Thomas Calabrese

Kicks on Route 66: A great traveling companion

posted Jan 14, 2020, 2:40 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Jan 14, 2020, 2:56 PM ]

Mason Sheridan met Katie Matheson when they were both cadets at the Naval Academy. It wasn’t as if they were romantically involved or even close friends, more like casual acquaintances. Mason was a linebacker on the Navy football team and Katie ran cross-country. They would see each other in the fitness center or in class and exchange a “how you doing?” or just nod and smile.

After graduation they went their separate ways and didn’t see one other for ten years until their paths crossed again at Bagram Air Base in Kabul, Afghanistan. Mason was with SEAL Team 4, a component of Naval Special Warfare Command, and Katie was with Naval Intelligence. Mason and Katie worked together during the initial stages of an operation then communicated in real time during the mission and during the debriefings. Mason deeply respected Katie’s expertise and knew that, while his SEALs might be the point of the spear, Katie and her fellow intel specialists were the handle.

On one particular mission in the Helmand Province, the Navy SEALs were engaged in a vicious firefight with the Taliban after capturing an HVT (high value target). Lt. Commander Sheridan was in command of the mission and turned to Chief Petty Officer Oland. “You take Alpha and Bravo team and get to the extraction point with the HVT. I’ll take Charlie and Delta and lead the Tangos (Taliban) away from you, then do a 180.”

Lt Commander Sheridan looked at his watch. “1335 now. If we’re not there by 1400, then get out.”

“Roger that,” Chief Petty Officer Oland answered. “Alpha and Bravo with me.”

Lt. Commander Sheridan ran off and his SEALs were right on his heels. About one click away (one thousand meters) he looked back and saw a large group of enemy combatants getting out of a dozen trucks and spreading over the open terrain. The Taliban began moving in their direction and Sheridan determined that, to get to the primary extraction point, the SEALs would have to run miles to the left or right to get around them. Sheridan saw ominous dark clouds coming in from the north and lightning flashing across the sky. He turned to Senior Chief Harmon, “We’re not going to make it back.”

“It looks that way,” Senior Chief Harmon agreed. “What’s our plan now?”

“Radio Alpha and Bravo and tell them that we are into escape and evade mode. We need to find a place to make a stand before moving to the secondary extraction point.”

While Lt. Commander Sheridan surveyed the terrain with his high-powered binoculars, Senior Chief Harmon came back a minute later.

“We’ve got no com.”

“Did you try the alternate frequencies?”

“Affirmative.”

Back at Central Command, the support team was closely monitoring a fluid situation. One member called out, “We’re losing satellite surveillance, heavy cloud cover is moving in.”

Admiral Stiles ordered, “Let’s get a surveillance drone in the air.”

“Sir, the weather is getting worse. By the time we get a drone over the site, it would be dealing with gale force winds.”

A radio transmission came in from Chief Petty Officer Oland. It was garbled and barely audible, “Moving toward extraction point with HVT.”

Lt. Matheson replied, “Confirmed.”

“We split with Mike Charlie (Mission Commander) and Alpha and Bravo teams. They led a large enemy force away from our position, haven’t been able to contact them.”

Admiral Stiles ordered, “Somebody get Sheridan on the horn!”

Communications Officer Commander Barton Leighton tried in vain to contact Lt. Commander Sheridan, “Can’t reach him, sir.”

“What the hell!” Admiral Stiles grumbled. “We’ve got all this high-tech equipment and we can’t reach our men. Somebody please tell me how this can happen.”

“Copper,“ Lt. Commander Matheson volunteered.

“Copper, what the hell does that have to do with it?”

Lt. Matheson used her laser pointer to highlight a mountain range. “This area has a high concentration of copper and copper blocks radio waves. Sheridan and his men are in this area.”

“You seem very certain of that fact, Lt. Commander.”

“Sheridan is a top tier operative and he knows that if he can’t get back to the primary extraction point or has enough time to make it to the secondary one, he’s going to head for high ground and hold it as long as he can.”

“Weather report?”

“Storm moving in quickly…window is closing, sir,” said Leighton.

“I want two birds in the air, one to the primary extraction point and the other to the mountain range,” Admiral Stiles ordered. “Let’s hope that we make it in time. I hope you’re right about Sheridan’s location, Lt. Commander. We’ve only got one shot at this.”

“Yes sir,” she said.

Two armed helicopters from Special Operations Aviation Command took off from their base and were quickly buffeted by high winds. The pilot said, “This weather is going to get a lot worse.”

Sheridan and his comrades were making their way up the steep mountain trail with the Taliban fighters closing in quickly. “Spence! Eddie! Set up claymores then meet us on top.”

The two SEALs stayed behind to place anti-personnel mines along the trail. Once the other SEALs reached the ridgeline, they found defensive positions and pointed their weapons down the mountain. Two miles away, the first helicopter landed. Chief Petty Oland and his men boarded, then were gone in an instant.

The second chopper continued to the mountain range where the SEALs were involved in a firefight with the enemy. When the Taliban fighters reached the location of the mines on the trail, one of the SEALs detonated them and took out several fighters.

Lt. Commander Sheridan knew they couldn’t hold off the larger force indefinitely. Add to that the worsening weather and the lack of radio communications and the situation was dire, desperate, and approaching hopeless at warp speed. The Taliban fighters started firing rocket-propelled grenades and when the projectiles struck the boulders, rock fragments filled the air with piercing needles of stone.

Lt. Commander Sheridan cautioned his men, “Conserve your ammo. One shot, one kill!”

The SEALs were the ultimate professionals, but it didn’t hurt to remind them to keep their weapons on semi- instead of fully-automatic.

The wind was howling through the canyons and it made it impossible for the Americans to hear the stealth helicopter. They saw it when it was only a hundred feet away from their position. Sheridan sighed in relief and fired a flare into the air to let the pilots know their exact position. A crewman lowered several ropes that dragged across the rocky terrain while the gunners on the chopper fired at the enemy fighters to keep them pinned down. The pilots hovered just long enough for the Navy SEALs to attach their harnesses to the rope. Sheridan provided cover fire for his men then hooked up, but took a bullet in the upper left thigh just as he was lifted off the ground. As the helicopter headed home, blood poured from his open wound. As soon as the aircraft touched down, medical personnel rushed to Lt. Commander Sheridan’s aid.

*  *  *

The Navy SEAL was lying in his hospital bed with his leg elevated when Kate Matheson appeared at the door, “Want some company?”

“Absolutely!” Sheridan replied.

“How’s the leg?”

“They’re going to medivac me back to the States for another surgery, but considering how things could have gone down, I got no complaints.”

“I wish you a full and speedy recovery,” Matheson said.

“They tell me you’re responsible for saving me and my men’s lives.”

“I made a suggestion, that’s all,” Matheson shrugged modestly. “The admiral gave the order…thank him.”

“I already did and you know what he told me?”

“What?”

“There was no doubt in your mind that we were on that mountain. Am I really that predictable?”

“I don’t know about your personal life, but professionally I can read you like an open book.” Matheson’s tone of voice had a trace of playfulness to it.

“Want to find out?”

“Find out what?”

“If I’m this predictable in my personal life.”

“You’re going back to the States and I still have two months left on my tour. How about a raincheck?”

“Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.”

“Stay safe, Sheridan,” Matheson said as she turned to leave.

“You as well, Matheson.”

After successful surgery on his leg at Walter Reed Military Hospital, Lt. Commander Sheridan was sent to Navy SEAL East Coast Headquarters in Little Creek, Virginia. He had almost fully recovered when orders arrived for Coronado, California. Senior Chief Harmon had returned from his deployment and approached him in the mess hall, “I heard you’re leaving for the West Coast.”

“Yeah,” Sheridan replied.

“I wanted to ask you a favor.”

“I got a great deal on a Jeep Grand Cherokee that only has about 30,000 miles. I bought it for seven thousand below blue book from some Corpsman who’s going through a divorce. I told my younger brother who’s a Marine at Camp Pendleton about it and we made arrangements through Navy Federal for him to buy it from me. I’ll pay you to drive it to California.”

“Why don’t you ship it by truck?”

“I checked that already. It’s about 1500 dollars. I can give you 700 for gas and food.”

“Why don’t you have your brother take a cheap flight and drive it back himself.”

“That was the plan, he had his reservation booked and then his wife caught a virus. She’s in the base hospital and he doesn’t want to leave her. I’m heading overseas in a couple weeks and I don’t to leave the car parked here while I’m gone. My brother has this old car that keeps breaking down and this would be a really nice reliable vehicle for him and his family.”

Sheridan sighed, “I’d really like to help you out, but I don’t like driving even short distances, let alone cross country by myself. Did you know I’ve never owned a vehicle since I’ve been in the Navy? I usually get a short-term lease and turn it back in when I deploy. A little tip: with a decent down payment, the dealer will take it back if you show them your orders.”

“How about if I can find you a traveling companion?”

“That’s a hell of an incentive…like a stick in the eye. Two, three days in a car with somebody I don’t know and probably won’t like. I get enough close quarters when I’m on a mission with your guys.”

Two days later, Lt. Commander Sheridan was doing pull-ups in the outside exercise area when Senior Chief Harmon walked up behind him, “I found you a traveling companion.”

Sheridan continued doing pull-ups. “I told you I wasn’t interested.”

“What about my rain check?”

Sheridan immediately recognized the voice. He dropped from the bar and spun around to see Lt. Commander Kate Matheson standing before him.

“Anybody going to California?” she said.

Senior Chief Harmon sensed the connection between the two Naval Officers and decided to make his exit. “I’ll let you two discuss the details.”

“Life is as much about timing as anything else,” Matheson commented.

“Amen to that. I thought you wouldn’t be back until next month.”

“I had six weeks to go. Thanks for keeping track of my schedule. I thought that you might have forgotten me.”

“Not likely.”

“My dad’s a retired Marine living in Oceanside. He’s always pushing the envelope and this time he pushed it a little too hard. He had a heart attack while he was surfing at Del Mar Beach on Camp Pendleton.”

“Is he alright?” Sheridan asked.

“He’s recovering nicely. Thanks for asking. I requested emergency leave and a humanitarian transfer. I’d like to be close by until he’s fully recovered. Admiral Stiles got me orders for North Island. When I saw the Senior Chief and asked him about you, he briefed me on what he was trying to do, so I volunteered. Here we are…the ball is in your court.”

“Yeah, here we are,” Sheridan smiled.

*  *  *

As an elite, top-tier operative, Lt. Commander Sheridan was authorized by Department of Defense directives and federal law to keep his tactical equipment and weapons with him at all times. He had a special lockbox for his Sig Sauer P226R 9mm pistol and M4a1 45mm carbine.

It was no surprise that both Naval officers got along well on the road trip. They had a lot in common, not the least being that they were both overachievers with a deep sense of patriotism who took their job—but not themselves—seriously. It was 877 miles to their first stop at Jefferson City, Missouri. Even though there was an obvious physical attraction between the two, neither one acted on their feelings beyond some playful flirtatious behavior. They shared a motel room with two double beds and watched television until they fell asleep before awakening at 0500 hours. After a shower they hit the road with Matheson in the driver’s seat. Sheridan pulled out the map, “Albuquerque is 837 miles, we should be able to make that with no problem.”

“Roger that,” Matheson said. “Westward bound.”

*  *  *

Reaching the outskirts of Albuquerque, Sheridan commented, “Mission accomplished.”

“Let’s get something to eat,” Matheson suggested.

Sheridan was driving at the time and exited the interstate. Driving parallel to the highway for about a mile he looked for an interesting spot. “How about that place?”

“Looks good to me.”

Sheridan pulled into the parking lot of the Route 66 Diner. Entering the retro eatery, they found a corner booth, picked up the menus, and examined their choices.

“I’ll have the chicken salad sandwich, a slice of carrot cake, and iced tea,” said Sheridan.

“That’s not much to eat,” Matheson said.

“I’d rather go to bed a little hungry than on a full stomach. Would you be kind enough to order for me while I use the men’s room?”

“My pleasure.”

No sooner did Sheridan leave than the waitress walked over, “Are you ready to order?”

“Give me a few seconds,” Matheson answered and quickly scanned the menu. “I’ll have the tuna melt, carrot cake, and iced tea. My companion will have the chicken salad sandwich, carrot cake, and iced tea.”

*  *  *

Four hardcore criminal thugs from the Sisto crime family, based out of Chicago, had just finished making an exchange of two million dollars with the Sinaloa Cartel for a load of Fentanyl and were feeling pretty good about themselves. They were driving from an isolated area ten miles down the highway on their way back to the Windy City when one of them commented, “Let’s get something to eat.”

“I think we should keep driving,” said another.

“It’s almost 1,400 miles back to Chicago. What do you want us to do, go hungry until we get home? If it makes you happy, we can order to go.”

Pulling into the parking lot of the roadside diner, one suggested, “One of us should stay with the car.”

“Good idea. You stay since it was your idea. We’ll go in and order and I’ll call you and let you know what’s on the menu. Three men walked into the diner and took a menu off a table. After ordering, the waitress said, “It will probably be about 15 or 20 minutes to get that ready.”

“Hurry the hell up!” one man growled. His comrade slapped him upside his head, “Never yell at the people preparing your food!”

He walked over to the waitress and gave her a $20 bill, “Excuse my friend. We’ve been on the road for a while and he doesn’t travel well. All forgiven?”

“I understand. I give the same service to everyone.”

Sheridan was about to leave the men’s room when an elderly gentleman stumbled in and almost fell flat on his face before Sheridan caught him and leaned him against the wall. “Are you alright?”

“I just got back from visiting my daughter in Tucson. I‘ve got a bad knee and when I sit for too long in the car, it has a tendency to give out on me.” The old man shook his leg and made sure he could stand on it. “I’m fine now, thanks for your help.”

“No problem,” Sheridan replied.

Back at the table, Matheson was wondering what was taking Sheridan so long to return. The three men saw her, walked over, and sat down. Matheson immediately noticed their forearms, all similarly tattooed. Seeing the bulge under their jackets, she surmised they were armed as well.

“Are you lost?” she asked.

“We’re exactly where we want to be,” one man answered.

“Are you alone?” the second man asked.

“No.”

“You look alone to me,” the third man smiled.

Sheridan walked up. “Sorry it took me so long. Who are these guys?”

Matheson made a slight movement with her right index finger and thumb to simulate a gun and Sheridan nodded in acknowledgement. “They didn’t introduce themselves.”

“Please leave us alone,” Sheridan stated in a calm voice, “I am emphasizing the word pleeease.”

The three men looked at each other and one of them taunted, “We’re not ready to go just yet. Of course if you think you’re man enough, you can make us leave.”

One of the men stroked Matheson hair and attempted to kiss her neck. She quickly pushed him away.

Sheridan commented, “There’s a movie called Roadhouse with Patrick Swayze. To paraphrase dialogue in that film, ‘Be nice until it’s time to not be nice.’ I’ve already asked you nicely to go away. I won’t be so nice next time.”

Just as the situation looked like it was ready to escalate into a physical confrontation, the waitress called out, “Your order is ready.”

One of the men turned to his angry comrade. “This is the not time for this.”

The man who tried to kiss Matheson was hesitant to let it go, his ego was bruised. He thought the disrespect was worthy of revenge. When he stood up from the booth, he roughly bumped into Sheridan and stormed out of the diner, followed by his friends.

“Thanks for coming to my defense,” Matheson said.

“I was honored to be of service, but I don’t perceive you as a woman who needs rescuing. You would have handled it.”

“No matter how good we are or think we are, it’s still nice to have back-up…right?”

Sheridan smiled. “Affirmative.”

In the parking lot, the four men ate while keeping their eyes focused on the front of the diner. Their automatic pistols sat next to them. One of the men commented as he chomped down on his cheeseburger, “I still think that we should get the hell out of here.”

The man who’d made the advance on Matheson lashed out, “Then start walking! Nobody talks to me that way and gets away with it, understand!”

The other man responded meekly, “Okay, we’ll kill them then we’ll go back to Chicago. I get it.”

The third man looked at his watch and then at the front entrance of the diner, “It sure is taking them a long time to finish eating.”

Just then, there was a loud noise as if something heavy hit the top of their car, startling the occupants. The four men instinctively jumped out to see a ten-pound rock sitting on the vehicle’s roof.

One of the men looked around. “Where the hell did that come from?”

Sheridan and Matheson stepped into view from their concealed position behind a tractor-trailer truck.

“You weren’t waiting for us, were you?” Matheson said.

“It almost looks like an ambush. We don’t like ambushes. If you gentleman are willing to drop your weapons and sincerely apologize, we might let you drive off,” Sheridan offered.

“Yeah, I agree…we don’t like killing people on a full stomach.”

The man, angry before, was enraged now. “That’s never going to happen. I don’t apologize to nobody! Just who in the hell do you think you’re talking to?”

The four men felt even more emboldened, thinking the couple had no weapons. They were hired guns and had killed a lot of people in their nefarious careers. Who were these people standing up to them? Were they crazy or just suicidal?

When the first man started to raise his weapon, the other three followed his lead. Matheson, with the Sig Sauer P226R pistol and Sheridan, with the M4a1 carbine, swung their weapons from behind their backs and the four men didn’t even get a shot off.

Matheson reached into the car and popped the trunk latch, finding the boxes of Fentanyl. Sheridan called 911.

“There’s been a shooting in the parking lot of the Route 66 Diner. Four men are lying on the ground. Looks like a drug deal gone bad.”

He disconnected the call, having no intention of waiting for the authorities. Hopping into the Grand Cherokee, Sheridan and Matheson continued on their way to California.

Finally reaching Oceanside, Lt Commander Matheson introduced Lt. Commander Sheridan to her father at the front door of the family home.

Retired Sergeant Major Ben Matheson inquired, “How was the trip?”

Lt Commander Sheridan responded without hesitation, “We made good time and I had a great traveling companion!”

With a sly grin Lt. Commander Matheson added, “We even got some Kicks on Route 66.”


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press

Jingle Dog Rock: My Christmas Hero

posted Dec 24, 2019, 10:33 AM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Dec 24, 2019, 10:35 AM ]

It’s strange how things work out in life. Sergeant Roy Hammond couldn’t help but dwell on that thought as he drove along Vandergrift Boulevard on Camp Pendleton on the way to his barracks. The news from Navy Doctor Wallace Jensen was disturbing to say the least and caught him completely by surprise: “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you have, Lamington Syndrome.”

Roy had been feeling weak and with occasional bouts of nausea for the past two weeks, and when he didn’t get any better, he reluctantly went to see the company corpsman. He was referred to the battalion aid station for a physical then sent to the base hospital for a series of tests.

“I’m sorry sir, I don’t know what that is,” Roy replied.

“It is a fast-acting disease that viciously attacks the respiratory system.”

“What’s the course of treatment?”

“There isn’t any,” Doctor Jensen responded as he kept his eyes focused on the medical report, while avoiding eye contact with the young Marine.

“Sounds like bad news? Two questions: how fast and what should I expect?”

“There are a lot a variables in a prognosis like this, so it’s hard to be precise. It could be several weeks or a few months. As time progresses it will get increasingly more difficult to breathe and at the very end, you’ll suffocate to death.”

“Thanks Doc.”

“For what?”

“For telling it to me straight.”

“I read your record. I figured that a Marine like you could handle the truth. Once again, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. Will it a problem getting on a plane? I was going with my girlfriend to visit her family over the holidays.”

“No flying, the air pressure could be dangerous.”

“Could I get a doctor’s note? I don’t want her to know just how serious it is and I’m going to need a good excuse for not going.”

“I’ll write down that you have a respiratory infection.”

*  *  *

Roy had served three combat tours in Afghanistan, first as a rifleman, then as a squad leader, and finally as a platoon sergeant with the Marine Corps infantry. He escaped death on numerous occasions while being stationed in the most dangerous areas of the country. Eight years had passed since he arrived at the San Diego Recruit Depot and looking back, it didn’t even seem possible that he was the baby-faced, naïve kid from Sedalia, Missouri. He made the transition from a wide-eyed, innocent, and clueless youth to an American warrior that served his country with honor and integrity. He received two Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in combat and a Silver Star for running into enemy fire to bring back a wounded Marine.

At one time Roy seriously thought about re-enlisting, especially after the Corps offered him a generous incentive to stay in, but decided it was time to move on. He wasn’t sure what path he wanted to take, but a career in law enforcement was on his list to consider. He had already signed up for classes at MiraCosta junior college and would start with getting his prerequisites out of the way. Roy submitted the appropriate paperwork through the Veterans Center on campus for educational benefits and everything was on schedule for when he got out of the Corps on the 7th of January.

