Visiting the Boys
--=0645 HOURS - 2008-JUL-04 - ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, CAMP SPRINGS, MD USA - 38°48'39"N 076°52'01"W=--
More then a few people refer to the Capitol as the armpit of America. Having grown up just a hop skip and a jump from DC I can happily verify that euphemism as correct. Especially in the summer.
The city was built on a swamp, and when the dog days of summer arrive the city turns into a muggy festering pit. The air is almost palpable as I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at Andrews Air Force base.
I crossed the 15 yards over the blacktop briskly. True to form Saints already stood waiting smoking a Lucky and giving me his signature mile long stare. The sun was barely over the rise yet and it was already scorchingly hot. Saints, being a classic smart ass stood with his back to the rising sun.
Melodramatic son of a bitch. Narrowing my eyes against the glare that no sunglasses on earth would stop I came to attention and saluted, "Colonel Lyons, Sir."
Saints regarded me for a moment mouthing at the cigarette perched on his lower lip, "Jericho, why the hell are you saluting?"
I opened my mouth to speak and he cut me off, "You're not a grunt anymore, and your certainly not in the Air Force chain of command so get your damn arm down. Besides this is a personal trip."
Lowering my hand chuckling a bit to myself, "Bite me Saints, do you always have to be a bastard?" Closing the last yard separating us I hugged the larger man who returned my affection gruffly.
Pulling me under his arm he turned and we started the trek across the blacktop, "Come on Jericho, lets go visit the kids."
--=0715 HOURS - 2008-JUL-04 - ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY,ARLINGTON, VA USA - 38°52'45"N 77°04'08"W=--
We come to Arlington a few times a year, you could call it a ritual of sorts. New Years, Veterans day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas, rain or fucking shine were were here. Short of war or death there wasn't an act of God known to man that would keep me and Saints from visiting.
After the war, more then a few military units were disbanded after having been annihilated or damn near. The dead from the units that had gone above and beyond had been laid here in Arlington. Our unit had been in that final decisive battle against the Rikti invaders, and the boys who bought their farms that day were all here. We had twenty soldiers in all here, however even just one was be to many.
I've dedicated everyday of my life to honoring them. Each bullet I fire might as well be engraved with their names. Everyday is the 4th of fucking July, good soldiers died to ensure we got the freedom we enjoy each day.
Saints and me, we're full time patriots, 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Didn't mean it made it hurt any less, every time we visited it was a knife right to my gut. The guilt of surviving, and wonderin' if maybe if you'd done something differently, it could eat at even the strongest man.
Some people might call it spilt milk, like its a way of making it seem less serious or painful then it is. Frankly, they can go fuck themselves. Each one of them was a damn good soldier, and that sure as hell ain't split milk. Death should never be trivialized, those boys gave their lives.
Our first stop was always the same, the Tomb of the Unknowns. We always visited here first, out of respect. Except for the steady click of the honor guards shoes, the early morning hours were always quiet. One perk of Saints bein' who he was, we got in before the tourists were allowed in.
Standing in front of that marble stone always choked me up. I didn't know a person who didn't get all emotional standing before it. It was a simple monument, with only twelve words inscribed upon its face.
HERE RESTS IN
KNOWN BUT TO GOD
In 2005, the body of a soldier from the Rikti War had been placed here. After Vietnam they'd thought there would never been another Unknown here, not with the advances in DNA technology. But thanks to the damage done by the Rikti weapons this soldier would never be known. The nuclear rays had rendered the DNA unreadable.
We stood in silent contemplation for what felt like longer then I knew it was. It felt like the unknowns buried there were staring back at me judging my soul, it always did. Walking away from the tomb I felt that oppressively heavy weight slip from my shoulders. The walk to the grove where the 823rds fallen had been laid was made from memory and without a single word.
The boys had been interred together, it was fitting after all, they'd lived, served and died together. We visited each headstone in turn with a salute and a small debrief. We told the boys with surviving family what they had missed since we were here last. We left pictures those who couldn't afford to visit had given us to leave and other small mementos. Most importantly we thanked them again for dying so that we can live, free.
As we reached the last headstone my stomach soured. Saints lit up another Lucky as he pulled out the pint of Jack Daniels he'd brought just for this occasion. Dumping the Jack in an unceremonious fashion over the headstone Saints glowered down at the grave.
"Stupid son of a bitch, told you not to be a fuckin' hero. You couldn't listen though. I'm too old for this now Varnell, and I don't even have Jericho now. "
I lowered my head a bit closing my eyes and flinched as Saints broke the bottle over the headstone, "Enjoy the farm while you can son, I'm coming soon and I got your number."
Saints turned away and stalked off, half grunting and nearly growing, "I need to visit a few mates. Take your time Jericho."
My eyes were burning as I sank to the ground in front of the headstone. Erik "Harbinger" Varnell, he'd been Saint's prophet when I'd first joined the 823rd Airborne. He was the sarge, and he was also a son of a bitch.
Harbinger was an Army Ranger, he'd been brought in to help Saints set up the Airborne RED HORSE. Drops were an art form to him, and he expected everyone to know their part in the ballet. Harbinger was one of those rare few who seemed born and bred for special forces.
I'd been one of the first women to make the cut for Airborne, no the ARH wasn't technically classified special forces, but we might as well have been. Any special forces drop involving an air field had to include us, and we had to be on the bounce.
I wanted it, so badly I could almost taste it and I thought I was prepared for it. First day out of air assault training though Harbinger was on my ass with relentless fury. Crueler then a marine drill instructor and completely unapologetic. I'd be a liar if I said it didn't get to me. Hindsight though, I realize now why he did it, the Airborne Horsemen didn't need a slacker who wasn't prepared to do the job.
Neither boot camp or air assault training had prepared me for that however, and we exchanged words more then once. Runnin' squad joke was we were destined for domestic bliss, at the time however I really just wanted Harbinger's ass on a pole. Harbinger knew exactly how to get my goat, and trust me it ain't something that really happens all to often. However, the moment the Rikti first dropped in and attacked the 823rd went into full scale operations mode.
Operations meant I was now a comrade for good or ill. The ass riding turned to command instruction and the sort of jabs only seen between comrades. I'd finally become a real airborne horseman, I was another one of the boys.
It was make or break during the months of the war, desperate, and more then once near fatal, but we were a machine. Working as a single entity we lost no one during any of our operations. Many times Harbinger was what enabled us to make instead of break.
Harbinger and the other men of the 823rd became more my family then any blood kin could ever hope. With Harbinger I had more then respect. It went beyond respect into something there just aren't words for.
We'd received orders to ship out to Paragon, we were the best when it came to Rikti tech especially portals. We'd become quite effective at secure and destroy missions on portals and now they wanted us for a big operation. We weren't told the name, or even the full details, it was on a strictly need to know basis. Going in none of us knew how critical our success really was, but it didn't matter, we had a job and we were going to do it regardless.
The war was going bad, we all knew it even if the brass wouldn't admit it. Our job was be to secure a portal at a specific set of coordinates for a team of Supes designated Omega Team.
We'd worked with Supes on previous missions, we weren't always fans, more often then not they got in the way or made the situation worse. Not saying they never came in handy, but none of us were happy with the media fascination over the Supes.
Harbinger had created a strict rule near the beginning of the war, no outside news. It was nothing but constant reporting on the death of this or that Supe. There was little to no reporting on military losses, or the military successes. It was Statesman this, or the Freedom Phalanx that with the insinuation at military ineptitude.
It hit moral hard, so Harbinger put his foot down. But it didn't stop the resentment, not completely at least.
The operation began harried but we got the portal clear for Omega Team to go through. Shit went to pot through real fast after that. We didn't know what they were doing, but the portal started destabilizing at an alarming rate. I'd worked with those portals on more then a few occasions, I knew more about Rikti tech then I ever wanted to, but I'd never seen one destabilize quite like this.
