Many things happen at once in that instant before the blast. Bravo Five is the first one to reach the door, closely followed by Bravo One. MPC Buddy whose leash is tethered to Bravo Four enters the hallway with the rest of the team. Buddy sits down on his haunches on the floor indicating the presence of explosives behind the door. Bravo Six observes this and throws himself at Bravo One, who is his Master Chief and is closer to him than Bravo Five. This action saves his life. Unfortunately, Bravo Five, Ollie Davis is not so lucky. The very next instant the explosion blows the door apart. Its blast force lifts them off their feet and throws them across the hallway. Bravo Five, the SEAL closest to the door struggles to a standing position and looks at Bravo One with accusatory eyes. He has blood running down his face and his rifle arm is missing. His mouth is moving but no sound comes out.
Master Chief Steven Harper, wakes up with a jolt. He sits upright on his bunk to catch his breath. His heart is thudding. Another nightmare, another fallen team member, another accusation.
“You ok?” He doesn’t respond to Navarro’s question but gets up from the bunk. “Yeah, I know, ignore and override,” shouts Navarro at his retreating back as Harper storms out of the dorm to the temporary gym. Lately, he has been doing that a lot.
“What’s wrong with him?” asks Morgan looking at Harper as he walks into the makeshift dorm where the team is currently stationed on a mission in Azerbaijan.
“Beats me,” says Navarro.
“He has been like this for some time now. His head is not in the game,” complains Morgan.
“Hey! He is your boss and even at his worst, he is better than you any day. Show the man some respect, he has been doing this for twenty years,” says an angry Navarro and he too walks out of the dorm.
“Havoc, this is Bravo One, crossing Jericho,” whispers Master Chief into his Dual comm headset as he leads three SEALs on his team stealthily towards the target building.
“Good copy Bravo One, crossing Jericho. Be advised this HVT is needed alive,” replies Lieutenant Commander Derek Washburn over the Dual comm two-way.
“Good copy Havoc. Bravo Two, how do you stand?” asks Bravo One.
“Bravo One, this is Bravo Two, we are at the breach point,” replies Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Navarro.
The team proceeds cautiously and enters the multistory target building. The target is a guy wanted for questioning in several bomb attacks on American and allied military forces. They clear each floor as they move up. They meet resistance just as they reach the penultimate floor.
“Contact!” yells Bravo One. The very distinct and punchy sounds of the assault rifle AK-47 shred the stillness of the air, as shots are fired in their direction. Everyone scrambles for safety. Bravo One and Four hide behind the walls of the stairwell. They provide cover fire. Meanwhile, Bravo Two and Bravo Six, the sniper of the group, sneak up the stairs for an aerial roof insertion. Their M4A1 carbines which fire at seven hundred rounds per minute neutralize the enemy combatants pretty swiftly.
“Bravo One, this is Havoc. Sitrep?” barks Derek Washburn into the Dual comm.
“Havoc, this is Bravo One. Everything under control, moving towards HVT.”
The team then reaches the top floor and begins door to door search. The moment they reach the last door Bravo One hesitates for a second before opening the door. The moment he opens it, the HVT picks up the gun on the table and points it at him. The next moment the HVT’s head has a neat hole dead centre of his eyes.
Bravo One turns to Bravo Six and acknowledges the headshot with a nod, just as he is holstering his SIG Sauer P226. The team gathers evidence and exfils out of there. All in all, a successful mission.
“What the hell happened out there?” shouts Navarro. “Do not even think of walking out on me Steven. I am your two I.C. and I need answers. You are putting the team at risk by your behaviour.”
Steven continues to sit quietly on the bench next to the weights rack of their improvised gym.
“When was the last time you slept? Don’t think the team hasn’t noticed, you barely sleep,” Navarro lowers his voice and walks to stand in front of Steven.
“Come on man, talk to me?” he says and sits next to Steven.
Finally, Steven says, “I see them.”
“Now hear me out,” Steven grumbles, “I see them, not all the time, but when I try to sleep or when I have downtime. They just stand at a corner, huddle together and look at me. Davis with his missing arm, Trent with a hole on his left temple, Martin with all the burns,” he trails off and stares at the nothing. “And others too,” he whispers ever so softly.
“You need professional help, Steven. This could be or lead to PTSD. By the way, do they say anything?”
“Davis says, ‘Even if we’re apart, I’ll always be with you’. Trent, ever the pipe-hitter says, ‘All in, all the time’. And Martin keeps repeating, ‘The only easy day was yesterday’; it was wasn’t it, because it was the day he was alive. The problem is that I want them to be with me and I don’t want them to be with me. They haunt me. They taunt me.” He shifts slightly and turns towards Navarro and speaks earnestly, “Did you know Martin came to me a couple of weeks before his death. He said he wanted out. I convinced him to continue and now he is dead.”
He opens his phone and shows it to Navarro.
“See this folder in my contact list, it has the names and numbers of all fallen SEALs. Men who depended on me to protect them and make sure they came back home to their families.”
“That is unrealistic Steven. You cannot make that kind of promise. You are not God! A hero, yes, but still human. And they know the risk they are taking when they sign up for this job. And it’s not a job, it’s a calling.”
