Slightly revised version of this story that was submitted to the UMSL Litmag student publication. Story was not accepted for publication, but I still like this story.
Rescuing the Rescuer
The music of the copilot’s latest metal mix tape blared over the dropship’s comm system and over our armors’ mobile ad hoc network (MANET) as the pilot and copilot spun and twisted the vehicle to avoid surface to air missiles (SAM) and Air-to-Air attacks on our way to the ground below. While we felt the music through our armor, we still heard the roaring screams of aerospace fighters tearing by. Some to shoot SAMs and rail spikes out of the sky around us. Others to send more rail spikes and allow more SAMs in our direction to prevent us from reaching the ground. A few explosions thundered outside as missiles exploded dangerously close.
The music was supposed to distract us from the battles taking place outside as the dropship pilots attempted to grant us the opportunity to die on the ground before the occupying forces could kill us in the sky. It was always dangerous to drop into a hot landing zone (LZ), but we would not be the best if we did not always volunteer to go in first and to go in hot.
The dropship replaced the helicopter as the need to put troops on the ground continued to exist long after space-based platforms replaced the older land and sea-based platforms and made the helicopters impractical. Most dropship designs followed the same lines as the old helos: pilot on the right, copilot on the left, 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 and rotor blade assembly.
Over the suit net, I hear the retching of one of the new guys. At least it sounds like it is only dry heaves. He apparently learned quickly to trust and listen to the older NCOs when they told us to skip breakfast before a combat drop. Some new idiot usually thinks they know more than the old NCOs and ends up hurling inside of his armor. I was one of those idiots my first drop. The reward for your idiocy 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 pre-programmed into the computer at the copilot’s right knee.
“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 black sticky goo of 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 begins to rock side to side. We never heard the ‘out’ from the call with all the external sounds. Many of the US Defense Force (USDF) Marines looked around as if expecting to see the source of the sounds outside of the hull. The older and/or more experienced marines hoped and prayed that the source of the sound would remain a mystery.
The gunny calmly called out, “Emergency evac procedures, now.”
I glance quickly to the bottom right of the suit heads up screen display (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 open up to keep me alive for what is about to come.
A second crunch sound and a louder rip sounds as the outside light shreds away the normal darkness of the cargo bay. 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 members. As the floor falls away from below me, I hear the suit fire up its jump jets to slow my fall. I hear a secondary click as the chaff and flare systems begin firing off diversions for incoming fire.
From behind me, a fireball streaks off to my left. It might be the dropship flight crew’s ejection capsule. I hope it is the capsule. Otherwise, the ship and its crew just turned into a shooting star.
I hear screams over the net as flechettes and rail spikes 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 will not avoid the impact. I still do not open my eyes as I hear the acrylic face shield shatter from the impact and 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 see the water of the shower spraying out like rain over my face. I wince as the thunderstorm outside again booms overhead. The change in pressure from the storm coming in causes pain to rise at the joint of the right arm upper bone and the lower prosthetic metal. Little things take me back to that day.
Out of twenty marines on that dropship, I was the only one to reach the ground alive. A rail spike that should have pierced and killed me instead ripped my right arm off at the elbow. Somehow the suit sealed it up with the sticky black goo of the repair system and made sure that I lived.
Every day this gets harder. I lived. So many others died. Why me? The question remains unanswered as often as I ask it. I cannot answer it, and even if I could, I doubt the answer would 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 just wish that I would not wake up, but day after day, I still unwillingly open my eyes each morning.
The need to get out of the house builds up 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.
The redheaded girl stopped moving once she spotted me and just stood there 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 to my feet. My 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 returning to the direction from which she approached. 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. Something that fell out of the sky like a shooting star. I recognize the tail number amidst the remains of the dropship. It is the one I was on before all hell broke loose.
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 this 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 these buildings. Everything for a mile in all directions is a blazing inferno. The ship carried full fuel and ammunition loads for the hot drop in case there was a need to make extra diversions.
“There’s noth- … what is your name,” I ask instead.
“Emily,” she says. I see 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 sobs, “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 this battleground in Northern Europe. The shooting star that I saw shoot through the sky had plunged into a civilian neighborhood and became the inferno before us now. I felt helpless. I felt guilt.
“I am sorry. There is nothing I can do,” I spoke softly to her.
“But, you’re a space marine. You are supposed to save everyone,” 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, “It is too 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 honestly wished I did not have armor between myself and another in a combat zone.
I slowly lowered my hands to return the hug. I had seen the news vids on the nets. I knew the stories of the orphans left behind in the battles on both sides of the conflict being fought. I had never seen them in person, so I never gave it another thought once the vid ended and I went on to watch the next news vid. Now I confronted the one thing I had never given a serious thought to, a battlefield orphan resulting from actions I was 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 space marine. I can sometimes save everyone, but I cannot save your family. It is too late for them 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 city streets of 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 Emily tightly to me and carried her off the main road. I look up to see a fire truck speeding down the road headed directly towards us.
The fire truck honks as the driver sees me in its path. I swerved back into my lane just in time to miss the head-on collision with the larger rescue vehicle racing towards me on the road. I slammed on the brakes and stopped against the curb to my right. I blinked as the truck passed and I saw the fire chief’s smaller pickup truck stop next to me.
“You ok, son,” the older man asks as he looks me over.
“No, yes, just remembering something from the past,” I stammer out.
He gives me a knowing nod, pulls a small business card from his right breast pocket, and reaches across the distance between our two vehicles to hand me the card. “Give these folks a call. They can help. Trust me, I have been there myself.” He pats my arm as he drives away towards whatever emergency awaits him and the rest of his firefighters.
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 that now. My life is unmanageable in its current state and something has to change.
I sit at the kitchen table looking at the two choices before me. I look to my left at the cordless 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 at 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 and pull the trigger.
“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 am still fighting 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 local VA medical center 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, “Sergeant. Butler?” This was a name I had not been referred to in a very long time.
I looked up to see a middle-aged redhead woman. Something about her seemed familiar. However, I shrugged off the ghosts of the past and fought to try to remain in the present.
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 kept that promise.”
I felt my mouth fall 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. But, that little girl would grow up to become a psychiatrist working with veterans who suffered from PTSD in the hopes of saving as many of them as possible to return the favor granted by the man who fell from the sky so many years ago.”
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 rescued me twenty years ago. It is my turn now, let me rescue you today.”