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.
.... There is more of this story ...