A/N: Thanks for the reviews. As for the title of the story, friendly-fire is not the doctrinal military term. I never liked the term myself and the doctrinal term is fratricide, or in more recent military vernacular, "Blue on Blue." As a veteran myself, I was trying to be as accurate as possible with my terms and definitions, but I had to simplify the military jargon. According to the US Army, "Fratricide is the employment of friendly weapons and munitions with the intent to kill the enemy or destroy his equipment, or facilities, which result in unforeseen and unintentional death or injury to friendly personnel." The later chapters are already featuring characters who despise that term.
Second Lieutenant Thomas Daniels looked around the Battalion Aid Station at one of the grimmest sights he'd ever seen in his life. There were wounded men everywhere, crying out in pain, moaning softly to themselves, blood dripping onto the ground. Medics rushed back and forth between the cots in the makeshift trauma area. Everyone was at wits end. It had been like this all night, and most of the medical personnel were on the verge of collapse. Tom felt the same way, but he couldn't even close his eyes. Not even for a minute. Not since the bombing . . .
12 Hours earlier . . .
"Annihilator 6, this is Red 1, we can see the beacon. Over," whispered Tom Daniels into his radio headset.
"Red 1, this is Annihilator 6. Good copy. Have you made contact yet?" asked his company commander, Captain Marcus Cunningham.
"Negative, Annihilator 6. The Red Wolves have not made contact with Chupacabra," Tom replied, using the call sign for the Special Ops team they were extracting. "Also negative on any enemy contact. Have any other Annihilator elements detected anything?"
"That's a negative, Red 1. Keep your eyes and ears open and be ready for anything. Annihilator 6 out!"
Tom handed the headset back to his radioman, Specialist Zach Kelso after completing his report to his commander. He moved forward to where his lead squad was set up in over-watch of the scheduled link-up point. It was dark, and he had to lower his night vision goggles to his eyes so he better navigate the uneven terrain and make as little noise as possible. SPC Kelso followed him, as did two more Soldiers, who covered their platoon leader's rear during movement.
As Tom quietly picked his way to his lead element, he thought about the mission at hand. His company, Alpha Company, the Annihilators, were tasked to link up and extract a Special Forces team that had been sent out after one of Saddam Hussein's sadistic unit commanders in Iraq. The man, Colonel Raheem Jamil al Hassani, was a ruthless disciplinarian and the butcher of hundreds of Kurds in northern Iraq during the purges in the 1990's. The locals called him "the Soul Catcher," because they believed when he looked into your eyes, he would steal your soul to feed his unquenchable bloodlust. His own men feared him, and his superiors let him do whatever he wanted, so long as he continued to make the Kurds suffer.
The mission briefing several hours earlier had convinced Tom that Col. Al Hassani really needed to receive an Old Testament punishment. However, the Army wanted him alive to not only gather intelligence on the Iraqi military, but also to put him on trial for war crimes. The Special Forces team, coded named Chupacabra, was detailed to sneak into al-Hassani's camp and capture him. Al-Hassani was on the run from both Kurdish militia and coalition forces and had taken his most loyal forces and moved out of his headquarters and into the desert. Army Intelligence uncovered a lead on the camp's whereabouts and tasked a Special Forces team to conduct the raid to capture the "Soul Catcher."
During the briefing, the "Annihilators" were assigned to be the primary effort for the mission. They were tasked to link-up with and extract the Special Forces team and their prisoners, providing protection during movement back to Headquarters for debriefing and the interrogation of any prisoners. A secondary mission was to prevent the team's interception by Republican Guard units operating in the area or Col. al Hassani's own black operations troops.
Tom's platoon was supposed to be in support of the company's 2nd Platoon, led by Tom's friend, Second Lieutenant Joseph Swenson. Joe's platoon was the company's main element. Its mission was to be the extraction platoon, while Tom's First Platoon and Third Platoon were to protect its flanks from enemy action, and support its withdrawal upon link-up. The mission was supposed to be a classic link-up and extraction, and had gotten underway exactly as planned, that is, until the appointed rendezvous time. When that time passed, the troops on the ground began to get worried.
"Red 1, this is White 1 have you seen or heard anything? Over." came the voice over the radio. SPC Kelso handed Tom the radio set and told him Second Platoon was calling in.
"White 1, this is Red 1, say again, over?" was Tom's reply.
"Red 1, this is White 1, I repeat, have you seen or heard anything? Over!" Joe Swenson's voice sounded a bit anxious. Tom sympathized with his friend. It was a very important mission and tensions were high. They were out in unfriendly territory with plenty of enemy forces in the area. Joe was the tip of the spear for this operation and he was beginning to feel the strain. Tom knew his friend would keep it together, but he wanted to make sure that Joe knew that Red Platoon had his back.
"Negative White 1, we haven't seen or heard anything yet. I was about to send a fire team to probe up our azimuth about 100 meters. They will be off your right flank, over."
"Good copy Red 1. Thanks for the heads up and support, over."
"White 1, when was the last time you sent a recon element forward to see if they are in the area but at slightly different coordinates? If they were waiting out an enemy patrol, that would slow them down, over."
