If Knocked Down, I Will Get Back Up, Every Time
The mood at COP Craver Marvel was relaxed and the members of the squad were feeling pretty good about themselves. They had done their job and avoided casualties and did not even have to fire a round. It was the kind of incursion that the SEALs liked. None of them was the stereotypical, combat-hungry warrior portrayed in the movies. It was fine with them that their work had been done with a complete absence of drama. They all understood that this probably would not remain the case.
It had been three days since Abby and Penman returned from Darbat. Despite what Karmal thought about the villagers of Darbat, they were quite perceptive and noticed much more than the men of Karmal’s forces realized. Abby and Penman learned the names of some of the men who had passed through the village, as well as specifics about their clothing and weapons. Lieutenant Kelly was reviewing the information with Naval Intelligence and passing it through the CIA database. Abby was sure he had heard some of those names during his time in the Korengal Valley, and some of them were associated with the Taliban leader who for now was known only as “God’s Warrior.”
The Green Berets were still at the village when the remains of the tribal elder’s granddaughters were returned. The horror of Karmal’s intimidation tactic had the opposite effect of what he expected. Instead of instilling more fear and subservience in the people of Darbat, it galvanized them in their hatred of the Taliban. The Green Berets were experts at tribal relations, and were successful at bringing together the people of Ashat and Darbat to begin working together. They fed the village and were able to create an alliance between them. Karmal had miscalculated.
After a debriefing at the COP, the squad was able to stand down a bit and relax. They brought in some steaks, shrimp, and sausage and even managed to smuggle in a couple cases of beer. Boomer made a giant batch of Lowcountry boil, which the British SAS soldiers had never tasted. They became giant fans of southern cooking after that evening and contributed a couple bottles of good single malt Scotch whisky to the festivities. Later, everyone went to hang out in small groups or spend time alone.
Boomer retired to his rack to binge-watch Breaking Bad while most of the rest of the squad started a Texas Hold’em tournament. They were all hoping that Doc Burk would abstain since he was widely recognized as the best poker player at the Norfolk Navy Station, if not the entire Navy. They weren’t so lucky. Doc joined the game and patiently picked the other players apart until the entire stack of chips sat in front of him.
Todd was able to get off a couple emails back to Pennsylvania to let everyone know he was doing fine and missing them all. He took some time to himself, sitting outside with Zip and enjoying the cool air and gentle breeze of the evening. He sat in a beach chair with Zip by his side and threw a tennis ball against the side of the COP mud and stone wall. Zip caught it each time it came off the wall and dutifully dropped it by the side of the chair. Todd was lost in thought, mindlessly bouncing the ball off the wall, when Abby sidled next to him with his eyes downcast, uncharacteristically demure.
“Petty Officer Mitchell,” Abby began, “may I speak with you?”
Todd bounced the ball off the wall one last time and as Zip caught it, Todd began to direct him away so that he would not be close to Abby during their conversation, in accordance with their agreement.
Abby raised his hand to stop Todd. “Petty Officer, that won’t be necessary. In fact, this is part of what I would like to talk to you about.”
Todd, surprised at this turn, shrugged his shoulders and stopped Zip from moving away, signaling him to come instead. Zip plopped down beside him and occupied himself by chewing on the tennis ball.
“Mr. Mitchell, I believe I have misjudged you and Zip,” Abby said. This was the first time he had actually used Zip’s name. “I have never seen an animal perform in such a way as he did the other day at Darbat. He most likely saved Mr. Fox’s life and allowed us to find those weapons. This is truly a special animal.” Abby remained standing at parade rest with his hands behind his back. If he was going to humble himself and admit he was wrong, he was going to do it standing and in a dignified posture.
“Thank you, Abby. He is special and he is one of the team. This is what I’ve been working for. I’ve given him more privilege and included him in everything the squad does so that he knows us as his family. He does what he does not only because of his training, but because of the special loyalty and bond that we all feel as brothers in the SEALs. He is not a piece of equipment. He is a U.S. Navy SEAL as much as any one of us who survived BUD/S training. Now, the Navy may not agree with me on this but all of us in the squad understand. And I appreciate your sentiment.”
“Thank you. May I call you Todd?”
“Todd, as I misjudged you and Zip, I feel you may misjudge me, too. I know you have prejudice against Muslims and I can see the disgust on your face when you observe what we can do to each other and to outsiders—but this is not the way of Islam. At least not the Islam I was taught. My reading of the Koran has influenced a tolerance for all people. My family has always had a profound sense of charity as one of our primary tenets. We have seen that, for centuries, the Middle East was a center for science, architecture, medicine, government and law that influence even modern Western society. This is the Islam I dream of—a world where I am permitted to educate my daughters where they might achieve all their potential. I wish we could have civil discourse among all tribes and governments and put an end to the butchering. I fear I will never see this.
“You see, my options are limited. I watched the men play your poker game tonight and, although I am forbidden to gamble, I see that I am “all in” as they say during the game. If we are not successful here, the Taliban will hunt me down. They will hunt down my wife and children. I will no doubt be tortured and eventually lose my head. What they will do to my girls, I do not wish to even imagine.”
“Abby,” Todd politely interrupted, “Why are you telling me all this?”
“I have repeatedly applied for asylum for my family in the U.S. with the hopes that my wife and daughters might live in safety. I have already spoken to Scott about this and explained my situation but I want to explain myself to you, also. The bureaucracy of the situation is maddening. I understand your father is an attorney.” Abby paused, reluctant to beg a favor, forcing his pride into parade rest, too. “I do not ask of this for myself. I am willing to stay here and die for my cause if that is Allah’s will.”
“Abby, I don’t know what I can do for you. If you haven’t noticed, I am not the best politician and I am certainly not one of Lieutenant Kelly’s favorites.”
