“Look at camra,” the hooded boy yelled in broken English. “Look at camra and tell the American dogs that you will die if they do not leave our country NOW!”

The unexpected brutality of the slap brought tears to the soldiers eyes. It landed with such force that the man‟s skull made a muted thudding sound as it cracked against the wall.  “Tell them, or we will take your head,” the boy screamed again.

If his jaw had not been broken, he would have laughed out loud at their youthful naiveté. They couldn‟t really believe that the threat of his death would make the United States government abandon its goal to remake this god forsaken hellhole into a Democracy.

With near hysterical cheers and shouts of “Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar!” the hooded gang marched a slow circle around him interposing their movement with an occasional kick or punch.

Before long, he didn‟t feel the pain or the steady rivulets of blood trailing down the back of his neck and forehead. He was too weak from lack of food, loss of blood and the never ending torture to feel anything. From the rickety, wooden chair, through swollen and bleeding eyes, the soldier eyed his captors. Since his kidnap and detainment nearly a week ago, he had been beaten daily.

And still he had not uttered a word to these heathen. His face was bloated like a grotesque clown in some macabre circus. They had stripped him of his clothing to keep him from escaping.

“Who else would be running around beaten, shoeless and naked but a captured American soldier or one of the terrorist’s wives?” he joked to himself.

Old men would close their eyes to the sight, and the women wouldn‟t even glance his way. No one would tell a soul that the screams they heard far into the night were anything other than the bleating of hungry sheep. He was the leader of a team of twelve intricately trained Special Forces personnel; eight men and four women, who had been dispatched on a secret mission to “remove” a leading Shiite cleric who was rousing a rebellion against the Coalition forces.

As they made their way through the desert towards their mark, they had stumbled upon a building that was not listed on the map. Knowing that Saddam Hussein and his cohorts had built many clandestine shelters to hide in, he‟d radioed in their position and gone with four of his best soldiers in to see what the heck was up.

Sitting in the middle of the desert was a two-story edifice made of American brick. It was surrounded by an electric fence but no security forces could be seen anywhere in the area. And although it was a friggin‟ fortress, they could hear the sounds of heavy machinery emanating from within.

“McAllister and Winston, go north and south,” he whispered into his walkie-talkie. “Flanders and Vincent, you go east and west.”

“I‟m heading toward the window at the front. The rest of you – hold your position.”

Cutting through the fence presented no problem. Crawling on his belly military-style, he reached the building without incident. Pulling himself up, he peered into the window.  He didn‟t see a human in sight but what he saw made him gasp audibly. But before he could order the rest of his team in, an alarm went off loudly and he could hear the barking of approaching dogs.

“Retreat! Retreat!” he yelled into his radio.   “Get back to your vehicles. We’re out of here.”

En route to their armored vehicles,  he did a roll call.  “McAllister, Winston.”

“Present, Sir. Here, Sir.”

“Flanders, Vincent.” “Present, Sir.”

“Flanders?  Flanders?”

He was caught off guard by the blood curdling scream that punctuated the moment. Turning in shock, he saw six or seven hungry dogs tearing into Flanders’ body. As he was about to give the order to rescue his man, a regiment of soldiers, dressed completely in black, appeared like ghosts from out of nowhere — guns ablaze.

He’d never left a man on the field before, but he couldn‟t risk endangering the rest of his platoon.   “Move out! Move out!”

Looking around at the men and women in his vehicle, their faces somber, he reflected fondly on Lieutenant Max Flanders. By now he was lost, dead most likely. But, there was nothing to be done. It was part of the job. He whispered a prayer that death had been quick. They gunned their engines and moved on.

********************************

Of the eleven men and women left in the battalion, six had been killed either instantly in the explosion or in the ensuing gun battle. Five were captured, including himself, by a band of juvenile insurgents just 5 miles south of the power and water supply station outside of Hamadi.

He had been only slightly wounded during the fire fight, but pain and an unfortunate fall left him unable to escape his pursuers. As he ran across the desert in the dank night, they pursued him like a dog tracks his prey. He was captured; cold, shivering and half dead inside a cave.

It was hard to wrap his mind around the fact that a child had fooled them. It was even harder to believe that he was being imprisoned by a bunch of kids no older than his young nephew Freddie who was graduating high school in a few weeks.

