The Mighty Pen Podcast: Episode 11

Episode 11: Énouement and We Leave in Peace

This week’s episode features a reflection on the effects rigorous military training has on an individual even after their period of service, and a story of how intense combat causes servicemembers to react in different ways.

Énouement by Miko Yoshida, 2021

The first thing you did when you woke up was touch your weapon. Before you knew what time it was, or even where you were, you made sure it was there. In your total of twenty-three months in Afghanistan, your digs varied from a courtyard covered in sheep shit to a personal can with wi-fi and AC that ran 24-7. In every place, the rifle grab was your confirmation that you were alive and had the means to keep living.

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They taught you the rules. Treat, never, keep, keep.* You knew these rules by heart and probably always will. You cringed at the action movie star running across rooftops, finger curled around the trigger, primed for a negligent discharge. When the too-cool-and-too-good-looking-for-his-own-skin detective was clearing a room, you thought: There are rules, damnit, stop flagging your battle buddy.

They taught you how to shoot. Lying prone, sitting cross-legged, and standing up, you used your thumb to gently guide the upper part of the butt stock to the perfect niche between your deltoid and chest. Each time your shoulder pocket would cradle the weapon perfectly and position your body to absorb the recoil. The configuration of your legs, torso, hips, and arms felt awkward at first but over time, like a practiced yogi, your body adapted and became a rifle stand. It knew how to move around the weapon so it would be optimal for employment.

Employment as in killing. You killed the shit out of those dog targets—shaped like a human’s shoulders and head—at 300 meters. In Afghanistan you killed actual dogs. Because they were going to attack you. Because they might’ve given away your position. Because you trained to shoot to kill, and you just wanted to kill something after your buddy lost part of his leg—not to a dog, but to those pesky IEDs. Your practiced skills came in useful when you found yourself bored on post. Like the range, you were cool, calm, and collected as you sighted in on the farmer tending to his crops. You knew he was harmless, simply working to feed his family. You imagined pulling the trigger, hoping one day he’d give you a reason. After all that training, not to shoot at something would be like not taking the test you studied for all this time. You would get distracted and think of other metaphors about not being able to shoot: sparring without bouts, cooking without eating, sex without climax. This passed the time as you stood and stared into nothingness, forgetting you were fantasizing about murder for no reason but boredom and fear. Or did they train you to do this?

They taught you how to breathe. Inhale, pause, exhale. You learned to raise your sights just above the target, wait for the natural pause as the sight post moves down, and gently squeeze the trigger; don’t anticipate the recoil. This soft pull could put a bullet on a human target at 500 meters, and every marine trained to it. You never paused to think about the connection between the small movement of your pointer finger and the death it could dole out, squeeze by squeeze. When you actually encountered the enemy, you scanned and saw only dust as the rest of the marines opened fire. You never shot at anything but once that IED went off, you saw one of your own with a missing limb, again. You rushed over to him and watched as he struggled for air. You felt like he’d be all better if he could just get that leg glued back on and get a nice shower and change of clothes—then he could breathe.

They taught you how to take care of it. To disassemble it and clean it, put it back together and conduct a functions check. Each piece was essential, but they stressed to you: don’t be the asshole who loses the firing pin. You learned to pack a fat lip of dip while you did it, for instant credibility. It made you sick at first, but over time you could take apart and clean your weapon with your eyes closed and pack cancer into your lower lips like a real marine. The tobacco stung your gums, but you didn’t care.

They taught you that it was more important than you. Losing your mind was fine, but if you lost a rifle, you were fucked. A lost rifle had you walking with the entire company online inside the training area until it was found. They berated the marine who belonged to that rifle. You learned it was more important than you because it would keep you alive. Killing notwithstanding, your weapon actually made you, you. You were a rifleman, every marine was. You knew the right amount of pressure it took to push the pins to separate the upper and lower receivers for disassembly. You forgot which buttons not to press when having a spat with your girlfriend. It never ended well. Between the marines and the woman, you thought you knew which was more important. You didn’t.

