Private First Class David Wilson took a few seconds to pause in front of the barracks mirror to pose for a selfie. He was taking advantage of the momentary lull in the regular hustle and chaos of his Basic Combat Training platoon to get a few pictures with just him alone. He wanted to send a few photos to his mom and sister before his unit deployed.
“C’mon Wilson!” his friend Brian Paulson called from the other end of the barracks. Paulson was pulling his duffle back from a metal locker that stood next to one of the many stacks of bunk beds that lined the barracks walls. “The bus just pulled up!”
“Yeah, yeah! I'll be there in a second." David checked the quality of the photos he just took. His uniform was crisp and clean. He had a high and tight haircut, and his magazine pouches were prominently displayed in a chest rig over slung with his M4 carbine. He didn't have any bullets in his magazines, but then again, no one had been issued any ammunition in the last several weeks. The global supply chains were still in disarray. At least that’s what he’d been told. So now rifle marksmanship at Fort Benning consisted of endless hours of weapons handling drills, dry firing, and squad and platoon maneuver through the urban operations center and the deep Georgia woods surrounding the base. This was his only clean uniform, saved especially for the graduation ceremony. Every other piece of his clothing was permanently stained from the red Georgia clay.
Then the large double doors from the main hallway slammed open, and two of David’s Drill Instructors stormed in, looking for stragglers. "Wilson! Is that you?" Sergeant First Class Attison King bellowed. The initials of his name spelled "AK" like the assault rifle, and King lived up to the moniker. "Wilson, get your ass on that bus right now before you and me do the three-legged race!"
David knew the “three-legged race” meant David would be rushing to the hospital with the Drill Instructor’s boot up his ass.
"Moving, Drill Sergeant!" David replied, shouting at nearly the top of his voice. He fumbled for a few desperate moments as he crammed his phone into his trouser pocket. But before the two DIs could close on him, he grabbed the slings of his rucksack and heavy duffle, scrambling as he sprinted out the far door. Eight weeks of “accelerated” Basic Combat Training had made him quick, and right now David was glad about that.
David met Paulson outside in the parking lot. Safely out of the DIs clutches for the moment, the two friends assisted each other with loading their duffle bags onto the growing pile in the hold at the bottom of the commercial bus waiting for them. There wasn't enough room for the rucksacks, so the soldiers had to sling them to hang in front instead of across their backs. This allowed the new recruits to file onto the bus and take seats with their rucksacks perched on their laps. They were packed in like livestock heading for the slaughterhouse. In some ways, perhaps, their fate might not be much different. AK was the last to climb in. There were no empty seats left, so the big DI just stood silently. He gripped the handrail as the bus pulled slowly out the Fort Benning main gate and onto the Lindsey Creek Parkway, heading for the Columbus Metropolitan Airport.
David struggled to fish his cell phone out of his pocket as he sat. He had to shift his rucksack precariously, nearly toppling Paulson into the aisle.
“What are you doing?” hissed Paulson.
“I’m trying to send some pictures to my mom,” David replied in the same hushed tone. “She hasn’t heard from me since I left Corvallis.” David never really wanted to join the Army, but after enduring nearly two years of bitter poverty brought on by the Depression, he’d finally joined up. First, the Air Force turned him down, and then the Navy turned him down. Both of those service branches were experiencing a glut of desperate, down on their luck young people seeking any form of security in the shattered economy. David considered himself fortunate to have found a “dirty” Army Recruiter who explained that David would need to lie about his marijuana use. That stuff might be legal in his home state of Cascadia, but to the Federal Government, it was still a bar to enlistment. David was also "persuaded" to not mention the Adderall, Prozac, or other substances he might (or might not) have tried for medicinal or recreational use.
Nobody even checked. By the time he made his way to the Military Entrance Processing Station, the Army was taking anybody with a pulse. “Aw! Come on, are you kidding me?!” David exclaimed loud enough to cause AK to shoot an accusing glance his way.
