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[personal profile] barefoot_bard
Title: The Quiet Ones
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: An NCO discovers a secret about one of his men. Fort Bliss, June, 2013.
Author's Note: I have taken some liberties with dates and facts, but inevitably will have gotten some things wrong. I apologise for those honest mistakes.

I was told growing up that you have to watch out for the quiet ones, because you never know what they might be capable of. I never thought that could be true until a couple months ago. Sure, I've known my share of quiet people but they just never quite tripped the radar, so to speak. We had a couple in the battalion, even. There was nothing unique or strange about them. They were just... quiet. The sort of people who got messed with but always in that goodnatured way, like. They never took it personal. Hell, in their own quiet way, they gave the jibing right back. But other than that, you didn't hear or see much from them.

Then there was Leroy Jenkins.

His first name wasn't actually Leroy. It was Joseph, but with a last name like Jenkins, 'Leroy' was the name the guys gave him. I don't actually know if he minded it or not. He never said. He'd just grin in that lazy Southern way of his and shrug, and not really say anything. He never complained either. Never sandbagged or shammed, or even showed up late for formations. Then again, he was never one to hang around for extra details either. He showed up, did his job, then popped smoke back to barracks. That was just his style, I guess.

About eight months ago, Leroy PCSed to Fort Bliss from 11th ACR in California. Word was he'd had enough of the whole OPFOR game. Word was he'd been too good at it and enough visiting units had complained that he'd been sent packing. Word also was he'd been moved along because he'd got in some really nasty trouble. There was no way to know for sure because he never said. There was a lot that Leroy never said, really. Those of us with a sense of boundaries eventually left well enough alone. Well. Mostly. You can't be a tanker and completely escape the shit-slinging.

One thing nobody could accuse Leroy of was incompetence, though. He might have been the gray man in the battalion, but he could fix God damn near anything. Officially he was only a 91M, which in theory meant he was only supposed to work on our Abrams tanks, but then he got caught underneath Captain Bartlet's Humvee one morning. He never said exactly what he'd done but it was enough to stop the oil leaking from the oil cooler. His next feat was getting the AC working again in one of the brigade's MEVs, which actually almost got him court-martialled.

His skills as a mechanic meant that not many of us really questioned his quirks, and he damn sure had them. The biggest one was his aversion to wearing shorts. Even on the hottest Texas summer days, Leroy always turned out for PT in his black windbreaker pants. First Sergeant Everson would always get after him about it but nothing official ever seemed to come of it. Anybody else would've been slapped with an Article 15 or two before he could make it off the track, but somehow Leroy skated every time.

Now, don't get it twisted. I liked Leroy. But it was hard not to think he was somehow a command favorite because he was never in trouble like that. There were a lot of little things that he skated on that the rest of us would get gigged for. At the same time, I don't think any of us really held that against him, because he never rubbed our faces in it. Nobody could accuse him of being a blue falcon, that's for sure. But there were still things about Leroy that none of us understood. In a battalion where knowing each other's business was normal, Leroy was a social black hole.

I was on CQ in one of the barracks blocks one Friday, a couple days after we'd come back from two weeks in the field. The block was like a ghost town. That's always how it goes. Nobody wants to be on post for that first weekend back. Shit. I didn't want to be on post myself, but Sergeant Ruiz had conned me into swapping staff duty shifts with him. It was an unfair swap at that, since his duty wasn't until Monday, which made it only a twelve-hour shift, where the weekend shifts were twenty-fours. The conniving prick - but I'm also the dumb fuck who fell for it, so I can't complain too much.

That's neither here nor there though. Really, it's not. If I hadn't been on duty that weekend, I'd have never learned Leroy's secret. See, one of the things staff duties have to do is walk around the barracks block every couple hours to make sure doors are shut, the hallways and stairwells are clear of obstructions, and there's nobody passed out drunk anywhere. They also answer the dayroom office phone, log soldiers coming in from and going out on leave or pass, and keep an eye out for trouble, because tankers will be tankers.

