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Authors: David E. Meadows

Tags: #Fiction, #General

Joint Task Force #1: Liberia (3 page)

BOOK: Joint Task Force #1: Liberia
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“Let’s go!” someone leaning out of the back window of the lead SUV shouted. That sounded like Uncle Nathan.

The right door opened on Jamal’s SUV and a third man leaped into the front seat.

The motor revved for a moment before the SUV lurched forward. Jamal nearly fell forward off his seat. The lady beside him leaned over.

“Might be a good time to wear our seat belts,” she said nicely.

Jamal mumbled a thank-you. So much had happened that he was confused. What was going on? Where were Mom and Dad? Uncle Nathan had said they were gone, but did he mean “gone as in gone” or “gone as in dead”? He shut his eyes. He refused to believe his mother and daddy were dead. Abdul, the bully, would never allow anyone to kill him. Of that, Jamal had no doubt.

Behind him, a cacophony of screams and shouts were followed by the sharp sounds of gunfire, bangs, and explosions. His eyes flew open and his head whipped around toward the
sounds. Tongues of orange flames reached upward illuminating the area. As far as he could see, the houses just on the other side of the row separating them from the attackers were burning.

Another round of explosions followed, with the orange glow of the fires highlighting the fading horizon behind the darkened convoy of refugees as the vehicles penetrated farther into the darker jungle ahead. Jamal wasn’t sure where the road led, but he recalled hearing his father and Uncle Nathan talk about an old road behind Uncle Nathan’s house. They said the original diamond miners in this West African country of Liberia had used it. Probably built by some of the original American freed slaves who returned in the early nineteenth century.

Jamal leaned back against the seat, cradling the rifle between his knees, his hands gripping it tightly, his thoughts playing havoc within his mind. He turned. The silhouette of the Land Rover where his sister rode was about twenty feet behind them. He reached up and ran his hand over the top of his short-cropped head.

“Here, son,” the lady said, handing him a small washcloth. “Use this to keep the sweat out of your eyes.”

He nodded and took the terry cloth, running it across the top of his head and his brow. When he wiped his eyes, for some reason he failed to fathom, he discovered he was crying.

“It’ll be all right,” the lady said, patting him on the knee.

Tears rolled down his cheeks. No, it wouldn’t be all right. It would never be all right again. He reached up and brushed the tears from his cheeks, turning his head toward the window, and hoping the lady was the only one who had noticed. It was okay for women to see you cry, but he didn’t want the other men to notice.

Behind, a whistling sound of mortar rounds hitting the houses and the areas where the convoy had just left stilled the night sounds of the African rain forest. The small convoy drove deeper into the wilderness, leaving the chaos and mayhem of Monrovia behind them.

Jamal shut his eyes and silently said a prayer for his mom and dad. His brother could take care of himself. Uncle Nathan was wrong. Maybe he didn’t say they were dead, but Jamal
knew his uncle thought they were. But if they hadn’t made it out, then where were they? Sometime within the next hour, despite the rocking and jerking of the vehicle, Jamal fell asleep. Exhaustion overcame his worries and concerns.

CHAPTER 2

REAR ADMIRAL DICK HOLMAN, THE COMMANDER OF AMPHIBIOUS
group two, paced the bridge wing of the USS
Boxer.
The complaints emanating from the other bridge wing by his Chief of Staff about the exercise brought a wry smile to his lips. Holman, former fighter pilot and holder of the Silver Star after taking a carrier battle group through the mined Strait of Gibraltar, patted his shirt pocket for the third time. Damn, he thought, it’s like a security blanket. He had to quit checking every few minutes to see if he had a cigar.

From his viewpoint, the amphibious exercise was going well. You would never know it from the anguished comments from his Chief of Staff—Captain Leonard Upmann—Navy surface-warfare officer. But what could you expect from black shoes whose idea of fun was to work longer hours?

Shoes had divided the warfare specialties of the Navy until the early 1990’s, when it was decreed that officers, regardless of whether they were aviators or surface-warfare officers or submariners, could wear brown shoes. While they had previously complained and griped about aviators being singled out for special uniform considerations such as the brown shoes, when given the opportunity, no self-respecting SWO or submariner would dare be caught wearing them.

Holman patted his shirt pocket for the umpteenth time. He was going to smoke this Havana cigar sometime this morning. He hated the idea of starting it and then have something happen that forced him to toss it overboard—
God forbid.
They cost too much. So the big question was, while Leo complained and held the floor, did he have the time, or should he even take the time, to enjoy it? After all, it was one of the many reasons he preferred the bridge to the crowded Combat Information Center belowdecks. From the other side of the bridge, another burst by Leo brought a quiet chuckle from the officers and sailors manning the bridge. Must be something with the deep bass voice that reminded him of frogs croaking that made Upmann’s comments comical. Holman glanced at his watch. In about three to five more minutes, Leo would march through the bridge between the adjoining bridge wings to tell him how bad everything was going.

