Combat Wizard; an excerpt

The book is available on Amazon. The first book in the Wizards Trilogy, this one’s a bit dark; the themes I explore are science fiction oriented, but at the same time the characters are ordinary people similar to those you might know. I just place them in extraordinary situations.The language is what soldiers commonly use, so be warned. It’s not polite parlor conversation.

Some of the situations are nothing you want to experience in real life. As for experiencing them vicariously in fiction, examining how you’d feel if you were there…

Welcome to my story.

Chapter 1

 

The patrol had been routine, at least in the beginning.

I wondered if I was becoming careless? Careless gets people killed.

Had I approached too close to that box before I acted? I don’t know. There’s no way I can know. The explosion happened and men died.

For most people, getting blown up is the worst thing that can happen. It’s only the beginning for me. The explosions haven’t injured me, at least so far. Not physically, anyway.

The nightmares are worse. The explosion only happened once, but the nightmares play out again and again. There is no answer when I wonder if there was something I might have done.

Casualties; it’s such a detached, bloodless word. There’s none of the fear and agony and hate, none of the emotions men feel when an IED blows.

Junior officers learn the term because it’s part of the trade of soldiering. Maybe it helps. You end up with too many scars on your feelings if you can’t learn to be dispassionate.

The casualties are really dead and maimed men and women, barely more than kids. They’re soldiers one moment, then they’re broken. They’re changed from people vibrant with life and a future to casualties, things with no future, or one that’s changed out of recognition.

The details are often unclear. The bodies are covered, the outlines blurred, even the blood is hidden. The thick coating of dust from the explosion rains down on everyone, the casualties and the ones who escaped.

Maybe if I could call them casualties too, think of them in that dispassionate way, but I can’t.

The things that visit my nightmares aren’t ‘casualties’. They’re people, and I was in command. I let them get killed. I should have been able to do more.

#

The mission began with a briefing session even though we’d done it, something like it, a hundred times before. But if there’s time, we always begin by briefing the troops. Everyone involved needs to know why we’re going out and what we hope to accomplish.

The patrol was heavy for a reconnaissance patrol but light for a combat patrol. The command element was myself as patrol leader and the squad leader and his deputy for assistants. There were also two additional fire team leaders but hopefully they wouldn’t need to take over. I got a sketchy briefing from the patrol leader who’d conducted the last sweep through the area, but he’d seen nothing suspicious and his squad hadn’t made contact with hostiles.

That’s the most common result of patrols up here, but occasionally things liven up. The medic we carried with the patrol got a workout from time to time. Good people, those combat medics. They’ve got guts by the yard.

Today’s mission was to get out among the populace while at the same time interrupting any plans the jihadists had to mortar the compound. We planned the route to make sure we looked at locations they’d used in the past, but not nose into places that would agitate the locals unnecessarily, places like the mosque. The next step was to make a hasty map table using whatever was available to indicate points of interest. I used ammo cans to represent buildings, empty boxes that had held pistol ammo to line the ‘road’. These represented the mud-brick walls. I used the map table to brief the troops.

“We’ll leave the compound here, turn right here, patrol to the square and turn right again. There are possible enemy contact points here and here where trails lead down from the mountains, so look for signs that mortar teams have visited this point or that one, and keep your eyes peeled. Don’t get so focused on the ground that you forget to watch the rooftops.”

A succession of right turns would bring us back to the compound. We would provide our own security, and support was available from the compound. A mounted force would be on standby until we got back. Another patrol would go out an hour or two after we came in, depending on available manpower. They’d follow a slightly different route.

Simple, compared to some earlier patrols I’d done.

Finally, do a hasty inspection of the troops to make sure they’ve got water and extra ammo. Ask questions; do they know the mission and the chain of command for the patrol? See that the radio operator has fresh batteries and spares. Talk to the medic too, but I’ve never seen a medic go out unprepared. They’re very professional. As a last step, have a private chat with the NCO’s to ensure everyone knows the essentials, then it’s time to go.

I nodded at the guards and the interpreter as we passed through the gate. The “terps” are mostly local hires. Few Americans can really speak the local language. Misunderstandings are inevitable. Not everyone can be a linguist, but you’d think the Army would provide more language training before people deploy.

Maybe it’s too expensive. Congress doesn’t like to spend money unless it benefits a powerful Congressman’s district. Catering to the needs of soldiers won’t get a politician reelected. ‘It’s just politics, fellows. I’d like to help you, but you know how it is.’ Yeah.