 

Roy still couldn’t believe how lucky he was to have his girlfriend, Christy Devlin in his life. He met her before his last deployment and after he left Camp Pendleton with his unit, she continued to stay in touch with emails and letters. At any given time, Roy expected this beautiful, intelligent woman to wise up and notify him that it was over, but that didn’t happen. After his return to the states, things were even better than ever, and he fell in love for the first time in his life.

The Grim Reaper must have a twisted sense of humor to let him survive through his combat deployments, then give him a taste of true happiness and contentment, only to take it away. Roy could cry and whine about his bad break, but that wasn’t his style. He needed to do the right thing for those he cared about. His parents, younger brother, and sister had enough going on in their lives right now and he didn’t want them worrying about him or having to plan his funeral. After the holidays, Roy decided to break up with Christy. That would probably be the hardest thing he ever had to do in his life, but it had to be done. In fact, he’d rather be outnumbered by the Taliban a hundred to one on the battlefield, than look Christy in those beautiful eyes of hers and recite a well-rehearsed lie.

When Roy told Christy that he would not be able to travel, her first reaction was deep disappointment, but she offered an alternative, “If you can’t go then I’ll stay here.”

Christy was in her second year of the nursing program at Cal State San Marcos and also working part-time at a local chiropractor’s office. It had been a busy year and she desperately needed some time off. She had been planning this trip for months, but she was the type of woman that would cancel it in an instant to be with Roy.

One of the reasons Roy loved Christy so much was her kind heart and how she always placed the welfare of others above her own. Roy couldn’t let her cancel, so he did his best to convince her to go.

“Your family is expecting you. I’ll stay and watch the dogs. That way you won’t have to board them. I’ve already got the time off. This is the best option.”

It was breaking his heart, not to tell Christy why he couldn’t go or ask her to stay.

Roy did his best to keep the mood lighthearted as he drove Christy to the San Diego Airport with her two dogs, Bo and Benji in the back seat.

“I looked at the weather report. It looks like it will be clear and calm all the way to Dallas.”

Christy was staring out the window, “I really don’t want to go without you.”

“I know you don’t and I’m grateful that you want to stay, but sometimes at Christmas, it’s about doing for others. There is no better gift you can give your parents than you being there. You would regret it if you didn’t go.”

“I wanted them to meet you.”

“Tell them how sorry I am that I couldn’t make it. I’m sure they’ll understand when you tell them it’s a medical issue.”

“Maybe over the spring break, you can come down?”

“Sure thing, we can do that,” Roy lied.

After dropping Christy off at the airport, he started driving back to Oceanside and began talking to the dogs.

“I know what you’re thinking, I should have told her, but what would have been the point? Think about it, it ruins her holiday and her family’s because she feels bad and they feel bad for her. I feel worse than I already do and it becomes a big vicious cycle of depression and sadness. We need some yuletide cheer.”

Bo and Benji began barking.

“I knew you’d agree once I explained it in those terms. We both love her and that’s not in dispute, so if it’s alright with you we won’t bring this subject up again. Now let’s enjoy the holidays because it’s going be our last one together.”

*  *  *

Two other Marines came into the Naval Hospital with the same symptoms as Roy and went through the same tests and received the same results. This would have alerted Doctor Jensen’s attention since he was head of Internal Medicine, but he had taken a few days off to be with his family for the holidays and was not notified.

*  *  *

Once Roy arrived back in Oceanside, he went directly to the dog park instead of Christy’s apartment. He found a bench on the backside of the property and sat by himself while the dogs played in the grass. How could he have so much on his mind? He should be downsizing in frivolous thoughts and enjoying what little time he had left, but he couldn’t do it. He was a fighter and surrendering to anything, including death, wasn’t in his DNA. 

After returning to Christy’s apartment, Roy fed Bo and Benji when all of a sudden he got sick to his stomach and went in the bathroom to throw up. Afterward he lay down on the couch and waited for the room to stop spinning. When he awakened several hours later, after his dreams mixing with cherished memories, he had a complete change of heart. Roy looked down at the two dogs, who were staring up at him from the floor.

“If I’m leaving this world then I’m going out on my terms and with a smile on my face.”

It was Christmas Eve and Christy called from her parents’ home in Texas, “I just called to tell you that I was thinking about you. What are you doing?”

“Not much, just sitting here with the dogs.”

“What are your plans for today?”

“I’m still not feeling well, so I’ll probably just take it easy.”

“I wish I could do something for you.”

“You can…have a good time and don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Roy knew that most places would be closing early on Christmas Eve so he decided to do some shopping and get gas before it got too late. He stopped off at Trader Joe’s on West Vista Way and purchased some chips and snacks. It was getting dark so Roy stopped off at the Circle K gas station and food mart on College Avenue to get 20 dollars in gas. Bo and Benji were sitting patiently in the backseat, “Hang in there, we’re still going to the park, I haven’t forgotten.”

There were several cars parked at the other pumps, but nobody was around. Roy thought to himself that there must be a long line inside. When he entered the building, Roy didn’t see anybody at first until an unshaven man in a hoodie walked out of the back room.

“What do you need?”

“How about 20 dollars on pump five.”

Roy saw the reflection of a man approaching from the rear of the store in the mirror on the wall before him. He was also wearing a hoodie and had his right hand behind his back. Roy caught a brief glimpse of a gun the man behind the counter had hidden behind a candy display. Roy hesitated for a second.

“Anything else?” The man grumbled.

Even though he didn’t smoke, Roy needed to buy himself some valuable time.

“I almost forgot, how about a pack of Marlboro lights.”

When the man turned around to get the cigarettes, Roy noticed a third man watching him from the direction of the soda and beer cooler. The man walking up the aisle was now directly behind him. Roy could sense the pistol being aimed at his back and smell of the man’s bad breath. As soon as the man behind the counter walked over with the pack of cigarettes, Roy kicked backward with all his strength and his boot caught the man in the knee and he screamed out in pain. A microsecond later, he grabbed the man standing before him by his long hair and slammed his head down against the metal counter so hard that he was knocked unconscious. The man on the floor moaned in pain while holding his broken leg.

Roy picked up his gun and crouched down. The man by the cooler fired two rounds that shattered the glass door next to him. Roy dropped to his stomach, crawling toward the back of the store. When he looked under the product shelves, Roy could only see the shooter’s lower legs, so he took careful aim and put a round through the man’s right ankle. When he fell to the floor, Roy shot him in the forehead.

*  *  *

Later, the Oceanside Police were on site. Captain Gibbs walked over to where Roy was standing next to his car and petting Bo and Benji.

“How you doing, do the paramedics need to look at you?

“I’m fine.”

“Those three men have been on a crime spree throughout the state, starting at the Oregon border,” Captain Gibbs sighed in disgust as he watched the robbers being rolled out on stretchers. “There was a good probability that if you hadn’t come along, those hostages would not be spending Christmas with their families. These were bloodthirsty killers who have never left anybody alive at their other crime sites.”

“I was glad to help out.”

Two of the women hostages, still emotionally distraught from their harrowing experience, rushed over to Roy and embraced him in an expression of heartfelt gratitude.

“Thank you…thank you …thank you so much,” they repeated as tears of relief rolled down their faces. Roy shrugged.

“No problem, I didn’t do anything that any other man wouldn have done in the same situation.”

Captain Gibbs quickly disagreed.

“One unarmed man against three killers? I don’t think too many men would do what you did. One Marine against three killers, now that is entirely easier for me to believe.”

It took about 30 minutes of interviewing before Detective Chad Helton told Roy, “I guess that’s all I need for right now. Where can I reach you if I have any other questions?”

 “I’m staying at my girlfriend’s place, watching her dogs. I can give you the address and my cellphone number.”

After returning to Christy’s apartment, Roy watched movies on the Hallmark Channel until about 11:30 pm when he got restless and turned to Bo and Benji, “Let’s go the park.”

After arriving at Palisades Dog Park, Roy took out the illuminating dog collars and put them on Bo and Benji. He put a large bottle of water and bowl, dog snacks, a small lantern, and two more illuminating collars into a gym bag and walked to the table on the west side of the park.

In the background were a row of houses that were decorated with Christmas lights shining brightly into the park. Roy took out his cellphone and began to play holiday songs.

It was a clear, star-filled sky that night. The dogs chased a laser that Roy moved along the ground. At midnight Roy took two more illuminating dog collars and held them in each hand. He played with the dogs in the grass while singing along with the songs playing on his phone.

A young boy from the adjoining neighborhood who had received a drone with a camera for Christmas couldn’t wait to try it out, so with his brother and father, they rushed over to the dog park. When they saw Roy and the dogs playing on the other side of the grassy area, they guided the drone to fly above them with the video and audio recorder on. It was definitely a memorable sight to behold with Christmas decorations in the background, lighted collars spinning and twirling in the dark, dogs barking and Roy doing his own dance routine while substituting the word dog for bell in the classic song Jingle Bell Rock. “Jingle dog, jingle dog, jingle dog rock. Dancin’ and prancin’ in Jingle Dog Square. Giddy-up jingle dogs. Jingle around the clock. 

Roy was caught up in the moment and definitely would not have behaved in such a free –spirited and joyful manner if he knew he was being recorded for prosperity.

*  *  *

Christy’s niece was using her tablet to access the internet on Christmas morning.

“Aunt Christy, take a look at this video. They just posted it and it’s already got 600,000 views.”

As soon as Christy saw it, she quickly recognized the park, her dogs and Roy. Tears came to her eyes each of the dozen times she watched throughout Christmas Day.

*  *  *

Doctor Jensen was watching the news when he saw the story about Sergeant Roy Hammond’s heroism and told his family that he knew the Marine. On December 26, he returned to work at the Camp Pendleton base hospital. When he saw the report that two other Marines had been diagnosed with the same rare ailment as Roy, Doctor Jensen suspected something was not right. He called his secretary in the outer office.

“Bridgett, I need something done immediately. Call the lab, I need to talk with them.”

*  *  *

Landing right on time in San Diego, Christy called Roy as the plane taxied to the terminal.

“I’m here.”

“We’re on our way,” Roy responded and pulled out of the cellphone parking lot. While driving to Terminal One, he looked back at Bo and Benji. “You have my word I’ll tell her.”

The two dogs jumped back and forth from the front seat to the back seat in uncontrolled excitement when they saw their owner exit the baggage claim area. Entering the car, Christy gave her three favorite males a nice big kiss and hug.

Back at Christy’s and after a nice home-cooked meal, the two were sitting on the couch. Roy thought this was as good a time as any to tell Christy about his medical condition. But before he could begin, there was a knock at the door. Christy got up to look out the window and saw two law enforcement officers.

“It’s the police.”

Opening the door, she asked, “May I help you?”

 “We’re looking for Sergeant Roy Hammond.”

Getting up from the couch and walking to the door, Roy said, “I’m Roy Hammond.”

The police officer handed Roy a large gift basket filled with fruits, nuts, and imported cheeses.

“The people at the Circle K chipped in to get you this. They asked us to deliver it.”

Christy took the card from the basket and read it aloud, “Thank you for saving our lives, we are eternally grateful.” Christy looked at Roy, “What’s this all about?”

Before Roy could answer, Navy Doctor Wallace Jensen walked up.

“I hope I’m not intruding, but I have some information that couldn’t wait. The Oceanside Police told me where I could find you. Can we talk in private?”

“Yes sir,” Roy answered without hesitation. He turned to Christy, “I’ll be right back.”

Walking out to the sidewalk, Roy and Doctor Jensen found a spot where they could not be overheard.

“There was an error with your test results. We had just received a new computerized blood analysis machine and apparently it had some software issues. You do not have Lamington Syndrome, you have Lippington’s virus, an inflammation of the intestines caused by contaminated vegetables. It is completely curable. The problem was tracked down to the mess hall where you’ve been eating and a defective thermostat in the cooler.”

Doctor Jensen reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bottle.

“These are antibiotics, take one in the morning and one at dinnertime with food. I want to see you in my office after the first of the year to re-check your blood.”

“Yes sir, thank you for coming out to give me the good news. Your timing could not have been better, sir.”

Doctor Jensen started to walk back to his car then turned back around, “Good job at that gas station on Christmas Eve, Marine.”

When Roy got back to the front door, Christy had a devious smile on her face, “I guess a lot happened while I was away?”

“I was just getting ready to tell you all about it.”

“I’m a ready and willing audience.”

 Roy explained everything in detail then sighed in relief, “That’s it.”

“Really? Are you absolutely positive you didn’t leave anything out?

“Affirmative.”

Christy got up from the couch, “I’ll get us some hot apple cider.”

A couple of minutes passed.

“Do you need some help?” asked Roy.

The lights went off, leaving the apartment pitch black. Christy came walking out of the kitchen with an illuminating dog collar around her neck and a computer tablet in her hand. Bo and Benji had their flashing collars on as well.

“There is one other minor incident you forgot to mention. You’ve got seven million hits so far, my Christmas hero.”

Christy turned on the video and began dancing to the tune. Jingle dog, jingle dog, jingle dog rock. Dancin’ and prancin’ in Jingle Dog Square. Giddy-up jingle dogs. Jingle Dog Rock.


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press

Whiskey: War Dog

posted Dec 4, 2019, 4:20 PM by Bruce Rowe

Sergeant Mason Walker was a Marine Corps dog handler during the Battle of Khe Sanh from January 21 to July 9, 1968. With his dog Whiskey, he was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines during this brutal and deadly time in the Vietnam War. A lot more Americans would have died during this conflict if it wasn’t for the courageous efforts of these two warriors.

To prevent North Vietnamese gunners from establishing entrenched positions around the firebase, the Marines had to continuously patrol the hills. The duty of leading many of these patrols usually fell upon Mason and his dog. Whiskey’s reputation for detecting the enemy became legendary throughout the firebase and every scared Marine who thought he’d never make it to the next day felt a glimmer of hope if Sergeant Walker was with them. This unusual canine had the ability to detect explosives and booby traps and pick up the scent of the enemy from long distances as they waited in ambush.

General Westmoreland’s much-publicized relief effort infuriated the Marines, who had not wanted to hold the firebase in the first place. One hundred fifty-five men were killed and 425 were wounded in the Battle of Khe Sanh, and then to add insult to death and injury, they were roundly criticized for not defending their base properly. Nobody really cared how the Marines felt, so on April 1, 1968, Operation Pegasus proceeded as planned and the relief force began moving toward Khe Sanh.

Lt. Rackley approached a haggard looking Sergeant Walker.

“You look like crap.”

“Really? I thought I looked my best. It must be the light in my bunker.”

“We’re pulling out; reinforcements are on the way.”

“Roger that,” Mason replied without emotion.

“They want us to extend our areas of search until they get here,” Lt. Rackley said.

Sergeant Walker laughed, “We’re getting bombarded every day by NVA (People’s Army of Vietnam) gunners who’ve locked in on our positions. We make contact with them every time we go on patrol and the good news is that some knucklehead general wants us to extend our sectors of search. Somebody needs to tell those guys what the definition of a rescue is; they come to get us!”

“Consider this another chapter in the exciting world of Vietnam War military strategy,” Lt. Rackley sighed. “How’s Whiskey holding up?”

“Better than most of the grunts (infantrymen) here at the infamous Khe Sanh Resort.”

When Mason got back to his underground bunker, he collapsed on a broken-down canvas cot as Whiskey looked at him. He put his hand on his animal partner’s head and said, “Don’t ask.” Before Mason could close his eyes, enemy gunners began shelling the base. The ground shook and the dirt from above fell on him and Whiskey like a steady brown rain from the bowels of hell. The seasoned combat veteran was so used to the bombardment that he dozed off to the rumbling.

*  *  *

The next morning, Sergeant Walker and Whiskey were ready to lead another patrol into hostile territory. Lt. Rackley walked up and Mason quipped, “More good news?”

“2nd Battalion 1st Marines is two days out.”

“So the patrol has been cancelled?” Mason said.

Lt. Rackley shrugged, “Not that much good news.”

Mason turned to his fellow war weary Marines, “Move out!”

The patrol headed into the hills and had traveled two clicks (one click = one thousand meters) when Whiskey stopped. Mason bent down and saw a tripwire stretched across the trail then signaled to the Marines behind him to hold their positions. He reached into pocket and pulled out some fishing line that was wrapped around a stick. Mason tied one end around the tripwire and slowly backed away. Mason looked around the area then asked Whiskey, “Where are they?”

Whiskey sniffed at the jungle air then pointed southwest toward a small hill. “That’s what I think too.” Mason said.

The machine gun team set up the M-60 and Mason told the Blooperman—the Marine operating the M-79 grenade launcher— to fire five H.E. (high explosive) rounds at a tall tree on the hill when he heard the explosion.

PFC Hewitt nodded, “Got it.”

Mason gave the customary warning “Fire in the hole!” and pulled the fishing line. The NVA had planted a 152mm artillery shell as a booby trap and the detonation shook the earth, putting a five-foot crater in the earth. Hearing the explosion, the NVA soldiers started running to finish off the Marines and ran right into the M-79 rounds. Those not killed or wounded continued toward the trail and the M-60 fired several long bursts that cut their numbers in half. Mason opened fire with his M-16 as Whiskey stayed right by his side.

An NVA soldier sneaked up from behind the Marines and was ready to open fire, when out of nowhere Whiskey came racing though the tall elephant grass and snapped down on his right forearm. Two seconds later, Mason was there to shoot the enemy soldier. “Good job,” he told Whiskey.

The NVA disengaged and ran back into the hills.

*  *  *

Now back to Camp Pendleton, Mason and Whiskey were both in bad shape. Mason was physically and emotionally spent, experiencing flashbacks and nightmares. Needing rest as well, Whiskey was 15 pounds underweight. Sergeant Walker mistakenly assumed he would be allowed to finish his enlistment stateside with his trusty companion. With his combat experience, he thought he would be a valuable asset to the training of young Marines headed for war, maybe getting an assignment as an instructor.

When Sergeant Walker got the word that the Marine Corps was going to euthanize Whiskey, he rushed down to the 17 area of the base where dogs returning from the war were kept. Sergeant Mason approached Corporal Kittrick, a Marine he knew as an M.P/ dog handler. He knew that it wasn’t going to do any good to be indignant, so he did his best to act calmly, though he was raging on the inside.

“Hey Kittrick, I’m here to check on the dogs,” Mason lied.

“It’s a damn shame,” Kittrick replied.

“What is?”

“The base veterinarian is going to put them down, too dangerous to be adopted they say.”

“Any idea when that’s going to happen?”

“Friday.”

Mason walked over to the penned-up animals. His heart broke a little more as he made eye contact with the dogs that had served so honorably and were now being discarded like so much trash. When he saw Whiskey, he fell to his knees and cried as his faithful companion licked his face through the bars.

As he drove his Ford pickup back to 41 area, Mason’s mind was racing. He had to do something to save Whiskey and those other dogs. “What the hell” he thought, changing directions and driving off base to the rural community of Fallbrook. As he drove, he pondered how he ended up in this position. How many battles did he have to fight before he could find some peace in his life? Mason was driving down Mission Road when he saw a “Puppies for Sale” sign in front of the Fallbrook Grain and Feed Store. Pulling into the lot, he parked and walked inside.

“How can I help you?” A middle-aged woman called out from behind a counter.

Mason sighed, “I was trying to find a home for some dogs.”

“I don’t know of anybody but let me ask my son. Patrick, come out here.”

A young man about the same age as Mason limped out. The woman explained, “This young man is trying to find a home for some dogs.”

Mason and Patrick looked at each other and instinctively sensed something.

“You a Marine?” Patrick asked.

“Yeah, 2/26th” Mason answered, “You?”

“One nine,” Patrick said.

“The Walking Dead.

“I got a problem,” Mason started to explain. When he finished, he asked. “What do you think?”

“Dogs were always saving our butts in ‘Nam. I’ll do whatever I can to repay the favor,” Patrick started. “I live with my family on a few acres, so we got the room. I think I can talk them into it but taking care of six dogs could be a little expensive.”

“I saved some money while I was overseas. You’re welcome to all of it.”

Patrick held his emotions in check and swallowed hard, “I was on patrol and stepped on a mine.” He raised his pants just high enough to show that his right leg was a prosthetic. “Charlie was ready to put a bullet in my head when Chato our scout dog killed him, then stayed by my side until I was medevac’d. Hell yeah! You want my help saving war dogs, you got it. How are you going to get them off base?”

“I’ll figure it out,” Mason said. “I have no choice.”

“Fighting that war never really ends for men like us,” Patrick held his hand out in friendship and loyalty.

Next morning, Mason arrived at the kennels at 0400 hours when he knew the facility would be staffed with only one Marine. He knocked on the door and a baby-faced Lance Corporal opened the door.

“How can I help you, Sergeant?”

“S-1 wants to see you about some paperwork,” Mason said.

“Right now?”

“I thought I would relieve you early so you can get some chow. If you get there by 0800 hours, you’ll be fine.”

