Heroes

Feb. 19th, 2017 04:00 pm
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[personal profile] barefoot_bard
Title: Heroes
Rating: M (Suitable for ages 16 and above)
Disclaimers: Names given in this story are fictional and any relation to actual persons, living or dead, is purely incidental.
Story summary: A soldier realises what it really means to be a hero. Fort Hood, Texas, November 2009.
Author's Note: The captain mentioned below was John Gaffaney, an Army Reserves officer from California. He was one of the thirteen people killed when Nidal Hasan opened fire in the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Fort Hood.


They say that heroes are born. That they aren't made. That they can't be. But I think that's bullshit. I think that how you act in certain circumstances is what makes you heroic. It's not some genetic good fortune or anything like that. Sometimes training plays a part in it. Sometimes it's just an indefinable quirk of character that before the moment of need never shows itself. I don't really know how to describe it, I guess, except that it can't really be described. It just sort of... happens and afterward, the only thing you can do is be damn glad that it did.

There used to be a soldier in the motor pool who was a regular shammer. He half-assed everything, from keeping his barracks room clean to showing up to formations on time. If he could get out of doing something, he would but if he couldn't, he only did as much work as he had to. The only thing he ever put effort into was PT. That kid could run, and he almost always out-pushed Sergeant Colley, which I can tell you ain't easy. I'm no PT slouch myself and I can't out-push Sergeant Colley. It's too bad that this kid couldn't put that sort of effort into being a decent soldier all around, but for guys like PFC Tyler Hughes, sandbagging is just a way of life.

Not everything he did was a time-waste, though. Hughes could be motivated under the right circumstances. Those circumstances were very unique though, as it turned out. I once saw him jump into a Humvee that had caught fire outside the motor pool and drive it far enough away so the fire was no threat to the building. He never got so much as a thanks from the chain of command for it. The lack of recognition was fine by him, though, I think. It'd have been awkward otherwise. Hughes was not the sorta guy who likes to stand out.

Then there was that day in November when the whole world came apart.

Three of us were in the SRPC to finish up the inevitable last minute medical crap that comes before a deployment. None of us were too pumped up about it but that's the Army way. Just when you think everything's squared away, somebody comes along and screws something up so you have to fix it. I ended up having to drag Hughes along or his papers would never have gotten figured out. He sat with me and Colley while we waited, so both of us could keep an eye on him - one of his more recent tricks was to slip off to the latrine to either hide or sneak a smoke.

Troopers were coming in and out of the building in something sorta like regularity. It was a promising sign because I didn't want to be here all damn day. I remember getting bored with looking over to see who was the newest poor sucker to come wandering in, so I stopped and tried to distract myself with a month-old copy of the Army Times. That's some Nobel Prize material right there, I gotta say. They pick the best writers for this rag. Still, I was about to nudge Colley and ask him if he was MRAP-licenced when somebody screamed out "Gun!"

That one word was cut off by somebody else shouting "Allahu Akbar!"

I've heard that shouted before. Nothing good ever follows. Sure as shit, nothing good was exactly what happened now. I looked up in time to see the muzzle flash. The sharp pop of the first shot coincided with the outbreak of screaming and immediate, mind-crippling panic. My first thought was, What the fuck, as I flung myself down behind a row of chairs. Get out of there was my next thought. But the shooting was regular now, sounding almost like an M16.

"Motherfucker!" I was halfway across the floor toward cover when I realised suddenly that I had no idea where Colley or Hughes were. There comes a moment in a firefight when time slows down to a crawl. Even when everything is happening at once, it feels like you can see each moment like it's a single frame from a film reel. Your mind might be racing, your adrenaline might be pumping, but the rest of the world around you is moving about as slow as a snail across fly-tape and all noise sounds like it's being filtered through a really bad set of speakers.

I could hear crackling pops as the whackjob across the room firing, the panicked distorted shrieking as everybody tried to get to cover, the howling of the unlucky ones who didn't make it that far. I could also see. I saw Colley lying semi-prone near the chair he'd been sitting in, his ACUs staining red where he'd been hit in the back. He'd gone down facing away from me. I saw a captain charge headlong at the guy with the pistol. He went down with a bullet in his chest. I saw a trooper's hand slide down to his hip like he was going for his own weapon, except he was in uniform and couldn't carry. He dove for cover instead but wasn't fast enough to avoid getting hit across the back of his leg.