Technically, the junior guy on CQ did the walking around and all that, but since SPC Dunne was on his rest period, I was it. Which was okay with me because being up and moving helped keep me awake. On a night when nobody was around, though, it was pretty fucking boring walking around the outside of the building when, even at 0130, the temperature was about eighty-seven. It was hot enough that I decided to try my luck and make my rounds with my sleeves rolled up to the elbow. As it turned out, I wasn't the only one stretching the rules to keep cool.

Up on the second floor in the northeastern wing, I saw that the stairwell door at the far end of the hallway was propped open. Great, I thought. Somebody's either sneaking off without signing out on pass or is trying to sneak somebody in who shouldn't be there. Either way, it's a no-go. I sighed, then started up the stairs to shut the door and try to find the smartass who'd propped it open. As I went up the stairs, I pulled out my notepad and pen, ready to take down names and ranks. What I found when I got to the outside landing was not some tanker trying to be sneaky. What I found was Leroy, sitting on the landing with his legs dangling over the edge.

Well. Sort of. One leg was actually lying on the concrete landing beside him. When he heard me coming, he tried to shove his stump back into the socket of the prosthetic, but I was too close to hide from. I stopped short, however. It was impossible not to pretend I'd spotted him and yet I felt completely unwilling to barge all the way in on him, even though he was outside and in the open.

"Fuck," he said finally, once he was on his feet again. His sweatpants, I couldn't help but note, were now unrolled to cover his leg.

"You know you ain't supposed to keep that door blocked open," I told him. It was the first thing I could think of to say and it sounded really stupid the moment I said it, to be honest. But what else could I say? It was obvious he hadn't expected anyone to come by, or he wouldn't have been outside. But why was this something to hide? That made no sense to me. Amputees were still able to serve, pretty much everyone knew that.

He was moving away from me to the inside hallway. His room wasn't far from the stairwell, I knew, which maybe was why he'd felt comfortable enough to strip down, so to speak. I said, "When it'd happen?"

He didn't answer right away and I figured he probably wouldn't. If not, I couldn't blame him. I scowled at my own stupidity and kicked at the rock keeping the door open. I'd have to follow him inside to do the interior walk-around, but I decided to pretend this little incident hadn't happened. Even if my head was bursting with questions, because let's face it, anybody would be curious as fuck after finding something like this out.

Then he shrugged. "Oh-Six. I don't - " he cut himself off and shrugged again, but said nothing more.

"Sure. No problem." I put my notepad and pen back into my left chest pocket. This was not my business. I'd just have to get over my curiosity. Anyway, I understood why Leroy wasn't a go-getter or whatever now. "Just keep that door shut, okay?"

"Yeah, Sarn't. Roger."

That was good enough for me. I took off my soft cap and stuffed it into a cargo pocket, and headed off down the hallway. I hadn't got more than a dozen yards away before Leroy called out behind me, "Hold up."

I stopped, a little surprised at his tone, and turned back. That was the sorta voice an NCO used on somebody acting the fool. Leroy had no stripes so it seemed odd to hear that come from him. "How's that again?" I liked the guy but a specialist just doesn't talk to an E-5 like that.

"C'mere," he said. "I oughta show you somethin'."

It was on the end of my tongue to tell him to shove it, since I've never been one to put up with insolence, yet Leroy had never been mouthy like this before. So I followed him into his room. He didn't have a roommate, but a lot of guys were deployed so this wasn't all that strange. The door to his bedroom was propped open with a shoe near the top, and the common area was spotless. A guy with the spare time that Leroy did had no excuse for not keeping his living space clean, obviously.

He had gone into his room to sit on the bed, where he hesitated for almost a minute before removing his leg. A pair of crutches leaned against the desk near the head of the bed. I stayed in the common area, since it's never been my style to blithely invade anybody's personal spaces, but then Leroy waved me in.

"How long you been in?" He asked me.

