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Any Soldier

Robert Lubrican




This story resulted from a conversation I had one time during which I mentioned that while I was in the Operation Desert Storm I got "Any Soldier" mail, and loved it. It meant a lot to me and I spent hours answering some of it. It was suggested that I should do a story about that, and about how the relationship between the person who sent such mail, and the soldier who got it, might go on after the war.



So this fictional story is based on something that is actually true - I really did get and enjoy a lot of Any Soldier Mail, some of it from classrooms of school kids. I also answered most of it, including letters I wrote to classrooms of school kids. More bits of the truth are scattered through this story. Having been in the Army for many, many years, I am familiar with the kind of red tape that flourishes there. Both the mail and red tape have a lot to do with this story.



Other things in the story are purely fictional.



This is an important distinction, because some of the bits of "truth" in this story didn't necessarily happen to me. But they have happened to others, and that is very, very important to remember.



And that gets us to the part where I have to warn you that the prologue begins with some rough scenes. What happens to the protagonist is unhappy, violent and may cause some readers to want to stop reading. I ask you not to stop. Read the prologue anyway, even if you begin to feel a little squeamish. Thousands of young men have experienced it in person, and more young women than you might think. They expose themselves to this on your behalf. Whether you agree that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are legitimate or not, these people are willing to put themselves in harm's way so that you aren't. This story is dedicated to those young men and women who serve so selflessly.










Around 2300 hours, the night of 17 Nov 08, Achmed Tergazzi, a twelve-year-old boy, located and removed a thin sheet of scrap sheet metal that was covering a hole about a foot and a half deep and perhaps a foot in diameter. He then turned to the piece of plywood he had dragged to the site with a rope and rolled the old artillery shell off of it, levering it into the hole, point up. He performed the other operations the men had taught him how to do, put the metal sheet back in place, covered it with the dry dirt that had been on top of it, and retraced his steps, brushing the marks he'd made out of the dirt.





At 2317 hours, 17 Nov 08, Achmed pushed open the sagging door of an abandoned house and called out softly. He was answered and a candle was lit.



"I have done as you told me to," he said to a shadowy adult form. "Where is my sister? I must take her home now."



"Tell me exactly what you did," said the man.



Achmed described his actions. The man pulled out a cell phone and pushed buttons. He grunted.



"You did well. All appears to be working."



"My sister," said Achmed, his voice shaking. "You promised I could take her home if I did what you said."



"Yes," said the man.



He pulled a pistol from the shadows and shot Achmed three times in the chest.





At 0830 hours, 18 Nov 08, Irwanna Husseini left her house hoping to get to the market safely, buy some food, and return to her home. She saw the two bodies before she had gone a block. One was of a boy, perhaps twelve, and the other a girl, a little older. Both were obviously dead, so she passed around them. If there was a policeman at the market she would tell him of the bodies. She could not know they were Achmed and his sister, or that the young woman had been repeatedly raped before she was strangled. No one would ever know, except the men who did it. There would be no autopsy. The parents of the children would never know what had happened to them, because the people who eventually came and took the bodies away didn't try to identify them. They were just added to the group of unidentified victims of the American war and would, within seventy-two hours, be buried in a common grave with all the others.





At precisely 1303 hours, 18 Nov 08, the man who had shot Achmed watched, his finger poised above the cell phone in his hand, as the convoy approached the place where the IED was buried. None of the true believers had been risked to place this one. The helicopters, with their night vision devices and spitting chin cannon, made that too dangerous. But the kidnapping of the girl, and the false promises to the boy had gotten the IED in place, and that was all that mattered. Now the glory of Allah would be served as the infidels were punished for soiling Iraq with their foreign presence.



He let two vehicles pass by before he punched the last button in the number that would set the artillery shell off.



The Stryker next to the IED, when it went off, weighed 36,240 pounds, fully loaded with three crew and nine troops aboard, plus all the associated gear and ammunition. It was armored and could withstand the vast majority of munitions that could be expected to be flung against it.



But not an artillery shell only six feet away.



Still, the crew compartment remained intact as it was blown free of the shredded vehicle, landing some fourteen feet from where it had been only seconds before. The smoke, dust and debris from the explosion blanketed an area twenty-five feet further out than that, but one piece of red hot metal ejected from the cloud was all the bomber needed to see to know that Allah had punished the invaders. He turned and left quickly, knowing that the retribution of the Great Satan could be swift and thorough.



The attempt to recover survivors and bodies was hampered by .50 Cal M2 and Mark 19 40mm grenade ammunition cooking off in the fire that was attempting to consume everything it could reach. A second Stryker bulldozed the crew compartment out of the fire and then went on, to make sure it wasn't exposed to the heat too long itself. Helicopters appeared overhead, circling like eagles, looking for prey. An armored HMMWV ambulance screamed up to the smoking crew compartment as soldiers attempted to pry the access ports open.



Once access was gained, bodies were lifted out. Some went on the ground, abandoned almost immediately. Others went on the side of the ambulance away from the smoking crater, where medics hovered, trying to save lives. Eventually eight bodies were stacked into two ambulances, which left at high speed, on rocking springs. Four bodies, now contained in black body bags, left the scene for another destination.



The remainder of the convoy formed up, drove around the debris, and continued on the mission.



Chapter One



First Lieutenant Andrea Foreman received the gurney from the two medics who rushed it into the ER. She pulled it into a curtained alcove where her team was waiting to assess the casualty. They had done this many times before, and the practiced ease with which clothing was cut off and equipment utilized made her both proud and sad at the same time. Her team was one of the best, which made her proud. That they had to have these skills at all was what made her profoundly sad.



"Staff Sergeant Robert C. Hickory, type A positive," said Specialist Anderson, removing the dog tags around the soldier's neck. He would also go through the pockets of the bloody uniform and secure any personal property found.



