*Author's note: As with the story I wrote called Revenge, this contains one violent episode, but the intent is not to be graphic. It's to show that the police can't be in all places at all times with the obvious implication that an honest, caring citizen with a gun can and often does save lives. That fact is very underreported and, imho, that's due to an obvious anti-gun bias in most of the media.
As with Amen! which was not meant to bash religion or faith, this is not a political diatribe or crusade. It is a romantic story involving a younger man and an older woman, The main male character does, of course, reflect my own personal views on the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If you disagree, that's your right and I fully respect it while strongly disagreeing with you.
Early September, 2016: Navy District of Washington DC
He read the letter then handed it back to his attorney.
"So that's it?"
"That's it. You'll be out in two weeks with an honorable discharge."
"Gee, how nice of them," he said.
"This nearly became a general court martial, Ensign Blackman," his attorney said. "I believe your story, but getting a jury of senior officers to believe it is another thing altogether. And were they not to buy it..."
"Yeah, I know. I'd be sitting in Leavenworth for very long time."
Hunter Blackman was a Navy officer and also a Navy SEAL. He'd graduated from Duke University in June of 2014 and gone through Navy OCS and was commissioned three months later. The moment he was eligible, he applied for Navy SEAL training known as BUDS or Basic Underwater Demolitions training.
Blackman had a very high IQ, and was an usually intelligent man. He could have majored in math or science or any other subject, but he'd chosen philosophy because he was a thinker, and a deep thinker at that. He was fascinated by human behavior and what motivated people to act in certain ways. Because of that, he'd also taken as many courses in psychology and sociology as he could.
He'd graduated with a 3.94 GPA and had done so while devoting himself to extreme physical conditioning and the occasional romantic interlude. Being a very good-looking young man meant he had all kinds of opportunities for hooking up or even something more substantial. Being a deep-thinking young man, he also knew what he liked and the kind of women he found attractive.
A brief fling with a married professor confirmed what he'd suspected was true for some time now—that was that he found older women more attractive and appealing than girls his own age. It wasn't all that hard to understand as the often silly demands of girls from 18-22 were off-putting in the extreme. Blackman loved physical challenges, but when it came to love, romance, or even just sex, he avoided battles like the plague. If a girl made demands on him, that was it and whatever had been up to that point was over.
Physically, Blackman was what some called a PT animal where PT stood for physical training. During college, he routinely put himself through some of the most grueling workouts the human mind could devise. He would strap on a ruck sack with 25 pounds in it, run five miles to the gym, do a monster Cross-Fit workout, then run back home with the ruck sack on his back. He wasn't sadistic or masochistic, he just seemed to thrive on physical pain when it involved his mind pushing his body to its limits.
Even so, BUDS had been the ultimate challenge of Ensign Blackman's life. The failure rate in his class was 'only' 78%—a whole two points better than the average BUDS class. The biggest amount of attrition came during Hell week where roughly half of the his class quit one at a time as they gave up and 'rang the bell.'
Ringing the bell was an age-old tradition in which anyone who'd had enough need not say a word. All they had to do was walk over to a bell that went everywhere they went and ring it. An instructor would then ask them if they were sure as the decision was final. If the candidate said 'yes' he was gone without further shame beyond walking away in front of his peers followed by a return to a less-demanding job in the Navy.
'Pool comp' was another grueling cut in which swimming, diving, and other underwater requirements 'washed out' another large group. Most who made it that far didn't quit, they simply couldn't cut it when it came to the rigors of the water and were dropped from the program.
For those who survived both Hell week and pool comp, graduation rates reached 80%. A small number who made it to the third and final phase would be dropped for physical injuries or safety violations, but if one made it to the final phase, the chances of graduating rose to 90%.
Ensign Blackman had the kind of calm, methodical personality the SEALs sought out. Hotheads, jocks, and braggarts had no place among their ranks. Officers received a certain minimal level of respect, but they were first and foremost members of a SEAL team and had to not only lead but do everything their men did, and they, like everyone else, had to be willing to sacrifice anything for good of the team.
