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Authors: Doug Beason

Tags: #Science Fiction, #nuclear, #terrorist, #president, #war, #navy, #middle east

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BOOK: Return to Honor
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“The
only
reason the RDF exists is for rapid response. American taxpayers are paying out good money for your training; they’re spending thousands of dollars so the air force can keep their TAVs on alert, twenty-four hours a day, here at Edwards. Those pilots have to pull alert, just like all of you, so that if the balloon ever goes up, they can fly you to any spot in the world to knock out enemy command posts—or to do whatever the hell the President wants you to do.

“Now, unless you gentlemen get serious about these exercises and get every man out of that TAV in less than forty-five seconds, we might as well hang it up. We can send in the damned army cheaper than what it’s costing to keep this outfit going.” He allowed his words to sink in for some moments before speaking again. “Captain Weston, do you have anything to add?”

“No, sir.”

“Very well, I’ll see you outside. Carry on, men.” Vandervoos stomped out the building, leaving the marines at attention. A trail of cigar smoke rose behind him.

Weston eyed Balcalski. “Run the men through the simulator until they get that time down, Gunny. Next time we go up in a TAV, I want the general’s socks blown off.”

“Aye, aye, sir.” Weston didn’t have to elaborate to let Balcalski know that he meant business; it was the first time Balcalski had seen a general officer dress down a platoon.

Weston hurried out of the building to catch up with the general. As the officer left, Balcalski turned to the men. He relaxed minutely before growling, “All right. Let’s hit the bus for Pendleton. We’re swinging by the simulator on the way back—and unless that time gets down, you can forget about any weekend passes.”

The grumbling was less than what he expected, but then again, it wasn’t every day they got their asses chewed by a brigadier general. It made Balcalski realize how important their job really was.

Chapter 1

2300 ZULU: FRIDAY, 1 JUNE

To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.

George Washington

Camp Pendleton, California

Lieutenant Colonel Bill Krandel pulled into the lot across the street from the officers’ club. General Vandervoos’ parking slot near the main door was empty, so Krandel was still early for the appointment.

Getting out of the car, he squared himself away, making sure his shirt was taut in front. The shirt was starched, but he still smoothed away the wrinkles. Years of habit kept him looking sharp. It was more instinct now than anything else. Krandel himself couldn’t tell that the shirt had been in a suitcase only hours before. As he entered the club a voice called, “Wild Bill, ten years and you haven’t changed at all.”

Surprised, Krandel turned. “Harvey Weston. What the hell are you doing here?”

“I should ask
you
that. I’m the platoon commander for the RDF they’ve geared up. And how about those silver leaves? You must have gotten every below-the-zone promotion that came your way and then some. You haven’t had your ‘command lobotomy’ yet, have you, uh, sir?”

Krandel laughed. “Easy, Harv. The last time my old cadet roomie called me sir was when you reported at my table, late for dinner. Besides, I’ve only had these leaves a few weeks.”

Weston leaned forward and fingered Krandel’s rank, grinning. “Still, what about this promotion?”

Krandel shrugged. “Just got lucky, that’s all. Got hooked up with a sugar-daddy general at the Pentagon who liked what I did. Guess I was in the right place at the right time. But how about you? When do you pin on major, and what have you been doing since graduation?”

“Well, I don’t pin on the gold ones till next year. I was selected with our—I mean
my
—year group, so I’ve got a while to go yet. But anyway, I’ve been out gruntin’ the past few years, instead of sitting on my fat fanny at the Pentagon like you.

“I’ve been everywhere from Okinawa to Reykjavik working with the troops.” He paused, then said almost wistfully, “I guess I’ve got to pull a Pentagon tour one of these days if I want to get promoted.” He brightened. “So what’s a paper pusher like you doing at an operational base?”

“I’m taking over the 37th Battalion next week from Colonel Hathaway. In fact, I’m meeting General Vandervoos tonight to discuss it.”

Captain Weston cracked a grin. “Well, I guess I’d
really
better get used to calling you sir, then. I knew a Colonel Krandel was supposed to take over the 37th, but I didn’t know it was ‘Wild Bill.’ The platoon I’m in is part of your Smilin’ 37th.”

“No kidding. We’ll just have to work together like old times then, Harv.”