"Five years and change," I told him, unable to help looking around. "You?" There was, I saw, not much for decoration in here. But then my eyes fell on a picture on the dresser. Five soldiers in the old tri-color desert BDUs sat on top of an Abrams parked beneath the giant crossed swords. It was the landmark that anybody who'd been to Baghdad had pictures of.

"Ten," he said, following my gaze. "Been deployed three times. Lost this in Ramadi, with the First of the Thirty-seventh." He waved at his stump, just visible under his empty sweatpants leg.

Well, shit. Leroy'd been in Ramadi. My earlier assumption that I understood him was pretty clearly wrong. Ramadi was one of the hardest battles the Army had fought in recent years. And this cat had been there. I knew more than most about that part of the '06 campaign because I'd studied it, out of pure personal interest, so knowing he'd been there? That was something to respect. "Jesus," I said.

Leroy shrugged. "Nobody outside the chain of command knows I only got this one leg, and it's gotta stay that way, okay?"

"Well, sure - but I don't get it. What's the big secret about it? I mean, there are plenty of guys missing legs and shit, who don't hide it."

" 'Cause people always ask questions," he replied evenly. "Some folks like havin' a little privacy. Besides," he added with that trademark lazy grin of his, "It's kinda funny to watch the boys try figurin' stuff out."

"I guess. But hang on, you've been in ten years, why've you still got a sham shield?"

At that, he laughed. "Not everybody's cut out to have stripes, brother. Or keep 'em. I was an E-Five for a couple years. Wasn't for me."

"Shit, man."

Losing rank past E-4 wasn't that common, so if Leroy had gotten busted down from sergeant, he must have really fucked up. I wanted to ask but didn't. Absolutely not my business. Even so...

"Is what it is," he replied. "Anyway. I wanted to show you this - " he rolled himself over onto his stomach so he could sprawl across the bed and reach for the bedside table near the window. He produced a black three-by-seven plastic case, which he opened and held out to me. When I took it, I saw that it held a Silver Star. The fuck, I thought. I'd seen Leroy in his Class As before and his medal rack hadn't included the Silver Star ribbon. Or, for that matter, even one for a Purple Heart.

"Got that after Ramadi. Don't deserve it. Your brother shoulda got it instead."

I looked up sharply at him. My fingers tightened hard around the medal case. It was like somebody had closed off my throat. I wanted to speak but couldn't. My stomach felt like it had dropped clear down to my boots and for a second I swayed on my feet. What the fuck was Leroy saying, that my brother should have... what did he even know...

"We wasn't friends, but your brother was a good dude. We got hit the same day once, down in Tameem. We got all mixed up together somehow but that stuff happens in combat. All the stuff they said I did to get that, was actually him. Nobody listened when I said so but that's the Army. I'd always wanted to send it to y'all, but..." he shrugged, and didn't try to finish the sentence.

Not that I really noticed. I was staring at the medal again, trying to get my head wrapped around what he was saying. My brother had been killed in Ramadi. He was the reason I joined up, even though I'd barely known him. And now here was Leroy Jenkins, telling me that not only had he known my brother, but he'd served with him and gotten the medal that Chris should have. The sheer unfairness and insanity of it made my heart hurt. I had no clue what to say, or even if I could manage to say anything anyway. This was just... I couldn't even think of a word that could begin to describe how I felt right then.

"You can take that with you," Leroy told me. "Belongs to you, anyway."

The cell phone in my pocket rang then, and I almost dropped the medal case in my hurry to dig the phone out to answer it. It was Dunne, according to the caller ID, but I had to clear my throat a couple of times before daring to accept the call. "Yeah, what?"

"Damn, easy, Sarn't. Just lettin' you know there's a PFC Wheeler down here sayin' he's lost his leave form but wants to sign back in anyway. I don't see him in the log so - "

That was the perfect excuse to get the fuck out of there. "Sure, yeah, I'll be down. Don't sign him in."

"Okay - "

I hung up on him and blew out a heavy sigh. Motherfucker. "Listen, um - "

"Take that with you. Send it home. And remember your brother was a damned good guy."