"I've got a compound fracture with a bleeder!" called out PFC Williams. "We may have arterial bleeding here!"



Lieutenant Foreman went to the left leg. Pain management wasn't an issue, since Sergeant Hickory was currently unconscious. "Help me set," she said. PFC Williams took the ankle and she gripped the shin just below where the two jagged bones were protruding from the skin. "One - two - three," she said, and the leg was straightened. Bright red blood welled out of the open wound, which she pulled apart with gloved fingers.



"I've got bone fragments all over the place, and the popliteal artery is damaged," she said. "Pressure points and surgery, right now! Move it, people, or we're going to lose this one."





Major Donald Ferguson stepped back from the leg containing the artery he had just repaired.



"He's all yours, Tanya," he said. "What's next?"



Sergeant Tanya Phillips pulled the gurney out of the OR and into the recovery room. The patient had shown no signs of recovering consciousness, but his vitals were good, now that two pints of blood had been put back into his body. He had a long way to go. The emergencies had been dealt with. Now he would have to be cleaned up and the other cuts and bruises on his body tended to. They couldn't cast the leg yet, but they could splint it with an inflatable collar and keep it rigid. The orthopedic doc had ordered tension on the lower leg, just to keep the bones apart until the surgeons back in Landstuhl could assess whether the leg could be saved or would have to come off above the break.



At 1703 hours, exactly six hours after the IED changed SSG Hickory's life forever, the plane carrying him back to the huge Air Force hospital in Germany lifted off the tarmac of the runway in Iraq. It would be the last time SSG Hickory ever visited the country.



Not that he was aware of his early return to "the world." His brain, traumatized by sound, motion and impact, would not repair itself enough to let him regain consciousness for another four days. But in some ways that was a blessing, because during those four days many painful things were done to his body in the interests of keeping most of it alive. He was stitched up in six locations. He was operated on in two. It was determined that the tissue damage resulting from the compound fracture was too devastating to heal properly and the lower leg was amputated four inches below the knee. Pressure inside his cranium was released by drilling holes in his skull. But he was breathing on his own, and his blood pressure was within acceptable limits.



He was put in ICU and people around him, none of whom he'd ever met before, hoped for the best.




SSG Hickory had been gone from his unit almost a week when he first opened his eyes. He knew something was wrong immediately, but he also knew, somehow, that there was nothing he could do about it at that instant. He began assessing his environment, in an attempt to gain information. It was just a habit, and he did it without conscious thought.



At that exact moment, thousands of miles away, Sergeant First Class Ralph Butler was supervising the packing of the belongings of his former third squad leader. They were being sent back to Riley, where the unit's home base was. Not that anything would happen to them there. Hickory wasn't dead, but he had no wife. The only person listed in his next of kin records was a sister named Claudia, who lived in Arkansas.



Butler watched closely as the two privates packed the boxes. It had been known to happen that valuable items went missing in situations like this, and he wasn't having any of that crap on his watch. As the bottom of the footlocker came into view Butler saw stacks of envelopes and tablet paper with drawings on them ... crayon drawings.



"What the hell is that?" he asked.



Private Willie Nelson, who had enjoyed his name through high school, but wished his parents were dead within ten minutes of arriving at his Army basic training company, grabbed a fistful of paper and held it up to the Platoon Sergeant.



The other private picked up an envelope and looked at the front.



"Any Soldier mail," he said. "He's got a ton of it."



Butler sorted through a dozen envelopes. Most were blue, pink or yellow. The ones on top were addressed to him, not "Any Soldier". The return address was from someone named Julia Miller, in Boonville, Missouri. There were at least ten of them in the group that Nelson had handed him. He lifted them to his nose. Perfumed.



"Hickory ever talk about a girlfriend?" he asked.



Nelson looked up and shrugged. He tried to shrug at every question. He'd gotten more attention in his eight months in the Army than he could have used in his entire life. It might have helped if he could play the guitar and sing. He could do neither, however.



Private John Rhyes shook his head. "Never, Sarge."



"Hmph." Butler handed the bundle of letters back to Nelson. "Put them all in there. Mark them as personal correspondence on the receipt."



"Yes, sir," said Nelson, and then winced.



"How many fucking times do I got to tell you not to call me sir? I ain't no fucking officer, Nelson?" growled Butler. "I work for my fucking living!"



"Sorry Sarge," said Nelson.



"Well get that sealed up and take it and your sorry ass over to the APO. And get a fucking receipt!"




Julia Miller, aged twenty-two, and in her first year as a real, live, certified second grade teacher at David Barton Elementary School, in Boonville, MO., clutched the letter to her breast as she hurried down the hallway to her room. She wasn't worried that Alicia, her aide, wouldn't be able to control the class. She was just in a hurry to share with them the latest development in their project.



Julia had become aware of the "Any Soldier" mail concept on the internet. She was unaware it had been official during the Gulf War, but had become unmanageable during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The services had tried to stop it, but the quantity of mail addressed to "Any Soldier" had continued to swell. The US postal service didn't give a damn. All that mail required stamps, and that was good. They forwarded it to the APO, or Army Post Office, which had to do something with it. If they just pitched it and some asshole representative of the media found out about it and reported on it, it could be very bad press. So they kept shoving it on down to units, and letting them worry about it. This mail was a perfect example of the old saying: "One man's trash is another man's treasure." Most units loved it and passed it out to the troops as a diversion from the crushing routine of cleaning weapons and hoping you didn't die on the next patrol.



Julia simply read about it on a 'Support Our Troops' kind of website and thought it would be a good citizenship project for her class to do.



So she had all the kids write a letter, put them all in a big manila envelope, and sent it off to "Any Soldier, Iraq."



Hearing nothing for a month and a half, she had about given up on the idea when a letter came, addressed to her class with a return address that was completely unintelligible in terms of making any sense, except for the name: Staff Sergeant Robert Calhoun Hickory.



