Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Stress cracks, battle damage and worn parts were common on all of the line equipment we were working on. I’d introduced myself to the ‘lead wrench’ in the Transportation Company, who was under my command but hadn’t had the chance to meet personally. At first, he was under the impression that I was there to take charge, and as such, was a little more stiff and formal than he might have been otherwise. Once I told him that I was there to work, and where could he use a hand, he softened up a bit and we discussed things that I had experience with. It was a little like a job interview, with the boss being interviewed by the employee. Short interview, fortunately. There was a lot of equipment to get through.
A half-hour of warm-up on the arc welder and I was back up to creating decent welds on heavy steel. It was rare, pre-War, that I’d had enough ‘practice’ to keep my skills up. Hobbyist-level repairs didn’t lend themselves to honing anything close to expertise or speed.
The Transportation Company used some Third Washington’s repair equipment, but had salvaged much more equipment in Grand Island--the arc welder that I was using and the light-reactive helmet were an example. Towed generators were moved up from the rail siding, fueled up and we were in business.
I was tasked with frame repairs and reinforcements on civilian-type trucks used by every unit in the fight. Better-skilled men were working on tank hydraulic systems problems, electronics and optics systems failures, and replacing reactive armor. A half-dozen of our newer Abrams went up against a single new T-90 Russian tank under command of a skilled tank commander, and five came back damaged. The sixth was destroyed and her crew killed. They fared better against the German and French armor in the field, according to the tankers, anyway.
Three and a half hours into some real labor, I was called back to reality.
“Colonel, sir? That Texan General’s looking for you,” Master Sergeant Cramer said after he saw me finish up a frame weld.
“Damn. Just when I was getting back into my stride,” I said.
“She’s over there, sir.”
“Got it. Thanks, Dean. Maybe I’ll have the chance to get back down here sometime.”
“Anytime, Colonel. You’ve got a good hand with that stick.”
“Thanks,” I said as General Garcia approached.
“Hiding in the garage,” Garcia said with a smirk. “You men are all alike. Any chance to pick up a wrench.”
“Good to get some work done, General. Been a while since I’ve been able to do something mechanical. I’d forgotten how much I like to weld.”
“Need a few minutes of your time, Colonel. You had dinner yet?”
“No, ma’am. Wasn’t that hungry. Sounds good now though.”
“Meet me in the mess in ten.”
“Will do, General,” I said.
The mechanics had a wash-station of sorts, including some very Third World quality plumbing into an electric hot-water heater. I made myself moderately presentable and headed over to the Lone Star mess tent.
The weather had really begun to turn, with low clouds coming in from the north along with the cold. The wind hadn’t kicked up too much, but it was no night to be without shelter.
General Garcia was seated with a half-dozen of her senior staff, and rose to join me in the chow line when I entered the tent. We were served a couple slices of bread, beef stew, and canned peaches, and had a pot of coffee waiting for us at the table. By the time we were headed back to the table, her staff had left.
“General, what’s up, other than the obvious?”
“Honestly, I need someone with some mileage on them to talk to. I’m fifteen years older than the next oldest person in this command. They aren’t exactly the minds I need to vent to,” she said. “My orders go against my grain, Colonel. We want back in the fight and we’re being told to hold fast.”
I thought about that for a moment. “No major military engagement in modern times has been successfully fought in winter weather, General. Not to get out of line, but your troops could use some rest. The equipment over in that bus barn is a bunch of patchwork repairs that are wrapped around powerplants that are way overdue for replacement, let alone simple maintenance,” I said, not enjoying the stew. It was awful.
“You agree with Austin and San Antonio then? When we’re this close?”
“I’m not a career soldier, General. However, what I see are tired men and well-worn equipment, poor real-time intelligence, unfavorable weather, and a thin and precarious supply line that could be disrupted by a single IED under a rail bridge or in a culvert. Substantial gains have been made at the cost of a significant percentage of the men and women under your command and the command of allied units. Significant percentages, General. Fifteen, twenty, twenty-five percent. Unsustainable losses against an overwhelming enemy force,” I said. Not what she wanted to hear.