Then I saw Hughes. He had a folding chair in his hands and was lunging forward like a linebacker on a mission. His expression is one I'll never forget. It was the very picture of uncontained fury. It wouldn't be until much later that I could find it possible to share that feeling. I watched as Hughes advanced, every step a long, agonising, stride toward the guy blasting away at us. The chair was swinging incrementally through the air, even as the shooter inched his gaze and his weapon toward Hughes. The muzzle flash exploded from the pistol in super slow motion and I swear to this day I actually saw the bullet as it emerged, spinning, from the muzzle. I heard Hughes bellowing something though I can never decide even now what it was.

Hughes took the round in the lower chest. The momentum of his charge carried him forward another couple of steps, the chair still raised. The lunatic with the pistol ducked to the side, set his feet, and fired again. Time began to speed up again as Hughes went down, the chair legs still gripped in his hands. The bastard who'd shot him was already moving away down the hall toward the back of the building. Every time that pistol went off, I knew some other poor trooper was being killed. The complete, soul-twisting sense of helplessness at not being able to return fire almost made me vomit.

The shooter was out of the frame now, at least for the minute, and I finally found the strength to move again. I swiveled around on my stomach and low-crawled for all I was worth toward Hughes. There was virtually no chance he'd survive taking two rounds to the chest but I'd be damned if I didn't do anything to help him. The zipper of his blouse was damaged so I fumbled to get my Benchmade knife out of my pocket. I had never cursed and hated ripstop fabric so much until that moment. It took longer than it should have to cut the blouse open. His shirt was the next to go. I slashed thoughtlessly at it until it was nothing more than rags and I could see the two small round holes in his chest where the bullets had struck.

Stop the bleeding. Somehow. Damn it, I knew what to do, being CLS trained, but at the same time I couldn't make my hands and brain connect. I had to calm down, to take a second and get my shit together. The loon with the pistol was still shooting, somewhere else in the SRPC and over the sound of his gunfire I could hear sirens closing in fast. Right. Okay. I breathed out and unzipped my own blouse so I could wrestle my arms out of the sleeves. It was far from perfect as a field dressing but there was nothing better to use. I wadded the blouse up and pressed it against Hughes' chest. It got soaked up with blood immediately. Beneath my hands, I could feel Hughes' chest rise and fall sporadically. He was still breathing, at least. Sorta.

This wasn't good enough, though. It sounded like the murderous bastard was on his way back toward us. I had to get Hughes out of there. He was too big a guy for me to get up and carry, and anyway, I couldn't risk unknowingly causing more damage. If ever there was a more impossible proposition, I don't know it. But I was over my panic, mostly, and that helped. I grabbed the cuffs of Hughes' blouse, stuck the Velcro tabs to each other so his arms were bound at the wrists, then I stuck my head under his wrists. It was one of those one-man manual carry drills we sometimes got put through which nobody ever dreamed would ever actually be effective. Well, I was about to find out.

I dug my elbows and the toes of my boots into the floor and high-crawled as fast as I could with Hughes' weight dragging over the blood-slick tiles. My head and shoulders banged against overturned chairs and tables, but I powered past them. The only thing that mattered was getting Hughes out of there to whatever help was on its way. "C'mon, Ty, c'mon," I said, and realised I'd been repeating that for the past couple minutes. I'd never called him by his first name, or any variation of it, before. I had no idea why I was doing it now, then my head collided hard with the door. I remembered then that it was a push-to-enter.

Somebody was on it ahead of me, though. They shouted at me to get the fuck out of the way through the glass, so I grabbed hold of Hughes' tattered blouse and dragged him backward enough to let the door open unblocked. The first trooper in was a medic, carrying a CLS bag. She'd gotten here damned quick, I thought, and God bless her for it. She took charge of Hughes immediately, pulling his wrists apart and curtly telling me in no uncertain terms to get out of her way. I rattled off what had happened and what I'd done, even as I half-crawled, half-scrabbled over to where Colley still lay motionless. He was dead. No. No he wasn't. There was a pulse. Somehow. Miraculously.

