Thursday, April 15, 2010
The hospital appeared to be remarkably intact, like most of the town, unlike many of the other towns we’d seen, either through pictures or first hand. No electricity of course, but there were cars and trucks in the parking lot, most showing that they’d been driven recently. Fifth Battalion men were in place all around the hospital, in their snow camouflage. I parked the Humvee in a normal parking stall, just like anyone, pre-War.
“Looks in good shape,” I said.
“S.A. was only here in force for a day or so. Didn’t have much time to make it like home,” Schaefer said. “Between the Marines and that gang from Texas, I don’t think they had much time at all.”
We climbed out of the Humvee, and were met almost at the curb by a half-dozen medical types.
“Colonel Drummond, Third Washington,” I said, introducing myself to an elderly man. His name badge was illegible, or it was to my eyes anyway.
“The other end. The state.”
“Welcome to Cozad. Larry O’Connor. I’m the managing director for the hospital.”
“Good to meet you, Mr. O’Connor. What can we help you out with?”
“Surgeons, nurses, supplies, electricity, food. That’d be a start. You’ve already got some of your corpsmen and doctors working inside.”
“We’ll see what we can do about more supplies,” I said.
“Already on their way, sir,” Jim said. “Supplies and most of our corpsmen. We’ve also got two medical cars on the trains that include full surgical suites.”
“Don’t have the staff to use them,” O’Connor said. “Statists took all the supplies and every doc and nurse that wasn’t hiding someplace.”
“Now that Cozad is back in the United States, supplies and utilities will be more regular, I suspect. What’s your population here, Mr. O’Connor?”
“Around three thousand. About five before the War.”
“How’re the rest of your supplies? Food in particular.”
“Again, what wasn’t nailed down…”
“Got it. We’ll see what we can help out with. How about your city leaders, police chief, and all? Where can we…”
“Dead. All of them. First to go. Pastors and priests were the next.”
“I’m sorry. Seems to be the pattern of the S.A.,” I said.
“Killing children seems to be as well,” O’Connor said.
“Unfortunately, yes, that too.”
“Colonel, if you have chaplains, we could use them here. There are a hundred broken hearted families up at the middle school….trying to identify their dead children.”
“Jim,” I said. A chill went down my spine.
“On it, sir.”
“What happened, Mr. O’Connor?”
“C’mon inside. It’s marginally warmer in there.”
We filed into the darkened hospital foyer, lit with several of Third Washington field lanterns, and passed the body bags of fifteen Third Washington men killed in action. The foyer was packed with people, many wounded. I saw down the hallway a row of bloodstained gurneys. We headed to the administrative area of the hospital, littered with files and overturned furniture.
“Men, lend a hand while Mr. O’Connor and I meet,” I said to our two security men. Jim Schaefer was talking with Second Battalion’s commander, working on clearing the eastern side of town, and moving north. The last of the S.A.’s mechanized capability in Cozad was running hard north, a single tank, I was picking up on my headset. A Russian-made T-90 variant. ‘Front-line main battle tank.’
We sat in what was left of a small conference room, out of the commotion in the corridors.
“The S.A. gathered up most of the kids and used them as leverage against the city. We don’t know what else they did with them. When the Marines were on the horizon, they told everyone to stay in their houses and that if they were on the street, they’d be shot on sight. The night before the Marines and the Texans swept through, most of the S.A. faded away east,” O’Connor said.
I sat there, leaning forward on the table, as he continued. In my headset, Second Battalion was credited with destroying the T-90 and its crew. Secondary explosions aboard the tank prevented any detailed look at the wreckage.
“The kids were put into a secure room at the school. That room is all concrete, part of the tornado shelter. No way out. They threw in grenades. Dozens of them.”
I felt sick. “My God,” I said quietly.
“God had little to do with that, Colonel. They’re nothing but butchers. Soulless, heartless, mindless butchers.”
I tried to gather my thoughts, struggling to find words. “We’ll do what we can, Mr. O’Connor, to get some help here. Our brigade has seen what they can do. They slaughtered more than fifty thousand soldiers in Colorado a couple of weeks ago. We helped retrieve their bodies.”
O’Connor was shaking. “I cannot believe that men could do this to each other. The senselessness of it all,” he said, voice trailing off, tears coming to his eyes.
Later in the afternoon, I visited the school, a typical American middle school, which in the future would be mentioned in the same hushed tones as Beslan, Treblinka, Auschwitz. There are sights that words just cannot describe.
