PRIVATE FIRST CLASS HILDA PAISLEY backed the eighteen-ton Stryker medical evacuation vehicle to the medical tent. She lowered the rear ramp and shut down the engine.
The combat ambulance handled easily with its four turning wheels up front. Since it was identical to the combat Strykers she had been introduced to in boot camp, the additional time in AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at Fort Hood, Texas, had allowed her to become more familiar with the machine. With all the bitching around her, she did not let on that she enjoyed driving the eight-wheeled monster.
“Hey, Paisley,” said the gunner. “Can you shoot that good, too?”
“You know I can, Pac-Man. We swap next time, right?” Steve Pacino’s nickname was too much fun for anyone to use his regular names.
“Yeah. Lucky all we had today was a broken leg.” His face became pensive as he slid down from the gunner’s station. “One of these times…”
“It’s what we signed up for.” Hilda wrote the instrument readings on the clipboard. “You go ahead. I’ll take it to the motor pool and see you in the mess tent. I want to talk to the mechanic about the noise on hard left turns.”
“OK. See ya.” He went around to the back to make sure that their wounded warrior was gone. Schwarz had gone with him. He tapped on the body of the Stryker and headed off to the living areas.
Hilda drove the ambulance to the motor pool maintenance tent. After pulling her long body out the driver’s hatch, she reached in for the clipboard, then slid off the machine to the ground.
A diminutive figure came around the back and stopped. She was barely the minimum height for enlistment, but it was all muscle and toned under the shapeless battle utilities.
“Delores! When did you get here?”
“Two days ago. You?”
“Last month.” They gave each other a warm hug. “Are you growing, girl?”
“Ha! Are you shrinking?” Delores eyed the ambulance. “Got a problem?”
Hilda explained the noise during hard left turns. Delores nodded, and took the clipboard.
“Leave it. We’ll check it in the morning. Are you free tonight?”
The two friends, “battle-buddies” in boot camp, went to their tents to change. Lots of catching-up since they had left Fort Jackson, South Carolina, to go to their respective AIT programs. Both women wore tan keffiyehs wrapped around their necks, a suggestion that Tongai Paisley had made to his daughter before she left home, and which Hilda had shared with Delores Sanchez. After the first sandstorm enveloped the camp two weeks ago, no one ever commented about the instant dust mask.
Sitting in the canteen over cold beer and the leftovers of supper, the two women attracted stares of different types. Hilda was already a legend in the camp, almost two metres of shining black power, with lapis-lazuli eyes that flashed when angered. Her friend came up to her chest somewhere, with smooth cocoa skin and large brown eyes that twinkled with humour. In boot camp, she was notorious for her stealth, sneaking into the drill sergeants’ tents on bivouac and stealing articles of clothing, which the recruits then paraded at the end of the field exercises.
“Can I join you?” The blonde PFC held her supper tray and three fresh beers. She placed one each in front of the others, while Hilda introduced Chrissy McLintock.
“What’s this I hear about ‘look, don’t touch’?” asked Delores, with an eyebrow raised at Hilda.
“Just something I said to someone once.”
“Paisley has been awesome,” said Chrissy. “She’d been here, what, three days? when she tossed her gunner head over heels for stroking her ear. We had no idea she could move so fast. He was on the ground with eighteen tons of Stryker screaming to a stop over his head.”
“Still bad-ass, eh chica?”
“Still touchy, too.” It had been less than six months since their drill sergeant had tried to rape Hilda during the last week of boot camp.[i]
“Not that one, because every medic in the battalion got the word not to touch me.”
“I mean, the officers.”
“A nurse captain was standing there and saw the whole thing. She had just held a sexual awareness briefing the week before I arrived, and that kind of stroke was one of the examples she used.”
With eyes shining, Chrissy went on, “but then there was the mortarman the next week. Tried to grab her ass while she was leaning over a stretcher.”
“I feel bad about that one,” said Hilda. “The chop behind me cracked his forearm.”