"Acknowledge Red 1. That's a good point. Will contact Annihilator 6 and let him know we are sending out a leaders recon forward of our position. Will let you know distance and direction once it's approve by the CO, over."
"Roger that White 1. Red Wolves standing by in support of your operation, over."
"Acknowledge Red 1. And thanks. White 1 out." Joe's voice sounded more relieved after talking to Tom. Joe was a very bright young man, who was eventually going to be a military intelligence officer after a few years in the infantry. He did pretty well as an infantry platoon leader in the interim, however, he could occasionally get tunnel vision and get a little obsessive when assigned important missions. That's when he leaned on Tom, who was more than glad to lend a hand.
Tom moved at the low ready to wear his lead squad leader was lying down, scanning his squad's twelve o'clock. The staff sergeant acknowledged his platoon leader's arrival with a nod of his head. As Tom lay down beside him, the squad leader handed his lieutenant a stick of gum and laid out a copy of the mission map.
"Well Mitch, what can you tell me about what's in front of us?" Tom whispered, around the fresh gum.
Clearing his throat, Staff Sergeant Abel Mitchell looked at his platoon leader and spoke quietly, "Sir, not much right now. Can't see any movement out there and I sure as shit can't see the other side of that wadi from here. Alpha team is ready to go probe ahead for any sign of Chupacabra or enemy forces. Unless you've heard something otherwise, we should get them on their way. We are already half an hour past link-up time."
The young platoon leader pondered the information that his veteran squad leader gave him. He knew that Mitchell was right about the link-up time being past due. But he was also mindful of what he just talked to Joe Swenson about. This far out in enemy territory, with both regular and irregular Iraqi forces known to be in the vicinity, Tom didn't want his men exposed any longer than they had to be. However, they weren't the main effort, and needed to make sure they didn't do anything to foul up the operation by jumping the gun.
Just as Tom was about to give the order for Alpha team to move out on the planned recon, he heard Kelso answer the radio. The radioman handed Tom the handset just as he heard, "Red 1, this is White 1, do you copy, over?"
"This is Red 1, read you Lima Charlie over," Tom responded in a hush.
"Red 1, just got off the horn with Annihilator 6," came the staticy voice of Joe Swenson. "He gave us the go ahead to send out our recon element to scout for Chupacabra. Have you launched your own element yet, over?"
"Negative White 1, we were just about to do so. Is there an issue, over?"
"Red 1, negative. Just making sure we were targeting your people, over."
"Acknowledged, White 1. We will be sending our recon out parallel to yours on the same axis of advance azimuth. Our position is roughly 150 meters directly to your east. Recommend we launch recons at the same time. How copy, over?"
"Good copy Red 1. Will send out recon elements in five mikes. White 1 out."
Tom looked over at SSG Mitchell as he handed Kelso back the hand mike. "Have Alpha team move out in five mikes. White Platoon will be sending out their own recon on the axis of advance azimuth at the same time, roughly 150 meters to our west. Make sure our guys remember the appropriate challenge and passwords. We don't need any friendly fire incidents with either White Platoon or Chupacabra. We clear on that Mitch?"
The experience non-commissioned officer nodded his head at his platoon leader and said gruffly, "Roger sir. Smitty knows his shit and his team is solid. But I will remind him anyhow."
Tom felt better hearing that reassurance. "Good. Now get them ready to roll in four mikes."
As he watched Mitchell crawl over to the recon team, Tom checked his watch. He didn't need to check back in with his commander for another twenty minutes. Once the recon team moved out on their mission, he figured that he would head back towards the middle of his formation and check in with his platoon sergeant. He had travelled behind his lead squad for a majority of the march and wanted to make sure the rest of his platoon was ready for action when the moment came.
Seeing the tell-tale signs of movement in the vicinity of the recon element, Tom and his three Soldiers slowly and quietly made their way to the makeshift platoon rally point about twenty meters to their rear. There he checked in with his platoon sergeant, getting updates on the whole platoon. Double checking that each squad was in their proper position and that the medic and litter team were set in the center of the formation, Tom started to feel better. He knew his platoon was squared away for the extraction and that after two months of combat, they were battle-hardened. The "Red Wolves" were definitely ready for anything.
Or so they thought. Just as Tom had checked his watch to see that his recon team had been gone for about fifteen minutes, there came a bright light flashing skyward, directly ahead of the platoon about 200 meters in front of them. Shouts came from that direction and that was followed quickly by spurts of gunfire. Word came down from SSG Mitchell that the recon team had encountered enemy forces. As Tom was trying to get comms with his commander, a faint roar was heard in the distance.
Tom looked up as he recognized the sound of military jet aircraft streaking into the vicinity. His attempts to contact his commander were unsuccessful. Confusion was beginning to grip his platoon, despite their experience. Tom was about to move out two squads to extract his recon element when they heard the sounds of personnel moving quickly to their front.
Seized by duty and ingrained leadership, Tom scrambled up to his forward element with his rifle ready. His platoon sergeant was moving two squads up on line with First Squad, in preparation to repel oncoming enemy forces, should they be pursuing the recon team. As Tom and his subordinate leaders prepped their Soldiers for the inevitable firefight, the roars from overhead became deafening.
