First of all, thank you for your interest in Act of Revenge. I hope you enjoy the reading as much as I did the writing. My body of work to date has been a balance of fiction and nonfiction, yet this is my first original novel in close to a decade. As we have been a nation at war, my focus has been on nonfiction and the SEALs, Green Berets, Rangers, and Marine Special Operators–their training and deployment in support of the Global War on Terror. With the winding down of direct combat operations in the active theaters, I now have a chance to return to what was my first love when I began writing–novels.
I’m often asked how it is to go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. They are indeed very different. As I’ve often said, in writing a novel I get to hang out with my imaginary friends for a few hours each day, while a work of nonfiction is a115,000-word term paper. Yet each is compelling in its own way. A novel is a much more free-flowing enterprise. The characters are of my own creation; I introduce them, see to their initial development, and set them in motion. They take on duties and responsibilities that have to do with pace and plot, and they drive the action. I’m not so much writing as I’m running along behind my characters, taking notes. They take charge of the story. They decide what happens next as they act out the scenario. I have an idea how the story will end, but sometimes my characters fool me, and then the ending is a surprise for both the reader and myself. That’s what happened in Act of Revenge. Nonfiction is both less creative and a great deal more work. The individuals I write about–the military special operators, the training cadres, the enabling support cadres, and the command and control entities are real people–warriors all. It’s their story, not my own, so I have to be accurate and true to what is taking place in their world. And there’s the travel. Whether it’s component training at a domestic training facility or an operational embed overseas, it’s still time away from home. As my dear wife, Julia, has reminded me, I’ve been gone about a third of our married life–about the same as our military special operators since 9/11. Candidly, it’s hard work and challenging work, but it has its rewards. The SEALs, Green Berets, Rangers, and Marines I write about are among the finest warriors ever to serve our great nation. That I have been allowed to share a part of their journey and to tell their story is indeed a high honor and a privilege. It has been well worth all the long days and nights on the training ranges at Coronado, Fort Bragg, Fort Benning, Camp Lejeune, and the overseas travel in the battle space. I can only hope that my efforts in print have been equal to their courage, professionalism, and sacrifice.
Act of Revenge. What happens when a talented special operator, in this case a senior SEAL petty officer, is called home from deployment to find his brother has been the victim of a vicious and unspeakable crime? When traditional law enforcement is unable or unwilling to pursue those responsible, what are his options and where does his duty now lie? Garrett Walker ably served this author in The Mercenary Option and Covert Action. His brother, Don Walker, helped me in Silent Descent. Now Garrett is home and must confront evil more pressing than anything the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or Saddam’s Republican Guard ever threw at him. And it’s personal–so personal that he must now take those skills he learned as a SEAL and honed in years of direct combat and use them in a way he never imagined. Act of Revenge is a medical thriller, it’s a complex and deep-seated love triangle, and it’s the return of a prodigal. But it’s more than that. It’s what happens when those who feel they are beyond the reach of the law are met by a Navy SEAL for whom the standard battlefield rules of engagement no longer apply.
Act of Revenge not only marks my return to the world of fiction but is the first work now available under my own SEAL Productions Press LTD imprint. Enjoy.
PART ONE: After Action
They were well inside the Pakistani border and into the upper elevations of the Samana Range. These cross-border incursions onto the sovereign territory of the only Muslim nuclear power had become decidedly less frequent given the strained relationship with the Paks, but no less dangerous. This operation, like all such missions, had been planned with careful attention to the risks and rewards. The rewards came from the target-rich environment. The Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders had come to feel secure in the mountainous border regions of the Hindu Kush where the Pashtun tribes gave them sanctuary. That security was now threatened by American special missions units whenever they crossed the border. The risks were that the presence of American military units operating in Pakistan had international repercussions, as well as a threat to the fragile, pro-Western government in Islamabad. But to the men on the ground, the real threat was falling into the hands of the enemy. There could be no worse death than the one awaiting an American captured by one of these mountain tribes that were loyal to al-Qaeda. They hated all outsiders, even Pakistani government officials, but they had a special, religious animus for the American infidels who dared to venture into their tribal lands. Fortunately, the warriors in the special missions units that made these border crossings were hard to capture and even harder to kill.
This element was a four-man hunter-killer team looking for a single al-Qaeda leader thought to be hiding in a small compound near the city of Dargai. They had been inserted by a special operations MH-47 Chinook helicopter in a small valley some twenty-five miles south and eight thousand feet below their current position. It had taken them two days to get to where they now waited. At least two of them were on watch during the day while the other two were tucked into a snow cave to rest and conserve body heat. At night they all went to ground as the November temperature plunged well below freezing. The shot they hoped to make could only be done during the daylight hours, and while the compound they were watching was heavily guarded, all outside activity ceased during the long, cold nights. It seemed to these special warriors that they were at the ends of the earth with no friendly presence for hundreds of miles. That was not entirely true. Seven miles above their heads, a Global Hawk drone aircraft ran a rack pattern that kept them under surveillance, visually during the day and thermally at night. In the unlikely event a roving band of Pashtun tribesmen should approach their location, the drone’s controller, sitting in an air-conditioned operations center in Nevada, would alert them over a dedicated satellite communications link.
