combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 03 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2005

Through the Crosshairs

          Tommy methodically gets into a perfect firing position. He lays his rucksack on the ground in front of him to support the high-powered rifle, and he firmly plants the rifle's butt into the pocket of his shoulder. His legs are spread slightly and stretched out in a straight line behind him, with his heels nearly touching the ground.

          Moving only his eyes, Tommy looks to his right where Alex is positioned. Alex pulls his head back slightly from his spotting scope and turns toward Tommy. Using only the fingers of his left hand, Alex signals that the range is 275 meters.

          Tommy's eyes return to center. He peers through the scope mounted on his rifle into a large brush pile, but is unable to see his target. Alex and Tommy remain motionless while watching the brush pile for more than three hours.

          Suddenly, Tommy sees very slow, but steady movement. He gradually makes out the outline of a shoulder, then an upper torso within the brush pile. He places the crosshairs of his scope within a tiny opening in the brush just ahead of the peeking shoulder.

          Slowly, the shoulder, then the torso, fills the opening. Tommy slowly exhales.

          "Now," Alex says to himself. However, Tommy does not fire.

          "Now!" Alex repeats. Still, there is no shot.

          "You're losing the shot!" Alex thinks as the torso continues to move slowly through the brush pile.

          Tommy holds his breath for several seconds after exhaling, and then he gently squeezes the trigger, causing the rifle to recoil hard against his shoulder. The silencer fitted onto the end of the barrel produces a barely audible pop.

          Tommy's relaxed body absorbs the recoil, allowing the rifle to rise slightly, and then fall back into the firing position. Tommy once again looks through the scope. He sees a man laying face down on the ground in front of the brush pile.

          The unknown man pushes his chest up off the ground, supporting himself with his elbows. He drags one hand across his chest, and then looks down at the blood on his hand in disbelief. The man lifts his head and searches the area where Alex and Tommy lay hidden. His face is ghostly white and expressionless, but Tommy and Alex can both see the shock and terror in his eyes. They continue to watch as their latest victim takes his last breath and collapses.

          Tommy lays his rifle on its side and stares at the body in front of the brush pile. He then glances at Alex, who signals that it is time to go. However, Tommy does not budge. Alex signals a second time, and a third, before Tommy finally acknowledges him and begins to move.

          Seven hours later, Tommy and Alex pass through the last checkpoint and enter their base camp for the first time in four days. Their boots feel as if they are made of lead, and neither one can lift his feet completely off the ground as they trudge toward the command tent.

          Once inside the tent, Alex briefs the company commander, Captain Terrell, and his intelligence officer, on their mission. He reads from hastily scribbled notes about the enemy activity they had observed over the preceding four days. He also reports on the number of targets engaged, and the number of successful shots. Tommy does not say a word during the entire briefing.

          Tommy and Alex go directly to their tent after the briefing. Alex lifts the tent flap, and then steps to one side and motions for Tommy to go in first.

          "Go get some sleep, kid, you deserve it," he says.

          Tommy steps inside and looks down the long row of cots lining each wall. His head is hung low as he begins to shuffle his feet toward his cot at the far end of the tent.

          "It's about time you two got back. I was beginning to worry about you. How did it go?"

          Tommy recognizes the voice of Frank James, one of Alex's best friends, but continues the slow walk to his cot without responding. He then hears Frank say to Alex, "How did the kid do?"

          "Six shots, six kills," Alex says, "but he hesitated on the last shot. I tried to talk to him about it, but he never said a word. He just looked at me."

          Tommy reaches his cot, peels off his clothes, and climbs into his sleeping bag. He can hear Alex and Frank talking about what happened over the past four days, so he rolls over and pulls the sleeping bag over his head. He tries to sleep, but the sound of muffled voices and the haunting vision of his latest victim conspire against him. He tosses and turns for several hours, unable to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time.

          A commotion near the tent entrance awakens Tommy abruptly during one of his brief stints of sleep. He rolls over, still in his sleeping bag, and sees Alex arguing with Sergeant Eddie Collins, the personal assistant of Captain Terrell.

