I sit, isolated in a crowd, on the Special Operations base in Incirlik, Turkey. I am the home to Special Operations Team 7 under the command of Captain Adam Dalton. The rest of the team is made up of Sgt. Jasmine Kahn, Sgt. Joseph McQuire, Chief Petty Officer Ezekiel Carter and former CIA agent Amir Al-Raisani, and Patton but he’s unofficial. I’m also unofficial, but I have a very specific and very important job – I provide shelter from the natural elements and the weight of their jobs. Shelter, protection, home, and I take my job as seriously as they do theirs. By the very nature of my existence, I see and hear everything that happens here (one day they will learn that). It offers me extra insights to their individual stories, the fabric that weaves them together and makes this a family. These are the stories of our home here in Turkey.
This deployment was the roughest I have seen for my team. It seemed that every time they left for a mission, they came back a little more daunted, exhausted and empty. I guess that is the nature of what they do, but for a team this elite, the stakes seem to be even increasing. It makes me more committed to sheltering them as each mission is completed. It started with the bombing.
Just the day before my team had returned from a successful mission. Dalton had managed to complete multiple objectives, saving an American doctor, and ridding the planet of a terrorist within the same evening. I am always in awe of this group, their effective nature, their fastidious commitment but mostly, their humanity. I can hear other teams around here and it just isn’t the same. These folks are special.
I guess that is why my heart broke so much for them after that bombing. They had just gotten the team reset after losing Elijah *sighs*, I miss him too, but Amir was a good addition. They returned from the mission having successfully executed as a team and spirits were light on the surface. Every single one of them carries the weight of their jobs around and it weighs on them some after each mission, though it is their job, none of them likes taking lives. So, they manage it the best they can, a few beers around a fire and the horseshoe pit. They shoot some pool and they enjoy the fun they have together. This mission was so successful, they were given a day off and decided to go to Karatas and spend time on the beach.
As with the missions, I wasn’t witness to what happened, but I gather the information during daytime and late-night conversations around here. I’m always privy to the aftermath of the missions. I knew they were playing soccer with the children on the beach. Adam saw the truck (of course he did) and ordered everyone to get the kids. As usual, they were amazing, but still 4 servicemembers were lost, and 21 people were injured. That 21 didn’t count the small injuries to my team: Preach with a cut over his eye, McG with an injury to his wrist, Jaz with taped up fingers. The casualty count certainly didn’t include the injury to each of their hearts. What started as a wonderful day with the smell of sunscreen, the sound of laughter and a family off to enjoy a day off, ended with a heaviness that was nearly more that I could take.
They returned so sad, so broken that I felt like I might collapse under the weight of it.
They each tried to handle the aftermath in their own way. McG, who looks the part of the “pretty friend” is our combat medic who always rushes in to help and often emerges from helping folks with a soul that is a little tattered. It is well known that he doesn’t engage in lengthy relationships, preferring a quick evening and moving on. I suspect that he isn’t ready to show the scars that he bears within his heart from the injuries that he has seen and the times he was not able to help. The night of the bombing, Joseph was quiet as a sank down on the couch with his face in his hands. He let the day’s events wash over him and sat in it for a few minutes. Preach walked by and gave his shoulder a squeeze as he moved to call his family. As McG heard someone enter, he rose from the couch, not ready to discuss any of it and went to shower. He slowly and carefully walked to his room, avoiding anyone else. That night, Joseph let a scant few tears escape his eyes before he slept. Never have I wished to wrap my walls tightly around someone more.
Preach unloaded items from the Humvee and watched the other members. He is the wisdom of the team and is always ready to offer a kind word or an obscure reference if he finds it necessary. On this night, he has no words for the team, just a hole in his heart that can only be filled by his family. He gave McG a reassuring squeeze on the shoulder as he passed by to make the call. He knew Joseph would carry this deeper than he would let show, but McG was strong, and he would be okay. Preach knew that to be mission ready he needed only chat with his wife and daughters to remind him of the purpose of his being here and a good night’s sleep. So, he set out to do those things. He paused at his door, thinking of the other three team members. He knew they would each wrestle with things differently than he and McG. Adam and Jaz lacked a family foundation from childhood. Amir, well he had gotten quite good at hiding himself, but that meant he could be left adrift if he couldn’t find his anchor. Preach sighed and knew he couldn’t fix it tonight, not when he was so weary himself. He turned the knob on the door and quietly entered his room and started the call to his family. I knew he would be fine, he’s Preach.
Amir entered next, looking wild-eyed and caged in. I could feel the weight of the events on him as well, but he seemed action ready, as if he were spring loaded. He put his water bottle in the sink and made several laps around the kitchen, seemingly not knowing what to do with himself. Though it wasn’t an appointed time, he decided that maybe a prayer would help. As he started to his room, he met the gaze of Jaz. She looked broken, but he couldn’t manage to find words. He wasn’t sure she would want them anyway. He glanced around for Top but didn’t see him. He gave a slight smile of comfort and a nod to Jaz as he went to his room. He shut the door behind him, laid his prayer rug out. As his face touched the floor he stilled. The internal war was raging in him. Those children were innocent children, Muslim children, and he choked back a sob as he realized they would never again pray in a Mosque. He was smart, he understood the complexities of the geopolitical climate, but this wasn’t that. This was a heinous act because they were socializing with the American soldiers. He knew how ISIS and others felt about the American soldiers, three years undercover had given him plenty of knowledge. In his heart though, he couldn’t reconcile the targeting of children. He stilled himself with several breaths, gave up on his prayer and wearily climbed into bed. He laid awake for hours, though, plotting how to render justice.
Jaz with a backpack shouldered, entered, and saw Amir. Irrationally, she huffed to herself as if he were the enemy. She immediately squelched the thought but replaced it with an “he doesn’t fit here” directed toward Amir. She looked around for McG, he gives the best hugs as she had found out after losing Elijah and she thought that might be just what she needed. She sighed to herself when she didn’t see him. Instead Amir caught her eye. He gave her a small smile and nod as he headed for his room. “Ugh” she said to herself under her breath. He was beginning to make it difficult for her to dislike him. He was breaking down that wall she had built. She didn’t believe her heart had a place for him. She wasn’t sure what her heart was capable of after losing Elijah.
Unsurprisingly, Jaz refused to succumb to those messy feelings yet. Jaz always tries to hide her feelings more, I’m sure it is because she is a woman. Top never mentions that, none of them do, but you can tell that people have underestimated her for years because of it. I saw the look in her eyes and I was glad to be me and not the heavy bag. As I suspected, Jaz donned her gloves and started pounding away on the bag. She stayed at it for 30 minutes or so and grew bored of the punching not relieving her pain. So many times, I wish I could just create a new isolated space, a space that was completely protected to let Jaz be her complete and authentic self. She wasn’t one to put up fronts, but she did try to hide her feelings in front of the guys, except anger, that one she lets fly. She headed toward the shower. This is where Jaz is most herself. She knows that the guys will not interrupt her during a shower. Yes, they’ve all seen each other in various states of dress on missions, but here at home, they dared not cross that line. She pulled her hair down and as it cascaded over her shoulder, two tears slid down her cheek. She tried to stop them but when kids were involved Jaz found it difficult to get past it as quickly. She didn’t pause to think what that meant for her life, no tonight was for wearing the weight of losing comrades and seeing innocent lives permanently altered. The tears turned into sobs that only I heard, until Adam caught the sound as he walked by. She finished her shower and made her way to bed. The sobs had stopped but the tears flowed as she tossed and turned. Finally, she fell asleep. Don’t worry Jaz, I will keep your secret.
Top purposely unloaded the Humvee slowly and loitered outside with Patton. He was great at the mission planning and debriefs but this wasn’t that. This was a terror attack on his team and the children with whom they were playing. HIS TEAM!!! Who would target them? He grumbled to himself and realized that it wasn’t his team that was targeted, it was just US Soldiers in general. When Top entered, everyone else had moved to their rooms. He fell into his desk chair as if he weighed 3x his weight. I don’t want to hug Top, I want to lift this weight off him, he carries too much. He looks exhausted but even more, he looks haunted. He scrubs his hand through his beard and looks over his desk. He knows he should write up the report but he just doesn’t have it in him tonight.
Tonight, he needs to be sure his team is ok. Top is always watching everyone and feels entirely responsible for each of them. The injuries that they incurred are weighing on Adam as he wondered if he could have moved 5 seconds faster, if he missed something, should they have just stayed on base today? The thoughts run together as he starts down the hall to check on his team, his friends, his family.
He hears Preach on the phone and knows that his wife has better words to offer so he moves along.
He pauses at Amir’s door, there is no light and the room is silent. He thinks of knocking to be sure his newest team member is ok, but knows from his file that Amir is used to being alone. Perhaps that is what he needs tonight. He makes a mental note to spend some time with Amir in the coming days.
He stops at McG’s door and smiles to himself as he hears the snores emanating from the room. His heart hurts for McG, he had taken Elijah’s death hard and he was always tending to everyone. But he knew McG would tell him if he needed him, so he let him rest.
Adam passed by the bathroom hearing the shower running and knowing it was Jaz. He didn’t slow down until he heard the sob escape her throat. He stopped. His head fell, and the weight returned. Adam had a special relationship with Jaz but aside from that, he knew that she was missing Elijah even more tonight. They would have been on the couch together talking about anything other than the events of the day until they felt sleep would come.
Adam wasn’t built that way, but he knew he needed to check in on Jaz and offer whatever he could as her team leader, of course.
Adam made his way to his room, closed the door, and pulled his grey Army shirt over his head. He sat at the edge of his bed willing the tears not to come. He was successful, but the weight of the turmoil inside threatened to pull my roof in on him. He rolled to his side and drifted to sleep.
I looked and listed carefully, yes, they were all asleep. Sleep well team, I will stand in the gap tonight. You are safe here, sheltered and loved. Rest now I thought, tomorrow we start again.
Chapter 2: How we became whole again
In the aftermath of the bombing, the team works to move on as a whole unit.
One week after the bombing, the team has been returned to active duty but has not yet caught a mission. They spend their days training, prepping equipment, keeping inventory, and checking their go bags. They must be ready for wheels up at a moment’s notice.
This afternoon, Top sits at the desk writing up standard reports and making the list for the commissary. Things have returned to “normal” (whatever that is around here) but the injuries to his team are still visible. Clearly, though, they are on the mend, McG is back to playing horseshoes and shooting pool. Jaz is skilled as ever with her rifle and yesterday, I heard her laughing again. I breathed a sigh of relief, I wasn’t sure if we would hear it again after last week. Yes, Jaz is on the mend as well.
Preach, he talks with his family daily and that ensures that he is always ready to go.
Amir is a tougher read, he spends time in his room, sits quietly in the kitchen and still seems to be searching for his place on the team. I want so badly to tell him to just jump in, they are ready and willing to welcome him as family. Yes, even Jaz, though she won’t admit it to anyone yet, not even herself. She hasn’t yet had to depend on him alone and she won’t bring down her walls until she does. Despite all of this, Amir stays a little distant and the team allows it. (They are a stubborn crowd, but I suppose it pays off in the field.)
