Poke didn't usually read magazines. He thought they were superficial and a waste of time. Gina didn't share that opinion and sometimes, she put an article on his side of the bed when she came across something she thought might interest him. Of course he read it then. At first it had only been to make her feel appreciated, but over time he'd had to admit that she was excellent at finding articles that actually really interested him. It was probably because Gina didn't read women's magazines about fashion and make-up. No, she was into the heavy stuff, everything from science and history to anthropology. Magazines full of knowledge and big words.
This time, however, Poke was certain it had been the photo that had attracted her attention. It was in the middle of the newest National Geographic and spread over two pages below the article's title Welcome to Bravo Company. It showed a courtyard and beyond it a jungle of trees. The architecture as well as the plants told Poke that the place was somewhere in a subtropical climate. A group of about fifteen children had gathered at the back of the courtyard for the picture, smiling and waving into the camera. And right there, in the middle of the children, stood Doc Bryan and Ray, carrying the obviously youngest two children in their arms.
Poke stared at the photo for a whole minute with his mouth hanging open before he managed to scan the introduction at the bottom of the page. It was followed by a smaller picture showing the front of the building, the wooden doors wide open and leading into the courtyard.
On a sign above the entrance, the words 'Bravo Company Orphanage' are written in all colours of the rainbow, surrounded by flowers, stars and animals that were obviously painted by children. The orphanage in Mutur in Sri Lanka currently is the home of seventeen children between the age four and sixteen years who are placed under the care of the former US Navy Corpsman Timothy Bryan and former US Marine Ray Person.
Just to be sure he hadn't misread anything, Poke skimmed the introduction again. But the names were still there, in black and white, no mistake possible. Poke had serious problems wrapping his mind around the idea, he couldn't quite believe what the introduction hinted at. Doc Bryan and Ray Person running an orphanage in Sri Lanka? That seemed like a bad joke. Okay, so he could imagine the Doc doing that kind of stuff, but Ray? He wasn't the kind of person you'd trust with a child. He was too much of a child himself.
Poke shook his head in stunned amazement. He hadn't managed to maintain contact with all of the Bravo boys over the past eight years, but he still wrote with some of them. Brad, mostly, and Rudy and Pappy. He'd lost touch with Ray at some point and he'd never written much with Doc Bryan. Still, he would have expected to hear from Brad about something like that. Two white men running an orphanage in South Asia? Poke snorted in disbelief and thumbed through the article. It was sixteen pages long with a lot of pictures to go with the text, mostly of the kids of the orphanage and some shots of the buildings. Poke went back to the beginning and began to read, the frown on his face a mixture of sceptic and curious. There was a description of the orphanage with a map, some pictures and some information about its history and its current situation. Afterwards the author presented Doc Bryan and Ray, giving a short summary of their professional background, including OIF and what they'd done after they'd left the service.
Bryan and Person took over the orphanage in Mutur, a little town 25 kilometres south of Trincomalee, in 2005, shortly after the catastrophe of the Indian Ocean tsunami. 'We were part of the emergency rescue and relief groups that arrived in Trincomalee two days after the tsunami. I was with the Médecins Sans Frontières at the time and Ray had volunteered as technical support.' Bryan explains. 'We were stationed in Trincomalee at first, but then the team under my command split from the main group and moved south to Mutur. The town lay in ruins when we came, there was no drinking water, no medical care at all and most of the houses were destroyed. There were bodies everywhere in the streets, rotting in the heat and the humidity.'
Poke's frown deepened. He'd never known that Doc and Ray had continued working together after they'd left the service. He hadn't known they'd gone to the disaster area in the aftermath of the tsunami, either. Seemed that there was a lot he'd missed after they'd lost contact. He wondered if Brad knew all of this, then he pushed the thought aside and continued reading.
'We set up medical tents, got people out of the debris, buried the dead, tried to keep diseases from spreading due to the bad hygiene. It stank like hell.' Person tells. 'Somehow we got sucked in the course of the events. The headmaster of the orphanage had been killed along with some of the kids and the teachers. The children were on their own when we arrived, and there was nobody who could take over. We found ourselves in charge of the orphanage before we had time to realise it. Things had to be done and at that point, it didn't matter who got them done.'
Poke smirked grimly. Yeah, Marines make do. Once a Marine, always a Marine. No matter how bad the situation, he didn't doubt that Ray and the Doc had made do with whatever they'd found. He read over the next part where the author of the article gave some basic information about the events of late 2004 and early 2005 and the effects the tsunami had had on Sri Lanka. It focussed on the impact on the population, especially the children, and Poke felt a shiver run down his spine. He never even wanted to imagine his girls going through something like that.
'You can't imagine what it was like if you haven't experienced it. I've been in several war zones, I've seen things I won't ever forget, but this was worse than anything I have ever seen. You don't just turn and leave that behind. Not if you can do something to help, especially when it concerns children.' The Doc's words rang true to Poke. In his mind he could hear the corpsman say them in this raw voice he always got when he talked about really fucked-up things. 'We had a lot more kids in the orphanage in the first few months, up to sixty girls and boys that were without any kind of family or guardian. Fortunately we managed to find relatives for most of them – parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts or whoever else was still alive.'
