My nightmare always started the same way. The warning cry from Cholo was mixed up with the flash of light from my right. A thousand nights, a thousand nightmares, and I still couldn't tell you, which came first.
Cholo was Sgt. Rafael Gutierrez, and those were the last words he ever spoke. He'd been with my team for three weeks, arriving just as we deployed, and had integrated into the team seamlessly. It had felt as if he'd been by our sides for years.
We were a Ranger LRS team, long range surveillance. Our job was to search out enemy positions, to find out where they were, what they were planning and get that info back to our guys at camp. We trained in stealth, in being inserted into almost any terrain, in spotting, recognizing and analyzing enemy strengths, weaknesses and disposition.
The data we gathered was used by the planners to map out operations for the troops, and it was a vital job. We considered ourselves the best at what we did, and with more than two hundred missions completed in the last three years, our records supported that claim.
There were five men in our team. Lieutenant Charles (LT) Evers was our nominal team leader, though he was smart enough to listen closely when we gave him 'advice'. I'm Doug (Big Dog) Ramos, and I was a Staff Sergeant at the time, second in command. I liked to say that I had more missions under my belt than the LT had lunches in the Army. There was also Sergeant Rafael (Cholo) Gutierrez, our comm. man, Sergeant Maxwell (Max) Taylor, our heavy weapons man and Corporal Alan (Sparky) Dale, our geek.
The plan was to insert us into the Arghandab River Valley between Kandahar and Lashkar Gah. Our objective was to see if we could find a small complex that was rumored to be in the area, one that housed a prolific bomb maker named Mahmud Al Zaranj. We had a general location, within a couple of miles, but no specific grid coordinates. We were given a five-day window before extraction, and we wanted to make the most of that time.
We were inserted on a modified UH-60 Blackhawk, accompanied by a pair of AH-64E Apache attack birds, and fast-roped to a small LZ in what the planners called a 'Bump and Go'. The helicopters would make multiples stops, each one identical in length, where the Blackhawk would descend to ground level while the attack birds flew cover. They would stop two or three times, at two or three different locations, before we actually dropped, and another couple of times afterwards. The idea was that if someone was watching, there was no way for them to be sure which stop was the real one and which ones were fake. Supposedly, that same trick worked in Viet Nam, when we were making incursions into Cambodia, and it had been revived for covert insertions in the sand box.
There is an old saying in the military. "No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy." We try to plan for contingencies, for emergencies, and even for total fuck ups, but we have to guess at what the enemy's reactions will be. If they do something unexpected, the whole plan shifts to dealing with the new factors.
This was one hell of a new factor.
The first three bump and go stops went off like clockwork, and we were feeling confident. We were ready to drop and were already on the skids when the Blackhawk made its fast approach to the real LZ, and we were sliding down the lines before it had even come to a stop.
Exactly by the book.
I wouldn't find out until months later what went wrong, that the Afghani nationals who were hired for menial labor at the base were feeding info to the insurgents. All I knew was that seconds after my boots hit the ground, all hell broke loose.
JJ was coming over this morning to do some fine tuning on the hallway cams; a broken sprinkler system pipe had leaked into the ceiling and caused a short on number two. Since the cams out in the corridor were fixed, it gave him a huge blank spot in his surveillance, and an itch between his shoulder blades.
He was having an absolute blast playing with the new cameras on the balcony in the meantime; the zoom and pan functions were outstanding! The price had been enough to give him heartburn, but having a 10X optical zoom was already paying dividends. That smoking hot blonde on the second floor across the street had no idea that his camera angle gave him a perfect shot into her bathroom window.
With all eight of the high definition, optical zoom cameras on the wrap-around balcony of his corner apartment, all with the latest infrared night capabilities, he had a full two hundred and seventy degree coverage, horizontally, of the fronts of his building that faced the streets, with about ninety degrees vertical as well. Two of the cams were rotated so that he had one eighty vertical and ninety horizontal, so he could even watch the sky and the street-level entrances to the building.
In addition to his personal surveillance toys, he had an even dozen cameras around the exterior of the building that were for general building security, cameras that he used in his capacity as the owner of the building. The apartment building was a modest three floors, plus two studio apartments in the basement, and he lived in the grandiosely named 'Penthouse A' which took up half of the top floor. JJ and Christine, his sister, had 'Penthouse B'.
