combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2006

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 aligned.

          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 to it.

          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.

          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 base.

          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:

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.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones