S/Sgt Michael Duke cautiously advanced toward the cave where the unmanned drone had detected some suspicious activity a couple of days before. The crunch of the stones under his feet sounded amplified. It was almost impossible to walk quietly on the stones that littered the thing that passed for a road in this part of Afghanistan. The only people that used this so-called road were the opium smugglers, the Taliban, the local warlords and the local tribesmen. The warlords' switched allegiances almost daily so Duke had to watch out for them as well. This area of Afghanistan was only sparsely populated so the activity around the cave had called attention to it. The drone had spotted at least twenty people around the cave. Duke's orders were to only get close to the cave and observe what was going on. The squad was to avoid all contact with the Taliban if they were at the cave.
Afghanistan has been at war for centuries. The Afghans are fierce fighters because they have done it so long. There is an old saying that if the Afghans don't have anyone to fight, they fight each other until they find a common enemy. The Russians learned the fallacy of trying to conquer their country. The Russians were forced to leave the country with their tails between their legs.
His eyes constantly moved; searching for anything that moved or shouldn't be there. He scanned the ground for fresh footprints or anything that would tell him of Taliban activity. Duke as he was called by everyone had taken the point. The other three Marines had just been rotated into Afghanistan and Duke had to constantly give them directions and keep them on their toes. Twice he had to stop and tell a man to secure his gear so that it didn't make noise. In these mountains noise seemed to reverberate off of the mountains and go on forever.
This squad was really too small for an operation like this but there was a big sweep through the Kandahar Province and manpower was scarce. That is why his orders were to avoid all contact if he located Taliban. The brass told him that they would send in air power to clear the cave if they found anything. Duke looked up to see if he could see the drone that he knew was flying overhead. He knew that he couldn't see it, as it was so small and flying so high, but he searched for it anyway.
A short way ahead he saw a large rock formation that would give them cover while they rested. The men had been traveling for several hours without a break and Duke knew that when they got tired, they started to make mistakes. A simple mistake out here could be fatal. Duke made his way toward the rocks; keeping watch all around him and searching the ground for any land mines. The Taliban loved to put land mines where they knew the Marines would try to take cover.
Duke checked his watch. It would be dark in a short while and they would have to camp out in the open. It got cold at night but they were dressed for it. At first light they would try to make their way to the cave. Duke hated this type of mission. This is the type of mission that men died on. He motioned for his men to take cover behind the rocks and to be quiet.
The men sat around without talking and drank some water and ate their rations. Duke took the time to go over the mission and make sure that everyone knew what their job was. He went over again how the men had to stay alert at all times and to be as quiet as possible. One of the men, a kid about eighteen, asked Duke what it was like when the Taliban struck. Duke told him to just remember his training and everything would be alright. The kid seemed to buy it and stopped asking questions. After it got dark he posted a lookout and they all tried to go to sleep. Every man would take a turn on the watch.
Duke looked at the men around him. He smiled when he realized that, at twenty-four, he was the old man in the crowd. The others were eighteen and nineteen years old. They looked up to him because of his experience and he knew that they expected him to keep them alive. If the intell reports were correct about there being little Taliban activity in this area they would be alright. Usually the Taliban traveled in pairs and preached the doctrine to the villagers. Sometimes they would pick up volunteers to help them fight the Americans. Although there were several countries keeping the Taliban from coming back it was always the Americans that the Taliban hated. The other Coalition forces were considered Americans much to the consternation of the Coalition troops.
Duke leaned his head back on the rock and closed his eyes. He tried to think about the farm back in Iowa. A picture of the beautiful Iowa farm came to him and he watched as it panned through his mind. He loved the farm but he always wanted to see what the rest of the world was like. He bounced around for a few years after high school working on the farm but he had itchy feet and longed for that special place that every man looks for but never finds. He had Henry David Thoreau's saying on his bedroom wall. "Most men live lives of quiet desperation." He was determined that that wasn't going to be him. He had part-time jobs in the winter, when things were slack on the farm, but nothing seemed to cure his wander-lust. At the age of twenty-one he enlisted in the US marines. Duke took to the Marines like a duck takes to water. Maybe it was because of his age but he tried to be the best Marine ever. He was well aware that what he was being taught could save his life one day.
Shortly after he got out of boot camp he was sent to Iraq. He distinguished himself there and he found himself promoted as soon as he was eligible for rank. He won the Bronze Star and sent it home to his father who showed it to everyone in town. His father convinced the county to rename the road in front of the farm after him. He managed to survive Iraq and was sent back to the states to train other Marines.
After a little over a year in the states, Duke was sent to Afghanistan for a tour. His superiors recognized his natural leadership abilities and gave him ever more challenging duties. Many of the newer officers requested him because they knew that he would keep them out of trouble if fighting broke out. The newer enlisted men often came to him for advice on how to survive this mess. Duke was the go-to man if you had any questions about the Marines or combat.
As he started to drift off to sleep Amy's face came to him. She was a beautiful young woman now. Amy lived on the farm next to the farm his family owned. She was six years younger than Duke was and it seemed that every time he turned around there she was. He knew that she had a crush on him since she was a pre-teen but he always thought that she was too young for him. It was the joke in his family that Amy was going to be his girlfriend. At first it got under his skin when his parents started kidding him about Amy. After she reached her teens she seemed to be always there but not as infatuated with him as she was when she was younger.
After Duke was in high school and started dating, Amy would critique his dates. There was never a decent woman for him in her eyes. There was always something wrong with the girls he dated. They were always too skinny, too pushy, too short, too tall or just not his type. Often when he was on a date Amy would turn up, out of nowhere, and wind up sitting with them in the movies or soda fountain. Amy, on the other hand, dated only occasionally and Duke found that she had the reputation of being the ice-queen. Whenever any boy started taking "liberties" Amy would let him know that she was off-limits.
When Duke decided to join the Marines Amy had come over to the farm in tears and had screamed at him for a long time about how he didn't have a brain in his body. She accused him of having a death wish and told him that she never wanted to see him again as long as he lived. She left the farm in tears. His father had heard the whole tirade and when Duke looked over at him, his father was grinning from ear to ear. He laughed and told Duke that he was going to have trouble with that girl because she loved him so much.
After Iraq, Duke went home on leave. Three days after he got home Amy came stomping over to the farm and started screaming at him for not telling her that he was home. Amy had matured and was now a very beautiful woman. After he calmed her down he took her to dinner in town and they talked until the owner asked them to leave so that he could close up. For the next three weeks Duke and Amy spent most of their days together. It seemed natural for them to be together but Duke felt that he would be doing her a disservice if he tried to take their relationship any further. He had matured a lot in the Marines and she had just graduated high school. She had a whole life ahead of her. It would be unfair to her to saddle her with being a military wife.
When it came time to go back to his post Amy drove him to the airport. She had tears in her eyes the entire time that they were waiting for his boarding call. When they heard the boarding call he stood up and turned to her. Amy ran into his arms crying and gave him that most passionate kiss he had ever received. She held onto him for as long as possible.
Through her tears she said, "Come back to me. I've got big plans for you."
Duke kissed her again and turned to leave. Amy grabbed his arm and shoved an envelope into his hand and turned and ran into the airport terminal with tears running down her cheeks. Duke heard the last call and sprinted to the airplane.
The plane was only half full and it had one more stop before he reached O'Hare to catch the connection that would take him back to his base. He looked at the envelope in his hand. He tore open the envelope and saw that Amy had given him pictures of herself. As he leafed through the pictures his mind wandered. Amy and he were very comfortable together but he couldn't get over their age difference. He wouldn't want to marry her and have her feel later that he had deprived her of the life she could have had. She would wind up hating him.
He got to the last picture. It was a nude picture of Amy sitting on a log with her legs crossed at the ankles. On the bottom of the picture she had written, in fine-point magic marker, "This is what is waiting for you at home."
Duke snapped awake when the Marine that had been standing watch gently shook him. He stood up and nodded to the Marine and took his place on watch. The night was still and cold. The moon was out but it was a new moon and didn't light up the terrain like a full moon would. In about four hours it would be light enough to move out. He turned and looked at his squad. They were all just kids that had enlisted to serve their country. They looked to him to get them back home to their families. He promised them silently that they would get through this alive.
Suddenly Duke snapped alert. Nothing had made any sound to alert him and he hadn't seen anything that would cause him concern, but his instinct told him that something wasn't right. He strained to see what had alerted him but there was no movement or sounds that were out of place. The moon went behind a cloud and he cursed as the terrain got darker. He nudged the man closest to him with his foot and the man jerked awake. Duke pointed out beyond the rock they were behind and the man nudged the other two men. In a minute the four of them were trying to see out into the night. Duke flipped down his night vision goggles and scanned the area between them and the mountain. He could see nothing that would alarm him.
