Only for my readers: an EXCLUSIVE chapter on Roan’s other life as a Special Forces operator in Afghanistan!
Roan Taggart crouched behind a four foot high mud wall of the Afghan village as the warning from his Army Special Forces captain roared through his ear piece.
The Taliban, south of them, fired off several grenades from shoulder held launchers into the sleeping Afghan village they were defending. The night burst open with ripping flashes of explosions striking within the unarmed populous. The explosions arced, red, yellow and orange spider arms, in outward directions. It was quickly followed by gunfire from Taliban charging through the night from the slope of a hill a half a mile away toward the wall.
His M4 had a muzzle suppressor on it, and he could shoot without drawing immediate return fire to his position. Cursing at their bad luck, it was 0300 in the morning. Roan heard Captain Ryan Larson giving orders to the ten other men in his unit in a low, almost unconcerned tone of voice. They’d been through this kind of attack so many times before. He was weary of war.
At twenty-nine years old, Roan was used to this way of living as a Special Forces weapons sergeant. This was his fifth deployment with the 7th Special Forces Group to this godforsaken country. His black ops unit lived in this village of two-hundred Afghans. By living among the people for a minimum of six months out of their twelve month deployment, they had provided them safety from the Taliban. The Afghans were appreciative. The unit of soldiers had forged a strong, trusting connection between themselves and the leaders of the village.
A drone flown by one of the Special Forces sergeants had spotted an unusual gathering of human activity through its infrared camera on the nearest hill at 02:00. It had shown a buildup south of the village, along a rocky, sloped area.
An hour ago, Captain Larson had awakened all his men, telling them that an attack was imminent.
Roan had been keeping watch, leaning up against the wall for protection, hidden, the worst of the hot summer heat beaten back by a raging thunderstorm earlier, at dusk. But even that didn’t stop sweat from leaking beneath his baseball cap and down the sides of his bearded jaw. Or help with his vest as the heat and sweat made his skin itch. Summer in Afghanistan was like living in a boiler, and there was no air conditioning to escape the humid heat.
The village where they lived was south of Kandahar, a well-known hotbed of Taliban activity. He leaned against the wall, using his laser scope to detect body heat, showing him the location of the enemy.
At this time of morning, before the attack, Roan knew everyone in the village had been asleep in their mud and rock huts. Now, everyone was awake and freaked out of their minds, worrying about being overrun. The Taliban was going to try to either break through the village walls, or blow open the two huge ten-foot-high wooden gates, in order to get inside the village.
Roan knew if that happened, there would be mass casualties. The Afghans had no guns, no way to defend themselves. It would be a blood bath. But the Special Forces unit who lived here, wouldn’t let it happen. No way.
Their A-team was standing between them and the fifty or so Taliban charging in their direction on foot. It was the A-team’s job to protect the people and this community. Roan knew everyone in the village by name because his unit was sent back here each time it was deployed to this country. He especially liked the children and the thought of them hardened his resolve to make damn sure that tonight’s attack wouldn’t allow the enemy to enter the vulnerable hamlet.
Exhausted emotionally, the PTSD accumulating in him over the past ten years because of these long combat deployments, he had come to hate being in the Army. Some Special Forces units stayed six months in a given area because their job was to engender connection, trust and teamwork with the village elders to improve living conditions for the villagers. All that these farmers and their families wanted was to live in peace, grow their crops and be able to feed their children as well as their livestock.
Snorting, Roan knew there was no such thing as peace out here in the nightmare Middle East. Children routinely died of starvation. So often, Captain Larson would finagle ways to have a weekly supply helicopter fly in extra boxes of MRE’s to give to the village elders to disperse among struggling families so children, who were on the edge of starvation, had something to eat. It was a hellish way to live, never knowing from one week to the next whether parents would have enough food to feed their family.