          Tommy props himself up on his elbows and asks, "What's going on?"

          Alex says, "I have to go see that damned captain. Collins said we're going back out tonight."

          Tommy feels a twinge of pain deep in his stomach. "There's no way ... we just got back," he says.

          Alex looks over his shoulder at Tommy, but does not say another word. He finishes pulling on his boots, but does not take the time to lace them. Tommy lays his head back down as Alex leaves the tent. He thinks about the possibility of another mission, and the pain in his stomach worsens. Tommy jumps up from his cot and runs to the command tent to confront Captain Terrell.

          Tommy stops momentarily at the entrance to the tent. He then walks in and sees Alex and Captain Terrell leaning over a table, intently studying a map.

          "Are we going out again tonight?" Tommy asks.

          Both Alex and Captain Terrell look up and see Tommy. Captain Terrell takes a couple of steps away from the map and says, "I don't like sending anyone out on back-to-back missions; no one should be forced to take any more, or greater, risks than anyone else. However, this time I have no choice."

          "There are at least five other teams in camp right now, sir." Tommy says.

          "You are the best shooter we have, and I cannot afford to send the second best on this mission."

          Captain Terrell then turns to Alex and says, "We've been after this guy for years. For the first time in eighteen months, we have a reliable fix on his position. You and the kid are the best chance we have of taking him out."

          Alex walks over to Tommy and says, "Look, kid, I don't want to go back out there any more than you do, but I don't see where we have too many choices here. Do you have any idea what this guy has ...?"

          "I know, I know all about him," Tommy says. "The whole damned world knows everything about him. I just don't think that I should be ...", he stops abruptly, looks at Captain Terrell, and then turns and walks out of the tent.

          Tommy returns to his cot. He lies flat on his back staring up at the peak of the tent. Several minutes later, Alex walks in, sits on the cot next to Tommy, and asks, "How are you doing, kid?"

          Tommy does not respond.

          "This mission requires a high altitude insertion," Alex says. "HAHO equipment issue is at 1930. Immediately afterward, we will receive our final briefing and the latest intel reports. The initial plan calls for two flights of bombers to take off at 2230 on separate bombing missions. Each flight will include a C141, and we will be on one of them."

          "I can't do this," Tommy says.

          "This is a single target mission," Alex says. "And Captain Terrell promised us two weeks R & R when it is done."

          Tommy looks at Alex and repeats, "I can't do this." He looks back up at the peak of the tent and says, "I never wanted to do this. I never thought I would actually have to kill anyone."

          "This is war ... people die."

          "What we do is different. We decide who we want to kill, and God only knows how we decide. Then, we hunt down whoever we decided on, and shoot him. I feel more like an assassin than a soldier."

          "You asked to be a sniper. You voluntarily went through the training," Alex says. "What did you think was going to happen once the training was over?"

          "I applied for every school the Army has. As long as I was in training ...", Tommy pauses, then looks at Alex and says, "I thought this would be over long before now."

          Alex stands and says, "You are the best there is, kid ... like it or not. You have the power to help bring this thing to an end tonight. One well-placed shot will instantly change the world for the better." He then turned and walked out of the tent.

          At exactly 2230 hours that night, the first wave takes off, with Tommy and Alex aboard the lone C-141 amongst the bombers. They go over every detail of the plan, including contingencies, during the flight. Alex, as he does before every mission, reminds Tommy what to do if either one of them is captured. Forty-eight minutes into the flight, and 30,600 feet above the earth, Tommy and Alex jump from their aircraft. Moments later, at 28,000 feet, the parachutes open.

          Alex takes the lead. He uses his compass to set their glide in the direction of the targeted landing zone. Tommy stays a safe distance from Alex while maintaining constant visual contact. Their slow downward drift carries them nineteen miles from the flight path of the bombers and takes nearly two hours.

          Tommy slows his rate of descent as they near the ground. Alex touches down first, and Tommy sees Alex's parachute collapse onto the ground. Tommy then steers his parachute toward a small clearing, but a sudden gust of wind carries him into the brush. He lands safely, but instead of being together, Tommy and Alex are separated by more than one hundred yards.