After AK returned his menacing glare back to the road, Paulson ventured to ask, “What’s the matter, Wilson?”
“My phone’s not working.”
“What? Why not? Is the battery charged?” On the first day of Basic, the DIs confiscated everyone’s cell phone. Today was the first time David had gotten a chance to use it since he’d been in Georgia.
“Yeah, it’s fully charged.” David worked the buttons.
"Try rebooting it."
“I did that already.”
“Here, let me try.”
“No!” David snapped. “I know what the problem is.”
“Verizon turned me off. I haven’t paid them.”
“Dude! You didn’t pay the bill?”
"Well, how could I?" David lashed out in exasperation. "I haven't been paid since I got here."
Paulson nodded glumly and settled back down into his seat. None of them had been paid. Cyberattacks had taken down the Army’s Defense Finance and Accounting Service. “DFAS will catch up our pay when they can,” he offered.
"Yeah, sure," David said dejectedly as he sought to find a pocket into which he could put his now useless phone.
Ever the optimist, Paulson stated the obvious, “At least they fed us.”
David just shrugged his shoulders and turned away. He cast his eyes down, looking out the bus window as he watched the lines on the street pass by.
When David's bus finally arrived at Columbus Metropolitan, security waved them through to the tarmac. They pulled up in line with a dozen other busses. They waited for an agonizingly long time while AK King disembarked to coordinate the platoon's next move. In his absence, the young men and women began chatting excitedly. Everyone knew that they would be deploying to their first duty station as a cohort. The scuttlebutt washed over them in thick waves as everyone offered a tidbit or rumor they had heard.
“I hear they sending us to Georgia," Private First Class Shaneequa Johnson pronounced with an air of authority.
“What?” Paulson asked, his confusion evident, “We’re already in Georgia!”
“Not Georgia the state, you dumb cracker, Georgia the country!”
“There’s a country called Georgia?” Paulson was perplexed. “Where?”
"I think it's south of Russia somewhere," David answered.
At that moment, the door re-opened, and AK climbed back inside. The bus grew silent as a tomb. The grizzled old veteran, with countless combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, glared at them with an expression that seemed a mix of disgust and barely suppressed rage. Silently, he lifted both hands to this brim of his "brown round" Drill Instructor campaign hat.
“Listen up,” he said at last, “I am taking off this cover for the last time.”
The recruits just watched, transfixed, as AK tossed his Drill Instructor hat to the bus driver. Then, he pulled out the standard-issue headgear emblazoned with the three stripes and two rockers of a Sergeant First Class.
"What's going on, Drill Sergeant?" Somebody's curiosity had overwhelmed their fear enough to ask the question.
"I'm not your Drill Instructor anymore," AK growled. "From now on, you will address me as Sergeant First Class King. I am your new Platoon Sergeant. I will accompany you on this deployment and continue your training in theater."
Before anyone else could ask any dumb questions, AK began issuing instructions. "In exactly ten seconds, you will disembark this vehicle, grab your duffles, and form up in a column-of-twos on your Squad Leaders. We have been attached to the 41st Division, and I will guide you to our station in the Brigade formation inside that hangar." AK pointed out the window towards a colossal metal building located at the end of the tarmac, far from the civilian buildings and lobbies reserved for civilian passengers at the Columbus Metropolitan.
David realized with despair that there would be no time to use the latrine as he joined the scrum to collect duffle bags and formed up to lug all his equipment into the hangar bay. It seemed like a million soldiers were heading into the cavernous interiors. Above all the din of movement, conversation, and harshly barked orders, a dull droning sound in the distance began growing. Soon, it turned into an unbelievably loud screeching howl of a C-5 Galaxy military cargo plane as it touched down at the far end of the runway. It was the largest cargo carrier in the US inventory, and it began taxiing towards the hangar where David's platoon was forming up with the rest of the Brigade. There were four other aircraft already queued up and waiting there.