That first letter had shocked her to her core. That was because that first letter ... the first six pages of neat handwriting from a man she'd never met, and who was ten thousand miles away, and who was writing to seven year old children ... made her loins tingle.



He was warm, and funny, and thankful to the children. He told stories about children their age in a far away country, children who smiled and begged for candy and gum. He described beautiful buildings and a night sky that had so many stars in it that they lit up the ground when there was no moon. He told them tidbits of what his life was like, such as what he ate, and how often he got to take a shower.



It wasn't that it was all sweetness and light. He did mention that it was a dangerous place to be, and that war was never a good thing to be involved in. But he used those comments to encourage them to find ways of resolving conflict without escalating it to violence. He told them they were lucky to be safe, and to listen to those who would keep them that way, including Miss Miller.



There had been a separate page in that letter, addressed only to her. He had thanked her personally, and told her he'd never forget her or the children, because their letters had reminded him of why he was there, and why it was worth it. His letter had made it clear he never expected to hear from her or the children again, but encouraged them to write to more servicemen.



The class would have none of it, of course. Staff Sergeant Hickory might have started out as "any soldier," but now he was "their" soldier. They had questions for their soldier. Julia winced at some of those questions. Several children wanted to know if he had killed anybody, and what that was like. She didn't feel like that was an appropriate question for someone so young to ask ... maybe for anyone to ask, outside the mental health arena. They wanted to know if he had children, and she was afraid that was too personal a thing to ask a man who might be separated from said children. In the end, she decided that she wasn't the one to censor their letters. She just apologized to him in a personal note and told him he didn't have to answer anything that made him uncomfortable.



He wrote back. He didn't sidestep anything, but the way he answered was in general terms, toned down to be less shocking, such as when he explained that there is death in all wars, which is why wars should be the very last resort to solving problems. He said he hoped he never had to hurt anyone. He said he had twenty-two children, and then listed the names of each child in the class.



By the end of his second letter to the class, he owned them, though she knew that wasn't what he was trying to do.



And by the end of his personal letter to her, he owned her too, though she knew that was silliness of the most shocking caliber, and that she needed to get a grip on herself. Julia had had some fun in college, but hadn't wanted to risk losing a teaching career by falling in love, so she ensured that she didn't date anybody long enough to get to know him well enough to fall in love. Now that she felt like a real teacher, part of her wanted to feel like a real woman too. To her, that meant having a man interested in her.



So she wrote him a letter just from herself. And he answered. And she wrote more, and he answered those too.



Not that SSG Hickory was overt in his comments to her. He just flirted on paper, saying things like he wished he was in second grade again, or asking if he was naughty, would she keep him after school. It was little, harmless things like that, but she felt them deep in her belly.



The class' third set of letters to him were all about Christmas wishes and holiday plans. The class voted and said their wish concerning him was for a photograph of him. Julia couldn't send him pictures of the children without their parents' consent, which she hadn't had time to organize yet. Instead, she sent him a photograph of herself. The only one she had handy was her graduation photo from college.



His third letter to them contained the photograph. It was of a smiling man, wearing sunglasses and Army clothes and a helmet. His rifle was slung in such a way that it could be seen, but was behind him, emphasizing it was a necessary tool, rather than something he wished to carry. There were vehicles in the background, and other soldiers. On the back of the picture were the words "Merry Christmas to all my kids" and it was sighed "Sergeant Bob."



Folded into his private letter to her was another photograph. He was sitting on his bunk in pants and a tight brown T shirt, holding up the children's letters in one hand, and hers in another. He was kissing her letters. On the back was written "Thanks for keeping me going." It was signed "Bob."



In subsequent letters the children wanted to know when he'd be leaving Iraq, and would he come see them, and would he go back. They'd heard sometimes soldiers had to go back. He said he didn't know for sure when he'd leave there, or get back to America, and that he'd be happy to visit them if he could.



In his private letter to her, he wrote: "I know I have no right to say this, but I'd love to meet you. I feel like I know you. I know that's not possible just through a few letters, but you've brightened so many of my days. And the kids! Wow, how lucky you are to have them every day. I can only hope I do get to see them some day though, to tell the truth, they'll be in third grade by the time I get back. They're talking about extending us again. I know you probably have a boyfriend, and have just been being nice to a poor lonely soldier, but I dream of actually getting to see you and talk to you. I hope that doesn't scare you. I'm harmless, really. If it bothers you just tell me to shut the fuck up (the words "the fuck" had been crossed out numerous times, but she could still detect them faintly) and I'll try to behave myself."



There had been more, bits and pieces about his day, and the fact that they were going on another mission later that day. He ended by saying he needed to get ready for that and get this letter in the mail. He said he hoped he'd get to write again soon.



That was the last letter she got from him. It was dated the eighteenth of November.



Her first clue that there might be a problem was when the packet of letters she sent him the next week was returned to her with the cryptic stamp across the address "RETURN TO SENDER. ADDRESSEE NO LONGER PRESENT IN UNIT". She didn't know what that meant, because it didn't make any sense.



She waited.



Weeks passed and she worried.



She had no idea where to go to ask questions. There was no Army post near Boonville. The closest was Fort Leonard Wood, which was hours away. She had a "eureka" moment when she was stopped in traffic and glanced to her right, where there was an Armed Forces Recruiting office. She pulled in and went in to talk to a man in dark green pants and a light green shirt who she disliked instantly because his eyes stripped her bare before he said a word. He continued to lust after her as she explained what she wanted. He said "Soldiers are deployed and redeployed regularly. It's hard telling where he is." She worked up the courage to ask if he might have been injured.



"Even if I could find out," he said, "which I can't, I wouldn't be authorized to talk to you about it."



"So you can't do anything for me at all," she said, unhappy.