They taught you when you got there to never shoot warning shots; to shoot to kill. You stared out at the tree line hoping someone would pop out with an AK-47. But it was just a shoeless kid signaling you to toss a water bottle. So, when another marine shot an old man with corn husks in his turban, you went to look. The bullet left a tiny hole in his skull and the real confirmation was the blood that slowly darkened the dirt. You felt a tinge of jealousy. Your higher-up chalked it up to an unarmed enemy combatant since the last few days they’d been throwing improvised grenades over the courtyard of the house you took over. They’d told you not to let anyone get within hand grenade range and to stop giving out bottles of water. That’s what they packed explosives into before launching them over the wall. What about sling shots, you thought of asking. But you’d already been told to not be a smart-ass, so you just kept it to yourself. Also, what was hand grenade range? You thought about the high school quarterback who could launch a pigskin fifty yards, no problem. He dated the prom queen and went to an Ivy. He had his own start-up by the time he graduated. It’s okay, though. You had your rifle and could kill anyone you wanted to at that very moment—no warning shots.


They didn’t teach you about coming back. When you return to home base the last thing you do is turn in your rifle at the armory. Get that done, and your family and friends are waiting for you with tears and hugs. You feel guilty at that moment for missing your weapon more than your family. You go home that night and meet the bottom of the whiskey bottle. Your buddy got it for you. He think’s it’ll make you feel better; you think so, too. You wake up and panic when you reach for your weapon and it’s not there. You start sleeping with the semiauto pistol you bought when you were just a trainee. Not the same, but it’s good enough. They didn’t mention the separation anxiety part when training you to love your weapon.

You’re out. You seek employment; not the killing kind, the kind that makes you a productive member of society, that helps your family stop worrying about you. If the conversation goes there and they ask, you tell people you never shot someone in combat. You feel slightly ashamed, as if your credibility is somehow reduced, so you think of compensating by explaining that your job was lethal, but in different ways—that you had to shoot artillery and call for rockets and drop bombs; that if the grunts couldn’t get to it with their long guns, you could summon an actual Hellfire, or worse. But you realize that’s a bit unhinged, so you chuckle and resort to self-deprecation. Yeah, I’m not a badass and I’m not one of those crazy ex-marines, so don’t worry. You’re tired of fucking doing this over and over again. You’re sick of seeing the singularly labeled PTSD-riddled ex-military guy showing up on the TV screen. That’s why he’s a vigilante, channeling his pain and rage for justice. It’s so badass. They eat it up. A Hollywood veteran can hyper focus on avenging his buddy’s death, or coldly kill for money as a hired gun, or inexplicably access his homemade bunker and armory to set up a base of operations for a heist with other war buddies who drop everything to join him and provide sniper overwatch from a skyscraper. Also, they’re somehow always former special forces, sport righteous beards, and look like they live at the CrossFit gym. You’ve been saying all this out loud and the people around you are looking a little uncomfortable. When’s the last time you could hyper focus on anything, like just sitting at a bar and having a drink? You take a sip of the heavy IPA you always order and change the subject. You’re still more in than you’re out.

You slowly figure out how to avoid these conversations altogether. You don’t offer up any information that needs explanation. You’ve been out of the marines longer than you were in. Your hair is longer; you don’t present like one anyway. You’ve dropped the sirs and the ma’ams, the rogers and the wilcos. You’ve stopped saying female and vic, but sometimes forget that bathrooms aren’t heads anymore. When people find out you were in the military and say things like, “You’re pretty short for a marine,” you ignore it despite wanting to show them that you can still reach them with a nice left hook, no problem. You put your pistol in storage because your best friend told you it’s probably not good to have it laying around, especially around yourself. It’s out of sight, but unavoidably not out of mind.