“Thanks Sergeant.”

The young Marine was gone in less than a minute.

Mason unlocked the cages and let the dogs out. Whiskey led the trained canines to the truck and when Mason lowered the tailgate, they jumped in. Mason put the tailgate up and, putting a tarp over them, told the dogs, “Not a sound.”

Mason drove through the Naval Weapons station and off base and met with Patrick at his family’s property in Fallbrook. The dogs jumped out and started roaming their new home.

“I plan on fencing in a large area and building a big doghouse.” Patrick said

Mason handed Patrick an envelope, “Here’s a thousand dollars, I’ll get some more in a few days. Whatever you need, I’ll find a way to get it.”

He bent down and hugged Whiskey, “I don’t know when we’ll meet again, but you’re out of harm’s way and that’s the most important thing. Semper Fi.”

He got in his truck and watched Whiskey in his rearview mirror until he couldn’t see him anymore. Mason cried all the way back to Camp Pendleton.

*  *  *

It didn’t take long before Camp Pendleton found out what happened. Mason was called to the office of the XO (executive officer) of his unit.

Major Barrett yelled, “Just what the hell were you thinking? You stole government property. That’s a court martial offense!”

“Did you serve in combat, Major?” Mason asked.

“No, I haven’t,” Major Barrett replied. “What the hell does that have to do with this?”

“If you had, you would never call a war dog government property.”

“I’m filing charges against you. I might be inclined to be lenient if you tell me where the dogs are,” Major Barrett offered.

“I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my memory since I got back,” Mason answered. “It must be all those explosions I got caught in.”

Major Barrett called out, “Sergeant Major LaSalle!”

Sergeant Major LaSalle was a combat veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He was rawhide tough and had a great affection for warriors like Mason, “You called me, Major?”

“Get the paperwork ready to send this Marine to the brig.”

“I’ll talk care of it,” Sergeant Major grumbled.

After Major Barrett left, Sergeant Major LaSalle ordered Mason, “Come into my office.”

Mason followed the senior enlisted officer and stood before the desk as LaSalle sat down, “Relax Sergeant, take a seat.”

Mason complied as Sergeant Major LaSalle looked through his record book.

“For the record, Major Barrett is a pencil pusher and a by-the-book bonehead.”

“It is what it is,” Mason answered.

“You’ve got a Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. What the hell were you thinking taking those dogs?”

Mason saw the battle ribbons on LaSalle’s uniform, “Would you leave one of your Marines to die if you could save him?”

“Dogs aren’t Marines,” Sergeant Major LaSalle snapped back.

“You don’t serve in the Corps as long as you and not realize how important those animals are to grunts in the field,” Mason replied. “They deserve to be treated with appreciation and respect.”

“It isn’t important what I realize or what even you think, it’s regulations…dogs are government property. You need to follow orders and leave your sentiments stowed in your footlocker.”

“Cemeteries are full of dead Marines who followed stupid orders given by idiots. You want to bust me; then go for it. If you want to put me in Leavenworth, then do it. You follow your code and I’ll follow mine. What the hell, why not save us all a lot of trouble and put me out of my misery. I’m damaged government property so just put your .45 to the base of my skull and squeeze the trigger. My best friend saved my life more times than I can count. He’s safe and that’s all that matters to me. I lost buddies in ‘Nam…maybe it’s about time I joined them. You always can say I attacked you and you had to defend yourself. Hell, maybe they’ll even give you a medal for it.”

“Lighten up Sergeant, I’m not the enemy,” Sergeant Major LaSalle smiled. “Just between you and me, I agree with you.”

Sergeant Major LaSalle would use his extensive and considerable influence in the chain of command to get Sergeant Walker another option besides a court martial.

“Which is it, Devil Dog, the frying pan or the fire?”

“What do you think?” Mason smiled.

The Marine Corps was desperately short of qualified dog handlers. If Sergeant Mason Walker signed up for a second tour in Vietnam, the Corps would drop all charges against him, and he would be reunited with Whiskey. As for the other dogs, the official report would state they were lost.

*  *  *

As much as he hated returning to Vietnam, Mason felt some weird sense of serenity returning to war. Waiting at the Danang Airport for the ride to his unit, Mason heard the words “WHISKEY DELTA!” echo across the terminal. When he looked to his left, Mason saw his Khe Sanh platoon commander, Lt. Rackley walking toward him, but now he was wearing captain’s insignia on his collar.

“You’re the last guy I expected to see back here,” Captain Rackley smiled, then bent down to nuzzle Whiskey.

“You’re the last guy I expected to still be here, Captain.”

“After what we went through at Khe Sanh, they must have felt sorry for me, so they promoted me and gave me a transfer to a ‘skate job,’ supply at China Beach,” Captain Rackley beamed. “Now there’s the place to spend the war; clean sheets, hot chow, booze. It was like being on non-stop R&R. It was so fine I almost signed up for another tour, but I haven’t been home in two years and my family is on my case to return to the ‘world.’ What’s your excuse for being back?”

“Wishing and thinking about going back to the ‘world’ was a whole lot better than actually being there,” Mason answered.

The two Marines reminisced for a few minutes about the few good times while expertly avoiding the numerous bad ones. They said their goodbyes and went their separate ways, knowing they would probably never see each other again. Mason had requested a return to his old unit, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines before he left California, but ended up with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines because they were short a dog handler. He had only two days to acclimate to being back “in country” before catching a chopper out to the bush on March 3, 1969.

Operations Oklahoma Hills was a clear and search operation during the Vietnam War, conducted by the 1st Marine Division and the Army of the Republic (ARVN) 51st Regiment. It began on March 1 and officially ended on May 29, 1969. Clearing the NVA and Viet Cong from their base camps and infiltration routes in the hills and valleys of Quang Nam Province was the mission. The area was southwest of Danang and designated by allied commanders as Happy Valley and Charlie Ridge.

The Marines had previously scoured the area in Operations Mameluke Thrust, Maui Peak and Taylor Common, but the American forces received intelligence from a defector that NVA were rebuilding and strengthening their forces.

The main infiltration route was Ai Yeng along Route 614 and into Happy Valley, while another branch followed the Song Con River south to An Dien. The terrain was a major challenge because Charlie Ridge was a steep and narrow mountain range with numerous gullies and ravines. Thick undergrowth and a dense canopy overhead greatly diminished the effectiveness of air support, including low-flying helicopters.

Mason and Whiskey had been in the jungle for 11 weeks and were on patrol near the western edge of Charlie Ridge. Someone casually mentioned it was May 30, Memorial Day, but like any other holiday in combat, that was quickly forgotten.

Whiskey stopped and pointed in several different directions which was his signal that the Marines were surrounded. The Americans quickly found as much cover as they could and got ready. They didn’t have long to wait, the NVA soldiers came at them from every direction. It was a relentless onslaught and at times the Marines were fighting hand to hand with the enemy. Mason and Whiskey fought valiantly while encouraging the men in the patrol to hold their positions.

When the Marines of the machine gun squad were seriously injured by a Chicom (Chinese communist grenade), Mason grabbed the M-60 and attacked the entrenched positions of the North Vietnamese fighters. Catching an AK-47 round in the lower left thigh, he tied a tourniquet above the wound. Even though he was bleeding badly, it barely slowed him down. Then a bullet went through his right forearm, luckily without hitting the bone.

Mason was so lightheaded from loss of blood he didn’t even remember holding off the last two attacks. By the time reinforcements arrived, Mason was lying on the ground and barely conscious with Whiskey lying across his body to protect him.

*  *  *

His bravery, gallantry, and intrepidness at the risk of his own life, going above and beyond the call of duty, earned Sergeant Mason Walker a Congressional Medal of Honor. During the award ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, President Nixon asked him, “Is there anything your country can do for you?”

“There is one thing, sir. It’s about my dog.”

*  *  *

After returning to Camp Pendleton, Sergeant Mason Walker learned that Sergeant Major LaSalle had retired and was now living in Fallbrook. He was even more surprised when he learned that the tough leatherneck and Patrick, the disabled veteran, were jointly operating an animal sanctuary.

When Mason arrived at the tree-lined, tranquil property, Whiskey jumped out of the truck and rushed to join his fellow war dogs. His combat days were behind him now and he’d earned the right to act like a playful puppy. It took three long years of lobbying and meeting with politicians, but due to the persistent efforts of the three Marines who refused to accept defeat, Congress passed what is commonly called “Mason’s Law” Sec 2582. The legislation states that the Secretary of Defense has the authority to make a military working canine available for adoption at the end of the dog’s useful working life.

Let us never forget the sacrifices of Sergeant Mason Walker, Whiskey, and all the other courageous war dogs.


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press

Never Underestimate The Quiet Ones

posted Nov 18, 2019, 4:35 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Nov 19, 2019, 9:57 AM ]

Santino Leone’s great-grandfather was Sergio Leone, the great Italian director, producer, and screenwriter. The elder Leone is credited with being the creator of the Spaghetti Western genre and is widely regarded as one of the most influential directors in the history of cinema. His movies included the Dollars Trilogy of Westerns that made Clint Eastwood an international star: A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars More, and The Good, Bad and the Ugly.

His grandfather Marcello was an Italian opera star and his father Antonio had been a movie executive at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, the largest film studio in Europe until he accepted a senior position with Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso production company that was established with profits from the Dollars Trilogy. Antonio Leone moved to California with his bride Sienna Luchesi, an international fashion model, in 1980. They lived in Carmel, California for the first three years helping to develop the Malpaso production company as a major player in the film industry.

In 1983, Antonio and Clint became partners in a real estate project when they purchased 5,000 acres in Southwest Riverside County. Antonio soon found out that Temecula Valley soils consisted primarily of decomposing granitic material, which is beneficial for producing high-quality grapes because it provides better drainage for grapevine roots than silty or clay soils.

Antonio contacted family friend Francis Ford Coppola, director of the Godfather movies who had a great knowledge about wine, “Hey Frank, could you take some time and come down here.”

“Sure, what’s going on?”

“Clint and I just bought some property. It looks good for grapes and I wanted to get your educated opinion.”

“Just tell me where and when,” Francis Coppola answered without hesitation.

The Leone Winery was one of the first in the Temecula Valley. The rural environment didn’t really suit Sienna Leone, but she reluctantly adapted to it. After the birth of their three children, Gina, Robert, and Santino, Antonio and Sienna made every effort to expose them to different cultures so the family traveled extensively throughout the world when they weren’t attending a private elementary school in Carmel.

When Gina finished eighth grade, she applied and was accepted to a private performing arts school in Rome to study music. Robert had aspirations of becoming a director like his great-grandfather and Eastwood, so he worked part–time during high school years at the Malpaso production offices learning the business from highly skilled professionals. Sienna spent a lot of time in Europe with her daughter while Antonio worked at the winery every chance he had. Even though the Leone family was often separated Antonio and Sienna made sure everyone remained connected.

Santino, or Tino as he was called by his family, was the enigma of the family. He was blessed with matinee good looks, wavy brown hair, crystal-blue eyes, chiseled features, and a perfect smile. He was unassuming and charismatic at the same time and despite the numerous opportunities afforded him, Tino never thought of himself as entitled or special. In fact, his parents were amazed how much different their youngest son was from his siblings, who had lofty goals and aspirations and relished acknowledgement of their accomplishments.

When it came time for Tino to attend high school, he told his parents he wanted to live at the home on the winery property and attend public high school in the area. They were not totally surprised by his choice and after a long family discussion where they gave Tino a long list of his options and he politely rejected them all. Antonio and Sienna Leone reluctantly acquiesced, “It’s your choice, son,” said his father.

The youngest Leone was much more equipped to handle the high school curriculum than his fellow students. At his elementary school he learned to speak three languages fluently: Italian, French and Spanish. Tino was knowledgeable about the world, national history, and economics, and was already studying high school subjects when he was in eighth grade.

He was part of the second class of Temecula Valley High School, which in 1985 was the first high school in the area to open. Tino was a natural athlete and signed up to play football, basketball, and baseball in his first year, being elected captain on all three teams. Despite having no seniors, the Temecula Valley Golden Bears became competitive with schools in the area. Tino was the kind of natural leader that elevated the play of those around him.

He also made friends with a frail and painfully shy young boy named Oliver Lehman who hardly spoke to anyone. Oliver was brought up with a physically and emotionally abusive father and when his mother finally found the courage to leave, she found herself penniless and working two jobs to barely support herself and her son.

Tino was the most popular boy in school; the teachers liked him, all the girls wanted to be with him, and the boys wished they could be like him. When he saw Oliver being bullied by a group of bigger boys, he quickly intervened, “What’s going on?”

One of the boys sneered, “We’re just having a little fun with the geek.”

“He’s my friend and if you want to have a little fun, then why not have it with me?” Tino offered.

The boys quickly lost interest in Oliver and one of them hung in head in embarrassment and spoke for the group, “We didn’t know, sorry.”

After the boys left, Tino turned to Oliver, “I’m Tino…”

Oliver meekly said, “You’re Tino Leone…everybody knows you.”

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Oliver Lehman,”

“Nice to meet you Ollie,” Tino flashed his charismatic smile.

“Why did you help me?” Oliver asked.

Tino put his hand on the smaller boy’s shoulder as a sign of reassurance, “My grandfather used to say; never underestimate the quiet ones.”

Tino knew that there was something special about the young boy, but what he didn’t know was that Ollie had savant syndrome. Savant syndrome is the name for a rare, but extraordinary condition in which someone with a serious emotional impairment (often some form of autism) displays a spectacular “island of genius” amidst his overall disability. In Ollie’s case, he compensated for his lack of social skills with an IQ so high there were no accurate tests to measure it.

When Tino found out Ollie’s mother was working two minimum wage jobs, he mentioned it to his father who offered Dorothy Lehman a job as an assistant bookkeeper with full benefits and excellent pay. Dorothy was so grateful for the opportunity that she broke down in tears when Antonio Leone asked her if she was interested.

Dorothy Lehman turned out to be such a good worker that the Leone family purchased a three-bedroom home and offered her a lease with option to buy on the property for the same amount that Dorothy was paying for a rundown, two-bedroom apartment.

Ollie would wait for Tino to finish practice at whatever sport he was involved in and both boys would return to the winery together. Even though Tino was the same age, Ollie looked at him as his protective big brother.

Dorothy approached Tino one day, “I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for Oliver.”

“Ollie’s my friend. He’d do the same for me if he was in my place,” Tino smiled.

Even though Ollie had little athletic ability, he’d try anything if Tino asked him and among their activities were rock climbing, surfing, and skydiving. When one of the peristaltic pumps at the winery malfunctioned, Ollie located the problem and corrected it. Tino was impressed and reminded his friend, “You’re destined for great things…never forget that.”

Throughout high school, Ollie only felt comfortable talking to Tino and after graduation, both boys were discussing their future plans when Tino said, “I’m thinking about joining the military.”

He wasn’t sure which branch of the service to join until he met Tim Slater, a former Air Force Pararescue specialist at the Perris Valley skydiving center.

“I wish you wouldn’t go,” Ollie pleaded.

“It’s something I need to do. The country has been good to my family. I feel I should give something back. What do I always tell you?”

“That I’m destined for great things,” Ollie sighed.

“Now is your time to prove it.”

*  *  *

After Tino left for military training, Ollie focused all his attention and energy into developing a cutting-edge computer information system. He also developed a new generation of electronic devices that brought new opportunities for miniaturization and mass production.

His efforts became the building block of the information revolution that transformed wireless internet technology. Over the next five years, Oliver Lehman was relentless in his pursuit of new advancements in the industry. One of his first large purchases was a house for his mother on a hill overlooking the Temecula Valley. Ollie also offered to support her in an affluent lifestyle for the rest of her life, but she loved working for the Leone family too much to give up her job.

Ollie knew the type of loyalty his mother felt because he felt the same way about them. He knew he owed everything to his childhood friend. Ollie created cybersecurity software for the government as well a new guidance system for unmanned drones. He held the highest security clearance from the state department and had diplomatic immunity whenever he traveled. Despite his numerous successes and vast wealth, Oliver Lehman’s most prized possession was his friendship with Tino Leone.

*  *  *

With Tino stationed at Aviano Air Force base, Ollie rented the largest villa with a complete staff in the small town of San Daniele, between Maniago and Udine, so both families could get together for Thanksgiving. Sienna and Gina drove up from Rome and Antonio and Robert flew over from California in Ollie’s private jet. Ollie instructed the cooking staff to prepare an elaborate feast for the American holiday with some special Italian dishes. Everyone was thoroughly enjoying themselves and Tino raised his glass of wine, “To our host.”

The other people at the table raised their glasses and took a swallow from their glasses. Ollie stood up and placed his left hand on his mother’s shoulder, “To the Leone family. You helped us when we needed it most and we will always be grateful for your kindness and generosity.”

Ollie took a few moments to compose himself, “I can only imagine where I would be right now if it wasn’t for my friend. I would probably be a homeless recluse living on the street.”

Tino got up from his chair and walked over to Ollie and extended his right hand, “Paisano.” (Italian slang for pal, comrade.) Ollie shook Tino’s hand.

After a delicious dinner, the group adjourned to the observation room with a massive stone fireplace taking up half the wall. One side of the room was glass from floor to ceiling, exposing a breathtaking view of mountains, valleys, and rolling vineyards.

Antonio Leone brought out a wooden box, opened it and pulled out a wine bottle. “The newest Leone wine and if I do say so myself, it’s our best Cabernet Sauvignon.”

Before he had a chance to pour it for the guests, Tino’s cellphone rang. He looked at the screen, “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get back to the base.”

“Problem?” Sienna asked her son.

“Sorry mom, you’ll be around for few days?” Tino said.

“Until Tuesday,” Robert smiled.

“Hopefully this won’t take long.”

“I’ll give you a ride,” Ollie volunteered.

When Tino got back to the base, members of his pararescue team were already arriving. “I need to go,” he said.

“Duty calls,” Ollie responded.

When he got to the situation room, Colonel Emmit Nelson was standing at the podium.

“One of our surveillance planes went down 50 miles northwest of Timbuktu, Mali. Intel has it that the terror cell Ansar-al-Sharia is moving toward the crash site. Load up, you’ll be briefed in flight. We’re on a strict timeline.”

Once aboard the C-47 Skytrain transport plane, it was determined that Alpha Team would go to the crash site and destroy the downed aircraft with explosive charges while Tino would lead Bravo Team and get the pilot who parachuted out, now one mile away from the plane.

The ten men parachuted just after sunrise and split up when they touched ground. Alpha Team made it to the crash site two minutes after a dozen terrorist fighters arrived. There was a firefight and the Alpha Team killed the terrorists with pararescue snipers doing most of the damage. They planted explosives and destroyed the aircraft.

“We’re on our way to your position,” Alpha Commander radioed.

“Roger that,” Tino replied. “We’re five mikes (minutes) from our destination.”

The downed pilot radioed, “I’m injured, 20 bogeys moving toward my position.”

Tino took the sniper rifle from a team member and pointed to a hill, “I’ll overwatch from there.”

The rest of the team made their way to the downed pilot while Tino sprinted up the hill and got in position. He began shooting the terrorists and took down six of them. Alpha Team arrived and reinforced the assault while Tino provided suppressive fire. Alpha Team leader radioed for extraction, then radioed Tino, “Bravo Team leader, let’s go.”

Tino prepared to leave his position when four pickup trucks with heavy machine guns and a dozen fighters raced up and began riddling the area with fire. Tino knew there was no way that he could make it from his position to the rest of the team without being killed. “I can’t make it,” he radioed back, focusing his attention on the trucks below. He took out two machine guns and killed four fighters. Helicopters could be heard approaching in the distance for the extraction.

“You’ve got to make your move,” Alpha Commander radioed.

“No can do,” Tino replied as he continued firing at the terrorists. “Go without me!”

The two helicopters hovered overhead and lowered a dozen ropes. The pararescue personnel connected a stretcher holding the injured pilot to one of them then connected themselves to the others and were lifted out. Tino kept the terrorists pinned down with accurate shots that destroyed two vehicles and killed three more fighters. When the team and pilot were safely out of range, Tino made his escape as three more trucks and more fighters arrived. His next mission would be to evade capture until he could be extracted.

*  *  *

When Tino had not returned to the villa by Saturday morning, Ollie used his top-secret clearance and connections with the Department of Defense to get aboard base and obtain a meeting with Colonel Nelson.

“We’re tracking Master Sergeant Leone right now,” Colonel Nelson pointed to a red dot on a map.

“Why not just extract him?” Ollie asked.

“As you are well aware, the Chinese have increased their presence in Africa. We were able to get in and get our pilot, but now they know we’ve got a man on the ground, so they brought in a state-of-the-art air defense system.”

“Probably an HQ-9 with a Russian 300 operating system,” Ollie made an educated guess.

