(This story is both a companion piece and a sequel to "My War" by LeapYearGuy and is written with his permission. My thanks to him for very graciously allowing me to use his characters from his moving and poignant story. Although the original story is somewhat covered by PFC Kent, the original should definitely be read to get an understanding of the characters and how they ended up where they are. By the way, "REMF" is a Vietnam era term used to refer to a "Rear Echelon Mother Fucker", someone safe in the rear area away from the fighting who's sole mission in life seemed to be to screw with the soldier out in the boonies. "Fobbitt" is a current term used for the soldiers who never leave the relative safety of the Forward Operating Bases.)
The young woman with the old eyes crossed the room and opened the blinds. Sunlight streamed across the bed and the figure there. She pulled a chair up beside the bed and sat down, somewhat awkwardly. She looked at the man on the bed, taking in all the tubes and wires that ran from him to various machines arranged like sentinels around the room.
"The doctors tell me that the most important thing I can do is to simply talk to you. Apparently the sound of a familiar voice can reach deeply in the subconscious or some such stuff and can stimulate the brain into responding. Be about the first time I ever managed to stimulate you, although heaven knows I tried.
"I can hardly believe that you're just going to lay there. I don't care what everyone claims, I don't see how any explosion could be harder than your head. Those same doctors gave me a song and dance about head injuries and trauma and all, but I think you're just goldbricking.
"I understand this may take a long time. That's alright, its not like I have anywhere I need to be, nor anyone else to see. I'm glad that they brought you here to Walter Reed. Getting to the hospital in Germany would have been difficult, to Iraq probably impossible.
"So what are we going to talk about? World politics? The Economy? How about fine arts or maybe the latest in rap music? I know. Since you're such a spit and polish soldier, a real 'garritrooper', I've brought one of your favorite manuals. Good old FM 22-5, Drill and Ceremonies. I guess you would think of that kind of soldier as a 'REMF'. Me, I call them 'Fobbitts'. Don't laugh about my selction of reading material. I've been wandering through bookstores trying to find something that I thought you would like to hear me read to you. I warn you though, I'm only going to stick to Tom Clancy and WEB Griffin for so long. You keep goofing off and I'll start reading 'Little Women'. I bet that will get you moving.
"Okay, so I'm going to make myself comfortable here, put my feet up on the edge of your mattress. Well, one flesh and blood foot and one plastic and metal one. By the way, when I get bored of reading I'm going to talk about me, and you, and the combination that makes 'us'. Hmmmm, did I just see a bit of movement there? I thought THAT would get your attention. Now, Chapter One."...
... His mind stirred. What was going on? It was all very foggy. He groped for a memory.
It was very hot. The sun was beating down and he could detect all the signs of war; the stink of cordite and fear, the dust in the air from the explosions tearing at his lungs, the adrenaline surging through his veins. He peeked around the corner of the already half-ruined house and a flash of exhilaration shot through him. They had successfully flanked the insurgent position. He fired the bloop tube under his rifle and watched the 40mm grenade sail through the window a machine gun was firing from.
The instant the grenade exploded he was on his feet and racing towards the enemy position. He had taken no more than three steps when his combat instincts made him look farther up at the target building, just as an PRG fired from the roof. As if in slow motion he watched the missile fly towards him. He threw himself towards the ground and it sailed past him. Just before he fell into a shallow depression there was a loud noise and something slammed into the back of his head. Once again he fell into darkness...
..."That's a pretty good yarn. This guy knows Special Operations a lot better than I do and he writes some damn interesting scenarios. I do have to comment though, he doesn't know shit about women, and even less about women in combat. This female cop he has working with the hero is about the best one he's ever come up with, though, I can almost believe in her. No wonder he seems to dump her character abruptly in the next book. He has a habit of that, like women slow his heroes down.
"Do you remember that you called me 'sweet cheeks' the first time you talked to me? I didn't know whether to be pissed at you or thankful. I mean, first you call me a pretty darn patronizing name. Then you held that tarp up between me and everyone else and threatened the lives of the entire truckload if anyone tried to peek. Then you chewed me out for pissing on your boots. You said 'Point that thing somewhere else next time'.
"Even now I wonder if that was why I volunteered to be your driver that day. Besides the fact that no one else raised their hand, of course. I wonder if I just wanted to see the look on your face. I have to tell you, it was priceless.
"At the same time, something intrigued me about you. Not THAT you horny old goat, I sure wasn't thinking about you THAT way. Not then anyway. It took the ride up there to begin to figure it out. You were honest with me. You didn't make the 'right' responses, you made your own feelings clear and yet without being an ass about it. I could tell someone would always know where they stood with you.
"I remember you telling me the Ell-Tee had said 'minimal danger'. When you quoted it to me, it was obvious that you didn't believe him. That reminds, one of these books I have here you'll like when you finally decide to open your eyes. Cartoons from World War Two drawn by a soldier.
"I guess some things don't change. See this one? Okay, I'll read you the caption. 'I need a couple of guys what don't owe me no money fer a little routine patrol.' Every time I look at that I think 'minimal danger'. The more things change, and I know how much you detest changes, the more they stay the same.