You quit drinking because what respectable thirty-three-year-old gets in fistfights at a wedding afterparty? You quit smoking, too, because if all the burn pits and engine exhaust you inhaled doesn’t kill you, that certainly will. No respectable corporate citizen would be caught with dip and a spit bottle, but you still have a pinch or two outside the bar with another vet. It helps you with your sobriety.

The marines are way past you now. But when you’re lying on the beach with your girlfriend you still get paranoid that someone could come up behind you and smash your face. You don’t have any weapons and think about how to protect yourself; you’re listening for footsteps behind you on the sand. You try to focus on the sound of the ocean in front of you, but your mind drifts back. You think about the random acts of violence against Asian Americans that flood your news feed because of the ‘Chinese’ virus. You could be the next Vincent Chin, only reversed. He was of Chinese descent killed for appearing Japanese. But the killers, those men weren’t the type of people they sent to jail.** Three years before you were born, in the country you went to war for, one could kill a Chinese American for a $3,000 fee, according to its criminal justice system. Now, in 2021 you don’t let anyone get behind you on the platform waiting for the train, just like you did each time you came home from Afghanistan. You know it’s not reasonable to be on edge this much, but your body reacts nonetheless. You remember you have a pen from the crossword puzzle you do to ease your anxiety. Order is soothing on the black and white grid; everything has its place. It’s a puzzle but it’s not impossible, and the choices are limited to twenty-six letters. But the inkstick you use to scrawl them can pierce anyone’s throat with enough velocity. You click it a few times and tuck it beside your thigh where your Marine Corps issued pistol used to go.

Another mass shooting. You go down a research black hole. You come across the Wikipedia page for the deadliest shooting to date. In 2017 a man killed sixty people in Las Vegas, injuring hundreds in the process. What would compel someone to go on a rampage and murder innocent people with a weapon of war? You discover that one third of your country’s mass shooters during your lifetime had some sort of military training. You know nothing will change. You know they’ll stand by their rights, the rights conceived in a time by men who believed that any human with a shade darker than white was subhuman. They say to protect the national border, they’ll need free access to these arms. You know they’re the same guns we take overseas, ignore borders, and wage war with for twenty straight years. As you scan the victims of the Las Vegas massacre, you see one of the dead was your elementary school crush, a mother of three. She was married to a marine. You know there will be more senseless sprees.

Everything they taught you aimed at death. Shooting was just the most obvious method you trained for. They showed you that with good sight picture and proper sight alignment, it’s as easy as applying some pressure to a piece of metal. You remember this pressure as you wrap the floss around a curled finger each night. They made killing muscle memory, so you didn’t have to think about it when the time came. Trouble is, you think about it even if the time doesn’t come. You wonder how many more are learning how to do this. You wonder how they’ll carry this knowledge in their body, in their minds, now and until the end. You wonder if they think the about same things you think about because they are training the same way you did. You think about the next marine who was issued your rifle, and if they took care of it. If they used it to shoot someone, or themselves. Accidentally, or on purpose. You wonder, when they get out, how they’ll apply the skill of marksmanship, killing, in a world that will likely never ask them to use it. You’ll die one day, still knowing how to carry, shoot, and clean the weapon, even if you can’t physically do it; even if you wish you didn’t know how. And just before you pass, you’ll realize that the gun will outlive you, they’ll outlive us all.

*Treat every weapon as if it were loaded. Never point your rifle at anything you do not intend to shoot. Keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you are ready to fire. Keep your weapon on safe until you are ready to fire. Know your target and what lies beyond it.


We Leave in Peace by Dustin Dunbar, 2023

“Yep, that ain’t good,” Lieutenant Smith exclaimed behind his binoculars. The company executive officer studied the rock formations surrounding Combat Outpost Campbell. His tall, limber frame silhouetted against the darkening sapphire sky. Moonlight emerged from behind the mountains. He exposed himself to potential sniper fire, but we had to get a good view of our enemy’s formation.