“Don’t get me wrong. These bastards need killing more than anyone in recent memory. I just think that the opportunity will present itself on our time, when we’re ready, and that a pinch of patience will pay off. They’re on the run. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s good for us to keep chasing them.”
“If we sit here, we lose the advantage.”
“If you pursue them without adequate force, you suicide, General, and even with these thirty-thousand odd troops, you’re pushing three-to-one on the downside of the equation. That doesn’t spell ‘win’ to me. There will be time, soon enough, to get back underway. Get these other Guard C.O’s together, get them up to speed on what all of these units have seen and what the S.A.’s doing. God knows I haven’t seen anything come through Command about anything like a plan to move east from here. Makes me wonder if they know who is where, and with what.”
She nodded, looking with tired eyes at the tabletop.
“Angela, you need to get some rest yourself. Pushing yourself too hard does not equate to good decision-making. Get a commander-level briefing going for tomorrow afternoon. We may have Command communications back up by then; we might even have some sort of battle plan, who knows. You’ll know though, better than San Antonio or Austin, what these forces are capable of against the S.A. in the field conditions we have now, or will have in the next few days. Ten or twenty-mile gains are done for until this weather lets up. The men can’t handle it, the equipment can’t either, and we could be walking over the top of a field of IED’s and never know it until things go boom. It’s down to one to five miles, my guess, on cleared ground, until the weather breaks or until we have travel paths established.”
“You’re probably right. It pisses me off though.”
“Don’t be George Patton. Didn’t end well for him, General.”
“No it did not,” she said, pausing, and it appeared to me, finding herself in the uncomfortable position of realizing that she was probably wrong to continue pressing for the current pursuit of the S.A.
“General, do you ever ponder how your own decision-making process works?” I asked.
“I gather information and analyze it and decide. Why do you ask?”
“A logical process. But is the information you gather, factual, or predictive? The reason I ask is that if it’s predictive, it’s not necessarily factual. I had a fair amount of time to ponder this, laid up after an accident. I did a little introspection into my own decision making process. It was seriously flawed. Here’s why,” I said.
“If it has happened, it’s fact. If it hasn’t happened, it’s a prediction and not a fact. Weeding out what has happened from what hasn’t isn’t easy but it is necessary. At least half of what my own decision making process was based on wasn’t based on fact. It was based on ‘feel’…on ‘emotion’….or on ‘prediction.’ I suppose I knew it was wrong, but it felt right. I had that answer all along, but I cannot for the life of me remember where I learned it or whom I learned it from. But I did learn it, years ago, along with remembering the key to the whole thing: Once you learn what the facts are, you need to give yourself enough time to let them sink in and only then can you make a decision. Austin can’t do that for you. Neither can the big brains in San Antonio. You need to make your own decisions, here. You shouldn’t need to question your superiors, if they’re using a sound decision making process, but they’re probably not. They’re probably not trained to do so. That makes your lobbying effort—and I hate that phrase—that much more critical to the prosecution of the war. You need to make the case for pursuit—or not—on facts. Until you’re ready to do that, you need some rest. You cannot make decisions when you’re mentally unready to do so.”
“Colonel, you sound like my ex,” she said, taking a drink from her coffee cup.
“As long as I’m not on the receiving end of a cast-iron frypan,” I said. I noticed the winds picking up outside. “General, if you don’t need anything else, I’d like to get back to my unit.”
“Thank you, Colonel. Dismissed.”
And so we waited, to learn the facts, and how to fight a war based on facts.
For two solid weeks, Grand Island was the receiving zone for United States ground forces, and Third Washington was tasked with reestablishing potable water, temporary power, and helping feed and house the masses of troops. We had staged sixty-five thousand troops out of Grand Island, almost all of them arriving by rail, and then within a few days, dispersed them across a two hundred mile long front, mostly by truck. During this time, we were unmolested by the S.A., and found nine civilians alive within five miles of Grand Island. All had been in hiding; all were part of the Resistance. Unlike other towns we’d been through and heard of, there was no sudden influx of civilians after the city was back in United States control.