“Didn’t you get NJP or anything?” Non-judicial Punishment. Delores’ amazement was obvious.
“His sergeant wanted to write me up, but the nurse and our platoon sergeant talked him out of it.”
“What’s great about it,” said Chrissy, “is that harassment is way down everywhere. The guys know the officers won’t tolerate it.”
“Well, that’s good. I was worried about it. This is my first deployment.”
“Well, I don’t know about the motor pool, but it’s been better in the medical tents. And we still watch our butts.”
The next morning, Hilda walked to the motor pool to see about the Stryker. It was her day off, but she knew her platoon was going out the next day, and the medical team liked to keep everything familiar, including having their own ambulance. Pac-man and Schwartz had good-luck stickers on the walls inside the back. Hilda understood their little superstitions. Her father and grandfather had taught her that little things went a long way to help soldiers get through the horrors they might have to face on any day. Under his shirt, her father wore the Zulu charm that his father had passed to him. Hanging on the chain with his dog tags, it still held the flattened .22 bullet that had been intended for his chest. Hilda sometimes wondered if Tongai would give it to her when he retired.
Delores slapped the side of the Stryker. “Leaky ball joint collecting sand. Another day or two, it would have failed. We put in a new joint. You’re good to go.”
“Thanks, amiga. ”
“Come back safe, girl. Not done swapping tales with you.”
Giving her a thumbs-up as she slid into the driver hatch, Hilda started the engine and drove back to her platoon area.
Dust everywhere. Choking goddam dust. Not for the first time, Hilda wished that the ambulance were not required to be the last vehicle in a combat column, or to follow a phalanx of Stryker combat vehicles across the desert plain.
This was one of their most dangerous sorties. The platoon had stopped at the base of a small collection of ridges, positioned with their guns and rocket launchers to support the infantrymen climbing the hill. Hilda wheeled her ambulance with its rear ramp to the others, ready to bring in any wounded. Pac-Man had gone in with the grunts. Schwartz sat in the rear, waiting. Hilda sat by the machine gun, waiting. She was glad that they had an older model Stryker with a machine gun. She was not crazy about the rocket launchers being installed in the new ambulances. She liked to know exactly where her rounds were going.
The whistle of mortar shells broke the silence.
“Schwartz! Gun!” She shouted as the first rounds hit ground, blowing up big clouds of dust and dirt. He jumped out the back and climbed up to the machine gun.
Hilda dropped into her driver position. As she stomped on the accelerator, she flipped the switch to haul up the rear ramp. She drove toward the last explosion.
Sure enough, the next round landed where they had just been. Assholes, she thought. So much for our Geneva ambulance markings. Many were convinced that ISIS used the big red crosses as targets, but it made sense to aim for the ambulances. Or maybe the cross pisses them off. Should we use red crescents?
A Stryker combat vehicle fifty metres away exploded. Hilda saw the gunner thrown from the vehicle. She turned toward it. Schwartz gave her a thumbs-up that he understood and jumped off to check the soldier on the ground. He shook his head and climbed back aboard.
Hilda continued to drive toward exploding patches of desert. The other drivers were doing the same. She finally figured out how far they could shoot the mortars and drove to the edge of their range. They others joined her and set up a line, waiting for the infantry to come back.
A series of grenade explosions raised a column of smoke beyond the ridge. The mortar barrage stopped abruptly. The radio crackled.
“Come in. We got wounded.”
“Roger.” Hilda gunned the ambulance toward the base of the hills. The other Strykers also lined up to receive the returning troops.
Their platoon had only three wounded. Two walking with bleeding arms; Pac-man and another soldier carried a lightweight stretcher with an unconscious patient. Hilda could see he had a gut wound and a bad gash on his leg. Pac-man slapped the roof as soon as he had the three patients in the back. Hilda pulled up the ramp and gunned the gas.
To her right and left, two other ambulances were still loading. Soon, they would be racing for the medical tent.