Roan heard their two comms, communications, sergeants speaking to their captain on and off. One sergeant was directing the drone over the area of the attacking Taliban, who were now running toward their village. The other sergeant had placed an urgent radio request to Kandahar’s air base for an emergency attack upon the Taliban by a pair of A-10 Warthogs. Those low flying jets would knock the stuffing out of the Taliban in a quick, aggressive counter attack. Roan wanted the Warthogs to hurry and get on station and do just that.
He continued firing from his position and remained where he was. The black ops team had chosen strategic spots along the wall where they remained on guard, each taking their turn for a four hour watch every night, remaining awake and alert to defend this settlement.
For the next hour, Roan and the team fought the enemy to a standstill, stopping them a quarter of a mile away from the gates.
The A-10’s roared in, dropping their bombs, effectively breaking up the attack. They finished off the blood thirsty hoard with fifty caliber rounds from their Gatling guns. The ground shook like an earthquake over and over again. The air was alive with ear-splitting noise. Roan’s ears ached, and at times, his hearing came and went, his eardrums so battered he couldn’t hear at all for a period of time afterward.
By 0400, the battle was over. The captain ordered his men on watch to remain on station, alert and taking no chances of possible Taliban stragglers who might still be alive out there in the darkness.
Roan was still on watch duty and was glad of it. He relaxed a bit, the front of his body resting against the hardened mud wall, his M4 resting on top of it as he panned the area through his infrared sights. He had NVG’s, night vision goggles, hanging around his neck. He wore them when not searching the landscape via the sights on his M4.
Nothing moved beyond the walled village. It was eerily quiet now. Not even a cricket song or an insect, buzzed around him. He could smell the acrid chemicals from the many explosions and the odor burned his nostrils when a breeze sent it his way.
Roan didn’t want to think about when dawn came to the eastern horizon. Chances were, the Taliban would have removed all their dead and wounded off the field of battle, disappearing back into the wood-covered hills to lick their wounds. They would take their casualties and the corpses of the dead into nearby caves on the other side of that line of hills. It would be another couple of weeks or so before they’d think about mounting another attack against them. The enemy continued to send men out under the cover of darkness, however, to place explosive land mines in the ground around the community’s fields which held the summer crops, hoping someone would step on it, blowing off a leg, or even better, killing the farmer or his son outright.
Roan didn’t want to live like that anymore.
Behind him, he heard piercing, gut wrenching screams and cries of villagers who had their homes hit by the grenade launchers. Their unit’s two, specially trained, medics were busy now. He heard Larson call in three Medevac helos. There were many village casualties.
Roan’s mouth thinned into a hard line. There was no way he wanted to be a part of that chaotic, grisly scene he knew the two medics were now dealing with. This was one time he was glad to be a weapons sergeant.
Mentally, he shielded his thoughts, not wanting to dwell on the pain and suffering he knew was going on behind him near the center of the village. He couldn’t handle it anymore. He felt as if he were a ball of yarn slowly unraveling. Each firefight in the past six months had worn him down. War was a hell. He could never envision a gun-happy president or Congress wanting to send men and women into combat. Every effort should be expended first before making that kind of life-and-death decision to send people like him into war.
This past year he was telling himself over and over again: there had to be a better way. There had to be. But he had no answers on what that way might be.
He stood in the corner where two walls met, hidden and continually moving his M4 slowly in a 180 arc, looking for movement. There was none. The A-10’s had done their job well.
His mind canted back to his growing up years. His father had been a thirty year Army Special Forces sergeant. Even though he was an Army brat, his grandfather had a huge 50,000 acre cattle ranch near Butte, Montana. Roan always loved going back there.
A number of times, because his father had been in Special Forces, he was gone for a year at a time. Roan and his mother would then go to the family’s Montana ranch and remain there until his father’s deployment was over. Even though he missed his father, the rest of his family gave him some of the happiest times of his life. He grew up being a wrangler, taught the skills by his grandfather.