General Garcia and her Lone Star troops had left Grand Island on December Tenth, accompanied by troops from Georgia and Arizona, and fifteen thousand Regular Army troops. They headed to Manhattan, Kansas, and would be joined by our First Washington….we hadn’t heard a single word of where they had been since we’d left Spokane. We assumed they would progress east toward Topeka, and after that, it was anyone’s guess. Thousands more headed north, toward Sioux City, Fort Dodge, and Minneapolis, with tens of thousands of men headed to Lincoln and eventually to Omaha. It appeared, although it was never stated, that the U.S. strategy was to put the classic ‘pincer’ grip around the S.A., backing them up against the Mississippi, and eventually eliminate them. That might work, if forces in the east could capture and hold the eastern side of the river, and then sweep up north. It wouldn’t be long before we left Grand Island for the East.
Our communications were marginally better with new equipment and some serious jury-rigging on the part of our communications teams. In fact, they were pushing the equipment to its’ limit, sometimes with great success. Our short-lived cell-phone experiment was over, until the EMP-damaged equipment could be replaced, along with the satellite network. We were getting by on not quite six hours rest in twenty-four. I was usually getting by on less than that.
We had no real idea on when an ‘offensive’ might start, the communications between Command and our units was cryptic, probably for good reason. Grand Island’s supply stockpiles followed the troops out, to be re-staged down the line. The supply yard was dwindling daily. I wasn’t really minding the relatively monotonous work. It didn’t involve getting shot at.
“Sir, patrol contact, due east, friendly dismounts coming in,” Private Ayers said, passing a slip of paper to Captain McGowan.
“Colonel, that’s a Ranger unit,” Gerry McGowan said. “One of ours. From Spokane.”
“Mike Amberson’s unit?” I asked. I noticed my heart rate had increased.
“Sure could be sir. We’ll know in a half-hour. They’re on foot—we’ll get some wheels out there to bring them in,” Gerry said, signaling one of his assistants to get transport on the way.
“Do it,” I said. I hadn’t heard anything about Mike’s unit either, since we’d pulled out of Spokane back in November. “How many men, Mr. Ayers?”
“Seventy, sir, plus one civilian,” he said. A Ranger company could vary in size, but should be almost two hundred men.
“Kittrick: Get medical ready, and figure out billeting. Gerry, get your intel group together for debriefing, Mr. Ayers, I suspect we’re going to need to get these Rangers direct contact with command. Work it out. Questions?”
“No, sir,” I heard in unison.
“Good. Mr. Ayers, pull up a map in your spare time and get it on my monitor showing where the Rangers made contact.”
“Done, sir. Fifty clicks out, near the town of York, between Interstate Eighty and U.S. Thirty Four. Coming overland, sir.”
“Easy Three’s patrol point?”
“Yes, sir. Outer edge of the patrol limit, Colonel,” he said. Everything east of that point was no-man’s land. The S.A. still held Lincoln, and Omaha, that much at least, we knew.
Communications during their return trip in was mostly directed to medical, requesting medevac of several seriously wounded men. The helos that we might normally have had in Grand Island however, were three hours away, shuttling gear to other units.
It took almost two hours to return the Rangers back to Grand Island, which were among the longest hours I’d ever spent.
“Gerry, direct the inbound traffic straight to Med Two on Charlie; Med one on Dog,” I said. “Corpsmen and surgical ready?”
“Yes, sir. Doctor Willitson is prepped and ready. Remaining troops will head into the receiving cars for eval.”
“I’m heading out to meet them,” I said, grabbing my parka and helmet.
Outside, Sergeant Major Travis met me at the entry stairs. “Colonel, good to see you.”
“You as well, Chet. Been a couple of days.”
“Northern perimeter rotation. Not much to look at up there though, sir.”
“Your men ready in receiving?”
“Yes, sir. Food, showers, clothing, the works.”
“Outstanding. Thanks,” I said.
“I expect these men will need it, Colonel. Any idea on what they saw for action?”
“Not a one. Rangers are behind-the-lines guys most of the time, I understand. I expect they created some havoc,” I said as I heard them approach from the southeast. “Here they come.”
