Soldier Doll Ch. 01bybeachbum1958©
Many thanks to Mriceman1964 for his read-through, comments and storyline tweaks, it was much appreciated!
In late 1999, when Dylan was 15, and his sister Louise was almost 14, their father was killed in action in Bosnia, a lucky shot by a crazed local with an old Mauser 98 that should have been in a museum. Captain Owain Lewis never heard the shot that killed him, most likely never felt a thing, and now Dylan and Louise were alone. Because their father was only a captain in the Parachute Regiment, the army was under no obligation to provide for their care other than to contact Social Services and arrange for their ongoing care by the civilian agencies; at that time, only the children of senior offices were schooled and maintained by army welfare, and Captain Lewis hadn't earned enough, by a long way, to buy trust funds or educational funds for his children, so Dylan and Louise were in for a thin time, headed for the care system and separation. There were as yet no provisions for dependants of soldiers killed on active service, and no insurance benefits: insurance companies tend to avoid covering soldiers and their families -- they're considered a high-risk group. Fortunately, their mother's cousin and her husband, as their sole listed kin, had been informed by Social Services what had happened, and they immediately took them in, provided them with a semblance of normal family life; they had no children of their own, but they were kind and generous, and opened their home and their hearts to the two orphaned children.
They had no friends until they came to live with Harry and Jane; army life had made them professional nomads, constantly on the move as their father was posted and re-posted again, to garrisons and duty posts all over England, as well as Cyprus, Gibraltar, Oman, Brunei and a stint with the NZSAS in Wellington, New Zealand.
They both attended the local schools, but preferred each other's company; they'd been the new kids too often to make friends easily, or want to, and had come to rely on each other for friendship, support, and companionship, knowing that the only constant in their lives was each other.
By the time he was 16, Dylan was rapidly growing into his father's son; tall, broad-shouldered, grey eyes and curly black hair. At 15, Louise favoured her mother, tall, slim, coltish, glossy auburn hair and green-hazel eyes, the image of her mother. Sometimes Dylan would look at her and sigh sadly; he remembered his mother clearly, and missed her dreadfully; the days after her death had been an endless nightmare of loss and unfulfilled need, and sometimes, to look at Louise, seeing his mother so clearly delineated in her, made his eyes sting, his breath catch, her loss an ever-present ache rearing right back up at him, even after all these years. Louise barely remembered her mother, she'd been 5, and her memory had quickly faded. She felt the loss of their father more keenly; he was the only parent she knew, and she had loved him dearly, but had been strangely muted when word came of his death, almost as if she knew it was coming and had already prepared herself for it, with no tears or histrionics, just that weird, calm acceptance.
Lately, though, Dylan had found himself watching her more, taking quick peeks at her when she wasn't looking, studying her features, her posture, the way she moved, or brushed her hair out of her eyes as she read, absorbing every nuance of her. And often, he would flick a glance at her, to look right into her eyes, Louise staring back at him, both of them colouring as they quickly looked away again. It puzzled him, this sudden need to observe her, and the rush of indefinable emotions he would sometimes feel when he looked at her, and her apparent interest in watching him, doing the same he was doing, was equally puzzling. Dylan loved her with a deep and abiding love; she was the one stable and ever-present thing in his whole life, and he guarded her jealously, needing her to be complete himself, but still felt strange about this sudden need, almost obsession he'd developed, and struck by how she seemed to be feeling it as well.
He'd been persuaded by Harry & Jane to take the first year of 6th Form College, at least give it a try, but was soon frustrated and bored; as he saw it, he was just re-hashing things he'd already been taught, that he was wasting his time, and eventually decided to leave school after taking his AS-Level examinations, enlist in his father's old regiment. He was 17 now, and university wasn't where he wanted to be in a year's time; Louise, however, was not convinced; she was certain something bad was going to happen, soon, the world was ripe for it, and the British Army would get dragged into it. She spent many an evening quietly arguing with her sole companion about his urge to join up, to no avail.
At the end of May 2001, he officially left secondary school, his AS-Level examinations completed. Harry and Jane sat down with him and asked him what he was going to do next, although the question was largely academic; they knew what he intended, but they still felt duty-bound to offer him a career alternative, show him he had options.
