Saturday, July 3, 2010
Aboard Charlie Six
Van Meter, Iowa
Third Washington progressed across the terrain east of Omaha at a painfully slow pace, fixing wrecked trackage and stopping in virtually every town along the rail line. It seemed we hit every township south of Interstate Eighty, taking four days to reach Des Moines, barely a hundred and forty miles from our Omaha start.
Both trains that moved the Brigade were showing wear and tear. Our main drive units had been changed before we left Omaha, but Dog Six had lost heat and power to a full thirty percent of the personnel cars, as well as heat to both defensive cars. Charlie had lost heat to fifteen percent of the cars, and power to five percent. In Des Moines, we planned to switch cars around between the two, to balance out our losses. Spare parts might catch up to us sometime, hopefully before the War ended.
I found myself becoming uncomfortably accustomed to the sight of the burned out farmhouses and collapsed barns, slaughtered livestock frozen to the snow covered ground. The small towns were particularly pathetic, the once-vital heart of a county or township, in failure before the war just due to the ease of transportation to bigger cities…which was the death knell to many small town businesses. The S.A.’s heavy bootprints reached every small town along our route.
Most were hit hard and fast, but much of the population who’d survived had fled to the hinterlands long before the S.A. forces arrived in force. The S.A. in retreat took little time to strip the light industries and the sparse businesses in these towns, instead they burned them to the ground, along with the schools, courthouses, libraries, and churches. Homes were ransacked, mostly for food and clothing.
Our inability to proceed east ‘per schedule’ was not of our making, but more of the work of the S.A. in destroying the tracks ahead of us. Two companies of Third Washington were advanced east on track inspection and repair, along with half-dozen trained railmen. As our delays mounted, word spread among the civilian population about the Brigade and our supplies. The further east we progressed, the larger the population, the greater the need. Van Meter, Iowa, was such a place.
Pre-War, Van Meter was home to around a thousand residents or so, but this day, there were five times that, crowding into the shattered little town, as we were waiting for the ten miles of track to Des Moines to be repaired and cleared. One of the supply trains that had passed us by heading east, was now being loaded with refugees, carrying anything they could to keep warm on the trip west. Most of the cars were unheated. Stacks of unused equipment were piled near the siding, and troops from Third were busy retrieving the gear and setting up shelter tents, which had been tossed off the supply train without care. The people wanted food, but ignored the insulated shelter tents that were also aboard the supply train.
“Colonel, Mayor Farman is ready to meet you in receiving,” Corporal McDowell said. McDowell was the communications whiz of Dog Six, often able to revive equipment long after the technicians had tossed it for scrap.
“Thanks, Corporal,” I said as I made my way to the newly assembled receiving tent. Willitson’s medical staff was completely overwhelmed with the rush of civilians, almost all women. I knew instantly that horrible things had happened here. Whispers had been spreading through the Command staff since right after our arrival.
The tent was heated with steam-driven radiators, connected to the generating units on the trains. Each radiator had men, women and children huddled around them. Part of the receiving tent had been screened off, and I took a look inside.
“Colonel, this is Mayor Tina Farman,” I heard from over my shoulder as I looked at the rows of blankets strung from ropes, to create semi-private cubicles.
“Madam Mayor, nice to meet you.”
“Thank you, Colonel. You people are a godsend.”
“Let’s go find a quiet space to talk. I think we’ll have one of our logistics folks with us in a minute,” I said. “We’ll try to get as much done here as we can before we ship east.”
“Moving some of these refugees out will be a start. The S.A. did their best to strip us clean, and then they moved to Des Moines, and the people from Des Moines and Chicago are now flooding us. We just don’t have anything left to give.”
“Four additional supply trains will be headed east within the next day or so. When they’re coming westbound, refugees will be able to head west.”
“That’s a little bit of the problem,” she said as Captain McGowan joined us.
“This is Captain Gerry McGowan, intel. Gerry, where’s Major Ryder?”
“On the horn, sir. He won’t be able to make it,” McGowan said. For Ryder to miss a meeting like this, he had to be dealing with a real cluster.
“Mayor Farman, you were saying?”
“Most of the refugees we’re getting first of all, don’t want to leave, and won’t lift a finger. The worst of it though is in that room you were looking into a few minutes ago.”
“What’s going on in there?”
“Rape victims, Colonel,” she said as she gripped the table in front of her, barely containing her rage. “That bastard General Slocum told his men to rape every female they could lay hands on. No one is prepared to deal with this, Colonel. There are two hundred and fifty women in there and more that we can’t yet find.”
“Ma’am, I don’t know what to say,” I said. “I had no idea.”
“Colonel Drummond, no one does,” she said as I sat there for a moment.
