The Folded Flag – Part 12b

There is always danger involved in a PJs job. We are equipped for so many situations, and it is trained into us to expect the worst.  Even routine operations are not to be viewed as routine, and the easiest situations should be considered volatile.  We always know any given mission could be our last; we’re trained to always expect any situation to go completely wrong; and yet, we’re never really ready.  There is no way to prepare for the emotional blast that comes with an operation gone wrong.

We knew things were horribly wrong as soon as we got far enough away from the chopper.  We could hear the rapport of gunfire immediately, and took to ground.  It was just me and Pepper.

“I guess they’ve made Morrison and Gerard’s position,” I whispered to Pepper.  We had no choice but to make our way quickly and quietly toward the sound of the gunfire.  It was getting dark by that time, which was good for concealing us, but made finding our men that much harder.  As it was we had only gone a few hundred feet before we saw a form stumbling towards us.  We trained our guns on him and waited.  He paused, a few feet from us, crouching low to the ground, and looking around wildly.  I glanced at Pepper, and he nodded slightly.

“Gerard!” I yelled.  He turned towards us.

“Yes, it’s me!”  I nodded at Pepper and the two of us slowly stood, guns still aimed directly at him.  Even in the dim light we could see that he was injured.  Blood covered his right shoulder and left leg, testifying to the bullets that had found their mark.  We moved over to him.  I grabbed his good arm and threw it around my neck, thrusting my shoulder into him and taking most of his weight onto me.

“Where’s Morrison?” Pepper asked.  I could still hear gunfire and we started moving back towards the helicopter.  Gerard shook his head.

“Morrison’s dead,” he said.  I kept moving towards the chopper.

“Then what are they shooting at?” Pepper asked.  I stopped and looked back over my shoulder.  Gerard said nothing, just winced and the change in movement.  Pepper got up really close, his face inches from Gerard’s.

“Did you see him die?” he asked.

“He was shot in the chest and neck area four hours ago, above his vest, and has been slowly bleeding to death while we waited for you.  I tried to drag him out, but they’d found us.  If I had stayed with him, I would have been dead by now.”

“You left your man.”  It was a statement, and I could hear the rage in Pepper’s voice.

“He was dead either way!” Gerard shouted.  Pepper gave him one more hard stare, then started moving backwards.

“Pepper!” I yelled.  When he didn’t turn, I dropped Gerard on the ground and sprinted over to him.  I grabbed him and spun him around.  “You heard Gerard.  He’s dead anyway.  You go in there and you’ll just be giving them a fresh target.”

“’That others may live’!” Pepper growled the pararescueman motto out at me.  “We have not been trained to leave our men behind on speculation.  Now get Gerard to the chopper.  I’ll find Morrison.”  He jerked my hands off of him and started away.

“Levi!” I started after him again.  Pepper whirled around, grabbed me with both hands and shoved me back in the direction I had come.

“Go!” he yelled.  Without another word, he turned and raced into the growing darkness.

“Levi!”  When I got no response, I turned, grabbed up Gerard and moved as quickly as I could back to the Pavehawk.  I shoved him none-to-gently into the chopper, then turned and ran as quickly as I could back towards Pepper.  The gunshots had intensified, and with dread I ran towards what I was sure would be two corpses.  I almost ran into Pepper as he stumbled through the brush, Morrison’s still, bloody body draped across his shoulders.  I knew instinctively that Pepper had been shot, and I quickly jerked Morrison off of him and onto my own shoulders.  I rushed back with Morrison, dumped him on the ground for the co-pilot and gunner to deal with and sprinted back for a third time.  Pepper had not made it far before he had crumpled into a heap.  I threw his arm around my neck, shoved my shoulder into his abdomen and hoisted him onto my shoulders.  I could hear footsteps, then, and suddenly bullets were ripping into the ground all around me.  I let go of Pepper with one hand, grabbed my M4 and half turned to shoot a spray of bullets in their direction.  I didn’t waste any more time than that, but dropped the gun, grabbed Pepper’s hand again and began to run as fast as I could.  By some miracle we made it back to the chopper, and got into the air.

Once airborne, I gave a lightning assessment of Morrison.  He had been shot twice, up around the collarbone, but was still alive.  I left him for Gerard to take care of and turned my attention to Pepper.  I felt tears stinging my eyes as I looked at him, and I cursed myself for them.  Pepper’s entire chest and abdomen area was covered in blood, hot and black.

“Where is your vest?” I snarled at him.  Pepper gasped for air and the rattling sound of his breath made my stomach twist.

