Colorado Springs, February 1999
I still have that letter.
It’s tucked in a cigar box, at the bottom of the duffel that holds everything I had time to grab, when orders finally came through to Skopje in Macedonia three days ago, transferring my team back to the States.
It’s raining when I leave the building at Peterson, the report from General West and my new orders sealed in a locked briefcase. For right now, to take two weeks leave. After that, to report to the Air Force Academy to take charge of SERE training. Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. What to do, and what not to do, if you’re captured in combat. What the enemy will do if they capture you. Nasty things — like solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, electric shocks. And, of course, all the painful shit somebody with a sadistic imagination can inflict using his hands and feet, the old-fashioned way.
All that lovely shit I still have nightmares about, eight years after I let my best friend get taken alive by those…
There aren’t any words strong enough, so I won’t try.
Oh, and by the way, we were also supposed to defend the planet in case aliens appeared under Cheyenne Mountain. I didn’t know whether to laugh, or politely suggest the good general see a shrink.
Being a trained Special Forces operative — not to mention what my team calls something of a hardass (on a good day, and when they think I can’t hear them) — with over twenty years of service in the military, I of course did neither. But it was close.
I got my first command with the end of the Gulf War, and most of the guys on the team have been with me ever since then. We’ve made ourselves quite a reputation by now, as the boys you do not want to mess with. As the team that will get the job done, come hell or high water. Failure is not an option, damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. Hooyah, baby. We are Special Tactics 121, hear us roar.
My 21C, Captain Stuart, says we should have a team motto, “Fuck with us and die.” To which my usual response is that if the guys have enough time on their hands to think up silly things like team mottoes, they’ve got time for some extra PT.
Usually shuts ’em up pretty quick.
Morale in 121 is pretty spectacular, too. Considering their CO is what Jack O’Neill would’ve called a burned-out loose cannon with no sense of humor, a borderline suicidal streak, and delusions of being a drill sergeant — back when he still gave a shit. The guys just call me “the old man” with a mixture of admiration and terror, and a very carefully hidden affection that I don’t deserve.
It’s been almost eight years now, and with some of the shit we’ve seen, it’d be impossible not to feel pretty damn close to your teammates. We’ve become one of the most tightly knit teams in Special Ops, and there isn’t anyone closer to me anymore than these guys. I trust them as far as I trust anyone to watch my six in a firefight.
But off duty I’m always the one who stays apart, who never talks about anything not related to our missions. Making up rumors about what the colonel does on downtime has always been a favorite pastime for the team, but the truth is none of them really know anything about my personal life — and they all know me well enough by now not to ask.
Not that there’s any personal life to ask about. Used to be I spent all my downtime out with Jack, trying to keep him from getting us both in trouble (and failing). Or calling my wife. But Lisa’s gone now, long gone, tired of waiting for me to come home from someplace overseas she’d never know the name of, tired of not knowing what to do, or how to deal with the nightmares I couldn’t tell her about. And wouldn’t even if I could.
She tried. God knows. For more years than I deserved. But after what happened in ’91 she couldn’t hold on anymore.
My best friend was dead. Killed, I believed, during a covert mission inside Iraqi territory. Hadn’t even been able to give him a decent burial, ’cause we’d had to light out at top speed. Our CO was two seconds dead, and all decisions came down to me. Suddenly. Savagely. And I gave the order to leave his body behind.
Or so I thought.
Until, back Stateside, trying hard to make Lisa happy and recover from wounds both mental and physical, I was called into General Ryan’s office and given a report. A list of POWs. With a name on that list that left me in a whirl of sick horror and disbelief. And I packed that night, hardly an explanation or even a goodbye, caught the next plane back to Saudi just as the war was ending. Desperate to do something — anything — to help him.