Wednesday, March 24, 2010
I’d had a couple of options on my morning chores. I could sit in the command car, and absorb information as it came in; I could head out into Sterling just behind the advance units from Third Washington, who were conducting an inventory and assessment of the town; or I could help with the basic mission for us in Sterling, retrieval of Sixth Army.
I chose the last.
The portion of the battlefield we’d first clear reached from Factory Street south to County Road Twenty Six, an open field that had been some of the heaviest concentration of Sixth Army’s central line. South of Twenty Six, the land had been subdivided into smaller parcels with small hobby farm sized lots. The Sixth had some units scattered in that area as well, mostly west along the South Platte River.
We’d work from the wreckage of what looked like a sugar beet mill to the south--the mill had been burned, quite recently. A squad from the Second Battalion stood patiently, waiting for the Combat Engineers to clear the area for our team to start retrieval. I hadn’t asked to join a squad, I looked over the ten squads tasked with the morning efforts and picked one.
“Sir, something I can do you for?” A First Sergeant named Jones asked me.
“Come to lend you a hand, First Sergeant,” I said, pulling on medical-grade gloves before putting my outer gloves back on. “Everyone in the Brigade will be doing this. Figure I’d lead by example.”
He looked very surprised, then resumed his normal demeanor. “Very good, Colonel. Engineers should be ready for us in about ten minutes. You might want to look this over, though, sir,” he said, pointing to a concentration of his squad, looking at something on the ground.
“What is it?” I asked as we walked over, the men making room for us.
“One of the canisters that released the gas. The Engineers figured that it’s a converted propane tank—big bastard, too. Remote control and release valve is there on the side, Colonel.”
“How many have they found so far?”
“So far, one every two hundred yards or so. That translates into a shitload of them, sir. Engineers are checking for any that didn’t go off, in addition to booby traps and IED’s that the S.A. might’ve left us. No reports of any of that. One undetonated device, a couple miles north—that’s where the prisoners were captured, Colonel.”
“Pretty impressive use of tactics and unconventional weapons. I hope we have the chance to pay them back in kind.”
“I think everyone’s of the same mind, Colonel.”
Within a few more minutes, we were given the all-clear to begin retrieval operations in an area a couple hundred yards deep.
Sixth Army had been hit in the early morning hours, probably around three in the morning, from the reports I’d read. Those that were roused by the sound of the venting nerve gas had a chance to get outside of their tents and shelters, in time to have the gas hit them and drop them where they stood. Those that were not in earshot were killed where they slept, as the colorless gas saturated the atmosphere.
Initial analysis showed that the weapons were triggered not-quite simultaneously, working from west-to-east, with a light prevailing wind. This directed the majority of the gas concentration from the release points—mostly along U.S. Highway Six—toward the South Platte. Sixth Army was between the highway and the river, where the brush and terrain prevented any escape. A well-planned attack, calculated to kill everyone.
The first victims we found were outside of their tents, not dressed for the cold weather, obviously warned that something was going on. I’d never seen a frozen body before, translucent skin, hands gripping an M-16 and a belt of spare mags. All ranks. All races. Men and women, dead on the frozen field.
We worked quietly, a few men working together, to identify each soldier, remove him from the frozen ground and thin snow cover or frozen tent or sleeping bag, and other men retrieving personal effects. The dead were placed in body bags, with much effort and using means that would offend an ‘average’ person, further indignities inflicted upon the dead. The final rotation of the process included weapons and ammunition removal. Further clearing would remove tents and other equipment, destined to be reused by soldiers who wouldn’t know the history of the equipment in their hands or over their heads.
Three hours of this work left the squad drained emotionally and physically. We were all ready for a break when our relief team showed. The morning field squads would rotate through cleanup, then the mess cars, and then on to other work apart from body removal. I had enough ‘command’ issues to deal with to occupy my time, if not relieve my mind from the mornings’ work.
I cleaned up, took lunch in the command car, as my eyes moved over the words and images on the screens in front of me. By thirteen-hundred, it was time to get moving again. Outside of the command car, a steady stream of dead received last rites from the chaplains gathered from various units. The first Lone Star soldiers were loading on boxcars, getting ready for departure.
