In the fog of combat, mistakes happen. Young men are put into situations far beyond their capacity to control or deal with. In the opening two chapters of Fallen Pride, we flashback two years prior to Fallen Hunter, and visit a minor character from that book on the battlefields of Iraq.
Somewhere in Iraq
Two men lay among a cluster of large boulders. They’d been there over 24 hours, shivering through the still, cold night, and sweating through the midday heat. Each man was covered with what’s commonly called a ghillie suit, a heavy garment stitched with colored strips of free hanging cloth meant to blend in with the surrounding elements. In this case, most of the surrounding element was rock and boulders, so there was a lot of gray in their covering. Indeed, they were nearly invisible from a distance. However, the ghillie suits were designed more for use in jungle and woodlands and here on this desolate gray landscape they were quite visible if someone got within 40 or 50 feet.
Fortunately, there were few people in this part of Iraq and anyone that wandered within a hundred meters of where the two men lay waiting, were visible to them. Behind, was an overhanging cliff about 30 feet high that kept them shadowed throughout most of the day. No chance anyone would stumble on them from the rear. They’d chosen this particular location for just this reason. It offered ideal cover considering the options and was easily defendable, should anyone from the small cluster of homes and shops below happen to come up into the hills.
One man had a high powered spotting scope mounted on a short tripod and covered with the same cloth their ghillie suits were made from. As he looked through the scope, he spoke into a small microphone mounted on a boom in front of his mouth, “Alpha Six, Raptor has acquired the target. Looks like Nine of Diamonds, sending photo for confirmation.”
Moments later, the image was received by analysts at Field Operating Base Grizzly in Camp Ashraf, Iraq. The FOB was where Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment was based, attached to the 6th Marine Regiment. The image was scanned and facial recognition software only took a few seconds to confirm that the person the two men were watching was a high value target by the name of Ahmed Qazir al Ramani, the 9 of diamonds in the most wanted deck.
Over the headset, the man on the scope heard a voice reply, “Target is confirmed, Raptor. You’re clear to engage.”
“We have confirmation Jared,” the man on the scope said to his partner. “You were right, it’s Nine of Diamonds
The second man lay motionless behind an M-40A3 rifle, loaded with Lapua .308, moly coated, dovetail ammunition. He spoke without moving his eye from the scope. “It’s a gift, Billy. Had it all my life. I see a face and can remember it forever. Range me.”
Marine Sergeant William ‘Billy’ Cooper leaned into the scope, taking readings. “Range is 905 meters. Declination, minus 10 degrees. Air is still and heavy.” Billy was the spotter. Marine Scout/Sniper teams worked in pairs, almost always alone and far from the units they were assigned to, in this case Alpha, 1/9. The battalion was only recently reactivated, having been stood down in 1994. In Vietnam the battalion earned the nickname Walking Dead and still carry it today.
The second man, Corporal Jared Williams, was an accomplished shooter long before enlisting in the Marine Corps after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Born in the mountains of Kentucky, he’d won a number of shooting competitions starting at the age of 12 and all through his teenage years. He made a slight adjustment to the elevation of the rifle and said, “Target acquired.”
Billy relayed the message to the FOB and waited. He didn’t have to wait long before the voice in his headset replied, “You’re clear to take the shot, Raptor. I repeat, shot cleared.”
Billy took a slow breath. “You’re clear to fire when ready, Jared. No change in conditions.”
Jared hadn’t moved a muscle in more than fifteen minutes. Only now did he make the tiniest of moves, his right index finger, which had been alongside the trigger guard, moved imperceptibly to the trigger. He could see the target clearly through the U.S. Optics MST-100 scope. He was inside a small stucco and stone house a little over half a mile away. He was sitting in a chair, reading. Jared slowly took the slack out of the trigger while taking a long slow breath and releasing it. It was an easy shot, conditions were ideal and the target was unmoving. He had 12 prior confirmed kills, all of them more difficult than this one. Eight on his previous tour in Iraq, and four in the last three months since joining 1/9 and arriving back in country.
The pressure slowly increased on the trigger as the image in the scope moved up and down a fraction of a millimeter at regular intervals, caused by the beating of Jared’s own heart. He knew exactly the pressure required to release the firing pin and send the round downrange and timed it so that it occurred when the image rose with the beat of his heart and the cross hairs fell on the bridge of the man’s nose. The report of the rifle echoed off the granite cliff behind them.
At half a mile, it took slightly more than a second for the round to traverse the distance from the barrel to the target. A second that would change the young shooter’s life permanently. It all seemed to happen in slow motion as he continued to watch through the scope to confirm the kill. In the first half a second, a slight shadow passed over the man’s face as he was reading. In the next half a second, his eyes came up slightly over his reading glasses and a smile came to his face. In the next millisecond, which seemed to take hours, someone stepped in front of the man in the chair. His 8 year old daughter. In the next few milliseconds a hole appeared in the glass of the window and cracks radiated out from it like a spider’s web. In the last millisecond a pink mist emanated from the girls head, spreading over the man in the chair and the girl fell forward into her father’s lap, dead.
