Ashlyn walks into her office and suppresses a groan. She had managed to avoid Captain Bowie since he had chewed her out over the left tools incident. Thankfully she had either been in planning meetings or he had been out at sites the last 2 and a half weeks. She sits down at her desk, hoping to keep a low profile.
No such luck.
“HARRIS! I need to see you!” he calls from his office.
Ashlyn groans internally as she stands. “Yes, sir. Coming.”
She grabs a notebook and pen and makes her way into his office. He gestures for her to close the door and take a seat.
“Where do we stand on the Jurf Al Sahkar build?” he asks without preamble.
“We should have all the materials here tomorrow. Once we’ve confirmed with Apache Company that the town is still secure we’ll get everything moving that way,” she reports.
“Good. When you get back you need to arrange time for you to shadow me a bit more and learn what you’ll be doing once you are promoted to captain. If all goes well, you get your promotion in June and take my desk in July in time to start training the officer that will replace you come December.”
When Ashlyn doesn’t respond he looks up and sees the stunned look on her face. He lifts an eyebrow.
“Don’t tell me you forgot you’d be taking my desk in a couple months, Lieutenant,” he says.
“No, sir. I mean, I didn’t forget, sir. I just thought...after the incident with the tools that I basically kissed my bars goodbye.”
Bowie gets a small grin on his face. “Harris, if we passed over for promotion every officer that fucked up one time we’d have no generals.” He pauses a moment. “You saved your finishing team, Harris, and that counts for a hell of a lot. You assessed the situation and got your asses out of there before being overrun by insurgents. These ISIS fucks are scary as hell. Was it bad you forgot the nails and shit? Hell, yes. But despite the colonel, the major, and me reaming your ass about it, you made the best choice possible at the time.”
Ashlyn frowns, anger bubbling up in her. “Then why the fuck did you all act like I had made a huge mistake and...and was...was a coward, sir?” she asks, fighting to remember to maintain military decorum.
He leans forward on his desk. “If I ever made you feel like a coward, I apologize. And if the major or the colonel made you feel that way, they will hear from me. You had two choices that day: delay the escape to get the tools loaded or just get the hell out. Only you know in your heart if you made the right decision. As to the colonel...between you and me he’s not a real big fan of women in the military, especially women in leadership positions. He’s back in the States in a few months so just try to avoid him until he’s gone. The next guy coming in...is a woman,” he says with a grin.
Ashlyn manages to smile. She thinks for a few seconds. “Sir, for the record, had we delayed we’d have been overrun. I know that. As it was, my vehicle took quite a few hits and an RPG barely missed us. I’d like to think the next time this happens, I’d do the same damn thing. But after the dressing down I got, I just don’t know.”
Bowie sits back in his chair and thinks a second. “Lieutenant Harris, you did everything right. I am confident that next time this happens, and sadly we know it will, that you will forget me. Forget the colonel. And forget Major Dalton. Your adrenaline will take over, your mind will be solely on getting your people out of there alive. You will make the decision to abandon materials to save lives or to rescue both lives and materials. I can’t sit here in this office, nor can anyone else, and truly second guess decisions made in the field, under fire.”
“Then why the fuck did you?” Ashlyn demands to know. Then remembers her rank. “Um, sir,” she adds.
“Because we all have to answer to the Pentagon, Harris. And when you sit at this desk in a few months you’ll forget for a moment how fucking different it is here versus the field. And the higher your rank, the shorter your memory. We were wrong to dress you down for that, Lieutenant.” He pauses. “Just remember that when this desk is yours and a lieutenant pulls this same shit on you.”
Ashlyn considers that a moment then slowly nods her head. “I’ll remember, sir.”
He grins. “I’m sure you will. Dismissed.”
Ashlyn gets up and goes back to her desk to finish the prep for the build that starts the next day. And to contemplate whether or not she will forget what it felt like to be ripped a new one when she had done the right thing. She slowly shakes her head.
“No. No I won’t forget,” she vows to herself. “Lives matter more than tools and shit. I will never, ever forget that.”
She takes a deep breath and opens up her email to see the status of the materials she will need for rebuilding two schools and a community center. It would be a long build and one she would be proud of when it is complete.
Ali kisses her dog tags and slides them into her bag as the team prepares for a light practice the day before their first Algarve Cup Game. Whitney gives her a nudge.
“Heard from our soldier lately?”
Ali grins, her eyes lighting up. “Last night I got an email from her. With pics. I’ll show you at lunch,” she promises.
“So she’s doing better?”
“Yeah, a lot better.”
“Good.” Whitney shakes her head. “I can’t believe her captain acted like it was no big deal that they tore her up about that other incident. It’s just...frustrating.”
