“Hi my name is Lilly what’s yours?” the pretty Asian girl of about five said as she approached his table. He smiled and said “Well hello Lilly my name is Tom and it is nice to meet you.” He glanced around and saw Lilly’s caregiver – probably her mother – hovering nearby with an apologetic/proud smile on her face. He bent forward across the table and held his hand out to shake hers. She grasped his hand decisively and gave him three quick pumps before letting go and running back giggling to the lady’s waiting arms.
Tom pulled on his water bottle and got back to work. This wasn’t easy for him and although he welcomed such an adorable interruption his mission was of the utmost importance and required a serious demeanor and intense concentration. Tom closed his eyes, rubbing his fingertips into his eyelids and running his hands over his shaved head. Lowering his hands back to the keyboard, he straightened his back, took two deep breaths and willed his hands to stop shaking as he began yet again.
Tom was here in this coffee shop near his new apartment because the walls had seemed to be closing in around him there and he thought the brightly lit place with soft rock music and a good cup of coffee might clear his head. Of all the missions he had under-taken over his time in the military this was by far the hardest. For perhaps the dozenth time the thought crossed his mind that he would rather be back in combat, hot and dirty and tired than to be here doing this.
Tom closed his eyes for a moment and, as always, was right back where it all started. The day had been hot and dusty like most days. Me and my squad had just landed at our new FOB and it was about midnight. The squad was full of firepower because the word was, there were a lot of Taliban placed IEDs in the area and the death rate for citizens and soldiers was exponentially higher over the last few weeks. Our job was to throw down and get the base up as quickly as possible. We were digging foxholes in a 360 when all hell broke loose. Looking back on it and talking with the Squad Leader we figured the Taliban had returned to their nearby camp, seen us digging in and assumed we had been there a while and were mostly sacked out. The first sign of trouble was a huge burst of PKM fire over our heads. We threw our shovels aside, threw on our gear and got loaded up in quick order while our Squad Leader spit orders from a nearby foxhole. We watched as he pulled himself up and out and ran across our new base to get a better view of the damage caused by the machine gun fire while we heard additional fire coming from who knows where. My buddy Frank was riding the foxhole with me and I immediately settled in as his assistant gunner. We could hear another gunner calling an ADDRAC and we spun and opened up. We kept up the fire power as best we could hoping for no casualties but as the firefight continued we would see an occasional pyro signal indicating casualties. We spotted some tracers flying by above our heads followed by that snap you only hear in combat. I remember hearing a loud screeching sound right before my Squad Leader yelled “RPGS MEN!!” Just then we were covered with a dust cloud which seemed to block out every sound if only for a split second. After another what seemed like hours but was probably only a couple of minutes I told my gunner to cease fire and we listened in the static silence for another snap. The sky was lit up with the tracers from the Taliban fire and it illuminated the heavy dust filled air like something out of a futuristic movie. After a reasonable time we jumped out and ran to the Combat Operations Center to get a bead on the damage and casualties. As we ran heads down, rockets whizzed by our heads so close they deafened us. We dropped down at COC and started to take inventory first of ourselves then looking around for the telltale litters while in the background we heard the command simultaneously yelling for cease fire and giving coordinates to air support. Just then we heard the loud roar of an A10 as it laid down what looked like torpedoes on the tree line kicking up more dirt and turning the air around us even more into brown illuminated dust. We had them on the run now so my Squad Leader sent us out to lay down fire and put out a landing zone marker for the birds to come grab our casualties. We headed out at a snail’s pace for the open field nearby listening for the sound of the birds as we followed as closely as we were able being the mine sweepers. We laid the LZ and dropped to the hard ground to send some fire but things had gotten quiet. They were gone for now. We crawled up as close as we could as the birds landed and we helped the corpsmen load the litters as quickly as we could knowing this reprieve might only last a minute. That’s when we saw him. Jaime, the kid that looked to be about fifteen years old straight out of boot camp and still wet behind the ears. He was laid out on the litter in an all too familiar pose and his eyes were open and scared. I turned to the Doc and just looked my question at him. He shook his head sadly and pushed me aside with a rough shove. Frank grabbed me and pulled me to a crawl right then and I realized we were taking more fire so we did the best we could to free up the area to get the bird out of there. I’d been in combat many times and seen so many Marines fall but this one … this one got to me. I hated the little fucker really. He was annoying as hell and all he wanted to do was bilk his fellow Marines out of their hard earned money with high stakes poker games. He thought he was a bad ass because he had come from a rough neighborhood when really all he really had going for him is, or I guess was, his lack of fear. The kid was constantly getting knocked around by his fellow Marines for his big mouth and his bravado. Still, no one wanted to see him go out like that. He was just a stupid kid, he hadn’t even had a chance to become the Marine he had the potential to be. Needless to say it kind of took the wind out of our sails for a while.
Tom shook his head and rubbed his eyes again. “Stupid kid” he thought for about the millionth time. Jaime Durango had been nothing but a pain from day one but still he was dead now and there was this hole in Tom’s heart over this kid that just made no sense. Or maybe it did. Maybe it was just the first time that he had completely registered the senselessness of the death and dismemberment over there. It changed him and he wasn’t sure he liked the change all that much. His tour ended shortly after and he was sent stateside and eventually found himself here in this coffee shop outside base.
“Okay just get this over with man it’s not going to write itself” Tom said out loud to himself as he flexed his fingers. He began again as he had so many times before.
Hands shaking a little again and throat tight he began … “Dear Ms. Durango, I served with your son Jaime ….”