Excerpt, Part II

Although this story contains actual things from the world in which we live, including towns, places, and actual events, it should be read as a work of fiction. All characters are fictional and not based on any real person. The events depicted are entirely the product of my imagination.

Dahlgren awakened. It was still dark. He lay on his back in a sagging motel bed. Slowly, his eyes cleared. His head was pounding. He reached for the bottle he knew would be on the nightstand and shook out three aspirin, put them in his mouth, and crunched them. This made the medicine enter the blood stream much quicker than by swallowing them whole. Most people didn’t know this. He learned it in Fallujah, when Sergeant Flowers told him to do it on another of their unending patrols. It wasn’t that it completely killed the pain, but it took the edge off to where one could push it down and ignore it for a while. Crunch the aspirin, and just keep pounding water.

These were the two things he repeated like a mantra when he was over there, and they were the two things that seemed to keep him barely on the right side of sane back here. His days now consisted of the mission, drinking countless bottles of water, keeping track of the aspirin so he didn’t burn his liver out, and eating when the chance presented itself. He kept losing weight, but he seemed to be getting stronger. And stopping the drinking had cleared his head and helped him sleep better.

The headaches and nightmares had returned in the past few weeks. This time they were as bad as they had ever been. The stuff the doc at the VA had given him had run out long ago and he didn’t want to have it refilled because that would likely cause him to pop up on the grid. He had to stay off the radar now. He’d kept off it for months now, as far as he knew. So it was aspirin until he was finished. Even then, it might just be aspirin forever.

He was very careful about his movements. One couldn’t go anywhere anymore without there being some electronic record of it. Financial transactions were tracked and logged if you used anything but cash. But even cash transactions might be monitored if the place had a video system. And too big a wad of cash raised eyebrows and could also draw attention. ATMs all had cameras and every transaction was recorded. Fast food places had video of every order and window pick up. Grocery stores had hundreds of surveillance cameras. Cameras were all over every city in America now. Again, most people didn’t know this. But their every move was being tracked in some way. So if he made a mistake, there might always be a video camera watching.

When he was in high school in the late 90s, there was a movie called Enemy of the State, in which the actor Will Smith was tracked 24/7 by NSA controlled satellites. Although fears of this becoming a reality increased after 9/11, the truth was not really that different from the movie. People would be shocked if they knew how much of their daily life was actually captured on video or through some financial tracking scheme run and monitored by the government.

Video cameras were everywhere in every conceivable location, the rationale being security. That was always the government’s reason for watching its citizens. Videos clearly established a person’s presence at a particular place and time, but so did financial transactions with any means other than cash. The government had its hands in the private business of its citizens by passing laws that required most financial institutions to report cash transactions over a certain amount. These laws were obscure, and most people had no idea they existed. Again, the excuse was security; security against drug dealers before 9/11, and security against terrorists after. Dahlgren wondered who the next target group would be if we ever killed off all the terrorists. Probably people who went to a church, synogogue, or mosque.

One need only pull up their bank account to know about this tracking. Society had long past gone to the convenience of using credit or debit cards to pay for everything. Who wanted to walk into a gas station, ask the clerk to turn on a pump, go back, fill his car, go back in, and pay? Cards made it so easy; it was one-swipe shopping. One collateral effect of this development was it made it much easier for the government and all its organizations — law enforcement and tax collection being the predominant ones — to track a person’s movements of not just his money, but his person. People unwittingly created a big electronic record of their whereabouts; attaching a GPS to their vehicle was unnecessary.

Whereas in the not so distant past, you could travel all over town in a day and make numerous purchases without anyone really knowing where you had gone and what you had bought, today someone could simply pull your bank records from a computerized system and immediately know that you had bought coffee at 7:03 at McDonalds, filled up your truck at the Shell Station on 5th and Market at 11:15, eaten lunch at the diner on Fallbrook Avenue at 12:45, bought household goods at Wal-Mart at 2:23, and mailed some packages at the post office at 4:48.

Modern security being what it was, it was practically a guarantee that video showed you making each of these transactions too, but the electronic logging would be enough to place you at those places at those times. For most law-abiding folks, this was of no concern that entered the mind, unless they were a member of the ACLU. For persons of more nefarious intent, however, it was something to be deeply pondered. Still, there was another category entirely of persons who simply didn’t want the government knowing what they were up to.

So it became extremely important for Dahlgren to diligently plan out his every move. He could leave no record or trail. He chose his lodging very carefully. He would select a place based on how seedy and cheap it appeared. He would walk in and check to see if the place had video. If it did, he left. When he found one with no video cameras he would pay for his room in cash. The other benefit of this strategy was the clerks in these places never asked any questions about cash because that enabled them to skim if they were so inclined. These places were frequented by people similar to him; people who were either running away from something, hiding, or just wanted for some other reason to maintain a low profile.