"Maybe I could do some poking around and see what I can find out," he said. "Can you come back tonight?"






"Oh, around eight or nine. It will be quiet by then. I can stay late ... on my own time ... and maybe do some ... poking around." His eyes raked her body.



She looked at his left hand automatically ... not because she was interested. She saw the glint of gold on his ring finger.



"Wouldn't you rather be home with your wife?" she asked.



"Not necessarily," he said.



She was horrified that he expected her to be attracted to a man like him.



"Sure," she said, smiling. "See you tonight."



She left. She didn't intend to go back. He could wait all night. She hoped he did. She wasn't ever going back to that place. A fantasy wafted through her mind as she drove home. She could think of one way she'd return to the horny, cheating bastard. If she could find his wife, and the wife was watching when she went back, so she could see what her cheating bastard husband was trying to do ... Yes, she might go back then.




"Hey there."



He looked over at the doorway of the enclosure. He knew he was in a hospital, but that was about it. The woman standing there was plump and short.



"I'm Renee."



She was obviously waiting for him to tell her his name, but he was pretty sure she should already know that.



"Hi," he said.



He saw the relief in her eyes and she stepped closer. "What do you remember?"



He had to think about that for a while. He knew he was a soldier. He knew his name was Bob. Then he remembered he was the squad leader of third squad and memories started tumbling around in his head.



"Am I still in Iraq?"



"No," she said. "You were injured. I'll be right back."






She either didn't hear him, or ignored him, and disappeared. She was back, shortly, with an officer. Bob knew he was an officer, even though he was wearing blue/green scrubs. He could just tell.



The man was a doctor, Colonel something-or-other. Bob learned a little about what had happened to him while the doctor learned everything he needed to know about the state of mind of one Staff Sergeant Robert Hickory.



"I'm going to have you flown back to Walter Reed," he said. "I'm very happy with your condition."




Three days later Bob sat up in a bed in a ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He wasn't happy with his condition. He could still feel his foot, and it bothered the shit out of him. He had headaches that came and went for no reason. Part of his life was a complete mystery. He could remember mounting the Stryker, but everything after that, until he woke up in Landstuhl was a mystery. He ignored his aches and pains, for the most part, but the missing foot couldn't be ignored.



It wouldn't have been so bad except that nobody seemed to give a shit about him. Once he wasn't unconscious any more, he was warehoused in a ward with twenty-three other wounded warriors. For the most part the men were on their own. They went to chow at the prescribed time. Some of them went outside for walks. But they weren't allowed to leave the campus. It seemed like the only people who came to check on them now were the people making sure they hadn't gone AWOL.



They'd provided Bob with a wheel chair, but he wasn't used to it yet. He could get to chow, but the chair was configured to prop the short leg up, so the stump stuck out and was in jeopardy of running into just about everything. It hurt like a motherfucker when anything hit it, and several times he was left in tears.



He felt helpless, and useless and abandoned. Nobody from his unit had been to see him. He didn't even know what his fucking doctor's name was, or when his next appointment was, or even what his next appointment might be for.



A Red Cross volunteer came around, pushing a cart full of books. He chose three paperbacks. He was about twenty pages from completing the third one when his name was called from the entrance to the ward. At this point he didn't even care what it was for. At least he'd get to talk to somebody.



"Yo!" he called out, raising his hand.

Chapter Two


By March, 2009, Julia had enough experience with the Army to have learned that it wasn't a system that was user friendly. Her conviction that Bob was either injured or dead was like acid in her belly, though, and she couldn't let it rest until she knew which it was. She was rock solid sure that he hadn't just decided to stop writing.



She had tried everything she could think of, from contacting the public affairs office at Fort Leonard Wood, to going to the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter. In every case, once it was determined she had no official ties to the soldier in question, a stone wall was erected.



In complete frustration she had finally approached Ron Zelch, who had been teaching fourth grade at David Barton Elementary School for two decades. On the wall behind his desk were pictures of groups of men in uniform. She'd never paid any attention to them before, but now he was a potential source of advice.



"What can I do for you?" asked the man who was old enough to be her elderly father.



"Are you in any of those pictures?" she asked.



"Most of them," he said.



"I need your help."



When she explained it to him, he nodded.



"They have all these rules," he said. "But they aren't sure just what the rules actually say, and the safest thing is to say they can't help you."



"But all I want to do is find out if he's alive or dead," she moaned. "Surely that can't hurt anything."



"I agree," he said. "But it's easy to say 'no' so they do."



"How can I make it harder for them to say 'no?'" she asked.



He grinned. "That's easy. Just lie."




The lie they came up with was quite simple. They decided that Staff Sergeant Hickory had left some very valuable property in the custody of one Julia Miller, who was no longer able to maintain it and needed to return it to the soldier.



"Fine," said Julia. "But who will care?"



"Don't know yet," he said. "But we have nothing to lose, right?"



"I guess not," she said.



"First, though, I have to ask you questions," he said. “Lots of questions."



"All right," said Julia.




Lieutenant Colonel David Adkins stood, arms folded, as a sergeant strapped the prosthetic limb onto Bob's stump.



"The first fitting is almost always uncomfortable," said Adkins. "So expect that."



"Yes, sir," said Bob automatically.



"Don't let go of the rails, no matter how stable you feel," the officer went on. "Initially all we want to do is see how you compensate while standing. You haven't stood in quite a while."



Bob didn't tell them he'd been hopping back and forth to the latrine for weeks, tired of sitting in the chair all the time. He still took the chair outside, but inside the ward he almost never used it any more. He'd fallen a few times, but was good, now, at avoiding hitting anything with his stump. He still felt the phantom foot, but it wasn't so bad any more. He no longer had the urge to stand on it, for example.



The sergeant stood up. "Good to go," he said.



"All right," said LTC Adkins. "Grip the rails and try standing."