How badly he wanted to go back there. But his gut warned him that to go home after his enlistment was up might not go as planned. Roan had too many good friends who, like himself, had acquired PTSD. They’d all tried going home. Those who were married? Their marriages dissolved into divorce within a year or two. Those who were single, and had parents who begged their soldier to come home, didn’t stay with their family for very long.
Roan knew why. War had changed him in every possible way. His brain had been rewired for survival, not tame, safe civilian life. He knew his father had been in Special Forces, but he’d never shown the symptoms Roan now had. At that time, his father wasn’t in war torn places, so Roan surmised that was why he didn’t get PTSD as he had.
Could he go home? God knew, he desperately dreamed of those wide, rolling Montana hills and plains, the lowing of contented cattle, a good horse between his legs and the natural silence that wrapped around him like a blanket and brought him peace. He knew if he could get on a ranch, be hired as a wrangler, it would be a good fit for him.
But how many ranch owners would hire a military vet like himself? He was a weapons sergeant, a man who intimately knew hardware that could kill. Not much need for that out on a ranch.
Roan had done some Internet searches when he was in Kandahar for a few days. Sitting down for his allotted twenty minutes at a computer, he started looking for wrangling work in the West.
There were a couple of ranches in Wind River, Wyoming, that had ‘help wanted’ signs out on the Internet. One of them was a huge spread, a hundred thousand acres, the Wind River Ranch. It specifically said it hired military veterans, and that they got first dibs on any job that might open up on the busy cattle ranch.
Worried that his parents would expect him home in Butte after he left the Army for good, Roan was at a crossroads on how to explain his situation to his family. They had a huge two story cedar home, nearly five thousand square feet, where his parents lived on the ranch. His grandparents had a log cabin half that size, about a quarter mile away from it. He’d grown up in that larger, almost mausoleum-like home with his mother. He had his own bedroom there. Roan supposed his parents would expect him to live there with them.
After all, he wasn’t married, for which he was glad. He watched his friends in his unit struggle with real-time worry over their PTSD symptoms. They knew they would be bringing home a lot of baggage to their wives and children. They’d all seen too many marriages blow up and dissolve when the man came home, riddled with symptoms, unable to fit in or explain what the hell was going on inside him.
Roan had had some special relationships, but they were more off than on, because of his duty. He never led a woman on about a future with him. He left for a year at a time. It wasn’t exactly a romantic conversation to have, but he wasn’t about to hurt a woman who expected more from him than he could give her. Because of his honesty, he’d had few long-term relationships.
Damn, how he yearned to be with a warm, nurturing woman, be held in her soft arms, feel her curves against his hard, lean body. There was nothing like kissing a woman’s lips, their velvety feel, their shape, the heat building between his mouth and hers. The smell of a woman was special to him. He’d always had what he called wolf ears and a dog’s nose. Despite what the sound of artillery exploding had done to his ears, he still heard things far above and below normal human range. And his nose? Well, it was a curse and a blessing, depending. To smell a woman’s heated skin, her special, unique scent, to inhale the fragrance of her silky hair, was foreplay for Roan.
His relationships had orbited Bagram and Kandahar. Usually a nurse assigned to one of the major hospital units would be drawn to him and vice-versa. He always drew highly intelligent women who were nurturing. There was nothing like holding her after a round of good sex. It was special to Roan, although he knew most men were uncomfortable in the aftermath. He enjoyed the afterglow with a woman.
Sated, weakened in the best of ways, they could lay in one another’s arms, their damp bodies pressed against one another, their ragged breathing slowly returning to normal. There was just something wonderful about kissing a woman, feeling her mouth shaping to his, feeling her fire burning hot and bright just beneath the surface, those sweet sounds she would make in the rear of her throat as he stroked and caressed her.
