Echoes of gunfire, screams and explosions rang in his head. Former Marine Sergeant David Clayton had thought his days in the battlefield were over. With a new job, new life, new objective, he thought he could leave it all behind.
But, what he wants, he knows won't come to him. For the actions of his men in Afghanistan had deeply effected him, like a scar worn on his body.
He lies awake in his middle class, two story house. In his bed, his wife lying next to him with an arm draped across his sweat slicked chest. Long healed cuts were chiseled like mementos. Tanned and rough skinned from long days in the sand. His days were spent with blood, sweat and tears.
Sweat dripped down his face, his eyes tightly shut. Eyeballs darted around behind aged eyelids. Clayton's right hand curled into a fist and grabbed the white fabric underneath all the while his wife grabbed on to his chest tightly with tears in her eyes.
His nightmares had persisted day after day ever since he left the service and this, was his third month.
The rough, crude sand blew at their faces. Marines of the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines were pressed behind their Humvees. Pinned by enemy fire, their squad leader was quickly running out of options.
"Dark Horse One-Three to Dark Horse One-One, we are pinned and combat ineffective!" Sergeant Clayton screamed, hunched over his backpack radio, "need reinforcements over!"
"Dark Horse One-One, unable to send back-up. We too are pinned down and unable to assist. Wait for air, over."
"Damn it!" Clayton yelled out in frustration and slammed the radiophone into the ground.
"Sergeant!" One of his men cried.
"What is it?" Clayton asked, grabbing his M16A4 rifle.
"They're pushing up closer towards us from our ten!" Private Grissom, one of the newer Marines out of boot camp, reported.
Sergeant Clayton slowly inched towards the back of his Humvee. He pressed himself to the metal skin, gathering courage to look out and into the wall of incoming fire. With a deep breath, he peeked out with his rifle aimed.
The highway was built on a raised slope, land next to it was flat and brown. Nothing out of the ordinary in the desert. Few mud buildings dotted the landscape along with the wide fields of opium poppies. Within the field of brown stalks, black turbans bobbed up and down, running towards the slope. Clayton pulled the trigger and placed a burst into the bobbing bundle of fabric.
The black turban disappeared, just to be replaced by bullets bouncing off the Humvee's trunk.
Clayton snapped behind the Humvee's safe, thick armor plating.
He looked to his left and saw his team of three. Private Grissom, clung to his rifle like a lifeline. His first tour and he was facing death straight in the face.
The rifleman, Private First Class Ryan was on his back. Not because he was tired or feeling overwhelmed but bleeding. His body armor and gear were littered next to him. Skin pale and clammy, his breathing was staggered between breaths of air and globs of blood. Red liquid pooled out from his chest, bubbling as it dripped down his ribs.
Their machine gunner and second most senior squad member, Corporal Keller, hovered over Ryan like a hawk. Keller's hands were pressing on Ryan's chest, under it were gauze pads. The cloth soaked up blood like a sponge. Keller had already stuffed Ryan with the gauze to stop the bleeding, but still, the blood leaked out like a cracked pipe.
"He's not looking too good Sergeant. Ryan needs medical attention," Keller said, "and fast."
"I know, I know!" Clayton replied, biting the bottom of his lip in shear frustration.
He could taste warm, metallic liquid.
"Grissom!" Clayton barked.
"Y-yes Sarge!" the young Marine replied.
"Try to get down the damned trench and circle the enemy, give us some covering fire!" Clayton ordered, seeing Grissom nodded.
"You got i-it Sarge!" he tried to answer back confidently, his voice clearly shaking.
"Get some Private!" Keller yelled, trying to motivate the scared Marine.
Clayton turned around and pulled out a fragmentation grade from his vest. He pulled the pin, counting.
One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand.
He lobbed the grenade high in the air and pressed himself against the Humvee. A loud bang silenced the entire highway.
His helmet smacked against the Humvee.
Ears ringing, his vision blurred and darkened. Clayton was unable to move. Time seemed to move inconsistently, the flow disrupted by blackouts. The only thing he could count were the heartbeats thumping against his chest and the breaths that seemed to fill his ears.
"Sergeant!" A voice screamed, snapping Clayton out of his coma.
His blue eyes snapped open.
"What happened?" he gasped.
"Grissom..." Keller opened his mouth but quickly let the sentence fade into oblivion.
Clayton looked back to see a massive crater a couple meters away from his Humvee. Rising dirt and smoke still obscured the slope but he could make out what laid next to it. Darkened blood seeped into the ground, the blood of crimson spreading out around the vague shape. The shape was eerily familiar but was missing a few things. Limbs? Smoke cleared to reveal the desert digital camouflage. Only a single arm and a head was still attached to the corpse.