Top, well Top has let some of the weight lift, at least I feel like I can stay upright around him now, but he never lets go of all of it. He is so serious all the time, I wish he could be free for a moment and feel how much everyone loves him. Still, he has been grilling some and they have relaxed with beers and I even heard him chuckle a few times over the last few days. My team is going to be ok. We have weathered this storm.
As Top finishes his list, Patton saunters in and looks at him expectantly. That dog is a menace, I think, he sheds everywhere!! Top looks at Patton and tries to get him to lay down. Patton, as usual ignores Top and it makes me chuckle to myself. Top sighs and reaches down to scratch behind Patton’s ears and heads outside with the rest of the team. The thing with this team is missions are hard, but they have to put them all behind them to be ready for the next. The bombing wasn’t a mission, it happened on their day off. All the team, save one, treated the aftermath like a mission and moved on. Everyone, except Amir.
Amir had just finished praying when he walked into the kitchen. He grabbed a banana and looked around for everyone. He heard the laughter of the team and stood frozen between knowing he should join them and wanting to retreat into his room. He didn’t want to laugh, his hands itched to do something, anything to fix what happened. Just as he decided to head back to his room, Top came back in and saw him. “Amir, come join us”. Amir paused and thought about declining, but something in Top’s voice made it both an invitation and a command. He obliged and joined the others outside. Sometimes, I must listen closely to hear them outside during the day. This area is full of other teams, the constant sound of Blackhawks and C130s taking off and landing. Today, though, was surprisingly quiet and I could hear them all clearly.
“Jaz, what is that 10 in a row?” McG asked as the horseshoe clanged on the stake. “11” she said with a smirk. McG chuckled and thought about calling her humble as a joke, but he knew that she was humble to be as skilled a sniper as she was. He just flashed a million dollar smile at her.
As Amir rounded the corner he asked, “Don’t you ever wear a shirt, McG?” McG shrugged with “It’s hot out, why make more laundry?” Everyone chuckled because we ALL know McG hates to do laundry. I know that isn’t the real reason he is shirtless so often, but that’s a story for another day…
Preach is just hanging up from a call to SoCal. I hear him chuckle at McG. I listen for the others, if we can just get all 5 of them laughing at the same time. I strain to listen for Jaz, yes, there it is she is laughing at McG. Jaz seems to sense a need to make Top laugh as well. “I didn’t know that was an option” she said as she grabbed at the bottom of her shirt. McG was caught off guard and sent his horseshoe far to the right of the pit. Everyone laughed as McG stood there gaping. Jaz wasn’t going to take her shirt off, though she did train in a sports bra regularly. Nonetheless, it was that moment, I heard all of them laughing and my walls felt lighter, I felt like I stood a little straighter. We had made it back and we were a solid team again. (I like to pretend that I’m a part of the team, although their real work never happens here, they always leave. I always hold my breath when they do. I count 5 out and wait to count 5 in upon their return.)
The sun started down in the sky and I waited to see if they would remain outside or come in for the evening. I always want them inside. I can hear them out there and I learn things when they are, but I’m part of it when they are inside. I hear Top and Preach discussing dinner and I know they are coming in for the day. Preach heads to the kitchen while Jaz and McG wander over to the pool table. Top takes the opportunity to talk to Amir.
“Amir,” says Top. Without another word, Amir knows that Top wants to talk, to check in and he can’t avoid it any longer. “How are you doing?” Top asks. “I’m ok” Amir replied. Top paused and waited for Amir to look him in the eye. You never get away with an answer with Top without looking him in the eye. “Amir,” Top says a little more firmly, but still without reprimand. He was silently pleading with his newest team member to open up and really “join” the team. Amir sighs, knowing what Top is really asking. “I feel restless and I’m still trying to get my bearings here, but I’m ok.” Amir says as he looks Top in the eye (he’s a quick study). Dalton searches Amir’s eyes and finds that the newest member is being honest and as open as he could expect yet. Top nods and gives a supportive smile, “You’ll get there, I think you fit in perfectly”. With that, Top gently clapped Amir on the shoulder and stood up to get himself a cup of coffee.
After dinner, the team shared stories from home, happy memories. It wasn’t hard to see that the conversation was dominated by Preach and McG, but the tone was light, and everyone felt at peace. Soon they shuffled the cards and started a game of poker. This is never a good idea. They occasionally play for money, but most of the time, they play for chores. McG, for all the skills that he has, has the worst poker face. They all know it and they ALWAYS make sure he ends up with laundry duty. I chuckle to myself and wonder when he will learn. He briefly complains but knows it is a lost cause and surrenders quickly, but not before noting that he has the least laundry to do. Even Amir chuckles at that and silently thinks about changing his shirt an extra time or two this week. That thought makes him smile to himself and he settles in a little more to his new team. Everyone seems to be thinking about ribbing McG during laundry duty. When laundry day arrives, Jaz puts a few pairs of her laciest undergarments (which were already clean) in the basket, just to torture McG. He always turned a little red when he got to her undergarments in the laundry. They all did though, none of them knew, and none of them blushed harder than Top. Jaz thinks nothing different of her undergarments versus theirs. Of course she doesn’t, sometimes I wonder if she can see herself, if she knows just how beautiful she really is (inside and out). “Jaz…” McG grumbles as he sorts the laundry, flushes a little, and then chuckles to himself. He knows she has added extra just to get under his skin and a flash of brotherly love rises in his chest for the small sniper.
As for the rest of the chores, Jaz ended up with dish duty for the week and mumbled about how they must see it as “women’s work”. She knew, they knew, and I knew that wasn’t true and she lost that round honestly. She got outbluffed by Top. Really Jaz, who tries to bluff Top in a poker game? Only Jaz has that kind of chutzpah. She is just finishing the dishes from breakfast when Top passes behind her to refill his coffee. “Do you want some, too?” he asked her. “Sure,” she replied. He grabbed a freshly washed and dried mug, poured her some coffee, and handed it to her. Top and Jaz looked at each other over their coffee and she sensed he wanted to talk. She groaned internally, Top’s version of talking was not at all like Elijah’s, but she was getting used to it. Top hadn’t let two days pass since they lost Elijah without checking in with her specifically. He knew how hard she had taken the loss and wanted to be there for her. He thought he knew how she was dealing with it, but I knew more, if I could just tell him. “I’m fine, Top.” Jaz said resolutely. “I know you are fine, Jaz, but are you okay?” Top asked. She paused and looked at him. She knew better than to answer without looking him in the eye. “It’s hard, but we have to move on, right? Yesterday was a good day, it was good to laugh, to hear EVERYONE laugh.” She gave Top a pointed look and he knew she was referring to him. It was her silent way of checking in on him, without words, without overstepping. Dalton smiled, “It was, wasn’t it?” He chuckled a little and continued “when McG sent that horseshoe sailing…”, Jaz started to chuckle again. Their laughter continued to rise as they recalled the sight in their memories. Preach came around the corner from cleaning the bathroom just as he said it and immediately started with a big laugh that nearly filled the entire room. Amir appeared from seemingly nowhere eyes full of question. “It just went sailing, nowhere near anything…” Jaz squeaked out between her laughter. She was nearly doubled over laughing at the memory. As Amir heard the discussion he too, began to laugh. A full laugh, that none of us had heard before. Amidst their laughter Top, Preach and Jaz all noticed his laugh, but no one stopped their own. Just as the laughs were dying down, McG comes in with a basket of laundry (wearing no shirt) and looks questioningly at the group. “What did I miss?” The innocent question is poorly worded for the situation and sets off another raucous round of laughter. They are so engrossed in it, that McG can’t help but to laugh along with them, even without understanding the cause.
Ah yes, this feels good. Their laughter fills the space all the way to my roof and I feel so happy I could burst. I won’t because I’m their shelter, but we finally feel whole and happy again.
Chapter 3: Something brewing
Things are going okay for our team, but something is brewing under the surface.
It was a beautiful day here in Turkey. The team was settling back into a normal routine. They each followed their morning routines, trained some and afternoons varied. This afternoon, everyone was outside. Jaz and McG were at the horseshoe pit. Top and Amir were at the picnic table where Top was finishing his lunch. Unsurprisingly, Preach was on the phone with his family. It felt good.
McG was ribbing Jaz on her poor form.
“So good” she said to McG.
By the picnic table I hear Amir speak, “I don’t know Top…” CLANG! McG groaned. (McG I’m trying to listen to Amir!!!!) I can’t hear over the horseshoes, Amir is more soft-spoken than most of the team. I hear Top discussing what is happening in our yard. CLANG (another horseshoe). I listen for Top again “We’re the tip of the spear.” McG interrupts with his discussion with Jaz over a game called Cornhole. Amir seems to be satisfied with Top’s answer but not convinced that McG is, in fact, the tip of the spear.
The laptop beeps the telltale sound of an incoming call from Deputy Director Campbell. They are headed to the Ukraine. The mission briefing tells me that they are going to rescue a CIA operative. It sounds like a quick in and out mission. Pick her up, sanitize the site, and right back home. They were leaving inside an hour and with travel and pickup, I expected them back within eight hours.
Darkness fell on Turkey and my team was still not home. I stood there feeling hollow and awaiting the return of 5. Night passed on and still they didn’t return. This can only mean that the mission went bad or they weren’t coming back. My walls sagged a little. I remembered the day they returned as 4. Vallins didn’t come back through the door. It took a lot for us to move past that.
No, I shook those thoughts away. It just took a turn, Top will improvise and any minute we will count 5 in. Patton wanders around looking for Top and curls up on the couch to nap. I hear a chopper landing. I wait. Still no team.
Finally, I hear them pull up outside. The voices are quiet and sound tired. I still myself as they enter: 1- Preach, 2 – Amir, 3- McG (why does he have blood on him), 4- Jaz, 5- Top. I look them over. They look tired and a little amped from the mission. No one seems to be injured. All right time to assess them.
Amir seems to be ok. He seems more settled than yesterday, perhaps “doing something” was all he needed… for now. He unpacked his gear, stopped by the kitchen for some water and headed in the direction of his quarters.
Preach also looks fine. His face is steady, he doesn’t seem injured and he seems pleased with the outcome. Good. He headed to the shower to wash off the mission before calling his family.
McG has blood on him, a lot of blood. But he seems fine, physically. He puts his gear in the cage and takes his medical bag with him for restocking. He steadies himself with a deep breath. Ah, I see, he has tended to grave injuries. I don’t know if he was able to save them, but he seems a little more worn today. He drops his bag on his bed and rips his shirt off. He heads to the shower and returns in sweatpants. He had a shirt with him, but he just draped it over his shoulder and sauntered to the kitchen for a beer.
Jaz’s entrance caught my attention. Our usually confident sniper seemed, smaller, more reserved. Top came in and Jaz avoided his gaze. I found that unusual. Top put his gear in the cage and sat down at his desk. Jaz opened her mouth as she looked in his direction but closed it as quickly and turned on her heel. She saw McG in the kitchen with his beer. She waited until she caught his eye and smiled.