After completing BUDs, Blackman went on to attend SQT or SEAL Qualification Training which was another 2 1/2 months of grueling work. It wasn't until after completion of SQT that sailors were able to wear the coveted Trident (Naval Special Warfare insignia) on their uniforms and became full-fledged Navy SEALs.
From there Blackman had been assigned to a SEAL team and began preparing for his first deployment to Afghanistan. There are eight SEAL teams in the U.S Navy. Each team has six platoons and a headquarters element. SEAL platoons consist of 16 SEALs - two officers, one chief, and 13 enlisted men. A platoon is generally the largest operational element assigned to a mission. Blackman never operated at any level beyond the team while in Afghanistan.
Once in country, his team had been given the mission of capturing or killing a high-value member of Al Qaeda who was holed up in the village of Shewan in Farah Province. Marines had been engaged in a fierce battle there in August of 2008 and nine weeks prior, a different Marine unit had been viciously ambushed when it entered the town.
Blackman was directed by the team leader, Navy LT David Rust, to take half the team and go house to house on an isolated street where intel had last seen their target. At about 0230 (2:30am), Rust's men found themselves under fire from the second floor of a building on Blackman's side of the street.
He led his men into the two-story building from which the gunfire was coming. They immediately encountered two armed insurgents and dispatched them as they moved upstairs to the second floor. As his team entered the room there were loud noises and flashes from weapons and he and his men returned fire.
The insurgent firing at Rust's men was killed along with two other insurgents in the ensuring gun fight. The problem came when they realized a civilian woman had been killed, as well. One of the insurgents had used her as a human shield, something each of the SEALs knew could happened and for which they'd repeatedly trained. However, sometimes, due to the fog of war and as the old saying goes, shit happens.
They were required to report any such civilian deaths as soon as reasonably possible and all of the men were aware of what could happen if they failed to so. In November of 2005, Marines in Haditha, Iraq, had sat on civilian casualties and several careers were ended, not because anyone on the ground had acted inappropriately, but for failing to report the deaths of civilians in a timely manner.
LT Rust had the primary responsibility to report and ensured Blackman he would do so after the mission was complete. For now, the immediate threat was over, but they still hadn't secured their intended target and the mission always came first.
It took another four hours to corner and capture their man, then another 20 minutes for a helo to arrive and extract them. LT Rust told Blackman he'd make a full report back ant HQ but later decided not to and didn't inform Blackman of his decision. Also unknown to Blackman was that the team's senior enlisted man, Navy Chief Doug Phillips, was aware of LT Rust's decision and had supported him. Loyalty to team members was fierce, but this was clearly crossing a line.
Three days later, Ensign Blackman asked his team leader how the debrief went and Rust told him he'd decided not to report the incident.
"You what?" Blackman had asked unable to believe what he was hearing. "We killed a civilian. It was unintentional, but it has to be reported."
"No, it doesn't," Rust told him. He went on to explain his justification and although it had some merit, it wasn't his call. He had a duty to report it.
Blackman told him he'd give him another 24 hours and if Rust didn't report the incident, he'd have no choice but to do so himself.
It was some 20 hours later when a Navy JAG officer, a lawyer, sent runners to round up LT Rust, Ensign Blackman, and Chief Phillips. Each of them were informed that they were being formally charged for failing to report the death of a civilian and were read their rights then asked if they wanted to answer questions. All of them said 'no' and were informed they were being administratively removed from any and all combat operations and were advised to seek counsel immediately.
To make a long story short, all three men were returned to the U.S. and Blackman was faced with being referred to a general court martial or requesting to be discharged. He'd explained what he'd seen to his commanding officer and to his own lawyer. The problem was every other team member had chosen loyalty to the team leader over the truth, something Blackman found incredibly disturbing on several levels. Therefore, it was his word against theirs and he had therefore decided to leave active duty.