“We’ll do what we can, ma’am. I’ll try to get some help from the west.”
“I’d appreciate that,” she said, taking a sip of coffee from a chipped Third Washington mug. “Now, these refugees. What can you do about them?”
“You said that they’re not willing to do anything, ma’am?” Gerry said.
“Citiots. City-idiots. Waiting for the government to take care of them. If we don’t do anything, they steal from those that are doing things, absolutely anything is fair game. If we provide for them, they bitch that it’s not enough or not good or whatever. There is no pleasing them.”
“We don’t have time for this, Mayor,” I said. “These people are late to the party. They need to figure out that what is here is all there is, and they can take what is given them and be happy or get the Hell out of town on their own, and not come back.”
“You feel free to tell them that, Colonel. I tried and damned near had a riot on my hands.”
“From a handful of people, or all of them?” Gerry asked.
“These things always start with a handful, Captain. Stirring the pot.”
“’It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people’s minds,’” I said.
“Who’s that from?” Mayor Farman asked.
“Sam Adams, talking about the other side of the equation,” I replied. “What do you have left for law enforcement?”
“You. That’s it.”
“Weapons?” Gerry asked.
“Maybe some shotguns, nothing owned by the City. We didn’t have a whole lot to start with. The S.A. came and took everything, even trap guns.”
“Get yourself a town Marshal and a bunch of deputies. We’ll get them armed. Anyone that steps out of line, lock ‘em up. If you can I.D. the agitators before we ship east, point them out to our men and we’ll have a little chat with them,” I said. “Your utility grid is shot, Mayor. How are you going to keep people warm here, and water safe?”
“It’s not as bad as it seems. Power’s off, all right, but that’s because we pulled eleven transformers down before the S.A. got here. Our citizens were more or less ready for that. The refugees were the ones that weren’t of course. And if we put things back together too soon, they’ll never leave,” she said.
“Interesting tactic,” Gerry said.
“I wouldn’t worry as much about the refugees not staying as I would about hypothermia and the spread of disease. There will be plenty of military around for a long time. You’re on one of the primary rail lines to the front. That’s not going to change.”
“Colonel,” one of the corpsmen interrupted, “Doctor Willitson would like to speak with you ASAP.”
“Be right there. Thanks,” I said. “Mayor, we’ll be talking. Gerry, in lieu of having Major Ryder here, see what you can do about getting power back up.”
“Yes, sir,” he said as I stood and excused myself.
Fifty feet away, Jeff Willitson was washing up after two hours of surgery.
“Doc, I see you’re doing your time in Hell today.”
“You got that right, Colonel,” he said. I noticed the bloodstained floor, and pile of stained surgical utilities in a laundry bin. “We need large scale evac of these women, and we need it now, sir. We cannot deal with this with what we have on hand. We just can’t do it. I lost three of them in the past hour. We’ll lose more, I guarantee it, if we don’t get them out of here. I don’t mean rail service, Rick. I mean air evac, and a lot of it.” His hands were shaking.
“I have no idea what’s available, Jeff. I’ll get on it though,”
“We have kids in there, Colonel,” he said, looking down into the still-running sink.
“I know, Jeff. Give me a few minutes to get something going,” I said. I’d never seen Doctor Willitson as shaken.
I made the way back to Dog Sixes’ Command Car, which happened to be closer than the primary car in Charlie. Other than the damage inflicted weeks earlier, the cars were identical.
“Ten-hut!” one of the sergeants said as I entered.
“At ease. Who’s your duty officer?”
“Lieutenant Kramer, sir,” the Sergeant said. He looked a little surprised, as well he might.
“Here, sir,” Kramer said, standing from his location at communications suite three.
“Mister Kramer, get me in touch with the Air Force, Air Mobility Command.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll patch you through to the Deputy Commander’s suite.”
“Fine,” I said, moving back to the vacant desk and formulating my request for evacuating civilians.
“AMC on Secure Four, sir.”
“Thanks,” I said before putting on the headset. “This is Colonel Richard Drummond, Third Washington.”
“Major Arnstein, sir. What can we do for you, Colonel?”
“Good way to start the conversation, Major. I’m in Van Meter, Iowa. I have several hundred critical care civilians needing evac, pronto. Rail evac isn’t going to cut it. Nearest airport of size is Des Moines, and it’s a wreck,” I said, explaining to him the nature of the injuries inflicted on the victims. He was quiet for a moment on his end of the line.
“Pulling you up on the map, sir. One moment,” he said. “You’re south of Interstate Eighty. Depending on the condition of the road, that could be used for evac…..affirmative, sir, C-130’s can handle that highway. You’ll need to clear the highway from One Sixty Nine—that’s just north of DeSoto, to the first overpass to the west of that,” he said, then providing me exact coordinates for marker beacons at both ends of the improvised airstrip. “One moment sir. My C.O. would like to join in the communication.”