The gate guards have cheat sheets with simple commands in Dari, stop, come here, be careful. It’s better if there’s an interpreter but sometimes there aren’t any. The phrase sheets are just in case no “terp” is available. We really don’t want to shoot some poor sap because he didn’t understand the guard when he said “Stop!”

The squad fell in behind me in my usual patrol formation, just the way I’d explained it to them in the briefing. When I take a patrol out, I’m the one out front.

The troops don’t mind. The guy in front is the one who gets shot at. You want to be first, Chief, knock yourself out. I’ve heard the comments, ‘fucking spook, don’t know shit about infantry’. Infantry or not, my unusual formation works for me, most of the time.

We walked past the compound’s walls after leaving the gate. They’re Hesco barriers, made from concertainers. The containers are stacked two levels high before being filled with sand, and they’ll stop direct fire. Even an RPG round won’t penetrate more than five feet of sand and the bottom layer, double thick, has more than that. The people inside the compound have little to fear barring the occasional mortar attack. Mortar shells go over walls.

Someone is always watching, even when you don’t see them. Don’t get distracted, just try not to pay the watchers too much attention. Look for the ones acting suspicious.

They might have AK-47’s under those loose clothes. Or explosive vests.

Every country that had obsolete weapons dumped them on Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded. The guns are old, but they still shoot. Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and China sent Soviet-made AK assault rifles, PK machine-guns, and rocket-propelled grenades, usually referred to as RPG’s. Switzerland and Britain sent Oerlikon 20mm cannons and a few other weapons left over from WWII. The thrifty Afghans kept them all, even after the Soviets left. There would be another enemy to fight. In Afghanistan, there always is. Between invasions, Afghans fight each other.

Weapons and ammo are cheap and plentiful. A lot of them are bought with American money. Some of the money comes through the CIA, some of it’s paid out by the Army. Liaison officers are handed bundles of cash to be passed on to a warlord. The money comes via the embassy. Diplomatic pouches bring in a lot more than embassy documents. The money is handed over in the optimistic hope that it will buy the warlord’s loyalty. It does…sometimes for a whole week. Afghans imbibe betrayal with mother’s milk.

What the American government doesn’t buy more-or-less directly, true-believers and drug users buy in a roundabout way. The Internet has been a real boon to fundraisers. They’re helped along by banks who are happy to process the transfers so long as they get to skim a bit off the top. Pogo was right. We have met the enemy and he is us.

Opium poppies grow in the Middle East, far more than the local addicts need. The poppies are ugly things when mature, tall skinny stalks and tiny flower petals surrounding the top of grossly swollen heads. Those heads produce the raw opium. It’s collected, refined, and sold around the world. Street dealers know it as tar or heroin. The money comes in and ammo gets bought. The jihadists never run short of ammo.

If it sounds like I’m negative, even pessimistic…well, not exactly. My attitude needs to improve before I’ll reach pessimist.

#

I led the patrol along an ancient track, now worn lower than the surrounding ground. It had probably been level before traffic loosened the packed dirt. Sooner or later a wind comes along and the loosened dirt blows away. After a century or two, the track is several inches deeper than the surrounding landscape. It’s not much, but more than one infantryman has been grateful for that tiny bit of protection when the PK machine-guns opened up. Hit the ground, snuggle up to that tiny lip at the edge of the track and wish your uniform had thinner buttons and zippers.

There are only so many ways to patrol after you leave the gate. Foot patrols go left or right, usually stay within a couple of kilometers of the compound, and generally can’t maneuver because there are buildings and walls lining most of the dirt road. Patrols that plan to go farther travel in mine-resistant vehicles. But such vehicles are large and many of the village tracks are narrow. There’s still a need for foot patrols to go where the armored vehicles can’t.

I’m familiar, maybe too familiar, with this route. My attention wanders. I have to keep reminding myself to stay alert. I’ve been doing this for a year and I need a break. And sleep. Even someone I could talk to, maybe share a little of the stress. But there’s no one.

My precognition has warned me so far, but it could fail at any time. PreCog has never been a Talent I felt confident using. I’ve had hunches often enough to never disregard them, but sometimes there aren’t any hunches. Some of the IED’s surprised me when they blew up. The failure of my PC warning system didn’t put me in danger, but I was responsible for others. And anyway the hunches barely give me time to deploy my bubble, not change the patrol route or hold up long enough to recon ahead.

The enemy knows the route at least as well as I do. Not that familiarity matters. Any number of jihadists could have scampered out with an explosive magnum opus and planted it since the last patrol passed. In that respect the routes are always new.

