Wednesday, March 31, 2010
“Here’s one of the worst sections, sir. Pretty sure this won’t see network time,” Lieutenant Susan Kirchener said. The lieutenant and her platoon were trapped in North Platte when the S.A. front line troops arrived en masse. Our senior staff along with all five battalion commanders were watching the digital video, taken over several days of occupation. The bulk of the data was being uploaded to the communications centers’ computers, and then compressed and sent to Austin, unedited and without comment.
“Colonel, these were taken from one of our remote cameras, we had six. We were in the basement of a warehouse a half a click from their headquarters. Good thing we were underground, or the Air Force would’ve cooked us for sure. We deployed the cameras around our position just before the S.A. moved in—too late to get out safely. The cameras kept us aware of what was going on around us.”
“They didn’t search, Lieutenant?” Captain McGowan asked.
“Spotty, Captain. Our warehouse had a big ‘foreclosure’ sign on it, so they probably figured, correctly, that there wasn’t anything in it.”
“You did well getting your crew this, Lieutenant,” Gerry said as we watched a dozen S.A. troops change magazines. They then opened up on around fifty civilians backed into a corner. None appeared to be a particular threat. Something bothered me about it, more than what I knew must be coming. I couldn’t put my finger on it though. It reminded me of that Russian school…in Beslan.
The camera, although small, picked up every detail, and the muffled screams of the massacre.
“This is what we’re fighting, sir. There are piles of dead up there, or were when we left. We have three massacres like this, within two hundred meters of our location. We were outnumbered a thousand to one,” she said, starting to break down. “Everyone…the civilians knew we were there. They didn’t tell the enemy. They died ……not telling them.”
“Lieutenant, that’s enough for now. Let’s get you out of here for a while,” I said. “Captain Fillmore will see that you get set up. Adam’s also our brigade chaplain, Lieutenant. Go get some hot food and some rest.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant,” I said, shaking her hand before Fillmore led her out of Command as the video continued, then switched scenes, shocking everyone.
“Christ Almighty,” one of the specialists said without thinking. “That guy just shot a kid. Just walked up and shot him!”
“Briggs, rewind that…no, get me the first massacre.”
He found the scene, coded on the hard drive, and played it. There it was again.
“Get the next one,” I said.
“Do it, Briggs,” I said. “Anybody else see something about these that doesn’t add up? Briggs, get me Austin. I want to talk to my boss about this.”
“Holy shit. Look at that,” Epstein, Third Battalion’s commander said.
“Yeah. You figured it out, Colonel Epstein. Good for you,” I said.
It was all of five minutes before Briggs was able to connect me to Austin, where their staff was just starting the review of the images.
“Major, I assume you’ve seen some of this video from North Platte?”
“About three minutes of it, Colonel Drummond. Intel is going through it all. It’ll take some time even with two dozen staff working it.”
“You plan on putting this out, Major?”
“For the public? That’s a call for the General Yancey, the Joint Chiefs, and the President, Colonel Drummond.”
“Major, you can bet money that this isn’t the only imagery of a five year old being executed. Have you seen that?”
“No, I haven’t, Colonel,” he said, sounding as disgusted as any human ought to.
“You better, Major, and damned quick. The soldier carrying that out was carrying an M-16, and was dressed in Sixth Army gear and insignia. They all were. There’s a videographer filming the whole damned thing. He’s ten feet behind the guy that shot the kid.”
“Damned right. They’re setting this up to make us look we did this. Seems to me the sooner we get out with the facts, the better.”
“Sir, I’ll get this up the chain of command as soon as I can.”
“Much appreciated. Third Washington out.”
The command car was quiet as my transmission ended. I didn’t know what to say next, and I doubted that anyone else did either.
“Damn it all to Hell,” I said. “Ayers, Briggs, get an honest, condensed version of Lieutenant Kirchener’s video put together. Third Washington is going to see a version of this. Have it ready by reveille. Everyone sees this tomorrow, everyone. Everyone gets a briefing. Whole Brigade. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” Ayers said.