Bob made it look like he was straining. It would have been easy to pop up and try resting weight, finally, on his left leg. He didn't, though, because he was finally getting some attention and didn't want things to go in reverse. The sooner he could get a leg, the sooner he could get the fuck away from this place. They were talking about keeping him here six more months!



He let weight down on the prosthetic. There was pain, but only of an annoying kind. He couldn't help lifting his right foot off the mat, just to see what that felt like. He leaned and his hip hit the left rail of the parallel bars he was standing between.



"Careful," warned the office.



"It's not bad," said Bob. "I'm surprised, in fact."



"One thing the Army has is good prosthetics," said Adkins.



"I could get around on this," said Bob, taking a couple of hesitant, and very small steps.



"Oh this is nothing," said Adkins. "Your final leg will feel like you've always had it. You'll be able to run on it, maybe even play soccer if you don't overdo it.



"I don't think there's a lot of soccer in my future," said Bob.



"We'll see," said the colonel, leaning down to examine the interface between flesh and prosthetic.




"This is Sergeant First Class Valentine. How can I help you?"



"Is this casualty assistance?" asked Ron. “I need to talk to somebody in casualty assistance."



"I'm the Casualty Assistance NCOIC," said Valentine. "How can I help you?"



"It's not me. It's my niece. She's gone and got herself mixed up with a grunt and everything is fucked up, like usual when the Army's involved."



Valentine rolled his eyes. "What's the problem, sir?" he asked.



"First off, I want you to know who you're talking to," said Ron, his voice rough. "I'm Lance Corporal Ronald Zelch, service number 5663271, Bravo Company, Second of the first Infantry Regiment, United States Marine Corps. I ain't retired, because after two tours in Nam I got the fuck out. But I served my goddammed country, and I got two purple hearts to prove it."



"Thank you for your service, Lance Corporal," said Valentine, sitting up straight. Valentine was a history buff when it came to Viet Nam, and the unit this man had referenced had been through the thick of things. "How can I help you?"



"My niece got mixed up with a soldier, and he give her something to take care of for him until he got back from Iraq. Somethin' valuable. And now she ain't heard from him for months, and she's all worked up about it and she don't want no more to do with this thing he give her. She wants to give it back, but nobody will tell her where he is so she can do that."



Valentine rolled his eyes again. "What is this valuable thing, Lance Corporal?"



"It's a kid."



Valentine blinked. Then he smiled. This wasn't his problem at all.



"You've got the wrong office, Corporal," he said. "You need to get in touch with the family assistance office for the unit he's in.”



"Well, there's a problem with that," said Ron.



"What's that?" asked Valentine.



"When they was going together, she didn't want her parents to know about it, because she knew they'd raise a fuss, what with her being underaged and all that. And then, when she found out she was pregnant, he was about to deploy, so they got married on the sly and Uncle Sam don't know about it."



"Oh shit," groaned Valentine. Then "Sorry about that."



"I've heard worse," said Ron, grinning. "Anyway, she got some letters from him, but now they're being returned as no longer assigned. I kind of figured that meant he got wounded. At least I hope he only got wounded, because all hell is going to break loose when she turns up pregnant with no husband to produce because the Army won't tell her where he is."



"You mean the baby hasn't even been born yet?" asked Valentine. Nobody was more appealing to the media than a pregnant, grieving widow. If he could hand these people off to somebody else, and it blew up then, at least he wouldn't be involved.



"What do you have on this soldier?" asked Valentine. "Maybe I can do something for you."




Colonel William Bell leaned back in his chair and looked thoughtfully at SSG Hickory.



"Why are you so anxious to leave Walter Reed?" he asked.



"I think the question would be why is anybody anxious to stay?" replied Bob.



Bell ignored the comment. "According to what you've told me you have no family. You have nowhere to go, and no job lined up. Your enlistment goes for two more years, though I'm sure that will be waived by the medical board."



"Which will take another six to eight months, while I rot in that ward over there," said Bob.



"I understand you have only another month of rehab before they give you your final leg," said Bell. "At that point you'll be able to go on pass."



"For an evening, or maybe a weekend if I'm lucky," said Bob.



"Where would you go for a weekend?" asked the psychiatrist.



"Hell, I don't know," said Bob. "To a bar? I could sure go for a bottle of Scotch about now."



"A whole bottle?"



"Having a whole bottle doesn't mean you have to drink the whole bottle at once," said Bob.



"Alcohol abuse is not the answer to your problems, Sergeant Hickory."



"I wasn't aware I had any problems," said Bob. "Except being locked up here."



"You have anxiety issues," said the doctor, "as well as anger issues. You appear to be either living in a fantasy world or willing to become homeless just to leave this hospital."



"Why can't I go back to my unit?" asked Bob.



"Your unit is still deployed."



"All right then, I can go to the rear detachment."



"Which is fully staffed," said the doctor. "What would you do there?"



"Hell, I don't know. Go to the gym," said Bob, exasperated.



"We have gyms here," said the shrink.



"Stay with friends," said Bob.



"And their names are...?"



"You know I can't remember everything," moaned Bob. "That doesn't mean I'm helpless."



The psychiatrist looked at his watch. He had three more patients to see and then he could go meet Major Jenkins for handball. Major Jenkins was forty-one, in an unhappy marriage, and in need of some appreciation. Bell had been working on giving her the kind of attention he thought would make her flower, and he wanted to get to that. He wanted to pick that flower when she bloomed.



"What I know, Sergeant, is that you're not ready to leave Walter Reed quite yet," said Bell.




"Hell, Corporal, you haven't lost your edge, I'll tell you that," said SFC Valentine. "Even without the social you gave me enough to find him easily. He was put on an evac to Walter Reed in late November. He's still there in the med hold unit."



"You got a mailing address?" asked Ron.



Valentine spilled it off.