“We can’t send our choppers into a hot LZ,” Colonel Nelson sighed. “But if Leone can make it to this area,” he pointed to a mountain range on the map, “We control this region and can get him out.”

Ollie took a closer look at the map. “That’s 30 miles over some very rough terrain while being pursued by enemy forces. That’s a hell of a lot to ask of any special operative even Santino Leone.”

As soon as Ollie left the office, he made a phone call, “This is Lehman, I need your help.”

“What’s up?” came the voice from the other end.

“I need an extraction team in Mali, ASAP,” Ollie responded.

“I’ve got some people in Dakar,” replied the voice.

“Text me their contact info. I’ll meet them in Bamako,” Ollie responded.

A group of highly qualified and well-paid civilian contractors were waiting at a private airfield when Ollie arrived in his private jet.

Approaching Ollie, a man said, “Tell me what you have.”

“We’ve got an extraction,” Ollie opened his tablet and pointed to a location on the map. “This is where we’re going.”

The man looked at the area in question, “We’ll have no problems with the terrorists, but the Chinese could be a problem.”

“I’ll take care of the Chinese,” Ollie said without hesitation.

*  *  *

Tino didn’t know how much more time he had. His strategy was to run for several hundred yards then take cover to shoot at the approaching enemy, but there were too many of them and they were quickly closing the gap. He saw a place up ahead with some boulders and decided that was where he would make his final stand. At this point, it was no longer about survival, but about taking as many of the bad guys with him as possible.

The Chinese crews manning the antiaircraft batteries picked up the incoming aircraft on their radar screens and prepared to fire on it. The command was given, but their systems malfunctioned and despite their repeated efforts, they were locked out and could do nothing.

Two missiles fired from a specially equipped Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotor plane destroyed both Chinese positions. Banking to the left, the Osprey came in low over the terrain. Using its vertical takeoff and landing capabilities and with its 20mm cannons and .50 caliber machine guns blazing, it cut a path of death and destruction through the terrorists. When it landed, the military contractors exited the aircraft and secured the perimeter. Tino rushed up the ramp to the aircraft and saw Ollie sitting at the computer terminal with screens flashing images around him.

“Let’s go home,” Ollie said.

“Roger that,” Tino flashed his boyish smile.

With a signal, the military contractors boarded the aircraft and it elevated into the African skies. Mission complete!

*  *  *

One day later back at the villa, Antonio Leone opened a bottle of wine, “Now that we’re all back together again, we can finally have that drink.”

“Pour away, dad,” Tino was bruised and battered, but still managed a half smile. “I’ve worked up a thirst.”

“We’re not going to ask you what happened because we know you won’t tell us,” Sienna commented.

Dorothy Lehman looked over at Ollie and Tino, who exchanged knowing glances but remained silent. She raised her glass, “Never underestimate the quiet ones; they are destined for great things.”

 

Pain is Our Reminder…That we are still alive

posted Nov 15, 2019, 4:08 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Nov 15, 2019, 4:09 PM ]

Don Ressler was a former Navy Seal now working for an international medical supply company as shipping manager at their Oceanside, California location. He spent ten years in the military and had been with Dryor Industries for just over five years. It was a good company with excellent pay and benefits and his plan was to buy a house in the Rancho Del Oro area of the city next year if he received a substantial Christmas bonus. He was seeing a good-hearted woman that he loved and was thinking about asking her to marry him. Things were working out for Don and maybe if he had been paying more attention, he might have been able to avoid the collision, but we’ll never know for sure.

Coming back from his motorcycle club meeting, he was driving east on Mission Avenue on a sunny Saturday afternoon and only a mile away from his apartment. A truck made a left turn right in front Don’s Harley Davidson. Unable to turn or even react, Don crashed into the side of the vehicle and was thrown 20 feet. He might have survived that initial collision, but the two cars coming from the other direction didn’t have time to avoid the body in the roadway. Paramedics pronounced him dead on site.

*  *  *

While arranging for Don’s full-military honors funeral, his former Navy SEALS comrades were surprised to find he was contributing to the support of his parents and paying his younger sister’s nursing school tuition in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri.

Bill Gower turned to Don’s former team members, Julian Santee, Carl Marr, and Rick Benton, “It makes a lot more sense now.”

“Every time I’d asked him if he wanted to go somewhere—like a scuba trip—he’d say things were a little tight,” Rick Benton volunteered. “I’m thinking, he has a small studio apartment, drives an old car, and works overtime every chance he gets. Where the hell was he spending his money? I should have asked him.”

“He wouldn’t have told you,” Julian reminded his friend.

“That’s the guy he was,” Carl Marr added. “Always there to help someone in trouble without expecting anything in return or telling anybody about it.”

“Give without remembering and take without forgetting, that’s the way he lived his life,” Rick Benton said.

“We need to do something to honor his memory,” Bill said. “We didn’t know about his family commitments before, but we know now. It’s time to step up. Are you with me?”

Rick emotionally responded, “Hell yes!”

“Without a doubt,” Carl responded.

“All in, all the time!” Julian exclaimed.

Over the next two weeks, a crowdfunding website raised $50,000 for the Ressler family, but Bill Gower had an additional plan to raise even more money; a bike ride from Oceanside, California to Kansas City, Missouri. The approximate distance was 1,625 miles.

“If we can get enough sponsors, we might be able to double what we already have,” he said.

“How long do you think it will take?” Mark asked.

“I went to AAA and got myself a map. The southern route is the best one to take this time of year and if I average between 60 and 75 miles a day, I can make it in 30 to 35 days.”

“I don’t know if I can take that much time off work,” Carl interjected.

“I don’t need anybody to go with me. I’ve competed in two dozen triathlons and physically I don’t foresee the distance as a problem. You guys all have steady jobs, plus you’d probably just slow me down. I’ll send you updates along the way and you can post them with photos on the website. We’ll raise money the whole way and when I get to Kansas City, I’ll give a cashier’s check to Don’s family and fly back.”

“You had this planned already, didn’t you?” Rick asked.

“Yeah, kind of,” Bill shrugged. “I still need to tweak a few things.”

“You’re doing all the heavy lifting on this. How many of us does it take to post photos on the internet?” Carl asked.

“There is one other thing you can help me with,” Bill answered. “Are you up for a scouting patrol?”

The four former Navy SEALS rented a full-sized vehicle from Enterprise Rent-A-Car for the week with unlimited mileage and took the southern route to Kansas City. There were some parts of the interstate where bicycle riding wasn’t allowed, requiring several detours. Bill Gowers kept detailed notes in his journal and by the time they reached the Midwestern city, he knew exactly what his route would be.

These men were highly trained special operatives and even though they weren’t on active duty anymore, that didn’t mean they had forgotten the harsh lessons they learned from serving in hostile environments all over the world. It was ingrained into every fiber of their being that any successful mission required training, skill, and detailed planning. When they arrived in Kansas City, the four men had dinner at the famous Gates Barbecue, got a good night’s sleep at the Marriott on Highway 40, then took the northern route back to Southern California the next morning so they would have a change of scenery.

*  *  *

It took several weeks for Bill for get everything organized for his ride and when the big day arrived, he was surrounded by a large group of well-wishers and former SEAL teammates at the entrance to Oceanside Pier. Some people were waving American flags and others were holding banners that read: Kansas City, Here I Come.

Bill wanted to be on the road by 0800, but by the time newspapers and television reporters finished interviewing him, it was 0900 before he started on the first leg of his journey. Bill was in excellent physical condition and completed 100 miles on his hybrid bicycle the first day, before stopping outside Palm Springs for the night.

Bill had thought about stopping for a regular meal at one of the few roadside cafes he passed but didn’t want to sleep on a full stomach. Instead, he ate three energy bars and washed them down with lukewarm water from his canteen. He’d have a late breakfast or early lunch once he got to Blythe. Looking up at a desert sky filled with a billion stars, he felt a sense of tranquility. There was no place in the world he would rather be than where he was right now.

Bill was used to sleeping in harsh environments and the hard ground felt surprisingly comfortable. Only a top tier operative could get a good night’s sleep while maintaining a level of alertness. Bill texted his former teammates on where he had stopped for the night, then closed his eyes.

As the first rays of sunshine came over the horizon, slowly illuminating the desert landscape, Bill was already on his bike and moving down the road.

*  *  *

Two days later, Rick was on the phone with Julian. The concern was evident in his voice, “Have you heard from Bill?”

“Not since the first night,” Julian answered.

“He said he was going to contact us every night so we could post his comments on the website,” Rick said.

“I don’t like this. Bill would never vary from a plan without telling us. I’ve got a friend in Homeland Security, I’ll give him a call and see if he can ping his cellphone.” (Pinging a cellphone means locating the phone by identifying the cell tower of the last signal received.)

The Homeland Security agent narrowed the area to 51 miles between Desert Center and Blythe in California. The three former Navy SEALS drove to the area. While one man drove on the shoulder, the other two walked slowly in front of the vehicle, looking for any clue about their missing friend. They had been out in the desert about four hours and found nothing.

“Kind of reminds me of when we were in Mali,” Julian commented.

“Let’s hope armed terrorists don’t start popping up around us,” Rick smiled.

A car drove pass then pulled over. A woman in her late twenties got out of the vehicle and walked back to the three men, “What are you doing?”

“Nice day for a walk,” Carl replied.

“Yeah right, you’re looking for someone,” The woman stated matter of factly.

“What makes you think that?” Julian asked.

“Because I’ve been doing the same thing as you guys for the last few weeks. My name is Maria Valdez and my sister disappeared.”

“Tell us more,” Rick suggested.

“My sister Roseann was visiting friends in Flagstaff and she called me from Kingman on her way home to San Marcos. That was the last time that I heard from her. Something is going on out here,” Maria said.

“Why do you think that?” Rick asked.

“I’ve got a bad feeling,” Maria replied.

“Once again, why is that?”

“I’m a paramedic with Cal Fire and I’m used to dealing with people in high stress situations and the people around here are a little too rehearsed. They tend to use the same phrases when they speak. It’s like they’re trying to remember what they’re supposed to say instead of just speaking normally. Ever listen to a career politician? It’s kind of like that.”

“Got it,” Julian said.

For the next few hours, the group continued to search without success until Rick noticed something. He bent down and looked closely at the ground then brushed away some sand with his hand and saw the vague imprints of vehicle tire tracks, “Off road vehicles, several of them. They tried to cover them up.”

“Who are you guys?” Maria asked.

“Nobody special, we do a lot of recreational hiking,” Carl lied.

“Remember when I told you I could sense when people were repeating things they had practiced before?” Maria grinned.

“Yeah,” Carl answered.

“You should have believed me.”

They followed the trail for two more miles until they came upon an isolated area of rocks and steep ravines. Rick walked over and looked down a narrow canyon, “Take a look at this.”

Everybody walked over and saw what Rick was looking at; Bill’s bicycle was sitting at the bottom of the ravine.

“What do you think happened?” Carl asked.

Julian pointed to the south, “I’d say the answer is in Mexico.”

Back at Desert Center, the three former Navy SEALS and the young woman were sitting in a booth at a Denny’s restaurant when a deputy sheriff walked by, “Maria Valdez, I told you we’d call you if we found anything. Don’t you know how dangerous it is to be walking around the desert alone?”

From the tone of the law enforcement officer’s voice, it sounded more like a threat than a warning.

“I’ll take my chances,” Maria snapped back.

The deputy looked disapprovingly at Carl, Julian, and Rick, “You brought friends with you this time?”

“Do you have a problem with that, deputy?” Rick asked.

“No problem, but like I said, the desert can be a dangerous place.”

“Actually you didn’t say that, you said the desert is a dangerous place to be walking alone. As you can see, she’s not alone anymore,” Carl said.

The sheriff walked outside and immediately made a call on his cellphone. This did not escape the attention of the group inside.

“I assume that we’re not going to report that we’re looking for Bill,” Julian verbalized the obvious.

“I’m going to drive back to Oceanside; we might need some additional equipment. I should be back in about eight hours,” Carl said.

“Do you want us to go with you?” Rick asked.

“Keep an eye on that deputy, I think he might have valuable intel,” Carl suggested.

“Valuable intel!” Maria exclaimed. “I know that term. You guys are former military.”

“Let’s just say we have specialized skills that might be beneficial in this situation,” Julian said in an understated tone of voice.

Julian, Rick, and Maria kept their distance as they followed the deputy in their vehicle for the next six hours. They were about ready to concede that he wasn’t going to give them anything they could use until he led them to an outlet mall. Maria parked in an inconspicuous position between two cars that had an unobstructed view of the deputy’s cruiser. A Chevrolet SUV drove up and the driver conversed with the sheriff for a couple minutes, then handed him an envelope and drove off.

“Probably not a birthday card,” Maria commented.

“You’ve got good instincts,” Rick responded. “Good call on the deputy.”

When Bill returned in his Toyota Tundra pickup, a canvas tarp was tied over the load in the bed. Bill untied it and exposed a small arsenal of assault rifles, pistols, Kevlar vests, explosives, and communication equipment.

“Nobody would have access to this kind of armament except Special Ops. I used to be an army medic and had the occasion to work with Delta Force and the Green Berets. This is their kind of stuff,” said Maria, picking up an assault rifle and checked it out.

Next day, the deputy sheriff drove home after finishing his shift. Just as he opened the front door to his house, Rick came up behind and stuck a hypodermic needle into his neck, injecting a serum into his blood stream When the deputy awakened, he was tied to a chair. Carl, Rick, Julian, and Maria were sitting across from him.

“What’s going on?” The deputy swallowed hard.

“You’ve been injected with a truth serum,” Rick answered.

“We’re going to ask a few questions,” Julian added. “And we’ve made it easy on you by eliminating the option of you lying to us.”

The deputy was a treasure trove of information as he told the group everything they wanted.

“Your sister was a target of opportunity and when I saw her getting gas, I followed and pulled her over on a routine traffic stop, then called someone to get her. It was different story with the guy on the bike. He noticed something that he wasn’t supposed to and killed three cartel soldiers. They were going to execute him, but they think they can get a ransom. He’s one tough guy and it took six men to beat him down. They’re both being held in a warehouse with some other hostages in Mexicali. That’s all I know.”

Maria was visibly impressed at how well the serum worked, “I’m going to have to get me some of that stuff. I can inject my potential dates; save me a lot of time and trouble.”

“It tends to work better on individuals who have weak characters and are feeble minded,” Rick answered then turned to the deputy. “All offense intended.”

“No problem,” The deputy responded, still under the effects of the drug. “This is a well-trained army you’re going up against. You’ve got no chance and after they kill all of you in a slow and painful manner then they’ll kill me.”

“That’s a little too much information,” Julian sighed.

*  *  *

Arriving at the fenced compound inside Mexico the deputy said, “The hostages are being held in the far-left building.”

The former Navy SEALS found a hilltop 300 yards away that overlooked the warehouse compound and began unloading the equipment from the truck. Carl set up the Barrett .50 caliber rifle and sighted in on the drug compound. Julian set up the MK 19 40mm automatic grenade launcher, inserting a belt of incendiary rounds.

Rick turned to Maria, “This is a high-risk operation with a minimum chance of success, so you need to stay here. If we fail, then forget about us and take the truck to get back across the border as fast as you can. We’ll either be dead or close to it.”

“That’s not going to happen. I’m no stranger to combat situations and I didn’t come this far to be a spectator,” Maria said with firm conviction.

Rick looked over at his two friends and they nodded, “Okay, it’s your call, stay on my six. Our rules of engagement are simple; get the hostages out and kill anybody who stands in our way.”

“That works for me,” Maria answered.

Rick and Maria took MK18 Cobra Rifles and Glock 19’s and strapped on Kevlar vests with loaded magazines. Rick then took a pack filled with explosive charges and put it on his back, “I’ll let you know when we’re in position.”

“Roger that,” Carl responded.

Rick and Maria made their way to within 25 yards of the front gate before Rick radioed, “Unleash!”

Carl took out several armed guards with accurate shots while Julian began firing rounds. Buildings exploded in flames and cartel soldiers began running around in a panic, not sure where the attack was coming from. Carl continued taking down cartel soldiers. Rick turned to Maria, “Ready?”

Taking a deep breath, Maria responded, “Ready.”

Rick took an explosive charge and set the timer for ten seconds, then threw it to the front gate. The explosion blew the fortified metal gate open. Rick and Maria rushed in and headed to the building with the hostages in it. They killed several armed men along the way while Carl gave them life-saving cover fire. Once inside the structure, Bill shot several guards. They found a dozen women locked in a large cage. Shooting the lock off with her weapon, Maria rushed to embrace her sister. Bill was lying on his side and was semiconscious in a small cage by himself. An accurate shot to the padlock blew the door open, then Rick rushed over to his friend.

Bill looked up, barely able to speak through parched and bloody lips, “Good to see you.”

“How are you doing?” Rick asked.

“I’ve been better,” Bill sighed. “Like we used to say; pain is our reminder that we’re still alive.”

As the surviving human traffickers fled, the freed women climbed into the back of a large truck. Bill turned to Rick as he leaned on him for support, “When I got here, I saw them unloading bundles of cash. Since I’m not going to be able to finish my ride, I’m going to need some money to give to Don’s family.”

Backing the truck up to the dock, they loaded up $11 million in cash.

Three vehicles filled with heavily armed cartel soldiers now blocked their path. Carl and Julian had moved into the warehouse compound by that time and riddled the vehicles with small arms fire, killing all the occupants as two of the cars exploded into flames. Carl and Julian ran to join the women and cash in the back of the truck. Rick set timers on explosive charges and threw them around the area, then got behind the wheel of the large truck and drove off. Five minutes later the whole compound was leveled, leaving nothing but piles of smoking ruin.

On their way back to California, the former Navy SEALS picked up their personal truck and the deputy. They dropped off the corrupt law enforcement official with Homeland Security at the border. He implicated a dozen other law enforcement officials and politicians in the human trafficking and drug smuggling operation.

Bill sent one million dollars to the Ressler family in Kansas City. Each former hostage received a substantial amount of cash as well, helping them move on with their new lives of freedom.

*  *  *

After six weeks of recovery from his injuries, Bill and the four former Navy Seals were at the San Marcos home of the Valdez sisters. A home-cooked Mexican banquet was how the sisters were espressing their appreciation.

Raising his bottle of Dos Equis beer, Bill proposed a toast, “Like they say, ‘Pain is our reminder that we’re still alive.’”

Then with a bite of a delicious chile relleno, he added, “Of course, great Mexican food is a pretty good reminder too.” 


Read more of Tom's stories at The Vista Press.

The Only Easy Day...Was Yesterday

posted Oct 22, 2019, 3:20 PM by Bruce Rowe

The sun broke through the last remnants of the low-hanging, morning coastal fog. Navy veteran, Lee “Guns” Gunnison felt the warmth of sunlight on the back of his neck as he worked on the boat’s throttle mechanism. He knew from years of being near or on the water that it was going to be a warm, sunny day in Oceanside, California in less than two hours.

The marina had a combination of fishing and pleasure boats with a few multimillion-dollar yachts docked in the private area. After finishing his work, Lee sat down and looked over to see a helicopter landing on the helipad of one of the mega-yachts.

Lou Pultaski was a short, stocky, muscular man in his early seventies. He was a lifelong sailor, having worked on freighters, tankers and cruise ships after returning from the Vietnam War where he served as a gunner’s mate on a swift boat in the Mekong Delta. “You’re getting paid to do a job, not sit on your butt!”

Lee didn’t turn around, but calmly replied, “I recognize that sweet voice. Is that Mister Morning Sunshine? Remember, I work by the job, not by the hour so I’ll sit down when I feel like it.”

“Did you finish putting in that oil pump and filter?”

 Lee smiled, “What do you think? I also repaired the manifold, it was leaking and you were losing ten percent of your power. I also found your throttle was sticking so I made a few adjustments, it should run smoother now.”

“How much are you going to charge me for this extra work?” Lou asked.

“We agreed on a hundred dollars for the pump and filter, nothing’s changed,” Lee sighed. “Next time you catch some fish, save me some.”

“You are one strange fellow,” Lou commented. “You charge one-fifth of what every other boat mechanic does and then you do extra work. That is no way to run a business.”

“It’s the way I do it, I work for who I want, when I want, and charge what I want. If you don’t like it, then don’t hire me,” Lee suggested.

Lou walked over to a small refrigerator and pulled out two beers and offered one to Lee who responded, “It’s early in the day for me.”

“If you won’t accept more money, the least I can do is cook you breakfast,” Lou offered.

* * *

While sitting across from each other in the small galley and eating omelets, Lee said, “You’re a pretty good cook.”

“When you’ve been alone as long as me, you have two choices, either get good at cooking or develop a preference for take-out, canned goods, and pre-packaged meals.”