I’d asked volunteers to serve at the school in remains retrieval, and had more than two hundred men respond. Twenty-five were selected. Along with representatives of the city, they retrieved the remains of the children, most unidentifiable. They were gathered and placed in a common grave on the grounds of the school. The burial service was one of the most emotionally powerful events of my life. I had to pour myself back into my day job to relieve my mind of what I had seen.
“Sir, we have one of the Marine units on secure line, I’ll patch you through to your station,” Private Kittrick said with some excitement. The comms guys had been working on getting some sort of communications going since the attack on the satellites, and repairing the damage to the secondary communications array at the rear of the train. Two of our techs were wounded when an anti-tank round penetrated the car, but did not detonate.
“Understood. Thanks, Mr. Kittrick,” I said, putting on my headphones, and taking my attention away from the computer screen with the loading reports for our wheeled vehicles. The work was a good distraction.
“Secure channel, sir. You’ll be speaking with the second in command.”
“This is Colonel Richard Drummond, Third Washington.”
“Colonel, I’m Major Stevenson, First Marine Expeditionary Force.”
“Major, how’re you standing? Are you and your men going to be able to hold out until reinforcements arrive?”
“S.A.’s holding their own, sir. We’re keeping them in check along with our Army friends from Texas.”
“Thin, sir. Could use a resup. We’ve had no contact with command most of the day.”
Perhaps he didn’t know about the satellites being knocked out, I thought. “Satellites are down, Major. S.A. took them out. Regarding resupply, we’re working on that right now. S.A. popped a bridge down onto our track and blew a bridge over the river, so our train isn’t an option for the immediate future. Trucks are being loaded with everything they can carry and will be on the way by twenty hundred. What’s the status of the highway up to Grand Island?”
“Other than what’s left of fifty or sixty S.A. tanks and trucks and their dead, it’s clear, Colonel.”
“All right, Major. I’ll pass you off to Lieutenant Colonel Atwood. Atwood is head of Fifth Battalion and will be point on the resupply. Wait one,” I said.
“Much obliged, Colonel.”
“Bryce? He’s all yours,” I said. Atwood joined the conversation from one of the other communications suites.
Between the two trains, we had sixty Humvees of various models, and twenty trucks loading. Some of our mechanics had also retrieved some civilian vehicles from Cozad, and put them back in running order. Food, ammunition, and medical supplies were being loaded into them by every available hand, with a handful of Humvees remaining in and around town. Those men that weren’t loading were working on the river bridge, building a rubble abutment from steel, broken concrete and whatever they could lay hands on. Three local engineers had been found to provide Third Washington an impromptu bridge design…what should take months to do, we required immediately.
The highway bridge was a different story. The smaller pieces were being removed by hand by the men and women of Cozad and our crews. The larger pieces—most of the bridge deck—would have to be broken into smaller pieces and then moved out of the way. Tricks learned from our trained combat engineers would be used for the heavy work. IED’s of our own, placed in strategic locations within the wrecked bridge deck, would break the pre-stressed concrete deck into smaller pieces. Multiple draglines on tanks would then pull the pieces out of the way. The damaged track and roadbed would then be rebuilt.
“Mister Kittrick, a moment please,” I said.
“How did you manage to raise the Marines?”
“Uh, we bypassed all military frequencies to establish initial contact, then had the Marines match our frequency on their encrypted gear.”
“You just described how you established encrypted contact. How did you raise them in the first place?”
“Well, Morse Code actually, on a shortwave freq.”
“And they had someone on the other end listening in?”
“Yes, sir. Comm tech by the name of Juice.”
“You know him personally?”
“I’ve been in communication with him since we hit Colorado. Haven’t met him personally. We set up a, well, contingency plan in case our normal channels were unavailable, Colonel.”
“Helluva job, Corporal.”
“You just got promoted. Carry on.”
“Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!”
Colonel Atwood completed his coordination with the Marines, and joined me for a ‘dinner’ MRE, in my case spaghetti with meat sauce.
“Bryce, I’m expecting that you and your men will be engaged alongside the Marines until we arrive.”
“Counting on it, sir.”
“Let’s do what we can to all come back alive, Colonel. You’ve got a lot of green troops under your command.”
“Been there, sir. We’ll do O.K.,” he said.
“Hope so, Colonel Atwood. We lost fifteen men today, and experience didn’t weigh into their fate.”
The last of the gear was lashed down and covered by nineteen-thirty hours, and Atwood’s’ detachment pulled out almost immediately, drivers and spotters with night-vision goggles and illuminators on the vehicles. The full moon provided some light, with the thin, high cloud cover. Fifteen minutes later, Charlie Six was quiet again, and I made a pass through several of the bunk cars.
