This story was written for the ‘After the War’ short story contest at the Art of Future Warfare website. While this story did not win the contest, I still thought it was one of my better written projects.
Rescuing the Rescuer
The music of the copilot’s latest metal mix tape blared over the dropship’s comm system and over our armor MANET as the pilot and copilot spun, and twisted the vehicle to avoid SAM and Air-to-Air attacks on our way to the ground. While we felt the music through our armor, we still heard the roaring screams of our aerospace fighters tearing by to shoot missiles out of the sky around us. A few explosions thundered outside as missiles went off dangerously close.
The music was supposed to distract us from the battles taking place outside as the dropship pilots attempted to get us to the ground to die before the occupying forces could kill us in the sky. It was always dangerous to drop into a hot LZ, but we would not be the best if we did not always go in hot.
The dropship replaced the helicopter as the need to put troops on the ground continued to exist after space-based platforms replaced the older land and sea-based platforms and helicopters became impractical. Most dropship designs followed the same lines as the old helos: pilot on the right, cargo/troop bay behind cockpit, gun placements at the side windows and on the ramp, vertical takeoff and landing. About the only real change was the dropship could pressurize and larger engines replaced the old engine-driven rotor head.
Over the suit net, I hear the retching of one of the new people. At least it is only dry heaves, or that is how it sounds. He learned quickly to listen to the older NCOs when they told us to skip breakfast before a combat drop. Some of the new idiots think they know more than the old NCOs and end up hurling inside the armor. I was one of those idiots my first time. The reward is you get to wear foul-smelling armor for the rest of your time in battle. If you survive, you also get the bonus prize of cleaning out said armor after returning to the transport ship.
“Five out,” called the ship, relaying the distance to drop point.
“Alright, get ready you idiots,” came the call from our platoon’s gunny.
I blink through my ammo counts after the gunny’s call. Everything registers full counts. The suit reports 100% durability. I flick my eye over the go/no-go indicator at the top left and the green go light illuminates.
“Private Birch, you better be dead,” the gunny growled over the net.
“Sorry, gunny,” came the reply as the platoon go/no-go flipped green.
I cycled through adrenaline, atropine, and medical levels. All levels were topped off. The suit also reports the emergency suit patch systems at 100%. I flick over the second go/go-no indicator and the light turns green.
As the ship’s voice fades on the -ee sound, a screeching metallic ripping sound follows a loud crunch. Thunder sounds right outside the hull and the dropship rocks side to side. We never heard the ‘out’ from the call with all the external sounds.
The gunny calmly called out, “Emergency evac procedures, now.”
I glance quickly to the bottom right of the HUD and pull up the emergency menu. One line item moves to the top of the menu and I blink. As I reopen my eyes from the blink, a red button has appeared over the center of the HUD. I blink once on the red button. The confirmation message appears on screen. I blink twice for the ok and the suit seals up with a hiss as oxygen and pressure systems start up.
A second crunch and a louder rip sounds as the outside light shreds the darkness of the cargo bay apart. As the dropship begins to disintegrate around us, I hear a voice calling out, “Go, go, go.” I do not know if it is the gunny or one of the dropship crew. As the floor falls away below me, I hear the suit fire up jump jets to slow my fall. I hear a secondary click as the chaff and flare systems begin firing off diversions for the incoming fire.
A fireball streaks off to my left from behind me. It might be the dropship crew’s ejection capsule. I hope it is the capsule. Otherwise, the ship just turned into a shooting star.
I hear screams over the net as flechettes and rails rip apart marines on their way to the ground. I try to glace around for potential threats coming towards the smaller target I have surely become. As I glance to my right, something comes towards me at a high rate of speed. I close my eyes as I realize that I cannot avoid impact. I do not open my eyes as I hear the acrylic face shield shatter from the impact, but I begin to feel the falling rain on my face as a sharp pain rips into my right arm.
I bite my cheek to stifle a scream as I feel the med injectors pinch into my skin and hear thunder crash overhead. I open my eyes and feel the water of the shower spraying out like rain on my face. I wince as the thunderstorm outside booms overhead. The change in pressure from the storm coming in causes pain to rise at the joint of right arm bone and prosthetic metal. Little things take me back to that day.
Out of 70 marines on that dropship, I was the only one to reach the ground alive. A rail that should have pierced me instead ripped my right arm off at the elbow. Somehow I lived.
Every day this gets harder. I lived, so many died. Why me? The question goes unanswered as often as I ask it. I cannot answer it, and even if I could, I doubt the answer will bring any comfort. Someone at the VA suggested something called survivor’s guilt. Maybe. I just know the feeling is overwhelming and I feel helpless against it. My life feels like it is slowly unraveling into an unmanageable mess. Some days I wish I just would not wake up, but day after day, I still unwillingly open my eyes in the morning.
The need to get out of the house explodes into an almost panic and I grab my keys to go for a drive. As I pass the local middle school, I see a little redhead girl looking across the open space of the schoolyard. She is looking right at me. Her eyes and mouth wide open as she spots me. Her face covered in dirt or soot. Her clothes tattered, ripped, burned.
After the med auto injectors dealt out the meds that would keep me alive, the suit’s emergency landing sequence initiated. Or, at least, I assumed that is what happened since I woke up in pain but relatively one piece. My arm is still missing below the elbow but I can tell the emergency seal has applied.
She stopped moving once she spotted me, just staring at me. Once she realizes she has my attention, she half turns and points behind her, never taking her eyes from mine. As I follow her hand, I see smoke rising above the buildings behind her. Something has fallen here. Theirs or ours, I wonder as I slowly stand. Eyes still locked with hers. She is pleading for help with her eyes, even though she does not approach me. She turns to walk back down the road she approached me from; I follow behind her, keeping a distance so to not scare her away.