Fifteen corpsmen appeared just as the Humvees pulled in next to the two medical cars on Charlie Six, and another dozen or more further west of us at Dog Sixes’ med car. The wounded, several on stretchers, were quickly carried straight into the surgical car. At least twenty more men were ‘walking wounded’, and taken across the tracks to the main receiving area for new troops. At least two corpsmen attended each, some holding IV bags. I noted that one of our troops led a civilian woman over to the evaluation area.
I was looking for Mike’s familiar form, finally finding him coming out of the surgical car. He’d helped carry one of his stretcher-bound men in.
“Mike, good to see you,” I said. He was almost unrecognizable through the grime and dried blood, and his face was now filled with deep lines. I could not imagine what he must have gone through. It hadn’t been a month yet.
“You too, Rick,” he said, taking off his banged up helmet. He had a field dressing on his head, above his left ear.
“Let’s get you over to receiving and get some warm food. And get that head looked at.”
“That and a shot of Scotch,” he said.
‘Thousand yard stare,’ I thought to myself. “I can do that, too. We’re working on getting you a comm link to Command. I expect you’ll have a long debrief.”
“I expect so.”
Mike didn’t say a word as we headed to receiving. Inside, his men were being swarmed over by corpsmen, food piled in front of them and hot drinks by the gallon. Coffee was not on the menu. No point in caffeine-loading before stand-down.
“We had a hundred eighty men going in,” he said numbly, standing and looking over his men, the unblinking, unfocused stare all too apparent. “Seventy coming back, one probably brain-dead. Probably lose two more due to blood loss.”
“Over here, Mike. Get some hot food,” I said, directing him to a small table out of the way, as one of the men brought a heaping plate of something appearing to be stroganoff.
“Thanks,” he said, disassociated from most of what was going on in the room, focusing on the plate in front of him. I’d seen post-traumatic stress before. I’d had it myself. I was wondering if Mike would be dealing with that, or if this was just extreme fatigue. Gerry McGowan joined us, silently. Mike was halfway through his plate, and me through a cup of non-caffeine tea, before he spoke.
“Started out pretty solid. Inserted behind the lines on a low flying C-130, dropped us at little strip near Osceola, south of Des Moines. Found out the S.A. was a hundred fifty miles away at best. Split up into teams, found a substantial resistance force already in place, damned near every farm. Good couple of weeks. Then the shit hit the fan. One of the resistance cells was S.A. infiltrators, reported everything that unit was doing up their chain of command. Started hunting us down, chasing us further west. Twenty thousand S.A. against us. Half of my men were gone in a week. Thought we were doing well to come back with what we did.”
“You probably were,” I said.
“You met any of them yet?” Mike asked, referring to the S.A. obviously. “I mean, spoken with them?”
“Uh, no. We’ve been shot at a few times. Never face to face.”
“Their line soldiers. They’re messed up. Seriously. They’re absolutely remorseless. No conscience whatsoever. No care to consequence of action, except to kill absolutely everything in front of them. One of our corpsmen thought they were drugged or something. A couple of their wounded were left behind and we interrogated them before they died. Normally, you gotta understand…they kill their seriously wounded. It’s as if they didn’t feel pain. Then we captured a few more before we figured out that they let us catch them as bait. Used trackers on ‘em. That really narrowed the hunt.”
“Mike, this isn’t your fault,” I said.
“I know that, Rick. But I don’t get why they let us go.”
“They let you go?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yeah. We were literally out of ammunition. Among our men I’ll bet there’s not five magazines with anything in them. After that, we’re down to knives and rocks. They just melted away one night and were gone. We were holed up for the last stand, figuring hand to hand and that’s it,” he said, finishing his plate and going after another placed in front of him as if it were the first. “They were gone come morning. Tens of thousands of them, just gone. I don’t get it.”
“I doubt anyone would, sir,” McGowan said. “Colonel Amberson, when you’re ready, I’d like to get a more in-depth debrief from you and your men. I believe that our communications crews will have a secure link patched through to San Antonio around fifteen-hundred, depending on the satellite, sir.”
“Sure. That’s fine,” Mike said. “Whatever.”