"So we didn't really have a sparkling conversation on our way to, well, actually I don't remember if you ever told me why we were driving all over the place. I just recall us stopping where you told me to stop and this guy popping up in a few minutes. What I never will forget was the shot that took his life.
"I wasn't one helluva lot of help to you at first. I know. I panicked. Somehow, even in the military, the discussion of suddenly being splattered with a man's brains doesn't receive the amount of attention it should. God, I was a basket case.
"Once again though, one thing came through loud and clear, 'sweet cheeks' or whatever, you treated me the same way I believe you would have treated any man. In other words, you treated me like a soldier. Without wasting any time you calmed me, as much as anyone can be calmed in a life or death firefight, and got me back on track. I still recall seeing something deep in your eyes when you grabbed my shoulders and looked at me. Memories perhaps? Understanding for sure.
"The Army stresses teamwork all the time. And with good reason. Beyond executing battle drills and everything else, studies I've read show that the biggest reason soldiers charge into machine gun barrels has nothing to do with 'Duty, Honor, Country'. We, and I am damn well now and forever part of 'We', aka 'The Benevolent and Protective Association of Them What Has Been Shot At', we charge those machine guns for each other. So I wasn't going to let you down. When I realized what was going on behind that pile of rubble I didn't even think before breaking cover and charging there. And I sure as hell didn't think when I centered my sights on that rag-head and punched his ticket to Allah.
"Then all I had to do was to get you back to the firebase. That trip is what leads me to think I'm not just wasting my time sitting here BS'ing with you. If your head was hard enough then, its still hard enough.
"Of course I learned a helluva a lot about you on the way back. I'm hoping that this rap on your thick skull will get you talking again when you finally decide to wake up. I think I know why you turned and ran that last day that we were together. Oh yeah, that registered didn't it? I saw you stir a little. Well, its true. I understand now why you chose the war over me. It took me going home to learn that. Anyway, the important thing for you to know is that I'm not your ex-wife. You told me things you never were able to tell her. I think she tried, but she didn't couldn't understand. And I'll tell you what, I'm not Veronica."...
... Veronica? Was that her? No, it couldn't be, he knew that part of his life was far behind him. It wasn't her fault they had parted. He just couldn't leave the war behind him. Or wouldn't. Somehow it had become such a part of him that he couldn't let go. He still couldn't. He struggled with the voice. That WAS someone he had left behind but it was Veronica. Who was it?...
... "I don't suppose the subject of my fiance back in the States ever came up? Probably not. It wasn't like we spent a lot of time just kicking back and swapping life histories. When you were making me get back on my feet, foot, I was too filled with self-pity, anger, and finally determination to share much beyond what feelings I was letting loose at any particular moment.
"The night you left to go back to the war, you thought I was out on a date. I suppose it was, but not the type of one you probably thought. I went to the movies with another amputee. It was the first time either of us had managed to go out in a regular, plain old everyday social setting and we went together to support each other.
"If I had not been so shocked by the sight of you packed up and ready to go I might have explained that. I don't know if it would have made any difference then. You had drug me out of my depression but even so I hadn't come to a realization of all the changes that had taken place. Most of all I didn't understand the changes that had taken place inside me. I wasn't the high school cheerleader and the perky member of the Homecoming Court anymore. So I let you go. I didn't know then what I know now, that I couldn't go home any more than you were able to after Vietnam.
"I tried though. I took that Freedom Bird back to the States. My whole family was waiting when I got off the plane. And I wasn't in that damn wheelchair I promise you. I took it back to the hospital the day I left the quarters we had been sharing. That was the day after you left. You did teach me that. I could lie in the cold water and bitch, or I could do something about it.
"The strangest thing about being back home is that everyone tried so damn hard to be understanding. Sometimes it drove me up a wall. The one who understood the best was my Uncle Charley. He'd served in Vietnam too, and knew that there were times when the best thing to say was nothing. We'd just sit side by side on the porch of the family house and watch the world go by. Sometimes he would hold my hand.
"Hold on while I get something out here. Yeah I know, as if you were planning on going somewhere. But I found this in one of the books I read about Vietnam. 'For those who fought for it, life has a special flavor that the protected will never know'."...
... Vietnam? Flashes of jungle and elephant grass and helicopters ran through his mind. That poor guy, what the hell was his name? The one who stepped on a land mine. But that was a long time ago. He knew that although he wasn't sure how he did. The voice calling to him was from another war. Wasn't that strange? It wasn't from before the war or after the war, it was from the war. What female could that be?...
..."Oh, yeah, my fiancee. His name is Frank and he's a great guy. He really is and one day he's going to make some lucky girl a fantastic husband. He's warm and caring and smart and hard-working and everything a cheerleader from the South could want. Unfortunately that cheerleader doesn't exist anymore. It wasn't him, it was me. That sounds like the stale words used in a million breakups I know, but just because they are a cliche doesn't mean they aren't true.