I walked, looked around, tried to listen to any slight warning signal from my Talent. And thought. You’ve got time to think when you’re on patrol, most of the time. Just follow the routine, and think.

They’re creative, the true believers. Stubborn bastards, too; kill a few hundred, and a few thousand volunteer to replace them. We’ll run out of soldiers long before the Middle East runs out of believers.

The jihadists view their fellow humans as a means to express political and religious beliefs. In’shallah. If you’re an innocent bystander, just tell Allah that Mullah Omar sent you and collect your virgins. Assuming you’re a male. Is there a female Paradise?

There’s plenty of time to wonder about things like that, walking patrol. Are they true-believers who find their version of paradise in being reincarnated as a jihadist’s reward? Or are they sinners, punished by being a virgin for the martyr to deflower? Do they get replaced when one is de-virginized, or maybe just recycle their virginity?

Nothing to do in Paradise but eat grapes and dates, listen to the fountains splash, and deflower virgins. The Prophet said so, or maybe it was a sheik. How many virgins can dance on the head of a pin?

No dancing, Chief. Just keep walking, look ahead, and watch the rooftops for movement.

There’s a sheik somewhere that knows the answer to the virgins conundrum. They can be quite creative, those sheiks. Fatwas, interpretation of doctrine, are readily available, delivered up to the faithful on demand.

You can think of a lot of weird stuff while you’re patrolling.

Weird comes natural to me. I’m a psychokinetic, a PK, with a few useful additional Talents. I’m not a wizard, even though there’s an agency of the government that calls me one. Who knows, maybe they’re right. What if all the ‘wizards’ of legend, Merlin and the rest, were psychokinetics, telepaths, or precognitives?

I use my mind to move objects. I can do it if the object is not too big, too heavy, or too far away. And if I’m not too distracted by mulling over how many virgins are waiting in paradise.

I reached out ahead and stirred the trash ahead of us. Nothing blew up, this time.

If the trash hides a booby trap, stirring it around will trigger the explosion. Mines and command-detonated IED’s won’t react to my efforts.

Not many countries have exploding trash. Afghanistan does.

We kept moving. Nothing grew along the dirt track except trash, and nothing moved except when it was stirred by the wind. Or me.

#

The troops get to unwind after a patrol. As for me, I lie down and wait for the headache to go away. A cold washcloth across my forehead helps. There’s nothing else I can do but close my eyes and wait for the headache to go away. Aspirin barely helps.

The headaches are a side effect of my PK Talent. They were worse before, not so bad now. I was nauseated after every session with the computer, vomiting, holding my head and trying to keep the worst of the pain away. Think migraine level pain but maybe worse back then. Now I just get a headache.

Firing wires to the IED’s are well disguised. They rarely lead to a house unless the local jihadist doesn’t like the dweller. He knows we’ll likely raid the house. Maybe the hapless homeowner won’t survive. The jihadists occasionally plant dummy wires, but we still raided the hut to make sure. Sometimes the bombers get careless.

Political posters plastered the walls, a change made since I was last here. A dozen posters in a row were the same, then the photos changed. Perhaps there was an election scheduled.

A dog sniffed at a carton five hundred meters ahead. Maybe some grunt’s pet had gotten out of the compound. The dog probably smelled the Afghani who’d handled the carton last. An American carton, picked up from a dump by an Afghani; they’re so poor they rummage through our garbage if they can get away with it. We try to stop them and sometimes we do. There’s already enough trash on the roads for them to use when they hide IED’s. We don’t need to give them more.

I made a note to check that carton as soon as we’re close enough. The dog might have smelled something else, maybe a bomb.

There were no people around this morning, only that curious dog. It might be significant, or the people might be listening to a political speech on the other side of the village. I would know by the time we got back to the compound, not that it would do much good then.

People are usually out, walking along, chatting with neighbors, carrying huge bundles and driving donkeys with even bigger bundles strapped on. Young guys ride bicycles to somewhere or nowhere. Kids use a stick to roll wheels, holding races in the track. Laundry hangs overhead on lines. The bread merchant in his stall would be selling traditional flat loaves to women, both haggling good-naturedly over the price.

Women here frequently dress in loose pants with a kind of knee-length jumper over that, scarf covering their heads. Occasionally there’s one wearing a blue burqa. Only the feet are visible, often wearing medium-heel stylish shoes. Go figure. Vanity, thou art everywhere, even under a sack.