“Morrison…lost…his,” he coughed and a trickle of red began to ooze from the corner of his mouth.  The pain that the captain had been experiencing had led him to the deadly and deluded decision to remove his vest in order to relieve some of the pressure.  Pepper, being who he was, had thought of Morrison first, and risked himself in order to save that man from any further harm. I couldn’t even tell how many bullet holes were in Pepper as I grabbed cloths and tried to press them against the wounds to stop the blood flow.  Every time I looked, though, I found another hole, and my efforts seemed to be in vain.

“Oh, God!” I choked, and I couldn’t stop the tears.  It wasn’t a curse.  Not this time.  This time, my cry was a plea.  “God, please!”  I sniffed and looked back over at Morrison.

“Why?” I asked.  “Why did you do it, Pepper?  You could have been fine.  All you had to do was come back with me.”

“Our…motto is…that others…may…live.”  His voice sounded frozen and came in short puffs, like the clouds of mist that you breathe out in the winter.

“But he’s not going to live!  For crying out loud, he’s been shot!  He’s been bleeding to death for hours now!”

“Morrison has a daughter.”  His voice came a little smoother now, but his breath still rattled and he spoke in barely a whisper.  “Remember her?  She was at graduation.  She’s about twelve years old now.  I am not going to be responsible for her daddy not coming home.”  I shut up then, busying myself with trying to apply pressure to as many of his wounds as possible and desperately attempting to choke back the tears that were still flowing down my face.  It wasn’t fair!  If Morrison died anyway, then this had happened for no reason.  And if one man was going to die, why Pepper?  Morrison had always been a jerk; not just to Pepper, although more to him than anyone, but in general.

Pepper’s breaths were more quick and shallow, and the rasp seemed to be growing louder with every minute that passed.  He kept coughing up blood, and I could see that he was fading fast.  And then I had a sudden thought, a mental picture of what my life would be without Levi Habanero.  The feeling that image evoked was akin to diving into a thirty-three degree body of water.  Immediately, the thought, Retirement, flashed through my mind.  How could I possibly do this job without him?  Pepper had been there from the beginning, literally since day one and I had never before that moment realized how much I relied on him in every aspect of my life.  I couldn’t do this without him.  I shuddered as I looked down at his white face.  His eyes were opened and he was staring at me.

“You can’t quit,” he whispered.  He always seemed to read my mind, and at his comment I let out a huff that was a cross between a hysterical laugh and a sob.  I couldn’t answer, so I just shook my head and sniffed hard.

“Thatch,” the word was slurred.  I propped a bloody rag behind his head to try to elevate him a little.

“Pepper, shut up,” my words were shaky.  “You moron.  Save your strength.”

“Thatch, I did what I was trained to do.  But that’s not why I did it.  I did it because it was right.  I did it for that little girl.  I did it for my dad.  And I did it for a little boy whose father never came home.  I have no regrets.  But I need you to promise me, you will not stop because of this.  There are more kids out there who need you to bring their parents home.”  I shook my head.

“I can’t, Pepper.  I can’t do that.”  I had this sudden, overwhelming sense of panic that I had never felt in my life.  Pepper had become my constant lifeline, and this support, my safety was being pulled away from me.

“It’s not about us, Thatch.  This job has nothing to do with us.  We live, so that others can do so too.  It’s our life.  It’s what we are called to do.  It’s what you need to do.”

“You’re going to make it, Pepper,” I said.  I had to believe this, or I was going to crack.  I didn’t care about evidence at that point.  “Do you hear me Levi Habanero?” I raised my voice.  “You are going to make it, and we’re going to keep at this together!”  Pepper’s eyes slid closed and his body convulsed with coughing.  He gasped for air and it made a gurgling sound.

“It’s time to say goodbye, Thatch.”  I felt as though I had taken bullets to the chest as I watched my best friend lying there.  I couldn’t argue with him anymore.  I wanted so badly to ignore the truth, to believe that everything would be okay, but I knew better.  I grabbed his hand, and squeezed it, as the helicopter began to descend.

“I love you,” I told him.  I didn’t care that it was not the macho thing to say. I didn’t care what anyone else thought.  He was the one who always instructed me to tell this to Ally in case I received no other chance.  This was my last chance and I only cared that he knew before it was too late for me to tell him.  His eyes were closed, and he didn’t say anything, but I felt a gentle pressure as he used the little strength he had to squeeze my hand back.

The medic team was there as soon as we touched down, and I watched as Pepper was loaded onto a stretcher and wheeled away.  It seemed to happen in slow motion, and as he disappeared my world shrank down until it was just big enough for my pain.

– S.D. Bullard

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~ by sdbullard on May 3, 2012.

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