“You made the right choice,” Lee took a large bite of his breakfast and followed it with a long swallow of cranberry juice.

“How’s the salvage tug plan of yours coming along?” Lou inquired.

“Slow.”

“At the rate you’re going, you’ll be my age before you get one,” Lou said.

“Everybody needs an impossible dream.”

“Mine have two legs, blue eyes, and blond air,” Lou grinned, “Let me run something across your bow; tell me what you think.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“How about if I became your partner?” Lou asked.

“Why would you want to do something crazy like that? You got a pretty good gig with diving and fishing trips,” Lee said.

“Yeah, it’s alright, but I’m bored. I’m basically just a tour guide who takes people to the best fishing and diving spots, then brings them back again. I need a change.”

“Good tugs don’t come cheap and I’m not even close to having half the money I need for the one I want,” Lee volunteered.

“After you mentioned it last time, I made a phone call to a couple banks that specialize in nautical loans. I told them to give me a call if they hear about any repos on tugs.” Lou slipped a manila folder across the table. “They sent me this.”

Lee opened it and began reading aloud, “110 feet, twin V-16 2500 horsepower diesels, two Yannar 5KDL auxiliary generators, fuel capacity 15,000 gallons and accommodations for nine crew members in three single and three double cabins, Hercules 33-ton deck crane, fire- fighting equipment and spacious galley and mess area.

“What does something like this cost, a million, a million two?”

“Not even close,” Lou responded.

“More?” Lee asked.

“Seven hundred thousand, it has some mechanical and electrical issues, but my friend says that it’s nothing a good mechanic can’t fix and you’re the best mechanic I know.”

“Sounds like a great deal, but I don’t have 700 grand,” Lee sighed.

“I do,” Lou said without hesitation.

“It’s not much of a partnership if it’s all your money,” Lee questioned.

“I’ve given this considerable thought, so you just sit there and eat your breakfast and I’ll go through it point by point. This is a 50-50 partnership with my money and your skills and hard work. You can buy me out anytime you want. You can do it in installments or all at one time with no interest. I can help you or be a silent partner. You’ll be the captain and I’ll just be part of the crew. Any way you want to do it is fine with me.”

Lee was so moved by Lou’s offer that he didn’t know what to say except, “Why?”

“There are not many men in this world that I truly respect. Actually I can count them on two fingers and you’re one of them. As for the money, I don’t have any family to leave it to and if I die the government is going to get it. I would rather you use it than let some politicians waste it. Let’s be clear, this is not a gift, it’s a safer investment than the stock market. I know you won’t cheat me and we might even make a profit, so what’s the risk?”

“I never realized that you were such an optimist,” Lee smiled.

“I’m not, I’m a coldhearted realist,” Lou countered.

*  *  *

Lee and Lou were driving north from Oceanside to San Pedro, California, where the Port of Los Angeles was located. It was 4 a.m. and pitch black except for a few isolated lights in the distance as they drove north on Interstate 5 through the wide-open space between Camp Pendleton and San Clemente, California. Lou was behind the wheel of his Toyota Tundra truck and Lee was in the passenger seat, staring out into the nothingness. “Other than being a hell of a mechanic, I don’t know that much about you,” Lou casually commented.

“Is this like our first date where we make small talk on our way to the Waffle House?” Lee joked.

“Forget it then,” Lou responded with mock anger.

“I graduated from the Naval Academy with a degree in mechanical engineering. I was assigned to an ocean tug in Sasebo, Japan. While we were on a salvage operation, we had an equipment malfunction with an aging underwater crane that should have been replaced years earlier. Two of the crew were injured and there was a lot of damage to our tug and the other ship. An investigation followed and you know the old rule in the Navy.”

“Everything that happens on a ship is the captain’s responsibility,” Lou responded.

“The commander was getting close to retirement and since I was new, I figured I had more options, so I told the investigators that I overlooked normal safety protocol and it was my fault. The commander still lost his ship, but was allowed to finish his career behind a desk.

“With that in my service record book, I was never going to get my own ship so after I was demoted from lieutenant to ensign I put in a transfer to the SEALS. I was with them for five years until I got wounded on a mission off the coast of Somalia,” Lee pulled his shirt down just low enough to expose a nine-inch jagged scar across his upper chest. “It broke my collarbone, and I lost 20 percent range of motion of my left arm. Not enough to affect my normal activities, but definitely enough to end my career in my special ops.”

“Sorry?” Lou said.

“What for, you’re not the one who shot me. I killed the pirate who did.”

“I’m sorry that you lost two careers then,” Lou responded.

“Don’t be, better men than I have lost a hell of a lot more,” Lee couldn’t help, but flash back to his days in combat.

The two drove in silence for the next 75 miles.

*  *  *

The tugboat Salvage Prince was docked at Pier 14. Lee and Lou spent the entire day inspecting the vessel from bow to stern. Lee put on his scuba diving equipment and went into the water to examine the hull. He used a powerful underwater light to look for any cracks or significant damage. They didn’t start back for Oceanside until 8:30 p.m. that night.

“What do you think?” Lou asked.

“I think it’s a good deal,” Lee replied. “Good deal or not, I wish you would reconsider.”

“I know people from Ensenada to Newport Beach. There will no shortage of work once we get the Salvage Prince down to Oceanside,” Lou said. “If you’re so worried about my investment then make a lot of money and buy me out.”

“When you put it that way, then let do this deal,” Lee smiled.

Lee and Lou arrived at Oceanside Harbor at 10:30 p.m. and stopped off at Jimmy’s Sport Bar and Grill to celebrate. Lee said, “One beer and I’m outa’ here.”

“You’ve got to be hungry. We’ve haven’t eaten anything since lunch,” Lou reminded his friend.

“If I eat now then I’m going to have stay up a few hours to digest it. I’d rather go to bed on an empty stomach than a full one,” Lee said.

Jimmy walked over, “Don’t usually see you in here this late.”

“Just got back from San Pedro,” Lee replied.

“I’m going to have a tri-tip sandwich with sweet potato fries and a slice of banana cream pie,” Lou said.

“Seriously?” Lee interjected.

“What?”

“At your age, you better watch what you eat and when you eat it.”

“At my age!” Lou protested. “I’m still in my prime!”

“If we’re going to be partners then I expect you to take care of yourself.”

Jimmy returned with a business card and handed it to Lee, “This guy came in twice today looking for you. He said it’s important, so I gave him your number.”

Lee pulled out his phone and saw that the battery was dead, “I’ll call him in the morning.”

Jimmy responded, “He said call him anytime, no matter how late.”

“Let me borrow your phone,” Lee said, reaching out his hand to Lou.

Lee dialed the number.

“Lee Gunnison calling,” he said, listening for a couple of minutes. “I’m on my way.”

Lee got up.

“Where you going?” Lou asked.

“A guy has got a problem with his boat. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“I’ll call the bank and tell them we’ll take the Salvage Prince,” Lou promised.

*  *  *

When Lee reached a section of the harbor parking lot, there were a dozen offshore racing teams in the area. Crews were lounging among the motor homes, trailers and equipment. Lee walked among them until he found the Miss Malibu team and asked a man, “I’m looking for Joe Higgins,”

“Hey Joe!” The man called out.

Joe Higgins walked out of his motor home. He was in his late fifties, salt and pepper hair a slightly weathered face. He was a billionaire and the majority owner of the racing team.

“You’ve been trying to reach me?” Lee asked.

“If you’re Gunnison,” Joe Higgins replied.

“What can I do for you?”

“C’mon on in, we’ll talk,” Joe offered.

“I’ve been up 20 hours and I’m a little tired. Can you give me the short version of what you want?” Lee asked.

“My driver and head mechanic went to Tijuana with some friends. They had a gun in their car and now they’re stuck in a Mexican jail. The State Department is working on getting them out, but it could take a while. The Oceanside Regatta is in four days and I need a driver who knows boats,” Joe explained.

“There a lot of drivers out there,” Lee said, “I haven’t raced in three years.”

“I saw you win the Miami Open Championship with the Red Bull Team. Since you lived in the area, I figured I would ask you first.”

“I don’t know, I’m working on something right now.”

“There’s a million-dollar purse and the winning driver gets ten percent. I’ll pay you twenty-five thousand dollars regardless.”

“I’ll meet you here at zero seven,” Lee said.

Class 1 World Powerboat Championship is the highest class of offshore powerboat racing and considered one of the most spectacular motorsports in the world. The sleek watercraft can reach speeds in excess of 160 mph with twin V-12, 850-horsepower engines.

Lee met Joe the next morning and at the 60-foot black and gold Miss Malibu ocean racer, “Mind if I take a look?”

“Be my guest,” Joe responded.

Lee climbed aboard and opened the engine compartment and gazed down, “Lamborghini turbos, very impressive.”

Let’s take her out and you can see what she can do,” Joe suggested.

Launching the boat, Joe took control and slowly maneuvered it out to sea, its massive engines rumbling, begging to be unleashed and once they were a mile offshore, “Ready?”

“Let me see if I still remember how to do this,” Lee quickly scanned the control panel. Checking the status of the engines, he gently placed his right hand on the steering wheel and the left one on the throttle. There was a long delay as Lee closed his eyes and began to develop a connection with the machine.

“Are you alright?” Joe asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Lee smiled and slowly accelerated the boat and after a few practice runs at half speed along the coast of Oceanside and Carlsbad, Lee felt comfortable enough to open it up and got Miss Malibu up to 165 miles per hour over the ocean’s surface.

As they headed back to the harbor, Joe commented, “Doesn’t look like you’ve lost much.”

“Could do better, need to do better,” Lee responded calmly.

After returning to shore, Lee got his testing equipment and did a complete diagnostic on the engines.

The Western Regatta was the premier and last event of the racing season. The Miss Malibu team was in second place and three points behind the current leader, Salty Samurai. A win would give them seven points and the championship so a lot rested on this victory. It was a 500-mile, 10-lap race starting at the Oceanside Harbor and going to Mission Bay in San Diego, twenty-five nautical miles each way. The course was marked by ten-foot yellow buoys situated between a half mile and one mile off-shore so that spectators could view the race. All racers were required to stay on course; going outside the boundaries would result in penalties or disqualification.

The twelve boats began the race at 0800 on Sunday morning in staggered intervals of one minute. Miss Malibu was sixth to begin and Lee ran a strategic race, staying within striking distance of the Salty Samurai until the beginning of the eighth lap.

Lee turned to Joe, “Time to make our move.”

On the final stretch, Miss Malibu was two hundred yards behind Salty Samurai as they passed the city of Del Mar. Lee pressed the throttle all the way down and the boat lunged forward. The gauges were all in the red, “We’re going to blow the engines,” Joe warned.

“They’ll hold,” Lee retorted, “It’s your boat, so I’ll back off if you don’t want to win.”

As they passed Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, the engines were pleading for a reprieve, but Lee was focused on the boat up ahead.

“Maybe let up just a little,” Joe suggested nervously.

“You hired me to race…let me race!” Joe snapped back.

When they reached South Carlsbad, Miss Malibu was only 50 yards behind Salty Samurai. By the time they reached North Carlsbad, both ocean racers were side by side, less than two feet away from each other and flying over the water at 180 miles per hour. Joe was speechless as the engines screamed for mercy. Both boats were at maximum power and ready to blow. Just as they passed the Oceanside Pier, Salty Samurai blew both engines. Fire and smoke belched out of its exhaust pipes and she fell dead in the water. Miss Malibu flew past her as Lee pulled back on the throttle and cruised victoriously into the harbor.

“How in the hell did you know that the engines wouldn’t blow?” Joe asked.

“I didn’t. I just had a feeling,” Lee shrugged.

Joe was visibly shaken as he disembarked the boat, “That’s a ride, I won’t forget. I might be calling you for next season.”

“I might be answering the call,” Lee responded.

 Lee took a physical pounding during the race and every muscle in his body ached, especially his forearms that were so tight and sore he could hardly make a fist. Seven days later however, he was back in San Pedro working on the Salvage Prince, in preparation for bringing the tug down to Oceanside.

“Are you going to get back into racing?” Lou asked.

“I’m considering it…the pay is good if I win. A racing season isn’t that long and it won’t interfere with this. If I decide to do it then I’ll fly out a week early, do some practice runs and the race and then come back. I’ve still got a few months to make my decision. What the hell Lou, you should be encouraging me, the sooner I make money the sooner I can pay you back.”

“Don’t do it on my account…I’m in no hurry,” Lou responded.

Three months later, The Salvage Prince was docked in Oceanside. Lou turned his fishing boat over to a long-time member of his crew to operate and was now working full time with Lee on the Salvage Prince.

Meanwhile, word came down through intelligence channels that weapons-grade nuclear material had gone missing from the decommissioned San Onofre nuclear facility.

Iranian operatives were believed to be on the cruise ship Neptune after meeting with a disgruntled nuclear physicist who turned the material into a functional nuclear weapon. Members of Seal Team Five were dispatched to Long Beach to retrieve the nuclear device and kill the operatives. They dressed in civilian clothing to blend with the passengers. The Iranian operatives’ plan was to make it to the first port of call, Cabo San Lucas, disembark and fly by private jet to the Middle East.

The cruise ship was 30 miles off the coast of Oceanside, heading south to Mexico, when one of the Iranian agents became suspicious. Rather than be taken alive or have the bomb taken from him, he activated the timer as the Navy Seals approached him on deck. A fight ensued and Master Chief John Paulson got control of the bomb. He looked at the timer; it showed five minutes! The Navy Seal had no choice but to throw the device overboard.

The Navy Seals yelled out warnings of the impending explosion. When the bomb exploded it created a massive sinkhole and the subsequent tsunami flipped the Neptune on its side.

Ten miles away, Lee and Lou were on the Salvage Prince on their way to tow a disabled yacht to port. Both men’s eyes opened wide when they saw a 30-foot wave approaching in the distance.

“I think we’d better turn around!” Lou nervously said.

“We’ll never outrun it, secure all the hatches and strap yourself to something!” Lee tried to act calm and in control, of which he felt neither. He knew there was only way to survive this. He pushed the throttle down and went into the wave. The power of the tugboat pushed it over the wave, although it was bounced around like a toy for two minutes and staying afloat was in doubt until the very last second. No sooner did they reach calm water than Lee ran down to check on Lou who was badly shaken, but not seriously hurt. By the time both men returned to the bridge, a distress call was coming in from the Neptune cruise ship. Lee did not hesitate to set a course for it.

The enormous explosion also destroyed a massive underwater habitat where a gigantic octopus lived. The Salvage Prince was the first ship on site and pulled alongside the Neptune. Lee could hear gunshots aboard the cruise ship. Not taking any chances, he went below deck to his gun safe, took out a pistol and several magazines, and strapped on a holster. When he got back on deck, he secured himself to the crane and Lou swung him over to the Neptune’s access ladder. Lee climbed up to the highest point of the ship where the Navy Seals were engaged in a gunfight with the Iranian operatives. He recognized one Navy Seal and called out, “J.P.!”

“Guns!” J.P. replied and continued firing

The Americans were eventually able to kill the Iranian operatives when all of a sudden a long tentacle of the octopus swept across the top of the ship, knocking several passengers into the water. Lee and J.P. looked over the side and saw the massive sea creature directly below them.

“That’s a lot of calamari,” Lee commented then ran back to the access ladder. Climbing down and jumping to the crane, he made his way down to the deck of the Salvage Prince. Grabbing a large grappling hook, he secured a cable to it.

When Lou saw the giant octopus, he stammered in disbelief, “Where did that come from?”

“Take the helm and get me close,” Lee ordered.

When the tug got close enough to the octopus, Lee threw the grappling hook and the three prongs imbedded into the flesh of the creature. He engaged the powerful winch and pulled the octopus away from the cruise ship. Lee called out, “Full speed ahead.”

Lou accelerated and the powerful engines responded to his command. They dragged the creature through the water as it is struggled and thrashed about, but could not free itself.

Lee ran below deck and returned with a Barrett M107 .50 caliber rifle and began firing into the Octopus. It took a dozen well-placed shots, but eventually the creature stopped moving.

It was an only hour later and that this part of the Pacific Ocean was crowded with Navy, Coast Guard, and civilian watercraft. There was even a research vessel from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography on site to examine the octopus.

Lee and the Navy Seals were a few hundred yards away from the rescue operation and sitting on the deck of the Salvage Prince. It was a clear and calm night as Lou grilled hamburgers and steaks under a starlit canopy. From their jovial demeanor and playful bantering, no one would have ever guessed these men had stopped a nuclear disaster, survived a tsunami, engaged in a firefight with terrorists, and defeated an angry, prehistoric sea beast. If you asked them about danger or risk, they would probably just shrug with typical heroic modesty and respond, “The only easy day was yesterday.”


See more stories by Thomas Calabrese on the Vista Press website.


The Heart is a Refugee

posted Oct 18, 2019, 10:19 AM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Oct 18, 2019, 11:11 AM ]

Sanctuary Of Another

The M18A1 Claymore is a directional anti-personnel mine developed for United States armed forces. Its inventor, Norman MacLeod, named the mine after a large medieval Scottish sword. Unlike a conventional land mine, the Claymore is command-detonated and directional, meaning it is fired by remote-control and shoots a pattern of metal balls into the kill zone like a shotgun. The Claymore can also be victim-activated by booby-trapping it with a tripwire firing system for use in area denial operations.

When Ray and Jane Moore’s son was born on March 1, 1950, in the small town of Escondido, they might have reconsidered their decision to name him Clay if they thought it foreshadowed his future endeavors. After high school Clay joined the Marine Corps and quickly realized from his drill instructors, who were all Vietnam War combat veterans, that they enjoyed the mention of his name, “Hey Claymore, get your tail in here. Claymore come here. What’re you doing?”

It was Claymore this and Claymore that. In fact Clay thought the only reason he made squad leader was so that his drill instructors would have another reason to use his name. He was tempted to ask why his fellow recruits were always called by only their last names but decided to keep his mouth shut and do what he was told.

Upon graduation from boot camp, Clay was assigned MOS (military occupational specialty) 0311 Rifleman, the primary infantry designation for the Marine Corps. His next set of orders sent him to Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in Oceanside, California for Basic Infantry Training.

Clay finally found the answer he’d been waiting for all these weeks when his platoon went to the range to learn about setting up anti-personnel mines. He saw the MI8A1 Claymore mine for the first time and everything became clear at that point. It was also where he met Josh Gibbs, a big country boy from Topeka, Kansas. The two young men became best friends and that friendship continued after their arrival in Vietnam.

When both Marines arrived at Danang as new boots in-country, they were approached by Staff Sergeant Tim Spear, a seasoned combat veteran as they sat in the terminal and waited for their ride to their unit,

“You gyrenes looking for a good unit to join up with?”

“We got orders for 26th Marines,” Josh held a manila envelope.

“Orders can be changed,” Staff Sergeant Tim Spear snapped back.

“We might be boots in-county, but we know better than to volunteer for anything,” Clay responded.

“A smart Marine…don’t see too many of those around here,” Tim smiled, “I’m a pretty good judge of green meat and you guys look like you might have potential.”

“Why pick us? Like my friend said, we just got here. Why don’t you get some Marines who are more experienced than us?” Josh inquired.

“Another good question, guys develop bad habits after they get to ‘Nam. It’s easier to get Marines that haven’t formed any opinions yet.”

“The terminal is full of Marines that just got here, why us?” Clay asked.

“Going with my instincts. Take a ride with me and if you don’t like what you see or you’re not interested then I’ll give you a ride back to your unit and tell them you’re with me. You got my word that you won’t get into any trouble.”

Clay looked at Josh and shrugged, “What the hell, we got nothing to lose by checking it out.”

The three Marines got into a jeep parked outside the terminal and drove 68 miles down Highway One to a small village outside Chu Lai. Exiting their vehicle, the three Marines listened as Tim began to explain, “The Combined Action Program or CAP is an operational program. It is a combination of Marines, Navy Corpsman and reinforced by Vietnamese militia. Most of the Vietnamese in the unit or either too young or too old be drafted into the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Any questions?”

 “Yeah, a whole bunch,” Josh said as he scanned the area.

“I ain’t got time to answer them,” Tim answered, then called out to Marines in the area.

“I got a couple new guys, show them around,” then added. “What’s your names?”

 “Josh Gibbs.”

“Clay Moore.”

Tim quipped, “If you’re half as good as the other Claymore we use around here, you’ll be alright. Take a look around and if you’re interested, let me know, if not I’ll take you back to your unit at first light.”

There were two dozen Marines lounging around the area, some were socializing with the local villagers, others were congregating among themselves.

Corporal Todd Richards called out, “You hungry?”

“Yeah,” Josh responded.

 “Come on over then.”