The days’ efforts had taken a toll on the men, with empty bunks and our dead stored in transport caskets, with an honor guard. Two of our large tent shelters were set up in anticipation of civilian need, but only one was being used, mostly to stage supplies before delivery into the community. Weapons were being cleaned, the off-duty men were mostly resting in their bunks, playing cards, or alone with their thoughts.
On-duty crews were still helping civilians in Cozad with food and supplies to get them through a few days, and picket-line security, ringing the town and the train yard. One of our Abrams was towing the large hunks of the downed overpass from the main track and the siding. I hadn’t seen any of our chaplains for most of the day.
Back in the command car, two communications techs were working on one of the damaged video displays, while two others continued to attempt to re-establish contact with military units further up the food chain.
“Sir, we’ve got incoming friendly aircraft, rotary, distance forty miles….make that multiple, Colonel,” Private Jenkins said. “Three birds, sir.”
“You sure they’re friendlies?” First Battalion commander Shawn Miller replied.
“IFF codes check out with current data sets, sir. Two Chinooks and a ‘Hawk.”
“Sergeant Baumann,” Miller said into his headset, “We’ve got inbound friendlies. I hope for your sake that LZ’s ready….”
I listened to Miller’s half of the conversation as he chewed a platoon sergeant a ‘new one,’ and roused several hundred of his men to action. I grabbed my parka and helmet and headed to the door.
“Nice work, Colonel Miller,” I said.
“Never hurts to have an LZ handy, even if most of the Air Force seems to be parked, sir. One of these days, today for instance, we might have need of one.”
“Captain Shand, hold down the fort. Colonel Miller and I will go greet our guests.”
“Yes, sir,” Greg replied. “We’ll get the mess moving along as well.”
“Very good. Thanks.”
Outside, a few hundred feet south and west of our command car, Baker Company had cleared a large landing zone, and was setting up beacons to identify the LZ to the night-vision gear worn by the helo pilots. We could hear them approach far sooner than we could see them, skimming low along the highway, without anti-collision lights.
The lead helicopter landed straightaway, perfectly aligned with the ground beacon, followed by the twin-rotor Chinooks. The Blackhawk’s passengers immediately disembarked and bee-lined it over toward us. The three helicopters engines shut down quickly.
“Colonel Drummond, Third Washington Engineers,” I said.
“Commander Daniel Evans. United States Navy.”
“Welcome to Cozad, Commander. I’d like to say you were expected, but you’re certainly welcome. This is Lieutenant Colonel Miller, First Battalion commander. How many men have you got with you?”
“Seventy-six, Colonel. A whole lot more pretty quick, sir. I’ve also got orders for you from Command.”
“Thanks. Command car is over this way. We’ll find space for the men for the night, and can round up some dinner, I suspect.”
“Much appreciated, Colonel. If at all possible, I’d like to sequester them from your troops.”
I looked over my shoulder as a non-com barked at the men as they grabbed their gear and double-timed it behind us.
“Shouldn’t be a problem, Commander. Looks like you’ve got a Sergeant Rock back there.”
“Einreich. He’s the real deal, Colonel.”
We walked a little further, and Evans noted the honor guard, and looked a little surprised.
“Sir?” he said.
“Lost fifteen men today, Commander. Twenty-one wounded.”
“Sorry to hear that, Colonel.”
“Thanks. Seven hundred fifty-five enemy dead, confirmed at this point, a fair percentage of them killed by the citizens of Cozad. With axles, shovels, picks, and baseball bats. You’ve seen line action against the S.A., Commander?”
“Behind the line action, Colonel.”
“Well, when you get back behind the lines, I hope you prosecute your mission with extreme prejudice. Unspeakable things have been done in these towns. Here in Cozad, they loaded a classroom up with kids, held them hostage, and when the Marines showed up, they grenaded them.”
Evans said nothing.
We headed into the conference car, where coffee, soup and sandwiches were just being placed by one of our mess crew.
“Have a seat, Commander. How are things outside of direct radio range?”
“We’ve got some new comm gear for you, Colonel. Four sets, to be precise. That should patch your unit in with Command through ground relays. To answer your direct question though, sir, San Antonio and Houston were both targeted by S.A. ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. Six separate launches. All were destroyed in flight by airborne lasers, still in boost phase. That rained warheads and wreckage on both sides of the front. Two detonations, both in northwest Arkansas. The team outside is tasked with infiltrating the northern third of the S.A. territory and taking out that capability.”
“Know where you’re headed, Commander?”
“Not asking, just want to make sure you’re not on a snipe hunt.”
“We have good intel, Colonel.”
“All right then, Commander. Let’s get your boys set up and you whatever local intel we can without compromise.”
“Thank you, sir. Probably the last warm night my men will have for awhile.”