As we pass the first building, I see what she wants to show me. A series of houses has collapsed and caught fire from the impact of a burning heavy object. I recognize the remains of the dropship I was on before the drop.
She sees my eyes on the remains of the ship and speaks for the first time to me, “My mother is home. I was coming home from school as that fell on my house. My father’s shop is in the building across the street.” Her eyes plead, beg, for me to do something.
I know there is no way anyone is alive in there. Everything for a mile in all directions is an inferno. The ship had full fuel and ammunition loads for the hot drop.
“There’s noth- … what is your name,” I ask instead.
“Emily,” she says. I see the tears starting to swell in her eyes.
“How… how old are you, Emily,” I ask, trying to keep her focused on me instead of the inferno behind her.
“I turned twelve last week,” she answers. Then she adds, “My sisters were home, too.” Then, the tears began to flow.
My heart broke at the site of the tears. My dropship fell from the sky over a battleground in Northern Europe. The shooting star plunged into a civilian neighborhood and became the inferno before us now.
“I am sorry. There is nothing I can do,” I spoke softly to her.
“But, you’re a marine. You can save anyone,” she spoke angrily as the tears flowed freely.
“Usually. Sometimes. But, it is too…” I choked on the words I regretted having to tell a child, “late for all of them. No one could survive the heat of that fire.” Tears began to cloud my vision of hell on earth as I sputtered out another, “I am sorry” as I raised my hands in a gesture of surrender.
Emily rushed towards me. She yelled, “I hate you!” as she banged her fists on the armor. She sobbed a “This is all your fault!” as you she broke into full tears and her fists stopped hitting the armor.
Her fists slowly unclenched as she wrapped her hands around me and just cried. For the first time in my career, I wished I did not have armor in a combat zone.
I slowly lowered hands to return the hug. I saw the news vids on the nets. I knew the stories of orphans left behind in the battles both sides fought. I never saw them in person, so I never gave it another thought after the vids ended and I watched the next news vid. Now I confronted the one thing I had never given a serious thought to, a battlefield orphan that resulted from actions I directly engaged in.
After a silence that felt like an eternity slowly going by, I finally spoke with a clarity that surprised myself, “You are right, Emily. I am a marine. I can save anyone. I cannot save your family, but I can still save you. Will you let me do that?”
She shook her head up and down. Emergency responders were finally able to move across the improvised battlefield as whatever battle ended in the distance. I still did not know who had won. As I heard a distant siren getting louder, I grabbed her tight to me and carried her off the main road. I look up to see a fire truck speeding down the road directly towards us.
The fire truck honks as the driver sees me in its path. Then, I swerved back into my lane just in time to miss a head-on collision with the larger rescue vehicle racing towards me on the road. I slammed on brakes and stopped against the curb to my right. I blinked as the truck passed and I saw the fire chief stop next to me.
“You ok,” the older man asks as he looks at me.
“No, yes, just remembering the past,” I stammer out.
He gives me a knowing nod, pulls a business card from his right breast pocket, and reaches over to hand me the card. “Give these folks a call. They can help. Trust me, I have been there.” He pats my arm as he drives away towards whatever emergency awaits him.
I slowly drive back home knowing I need to do something. The memories are getting dangerous. One minute I am home doing something, then some small thing takes me back to that battlefield so long ago. I am powerless to beat this on my own and I recognize it now. My life is unmanageable in its current state.
I sit at the table looking at the two choices before me. I look to my left at the phone and the card the fire chief gave me representing option one, to get help. I glance to my right where the pistol represents option two, to check out for the final reveille. My hands shake as I try to make the decision. I close my eyes as my hand hovers over the choices. Gun or phone? Gun or phone? I make my choice.
“Hello. Thank you for calling Veteran Crisis Line. My name is Nicholas. How can I help you?”
“I need help. I cannot leave the war behind. It has been twenty years and I still fight it.”
“We can help. I can get you in for an emergency visit with Doctor Brennan. She specializes in PTSD cases and has an opening this afternoon. Can you get to the VA now?”
“Yes, I’m about 15 minutes away. I will head there now.”
“Great, can I get a name to schedule against?”
“Zachary Butler,” I answered.
“Great Mr. Butler, Dr. Brennan will be expecting you.”
I made the drive and found the clinic. I gave them my identification and they directed me to a waiting room. A few minutes later, I heard a voice call out, “Mr. Butler?”
I looked up to see a middle-aged redhead woman. Something about her seemed familiar. However, I shrugged off the ghosts of the past.
I followed her to the small room where a few chairs were place semi close and took a seat. Over the next hour or so, I gave her my story about that day in Northern Europe twenty years ago.
As I finished my story, she gave me a smile. She said, “Let me tell you the story of how I came to be an expert in PTSD. Twenty years ago a man who fell from the sky rescued a young orphan in a war zone. She lost her entire family due to actions that were beyond either of their control. The man from sky made a promise to rescue a little girl that day. And, he did.”
I felt my mouth open with the surprise. Could it be? After all these years?
She continued her story, “That little girl suffered from PTSD as she grew up, but she was helped by many counselors who helped her make it out of her past. That little girl would grow up to become a psychiatrist working with veterans who suffered from PTSD.”
The recognition from earlier kicked in as a tear fell from my eye and I asked, “Emily?”
She shook her head yes, as she had twenty years ago. Then she said, “You saved me twenty years ago, let me save you today.”