“What are they doing?” Captain Leonard Upmann shouted to no one in particular. “Oh, my God, oh, my God,” the tall, lean Navy officer from Frederick, Maryland, moaned.

Holman turned, squinting from the summer sun, and looked through the opened bridge at his Chief of Staff on the other side. Leo was leaning against the bridge wing stanchion, slapping his palm against his forehead. Over the shoulder of his Chief of Staff, Holman saw landing craft circling in the lee of the huge amphibious carrier, USS
Boxer
. Two of the landing craft collided, bouncing away undamaged from the slight impact, wheeling their helms in opposite directions to open space between them.

“Oh, Christ! Boatswain Mate!” shouted the Chief of Staff. “Bring your knife out here and slit my wrists! What are they doing? Who trained them coxswains on helmsmanship while in a holding pattern? The Three Stooges?” The statement and questions rolled in a staccato of raspy bursts.

Dick grinned and shook his head. Winks and smiles passed between the bridge team members. Upmann was good for morale. The words and actions were for show. The junior officers and crew both liked and respected the tall Naval Academy officer. It was unusual to be both liked and respected. Usually, you get one or the other.

Dick wished he had the ability to remember names the way
his Chief of Staff did. One thing he appreciated, but never told Leo, was that whenever they met people, Leo always spoke their names so Dick could hear them. He shook his head.
Maybe Leo does that on purpose, so I don’t embarrass anyone by calling them someone else
. Yes, Leo was a character, and just as he and his SEAL friend Rear Admiral Duncan James were discussing in Washington a few months ago, the Navy could use a few characters. Some of the Navy’s most famous leaders were characters. They were characters who knew what they were doing and drew people to them with heroic antics, actions, and tenacity.

Dick turned away, lifted his binoculars, and focused them on the North Carolina beach several miles away. This rehearsal exercise was going better than most, but you would never believe it listening to Leo.

“Boatswain Mate! To hell with just one knife! Bring two! I’ve got to end this shame!”

The quartermasters surrounding the navigation table near Dick’s hatch laughed until the chief petty officer told them to shut up, quit listening, and focus on their jobs. Where would the Navy be without those three enlisted pay grades of chief petty officers?

Along the beach, the first wave of landing craft pulled away, except for three that remained ashore, their landing doors dropped onto the sand. Small dots marked individual Marines scurrying up the high sand dunes about a hundred yards inland. Here and there, smoke rose to mark simulated enemy artillery shells hitting the beach. Though he couldn’t tell which ones were the referees, Dick knew they were running among the arriving assault force marking some as dead, others as wounded, and even others wounded but capable of combat. Marines who earned the stamp of “Dead” always argued with the referees. “Dead meat,” they called it. Being dead meat meant sitting out the war games in a roped-off area of the beach. At least being wounded, they could argue that they weren’t wounded enough to evacuate and should be allowed to continue forward with their buddies into combat. He smiled as he recalled the story they told during the early months of the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.

A Marine walks to the top of a hill and shouts down at a
bunch of Talibans that one Marine is worth ten Talibans. The Taliban leader sends ten fighters over the hill. There is a lot of shooting and screaming and after several minutes, only silence. As the Taliban leader watches the top of the hill, the lone Marine appears again and shouts down that one Marine is worth more than a hundred Talibans. This time, the Taliban leader sends one hundred fighters over the hill. Same thing, lots of screams, shouts, bullets, and explosions, followed by silence. The Marine appears again. This time the Taliban leader is angry. He orders a thousand fighters over the hill after the Marine. Screams, shouts, bullets, explosions follow, and then over the hill comes a lone Taliban fighter, wounded and crawling toward the leader. As he reaches the leader, he tugs on the long Taliban robe and whispers, “It’s a trap; there’s two of them.”

Dick laughed. Behind him, the quartermasters winked at each other. They nodded at each other. Even the admiral found Captain Upmann’s antics amusing.

On the beach, corpsmen, dressed in Marine Corps combat utilities, carried simulated wounded on stretchers toward the three landing craft. Belowdecks in the main medical compartments of the USS
Boxer
, doctors and nurses would be waiting for the simulated injuries to arrive. Developing triage experience was very important in military operations. Many believed triage was the medical management procedure for identifying the most critical who needed immediate attention. Most failed to realize that triage also meant identifying those who were so critically wounded that others might die if necessary medical personnel and equipment were diverted in an attempt to prolong the lives of the dying. War was cruel, and cruelest of all was knowing that your survival could depend on how badly wounded you were, balanced against available medical personnel and supplies.

Leo appeared unexpectedly by his side. “Admiral, the third wave is ready to go, sir. Though the way they are handling those landing craft, I expect them all to capsize before they’re a hundred yards to the beach.”

Dick lowered his binoculars and looked up. “Leo, they’ll do fine. The exercise is going as well as can be expected. This is the third wave, right?”

“Right, sir, but the helmsmen of this wave must still have their learners’ permits.”