“Battalion commanders, fifteen minutes after reveille, every man in Brigade watches this, then back to assigned duties. Spread the word. Dismissed,” I said. Minutes later, the command car was empty, but for duty staff and two additional computer techs, who’d take over the duties of Ayers and Briggs. I sat alone in my command cube, thinking about what I’d seen.
“Sir? Communication from Colorado Guard. Joint Force HQ rep’s been delayed. Says they’re coming on the resupply train, sir.”
“Very well. Thanks,” I said. “Kennedy, grab me a phone.”
“Yes, sir. One moment.”
It’d been only two days since I spoke with Karen. It felt much, much longer. Private Kennedy came back in with the phone.
“Comm protocol same as last time, sir,” he said, reminding me that he’d be listening, and that there’d be a slight delay on the call. I dialed Karen’s number.
“Hello?” Carl answered.
“Well, my son, how’re you doing?”
“Hey, Dad! Where are you?”
“At work. Can’t tell you where. Everything OK?”
“Yeah, things are pretty good. Everyone misses you. Me included.”
“You, too, bud. You shouldering my load?”
“As much as Mom and Uncle Alan and Ron will let me. Which isn’t all that much.”
“They’ll lighten up a little. Give them time. Just don’t push too much. How’s Kelly?”
“She’s over with Grandma and the ladies. She’s helping with the home-care. Doesn’t like it, but she’s helping.”
“Perfectly understandable,” I said. “Is your Mom home?”
“She’s just coming back in from the barn…evening egg round-up. Here she is—take care, Dad. Love you.”
“Love you too, Carl,” I said before Karen took the phone.
“Hey! This is a surprise!”
“Had a spare minute,” I said.
“You don’t sound good. Are you OK?”
“Not a great day. Everything up there going all right? Grace doing OK?”
“She has her moments, that’s for sure. Couple more days, I hope she’ll settle in a little bit better.”
“Curfew still in place?” I asked.
“Yep. Until Monday at least, the news says. Ron had the store open today for a couple of hours. All of the stores were open at some point, but not at the same time. Staffing and supply nightmare for the guys.”
“I’m sure the buyers don’t care for it a whole lot either.”
She was quiet on the other end of the line for a moment. “Can’t talk about it, can you?” knowing that I wanted to, and couldn’t.
“Nope. I’d like to though. Some day.”
We spent a few more minutes on the line, and said our ‘I love yous’ and ‘goodnights’, and I promised I’d call again when I could.
I think in the end, I felt worse after the call than before.
Saturday was filled with recovery and body removal, done in shifts as the cold winds took their tolls on the field crews.
I’d risen before reveille, shaved and showered, and spent the first couple of hours of daylight in the field with Fifth Battalion, working recovery. Jess Armstrong’s civilian volunteers were spread throughout the days’ three field operations. When the Volunteers weren’t in the field, they were assisting Sterling residents to get back to their homes and try to settle in. I’d assigned Fourth Battalion a sweep operation, along with the Combat Engineers, once they’d completed the sweep of the battlefield.
By eleven hundred hours, I was chilled to the bone and ready to spend some time studying the attack on Sterling. Army tacticians assigned to the Colorado Guard were piecing together the events on the battlefield, but I didn’t understand and didn’t know of any one looking into, why the S.A. didn’t burn Sterling to the ground like every other small town in their path. Things were different here, and I wanted to know why.
There were key differences here. Only some of the commercial zone was looted, some not even broken into or damaged in any way. Civilians were alive when the first recovery units arrived, although in hiding. It was a break in the S.A. pattern. I didn’t understand it, and wouldn’t understand it any time soon, it seemed.
“Colonel, there’s a Major Conrad Long here to see you, from the CNG Joint Force HQ.”
I thought, ‘and about damned time,’ but said, “Send him in, Private.”
“Good afternoon, Colonel. Sorry for the delay. I’m Major Long,” he said with a swift salute.
