Today is the 14th anniversary of the day that changed the face of the 21st century. Even for an idealist and pacifist like me, some things…sometimes…well, as I learn daily as the mother of an autistic child…some people simply cannot be reasoned with. And for this, I am eternally grateful for men like the one I love and my oldest son, who give of themselves to protect the rest of us.
This day plays a huge roll in my Sergeant Mike’s Miracle Tour series. But rather than simply tell you why, enjoy this glimpse exclusive to my blog. It would fit somewhere early into the storyline of Labor’s End.
Mike stared out the window along side Mister Clyde. He did not know where the man’s thoughts were. Or if he even had any for that matter. But he knew where his own were. The same place they always went on this day. Whether it was one year, two, five, ten or likely thirty or more, that morning would forever be as real and vivid as it had been standing in the mess hall of Camp Pendleton. The whole place had taken on a silent hush as word spread. They had dispersed and huddled together in groups around computers and what few televisions they could find. All of them had watched in horror as those planes hit the Towers, the Pentagon on fire and finally that gaping hole in the ground.
For him that day had been a turning point second only to the night that little seven year old boy’s world was torn apart. He was just weeks from finishing off his second enlistment. It was a foregone conclusion that he would be leaving the Corps. Hell, it had only been his Staff Sergeant that had kept his sorry ass from a court martial, prison and a dishonorable discharge after the last bar fight the year before. The one when he had broken some rich, college kids arm. The hard truth was that when he was not on duty, he was drinking. Trying to keep the dreams away, but it never worked that way. He still watched helplessly night after night as his best friend died in his arms.
Mike patted Mister Clyde’s shoulder as he once more pondered that fucking whore called Fate. Why did She take Billy from this man? From Brenda Jo and the baby she was carrying. Why couldn’t She have taken him instead? No one would have even missed him. No one would have given a fuck if another angry orphan died alone in that hot, stinking desert.
Even then though…Billy had been a Marine. A combatant. A man sent to do the job of war. The men, women and even children on those planes and in those buildings were civilians. Not combatants. Innocent victims.
He stared out the window at another clear, blue sky. It was just like that morning. Only wisps of white clouds scattered randomly among the blue. Except there was no dark, black clouds of smoke rising to the heavens this morning.
But that did not matter, Mike could still smell and taste the acrid flavor of gunpowder, burning flesh and human excrement that was war.
That day had changed him forever, shaped him into the man he had become. As hard as it was to face, the truth was that it may have saved him from repeating history…a life in prison. Watching those horrifying scenes that would shape not just his life but the history of a nation and a world, he had come to a decision.
He had slipped away from the others and found Staff Sergeant Dwayne Jackson. The man had been on the phone when he knocked. He waited as the man responded in simple two words bursts, “Yes, Sir,” when appropriate. His dark face was clouded, the lines around his mouth and eyes more pronounced, his lips drawn into a deep frown as he hung up the phone. “Yes, PFC, what do you need?” he had asked curtly then.
PFC, Private First Class. That had said so much. A decade in the Corps and he was the oldest fucking Private there. Not that he did not deserve it. Not that he should not be grateful he was not rotting in military prison somewhere…or on the street. And for that he owed this man his gratitude. He knew what he was about to ask would test and try their strained friendship even more. The only thing that gave him hope was that pile of hair on the barber’s floor at Parris Island. Soft brown curls mixed with tight, wiry black ones…and straight carrot top red strands. These bonds went back to boot camp. This man alone understood his demons…even shared them perhaps.
“Draw up re-enlistment papers, Staff Sergeant.”
The man shook his head, “No, Mike. You know I can’t. I was barely able to keep them from court martialing your sorry ass last time. They were clear then…you finish up this enlistment and get out of the Corps with an general discharge under honorable conditions. That was the best I could do for you and then only by putting my own fucking neck on the line with yours. So, not no, but hell no, boy.”
Mike felt the look of anger and disgust that marred his friend’s features to his core. He had known what the man risked, but never before had Dwayne actually said it. He had almost turned then and slunk away to wallow in shame, perhaps even the bottle for the first time in a year.
He chuckled as that moment slipped into the present, blending seamlessly the way past and present always did in his warped mind. Mike bet a lot of people had spent that day in the bottom of a whiskey glass or bottle, but not him. He had found the strength somehow, perhaps from all those seemingly endless images on the screens or maybe Billy was up there somewhere looking out for him. He had left that office not with the re-enlistment papers he had hoped for, but with Dwayne’s promise he would think about it, see what he could do. Mike’s argument that of their whole platoon only the two of them had any combat experience had finally swayed his friend at least that much.
