Alone in the Garden
dedicated to my father, Sergeant Emmitt Maxwell
Furner, an American Soldier,
who left his right leg and part of his soul in South Vietnam
"For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I
say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he
cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it."
Matthew 8:9 Bible
First Lieutenant Asher Tobias woke from a restless shallow sleep
when the telephone rang. Two loud unbroken rings echoed
throughout the empty hotel room before he could find the receiver
in the darkness and press it to the side of his face. "Hello?"
The tone of his voice was listless and tired. The taut phone cord
knocked over an empty whisky bottle and a couple of prescription
medicine bottles on the nightstand beside the bed.
"Good morning, Mister Tobias," a woman's voice emanated from the
earpiece, its tone professional and, Asher thought, a little too
cheerful for zero-five in the morning. "This is the front desk
with your wake-up call."
Asher exhaled as he said, "Thank you," and returned the receiver
to its hook. He flipped on the lamp beside the bed, threw back
the covers, and used the headboard to pull himself up into a
sitting position. Beep! Beep! Beep! Asher's
watch started beeping, and its backlight flashed concurrently.
Asher stopped its annoyance just as fast as he had the phone.
Asher always coordinated for more than one wake-up when it came
to being on time for military functions, especially for military
functions as important as the one today. This was just one of the
many learned behaviors imprinted on his mind during his plebe
year at West Point, and one which he'd practiced ever since.
Today Asher was to meet with his troops, an important meeting
that was long overdue. Asher picked up and pointed the remote
control at the television, scrolling through the channels until
he came to Fox News.
Asher sat on the edge of the bed with his Class A Army Green
jacket spread out on his lap as he caught up on the news from the
frontlines. He took the preparation of his Army uniform quite
seriously; quite seriously indeed, especially today. As the
television emitted images of tanks rolling through endless
desert, choreographed with the professional voice of a news
correspondent, Asher attached his ribbons. He was careful to
ensure proper spacing and alignment as he pushed the pins through
the thick green material. Spacing and alignment, Asher thought;
that's what it was all about. Spacing and alignment. This is what
he'd learned at the academy, and this is what he tried to
practice in the jungle. Military decorations, like the men on
whom they were pinned, were always positioned according to
seniority. Six ribbons; two rows of three stacked. The last
ribbon that Asher carefully attached to his uniform was purple
with a thin white stripe at each end. Asher held his uniform up
in the lamplight and away from his face. He squinted at it for a
moment, then adjusted a couple of ribbons, squinted, and adjusted
some more; repeating this process again and again until they all
were as perfectly spaced and aligned as he could make them. Asher
topped the ribbons with a three-inch-long silver-colored metal
badge consisting of a musket set in an infantry blue rectangle
surrounded by a wide-open oak wreath. It too evenly spaced and
Asher showered, shaved, brushed his teeth, and combed his hair,
each equally timed and by the numbers, just as he had done every
morning since his first day at the Point. Routine, he used to
tell his ex-wife. Disciplined routine. Compulsiveness, his
ex-wife used to tell him. Excessive compulsiveness. Asher simply
couldn't afford not to be organized, or not to have a plan and a
contingency plan for everything he did; every decision he made.
When Asher made mistakes, young boys died. That's all there was
Today was the day, Asher thought as he buttoned his stiff shirt,
tied his black four-in-hand necktie, tightened it and folded down
his collar over it, and slid on his trousers. Today Asher was
going to confront his men. Man-to-men, Asher thought as he pushed
his feet into his patent leather shoes and tied them. Today he
was really going to let them have it. Tell them how it was. Tell
them how it was going to be; lay down the law for each of them.
It had been too long since the men had all been assembled before
Asher pulled the green jacket on like a knight donning armor, the
thick wool gabardine fitting snugly over his shoulders and
draping slightly in front and back of him. The sleeves fell
perfectly to the center of his wrist bones. In his uniform, Asher
felt like he could take on the world. He slowly buttoned the
coat, pushing the gold buttons through the tight slits, from one
down to four, checking each to ensure the eagles were upright,
and then shining them with his handkerchief. Whenever Asher wore
the U.S. Army uniform, he intended to leave no doubt that he
lived by a common military standard, and that he was responsible
to military order and discipline; that he was a
soldier. Asher took one last look at himself in
the mirror before donning his hat and leaving his room.