“Sure.” Weston glanced at his watch. He looked around and, spotting the general’s staff car driving to the front, spoke up. “There’s Vandervoos now. Hey, I’ve got a dinner date and I’m late. Got to be running off. By the way, you married that girl you dated at Annapolis—uh, Maureen—didn’t you?”

Krandel felt pleased that Weston remembered. “That’s right. Got two little rug rats, too. How about yourself? You weren’t dating anyone in school.”

“I got married about a year out of Quantico. Been divorced for two years now. You know how it is—being away from home all the time is rough on the family life.”

Krandel nodded. “Sorry.”

“That’s all right.” Weston clasped Krandel’s shoulder. “Listen, I’ve got to go. I’ll catch you on the rebound.”

Krandel shook his hand. “Take care, Harv. We’ll get together.”

“Yes, sir—I’m sure we will.”

Weston spun on his heels and left, leaving Krandel blinking about the “sir” his classmate had tagged on. He started to call after him but was interrupted. “Bill Krandel. How do you do, son? Any trouble making it out here?”

Krandel turned and smiled.

Brigadier General Allen W. Vandervoos was as big as they allowed marines to get in the service. His bulky frame wasn’t fat—the bones were too large to allow that—but it was solid. And his presence was overpowering. He was a typical general officer. When you were around him, you spoke only when he wanted you to speak; he told you what to talk about, and when he was finished, you stopped talking.

General Vandervoos was flanked by his aide, a youngish but serious-looking lieutenant who politely ignored Krandel’s presence.

Krandel stuck out his hand. “How are you, sir?”

“Fine, Bill. And you?”

“Couldn’t be better, sir. The trip from D.C. went well, and I’m ready to go.”

“Good. How are Maureen and the kids—get them settled in?”

“We just got in from L.A. this afternoon. We spent a few days touring Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm before heading down here. I’ve got the family put up at the TLF.”

“Glad to hear it.” Vandervoos nodded toward the bar.

“Let’s sit down and talk, Bill. I’ve got some things to let you in on before you take over my battalion.”

“Yes, sir. By the way, is there any way I could meet my gunny tomorrow?”

“Sure.” General Vandervoos turned to his aide, then back to Krandel. “Bill, this is Stephen Moranz, my aide. He’ll help you out.”

“How do you do, sir?” The second lieutenant stepped forward and briskly shook hands with Krandel.

“Fine, Lieutenant. Could you arrange that meeting for me?”

“No problem, sir. I’ll track down your gunnery sergeant and have him ready when you want him. Do you have a particular time in mind?”

“Any time in the morning.”

“Well, sir, the battalion finishes their run by 0630. How does 0700 sound?”

“Fine. I’ll be at Battalion HQ.”

“Very well, sir.” The lieutenant turned to Vandervoos. “Anything else, General?”

Vandervoos waved him away. “Get lost, Stephen. Colonel Krandel and I have some catching up to do.”

“Yes, sir. Good afternoon, sir.” He nodded at Krandel and backed away, leaving the two alone.

Vandervoos steered Krandel to the bar. “Let’s have that drink, Bill. It’s 1600—the drinking light is lit.”

“Yes, sir.”

After ordering drinks, Krandel stood behind his chair at the table and waited for the general to sit. Vandervoos waved him down. “The 37 Smilers are a good bunch, Bill.”

“That’s what I’ve heard, sir.”

Vandervoos pulled out a cigar case and offered it to Krandel. Krandel shook his head. Vandervoos drew out a cigar, wet it, and bit off the tip before lighting up. He blew smoke away from Krandel and said, “I know this is your first command, Bill, so I don’t want you to feel the pressure of having to show me you’re some kind of superstar. I’ve seen what you can do.”

Krandel shifted his weight in his chair. “Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t thank me yet.” Vandervoos took a pull on his cigar and settled back in his chair. He got a faraway look in his eyes. “Having a command is probably the best job in the world. You’re on your own out there; nobody is looking over your shoulder trying to second-guess you. I never realized how much fun it was until I got my first command. The only thing that ever came close was the time I coached my daughter’s soccer team. I had total control then, as you will now. And that experience is necessary. Especially if you go into combat. And with the 37th, that’s a possibility.”

“That’s what I’ve heard. In fact, I just met Captain Weston—one of my classmates. He has a platoon in the 37th.”

Vandervoos nodded. He looked quickly around the room and, seeing no one nearby, lowered his voice. “Good man. He just took over the RDF. Are you familiar with it?”