Mike and the country itself was still reeling from the events of this day a few days later as President Bush told his military to get ready for a long War on Terrorism, saying they would smoke the enemies “out of their holes.” His eyes were on the screen so he did not even notice the stack of papers in front of him at first. When he did he turned to look over his shoulder at his friend’s austere face, “Don’t make me fucking regret this, Mike,” was all the man had said before turning and walking back into his office.
He had asked a friend to borrow a pen and signed them on the spot. Mike frowned, the truth was that those papers had not been signed in ink, but rather in blood, sweat and tears. Blood of good Marines like Billy, Manny and Tommy. Gallons upon endless gallons of sweat in that fucking desert that boiled you by day and froze you by night. And tears…an endless tsunami of those. Tears of mothers like Missus Lula, Senora Hernande and her. Tears of wives and girlfriends too, young women like Brenda Jo, Rachel and even his new friend Miss Mary. Even the stare one or two that he and others like Larry, Luke and the Colonel shed for their dead comrades.
His face tightened as his vision clouded over with a couple of those unshed ones for his men and friends, who had given their lives. If not that this day, would any of them? He sighed at the vagarious nature of Fate. This day had changed so many lives. Not just the two-thousand nine-hundred and seventy-seven people, who had been killed that day and their countless families and friends. Nor the almost seven thousand Marines, Army, National Guard, Navy and Air Force personnel to pay that ultimate price and their families. Nor the fifty thousand military staff wounding in the line of duty. Not even the almost one-hundred thousand service members to commit suicide since that fateful day. No, in one way or another this day affected everyone. Not just Americans, but it had changed the face of the world.
Mike felt himself slipping deeper and deeper into that no-man’s land inside his own head. The space that had become the hardest battle of his life, the darkest war. He might physically be in Mister Clyde’s room at Prairie View nursing home in Honour, Oklahoma, but none of that was as real to him as the sights, sounds, smell and even tastes of those skirmishes, IEDs and gun battles that had marked more than a decade of his existence since that morning. The friends he had lost. The innocents he had seen killed senselessly. All in the name of gods that neither side could even prove existed. Except for the greatest of god of them, perhaps the root cause of it…human greed and hubris.
“Mike, Sergeant Mike,” a voice began to filter slowly through the acrid, black smoke of those memories.
He shook his head and drew the back of his hand across his eyes to clear his vision before he turned to see the young nurse in the door way. “Sorry to disturb you. I was saying that it is time for Mister Clyde’s bath now,” she apologized.
He shook his head, “No, I’m the one that is sorry. I’ll get out of your way if you want. I know visiting hours are almost over anyway.”
She nodded, “Yeah, sorry, I am so late today. We are short staffed again. A group from the local church always takes a bus to the memorial in Oklahoma City for a prayer vigil to commemorate all the lives lost to terrorism.”
He frowned, it was easy to forget sometimes that fanatics existed not just in hot, deserts thousands of miles away, but walked among us too, wrapped in the same Old Glory that men like Billy, Manny and Tommy had given their lives to defend. No, freedom was never free, he thought as he slipped quietly from the room.
He brought his arm up to shield his eyes as he stepped into the bright afternoon sunlight. Looking up at the clear blue skies, Mike could not help but wonder…was it all worth it? Of course, he knew that was one question that was way above his pay grade. Only history would tell. History of the twenty-first century that had begun so senselessly violent this day all those years ago.
A lifetime ago for men like Master Sergeant Michael Thomas O’Malley. But he was one of the lucky ones, he supposed…for hundreds of thousands of others this day had resulted in their deaths. Just as it ultimately would in his own…not that anyone would notice the little orphan boy or tough Marine that did what had to be done. No, this day and history were bigger than anyone individual, even the man who had masterminded it all had ultimately paid for his sins with his life. But even that had not ended…not brought justice for those lost that day…likely not brought their families any solace or closure.
He threw his leg astride Esther and reached for his helmet, “Was any of it worth it?” he asked the universe…and that perverse fucking bitch Fate, who took good men like Billy and Tommy while She left sorry asses like him behind.
Not exactly my lighter Ægir’s fare this morning…then again…this day is about…Never Forgetting.
Labor’s End, Book 2 of Sergeant Mike’s Miracle Tour is now available for purchase on Amazon.