"I don't suppose by any chance you got the name of the CO," said Ron.



"Can't help you there," said Valentine. "It doesn't list commanders' names. I got a phone number for the CQ (Charge of Quarters) desk, though."



"Let me have that," said Ron. He wrote it down. "Thanks, Sarge. For a grunt you've been an all right guy."



"I try to help out my jarhead friends whenever I can," said Valentine expansively. "Good luck to your niece. She's probably gonna need it. He should have told his unit he got married."



"I know, I know. Youth is stupid," said Ron.



"Hooah!" said Valentine.



"Semper Fi," said Ron, and hung up.



He turned to Julia, who was almost dancing with impatience.



"I got you an address," he said, grinning widely.




Bob gave a shot at joining a pickup game of basketball. Under normal circumstances he'd have been laughed off the court, but these weren't normal circumstances. Four of the players only had one arm. One was playing with two stumps where his wrists should have been. There was another man who had a prosthesis affixed to his thigh. Like Bob, he had the running adaptor attached. The running adaptor looked a little like a big J, fashioned from what acted like spring steel, but was actually a carbon fiber based material that was stronger than steel. The flex of the lower part of the J created spring and, with a little practice, a man could run on the adapter, using the spring to compensate for what the missing foot, ankle and calf could no longer do. It worked well for running. Basketball, however, called for the use of slightly different muscle groups, or at least muscle groups used in different ways.



To put it plainly, it was very awkward, and both men fell down a lot.



Nobody laughed. Instead, they were approached by someone - not infrequently a one-armed man - and helped back up.



Eventually the game devolved into a game of H.O.R.S.E.




Julia looked at the letter she'd just written. She hadn't told the children yet that she'd found their soldier. She'd held them off for months by telling them he was on a secret mission, and couldn't break cover to write back to them. It was all she could think of, initially, and now she was stuck with it. If she told them he was in America, they'd want to write to him and expect him to write back.



And that was the problem. He was in America ... and hadn't written.



Her brain told her that meant he wasn't really interested. Her heart couldn't buy that. But she couldn't think of any reason why he wouldn't write, unless he was horribly injured and couldn't write. Ron hadn't wanted to push things with the man he'd talked to on the phone. He said they'd been lucky enough as it was, and that he wanted to stay under the radar of official notice.




Things would have gone a lot calmer had Julia just called WRAMC, which has an office called SFAC, or the Soldier Family Assistance Center. They would have told her Bob was recuperating and doing well, though that's about as much detail as they'd have given someone who wasn't a family member.



It's important to understand that the term "family member" doesn't mean, to the U.S. Army, what it means to most of us. To most of us Uncle Frank is a family member. But the Army can't accept something so simple. Instead, the Army has a form, called a DD Form 93, Emergency Data Card, on which the service member lists "family members." The form is used to identify those family members the service member wants notified if anything happens. The form is supposed to be updated yearly at a minimum, and prior to every deployment.



On SSG Robert C. Hickory's DD Form 93, only one name was listed: Claudia Strangline, identified as his next of kin and sister. There was a phone number and address on the card, written in pencil, which is the only writing tool authorized to be used for that purpose on DD Form 93. Pencil is also used to record the date of the last update. To this particular DD Form 93 was attached by paper clip a DD Form 106-A, telephone contact log showing the times and dates attempts had been made to notify Claudia Strangline of her brother's status. None of the attempts had been successful, and the last one was noted "number no longer in service."



So, if Julia would have called, and identified herself as herself, someone in the SFAC would have checked SSG Hickory's DD Form 93 and determined that Julia could be told only that he was recuperating, and what address she could mail him a letter at.



But she didn't call. She wasn't aware the SFAC existed. She wasn't aware that DD Form 93 existed. She was just concerned about the man she unconsciously thought of as her boyfriend, even though she'd never met him in person.



So, during Spring Break, instead of working in her classroom, Julia got in her car and drove sixteen hours straight to Washington D.C. Using a Google Map, she found Walter Reed Army Medical Center, an immense facility comprised of dozens of buildings, all of which have names that tell the observer nothing whatsoever about what goes on inside them.



For lack of a better plan, Julia simply went into the first building she could find a parking space next to and, having adopted Ron Zelch's technique, said "I'm looking for my husband. Can you help me?"




Bob walked now with only a slight limp. With pants on that covered the prosthesis, the casual observer might think he'd sprained an ankle, and was favoring it a bit.



He approached room 395B in building 1, Administrative Services Support Division. There was a small placard that protruded from the wall above the door. On both sides of the plastic card were the words "Records Management." He checked the note in his hand. This was the room he'd been told to report to. The name "Benson" was also on the note. It had taken him almost an hour to find the office, which was, perhaps, three hundred yards from where he started out.



Entering the room he reported to a PFC dressed in desert camouflage, seated behind a steel and plastic desk. For perhaps the thousandth time, he wondered why the Army wasted combat uniforms by putting them on soldiers who were not in combat. He asked for "Benson."



The PFC routed him to a desk where a civilian motioned for him to have a seat beside someone else while she continued helping the person actually sitting at her desk. He dozed while two other soldiers were processed. He could tell it was a records update by watching what they did. He'd done it dozens of times himself.



Finally it was his turn. He told the woman his name and she extracted a file from a basket to the right of her desk. She opened the file and pulled out a card that was off yellow and about 3"X6" in size. She laid it in front of Hickory.



"We need you to update your DD 93. When we tried to contact your sister to notify her of your change in status, we couldn't reach her. We need her current phone number. And her address, if that's changed too."



Bob stared at the card. He picked it up and peered at his own handwriting. He looked up at Mrs. Benson.



"I have a sister?"




Julia just happened to park outside the DCI, or Department of Clinical Investigation, which is a research facility at WRAMC and does not actually treat patients. Oddly, everyone at WRAMC who does not treat patients, is vitally concerned with the welfare of patients and the happiness and satisfaction of family members.



