Ellie’s heart broke. Did he even know what that meant? She sat next to him and hugged him tight. “I know. I’m sorry.”
She was even sorrier to carry him out to the social worker’s car and put him inside. Sadness choked her as she watched them drive away.
Afghanistan, Saturday 5:30 a.m.
March dawned cold in the Hindu Kush. Just before daybreak, cool gray light peered over the mountains on the horizon. In the back of a mine-resistant all-terrain vehicle, or M-ATV, Grant tucked his hands in his armpits and scanned the ridge that ran parallel to the road. The supply convoy was giving him a lift back to the forward operating base near the Pakistani border where he was stationed. Grant’s vehicle was at the middle of the column. A platoon of infantrymen escorted the column of supply trucks. For additional support, a unit of the ANA, Afghan National Army, brought up the rear.
The steady rock and rumble of the vehicle could have lulled him to sleep if he’d let it, but the Taliban liked to attack in the gray hours. A soldier couldn’t relax in Afghanistan. An attack could come from anywhere: a civilian with a backpack, an IED detonated by the roadside, or a traitor in their midst. The options were endless. Grant’s gaze swept along the ridge as the convoy entered yet another wadi. The valley was the twentieth prime ambush spot of their journey.
He’d been in zero direct engagements since his promotion to major just before this last deployment. On his last two tours, he’d been out on frequent patrols and skirmishes. In an odd way, he missed the intimacy of being part of every mission, the daily grind of patrolling the hills and wadis, the brotherhood instilled by combat. The diplomacy and paperwork required by his new position as operations officer isolated him from the men. He worked hard to establish a relationship with them, but sometimes he felt like all he did was go to meetings, like the one he’d attended yesterday at battalion command. Discussing the political ramifications of military policy gave him a headache.
The low ridge to the east shadowed the valley. A hint of pale yellow edged over the jagged horizon, silhouetting the skyline. A half klick ahead, the passage narrowed. In minutes, the convoy rumbled into a dry streambed barely twenty meters wide. On the right, a steep slope led to a ridge thirty feet above the road. A sheer cliff face comprised the left wall. Conversation halted as all eyes searched the rocks on either side for any sign of enemy activity.
The road exploded in front of the supply convoy, shaking the ground under the trucks. Grant’s heart kicked into gear. Men jolted into action. The heavy vehicle rocked again as another explosive hit the dirt. More rockets whistled and boomed ahead. The passageway was too narrow to turn around, and since the enemy had planned this ambush, no doubt they were waiting in case the convoy found a way to double back.
They were trapped in a kill zone.
Grant scanned the surroundings. They needed men on high ground, and there was only one way to get the advantage. They would have to take it from the enemy.
He dismounted and ran two vehicles ahead to join the lieutenant in charge of the platoon. They ducked behind Lieutenant Wise’s armored door. The perpetually sunburned redhead wiped a coating of Afghan dust from his freckled brow. Though his actual age was likely around twenty-four, the blue eyes studying the ridge were battle-aged.
Another rocket sailed over the ridgeline and exploded in the rocks on their flank. The ground rocked and dirt burst through the air. A shard pinged past Grant’s head and stung his face. Machine-gun fire laced the vehicle. Bullets strafed the ground at his feet. A tug on his pant leg signaled a close call. He squinted at the ridge to the east. Muzzle flashes flared in the dim. In unison with the soldiers around him, Grant lifted his M-4 and returned fire.
The ground trembled under his boots as more rockets exploded. Warm liquid dribbled into his eye, obscuring his vision. He swiped at the cut on his forehead, took aim, and fired again.
He might miss the camaraderie of being part of a combat platoon, but he did not miss having rockets fired at his ass.
Ambushes like these were more common than they should be, so First Platoon was ready for this one. Lieutenant Wise was on the radio, calling the base for air support. An Apache was being dispatched, ETA fifteen minutes. The platoon sergeant shouted orders to the men.
“Lieutenant, we need to take that ridge.” Grant pointed above them. A bullet ripped through his sleeve.
“Yes, sir. I’m already on it.” Wise and his sergeant had the situation in hand. Grant stood down. He would not be that dickhead officer who interrupted the smooth flow of platoon operations. He was just a passenger on this convoy.
The soldiers returned fire on the rockets with heavy machine guns and lobbed grenades over the crest. Wise ordered a squad through a gap in the rocks. ANA forces guarded the convoy’s back.