The scary part, I wasn't able to stop it either. I quickly signaled Harbinger and we began to pull out and away to our safe point over the rise. We'd seen a few Rikti but enough to raise alarm, I hadn't even been expecting it when something struck the back of my head sending me tumbling.
Thankfully the blow was only grazing and I was only down for a few seconds. I came to with Harbinger over me screaming at me to get up and on the bounce double time. He was also shooting and my eyes fell on the hulking form of the armored Rikti Soldier, a chief, that he was keeping at bay with suppression fire. I wasn't stupid I knew that wouldn't work for long.
A quick survey of the landscape and I saw we'd been hit fast and hard from behind. Several of the boys were already down, some permanently so. I'd scrambled to my feet and started to run ignoring the growing throb in my skull.
Several of the 823rd had paused in their fall back and started shooting. Checking my timer I saw we were down to 2 minutes before the suppressor I'd put on the portal failed. Screaming to Harbinger, he ordered everyone to keep falling back.
I stopped and pull out my rifle to begin assisting Harbinger, he'd snarled at me to get moving and try to help some of the downed men. I'd reacted more than anything and quickly I started grabbing anyone who had fallen to fire, recruiting a few people to help.
We reached the hill crest just as the suppressor failed with a sharp snap. I slid down the slope roughly hitting the bottom hard. Turning back, expecting to see Harbinger and the others behind me I instead saw them fighting the Rikti at the edge of the crest. I screamed and went running towards them, Munoz saved my skin and yanked me back just as the portal went critical and blew.
Both the Rikti and the boys fending them off were vaporized by the energy backlash. Stunned, 15 of us sat there for several moments in shock as the realization of what had just happened settled in. We'd gone the whole war without a loss, and we'd lost more then half of our family in less then five minutes.
Harbinger had given us time, and I wasn't about to see it wasted. I jumped up, ranks be damned and started barking out orders. Stephenson was pretty bad off, but we fashioned together a litter for him. The few of us still in mostly good shape took defensive positions. We bickered shortly over whether to leave the bodies of the dead, radio was down, and air pick up wouldn't be coming anytime soon. It settled in quickly that we couldn't possible carry all of them and make the 10 mile trek, we'd have to come back.
Leaving them in the field was one of the hardest decisions I've ever made, we don't leave a man behind. Weighing that against the lives of the surviving squad, heroics was out of the question. Checking the portal to see if any of the Omega Team had made it out, we only found a single unconscious man who we'd find out later was a Supe named Ajax. Carrying both the Supe and Stephenson we began the trek back to the green zone.
It took us four hours and with radios were down we were effectively cut off. Along the way we lost Stephenson during one of 3 separate Rikti ambushes and almost bought the farm as a group with him. But whether it was luck on our side or not we managed to get to the green zone.
We received medals, but I'd give em all back if it brought back Harbinger and the rest. Medals don't mean a damn thing next to a living and breathing person. I didn't even wear the things, it was listed on my official record but I kept them locked up tight and out of sight. Most days I didn't even feel like I'd earned them.
The marble felt cool against my cheek, I hadn't even noticed when I started to cry. I wasn't ashamed though, it was one of the only times I gave myself that chance at momentary weakness, they boys after all had earned it.
"I'm sorry Varnell, Saints didn't give me a choice, you know how he can be. He'll be fine though, Munoz'll pick up the slack, I mean I was able ta fill in yer shoes. Horsemen don't know ta meaning of quit..."
My fist hit the stone lightly, "Got stuck wit another Ranger, I swear you're all denser'n a black 'ole, not a ounce of common sense in the lot of ya. He's a good soldier though, reminds me of ya, you'd probably hate em'."
Time passed silently for awhile before I sat up wiping off the last of the tears, "Keep em in line Harbinger, and do me a favor an' keep an eye out fer me. I got a feeling where I'm at now, shit is about to get real serious. I am workin' for a damn SEAL, everyone knows how crazy those sonuva' bitches are."
I stood brushing the grass off and saluted the boys again, "Enjoy ta 4th an' the fireworks boys, you got the best seat for 'em."