Normally, the only discharge the military would offer in a situation like that was called an OTH or 'Other Than Honorable' for the good of the service. But because the prosecution wasn't sure it could convict Blackman, it had offered him—and the Navy—a way out.
Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, he'd elected to take the option and return to civilian life.
"So what's next, Hunter?" his lawyer, a Navy lieutenant commander asked him.
"I don't know, sir. Being a SEAL was all I ever wanted to do and I managed to serve a whopping two years and not even make JG." (JG is lieutenant, junior grade, the next rank above ensign.)
"Yeah, that might be a first," the commander said wryly.
"I'm thinking it might be time to settle down, you know? As much I've enjoyed being a SEAL, there's another part of me that's kind of got a hankerin' to maybe get married and start a family."
"What about that job with Blackwater?" the lawyer asked. "They pay extremely well and they'd snatch a guy up like you in a heartbeat."
"No, thanks. I'm not a hired gun. No amount of money is gonna tempt me to do this kind of thing as a civilian. I'm thinking about just going back to North Carolina and kind of starting over."
"I hear you," the older man said. "I nearly got out after my five-year commitment was up. But then my wife decided she enjoyed the company of other men so I decided the Navy would be family—for at least 20 years anyway. I've got 14 of those behind, so I'm staying for at least six more."
"I appreciate everything you did you for me, Commander."
"Sorry I couldn't do more for you. Sometimes the system just eats people up. It isn't perfect, but it's about as good as any system anywhere."
"I'm not bitter," Blackman told him. "I should have said something on day one. Or two. Or..."
"Water under the bridge, Hunter."
"Yes, it is, sir. Yes, it is."
Blackman shook his hand then went back to his room at the Bachelor Officer's Quarters. He'd spend the next couple of days 'checking out' or as the Army called it 'out-processing' and that would be it. He'd still technically be on active duty for another ten days after that, but he'd be home in North Carolina on what was called 'terminal leave.'
Mid-September, Charlotte, North Carolina
"I am sick and tired of gun violence! I am sick and tired of hearing about the Second Amendment! I am sick and tired of guns killing people every day in America! It is time to put an end to this. It is time to demand a ban on ALL guns in America starting with assault weapons and handguns!"
The woman behind the microphone was Brenda Duncan, a 42-year old North Carolina gun-control activist who was bound and determined to find a way to do in America what had been done in Australia and other 'civilized' countries around the world. Guns were killers and she would spend the rest of her life, if necessary, working to get them banned.
From her perspective, there was no reason ANY American should own a gun of any kind. No one needed to hunt to kill their food to survive anymore making shotguns no better than an AR-15 or a handgun in her view. All of them were dangerous and all of them had to go.
Ironically, Duncan had never seen anyone shot let alone killed, nor had she ever seen anyone use a firearm to stop a crime, something that happened untold times each year but rarely ever got reported.
Emily Conroy stood there listening as Ms. Duncan railed on about the evils of guns and found herself mostly agreeing with her. She'd never given the issue a lot of thought, and she and her younger brother, Scott, had grown up in a home with two shotguns. No one had been killed or harmed, and yet she had to ask herself why anyone needed a handgun or something as deadly as an assault rifle.
She'd been raised to respect law enforcement and the U.S. Constitution, but perhaps people like Brenda Duncan were right. The Constitution was nearly 250 years old and times had changed. Maybe a ban on guns was the right idea. Then again, maybe there was another side to the issue she didn't really understand. For now, she had to let it go as she didn't have time to think about it right then.
She'd stopped to listen while on her lunch break and only had a few minutes to get back to work. She hadn't been hungry so she'd decided to go for a brisk walk until the sound of a loud voice in the middle of a modest-sized crowd had caught her attention. She wandered over and listened to about five minutes of the fiery diatribe before leaving.
She ordered a cup of coffee from a vendor she knew then headed back inside. It was getting chilly already and soon the cold, winter weather would settle in on the city of Charlotte for the next few months. She thanked the man, tipped him well, then took a first sip of the hot, steaming liquid and soon forgot all about the rally.