“You did it, Joe, you saved her” she said.
McG nodded and gave a sheepish smile of gratitude. Jaz heard that the shower was empty and headed there straightaway. Something was brewing in Jaz and the shower was where she would work it out.
Top looked tired and a little dazed. As the room had cleared, McG got up and walked over to Top.
“Top, are you all right? I took more than I would have liked.” said McG.
“I’m fine, McG. I’ll start on these reports and then rack out, I’ll be fine tomorrow.” McG looked Top over.
He believed the man to be right but couldn’t help one last check of his pulse to convince himself. “Top, get the rest first. The report will be there tomorrow.”
Top looked at McG and felt the loss of blood and length of the mission. “You’re right McG. I’ll do this tomorrow. Just let me get the place buttoned up.”
That’s the thing about Top he believes he should be the first one up and the last one to bed. He has a nightly routine they don’t know about. He passes by each door every night and listens. Listens for groans of hidden injuries, listens for nightmares, listens for anything that he might need to do for his team. The problem is no one is listening for him. McG turned, swallowed the last of his beer and offered a quiet “Night, Top”. McG had already started to walk away and didn’t see Top nod in acknowledgment.
In the hallway, McG met Jaz on her way to her room. He looked at her and they shrugged guiltily.
“We shouldn’t have argued during a mission. We shouldn’t have questioned him.” said Jaz. McG smiled sympathetically.
“It wasn’t just you, Jaz, it was me and Amir, too.” He sighed as he continued, “Top will be fine, we all will be. He’ll chalk it up to the stress of a mission gone sideways. That’s what we should all do.”
Jaz nodded, but knew it wouldn’t be that easy for her. “Get some rest” McG told her with a small bump to her shoulder.
She smiled weakly at him. “Yeah, you too. Night.” With that, they went to their respective rooms.
McG closed his door, picked the shirt up off his shoulder to put on, but threw it at the chair instead. He crawled into bed and let sleep claim him.
Jaz walked into her room. The shower didn’t finish it tonight. Something was eating at her. She knew she shouldn’t have argued with Top, but they were leaving a woman out there alone. A woman out there alone. That’s what set her off. Jaz has settled into this team. She no longer feels like a woman alone but recalls the desperation and trepidation of it. To be fair, Cassie Conner was no wilting lily AND Jaz silently confessed to herself that she wasn’t sure that she was as badass as Conner. Still, this team didn’t hang people out. That’s what it had felt like. They were hanging Conner out alone. In the end, as usual, Top was right. His plans worked out. They almost hadn’t though. “I wouldn’t leave them” she mumbled quietly to the room. She acknowledged her intent to stayed behind for Preach and Top. She was glad McG hadn’t taken her to task on her near action. She saw the flash in his eyes as she started to close the door to the chopper with her feet outside. No, he had let it slide and she wasn’t sure Top or Preach had noticed. That only left Amir. “Hmph” she sighed to herself. She had no idea what Amir would do with that. They had already butted heads during the mission. She groaned internally as she tried to sort out her relationship with Amir. She shook her head knowing no resolution to that would come tonight. She’d let it go for now.
She knew that she would have anyone’s back, but she wasn’t sure she would feel the fear that had flashed through her chest tonight. When Top was late, she wasn’t letting him stay alone. Yes, he had Preach, but she wasn’t leaving him. Her eyes widened, and she looked trapped. I knew she wanted to get some air, but to do that, she would have to pass by Top. She didn’t want to do that with him angry and this new realization. She took a deep breath and decided to try to sleep. In a few minutes, she was resting peacefully.
Amir was in his room wrestling with things again. This time, not inaction, but the specific actions of Jaz. She had argued with him on this mission, with Top. She was never out of control and she was never overly emotional. He could push that aside. But when she started to close the door on the helicopter without being in it… Amir wasn’t sure how to process that. He’s used to not having to follow “orders”. But the rest of the team, their military training, they NEVER question orders. She had done it twice in this mission. He decided that there were things about Jaz he didn’t know. After all, they knew nearly nothing about him, so perhaps, this mission hit close to home for her. With that thought, the anger passed and he thought about how to get to know Jaz better. His mind wandered to McG. He couldn’t hear the man snoring, but he hoped he was asleep. McG had been amazing on this mission. Doing his part for the team while tending to Agent Conner. McG is a good teammate. Amir smiled to himself. He had already reconciled that Preach and Top were. The only piece of the puzzle left, is Jaz. He sighed to himself knowing he couldn’t resolve it tonight. He turned out his light, settled in his bed and drifted off to sleep.
Preach had completed his call home and was just about to drift off to sleep. One thing kept him awake. He was sure he had seen Jaz closing the door on the helicopter from the outside. She had argued with Top during this mission. He knew there was a deeper connection between those two, but he wasn’t sure of the implications from this mission. He pondered what words he could offer to encourage the two of them to explore whatever they needed to. He wasn’t even sure what it was, but it was something, and something left hanging, could be perilous for the team. If they didn’t talk soon, one of the them was likely to do something reckless. He drifted to sleep thinking of wisdom to offer them.
Top stared at the report he’d promised McG he would wait to do. It wasn’t his nature to procrastinate and he really felt like he had waited enough during this mission. Unfortunately, the blood donation was taking its toll and he resigned himself to getting up early to complete the paperwork. He glanced around the hut. The cage was squared away, the kitchen was good. He straightened the papers on his desk and carefully placed a pen at the ready for the work in the morning. He looked over and sighed to himself as he saw Patton asleep on the couch. Suddenly, sleep sounded like a great idea. He walked the hall of the quarters.
His room was furthest down the hall. It wasn’t the “nicest” of the rooms, but it allowed him to complete his nightly check efficiently. He stopped at Preach’s door there was no light under the door. It was quiet and that meant his friend was resting. He smiled to himself as he thought about Preach knowing his moves nearly as well as he did. McG’s room was dark as well. Top wrinkled his brow when he didn’t hear McG snoring. Just as he was about to knock, he heard a small snore. He smiled to himself. “He’s so tired he can’t even snore” he thought to himself. He made a mental note to try to let the medic get a little extra rack time tomorrow. The man had been running on nothing but adrenaline between the duties for the team and caring for Conner. He had done an excellent job. McG always did.
As he reached Amir’s door, he saw a stream of light underneath it. He raised his hand to knock on the door but before his hand made contact, the light went out. Top wasn’t sure if Amir had heard his arrival or if it was coincidence. He wanted to talk to Amir about his challenges on this mission, but he knew that they were driven from his need to “do something”. He would let this slide and keep an eye out. He couldn’t let it become a habit, but Amir was still getting used to having a team. They had just discussed that prior to this mission.
Top moved on to stop at Jaz’s door. Though he didn’t see light under the door, he fought with himself not to knock and just have the discussion now. She couldn’t be insubordinate in the field and she had done it twice in this mission. First arguing with the team and with him. The second one, well he couldn’t be entirely positive, but he would swear that Jaz was trying to close the helicopter door from the outside when they got there. Anger flashed in his chest again, along with something else he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He had decided to knock on the door and his hand was just about there…. (‘Don’t do it Top, not tonight, you’re not thinking clearly’ I was silently pleading with him.) Just then, his hand dropped. He scrubbed his hand through his beard and turned toward his room. He didn’t bother turning the light on. He changed clothes and fell into bed.
At 0430 I heard quiet footfalls. It must be Top. It was. As he had promised, he had slept but now returned to his work. He quietly made coffee and furrowed his brow as he thought about how to handle Jaz. More footsteps could quietly be heard, it was Preach.
“Sorry man, I was trying to be quiet, just trying to get a start on the paperwork” Top said.
Preach smiled, “None of you sneak by me, you know”.
The coffee finished and Top poured two cups. He motioned Preach toward the desk with his head, away from the rest of the sleeping team. Preach paused and motioned for Top to step outside instead. Together the two men went to sit at the picnic table. Five minutes passed as they drank their coffee, neither speaking.
“Top, you need to talk to her about whatever it is, not as her CO, but as Adam”.
Top sighed, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, she was insubordinate”.
Preach chuckled softly, “If that’s what you’re going with, you’ll have to talk with Amir and McG as well.”
Top looked Preach in the eye. He started to speak and stopped. “I’ll just chalk it all up to a mission gone sideways. I think we’ll relax today, I’ll grill, and we’ll move on”. With that he stood, clapped Preach on the shoulder as some thanks and turned to start the paperwork.
I stood there thinking that something bigger was brewing and I hoped someone would say something before it was too late. The sun began to rise and I listened for the rest of the team to start moving about. Top had said it would be an easy day. A little reprieve from the grueling missions. Good morning, Team. I’m glad you’re all here.
Chapter 4: Puzzle Pieces
After their mission in Mexico, everyone has a puzzle piece or two missing. They begin the process of finding those pieces.
After the last mission, things were settled for the team. Jaz had apologized to Top, for what, I’m not sure, I couldn’t quite hear over the ambient noise (McG!!!). Preach seemed to see something in the conversation and I started to watch more closely our sniper and Commander. I didn’t know for what I was looking, but if Preach had noticed something, I wanted to be aware of it too.
Soon enough though, the familiar beep-beep-beep rang out. SHE was calling to take my team away, again. This time they were off to Mexico to plant a bug on an elusive arms dealer. I counted 5 out: 1-Top, 2-Amir, 3-Jaz, 4-McG, 5-Preach. I said a quick word to whomever might be listening to keep them safe and allow me to count 5 back in.
I was determined not to worry on this mission. I'm not a newcomer, I have seen many, many missions during my time with Top, this one didn’t sound terribly difficult, for them. I resigned myself to the idea that they would be gone for several days. I knew they were going to Mexico and I assumed that Preach would try to wrangle a visit to SoCal. It’s possible Top might go along with it since it let's him fly more. He loves being the pilot but doesn't often get the opportunity. I knew he would relish his time in the seat, grinning like a kid at Christmas. Jaz will be beside him and McG will be in the back. Preach and Amir will find seats in the middle. Even in a small plane they have their preferred places. I waited patiently for them to return, ready to welcome them home.
I heard their vehicle pull up and counted: 1-Amir, 2-Preach, 3- McG, 4 -Jaz, 5- Top. I searched their faces for anything of note. This mission was an obvious success. Something else was there. A hint of justice served was written on their faces. I can't quite figure out what it is for, they were just going to plant a bug. Never mind that, it looks to be a good evening around here.
It is early in the evening when they return and before long they have gathered outside. Top has taken control of the grill, McG and Amir are playing horseshoes. McG seems to be trying to convince Amir that they knew he would be fine, they really were joking that he was going to get smoked. Amir didn't mind the joke but it was something to which he was not accustomed. He tucked away this information for later.