“Major. How was the trip out?”
“First time I’ve made a train trip next to the engineer. Interesting, sir.”
“Major, what brings you out here?”
“CNG will re-occupy the Sterling facilities within the next forty-eight hours, sir. We expect to have several hundred troops arrive with the return train from Colorado Springs.” The train to Colorado Springs held the remains of Sixth Army’s soldiers.
“Major, are you supplied well enough to do that? We have a fair number of civilians just arrived from North Platte last night, electricity is dependent on Third Washington’s rail-mounted generating plant, and everything out here depends on that. No power, no water, no heat.”
“Arrangements are being made to ship several temporary generators in from Arizona, sir. I’d like to know though sir, how long you anticipate being in Sterling.”
“By the end of the day, we should have sixty percent of the body recovery complete and those recovered will be on their way to Colorado Springs. Anticipate a quick turnaround of that train, and expect completion of body recovery by the end of the day tomorrow. Recovery and refit of equipment, probably another twenty-four hours. I’m expecting orders from Austin tomorrow on our next destination. So, by Sunday, we should be out of here and on the rails.”
“I’ve noticed that the New Mexico and Arizona units are packing up, sir. Anything you can share on their schedules, Colonel? I’ve been in and out of touch with Command since last night. Actually, the State Command Center is pretty much in the Stone Age, sir. Nothing like the capabilities you have here.”
“End of the day they’re supposed to be on the road. We shut down recovery operations at dusk, by and large. Not enough portable lighting to go around. Their forces will move east to the US Eighty Three corridor in Kansas, using their own vehicles and quite a bit of gear from Sixth Army. Texas has the north end; Georgia’s Bulldogs will follow Texas tonight on the empty supply train that you came in on. Some of the flatbeds will be used for Bradleys and Humvee’s from Sixth. Texas and Georgia will split those up. Georgia will depart as soon as that train’s ready. You gonna have power units up here by the time we move out?”
“We should have something by Monday, sir. Our new Governor said that we should do anything possible to assist our fellow states in the prosecution of the War. We don’t have much left though, sir. The S.A. cleaned us out.”
“And I see they paid your former Governor back by putting a bullet in his head.”
“Yes, sir. Whole family. Wife and five kids.”
“Standard S.A. tactic, it appears. Nice people.”
“Major, I think the CNG can help us out by getting the citizens of Sterling back in their homes and instill a sense of peace in them, that they’re safe. Get power and utilities back up, get the community back to a productive town. It looks like most of the economy here was farming. That right?”
“That and the prison, sir. I understand that the prison was burned.”
“Along with several hundred prisoners, and probably all of the guards, yes. The Marine units first on scene reported that. When Colorado is back on its’ feet, then send some fighting men. Meanwhile, it seems to me that the other states will take this fight home,” I said. “Anything else, Major?”
“No, sir. Thank you for your time, sir,” he said as he stood.
“Not a problem, Major,” I said, standing and returning his salute. “Let us know if there’s anything CNG needs that we can provide. Dismissed.”
For three more days, far longer than we’d estimated, we removed Sixth Army from the battlefield, two days of the work done in blinding snow. One of the least pleasant parts of that experience, for me at least, was the documentation process. Lieutenant Kirchener and her video team filmed the recovery process, interviewed the removal teams, interviewed the chaplain, and interviewed me as the commanding officer. I suppose there was a need for the process, I just didn’t see it at the time.
As with any project that I’ve ever experienced, clean up and de-mobilization always took longer than the initial setup. That applied as well to getting three thousand men and their equipment stowed, only on a much larger scale. I was discovering that with command, the best place to be was out of the way of my men.
The Colorado Guard made good on their schedule to re-occupy Sterling, and Third Washington crews assisted the CNG in getting their temporary power system up and running. They had a massive amount of work ahead of them.
