By: Dominic Tramontana.
The heat of the desert was a harsh reality for the squad. Cuts and abrasions covered the men’s faces while the sand scraped against them in the sandstorm. Private Gilliard struggled through the loose sand behind his team. The dunes proved to be a challenging foe. Jennings slipped on a stone and began to roll down the slope. All Gilliard could do was watch until Sergeant Carr lunged forward like a gust of wind and clasped Jennings’s arm like a vice.
“Dammit, Gill! Get your ass over here and help me pull him up. You too, Santos!”
Hearing the commands was even more difficult for Gilliard. The wind combined with the sand created a vortex of sharp whistling.
Once Gilliard saw Santos rush to the aid of his superior, he snapped into action and helped Jennings up.
The men stammered back to their original place on the dune.
“Goddamn! When is this storm going to end!?” Jennings said.
“Just a few more clicks to the southeast, and we’ll be at Mogadishu. Now quit your whining and fall in!” Carr said.
The Sergeant always had a way of putting his men in line, and Gilliard admired that. The only thing he knew how to do was aim and shoot. He wasn’t that good at anything else.
More sand billowed through the desert and surrounded the soldiers. This lasted for three more hours then began to subside when the sun showed its face in the cloudless sky. The threat of no oxygen was pushed to the side to make room for the blazing heat and no water in sight.
The four men coped in their own ways. Santos lit a cigarette. Jennings shook the last drops of water he had left into his mouth, rejuvenating patches on his cracked lips. Carr just stared at the path in front of himself like a predator moving forward, and Gilliard took out a notepad and began to write.
“Whatcha got there, Gill?” said Carr.
“It’s just a journal. I keep logs for everything I’ve done so far in the war.”
That amused Gilliard. Looking back, his whole notebook was filled with conflict and death, and experiences. Why document so many things that remind him of pain and suffering? Maybe it’s those moments immortalized in writing that somehow make all the suffering worth something. That it can somehow, someway, make the reality of it all seem manageable.
“All of them,” Gilliard said.
“Well, I hope you got a second one handy because I don’t think this will be our last tour.”
“What do you mean? I thought after we take the town, we go on leave?”
“Plans change. Listen, Gil. A soldier is a soldier for the rest of his life until he’s dead. That’s why you just have to keep looking forward until it’s over. Do you really think command cares about what happens in the shit? All you have down here is the man behind you and your finger on the trigger.”
“Hey, Sarge? Why do you call me Gill?”
Carr smiled. “It sounds innocent.” Carr looked forward at where the sand met the sky.
Gilliard looked down at his journal and began to write again.
“Sarge!” Jennings said, holding the transponder to his ear. “A new order just came in from command.”
“What is it?”
“The enemy has just taken the forward camp in the center of town. They want us to go in and hold the line before aid gets here.”
Carr nodded, then looked to his men. “Alright, men. Move out!”
The desert grew smaller and less frequent on their way to the city. Abandoned cars and rubble standing where skyscrapers should have been built the imagery around them. Corpses of civilians laid on the street. Gilliard looked to his left and saw an arm that reached out of a pile of rubble, pale and lifeless. Glass cracked under their boots while they moved through the streets. Their guns raised to the point where eyes met iron as if the guns were telescopes and the lenses showed death, leading the soldiers to commit their purpose.
Gunshots sounded off in rapid succession. The noise was muffled and came from farther off.
Carr gave the signal to group up and move forward.
The group of men slithered through a collection of abandoned cars. They hid behind a line of vehicles once the open center showed itself to them.
Gilliard pulled out his binoculars. The center was a large building that resembled the Lincoln monument. Pillars kissed by sand held the building up, and sandbags lined the perimeter. Large trucks and men in black military garments swarmed the area. Closer to the steps were three American soldiers and a fourth laying on the ground in a pool of blood.
“What do you see, Gill?” Carr said.
“Militia surrounding the building. Only three of our guys left. They already killed one. I don’t think we can move up any closer.”
“Shit! Give me that.” Carr snatched the binoculars and analyzed the situation. “Ok, here’s what we’ll do. Gill, you move along the left. I’ll go right. Jennings and Santos, you two move quietly up front and drop some smoke. Once we’re in position, we’ll pick them off quick and easy and get our boys home safe and sound. Copy?”
The group agreed and got in formation. Gilliard moved down the left, hid behind trucks, and crawled behind piles of sandbags. He got to the steps of the building and crouched behind the sides just out of sight. Gilliard saw Carr in the same position on the other side. Jennings and Santos made their way to the center as close as possible without being caught.
Carr gave the word, and Santos got up to throw the smoke.
Santos was on the ground before Gilliard knew what had happened.
“Sniper!” Jennings shouted over the comms. “He’s dead! They got Santos!”
The militia started opening fire on Jennings’ position.
Gilliard had no other choice and unloaded on the soldiers closest to him.
Carr did the same, and they soon got the number of troops down to less than half, but not enough to move the conflict to anything less than a stalemate. All three men were pinned down with bullets whizzing past their ears. The three prisoners squirmed to safety when the last five militia focused on the attackers.
Gilliard peeked out and fired a few shots. He maintained that pattern until he killed one soldier, leaving four left. Three of the enemy started to move up on Jennings’s position, and the last soldier aimed his attention towards the three prisoners.
“No!” Carr shouted before running to the enemy and killing him with his gun, unloading a whole clip.
Jennings had already died but not before taking a soldier down with him. The two remaining militia heard Carr’s gun and took a few shots at him. One bullet entered Carr’s leg, the second into his shoulder. Sarge aimed his rifle. Click. The gun was out of ammo. In an act of desperation, he ripped out his sidearm and fired a shot that killed one of his two assailants. The other fired a third and final shot into his abdomen.
Sarge was laid out on the ground, clutching at his wounds. The last man stepped close to him, looking over Sarge, and aimed his gun right at his head.
The militiaman fell over, and Gilliard ran up in the Sarge’s periphery with a smoking barrel.
“Sarge! We’ll get you some help. Help is on the way!”
“No, it’s alright, Gill. I just—I just need to rest.” Carr put his bloodied hand on Gilliard’s face. “Just remember to write about me in that journal of yours.” Carr’s hand fell lifeless and slid off Gilliard’s face, leaving a streak of blood.
Gilliard waited with the freed soldiers until help came.
The helicopter landed in an open area behind the building, and Gilliard helped each soldier onto it before entering. The commanding officer walked over to him, dressed in his clean uniform decorated in shiny metals.
“You look like shit, son!”
“I’ve been through shit, Sir.”
“Well, get yourself cleaned up and ready. You’re shipping out in forty-eight hours.”
The officer walked off.
Gilliard took out his journal and opened a new page. The first mark wasn’t made by ink but by a single tear.