Dragging in a deep sigh, he forced himself back to the present. Roan didn’t see a happily ever after for himself after separating from the Army and then trying to fit back into civilian life. He had no idea how to explain his hyper vigilance, his sense of threat that hovered over him 24/7. There was no way to control it or dial it back or flip a switch and turn off the monster inside him. The last ten years, he’d learned to live with the anxiety that came and went like tides in an ocean. There were days when he felt almost normal, a sense of peace within him. But those days were rare. He didn’t sleep well at night. And his unit brothers knew never to come up behind him or shake him awake from a nightmare he was having.
Roan knew the tragedies that had befallen his brothers who had gone home to their wives. Nightmares were a given. And the wife never realized that by trying to shake her husband during it that he was going to come up swinging out of muscle memory.
More than one wife suffered a broken nose or jaw, or lost some teeth. It was a sad testament of what war did to a man and woman. And of course, in those cases he knew about, each marriage had self-destructed after such an event. Roan couldn’t blame the woman. Who would want to lay with a man that could, at any time, strike her with his fist. Or worse.
He heard of one Special Forces sergeant who had gone home, insisted on keeping a pistol under his pillow. He’d had a flashback in the middle of the night and shot his wife, who he thought was the enemy coming after him as she tried to shake him awake. She’d paid the ultimate, horrifying price.
Rubbing his bearded cheek, Roan didn’t want any of that to happen to anyone he cared about. But the jarring and depressive reality that when he left the Army, no matter what woman he was attracted to, he could hurt her. That made his gut tighten. Roan came from a family where women were sacred, and had to be loved and cherished, not harmed and injured.
Damn his PTSD. Damn this war that had given it to him. Bitterly, he knew that although he’d go home to Butte, Montana, home to his family that he couldn’t stay with them. He wouldn’t be able to adequately explain what lived inside him, or how it made him feel edgy and wary, always on guard, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
His father had never shown such symptoms so Roan knew he wouldn’t understand completely, either. The only ones who did understand? They would be people who had gone through a similar trauma. War made strong bonds, no question. But to find a woman in the civilian population who could understand and cope with him? No….that was impossible.
Roan moved, and shifting his weight to his other booted foot, he continued to scan the darkness. If he was brutally honest with himself? He ached to find such a woman. He was damned lonely and hungry for a woman’s companionship.
He’d always been drawn to highly intelligent women. They had confidence and insisted upon being treated as an equal and nothing less by a man. Fine with him. He’d grown up with strong, confident ranch women who made him appreciate those traits in other females. Roan enjoyed hearing what was on a woman’s mind, what they were thinking about, and how they saw their world—and him.
The best relationship he’d ever had was with Jennifer, an Army captain and nurse who worked at the hospital in Bagram. She’d been in for seven years, like him. She was three years older than Roan, but that didn’t matter. What did matter to Roan was that Jen had PTSD even worse than he did. She immediately understood his worry of sleeping with her after sex, afraid he might strike and harm her. Or vice-versa. They had great jokes and plenty of belly laughter about such things. And while they took their symptoms seriously, they made decisions to help one another cope with them. Jen had taught him how to support her, and she learned how to help him, with their mutual PTSD.
He loved her and wanted to marry her, but the thrill of war stood in the way. And although Jen loved him, she didn’t want to be tied down. She wanted to remain in combat zones. He didn’t.
Jen was addicted to war. She called herself a “trauma junkie” and couldn’t live without the exhilaration of danger surrounding her and becoming a part of the life-and-death situation she might find herself in.
Ultimately, she was one of the few female nurses who volunteered for black ops missions when a medical person like herself was needed on a flight into enemy territory. She often flew out with the Night Stalkers in their MH-47 helo’s to pick up a sick or wounded black ops soldier in the field. All in dangerous places.
He released his sigh, frowning, feeling pain move through his chest. On one mission, the helo had just landed to pick up a Special Forces A-team that was on the run from the Taliban. They were carrying three wounded. A Taliban shot off a grenade from a launcher, directly hitting the MH-47 in the center of its fuselage. It tore the bird apart and everyone who had come on board was lost, including Jen.