Jaz sits at the picnic table, beer in hand, hair braided and looking at the men around her. She smiles as McG starts the trash talk with Amir. Preach is finishing his customary post mission call so she moves on quickly with her eyes. She glances at Top, smoke curling around him at the grill. She lets her gaze settle on him for a moment. Her mind is flooded with the memory of standing at the helicopter. That feeling rushed back with it, but she couldn't put her finger on exactly what it was. She continued to process the replay in her mind when the fear of leaving him behind surfaced. The fear reached her eyes for a split second. Of course, that was the exact time that Top caught her gaze. His eyes widened and he raised a brow. She broke from her memory to see his brow quirked in question at her “are you okay?” he asked silently. She answered with a calm smile and the wordless conversation was over. She was not sure what that even was, she certainly wasn’t ready to discuss it with him.
Not feeling safe to continue looking at Top, lest he pry further, she moved on to Amir.
Amir was still such a mystery. On this mission, he stayed at the compound risking it all for the team. She knew now, despite her words to him in Ukraine, he really was a team player. But something, something was holding her back from admitting to herself that he was wholly part of this team.
Amir tossed a horseshoe and it clanged loudly as it hit the stake. He smiled as McG jokingly whined about his skill. The smile didn't quite reach his eyes, but as she gazed over him, his relaxed shoulders told her he was more relaxed and open than before. That was something.
For all her reservations about him, Jaz longed to get to know the man better. She couldn't decide (wouldn't admit to herself) that she truly wanted to know him. For today, she convinced herself that she just wanted to feel like the team was complete again.
As Amir continued his game with McG, he was acutely aware of the sniper seemingly setting overwatch on him from the picnic table. He quieted himself to try and assess whether he was a target, or she was watching out for him. In the field, he had no concerns. This team was a team of the highest caliber and they carried themselves with integrity (tough skills for their jobs) and always had each other’s backs. But here, at home, he couldn't tell her intention.
He wanted to get to know the sniper better, to really know Jaz, not just the tough exterior she allows everyone to see. He loved her fiery nature and knew that she had paid dearly to be here. She is so good at her job, he can't imagine her doing anything else, but he wonders what first drove the beautiful young lady to sniper school.
As that thought passed through his mind, he saw her shift slightly in her seat. He exhaled realizing she wasn't targeting him but looking at him rather inquisitively. He chuckled quietly to himself. They were good at their brief covers for missions and they could school their features during a mission, but they would not hold a long-term cover well. He tried, unsuccessfully, to catch her gaze. He knew she was purposely avoiding the contact. She ALWAYS knew when she was being watched. He decided to let it go but still offered her a smile. He knew she saw it, even though she didn’t react. For today, that would be enough. A quick invitation to ask some of the questions she had. He hoped she would soon. She was the final piece of this puzzle for him with this team and he was really beginning to love being on this team. He just needed Jaz onboard with him completing the team.
Preach took the long route from leaning on my metal side to pass by each team member, giving them his silent survey. (He was just looking for someone on whom to drop a Preachism). He stopped at the grill and cocked his head at Top. “Top, this was a successful mission, what’s going on in there?”
Top smirked to himself, “Dammit Preach, I don’t even know how can you see it?”, but aloud he said “Just thinking.” Preach looked the younger man over and knew that he would get no more from him….for now. He nodded at Top and moved on to Jaz.
He strolled up to her “Hey Jaz, everything ok?”
“Of course, successful mission, easy trip back…” she trailed off wondering why Preach was inquiring.
“You were over here alone and it looked like you were processing something is all.” Preach answered without her even asking.
Jaz knew she had been caught, but couldn’t share this yet, she didn’t even know what it was. Preach let her off the hook again. “You know, we never did talk about you and the helicopter.” Jaz froze, he couldn’t possibly know what happened, right? “You were closing the door from the outside before Top and I got there.” She breathed a sigh of relief, this was going to be a regular chastisement, not a discussion of feelings. “We don’t leave anyone behind.” Jaz set her jaw in defiance as the words came out.
“Jaz,” Preach started and stopped. He knew to let this go (for now). “You’re right, we don’t and we all would have done the same thing. Just remember, you can’t disobey orders, none of us can.” She half-smiled and nodded “I know, won’t happen again”. Preach stood and smiled down on her, “Yes it will”. With that he turned to join Amir and McG.
He had noticed Amir trying to size Jaz up while he was on his call. One look at Amir and Preach knew the man was working out his own plan, so Preach didn’t need to intervene (yet). He joined McG and Amir at the pit and looked over McG.
McG looked to be, well, McG. He was a brilliant medic, solid shot, great team member, and by all outward appearances, possibly the most solid member of the team. He didn’t wear the weight of his duties outwardly and until he opened up with them all a little more about it, Preach would keep a close eye on their medic, his friend.
It had been McG that had given the slight nod to Top that finalized the plan to go back and save Sofia. Of the whole team, McG was the one whose humanity was most intact. Preach would protect that as much as possible for as long as possible. He found nothing in McG that warranted extra attention today so he grabbed some water and joined the trash talking.
After an enjoyable and relaxing evening, the team had retired to their quarters. Well, everyone except Top. He was sitting at the kitchen table mindlessly spinning his coffee mug around on the table. His eyes were pointed at his desk, but he was not looking at it. (Something’s gotten into Top tonight, it’s not the mission, it’s not the team, they didn’t have any “incidents” like in Ukraine…) I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Top muttered something about Vargez, love, Sophia, but his voiced stopped. Top looked far away again as he pondered something that Vargez had said about love. Suddenly, he stopped spinning the mug and panic flashed in his eyes for a second. He shook his head with a firm “No” to himself. I couldn’t discern what happened in his head, but I knew that it wasn’t finished with him yet.
Top rose to rinse out his mug. He looked over the room and found everything settled for the night. A yawn escaped and he knew it was time to sleep. He turned the lights out in the kitchen and started down the hall of their quarters.
Preach’s door – all is well. The room is quiet and dark and his friend was fine today. He quickly moved on as the exhaustion started to really pour over him.
McG’s door – he smiled as he heard the snores emanating from the room. He was thankful for McG on the mission. When Hannah had called with the news about Sofia, he knew that he wanted to jump into action. But he needed the team to buy in. With a subtle nod from McG, he had known the plan was good. He was glad that this was one of the rare missions that McG hadn’t needed to use his medical skills.
Amir’s door— the room was dark and quiet and Amir had not given Top any cause for concern during or after the mission. In fact, Amir had been key in helping them save Sofia. “You’re perfect for this team” Top said quietly to himself and he moved on to the next door.
Jaz’s door – he was glad to find this room also dark and quiet. He had been relieved that they could put the Conner mission behind them, but the helicopter lurked in his mind. Still, Jaz had been superb on this mission, being the eyes in the sky for the failed drop, impersonating a salon employee and getting the intel they needed, and using her ninja skills to place the bag of money in Urzua room. Spectacular, he thought to himself. Suddenly, the words of Vargez came back to him and mixed with thoughts of Jaz. Top closed his eyes shook his head firmly to rid himself of the thoughts “I really need to get some sleep”. He stood there a minute longer, eyes closed to clear his mind. He didn’t hear her open the door.
Jaz was laying in her bed not sleeping, trying to sort out that feeling that came up with the memory of the helicopter. She just wanted to get it resolved and move on. She knew Top wasn’t angry anymore and Preach, well Preach just worried about them all too much. Frustrated, she decided to get a drink of water. A lap around the hut would calm her down and she could get to sleep. She was wrapped up in her own thoughts and didn’t perform her customary listening to her surroundings. Knowing the guys were all asleep she employed her ninja skills to head to the kitchen. She quietly opened the door and saw Top standing there with his eyes closed. “Vargez, Sofia, Jaz” he muttered to himself. As he opened his eyes, blue met brown and there was plenty of panic all around.
“Top?” Jaz inquired. “Did you need something?”
“No, I was just making sure the place was buttoned up before I go to bed.” Top hoped Jaz would just let this go, he wasn’t entirely sure what he had been saying when she opened the door.
“Well, I was just going to get some water.” Top stepped aside so she could pass. She paused and thought about asking. Nope, she thought silently, I have this other thing already keeping me awake.
They nodded to each other and when their eyes met again, they silently promised to never speak of this again. Top went to his rack and fell asleep quickly as the exhaustion really had set in. Jaz drank her water and made her lap. She considered Top at her door but honored their promise and went back to bed.
These two, dancing around each other all the time. I paused, THAT’s what Preach had noticed. Ugh, now I wish I could TALK to Preach about it, maybe help them figure things out. I don’t presume to even know what that means for them, but I do know this, they can’t keep dancing around each other. That may prove dangerous.
I listen briefly, Jaz is asleep now and the guys are all resting well. Good night, Team. I’m glad you are back. Rest now, I have the watch.
Chapter 5: Reckless Man
As a mission goes sideways, the team finds one member a little reckless.
This one is a monster of a chapter. We had lots of feelings to process after our time in Afghanistan.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The DIA had received word of an eminent attack on US Soldiers and they were sending their best interrogator to extract the information. The best interrogator at the DIA is Deputy Director Patricia Campbell. When SHE comes over, there is only one team on her six. That is our team, Special Operations Team 7 under the command of Captain Adam Dalton.
Top had debriefed everyone on the mission and the team was gearing up. In a move that seemed out of character, Top stepped back into his room. He perched on the side of his bed and sighed heavily. The mission seemed straight forward enough, watch out for Patricia while she ran an interrogation and send her back to DC. It did mean coming face to face with Patricia. His friend, her son, had been killed recently in the field, very near the prison they were going to. He hadn’t gone to the funeral and he hadn’t seen her in person since. Inside, Top’s emotions were all over the place. He didn’t want to be near where his friend fell, but as a soldier it wasn’t the first time. More so, he didn’t want her to have to be where her son fell. He had been relieved (and ashamed of that relief) when he was unable to attend the funeral stateside. He didn’t know that he had words to offer her, and he certainly didn’t want her to feel obligated to comfort him.
Top sighed deeply and ran his hand over his beard. Despite the turmoil in his heart, he was just going to have to put that aside and do the job. Aside from recent circumstances, he was looking forward to seeing Patricia and hoped it would be a superficial visit. He wasn’t sure either of them had the space or energy to drag it all out right now. He shoulders slumped in a way that usually only I saw. It happens when Top is surrounded by feelings and has no way out. He takes his role as CO seriously and sees himself as a caretaker of the team, but never allows for much care of himself. Sometimes, I think he forgets that as much as they are an Omega team, they are also a family. After 2 minutes and 30 second (the exact amount of time Top ever lets himself just feel), he lifted his eyes, raised his head and stood from the bed. He joined the rest of the team at the cage and finished gearing up for the mission. As I looked them over, Top caught my attention. He wasn’t entirely focused yet, feelings were still a little too close to the surface. Be careful out there, Top.
They left out in full gear and I counted them out 1-Preach, 2-McG, 3-Jaz, 4-Amir, 5-Top. That was odd, too. Top is usually the first out on the way to a mission. I hope it goes okay. Nope, can’t think that way, they are the best. Godspeed my team, I’ll be here to count you back in.
They were gone longer than expected, another mission, another one gone sideways. When the stakes are this high, the risks are too. I counted them in 1-Preach, 2-Jaz, 3-Amir, 4-McG, 5-Top. They were all moving slower than usual and the post mission hype was missing. Had they failed? What had they seen?