Stan Nakamura was camped behind a pair of stabilized binoculars watching the compound below. He had rounded features and thin wisps of facial hair. Nakamura was a small, compact man, probably no more than five-six with his muscular frame rounded off by layers of cold-weather dress. His outer shell was a light, mottled-gray pattern that blended with either rock or blown snow. He was wearing a light combat load and watch cap. Like the SEAL beside him, he was lying on his Thinsolite ground pad, the same pad he’d slept on the previous night in the snow cave. It was early afternoon with the sun full up but partially blocked by mountain peaks that cast shadows into the valley below. The temperature was still in the teens at the team’s location, but they had purposely set their perch where it would always be in the shade. It was colder, but there was no chance of reflected sunlight to disclose their position.
“Think he’ll show today, Senior Chief?” Nakamura asked.
“Today, tomorrow, who knows. Hopefully before our chow and batteries run low. It’ll all depend on the weather.” He looked at the long valley shadows to gauge the angle of the sun. “Today might be as good as any.”
The senior chief petty officer lying next to Nakamura also watched the compound in the shallow valley below, but his view was through the 22X scope married to a very long and sinister-looking rifle. Senior Chief Garrett Walker had been a Navy SEAL for close to two decades. As a young petty officer, he’d cut his operational teeth when his platoon went into Afghanistan right after 9/11. He was then deployed to Iraq ahead of the conventional forces during the Iraqi invasion. He had personally been at war with his nation’s enemies ever since—primarily in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Someone had once asked him, someone who was not a Navy SEAL, just how many of these enemies he had killed. His answer had been, “Not nearly enough; there are still too many of them out there. But you can be sure that the ones I’ve put away had earned a bullet.”
Unlike his shooting partner, Garrett Walker was a slim six-two. He had wide-set green eyes, and his nose and cheekbones were punctuated by sharp, angular features. A shock of wiry brown hair peeked from under his rolled-up balaclava. The thick beard and mustache wreathed a tight, controlled mouth. Except for an occasional glance at the sky or the surrounding peaks, his cheek remained welded to the stock of the weapon as he watched through the scope. A short while later he spoke in a low voice.
“Hey, Stanley. Get the other guys ready to move. I think we might have a play.”
Nakamura was watching the compound, as was his team leader, but he had seen nothing. Still, he rolled from his mat and made his way to the snow cave’s entrance. Soon the other two SEALs were making their way out, blinking in the bright daylight. They carried their weapons and dragged their rucksacks behind them. Without asking questions, they immediately began prepping their gear for travel. This didn’t take long, as SEALs on a covert mission like this had to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. They returned to the cave and brought out Nakamura’s and Walker’s rucks. With the gear staged and ready, the two SEALs moved to either flank and took up security positions with their M4 rifles. What Garrett Walker had seen, but Stan Nakamura missed, was the slight movement of a man in the compound’s small minaret. It was the call to prayer. On cold days they prayed inside. When the sunlight touched the compound, as it did today, they often came into the courtyard to pray.
“They’re coming out now,” Walker said in the same low, measured voice. “Put the extraction bird on standby and let’s get a solution.”
Nakamura pulled a satellite phone from his vest and made a short call. At a small military outpost outside Jalalabad, seven special operations airmen filed from their tent and made their way across a dirt strip to the lone MH-47 Chinook. The huge rotors of the aircraft drooped sadly as it sat waiting patiently for its crew. Soon the two turbines began to spool up, and the rotors, moving slowly at first, gradually gathered speed. The crew made their preflight checks and waited as the big helo stood ready, idling on the ground. Back at the shooting perch in Pakistan, Stan Nakamura and Garrett Walker began their ritual. If there was a shot taken, Garrett would take it, only because it was his turn to be on the gun. Had it been Nakamura’s, their duties would have been reversed.
Nakamura took up the small shooting computer that rested between them and checked the current settings. It was not much larger than a pack of cigarettes. He’d already preloaded the information for the range to the target, the type of ammunition, the barrel twist rate, the target altitude, their present altitude, the slant angle from rifle to target, and the Coriolis factor—the effect of the earth’s rotation at this latitude. Taking data from a portable barometric suite, he entered the information for current air temperature and air pressure. From the Global Hawk, he received and entered a current estimated average wind speed over the course the bullet would travel. The computer took but a nanosecond to complete its work and flash the information on the LED readout.
“Up seven, left five.”
“Up seven, left five,” Garrett repeated and adjusted the scope—a Nightforce NXS 5.5-22X variable optic with a 56-mm objective. “What’d the eye in the sky say about the windage?”
“It amounted to a right three—seemed a little much to me.”
“I agree,” Garrett replied and backed the windage off an incremental click.
“What was the sonic reach?” Garrett asked.
“Twenty-seven hundred yards.” According to the computer, the round they were shooting would travel at supersonic speed, under these conditions, for that distance. It was always preferable to have the bullet traveling at supersonic speed when it reached the target, both for accuracy and impact.