After brief introductions, Clay and Josh sat down on empty c-ration boxes and Todd served two large bowls of chicken noodles with broth over rice, “Everything we eat around here has got rice in it. C-rations actually taste pretty good with the right accessories and seasoning.”

“This is really good,” Josh commented.

 “Yeah,” Clay added.

The two Marines had another large bowl of soup then were assigned a hooch to crash (sleep) that had several other men in it. They were given a straw mat and poncho liner and found a place to lie down. They didn’t have long to wait to find out why they were in Vietnam in the first place. It was 0300 when Tim woke them, “We’re going out.”

Clay and Josh were handed M-16s and three bandoliers of ammo and followed the other Marines and armed villagers down a narrow path. They couldn’t see more than a few feet in the darkness and were confused, scared, and didn’t know what to expect. The Marines and villagers found concealed places on both sides of the trail. Clay pushed the elephant grass out of his line of sight.

Tim appeared out of nowhere and told the wide-eyed Marines, “Wait for the first shot and if someone is on that trail, then they’re the enemy…kill them.”

Clay and Josh looked in amazement at the seasoned combat veterans next to them, calm and focused on the task at hand. Most of them were their age or slightly older, but seemed so much more mature and experienced.

For what seemed like an eternity, but in reality was only ten seconds, a platoon of North Vietnamese soldiers came walking down the trail. It was so silent that Clay thought someone would hear the beating of his heart. When he didn’t think he could stand the suspense any longer, an NVA soldier ankle hit the tripwire that was stretched across the trail and two flares illuminated the area. In less than a second, it went from pitch black to complete brightness.

Several Marines popped up from their positions and opened fire with their pump shotguns. Clay and Josh stayed down and began firing at the images on the trail. Clay caught a fleeting glimpse of one enemy soldier, surprise and terror etched upon his face. He would never forget the first firefight of his career, although there were many more to come.

 At first light, Tim approached the two Marines, “Made your decision?”

“I’d like to stay,” Clay stated.

“Same with me,” Josh seconded.

“Done,” Tim said and did an immediate about face. There was too much work to do to waste time making small talk.

The CAP concept seems to have been at least partially based on Marine pacification programs in Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere during the Banana Wars in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In these programs, Marine units would pacify and administer regions, while providing training and security for local forces and villages. There are also connections to other pacification programs, such as the Philippine Insurrection.

“CAP came naturally for the Marine Corps because counter-guerrilla warfare was already part of the USMC heritage. From 1915 to 1934, the Corps had a wealth of experience in foreign interventions fighting guerrillas in Nicaragua, Haiti, and Santo Domingo.

It was a whole different way of fighting than what Clay and Josh had learned back in the states. In CAP units, villagers who helped the Americans were considered prime targets of the Viet Cong and there were bounties placed on the leaders of villages that had a joint combat unit. The village of Din Luc was a prosperous village of some thirty-five hundred people and had a recorded history going back to the late eighteenth century. In recent years, most of the inhabitants of Din Luc were engaged in tilling the exceptionally fertile paddies bordering the river and in tending the extensive orchards of mangoes, jackfruit, and an unusual strain of large grapefruit that was a famous product of the region. The village also supported a small group of merchants, most of them of Chinese descent, who ran shops in the marketplace, including a bicycle shop and a pharmacy that sold a few modern medicines to supplement traditional folk cures of herbs and roots.

Before the Americans arrived, the National Liberation Front (or N.L.F., or Vietcong, or VC), kidnapped and later executed the government-appointed village chief and set up a full governing apparatus of its own. The Front demanded and got not just the passive support of the Din Luc villagers, but their active participation. They forced the women to cook food for their fighters and care for the wounded and sick while the men were used as pack animals to carry ammunition and supplies for the fighters.

CAP units were implemented to stop the N.L.F. from terrorizing villagers who had no way of defending themselves again the heavily-armed and brutal guerilla forces. The Marines developed a fierce loyalty to their South Vietnamese counterparts and developed an emotional attachment to the families. In less than six months Clay became an integral part of the unit and nobody was surprised when he was placed in charge of the minefields surrounding Din Luc. One of his first duties every morning was checking that the Claymores and the other mines were still operational and had not been tampered with by a sapper probing the perimeter. It wasn’t usual for the Marines to be awakened by a single or multiple explosions when one of the enemy combatants took a misstep as he tried to navigate the minefield.

Male villagers were assigned guard duty and the entire perimeter was under 24-hour surveillance. There was no way an enemy force could sneak through the minefields or escape the keen eyes of the sentries. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese wanted desperately to destroy Din Luc and inflict major casualties, so they changed their strategy. The Marines felt so strongly about the value of their mission that most of them signed up for a second or third tour in Vietnam rather than leave their friends behind. There were even incidents of Marines falling in love with Vietnamese women and marrying them so they could bring them back to the states.

Tim was often called Tip, as in “Tip Of The Spear,” and Josh picked the moniker of “Shotgun Gibbs” for his proficiency with the pump-action twelve gauge shotgun. The Viet Cong knew that a surprise attack was out of the question, so they decided to use overwhelming force to destroy Din Luc. A large enemy force unleashed a barrage of mortars on the village. The villagers immediately ran to the heavily fortified bunkers strategically placed throughout the area.

The enemy gunners walked their mortars through the minefields, clearing a path for a human wave of NVA soldiers and Viet Cong guerillas to charge forward just after dawn.

“Let’s go!” Tim yelled out.

Clay and Josh grabbed their weapons and followed. Tim had an M-60 machine gun and he was mowing down the enemy with long bursts and Josh was firing so quickly that it was hard to see his hand pump the shotgun to eject the spent cartridges. Clay had an M-16 slung over his back and was firing high explosive rounds from an M-79 grenade launcher. Three Marine Corps snipers had unlimited targets to choose and they didn’t miss. The Marines eventually were able to push back the enemy force, but Clay, Josh, and Tim were wounded, as were many of the villagers and several members of the CAP team. Clay took a bullet through the fleshy part of his upper left arm. Josh was hit in the right leg, but it missed the bone and artery and he was able to continue fighting. Tim sustained the most serious wound, a round to his lower abdomen and was bleeding badly.

The three Marines struggled back to the village to reload and get medical treatment. Navy Corpsman Danny “Doc” Cascone examined the stomach wound, “You’re hurt pretty bad, Tip. You need a medivac.”

 “Give me some morphine and wrap me up so I don’t bleed out,” Tim grimaced.

One of the inherent risks of being in a CAP unit was that it was difficult, if not impossible to call in air or artillery support because there would be too many civilian casualties. The Marines and the South Vietnamese would have to win this battle on their own. The NVA and VC launched two more waves, reminiscent of the Japanese banzai attacks of World War II. Tim stepped in front of an NVA soldier who was about to kill a young woman villager and was fatally wounded in the process when he took three rounds to his chest. Clay and Josh arrived a second later and killed the enemy fighter.

Tim struggled to breathe as his lungs filled with blood, “It’s on you now my brothers. Finish this, Marines!”

Clay and Josh organized the surviving members of the CAP unit and with a dozen of the village militia they counter-attacked the enemy force. It was brutal fighting, even hand to hand at times, but eventually the Marines got the upper hand. The NVA and Viet Cong suffered significant losses and once they started retreating, helicopter gunships were able to come in and finish the job.

When Clay and Josh returned to the village, they saw the young woman crying over the body of Staff Sergeant Tim Spear. The two Marines stayed for another tour and Clay eventually took over command of the CAP unit. It was with great sadness that both men left South Vietnam, knowing the mission was not complete and the villagers were still in danger. They did not leave the war without suffering physical and emotional wounds. Their emotional ones would take much longer to heal.

After their separation from the Corps, Clay and Josh shared an apartment in San Marcos, California and bounced from job to job; truck-driving, construction, warehouse work. Nothing seemed to soothe their restless souls. They were living paycheck-to-paycheck and trying not to look too far down the road. Although they seldom spoke of it, both warriors had problems moving on with their lives.

*  *  *

On April 30, 1975, 1,191 evacuees, including 100 American government and contractor employees from South Vietnam checked into a hastily prepared reception at Camp Pendleton. Thousands more would eventually follow and the Marines gave the resettlement operation the code name “New Horizons.” Eventually, they settled on a section of the base called Camp Talega.

The Department of Defense was desperate to find individuals who spoke Vietnamese, so they placed help wanted ads in the local newspapers for qualified individuals.  Josh noticed one of the advertisements.

“What do you think… we speak enough of the language to get by.”

 “A paycheck is a paycheck…probably easier than digging ditches,” Clay responded with mild interest.

With their experience in Vietnam and knowledge of the language, Clay and Josh were quickly hired. It was during their third week on the job that another group of refugees arrived by bus from El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

 “Clay! Josh!” The young woman’s voice echoed across the brown hills.

When both men turned, they recognized Julie Lam, the young woman from the village of Din Luc that Staff Sergeant Tim Spear died protecting. She rushed into Clay’s arms and broke down in tears. She was in a new country, but knew she would be safe now.

Clay talked to his parents and they agreed to sponsor the Lam family. They moved to Escondido, found a small house and started their new lives.

It took a crazy Asian war and a twist of fate to bring Clay and Julie together. Josh was the best man at Clay and Julie’s wedding two years later at the Veterans of Foreign Wars meeting hall in Vista, California. His toast at the reception could not have been better phrased, “Raise your glasses to the happy couple. Whether you’re from Escondido, California or Din Luc, South Vietnam. It can be the calm of peacetime or the chaos of war, but one thing has always remained true and certain; the heart is a refugee in search of the sanctuary of another’s unconditional love.”

The Long Sigh: Make It Easy on Yourself

posted Sep 30, 2019, 4:24 PM by Bruce Rowe

Definition of sigh: to emit a long, deep, audible breath expressing sadness, relief, tiredness, or a similar feeling.

Jake Russell never expected to be in hiding or using an alias, but just because he didn’t expect it, didn’t mean he hadn’t planned for that contingency. Top-tier covert operatives learned early in their careers to turn on a dime, change plans at a moment’s notice and most important of all, have an escape plan. Jake had served 15 years in the Navy Seals before being recruited for the Office of National Intelligence, Task Force Falcon.

Enjoying a vacation rental in Lake Havasu, Arizona, he received an encrypted e-mail ordering him to report for his next assignment. He drove 194 miles to Phoenix and caught a flight to Tampa, Florida, then picked up and delivered to MacDill Air Force Base.

The missions of Task Force Falcon were so secret that even the men performing them knew very little about their fellow operatives. These elite warriors came from all over the United States and a few of them even lived outside the country. Jake’s call sign was Condor. Entering a hangar, he recognized two men he’d worked with who went by the names, Comet and Rio. They nodded to each other as a sign of professional courtesy, but kept their distance.

Workers loaded a Douglas C-133 Cargomaster with two pallets that were covered with black tarps and secured with nylon straps. A man in a suit gestured to Jake and the other two men and they followed him to a secure area of the hangar.

“Guard the shipment until it reaches its destination. After it’s unloaded and your contact takes possession of it, return with the aircraft and your mission is completed,” said the man pointing to weapons on a table. “We know your preferences.”

There was no unnecessary chatter or questions.

Once the plane was airborne, the three men found locations in the cargo hold where they were equally distant from each other, but still gave them an unobstructed view of the pallets. Jake kept his assault rifle on his lap with his finger an inch away from the trigger. It was hard to believe how these three men could work as a finely tuned instrument, but these were not ordinary men.

Jake did not know the destination or how long they would be in the air, so he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bottle and took two sips. It was a natural stimulant made by a Chinese herbalist in Hong Kong that included Ginseng, Guarana, Maca Root and Schizandra berry. The concoction kept him alert without being wired or hyper. Each sip was good for six hours and once it passed through the blood stream, there were no residual effects.

Fifteen hours into the flight, the plane began descending for a landing in the early morning hours. Jake recognized the airfield as soon he stepped off the aircraft; it was a black ops secret airfield in Saudi Arabia used by intelligence agencies. He’d been here on a mission two years earlier. Comet and Rio positioned themselves in the front and rear of the aircraft respectively, while Jake took the center by the emergency exit door.

Twenty minutes later, a truck drove up. There were seven men in the receiving team and all of them remained masked as they transferred the two pallets. In any other line of work that might seem unusual, but a lot of these operatives did not want anyone to see their faces.

The man in charge of the receiving team called out, “Your orders have changed, you’re coming with us.”

A red light went off in Jake’s mind, he was used to having his orders changed, but never like this. “I’ll be right back; I left something on the plane.”

“Hurry up,” The leader snapped.

Instead of going into the plane, Jake disappeared into the darkness and found a concealed position behind several shipping containers where he had a view of the plane. When the receiving team realized Jake was gone, the man in charge ordered his team to conduct a quick search of the area.

“No sign of him, we shouldn’t wait any longer,” A man said.

The receiving team shot Rio and Comet and placed their bodies in the truck. Five men got into a black SUV and the other two men stepped into the cab of the truck. Jake climbed on top of the shipping container and when the truck passed his position, he jumped on it.

Luckily for Jake, that truck only drove to the other end of the airfield because he was barely hanging on with his fingertips. If they had driven any further, he would have fallen off. The truck pulled into a warehouse and the door closed behind it. From his elevated position Jake could not hear what the men were saying, but when the men removed their masks, he recognized two of them as CIA contactors. It didn’t matter now what had changed since he boarded the airplane back in Florida. Jake knew that these men had their own mission and killing him was part of it.

He had a “tell” (an unconscious action that foretold of a coming action.) Jake would take a deep breath and let out a long sigh of relief before initiating an attack; it helped him focus. He crawled inch-by-inch to the edge of the truck so as not to make a sound and looked down.

“I’m not looking forward to telling them that Condor got away,” the leader grumbled.

“At first light, we’ll track him down, don’t worry,” another man boasted.

“I’m very worried. He’s one of the best and could be anywhere.” The leader did not realize that he was standing within feet of their prey.

All seven men sat at a table, drinking beer while they waited to move out. Carefully positioning the barrel of his rifle, Jake opened fire and killed six men instantly and gravely wounded the leader. He jumped down from the top of the truck and bent down next to the wounded man who was coughing up blood. “I was right to be worried,” were the last words of the leader as he died.

Jake opened the back of the truck and climbed in. He took out his knife and slit the thick tarp to see what was so important that it was worth killing for. He got his answer when he saw hundred dollar bills in plastic wrap. Jake cut open the tarp on the other pallet and found 500 Euro notes (500-euro note is worth $682) similarly packaged.

He got in the truck, drove off the airfield then pulled out his cellphone and called a number, “This is Condor, three, niner, six hotel.”

The person on the other end repeated, “Three, niner, six, hotel, confirmed.”

Jake drove to the King Fahd Industrial Port in Yanbu on the Red Sea Coast. It is the largest port for loading crude oil, refined products, and petrochemicals in the Red Sea. The pallets were placed in a shipping container. A Saudi Arabian businessman handed paperwork to Jake, who in turn handed him a large bag of Euros.

The man looked inside the bag and smiled, “Very generous.”

“I was never here and you never saw me,” Jake ordered.

“Like always. Your paperwork gets you all the way to Zurich.”

Jake boarded the freighter and disembarked with the shipping container at the Port of La Spezia, the northernmost commercial port in Italy. He drove to Zurich Switzerland with the two pallets and met with several high-ranking employees from the Zurich Bank Group.

“We opened four accounts with 500 million dollars in each one,” the bank supervisor stated. “Just like you requested.”

“Thank you,” Jake replied.

“We have several security protocols. Please read this,” he said, handing Jake a 3 by 5 card.

“The weather is fair and clear in Zurich today,” Jake said slowly and clearly.

 An employee nodded and the bank supervisor said, “That’s for voice recognition.”

Another employee placed a special device up to Jake’s eyes. “That’s your optic scan.”

Another employee pressed a small device against Jake’s arm. “That’s a microdot.”

The bank supervisor gave Jake a cellphone. “This is a special encrypted phone, connecting directly to our call center. We are available 24 hours a day.” He handed Jake an ATM card. “You can use this at any bank in the world, we’ll maintain a hundred thousand dollars balance at all times.”

“What about major purchases like a house; how will that work?”

“Tell us what you want and we’ll purchase it using one of our numerous shell corporations. Nothing will be in your name, not even the utilities.”

An employee handed Jake a passport, a California driver’s license and a box of business cards: Du Rhône Chocolatier, Western Sales Manager. The name on all three was Alex McCall.

“If anybody should question you, we’ll verify your employment going back 15 years and family history back to your birth if someone ever does a background check on you. Do not worry; we have the best personnel at creating new identities. Considering your prior history with us and the significant balances in these accounts, we’ll only be assessing a two per cent yearly fee for our services. That will be 4 million dollars annually, is that acceptable to you?”

“If you maintain the same quality of your work and reputation for discretion and secrecy that I’ve come to expect, then I’ll have no problem with your fees,” Jake/ Alex replied.

“Enjoy your new life, Mr. McCall.”

It would have been considerably harder to explain a mission that resulted in the death of nine Americans and the disappearance of another one, than it was to ‘cook the books’ about two billion dollars being used in the battle against global terrorism. High ranking officials in the intelligence agency went into damage control, accepted their losses, and conspired to make sure that nothing led back to them.

*  *  *

Three years had passed and Alex McCall was now in Oceanside, California. When he first arrived, he couldn’t find a place where he wanted to live until he saw a new housing development being built in the farthest northeast quadrant of the city, which bordered Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. The homes ranged in size from 2,500 to 4,000 square feet on 12,000 square foot lots. Alex had the Swiss bank purchase three houses during the first phase of construction in a secluded cul de sac where all three backyards bordered government property. Working with the builder, Alex had everything upgraded in the homes and when it was completed, the total came to $6.7 million for all three. He had Johnson Interiors of Oceanside furnish all three houses. Each home got a state-of-the-art security system and a property management company to provide landscaping, maid service, and to deal with maintenance issues. Alex moved into the middle house and to his neighbors he was just a successful businessman.

Considering his vast wealth, Alex could have lived anywhere in the world, but he was an American and wanted to live in the country that he was willing to fight and die for. He had spent a lot of time in Coronado as well as at Camp Pendleton during training and developed a fondness for the Southern California climate. The ocean was nine miles to the west, not too far a drive, and the vast openness of the Marine base stretched all the way to San Clemente. It did get noisy at times from artillery practice and some of his neighbors thought it was a nuisance, but Alex had a different impression. It was the sound of freedom and music to his ears. In his life, Alex had acquaintances, associates and fellow operatives, but no close friends or family. It was the price he was required to pay to do his job and now that he was retired and in hiding, he was even less inclined to get close to anyone.

That didn’t mean he wasn’t friendly. Alex was always the first to extend a greeting when he saw someone in the neighborhood. It was a pleasant surprise to the covert operative that nobody was really that interested in him. When he was invited to a barbecue by a neighbor down the street, Alex brought ten boxes of imported chocolate with him. He passed them out to the guests to reinforce his cover, “I’ve been with the company about 15 years,” Alex responded when a woman asked him about the delicious confection she had just tasted.

As long as he had free samples to give out, most people were content to believe anything Alex said, never inquiring beyond questions about the luscious chocolates. Alex made sure that the bank in Switzerland sent him fifty pounds of various candies every week. Needless to say, Alex became very popular with the children and people with a sweet tooth in the neighborhood. When his freezer got too full, he’d take a load to Brother Benno’s homeless shelter. After a while many of his neighbors began calling him the “Candyman.” Considering some of the things that he had been called in the past, Candyman was just fine.

Some habits were too ingrained in him to even try to change, like knowing his environment and keeping weapons close by. Alex was not a gun collector; he was a craftsman, much like a carpenter or plumber who had specific tools for their jobs. He had a gun safe in his bedroom and weapons that served him well during his career. If he never had a reason to use them, that was fine with him too. There were 91 homes in his development with one through street and four cul de sacs. Alex liked to take a walk just before sunrise going up and down each street. and came to the conclusion that while some people were doing alright financially, others had leveraged themselves to maintain a lifestyle that was above their income. It was little things that he noticed that caused him to make these determinations. Maybe it was an older car or a minor repair to the house that had been ignored. It could even be grass that was longer than the neighbors. This indicated to Alex that maybe the gardeners were coming twice a month instead of on a weekly basis.

Alex was not the kind of man to interfere in anybody else’s life, but it gave him a sense of control to have a basic knowledge of those living around him. What was kind of strange and even funny was that he knew some people by their first name, Trish, George, Howard and others by their last names; Mr. Tanner, Mrs. Rowe, Mr. Graham, but didn’t know anyone by their first and last names.

While on one of his routine night walks at 11 p.m., with a small flashlight in his right hand, he turned down Vista Del Camino and passed a house that had the worst exterior appearance in the entire area. The grass was brown, the front hedge was uneven, and two palm trees needed trimming. When Alex saw an SUV parked in front with Nevada license plates, he pointed his flashlight at the windshield and saw four men inside it. One of men immediately stepped out and confronted him. He spoke with a heavy accent, “What are you doing?”