She had a half dozen things on her to-do list before she went left work, then she needed to swing by her sister's house and pick up her daughter before heading home and starting on dinner.
She almost laughed when she thought about the word 'dinner.' Since the death of her husband a little over a year and a half ago, meals were anything but formal. Dinner usually meant popping something in the microwave for her and Holly then sitting together on the couch and eating it while they watched TV.
She knew something more structured was probably a better idea, but the thought of having her four-year old child sit across from her at a table in order to eat by themselves seemed almost ridiculous. It was just a lot more pleasant and enjoyable for both of them to sit side by side munching and talking or just watching the 'tube.'
She still had a couple of Smart Ones dinners in the freezer and all Holly needed was a hotdog and some ketchup, so 'dinner' was already set.
"Well, it's still good to you have you back home, son," Hunter's father told him after he caught his parents up on what had happened.
"Yes, it is," his mother said chiming in. "And you're welcome to stay here for as long as you need." She gave her son another hug then said, "I'm just so glad you're home safe and sound."
"Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad," he told them.
"Oh, hey. I've got an opening for a junior manager at the store if you're interested," Hunter's dad told him. "You may not be ready to jump back into civilian life that fast, but I can hold it for another week or so if that helps."
Jake Hunter was the general manager of a Home Depot in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was being considered for a promotion. If he took it, then there was no guarantee the next GM would even consider hiring Hunter who didn't feel like writing resumes and interviewing for jobs, so he told his dad he'd take it.
"Great. Do you need a few days to get settled?" he asked his son.
"Just one day should be enough, Dad. I have a few things to take care of tomorrow and then I'll be ready to put my nose to the grindstone." Hunter smiled and that made both of his parents feel a lot better as they hadn't seen their boy smile once since he'd arrived home a couple of hours ago.
Hunter wasn't depressed. He was just thinking. He was always thinking. For the last two years it had mostly revolved around planning and achieving goals and mission accomplishment. Now he was thinking about his future as a civilian and mostly that meant the thought of finding a wife and starting a family. He decided to take things slow and possibly just let love happen.
In the meantime, working for a company like Home Depot seemed to be as reasonable as anything else he could think of. He had no interest in going back to school or selling real estate—or selling anything for that matter. He knew he had to have a job and although he wasn't above flipping burgers, the thought of starting at the very bottom was a bit much. He knew he could handle any supervisory position and that he could do well at it. With a little time and effort, promotions would come and that would mean more money which was a necessary 'evil' if one wanted to raise a family, and Hunter knew that was something he most definitely wanted to do.
The next day he went to the county courthouse to apply for a concealed carry permit. The woman who helped him told him he needed proof of training in the form of a certificate or a military DD-214 form.
"Will this do?" he asked showing her his ID card. He was still on active duty for a few more days and it was all he needed to complete the application.
"Oh, yes, this works just fine as long as you're a North Carolina resident," she said. He showed her his drivers license and paid the fee and she processed his request.
"It'll take about 4-6 weeks to get approval back. We'll contact when the paperwork is finished," she told him.
From there, he went to a store to buy some clothes as he couldn't remember the last he'd bought anything but socks, underwear, or uniforms. His dad had told him he'd be in charge of the paint department, and it wasn't like he needed a suit and tie. He just wanted to have a few decent things to wear underneath that beautiful orange vest. And who knew? He might even meet someone and it would nice to have something to wear on a date.
After that, he took his car in for a much-needed oil change. Out of things to do, he went back to his parents' house and started looking on line for a place of his own. He was in no hurry to move out, but living there long-term wasn't a viable option.
For the next three days, Hunter went through a local training course for managers then spend another week learning the ins and outs of the paint department. He smiled then laughed out loud when he thought about all those shelves of paint cans and the paint mixing machines being his 'kingdom' with his four employees his trusty and loyal servants. Except that one of them was very unhappy about having the boss's kid step in and take the job he'd had his eye on for well over a year. C'est la vie, right?