But the people weren’t visible on the day of that last patrol.

#

I began my tour in Afghanistan as an attached supernumerary. Even though the Department of the Army, DA, had sent me to an infantry company TDY, no commander was going to turn troops over to a temporary-duty rookie warrant. I wasn’t even infantry, the Army had given me an intelligence military occupational specialty, MOS.

That first company commander added me to his 3rd platoon. A suspicious second lieutenant, the leader of 3rd Platoon, wondered how he got so fortunate. His platoon sergeant was even more suspicious. ‘Who are you, why are you here? How come I’m stuck with you?’ I didn’t need telepathy to know what they were thinking.

I couldn’t tell them. They wouldn’t have believed me anyway.

“We’re on QRF duty today, Chief. If we go, you’ll go with us. I won’t have time for you, I’ll be too busy, so stick with third squad. They’re short-handed anyway. You can use that rifle, right?”

I nodded and the platoon leader went away. The platoon sergeant gave me a curious look and then he left too. Maybe he’d seen stranger things, or at least thought he had.

QRF; the company was a standby quick-reaction force to assist whichever unit needed us. We were what once were called reserves. Reserves had marched into battle from behind the combat line, but QRF troops get where they’re needed by helicopter or armored fighting vehicle.

The day went by. No call came in for assistance. We stood down the next morning.

I followed the squad to the dining facility, a long canvas version of a Quonset hut that was metal-framed and air-conditioned. Two long rows of tables stood along the walls, folding metal chairs at the tables, an empty aisle down the middle. The dining shelter had checkered tablecloths, condiment bottles on the tables; A1 Sauce, mustard, ketchup, hot sauce. The bottle of Tabasco on the table was half empty. Tabasco is an essential food for soldiers.

#

I learned how field soldiers live while I served with that company. They can play dominoes or cards after they’re dismissed, maybe play a little beach volleyball or toss a football around. Wrestle with the guys, lift a few weights; barbells are easily improvised from rolls of barbed wire slipped over an iron pipe. Clean weapons, fill canteens and hydration bladders, wait to be called out again. Hang out in their hootch and write letters, just yak with squad members. Welcome to the infantry. Most of the time, infantry duty is boring. Sometimes it involves heavy labor. Occasionally it gets very interesting very fast.

I talked to the people in third squad, tried to learn their names. Pretty quiet bunch; short-handed because they’d lost one man killed and another had been wounded and was still hospitalized.

They were standoffish; I wasn’t one of them, never could be. There’s no room for a warrant in a light infantry platoon, although Special Forces commonly uses them. I got the rank because of security concerns. The Agency expected me to fit in without being noticed, but instead I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. Way to go, superspooks.

The troops unbent enough to tell me about the man who’d been killed. Private Willie Jackson had been new in-country when the IED blew up. Not bad soldiering skills on his part, just bad luck. The explosion triggered an ambush and he bled to death before help could arrive. The battalion had a memorial service with a kind of improvised ‘altar’ down front. They’ve had a lot of practice since arriving in the Middle East.

Jackson’s boots stood atop a square wooden box, heels together. A taller box stood behind this, bayoneted rifle upright, blade stuck into the box. Jackson’s helmet rested over the rifle butt.

The troops had put up their own memorial. They’d nailed two planks together in a cross and it now stood in a place of honor at the end of their hootch. A woolen scarf, probably Jackson’s, draped the crossbar. An empty soda can and a full water bottle stood at the base. RIP, Willie Jackson; the name was on the crossbar, written in marker.

I was an unknown quality to the troops, temporary, not someone they trusted. The rumors soon began. They decided I was some sort of CIA spook. Close, guys, but not quite.

The CIA does incomprehensible things in Afghanistan, the Delta Force guys only a little less so. And who knows what the Special Forces types are doing? Growing beards.

‘Who the fuck gets to grow a beard in the Army? Special Forces, that’s who. Gotta fit in with the locals, that’s what they claim. And who sent this fucking spook to mess up our squad, anyway? We lose Jackson, they send us a fucking warrant named Tagliaferro? Jesus, the Army’s finally lost their fucking minds.’

The second time we drew QRF duty we got called out. The Chinooks whop-whopped in, dropped the rear ramp, and we shuffled inside. We sat along the sides of the fuselage in metal-framed seats with slung canvas to sit on. I was nominally an officer so I got a seat, along with the squad leaders, platoon sergeant, and the platoon leader. The other seats went to soldiers who’d been in-country longest. The remainder of the platoon got the middle of the deck to sit on. Newbie, pull up a section of floor. The rest of you, slide back between that guy’s legs and make room.