Nakamura checked the scope settings and squeezed Garrett’s arm—the gun was properly doped and checked. Walker then took what looked like a pocket cigar humidor from his vest and laid it next to the breach of the rifle. He slipped the catch and opened the container to reveal four 4.5-inch shining brass cartridges. They looked like four small ballistic missiles—which, in fact, they were. Clipped to the inside of the container lid was a small, soft cloth, the kind often used for cleaning eyeglasses. Using the cloth, Garrett took one of the mini missiles and slipped it into the breach of the weapon. At the ranges they were shooting, the smudge or moisture from a fingerprint could affect the flight of the round. He then sent the rear-mounted handle home and locked the bolt in place. He closed the case and returned his cheek to the stock of the weapon.
After a minor shift of his body position, he reported, “All set.”
“All set,” Nakamura echoed.
The weapon that was now poised and in position was a CheyTac Intervention .408 long-range system, perhaps the most accurate sniper rifle in the world. The weapon had a seven-shot repeating capability, but for a shot like this, it would be one round/one kill, or nothing. At the valley compound, a file of men in Pashtun tribal dress filed into the courtyard and began to unroll their prayer rugs.
“See him?” Garrett asked.
“Not yet. No, wait—the third guy from the end in the second row?”
“Got him—even though they do all look alike.” He adjusted the focus knob on the scope. “Yeah, that’s him.” It was their running joke—to Nakamura, all Caucasians looked alike, so Garrett said the same of all Asians. “Get that bird airborne.”
Nakamura made another call, and a few minutes later, the big Chinook lifted into the air and headed east.
“Okay, I’m taking the shot.”
“You want to give the bastard a few minutes to pray, Senior Chief?”
“What for? He’s got seventy-two virgins waiting for him; he’s got no time to waste.”
Garrett went into a deep breathing cycle as he settled the crosshairs onto the kneeling form. He was to the side and rear of the east-facing man. In unison with the others at prayer, he sat upright on his heels for a moment, then bent forward to touch his forehead to the prayer rug. Garrett touched the trigger and took up the slack so that just a slight additional pressure would fire the weapon. He elected a torso shot and placed the reticle on the prostrated form just below his right shoulder. The man raised himself upright, away from the crosshairs. Garrett exhaled very slowly, then held his breath. As the target again lowered himself to the rug, Garrett began slowly increasing the trigger pressure. The big rifle seemingly jumped of its own accord, and the surprise of the impact immediately told Garrett he’d shot well. In silence, he and Nakamura watched as the bullet tore its way to the compound below.
Abu Ubaidah al-Masri, his eyes closed and mumbling the ancient text, had just begun to raise his head from the prayer rug. He was 2,273 yards from the muzzle of Garrett’s rifle. The 419-grain copper-nickel-alloy bullet was still sonic, so it arrived ahead of the sound of the rifle. It took al-Masri in the rib cage, clipped his right lung, shredded his heart, and exited his torso after tearing through his left lung and opening a gaping wound in his left side. The round miraculously hit no bone, so it passed through him damaging only soft tissue, but that internal damage was massive. He exhaled audibly, involuntarily, and remained prostrate while the others had come to the upright prayer position. By the time the echoes of the shot began to rumble down into the valley, Abu Ubaidah al-Masri, a young Muslim extremist whom Osama bin Laden had personally groomed for future leadership in the cause, was now a martyr.
Garrett Walker knew al-Masri had been hit and assumed it had been a fatal shot. While he broke down the big rifle for travel, Stan Nakamura watched the confusion in the compound below. Men with beards and turbans scrambled from their prayer rugs and ran for their weapons. A few of them ran for their cell phones, and that’s what the SEALs worried about. The men below could not get to them but those that they were calling, might. Once the SEALs were ready to move, they’d be heading away from the compound in the opposite direction. It was the security elements that al-Qaeda now had scattered across this and other mountain ranges who could move to intercept them as they traveled to their extraction point. Within a matter of seconds, the four SEALs were kitted up and ready to head out. Nakamura watched as two mujahideen fighters dragged the lifeless body of al-Masri inside, a broad swath of dark blood tracing the route over the stone courtyard.
“He’s history, Senior Chief. It’s a clean kill.”
“Roger that. Let’s move.” Garrett Walker’s concern, now that the shot was taken, was to get his team safely away and out of Pakistan.
It took them fifteen minutes to clear the mountain pass behind them on a trail that had been tramped into the snow by smugglers and refugees. Once they cleared the fourteen-thousand- foot crest, they moved rapidly down the western slopes toward their pickup point. As they did, a dozen Taliban fighters, alerted by those at the al-Qaeda compound, moved to intercept them. They were well positioned and watched as the four SEALs hurried toward them; they were in a perfect position for an ambush. The American intruders were still a half mile away, but in a headlong flight down the mountain. In Nevada, a young second lieutenant recently out of the Air Force Academy was monitoring the SEALs’ journey on a satellite video feed. She was the Global Hawk’s controller. A moment later, she saw the Taliban squad move into position below them. She quickly called for her supervisor and armed the Hellfires.
“What’ve you got, Sally?”
“Major, it looks like some bad guys are setting up on that special missions unit in Pakistan. My bird is in position and armed. I’m ready to drop on your authorization.”
The major studied the video for a few seconds, then said, “You are cleared hot. Drop authorization granted; weapons free.”