"Dyl, you could come and work with me, do a craft apprenticeship, I can talk to the Training Officer at work," he'd offered, "We always need engineers, you could go to college on day-release, get a recognised engineering qualification, Dylan, what do you think?" Dylan knew it was a generous offer, and well meant, and he appreciated their concern for him, but he wanted to join his father's regiment, the regiment whose ritual and observances were second nature to him after a lifetime immersed in them. He restated his intention to enlist, so Harry gave in, agreed he would take him to the military careers office in the morning and sign the enlistment form as his legal guardian.
"I know this is what you want to do son, but remember, this will always be your home, don't forget about us!" Jane got a little teary, but also wished him success. "We'll miss you, Dyl!" she quavered, smiling for him, then turned away to dab her eyes.
Louise was not so accepting.
"You're a bloody idiot! Uncle Harry offered you a golden opportunity, and you passed, just so you can go repair bridges in Venezuela, jump out of planes over Salisbury Plain, or run around shooting blank ammo and playing silly buggers on some god-forsaken glacier!"
Dylan tried, for the millionth time, to get her to see it from his point of view. "Look, Lou, I'm not cut-out to be an engineer, I can't sit behind a desk or use a milling machine, I get bored trying to use mathematics to solve problems, I tried that route, and it's just not me. The way I see it, my best chance is the army; if I can get into the Parachute Regiment at least I'll be doing something I want, and be useful as well. Dad started out as an enlisted soldier, and he got to Captain, I think I could do that, or better, get us something solid, something better for both of us!"
Louise looked at him strangely, wondering at his choice of words, and Dylan did the same; why had he phrased it like that?
The next morning, Harry and Dylan were waiting when the Army Careers Office opened. The interviewer, a sergeant wearing Welsh Guards insignia, looked approvingly at Dylan's application form. "Dylan Lewis, there's a good Welsh name for you!" he grinned. "You say you want to serve in the infantry, have you considered one of the Guards regiments, you'd make a good guardsman! No? OK then, how about you tell me about your choice, and maybe some of the reasons why you want to join up?"
Dylan outlined his family history in brief, and stated his intention to join the Parachute Regiment.
"The Para's, eh? Tough bunch, tough to get into, tough to stay in. You do know what the selection course entails?"
Dylan did, all too well, and had been training himself for the last 2 years just to better his chances of being selected.
The sergeant looked at Dylan's school records. "Good exam passes, very good, above average. Are you sure you want to enlist cold like this? There are options in the armed services for people with the more than just the ability to shoot and fight. With these exam passes you could enter the War College in a year's time, train as an officer. Have you considered applying to Sandhurst? In three years I'd be saluting you. Would a career as an officer appeal to you?"
Dylan was certain what he wanted. "I really would like to enlist, my father served in the Para's, was killed in Sarajevo in 1999, I want to serve in his regiment."
The interviewer held up Dylan's application form. "This document is your intent to enlist for service in Her Majesty's Armed Forces, and has no force in law for 31 days. Until that elapses, you are still free to withdraw your application, and no further action will be taken. Do you understand me, and are you still intending to apply for service?"
Dylan swallowed and nodded. The sergeant pushed the form across the desk, Dylan signing it firmly, and passing it to Harry, who a little reluctantly, countersigned it as his guardian.
"There you go, boyo, 31 days from now, if you still want it, and unless you come back in and formally withdraw your intent to enlist, you'll be part of Britain's finest! Welcome to the Airborne Infantry, Dylan!" The interviewer stood, extending his hand to Dylan, who shook it firmly.
When Louise got back from school, Dylan was waiting for her, to tell her he had enlisted. She was more sorrowful than angry that he'd done it, but also resigned; her argument that he had other options had obviously fallen on deaf ears, and she was trying to understand why did he have to go into the army, just what was he trying to prove?
Dylan explained his reasons, again, and Louise still looked unconvinced.
"Look Dyl, I know this is what you wanted, and I suppose I have to accept that you have to do what you think is right for you, but I still think this isn't the way. But for what it's worth, I wish you luck." She grinned, even though her heart was heavy with the thought of him leaving her, of life without him around, in earshot or in plain sight. "It might even make a man out of you! Just make sure you come back to me in one piece!" She leaned over and pecked him on the cheek, hugging him tightly. "You be careful, Dylan, I mean it!" Dylan hugged her back, suddenly reluctant to let her go, feeling something different for her, that something was changing between them, but unable to define what.
