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The Price of Freedom
Jackson slumped to the ground, leaning his back against the dusty brick wall behind him. He slipped his pack off his back. The canteen he removed was only half-full; the water was anything but cold. He didn’t complain, though. The walk through the city, barely standing as it was, had taken a toll on his thin body. The heat made his head spin, the heavy clothing and protective vest weighed down his body, and the long march left his legs wobbling in weakness. The rest of his squad did the same, with the exception of Sgt. Calvin. He continued to walk up and down the road, his eyes moving from rooftop to rooftop. His large frame, close to six and a half feet Jackson assumed, was a welcoming target for any enemy. But Calvin didn’t seem to care, or even notice. Some of the squad members made jokes. He must be the hottest of us all, they remarked. His skin was so dark, it should soak up the heat like pavement. Jackson wasn’t one to repeat the jokes. More so out of fear than a sense of moral right and wrong. He new the Sergeant had almost a foot of height of him; a physical confrontation would be over before it began.
Without looking at the weary group of men, Sgt. Calvin barked an order. “On your feet. Ten blocks to go and we meet up with the others.”
Private Saunders, with his thick Texas accent, yelled back as he laughed, “that’s what you said thirty blocks ago. I’m not even sure this sand city ever ends.”
Corporal Manningham slowly stood up and walked by Private Saunders. “Trust me,” he said, running a hand over his shaved head, “it ends. We’ve bombed it to Hell and back. Oh, it ends.”
Sgt. Calvin looked around at the men, many of whom were still slouched against buildings or laying in the shade. “This is the sorriest group of soldiers I’ve ever been a part of. To think, we’ve come from Normandy to this. A group of men, not even that, boys, who want to write home to your mother that you have to walk a little. A**** up; it’s time to move.”
Slowly the remaining squad members who were still sitting struggled to their feet. Packs were slung over shoulders, laces tied, and weapons locked and loaded. They began their trudge up the street. There was no movement. The men tried to break the eerie feel by constantly looking around with their weapons. Jackson half-heartedly moved his weapon from side to side. Less than 48 hours ago, death had rained from the skies. Not a soul was left. It was less than a ghost town; even the dead would have had to the sense to leave.
The only sounds were boots hitting pavement and men breathing heavily. It became a synchronized beat of weary work. Jackson longed for another drink. He mouth was dry, his throat in pain, and his muscles begging for mercy. But none of that could ever make him dare to reach for his canteen again. If the group walks, you walk. If the group drinks, you drink. Stg. Calvin was clear on that one message. Thinking of that infamous phrase within the squad, Jackson realized it wasn’t such a bad idea to move quickly. Jackson’s squad would meet up with a few others. Sgt. Calvin would have to defer authority to the lieutenant of the newly formed platoon. There was a chance the man who could control the fate of Jackson’s already beaten body would have an ounce of mercy in his heart.
The squad continued on, down the dirty streets littered with garbage and debris. It felt like they were walking on a treadmill. The landscape was the same everywhere they went. Caved in brown buildings, broken cars and bicycles sitting in the road, and small stores with glass strewn in the front of the once-bright windows. After a time, the squad reached a large gap. For several hundred yards, buildings were absent. Judging from the debris, Jackson guessed it was a park. Or, once was a park. All that remained was a field of dirt. The rusty remains of a swing-set and a slide lay in heaps. There was an indentation of a small structure, maybe a gazebo or a snack stand. Jackson’s eyed lingered on it for a moment as they walked through the open space. The men had to step over rubble as their trek continued. Private Bender (the heaviest man in the platoon) struggled to keep up. His face looked as if someone had tossed a bucket of red paint on him. He struggled to open the pack he had on his shoulder. As he fumbled with a zipper, the brown bundle fell to the ground. Bender dropped to one knee, his eyes low to the ground. Sgt. Calvin stopped abrubtly. He straightened up before turning. Walking in slow, deliberate steps in the direction of Bender, he stopped when he stood over him. Bender mumbled to himself and stood with his pack. He turned to face Sgt. Calvin and wiped the sweat from his face. Sgt. Calvin looked up and down the Private’s thick body. The sandy camouflaged shirt was just a bit tighter than the rest of the men’s, the pants lacking a little less room. Sgt. Calvin stretched his neck, and then struck. The but of his black weapon hit Private Bender in the stomach. Bender fell to the ground clutching his stomach and rolling. Sgt. Calvin’s voice roared; he was relentless.