          Tommy quickly removes his high altitude gear, and gathers his parachute for concealment. He pulls his night vision goggles from his pack and places them over his eyes. He begins to move very deliberately toward Alex's location. He takes only a few steps before hearing yelling voices, followed by two gunshots. Tommy instantly drops to the ground. He lays motionless, barely even breathing. He can hear the sound of voices coming from the area where Alex landed.

          Tommy crawls on his stomach to the edge of the brush. He sees Alex standing with his hands on his head, surrounded by a group of uniformed men.

          Tommy watches as two more men come into view. One of them points in his direction, and both men slowly walk his way. Tommy lays frozen in position on the ground as the two men approach. They come within fifteen yards of his hide before stopping. They look around, then turn and walk back to their group.

          Tommy sees the group spread out as they begin to walk away. Two men walk well out in front, one wide on each flank, and one to the rear, forming a perimeter around the core for security and protection. The remainder of the men, including the one who appears to be in command and in control of Alex, walk in a moderately open formation. Tommy uses his compass to determine their direction of travel, and then glances at his watch. He soon loses visual contact with the main body of the group.

          Tommy moves forward very carefully, matching the exact pace of the rear guard. He moves as silently as possible, while not losing sight of his only point of contact with the group. No one in the group he is following has night vision capabilities, giving Tommy a slight advantage as long as he maintains noise discipline.

          The rear guard eventually stops, turns around, and drops to one knee. His head appears to be on a swivel as he constantly scans the surrounding area. Tommy drops to the ground and glances at his watch. They have been walking for eighty-eight minutes.

          The rear guard stands and begins to move forward after several minutes. However, this time he does not travel far. Tommy remains on the ground as he watches the guard go through what appears to be a checkpoint, and then disappears.

          Tommy does not attempt to follow him. He can see some activity and an occasional light just beyond where he last saw the rear guard. He watches as fresh guards arrive at the checkpoint just before sunrise. The advancing daylight reveals another checkpoint, a collection of small tents, and several larger tents.

          Tommy carefully scans the area as best he can from his position. The checkpoints are approximately one third of the way between him and the small encampment. He begins to crawl across the open field, slowly maneuvering towards a small depression between the two checkpoints. He moves only inches at a time, ensuring there are no sudden movements or unexplained noises that may alert someone to his presence.

          Tommy eventually reaches the depression. Coupled with the short brush in the area, it is just deep enough to conceal him. He carefully pushes his rifle forward, leaving it on the ground in a position where he can quickly shoulder it.

          Tommy unclips his pack and lays it next to him. He removes his binoculars from a front pocket on the pack and begins to systematically scan the camp. He has a good view of the entire camp, but there is no sign of Alex.

          He watches the camp for a while without the binoculars, but there is little movement. However, Tommy notices that one tent near the center of the encampment has the most activity. Several men have gone into that tent, but no one has come out.

          Soon, two more men walk into the tent. A few minutes later the same two men walk back out of the tent ... with Alex.

          Alex's hands are tied behind his back and each of the men is holding an arm. They drag him to a nearby tree where they let go, allowing him to fall to the ground. One of them grabs Alex by the collar and pulls him into a sitting position against the tree. The other man unties his hands, wraps the rope around the tree, and quickly re-ties the rope.

          Tommy looks through his binoculars and can clearly see that Alex has been severely beaten. His shirt is covered with blood and his eyes are swollen shut. He watches as one of the men kicks Alex in the ribs, and Tommy can see the pain on Alex's face.

          Tommy and Alex have reviewed this scenario on countless occasions. Tommy puts down his binoculars, and ever so slowly shoulders his rifle. He carefully and quietly loads a round into the chamber. Tommy takes a deep breath, and then slowly exhales as he looks through the crosshairs ... directly into the center of Alex's chest. He gently squeezes the trigger.

by John L. Hemmelgarn
... who is a teacher's aide, a retired soldier, and aspiring writer; this is his first published work.

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