One month later, in June 2001, he was taking the Oath of Enlistment, and then began the endless round of drill training, PT and pointless screaming by army Drill Officers, whose only role is to make you hate them so much that you come to love and depend on your sergeant for rescuing you from them, and your squad mates for deflecting the shit from you onto them. This is how esprit de corps is built, through common misfortune and collective hatred, and after three months, he was a confident well-drilled Para recruit. He'd cruised through the PT, his instructors recognising his will to win, had already logged 6 night jumps and romped through weapons training, and was looking to graduate basic training as a squad leader, the kind of men the Para's were looking for. Dylan was a natural soldier, his upbringing had instilled a love of army routine and procedures, and coming to basic had been, for him, almost like coming home.
Louise wrote to him regularly, once a week, every week, and he came to depend on her letters, a link with family, even if that family really only consisted of Louise and him; Harry and Jane, for all their care and kindness, were only distant family at best, and had been unknown to the two of them only a year earlier. Every letter from her filled him with a burst of pleasure, and conversely with a sharp pang for her, an emotion he didn't want to analyse too closely; he was already confused as to how he felt for her, thoughts of her intruding at odd moments, and daydreams of how she'd look next time he saw her, where he'd take her, how much time he'd spend with her had become his spare time entertainment.
3 months passed, and at last, he passed basic and selection, and was sent to 2nd Battalion, 16th Air Assault Brigade at Colchester Garrison, so he'd be staying right where he was, just moving to a new barrack block. Dylan was elated; 16th Air Assault meant he'd get a chance to serve the in Special Forces Support Group or the SAS!
When he called Louise and told her, however, her reaction was more muted.
"Dylan, that means you'll be serving mostly abroad! When will I ever see you?" Dylan laughed it off, teasing her. "So, does little sister miss me then?" He was hoping for a snappy, spirited comeback, but there was only silence, and he realised she was crying.
"Oh hey, Lou, I'm sorry, I was only kidding, 'course you'll see me, I'm garrisoned in Colchester, so I should be able to get the odd weekend leave, come and see you as often as I can, don't cry, I'll be back there before you know it!"
Louise sniffled into the phone. "I miss you, Dyl, it's lonely without you here, I'm lonely. Uncle Harry and Aunty Jane are very sweet, but I miss having you here!"
Dylan promised he'd come home as soon as he could arrange some leave, and said his goodbye, hanging up the phone and feeling curiously depressed at hearing that Louise was lonely for him, and even more unsettled at hearing her crying, almost in tears himself. What was wrong with him, why did hearing Lou cry affect him so deeply?
He requested a 72 hour leave for the following weekend, which was duly granted, giving him a whole long weekend, so he went ahead and put in a request for a travel warrant so he could go home. That afternoon, Louise, home on a half-day from school, turned on the television in time to see an airliner smash headlong into the World Trade Center, then another. As she watched in horror, a strong sense of foreboding came over her. She was politically astute enough to realise that this was the start of something bad, and Britain was inevitably going to be somewhere in the middle of it, and that meant the army, just like in the Gulf, just like in the Balkans; Dylan!
"Aunty Jane, come here, quick!" she screamed, Jane running in to see what the fuss was, watching with her arm around Louise in horror and disbelief as the towers fell.
"This is another war starting, isn't it?" asked Louise, and Jane just nodded, too stunned to try and sugar-coat it for her. Suddenly she realised what it meant, and her hands flew up to her mouth as she mouthed a single word; Dylan. Tears welled in her eyes, Louise seeing and responding. The two of them watched the carnage on TV in silence, tears on their cheeks, dreading that more and worse was yet to come, Louise's biggest fear that Dylan was going to end up in the middle of it; the thought of it made her weak at the knees, nauseous, and frightened.
Dylan's platoon sergeant called him into the small hutch the non-coms shared at the end of the barrack corridor. "All Leave's cancelled, Dylan. Get your squad on the ground double-quick, you've been stood-to! Snap to it, lad!"
Dylan gaped at him, and then discipline took over, and he doubled away, rounding up his squad, lining them in parade order on the parade ground, glaring them into silence as the other squads took up station on them.