Those who do treat patients are so overworked they don't care about much of anything anymore.



So the first people Julia interacted with at WRAMC were eager to help. They were not used to using the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that the treatment side of the house used, involving HIPAA, consent forms, protocols, and dozens of other rules and obstacles to progress. Not in terms of letting a poor distraught wife find her husband, anyway. They had their own rules for research and dissemination of information. But that's another story.



Mrs. Edith Johnson, who had worked in the office of procurement for DCI for twenty-one years, and who was returning to that office from the cafeteria with a latte, was the first person Julia ran into. And Edith Johnson, who felt like she was a very small cog in a very large gear of a huge machine that, as far as she could tell, existed solely to feed tax dollars into a black hole every day, was finally given a chance to do something for someone.



In twenty-one years Edith had learned a lot about how things worked at WRAMC. She knew about the Soldier Family Assistance Center, and proceeded to try to explain to Julia how to get there.



The emotions that had fueled Julia's frantic search for, and travel to Bob, drained away and suddenly Julia aware that she was impersonating a soldier's wife and was actually at "the Army" she had battled with for so long. And the Army had always won before. She was filled with despair.



Edith saw the despair in the young woman's eyes. She saw the tears filling those eyes. She sensed the breakdown that was about to occur. This poor girl didn't know where her husband was, or what his status was. The Army had failed her!



Edith resolved not to fail this woman.



"Come with me dear," she said soothingly. "We'll find your husband. I'll get you to him. I promise you."



Despair was pushed aside by hope. Could this possibly work? She just knew if she could only get to Bob that he'd explain everything. All she wanted was a few minutes with him, to make sure he was all right, and to tell him that the children were worried about him. Or would be if they knew he was injured. Her brain hurt, and she followed the woman into an office.



Edith shortcut the system by logging in to a database used for accounting and cost analysis. Each soldier who was quartered at WRAMC represented a list of expenditures. There was lodging, meals, clothing and associated support supplies. Every item used in treatment was carefully accounted for with an ID number that went to a patient. More money was spent tracking sponges used in surgery than the sponges themselves cost.



Edith reverted to her professional self, who knew what to do.



"What's your husband's social?" she asked.



Julia blinked. She was caught on the very first question! Tears welled up in her eyes as despair rushed back in.



"I don't know," she sobbed.



Edith saw the breakdown creeping closer. Her heart went out to this young woman.



"It's all right. The stress is too much. Of course you can't remember everything," she said. "Don't worry, we'll find him. What's his name?"



"Robert Calhoun Hickory!" gasped Julia, overjoyed to be able to answer a question correctly.



Edith clicked keys. Her hand darted to her mouse, moved it, clicked twice, moved it again, clicked once, and then she typed some more.



"Got him!" she said, elated. She reached for a pad and wrote down a nine digit number. "Here's his social, so you don't have to try to remember it, dear." She beamed as Julia took the post it note and stared at it.



"What do I do now?" asked Julia, suddenly weary. She'd driven sixteen hours straight through, and was at the end of her energy reserves.



Edith looked around. Nobody was watching. Nobody was ever watching.



"I'll take you where you need to go," she whispered.


Chapter Three



"I don't know ... do you have a sister?" Mrs. Benson asked Bob.



"I don't remember," he said. His hand went automatically to his head, where one of the holes drilled in his skull had left a small, eraser sized bald patch.



Benson flipped to another page.



"Ahhh," she said. "You're a traumatic brain injury patient. That explains it. You're just having memory problems."



"I guess so. You'd think I'd remember my own sister, though."



"Well that's your handwriting, right?" she asked pointing at Claudia's name.



"Yes," he said.



"And you wrote the date right there, right?" She pointed to the date of the last update, which was just before his deployment to Iraq.



"Yup," he said.



"Then you have a sister," she said, smiling. "But her phone number is no longer in service, according to the call log. Maybe she moved after you deployed. Or at least changed her phone number."



"Obviously," he said.



"Well, we can't do anything now. Do you have any correspondence from your sister? Something that might have her address on it?"



"If I had correspondence from my sister, I'd know I had a sister," he pointed out.



"Oh. Yes." She flushed with embarrassment.



"Maybe your unit has something. Why don't you contact them, and if they have something then you can come back and we'll get this squared away."



"Sure," he said.



"And you should probably check with the Soldier Family Assistance Center. She may have tried to contact you through them. But if what she told them didn't match what was on the DD 93 they wouldn't have told her anything. They're sticklers about privacy these days, especially when it comes to wounded warriors."



"Okay," said Bob.



"Next!" she called, looking past him.




"I'm taking you to the Soldier Family Assistance Center," said Edith. "They'll get you with your man."



"I don't know how to thank you," sighed Julia. "This has been so difficult!"



"You poor dear," cooed Edith. "Don't worry. Everything will be all right now."



She stopped the car and Julia got out.



"Just go in those doors there and tell them his name and social," said Edith.



As she drove away, Edith Johnson felt proud for the first time in a long time.




The members of the SFAC were handpicked for their cheery, unflappable composure. This is because family members often seem like they are punishment from hell, foisted on people just trying to do their jobs. Nothing is ever good enough, fast enough or cheap enough to satisfy a grieving family member. All family members believe their soldier should be at the front of every line.



So when a tired, bedraggled and confused Julia walked into the SFAC and was approached by only the second smiling person Julia had seen all day, she smiled tiredly back.



"You're looking for a family member?" asked Specialist Four Denise Throckmorton.



"Yes," sighed Julia, and she held out the post it note with Bob's name and social written on it.




Having nothing better to do, and it being a nice day, Bob walked over to Randolph Hall, where the Soldier Family Assistance Center was located. Along the way he tried to think about his sister. Initially all he got was a big blank in his mind. His parents had died early in his Army career, and he remembered the pain of that. But thinking "sister" didn't produce anything at all.



