An excerpt from the new novel Simple Machines, written by 1st Ranger Battalion veteran, Manuel Carreon. -Jack
The target building is 100 meters to my front. The distance can be covered in about fifteen seconds by my men, but under this gunfire those short seconds would be suicide. Instead, I instruct them to focus on the rooftops and the RPK automatic weapons that have spun into the fight. My boys are in pairs, most of them kneel down behind cover with their backs against each other; one faces the target building, while the other scans the rooftops looking for opportunities to present themselves. They look focused and are settling into their environment. I’ll give them a few more minutes before the call for assault.
The gunfire from the rooftops suddenly stops. I look to Q and the confusion on his face confirms the silence. Marti seems lost as he scans the ledges in every direction. A sharp sting of terror suddenly fills my mind. Something is coming. Soldiers are all the same, whether they are from America or Afghanistan. We share the same DNA no matter on what side we fight, and just as my men would slow to catch a peek at a car wreck, our enemy on this day does the same.
The battle pauses, muscles tighten in preparation for the inevitable impact and my fear swells. “Lock it up men, fresh magazines,” I sternly call over the radio. The action takes half a second and for these soldiers requires no more thought than swatting a fly and allows their eyes to continue scouring the surroundings. The massive iron-gate standing guard over the target building creaks in movement and the air fills with the sound of locking weapons as my men turn ready.
The gothic ornamentation begins to fall under shadow as the gate swings inward. The screech of metal on metal ends and the gate fully open reveals a dark world within. Squinting, I try to see, but my eyes fail me. I hear movement coming from the shadows behind the Great Wall that surrounds the objective, but without visuals, I am guessing. The noise builds and a car motor roars to life, followed by the battle cries of countless men from the darkness.
“203, now and keep it coming!” I yell to my grenadiers. Almost immediately my need is answered by the metallic thump of grenade launchers. Into the emptiness behind the gate they land and light the cavern with flashbulb intensity. The battle cries die and are replaced by panicked shrieks of pain. “Hit them again,” I respond without emotion. More comforting thumps follow, but this time there are no screams of panic, just the growing thunderous call for battle from within their keep. I fight the fear in my voice and launch a warning, “Get ready boys, here they come.”
Eye deep in my scope, finger sliding into my trigger, one last breath, maybe one of my last, and it begins. Into the sun a truck bolts out of the darkness heading right at us. Two men stand in the bed of the truck. The rocket propelled grenades they hold fire simultaneously. One screams over my head while the other finds its way to a car and explodes. Two of my men hiding behind the vehicle fall away onto their backs trying to escape the inferno. Nova moves just in time, but Olson is engulfed in flames, his hands clawing at burning eyes. He rolls and flails wildly as Nova dives onto his friend trying to smother the blaze. The last thing I see before turning back to the battle is Nova fighting to remove Olson’s helmet. I attempt to block out the man’s screams, but his pain cuts through the gunfire to the deepest part of me.
The truck that initiated their charge rams clumsily into a parked car and the force throws the men out of the bed, skipping them off the asphalt. One slams his head into the curb, dead on impact, while the other tries to get back into the target building. He runs for his life limping as fast as he can. His head jerks forward from the force of one of our shots and his body slams onto the street. Following the truck are forty men running and screaming to Allah. Each one of them is opening up their AK-47s on full auto. Bullets skip and snap in every direction. Their eyes are filled with fire and hate and they are bearing down on me and mine.
I shoot two, who fall in shock, disbelieving even as they die. My boys take care of most of the rest. One of the enemy’s AK-47s is empty from the initial assault and he charges Q, who still has plenty of ammunition in his weapon, but slings his own rifle behind his back and lunges toward the enemy. Q tackles him in mid-stride and bashes his head in with a piece of nearby stone. Without pause or hesitation, he then returns to his position and sector of fire.
A lone enemy survivor, sensing his isolation, turns to retreat. One step is all we allow before his entrails are torn from his body by our bullets. I am on my feet moving closer to the target building as the lull in the battle begins. Finding a home behind a pile of stones, I call my men to shift forward and rest for a moment surveying the damage. Q and his boys move along the building to my right and creep up to my position while Marti and the rest of the team find a spot across the street. Sliding on his side over to me, Q digs into one of his pouches. “I’ll get charges ready.”
“Patience, I don’t think that is all they have in store for us. If need be, we wait till dark.” My words mean a full day of battle as the enemy attempts to pick us apart, but Q doesn’t even blink as he processes the order, nods, and backs into his position. Using a pile of rubble to support his weight, Nova pulls guard holding his weapon with one hand while cradling the other in his armpit. I acknowledge his presence still in the fight. He can only shake his head low and fail at any attempt to mask his pain. I notice the burns that cover his torso and can only imagine what his hand must look like, but now is not the time to probe.
The moment is stolen by rustling behind the gate. I am closer to my goal and see soft silhouettes moving within the dark. Raising my weapon I pull the trigger. A shadow falls and a woman shrieks and cries. From behind the wall the voice of a man yells and barks orders. I can’t make out the Pashto, but his demands are met with more sobs and finally stillness.
My next impulse is to take advantage of our new proximity and order a round of grenades to be thrown into the building, but a ghost appears at the gate as the sun rises through the clouds and stops us all in our tracks. Flowing white robes caught in the breeze and early morning rays give an illusion of those before us as floating. First one appears and then another and another, one by one stepping into the light, all of them with heads bowed in a forced reverence.
