Friday, May 28, 2010

The Blue Chair

His daughter sat in the blue chair with her arms braced stiffly at her sides. She could feel each beat of her heart pulsing through her fingers as she maintained a tight grip on the silver metal frame that housed the thickly padded seat. She sat, waiting for her father to arrive, as memories flooded into her thoughts…..

"Be strong" he spoke in a soft gently gentle tone.

Slowly, he lifts his six year old daughter off the ground until their eyes met and then pulls her into a warm fatherly embrace. She studied his face- eyes darting frantically from feature to feature- in a hurried attempt to lock it all into memory. The padded tip of her small index finger trace the contours of her father's face as she tries to commit every scar, freckle and crease to memory. Her eyes scan the aging landscape like a lost tourist frantically scanning a map.

" I'll be home before you know it and then things will get back to normal, just like before"

“I know” she replies, as her eyes drop slowly to look at the ground

“We’ve been through this before and we’ll get through it again. This year, we’ll go to Hawaii for our vacation. How ‘bout that?” The forced excitement in his voice picks up momentum as he fashions a large smile.

“Daddy, it’s o.k., I know you have an important job and you protect us from the bad guys, but I will still miss you. It’s just that a year is a long time”

“Honey, I have to go and take care of my Soldiers. We have a lot of work to do over there-lots of schools to build, people to help….and we have to make sure those bad guys you talked about don’t hurt anyone. That country needs our help and we can’t let them down.”

His left hand cradles the back of her head as he moves his fingers through her dark brown hair. His fingertips sift through its softness like escaping sand and he repeats the motion over and over. The girl stretches out her short arms as they fight to reach across his back, finally settling on two fists full of scrunched Army camouflage pressed firmly against his back. He studies her small face, noticing the freckles resting on her checks and nose. He remembers how many times he has looked at her before, but somehow this time feels different- somehow, it was as if he was truly seeing his six year old daughter Margaret for the first time. He wants every detail of her to travel with him to Iraq-to call upon when the loneliest of times hit. Margaret and her father stood there, lost in the moment as they are pulled out into a tide of their own emotion of tears and words. Blind to the world around them as they share the final moments together, they accept another long distance relationship filled with a weekly phone call and web cams. His arms wrapped gently around her as they both began to cry. They hugged one last time.

" I love you!" he struggles. "I'll be back in a year I promise and we’ll spend lots of time together.”

Margaret was so overcome with sadness she can barely complete her next several breathes.

With every ounce of energy she whispers: "I love you too Daddy"

There eyes meet again as she begs her father not to go. He gently placed her on the ground and reaches down to grab his ruck sack. Gripping a shoulder strap in each hand, he swings the pack high over his head and with one swift motion, as if by calculated acrobatics, it comes to rest firmly upon his back. He tightens the straps and turns to walk away - forcing himself not to look back. He desperately wants to turn around for one last glance, but he knows the pain would be too much for her-or maybe for him. As he marches off into the distance, Command Sergeant Major Tom Berry can hear Margaret’s anguishing cries replayed again for a fourth time in six years.

Margaret sits in the blue chair smiling as she remembers the details of that day. Suddenly, through the large scattered Oak trees that adorn the Arlington hillside, she glimpses the horse drawn caisson carrying the American flag that covers the wooden casket. Her grip tightens even more on the blue chair as she notices soldiers slowly beginning to stand- heels together and arms down by their sides, motionless as they await the arrival of her father. The eight member team, places her father under the small green tent-every move slow and calculated. She wants to run into her father’s arms one last time, but knows that she will never feel his fingers running through her hair. Margaret watches as the team slowly removes the flag from her father’s casket, stretching the large flag up above the wooden casket. She notices white gloved hands caressing the flag, just as her father had caressed her several months earlier- slowly and methodically folding the flag until only the blue background and white stars are displayed. She listens as the Chaplain describes her father with words like “hero” and “Personal Courage” describing a part of his life that she knew little about.

“He was a true leader, able to face fear, danger, and adversity!” “He was well respected by his men because he demonstrated the physical and moral courage to complete the mission every single day while he was alive”.

The Army Chaplain spoke these words with conviction and Margaret made a commitment to herself to honor her father every single day of her life.

copyright, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Mosque

The violence of the explosion shook the ground, causing the soldiers to instantly take inventory of their own limbs. As each team member signals a "thumbs up", Staff Sergeant Trimble notices thick black smoke rocketing high into the air just up the road from their position.

"It's the Mosque" he yells out as he points down the narrow street.

The nine man patrol was conducting a typical "meet and greet" mission through the village of Buhmkaleef. Walking the six miles through the city, soldiers would stop frequently to interact with local villagers and purchase fruit or other items from vendors. The team looks forward to these interactions each week and the small village enjoys the American companionship-and pocketbooks. Local fruit markets in Iraq are not unlike what you might see in Small Town America-freshly grown fruit displayed on top of tables fashioned out of old plywood sheets. Young entrepreneurs sit perched upon makeshift booths selling everything from pirated DVDs to low-end famous knock off watches. Soldiers spend the thirty five dollars for a "Rolex" not because they think it's the real thing, but because they want to help out the local economy.