"Is he breathing? Yes? Get his arms. Move!" A nurse and another medic were taking over care of Colley, again brushing me aside. I was not needed, yet I didn't know what to do. The noise of gunfire had increased and now seemed to be outside. Somebody was finally shooting back. It had only taken them fucking long enough.

"Hey. Hey! Trooper. You hit?"

I blinked, realising that not only was I being spoken to, but I was kneeling uselessly on the floor. What the hell was wrong with me? "Am I - ?" I looked down at my shirt and saw it wasn't coyote tan but red. Hughes' blood. How had it gotten all over me? "No. No. I'm... not."

The guy asking me was a medic with a Ranger tab on his sleeve, I belatedly saw, and on hearing my answer he lost any interest in me. A heartbeat later he was gone, moving on to patients who legitimately needed help. There were medical personnel all over the place now, as well as random troopers who were unafraid of the situation. I looked down at the floor where Colley had been lying but he was gone, carried off by the medic and the nurse who'd been working on him. And Hughes - I looked around and saw him just as he was being hustled out through the now-propped-open door on a folding table.

"Hey! That's my battle. I'm - " I slipped on a pool of blood and crashed down onto a knee, but managed to get up again only a second later. "I'm goin' with him."

A paramedic thrust a gloved hand squarely into my chest as I tried to get past him, however. "Wounded only, man."

"Fuck off," I snapped back, shoving him out of my way. "That's my battle."

It was a fact that Hughes and I had never been good friends. It was a fact that we actually only hung out when Scotty Mansfield hosted Xbox group matches in the dayroom. It was also a fact that Hughes had very certainly saved our lives when he'd charged that whackjob with the gun. I absolutely owed it to him to have his back now.

"I said, wounded only," the paramedic repeated in a firmer voice. "He's gonna get run up to Darnall, so you can follow. But you can't go in the rig with him."

That wouldn't work. Not at all. We'd come down from barracks in Colley's Dodge. The keys were in his pocket and I didn't know where he'd gone. It was possible to hotwire it, since I knew he never locked his truck, but I didn't want a charge of GTA. That left only one option, really. I looked for the ambulance Hughes was being loaded into, noted its number, and then sucked in a great breath. It was only two miles to the hospital from the SRPC. I'd just have to run. I had no cover, no blouse, and a T-shirt and pants soaked in blood, but I ran.

The ER teams did the best they could. They were overwhelmed, though. This was the sort of mass cal that everybody dreads. One of the swing shift nurses told me, after things had calmed down, that she'd be happy if she lived the rest of her life without seeing anything like it again. She only knew half the story but I didn't fill her in on the other half. I was still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Hughes hadn't made it. The odds were against him from the start, even I knew that, but at the same time it was not at all fair that he hadn't survived the first time in his career when he'd showed his real worth. It was a shame. It was a waste. Shit. The whole damn thing was a tragedy on every count.

Thirteen people were dead. Twelve of them were soldiers. Over thirty people were wounded. It was a nightmare all around. Sergeant Colley was lucky to survive being shot in the back, but the wound was bad enough that his chances of staying in weren't good. Nobody in the motor pool believed that Hughes had done what he did when I finally told the story, days later. It hurt at first, but they hadn't been there. They only knew the Hughes who shammed out of work every chance he got. It wasn't until I was sent to see one of the post chaplains that I understood it was just as well that way.

"Everyone is put on this earth to serve a purpose, Greg," he told me. "It isn't for the wider world to know what that purpose is, or even always for the individual him or herself to know, until the time when that purpose is meant to be fulfilled. Tyler Hughes saw his purpose and he rose to fulfil it without hesitation. It is enough that you saw it and that you know the man he truly was."

I thought about that for a couple of days and realised he was right. What the other guys believed didn't matter anymore. What I'd seen, what I knew, was the only important thing. My name is Specialist Greg Ingall and I was there when PFC Tyler Hughes gave his life for his country. Saying that implies he was killed in action with the enemy overseas. That he was neither killed in action nor overseas doesn't lessen his sacrifice. He was killed taking the fight to the enemy and that's the core point.

People say heroes are born, not made. People also toss the label 'hero' around so commonly these days that it almost loses its value. Shit. People have tried to tell me that I'm a hero for trying to get Hughes out of there. That's so very wrong. I'm not a hero and I don't pretend to be. Tyler Hughes, on the other hand, is a hero and nobody, ever, will convince me otherwise.
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