“What’s that?” I attempted to follow Lieutenant Smith’s sight line with the optics on my M4 carbine. A sudden movement caught my eye and I barely made out the dirt brown hue of a poncho streaking from one rock to another. The enemy wisely positioned themselves out of the range of our rifle fire, so I jotted down notes of distances to hand off to the mortarmen.

“Looks like S2 was right after all,” LT Smith declared. He dropped his binos and took a knee next to me on the roof of the Company’s Headquarters building. “Got about a company plus of enemy fighters out there.”

I let out an impressed whistle, not realizing that its echo would carry so clearly over the other buildings of COP Campbell and into the evening. The sound reverberated off the mountains surrounding the outpost and onto the rock formations that provided our enemy with natural cover and fighting positions and traveled deeper into the mountain pass south of our outpost. A shrill whistle from the pass was returned to us. I smiled. Our enemy was out there alright.

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“How long until the PSD platoon arrives?” Smith turned to me with a smirk.

“About three hours based on last comms. They’re still traveling north to south down Route Timber.” My smile disappeared at the thought of Lieutenant Jay Alvarez’s slowly approaching platoon. “Not sure how much a personal security detail will be worth as a reserve fighting force.”

“They’ll have to be.” I followed Smith to the ladder jutting out of the middle of the roof and slid down after him. Immediately, I bumped into the company commander, Captain Porter.

“How’s it look?” he asked through bloodshot eyes. The last 48 hours of sleepless nights and indirect artillery fire had taken a toll on the entire Company, but the exhaustion visibly weighed on CPT Porter’s heavy frame, making him seem even fatter and gloomier than usual.

“Intel’s right, sir. Got about a company plus coming down the Sherwar Pass. They’ve set up initial fighting positions to surround us.” Smith answered as he lumbered towards his seat behind a computer screen and radio. “They’re hanging outside our claymores and chicken-wire.”

“Shit …” was all CPT Porter could muster. The following silence in the CP was only heightened by the soft static of radios and the blue glow of computer screens that decorated the interior of the tiny building. It was hard to imagine that such a wild jungle of electronics, wires, and sweaty men existed in such a small, cramped space, but the Company had made it work. And now the entire cornucopia of the headquarters platoon hung on CPT Porter’s next word. It never arrived.

Raging to shake him, I left CPT Porter ruminating in the corner of the CP to head over to the JTAC operating the fires and air radio; the rest of the HQs Platoon slowly turned back to work, the uneasy quiet gently replaced by chirping radios and keystrokes.

“Monster,” I greeted the ornery JTAC Sergeant with his call-sign and a copy of enemy grid coordinates, “any chance of seeing some Warthogs and B1s?” “Got a few on station, just need the go-ahead.” Monster snatched the paper from my hand without looking and dismissed me with a wave. I resented him and the feeling was reciprocal. I was a logistician who “stepped out of his lane” with questions on fires and air deconfliction and he was a stuck-up Ivy League dropout who posted war stories on Facebook in media res.

“Didn’t know loggies knew how to map TRPs,” he sneered from behind a grimy red mustache that hid yellowing teeth.

“Yeah, well, when duty calls for a silent professional.”

“Winston.” Smith waved for me and I gladly left Monster to his work.

“What’s up?”

“Mind doing a sweep of the platoons? Check on the mortars’ ammo and then see if we can raise Alvarez on comms? I would but …”

Smith eyed CPT Porter still in his corner. I immediately understood that Smith needed to concentrate on holding the company together. I was also happy to have a task other than counting the hours down to the oncoming attack. I departed the beehive of the CP and marched into the clear chill of the encroaching night. I let out a long heavy breath. It instantly crystalized in the frigid air. The wisp dissipated into the moon that fully occupied the mountaintop overwatching COP Campbell. The company had bestowed the ironic title of “Mount Hope” to the sentry of a mountain that anchored the outpost’s defensive walls.