The lieutenant slewed the laser cursor onto the group of enemy fighters and quickly received a tone from the warheads of the specially modified Hellfires. The missiles were tracking the laser spot. A moment later, one Hellfire dropped from the left under-wing pylon of the Global Hawk and began its descent. Two seconds later, a second Hellfire left the right pylon, following its brother down. Each in turn fired its rocket motor. The 2.6-second burn time accelerated the missiles to 1.4 Mach. The young lieutenant kept the laser curser on the enemy mujahideen, but that was not essential. The guidance systems of both missiles were now diving on a set of GPS coordinates on the ground. If for some reason they lost laser lock, they would fly to these precise coordinates.
“Sailor Two-Five, this is Control, over.”
Garrett Walker halted the file and keyed the transmit button in the stock of his M4 carbine. “This is Two-Five, Control. What do you have for me, over?”
“Hold your position. We have inbound ordnance on some bandits along your route, how copy?”
“Understand ordnance inbound; we are holding until further notice, Two-Five, out.”
Garrett and the other SEALs immediately dropped to the ground and took a fetal position, hands over their ears and breathing through their mouths. They’d all had experience with close air support in the form of bombs and rockets, and they knew to take the shock wave seriously. It took close to twenty-two seconds for the Hellfires to travel the eight miles from the Global Hawk to men on the ground. The Taliban fighters had split their element so half of them were on one side of the trail and half on the other. But the Global Hawk controller had been skillful enough to slew her laser from one group to the other just after the first impact. The two missiles bracketed the trail, roughly in the middle of each group.
“Nicely done, Lieutenant,” the major said. “Very nicely done.” The controller sat back, took a deep breath, and keyed her mic. “Sailor Two-Five, you are cleared to proceed. Believe we got them all, but stay alert.” As an afterthought, she added, “From where we sit, we’re rather removed from the action. Any chance for a BDA, over?”
“Sailor Two-Five proceeding and thanks,” Garrett replied. “We’ll do our best with the BDA. Two-Five out.”
The four SEALs moved off the trail to flank the site of the missile strikes and approached with caution, two moving and two in secure shooting positions. All they found were craters in the snow smeared with blood and dirt littered with clothing, boots, and weapons. Farther off the trail, they found two men still alive, one conscious and one not. They gave both a shot of morphine and left them for the cold to finish the work of the Hellfires.
On the way down the trail, Garrett checked in. “Control, this is Sailor Two-Five. Your battle-damage assessment to follow: two WIAs and ten plus KIAs—the former both terminal. Many thanks for your assistance. This group of swabbies owes you one, over.”
“Roger Two-Five. Good luck, Control out.”
It wasn’t long before Garrett heard the thump-thump-thump of the inbound 47. Moments later, they were making their way through a world of blowing snow from the rotor wash and finally saw the smiling face of the .50 gunner on the Chinook’s tail ramp. They had barely time to strap in before the big helo was straining for altitude as it headed back for the Afghan border and Jalalabad.
Back at the Air Force control center in Nevada, the major was reviewing the video of the operation. He carefully counted the mujahideen as they moved from the cover of the mountains to the ambush site. Then he turned to his second lieutenant. “Sally, you just rang up thirteen confirmed kills. How do you feel about that?”
She gave it a moment’s thought. “Okay, I guess. It’s one for the good guys.” Then she turned back to the console that controlled her drone, programming it for the next mission.
At the special operations base near Jalalabad, the command pilot had just cut power and the rotors began to coast to a stop. Garrett made his way forward to the helo’s cockpit.
“Thanks for the ride, Captain,” he called into the pilot’s ear.
“Our pleasure, Chief. Understand you smoked the dude.”
“That’s affirm. And the drone pilot took out quite a few more. Good day all around.”
The SEALs descended the rear ramp and made their way over to a small group of their teammates waiting with two extended-cab pickups. One man detached himself from the group and motioned for Walker to join him off to one side. Garrett saw a look of deep concern on his face.
“What’s up, J.D.? Something wrong?”
Lieutenant Commander John Dawson was the special missions troop leader and the officer in charge of this detachment. Garrett and the other detachment SEALs had a great deal of respect for Dawson. He was a proven combat leader with more than ten years in the teams. Dawson paused a moment, hands on his hips, then met Walker’s eyes.
“Senior, there’s just no good way to do this, so here it is. Your brother Don was killed this morning. He died in a firefight just outside of Mazar-e Sharif. ” He paused and put a hand on his senior chief’s shoulder. “I don’t have all the details, but it seems he and some of his Afghan commandos were clearing a building when he caught a stray round—went just under the lip of his helmet. There was nothing that could be done; he died instantly.”
Another SEAL appeared behind him. “Let me take that for you, Senior,” he said as he took the rucksack off Garrett’s shoulder. Garrett made no move to stop him. He dropped to one knee, holding his M4 rifle to steady himself.
Don was with SEAL Team Five, working with the Afghan special forces. They were in frequent e-mail contact, and Don was very excited about the progress of his Afghans. He called them some of the best counterinsurgency fighters he’d ever worked with—true brothers-in-arms. The record of the Afghan Commandos and their SEAL advisors was impressive. Don was a first class petty officer on his sixth combat rotation—his third to Afghanistan. The last SEAL killed in action had been close to six months ago. This was all wrong; things in this armpit of a nation were supposed to be getting better. Garrett felt sick to his stomach. Dear God, why Donnie? This can’t be happening! Not Donnie!
