Being a Marine had always been my dream. Even when I was a little boy. My dad had never served, and he only shook his head at my enthusiastic love for everything military.
“Benjamin Peter Hill,” he used to say, shaking his head, “you're a dreamer.”
I wasn't the tallest or strongest boy when I grew up, in fact I was small and frail and nerdy, and the military seemed to be the most unsuitable occupation for me. That was, until I turned seventeen and suddenly I gained fifteen inches and began to work out. Two years later, when I joined the Corps, nobody doubted that I belonged there. Training was hard, far harder than I had expected, but I made it through in one piece, even if not entirely unharmed. I think even my dad was proud when he and my mum came to my graduation.
Real life caught up with me when my battalion was chosen to be deployed to Afghanistan. We were just another small cog in the big machinery of a war that had been going on for over two decades, and I knew how dangerous it was, how high the chances were to get injured or to die. Things had deteriorated over the past years and the conflict was escalating with every day that passed. I didn't mind the risks, though, it was what I had signed up for, after all. When we started special training for our mission, the three Navy corpsmen who were to serve with us on this tour were introduced, and that was how I first met Eloise Beth Person.
The sun was unbearably hot and the wind was so warm that it offered no relief at all when we had taken formation on the training ground in Pendleton. Lieutenant Colonel Lewis presented the three Navy corpsmen by name before he ordered them to take their position within our ranks. I couldn't help noticing the woman that took the lead of the three corpsmen, and I was sure I wasn't the only one who stared at her. Never mind her combat uniform, she seemed to be your cliché female, really small and petite and with a thick bun of brown hair that matched her huge brown eyes. Her face could never have been mistaken for a man's, no matter her attire, it was too small and delicate, her mouth too full and her eyes too beautiful. My first thought was 'how the fuck is that tiny thing going to survive training with us, never mind a real deployment?'
I didn't wonder for long. It didn't even take a day to establish that Doc Person could not only hold her own, she also didn't take any bullshit from us. She might have been small, but she had a mouth that made even the most hardened Marine blush, and she could rant you into the ground if you came on to her. That she had the guts, the skill and the strength to back up her big mouth was proven by the third day, when she had to take on Ryan in a training fight. Ryan was about a foot taller than her and must have weighed more than her double, yet she managed to take him down and choke him until he hit the ground three times in surrender. After that, we were more careful around her. Nobody made any comments about her admittedly nice rear anymore when there was even the slightest chance of her hearing it.
The rumour mill said that Doc Person had already done two tours in Afghanistan, which was at least one tour more than most of us. Once we deployed, it became obvious that there had to be some truth to the rumours, because despite her unruly mouth, Doc Person had a calm around her that was kind of reassuring to us. She never lost her head, and she was one of the most effective warriors in our platoon. The boys liked her, especially because she was fun to be with. Her rather dirty sense of humour was a real pleasure, as was her quick smile and her incredible rants.
“You've got one of the biggest mouths I've ever encountered.” Ryan told her one night when we were digging our ranger graves.
“Got that from my Daddy, I was told.” She said with a huge grin, obviously not offended at all.
We just laughed and continued digging. Nobody had managed to offend her yet. She always had a nasty reply when somebody tried.
Since Doc Person was on my team, I spent quite some time with her. She was easy to get along with, but I noticed that while she talked a lot, I didn't really know anything about her. She knew my whole life story, and I didn't even know where she came from. So when I was crouched down next to her one afternoon, staking out a hamlet that we suspected served as a weapon stash, I decided to just ask her a few questions and see if she answered.
“How long have you been in the Navy, Doc?”
“Since I was nineteen.” she replied without looking away from our objective.
“What made you join?” I was honestly curious. I could just as well imagine her in college, studying medicine or even law, earning way more money that she ever would in the forces. It was obvious that she didn't come from poor parents and that she probably could have chosen an entirely less risky life style.
“My Dad is a corpsman.” She said and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her smile. “He taught me a lot about medicine and first aid when I grew up. I knew I wanted to become a corpsman like him even before I was ten.”
“Wow, that's an early calling, Ellie Beth.” I said teasingly and grinned.
“Don't, Ben.” She turned to glared at me, and wow, that was a damn scary glare for a 5'2” midget.
“Why are you so touchy about that?” I asked and forced myself not to show that I was actually kind of nervous. I knew she could hurt me if she really wanted to.
“Only my parents call me that.” She had a dark frown on her face and for once she looked entirely serious. “You have no right to use that name. You can call me El if you have to, but don't ever call me Ellie Beth.”