“You sell yourself short, Petty Officer. I feel you are one of the most respected people here, even if they are sometimes angry with you. They follow your actions and always listen to what you have to say, even Lieutenant Kelly.”
“I appreciate that Abby. I’ll see if we can help when I contact home again, but I can’t make any promises.”
“That is all I can ask,” Abby said. Then he reached down and petted Zip for the first time.
The temperature had dropped a few degrees and the wind slightly shifted. As Abby withdrew has fingers from Zip’s soft ears and rough mane, Zip suddenly snapped to attention and the black zigzag of fur on his back stood straight up. He jumped up on the edge of the compound wall and peered deep into the darkness, concentrating on something over on the other side of the helicopter landing zone. The muscles in his shoulders contracted and his tail and ears shot erect.
“Are we expecting anyone?” Todd said, trying to draw a bead on what Zip was staring at.
“I don’t know,” Abby said as he also looked out across the field.
The three stood motionless and peered into the night, looking for any sign of movement. Then, they saw it—a brief flash of light followed by a muffled thud.
“Down!” Todd yelled loud enough to be heard throughout the COP. “Zip, down!” he yelled again. Zip jumped off the wall, taking cover next to the compound structure.
Before Todd could get out another warning cry, the first explosion hit the top of the command bunker and was followed by two more mortar rounds of high explosive—one falling harmlessly right outside the front gate of the COP, but the second landing squarely on the living quarters. Within seconds of the third explosion, the British SAS sentry opened fire into the darkness towards the direction of the flash with his L1A1 .50 caliber heavy machine gun. Every third round, coated with phosphorus, glowed in the night. He guided the tracer rounds into the area of the flash and ran off another two hundred before stopping to check if there was any further activity.
As the echoes of the explosions and machine gun fire dissipated through the valley, Fox picked his head up to survey the damage.
“Boomer!” he cried as he gaped at the pile of debris that was once the squad’s living quarters.
Within seconds, fifteen men and one dog began to dig frantically through the wreckage, desperate to get to their friend. They hurled pieces of the structure aside and yelled for Boomer while they drove through the mess. Zip dug at the pile with the rest of the team, but he didn’t know exactly what they were looking for. He was overwhelmed with the smells of explosive residue, scorched plastic, and smoldering wood. The smells of the personal effects of every man on the team floated everywhere. After two minutes, they paused and yelled again. No response.
As they resumed the search with critical urgency, ten feet away from where they shoveled a massive fist punched through a cracked piece of plywood. Then, slowly, the heap of rubble shifted as the giant form of Boomer Stock emerged dressed only in boxer shorts.
“Dammit!” he said as he brushed the dirt and blood off his body. “Just when Walt was daring Jessie to shoot him.” Banged up but walking, it was typical Boomer—lightening the mood.
Doc Burk rushed up to him and examined Boomer for further trauma beyond the many visible cuts and scratches.
“I’m fine Doc, those assholes can’t hurt me. I’m like Wolverine. I heal right up again.”
“OK, Wolverine,” Doc Burk deadpanned. “Let’s get your butt to the infirmary and make sure.”
As the two walked off with Boomer straight as an arrow, unwilling to show the pain on his face, something caught Zip’s attention and he went back to work digging in the pile. The team watched him in silence as he burrowed with renewed determination like a terrier trying to ferret a rodent out of its hole. Todd wondered if they had missed someone but all the Brits and SEALs were accounted for. Soon, only Zip’s tail was visible, standing straight out. Then it began to wag as Zip backed out of the hole, his Frisbee in his mouth and a proud look on his face.
“Well, at least he has his priorities straight,” Angel chuckled.
As Zip shook off the dirt, Lieutenant Kelly emerged and commenced getting the team focused on the situation at hand.
“OK, let’s get a survey of the damage and see what we’ve lost. Radar, I want you and Angel to check the whole place and see what defenses may have been breached. Fox and Penman, start sorting through this mess and see what personal effects and bunks we can salvage. We’ll set up living arrangements in the infirmary and CP, for the time being. R.J.—”
“Take Abby, Mitchell, and Zip and coordinate with the Brits. Let’s get a little recon done and see if our visitors left anything.”
As the team moved into action, Kelly stopped R.J. and called him back to discuss what had happened.
“What do you think, Senior Chief?”
“I think we were lucky L.T.,” R.J. answered. “I also think we touched a nerve when we found those Tali party supplies back at Darbat. They were here for a little payback and their aim was pretty good. They got off three rounds of H.E. in pretty short order and I’ll bet our patrols find no trace. I also think they’ll be back. That was easy for them and they’ll think they can do it again.”
“Thank you R.J.,” Kelly said, acknowledging his opinion and dismissing the Sr. Chief to rejoin the patrol.
Lieutenant Kelly reflected on what R.J. had said and set about making a plan to deal with a potential return. He balanced the unknowns in his head. What was the meaning of the attack and what would be the next best course of action? He saw it in one of three ways, the first of which agreed with R.J.’s observations. This attack was simply revenge for finding the weapons. They’d do hit-and-runs and harass with no strategy other than to continually weaken the camp and prohibit them from ever relaxing. The second possibility was that this was a probing attack. They were checking the camp’s defenses to see what they were up against so they could prepare a larger attack with vehicles or suicide squads.
The last possibility was a taunting. They wanted the Americans to come after them, like a base runner daring the pitcher to try and pick him off. If this was the case, Kelly was tempted to take the bait. The upside was that they could capture a few of them and gain some valuable intelligence against this mysterious Mullah that the tribes feared so much. He would discuss all of this with Intelligence and Commander Heard back at Bagram to decide next steps.