"Well, he wasn't prepared to deal with the me that had come back. He listened and tried, but he wasn't comfortable holding my hand. My gun hand. When I tightened my grip I guess he felt the finger that pulled the trigger on that guy staggering towards you when you were on the ground bleeding. I guess he could feel it twitch twice when that bastard was down and I was making sure that he fucking stayed down.
"Goodness, I think my language is shot to hell now isn't it? Did I pick that up from you? Poor Frank. He couldn't get over what a sewer mouth I had. But he tried. I don't want you to get the idea he was some namby-pamby who gave up. He didn't. He still wanted to marry me. It was I who couldn't go through with it.
"Oh I know deep down inside he was relieved when I gave him his ring back. He wanted to know if there was someone else. I told him there wasn't. I was not lying. I thought you were gone, back to the sand fleas and the dust storms and the heat and the bullets and the IED's. Fucking IED's, I hate them. But I have a right. I want to hate the Iraqis, the Moslems, everyone in that part of the world but I can't. In fact, God, on some level I feel drawn back there. No wonder you never were able to really come home."...
... Okay, he knew that voice and it wasn't his ex-wife's. It was female and it seemed so familiar. He strained to identify it. It sounded like he was at the bottom of a well. He tried to find some way to climb towards the voice. He knew that it was important that he did, but he couldn't think why...
... "I don't know what to say. Rather, I know what I want to say, but I have no idea how to say it. They're going to make me leave. They say that you're never coming out of this. Its been months now. I had to stop reading and talking several times because my voice finally gave out. Don't tell me that you find that a relief, you hard-head.
"Please, somehow, you've got to fight. I never knew you to back away from anything, you've always faced it head on. You made me get up and walk again when any normal person would have given up and thrown me back into the pool. And I've tried so hard to live up to what you did for me up till the time you thought you could leave me and get back to the war.
"I've argued until I'm blue in the face. They say that any reactions you show are purely involuntary, that no one is home anymore. I don't believe it. I WON'T believe it. But you've got to do something, anything to show that the man I know you are is still alive in there.
"They're going to disconnect the feeding tubes. I can't stop them, I'm not your family and shit, there isn't any out there I can find. I've looked everywhere.
"I am going to have to leave you. I can't stand to sit here and watch them do that. I'd fight them physically if I thought it would make any difference. But it won't. I should make them carry me out of here, kicking and screaming. Regardless of what you might think, you've never really heard me scream. I'm told I shatter windows.
"Damn, DAMN, please do something. For God's sake, I can't keep going without you. Don't you understand, damn your thick skull? I LOVE you. Wake up, PLEASE."...
... He had to get out of this well. He had to stop that voice from leaving. That voice meant something to him. Hell, it meant everything to him. He summoned a strength from somewhere deep inside him, that lifer NCO core of his that refused to ever give up. He focused on the voice and made a tremendous effort. What that effort was and how he made it he could never say. But his eyes opened.
At first all he could see was a blur hovering over him. There were drops falling on his face. It was confusing. Was he outdoors? Was it raining?
His vision cleared and he recognized who's voice had brought him back. He blinked twice and managed to clear his throat.
"Jesus, Kent, in a minute you'll be pissing on my boots again too. Stop with the crying shit." he croaked.
She jumped. A happy smile spread over her face and she yelled for the nurse. Then she was crying again, hard, and she was beating on his chest with her small, clenched fists.
"Damn you. Damn YOU Sarge. You prick, don't you EVER do this to me again you bastard." She stopped hitting him and buried her face on his chest. "Don't you leave me again. I can't stand it."
"Good God, Kent." Somehow he managed to lift an arm that weighed about two tons and draped it over her back. "You really are going to ruin my reputation."
"The only reputation you are going to have to worry about from now on is the one you're going to have as a dirty old man who's got this young ex-cheerleader hanging on his arm with an expression on her face that will tell everyone they just got out of bed."
"Hey now, I don't remember ever saying or promising anything like..." He was unable to continue talking when she suddenly stopped his mouth with a long kiss.
The nurses had flooded the room, holding back long enough for the couple to kiss. Then gentle hands were separating them. Doctors were called and examinations made. She collapsed back into her chair, exhausted from the emotional storm. But she never let go of his hand.
(Two months later)
The chaplain hid a grin. In nearly twenty years in the Army he had seen a lot. A good bit of that knowledge was explained by the Combat Infantryman's Badge he wore on his chest, won as a young enlisted man before he answered his call to the ministry. Very little surprised him anymore. But even he had blinked twice the first time he met this couple, an old time NCO with hash-marks to his elbow and a blonde girl veteran a generation younger than him.
The chapel was practically empty. The girl's parents and a few friends were all that were in attendance. It didn't matter, the twosome before him needed only each other. He understood.
"Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today..."
(The first quotations in the story are taken from WWII Cartoonist Bill Mauldin's book "Up Front", a book that shows the life of an infantryman never really changes. The last is attributed to John Stuart Mill. My thanks to my lovely and hard-working editor for finding the correct version of that quote at the Special Forces Association website, as well as for all the other hard work and research she pours into fixing my stories. Also thanks to Dotti for reminding me of terms other wars have used to refer to the "garritrooper". Any errors in this story are solely my responsibility.)