“No kidding. From what she said, the colonel is a real male chauvinist pig. His attitude coloured the response of the major and the captain. When her captain stepped back and read all the reports, he realized she made the right choice to save her team versus the shit they left behind.”
“Damn right she did,” Whitney states. “So, she going to be able to watch any of the games?”
Ali sighs. “Probably not. She leaves on a build today. Or, rather, she left on it today. Sounds like she’ll be there about 2 weeks since they are putting up 3 buildings.”
“Cool.” Whitney finishes tightening her laces and stands. “So, any chance she’ll be smuggling a puppy or 20 home?”
Ali laughs as they walk out on the field to begin ball drills. “Not if she wants to get lucky when she gets home.”
The two laugh and get ready to play some keep away...groaning when they realize Tobin is in their group.
“Who’d we piss off to get stuck with the Nutmeg Queen? This is going to suck,” Ali asks as they get ready to go, getting a wink from Tobin as the whistle blows to start the drill.
Ashlyn lies down on her sleeping bag. “This is going to suck,” Ashlyn mutters. She shifts a bit before finally sitting up, lifting up her bag and trying to sweep the mini-boulders that are under it away. She settles back down and sighs. “Better. Sort of. Fuck.”
She reaches into her shirt and pulls out the letters that she had placed there for safe keeping on the 6 hour trip out to the new build site. She flips through them, smiling. Kyle. Ali. Alex. Whit. Sarah. Deb. Tammye. Chris. Grandma. She can’t resist: she lifts her grandmother’s to her nose, getting a faint whiff of the perfume the woman wears. Every letter and gift she had received had included that ol’ factory reminder of home.
“Hey, Lieutenant Harris? I hate to disturb you but someone is here to see you,” the private charged with guarding her tent tells her.
Ashlyn sighs and tucks the letters away once more, keeping them close to her heart. She crawls out of her tent and sees a woman she had seen earlier near the build site. She offers her a smile.
“Hi. Can I help you?”
The woman steps closer and nods. “You...in charge?”
Ashlyn nods, carefully studying the woman. She flicks a glance at the private, who nods at the unasked question: the woman had been searched.
“I am. I’m Lieutenant Harris,” she tells the lady.
The woman’s face suddenly breaks into a wide grin. She offers Ashlyn a folded up cloth. “I make for you. You make nice school for my sons. You take.”
Ashlyn slowly shakes her head. “No. Really, I can’t. We’re not allowed. But it is beautiful and I wish I could. Thank you so much.”
The woman shakes her head, still pushing the cloth towards Ashlyn. “Take! Please, take! For my sons!” the woman insists.
Ashlyn shakes her head again. “I really can’t. It’s against our rules. Maybe you can give it to a teacher or something.”
“PLEASE!” the woman begs.
And this time Ashlyn sees the fear in the eyes despite the smile. She hesitantly takes the cloth. The woman smiles and hurries back to her escort who will take her back to the edge of the tent village. Ashlyn looks up at the private as she carefully unfolds the garment. A piece of paper flutters to the ground. She bends down and starts to read it, her eyes widening.
“Son of a bitch!” She looks at her guard. “Wake Skilks and get her on the horn. We’ll need support out here tomorrow.”
“Where are you going?” he asks as she runs off.
“To wake Andrews. Fucking insurgents are planning to attack as we get started working.”
The private takes off for the radio operator’s tent. Ashlyn gets to Andrews tent and slaps the side of it.
“ANDREWS! Get out here! Shit storm is coming!”
He crawls out, still pulling on his gear. “What’s up?”
She hands him the note. “Let everyone know. I’m heading to Skilks.”
Ashlyn gets to the private just as she makes contact with the night crew back in Bagdad. Skilks hands the radio receiver to Ashlyn.
“Major Dalton, ma’am,” Skilks reports.
“Sir, we’ve just gotten word from a local that ISIS plans to attack as soon as we start to work in the morning,” she says immediately.
“Son of a bitch. I thought they swept the area yesterday?”
“That’s what we were told. By now Andrews has sent a messenger off to Delta Company, who are helping the police here in town. But from what she told us, all of us won’t be enough.”
Dalton can hear the fear and adrenaline coursing through his officer’s voice. He clenches his fist, furious that whoever did the security sweep screwed up.
“Are you sure we can trust this intel?”
“Can we afford not to, sir?”
“Shit. No, we can’t. What are the odds of getting trucks started back tonight?”
“Clear night is in our favor. Of course, it’s in their favour, too. And they may attack before back up can arrive if they think we are escaping,” she points out.
“Fucked if you do, fucked if you don’t,” he mutters.