Dawson knew there was nothing to say to ease Garrett’s pain, and he had the good sense not to try. It took time to absorb news like this; it was an all-too-familiar occurrence, but no less an easy one. “I’ve got you space on a flight from Jalalabad to Kabul where they are taking him. From there we’ll get you both to Kuwait. You can take your brother home from there. Frank,” he said to the SEAL holding Garrett’s ruck, “stay with him.” Then, to the man kneeling with his head down, he said, “When you’re ready, Garrett, I’ll take you to the air base at Jalalabad—get you on your way as soon as possible.” He wanted to say something else, but what? He turned and walked away.
The journey of Don Walker from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Little Rock, Arkansas, was complicated but not difficult. The armed forces of the United States are bureaucratic and often inflexible, but when it comes to the repatriation of their combat dead, they are highly efficient—almost benevolent. Garrett had been detached on emergency leave to escort his brother back home. As it worked out, the C-130 carrying just the two of them landed at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait barely an hour ahead of the C-17 that was to take them partway home. It had come from Kandahar with three other American servicemen on their final trip home. Garrett rode in the back of a pickup with Don’s coffin to join the three other fallen warriors aboard the C-17 bound for Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Upon landing there, Don and Garrett left by military ambulance for the commercial terminal. Garrett watched as his brother’s flag-draped casket was loaded into the belly of a Lufthansa Airbus A380 with considerably less ceremony than had been given him on the American bases. The Air Force ambulance dropped him at the departure gate, and he joined the familiar airport queues, first at the ticketing counter and then in the security screening lines. Late that afternoon, they were over the North Atlantic on a great circle route for New York’s Kennedy Airport.
As Garrett and Don flew over Ireland, a casualty assistance officer and a Navy chaplain drove up the lane to the Walker farm. There is no easy way to tell parents that their son is coming home in a box. It is official policy, when possible, to notify the survivors, in this case Don’s parents, at the same time. For the several minutes that it took to summon Russell Walker in from the fields, Polly Walker sat alone in her parlor, agonizing silently as she wondered which of her Navy sons was dead—Garrett or Don. When Russell Walker finally arrived, he slowly entered the room with hesitant steps. He took his wife’s hand, and they bravely sat together on the divan by the Franklin stove while the chaplain spoke in a low, calm voice. He told them that the day before, a half a world away, their youngest son was killed in a firefight somewhere in northern Afghanistan. They were also told that their other SEAL son, Garrett, was accompanying Don on the trip home.
The day following the chaplain’s visit, Garrett and Don arrived. Garrett delivered his brother into the care of the county funeral home director, a man they had known most of their lives, he then continued on to the family farm to see his parents. It was the first time in more than a decade that Garrett Walker had been home.
Carroll County lies in northwest Arkansas along the Missouri border. Nestled in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, its rolling hills are a gentle blend of oak and hickory with a few cultivated stands of white pine. Where the land allows, there are small tracts of soybeans and sweet corn. Carroll County, with towns like Berryville, Green Forest, and Blue Eye, had not kept pace with the rest of the nation. It was one of those few, isolated pockets of small-town America where the people all know one another, and it was not unusual for a neighbor or local resident to discipline a child who was not his or her own. They also took a collective parental pride in the success of a local boy or girl. The news of Don Walker’s death spread quickly, and the county mourned as one. There were four Walker boys, no girls, and they had been a spirited crop of corn-fed farm kids. They were Russell and Polly’s boys, but over the years the community had also participated. The Walker boys were all gifted athletes. For most of the nineties, there was hardly a year when at least one of them had not been a standout on the Carroll County High School football and basketball teams. That’s how they measure youth in Arkansas, though all of them had been exceptional students as well. The tragedy of Don Walker’s death spread well beyond the small, weathered two-story home on the Walker farm.
For two days, Garrett, along with his two brothers, stood alongside his parents as they received a steady stream of extended family and friends. All had their favorite childhood or high-school story about Donnie Walker, the youngest and probably the most likable of the boys. The refrigerator, freezer, and pantry were overflowing with casseroles and covered dishes. The abundance of food was rotated around the drop-leaf table in the dining room, and any spoilage was later fed to the hogs. Rural folks bring food to a bereaved home like Sicilians bring envelopes with money to a wedding. It is a gesture of respect and condolence. Don’s death aside, it had been an especially difficult two days for Garrett. When Garrett Walker left abruptly many years earlier, he had not remained close with the family as had the other boys, only visiting once in the past ten years. Brandon and Don returned home whenever they could, for Thanksgiving and Christmas, or for a few days during bird-hunting season. Jim Walker, now the youngest, remained in Carroll County near his folks after graduation. Garrett managed some time alone with Jim, but he and Brandon avoided each other.
The night before the burial service, Garrett managed to slip away to a tavern in the neighboring Boone County. He needed to be alone. So much family after so long an absence had made him uneasy and restless. He felt like a stranger in a not-entirely strange land.
“Scotch, neat, and make it a double,” he said as he slid quietly onto one of the bar stools. It was half past ten, but there were a surprising number of late-night drinkers for a weekday. Work was sometimes scarce in northern Arkansas, and most bars cashed unemployment checks. The bartender gave him a second glance and moved down the bar. He knew most of the people who came into his roadside tavern, and most were locals and beer drinkers. Garrett looked around the bar. It was like a thousand others scattered around the South and Midwest.
