This week, I started the process of sending query letters to literary agents. The business of trying to sell a novel can be a cruel and nasty never-ending nightmare. Or it can be ruffles and flourishes, depending on luck. No matter what it is, at least for me, it has given me a reason to bring you a piece of my mind–a good one. Here’s the first chapter of my novel, which I hope will become a cult classic, “Beneath the Oak Tree.”
Chapter 1—For Those Whom I love
Lieutenant Kate Doyle stood up when she saw the alert come across her computer screen.
“Attention! Attention on the floor,” she boomed.
Her voice reached every one of the one hundred thirty people working at the Combined Joint Operations Center, or what they called: the C-JOC.
Every soul stopped breathing; an instinctive reaction more than a cognitive one. One of those souls was flight medic Specialist Joseph Smythe. Like the others in the room, he knew Kate was about to blurt out information crucial to saving someone’s life. A fine line had been drawn on the life of a soldier, and at the end of that line there was a ticking clock, which time was set to stop in a mere sixty minutes, or what they called: the golden hour.
“We have a nine-line medical evacuation request from Task Force Alpha,” Kate relayed the information as soon as she received it.
A nine-liner was a message sent by the radio operator of the unit on the ground. Every one of the nine lines in the message contained precise information related to the number of casualties and their injuries. It also included the security picture of the collection area.
“Task Force Alpha has secured a landing zone; stand by for grid coordinates.”
Task Force Alpha, or TFA, was a platoon from the 82nd Division sent out to cordon the northeast sector of a village. Together with Task Force Bravo, Charlie, and Delta they were to encircle the entire settlement as part of a clean-and-sweep operation. As the soldiers traversed through the valley bordering the village, one of TFA’s squads was hit by an improvised explosive device. One soldier was injured in the blast; his left leg was amputated at the knee.
“Stand by for mission assignment,” Kate continued. “Medevac for one urgent casualty, mission number: Yankee-Delta zero-two one-four-Kilo, is assigned to Dustoff eight-five.”
“That’s it, we’re up. Let’s go G,” said Specialist Smythe, picking up his gear, ready to leave.
“Hold on Joe,” said Sergeant Gerard “G” Garrett. “Kate, who’s flying eight-five?”
“Let me check,” she said. “Here it is. Chuck’s on Dustoff eight-five. Grubber’s flying the Chase.”
“Really?” asked Joe, arching an eyebrow.
“Come on Joe, we got to get you airborne,” said Sergeant Garrett, heading to the door.
As they exited the building, the heat took them both with open arms. An embrace they could do without. It was as if the country itself was trying to reject their presence by using the only thing no one else could control.
Joe followed the sergeant through the network of hangars lining the airfield. The two men had stuck together through nine months of the deployment, and had become close friends. As he ran, Joe noticed something odd about the sergeant’s protective gear.
“Hey G,” said Joe, breathing hard. “Why aren’t you wearing a plate on the back of your vest?”
“How many times do I have to tell you to call me Sergeant, Specialist Smythe?” the older man frowned. “But to answer your question: why should I have to? Isn’t that why we pay you the big bucks?”
“Damn straight,” said Joe. “Now, where the hell is eight-five?”
The sergeant pointed as they reached the end of the alley.
An UH-60A Blackhawk helicopter was taxiing the runway, heading to its designated takeoff position. Joe started running towards the aircraft, but Sergeant Garrett grabbed him by his gear, holding him back. They had to wait for the blades to slow down for them to approach safely.
The aircraft stopped and the side door opened. A man dressed in a jumpsuit climbed out. His head was covered by an aircrew’s helmet with a shaded visor. He signaled for them to approach.
“Come on G, he’s waving us in,” said Joe, breaking the hold, and leaving his partner behind.
They were assisted into the cabin, and the door was closed behind them. Joe watched as the man who helped them climbed into the right seat in the cockpit and signaled the pilot. Both men in the cockpit started flipping switches, and Joe hurried to put on his aircrew helmet. The engine noise would make it almost impossible to talk to each other without the radio imbedded inside.
“Gentlemen, welcome to Dustoff eight-five,” the pilot’s voice crackled inside Joe’s helmet. ”This is your pilot, Captain Charles “Chuck” Overly, speaking. Today’s number two man’s name will not be mentioned to save us a class on genealogy. Can I have an Amen, please?”
Joe shook his head. He had been flying missions with this crew for most of the deployment, and knew them well. Even with his cynical demeanor Chuck was by far the most skilled pilot Joe had ever worked with. If there was anybody he would want to fly a mission with, that would be Chuck Overly.