A steward stepped onto the bridge wing with fresh cups of coffee and a plate of fresh pastries. The young petty officer handed the first cup to Dick, who thanked him, and offered the second to Captain Upmann. The plate with the pastries he placed on the shelf that ran below the lip of the bridge wing.

Captain Upmann reached over and took two of them.

Dick shook his head and grinned. “Leo, how do you do it? Every time I see you, you’ve got a mouthful of something—
about the only time I don’t hear your words of doom
—and you’re probably the only officer on my staff who has a negative body-fat ratio.”

“Six percent,” Leo mumbled through the raisin bread.

“And for me,” Dick continued, patting a stomach that hung slightly over the belt line, “I can look at that stuff and put on weight.”

Leonard Upmann swallowed. “You’ve lost weight, Admiral,” he replied, taking another big bite.

“A little maybe, but only because an old friend of mine, Rear Admiral Duncan James—a Navy SEAL—made me work out with him when he and I spent our four weeks at CAPSTONE.” CAPSTONE was the military executive training for new flag officers held at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. Everyone who made the stars eventually sat through the series of lectures on what it meant to be a flag officer or general officer. Lectures given most times by those who had never made the rank.

“I’ve met him,” Leo said, reaching out and taking another cake. “Nice man.”

“Nice man? If you had read the reports of his rescue of the Algerian President, you would say ‘trained killer’ more likely. Which is why I made sure I kept running when he so ordered. I didn’t want to find out if the SEAL rules for putting hurt animals out of their misery also applied to overweight
‘gasping for breath’
aviators.”

“Didn’t he have the first woman SEAL on that mission?”

Holman nodded. “Yeah, Heather J. McDaniels,
but all my friends call me HJ.
Lots of gossip that she was the reason a certain two-star SEAL admiral retired early.”

“I recall he tried to rig it so she would be thrown out of the SEALS?”

“We’ll never know,” Holman said, shaking his head. “Lots of things go on in the Pentagon that never come out of that five-sided building. Some of the greatest intellectuals you’ve ever met are in there. Just ask them; they’ll tell you so.”

The familiar sound of jet engines drowned out Holman’s last words. The two officers peered below at the flight deck. The four fighter aircraft maneuvered by pairs to the center of the flight deck on the USS
Boxer
. The jet engines wound down from the test, and on the nose of each of the small fighter aircraft propellers turned.

“Just isn’t right,” Holman said, reaching in his pocket, pulling out the cigar, and pointing at the aircraft.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Upmann replied, with an amused twinkle in his eyes. “I kind of like the new fighter aircraft. Sleek,” he drawled. “Use less gas—”

“It’s called aviation fuel, butt-hole.”

“And the pilots are so different. Wouldn’t you agree, Admiral?”

“Oh, screw you, Leo, and the rest of the surface-warfare community. You are enjoying this way too much. And since I am the one in charge, I do not want them called fighter aircraft.”

The engines revved up on the first pair, drowning out Leo’s reply. They watched in silence. A moment later, the four aircraft were airborne. Holman lifted his binoculars and watched the transformation. A short burst of black exhaust from the jet engines showed the flyers shifting from propeller to jet power. He couldn’t see the front of them, but knew small hydraulics had withdrawn the propeller blades into the nose of the prototypes to reduce drag and to protect them. Without the propellers, the aircraft wouldn’t be able to land on the USS
Boxer
when they finished their mission.

As the aircraft circled higher and the noise faded, a cough caught his attention. He lowered his binoculars. Standing halfway inside the bridge was the ship’s Communications Officer, Lieutenant Commander Rachel Grande. Her rich brown hair was pulled tight and upward into a bun before disappearing beneath the khaki garrison cap. It pulled her eyes into a
permanent expression of surprise and at the same time highlighted those light blue eyes.

“Morning, Rachel,” Admiral Holman said. “And, what do we owe the pleasure of your visit this bright, summer afternoon off the fine beaches of North Carolina?”

“Morning Admiral; Captain Upmann. Sir, I have an urgent PERSONAL FOR message for you from the Director of Operations, Joint Forces Command, Norfolk, Virginia,” she replied.

Dick noticed the usual smile missing. Their eyes locked briefly, long enough for him to see the concern that had replaced the normal mischievous look that resonated within those blue eyes. The fact that she was the only blue-eyed Mexican-American he had ever met passed through his thoughts also.

Dick took the envelope, ripped it open, and read the message. Finished, he handed it to Leo. He lifted his binoculars, twisted the focus slightly, and scanned the beach while Upmann read the message. From the south, four V-22A Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft approached the far end of the beachhead. They ascended several hundred feet as they passed the shoreline, and Dick watched as they split off into two pairs and continued inland. The exercise scenario called for the beach landing to lure the opposing forces forward. Then, once they were
“bunched,”
the airborne part of the operation would circle and land Marines behind them, cutting off the enemy from his supply lines, splitting enemy forces apart, and then defeating each opposing force element one by one.

BOOK: Joint Task Force #1: Liberia
8.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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