Mercifully, they were able to ground their gear in front of them. They waited while an assortment of flags was brought onto a hastily constructed stage and for technicians to check the audio system at the podium.
"I guess we're going to graduate from Basic Training and then just get right on the plane,” David mused to no one in particular.
AK was working his way down the line of his platoon. “Everybody give up your cell phones!” he barked. “We’re going to get a top-secret briefing.”
"You've got to be kidding," David grumbled malignantly as he pulled the dead cell phone from his pocket. Yet de didn't dare protest too loud as AK dropped it into a plastic bag with all the rest. What was taking so long? He kept looking around for a latrine, a port-a-potty, anything.
After what seemed like an eternity, the calls went out to "At Ease!" and the soldiers formed up in the crowded hangar ceased their chatter.
From somewhere off to the side of the stage, an orderly yelled "The Brigade Commander!" and nearly 1,000 soldiers snapped to attention.
Without any additional fanfare, two senior officers and one Command Sergeant Major walked in a line up onto the stage. They halted, made a facing movement in front of three steel chairs that were placed there. Two men remained standing in place while the third walked up to the microphone. "At ease!" he commanded, and everyone relaxed slightly.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, let me be the first to welcome you to the newly formed 3rd Modular Combat Brigade of the 41st Infantry Division. I am Colonel Dan Collier, your Commander.”
The Colonel paused briefly as a rumble of murmured conversation swept through the hangar.
"As you know, today marks your graduation from Basic Combat Training. Words cannot express my pride in your accomplishment. I'm deeply honored that you are answering your Nation's call during this time of crisis. But before we begin with the ceremony, I wanted to take a few moments to fill you in on some of the details of your upcoming deployment. I know you've all been wondering about it, and I didn't want to keep you waiting any longer than necessary."
Now the conversations rumbled earnestly throughout the hangar.
“I don’t have to remind you that this information is top-secret. There will be no communication at all outside of this organization until we are wheels down in theater. Is that understood?”
Throughout the formation, the curses and threats of Platoon Sergeants ensured this directive would be followed.
The Colonel continued, "Three weeks ago, ground forces from the Islamic Republic of Iran crossed the international border north into Azerbaijan in order to secure the oil fields and pipelines in the vicinity of the City of Stepanakert. In response, the United States assembled four divisions into Task Force Oregon and deployed them to the Nation of Georgia, where they will stage before we counterattack south through Azerbaijan to drive the Nezaja back across the border. After this ceremony, we will load the cargo planes behind us and rendezvous with the other elements of Task Force Oregon already en-route to Tbilisi.”
There was a commotion at the edge of the stage. Soon, a harried-looking officer walked unceremoniously to the commander and started whispering in his ear.
“What?” The commander exclaimed loudly enough for the audience to hear. “Are you sure?”
The junior officer nodded vigorously and pointed his finger into the distance to emphasize his point.
The commander was joined by his command team on the stage, and they all huddled in conversation.
Finally, the commander returned to the podium. He stared silently out at the audience for a long moment and took a long, slow breath. "Ladies and gentlemen of 3rd Brigade,” he began, “There is a change of plan. I’ve just received word that the United States is under attack.”
The commander held his hands out to quiet the crowd. Platoon sergeants and others were shouting, “At ease! At ease!”
“Listen to me carefully!” The commander’s tone was uncompromising. “As we speak, USNORTHCOM is tracking multiple incoming radar signatures of what we think are cruise missiles penetrating our airspace. They are heading for the West Coast, possibly as a precursor to an invasion of Alaska, but we can’t be sure. Right now, all we know is that we are sitting ducks here. I need to get you on those aircraft right now and get you airborne. Commanders, you have your aircraft assignments, take charge of your elements and load ‘em up. Now!”
For the first time since David met him, he thought he saw AK smile. That smile might have been the most terrifying expression David had ever seen. It captured a moment that would be burned into his soul. "You heard the man!" AK bellowed, "Welcome to the Infantry! Now get your asses on that plane, or we're going to be doing the three-legged race!"