The returning residents of Sterling were shocked to find so much of their town intact, but of course devastated to learn as we did that most of those that stayed behind were rounded up and forced into the high-security prison just west of town, and then burned alive. Lieutenant Kirchener’s crew again documented the finding. The body retrieval for Sterling would be done by the Colorado Guard and the civilians. The recovery process for the towns wrecked by the S.A. would be long in coming, but this town at least was now far from the battle lines.
We learned through one of the survivors who’d stayed that the destruction of Sterling was only interrupted by the rapid approach from the west of Sixth Army. Sixth though, didn’t press hard enough or fast enough to put the S.A. troops immediately to flight. They had good reason—Sixth was outnumbered at least two to one. The delay let the S.A. plant their weapons and stage their departure so that the Sixth would stay in Sterling until morning, when the pursuit would resume.
The fatal decisions were made by Major General Michael Wright, his mutilated remains found by the advance Marine unit. If anything was to be re-learned, it was to fight the war of your choosing, not the war that your enemy has chosen for you. I’d hoped that all products of West Point would know that. The well-equipped Sixth Army delayed the approach to Sterling to assess enemy troop strength that was already well-established and then didn’t elect to pursue the S.A. until the assessment was complete. By the time they mobilized, it would have been too late to save most of the remaining citizens of Sterling, although we didn’t piece that together until much later. Sixth then camped in exactly the same place that the S.A. had camped in during their occupation, hours after the S.A. evacuated east, taking most of the prison population with them. When the S.A. was far enough east to avoid the nerve agent, they detonated the devices, resulting in a kill-rate of more than ninety-eight percent. The terrain was in their favor; the troop concentrations ideal; the weather perfect. After the nerve agent attack, a small percentage of the S.A. force then moved back into Sterling. Survivors were tortured and killed, equipment, ammunition and uniforms taken. Had the Marines not had a rapid-deployment force available, much more equipment would have been taken, and Sterling would have been burned to the ground anyway. The S.A. might have then moved back toward Denver, or with their new gear perhaps gone on a major offensive south. With a hundred thousand men, and Sixth Army’s equipment, a possible attack south to Texas might have the United States government on the run again. The many might-have-beens in any war, I also pondered.
Army Command required us to return approximately half of Sixth Army’s rifles, handguns and ammunition to Fort Carson; oversee the shipment of the remaining heavy weapons, ammunition and armor east; and refit line units east of us with the remaining recovered equipment. These orders in turn, drove other issues: Our two initial trains were designed to transport and support the Brigade and the basic equipment load, not spares for thousands of others down the line; and our trains were completely unsuitable for the transport of the Abrams tanks, Bradleys, and dozens of Humvees in various configurations. We’d need another train, crews, and railcars designed for the purpose. Third Washington did have a handful of men checked out to operate the tanks and Bradley’s, as well as a few former gunners, and loaders. No tank commanders however, and no surprise.
The Colorado Guard was exceptionally helpful in helping round up transport cars for the heavy equipment, six more locomotives and Army rail crews who would now be assigned to our Brigade. The engineers and rail mechanics who kept the locomotives running numbered less than fifty men, without them we were stuck.
Before we departed Sterling, I had one more visit to make, after our long morning meeting with the CNG command and keeping tabs on the load-up.
I borrowed one of the Colorado Guard’s Humvees and made a quick trip over to Jess and Gabrielle’s camper, where I knew they’d be packing up for their trip back to Denver. Jess met me as I got out of the truck.
“Chief, I just wanted to stop by and give you my thanks for all your help,” I said.
“Rick, this was a terrible job for anyone to do. None of us will ever be the same by it, I think. All the same though, it was a singular honor for everyone.”
“I believe you are correct, Chief. Please pass along the thanks of Third Washington to your Volunteers. You have a good group, there.”
“You have a fine command. I pray that it stays intact until this mess is over. And look us up when you get a chance. You and your brigade members are guests anytime.”
“Thanks, Chief. Much appreciated,” I said before saluting him, as a junior officer might a senior, when in fact the roles were reversed. He returned it smartly, and we shook hands before I left.