Most transactions were paid in cash, and the clerks were used to it. If they even asked for a name, he registered under an assumed one and paid in cash and there was no video record of him having been there. And if anyone ever came asking, there was very little chance anyone, the clerk included, would be able to identify him. The motor lodge where he was now trying to wake up was precisely such a place.

When the pain eased a bit, he sat up. He walked over to the window and drew back the curtain slightly. It was probably about 6:30 now. He needed to gather his stuff together and get going soon, before people started moving all over the place. The fewer who saw him the better.

He had joined the Marine Corps the day after 9/11. He and Billy Williams drove to the mall and found the requisite all-services recruiting office and walked in together. Both of them had graduated from high school the previous June and both had sat around and not made any decisions about whether to apply for college. Both had good enough academic records to get into school, but they couldn’t seem to work up a reason to apply. Nobody going to college could answer why when asked.

Dahlgren had been a gifted student and played football and ran track. He just had no idea if he really wanted to go, but even if he did he had no idea what he would like to study, so he decided to take a year off. He and Billy both took jobs while they tried to figure it out. Dahlgren did some landscaping and Billy worked selling computers at Best Buy. They worked hard and made enough money to satisfy their folks, who agreed to let them stay at home as long as they had jobs.

It wasn’t like they were lazy and worthless. They just weren’t sure what they wanted to do yet. But when 3,000 of their fellow Americans were immolated on that brilliant early September morning in 2001, it shook them to the core. They saw the people jumping to their deaths and they watched the buildings fall. They needed to do something.

Billy’s father had been a Marine in Vietnam, and he was always going on about how badass the Marine Corps was and how all the other services were wimps. He was thrilled when Billy gave him the news. But Dahlgren’s parents were much less enthused. The elder Dahlgren had served as an Army medic, and although quietly proud of his own service, he didn’t want any of his children serving in the military.

It was strange. On one hand, you’d run into a veteran like Billy’s dad who acted like their time in the military was the greatest thing they had ever done, and then you had guys like Mr. Dahlgren who never talked about it and were angered at the slightest mention of pursuing a military career, even for a short period. But in the end, there was nothing Dahlgren’s father could do about it; he was over 18.

Indeed, the recruiters were having a field day on September 12. So much so they had to call guys in off of leave and from other recruiting stations to keep up with the new recruits and sign them up before the flow of testosterone from 9/11 wore off. Dahlgren and Billy were signed up and told they needed to go to medical the following morning.

After a few more days of tests and fitness evaluations, and filling out what seemed like hundreds of pages of paper, they were given a shipping date to boot camp in San Diego. The recruiter told Dahlgren he had scored off the charts on many of his tests and showed high aptitude for special operations. Dahlgren asked what that meant. The recruiter told him that if he was interested, he would make the requisite notations in Dahlgren’s record and he would be screened for special operations training.

Of course, in the Marine Corps everybody had to finish boot camp first and then complete basic infantry training. This was true for every Marine, whether enlisted or officer. And it was true regardless of what one’s job was going to be; cook, administrator, artillery gunner, mortar man, pilot, lawyer, intelligence, supply. Every recruit or officer candidate had to first become a basically-trained Marine: a rifleman first. Then you would welcomed into what one military historian called “a gang that is legal; a cult that works.” Part of that initiation consisted of proving you could take tons of shit from anybody and deal with untold amounts of harassment, could run three miles in about twenty-one minutes, and hike twenty-five miles with an eighty-pound pack without quitting. Once that was over and you got your officer commission or your first enlisted rank, then and only then would you start learning actual, real Marine infantry tactics.

This training could take up to a year, while you learned the nomenclature of a rifle, learned all its parts and learned how to break it down and clean it, day or night. You would then learn how to fire it and put a round through a man-sized target from 500 yards out — without a scope, using only the stock, iron front and rear sights. You would receive similar training in the 9 mm pistol. Once you qualified with the firearms, and then learned how to work the light and heavy machine guns and the grenade launcher, things got bigger.

For example, you would learn and experience the disturbing thrill of how to “call for fire,” which meant fixing your enemy’s location on a topographic map within a grid square the size of a city block — a measurement that one had to calculate out to 8 numbers with a map — and then decide what type of ordnance to request, then make the call to the guns or an aircraft flying overhead. With the guns, one round would be fired for marking and you would watch it land and detonate. If it was off the mark, you then called back the adjustments in increments as little as 50 meters until the round was striking where it needed to be — sometimes called “walking it in to the target.” Once you found your mark, you called them to “fire for effect” and watched hell rain down on your forsaken enemy.

Dahlgren had learned this in training, and he had lived it in life. And the effect was just as devastating for the bad guys as it was exhilarating for him. Just by speaking a few words into a small radio, supersonic jets or angry-looking helos would appear in the skies overhead or massive sheets of artillery rounds would begin to fall like seething, screaming, hot, lethal steel on top of his enemies.

Back before everything had gone so terribly wrong.

To be continued.

Copyrighted material, 2015. All rights reserved.

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