“Private Bender, you and your ten pound friend on your stomach will move with the group! There are no exceptions for soldiers with child.”
The rest of the men looked at each other, but knew not to laugh. Private Bender stood up straighter. “Sir, yes, Sir!”
“Bender, since you’ve had a break,” Sgt. Calvin said in a sneering tone, “why don’t you do the group a favor and lead.” Sgt. Calvin pointed a long finger ahead of the squad.
“Sir, yes, Sir!” Private Bender gritted his teeth, gasped a deep breath, and jogged forward. He was fifteen yards ahead of the group when Sgt. Calvin led the rest of the men forward. They kept the distance between Bender, who labored ahead. The ruined park melted into the same ruined cityscape they had grown accustomed to. It wasn’t as bad, however. There were flickering lights in buildings that still had roofs, and a minimal level of bustle was observable. Jackson examined the people. Most were wearing some sort of turbans, almost all white perched atop a tan and leathery face. Their faces were not of jubilance or fierce anger, but rather a dull resignation that was engrained into their bodies. Normal chores were being done, but there was no vibrancy, or even a sense of life in the city. It was as if everything had been automated and the people were nothing more than machines going about the daily routine of a city. Jackson didn’t remember these photos being in the promotional videos. That memory brought about a glimpse of sadness, which he quickly suppressed, just like they said he should.
The squad moved through the center of the street. The men’s weapons moved quicker, faster, their senses were raised. Sgt. Calvin motioned them forward. They came upon a small brick building on their left. The door was boarded up, but Sgt. Calvin led them to the side. A small spigot stuck out, and soon enough all the men knew what the purpose was. No sooner had they reached for their canteens did the water begin to flow out. They vigorously drank, water spilling down their necks on their shirts. Heavy breaths followed their gulps, and smiles succeeded the fatigued faces. Some of the men sat, some laid down, while others talked in groups of two or three. Sgt. Calvin still stood, eyeing the inhabitants wearily. The topics of the squad conversation moved from the heat, to home, family, sports, and of course, women. Jackson sat on the wall quietly, eyes closed, until Corporal Manningham plopped down enthusiastically next to him.
“So, Richards, you never told us about your woman back home,” the Corporal said loudly enough for everyone to hear. Jackson didn’t like his tone, or the use of his last name. While Jackson knew Manningham was above him in rank, he also knew (unlike the rest of his squad) that the Corporal’s father went to college with one of the Major General’s of the Army. Manningham hadn’t been enlisted more than six months before he got a new insignia. His brash personality covered it up, but Jackson understood it was only to cover up his fears. The whimpering at night didn’t come from a dog, after all. Jackson didn’t answer Manningham’s question, so he asked it. This time, it was even louder.
“Richards, let’s hear about the girl you have waiting for? Oh,” he said with a laugh, “don’t tell me you’ve never gotten any of that?” He made the universal gesture that brought out of a laugh from the rest of the squad.
“Something like that,” Jackson said dryly. He continued to keep his eyes closed, arms drooped at his sides.
“Well, let me tell you something Richards. Once we get stateside, I’ll have you with the best gal in Texas. I can promise you that.”
Jackson was saved from responding when a commotion ensued around the back of the building. Sgt. Calvin’s voice could be heard over the yelling. The squad rushed around back, scrambling over one another, weapons drawn. Sgt. Calvin stood over a thin man with a white beard and marble-like eyes. The man was sprawled on the ground, on his back, screaming at the Sergeant in the local language. Sgt. Calvin looked at the men, then continued to hurl insults at the man.