“Well, sir, I thought that the entire 37th was assigned to the Rapid Deployment Force. They could be called to action anywhere at any time.”

“That’s true. Part of the 37th is on alert all the time. If the balloon goes up, our men will be on the next plane out of Pendleton no matter where the action is. But what distinguishes Weston’s platoon is the way they get there. They use TAVs to get to the strike area instead of a cargo plane.” Vandervoos sipped his drink.

Krandel nodded. He recalled that one of his classmates at the War College had been a project officer for the TAV. It stood for Trans-Atmospheric Vehicle, the air force “space-plane” dropped from a 747 mother ship. It was similar to the old X-15, but bigger and better. It took less than an hour to get to any spot on earth.

The original TAV, the National Aerospace Plane, had the capability to launch from the ground, but decades ago congressionally-mandated budget cuts forced the air force to go with a cheaper craft. It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best thing going.

Vandervoos continued: “There’s berthing for one squad aboard each TAV. Weston’s platoon will take four planes to get to the strike area.”

Krandel nodded. “That’s right. I’ve heard of the TAV, sir, but I didn’t know it would be used for the RDF. I guess it really does put meat into the rapid part of RDF.”

Vandervoos answered wryly, “I’ll say. And by the way, that’s for official use only. The government doesn’t want to broadcast the fact that we use TAVs—mostly for political reasons. It might look as though we’re trying to develop a first-strike force. The entire project is what we call a ‘black project.’ No one quibbles about the money we spend on it, and we don’t tout its existence.

“Anyway, Weston’s platoon works intimately with the air force out at Edwards. We try to get the platoon at least one flight per month for training.”

Krandel toyed with his napkin. “How do the troops get back, sir?”

“That’s the catch. The TAVs don’t have the capability to launch without the mother ship, so once they reach the strike area, they’re stuck there. But any time we’d need them, it would be a last-ditch effort anyway. We’d recover the troops with traditional transports like the C-17, which means that although they can get somewhere in a hurry, they’ll have to wait awhile to get back, out of the strike zone.” He noticed Krandel’s frown. “Don’t let it disturb you, Bill. Every man in the RDF is a volunteer and knows his rear is on the line. Besides, as commander, you won’t be going with that particular unit—that’s Weston’s job. You’ll be going in with Headquarters Squad on C-17s, with the rest of the battalion.”

Krandel took a long pull on his drink. The liquor felt good after the drive down from L.A. today, and he had always felt comfortable around the general. Krandel’s first assignment out of Quantico was as Vandervoos’ executive officer. The then-Colonel Vandervoos had taken a liking to the sharp young officer and had groomed him for promotion. He’d kept track of Krandel’s career, and when a hand was needed to steer the tides of fate, Vandervoos had interceded.

Krandel leaned forward. “It certainly sounds challenging, sir.”

“It will be. And if you can handle this, I can almost guarantee you that once you get back to the Pentagon you’ll have a star waiting for you. We need men like you in the corps, Bill. Good, sharp managers who know how to think on their feet. It’s a different corps from when I was in your place. That damned Mexican fiasco has changed everything around, and it will be men like you running the corps.

“So don’t step on it. Get this operational command out of the way, and you’ll go a long way.”

Krandel held up his glass in salute. “Thank you, General. I’ll do my best.”

Vandervoos returned the salute and grinned. “I know you will, son.” He shot down the drink and turned to the hostess. “Miss, another round here, and make them doubles this time.”

Edwards Air Force Base, California

As Major Robert Gould hopped the three feet from the TAV to the asphalt runway, the hot desert air hit him like a bag of cement. It wasn’t the heat that made him fume—it was the maintenance pukes holding up his debrief. Four o’clock, he thought. The hottest part of the whole day, and the friggin’ Flight Test Center commander won’t release my craft because of a maintenance check.

Moments before, in the still, air-conditioned coolness of the TAV, Gould had watched the shimmering air rise from the ground in front of Base Operations. That was when he’d gotten notice over the command post frequency that there’d be a “short holdup” before he could turn his TAV over to his crew chief. Colonel Mathin wanted to speak to him personally.

Gould swung his gaze to Base Ops; on top of the building an oversized billboard exclaimed:

Welcome To

Edwards Air Force Base

BOOK: Return to Honor
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