Joe knew the pilot kept a small picture of his wife on the dashboard. He remembered asking him her name once, but it had been just a polite question, he had no memory of her name.
Joe thought of his own girlfriend, Linda. They’d been together for almost three years. He liked to call her his ray of sunshine. Sometimes, he didn’t understand why she stuck around with a guy like him. Holding on to the knowledge of having her was the one thing helping him cope with what he had to deal with in this country.
Looking at the copilot, Joe remembered he once made the mistake of asking the man about the source of his name. Rod had taken out a napkin, scribbled something on it, and for the next two hours explained three generations of past family ties, which culminated with the sad news of how his parents had been killed by a drunk driver. As a result, Rod had been left in charge of his little sister, even before he’d left high school.
As he looked at the copilot, Joe smiled a quiet smile. Some people are just forced to grow up too fast, he thought. Do not pass go; do not collect two hundred.
“Any Intel since we left the C-JOC?” Joe asked.
“This is what we got,” said the copilot. “One injured soldier that is being moved to the landing zone as we speak, plus a four-man litter team to recover. Should be an easy one this time, fellas. We’re linking with the Chase now, and then we’re off. We may just make it back in time for the ball game.”
“Are you serious?” Joe said. “Who cares about a stupid game? We’re still here, in this freaking country, and that soldier still has his leg blown off.”
“What’s on your mind, Joe?” asked Sergeant Garrett, putting a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Talk to me.”
“How long have we’ve been in this country?” asked Joe looking at his friend. “No, don’t answer that, I’m going to answer for you. We’ve been on this rock for ten doggone years, and for what? Huh, G? Can you answer me that?”
“Joe…” the sergeant started to say.
“For nothing,” Joe said, cutting his friend off. “We’ve been bleeding and dying in this country for nothing. People back home don’t care. They just go about their lives, watch a watered-down version of the crap we go through on the evening news, and then go to bed thinking they know what’s going on over here. It’s a joke, you know, what passes for news these days.”
“Joe, listen to me,” said the sergeant. “We all go through the same thing: Chuck, and Rod, and me and now you. People back home have no idea of what we do day to day. Hell, by the time most people wake up to go to work, we’ve already put four hours on the clock. Let me tell you, I have a cousin with a cushy office job. Like him, most people go to work, sit at their desks with their fat fingers ticking on skinny keyboards; they print reports, drink coffee, eat donuts, gossip in the hallway, go out for a smoke, or what have you.”
“But that’s not what we do,” the sergeant continued. “That’s not what you do, Joe. Of all the people in this helicopter, you are the only one that can do what you do. Hell, I can kill people in a whim, without losing any sleep, but what you do Joe; you are the real hero.”
“I’m just a medic, G,” Joe said.
“You are in the business of saving lives,” the sergeant said. “Taking a life? All that takes is the squeeze of a trigger, but preserving a life? Man, sometimes I feel like I should pray to you. I’ve seen you do your thing. It’s like you stare Death right in her face and laugh, like sending her back to whatever hellhole she climbed out of.”
“Damn, G, that’s deep,” Joe said, trying to lighten the mood. “But you know, joking aside, that thing you said about me and Death. You’re right, I have seen her, and I think she hates my guts. I’m sending her to the unemployment line.”
“You just keep it together, son,” said the sergeant. “Remember, we owe it to those people at home to send their boys and girls back alive. Now, if you could call me sergeant like I’ve told you a million—”
The helicopter radio interrupted Sergeant Garrett. New information about the mission was coming through.
“Dustoff eight-five, this is C-JOC, over.”
Joe recognized Kate’s voice.
The pilot answered the call. “C-JOC, this is Dustoff eight-five, we read you loud and clear, over.”
“Dustoff eight-five, this is C-JOC. Be advised, the casualty has been relocated, the new grid is: Echo-Golf niner-two-seven one-zero-seven. The landing zone is no longer secured, over.”
“C-JOC, this is Dustoff eight-five,” the pilot replied. “Acknowledged; new grid, casualty moved, and hot LZ; Dustoff out.”
“Lovely,” said Joe. “Nothing is ever easy, is it?”
“You know it,” Sergeant Garrett agreed.
“Hey Chuck,” said Joe, adjusting the microphone over his mouth. “What’s the ETA to the new grid?”
“ETA is ten minutes,” replied the pilot.
Joe shook his head. “I don’t like it, G,” he said. “It’s been twenty five minutes since TFA dropped the nine-line request. That’s going to put us at thirty five minutes by the time we touchdown. We’re going to have to haul it to make it home within the golden hour.”