Throughout the hotel, people got out of Asher's way, in the
hallway, in the lobby, and on the city sidewalk outside. They
quickly stepped aside without making eye-contact with him, as
though they had never seen a soldier before. But this was a hell
of a lot better than getting spat upon, thought Asher. No respect
was better than disrespect any day, and a hell of a lot more
sanitary. Asher made his way across town to the front gate of the
The red, yellow, and orange leaves of autumn shook from the
trees, floated effortlessly from each, like scattered
paratroopers, and then danced across the rolling northern
Virginia countryside, between the cool blue and moist green. The
air was cool and brisk and intermittent. It pushed in from
Virginia's eastern shore, across Fairfax County, through
Washington DC, and across the Potomac River.
There was a sentry standing next to his guardhouse at the front
gate of the base, a buck sergeant in starched camouflage fatigues
with a black belt around his waist and a holster containing a
pistol on his hip. He wore a black beret and sunglasses and a
green brassard on his arm with the letters MP
sewn on it. The sergeant popped to attention and rendered a quick
sharp salute when he saw Asher roll up to the gate. The flag
behind the gatehouse flapped freely in the wind from half way up
its pole. The post contained more than thirty thousand personnel
of all ages, services, and backgrounds.
"Good morning, sir!" the gate sentry announced as he held his
flat right hand just above the corner of his right eye; fingers
extended and joined, and thumb straight along the forefinger.
Asher returned the salute. "Good morning, sergeant."
"Here to see the men, sir?" the sentry sounded as though he knew
Asher, or at least recognized him.
"Yes, sergeant," said Asher. "I'm here to see the men."
Asher made his way along the leaf-covered cobblestone that
meandered through the green fields of the post to the northeast
corner of the fort. He smiled when he spotted the men, sixteen
members of third platoon, all formed up, aligned, and evenly
spaced. Asher's platoon consisted of three rifle squads, and a
weapons squad. Each squad consisted of nine soldiers, a squad
leader, two fire team leaders, two automatic riflemen, two
riflemen, and two grenadiers. Each weapons squad consisted of two
machine gun teams consisting of a gunner and an assistant gunner.
Asher positioned himself in front of Sergeant First Class Edmond
Brown, the platoon sergeant, and tightened to attention. Asher
rendered a crisp salute. Sergeant Brown was not only the most
senior enlisted man in the platoon, he was Asher's right-hand-man
and second in succession of command. He advised Asher on all
matters pertaining to leadership and readiness within the
platoon. Sergeant Brown was responsible for administration,
logistics, maintenance, and individual training. Sergeant Brown's
nickname was platoon-daddy, a title assigned to him by
the men because of the father-figure role he assumed within the
platoon. Asher respected and admired Sergeant Brown for his
toughness, and Asher often thought he would have been proud to
have had such a man as his own father.
As does any good officer, Asher inspected his troops. He trooped
the line ... passing among the rank and file, stopping
momentarily in front of each soldier.
The first soldier Asher stopped in front of was his first squad
leader, Staff Sergeant Jonathan Barber, a Georgia farm boy with a
neck as red as the earth he farmed, and an ethos just as tough.
Sergeant Barber was responsible for all that his squad did or
failed to do. Asher saluted and held it as he said, "Thank you,
Sergeant Barber." Asher dropped his salute. "You did a fine job
training your men," Asher said, and then he moved right to halt
in front of his weapons squad leader, Staff Sergeant Robert
Pratt, a West Virginian, who was raised in a company town deep
within a gorge in the Appalachian Mountains. Asher recalled how
Sergeant Pratt would tell his men that the combat boots he was
issued in basic training were the first pair of new shoes he'd
ever had. Asher saluted him and whispered, "Montani Semper
Liberi" before moving to the next soldier in the rank.
Beside Sergeant Pratt was Asher's Radio Telephone Operator,
Specialist Jason Frisbee, an eighteen-year-old Wisconsin boy who
looked younger than his age. Asher used to jokingly ask
Specialist Frisbee if his mother knew he was in the Army.