I studied the fortifications that culminated at Mount Hope while listening for any further enemy noises beyond the protective barriers. Dissatisfied with the still air, I crossed the open ground of the outpost’s dirt HLZ toward First Platoon’s fighting position. My boots munched on the gravel of the helicopter landing zone that nestled right beneath Mount Hope. I marveled at how pristine and level the HLZ was despite the barrage of sustained enemy artillery fire over the past two days.

I maneuvered between sandbag walls, rocky steps, and concrete bunkers as I walked along the perimeter walls to find each platoon. I intentionally dodged questions about why I was checking in on each platoon’s LT and Sergeant instead of CPT Porter or LT Smith. After finding sufficient evidence of good radio comms and sectors of fire, I headed to the mortar section’s
firing position. Huddled amongst a metric ton of ammunition, two 81-mm mortar tubes, and a single giant of a 120-mm tube, seven soldiers played cards in whispers.

Greeted with fist bumps, I settled onto a seat of an MRE box. One of the mortarmen asked, “Still wish you’d been on that last bird out of here, sir?”

“Shit.” I shrugged. I gladly took up an offer of Copenhagen long cut from another mortarmen. “Too bad that cargo was too heavy.”

“Heavier than CPT Porter?” Sergeant Livingston responded. Laughter rippled through the group. He continued with a gentle punch on my shoulder, “Well, we’re glad you didn’t make it out. You’ve been clutch after Healy got hit.”

“Hope so. I didn’t have much to do after we airlifted all the cargo out,” I chuckled back.

“And Healy took my spot on that bird, so I had to make up for it.”

“Didn’t think a loggie would know how to drop rounds. An officer, no less.”

“It’s not hard.” I spit into a spare Gatorade bottle. “Just follow orders.”

“Halfway to mortarman already, sir.”

“Still can’t believe we’re leaving this place. Six months …” one of the others shook his head and leaned in. “Think we’ll be able to close this COP over the next day?”

“Not without a fight.”

“Good.” SGT Livingston’s large grin was bracketed by deep dimples and even further highlighted by his growing five o’clock shadow. “Hate to leave this place in peace.”

I inquired about the ammo situation and SGT Livingston assured me that their stock was good. He cued one of the other mortarmen to keep the distractions going. They shuffled the cards
beneath a red-lensed light to deal the deck along the cardboard table that occupied the mortar pit.

As the last card was dealt, everyone paused at the eruption of gunfire and explosions in the distance. Echoes ripped through the night from the north.

“PSD platoon,” I answered the mortarmen’s voiceless wonder. I realized I forgot to reach out to Alvarez’s platoon and immediately jumped on the Battalion net, “PSD, this is Darkhorse 5. Do you read?”

“Darkhorse this is Guardian 6, we read.” Alvarez’s nasally voice cut through my handheld radio.

“Guardian, what is your current location?”

“Five minutes out. Receiving heavy direct and indirect fire.”

“What the fuck?” I shouted into the night, “How’d they get here so fucking quick?”

I knew that Smith was listening to the Battalion net as well, so I passed comms to him at the CP. I ripped out a map from my back pocket and began to plot grids and firing angles on possible choke points along PSD’s path along Route Timber. SGT Livingston and the mortarmen got to work. Helmets strapped on, ear plugs pushed in, and some inserted mouthpieces. Orders and coordinates poured over the radio. High Explosive rounds. Fire for effect.

I jumped on an 81-mm mortar with another soldier. Tube angles set. HE round dropped down the tube and we turned to face down, all within one flowing motion.




Rounds outbound. It was easy work. Mechanical.

As we continued to send rounds downrange onto our unseen enemy, a torrent of wind crashed down onto our position and flung up dust to swirl around us. The raging wind was followed by the heavy roar of jet engines passing overhead. I noticed the disappearing tails of two A-10 Warthogs. Monster was doing his job. The mortar pit let out a loud holler as the distinctive burrrp of the Warthogs’ 30-mm cannon tore through the air. Incoming artillery quickly interrupted our cheer.