Joe adjusted his microphone again. “Hey Chuck, step on it, will you? We’re burning daylight here.”
“Roger that, your highness,” said the pilot. “We’re going pedal to the metal.”
“You really don’t understand authority very well, do you, Joe?” asked the sergeant.
“I leave that for you mortals. Gods like me have no need for such trivial concepts.”
“I raised my case.”
“Five minutes to the LZ,” announced the pilot.
“About time,” said Joe. “For a second there I thought my butt was going to grow roots in this seat.”
Sergeant Garrett sighed.
“Chase six-nine, this is Dustoff eight-five, over,” Joe heard as their pilot called their escort helicopter.
“Dustoff eight-five, this is Chase six-nine,” replied the escort pilot. “Read you loud and clear, over.”
“Chase six-nine, this is Dustoff eight-five. Are we clear to land; over?”
“Dustoff eight-five, this is Chase six-nine, we’ve confirmed the litter team is on foot heading west. Enemy is engaging friendly force from a tree on the eastern side of the ravine. We’re commencing our gun run. Stand by for landing clearance. Chase out.”
Medevac helicopters like theirs had no weapons. Under the law of war they were considered a humanitarian vessel. The Red Cross on each side panel announced they were unarmed. The chase helicopter; however, was not a medical asset. It served as firepower for both helicopters and aerial support when the medical crew was on the ground.
“Don’t you miss that sometimes, G?” asked Joe.
“You know, the shooting, looking through the iron sights of your weapon, and putting hot lead into the enemy.”
“Are you kidding? And miss out on the opportunity to hear your constant yapping?”
“What’s the rate of fire for those guns in the chase bird, two hundred?” Joe asked.
“Not even close, kid,” said the sergeant. “At a rate of four hundred to six hundred rounds per minute those monkeys aren’t going to look so cute when the chase bird is done with them. I’ll be surprised if the whole damn tree isn’t mowed down.”
“I saw something like that one time,” said Joe. “Not pretty, but it was damn effective.”
Radio chatter came through their helmets again.
“Dustoff eight-five, this is Chase six-nine, gun run completed. We have visual confirmation the two insurgents in the tree are killed. The litter team is moving into position for pick up. You’re cleared to land. Chase out.”
“All right, let’s get to work,” said Joe. “I’m tired of sitting back here.”
He opened the side-panel door as Sergeant Garrett opened the other one. Joe could see the chase helicopter flying overhead. He thought of the way vultures circle around when they’re looking for a meal.
“Get ready for touchdown, Joe,” said the pilot as he lowered the aircraft. “In and out, quickly; you can patch him up when we’re airborne.”
“Do I tell you how to do your job?” said Joe, scanning the landscape. The tree where the two insurgents hung dead looked like oak. “I didn’t know oak trees grew in this side of the w—”
Surprise forced Joe to stop talking, when the tell-tale spark of metal on metal flashed on the side of the helicopter, next to his face. “Someone’s shooting at us,” Joe shouted. “We’ve got SAF—port side!”
“Hang on to your britches,” said the pilot as he maneuvered the helicopter. “Chase this is Dustoff, we’re receiving small arms fire. What happened to the area being clear, over?”
“Forget about the chase, I got them,” Joe shouted, when he saw the litter team running towards him. “I can see litter-team. Get this tin can down, so I can help them.”
“Hang on,” said the pilot, spinning the helicopter until Joe’s side was facing the incoming group, and lowering the aircraft down to a few inches from the ground.
“Come on, come on, come on,” shouted Joe, waving the group in. He sat on the edge of the cabin ready to jump when the team was within reach. “Come on!”
Suddenly, the world in front of him exploded in a cloud of smoke, ash, and dust. Joe was jerked back inside the cabin.
“What the f—,” he tried to say, but cut himself off when he felt the helicopter taking off again. “No, wait, Chuck don’t go, we can still help them.”
The pilot ignored Joe’s request. “Chase this is Dustoff,” he called in the radio. “What the hell’s going on out there?”
“Dustoff this is Chase. An insurgent squad has moved in from the west. Be advised, the friendly force looks unharmed. They’re holding their position at this time. We’re getting set for a second gun-run. Gunships are inbound from the C-JOC to help, over.”
“Chase, this is Dustoff. Acknowledged, new gun run, holding for LZ clearance. Dustoff out.”
“We don’t have time for that!” Joe argued. “By the time the gunships get here, they’re all going to get killed!”
From his vantage point, Joe watched as the litter team hunkered down a few hundred meters from the crater the explosion had made. The casualty was secured to the litter, and he identified the combat-life-saver by the way he hovered over his charge.
