One-liner challenge entry. June 2012. Usual disclaimer applies. Mel
A True Soldier
My shirt was no longer a shirt but just a limp and sticky rag soaked with sweat. My eyes burned
from the saltiness of the moisture dripping from my hair. I fixed my gritty eyes on the sweat-soaked
shirt a yard or two in front of me and dredged up a reserve of energy I didn’t even know I had. I felt
like we’d already walked the breadth of France, but I knew it had only been a few hours. Now, I
know I'm younger than every guy in this squad accept maybe Billy Nelson. But I’m the one that
seems to be struggling the most with the long haul through the valley to our rendezvous with a squad
from Bravo Company, for a little recon into some village with a name I can’t even begin to
I’ve only been with this squad a few weeks, but I ‘ve heard a few stories. These guys seem to attract
trouble but always manage to walk away from it. Not always in one piece, but alive. I’m not sure if
I’m happy to be in a squad that seems to have a lucky charm when it comes to gettin’ out alive…or
nervous at being stuck in a squad that can’t seem to stay out of the thick of things.
The guy in front of me is one of the platoon medics. I don’t know what his real name is, but the
guys in the squad all call him Doc. I’ve seen a couple of the other platoon medics and the soldiers all
refer to them by their last names. Doc Havers, Doc Williams…like that. But this guy is just plain
Doc. I don’t know if it’s ‘cause nobody seems to know his name, or if it’s out of some kind of
respect. Certainly the guys in this squad sure pay attention to what he says. Sometimes they argue
with him like they don’t really agree, but I can see in their eyes that they take what he says seriously
just the same.
Personally, I think the guy is nuts. I mean, what kind of person joins the army…even if he was
drafted…goes off to war and says, “Hey, I want to get shot at and not have any way of shooting
back”? See what I mean? Nuts. Don’t get me wrong. He seems like a real stand-up guy. He kinda
reminds me of my history teacher back home. Average height, brown hair, blue eyes, lopsided smile
and a slow country drawl. Just…plain. But you can’t help but listen when he talks. Wonder what
my history teacher would say if he saw me now?
Behind me is the biggest guy I’ve ever seen. No, seriously. This guy’s gotta be six foot six if he’s an
inch. He doesn’t say a whole lot, unless he’s bickering with the squad’s BAR man. The tall guy’s
name is Littlejohn. I don’t know if that’s his actual last name, or if it’s a nickname. You know, like
the tall guy from the story Robin Hood? I don’t know him well enough yet to ask. I mean, the guy
could pound me into the ground like a nail if he wanted to. He’s sort of gangly, like he hasn’t quite
got used to such long legs. Not clumsy exactly, just sort of awkward. He smiles a lot and jokes
around with Billy. He argues a lot with Kirby, the BAR guy, but I think half of what they say is just
a way to pass the time.
Billy Nelson is behind Littlejohn. He seems to be about the same age as me, but he got in before I
did so he’s seen a lot more action. Especially with this squad. I think Littlejohn treats him like a kid
brother, but Billy doesn’t seem to mind. Nelson could be the poster boy for Mom and Apple Pie. A
round faced choir boy. Not like me. I’m about as tall as Billy, but a lot skinnier. I’ve been trying to
put on more muscle, but nothin’ doin’ so far. Sandy hair, hazel eyes that could be pretty much any
color, nose a bit too long and a bit too thin and ears that could have tried to stick closer to my head.
Nope, definitely not Apple Pie. Lemon Custard, maybe.
Trudging along in front of Doc, muttering about his feet pretty much constantly for the last half an
hour, is the squad BAR man. Kirby seems like the last guy you’d have carrying around the heaviest
weapon in the group. The guy is the shortest and the wiriest of the bunch, but he lugs around that
BAR like it’s his best gal. I bet he’s named it. I think he’s probably the oldest of the squad, too. At
least, that close-cropped thinning hair makes him look older. Maybe he’s just losing his hair young. I
had a cousin that started losing his at eighteen. Poor guy.
Kirby’s one of those guys that has a tongue that could flay the skin right off of ya. Smart and smart-
assed. Not a fun combination if you’re the one he’s tearing into. I heard he’d had stripes a time or
two, but keeps losing them. He strikes me as a soldier that could lead when he had to, but didn’t
really want to. I don’t think he’s heartbroken over the busted stripes.
I played poker with the guys a few nights ago and lost a good part of my pay to Kirby. Later, when
nobody else was around, he gave half of it back to me. Said he’d cut me some slack since it was my
first time playing against him but that he wouldn’t be so charitable the next time. I sure am glad,
‘cause that was a lot of money. I won’t be so stupid next time. Next time, I’ll quit early.
On point is the one I know the least about. He’s about as wiry as Kirby, but more graceful with it.
He’s from Louisiana. New Orleans, I think, but I’m not sure. The guys all call him Caje, short for
Cajun. He’s all dark and brooding most of the time, but can share a joke with Doc when it pleases
him. He doesn’t talk much, but the sergeant seems to trust his instincts a lot since Caje is usually the
man on point when we go out.
Speaking of the sergeant, he’s trailing along at the rear. I can’t quite make him out, either. One
minute he’s as brooding as Caje, the next cracking jokes like Kirby. If Billy could be the poster boy
for the good old US of A, Sarge could be the poster boy for Germany. Blond hair, blue eyes, bulky
build…just what the good nazi ordered. But Sgt. Saunders is all-American all right. He keeps
discipline in the squad, even with Kirby, but seems to be okay when a guy has something on his mind
he wants to unload. He doesn’t seem too worried by this recon, so I’m hoping this goes smoothly.