“We’ve been trudging through your little sand box for days now. I don’t care how much water you need for the camels, but when my men need water, you better be sure they’re going to get it.” Jackson wasn’t sure if the man on the ground understood the Sergeant. Both men, so different in size and appearance, fought a verbal battle before the men. Neither gained any ground. Sgt. Calvin seemed to notice this; his boot silenced the man as the toe drove into the older man’s ribs. The Sgt. Turned to the men, his facial expression shielded by the glare of the sun. But none of the men needed to see it to know exactly what it was. Two of the squad members, both Private First Classes, rapidly picked the man up and tossed him against the wall. The Sergeant tuned to the two PFCs and reached into his back. He pulled out a small object. Two loud noises came sharply from the object, which Jackson quickly realized was a weapon. Two golden shells dropped at the older man’s feet. The Sergeant wiped the weapon on his dirty fatigues and tossed it in the man’s chest.
Hearing the noise, other men and women began to converge around the area. Instinctively, the men raised their weapons at the crowd beginning to form. The squad fanned out, creating a barrier enforced by bullets. Soldier or citizen, it was obvious what the consequences would be for crossing the imaginary border. Jackson held his gun tightly, but didn’t have it raised. He stood to the far side of the group, away from the main gathering of civilians. The group was diverse; children, teens, adults, and elders, men and women, all mulled around the area. Scattered shouts could be heard, although no single citizen seemed stupid enough, as Jackson thought, to provoke a response from the soldiers. Sgt. Calvin finished inspecting the body of the old man. He pointed his weapon at the man and quickly fired a burst. The body jerked, then became still again. He walked to the front of the squad, only a few yards from the now increasingly large group. He didn’t bother to speak. Instead, three quick bursts into the air, loud and clear, replaced any verbal warning. He walked forward through the group and instructed the men to do the same. Jackson was the last one back. He gripped his gun and followed.
A woman burst through the group and ran behind the building. She flung her body over the man’s and sobbed. Her cries were the only noise in the surrounding area. Sgt. Calvin and the men continued, but Jackson paused. The woman stood and ran to Jackson’s side. He didn’t have time to raise his weapon before the woman grabbed his arm. She was in her late twenties, he guessed, with long black hair pinned up. A white shawl covered his similar sweeping gown. In broken English, she pleaded with Jackson.
“Please, you must help. My father, he hurt. Why do men do this? He did nothing!” She wept on his arm.
Sgt. Calvin turned, his face filled with fiery anger. “Richards! Here, now!”
Jackson hesitated. “Sir, her father…” He looked at the man and back at Sgt. Calvin. “We can’t just leave him here. He’s-”
Sgt. Calvin spoke in a sharp, yet quiet, tone. “We can…and we will. Now move out. That, Private, is an order.”
Jackson remained in place. The woman had stopped crying and looked at him. “Please,” she whispered, her eyes tearing up again as she glanced back at her father. “Sir, with all due respect-”
“Richards, you don’t have my respect. And I sure as hell don’t want yours. What would you like to do?” The Sergeant spoke in a mocking tone. “Should I wait here while you go and fetch an ambulance? Will you notify his next of kin, or shall I?” His eyes were narrow slits as he pointed accusingly at the woman next to Jackson, and then at the crown in general. “Look around, Private, there are no ambulances. No hospitals. No god damn order! It’s a desert with no order! Why do you think we’re here? We’re hear so no more people will die because these bearded bozos can’t run their own country. I’m not going to sit and cry over the things that happen. This is war, Private. War is life. Get used to it. It’s the price of freedom. If you would rather be sitting on a plane to the states rather than to a prison in week, I suggest you follow me.” Sgt. Calvin walked forward. The rest of the squad glanced at Jackson, then turned their eyes forward and followed the Sergeant.
With a final glance at the woman and the crowd, Jackson lowered his gaze and continued on after the squad. Two wars waged on. One, in the open city around him, a war fought with bullets and bombs. The next, in his heart, fought with hope and heartbreak.