Duke continued to scan the area with his night-vision goggles but nothing caught his attention until he scanned some rocks about a hundred clicks away. There was a warm body between two rocks that were close together. The heat of the man's body was slightly warming the rock in back of him. Only an experienced man, looking intently for trouble, would have detected the slight glow on the rock from the reflection of the man's warmth. Duke motioned for the men to get down. He didn't know if the Taliban had any night-vision goggles that they had captured but he didn't want to take a chance. He motioned for the men to huddle and he quietly told them that someone was out there and that the squad was probably already spotted.
Duke motioned for the men to stay down and he looked between two rocks at the terrain in front of them. The night vision goggles caught a man running to a rock off to the side of the squad. Duke only saw him for a second because of the limited visibility the space between the two rocks provided. He scanned the area trying to get some idea of what they were up against but all movement had stopped. For the next two hours he scanned the area but there was no movement out in front of the squad.
Duke turned to the youngest of his squad and said softly, "Call HQ and tell them we have some activity here but we're not sure how many we're talking about yet. Ask them if they have any drones in the area that can do some scouting for us."
The young Marine half-stood and reached for the radio. A shot rang out from somewhere to the left of them and the young Marine screamed and fell clutching at his leg. Duke ran over to him, pulled out his field kit and began to tend to the wound. He saw that the man's femur was shattered.
"Give him some morphine now!" he snapped at the man standing closest to them.
Several more shots began to ring out. The eastern sky was just hinting that the sun was rising and the visibility was still very poor. Duke knew that many of the Taliban were using rifles that had been around since World War I but he also knew that they had many sophisticated weapons. He continued to dress the wound and calm the Marine.
"Get on the radio and let HQ know that we're under fire and we have a man down," he barked to the man closet to the radio.
Within seconds the man was calling HQ and telling them the situation and requesting help. Duke knew that help would not be arriving until the sun came up. They had to hold out until then.
"We've got to spread out. We can't stay bunched up like this. Pick out your cover and run to it. Stay low!" Duke said as he worked on the wounded man.
The two men started running for cover. One man ran to a large rock that was about ten yards from where Duke and the wounded man were. The second Marine ran to the opposite side; heading for a large rock that had two smaller rocks on each side. The Marine jerked upright and grabbed his side and dropped to the ground motionless out in the open. Duke saw the ground sending up plumes of dust as the Taliban bullets hit all around the fallen marine.
He had finished dressing the wounds of the first Marine and he jumped up and ran to the fallen Marine and grabbed his gear and started to drag him to cover. Duke felt a sharp pain in his side and he made it to cover with the fallen Marine. He saw that the wound was serious but the Marine would live if they could reach a hospital soon. The biggest problem was that there were three of them behind the rock now. It would be fairly easy for the Taliban to lob a grenade into them and get all three of them at once. Duke began to try and stop the blood flowing from the wound of the second Marine. His hands were so bloody that he was having trouble dressing the wound. He looked at his fatigues and saw that a lot of the blood was his. Duke held his elbow tight against his side while he dressed the wound of the Marine. It did little to stop the flow of blood from his wound.
He checked once again to make sure that he had done everything that he could for both men and then he began to run for the rock that the Marine had been running for when he was shot. The Marine that wasn't wounded began to fire at something and Duke looked up and saw several Taliban making their way from rock to rock; advancing on the squad. Duke took aim and began firing. He saw three men fall and he stopped to reload. When he looked out at the area again he didn't see any movement for a minute. A man stood up with a rocket propelled grenade and started to take aim at the spot where Duke was. Duke fired and the man dropped out of sight behind a rock. A second later there was an explosion where the man fell and Duke knew that the man had pulled the trigger when he fell and had probably killed several others when the grenade hit the rock in front of them. This seemed to infuriate the remaining Taliban and they started to maneuver toward the cover of the Marines.
Duke heard a scream from the other Marine and he looked over and saw the Marine holding his hands over his eyes. A bullet had hit the rock in front of the man's face and rock fragments had gone into the man's eyes.
"I'm blind... I'm blind," the man screamed as he started to stand up.
"Get down and stay down or you'll be more than blind. Help is on the way. Now stay down."
The man dropped back down and began to get as close to the rock as he could. Duke started shooting at anyone the poked his head out of the rocks. He saw several men fall. He looked down and saw that the entire side of his fatigues was bloody. He knew that none of them would last long if help didn't arrive soon.