We’re finally coming up on that French village and the guys all seem to tense up a bit and spread out
more without the Sarge even sayin’ anything. Now I’m so tense, my shoulders are killing me. We
take our time hop-scotching from one building to the next, checking them for Germans as we go. I
feel sick and if I thought I was sweating before, that was nothing to what I’m doin’ now. It’s a relief
when we finally meet up with the squad from Bravo.
The two sergeants wander over to a doorway and start going over a map while the rest of us
exchange news with the Bravo guys before fanning out to keep watch. I swear, we’re not there
fifteen minutes when the first whistle starts. Saunders looks up from his map with a look of surprise
and yells at the rest of us as he takes cover in the doorway.
“Hit the dirt!”
My Momma didn’t raise a fool. I pitch myself through the first doorway I find and hit the rough
wood floor with a thump, Cameron from Bravo right behind me. The first whistle is joined by more
and the whole world explodes.
Cameron is curled up on his side, back pressed to the wall by the door and his eyes squeezed shut. I
wonder if I look the same. I think this is the first shelling for both of us. I have to bite down on my
own lip to keep from screaming. The noise and the concussion of air and heat are like nothing on this
earth. I mean, you can feel the explosions deep in your chest. I can hear a guy crying and yelling for
help outside. I poke my head up and glance out of the window long enough to see Doc running for
Bravo’s corporal, who’d been caught out in the middle of the street when it all went to shit. I told
you that guy was nuts.
“Doc!” I yell as loud as I can and when our medic looks up I wave him toward us. “Get the heck
I’ll be damned if he doesn’t grab the back of the corporal’s jacket and start dragging him toward me
as fast as he can. I’m trying to dredge up the courage to run out and help him when a thunderous
roar detonates not too far from us. As I duck to avoid the explosion of glass from the windows I see
that Doc has been pitched a few feet off to the side by the blast. I think he’s dead for sure. “Doc!”
I look out through the empty window and just when I’m sure they’re both dead, Doc crawls over to
the corporal’s side and grabs his jacket again. Once he is on his feet, our fool medic is dragging him
again. I can’t help it, I grab my rifle and run out to give him a hand. I take a fist full of army drab
and start to pull as fast as I can to get all three of us back through that doorway and into the false
security of shelter.
Once inside, I go back to the window and slide down the wall. Doc slumps to his knees beside the
wounded guy from Bravo and starts to rummage through his medical bag. “Thanks, Toby.”
Despite the fact that Doc has blood running down his own face, he starts patching up the other guy. I
think his name is Byron but can’t swear to it. I look over and Cameron is staring at his crying and
bleeding friend, his face losing color so fast I think he’s going to pass out. It kinda takes my mind off
my own screaming fear. I scoot across the floor and nudge Cameron’s foot.
“Hey, he’s gonna be okay. You’ll see.”
“You think so?”
I can’t blame Cameron for being skeptical. I feel like throwing up when I see the fist-sized piece of
shrapnel sticking out of Byron’s stomach. Putting more faith into my answer than I really feel, I
nevertheless nod. “Sure. Doc will fix him up good, you’ll see.”
Looking back at Doc with a smile, feeling good about my ability to stay calm and encourage Cameron
at a time like this, I freeze at the look in the medic’s eyes. Aw, hell. Byron won’t be making it back
home. Now I feel sick to my stomach again. I turn back to the window just to get away from the
finality in Doc’s gaze.
I wonder now how the other guys in our squad are faring. Kirby and Caje? Littlejohn and Billy?
The charmed Sergeant who seems to survive everything? The noise and rain of debris goes on for an
eternity. Then stops.
Cameron gives me a shaky smile of relief that I start to answer when Doc suddenly lunges to his feet,
face turned up toward the ceiling. He snatches his bag up from the floor and slings it over his
shoulder and across his chest. “Help me with Bryan, Toby. We gotta find the rest of the guys and
get the heck outta here.”
Bryan. Not Byron, I think guiltily. “What’s the rush, Doc?”
The medic bends over Bryan, grabs both hands and hauls him into a painful sitting position. Bryan
gives a shriek of pain and finally, blessedly passes out. “Help me get him across my shoulders.
Those shells might be followed by a whole lotta Germans and I don’t think Sarge wants to be here
when they arrive.”
How could I have forgotten? Cameron and I help Doc get Bryan settled across his shoulders and
head cautiously outside. Guys are trickling out into the street, weapons ready and faces grimy with
dirt and smoke. Other than a few cuts here and there, nobody else seems to be hurt.
Saunders and the sergeant from Bravo’s squad run over and grill Doc on Bryan’s condition. From
the looks on their faces, Doc doesn’t sugar-coat it. Saunders shakes his head briefly and waves in
Littlejohn’s direction. “Littlejohn, stick with Doc in case he needs a hand.”
Both sergeants grip their weapons with determination. Sgt. Saunders waves the rest of us over and
lays it out. “Looks like our recon is aborted. Seems our intel is a little behind the times and we need
to head back and let Lt. Hanley know the Germans are interested in this little piece of property. Keep
your heads down and your eyes peeled.”
Everyone nods and fans out into a ragged line once more as we high tail it out of that no-name French
village and back to our lines. It’s funny, but I feel like the Toby marching out is somehow different
from the Toby that marched in.
Billy sidles up next to me and smiles good-naturedly. “So how’d it go? Your first barrage?”
I’m not sure that shelling really qualified as a ‘barrage’, but I know what he means. “It was pretty
scary,” I admit to him.
Looking up until his eyes find Doc, Billy’s smile grows bigger. "I was a couple of buildings over from
you, but I saw what you did to help Bryan. Littlejohn was about to run out there, but we saw you
had it under control. You did good.”
I feel stupidly grateful for the words of praise from a guy no older than me, but can’t help it. I stand
a bit taller, my stride lengthens. I feel, for the first time, like a true soldier.