Cautiously, Andy eyed his surroundings, then walked five steps forward to where his booted foot inadvertently encountered an IED.
Soil, weeds, and pebbles burst upward, peppering his face, and covering him with dirt. The concussive force knocked him off his feet, sending him sprawling five feet from the point of impact, and causing his gun to fly from his grasp.
The students and fellow officers in the bleachers couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed. If any of them were about to doze off that option was clearly no longer on the table.
Stunned, Dan sat up straight, his focus now riveted front and center. For about thirty-seconds he, and the fellow officers in training, watched with horror the scene that was unfolding before their eyes.
Andy immediately rolled onto his stomach and belly crawled toward the shelter of a nearby tree, and to his buddy who had taken a direct hit. He yelled to his fellow soldiers that they needed air support, and that Rick needed help.
“He’s hit! Get a medic over here! Rick, it’s going to be okay, man. It’s going to be okay,” Andy shouted at…nothing.
On his hands and knees, Andy was blindly overwhelmed by sheer panic. Once again, he was a 21-year-old kid, bleeding, scared, and with an M-16 slung across his back. In that moment, he had been forced to grow up very fast, and in a way that was not to be considered normal.
“Shit,” Dan swore as he jumped to his feet. Dashing down the steps of the bleachers, in one swift move he placed his hands on the top rail of the cyclone fence barrier and leapt over. The moment his boots touched solid ground, he ran, covering the distance to his downed partner as quickly as possible.
While crossing the gravel course, Dan tripped an IED. But this was normal ordnance for the purpose of the training exercise, so it didn’t do anything but send up a small plume of dirt. However, the firecracker did cause the hair to rise on the back on his neck.
Reaching his buddy, Dan slid to his knees, grasping his friend by the shoulders.
“Andy, it’s okay. I’m here!”
“He’s dead! Oh crap, he’s dead,” Andy wailed. “Sir, I tried to help him. Look at my hands, his blood…it’s all over my hands!” Sobbing, Andy held his hands out…palms up, so Dan could see.
Dan’s heart broke. Swallowing hard, he worked to reel in his own emotions. He had served too, he knew. How well he knew.
“Hey!” Dan shouted, and he slapped his hands together right in front of his buddy’s face hoping to gain his attention. “Andy, listen to me!”
But it didn’t work. Dan recognized that ‘1000-yard stare’ and the look of utter dismay and confusion. Worried, he turned toward their fellow officers in the bleachers.
“We need medics here! Now!” He shouted, and then turned his attention back to his friend.
“Andy, nobody’s dead!” Dan spoke, hoping his partner might hear him through the self-induced anguish. “That was a long time ago!”
Suddenly Andy tensed and grew quiet. He turned his gaze to the east as if listening to something. Indeed, he was. He heard the past, and it was just as loud as it had been, perhaps even a bit more. Time has a way of either dimming memories or enlarging them.
“Mortars,” he whispered. Though he spoke from the emotional viewpoint of fear and apprehension, it almost seemed as if the word was uttered with abject reverence.
“Incoming!” He suddenly yelled. Panicking, Andy knew there was nowhere to run for shelter. Grabbing at Dan’s arms he tried to pull his buddy down to the ground with him. He may end up sacrificing himself, but it didn’t matter, he had to protect his buddy no matter the cost.
But this had gone on long enough and Dan was done. He couldn’t allow the nightmare to continue to emotionally drag his buddy into a dark place from which he might never return.
Placing his hands to Andy’s shoulders he forcefully shoved his friend off balance. Before the struggling officer had time to regroup, Dan rolled him onto his stomach, put a knee to Andy’s rear, and pulled his arms behind his back. He stopped short of using handcuffs as he leaned near his friend’s ear.
“Andy! Listen to me, take it easy! Everything’s okay now, the war is over,” Dan shouted, but it didn’t work. Odds were likely that Andy couldn’t even hear his partner speaking to him. Perplexed as to how to get through to him, an idea came to Dan, and he merely changed his tactics.
“Sgt. Thomson! Stand down! That’s an order!” Dan commanded using his best military voice. Within seconds, he felt Andy’s tautened muscles begin to relax. His panicked buddy having quieted, Dan sat back, allowing Andy to roll over.
No longer did he hear the sound of distant mortars, nor the sound of rotors beating the humid late afternoon air as helicopters arrived on the scene. He could vividly see the soldiers that provided cover for the medics as they dashed toward the battered ground troops.
Slowly, Andy sat up to face his buddy. No words were spoken though much was conveyed. Sweat mingled with tears as the moisture traced its way down his face. He was covered in filth, and he stared at his hands as if they were something foreign to him.
“I know the story about Rick,” Dan solemnly reassured. “You did all you could. Nothing could have saved him that day. Andy, by the time you got to him, Rick was beyond saving. But you were there for him, buddy. You held onto him. That’s all you could do.”
It was the utterly helpless expression on his buddy’s face that tore at Dan’s soul. He put his arms around his friend in a brotherly embrace and just held him. It was all he could do.