“Okay, okay.” I raised the hand that wasn't on the trigger in a soothing way. All right, maybe more it was more appeasing and maybe I was kind of backpaddling, but don't tell the boys that. She was scary like this, all calm and dangerous and intense. You didn't mess with Doc Person, everybody knew that.
“I didn't mean to offend you.” I added after a few minutes of silence. She didn't say anything, but I saw her give a nod, and I was relieved to be forgiven.
I didn't ask anything else that day, but I hadn't given up on finding out more about our personal badass worrior corpsman. El – and yes, I did call her that after that incident – didn't exactly open up, but she told me bits and pieces when I asked her something. I offered things about me and my family in return, and we shared funny, ridiculous and embarrassing stories and had a good laugh more than once. I learned that El had lived all over the US and even abroad when she grew up due to her dad being in the Navy, and that she loved to travel and couldn't stay in one place for a longer period of time without getting antsy. Her life had been the complete opposite of mine. I'd grown up in a little town near Boston and my parents had never once moved since we children had been born. My dad was a high school teacher, my mum worked as an accountant in the local hardware store. You couldn't be more normal than that, and as a child, I had often craved adventure. I wanted to move far away, wanted to travel around the world and discover other countries. Everything El had done growing up.
I began to know her better, yet it still took me almost four months to understand that 'Dad' and 'Daddy' weren't the same person. It hit me when we sat together, eating our MREs, and she told me that her daddy had found a job as a radio announcer when they'd been stationed in Portsmouth and that he had got his own show after only two months. She'd been eleven at the time, she said, and she'd been so proud of her daddy being all famous.
“I thought he was in the Navy.” I said bewildered and confused.
She was quiet for a moment, then she laughed. “No, that's my Dad. My Daddy was a Marine when he was about my age, but he quit when I was born.”
I must have looked even more confused and she took pity on me after a moment.
“I don't have a mum, Ben. I was raised by my Daddy and my Dad.” El paused, then she grinned mischievously. “Oh, and Uncle Brad, Uncle Nate and the rest of Bravo company.”
“Uncle Brad?” I was still slightly confused, but I suddenly understood what she was telling me.
“Yeah, Brad Colbert. He's Daddy's best friend and when he's on leave, he usually comes over to our place.”
“He's in the forces, too?”
“Yip. Marine, like my Daddy. That's how they met, were in Afghanistan and Iraq together.”
Suddenly, another thing hit me. “Wait, the Brad Colbert? Master Gunnery Sergeant Brad Colbert? The Iceman?”
She just nodded, her grin even more mischievous than before. I got the impression that she immensely enjoyed shocking me.
“If Brad Colbert is your uncle... Don't tell me that 'Uncle Nate' is Nate Fick the Senator, his husband.” I added after a moment, making the connection only now. She nodded again, and I could only stare at her, seriously impressed with her family. “Wow, you really have a family history of service in the forces, don't you?”
She laughed open and honest, and I was taken by surprise how young it made her look. “Yeah, you could say that.”
“It explains a lot.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”
“Like why you're able to kick our asses from here to Pendleton and back although you're as tiny as a midget.” I grinned. “You have a natural advantage with all those high-profile military men raising you. I mean, the Icemen as uncle. That's pretty cool.”
She smirked. “He's a cuddly teddy bear, really.”
I snorted. “Like I'm going to believe that. He could tear me apart with just one look.”
“True enough, he could.” El agreed with a chuckle and lay back in her ranger grave. I just stared at her, still trying to come to terms with what I had just learned.
“Nobody else in the platoon knows, do they?” I asked after a while, because let's be honest, Marines are the worst chatterboxes in existence, and I had never heard a word about this.
“No, they don't.” She looked at me, her gaze serious. “And I'd like to keep it that way.”
I just nodded. “No problem, El. My lips are sealed.”
She held my gaze for a long time until I began to feel uneasy. “I know.”
I wondered if it was an acknowledgement that she believed me or if it was a threat. Maybe a bit of both. I just knew that I certainly wouldn't spread what I'd learned today.
We saw some serious action in the weeks that followed and I didn't have the time to think about anything but survival. We lost several men and some were injured and I couldn't hide the relief when we were finally pulled off the line. We all were exhausted and it showed in the haggard faces and the tired eyes. It took another two weeks before we left Afghanistan to return stateside. In the last hour of the flight to Pendleton, the energy that had long left us returned at the prospect of seeing our loved ones.
I couldn't wait to see Claire, my girlfriend, and my parents, to hug them close and reassure myself that I was back home. They'd written that they had made the long journey from the East Coast to Pendleton to greet me when I came off the plane, and I felt myself grow restless with anticipation.