Joe watched as the other members of the litter team returned fire, trying to defend their position. The golden hour was coming to a close. They needed to get moving back to base or the injured soldier wasn’t going to make it.
“What’s taking so long?” Joe fumed into his microphone.
The chase helicopter circled into position, in front of him, preparing to rain fire-and-brimstone on the enemy. Joe was about to witness all the power his military controlled. Instead, in the blink of an eye, he saw the escort aircraft explode in a ball of fire, metal, and smoke.
Joe wanted to scream, but knew he couldn’t allow himself to crumble into emotion. He added the tragedy to his collection of nightmares, and went to the place in his head where he found the peace he needed to do his job.
“Holy hell,” Sergeant Garrett spoke for all of them.
“Listen up,” Joe said into his microphone. “I can do this. We can do this. All I need is one minute. Look at them on the ground. They don’t even have that. You know that insurgent squad is going to move in on them any second now. Just get me down there. We have no choice.”
The pilot looked over to his copilot, trying to get a clue.
The copilot looked back at him. “I’ve seen you come out of worse, my friend. I bet you that boy down there’s got a family back home, and they’re waiting for him.”
From the back of the helicopter, Sergeant Garret added, “we owe it to them.”
The pilot nodded once and spoke into his microphone. “C-JOC this is Dustoff eight-five. We’re about to land for casualty pickup. Be advised, the landing zone is still hot, and the threat is significant. Four out of four crew members confirm the threat level, and agree to continue with pick up. Please acknowledge, over.”
“Dustoff eight-five this is C-JOC. Acknowledged; hot LZ with significant threat, and entire crew going for a Hail Mary. You are clear to proceed. C-JOC out.”
“Okay, Joe. You’ve got your wish,” said the pilot. “We’re going in.”
“Alright,” Joe shouted. “Come on G, let’s do this.”
The pilot navigated the aircraft closer to the troops on the ground. The litter team saw the helicopter and started to move towards it. The world was exploding around them, while bullet sparks popped intermittently near the two inside the cabin.
As the aircraft touched down, Joe and Sergeant Garrett jumped out and rushed to meet the litter team.
Joe reached them first and started barking orders. “Who’s the CLS?”
“That will be me. I’m Corporal Mosher,” said a female voice.
Joe glanced over, and saw resolve in her face.
“Good. You stay with me,” he told her. “You two, continue suppressive fire. Sergeant Garrett and I are going to help you get the litter inside the chopper. Okay, let’s go!”
The two soldiers started to shoot their weapons at the enemy position. Joe, G, Mosher, and another trooper, picked up the litter, and ran to the helicopter as all hell tried to engulf them.
“Come on, come on. Get him in,” Joe shouted.
Reaching the side of the helicopter, they shoved the casualty into the cabin. Joe turned to grab the two soldiers covering their exit.
“Let’s go,” he told the two. “Don’t shoot, don’t look back, just haul ass back to the chopper. Go!”
The three ran to the helicopter, diving into the cabin as Sergeant Garrett and Corporal Mosher slammed the side doors closed.
“Okay Chuck,” said Sergeant Garrett. “Get us outta here.”
“Roger that,” said the pilot, punching the aircraft into the air.
“Corporal Mosher,” said Joe, catching his breath. “Talk to me.”
The corporal gave Joe a triage report. She started at the soldier’s head and covered every injury she’d discovered down to his toes. The casualty was unconscious, but he was alive. Joe started another IV in order to give him antibiotics.
“What’s his name?” Joe asked.
“Private First Class Joseph Hockenberry,” she said.
“What do you know, huh, G?” said Joe. “Now you’ve got two Joes to deal with.”
“At least one of them treats me with the respect I deserve,” said the sergeant.
“Let’s get him undressed and verify there are no more injuries,” Joe said. “There’s an O.R. waiting for him. We have to make sure we report all his injuries. By the way, Corporal, great work on that tourniquet. If he makes it out alive, it’ll be because you closed the faucet on that leg.”
They removed the casualty’s protective vest, and cut his combat shirt to expose his torso.
Joe stopped. He couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Did you know he had this?” he asked the corporal.
“Yes, we all knew,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons he has to live.”
“What’s going on back there?” the pilot’s voice crackled inside their helmets.
Joe fixed his microphone. “He has contusions and abrasions on his right flank, but none are touching a tattoo he’s got there. It’s some kind of written passage.”
“What’s it say?” asked the pilot.
Joe tilted his head in order to read the words, and said, “For those I love, I will sacrifice.”