“Colonel, we’re going to have visitors,” Captain Shand told me as I put my parka back on, getting ready for my next task.
“What’ve we got, Captain?”
“Under a thousand civilians, moving up from Denver and coming south out of the hinterlands, sir. About an hour and we’ll start seeing the first of them.”
“I hope they’re bringing their own supplies.”
“Yeah, I was thinking that myself, Colonel.”
“We have any idea where they’re going? Are they from Sterling?”
“Don’t know for sure, sir. Colorado Guard has cleared them, so I’d bet CNG knows what they’re carrying, sir.”
“With all this commo gear you can’t get an answer?”
“CNG’s equipment is pretty thrashed, sir. Calling it a patchwork would be generous. We actually got the relay direct from Austin.”
“Great. All right, are they at least coming in on a couple of roads? We can at least checkpoint them there,” I said.
“New Mexico’s already got that covered—and every other entry into the area, Colonel.”
“All right, we’ve got an hour. What’s the status of the recon through Sterling?”
“Thirty-six dead civilians so far. Pre-War population was around thirteen thousand. There’s about two hundred residents still here, Colonel. Second and Third recon teams are moving toward the middle of town. They should rendezvous at what’s left of the Logan County Courthouse within about twenty minutes, sir. I believe that Lieutenant Colonel Chappel should be here any minute for your trip into town.”
“Any report on the status of the CNG facilities here?”
“Not yet sir, not by Third Washington, anyway. We’ve seen some digital pics from the initial recon sweep, which aren’t good for anything.”
“Good chance we’re not here long enough to make use of them anyway. It’d be good to have an idea though for staging materials for the forward areas,” I said, as Lieutenant Colonel Trayvon Chappel came inside.
“Colonel Drummond, good to see you sir.”
“You as well, Colonel. I wish we were watching your Grambling Tigers playing Southern today, rather than this.”
“Yes, sir, that would be a pleasure. I understand you were in the field this morning with Sergeant Jones squad.”
“Yes, I was. I’ll do that when I can. Good men he’s got there. I think they’re working on the last of resupply for the Lone Stars this afternoon. Pass on my compliments to them. They worked their asses off.”
“I’ll do that, sir.”
“Captain, keep me apprised of the civilian approach. I’ll meet them out at the outer checkpoint when they come in. Gotta see this for myself.”
“Yes, sir. Your radio’s on the rack over there, with the headset there on the left.”
“Thanks,” I said as I grabbed the light radio unit, checked the frequencies of the day, and power. The headset was matched to the unit, and wireless. Pretty slick. “OK, Colonel, let’s go to town.”
Outside, I noticed that the Lone Star command tent was now down and being packed, and General Garcia personally overseeing the loading of her men and women and all their gear, getting ready to get back in the fight. The wind was blowing a little harder, and the overcast seemed to be lowering. My ribs hurt.
“Colonel, let’s go give our regards to our friend the General,” I said. “I’d like to shake her hand before she heads out.”
“Hear she’s a real firecracker, sir.”
“Fair assessment, I think,” I said as we approached General Garcia, and caught her eye.
“General Garcia, this is Lieutenant Colonel Chappel, commander, Second Brigade. Thought we’d pay our respects before you head east.”
“Thank you, Colonel, and Colonel Chappel, I believe that I saw you help beat my alma mater a few years back.”
“Been more than a few years ma’am, since I played,” he said with a grin.
“San Diego State. I think you stopped our team from scoring three times that day. My husband yelled until he was hoarse.”
“That was a good day, ma’am, thank you.”
“Looks like you’re getting close, General,” I said.
“We are, Colonel. Third Washington is a compliment to your state. I have a tough time believing these men haven’t worked together as a unit for months.”
“Most’ve seen action of a different kind, General. We’ve already had eleven months of survival of the fittest, with the occasional skirmish thrown in to keep everyone on their toes.”
“Understood. Thanks again to you and your men. I look forward to seeing you down the road.”
“Ma’am,” I said as I shook her hand. “It’s been an honor. And good hunting.”
“To the ends of the Earth, Colonel,” she said as Chappel and I saluted her smartly, and left her to her duty.