He sat on a bench in the sunshine. It was chilly, but not bad enough to worry about. The woman had mentioned letters. He closed his eyes and thought about mail call in Iraq.



An image popped into his mind ... a pretty young woman in cap and gown. She was smiling ... happy. He felt a tug from his heart, and made assumptions based on that yearning to see this woman.



He got up and went on toward Randolph Hall.




"Do you have your travel orders?" asked SPC Throckmorton.



"Travel orders?" Julia was confused.



"You should have been sent travel orders," said Throckmorton, calmly.



"I just came," said Julia, helplessly.



"Can I see your ID?" asked Throckmorton gently.



Julia looked behind her.



"It's in my purse ... in my car." She pointed back towards where she had parked, which was now half a mile away. "It's over there somewhere."



"I need some kind of ID so I can straighten all this out," said SPC Throckmorton. "But I promise you I can straighten this all out."



Julia didn't think she had the strength to go back and find the car and get her purse. And in any case, she didn't have an ID that would match what the Army had on file for his sister. And since that was what was being required, it looked like her quest was doomed to failure after all. She felt suddenly weak in the knees and swayed.



"I just found out he was hurt." She sagged helplessly. "I don't know how badly. I just wanted to see him." Tears welled up in her eyes. "Can I sit down somewhere? I'm so tired. I drove all the way from Missouri without stopping."



It was obvious to SPC Throckmorton that the woman was on her last legs, and might collapse at any moment. She took the woman's elbow and led her to a line of upholstered chairs, letting her sink into one. Throckmorton reached for the supply of tissues she kept in one pocket and offered one to Julia.



"I know this is hard for you," she said, soothingly. "I'll try to cut through the red tape. Can you give me a minute?"



Julia nodded, dabbing at her eyes. She thought about leaving while the woman was gone. She didn't want to leave. She had come so far, and all she wanted was just a glimpse of him, to know he was all right ... to be able to tell him they were thinking about him.



She glanced at the door. A tall young man was coming in, limping slightly. He looked familiar. Adrenaline surged through her body, instantly giving her energy. She shot to her feet.



"BOB?" she screamed.



Specialist Throckmorton whipped around and saw her customer standing, mouth agape, frozen, staring at a wounded warrior coming through the doors. The soldier looked at the woman.



"Sis?" he said, his eyes widening.




The "reunion" was touching in a way that made Denise Throckmorton want to burst into happy tears. The distraught young woman ran and flung herself at the tall soldier who, Denise noticed with a semi-professional eye, compensated nicely on what she recognized as a prosthetic leg of some kind. He swayed, but his arms wrapped around the distraught girl and picked her up off the floor, where his instincts could control her additional weight better.



"Oh, Bob!" she wailed, hugging him fiercely. "I was so worried! I was afraid you were dead!"



SPC Throckmorton snapped back onto professional mode, wiping her eyes with her knuckles. "Dead" was an unhappy word in this place, and nobody wanted it bandied about. The reunion was touching, but it needed to be moved to a more private setting. She approached the couple.



"This is your sister?" she said, by way of intruding. She smiled.



"Yeah," said Bob, looking a little shell shocked.



"You got your ID on you?" asked Throckmorton.



"Sure," said Bob, and he extracted his billfold. Julia was still wrapped around him, holding him and sobbing, her legs fastened firmly around his upper thighs. He let go of her and opened his wallet to extract his military ID card.



Throckmorton glanced at the post it note and saw that everything matched. "What's her name?" she asked, knowing it was useless to try to question the crying girl.



"Claudia," said Bob, remembering the name on his DD Form 93. "Claudia Strangline. She moved since I filled out my 93 card and they couldn't find her. I was coming here to see if you'd heard from her or not."



"I'm happy to say we've heard from her," said Denise, smiling widely. "Let me get her squared away. She's dead on her feet." She winced at her own used of the taboo word.



"No problem," said Bob, and put his arms back around his sister.



She turned her tear streaked face up to him. "Are you all right?" she asked in a high pitched voice.



"I am now," he said, squeezing her. "I have a traumatic brain injury, and I forgot I had a sister. But I'm getting better."



Julia's mind whirled. Any port in a storm, they say, and she seized the floatation device that was offered.



"Yes! I'm your sister!"



"They tried to notify you when I got injured, but I guess you moved or something, because they couldn't find you at the address on my emergency notification card."



Again she went with the first thing that came to her, based on the last time she had moved.



"I graduated and got a job teaching," she said, breathlessly, staring up into his eyes. She couldn't believe he was right there, in her arms!



"That explains it," he said. "Here she comes."



Specialist Throckmorton approached, smiling.



"I pulled some strings. She's so tired we need to get her somewhere she can rest and you two can catch up. We'll do the paperwork later. I've gotten her a room at one of the Fisher houses. You can stay there with her while she's here. I've already notified your chain of command."



"That's wonderful," said Bob, eager to get out of the barracks, even if only for a few days. And his sister had a car. Didn't she?



"Do you have a car?" he asked.



She waved a hand. "Over there somewhere," she said. She wanted to reinforce the idea that she was on her last legs. "I had to park it way over there somewhere."



"We'll find it," he said, squeezing her.



Throckmorton handed him a set of orders. "Promise me you'll get back with me in a day or two," she said. "I need to get her situation squared away so all the tees are crossed."



"No problem," said Bob. "Can we go now?"



"Have a good time. I got her in for five days to start with. We can extend it later when we get the paperwork done."



"Hoo-rah," said Bob. "Let's go, Claudia." He pushed her away from him, but held her shoulders. "Is that what I call you? Claudia? Or do I have a nickname for you?"



"Call me anything you want," she sighed, and leaned back in to hug him again.



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