The Officer Of The Day, Captain 'Johnnie' Walker, strode out, the non-coms calling all squads to attention as he marched up to the platoon sergeant and took the salute. He turned to face the ranked soldiers and stood them at ease.
From officer's country marched a tall figure flanked by two other officers, Captain Walker calling the men back to attention, snapping a brisk salute as the trio came into view. Dylan stiffened even further; a full Brigadier General, the highest ranking officer he'd ever seen.
"At Ease!" ordered the General. "Events have occurred which have necessitated changes to the training programme, said changes to be implemented immediately. In accordance with those changed requirements, Squads Alpha through Delta will commence enhanced training with 21 & 22 Special Air Services Regiments, squads Echo through Hotel will commence tactical training with 16th Air Assault in Netheravon, and squads Indigo through Lima will commence mechanized orientation and training with 7th Armoured Division. Dispersal in one hour, all squads shall parade in full battle order, in designated dispersal groups, at 13.45 hours, any man not in full battle order at that time will be placed on a charge. Get your Bergin's packed, you're going to be away a while!"
Dylan's head was spinning; what the hell had happened, and where? 7th Armoured? That was the Desert Rats, were they training for a desert campaign? Why? Were they going back to the Gulf?
The Brigadier turned to face Captain Walker, returned his salute and made his way back off the parade ground. When he'd left the parade area, Captain Walker saluted the parade sergeant.
"Dismiss the men, sergeant!" "SAH!" barked the sergeant, wheeling to face the ranks of men.
"PARADE WILL COME TO ATTENTION....teN HUT! Like a machine, 144 men slammed to attention. The sergeant turned and again saluted the captain, who returned his salute and stepped back several paces. "ALL SQUAD LEADERS WILL ASSEMBLE IN THE BARRACKS SQUAD ROOM! PARADE...DIIIIISSMIISSS!" On a count of three, the ranks began to rapidly disperse, each man hurrying to pack his kit and change into DPM battledress for parade in 45 minutes.
The sergeant turned to the captain and saluted. "Permission to speak freely sir." "Go ahead, sergeant," grinned Captain Walker. "What's happened, really, why all the running around like blue-arsed flies?" asked Sergeant Walker
"I don't know, dad, I really don't, all I know is what they just told us" said Johnnie Walker, "but look at where the dispersal groups are going. Joint Chiefs have just had a big fright, by the sound of it. No doubt we'll know when the other shoe falls!" They continued speculating as they walked off the parade ground, father and son together.
The first thing Dylan did was call Louise, let her know he was off on a training course, and incommunicado for the foreseeable future. She was frantic with worry, gabbling what she'd seen on TV, asking him if there was a war. He did his best to calm her down. "Lou, we've only just finished basic, they can't send us anywhere just yet, this is just more training in case things really do go tits-up, I promise you; the Battle Readiness mob is just getting their finger out in case we need to take the field." Louise wasn't mollified, she still had that feeling, but Dylan's breezy confidence made her hold back her suspicions; maybe she was vapouring about nothing; the Americans would certainly deal with this by themselves; they were powerful enough, mobile enough, they wouldn't need the allies. Would they?
The days passed, turned to weeks since the terrible pictures on TV, and she'd been unable to get Dylan out of her mind. Images of his face intruded at odd moments, her dreams were filled with snapshots of his face in all his different moods and humours, and she'd waken to find her pillow wet with tears. She was shaken, confused, disturbed that all she could think of was Dylan. All she knew with certainty was that she wanted him back, now, close enough to touch, and this confused her even more; this was her older brother, wasn't he supposed to go off into the world, do his thing? So why did she feel like an essential part of her was missing?
The next 30 months were as hard as it's possible to get for a British soldier. Dylan proved to be an exceptional squad-leader, smart, confident, cautiously brave, tactically astute, and careful of the welfare of his men. He grew to be a popular and trusted team leader, absorbing tactics effortlessly and displaying flair and imagination when responding to enemy concentrations of troops, firepower or positions during the endless war-games and training exercises they were being subjected to, whether in open order on Salisbury Plain, or in the built-up environmentof Imber, the town specially built to train soldiers in urban assault. Because of his constant training needs, he was never able to get home, having to content himself with the occasional restricted 24 hour pass, letters and the very occasional phone call.