Two men from Chappel’s brigade joined us on the trip ‘into town’, one backseater armed with his M-16C, the second manning the top-mount machine gun, in the cold. I believe that he drew short straw.
From Factory Street, we headed west to Division Avenue, and headed north. We passed several blocks of burned out business on our right, abandoned homes to the left. A Catholic school seemed to have drawn particular attention, with numerous cars and trucks driven into the building and grounds, and burned. There wasn’t a wall on that building that wasn’t pock-marked with bullet holes.
At Fourth Street, we turned right slightly, following the angled road, and saw the wrecked and smoldering Classical Revival building. I suppose it once had a domed roof, now collapsed, and the source of a fair amount of smoke.
“Damn. What’d these people do to deserve this?” I asked.
“Escaped inmates probably did this, sir,” Chappel replied. “We found a fair number of dead dressed in prison jumpsuits this morning. Civilians didn’t go down without a fight.”
“What’s this town got left that’s not destroyed?” I asked.
“This area’s really the worst of it. Some of the business district is untouched. There’s hardware store down by the highway that looks like they just locked it up and walked away. One broken window, no looting, I couldn’t figure that one out, sir. Most of the residential areas seem OK, other than lack of power.”
“How about water?”
“It’s in the pipes, sir, but no power means no pressure. We were expecting Prime Power to assist us with tracking down problems like that. Things look repairable, we just don’t know where the feed to the city has been disrupted. Everything’s dead.”
We met up with the recon sweep units, who briefed me on the locations of civilians and their status, the overall condition of Sterling, and of course, the threat analysis as viewed from the ground. When we’d wrapped that up, I ordered additional troops to provide regular patrols throughout the town and to relocate a couple of the poorly located observation and security posts. I also ordered that our troops direct civilians to our location if they needed any supplies until outside connections could be re-established.
Checkpoint Able, off of Interstate Seventy Six, was composed of four Humvee’s, one Bradley, and twenty men from Charlie Company, Second Battalion and fifty men from New Mexico. Chappel and I arrived just after the first civilian vehicles had been seen by long distance spotters.
Within a few minutes, the rag-tag caravan from Denver was at the checkpoint. The vehicles—mostly SUV’s and three-quarter ton four-by-fours with canopies—were each searched, along with the civilians. The first truck flew the Colorado state flag, along with a home-made version of our ‘new’ national flag.
Chappel oversaw the search process, while I spent some time with the driver and passenger from the first truck. He looked about sixty, barrel-chested, close-cropped hair.
“Good afternoon. You’ve got quite the caravan here, sir,” I asked. “I’m in command in Sterling. I’d like to know your business in this area.”
“I’m Jess Armstrong, Colonel. Twenty years, Air Force. Can’t serve anymore due to a new heart valve, and I’m sixty-six,” he said. “Colonel, most of us are from Denver. Some from Colorado Springs. We’ve come to help bring these soldiers home. They helped get us free of the S.A. in Denver. We owe them. We know some of them. I had a couple stay at my house.”
I hadn’t expected this, of course. We had a whole other plan in place, and I wasn’t sure how to integrate a civilian volunteer element into the equation.
“Mr. Armstrong, we are charged with this task. I realize you’ve traveled a fair distance, but this really isn’t an operation for civilians.”
“Colonel, I have five hundred and sixty people who’d respectfully disagree. We don’t need anything from you or your men. We do need to do this though, sir. Not want to….need to.”
I could understand his sentiment, and as the sweep team moved to the third vehicle in line, I realized that sooner or later we’d need to work with civilians, either here or somewhere down the line.
“Mr. Armstrong, I assume you retired out?”
“I did, Colonel. Chief Master Sergeant.”
“And they haven’t found a duty station for you?”
“Like I said, Colonel, I’m not in the prime of health these days.”
“Chief, I’m betting there’s still a wealth of knowledge up there,” I said, pointing at his head. “I also know I’m going to lose this situation, Chief. Teams still have to clear your vehicles and the civilians. I’ll figure out a staging area for you. We’ll need you to have team leaders go over protocol, same as our men.”