It's no accident that the Army spends time here. Positioned just south of the region known as the Sunni Triangle, Buhmkaleef teeters on the brink of an inter-city insurgent overthrow. Driving a Hummvee a short distance to the north along  highway one puts you right in the heart of the enemy's area of operation and along this route, you can expect to be greeted with Improvised Explosive Devices and small arms fire. But here, for the most part, the people are safe. The Army's presence keeps the enemy at a distance and allows the people to live mostly uninterrupted lives. A typical small village, Buhmkaleef has a mayor, its own Police force, one small school and even a local soccer hero who manages a small cigar shop. Its only downfall is that it lacks a hospital for urgent medical treatment. For that, locals must travel fifteen miles to the west. Most though, will travel three miles south to a nearby Army base camp just to get the professional care of an American Army doctor. While nothing is ever routine in Iraq, these patrols are as close as it gets. Of course, until today.......

"Lett-it hah-rek, Lett-it hah-rek", was shouted to the scared villagers.

"I said DO NOT MOVE!" This time with a heavier tone and in English.

The team instinctively races toward the destroyed Mosque-weapons at the ready. Seconds later they halt in the middle of the street directly in front of the charred remains of the sacred worship place. Thick black and gray smoke now pour out of the burning structure onto the narrow street and the patrol suddenly finds itself lost in a crowd of panicked civilians. The screams and cries of the bystanders swirl around in the blackened air as if the smoke itself were speaking its own tales of anguish. The soldiers push through the quickly growing crowd, making their way to the entrance of the temple. As their eyes fight to adjust to the dissipating smoke, a few soldiers make out the pattern of a small boy standing inside the smoldering doorway. The four year old child walks slowly toward the group of soldiers, his eyes wide with fear, struggling as he takes each step. Sergeant Pacowski, the company's medic, grabs his aid bag and reaches the boy just as he collapses onto the gravel road. Overcome by the smell of burning flesh, Pacowski backs away slightly, resting his head momentarily on his heavy green medical aid bag. Forcing himself to regain his composure, he begins to refocus his attention on the injured boy. Panic sets in as he realizes that there is no time to waste.

Andrew Pacowski, aptly nicknamed "Pacman" is the genuine article-a true blooded American Patriot. His father grew up in the small town of Bezledy, Poland a few miles south of the Russian border. He often told Andrew of the days when, as a young boy, he would leave school and look across the field to see Russian soldiers patrolling in the area. His hatred over the Russian government would overtake him as and he would reach down to find several golf ball size rocks, launching them at the soldiers one by one. Often times they would draw their weapons at him in response, and once they actually fired. His father's lessons in freedom, Liberty and Democracy would be played out time and again in their modest farm house in Herscher, Illinois. Andrew would never forget his father's struggles and what the cost of freedom really means. His parents had lived it first hand. He loves America and appreciated all the sacrifices that helped shape this country into what it is today. Those stories would shape his life and ultimately contribute to his decision to join the United States Army where he serves as a Combat Medic.......

He stared down at the frail child and begins to treat him. Moments later, another team arrives with several Humvees to escort the boy to Baghdad where he would get the best possible chance for survival. Sergeant Pac stands up just as an elderly lady hands him an orange and white blanket to cover the bleeding and burned child. He cradles the boy, burying his face in the boy to hide his tears.  He loads the little dark hair boy up into the vehicle and the Humvees accelerate off into the distance. He wonders if the child will someday have his own stories to tell about the cost for freedom for his people- about how their country is a much better place because of their own struggles to turn the pages of history to overcome unbeatable odds. He realized at that moment that he was never more proud to be an American.

Copyright, 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010

What you don't know can help you

People are creatures of habit, and in my line of work that’s a good thing. You see, I’m not a typical "people watcher” by any stretch of the means. I don’t walk Venice beach, entertaining myself with the various costumes and craziness that permeates the boardwalk. Nor, do I plant myself on a shopping mall bench to count the number of tattoos or nose rings that decorates each passer-by. No, when I have my eyes on a target, it’s because someone is planning harm on American soil. Don’t kid yourself-terrorists thrive every day on the interior of the United States-training and living among us while they plan their next large scale attack. They ARE out there, waiting for the next opportunity to kill us. My job is to remove that opportunity and send them straight to hell.

Our team travels from city to city, working in concert with various worldwide intelligence communities to stop terrorist attacks on American cities. In the last nine years, we’ve put down nine well planned attacks on U.S. targets, all under the radar of media and the public. Our success stories go unnoticed as we deploy across the country at a moment’s call to shut down the terrorists before they can strike. We are hidden from the public eye, but rest assured, we ARE real. Our organization falls under control of the CIA, the same organization that created MK-ULTRA back in the 1960’s. If you recall, no one believed that program existed either. It was created in the early 1950s and continuing for almost ten years until it was finally revealed 1975. But our surreptitious team doesn’t attempt to alter the mind of our subjects like that illegal CIA program. For us, it’s all about the details! While the most mundane characteristics may go unnoticed to you, to us it’s the difference between terrorist and tourist.

Most of us live in small modestly-one bedroom apartments, peppered with the very bare essentials for comfort in various locations scattered across America. We are a modern day Nomad, never getting the opportunity for that perfect relationship- for love. There is no time for distractions- instead; we stay focused on the mission at hand. We took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” while undertaking some of the most intense training ever experienced.

Ushered to Langley, Virginia, near Washington D.C., I can remember standing over the large CIA crest on the marble floor of the lobby and taking in the tall gray and white square columns that contrasted the white walls and ceiling of the CIA Headquarters. Soon afterwards, nine team members and myself would sit with A.B. “Buzzy" Krongard, executive director and third in charge of the Central Intelligence Agency at that time to cover every detail of the mission for Team Intercept.

Tomorrow we travel to Creighton Middle School in Columbus, Texas, 90 miles southwest of Austin, to stop an aggressive sleeper cell from detonating a dirty bomb. We remain vigilant!