Using the vehicle as a shield, Grant hunkered down with the remaining men and provided cover fire for the soldiers heading up the hill.
The Taliban had known they were coming. The insurgents had eyes everywhere. US forces were fighting in a land where they couldn’t trust anyone. Not the local interpreters who worked for them. Not the villagers they supplied with food and medicine. Not even the Afghan soldiers they fought with side by side. No one.
Two dozen Taliban soldiers in man jams and AK-47s poured over the ridge. The eight-inch knives dangling from their waists reminded Grant that beheading some Americans on Al Jazeera would cap off the Taliban’s evening like a party. The enemy had the high ground advantage, but Grant’s heart sang as his men surged up the incline in the direct line of fire. The enemy fell back, scrambling up the ridge with Grant’s men in pursuit.
The ambush should have been over, averted without a single American casualty.
Gunfire sounded at his back. Grant whirled. Next to him, Wise went down, blood pouring from a wound in his thigh. Shots whizzed past his head. Where the fuck were those bullets coming from? Behind them?
He scanned the area for the shooters. Five Afghan soldiers had broken rank, turning and firing on the US forces they were supposed to be supporting. Wise was on the ground, shouting into the radio. The traitors’ muzzles flared. Two Afghan soldiers dropped. Most of the platoon was ahead of Grant, and the lieutenant was focused on not bleeding out.
Grant lifted his M-4. Chaos erupted in the ANA. Who was on which side?
An Afghan soldier took aim at Wise, no doubt trying to cut off his communication. Shouting to the soldiers on the other side of the vehicle, Grant leveled his weapon and shot the obvious traitor. His face exploded in a red mist. There was no point in aiming at a body’s center mass when Grant knew the enemy was wearing body armor supplied by the US government. Four men broke out from the Afghan ranks and took aim at the vehicle in front of Grant, where the gunner in the turret was firing heavy machine gun rounds onto the ridge.
The sergeant was shouting orders. Grant dropped to a knee and fired on the turncoats. The soldiers in the vehicle ahead turned and finished the job. The traitors went down under a massive wave of machine-gun fire.
Was that all of them? Could there be more Taliban spies among their ranks? How the hell would they ever know?
Explosions and artillery fire slowed. The unit medic stopped the bleeding in Wise’s leg and turned to Grant.
“Major?” The young corporal pointed at Grant’s face. “Let me get that, sir.”
Vaguely aware of blood dripping in his eye, Grant let the medic swipe some antiseptic and slap a butterfly bandage over the cut on his temple. Wise was loaded into the vehicle. He was still working the radio.
The squad that had gone over the ridge was called back. Steady whumping signaled the arrival of air support. The Apache swept over the ridge, blowing the shit out of anything on the other side.
Grant scanned the platoon. It appeared Lieutenant Wise had the most serious injury. But despite the win, damage was done. The Taliban had infiltrated the ANA. How could these American soldiers ever trust them as allies again?
When the bombs ceased, Wise sent a squad over the ridge to check for survivors, but they found none. The convoy moved on and reached the base a few hours later. Grant didn’t breathe easy until the trucks rolled through the gates and were behind the concertina wire. But lately, even being in the compound wasn’t a guarantee of safety, not with the Taliban determined to infiltrate the ANA at every opportunity.
His army combat uniform was shredded from bullets and stained with blood and Afghan dust, but Grant headed directly to the command center and reported to Lieutenant Colonel Tucker.
Tucker was in his office. Under a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair, he turned a piercing green gaze on Grant. “Have a seat, Major.”
But Grant was too keyed up to sit. Exhaustion and tension competed for control. He closed the door, paced the dusty room, and relayed the details of the ambush.
“Major,” Tucker interrupted with a raised palm, “I’ll get a report from Lieutenant Wise.”
Grant stopped. Something was up. He’d been Tucker’s second-in-command for ten months. The colonel squinted at him, his weathered skin creasing around his eyes. “Sit down, Grant.”
Wary, Grant eased into a chair. When Tucker used his first name, the news was personal.
The colonel eyed Grant’s forehead. “Is that serious?”
“No, sir. Just a scratch.” His adrenaline flow ebbed. Deep in his limbs, Grant felt every ounce of fatigue from two nights with no sleep.
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