“No problem, Major,” I said as a note was handed to me, in Jeff Willitson’s handwriting.
“Colonel Drummond, this is Colonel Stack,” the female voice said.
“Colonel,” I said. “Can you estimate the number of evacuees?”
“Three hundred to start with,” I said, reading Jeff’s note. Expect at least double that. The majority female, most were victims of unspeakable brutality. Our staff is unable to attend to the magnitude of this, Colonel. We’re losing patients by the hour.”
Silence on the other end of the call. “Colonel Stack?”
“I’m here, sir,” she said. “We can handle around seventy patients per aircraft. Five aircraft are being dispatched from Omaha at this time. Expect arrival of the first transport at the coordinates provided to you by Major Arnstein within the next hour.”
“Much appreciated, Colonel. Given what I know about what’s happened here, you will likely need a lot of help down there, ma’am.”
“Understood, Colonel. Stack, out,” she said as the link went dead. I sat there for a minute, wondering what kind of beasts we were fighting.
“Colonel, would you like some coffee?” one of the techs asked.
“Nope. I’d like to have an S.A. soldier in the sights of my rifle. You let me know if that kind of opportunity comes up,” I said.
Touring Van Meter with Lieutenant Colonel Atwood, we could see the path of the S.A., like the proverbial tornado through a trailer park. Every small business had been destroyed. Five days after Des Moines fell, six or seven days after Van Meter had been nearly destroyed, some buildings still smoldered.
“Ever feel like you’re just watching the same terrain on a different day?” I asked as the January rain spattered against the Humvee’s armored windshield.
“Yes, sir. Had a lot of days like that in Afghanistan.”
“This is going to sound trite, but is this worse, or better than over there?”
“Way worse, sir, for me at least. These are our countrymen doing this to each other. We never saw brutality on this scale over there. Honor killings among the Muslims, sure, which are senseless. Nothing like this. It just doesn’t seem to stop. Destruction for no reason.”
“Until this mess, I’d never been in a real war zone. One that’s been declared at least. I’d seen wholesale murder of innocent civilians, but I’ve never seen wholesale brutality for brutality’s sake,” I said, remembering Sudan.
“Evil unleashed in the world, Colonel. Nothing but.”
“Yeah,” I said, noticing the wreckage of a museum to a long-gone baseball player, noted for pitching three no-hitters, once upon a time.
“Mercy Two Six, this is Mercy command, cross at twenty knots at three four zero degrees,” I heard through the headset.
“Two-six,” was the reply.
The next-to-last transport was on the ground, the last on approach. Once word got out that transports were evacuating the victims of the S.A., things in Van Meter started to come unglued. Refugees rushed the evacuation convoys, demanding to get priority. Third and Fifth Battalions both fired warning shots to keep the refugees restrained. During those encounters, several ring-leaders were identified and separated from the crowds, their separation taken with indignity, many demanding, and then pleading, that they be allowed to stay ‘with their families’ and ‘their friends’. No family members came forth though, nor friends. By eighteen-thirty, less than a dozen of the most vocal were cooling their heels in two empty supply cars on a siding, not far from the galley cars.
“Mercy Two Six, on terra firma. Thirty seconds to ramp,” said the pilot.
The ‘ramp’ for Two Six was the westbound lane overpass at the east end of the Interstate Eighty landing strip, marked with infrared beacons and few normal lights. The patients staged there, along with a planeload of medical personnel from the Three Seventy-Fifth Air Medical Group. Pre-War, the Three Seventy Fifth called Scott Air Force Base Home, but had evacuated to Dyess down in Texas. Mercy Two Five was on the eastbound lanes, almost ready for departure.
As each aircraft taxied toward the overpass, they would turn a hundred and eighty degrees, and lower their rear access ramp to allow quick loading of each litter into the aircraft, never shutting engines down. Once each plane was loaded, they would immediately take off for Omaha.
Once Two Six was away, the remaining medical personnel and Third Washington would take down the tent shelters, and head to Van Meter. The medical team would provide greatly needed assistance to Jeff’s worn-down men.
“Colonel, the detainees are in debrief with Captain McGowan’s teams. They should be through initial stages by now. The Captain wondered if you’d like to sit in on one,” Sergeant Travis said.
“Not a chance in Hell, Chet. I just might get myself in trouble if I were in a room with one of those self-centered bastards.”
“Understood, sir,” he said with a smile. “Wouldn’t do to have our C.O. in a court martial.”
“Yeah, probably not.”
Posted by Tom Sherry at 2:27 PM