Then it hit Clayton.
Grissom was dead.
He felt a pang in his stomach. Something burned inside his throat. The sight made him sick. Two tours of duty but this had to the most raw and visceral thing he had experienced. Bullets pinging against the Humvee brought him back to the battle.
"Keller," Clayton gulped, "how's Ryan?"
Keller simply shook his head.
Clayton looked over his shoulder to see the still body of his Rifleman. No sound escaped his mouth, no movement from his chest, no signs of life except for the blood seeping from his wound.
"If I'm going to die," Keller said ominously, "I'm going to go down fighting."
Clayton nodded in agreement. He racked the bolt on his rifle and slapped in a new magazine as Keller clambered onto the roof of the Humvee. Keller slid into the M2 Browning machine gun turret easily. With a single pull, the jammed bullet that previously left he fireteam vulnerable, was ejected free of the machine gun.
Keller thumbed the machine gun.
Clayton popped out from behind the Humvee, the steady thrumming of the machine gun beside him. He fired back at the enemy. Red tracers zipped past him. Adrenaline coursed through his body. The hairs on his back stood as he could feel the heat of the bullets searing the skin on his face.
Time seemed to slip his grasp as he loaded in his third or so magazine. All he knew was that he was exhausted from keeping the enemy off him and Keller. Without notice, the opium fields exploded into a storm of dust and dirt. He left to see a Humvee convoy speeding towards him, their Mark 48 Grenade Launchers and M2 Browning Machine Guns blazing.
With a sigh, Clayton collapsed into the Humvee.
He noticed that the M2 was silent.
"We made it Keller," Clayton whispered, tired.
The Humvee came to a skidding stop, it's brakes squealing under the weight. One single squad, twelve soldiers, dismounted the vehicle. The squad leader, Staff Sergeant Kilroy, Dark Horse Two-One walked towards Clayton. He was the leader of Clayton's sister squad.
The man looked down at Clayton.
"Shit Sergeant," he said, "you must have been very fucking lucky to have survived."
"Yeah," Clayton wheezed, "fucking lucky."
Staff Sergeant Kilroy extended a hand to Clayton whom grasped on to gratefully. He was pulled up, Kilroy slinging Clayton's arm around his neck.
Clayton chuckled, then laughed.
The insanity of the situation could not be comprehended. It was his nerves talking. He just took fire, survived to tell the tale and had numerous amounts of adrenaline pumped through his body. He was now coming off the high he just received.
Clayton turned around to speak to Keller on the machine gun.
"We made -" Clayton started, his sentence abruptly stopped.
The barrel of the M2 pointed towards the heavens. Keller was slumped against the machine gun, a giant hole drilled into his helmet. Bits of blood and gray brain fluid sprayed around the turret. The roof of the Humvee was decorated by the pink of his brain. Bullet holes riddled the entire vehicle, the armor plate could only do so much.
Clayton's heart sank. The burning in his throat returned. This time, he didn't even bother to stop it. He fell to his knees, rifle clattering against the asphalt of the road. His lunch splattered onto the black tarmac in a disarray of white, yellow and brown.
Kilroy crouched next to him and gave him a pat on the back.
"Congratulations Clayton," he said, "you're a lone survivor."
Clayton's eyes shot open.
He sat up, breathing heavily. His lungs were burning like he held his breath underwater for too long. Glittering in the moonlight, cascading from the windows of his house, were four dogtags hanging off his neck on a ball chain. One for each soldier, including himself.
Sweat drenched his body as he buried his face in his hands.
Long, slender arms snaked around his torso. His wife pulled his body close to hers and rested her head on his shoulder blades, kissing them. She tried to reassure him.
Former Marine Sergeant David Clayton was awarded with a Bronze Star for his bravery in combat, a purple heart and a single legion of merit for his outstanding actions against the enemy when his squad was pinned down by the enemy.
He felt didn't deserve any of it.
Corporal Keller was awarded with a Medal of Honor for trying to save Private Ryan's life. Ryan and Grissom weren't awarded with anything.
"Come back to bed sweetie," his wife purred.
"Yeah," Clayton whispered, lying back down on the soft mattress.
"The nightmares will go away soon," she murmured.
"Three months Claire, three months..." he said.
"Don't worry," she yawned, "it's a matter of time."
"It's not the time that worries me," Clayton said, rubbing his eyes.
"It's the Survivor's Guilt."