving out of the area to take my two squids back home for a new ride.

Fairly safe, for the moment, I spared my passenger a slightly more detailed glance and was rewarded by a dazzling display of perfect orthodontia. He had his helmet wired into the com (the joys of standard connectors) as he extended his hand. “I’m ‘Gentleman’ Jim Perry, that’s my WO Lance ‘Tex’ Turner. Thanks for the pick up.”

I got my visor up and smiled at his stunned look. “Beth ‘Southern Belle’ Nalley. The pleasure’s all mine, lieutenant,” I told him as I took his hand.

linebreak shadow

“Hawk Tower Approach this is Red 107 I am inbound to you at AGL fife two, request clearance to land, over,” I told the Carrier that was filling up most of the horizon. I was doing my best to ignore the angry buzz from my master caution and warning center.

“Uh, Belle?” came Lieutenant Perry’s voice over the intercom.

“Yes, Jim?” I asked sweetly as I fought with my cyclic. It had gone from mushy to granite over the last two minutes.

“Now, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a helio pilot, but on a Tom Cat, when the Master Hydraulic Alarm lights up that’s generally a bad thing.”

“What a coincidence, Jim, it’s a Bad Thing in Helicopters too,” I told him.

“Red 107 do you wish to declare an emergency?” came the voice of the Ronald Reagan. Damn the joys of Voice Activated Microphones.

“Not just yet, Hawk Tower, but I’d be right grateful if you could get me a parking space.”

“Have you ever landed on a carrier before?” asked Jim to my left. I flashed him my own smile. Why not as bright or as perfect as his, I like to think it’s fairly fetching in its own way.

“No, but I’ve seen Top Gun a dozen times,” I responded. “Now, be quiet for just a minute, will you sweetie? I’m kind of busy.”

“Red 107 do you wish to declare an emergency?” asked the carrier again, a bit more stridently. I sighed. I was less than a mile out at this point and One Oh Seven was making it very clear she was tired.

“Hawk Tower, I do not, I say again, do not wish to declare an emergency. I am approaching committal point; may I have clearance to land?”

“Red 107 you are cleared for approach and land at your discretion. ERT standing by.”

“Tell them to put on a fresh pot of coffee,” I told the carrier as I reached up and killed the engine. Dead stick, the bird became a bit more responsive. I spared Jim a glance and watched his tan fade as he heard the motor die. I winked at him as I turned back to the task at hand. Yeah, it was something of a nail biter ride, but I had my hands full so my manicure was safe.

I won’t win any points for style from my first carrier landing, but One Oh Seven found a home on the Ronald Reaganin one piece. “Don’t move!” I cautioned the two Navy fliers who looked like they were itching to bail. Sam leapt out of the bird and found a ground point. Helicopters build up an awful lot of static electricity in flight. If these two and gotten out wrong before we’d grounded, the jolt might have been enough to blow them right over the side of the carrier. Sam came around to the front and gave me the thumbs up as I finished powering down the bird.

I opened my door, got out and traded my helmet for my Cavalry hat as I told Jim and Lance, “Now you can move. While you’re at it, why don’t you show a girl where she can get a cup of Joe on this tub?”

 

* finis *
Read 3331 times Last modified on Monday, 18 December 2023 20:28
More in this category: « Shadows and Dust Mannequin »

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stacy
2 months ago
outstanding action tale. i can recommend this to everyone. the author pulls you in and you feel like you are part of the story.
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Kerafym
2 months ago
Loved this so much. Great characters and action, but what else can you expect from an E. E. Nalley story?

Was an added bonus to have the story start with the char having my exact same birthday!
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Wrayth
2 months ago
An interesting and enjoyable read. Thanks for sharing, E. E.
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