Increasing vibration, thumping noises, the helicopter lifted off and gained altitude fast. The helicopter’s crew chief manned an M-60 machine-gun at the starboard door as soon as we were off the ground.

I’d ridden in a Chinook before, but never with this much company. There were about thirty troops with their gear in the aft cabin now. These things are huge.

The flight smoothed out once the chopper reached altitude. I had body armor and helmet on, just like the others. My rifle was held upright, magazine not inserted in its well. We can stick the magazine in and chamber a round after we get there. The lieutenant will tell us when.

I kept my mouth shut, listened, and learned.

“All right, people, magazines in. Do NOT chamber a round until you feel dirt under your feet, and then only when you hear shooting. If we start taking fire, you’ll know it. You grenadiers, keep your muzzles up and downrange. Bravo Company had an accidental discharge last week and it could have caused a lot of casualties. I don’t want casualties in my platoon, so keep your head out of your ass. Do it by the numbers people, just like you’ve practiced.

“Chief, you stay close to Corporal McGregor. Do what he does. When people start firing, put some rounds where the squad is shooting, OK? I’ll talk to you when we get back.”

Thump, bounce, the wheels hit the ground and roll. The rear hatch drops and I hustle out, trying to follow the guys in front. Stay with Corporal McGregor and go where he goes. Magazine is in, the rifle’s muzzle is up, the safety is on. McGregor is running so I run too. I’m breathing a little harder, the altitude is higher and the air is thin. The squad leader waves us into place, so I flop down between the SAW gunner and a rifleman. He gives me a dirty look and motions me aside. I move over and make room. The rifleman needs to be next to the gunner. He’s carrying extra belts of linked 5.56mm rounds for the SAW, the squad automatic weapon.

I’m at the end of the squad but there’s another squad beyond me. Having people around you in a combat situation is comforting.

Look to the front. There’s nothing there but brown, flat, dusty desert. Nothing is moving. I hear gunshots off to the side and look wildly around, but the guys next to me aren’t moving. No one on this side is shooting, so I calm down, try to just keep my cool.

There’s a weed out front of me, maybe forty meters away. Could a jihadist hide there?

I watch the weed. It’s dead and dry. Nothing’s there, but still…does my Talent still work? I’ve had this doubt before. So far, it’s always been reliable since I started the AI-feedback course at the School.

I reached out with my PK and tried to pull the weed. It snapped off, leaving the roots in the ground. I started to look around and the private next to me growled “Keep still. Are you trying to draw some rag’s attention?”

It turned out later that the gunshots happened because a new troop fired a round and three others nearby decided they should too. They got a memorable ass-chewing from a weary company XO, the First Lieutenant Executive Officer. He’d seen it before.

I didn’t remember drinking but my canteens were empty. When had that happened? They’d been full when we took off. I was thirsty by the time the Chinook delivered us back to our Forward Operating Base, FOB. That was my first lesson; QRF duty educated me. I was more careful with my water after that.

Whatever the MOS claimed, after that first deployment I was an infantryman and soon after that I became a true veteran, a combat infantryman. I got my baptism of hostile fire.

I went on my first combat patrol with the 3rd platoon. The platoon leader was experienced and his platoon sergeant even more so. I watched and learned. I gained more experience working with third squad for six weeks, then transferred TDY to a Stryker unit.

I worked with the Stryker Troop for a couple of months. I managed to fit in well with the guys in the Stryker I rode before transferring again, still TDY, to a transportation company for convoy duty. That assignment lasted for almost five months.

During each of my abbreviated tours of duty, I used my developing Talent, moving things from time to time and keeping my ability secret. I don’t know that the PK helped much, but I got stronger with exercise. I suffered fewer headaches too.

The troops in the new units understood I was no rookie even if I was some kind of spook. There was too much ingrained dust in my BDU’s, boots too scuffed by the desert sand; no, some kind of weird intelligence dude but not a rookie.

I expected the compound would be my final operational assignment. Even if I had no alert orders and was still showing up on the patrol roster, I’d been in-country now for more than a year. The Army, the School, hadn’t forgotten about me, had they?

Concentrate, it’s time to concentrate. There’s still a patrol to lead. These guys depend on me.

That cardboard box was still there, although the dog had moved on. Maybe he’d learned to be wary of soldiers. The box was now less than two hundred meters ahead.

 

 

 

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