Alpha: Chapter 18 (ending)

I don’t know about the other guys, but this is the most daunting blank piece of paper I ever had to face.


They say a blank piece of paper is the ultimate foe of a writer. I am not a writer, and up until now I did not have a problem filling up pages of paper with my words: thoughts, facts, and opinions. This time it’s different. It’s the end. Not only an era of sorts, but it really was the ending for many people.


For some, this was the walking away moment. Not all had that luxury of course. Rolling or carried by pallbearers away from where it all happened. It’s a fact. It happens in every war; conflict; policing action. Time in and time out.


Most of the time this sort of thing I can eventually explain away. Yes I always take things a teeny bit personally, and even more when I have some sort of involvement. This time things were much different. Maybe this is the only time I had the word “failure” in such a sentence or a moment in time. This times it’s different.


A failed mission is jargon of course, as is a scrubbed or aborted one. Sometimes missions fail for a reason so innocuous it makes no sense; but still technically a failure. I had a lot but to me those were mostly just things that went bad. The last thing I was ever associated with was a big failure. I feel I failed all the men who were under me or even just “along for the ride” so to speak I’ve never been so hard on myself for something.

Realistically speaking, it was the name of the game. Everyone knew that. We were playing on a roulette wheel and nobody was allowed to bet on the green zero and double zero: but we were all knowingly aware of those green spaces. A zero, and injury. A double? A pine box like they say in so many Westerns.


There are many other factors, but that illustrates best how most of us looked at the job. Day to day was a gamble out there past the Wire and some of us were way more lucky than others. Then we come upon the day where the conductor was punching tickets.


All of the parameters and unknowns could fill a book; as I certainly know. And sometimes there were things on the record; as well as off. That is the burden of leadership. No more, no less in a black and white world. I did know that was a line and I was grey off the books way more than most in total. I mean, there was a specific relationship which most of the guys understood. It was a little bit of subterfuge, but it mostly worked into my favor. We had a reputation of a fast and loose group which was many a time referred to as a frat house; or many times asked who were the patients and who were the doctors. These were all the not so subtle hints of how much leeway was granted.


Reputations are always that. The best way to have a reputation is when it errs in your favor. That was basically the way it worked for us. I was the dorm manager who let everyone run kooky. I did not mind this reputation since most who really dug in to see what we were all about had no doubts I was unlike anyone else’s Unit.


How did things get to the point where people made wild assumptions or accusations? There was a sort of deal struck. It was not anything dramatic like written on a parchment or anything. Way back I maybe had to explain it here and there, and then this knowledge was passed down successfully to a ninety percent accuracy finally. Now and then I have to school a few wayward lads either ahead of their reputation or clearly didn’t understand I had some things I would not budge on.


The rules were fairly simple. When there was anything official, I expected then to act that way: respect my orders and wishes. If things had to deviate a slight bit, make sure I saw it the same way. The one percentile I completely and fully trusted to “go a little jazz” and improvise things as fit so long as no other recourse or an absolute chance of nothing blowing back onto me or the team. In my recent memory the only one percenter I can mention was Overthrill. Much like us, he also had a reputation which was exponentially exaggerated ninety nine percent of the time.


Conversely, since my guys usually out performed anyone else around, (but yes that may be taking liberties due to favoritism in my favor) I let them have certain leeway. Of course I love my country, but it was sort of a more libertarian philosophy on the “at ease” kind of time: so long as they weren’t doing anything to harm their selves or one another, about anything was fair game with an air of discreetness. The unwritten rule everyone knew was also I would disavow anything if there was any form of blowback towards me or my leadership. Do something and get busted for stupidity, and I expressly forbade it and let the culprit hang out to dry.


Professionally, I needed my men to respect me and also to understand there were certain rules I had to abide by. As much as it pained me, there were some things I was not at liberty to say and there was a lot of knowledge they knew they were not privy to. A lot of trust had to go on, and we all had a general idea that we had to just use that trust for a lot of thing; not just in the heat or thick of things. I made a vow to not place anyone in jeopardy for the sake of it, even if I can’t always tell men what they’re walking into.


All of this worked out swimmingly, and I never worried too much about the repercussions. This mechanism was far from broken.


If it was a perfect system, there would be nothing to write about. Perhaps a sentence saying, “Things were good.” Afterwards, it would be a very short story indeed. My path was a little less clear cut. If there is a possible upside to our combined agreement to write our tale from cradle to the trench, it might be the sake of therapeutic venting in the “dear diary” sort of way, and lead to a word I can’t think of but is not catharsis.