McG quickly went to work assessing each team member silently from across the room. Oh, something did happen, he is triaging them. That usually means Top had the worst of it, but without grave injuries would be the last to allow McG to attend him. McG started with Jaz tonight.
“Hey Jazzy” he started as he slowly approached her sitting at the table cleaning her rifle. “I’m fine, McG” she huffed. For all the love and care McG tries to offer them, they sure do wall off their medic when they can. I wish they could see McG like I do. He isn’t trying to point anything out. He cares for them all deeply and he can’t stand for any of them to be hurt. When things happen that are out of his control, he feels responsible when one of them is injured. He and Top share that burden, unbeknownst to each other.
Jaz sighed, knowing McG wouldn’t drop it until she let him look. One look at his face told her something else was stirring, and he had to work up to facing whatever it was. Upon noticing that, she relaxed and let him examine her. The RPG had been too close, the drone strike had been right on top of them and McG wanted to be sure he knew about all concussion symptoms.
He shined a light in her eyes, asked her a few questions, but they were rote and not of his usual tender care. Jaz stopped “Joe, are YOU okay?” McGuire snapped out of his reverie “Of course Jaz, I’ve given myself the rundown too.”
Jaz opened and closed her fists in her lap, she wanted to reach out to him, but couldn’t quite read his face. Finally, she laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed, “Joe, what’s going on?”
With that, McG opened up, “I’m mad Jaz, I’m not sure that mission had to go as badly as it did. We could have just walked out of the gates, but Top…” he took a deep inhale “he closed us in there, Patricia, himself and me, it was like he didn’t care if he got out.”
Jaz thought carefully before replying. “Top is a master improviser, he couldn’t let all those prisoners go. That would undo so much work and so many missions….” she trailed off. The realization hit them both at the same time. Some of those prisoners were captured by Patricia’s son. “He was protecting his legacy” Jaz almost whispered it and McG nodded.
The tension drained from McG’s shoulders. “I didn’t think about that. He seemed in his head a little all day, but he’s Top.”
Jaz nodded, “Yep, we should have all paid more attention. I’m surprised Noah and Hannah didn’t mention it.” As she pondered the DIA team, she realized that they had all been too busy to discuss anything on this mission. “ Do you think they talked? Really talked before she went back? I was always surprised that they didn’t take us out of the rotation so he could go stateside for the funeral.”
Joe smiled a little “They couldn’t, we were out on a mission remember?”
Then Jaz smiled at McG “Where I saved your ass.” “That’s the one” he replied. As they sat there the anger McG had felt dissipated. He had thought Top was just being reckless and egotistical on that day. He was trying to be a good friend and son. McG just wished Top would talk with them. They would support him and be on board. Plans often change, but this one felt a little too improvised.
As if reading his mind, Jaz replied “Never gonna happen, he’ll never open up to us that way. Besides, we shouldn’t find ourselves in this situation again and Top, he’ll be fine.” For Jaz, that was case closed on the mission. McG was still going to need to at least talk to Top. He finished his assessment of Jaz and declared that she was fine. “Told you” she said. He nodded and smiled. He took two steps and turned back “Hey Jaz” she looked up from reassembling her gun “Thank you.” “Anytime, Joe” and he felt her smile warm his chest. He and Jaz had processed Elijah’s death differently and had grown more distant in its wake. Over the last month though, they were returning to their closer relationship. He was glad for that. He had missed her.
Looking around the hut, he saw Amir in the kitchen seated at the table spinning a water bottle idly and Preach, standing at the door on the phone. Amir had to be next. For as well as they got along, McG and Amir were different. For all intents and purposes Joseph McGuire is an open book (or so it appears). Amir, on the other hand, holds EVERYTHING close to the vest. It makes Amir the second most difficult person on the team for McG to provide medical aid. McG steeled himself, slung the bag in his hand over his shoulder and headed to the kitchen.
When he got there, he grabbed himself a bottle of water and drank half of it before he approached their invisible man. “Amir, the RPG and the drone” he started, but Amir cut him off with the wave of a hand. “We all need to be checked out today, McG, it was a lot of close calls”. He offered an expression of warmth, not smiling, but of understanding McG’s job. McG’s shoulders loosened a bit when he didn’t need to fight for it.
He pulled the light from his pocket and began to assess the smaller man for signs of a concussion. Amir sat patiently and quietly as he let McG work. Amir showed no signs of concussions or other injuries save a little “road rash” from diving in the sand. Amir opened his mouth and closed it again, not finding the words. “Am I missing something Amir, are you hurt?” McG asked, heartbeat picking up a bit.
“No, McG I’m okay, I just….” he sighed and looked at the medic. “is it always this close?” McG shrugged a little. “Today was closer than usual, but yeah 9 times out of 10 our missions go a little sideways”.
Amir felt safe to inquire further “I don’t mean to speak out of turn, but it seemed like Top was…” in his head McG chuckled to himself. He wondered if he would have this conversation 4 times tonight.
“He was trying to protect her son’s legacy and keep her alive at the same time. None of us really know the relationship between them, but we know Top was close with her son. He couldn’t let his work be undone right in front of her while she stood near the place he died.” McG knew it was all more complicated than that, but it was what he could offer without speaking for Top.
“I didn’t know they were close” replied Amir. He shook his head, he hadn’t been allowed to create personal contacts in the years he was under and he was well walled off before that. He seemed a little jealous that the rest of the team had real relationships with each other and others. McG seemed to sense this, “We’ll be close too. You have my back and I have yours. Same goes for Preach and Jaz”. Amir snorted at the mention of Jaz’s name. “You’ll just have to trust me here, Amir. Jaz isn’t ready to admit it, but you are already in with her. You know I’m here and you know Preach has you.”
“What about Top?” Amir asked sheepishly. McG smiled “Top let us all in a long time ago too, he just can’t admit it aloud. He worries about lines, and command and….well look at today. He doesn’t want to let that happen very often. But Top, he has our backs.”
Amir nodded, and McG stood up. “Are you good?” he asked. Amir looked up from his water bottle, “Yes, thank you McG”.
McG nodded and said “just doing my job”. Amir and McG both knew that McG was filling in for an absent Top, but they both let it lie.
McG stretched, picked up his bag and headed in Preach’s direction. He heard the elder man wrap up his phone call home and turn his attention to the medic. “I suppose it is my turn now?” he asked.
McG nodded “You know I have to. There were a lot of explosions today.” He didn’t need to bother with the explanation, they both knew that Preach would comply without question. He took his pen light out again and checked Preach for concussion symptoms. While he was looking Preach commented quietly “I know you are making a show of this so Top will let you check”. McG closed his eyes for a minute, it was partially true. He knew that if Top saw him checking everyone else out first, he would be more likely to be checked out. Frankly, he was the only McG was concerned about.
Preach, ever the wise one, continued “but that isn’t the delay tonight. What’s going on with you and Top, McG?” They all hated (and loved) how Preach treated them like they were windows that he could see through so clearly. “I…” McG stopped not finding the right words.
“He broke your trust today, huh?” Preach had somehow hit the nail on the head without McG knowing what it was.
“I guess he did.” McG knew that Top still had their best interest in mind, but he had thrown caution to the wind with other’s lives today too. That wasn’t like Top. “I know there wasn’t another way, but usually…”
Preach finished for him, “usually the stubborn fool gets us out of the way before risking it all by himself.”
“Yeah” sighed McG. “It was like he didn’t even listen to you today. There was no check in with the group.”
“No, he didn’t”, Preach responded, “but at the end of the day, Top was right again. We would never have made it out without following his plans; and you and I both know that if he’d sent you out, we would have all died there today trying to save him.”
McG thought about that for a minute. It was true. At no point would they leave Top behind, and they would never have gotten out any other way. “I’m worried about him, though, he’s never a reckless man.”
Preach laughed at that, “Adam Dalton, never reckless, that’s rich.” Preach schooled his face “what you mean is you’ve never felt Adam to be reckless with our lives.”
McG looked up “I guess that’s it. I mean he locked us in a prison break, had explosives set off right beside us and called a drone strike on our position.” He reached for the hem of his shirt before stopping, “we almost didn’t get out today, Preach”.
Preach nodded “Joe, they are all like that now. We nearly didn’t make it out of Ukraine, Amir was nearly chased down in Mexico, I don’t even like to think about Syria and the bullet we dodged there.”
He continued, “As the world gets more divisive Joe, the objectives are more perilous. It’s what we are duty bound for.” McG shook his head slightly, “I don’t know Preach, it’s hard to be a soldier and the medic of this team.”
“McG, service to others is our purpose in life, meeting objectives is our duty. You do both every day. It’s ok to take a beat, tell us what YOU need.”
McG shifted in his seat “I need to know that it won’t happen again. I know the dangers of our jobs, but I at least always respected that he would check in with each of us on the plan.” Preach answered “Joe, can you cut him some slack today? Talk to him but take it easy. He had to see Patricia for the first time and he went with her to where her son was killed. You know as well as I do, it’s hard to do that alone as a soldier, let alone as the escort to a Gold Star Mom who happens to be your boss.”
“I guess Top really does always have more on him than we do. He’s a good leader but he’s a good man.” McG patted Preach on the shoulder and stood. “Joe, tell him that last part, would you?” Preach stood and walked toward Amir who was still seated at the kitchen table.
Jaz put away her clean rifle and walked to the table where Preach and Amir were seated. “Hey, why don’t we at least let McG have neutral ground tonight.” They all nodded and rose to go to their respective rooms. McG said a quiet “Thank you” and looked to head toward Top’s room to get him. Jaz stopped him, “I’ll send him out.”
Top had been in his room since they had returned. He knew he needed to start the report, put his gear up and eat something. But he couldn’t. His head was too fuzzy, his heart too heavy. So he sat there, on the edge of his bed, the weight of it all nearly sagging my wall. The mission had gone sideways (of course), he had felt Patricia’s faith in him falter and he wondered if that would ultimately change his status. He went over the mission in his head as he always did. In the end, the decisions were right, but it was close and Patricia faltered and McG… He couldn’t tell what happened with McG but maybe he didn’t trust him now. Top stood and sat down and stood and sat down. He didn’t know what to do with himself. He wondered briefly if this was how his career would end…a mission gone sideways where he lost the faith of his team, or maybe he had lost his way. Today it had been difficult to focus.
Top thought he vaguely heard a knock on the door but didn’t acknowledge it. He knew it was McG to force the checkup, but he wasn’t ready to face him yet. The knock got louder, and he rose to face the music. To his surprise, it was Jaz on the other side of the door. “Top, you ok?”
“I’m fine, Jaz. Did you need something?” he half blurted half growled at her. She was undeterred. “Yeah, you not to do that to McG. You know he must check us all. You took one to the plate, an RPG nearby and were closest to the drone strike. You have to be checked and you need to take it easy on him.”
He started to reply but didn’t want to add anyone else to the list of people who had lost faith in him, especially not Jaz. His shoulders hunched over and he looked smaller than I had ever seen. Jaz seemed to see it too. “Top, we did good today, we got it done, we just had to improvise a little.”