Alex recognized the accent as Albanian and responded, “Not much, what are you doing?’

“You need to go home now,” the man ordered.

Alex noticed that man’s right hand was resting on a holstered weapon, “As soon as I finish my walk.” Then he noticed two men exiting the house.

The man uttered an insult in his native language that Alex recognized as “idiot pig” as he walked off.

This was his neighborhood and Alex did not like these men in it. His special skills had remained dormant for so long that he wasn’t sure that they still existed. He was pleasantly surprised that when the man confronted him on that dark street, several different scenarios flashed through his mind on how to eliminate the threat. He made a call to the Swiss bank and found out the man living in the house owned an import and export business that ran into financial difficulty. It was on the verge of bankruptcy when an influx of capital saved him.

Alex put $5,000 in a leather pouch and drove over to the house and parked in the driveway. He knocked on the door and a woman in her thirties partially opened it enough for Alex to see that her left eye was swollen and purple, and red bruises were on her cheek and throat.

“Are you alright?” Alex asked.

“I had a car accident. Airbag you know,” the woman lied unconvincingly.

“Airbag…right. I found this last night in front of your house,” Alex handed the leather pouch to the woman who looked inside it.

She hesitated for a moment than called, “Liam, come here.”

A man whose face was also bruised opened the door a little wider. The woman handed the pouch to her husband, “He found this in front of our house last night.”

“It’s not ours,” Liam weakly replied.

“I noticed some men leaving your home, maybe it’s theirs. You could call them and ask.”

The man and women exchanged fearful glances, but did not respond. Alex sighed, “Besides your injuries, I have reason to believe that you might be in trouble.”

Neither person responded.

 “Let’s not waste time, I might be able to help you if you are,” Alex said. “Tell me about those men.”

Liam Robertson explained how he accepted a low-income loan from what he thought was a reputable lender and they basically took control of his business. When he complained, they sent men to beat him and his wife.

“Take this money and go on a trip. My cellphone phone number is in the bag, call me in a week and I’ll let you know if it’s safe to come back.”

 “Why do you want to help us?” Liam asked suspiciously.

“Did you ever see those commercials about companies that help you get out of timeshare contracts?”

Both the man and woman nodded and Alex continued, “That’s kind of what I do; get people out of contracts that are hard to break.”

“What is the cost for your help?” the man asked. “Are you going to take my company?”

Alex sighed, “Only one stipulation…you have never seen me and I was never here…agreed?”

“Agreed,” Liam responded.

“They said they would kill us if we went to the authorities,” the woman stammered.

“I’m not the authorities…far from it,” Alex responded.

Liam felt like a drowning man who had just been thrown a life preserver.

Two days later, Alex had gathered enough Intel about the Albanians to make his move. Unlocking his gun safe, he took out two pistols and an assault rifle then loaded them with ammunition. He drove to International Global Exports on Balboa Avenue in San Diego and took a package with him when he got out of his car. There were a dozen men standing around when Alex entered the building.

“I’m looking for the owner.”

A man came out of an office, “I’m in charge, what do you want?”

“I’m here to make sure everything is in order,” Alex replied.

“What are you talking about?” the man grumbled.

“Don’t be telling me that,” Alex handed the man his business card, “I’ve got a big trade show in a couple of days and shipments waiting in Switzerland. I gave my word to my bosses that this company could be trusted. Don’t make a liar out of me.”

The Albanians looked at each other in confusion so Alex pushed the issue, “You can wipe that stupid look off your faces. It’s too late for me to find another importer and if you can’t find a way to make this work then I’m going to sue you for damages and put you out of my business!”

The Albanians gathered around and discussed the problem.

“Mr. Robertson just arrived and has everything taken care of it. He wants to see you in the warehouse.”

Alex knew that was a lie, but he played along, “That’s what I wanted to hear. Lead the way.”

He followed four thuggish men to the rear of the warehouse, “Where’s Robertson?”

When one of the men reached for his weapon, Alex was faster getting to his and shot the four men and three more on his way back to the office. When he came through the door, he saw the man who assigned him the mission to deliver the currency several years earlier and instinctively knew that he was the one who betrayed him. Now he was involved with these criminals.

The man looked at Alex and swallowed hard, “Condor.”

The Albanian leader was puzzled, “You know this person?”

 “Top Tier Operator, Code Name Condor.”

They exchanged wary glances, much like opposing gunfighters in the Old West.

Make it easy on yourself,” Alex said, but when they reached for their weapons, he shot everybody in the office including his former associate. He quickly holstered his weapon, ripped off the brown wrapping paper from the package, exposed his assault weapon, and fired a long automatic burst of gunfire, killing the rest of the Albanian gangsters.

Alex later ordered the bank to purchase the outstanding debt of the import business and provide enough customers to bring it back to profitability. He never met with the Robertsons again, even though he lived on the next street. The former operative was sitting in his living room watching the evening news when he heard the story about the Camp Pendleton Marine that was kidnapped by a drug cartel while visiting his ill grandfather in Mexico. There was the customary long sigh before Alex got up from the couch and prepared to leave the next morning.

 

A Fragile Commodity

posted Sep 8, 2019, 3:55 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Sep 8, 2019, 3:57 PM ]

John Edward Donovan (November 13, 1891–December 5, 1963) was an American gangster, bootlegger and enforcer for organized crime before becoming a film studio executive and producer. He is best remembered for his work protecting Hollywood stars as a “fixer,” a person paid to disguise details of these individuals’ colorful, distasteful, and sometimes illegal private lives to maintain their public personas.

Johnny “Not Come Lately” Donovan, as he was called by those in the industry, maintained detailed records of every case he ever worked on. He did it to protect himself from those who thought he had become too powerful. Johnny made it emphatically clear that if anything happened to him, he wouldn’t go down alone. It was ironic that his worse enemies often became his fiercest protectors.

Johnny was always on call; it could be a hand delivered message from a studio head or a frantic phone call from a hysterical star. He was a unique man who operated under his own set of rules and used every trick in the book, including using cash and various products to buy off police, politicians, and reporters. Johnny also had connections to hardened criminals who were willing to beat, threaten, and even eliminate uncooperative individuals for a price. Not every star wanted help though. When closeted actor Boris Asher refused to keep up his sham marriage, Johnny greenlighted an article in Screenland Magazine about Asher’s drug use and preference for deviant behavior, and the aspiring actor’s career was subsequently destroyed.

Perhaps the wildest example of Johnny’s intricate work was a famous movie star’s adoption of her own biological daughter. The actress became pregnant by her costar while filming the movie The Wilderness Calls, but she was Catholic and refused to have an abortion. The studio sent her into hiding and told the press she was on extended vacation. When the actress missed her sister’s wedding, reporters went into a frenzy of speculation. Johnny arranged for an interview with Beau Canter, a journalist at MoviePlay who was on his payroll.

“How do you want to do this?” Beau suspiciously asked.

“Like normal,” Johnny replied.

“Like normal?” Beau repeated. “You need to be a little more specific.”

“Don’t ask any health-related questions and don’t assume anything,” Johnny's words were a warning that Beau immediately picked up.

“Oh, that kind of normal,” Beau countered.

 Johnny responded, “Be expecting a little extra this month if you do this right.”

During the interview, the actress remained in a bed piled high with strategically placed pillows and blankets for the interview. A studio nurse was sent in several times to replace a prop intravenous bottle. Beau Canter was an astute reporter and he had a pretty good idea what was going on, but he went along with the subterfuge. One thing he knew for sure was you didn’t double-cross Johnny Donovan and live long enough not to regret it. After the actress gave birth to a daughter, the baby girl stayed at a bungalow with a family in Oceanside, California for several months, then was placed in an orphanage in Vista, California at the appropriate time.

The actress publicly announced that she planned to adopt an orphan child and Johnny planned every aspect of the elaborate story so that the actress could adopt her biological child without arousing any suspicions. The truth only came out two decades later when the actress’ memoirs were printed after her death.

When one of the studio’s top actors would go on an alcoholic bender, bartenders were told to call Johnny any time of the day or night and he would have one of his men pick up the inebriated star before he could create a disturbance, get arrested or cause any negative publicity that even Johnny couldn’t cover up. He also helped cover up Joan Crawford’s involvement in X-rated movies, Errol Flynn’s lecherous ways, George (Superman) Reeves’ mysterious death, Judy Garland’s eating disorder and drug addiction, Howard Hughes reckless directing of a movie that caused the deaths of three pilots and one mechanic, and Charlie Chaplin’s marriages to underage girls.

The notorious fixer married a studio dancer in 1946 after returning from World War II combat in the Pacific. They had a son and two daughters who went into the family business. The entertainment industry was changing and Johnny decided if there was going to be any future and financial security for his family, he would have to change with it. He opened a public relations firm that gave the appearance of propriety and incorporated new ideas from his children. That didn’t mean that Donovan didn’t blur the lines between legal and illegal with clients and adversaries whenever the situations warranted.

The infamous John Donovan passed away on June 7, 1969 from a variety of physical ailments that were magnified in severity by enough stress to kill a dozen men. He was buried next to Rudolph Valentino in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and none of his clients showed up for the funeral. They were too afraid of being associated with him. His oldest son Edward took control of the family business and expanded it to include the business and political sectors. Instead of delegating authority and learning from the errors of his father, Edward worked incessantly and died from a massive heart attack while visiting a movie director who got into trouble with the Italian authorities while shooting a movie in Rome in 1981.

His daughter, Stephanie who had just graduated from SMU law school, stepped into the leadership role. She got married in 1988 to a real estate broker and had three children of her own. Her husband Victor had a serious gambling addiction and, to pay off some of his debts to some nefarious gamblers and big time bookies, he began trading confidential information of the Donovan Agency to his debtors. When Stephanie found out her husband’s betrayal, she had to make a serious decision to protect the family and its legacy of discreetness. Two weeks later, Victor drowned off the coast of Dana Point when he slipped and hit his head on the deck of the boat one dark night and fell overboard. The investigators concluded it was accidental drowning. Stephanie was asleep below deck at the time…supposedly.

With the help of some powerful New York underworld figures, Stephanie bought back the stolen materials and negotiated a deal to pay off her husband’s debts for ten cents on the dollar. She made it emphatically clear, “This concludes your business with the Donovan family and if any of this information ever becomes public, I will have all of you killed. There is no statute of limitations on this deal.”

The gamblers and bookmakers knew that Stephanie Donovan was not bluffing.

Paul and Ava went into the family business without argument, it was just a natural progression for them. But Stephanie’s youngest child, Roy was a different story. Even as a young boy he was always strong-willed, almost to the point of defiance, if he believed in something. Stephanie was an expert at manipulating situations and people, but had long ago accepted the harsh reality that it was a useless endeavor to try and convince Roy to enter the family business and if she pushed the issue, he would leave. She wished she could have said she was surprised, but that would have been a lie when Roy said to her after graduating from high school, “I’m joining the Marines.”

“That’s it, no discussion, no hey mom, what’s your opinion?”

“You start questioning my decisions and I’ll have to start questioning yours. I’m pretty sure we don’t want to go down that path. It will be all downhill from there,” Roy smiled mischievously.

“Do you ever wish that we weren’t born into this kind of life?”

“That is the question that pertains more to you than it does to me,” Roy said, “You’ve given me options, I’m sorry that grandfather didn’t show you the same courtesy.”

Stephanie kissed her son on the cheek, “It is what it is. Life happens while we’re out making other plans. Of course looking back on my life, I can’t imagine what else I’d be doing.”

“You’re a credit to the Donovan Code.” There was a mixture of sarcasm and truth in Roy’s statement.

Eight years later, Roy was out of the Marine Corps after serving three combat tours. He was back in the family business, with one serious stipulation; the Marine Corps had instilled in him a code that was even stronger than the one he was raised with. His brother Paul and sister Ava were meeting with their mother in the conference room.

“How come Roy gets to pick what cases that he wants to be involved in and we’re stuck with whatever you give us?” Paul asked.

“You ask me that question every time you’re having trouble with a client,” Stephanie responded. “Your brother has a special set of skills that only works to our advantage in certain situations. Who’s the client that has you all riled up?”

“George Pittman refuses to listen to anything I tell him. Instead of letting things cool down, he’s back on his Twitter account criticizing the judge, the district attorney, and the entire legal system,” Paul grumbled.

“He’s right, our contact in the D.A.’s office was ready to misplace some key evidence, but now he’s too nervous to make a move,” Ava added.

“Set up a meeting with Pittman and his lawyer. I’ll lay it out plain and simple for him. If he’s wants to do it his way, we’ll cut him loose and he’s on his own,” Stephanie vowed, “There’s the Donovan’s way and then there’s the highway. Our clients only get to choose one.”

When she noticed Roy standing outside, she said, “Get on it, I need to talk to your brother.”

Paul and Ava smiled at their younger brother who was wearing workout clothes.

“It’s a good thing we don’t have a dress code around here,” Paul quipped.

Roy playfully rubbed his hand through his brother’s neatly combed hair, “Not all of us are Nordstrom regulars.”

“Don’t mess with my hair!” Paul pushed Roy against the wall.

“Boys, play later…work now,” Stephanie smiled.

After Roy entered the room, his mother closed the soundproof door. “We are representing a client whose daughter was an aspiring actress. She was beaten and drugged by Joshua Feingold, the big-time movie producer at a party at his mansion in Hidden Hills. She had to be hospitalized for three broken ribs and internal injuries.”

“Feingold is a well-connected poisonous spider,” Roy said. “And his web entangles a lot of powerful people, some of those people are former and current clients. Have you thought about that?”

“Our loyalty is to this girl and the hell with the others. They knew the risks by getting involved with Feingold. We owe them nothing, not even a warning. Feingold has always been able to buy his way out of his previous indiscretions, but this time when he offered the family a six-figure settlement, they filed charges instead. Usually he preys on vulnerable girls who are either too poor to stand up to him or so desperate to make it in the movie industry that they’ll let him get away with anything. This family is extremely wealthy and will not be intimidated.”

“Sounds like a good family,” Roy said. “What’s the current status?”

“The girl has been taken and the family received a call that unless the charges are dropped, she isn’t coming back,” Stephanie explained.

“Even if they agree, Feingold knows that they can always refile once she’s released and back home,” Roy reminded his mother.

“I didn’t want to tell them that. They have enough to worry about.”

Stephanie pushed a folder across the table. “Right now Feingold is buying himself enough time to plan his escape to a country with no extradition where he can pay off the politicians. The girl will have no value after those plans are finalized. The clock is ticking: tick, tick, tock. Get her back and we’ll figure the rest out after that.”

“Any particular instructions?”

“Just one.”

“What’s that?”

“Do what you do best,” Stephanie smiled. “I got a lead on where she is being held.”

“Roger that,” Roy picked up the folder and left the room.

*  *  *

The well-guarded mansion was on the outskirts of Cabo San Lucas in a small village called Arriba de la Roca. One by one, the guards were dispatched without a sound. Twenty–two year-old Patricia Winton was in a locked bedroom on the second floor. She heard a sound outside the door, rolled over on her back and listened more closely. When she didn’t hear anything else, she closed her eyes. Suddenly a hand covered her mouth and a reassuring voice whispered, “Let’s go.”

Three hours later, Patricia Winton and her rescuer Roy Donovan arrived at the three-story beachfront home in Oceanside that was titled under a bogus shell company.

“Did my parents send you?” Patricia asked.

“Actually my boss sent me after your parents asked my agency to get you back from your captors,” Roy responded.

“When I am going home?” Patricia asked.

“That might be a while.”

“I’m still in danger, aren’t I?”

Roy handed Patricia a manila envelope with her new identification, Kelli Taylor, that included a driver’s license, ATM cards, and keys to a BMW convertible. “Until we’re sure that the situation has been resolved, it’s best if you live down here and go by this name at all times.”

“I should contact my family to tell them I’m safe,” Patricia said.

“They’ve already been notified,” Roy answered.

“What happens if I don’t want to stay here?”

“Then you are free to leave, the locks are on the inside, not the outside. It’s not my job to protect someone who doesn’t want it. Remember if you go back now, you’ll endanger your own life and your family’s as well. These are very dangerous and powerful men that we’re dealing with. They have serious addiction issues and you are a serious threat to their deviant lifestyle.”

“When you put it that way, I guess it isn’t so bad around here. What’s for dinner?” Patricia asked.

“The refrigerator is stocked or you can call Doordash,” Ray suggested. “Make yourself at home, you could be here a while.”

Joshua Feingold was out on ten million dollars bail and meeting with a group of politicians, businessmen and entertainers that were part of his inner circle. He was both angry and fearful as he ranted and raved about the situation. “If this girl testifies then it will encourage the others to come forward. Is she back with her family?”

Donald Hughes replied, “We’ve got our best people on it, but so far, no sight of her. The only thing we know for sure is that 11 armed men were terminated and not one of them was able to sound the alarm. That is highly impressive work.”

“Save the compliments for your Twitter account. Find her!” Feingold screamed.

*  *  *

The best efforts of Feingold’s hired thugs had failed and they were no closer to finding Patricia Winton now than they were six months ago. Little did they know that she had transitioned into her alias with amazing ease and made new friends in the Oceanside/Carlsbad areas. She thought less and less about the traumatic incident back at Feingold’s mansion, but one night a vivid nightmare came back to haunt her. She woke up screaming and Roy was there in an instant to console and comfort her.

Roy continued to work on other cases, but made it a point to check in on Patricia on a regular basis either by phone or in person. Sometimes they would have dinner or go down to the beach for long walks along the water’s edge. There was no mistaking that a connection was developing between them, but two things happened that changed the current situation. Patricia’s grandfather became seriously ill and she wanted to see him before he passed away and the U.S. Attorney in New York found another female victim who was willing to come forward and testify. Feingold’s bail was revoked and he was placed in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York City under 24-hour surveillance.

“The time for hiding is over, I can’t let that girl testify alone,” Patricia vowed.

Once Feingold realized that Patricia Winton was coming out of hiding, he paid a Russian mercenary and his associates to help him escape before the trial. Five men disguised in correctional officers’ uniforms were parked down the street from the jail in Manhattan and were ready to make their assault. A city worker in an orange vest and hardhat approached their car and knocked on the driver’s side window. The man rolled lowered it and asked, “Yeah what?”

Roy pulled out his pistol with the noise suppressor and shot all five men in less than two seconds. Feingold was nervously pacing in his cell when Roy dressed in a correctional officer’s uniform opened his cell door. Feingold smiled, “Let’s get out of this place, my jet is ready to go.”

Jail officials found Feingold’s body the next morning, dead from an apparent suicide with a rope tied around his neck and the other end around his cot. Roy told Patricia, upon his return from the East Coast, “I know you wanted to face him in court, but the wrath of God will have to do. He was never going to make it to trial, Feingold was either going to escape or be killed by his accomplices. This way he went out on our terms. The good news is that you can go back to your family.”

Patricia was visibly disappointed for more than one reason, “Will I see you again?”

“Maybe,” Roy smiled.

*  *  *

The plane landed at St. Thomas and Roy met with several men. They drove to the harbor and boarded a boat and headed to a private island nicknamed “Little Saint Josh.” Roy disembarked in the middle of the night and made his way along the shore to the mansion on the hill where a party was in progress. The other men on the beach guarded the area until they heard the sound of gunfire and saw Roy coming toward them a few minutes later. The sky was aglow in shades of oranges and reds as flames engulfed the massive structure.

Patricia Winton was celebrating her 23rd birthday at her family’s vacation home in Pismo Beach when Roy made a surprise appearance. When she saw him, Patricia rushed into his arms and gave him a passionate kiss.

*  *  *

 Roy returned to the Donovan offices on Monday and his mother met him at the front door.

“Good job, son.”

“Thanks.”

“I heard you showed up at Patricia Winton’s birthday party.”

“Just making sure she was alright,” Roy replied defensively. “It is called customer service.”

“Is that what they call it?” Stephanie kissed her son on the cheek and walked off.

Roy called to her, “I’m a former Marine who comes from a long line of Fixers.”

“Love is a fragile commodity, protect it at all costs!”

He could hear his mother’s laughter as she entered her office, and her warning, “Make this one count because I’ll fire you the next time you get involved with a client.”

Welcome Back Molly

posted Aug 29, 2019, 1:49 PM by Bruce Rowe

Staff Sergeant Nick Morrison was deployed to Afghanistan with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion and assigned to Camp Dwyer in the Gamir district of the Helmand River Valley. His recon team came under attack from small arms and light anti-tank weapons when a large group of Taliban fighters ambushed them as they were scouting for an infantry platoon along a mountain trail. The Marines instinctively dived for cover and returned fire as bullets peppered the area and explosions shook the ground.