The rest of the tenants, six apartments per floor, were all professionals and, for the most part, low maintenance. One of the basement studio apartments was occupied by Joey, the building super and the other belonged to JJ's nephew Devon, who was working his way through college. He worked with the Parks Department during the day and went to school at night.
JJ was Jeanette James, and she was married to his sister. He still had that moment of cognitive dissonance every time he recalled that they were actually married, gay marriage still being so new here in Miami. JJ had grown up in this very building, and he'd played with her, gone to school with her, his entire childhood. He secretly was in love/lust with JJ from the time he hit puberty, and she'd been one of his favorite fantasies when he was jerking it in his room late at night. When he finally got up the nerve to ask her out on a date, his sophomore year in high school and learned she'd been dating his own sister on the sly, she became his number one fantasy.
Still, they had remained friends, and she'd been his most faithful pen pal during his three tours overseas. It had been JJ who had convinced him that he still had a life worth living after he came home in pieces. Christine Ramos, his sister and JJ's lover, was three years older than him and for a better sister, no man could ask. When his mother and father died his senior year in high school, it was Christine who had watched over him until he graduated and shipped off to boot camp; and it was Christine, who had managed the estate so that he'd had something to come home to when the Army medically retired him.
Their parents had owned several apartment buildings and a dozen commercial locations, so their deaths while tragic and heart rending to the two children, were not as traumatic as they could have been. The children had been well provided for, and Christine had found she had the knack for money management. She'd eventually sold off all the properties except this one and opened her own brokerage firm. She'd invested half of the proceeds for her brother, and when Doug came home, he did so as a wealthy man. Monetarily anyway.
He'd come home from Afghanistan minus both of his legs, amputated high on his thighs, and minus his left arm, amputated close to the shoulder. He had a dozen pockmarks where shrapnel had entered his torso, and been surgically removed, and a larger surgical scar down the middle of his chest where they had cracked him open to fish the metal from his lungs. He also had a three inch high burn scar around the left side of his neck, traveling from his Adam's apple all the way around the back of his head, where flames from the explosion had access to skin above his armor but below his helmet. If he hadn't been looking the other way, he might have lost a lot more. Last and, frankly, least, his left ear drum had been shredded by the pressure wave of the explosion, and he was completely deaf on that side.
He'd spent three months at a hospital in Germany and another year at Bethesda before he was medically retired, finally returning to his childhood home six months ago. JJ, who owned and operated her own security firm, had taken a month off and spent almost every moment of that time retrofitting his parent's apartment so that it was both wheel chair accessible, and as high tech as money could arrange. Christine and JJ had flown up almost every other weekend to spend time with him in DC, and it was their love and support that convinced him to give up his plan to eat a bullet at his first opportunity.
Prosthetics were problematical with his remaining limbs and; for the last year, he was confined to a wheel chair. The only bright spot was that his chair was the newest generation of DEKA mobility, an offshoot of Dean Kamen's Segway Company. DEKA had taken over the development two years ago and this latest model was slimmer, faster, more agile and with a much longer range. The new carbon-fiber composites and Kevlar weaves used in the frame meant it was lighter as well. Money can't buy everything, but it can make some problems much easier to deal with.
One of his favorite bits with the new wheelchair was the smart phone app that allowed him to control it remotely. This allowed him to swing himself into the shower, or into bed, and then send the chair off to its charging station all on its own. He could wake it up and have it maneuver back to him when he was ready as well!
The apartment, 2700sq ft of luxury living, had been completely revamped before he moved back in. The doors widened; the counters lowered, and special pull bars installed so he could lift himself into bed, to the toilet and even the shower. The rest of the house looked about how he'd left it when he enlisted.