“Pretty much, sir,” she agrees.
He thinks a moment. “For now, stay put but be ready to get those trucks rolling at a moment’s notice. Get with Delta Company’s c.o. He’ll be in charge of setting up the counter attack but, Harris, if you think he’s endangering your people you do what you think is right.”
Harris nods, even though he can’t see it. “Yes, sir. My leaders are here. I’ll get with them and give you a sit-rep in an hour.”
“Sounds good. Will give me time to get with the Infantry and arrange ground and air support.”
“Yes, sir.” Ashlyn hands the receiver back to Skilks. “Let me know if he calls back. Otherwise expect me back here in an hour.”
“Yes, ma’am,” she says.
Ashlyn turns to Andrews. “Report, Sergeant.”
“Ma’am, have a messenger team on the way to the police station to get with Delta Company. Right now everyone is packing up gear and getting ready for anything. I’ve ordered double-ups on the outer patrols.”
“Excellent. Sergeant Newton?”
The 18-year NCO nods. “Have people putting supplies back in the trucks. My guess is we’re not leaving out tonight?”
“Correct. Could make them act before we get support back here,” she confirms.
He nods, happy with the decision. “Good. We’ll have everything ready to move when the boys with the big toys get here, ma’am.”
Ashlyn can’t resist. “Some girls come with those big toys, too, old man,” she says with a wink.
He grins and the others chuckle, glad for the brief bit of levity. She looks at her build team leaders.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve had our asses surprised. This time...this time we’re standing here prepping on the eve of battle. That’s not what we came to this town for but it’s the hand that’s been dealt to us. Dalton is already mobilizing support so hopefully our participation will be brief or non-existent. Regardless, we will be ready. Make sure everyone has their ammo ready and their tool belts off. We all go home, soldiers. We all go home.”
Her team nods and goes to get with their individual squads to make sure everyone is ready for the impending battle. Andrews steps up to Ashlyn and grins.
“I thought this was supposed to be a vacation tour, LT.”
Ashlyn grunts. “Just another day in the sandbox, Sgt. Feel free to kick back and build a sandcastle while the rest of us save your ass.” He chuckles and remains by her side as status reports start to roll in. “This is going to be a stressful fucking day. I’m nervous as shit,” she mutters. Andrews just nods.
“I can’t believe how stressed I am. I’m nervous as shit,” Ali mumbles as she pulls on her socks.
Lauren looks at her and grins. “What’s to be nervous about? We’ve got our keeper back. We’ve got a good coach. And we’re looking good at practice as we prep for Canada.”
“And Whit is hurt. And Cap is hurt. But other than that, the defense is just fine,” Ali answers with a shrug.
“Nothing we can do but control what we can control,” Lauren says. “And from what I’ve seen you can control the right side just fine.”
Ali chuckles. “Nicely played, Mrs. Holiday. Nicely played.”
Lauren giggles. “So, still nervous?”
“A little. But it will also dissipate in the heat of battle,” Ali says with assurance.
“Exactly! Let’s go, Princess Warrior!”
The two high 5 then get up to go start their warm-ups. As they are doing touches, Ali happens to catch a look on Julie Johnson’s face. The youngster has been tapped to take the place of her idol in this game and Ali can see the fear in the girl’s face. She remembers her first cap and feeling the same way. She makes her way to JJ’s side.
“You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t earned the right to be here,” she whispers.
JJ gulps. “Right. Okay. Sure. I think I’m gonna be sick.”
Ali chuckles and pulls her off to the side. “I get it. I swear I do. Every player out there has had to take the place of a hero. Abby and Mia. Carli and Foudy. Alex and, well, someday Abby,” she jokes, getting a giggle from JJ. “The thing is, don’t go out there and play like Cap. Go out there and play like JJ. Look to Chups, Becky and Me if you need help but I doubt you’ll need it. It’s just another game, JJ. Go out there and play like you know you can. And, more importantly, like we all know you can.”
JJ thinks about that a second, then nods. “I will. Thanks, Kriegs. I really needed to hear that.”
“No problem. I know today is the start of a very impressive career.”
JJ nods again. “Damn right. Let’s do this!”
The two share a fist bump then get back into drills. Jill gives Ali a wave and the right back jogs over to her.
“All good, Kriegs?” she asks, nodding towards Julie.
“Just a few butterflies. She’ll be fine once things get going,” she assures the coach.
“Good. You’re a hell of a leader, Kriegs,” she praises.
“Thanks. So are you, Coach.”
Jill smiles as Ali jogs back into the drills. It was going to be a hell of a year.