 

Nick crouched down and used his combat experience from three previous tours to evaluate the situation.  It took him less than five seconds to come up with a plan.

First, he ran back 50 yards in a zigzag pattern to make himself a more difficult target for enemy shooters. When he reached the platoon company commander, Lieutenant Jim Keane was lying flat on the ground with his radioman next to him.

“My men will hold them off…we’ll regroup at those rocks,” Nick pointed to a cluster of boulders on the right flank.

This was Lt. Keane’s first experience in combat and his heart was beating so fast he thought it was going to pop out of his chest. The savvy NCO placed a reassuring right hand on the young Marine Corps officer’s shoulder and reiterated calmly, “Get to those rocks, we’ll figure the rest out from there.”

 “Why don’t we just call in air support?” Lt. Keane nervously asked as bullets whizzed overhead.

 “We need to get out of the open first,” Nick responded. “Or we’ll get killed by friendly fire.”

After SSgt. Morrison returned to his men, he signaled Lt. Keane that it was time to make his move. When the infantry platoon ran for the boulders, Nick and his men opened fire while throwing hand grenades between reloading. When the Marines reached cover, Nick yelled at his men, “GO! I’m right behind you.”

The four recon Marines raced off and when Nick started to follow, he was shot through his right calf and fell to the ground. He looked at his wound and knew that he would never make it to the rocks. He picked up the radio and pressed the numbers on the keypad that emitted a radar beacon, then yelled out, “Danger close...fire on my position.”

Three F-18 Hornets locked in on the beacon and let loose with their missiles just as the Taliban fighters were about ready to overrun his position. It was the longest three minutes of Nick’s life as the aircraft unleashed hellfire on the area.  It seemed that every time there was an explosion, his body bounced three feet in the air with the last missile knocking him unconscious.

Nick knew that he wanted to wake up, but his eyelids would not work. His body was not taking orders from his brain. Finally after using all his willpower, he got his eyelids to flutter and eventually open. When he looked around, everything was hazy and unfamiliar. A nurse walked by, stopped at his bed and flashed him a big smile, “It is good to see you awake, Staff Sergeant.”

 “How long have I been out?”

 “Two days,” the nurse answered.

 “Where exactly am I?”

 “Bagram Military Hospital.”

Morrison grimaced as he rubbed his head, “I’ve got the sergeant major of all headaches.”

 “Just relax,” the nurse encouraged.

 “I think I’m going to throw up.”

The nurse quickly grabbed a plastic basin and held it out for Nick as he leaned over the edge of the bed and relieved himself.

 “Thank you, ma’am,” Nick weakly responded.

SSgt. Morrison recovered from his leg wound, but the symptoms of his (TBI) traumatic brain injury lingered, even after he returned to Camp Pendleton. At one time or another, he found himself confused or disoriented, experiencing headaches, with a loss of balance, and nauseated. Nick’s sleep patterns were also jumbled, sometimes he would stay awake all night and fall asleep at the strangest times, like while he was eating lunch. Nick was placed in a cognitive rehabilitation program that focused on improving his thinking and communication skills such as problem solving, planning, and memory.

It was very frustrating to a warrior who was used to making life and death split second decisions to have to plan so many things in advance, then refer to his pocket calendar on a regular basis to double-check his schedule.

Nick was assigned to the Wounded Warrior barracks on base and diligently adhered to the treatment protocol that was prescribed because he was bound and determined to get better and back to his unit. After six weeks, his counselor, Maria Larson determined that he had made enough progress to move to the next level of his treatment plan.

“Have you ever thought about living off base?” the counselor asked.

 “Not lately, why?” Morrison responded.

“You’re in a controlled environment here on base. Living off base will give you the opportunity to slowly acclimate to the civilian world.”

 “I see where you’re coming from. You don’t think I’m going to fully recover, do you? You want to make sure when I get the infamous heave ho from the Corps that I’m not a danger to the friendlies.”

 “I don’t make those decisions and you shouldn’t either. I’m here to help you get through the program, so let’s just take it one step at a time.”

 “Point taken,” Nick replied, “The most important step is the next one.”

 “We have a list of people who rent to veterans dealing with medical and readjustment issues. I took it upon myself to contact a retired couple about your particular situation. I thought you would be a good match. They live in the Rancho Del Oro area of Oceanside and have a small granny flat in the back of their property. The Marine who was living there moved back to Nebraska.”

*  *  *

Peter and Kristin Travers lived along the rear boundary of their housing development, on top of a hill overlooking a canyon where the San Luis Rey River ran. Nick pressed the doorbell and a man in his mid-sixties answered it.

“Excuse me sir. I had an appointment at 1400 hours. My name is Nick Morrison.”

“I’m Peter Travers. Please come in.”

Nick entered and a woman exited the kitchen with an inviting smile on her face, “Staff Sergeant Morrison, welcome to our home. Please have a seat.”

 “Thank you ma’am.”

 “Maria Larson told us a little about you and your situation, maybe you can tell us a little more,” Peter suggested.

 “Yes sir I could do that, but it might save some time if you just ask me what you want to know and I’ll tell you,” Morrison said.

 “Do you smoke?” Peter asked.

 “No sir.”

“Drink?”

 “I assume you mean alcoholic beverages. No sir, I do not. I never developed a taste for it either socially or medicinally. I don’t even drink coffee.”

 “What about your family?” Kristin asked.

 “I was adopted by a nice couple when I was three years old. They were killed in a car accident while I was on my first deployment.”

 “I’m sorry for your loss”

 “Thank you ma’am.”

“Why don’t we take a look at the rental,” Peter suggested.

Nick followed the couple to a flower lined concrete walkway in the rear of the main house that led to the small structure.

When Peter opened the door, the 600 square foot living space was completed furnished, including towels, silverware, and linen. Nick was visibly impressed, “This is really nice, it’s like a five-star hotel room.”

 “We built it for our son,” Kristen’s voiced trailed off.

 “He was a Marine officer who was killed in action, two months before he was due to come home. He had been accepted to the MBA program at Cal State, San Marcos. We had this built so that he could be close to home and still have his own space,” Peter said.

“I’m sorry for your loss.” Nick put his hand over his heart and whispered, “Semper Fi.”

 “Thank you,” Kristin said.

 “What does a place like this rent for?” Nick asked.

“We’re asking $850 per month,” Peter answered.

“I’ve been gone for a while, but what I hear from the other Marines on base, rents are very high around here. I’m sure you can get a lot more than that for a great place like this.”

 “It’s not about the money, it’s about giving back to those who have given so much. That amount is more than enough for us to maintain the place and cover the utilities,” Kristin replied.

The couple accompanied Nick back to his truck and he said, “Thank you for taking the time to show me your place. Sir, ma’am.”

 “We’ll notify Maria about our decision,” Peter added.

 “Yes sir. I understand this is more than a rental to you, it is your home. Whatever you decide, I appreciate that you would even consider me,” Nick smiled.

As Nick drove off, Peter turned to his wife, “Does that Marine remind you of anyone?”

 “You saw it too.”

Kristen wiped a tear from her eye as she thought about their deceased son. Her husband put a consoling arm around her shoulder.

*  *  *

The Travers contacted Maria and told her that if Nick still wanted the place, it was his.

When Nick moved in, he treated the small granny flat with the utmost respect. He was so concerned about the Travers’ peace and quiet that he bought wireless headphones so when he watched television, there would be so no sound to disturb them. Over the first few weeks, he intently watched the routine of the Travers and then without being asked, he began doing chores around the property like placing the trash and recyclable containers at curbside on the appropriate days.  

When Nick saw Kristin working on her property it was easy to tell the great pride she took in its appearance, so every morning before he went to the base, Nick inspected the area, pulled any weeds and swept the walkways. His behavior did not go unnoticed or unappreciated by his landlords.

Kristin knocked on the door one evening with a casserole bowl in her hands. When Nick opened it she said, “I hope that I’m not disturbing you.”

 “Never, ma’am.”

 “You can call me, Kristin.”

 “I’ll work on that ma’am,” Nick smiled.

 “I made you a chicken, spinach, and mushroom casserole to thank you for the work you’ve been doing around here,” Kristin said.

 “That’s not necessary ma’am, I’m happy to help out any way that I can.”

Kristin looked around the granny flat and nothing had changed since Nick moved in. It was spotless and everything was exactly where she had placed it.  If she didn’t know better, she would have thought it was still vacant.

“You’re allowed to add some personal touches of your own, photos and pictures on the wall, things like that. This is supposed to be your home.”

“It was fine just the way you had it,” Nick shrugged.

Two weeks later, during one of his counseling sessions, Maria said, “You’ve really impressed the Travers.”

 “Are you checking up on me?” Nick asked.

 “That’s kind of what I do around here,” Maria smiled.

 “They’re good people who are easily impressed,” Nick dismissed the issue.

“They told me you look for things to do to help out around the property.”

 “Pulling a few weeds or pushing a trash container to the curb hardly qualifies me for a good conduct medal,” Nick grumbled.

 “Maybe you’re just good guy? Have you thought about that?”

 “Not even close.”

 “How have you been feeling?”

 “On the record, I’m fit and ready for duty.”

“And off?”

 “The same problems, just not as often,” Nick sighed. “I know this is a marathon and not a sprint, but I’m getting impatient to be normal again.”

 “You may have to adjust to a new normal.”

“I know…let me see how close I can get to where I used to be, and then maybe I’ll have a better idea of what I’m willing to settle for.”

 “Let me run something by you. Do you like dogs?”

“Yeah, why? I also like apple pie and the star and stripes. Is this a test?”

“One of the other counselors started a therapy program at the base shelter working with the dogs.”

“Are you asking me if I want to clean kennels?” Nick joked.

“It’s more than that.”

Nick never looked at any job as being beneath him. When he arrived at the base shelter in Area 25 Vada Del Rio, he remembered what one of his high school teachers once said and it had served him well in the Corps: “It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s how well you do it.”

*  *  *

The first time he saw her, Nick knew she was a special dog so he asked Corporal Hefferdon, the Marine assigned to the shelter, about her.

“What’s with the dog in kennel 13?” 

 “You mean Molly? She came in as a stray about three months ago,” Cpl. Hefferdon answered, “She’s either really mellow or depressed. She likes to stay to herself.”

When Nick took Molly out to the exercise area, he found she was extremely intelligent and clever, taking to tricks and commands in minutes rather than days, and was already well-trained with basic commands. Whoever lost her or abandoned her had spent a lot of time with training, which is another thing that made Nick think she wasn’t just some random mutt.

The veterinarian told him that Molly was a cross between a Belgian Malinois and a Pitbull. She had the head shape and snout of a Pitbull with tufts of hair running down her neck, ending in little swirl-like patterns on each side. Her coat was perfect and symmetrical, and the vet added, “She must be a mix of two full-stock dogs because mixed breeds usually have at least one flaw in their coat, while hers is flawless.”

Molly had an orangish/fawn color with streaks of black in her tail.

Over time, Nick and Molly developed a connection. What was even more amazing was that whenever he was with her, Nick felt normal again. This unique dog emitted some kind of healing power that literally obliterated the symptoms of his traumatic brain injury. He became so addicted to feeling good again that he spent most of his time at the animal shelter, even sleeping in the kennel with Molly at night.

When the Travers hadn’t seen Nick in several days, they called Maria, worried that something might have happened to him. Nick explained his behavior to his counselor.

“If I ask the Travers about bringing a dog home and they say no, then I’m going to be upset, and I don’t want to be upset with people who have been so kind and generous to me. On the other hand, I don’t want to put them in a position where they say yes because they feel sorry for me. I thought the best solution was just to stay away. At least for the time being until I could find another place to live.”

“Those are valid concerns, but did you know that the Marine who lived there before you had a therapy dog?” Maria asked.

 “I do now.”

*  *  *

It was hard not to love Molly, she was the sweetest dog and adapted well to her new surroundings. She was quiet as Nick and hardly ever barked. Every time she saw Peter or Kristen, she would run up to them with her tail wagging. This intuitive dog knew exactly when somebody needed her attention and when to stay away.

*  *  *

The precocious seven-year-old girl stayed with her grandmother after school until her divorced mother got off work and then they would go back to their apartment on Vista Way.

Nick was in the driveway one afternoon cleaning his Toyota pick-up and Molly was lying in the grass near him. The young girl walked across the street and introduced herself, “I’m Riley.”

Nick smiled, “I’m Nick and this is Molly.”

 “May I pet your dog?”

 “Absolutely.”

In less than two minutes Riley was lying in the grass and cuddling with Molly, “My grandmother has a dog, but it’s kind of old and doesn’t like to do much. I really like your dog.”

 “I can tell she likes you too. Anytime Molly is around, I’m sure she would appreciate your company, right Molly?”

Molly barked and went up on her hind legs to show her agreement.

Over the next few months, Riley would finish her homework, look for Nick’s truck, then come over to play with Molly. Nick never mentioned it, but he a made it a point to be home at the same time Riley was at her grandmother’s. One afternoon Riley took off her bandana and tied it around the neck of Molly, “This is for you, so you won’t ever forget me.”

Nick commented, “You don’t need to worry about that. You’re one of her best friends.”

*  *  *

It was just before sunrise and Riley had stayed overnight at her grandmother’s because her mother Julie was out of town on a business trip. She heard the sound of the newspaper hitting the driveway and decided to get it for her grandmother. Riley opened the front door and her grandmother’s poodle Betsy ran out, “Come back here!”

Riley chased Betsy across the street and when she turned around she saw three coyotes eyeing her and the ten pound dog, “Aw hell,” Riley cursed under her breath.

Molly sensed trouble and went to the door and growled, Nick was already awake, “We’re going to the park. Just hold on, I’ll be right with you.”

Molly would not be denied and when Nick opened the door to the yard, she raced out and leaped over the five-foot fence. Nick didn’t even bother to put on his shoes before he chased after her. The coyotes had cornered Riley and the poodle and were ready to make their coordinated attack.  Molly hit the largest coyote at full speed and knocked him off his feet, sending him rolling down the sidewalk. The other two coyotes barred their fangs as the poodle ran under a car. Molly attacked both of them with such ferocity that they ran off in a full sprint. 

There was enough commotion to wake up the entire neighborhood and when Riley’s grandmother came out her front door, the first things she saw was her granddaughter on the ground and Molly growling menacingly next to her. Lois Anderson’s first reaction was that Riley was being attacked by Molly instead of being protected by her. She screamed out in panic, “Get away from her!” When she saw Nick, she turned her wrath on him, “Get your dog! Get your dog!”

Riley tried to explain, but her grandmother was too hysterical to listen. Her dog Betsy was so fearful that it took her several minutes to coax her out from under the car. The little dog cut herself on the undercarriage of the vehicle and when Lois Anderson saw the blood, she assumed that Molly had done it and this further enraged her, “What is wrong with you? Your dog is a menace!”

Lois Anderson filed complaints with the Oceanside Police Department and the Humane Society. She threatened to file civil litigation against the Travers if they didn’t immediately evict Nick.  When Riley tried to explain what actually happened, her grandmother thought she was lying to protect Molly and refused to listen. The situation had escalated to the point where Nick knew that he had to leave. He told the Travers, “I appreciate everything that you’ve done for me, but there would be too much negative energy and conflict in the neighborhood if I stayed. I’ll be gone before nightfall.”

Riley was so angry with her grandmother for forcing Nick and Molly out of the neighborhood that she wrote a note one day after school. Molly saved me and Betsy. If you won’t believe me then I’m leaving, Riley.  She filled up her backpack with snacks and some extra clothes, climbed over the back fence and disappeared into the canyon.

 

Nick was cleaning up around the shelter with Molly by his side when he passed by the office and saw the television broadcasting that a young girl in Oceanside had vanished.  When he looked closer, he recognized the neighborhood and then realized that the missing girl was Riley!

The street was cordoned off with law enforcement personnel when Nick arrived with Molly. Lois Anderson began screaming when she saw him, “It’s your fault! It’s your fault!”

Nick immediately drove away and parked around the corner where he could not be seen. He took the bandana out of the glove compartment and asked Molly, “Do you think you can find her?”

Molly barked and nodded her head. Nick placed the bandana under Molly’s nose, “I know the scent is old, but it’s all we have.”

He tied the bandana around her neck and let her out of the vehicle. Molly waited until Nick was ready, then took off looking for an access to the canyon.

Riley had walked for five hours then changed her mind and turned around to return to her grandmother’s. The four men stepped out from the dense foliage and blocked her path

“Where you going, little girl,” the biggest man glared.

Nick and Molly made good time and when he came across the small encampment along the riverbed, his combat senses were on hyper alert. The four men were sitting around a campfire and one of the men commented, “You a Marine?”

 “Yes sir.”

The second man snarled, “Are you lost? The base is about five mile north of here. Did you break your little compass?”

When Nick looked at Molly, she was focused on a small tent about ten feet behind the men, “I’m not lost, I’m looking for a lost girl.”

The four slowly began reaching for weapons One pulled a thick-bladed knife from its scabbard, another had his hand on an aluminum baseball bat and the other two had large wooden clubs.

 “We haven’t seen her,” the first man lied.

 “You don’t mind if I look inside your tent?” Nick asked.

 “Yeah we do,” the second man answered.

“Then we’re going have a problem.”

The four men stood up and encircled Nick and Molly.

 “Are you ready to die, Marine?” The third man joked.

 “Marines are always prepared to die. It comes with the job.”

Nick’s words were icy cold and right at this very moment. The four men realized they made a serious mistake, but it too late to turn back now.

The man with the knife lunged forward and Nick grabbed his wrist and turned the knife around and drove it into the man’s heart, then pulled it out and threw it at one of the other men, striking him in the forehead. Molly leaped at the man with the baseball bat who was ready to swing it at Nick. She clamped down on his throat, crushing his windpipe. The fourth man begged for mercy, “Don’t kill me.”

Molly ran to the tent and ripped it open with her teeth. Riley was tied and gagged. Nick released her and she embraced Molly with tears of joy in her eyes, “I knew you’d find me.”

Nick called 911 on his cellphone and the police arrived within ten minutes. When one police officer looked at the three dead men, he asked, “What happened to these guys?”

“Their arrogance wrote a check that their abilities couldn’t cash,” Nick shrugged.

“I can buy that.”

A helicopter landed and Riley’s mother and grandmother exited the aircraft. They were met by the search commander, “The man who found them is right over here.”

When he turned around, Nick and Molly were gone.

“He was here a minute ago with his dog.”

*  *  *

Maria called Nick to her office three days later.

“You wanted to see me,” Nick said.

 “The Travers called and would like you to come by their house at 1400 hours on Saturday,” Maria said.

 “Did they say what they wanted?”

 “No, but they said to bring Molly.”

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.”

 “Maybe they just want to say goodbye to her. You owe them that much.”

 “I do.”

 “Be on time.”

“When have I been late?”

Nick left Molly in the truck, walked to the front door of the Travers’ home, and rang the doorbell. Peter and Kristin quickly walked out.

 “You wanted to see me?”

 “Let’s take a walk,” Kristin suggested.

Peter opened the door to the truck as they passed it. “Molly is going to want to see this too.”

They walked down to the corner and crossed the street.

“Are we going to the dog park?” Nick asked.

 “You’ll see,” Kristin responded coyly.

*  *  *

Palisades Dog Park was filled with men, women, children, and dogs. As soon as they saw Nick and Molly, everyone began cheering and applauding.

 “The neighborhood wanted to show their appreciation,” Kristin said.

A familiar voice called out and Molly took off in a full sprint and found Riley in the crowd and began licking her face. Lois Anderson walked over, “I hope you’ll accept my apology. I overreacted to the situation and was so scared that I wasn’t thinking straight. I should have known that Molly would never hurt Riley.”

 “No problem, ma’am. Everything worked out for the best.”

Julie Anderson walked over and gave Nick a big, emotional hug, “Thank you so much for saving my daughter. She told me she knew you and Molly would find her.”

Nick sat at the main table with Riley and her family as everybody enjoyed hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, and ribs with all the fixings. There was even a dog cake for Molly and the other dogs, made from peanut butter, eggs, applesauce, grated carrots, and a touch of honey.

Riley leaned over and whispered in Nick’s ear, “My mother has been looking for a good man. I put in a good word for you.”

When everybody had finished eating, Riley walked to the center of the park.

“May I have your attention.”

When everybody quieted down, Riley reached up and grabbed a rope and pulled it with all her might and it unfurled a banner that was strung between two tall trees. Everybody burst out in applause and cheering when they saw it.

Kristin walked over and placed her hands on Nick’s shoulders.

“You have to come back now.”

The red, white and blue banner had these words on it: Welcome Back Molly To The Dog Side of Town.

 

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