When asked why he and Bryan are still there, over six years after the tsunami, Person shrugs. 'When the other members of the emergency relief groups retreated a few weeks after the tsunami, we could hardly leave the kids just because the official mission was over. There was still nobody responsible for them. And when about half a year later there was a possible new headmistress for the orphanage, we didn't want to leave anymore. By then, they already were our kids, and you never leave family behind.'
Poke stopped reading and skimmed over the last few lines again. That didn't sound like the Ray he'd known in the Marines. There was a maturity to him that was new, but then Poke admitted that he hadn't seen Ray in years. It was just that Poke had always suspected that Ray was one of those people who never grew up and who managed to still be a child when they were in their fifties.
When asked why the orphanage is called 'Bravo Company', Person grins. 'Not all families are based on blood relationship.' he says. 'My time with Bravo Company taught me that. Our kids should learn the same thing. They may not have any blood relatives left, but that doesn't mean that they're alone or that they don't have a family.'
Poke smiled when he read that paragraph. He knew what Ray was talking about. Although there had been much bullshit coming from command, the team spirit among the Marines had been very strong. It was just like family – sometimes you hated them with passion and wanted to skin them alive, but you always had their backs when it mattered. Ray's statement was followed by a long part with descriptions of each of the seventeen children, their story and how they'd come to Bravo Company. The older ones were interviewed on their life in the orphanage and what they wanted to do in the future, and Poke was stunned by how positive and confident they were. It spoke of the strong support they'd found in their makeshift family at Bravo Company.
Madona is one of the oldest children in the orphanage with her sixteen years. She has lost her whole family in the Indian Ocean tsunami when she was ten years old and has been living in the Bravo Company Orphanage ever since. She is a silent girl who takes care of the other children. When asked what she wants to do after school, she doesn't hesitate a moment. 'I want to become a doctor.' she says. 'And then I want to help others, just like Doc and Ray did when they came here. We've talked about it a lot and they encourage me to go to the Eastern University of Sri Lanka once I finish school. The Faculty of Health-Care Science is situated in Trincomalee, so I could stay at Bravo and avoid high living coasts.'
Poke couldn't help smiling when he read the paragraph. He remembered how Doc Bryan had once told him that it was all about making a difference, and right there, in the words of that young girl, Poke could see that the Doc had been right. They'd made a difference for her, probably for all the children in the orphanage. There was another paragraph about the oldest boy at Bravo who wanted to join the Sri Lanka Navy and travel the world. Poke grinned. Another piece of evidence for Doc's and Ray's influence.
What hit Poke most, though, was the picture on the last page of the article. It had obviously been taken while nobody had paid attention to the photographer. It showed Ray with a little girl of maybe five or six years in his arms, both of them laughing at something. Ray's hair was distinctly longer than it had been in his time with the Marines, and the girl's little hand was fisted in the long strands. Ray held the girl with natural ease as if he'd done it his entire life. Right next to them stood Doc Bryan, one of his hands resting on the girl's back, the other on the small of Ray's back in a subtle but unmistakably possessive gesture. His eyes were focussed on Ray and on his face was a rare smile, soft and caring in a way Poke had never seen before.
They looked happy.
Suddenly something caught Poke's attention and he frowned. He thumbed back to the beginning of the article, then he scanned every picture. Ray was wearing the Doc's bandana in every single shot, sometimes loosely around his neck, sometimes on his head like Doc had always done, sometimes wrapped around his wrist. The clothes changed in the pictures which told Poke they'd been taken on different days, yet Ray was never without the camo bandana. What finally drove the point home was the t-shirt Ray wore in that last picture. It had been part of their uniform in Iraq, now it was old and worn. The letters next to the logo said 'BRYAN'.
Poke stared at it for a long moment. Ray and Doc Bryan. A couple.
He read over the article again, his focus different now, and he wondered how he could have not seen it when he'd read the article the first time. Poke stared at the last photo again, at the hand on the small of Ray's back, at the bandana on his wrist, at the expression on Doc Bryan's face, at the laughing girl in Ray's arms. It was a moment caught in a photo. A family picture. The same kind he had with Gina and the girls. Poke swallowed at the sudden realisation that Doc Bryan and Ray must have been together for years. It was subtle, nothing obvious, but it was there nonetheless. The familiarity, the trust, the closeness.
Poke stared at the picture a little longer, then he caught sight of a bright yellow post-it note at the end of the article. It was stuck next to an address where to make donations to the orphanage, and Gina had scribbled 'How much should we give?' on the note. Poke looked at it for a moment, then he smirked and got a red marker to circle the address. A few minutes later he sat at his computer and scanned the whole article. He had a look at the address book of his mailbox and then send an email with the article to everybody from Bravo Company that he found contact data for. He wrote a few lines in the email, pointing out the address at the end of the article and making a not so subtle hint that Bravo Company seemed to have grown by seventeen members.
Poke was sure there was going to be a surprising increase in donations for the Bravo Company Orphanage within the next few days.