Swinging pendulum that my mind is, of course there is another side to it all. There’s that one thing I wish I could take back in some capacity, but I still don’t know why or how. Hopefully putting this all down helps me come to grips with it, and get some form of absolution for it; whether warranted or not.


This all started by the way if intel. It was obviously a game of a more modern day “telephone” where someone heard something and so on. A lot of this ends up on paper but usually passed via the spoken word a couple times beforehand. Just like a schoolyard rumor of a bully showdown, these reports generate:


Something is happening somewhere at some time. But other than that, the details are shaky.


The communique above is not too far off from the truth in a lot of cases. This is not to say we have reliable information often, but there is a strange chain of command when fighting an enemy which is also to be sided with at the same time. Correction: of course we are not per se SIDING with the enemy.


Analogies are the best way to get points across. Let me try at that again…

It’s like trying to get rid of bullying in a high school. There is a very small segment of pranksters which can’t always be handled with as much as hoped. The school’s staff and most of the students are all on board with the idea of eradicating this small but influential segment of the student population. Always sounds easier on paper than in practice.


Maybe not the best explanation but so much of it holds true. That modern anthropological oddity called high school holds so many explanations to unspoken questions.


Cutting to the heart of the matter, I was pulled aside for some off the record chat. I won’t reveal who or exactly what, but basically it sounded very similar to the fabricated communique of earlier. I was asked to handle a certain patrol in a certain area. Everything is rotated for a maximum amount of alertness. Being a night watchman following the same beat can lead to lax behavior. For the safety and security reasons, these guys all had a steady rotation of random patrols.


Normally I wouldn’t get such a heads up. Maybe this guy was looking out for me, or maybe he just wanted me to quash whatever trouble there was. Yet again, he could also have been trying to warn me this was something equal OR greater than something my men could handle.


Diplomacy can kill just as many as any war. Sounds random, but it all ties in. That’s just one of the many unique situations we’re faced with. Trying to listen to the other side even when it means that same listening might be all for naught and for our listening ears to catch a bullet in.


With a very formal version of, “Yeah thanks” I had to go on about the day. There we had it. The men were issued assignments and I did little more than the usual, “Let’s be careful out there” sort of not too heavy of banter. Part of the whole thing is the way everyone handles his or her self. Just like a quarterback before the match or a lead guitarist. Everyone prepares for the moment: whether it’s external or more internal.


Most soldiers are the internal type of preparers. They like to usually act it’s no biggie, but they know. For the most part, I try not to impress anything any more severe since I know it can throw off the subconscious on these guys just the same as someone nonchalantly saying “We’re all counting on you” or “This is the big one” basically. Best to keep the men in the dark.


Everyone knows this road is the most dangerous. Some sort of sand-soaked shenanigans are always happening here. It’s the Superbowl of firefights and IEDs. The whole encharito as a lot of my guys joked.


There could have been some sort of telegraphing men could have seen, but I highly doubt it. I would have liked to relay a bit more but I was worried of any chatter the guys would create – albeit with good intentions – that any unfriendly could intercept and use. One of two ways: jump into action elsewhere, or go quiet and plan something even bigger.


Maybe I can be a martyr at times since I do have a high opinion of my group. It’s like parents thinking their baby is the cutest or when older feeling they have the only kid that pulls down good grades. I don’t brag much or keep wallet sized various of the people I command (maybe a few group pics, guilty, but that’s for a whole different reason), but if backed into a corner I know my guys will always get us out; and as a team.


As far as the actual transpiring of events, I don’t care to get into all of that. I was never much of a storyteller unless I had a few fingers of something very decent and more in a one on one setting or a controlled group in the back. I am kind of old time like that, can’t help but admit. Most of my men can tell much whoppier of fish tales and retain most of the truth.


Despite what I said of staying cool and collected, there were a couple things I did. I let a few more come along than usual. Even an extra vehicle finagled out of the motor pool for the sake of a test. I also did have our music a little lower than usual and tried to make it look I needed the intercom this time for communication with the “test” vehicle and to check position. This was all for skewing things a little more in our favor. Did it work? Jury’s still out if the answer is coming from me.


I won’t give numbers or percentages. Not who went down and who seemed almost unscathed. Not even the people who won’t be back to their old selves. For all of us, not a one will ever be completely the same. I won’t discuss these finer details because in a way I feel it empowers those who caused it all. Plus I still don’t know what part of it could have been my fault, to examine the reverse side of the sword.