“But Patricia,” he started. “Is fine and on her way back to DC having stopped another bombing.” Jaz finished. “Top, mission completed and successful, what’s going on?”
“I told you I’m fine Jaz” this time he neither growled nor commanded. He spoke like Top always did. With that, he seemed to be ready. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and looked at Jaz. She motioned with her head to the common area. “Want me to come?”
“No, I need to let McG do his work” was the reply. She turned on her heel to go to her room but glanced back over her shoulder “Hey Top? The plan was good, it worked out, we’re good.”
“Thanks Jaz.” Top almost believed her as he walked into the common area where McG stood. McG stood still frozen between anger and fear. He didn’t know how to approach Top today and he desperately wanted first to make sure the man was okay. Whatever his feelings were, he knew that he had to be sure Top was ok, that his friend was ok. “Top, it’s your turn.” McG said simply.
Top nodded and walked over to sit down, tension radiating between them. “I need you to take your shirt off” McG said. Top, in an attempt at levity, said “Isn’t it usually you that parades around shirtless?” McG bristled internally, but kept his features schooled and explained he needed to check his chest where the round hit his plate. He thought it best to start there and move on to the concussion check. Top obliged and tossed his shirt on the table. I nearly gasped. His chest was purple and angry looking. That happens with the armor on?!? McG carefully looked the wound over, grabbed his stethoscope and listened to Top’s heart and lungs. “Looks like just a deep bruise, it’ll hurt for a few days, but I think it’s fine.” Top nodded.
McG reached into his pocket and grabbed his light for the final time of this round. He looked into Top’s eyes. “Any ringing in the ears?’ Top chuckled, “Yeah, a little.” McG studied his CO and stepped back. “That should resolve by tomorrow, let me know if it doesn’t, OK?” Top nodded and McG continued “I think you have a mild concussion, lucky son of a gun.”
Top looked at McG “What?” McG relaxed a bit, “All that you’ve done today would have killed anyone less stubborn” he finished. The two stopped, each looking down, and then both spoke at the same time. McG held his hand out for his CO to go first. “McG, I’m sorry I let you down today.” Top said simply, he didn’t have more words for his medic, his friend at this time.
“Top, you didn’t,” McG started to say, but the look in Top’s eyes told him he already knew he was lying. “Ok, so it felt different, reckless, today”.
Top sighed, “I know Joe, it was a tough day out there and I didn’t handle it all as well as I could have, as well as I SHOULD have.” He scrubbed his face once with his hand and grabbed his shirt. He silently asked McG for permission to put it back on. McG responded with a small nod. Top used the time to gather his thoughts. “I hadn’t been face to face with Patricia since her son was killed, to be honest, I hadn’t processed any of it myself. When we were at the prison and she was with me, I knew I could ruin his legacy. His team captured many of those prisoners and with her at my shoulder, I couldn’t…” he stopped.
Suddenly, McG understood. On this day, he recognized the struggle for Top, the push and pull of different things needing your attention at the same time. It was a struggle he often had, taking a life in one second and giving all he had to save one in the next. With that realization, the anger he had harbored for the day evaporated. He looked at his CO, “Top, I get it, I really do. It was a tough day, but we got through it. It was a mission gone sideways, but you got us through it. Your plan worked, it was good. You’re a good CO, but you’re a good friend and a good man.”
Top dropped his head at that. “Joe, you have to know that I wasn’t trying to put you in harm’s way. I couldn’t find a way to protect you and Patricia without letting all those guys go. Patricia has already lost so much, I just” he trailed off.
McG sighed, “Top, we know you want to protect us, and we appreciate it, but you can share the weight. It all gets heavy and we’re a TEAM, it isn’t you and then us.” He started to say more, but decided that it was best to stop there. McG looked Top over again “I mean it Adam, you’re a good man.” Top still looked unconvinced but nodded. He looked at McG “You are too, Joe.” They nodded at each other and McG headed off to his bunk. “Good night, Top”.
Top dropped his head, he looked around and found all quiet in the common areas. He recalled the words he had said to Patricia. It was miraculous that she had done all she had and raised a good soldier and good son. Top wondered if he was either of those. He knew he was a skilled soldier, but he wasn’t always sure good would fit. For just a moment, he gave into the weight of the day and allowed a single tear to travel down each cheek.
McG’s words echoed in his head “you’re a good man.” Today, he felt that dark side bubbling up, the one who wanted to avenge the death of a friend, to take revenge on behalf of a grieving mother. He pondered whether that was his problem today. It wasn’t, that side was always there.
Today was derailed by feelings. He couldn’t let the rest of the team in and risk them, he couldn’t send Patricia and McG out without losing the prisoner and intel. He still couldn’t find a different way, but it still felt wrong.
Top, why won’t you listen to them, you ARE a good man. Why won’t you talk to them, they care for you just as you care for them. It was at that moment that clarity found me. Top didn’t know how to be cared for, especially by men. He had never experienced it really, and in prior units he had remained far more detached. This team, in this place, we are a family. That was what Top struggled with, he didn’t know how to let this family in. It wouldn’t be resolved tonight, but Top looked like he wanted to figure it out.
He rose from his chair and turned out the lights. He stepped into the hallway of the rooms for his nightly check.
Preach’s room – All is quiet. He hadn’t gotten to check in with Preach after the mission. He seemed fine, but Top never liked to miss that step. He would talk with him in the morning.
McG’s door – The light was still on and Top thought about knocking. He paused and listened for any sign that might guide his actions. It was quiet and Top thought McG might need some time after tending to them all. He had no idea that on the other side of that door, McG was fighting an internal battle.
Before he had entered his room, McG was ripping at his shirt, desperate to get it off. Days like today made it especially bad. Shirts, in general felt confining to McG, but after a mission like today, McG could barely stand it. The front of the shirt weighed on him with the calling of a medic, the need to help. He loved being a medic, but they didn’t make it easy. The counterweight was the back of the shirt, feeling like the heavy armor of a soldier’s duty. Every time they went out, he wondered which side of the shirt would bear more weight. In his mind, he always hoped it was the back of the shirt. The weight of duty, the necessities of being a soldier were always easier to bear than the service of a medic.
Both carried uncertainties, but he still often had more control of his fate and the fate of others as a soldier than as the medic. This is why McG doesn’t wear shirts more than he has to. They feel like the constant constraint of the two competing roles that he faces every mission. Sure, he tells them it is less laundry, or that he is good looking, he keeps it light. He is happy to be an open book about most things, but this battle, he doesn’t know how to share it. Except, tonight it seemed that Top has similar battles. McG thinks he should talk with Top about it sometime. Maybe it would help them both. With the weight of the shirt off, his shoulder lift. McG turns off the light and gets in bed.
Top is startled by the light under the door going suddenly dark but it is the sign he was awaiting. He turns to stop at Amir’s door. He briefly wondered if he should have taken Amir inside with him. He shook that off, obviously McG was necessary as they needed his services as a medic. Still, he was glad to have Amir on the team. The room was dark and quiet and between the exhaustion, emotions and concussion, Top couldn’t think of anything to add to his list here.
Jaz’s door – He had considered taking her in the prison with him. He knew she was the best shot on the team. As the memory of the day floods around him, his heart begins to race at the thought of Jaz trapped in the prison with him. Today, he gives no room for this, whatever it is, dismisses it as the concussion and heads toward his room.
He walks into his room and starts to shut the door. He stops and leaves it open. He climbs into bed and sighs a mixture of exhaustion and annoyance. There had been no mention of it, but he knew McG would be in to wake him in a couple of hours. He drifted off to sleep.
I stood in the quiet watching over my team. They were all a little worse for the wear today. They all seemed just a little restless. I was happy that it was my turn to care for them, to shelter them through their rest. I watched them all for a while sleeping and was about to bid them their goodnight when…
An alarm went off in McG’s room, then in Jaz’s room, then one in Amir’s room and then one in Preach’s room. I was confused, it certainly wasn’t time to get up. They all met in the hallway, none knowing the other had taken on the first watch. “I guess we should have asked McG which shift we were taking” stated Amir. They looked at each other, none willing to give in and let someone else check on him. “Fine” said McG, “We’ll all go. He’ll love that.”
The clump of them walked quietly to Top’s room. They all smiled at the open door. “Seems like he was expecting one of us.” said Preach. They all silently conceded to let McG enter first. He walked over to the bed and stopped. Waking Top could be tricky. He reached a hand forward and stopped. Jaz stepped a little further into the room “Top, wake up.” She said as gently as possible. He didn’t move. “Top” she said a little louder. Still he didn’t wake. They exchanged some slightly worried glances. McG decided he would have to try another route. He placed his hand on Top’s shoulder and gently shook him. The first time, Top did not move. The second time, he opened his eyes to slits. “Yes, McG?”
“You know how this works, I have to check on you every couple of hours or you spend the night at the hospital.” “Yeah, yeah.” groaned Top. “Why are they all here, then?”
Jaz, Amir and Preach stood gawking. How could he possibly know they were there when he could barely be awakened? McG chuckled, “Scheduling issue.” “Hmmm”replied Top “by my count if I sleep 8 hours, you should each get a turn, you didn’t all need to come at once.” Inside, Top felt relieved. He may have caused some of them to falter today, but they still wouldn’t leave a man behind. He was glad for that.
Jaz was the first to speak “we wanted to do the first check each for ourselves, we needed to know.” Those words were the most honest and clear words of the night. “Ok” said Top. McG finished the check and they started to retreat out of his room. “Who’s got next?” Top wondered aloud. The group looked at each other. A quick game of rock, paper, scissors decided that Amir would have the next check, then Jaz and then Preach. They told him the schedule so he would be aware, you do not sneak up on soldiers at night.
As they settled into their beds again, I took up watch for them. Two hours later, Amir rose and checked in and found Top to be fine. I stood watch until it was Jaz’s turn. She entered his room and laid her hand on his shoulder like McG had. The heat of it felt like it would burn her and she wondered if he had a fever. She gently laid her hand on his forehead. He felt fine, but her hand was on fire. She tried to give a quick assessment of herself, did she miss an injury? Before he was fully awake, he reached up to take her hand. Her heart raced and her breath stilled. She recognized the fear from Ukraine creeping up but there was more than that. She gently pulled her hand away and steadied herself. She looked down to see blue eyes looking right through her. He smiled, “Jaz are you alright? I thought you were supposed to check on me.” With that, she was able to put this “incident” out of her mind and check on Top. Top was already drifting off to sleep as she walked out. She quietly said, “Night, Top.” She was at the threshold when she heard his quiet response, “Adam”. She shook her head and went straight back to her room. She sat on her bed as if she was on overwatch and calmed her breathing. She was clearly ignoring something, it takes something to rattle a sniper. Her usual methods worked well enough and she drifted off to sleep.
Before the next alarm went off, Top had strolled down the hall and was in the kitchen making coffee. He didn’t look worse for the wear, but his chest was bothering him some. He sat down with two mugs of coffee. They didn’t have time to cool at all when Preach walked in. “I knew I would find you here. You’re supposed to be resting.”