Ashlyn watches as Andrews seems to be giving a pep talk to one of the recent arrivals. The kid looks about 12 to Ashlyn. She shakes her head, wondering when she started feeling old at 29. Andrews pats the boy on the shoulder and walks over.
“All good, Andrews?” she asks, nodding towards the private.
“Just a few butterflies. He’ll be fine once things get going,” he assures his lieutenant.
“Good. You’re a hell of a leader, Andrews,” she praises.
“Thanks. So are you, LT.”
Ashlyn just grunts as they turn towards the rising sun, looking for signs of the approaching enemy. It was going to be a hell of a day.
“Ma’am, Delta Company on the line,” Skilks says from behind the safety of a sandbagged foxhole. Though the private hated the extra precaution, Ashlyn insisted knowing losing the radio means losing lives.
Ashlyn walks over and takes the receiver. “Harris.”
“We’ve got movement about 20 kilometers from your build site.”
Ashlyn turns that direction and slowly shakes her head. “Still not seeing anything. Where’s back up?”
“About 20 minutes out. Will you guys be ready to roll?”
“Yes, sir. Drivers are already in the vehicles and we’ll be in them and tearing back down the road to Bagdad as soon as the order is given. Until then, we’re here with small arms support.”
“Very good. Hang in there, Lieutenant, and we’ll get your asses out of here in one piece.”
“Yes, sir,” Ashlyn agrees. She hands the phone back to Skilks. She grabs the binoculars from Andrews and scans the horizon. “He said we...fuck...there they are.”
“What are you seeing?”
“They are in tan to match the ground. Keeping low. Fucking butt load of ‘em,” she answers. “Back up is about 20 minutes out. Be ready to get people the hell out of here when they arrive.”
“And am I going to have to drag your ass into a truck this time?”
Ashlyn turns to Andrews. “I’m not leaving until I know we’re all out of here,” she tells him.
“Then know I’ll be plastered to your ass until the last second,” he tells her and offers her his hand.
She clasps it and nods. “Let’s do this,” she says. “In it to win it, right?”
He grins. “Damn right.”
Lori Chalupny clasps hands with Heather O’Reilly. “IN IT TO WIN IT!” they chant and break up so Lori can take the field at left back.
HAO grins as she watches her friend run out there, her mind on the third member of their trio who had done it during call-ups to the U-19 team. “Miss you, Ash,” she whispers as she makes her way back to the bench.
The first half of the game the US can feel they are fighting to get their legs back under them. Time is a bit off in the back. Passes are not as crisp as they could be. Shots are not as well struck.
And then Norway scores on a goal that should never have even been a shot. Ali feels curses under her breath, trying to figure out how they had let that ball even get on frame, let alone in the back of the net. The defense quickly groups together.
“That one is on me. I should have punched it harder. You guys are doing great,” Hope tells her backline. “Just keep playing your game and I’ll tighten it up on the line.”
Ali sees the pride in the other defender’s eyes. Hope had changed a lot since she came back, including focusing on good rather than bad. This is the kind of pep talk they need after a goal, not dwelling on the negatives. As they break to get ready for the kick-off, Ali grins at the keeper.
“Well said, Keep.”
Hope shrugs. “I promised you guys I’d changed. I see things differently now both on and off the field.”
Ali nods. “Good. I’m happy for you, Hope. And damn ecstatic for us!”
Hope chuckles as Ali jogs into position. Hope marshal’s her line.
“Okay, ladies, tighten up the flanks. They want to play it wide, use the sideline to double team them. No more goals!”
Her line nods as the ref blows her whistle. Ali pushes forward, fighting to get into a position to help the offense as best she can. By the time the whistle blows to end the half she is tired but despite the 1-0 deficit, she is proud of her backline teammates. She catches up with JJ.
“You’re doing amazing out there!”
“Yeah? Really?” she asks nervously.
“Yes, JJ, you are. You’re holding your line. You’re stopping their advances. You are doing great. Sure, there are couple things to work on but that’s the same for all of us when a new line-up starts working together. You keep fighting and we’re going to be just fine,” Ali assures her.
Ali nods and turns her attention to Becky who has a few questions for the right back.
Ashlyn grabs Corporal Macklin by the collar and drags him from the gun mount of the Hummer. His eyes are wide and he gasps for breath. She stares him in the eyes.
“YOU KEEP FIGHTING! WE’RE GOING TO BE JUST FINE, YOU HEAR ME?” she screams at him to be heard over the sounds of the battle now waging on the edge of town.