Jared Williams bolted upright, drenched in a cold sweat and shaking. The image of the dead girl in her father’s lap and the man looking right at him through the hole in the glass, was still fresh in his mind. As it always did, it took a few seconds to take stock and realize he’d had the nightmare again. He was in his bed, in his small apartment above a garage. The garage sat on a small corner lot in Old Town Key West with a two story Conch house next to it. It was owned by a wealthy Canadian, who was only in residence for a few months in the winter. Jared took care of the property and grounds in exchange for free rent.
He had the same recurring nightmare hundreds of times since that day two years earlier. His gift of remembering faces was now a curse. After the incident, he and Billy made their way around the cliffs and up into the mountains for helicopter extraction two days later. While being debriefed by an unidentified agent with Central Intelligence, the man insinuated that Jared had killed the girl intentionally. Jared came unglued and lunged across the table in a fit of rage and nearly beat the man to death before Billy could pull him off. The following month was spent in the brig, before being flown back to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina for a quiet court martial, where he was sentenced to time already served, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduced in rank to Private, and dishonorably discharged. The pride of the Marine Corps couldn’t handle any more bad press about its Marines killing innocent civilians.
His next two months were spent in a drug and alcohol induced stupor when he returned to his home in Kentucky. His brother had followed him into the Marine Corps and was stationed in California. His mom and dad, now empty nesters, pulled up stakes and headed south to get away from the cold mountain winters. But, Kentucky was his home and where his friends were, so that’s where he went. It didn’t take long for him to find that his old friends from high school were no longer the same as him. Many had left the hills and taken jobs in the surrounding cities, or headed off to college. Those that remained in the small town of Sassafras, near the Virginia border seemed different from him somehow. A few years older, but they seemed to be perpetually stuck in high school. Unable to find a job, he was soon almost out of money. He sold his 1985 Ford pickup to a friend, bought a Greyhound ticket to Key West, and called his dad to ask if he had room to put him up for a week or two, until he could find work.
Arriving in Key West was like entering a different dimension. The verdant green hills and mountains of Kentucky were replaced with the flat blue of the tropical ocean. The regimented military lifestyle replaced with the wild abandon of this centuries old pirate town.
His dad had taken a job on a shrimp trawler as a mechanic a year earlier. His reputation quickly grew in the small island community as a man with a knack for understanding and being able to fix all sorts of mechanical problems. In a place with almost as many boats as people, he’d found plenty of work on his days off, repairing boats, cars, trucks, and even did some mechanical work on private planes. He’d saved up, got his private pilot’s license and bought an old float plane, with the idea of taking tourists and fishermen around the island chain to places you couldn’t get to by car and get them there faster than by boat. His folks didn’t really have room in their small mobile home on Stock Island, but let him stay on the couch anyway. His dad made it clear that it was temporary and gave him a month. David Williams didn’t raise his boys to be slackers and they weren’t. Less than a week after arriving, his dad had made the arrangement for the garage apartment with a fly fisherman from Canada he’d met earlier that winter and taken up in his plane several times. A few days later, a friend of his mom told her about a job opening at a restaurant and bar just off of the main drag, Duval Street. Arriving at the Blue Heaven and meeting the manager, he learned that the opening was for a bouncer/bar back. Being just over six feet tall, 200 pounds, and muscular gave him an edge and the fact that he had served in the Marines got him the job. He didn’t mention that he’d been dishonorably discharged and the manager never asked.
He’d worked hard for two years, making friends around the island and at the restaurant, a popular place with locals and tourists alike. The job suited him. He quickly found that his training on the battlefield gave him the ability to read people better than most and usually could stop an altercation before it even started, simply by imposing himself on the occasional drunk rowdy. This was something his boss liked. He looked after the waitresses and bartenders like they were his little sisters and soon they looked up to him as their big brother, even the ones that were a little older than him. During his time off, he worked out a lot. The Canadian had a complete weight set in the garage and the work around the property could be hard at times, especially after a storm. Broken branches that fell from the many oak and elm trees, he would cut up using an old buck saw he’d picked up at a yard sale. He soon added fifteen pounds of hard muscle to his already powerful physique.
The nightmares didn’t go away, though. One of the regulars at the bar was an old guy named Jackson Wainwright that everyone just called Pop. He seemed like a harmless guy most of the time. On the smallish side, maybe 5’-8” and a wiry 165 pounds, with long gray hair and beard, he was usually barefoot or wore flip-flops, baggy shorts and a worn out tee-shirt. One night, a year after Jared arrived in Key West, Pop went completely nuts and started a fight with two Vietnamese tourists. Jared had to break it up and kick him out. That’s when he learned that Pop was a Vietnam Veteran. Once he got the old man outside, struggling all the way, he collapsed at the curb, sobbing incoherently. Not knowing what to do, Jared sat on the curb next to the old man and within a few minutes each realized they were kindred spirits. He sought out Pop many times after that night, when the tension and nightmares came and it seemed to help them both, just to sit and talk about their experiences and fears. Still, the nightmares didn’t go away.