“We can do that, Colonel. I appreciate it.”
“I’ll probably catch Hell, but in won’t be the first time.”
“Good officers know where they can bend the rules, sir.”
“Or ignore them outright. I’m new at the officer business, Chief, but I agree. Be back with you in a few minutes.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I walked back around the Humvee’s and told the command car to start planning on a logical staging area for our civilian grave detail.
“Best place, Colonel, is over at the junior college. Big parking lot, easy to secure, short walk to Command. We can probably swing some power generation over there, too,” Captain Gerry McGowan, our logistics guy, said.
“Sounds fine, Captain. Figure out a traffic cop for them, or five, and get them set up. It’s starting to snow down here, and we only have about two hours of daylight left and we’re pretty much out of the field for the day.”
The snow was starting to pick up, along with the wind. We’d get some weather yet, it seemed.
Dusk brought more wind, turning the battlefield into drifts of light snow around the bodies, tents, and equipment.
The Combat Engineering teams made faster progress than the retrieval operation, and by the cessation of work for the day, half of the battlefield had been cleared for body removal. Most of the on-duty command staff was pre-occupied with a snowstorm of their own, real-time battle data coming in on a major firefight on the southern front of the S.A., in retreat from northern Oklahoma, moving towards Wichita. Two of the Georgia Bulldog officers were listening in as well, commenting on tactics and pondering the enemy.
I’d listened in for a half-hour or so, finding much if it over my head, although the tactical side was intriguing. I was also unaware that the S.A. had as much armor as was engaged along the line: If the satellite imagery was to be believed, the S.A. had more than three hundred tanks and hundreds of other vehicles moving north in a controlled pullback, against the five hundred M1A2 and A3 tanks of the Army. They apparently had more armor, further north and east.
While the tank battle was tipping in favor of the U.S., without air support in the form of the A-10 Warthog and depleted uranium shells, the fight was much more evenly matched than our previous fights in the Middle East. We still had A-10’s of course, but there was no defense for them against dozens of SAM’s fired each time they approached. I wondered if the Air Force had other ideas, other ordnance that could be used without wiping out civilians behind the lines.
There was no ‘routine’ to the day; perhaps there wasn’t one in the position I was now in. Most of Third Washington was pulled from the field and other units working toward moving east, to follow the Texans or to head straight east in their own engagement. Their respective commanders were anticipating a jump-off within the next twenty-four hours, after the expected orders were given from Austin.
I decided to go see how the civilians were settling in, as directed by some of Bryce Atwood’s Fifth Battalion. Fifth was currently tasked with night operations, with shifts coming on line overnight to keep the Brigade in operation while the rest of the men stood down. The rotating schedule would have them on ‘day shift’ in a couple more days, for their time in the recovery operation. I was joined by Chet Travis, for the short trip over to Northeastern Junior College. Chet wasn’t scheduled to be on duty for hours yet, but nonetheless was in the command car.
“Chet, you had a look around town yet?” I asked.
“Yes, sir. The college in particular. Quite a bit of it is pretty messed up. Left their big arena alone. Trashed the library and most of the offices. Didn’t burn them though.”
“You’ve had a chance to read through the initial recon reports,” I stated. “Do you think this is typical of what we’re going to see the S.A. leave behind?”
“Frankly, Colonel, no. There aren’t enough bodies left here to make it ‘typical’. What I’ve read about southern Colorado, and parts of Denver for that matter, they killed anyone in their way. Some for sport, it seemed,” he said as we approached the college campus, parking lot lit with some jury-rigging from our electrical engineers. Chet pulled the Humvee into the parking lot, and I pointed out Jess Armstrong’s truck and camper.
“Nice to see some lights,” I said. They said to me, ‘civilization.’
“Engineer group said they’ll be a week or so finding all the damage locally, sir. Problem is though, there isn’t power coming into town from the main grid. Nothing we can do about that, which really means that we shouldn’t even try to fix most of the local stuff. Might be different if the power was actually coming into the town.”
“I’d come to that conclusion myself. Not really in my nature to leave a job half-done though.”
“More support behind us to take care of that, Colonel.”
“Probably so, long time in coming, I’d bet.”