Not much differed from what I rattled off in my mental checklist. I did sit about where I usually was. I think of that for the sake of me ended up not as injured or disabled as the others. Maybe my conscience was the ultimate casualty speaking only for myself


When things went down, I sprang and put myself in every inch of danger as anyone else. Part of it was probably to show I was just as willing to risk myself for the good of it all. I never liked to stand behind my men for the fact I wasn’t looking for protection. I also didn’t like to stand in front of my men since there would be no way to know how far back they were backing me up. The best solution was to always walk alongside my men and prove I was engaging everything as equals; to the best I could. This is more proverbially but the men always knew it in their hearts I thought. Hopefully it continued in theory even after that day.


Things got hairy for me after all the grime and debris settled. The dust revealing the truth of it all. The path we would all later have to plod down. Some people like to think about destiny but I think sometimes things just happen. Regardless if I believe in destiny, or if what happened was just another restless thought when my mind is too idle.


“What if”s are as crippling as polio. An f’ed up statement to make, I know. F’ed up like polio. If the roles were reversed, I’m sure the same would have happened. I still wonder if I was more prepared hearing the news ahead of time or not. What if I blamed that guy for telling me rather than just being perfectly content with being blindsided and uttering some sort of “shit happens” generic variations.


I’m sorry, maybe it didn’t help to start drinking to look at the situation more objectively. Hell of a way to end things; just tipsy enough where I care too much rather than that blissful state of not caring. I think around mid-twenties that state actually leaves for good anyway.


One part is being just a little weaker in some ways. Maybe I’d always been this way but I’ve had the luxury of taking care of the luckiest flops of soldiers a guy like me can ask for – the flop being the cards dealt to one in poker, that is. These gays maybe elevated me to make me look way better than I was. Or it could have been my leadership skills making the best with what I had and knowing what kind of cultivating to do. Or me just being a lax SOB. Who helped them all enjoy themselves enough to give their all when it counted. It’s not very conducive to ask questions I know fool well can’t be answered.


More than anything, I hope I really am being too hard on myself. I know I had my own version of a retreat, and a little bit of a self imposed exile to go along with it. I never wanted to be one of those die hard life longer guy who gave his entire life (or the best part of it) to look back and think t was well spent as a way to placate himself. Hopefully this is just a phase I’m going through. I actually thought I was getting through it or at the tail end. There’s a new horizon somewhere but usually people are too blind to recognize a new era until it’s heading into its sundown.


This chain of events of “the incident” had far reaching effects; which I’m sure is well aware now; and a profound affect to it all as well. There will be a point of time I’ll be able to look back and shrug it off in the “c’est la vie” kind of way which all the macho types can accomplish; and without having to use French to accomplish either.


Honestly, much of this was where I was. Speaking about much of it is what kind of put me back there again. Not very macho of me, I know. I have more people around me now so things steadily improved. This war is a unique beast so I doubt anyone can be any sort of peer and have any naysaying to do. I’ve seen people buckle under far less, and I already understood it and had equal shares of sympathy empathy. All of this without even going through the particular ordeal to sideline me from the steady crawl I was on.


For all of us there was a path we all took separately. All having a similar experience in different ways: needing the time to handle it and cope. We all split apart whether we needed to or not. I suppose anything like that can make one close off. I was not sure who to trust after. Maybe my instinct would have let the right ones closer, but it took a lot for me to work though. I can only imagine how the others much have needed to work to get to a point similar to mine.


After a long time did pass, I decided to make good on some joking around we had. Part of me felt I couldn’t let things just end that way. So abrupt and scattered apart. Blazed like a comet, too far, too soon- or something like that. It was abrupt, and I think that’s what was the hardest for me.


People rotate in and out all the time and I am usually busy trying to handle some aspect of my job or life. Me shuffling some papers and giving a salute or handshake, depending on the situation or occasion. The idea is the machine keeps going no matter what parts are swapped out.


Sometimes we have to accept we are cogs. I didn’t think about it so much in the sense since I was inside that machine. But suddenly a whole batch of parts were jettisoned out like springs fleeing a watch.


That’s when I decided to come up with a plan to reach out. My brothers thicker from the blood of battle than the water of the womb. I reached out…


….And some of them reached back. But that is another tale if I ever decided the time is right.


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