The crown jewel of the renovation was his office. It was a marvel of modern tech featuring fifteen forty-inch flat screen displays, stacked three high and five wide, that he used primarily for the security camera feeds, and a pair of sixty-inch flat screens that he used for games, movies, web surfing and the like. The camera feeds were all controlled by a custom keyboard that allowed him to switch cameras with a simple tap of a key; swap video feeds between monitors and even combine feeds so that he could have up to eight cameras on a single monitor. The zoom and pan functions were controlled by a joystick, much like a video game flight controller. The key mapping for the controller was adjusted so that he could capture a video stream to a dedicated file server at a click of the trigger, or switch between the non-fixed cameras by simply clicking the 'hat' switch that sat under his thumb.
His desk was a twelve-foot arc that held his keyboard, mouse and the controls for the camera and, underneath, were all the boxes to run his new toys. Just in front of his desk was a quartet of very plush, reclining seats for visitors, all facing the pair of large screens so that he could have folks over to watch movies or for sports events. Not that he actually allowed people in his office, but he could.
Cholo screamed his warning at the same time as I saw a flash of light, a muzzle flash, from off to the right. I was bringing my rifle up, trying to locate the source when the hand of god came down and smote me for my wicked ways, slamming me into the ground.
I opened my eyes and there were chunks of dirt, rocks and other, unidentifiable bits raining down on me, but the world was strangely silent. I could hear what sounded like a high-pitched tone in my right ear but none of the bits of debris raining down made the slightest sound.
There wasn't any pain, not at first. I remember feeling disconnected from what was going on around me. I could see people moving around, dimly lit by the dancing flames and muzzle flashes. I saw the LT take a round to his temple and drop straight to the ground like a marionette whose strings were cut.
I don't know how long I lay there, but long enough that the shock was wearing off, and I hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. I was cold too; I remember laying there shivering as the light faded. I vaguely recall a face hovering over me, mouth moving. He was saying something, asking me something, but I was too tired to care.
I learned later that the attack birds had opened fire and wreaked havoc among the attacking insurgents, killing 72 before the remaining attackers faded into the night. They weren't fast enough to keep a pair of them from firing RPGs right into our midst the second we set boots on the ground though. Cholo and Max were killed in the blast; Sparky got an unlucky ricochet that opened up his femoral artery, and he returned fire until he passed out from blood loss. I was tossed about fifteen feet, and somehow I survived long enough for the Blackhawk to set back down.
I woke up in a hospital in Germany. The Docs said that the initial explosion cauterized the stumps of my legs, and my left arm was shredded, but my brachial artery was miraculously undamaged. That kept me from leaving all of my blood on the rocky ground of the landing zone. I was airlifted to base camp and, eventually, evacuated to Germany. The burns to my neck were ugly, but not life threatening, though it had them worried for a while considering the amount for foreign matter that was embedded in the skin from the explosion.
They kept me pretty doped up for a while, and I don't remember much for the first couple of weeks. Some vague images of doctors and nurses, moving lights as they rolled me from place to place. Mostly, it was just a blur of pain.
My first clear indication that I was all fucked up came when I woke clear headed, and tried to sit up.
People don't stop to consider how hard it is to lose a limb, how disconcerting it can be. The human body is bilaterally symmetrical. What that means is that you have two of most things, one on each side of the body; two arms and legs, two ears, two eyes. You spend your entire life with that setup, and that knowledge; it is so ingrained into your reflexes that you never even think about it. Part of learning to walk, for instance, is learning how to balance on two legs, with two arms to mill about and grab on to things.
If you want an idea, just a hint, of how hard it can be, then do this. Lie down on your back and cross your legs like you are sitting tailor fashion. Now, hold one arm across your torso, grabbing tight to your shirt so that the arm doesn't move. Got it? Ready? Now, sit up.
Did you try it? Not as easy as you would think! You use your abdominal muscles to do a sit-up, but the weight of your legs anchors your body in one position, and your ass is the fulcrum. Without your legs, your upper body weighs so much more than your lower body that it is impossible to do a sit-up without a lap belt to hold your hips in place.
Now imagine trying to do a sit-up when your legs have been blown off, the raw stumps are still oozing blood, and the pain is gnawing at your insides like a living thing. Trust me, no matter how vivid your imagination is, it pales when compared to the real thing.
I don't even know where to begin to describe the psychological trauma that accompanies the loss of a limb. When you multiply that by three, the effect is staggering. Then there are the nightmares. Every time I closed my eyes, it would start all over again.