And then all Hell broke loose.
Back in battalion aid station . . .
Tom shuddered as he relived hose horrible moments while being treated at the battalion aid station. Despite his protests that his injuries were minor compared to those suffered by many in the company, both his battalion and company commander ordered him to receive treatment. He was the last of the injured to be seen, as he had refused to leave the site of the bombing while his men were still in danger. He gritted his teeth and worked through the pain, the grief and the rage.
Our own motherfucking birds blew us up and our mission went to complete shit, he seethed as the medics plucked a couple pieces of shrapnel and debris out of his left arm and leg. He grimaced, but refused to cry out as the medics tried to patch him up. He was running on adrenaline and anger.
What the Hell could have happened to have our own people mistake us for the enemy? I don't care what has to happen or how long it takes, I am going to get answers to this. He blinked through the pain, and a tear rolled out of one eye. Thomas Daniels was going to find some answers alright, because he owed it to his platoon, and because the truth was owed to everyone lying here in this bloodstained triage tent.
"Good see that you've finally decided to get looked at, Tom," came a voice from behind him. Tom gingerly turned his head, and saw CPT Cunningham walking towards him. With him was the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Victor Stepanek. Tom attempted to get off the makeshift exam table to come to attention for his leaders. However, seeing the medics struggling to treat the stubborn junior officer, LTC Stepank raised his hand in a halting motion.
"Stay seated Lieutenant," was the terse command from LTC Stepanek. "If you keep moving, they are liable to sew things together that aren't supposed to be attached."
Tom knew better than to argue with LTC Stepanek. He was a hardass, old school infantryman, spending nearly all his time in light units that were knee deep in action. He'd served with the 82nd Airborne in Panama and Haiti, the Rangers during the Gulf and with the 101st Airborne in the Balkans. Victor Stepanek was notoriously hard on young lieutenants. The fact that a brand new second lieutenant like Tom was given a platoon in the jump force was shocking to most that knew the old man well.
Though his face was its typical undecipherable mask, Stepanek's emotions were roiling beneath his granite features. The only giveaway of how he felt inside was the burning pain and rage that could be seen glinting in his eyes. Tom saw the maelstrom in his eyes and it chilled him to the bone. The old man was furious about this hellacious waste of brave and valuable lives, and Tom could only feel that his commander was about to hold him responsible. Why shouldn't he, Tom thought. I am responsible. I have to be. Otherwise this fucking disaster wouldn't have happened.
"Yes, sir. Sorry sir," was Tom's only response. He was waiting for the axe to drop on his neck. He slumped down slightly on the exam table, as the medics resumed working on his injuries.
"Lieutenant Daniels," Stepanek growled. "What is the status of your platoon?"
Tom snapped his eyes towards his superiors and stated, "Sir, before I was practically tackled by my senior medic for treatment, at last count my platoon had six wounded, one critically."
A throat cleared from behind Tom and the three officers turned to look at the man. The senior medic walked up and addressed the battalion commander, and indirectly, Tom. "Sir, I apologize for interrupting, but the lieutenant's report is inaccurate." The man paused, choked down whatever he was feeling and continued, "It's my unfortunate duty to report that Sergeant Malcolm Smith just died. I am sorry, we did everything we could. His injuries were non-sustainable."
The words hit Tom like ton of bricks. He blanched and the color drained from his face. "Smitty's dead? It's my fault," he whispered, not realizing anyone could hear him. "He was my best team leader and I let him down."
Tom tried to regain his composure, struggling to choke his emotions down in front his commanders and fellow Soldiers. He forced himself to sit upright and shook his head to clear his vision. With that not working particularly well, he snapped his eyes shut and squeezed, to force back the tears he knew were welling up. Now was not the time to show weakness. He had to take responsibility for his actions.
He was about to make another attempt to get off the exam table and take the firestorm from the commander when a big hand was laid on his uninjured shoulder, gently keeping easing him back down. A deep, gravelly voice said softly, "It's not your fault son, and you most definitely did not let him down."
Tom looked up into the face of LTC Stepanek, seeing the rage in his eyes gone, replaced by sadness and sympathy. That cracked the dam for Tom. He blinked sharply twice and several tears escaped. He quickly wiped them away, realizing that he was showing negative emotions in front of his commanding officer.
"I'm sorry sir," Tom choked out, practically blurting. "I carried out my orders exactly. We sent a recon element forward to make contact since they were over a half hour late. I should have waited for further guidance, I know, and then we heard firing and the aircraft overhead and . . ."
"Tom, stop, son," came a louder response from Stepanek. "From everything your company commander has been telling me, you and your Soldiers were doing everything you were supposed to. Something happened out there with Chupacabra that caused them to call in an airstrike on your position."
That stunned Tom. The Special Forces team called in fire on his company's position. It was shocking and sickening at the same time. "Sir, what does that mean for us?"
Victor Stepanek took his hand off of Tom's shoulder and slammed it into his other hand. "It means that someone's going to pay for this egregious mistake and totally senseless loss of life. You mark my words gentlemen, the sons of bitches that caused this will burn."
A/N: All reviews are welcome.