Commander’s Call. 1900 hours. Base Theatre. Whose idea it was to march us in uniform to watch Saving Private Ryan? I’ll never know. First 25 minutes. Mind blown. Shit changed that day. Sign of the cross. Crack! Bullet to the brain. Images that sting your mind with sacrifice like a yellow jacket on an already swollen eyelid. Raised my right hand. Took the oath. Meant every word. Didn’t picture instant death. Would’ve chosen the Marines if I wanted it to end that way. Save Private Ryan? Not my job. Not the Army. I’m Air Force. ATC—Air Traffic Control. Staring at a Stealth bomber all day. Massive. Black. Invisible on radar. Area 51-designed wingspan. War machine. Nuclear. Ever smell fission? Not so much a smell. More of a feeling. An aura. Hovers over you. Cuts through your clothes. Mixes with jet fuel. Cloaks your soul. Atomic-smelling salt. Keeps you up at night. Me at least. Nightmares had already started. Knew we were mobilizing. Could see shadows on the flight line in my dreams. Orders to Tinker were no surprise. Combat Skills School. None too soon. In case we ever deploy as support—they want me ready. Who’s they? Uncle fucking Sam. Big Brother—our umbrella. Sending me to an air base in bum fuck Oklahoma to play war games might make sense if we weren’t at Whiteman. No deployments necessary. Stealth bomber never lands. Didn’t matter—orders in hand.
I’d started fucking a girl from Base Ops. Found out she’d blown a pretty boy on the job. Had my head screwed up. Nose was wide open. Said it happened before we got together. Everyone knew. Whole damn base. Kind of shit that makes a man go crazy. Guys figured I needed a getaway. Air Force agreed. Least I’d see my fiancé upon completion of combat training. She’d help me forget the blonde. Always the blondes that fucked my skull. Walked out of that theatre on base soaked in Spielbergian shock carrying paperwork heavier than a Flintstone tablet. Felt like being dunked in a Shamu-sized water tank of fear. BDUs were wet with it. Dyed my insides. Questions biting my cranium. Could I give my life for the cause? What the hell was the cause? Freedom? For who? My skin is just as black as the bomber I get to speak to everyday. Would they send anyone to save this Airman? Hell, in this country—might as well be a stealth myself… Guess I did need that break.
Breadman had family in the Lone Star State. Can’t tell you why we called him that. Guess because that’s what he called himself. Agreed to drop me off in Oklahoma City. Plan was my girl would pick me up after hell week. Drive me to Dallas. We’d meet up with Breadman at the Texas Motor Speedway for Rockfest 99. No Doubt was headlining. Party our balls off. Then drive back to Missouri. I’d study for the Airman of the Quarter board on the way back. First, I had a date with red dirt. I hate red dirt—and Oklahoma.
MILES Gear—or Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System. Simulates live rounds. It’s on our bodies. On the vehicles. On everything. Can’t get the sound out of my head. High pitched ring that lets everyone know you’re dead. Military laser tag. Died more times than I can count. It’s day four. Ears still ringing. Haven’t slept. Not enough stripes to sleep—but I’m asleep. Not literally. Asleep in the way Keanu was before he was unplugged from the Matrix. Asleep in the way the Harlem Hellfighters were when they fought for the right to fight for freedoms they’d never know. More angst than fear is what I feel.
Discomfort. Displaced. Longest simulation yet. How many times do we have to get shot before these fuckers stop sending us into the night? We’ve been in this trench eighteen hours. Last guy to answer his walkie lasted five steps. Guy before that seven. We’ve watched ten of ours get sniped. Now it’s our turn. Well… mine—and Torres’. Helmets are heavy. Walkie rests between us. Waiting for the order. Not sure if it’ll be Torres first or me. Either way. Sudden simulated death awaits.
Torres and I got to talking. He was from Arizona. Good dude. Seemed dedicated to the cause. Had a lady friend back home. Kid to boot. Little family at twenty-three. Military was his way of providing for them. Nevertheless. He was none too keen on dying. Neither was I. Could hear CQ talking amongst themselves over the walkie. Getting ready to send one of us out. Looked at Torres. Looked back at me. Feeling was mutual. Think I said it first:
I feel like turning off this walkie.
Sounds like a plan, Torres responded.
Twisted the knob counterclockwise. Heard the click. Went dark. Minority protocol. When you’re expendable. You better recognize it. Or else you’re dead. Wasn’t that I didn’t want to die for my country. It was more like I didn’t want to die for dummies. First light would come. Torres and I knew that even with our two stripes. Figured we’d wait it out. Hunker down. So, we did. Whispered all night in the silence that ensued. Bonded. Kind of bond that feels like you met your long-lost best friend.
Morning came. Insects spoke. Birds too. Poked our heads out like the low-ranking gophers we were. Spied a starkly different landscape and story than the night told. Could see base camp right behind us. Crawled into Command Headquarters with M16s in tow. Shots rang out immediately. Ambush. Enemies from all sides. Things slowed down. Fear left after I killed the first one. Heard his MILES gear. Liked the sound. Killed another one. Jumped through netting to bag the next two. Clipped one more. Saved CQ. Exercise got called off early. High ranking officer’s calling the shots didn’t make it. Torres did. Die for my country? Depends.