“Who's waiting for you?” El asked next to me. She had dark circles under her eyes and she looked exhausted, just like everybody else on this plane.
“Claire, my girlfriend, and my parents.” I replied and smiled, unable to keep the anticipation out of my voice. “And for you?”
“My parents and Uncle Brad.” She returned my smile and leaned her head back against the hull of the plane, closing her eyes. “I will get spoiled for the next few days, then Uncle Brad will kick my ass so that I don't get lazy. We'll go running and surfing in the morning and when we come back, my parents will wait with breakfast. Daddy will have made his special coffee, with an extra large amount of M&Ms in my coffee.”
“That sound like an awesome start of the day.” I agreed.
“It's perfect.” she replied without looking at me, her smile widening. “It's all I want.”
We touched down in Pendleton at about three in the afternoon. The ten minutes it took to get with the buses from the planes to the area where our families waited were almost more than I could take. I felt the air vibrate with tension and pleasant anticipation and I was ready to bolt off the moment the bus stopped. I saw Claire standing in the middle of the people gathered to greet us, my parents only a step or two behind her. She wore a light summer dress, blue with little flowers, her long black hair falling in curls down her back, and when she saw me, there was a smile on her lips that lit up her whole face. I jumped off the bus as soon as the man in front of me had cleared the door, then I jogged over to my family. My mum embraced me first, letting out little relieved sobs, then my dad gave me a short but heartfelt hug. Once they let go of me, I turned to Claire. She had tears in her eyes, but they were accompanied by a huge smile that told me the tears were only due to happiness. I pulled her close and kissed her before I buried my nose in her neck, took in her scent, clean and fresh and a bit of lavender, and I knew I was home.
“Ellie!” I heard a loud male voice shout and I opened my eyes and looked over Claire's shoulder to see where it had come from.
Not far from us, there were two men waiting among the wives and kids and girlfriends. The taller one was wearing a uniform that told me he was a Navy Corpsman by the name of Bryan. He had his arm around a smaller man who was unmistakably El's biological father, from hair to eyes to built. He wore an old, faded US Navy sweater – I couldn't help noticing that it said 'Bryan', too – and there was something to his posture that told me immediately that he'd served. Behind them, I noticed the incredibly tall figure of one Master Gunnery Sergeant Brad Colbert, and I didn't entirely dare to believe my eyes. That man was a legend in the Marine Corps, and he was really here.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw El approaching them. There was a smile on her face, huge and open and real, and then she started running. She threw her duffel on the ground and jumped – literally jumped – in the arms of the two waiting men who had to be her dads. I couldn't believe how the badass corpsman I'd come to know in Afghanistan transformed into a little girl right in from of my eyes. The two men hugged her close, kissing her forehead, and they formed a tight circle of obvious love and affection. A few moments later, El let go of her parents and turned to Master Gunnery Sergeant Colbert who had watched the reunion with a little smile.
“Uncle Brad!” El said and gave a huge grin. Then she jumped up to throw her arms around the his neck. He wrapped his arms around her and easily lifted her off the ground. It was a comical yet touching picture, the huge Iceman and the tiny Doc Person whose feet hovered a good fifteen inches above the ground.
“Welcome home, Ellie Beth.” I heard Master Gunnery Sergeant Colbert's voice, low and rough with emotion. He kissed her hair and I felt almost guilty for watching. I was sure I saw a side of the Icemen and the Doc that we Marines usually never got to see. Suddenly I understood that El hadn't wanted me to use her name because it was her way of separating these two worlds. The one where she had to be a hardened warrior who couldn't allow to show any weakness, and the one where she could just be herself, a daughter, a girl, with nothing to prove.
I felt Claire's arms tighten around me and that pulled me out of my thoughts.
“I'm so happy you're back, Ben.” She mumbled against my neck, her hands forming fists in my uniform jacket. “I missed you so much.”
I turned my head to press a kiss against her temple, then I smiled, taking in the happy faces all around me. I guessed that my fellow Marines got to hear similar words, and it sunk in that we were really and truly back home. My gaze flickered over to where El stood with her family, her dads to each side of her and the Master Gunnery Sergeant behind her, his hand on her shoulder. I couldn't help noticing again that the height difference was just ridiculous. El was laughing at something, and then, as if she had felt my gaze, she turned towards me.
“Hey, Ben!” She shouted with a grin.
I looked at her over Claire's shoulder, never letting go of my girl. “Yeah?”
“Welcome back!” El smirked, then she winked at me. “By the way, you can call me Ellie now.”
I grinned. I knew I had just gained a friend for life.
*** The End