Specialist Frisbee was responsible for setting up, operating, and
maintaining the platoon's radios, which included waterproofing
the handset and battery, and presetting frequencies, while
establishing and enforcing communication security procedures, and
constructing field-expedient antennas. Asher saluted and thanked
him too. "Thanks, Frisbee," Asher said before shifting over to
the next soldier.
The next two soldiers Asher stopped in front of were team leaders
in Sergeant Barber's squad, buck Sergeants Michael Tant and
Richard Coe; two high school friends who joined on the buddy
program, rather than taking their chances on being drafted into
separate services. The final soldier Asher stopped in front of
was the platoon medic, Specialist Scott Busma, a young black kid
from east Philadelphia. Specialist Busma was responsible for
monitoring the health and hygiene of the platoon. Although
Specialist Busma never told anyone, Asher knew that he could have
avoided the draft if he'd taken the basketball scholarship he had
been offered. Specialist Busma treated casualties and assisted in
their evacuation under the control of Sergeant Brown. Asher
saluted Specialist Busma and said, "Thank you. You did a fine job
taking care of the men." After completing the inspection of the
third rank, Asher reassumed his position in front of the men,
centering himself on the men.
"Listen up, men!" Asher announced. "There's something I've been
wanting to talk to you about." Asher's facial muscles tightened,
and his eyes closed a little as they began to well with tears.
"As you know, to complete all assigned tasks, every soldier in
this platoon must do his job." Asher's words were clear but
spaced with the even, consistent inflection of a man trying to
keep from crying. "Each soldier must accomplish his specific
duties and responsibilities and be a part of the team, or else we
fail ..." Asher swallowed hard. "We die."
Asher's lower lip began to quiver. "I just wanted you all to know
there is a soldier present here today who has failed to do his
duty." Asher paused and swallowed again. The field around him was
quiet, with only the intermittent rushing of wind and the
rustling of leaves. "And that soldier is ... me. I have failed
you, and I'm sorry."
Asher's facial muscles tightened some more, while more tears
accumulated in his eyes, this time rolling down his face, and his
lip stopped quivering and lifted above his teeth in an expression
of anguish. "I am responsible for all this platoon does ... or
fails to do. I am responsible for knowing each of you ... knowing
how to employ you and your weapons."
The men said nothing. The wind was cool on Asher's tear-stained
face. An auburn oak leaf floated slowly down from a limb high
above Asher and landed on his right shoulder, next to his
lieutenant's bar. "I am responsible for positioning and employing
you and your weapons, and I ... I failed." Asher's began sobbing
as he slipped out of his wheelchair onto the soft green earth.
Asher's prosthetic legs turned on his stumps, and one nearly came
off. On all fours, dragging his loose fiberglass and titanium
limbs behind him, Asher crawled over to the simple white
headstone into which had been etched:
EDMOND L. BROWN, SFC, US ARMY, TEXAS, JUNE 20, 1942 – MAY
28, 1968, SS, BSM, PH, VIETNAM.
The letters were deep and evenly spaced and aligned. Asher put
his arms around the stone and pressed his face against its cold
smooth surface. He held it and cried.
Asher flinched when rifle fire echoed in the distance, seven
simultaneous shots, then seven more, then seven more. Asher
looked over his shoulder across the field; over beneath a patch
of swaying pines under which a team of six soldiers in dress
uniform stretched an American flag over a casket. Asher squeezed
some more tears from his eyes, and then pressed his face back
against the stone and said, "I'm sorry." He took in a deep breath
and let it out with a louder, "I'm so sorry! I
should have died with you!" Asher was out of breath, and his
words were barely intelligible. "If I'd only called for
artillery. If I'd only given the order to break contact sooner.
It was my fault. I was responsible for bringing you back home
alive, and I failed. Oh, God! Please forgive me." Asher took in
another deep breath and recited softly, "Oh my friends, my
friends, don't ask me. What your sacrifice was for. Empty chairs
at empty tables. Where my friends will sing no more ...."
by Emmitt Maxwell Furner II
... who is an Army officer, writing freelance when not serving
with Civil Affairs programs.