“I’ve slept all I can right now, and I need to get on the report.” He sheepishly added, “I still have to unpack my gear as well.” Preach was having none of it. “If you’re going to insist on being up, you’re going to sit there and drink your coffee, slowly.” Top started to argue but Preach cut him off “or we can talk about it all.” Top was not in the mood for that talk this early in the morning so he sat quietly and slowly drank his coffee with Preach.
Turns out, he wasn’t finished resting and soon he had drifted off to sleep on the couch. Preach had suggested they have their second cup of coffee in more comfortable seating. He knew Top would fall asleep given the chance, so he gave him the chance. Preach gave in to sleep after a few minutes and it was quiet.
Rest now dear team, we can have a quiet day. I will stand watch until you wake.
Find me on Twitter @quonsethut7
Chapter 6: Tough
Jaz finds a soft spot while watching someone else being tough. Friendships expand and bonds get tighter.
The day was moving along, Amir and McG were playing horseshoes while Jaz did some training outside. Preach finished up a call from home as Top worked on his regular paperwork. Preach and Top were discussing family when Jaz walked through. Preach was just ribbing Jaz and Top about ending up alone when we heard the familiar beep-beep-beep beep-beep-beep. Patton looked up and the conversation halted as Top typed in the unlock code. “Deputy Director Campbell” he greeted. “Gear up, we need you in Nigeria”
The mission was to run enhanced protection for an ambassador in Nigeria. They all quickly grabbed their guns and ammunitions from the cage. Within 2 hours they were grabbing bags off the ground and heading out the door. I counted them out: 1-Top, 2-Preach, 3-Jaz, 4-McG, 5-Amir. Good luck team, I will wait here to count you back in. I knew that this mission was slated to last the duration of the peace talks. It seemed like our team had finally caught a break for an “easy” mission.
They returned to Turkey under the cover of night. Patton was sleeping on the recliner, not content to be out of sight of the door. Patton and I were always a little restless when the team left on a mission. It can be tough to be left behind, not knowing what is happening, not knowing the outcome. It’s like Top told Jaz, “sometimes all you can do is wait”. The breezes that blow around on the airbase, both natural and made from aircraft, always highlight how empty it is here when the team is away. I often watch to see if tumbleweed will roll through when they are out. Despite his sometimes annoying habits, I’m so glad that Top let Patton stay. It is nice to have some company when the family is away. Even when the mission is expected to be straight forward and simple in objective, I am always glad to hear them pull up out front. I was no less ready when I heard their arrival on this night. I watched to count them in, never daring to assume anything. Slowly they filed in: 1-Amir, 2-Preach, 3-McG, 4-Top, 5-Jaz. I could relax my walls a little. They all looked physically ok, it is half of the battle for each mission. Maybe less than half for some of the missions.
Preach, as usual, quickly put his gear in the cage and headed to his room to call his family. He rubbed his face as he entered the room. On this night, he paused for a moment before picking up his phone. He took a deep breath and steeled himself for the phone call. What did you do Preach? What do you wish you could tell her? Why do you feel like you deserve to be rebuked? Before he could pick up the phone, Amir was knocking on his door. Startled, Preach waited for Amir to enter. Amir paused at the door and looked at Preach. If it had been Dalton or Jaz, Amir’s meaning would have been misinterpreted or missed entirely. Preach knew though, that Amir was checking in on the cost of going undercover, no matter how brief. “You gave us more than a shot today Preach, you saved the mission.” Amir spoke quietly. Preach sighed, “I know it was the right thing, but it was close today and that little girl…” his voice trailed off and in a rare moment, Preach found himself without the right words. Amir took the 4 steps across the room and laid his hand on the taller man’s shoulder. “I don’t have a family of my own to call and keep me grounded. Lean on them when you can, and on us when you need. You didn’t have to cross over today, keep your head high.” Amir glanced downward as he finished knowing how many times his cover had required him to cross over to the dark side. With those few words, Preach’s mood changed. “Thanks Amir, you are a real asset to the team. More than that, you are a good friend.” Amir nodded and took the opportunity to leave Preach to his call, satisfied his purpose was complete. “Tell the girls we all said hi.”
With that, Amir left Preach’s room and went to his own for prayer. For once, he didn’t feel like he had been second guessed on a mission. In fact, he had been surprised when Top had sent him to the rooftop for the sniper. It was an uncomfortable thing for the invisible man, but it conveyed to him the confidence Top had. Top, for his part, seemed to have been ultra-focused today. Amir assumed that Top was trying to make up for the last mission and gain whatever trust real or perceived he had lost from his team. Aside from the sniper, his job had been relatively easy on this mission. He knew from the flight back that each of the others were processing various aspects of this mission. Amir hoped he was close enough with them now that they would accept his support. He laid out his rug and began his prayers. As always, I wanted to stiffen my walls into a fortress around Amir during prayer time. It goes without saying that Team 7 took no issue with his active practice of faith, but it was still tricky in the general population. His devotion to his own core is such an admirable trait, especially given his need to go under cover so frequently. Yes, I always want to provide Amir a safe place to return to himself. Tonight, Amir seemed on stable ground and it was nice to see.
McG, on the other hand, looked shaky as he slowly put his gear away. Both Jaz and Top laid their hands on his shoulder as he passed by them. “Any complaints if I hit the shower first?” he asked. The team had silently made a pact on the flight back that McG got the first shower. Today his task between soldier and medic was measured in seconds and his medical attention was required by a civilian. A civilian named Joseph who could have died. A civilian that he had been nearly ordered to kill himself. “It’s all yours Joe” came the answer from Top. “McG” Top paused and waited for McG to turn around. When he did Top continued, “nice job today, I know what it took.” McG nodded and turned on his heel and went to shower. As he walked down the hallway he took several deep breaths. It felt nice to be acknowledged by Top. His superior understood the duplicity of McG’s role and Top knew that today the duality was pushed to the limit on a razor’s edge. If his chatting with civilian Joseph hadn’t calmed him, he would have had to... he couldn’t think about that. McG turned the knobs in the shower and waited for the steam to rise. He stepped into the shower with a nail brush in his hand. The hardest part of post-mission medic work was getting the blood out from under his fingernails. He nearly never had the luxury of time to don nitrile gloves in the field and more frequently than he would like, he returned from a mission with blood under his nails. As he scrubbed, he thanked God and the universe that none of the team had required medical attention today.
After he finished cleaning under his nails, McG proceeded to wash the day from the rest of his body. As the water ran cold, his thoughts turned to his conversation with Joseph about his father. McG nearly never thought about his lack of a father, but today, for just a minute, he wondered what would be different if he had known his. He had never lamented his upbringing and he wasn’t about to start today. He stood tall, turned the water off and dried himself with a towel. He stood in front of the sink, wrapped in a towel as he grabbed his toothbrush and without any thought began to brush his teeth. He let his mind clear of thoughts as he moved the brush around his mouth. When he finished, he dropped the towel and put on his boxers and sweatpants. On this night, McG hadn’t even bothered with the pretense of a shirt. He had no room left to fight the duel that came with a shirt, sure that on this night a shirt would literally suffocate him. McG walked to his room, took off his shower sandals and put on some flip flops. He was exhausted but also hungry. Despite his desire to be alone, he skulked toward the kitchen in search of something to eat. As he walked down the hall he saw the sliver of light from under Amir’s door and heard Preach on the phone with his wife. He knew that left Top and Jaz in the common area, but he hoped he could just grab a snack and some water in peace.
He sat at the table with a banana and a bottle of water. Jaz nodded as she passed by on her way to the shower. McG was thankful to get by with nothing more than a nod from the sniper. He knew she was processing things of her own tonight and despite his oath and internal drive to be a helper, tonight he had nothing left to give. The razor’s edge was nearly too thin today, too sharp and though all ended well, his soul was heavy. Across the room Top sensed the residual turmoil within the medic and knew that he needed to do something. Once again a theoretically easy mission had cost them all a price not calculated by the Pentagon. The team was lucky that Patricia understood the toll these missions took and Top felt sure that tomorrow would be a day off. With that, he had made his decision. He strode over to the refrigerator and grabbed two beers. He carried the bottles in one hand and laid the other on McG’s shoulder. “Let’s take a walk, Joe.”
McG raised his weary eyes to look at Top, ready to argue. What he saw in his CO’s face changed his mind. McG stood and looked down at Top “These shoes alright or do I need something sturdier?” Everyone knew that Top’s “walks” were often hikes through the outer training fields on base or just outside the perimeter. “Those are fine, Joe” Top smiled kindly through his reply. McG puffed out a sigh of relief knowing they would stay close to base. He was too tired to walk that far and too weary to argue with Top. The pair opened their beers and stepped through the door and into the darkness.
Jaz walked into her room and sat at the edge of her bed. She stood up and looked at the chest of drawers holding her clothes. She sat back down on the bed. I felt the weight of her emotions pulling on my walls. More than that, I felt the weight of her feet rooted into the floor. There on the side of her bed, Jaz let the tears fall freely. I wanted to yell for Top and McG to get their attention, but they were busy. I contemplated rattling the window in Amir’s room to alert him, but he was still busy in prayer. Preach was still on the phone with his family. JAZ IS CRYING!!!! IS SHE HURT? I tried to scream out, but they can’t hear me. I’m desperate for someone to help her. Jaz only lets tears fall in the shower, she must be in physical pain. I look over our sniper and can find no injuries. Her shoulders are hunched and bouncing with sobs but not a sound can be heard. Jaz let me help, what can I do? Five long minutes passed as Jaz’s body continued to be wracked by sobs. Slowly through the 6th and 7th minutes the sobs dissipated and in the 8th minute Jaz raised her face. Her eyes were rimmed in the brightest red I had seen. She took one last stuttering inhale and set her jaw. There she is, our Jaz, finished with the indulgence of emotions. I was still concerned not knowing what had brought this outburst to our beloved sniper. She stood and walked across her room. As she took the few steps across the room, she pulled her hair down and it cascaded over her shoulders. She gathered her things and entered the bathroom. She turned on the water and stepped in. Whether Jaz had purposely left it cold or the hot water had not caught up after McG’s shower, I couldn’t tell. For her part, Jaz seemed unbothered by the cold water. Her skin told a different story, littered with goosebumps. Finally, Jaz seemed willing to let me in on the day. Here in the bathroom, her sanctuary and confessional. “I told her maybe I was tough because I was a girl, I think she ran because of me…” Jaz was muttering to herself. I struggled to hear it all over the water, but I could piece it together. “He was holding her, if I had missed…” she swiped her hands across her face and through her hair before she continued “I could have killed her. Either way she has to live with that forever” as she trailed off, the tears returned. Oh Jaz, why can’t I have arms to give you a hug? I wished for a moment that I could create a steam cloud to protect our dear, badass sniper. The men never let her know that they had emotions and shed tears in their rooms so Jaz believed she was the only one who cried after missions sometimes. “She thought I was tough. I’m not that tough, look at me here crying. She didn’t cry. I didn’t even hug her right” Jaz is always too hard on herself.