She releases him as the medic drops down beside him and starts to work on the neck wound that looks damn scary even though it obviously missed the carotid artery. Before anyone can stop her, Ashlyn scrambles up into the turret to train the .50 cal back towards the advancing ISIS fighters. The first time she fires it she is nearly knocked from her perch. It had been a while since she fired that forceful of a weapon. She straightens up, braces herself better, and again starts to fire at the enemy.
“LIEUTENANT! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!” Andrews screams at her.
“HOLDING THE LINE, ANDREWS! WHERE THE HELL IS THE CAVALRY?”
“WAIT FOR IT!” he says.
As she is about to ask what the hell he is talking about, the sound of an M1A1 tank firing shuts her mouth. She watches in the distance as the shell explodes, sending ISIS fighters flying.
“FUCK YEAH!” she screams.
Within minutes she is getting word that the infantry and cavalry support is now moving into position and the Engineers should now retreat to give them room. Ashlyn leaps down from the gun she had been manning and grabs a nearby corporal.
“You know how to work the .50?”
“Then get up there and do it!” she orders.
He scrambles up into the turret take over the gun. Ashlyn looks at Andrews.
“So far 20 minors, 2 majors, all already loaded up and ready to go.”
“Let’s do it!”
They split up, each one racing down opposite ends of the line, ordering the rest of their teams to the vehicles to make their escape. The trucks pull out first, carrying equipment and wounded. Hummers go next with the last one being the one Ashlyn and Andrews jump in. As it starts to pull away, a rocket lands right in front of the left tire, blowing a hole in the ground that the heavily armored vehicle rolls right into, tipping over.
“FUCK!” Ashlyn screams as she braces herself against the ceiling and door.
The Hummer ends up half on the driver’s side, half on the roof. The four soldiers inside scramble out and race towards what is now the last Hummer in their caravan. They hear guns. They hear explosions. They choke on smoke as they gasp for breath, their eyes trained on their last hope of escape for the moment. Luckily the gunner had seen them and called for the driver to stop. The four squeeze into the already full vehicle and it takes off after the others.
“Ma’am, should I have them stop so we can redistribute?” the driver asks.
“Fuck no. Not yet at least. Let’s get to checkpoint Nova. If the battle has been left behind, then we can stop. Until then, let’s just pretend we’re sneaking into a drive in,” she tells them.
Her soldiers all chuckle, glad to see she is confident enough to joke around. It makes them feel everything is going to be okay. Ashlyn stares into the eyes of her friend and sergeant, Andrews. They are laid out across the laps of the three men squeezed into the back seat. Ashlyn manages to smile.
“So, Michael, you going to tell your fiancé about our little snuggle session?”
He grins. “You gonna tell your wife?”
Ashlyn chuckles. “Nah. I’d hate to see her kick your ass.”
He laughs. “Me, too, LT. Me, too.”
About 20 minutes later the driver tells Ashlyn they are approaching checkpoint Nova. Since she can no longer hear the battle, she orders him to send word to stop the caravan. She and the men that had been squeezed into the Hummer, redistribute into the trucks. Ashlyn finds herself sitting and staring at 2 wounded men...and a body covered by a tarp. She swallows hard as the trucks start to roll again. She looks up at Sergeant Newton.
“Who?” she asks, nodding towards the tarp.
Ashlyn stares at the body of the 20-year old who would have finished up his first tour in Iraq in three weeks. Now, instead of running through an airport into the waiting arms of his family, he would arrive in Dover and be removed by the back of a cargo plane by a military honour guard while his family watched, devastated at the loss of their oldest son. She leans her head back against the wall of the truck.
“What a fucking day...” she mumbles. “I’m fucking exhausted.”
Newton just nods his head, knowing it is a physical and mental exhaustion that no one but other military personnel would ever understand.
“What a fucking game. I’m exhausted!” Ali says as she pulls off her jersey.
“You played a hell of a game, Kriegs,” Hope says as she passes by.
“Thanks. I had planned to write a letter to Ashlyn tonight to tell her about everything but I just don’t think I’ll be awake for long once we reach the hotel.”
Hope chuckles. “I know what you mean.” She pauses a second. “Thanks for what you said on the field. It meant a lot to me.”
Ali nods. “I meant every word. Glad to have you back, Hope.”
Hope nods and move on to shower and change.
Ali is right, she is too tired to write to Ashlyn when she gets back to the hotel that night. She sighs as she kisses her dog tags before lying down.
“I love you, baby. Hope your build is going well,” she whispers into the darkness.
In no time at all she is fast asleep.
Eight hours after the fire-fight began, Ashlyn is finally walking into her hut. She is dirty. She is sweaty. She is smelly. And she is exhausted. She lifts up a picture of her and Ali. She gives it a kiss and sighs as she drops down onto her bunk.
She stares at the ceiling for hours.