At times during the last couple of days, he reflected, it was as if he had never left Arkansas. Other times, he felt like a total outsider. This part of the country, the people, even this bar—all were frozen in time. There were subtle changes; when he was growing up here, kids wore their baseball caps with bills forward and their jeans tight. Now it was just the opposite. Some styles might have changed, yet they were still country folk, mild-mannered and easy to be with, and he found this curiously reassuring. For the last sixteen years, his world had been one of constant change and violence. Over the years, Garrett had lost most of his soft drawl, but he felt it easing its way back into his speech, almost against his will. The bartender set the drink in front of him. It was a generous pour.
“You one of them Walker boys, aren’t you?”
“That’s right,” Garrett said as he nodded his thanks. He’d forgotten just how confining it was to be known as one of the Walkers, but that was how he had grown up.
“Real sorry to hear about your brother. He was a heck of a ballplayer, but then I guess you all were.” Garrett smiled patiently. “Now, which one are you? Yer the one that’s in the Navy, too, right?” Garrett forced another smile and again nodded. The bartender lingered self-consciously for a moment, then said, “Well, it was just a damn shame to hear about it, that’s for sure.” Garrett laid a twenty on the bar, but the bartender pushed it back to him. “Yer money’s no good here this evening.”
He then moved down the bar to service two empties from the tap behind the counter. Garrett sipped his scotch in silence, sorting through old memories. His family, the farm, this rural backwater—they were a part of him, but a part of his life that he had sealed and stored away. Had it not been for Don’s death, he might never have come back again. Don had been his link with the past. As Navy SEALs, they spent a great deal of time overseas, but their paths occasionally crossed in San Diego or Norfolk. “Mom sends her love,” Don would say, or “Dad wants to know when you’ll be coming home.” Don was always after him to take some leave and visit the folks. Well, little brother, he reflected bitterly, you finally got me to make that visit home.
Garrett had already put Don’s death behind him—quietly and reverently, as if his brother’s life had been the treasured photograph of a childhood sweetheart who had been killed in an automobile crash. He’d thought a great deal about his brother these past few days. The grief that had nearly overwhelmed him when his troop leader told him Don had been killed had quickly given way to understanding and appreciation. Don died with his boots on; he had lived the life of a warrior and had died as one. Only those who routinely risk their lives and experience death around them truly understand this. They were in a dangerous business, but that was by choice. Garrett smiled to himself at the thought; Don had been just as addicted to the adventure, the danger, and the rush of combat as he was. Garrett had the opportunity to meet briefly with Don’s platoon officer who had escorted Don from Mazar-e Sharif to Kabul. The officer summed up the best that could be said of a brother SEAL: He died in combat, and he died well. Perhaps it’s only of comfort to someone like myself, or someone like Don, but it is very important for a man to die well. It’s the last thing we do.
Garrett was on his second drink and was recalling a funny story that one of the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, or BUD/S, instructors had told him of Don’s exploits in SEAL training. Garrett remembered trying to talk Don out of joining the Navy or at least finishing college and becoming an officer. Yet he had been secretly pleased when Don came through training and joined the teams as an enlisted man like himself. There was good duty for an enlisted man in the Navy SEAL teams—good duty if you liked the challenge of special operations combat and being away from home a great deal. Or, if you were like Garrett Walker, the teams were your home. Don had excelled in the difficult SEAL basic training, and the instructors didn’t pull their punches just because he had a brother in the teams. However, Don didn’t sign up to be like his older brother; he had always loved the water and was an experienced diver long before he became a SEAL. SEALs lived with the ever-present prospect of death. While news of a fallen brother never came easy, most had, like Garrett Walker, conditioned themselves to hold on to the sweetness of the memory rather than to dwell on the loss. It’s a warrior thing; when a warrior dies, the essence of his life lives on with his brother warriors. With Don, as with others who had gone before him, he was still with Garrett, and with his platoon mates still deployed in Afghanistan.
The spell was broken when a man at the other end of the bar escorted his mug of beer down to where Garrett was seated. “Ah heard that it was yer brother who was kilt by them terrorists over in I-rack. Son, Ah was gawd-awful sorry to hear about that.”
Garrett didn’t bother to correct the man. He looked to be near his father’s age, but it was hard to tell. There was a John Deere cap perched on a coarse thatch of gray hair, and he had the watery blue eyes and ruddy complexion of a steady drinker. He wore wrinkled cotton trousers and a flannel work shirt buttoned up to the collar. There was a small brass American flag pin clipped to the front of his cap.
“Thank you,” Garrett replied.
“Y’know, I never knew my daddy ’cause he was a marine and got kilt at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. By Gawd, it’s maybe time we done something about them furriners that think they can fool aroun’ with America. They attack our cities, and now there’s all this bidness about their atomic bombs in Pak-ee-stan and I-ran. Yessir, maybe it’s about time for us jes to bomb the livin’ shit out of them. By the way, mah name’s Dallas Hacker,” he announced as he extended his hand.