“Feel free to use this as your HQ,” I said as the mess soldier came back in. “Sirs, chow’s ready in fifteen for the Navy men. Should I bring up more here, Colonel?”
“Up to the Commander, Mister Pierce. I expect the Commander and his staff have some business to attend to this evening.”
Commander Evans and his senior staff met in the conference room as the remainder of the SEALS grabbed dinner and would try to get some sleep. Sometime during the night, this group of men would head east for points unknown. Our orders, provided by Commander Evans in a sealed envelope, directed us to proceed to Grand Island immediately and ‘stage for large-scale support of up to fifty thousand troops for an extended period of time.’
I reviewed the orders, as well as several dispatches from Austin on other events ‘influencing civilian understanding of the prosecution of the war.’ I tried to wrap my head around that statement, and gave up. The ‘events’ though, were self-explanatory:
--As I had suspected, the S.A. had distributed, before destroying the military and remaining commercial satellites, video illustrating the Sixth Army engaged in a massacre of civilians in suburban areas of Denver, of course refuted by the video from Lt. Susan Kirchener’s team.
--Bulk food stockpiles and shipments had been poisoned in several major cities, throwing all bulk food shipments and storehouses into doubt. These included food warehouses operated by several religious denominations, bulk public warehouses operated by government agencies, and commercial vendors. The S.A. published reports that the United States Government was behind the poisonings, in the name of population reduction and generation of fear, creating dependence on the U.S. government.
--Continued sabotage of utilities, refineries, rail lines, and public facilities seemed to be increasing; probably along the strategy of the “swarm” we’d seen in Spokane County.
--The S.A. broadcasts touted defeat of ‘rebel’ forces throughout the Great Lakes region, pushing through the Dakotas into Montana. Complete fabrication, as the U.S. held the line, well within the Minnesota border. The strategic weapons throughout the Dakotas, as well as bases in Minot and Fargo, were well defended. I wondered how my brother and his family were, in Minnesota. It’d been many months since we’d heard from them.
--Finally, the S.A. broadcasts boasted of reopening New Orleans and Charleston, South Carolina, to State of America commercial shipping, providing ‘free access to commerce necessary for the reformation of the State.’ I’m sure that was a surprise to the few thousand residents of the remains of New Orleans, not quite abandoned but nearly so, after the last big Gulf hurricane; and to Charleston, which was deep inside of United States territory.
I finished Austin’s incoming, and began my own assignment.
Dr. and Mrs. John Miller
Dear Doctor and Mrs. Miller—
It is utmost sorrow that I write this letter about the loss of your son, Mark. There are no words to adequately convey this loss or the enduring memory of the space in our Brigade that he filled.
Third Washington has been in the field a few short weeks, and during this time, your eldest proved himself to be a natural leader and a man who deeply understood the sacrifices that have been made to preserve this nation and to see it free.
I had the privilege to work alongside Mark in Sterling, Colorado in the retrieval of those lost in the Sixth Army massacre. It was most difficult and challenging work, and it weighed heavily on us all. Mark and I discussed his personal relationship with the Almighty during this work, and I am confident that your son is at peace and in the presence of God.
These words, I pray bring you comfort. For a man of just twenty, he cast a very long shadow on the men around him and the Brigade as a whole.
Colonel Richard J. Drummond
Third Washington Engineering Brigade
I had just finished the last of the condolence letters for each of the men lost, along with the Brigade status report. The fifteen men we’d lost included a West Point first lieutenant, two senior sergeants, a corpsman, and eleven men who had yet to reach twenty years of age. Six were injured when two RPG’s hit near their location, the rest were hit by small arms fire before they could find cover.
The Brigade status report would be radioed back to Command, with the condolence letters. The status report gave our current equipment, fuel and supply load (decreasing rapidly), and requests for resupply that might vary from our ‘standard’ resupply. I wondered, how could there be a ‘standard’ resupply when even we didn’t know what we’d need and when.
The packet from Command contained a slated schedule of troop trains and supply trains to arrive in Grand Island over the next several weeks. The United States was about to go after the heart of the S.A., in the middle of the winter. Third Washington had several options moving east by rail, depending on the progress on the Front. In no case, did our potential routes travel more than another three hundred miles. I heard a knock on my door, and Kittrick announced Commander Evans.
“Commander, get your men all settled in?”
“Looks like we’re here until around oh four-hundred, Colonel. We’ll head up to Grand Island and hop east from there.”
“Pretty good chance you’ll see some of our men up there. We sent a slug of our men and vehicles loaded with everything they could carry up there before you arrived. Marines and our friends from Texas were running a little low. They’ll need more soon enough.”