For all the overt duality in the roles of Top and McG, there is a hidden duality in the role of Jaz. Everyone ignores the fact that she is a woman until it becomes a tactical advantage. It is just as difficult to shift in and out of those roles as anything the others do. They don’t talk about it with her because they don’t understand being a woman. Jaz is phenomenal at processing this all alone. She finds it easier to be herself and play down being a woman in this team than as a Delta. Previous COs either ignored her abilities or expected things from her. This family treats her like Jaz. All the things that make her Jaz are all the things we all love about her. I do wish that these moments when Jaz lets down her guard and is truly just Jaz, that the family could see. She thinks it shows weaknesses. I think it highlights how tough she really is. They would of course let her in on their secrets too, but we aren’t there, just yet. For now, I’ll be the secret keeper for them all.
Jaz emerges from the bathroom in her usual sleep attire but tonight her hair hangs free. For just a few moments she is determined to embrace her “inner girl” in honor of the brave little soul she helped save today. She knew she would never know how the girl’s life would turn out. What she knows for sure is but for a millisecond and a millimeter the girl’s life would be over. Still a win is a win and that mission was about as clean a win as this team gets these days. Jaz walked out to the kitchen to grab some water. She glances around and finds no others in the room, but the lights are still on. She shrugs it off and takes a seat on the table with her water. She pulls her feet up into the seat of a chair and stares off into the distance, absently drinking her water.
Outside, McG and Top were slowly walking around the nearby area. They both felt the need to keep moving but neither wanted to stray too far after such a long day. They had been talking for a while about managing duality when Top stopped to look up at the stars. It took McG by surprise, so he stopped too. “Top?” He paused for a few seconds before he continued “just say what you want to say.” This time Top was surprised. “I just wanted to make sure you are okay, Joe.” He rubbed his beard, “I knew when I gave the order that it was the worst I could give you. I need to know that you are okay, that we are good.”
McG sighed in relief, he thought Top was going to talk to him about Jaz or another team member. “Adam, I know we had that bump in Afghanistan, but you know I trust you. I know your orders are for good reason and you have brought us all home enough times that we know, I KNOW, you are a master tactician. You can see 5 steps ahead of the rest of us. It was a tough call, but the right call and I’m glad it worked out the way it did.” Joe looked at the ground and drug his right toe across the sand. When he looked back at Top, he said, “Adam, these missions are all tough but you made the right call. It all worked out.” He laid his hand on Top’s shoulder “Are you okay, Top?”
Top sighed and smiled at McG weakly, “Yeah Joe, I’m ok. It just seems like I have to ask so much of each of us for every mission these days. I don’t want to impose too steep a price on anyone.” McG knew what Top meant but truly did not have the strength to work it all out on this night. He turned to Top, “We are all here voluntarily, Top. We know the job and we understand the price. Besides, you don’t set the prices, the people we fight do. You can’t hold yourself to account for that.” Top opened his mouth so speak, but stopped short and just nodded. He knew they were all worn down and needed a break. “Thanks, McG.” That short sentence was all McG needed to know this conversation had been concluded. It also meant he had permission to go to bed. “Goodnight, Top”. “Night, McG.”
McG dropped his empty bottle in the recycling bin at the door. He scarcely even looked up to see Jaz on the kitchen table. He sighed and threw a “Night Jazzy” over his shoulder hoping she would let him pass on through. “Night McG”. McG walked on down the hallway as he huffed out the breath he had been holding. He walked into his room and sank down onto his bed. He took his one good hand and scrubbed it over his face several times before rising to turn off the light. He climbed into bed and reached for the blanket. He paused a grabbed his phone from the bedside table. The screen lit up as he entered his security code. He quickly typed out a text message “Thanks for everything Mom, I love you. Another one down, see you soon. Love, Joe”. McG didn’t often text his Mom after a mission, but the events of this one instilled a need in him to tell her those simple, but often unspoken, truths. He laid the phone back on the table, rolled over, pulled the cover over his shoulder and closed his eyes. I kept watch over him until I was sure he was asleep. Goodnight McG
Jaz was still lost in her own thoughts and didn’t hear Top approach her. Top was surprised that the team ninja didn’t sense him causing his brow to furrow. He knew that shot had cost Jaz more than usual. He also knew she wouldn’t be convinced about it tonight. Still, letting in lie wasn’t in his nature without checking in on team members who seem to be off a little after a mission. Top sighed to himself. He had seen the relief and responsibility she felt as they exited the Mall in Nigeria and he had wanted to give her a hug. That wasn’t possible so he had clung to his rifle instead. Now, that same urge returned to him seeing the sniper lost in thought in the kitchen. “Jaz” he started quietly. Top knew better than to surprise their sniper. Her head was low and he couldn’t see her face through the curtain of her hair. She gave no verbal response but shrank even further into herself as if trying to camouflage herself. Top couldn’t help but smile to himself. She was well trained, but didn’t always remember when they weren’t in the field. He decided to walk around in front of her to gain her attention. “Jaz, look at me.” He pleaded softly but was close enough he was sure she heard him. Slowly she raised her head. Her eyes glistened with unfallen tears, “Sorry Top” was all she could say.
“Sorry for what, Jaz?” Top was utterly confused. This tough sniper in front of him has been instrumental in saving 29 lives and literally was the only one who could have saved that girl. “For being weak, I don’t usually let it get to me, I’ll be squared away by morning.” Top shook his head. He knew he didn’t speak of the after effects of the missions, but he also knew they plagued each team member. Did she think she was the only one? “No need to apologize, Jaz.” He started to tell her that each team member wrestled with post mission emotions but thought better of breaking the confidence of the other team members. That left our master tactician with only one choice: disclose his own truth. “The missions get to me too.” Jaz looked her CO in the eye and knew he was being honest. She tried to mask the shock but her façade was too weak on this evening and Top could see right through it. “What we do is tough, the stakes are high and even the wins come with a price.”
Jaz nodded in agreement but looked around quickly, looking for an escape. “I think I better rack out, Top.” Top, recognized an escape plan when he saw it and lightly grabbed her shoulder to stop her. She turned to face him as he said, “Jaz, you saved her. When nobody else could, you saved that little girl.”
“It’s my fault she ran. I told her I was tough because I was a girl. I didn’t hug her right, she has to live with it forever, the man dying right above her” the words flowed out of Jaz like water from a faucet. I was relieved that she was sharing with someone else, someone who could do more than just shelter her. After all, I was usually the only one privy to such confessions from Jaz. Top knew words, a walk and a beer weren’t going to fix this one. He thought back to those moments after the cornhole tournament, where they deemed each other best friends. Mentally he slid over into the best friend space (maybe too easily) as he prepared to help Jaz.
He reached for her and she tensed. “Top” she started. “Adam, “ he replied. She knew immediately what he meant and stepped in for the offered hug. In this space, the best friends, space, hugs were allowed, first names were allowed and so was vulnerability.
Top held her tightly and spoke into her ear, “Jazzy, you don’t always have to be so damn strong. You get to have feelings, you get to need a friend, and I’m here whenever you need me.” He felt her smile a little against his shoulder. “After all I’m your best friend, right.” He couldn’t help but smirk a little to himself. “Yes, Adam, you are my best friend.” came the muffled reply. They loosened their hold enough to look at one another. “I’m never going to like crying here. It will always make me feel like the team will wonder if I’m still good enough.” That was as honest as I had ever heard Jaz with her feelings. This best friend thing seemed to be working out for them.
Top looked in her eyes, “Jaz, there is nothing you could do to change your place or value to this team. But you need to know, sometimes the emotions get me too. If I came to you, needing a friend and a shoulder, would you think less of me?” Top waited and hoped for an answer he could take. “Of course not Adam, your job is tough, you have to let the pressure out somewhere. I could never think less of you for it.” Top just looked back at her awaiting her realization. She rolled her eyes when it hit her, “I hear you Adam.” Top indulged himself in a tighter hug. His best friend was more comforting to him than she realized on this night. He thought he ought to tell her that. “You know I nearly had to order McG to” she pulled her arms tighter around him and cut him off. “I know Adam, but you didn’t and he didn’t and we are all home. We got all the hostages out and we all came back safely.” They indulged in this hug for just a moment longer before Top slid back into the CO space. He released Jaz and she knew to change roles as well. “Thanks Top, I think I’ll rack out now”
“You’re welcome, rest well.” came his reply. She turned and headed to her room, feeling lighter and ready to rest and then face another day. As she entered her room she smiled to herself. For the first time since losing Elijah she felt that she really had someone on whom she could lean. She wasn’t sure that having Top in that role was the best idea, but for now it was nice. She turned out her light and laid down ready for a good night’s sleep.
In the kitchen Top poured himself a cup of coffee. He was tired, but this report would be quick and if he knocked it out now, he had a chance of having most of the next day off. He placed the mug on the kitchen table and walked over to the desk for the AAR forms. He sat down at the kitchen table filling out the necessary form. He would save typing the narrative for the morning, but he could get the forms in the mail tomorrow morning. After years of it, the forms didn’t take long and he finished just as he drained the last of the coffee from his cup. He placed the report on his desk and walked to the sink to rinse out his mug. He sighed to himself. The mission was a success, sideways, but a success. The team seemed to be ok, but he thought that maybe they should have a fun day tomorrow. He started at the door and turned off the lights one by one as he made his way to the sleeping quarters. He paused to scratch Patton’s ear as he passed by. Feeling in a particularly generous mood, he called for him “Come on boy, you can sleep in my room tonight, on the floor.” Patton jumped down and moved ahead of Top and into his room.
Top began his nightly check of the team. Preach was already asleep. Top did admire the man for jumping in and giving them the chance today, but he wished he knew better ways so the family man wasn’t at so much risk. Preach was one of the best, but Top felt protective of the man and his family. But for tonight, all was well, so he moved on.
Amir’s room was quiet. Top smiled a little to himself remembering the surprise in Amir’s voice when he’d sent him after the sniper. Amir still didn’t feel trusted by the team and Top wasn’t sure if that was his own doing or carry over from Amir’s previous work. But they were making progress, so it would be fine for now.
McG’s room was dark and he heard the snores emanating from the room. They all heard them. Not a single person in the hut tonight would give McG a hard time about his snoring. He had earned all their respect many times over and today was no exception. Top was glad he and McG had added a new level to their friendship. McG was often overlooked in being cared for by the team, not intentionally, but because he was so good at caring for them all. Top moved on to Jaz’s door.
Jazzy, Jazzy, Jazzy, Top thought to himself. He knew that between the redactions in her file and her being a woman, he would never know the cost of her getting here. He was, however, determined to make sure she knew it was worth it. She was a valuable part of the team, nearly irreplaceable at this point, but also important to him personally. They were acknowledging their friendship openly now and it helped to know she would lean on him. She still hadn’t sought him out, but the label was new and he believed it would come in time. Her room was dark and quiet and he knew she was asleep, he could almost feel it.
When he walked into his room, Patton was already curled up on the blanket in the floor and fast asleep. Top quickly changed into his pajamas as sleep threatened to take over. He was asleep nearly before his head hit the pillow.
Once again the family was safely tucked away and resting. Good night team, family. Get some rest, I have the watch until morning.