Garrett looked hard at the man and was struck by the contrast between this American, who considered himself a patriot, and his dead brother. How did he tell this well-meaning redneck that Don had died fighting alongside some very capable and brave Afghan commandos, men both he and Don called brothers-in-arms? It always surprised him at just how quickly these prejudices could be fanned to life, especially after 9/11. For a moment, Garrett was tempted to try to explain that there were only good and bad men, not Iraqis or Afghans or Arabs or Russians—no them and us. But he had long since given this up, especially with civilians who could never quite grasp the bond one warrior could feel for another. Still, he was always fascinated that it was usually the warriors, men like Don and himself, who understood that it was the character of the man, not his nationality, skin color, or ethnicity, that mattered. Perhaps, he mused, that’s why Don and I chose to be in uniform; we could appreciate the worth of a man and the purity of a warrior, more than a Dallas Hacker could ever understand.
“Dallas, I’m Garrett Walker,” he said, taking the man’s hand firmly, “and I want to thank you very much for your kind words.” With that, he tossed down the remainder of his drink, pushed his twenty across the counter to the bartender, thanked him for the drinks and walked out.
A low-hanging sun was just starting to burn the frost from the tall brown grass, and there was still a bite in the air. The bare hardwood forests held a light mist close to the gently rolling hills, broken only by a few fallow bean fields in the low-lying areas. Rural Arkansas, especially here in the high valleys that swelled to meet the Ozarks, was a lush country of dramatic beauty, but December was not its best month. Don wouldn’t have minded, Garrett thought. He’d have been able to fade into that dense thicket of oak just beyond the cemetery plot and come up with a rabbit or a fox, maybe even a deer. But as good as Donnie had been in the woods, he had been even better in the water. Garrett himself had his own reasons for becoming a Navy SEAL, but Donnie had had a real love affair with blue water. For some reason, landlocked young men flocked to the SEAL teams, more so than those who grew up on the coasts. Perhaps the restless action of the ocean surf had a special magic for those who had only known freshwater lakes and streams.
Garrett knew that if he had only Don’s wishes to consider, he’d have buried his brother at sea. He was closer to the blue ocean than to Arkansas. Nonetheless, Garrett brought Donnie home to Carroll County because he knew what it would mean to his parents. The Walker home was a ninety-acre truck farm that barely kept food on the table. Russell and Polly Walker were good farmers, but their best crop had been their sons. Perhaps this was as it should be—dust to dust. As he looked across the small cemetery to an adjacent field, still raw and scarred from the fall disking, he decided, I’m not sure just where home is for me, but it’s sure not here. When my time comes, I’ll want to sleep with the fishes.
“You ready, Momma?”
She nodded without speaking and took her husband’s arm. Polly Walker was a tall woman, rawboned but with a gentle cast to her features. Garrett marveled at her. She worked alongside her husband day in and day out on the farm, but she somehow retained the personal grace and composure of a banker’s wife. Russell Walker, on the other hand, was as brown and wrinkled as a walnut and as hard as cured leather. Beneath the rough exterior, Garrett knew his father was not as strong as the sad woman who clutched his arm. Garrett knew his mother’s heart was breaking, but she carried herself with tragic dignity. A large throng of people waited near the open grave to pay their last respects. This was not the overflowing crowd that had gathered at the church for the memorial service, but a large gathering nonetheless. Garrett followed his mother and father up a gentle rise from the church to the burial site.
The Reverend Jackson, or Father Jack as he was known to his parishioners, had baptized all the boys, admonished them for their youthful transgressions, and prayed for their souls on Sunday. Now he had to bury one of them. He was a stern, hardworking, compassionate country preacher. Father Jack was not one to carry on about the celebration of life or God’s greater plan in which we all play a small part. One of his flock had been taken too soon, and he was not happy about it. In a short eulogy that was perilously close to blasphemy, he allowed that God in His infinite mercy had sure better known what the hell he was doing when he called home a fine young man like Donnie Walker. Father Jack’s words were short, to the point, and reflected the pain and sense of loss that they all felt. As Don Walker was lowered into the rich Arkansas dirt, two sailors in dress-blue crackerjack bell-bottoms lifted the American flag that draped the casket and slowly began to fold it. It was a ritual as old as the republic itself.
They were a little clumsy in the performance of their duty. These two Navy men were not ceremonial sailors pressed into service from some nearby Naval Reserve unit. Both had several rows of combat decorations and wore gold SEAL devices on their breasts. They were tough men with a stern look to them; they were warriors from a sister SEAL team of Don Walker’s. When they were finished, they handed the blue triangle with white stars to an officer, who grasped it in the prescribed manner—one hand flat on top and the other flat on the bottom. Then he pivoted and formally presented the flag to Polly Walker.
“On behalf of a grateful nation and a proud Navy,” he said in a low, clear voice, “I present this flag to you in recognition of your son’s honorable and faithful service to his country.”
Polly Walker took the flag and clutched it to her breast, while her husband lowered his weathered face. Garrett put his arm around his mother while Jim Walker took his father’s hand. Brandon and his wife sat just behind them with their heads bowed sharing in his parent’s grief. The officer stepped back and saluted, the sun glinting from the SEAL pin on his chest. Across the gravesite, six more SEALs held their M4 rifles at the ready, pointed toward the heavens.
“Salute our fallen brother!” the officer called out. “Ready!”
