Divided We Fall(7)
Author:Trent Reedy

    Kemp held up one thirty-round magazine. “Each man will draw two magazines. Both will go in your ammo pouch on your vest. Do not load a magazine into your weapon. I say again, do not load a magazine until you are ordered to do so.”

    My stomach heaved a little as I lightened in my seat. The Chinook was descending into Boise. I closed my eyes and took deep breaths in through my nose, trying to fight the drooly, almost-want-to-puke-type feeling. All I could hear was the loud drone of the engines and the clink of the magazines against the metal ammo can while the guys drew their loads.

    Luchen elbowed me. “Dude. Check it.”

    I opened my eyes as he put the ammo can in my lap. I pulled out my two clips. There were green metal tips on the end of the standard 5.56 rounds. They were issuing live ammunition! No blanks or anything. These were the real deal.

    Out the back hatch of the Chinook, I could see buildings and streets below. In the distance, near the white dome of the state capitol building, the streets were full of people. Smoke rose in columns from several fires. Everywhere else, it looked like any other town.

    I held my rifle tightly. I’d practiced with an M4 all summer at basic training, but this was the first time this particular rifle had been assigned to me. It felt right, warm and familiar in my hands.

    The Chinook set down, and the light above the bay door switched from red to green. The flight engineer gave a thumbs-up and shouted, “Okay.”

    “Okay, ladies, on your feet! Let’s move!” Meyers ran down the length of the aircraft past the helicopter crewman. He jumped down to the ground and crouched-ran at a right angle from the aircraft through the rotor wash off to the side. Lieutenant McFee, who was in charge and should have dismounted first, waited a moment before following him.

    Sergeant Kemp held his hands up to slow us down. “Second squad … good luck,” he shouted over the roar from the engines and the wind from the rotors. “First squad, you’re out first. Follow Sergeant Meyers.” Kemp stepped down off the end of the ramp. He motioned for us to follow.

    Specialist Stein gave a whoop like he thought this was a party as he ran after Meyers. Luchen hit me in the arm almost like we were heading out of the locker room for a football game. The others were all business. I was the last in our squad to get off the bird. Kemp grabbed me like he’d stopped everyone else. “Duck low and head out straight that way.” He pointed in the direction my squad had gone. “Get out there and take a knee with our fire team.”

    A wave of heat off the turbine engines near the back of the fuselage blasted me in the face. The rotors were kicking up a blinding cloud of dust from the baseball field. As I ran, crouching low and carrying my M4, the stupid gas-mask carrying case kept twisting around to my front side and whapping me in the nuts. When I cleared the dust cloud, I could see where the others were set up. I spat to get the dirt out of my mouth, but the grit was still in my teeth.

    “Hurry up! Move your asses!” Sergeant Meyers paced around the soldiers who had taken a knee in a loose group. Lieutenant McFee stood, scanning the area with binoculars. Sergeant Torres led his squad off at a slow run across the park away from us.

    The damned mask carrier was hanging down almost between my knees now. There were three different straps on the case and I could never figure out how to get it secured to my leg like it was supposed to be. It was tricky to run, but I put on some speed.

    “Private, slow down,” Sergeant Kemp said as he caught up to me. “Your mask is all jacked up.” He made some adjustments to the carrier’s straps. “You don’t want to trip while running with a weapon. Calm down. You’re fine.”

    We joined the others. Then the Chinook sped up its rotors, stirring even more dust as it rose into the air and flew off. In the relative quiet, I could hear sirens and honking horns, shouts and chanting in the distance. A bead of sweat ran down the back of my neck. It had been blazing hot at practice earlier today, and even though the sun was low in the west, it hadn’t cooled off much yet.

    “All right!” Meyers yelled. “If any of you ladies are afraid or missing your little girlfriends, get that shit out of your head right now and focus.”

    “‘Ladies’? Oh, come on,” said Specialist Sparrow under her breath.

    Meyers heard her. “Hey, Specialist, it’s just part of being in a combat unit, so don’t make this into some kind of feminist thing. If you want to roll with the men, you gotta toughen up!”

    “I passed all events on my PT test,” Sparrow said quietly.

    Some of the guys laughed. Meyers was kind of fat. If he heard her, he ignored her. “Lock and load!” Meyers shouted.

    A couple guys slammed magazines up into the wells of their M4s, then yanked back and released the charging handles above the stocks of their rifles to chamber a round.

    “As you were! Do not lock and load!” Kemp shouted. That was a gutsy move for him. He was a sergeant, a rank below Staff Sergeant Meyers, so he was outranked and out of line. “We don’t need to chamber rounds. This isn’t a war.”

    Meyers turned to Kemp. “I gave you and everybody else in my squad an order, Sergeant Kemp. Lock and load.”

    I had my hand on my weapon’s charging handle, but hadn’t pulled it yet. A bunch of the guys exchanged glances like, What are we supposed to do?

    “Maybe the lieutenant should decide,” Kemp said. “Sir, we don’t need to go into this with rounds chambered. I can’t believe we were even issued live ammunition in the first place.”

    Meyers pulled the binoculars from the lieutenant’s face. “LT, if this shit goes bad, we won’t have time to be worrying about our weapons. How are you going to feel if one of your men gets hurt because he was still chambering a round when trouble hit?”

    “There won’t be any trouble,” said Kemp. “It’s only a checkpoint. A traffic stop.”

    “Make the call, sir,” Meyers said.

    The lieutenant looked from one NCO to the other with wide eyes. I knew how he felt. I basically wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. Still, McFee was supposed to be in charge. Some loud shouts and the sound of breaking glass came from somewhere not too far away.

    Lieutenant McFee pulled his CamelBak hose around and took a long drink. “Lock and load.”

    “Good call, sir,” said Sergeant Meyers. Kemp shook his head. Meyers smiled. “You heard the lieutenant. Lock and load,” he called out to all of us. Then he stepped close to Sergeant Kemp and spoke quietly, but still loud enough for me and the guys to hear. “Sergeant Kemp, if you can’t follow orders in my squad, I will find a new alpha team leader.”

    Rifles clicked all around me. I pulled back and released my own weapon’s charging handle.

    Lieutenant McFee stood up straight at attention. “Fall in!”

    Everybody jumped up and rushed to stand shoulder to shoulder, grouped into their four-man fire teams, facing the officer in formation. Sergeant Meyers was at the far right of the rank. Sergeant Kemp stood next to him in the A team leader spot. I was the last guy in our team, with Specialist Sparrow and PFC Luchen between me and Sergeant Kemp. To my left was the B team leader, Sergeant Ribbon. Next to him was Specialist Stein, PFC Nelson, and finally Specialist Danning.

    “Port arms!” the lieutenant shouted. I executed the movements I had been taught, bringing my rifle up at an angle across my chest. My right hand moved down low, holding the top of the stock with my left hand high under the end of the barrel. The other guys did the same, but some were pretty sloppy.

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