(Week 10 of the 52-Week Writing Challenge)
She didn’t need a shrink to tell her she had PTSD.
Virgie Hudson well knew of the price she’d paid for thirty-two years of military service – twenty-two of those years… on the front lines.
The day after passage and ratification of SB 1200 allowing women into combat, Virgie left behind ten years of desk and training duties. Like her father and brothers, she would now get to serve on the front lines.
As one of only four women who would lead combat forces, Virginia’s service was legendary. She had numerous medals and awards. She also had numerous scars… on her body and her mind. Virgie remembered all too well how and when she’d received each scar – physical and mental.
For every inch of ground taken, every hill won, every town liberated, there was a memory attached.
The good memories made Virginia smile.
The day her unit entered the town of Ras al-Ayn, the grateful Kurdish women’s militia cheered. After fighting ISIS forces for days, the exhausted women thanked the Americans’ for their help… and for some relief. With American support, ISIS guerrillas made a hasty retreat.
The memories of losing team members played on repeat in her mind often. Pfc. Jeff Ollenbeck – lost to a land mine. Pfc. David Jencks and LCpl. Donald Morgan – killed in an ambush attack. 2ndLt. Shelley Cooper – taken down by a sniper. There were more. So many more.
Why did she survive?
Virgie squeezed her eyes shut and yanked at her thick, black curls attempting to block out the faces of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
She grabbed the tumbler of bourbon from the table in front of her, gulping it down in one breath. Even in those brief periods when fallen Marines didn’t cloud her thoughts, there was always the children.
The children Virgie couldn’t save.
It took several days to get into the small isolated town east of Mosul. When a ten-thousand member Iraqi counter-terrorism force arrived, militants soon scattered over the borders into the mountains of Turkey and Iran.
Villagers wept as Col. Virginia Holman Hudson’s team set up aid stations. It was obvious many of the town’s residents survived severe beatings and torture. Virgie knew one young woman wrapped in a thread-bare blanket and shielded by an older woman was a rape victim.
A silent signal to her senior officers was acknowledged only by their scattering to inspect the village. One of her team interpreters called out to Virgie.
“Col. Hudson, the children!”
“What about them, Lance Corporal?”
Accompanied by two female villagers, LCpl. Dirks approached her. “A man took the children yesterday morning.”
In rapid speech and dialect Virgie didn’t understand, she did recognize the word for ‘hill’. The woman gestured and pointed at something behind Virgie.
Virgie looked over her shoulder and saw a small, flat, mud-brick building sitting on a low hill about four hundred meters away. With one movement of her hand, the strike team fell into formation, heading for the building. Virgie led them until her second-in-command, 1st Lieutenant Reynolds pulled her back.
“Excuse me, Colonel, but you know I can’t let you do that.”
She nodded once. “Dammit, Rey… find those children!”
Led by Reynolds, the strike team moved forward up the small incline to the building. Virgie fell into step behind them.
They had traveled half the distance to the building when a man threw open the building’s only door. His maniacal laughter was rife with anger and madness.
“Hold fire!” Virgie held up her hand while glaring at the insurgent.
Stepping forward, Virgie questioned the man in flawless Arabic. “اين الاطفال?” Where are the children?
Not getting any response other than wild-eyed mania, Virgie switched to Kurdish. بچوں کی کہاں ہیں?
Recognition dawned in the mad man’s eyes. He lifted his arms and yelled, “کان کے بچے ہیں!” The children are mine!
Virgie recognized the small detonator in his hand, attached to a wire feeding into his sleeve. Before she could give the order to fall back, the crazed terrorist yelled out again, “Allah is great!”, and detonated the bomb.
What happened in the next few seconds was an eternity to Virginia Hudson.
The expression on the bomber’s face never changed as the impact of the explosion behind him ripped his body in half, each section set ablaze. Virgie lost sight of him when someone threw her to the ground, covering her body with their own. Except for the monstrous roar of the burning building, silence bathed the area.
Then sounds flooded the area.
Like a chorus, the wails of the villagers pierced the silence. Virgie pushed against the body holding her down, but stopped struggling and listened. She heard a different noise… coming from the burning building.
With one final shove, Virgie pushed the body off her enough to roll from under and to her feet. Reynolds lay a few feet away rubbing his chest from the impact of her blow. Virgie headed for the building but another team member grabbed her.
“Let go or you’re losing a stripe! I don’t care who it is!”
Anger rose inside of Virginia as she spun around and looked up into the face of Cpl. Lawrence.
“Col.… there’s nothing we can do for them.”
Her body sagged, already knowing the truth. The tears streaming down the big Marine’s face caused Virgie to look at the rest of her strike team. They all wept–male and female alike.
Donnelly watched out for Dirks, now on his knees, giving up the contents of his stomach.
Sanchez clutched the cross around his neck.
Though his face was wet with tears, Gilmore’s eyes flared with rage.
“Dirks? How many?”
Without raising his head, Dirks responded, the words causing him physical pain. “T-Thirty four, ma’am.”
Anger and grief warred inside Virgie. Anguish strangled her heart as bile rose in her throat. Closing her eyes, Virgie called upon the false sense of calm needed to do her job. Opening her eyes, Virgie spoke, knowing Reynolds was back at her side.
“Secure the perimeter, Lieutenant.”
Virgie gave the order almost as an afterthought, not moving from where she stood. Only after the cries for help stopped did she turn to look at the building crumbling in the fiery blaze.
Col. Virginia Holman Hudson knew her military career was over.
She’d had enough.