“Yes, but what do you do when Davis comes up to you and says he is going to be a father and gets his hand and head blown off two days after that. The sacrifices we make and more than that the sacrifices our families make are unmatched. We signed up for this, not them. But the only option they have is to go along or divorce or dysfunctional families. Now his child will never have a father. Davis will never hold his child.” He hangs his head and closes his eyes.
“That is true. The amount of ourselves we give up for this job is unparalleled. The stress we handle is not for everyone. The things we see is not for everyone and the choices we make is also not for everyone. We are always portrayed as heroes or fuckups as the case may be. But never as humans, who are affected by all we see and do. But ignore and override cannot work all the time. You need help, Steven. Or you will become a liability for the team. And I know you will never want to be that.”
“I want out,” he whispers and Navarro leans in closer to listen. “They will be with me, always. They are a part of me.”
“Yes, and they make you who you are. We are the best team because of you. You just need to make peace with them. How can I help?”
“You have already helped. I haven’t spoken about this to anyone.”
That night too, in spite of this talk with Navarro, Steven just stares at the clock ticking away, unable or unwilling to sleep. He gets up and swings his feet off the bunk. Then he reaches for his phone and opens the folder titled ‘Fallen’. He rubs his thumbs on the screen. His hands tremble. He puts the phone down and scrubs his face with his hands. He heads off to the gym.
The interior of the C-130 Hercules is bathed in red as it cruises at an altitude of 27,000 feet. The frigid night presses in on the exteriors. The team preps for a HAHO. They switch over to their oxygen bottles and recheck all the equipment. The PA system continues the count down and the standard set of instructions. The team is lined up, one after the other ready for the jump. The mission is simple, ‘Extract the pilot in enemy custody at all costs’. HAHO is the only way to safely enter the enemy zone with minimum risk of detection. The ramp opens and the light turns green. The jumpers push off one after the other. Twelve seconds into the descent they open their chutes. Navarro leads the descent. They glide for over forty kilometres into enemy territory.
After they land the chutes are dumped and the team regroups to breach the abandoned building on the outskirts of the town, where the pilot is being held.
“Havoc, this is Bravo One, do you copy?”
“Bravo One, this is Havoc, it’s a good copy. Please be advised the enemy is armed and will fight fiercely to protect its prize.”
At Bravo One’s signal, the action starts. Two teams enter from two sides. It lasts for nineteen minutes and then they are out of the building with the pilot.
“Target secure. Moving to exfil point,” says Bravo One.
“Good copy, Bravo One,” acknowledges Derek Washburn.
Back onboard, C-130 Hercules, the team has drinks and relaxes. The rescued pilot asks for Steven. “Thank you. You saved my life. I know, you will say it is your duty, but it is my life and I am grateful,” he says haltingly.
“Well, it seems one less fallen,” says Navarro as he walks up behind Steven and pats him on the back.
“You should celebrate this win, just the way you mourn the loss. Drinks on you, once we are stateside.”
‘Did you go and see my child? How is he doing?’
‘I wanted out, you should have let me go. Why did I let you convince me to continue?’
‘You know I would follow you into hell, no questions asked. I am sorry I could not help the team that night.’
‘That op was a clusterfuck, you should have planned better.’
Steven wakes up with a thudding heart and a raging headache and it takes him a minute to realize he had dozed off on the sofa in his bare-shell apartment. Even as the nightmare recedes from his memory the last of the whispers linger.
Thank you for saving my life.
He looks around the apartment. The one he shifted to after his wife’s death. He gets up and tries to work the kinks out of his neck. He gets a bottle of beer from the fridge and sits back on the sofa. He opens the folder ‘Fallen’ again. He reads each name, seventeen in all, and remembers them. By the time he scrolls to the end and looks up, each one of them is standing in groups or alone around the room; all bloodied and bruised as they were when they died.
He walks into his room and opens the drawer of his bedside table. He picks up his Heckler & Koch HK45CT pistol. He walks back and sits on the sofa. They are still standing there looking at him. Apart, yet always together. He meticulously checks the gun and slowly with trembling hands lifts it to his right temple. He has tears streaming down his face. The faces continue to look at him. He puts his finger on the trigger.
‘I died alone stateside so that you could come here later and commit suicide. Now I am truly ashamed.’
His fingers stop pressing the trigger and he turns his head ever so slowly to the left. There in the kitchen stands his dead wife.
‘Master Chief Steven Harper, has come down to this. How the mighty have fallen? You are Bravo One for a reason. There is no shame in asking for help.’ Pointing in the general direction of the room where the fallen stand she says, ‘They are here because you have not let them go. Let them go and be free Steven. Our children need you.’
She walks up to the dining table and points at something. There is a visiting card, for a Dr Jeffery Willson, Expert Physiologist, Special Operators.
The story is inspired by a scene from the TV series ‘Seal Team’. It is dedicated to all the special operators from around the world who along with their families make great sacrifices to protect the interests of their nations. They are always seen as heroes, men and women of immense strength and courage but somewhere we forget that they are human beings after all. They too need support and judgement-free space where they can openly talk or deal with their inner demons.
MPC – Multi-Purpose Canines
Havoc – Command Centre
Bravo One to Six – Call signs
HVT – High-value target
Sitrep – Situation report
Two I.C. – Second in command (2-I-C)
Pipe-hitter – Someone who is willing to go to extreme lengths to accomplish the mission
HAHO – High Altitude High Opening
Exfil – The rendezvous point for extraction or exfiltration of personnel.
Op – Operation
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