We each took shelter in the fetal position behind sandbags that surrounded the mortar pit. Rocks and shrapnel scorched the air as they perforated our protective sandbags. We waited out
the explosions. More enemy coordinates received. We sent more rounds to support PSD. I was lost in the sounds of incoming and outgoing explosions. My chest thumped in time with each
explosive we sent and received.

“Darkhorse, Angry 5.” Smith’s request came across my handheld.

“Angry 5, send it.”

“Need you at the front gate to receive Guardian.”

SGT Livingston nodded and offered his hand. Recognizing that I was about to run through indirect fire, I quickly took his outstretched hand. He launched me to provide momentum. I scrambled up and out of the mortar pit. I reached a full sprint and cleared to the nearest perimeter wall to hide behind it. The encroaching enemy’s rifle fire and RPGs lanced above the walls and streaked into the compound, exploded against bunker walls, and tore through unoccupied tents. The company’s soldiers manning the walls poured return fire back at the enemy. I ran beneath the scorched rain of expended brass shells.

I heard the PSD trucks before I saw them at the gate. Mark-19 automatic grenade launchers and M2 .50 cal machine guns raked the surrounding rockface. Their gunners were unable to see the enemy but hoped that the hell they unleashed found purchase.

Another soldier was already pulling back the massive steel gate by the time I arrived. It screeched on its metal grooves as the road opened. The PSD platoon’s MaxxPro vehicles poured into the compound while still firing into the distance. Chatter streamed over the net’s airwaves, but it was between Smith and Guardian 7, not 6, on where to position the gun trucks.

Wondering why Alvarez wasn’t on the net, I ran down the line of firing trucks to find him and escort him to the CP. I spotted the lead truck with its back ramp down, smoke billowed out of it. I moved to it for cover. I leaped into an open seat just as rifle fire ricocheted off the ground behind me.

“Where the fuck is Alvarez?” I screamed over gunfire at some unknown soldier.

“Medics took him and Loving. We got hit by a fucking rocket!”

I took three heavy breaths before I took off again. I rushed to the medic tent and spilled into it. Utter chaos surrounded me as two medics ripped clothes off a wounded solider. They quickly applied field dressing to his punctured torso, their gloved hands drenched in dark blood. Sitting alongside this choreographed madness was LT Alvarez. He held up his left hand by the wrist at eye level. A trickle of bright blood ran down his index finger and pooled at the hand holding it up. Our eyes met.

“I got hit.” Alvarez motioned to me with his upheld hand. The three medics were busy tending to whom I assumed was Loving, so I tore off some electrical tape from my kit and found a spare square of gauze next to Alvarez. I roughly pressed the gauze to his finger. It was a small cut at the edge of his first knuckle. I taped the injured index finger to his middle finger.

“Have we called a medevac?” I yelled at him over the noise of the med tent. He shook his head in the negative. I clicked into the company net, “Angry 5, this Darkhorse. We need medevac. One injured. Urgent.”

I eyed Alvarez as he stared at his wounded soldier. The medics had stabilized Loving, but his breaths seemed shallow.

“Let’s go, man. Smith needs you in the CP.” I pulled on his flak vest.

“I’m staying with Loving,” he pleaded, eyes locked on the prostrate soldier.

“No, you’re not.”

“Fuck you! I’m staying.” Alvarez ripped my hand from his shoulder.

I stood before him motionless and dumbfounded. We had a job to do, and I didn’t have time to waste, so I keyed in my radio to the Battalion net. “Guardian 7, this Darkhorse. Angry 5 needs you in the CP.” I left Alvarez and ran to the CP to meet up with Smith and Alvarez’s platoon sergeant.