“Aim, fire!” Bang.
“Aim, fire!” Bang.
“Aim, fire!” Bang.
Then a bugler sounded taps. He stood well away from the burial site, so the notes from the horn reached the gathered mourners just a fraction of a second ahead of the first echo from the nearest hill. The bugler knew his craft and held every phrase of this last call until each reverberated tone found its way into the hearts of those gathered at the open grave. When the last note perished in the cold air, the silence was deafening. “Taps,” when delivered by an accomplished bugler, is cold and beautiful and final.
As the last mournful echoes dueled across the hills and died away, the officer snapped away his salute. He executed a smart right face and was about to withdraw. Then he turned back to the bereaved couple and dropped to one knee. He placed one hand on Russell Walker’s knee and another on Polly’s arm.
“I know there is little I can say at a time like this. Your son was a fine man. I was privileged to know and serve with him.” He paused and bit his lip, trying to say what he felt in a manner these farm parents would understand. “He served well, and he died a hero. Several of the men with him on that last mission would not be alive today had he not fought so well. He . . . he was a very brave man. Our commodore and Don’s commanding officer both send their sincere condolences. We in the teams who knew and served with Don will miss him a great deal.”
With that, the Lieutenant Commander Don LeMaster stood and again saluted the grieving couple. He then joined the two flag tenders behind the six other SEALs who stood with their M4s at the order arms. All were from SEAL Team Three in Coronado, California. LeMaster was the executive officer at Team Three but had served with Don Walker on a previous combat tour. He was one of his former platoon officers. Don’s teammates with Team Five were all still on deployment. It was the duty of the non-deployed teams to see to the funeral needs of their fallen brothers.
Father Jack closed the ceremony, inviting those gathered to join the Walkers at the wake, which was to be held in the basement of the church. Wakes were traditionally held at the family home, but in anticipation of a large gathering, the church basement had been pressed into service. Friends and relatives had arrayed mounds of homemade dishes on cloth-covered card tables in preparation for the occasion. There was an ample supply of scalloped potatoes and creamed corn. Out back in the church maintenance shed, Ball jars containing a smooth, clear liquor waited on the shelf. Father Jack allowed no drinking in the church, but he had been known to join the menfolk for a quick taste in memory of a departed soul. By early afternoon, the mourners were making their way to their cars. The SEALs in their dress blues waited by two rental sedans. Finally, the remaining three Walker boys escorted their parents down the front steps of the church. Polly Walker saw the waiting men in uniform and looked to Garrett. He, too, was now in dress blues.
“You’re not coming with us back to the house.” It was not a question, nor was there censure in his mother’s voice—only disappointment.
“No, Mom. We have a flight to catch this afternoon out of Fayetteville. There’s nothing more I can do here, and I have to get back to my unit—back to my men.”
After a long moment, she stepped forward and rose on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. As she did so, she whispered in his ear. “You need to get past this, son. You know . . . we are all still family.”
Garrett understood, yet he could not meet her eyes. “I know, Mom, I know.” He turned to his father, who looked small and very frail. “Good-bye, Dad,” he said offering his hand. “Take care of yourself.”
“I’ll try, son.” There was an unsure, distant look in his eyes. “Come back when you can. Maybe this summer, and we’ll do some bird shooting.”
“Thanks, Dad. Maybe I will.”
His two brothers stood next to their father. Jim was dressed in an ill-fitting sport coat, plaid shirt, and knit tie. He needed a haircut, but that did little to degrade his strong features and soft brown eyes. Now that Don was gone, he was the baby of the family. Brandon was a little taller than Jim. He had a smooth, polished look. The expensive, conservative suit and wool topcoat would not have been conspicuous had he been attending a burial service in San Francisco or New York.
“Look after them,” he said to his brothers, and turned and walked quickly toward the waiting SEALs. Brandon watched him go without a word. Garrett had almost reached the other SEALs when Jim caught him by the arm.
“That’s it? You’re going to leave it like that?” Garrett did not respond. “What the hell’s the matter with you, anyway?” Jim continued.
“It’s not your affair, Jim. Stay out of it.”
“The hell it’s not. He’s your brother and so am I; you’ve only got two now, you know.”
“God damn it, Jim, leave it be. It’s got nothing to do with you.” With that he turned away and joined the men in uniform who were waiting for him. He was absorbed into the group, which quickly began to swarm into the two sedans. As Garrett slid into the rear seat of the lead car, the officer behind the wheel turned to him.
“Senior Chief, if you need some more time here, I can authorize it.”
“Thanks, XO, but it’s time for me to get back to my men. We have another month on this deployment. I want to see them through the tour and get them safely home.”
Lieutenant Commander LeMaster started to say something, but the grim expression on Garrett’s face told him he would be wasting his time. As the two cars eased away from the church, Garrett could see his brother Jim with an arm around each of his parents, helping them along the access road to their car. Walking behind them was his brother Brandon. His wife was a tall, attractive woman wearing a long coat pulled up tight around her neck and holding on tightly to Brandon’s arm. It was obvious that she’d been crying, yet there was a certain dignity and distinction to her features that emerged through the sadness. A gust of wind tugged at her rich, dark hair and she looked up. She and Garrett were able to exchange a brief glance before the car sped away.