With arms at their sides, the waves of fabric reveal inked hands and fine jewelry. The women move into the street and never look in our direction. Their eyes are lowered and their movement silent. We are all frozen in confusion at this eerily out of place sight. Half of us stay weapons fixed on the target building and the others focus on the seven women that now fan into the street. I flood myself with possible answers to this riddle, but none make any sense. I force patience and watch closely.
The first woman is well into the street and within thirty meters of us when she stops at the body of the man who led the charge. No longer able to contain her emotions and free from the reach of the discipline inside the gate, she wails her pain. In the middle of the battlefield strewn with bodies the women stand among us and weep. My chest tightens with the urge to go and comfort, but they would never allow it. Their culture would stone them to death if I even touched them, so I sit and participate in their suffering as a voyeur.
The lead ghost takes a long resigned breath and reveals to me her purpose in this fight even as her tears continue to fall. She kneels down, grabs the AK-47 off the body of the dead, and retreats back towards the building. The other women do the same and their timid steps with heads low prepare themselves for our expected reaction. I am the first to draw and fire upon the woman closest to the gate. My men fall into line mirroring my precedent. In this hell there is always more to give and the war always has more to take.
Our eyes freeze on the stained motionless forms that lay before us, but movement from behind the gate snaps our rifles back to find a new target. A young boy moves without reason into the street. His eyes are swollen with tears. He is drawn by some unseen force and finds his way to a woman, her fine sari now soaked in crimson. The child’s sobs ring through the empty streets and he looks into the darkness behind the gate.
As the boy kneels beside the dead I take aim. “NO!” Marti yells from across the street. Turning to his voice, I watch him move from cover, running full speed toward the boy. I want to scream go back, find safety, but instead do nothing except wait for him to be taken from me. I turn my weapon back to the boy whose hands are almost to the body and its possession.
Everything moves slowly. Shots ring out from behind the gate and my men return fire. Q stands straight up and jumps a pile of bricks running at Marti and screaming for him to get back. The boy grabs the weapon and I pull my trigger, taking the child out as the gun fire continues around me.
I see out of the corner of my eye that Q is struggling to get Marti to his feet, but when Marti realizes the boy is gone, he gives up the battle and allows Q to drag him back to us. Two men appear to be doing most of the shooting from the target building, and as soon as they are killed the gun fire dies with them. I lean against the rubble and take in the sight of Marti. He is sobbing and completely broken down as he accuses me. “You didn’t have to kill him man, he is just a kid! He didn’t know what he’s doing.”
“Shut the fuck up, you almost got us both killed,” Q interrupts, slamming his fist into his buddy’s gut in hope that sucking for air will silence him. The punch does just the opposite. Marti springs to life, pouncing onto Q’s shoulders and delivering a swift elbow to his cheek bone. Q isn’t fazed by the strike and exhibits perfect Brazilian Ju Jitsu form, taking his opponent to his back, but this time holds a knife to his throat. Marti knows if Q had any desire to kill him, he wouldn’t think twice about the action or repercussions.
My friend lies on his back with eyes wide in fear and yet refuses to be quiet. “You’d like to kill me wouldn’t you? So I wouldn’t be around anymore to remind you how fucking crazy you are.” Q edges the knife with pressure into Marti’s throat, but the fallen has lost his fight and crushes his eyes closed as if trying to escape from a terrible nightmare.
“Q,” I call to him. Q’s body relaxes slightly while lowering the knife a millimeter. “Get back in line.” The soldier reacts to his order, snaps to his feet, and in a low run returns to his original position. The knife has disappeared as he draws his weapon and scans the wall in a horizontal motion. Marti stays on his back exhausted from the horror.
“This isn’t right, Joe. It shouldn’t have to be like this. It never used to be like this.”
I hear my friend’s pain and wonder why I don’t share the same sympathy for the child. I look over at the fallen boy and study his body closely. Tiny hands are still clutching the rifle and an expression of pain is frozen forever on his face. I understand why Marti protested, but inside of me nothing stirs. I look deep, but find only emptiness. Marti’s eyes are still trickling tears and I can see his agony. He is right. There was a time when this type of killing would not have been an option, but that time is long past and only a faint memory on this day.
“Olson is not doing so good,” Doc’s voice brings my radio to life. “If he doesn’t get out of here soon he won’t make it.” I want to tell him I will call in the choppers to take the soldier to base. I want to move all my men back to safety, but those thoughts quickly fade as the gravitational pull of the mission takes its hold. There is more work to be done.
The sun is rising and burns away the chill of evening. As soon as night falls once again, I will take my objective and complete my assignment, but until then I’m forced to ponder the truth of our first battle. No ground was gained or lost. As time passes no history will be written about this struggle at dawn or the warriors who sacrificed themselves for this war. There is a cost and the cost is too high.
Master Sergeant Joseph Cevera is a respected man, decorated hero and feared leader of one of the most highly trained and lethal army units in the Afghanistan conflict. What happens when the unbreakable is broken? We see this erupting world through the eyes of a seasoned warrior as he is pushed to the edge of his humanity.
Manuel Carreon’s Simple Machines takes us deep into the interior of the American Army Ranger and the volatile combat zone of the Special Ops Team during a hundred days of deployment. This is a war novel with the rush of battle, agony of loss, and courage of the undefeated. It is not for the faint of heart or those who look romantically at war and heroes. The stark reality of life and death choices made during battle depict an anti-hero damaged and questioning the price he and his men are asked to pay.
Seriously, buy Simple Machines today. It’s a damn good read.
(Featured Image Courtesy: DVIDS)