I didn't leave Leroy's room so much as I fled from it. I didn't remember to shove the medal case into a pocket until I was almost back to the dayroom.

It took a long time for me to make sense of those few minutes, of what Leroy had told me. I was angry, grieving, bitter, confused, and curious, all in turn. More than anything else, though, I felt as though I was missing a huge piece of knowledge. For all my studying of that battle, I knew very little about my brother's part in it, and I wanted to know more. But I couldn't ask the one person who could tell me anything, because two months after that chance conversation, Leroy was gone. Word was he got PCSed to Fort Carson. He'd left just as quietly as he'd come.

For a while, I hated him for not telling me more about what my brother had done in Ramadi, until one day it dawned on me to look up his Silver Star citation. It's amazing what you can find on Google. It was not the perfect answer but it did fill in some of the gaps. I'd always heard Chris was the type of guy who wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty and the citation proved that, even in combat, he was out there in the middle of everything. I knew Chris had been killed in an IED strike in October of 2006 but my impression of him had been entirely altered by reading his - or Leroy's - Silver Star citation. It read:

The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star Medal to Joseph Jenkins, Sergeant, U.S. Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action while serving with Company C, 1st Battalion, 37th Armored Regiment, 1st Armored Division, during combat operations against enemy forces in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, on 17 August 2006, at Ramadi, Iraq. During the afternoon of 17 August, while escorting a convoy in Ramadi, Sergeant Jenkins' platoon came under heavy fire from multiple concealed positions. In attempting to withdraw from the ambush zone, an HMMWV in the convoy was struck by an RPG and disabled, wounding the soldiers inside. Sergeant Jenkins positioned his tank to provide effective cover fire for the disabled vehicle. Then, ordering his crew to hold their ground, Sergeant Jenkins ran to the disabled HMMWV carrying only his M4 rifle. He exposed himself to enemy fire in order to help get the wounded soldiers out of the vehicle, for whom he then provided cover fire while they were carried to safety. He then took up position in the gunner's hatch of his tank to operate the .50 caliber machine gun, covering the convoy's withdrawal from the ambush zone. The coolness, quick-thinking, and personal gallantry displayed by Sergeant Jenkins on this occasion reflect highest credit upon himself, the 1st Armored Division, and the United States Army.

The name on the citation was Leroy's, but the actions had been my brother's. That was something I had never known before. It was incredibly humbling. In the face of great danger, my brother had put the lives of his fellow soldiers above his own. I wish I had known that while he was still alive. But I knew it now, at least, and I was determined never to forget it. I never sent the medal case home, either. It stays locked up in the cabinet over my desk. Inside the case is the citation, which I printed out wallet-size and laminated, with a small photo of Chris on the back side. My parents had decided to bury Chris at Arlington, half a world away from borderland Texas, so this was the best I could do for 'presenting' the medal to him.

My name is Sergeant Adam Randall and my brother was Sergeant Chris Randall. I didn't know him very well growing up but because of Leroy Jenkins, I know that he really was one hell of a guy. Every time I look at the medal case, I think of him. I want to be just as good a soldier as he was, so that wherever Chris is now, he won't be disappointed. I hope every day that he isn't. He was always the guy I looked up to as a kid, even though he joined the Army during his senior year of high school. I was only thirteen when he left home but I remember wanting to be just like him. He was killed a couple years before I enlisted so we never got to see each other in uniform and I'd like to think he would have been proud of me for joining up.

I never saw Leroy again. I tried a couple of times to get a hold of him up at Carson, but never heard back. It was as if he had simply gone off the grid. In the end, I just had to accept that this was how it was supposed to be. But still... in his own way, that soft-spoken Southerner had completely changed my world and it irks me sometimes that I'll never be able to thank him for it. But then maybe I never had to. I think he knew I appreciated him and I hope he's stil out there somewhere in the Army, quietly doing his thing. If it wasn't for him enjoying the warm late night air that Friday, I may not ever have known what my brother had done in Iraq. I guess that means it's true, what my grandfather liked to say. You can never know what to expect from the quiet ones.


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April 2017


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