Inside the CP was even more chaos. Radios barked and soldiers screamed orders back and forth. In the middle of the incomprehensible mess, sat CPT Porter, elbows on knees as he stared into nothing. I found Smith just behind Porter, ignoring him and talking to the company first sergeant and the PSD platoon sergeant.

“Medevac birds inbound with Apache escort. ETA five minutes.” Smith greeted me with a small nod. “We’ll use the Apaches to provide some support while we get the injured out. Battalion has given us the green light to leave this shithole early. After the medevac takes off, we have Chinooks landing to airlift us out. So, we continue as planned. First Sergeant, I need you on the walls to pull the platoons back to the HLZ.”

First Sergeant Jones shot a side glance towards CPT Porter. “Roger, sir. Missouri to pull first, Oklahoma to pull second, and Kansas to pull third.”

“Roger, and Guardian will be the last to pull out with Headquarters platoon. On Texas, we load into their trucks and take off. If you hear Alamo, they’ve broken through and its final protective fires and lines. Guardian leaves us and we all pull back to set up on Mount Hope.” Smith turned to Guardian 7 and then looked at me. “Winston, stay with the mortars. On either
Texas or Alamo, pull them out after final protective fires.”

“Roger.” We each nodded in the affirmative.

I tore out of the CP and dashed back to the mortar pit. AH-64 Apache helicopters loitered overhead, launching rockets just beyond the compound walls. A UH-60 Blackhawk noisily lowered onto the landing zone, and I took a knee to not get blown off my feet. Medics hurried to the HLZ carrying Loving on a litter. A few other injured soldiers limped behind. Alvarez tailed the line of departing wounded. They loaded Loving and the others onto the bird, and then to my disbelief, Alvarez sat next to him, and let his legs dangle off the side of the helicopter. Just as quickly as it had landed, the bird lifted off and a cyclone of dirt was left in its wake. As the Blackhawk banked away from incoming fire, Alvarez gently waved to me with his injured hand, still cupped at the wrist. I returned the gesture with a middle finger.

Snatched back to reality by grenade launched explosions and raking gun fire, I scurried back to the mortar pit and jumped right into routine. Coordinates received, angles calculated, round sent. Again, I was lost in time to the automaton functions of war. Grab a round, drop a round, turn down. Set the angles. Confirm the coordinates. Grab a round, drop a round, turn down. As we continued our sustained salvo, I never heard Missouri, Kansas, or Oklahoma come across the radio. I only functioned. And I barely registered the CH-47 Chinooks that landed on and departed the HLZ. I just followed Livingston and the others’ lead. As I turned away from another round launched, Livingston grabbed my shoulder and yanked me back.

He screamed into my face. My ears rang. I couldn’t hear anything after so many rounds.

“WHAT?!” I yelled at him.

“ALAMO! WE GOTTA GO!” SGT Livingston kicked all three mortars in succession into nearly vertical alignment. We scrambled to dump last rounds for final protective fires. We broke down the mortars and lifted red-hot tubes on our shoulders. We had to move. The enemy had broken through. We had to get to Mount Hope. As explosions impacted around us, I crested the mortar pit’s exit. The last thing I remembered was the feeling of flying.

I awoke with a jolt. A hand secured me from the dark.

“He’s alive,” I heard a gruff voice laughingly confirm.

I was placed on my side on top of loose rocks. I sat up and looked down onto COP Campbell through blurry eyes. Fires focused my sight as they danced on the darkened ruins of the outpost. The full moon, high above, spotlighted the burnt buildings, charred impact holes, and a few bodies that adorned the now-empty husk of a compound.

“What the fuck happened?” I grumbled into the darkness through my parched throat.

“We’re fucking lucky, that’s what.” SGT Livingston sat next to me and offered his canteen. I gulped half of the warm water before passing it back, he followed with a swig, “I think a Chinese rocket hit close to the pit. Knocked us all out cold. Thought you might have been dead, sir.”