Roan didn’t want to make the choice Jen had. They’d talked about it often, how the PTSD ran them. Jen felt better if she actually did something risky or dangerous. For Roan, he’d seen too much fighting. There was no ‘high’ that he experienced from danger. All he wanted was finish out the last two months of his enlistment and go home.
Home to what?
Roan wasn’t at all sure. The prospect seemed as daunting as those Taliban charging down the slope of that hill to destroy them earlier tonight. Life looked bleak to him no matter how he tried to view it. Getting away from the violence was something he desperately needed to do. Killing evil didn’t bother him, however. There was evil in the world that would go on killing innocent people until it was defeated. The world needed less evil. Right now, the world was drowning in it.
Roan felt as if he were in a spinning top and no matter where he let go and landed, it wasn’t going to be the good outcome he longed for. But at least, no one would be shooting at him. No more violence.
If only he could get back on the land as a wrangler, he instinctively knew that he would have the time to work on his war wounds. But deep in his heart? He yearned for a woman to complete him. He believed in family. In having children and growing old with a woman he loved. Who could possibly want him in his present state of being?
He had no idea how any of his secret dreams could ever come true. He might physically look whole, but emotionally and mentally? He was a changed man and he would never be the same person he was before he joined the Army and went to war.
His hearing picked up the sound of boots coming his way. Turning, he looked and saw through his NVG’s that Sergeant Sean Fielding was arriving to relieve him of his watch. He would take over in another ten minutes. Sean was his age, grizzled, seen it all, and seemed impervious to the latest attack. He wore his cartridge vest and beneath that, his Kevlar vest. Throwing a cigarette butt away, he blew out the last bit of smoke.
“All quiet on the Western Front, Tag?”
“Yeah. Nothing’s moved out there since the A-10’s came in.”
Nodding, Fielding pulled down his NVG’s, turning them off and allowing them to hang around his neck. He rested the M4 on the wall and sighted through the laser scope, slowly moving it from right to left.
“Yep,” he grunted, “no red glow out there.”
“The bodies will be gone in another hour or so. They’re good about picking up their dead under cover of darkness.”
“They’ll take them up that hill. There’s a bunch of caves down on the other side of it. The Cap’n ought to call in a pair of A-10’s to bomb the shit out of that area at dawn.” He grinned, his teeth white against the darkness of his scruffy brown beard. “That will really finish them off.”
Roan relaxed, pulling his M4 off the wall, removing the shell out of the chamber and pointing the muzzle down to the ground. Their M4’s, like the SEAL’s, didn’t have a safety on them. “Think he’ll do it?”
Rubbing his thick, fuzzy beard, pushing up his NVG’s on his head, Sean said, “We have a lot of casualties from those three grenade launchers. You know how the cap’n gets when children are injured.”
“A lot of them hurt?” Roan asked, knowing the answer already.
“Yeah.” He looked down at his thick, hairy wrist, pulling the black cloth off the face of his radium watch.
“Another fifteen minutes and those three medevac’s will be in here. They’re being escorted by two Apache combat helos at a higher altitude.” He nodded his head. “You can bet that they’ll be utilizing their HUD display, checking out their infrared scope. I’ll lay you odds the Cap’n told them to drift over that set of hills where the Taliban went after the attack. I think they’ll finish off whoever is left, so the Cap’n isn’t gonna have to call in the Warthogs, after all.”
Grunting, Roan said, “Fine by me.”
“Just think,” Sean said, “in two month’s you’re gonna be a civilian, Tag. Are you looking forward to it or dreading it?”
Placing the M4 across his shoulder, he returned Sean’s grin. “A little of both.”
“It’s gonna be the next chapter in your Book of Life, Bro.”
Nodding, Roan left the position so Fielding could stand in the protected place. “Yeah, a new chapter for sure.” He liked the other man’s philosophy about life changes that each major event in a person’s life meant an old chapter had closed, but a new one would open for a new beginning. That was true for him. Roan had no idea what to expect in the next chapter of his life. None.