Looking both innocent and famished, the boy had approached, hands outstretched begging for food. He looked to be about 12 years old but instinct told them he was older. Not one to ignore the plight of a starving child, he had ordered the convoy to halt against, all regulations, and offered the child food and water.

Through their translator, Hamid, the boy told them an astonishing story of two American soldiers who were being held in a hidden bunker on the outskirts of Baghdad.

“If you don’t hurry,” he insisted. “Your friends will be killed and their decapitated heads displayed on a bridge over the Qunat Al Jaysh Canal.”

The sun set quickly over the snow covered mountains and the atmosphere among the men and women had grown intense. They had been moving in a circle formation, back-to-back so that every side was covered, for more than 30 minutes without any sign of the attackers.   As the blue-grey evening turned to black, he ruminated on how this was the second time in less than 24-hours, that he had made a move without thinking it completely through.

This time he had moved against all regulations and common sense. He had let compassion, an emotion that he thought had been trained out of him, take over.

It was nearly pitch black, except for the glow of the headlights from the trucks and his team was getting both restless and nervous. How to avoid getting caught out in the open desert without cover was SOPC: 101.

Deciding that either the boy had been mistaken about the exact location of the men, or simply too exhausted from hunger, he ordered the team back to their HumVees. It was time to abandon this unauthorized mission. He could kick himself for his stupidity that had masked itself as humanity.

As the engines roared to life, kicking out puffs of white exhaust and sand, the attack began. Running for the safety of his vehicle, he turned to look behind him, just in time to see the boy explode into tiny, bloody pieces taking Salazar, Watson and Debbs along with him.

He heard the shot from behind and within seconds could smell the heated steel as the bullet tore into his ear and skirted along his right cheek. Pain seared his brain; causing him to misstep and fall.  In what seemed like seconds, he was surrounded. The next sensation he felt was the thud of the thick boot as it struck him in the chest.

Instead of screaming out in pain, his agonized mind wondered if a 12-year old got 72 virgins when he reached their Godless heaven? Or did he just remain a child into eternity never knowing the joys of becoming a real man? A dislocated rib pierced his lung. The agonizing pain was the last thing he felt before his whole world faded to black.

************************************

Time passed dully and slowly while he stared the mud walls of the small room.   He didn’t know how long he’d been held captive.  During the past few tortured hours, he had mostly thought about the life he had left behind to travel to the other side of the globe and fight for the freedom of a people who would rather see him dead.

He remembered his father; an ex-Marine, who had proudly announced to the world that his eldest son had decided to follow in his footsteps. He reminisced fondly of his mother, who although she was proud of him too, worried far too much about his safety.

His mind flitted to his brother and two sisters, but especially to his brother; wishing he could redo his young life and regretting the many times they had fought as children. He sent out a silent prayer of thanks to God that, as adults, they had formed an unbreakable, unshakable and permanent bond of friendship.

And finally, he thought of Nancy; his sexy, beautiful and loving fiancée. She would be the one most hurt by his death.  They had made so many wonderful plans for the future. He knew his death would bring a lot of sorrow to everyone he knew and loved but he was prepared to die. He was ready. He’d surely give up the ghost before he opened his mouth to betray his country and aide these animals.

At first, the torment had been unbearable, but now he welcomed the pain. It was the only thing that connected him to the life force that was slowly draining from his battered body. They had beaten him and the others so often that he had lost track of how many times he’d been punched and kicked.  Initially, it was a soldier’s bravado that had set in, after all, he was Special Ops, conditioned to endure agony.

Then the real cruelty began; the pulling out of teeth and fingernails, burning them with cigarettes, denying them food and finally the beheadings. He had watched as his brothers and sisters in arms had been systematically and horribly massacred one by one; each refusing to relent to their captors. And now, there was only him.

He was the leader of the platoon and they had reserved a special place in their particular hell for him.  He was proud to be the last to die and he would do it with honor; not giving in to these bastards no matter what they did.

The kick to his ribs stunned him. Then the pain disappeared as he felt himself floating away. Maybe this was it. At last he was really dying and this was what it felt like; a simple release and then no more pain. “Not so bad after all,” he thought, smiling to himself. Then he passed out.

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