“Shit …” I turned to take in my surroundings. LT Smith stood just behind me up the mountain; he conversed with somebody on the radio. His tall, lean frame once again lit by the moon. First Sergeant Jones was seated next to CPT Porter with his arm wrapped around the fat, inconsolable commander. The remainder of the HQs platoon and mortars section were spread out in a security circle around the mountain top.

“Got a Chinook inbound to grab us.” Smith stepped down to my level and placed a hand on my shoulder. His face was covered in dirt and scratches. There was a tear in his shirt on the left side caked with dried blood, but he paid it no heed. “What the hell ever happened to Alvarez?”

“He got hit. What about the other platoons?”

“All back at FOB Wardak. Guardian made it out as well. What do you mean he got hit? Is he ok?”

“Yeah, he’s fine. Got nicked.” I attempted to find a comfortable sitting position on the rocks while still trying to gain an idea of the events that led to our situation. “So, what the fuck happened?”

“We found y’all strewn about the HLZ as we retreated. Thought the pit might have been hit.”

“We all made it?” I didn’t believe it.

“Couple bullet holes, some shrapnel, and TBI, but just walking wounded. Nothing major besides the one we medevacked. We’re extremely fucking lucky.”

“Thought they broke through … how’d we make it up here?”

“Monster worked his magic.” Smith nodded down the mountain face to the seated JTAC.

“Bombing runs really covered our ass.”

“Monster and I dragged your fat ass up here.” SGT Livingston chirped in with an offer of a cigarette box. I took two and the lighter.

“Deus ex machina.” I shook my head at our good fortune as I slid down the rockface to Monster. He was leaned back in a natural seat that Mount Hope seemed to offer just to him. Legs propped up and radio settled in his lap. His face was dark with soot and his red mustache was wet with perspiration. Yet he was relaxed, toes tapped in rhythm to his own beat.

“Sucks I missed the show.” I offered a cigarette. He leaned in so I could I light his and then mine. I let a moment pass to allow the foul nicotine to fill my lungs. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” He grinned through a puff of casual smoke. “And you’re just in time for the finale.”

Before my question could escape, a rush of heated air thrust it back down my throat. The moonlight disappeared as a single broad black shadow passed overhead. A deafening roar shook my bones into the mountain. A slender, massive, unmistakable shape: a B1 bomber. Its terrifying frame descended onto the compound almost as if it would swallow it whole. The bomber’s wingtips almost brushed the face of the mountain pass as it swept through. Its four piping white-hot jet engines pushed it south away from our position on Mount Hope. Its dark belly opened.

Countless bombs dropped along the pass. Hell and all its kinetic wrath had been loosed from the heavens. The bombs barely had time to whistle down to the savaged earth as I witnessed the final throes of COP Campbell between the red and white explosions, the cracking thunder of each finally hit me before I felt the tepid stale air of their concussive infernal waves.

Monster lifted his chin to take it all in as if he was catching a night breeze on the beach. “Worth the view?”

About the Authors

Miko Yoshida, Afghanistan 2013Miko Yoshida is a Japanese-American Los Angeles native and is the eldest of seven. As a Marine, he deployed three times to Afghanistan before spending a few years in consulting and financial services in New York. He currently teaches ceramics and boxing in his neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.





Dustin Dunbar

The son of Air Force parents, Dustin Dunbar joined the Army in 2009, commissioning as a Logistics Officer through ROTC at the College of William and Mary. During that time, Dustin served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and then with the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) Division.

After three combat tours in Afghanistan, Dustin hung up his jump boots in 2018, completing nearly a decade of active-duty service. He attended Georgetown University and graduated with his MSF in 2019.

Dustin, along with his wife Stephanie and their daughters Charlotte and Grace, have found new adventures along the banks of the James River as their family takes root in Richmond. Dustin now works as an Investment Associate for Virginia Venture Partners.

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