They were half-way back to base, well ahead of the combat vehicles, when Hilda saw a column of dust ahead. A dozen Toyota Land Cruisers racing to intercept the returning ambulances. She recognized the flags on some of the trucks. Each had a machine gun on the back and a half-dozen men in the bed.
“Pac-Man! How are the patients?”
“Stable. What’s wrong?”
“Hostiles ahead. Get up here.”
Pac-Man crawled up to the front.
“Gunner or driver?” asked Hilda.
“Isn’t Schwarz up there?”
“Yeah, but…” They felt a thump as a round glanced off the side of the vehicle.
“You drive. I’m a better shot.”
Hilda swapped placed with Pac-Man and climbed up. Schwarz started strafing wildly. She slapped his helmet.
“Stop, Schwarz! They’re too far. You’re wasting rounds.”
“But they shot us!”
“Of course. But we can’t just blow lead into the desert. Here. Trade with me.”
Schwarz traded the machine gun for an M-16. She watched the two nearest Land Cruisers coming up toward either side. They were almost twenty metres away, when Schwarz ducked.
Hilda aimed a three-shot burst at the drivers of each Land Cruiser. The .50-cal rounds destroyed the windshields. Then she took out each machine gunner with a triple burst.
“Schwarz! Tell Pac-Man to hold it steady through the column!”
“Shit! You’re crazy, Paisley.” But he relayed the order on their comm link.
The first two trucks stayed behind as the men on board reorganized themselves. Hilda repeated the show with the next two pairs of Land Cruisers. Mentally, she counted her rounds. Twelve bursts. She could stop the rest of them with enough to fight a rear-guard chase if the Land Cruisers chose to follow the ambulance. For only a second, she wondered how the others were doing.
As expected, all six Land Cruisers gave chase, but by then the combat vehicles were coming away from the hill and engaged the Land Cruisers. The battle fell behind them.
Hilda called on the intercom, “Pac-Man! Slow down. The grunts have them. Schwarz, how were our patients? Could we take more?” She tilted her head to the battle behind them.
“Maybe three more ambulatory and two stretchers.”
“Okay.” She raised her voice, so Pac-Man could hear. “I say we ease back in case they need us.”
Pac-Man made a wide turn toward the battle. The Land Cruisers were racing to the north, pursued by four of the combat Strykers. None of the Land Cruisers made it home.
Hilda called the platoon leader on the radio. As the different Stryker vehicles checked in, she learned that they had four more wounded, three gunners and a driver. The other two ambulances were stopped. They had lost their gunners and drivers, and their third medic was in the back helping his crew mates and the other patients.
While Pac-Man drove by each of the combat vehicles with wounded, the company sergeant detailed drivers to the two ambulances to drive them back to base.
A small crowd had formed at the medical tent when the ambulance arrived. As Hilda, Pac-Man and Schwarz jumped out to help the wounded into the tent, applause broke out.
A second lieutenant walked up from the direction of the command tent and addressed Pac-Man.
“Private Paisley?” They handed their patients to the medics at the tent and turned around.
“Yes, sir?” said Hilda. He seemed surprised that she answered his question instead of Pac-Man.
“The colonel wants to see you. Follow me.”
Exchanging shrugs with her teammates, she fell in behind the officer.
Inside the command tent, a group of officers were gathered around a table with a 3-D model of the surrounding area. A speaker in the corner broadcast the chatter on the combat circuit. From it she gathered that the entire company was returning. Two dead and a dozen wounded, one seriously (the one in her ambulance).
The battalion commander, a broad-shouldered Black lieutenant colonel of about medium height, broke away from the group when she stopped at attention inside the tent.
“Private Paisley, we heard a running report on your gun battle with the ISIS trucks today.”
“Just trying to get our wounded back to base, sir.”
“Well done.” He looked at the major back at the table and grinned. “Did you know that the driver’s mic was keyed?”
“No, sir.” Oh, shit, what the hell did they hear?
“It was, and we heard an interesting stream of Arabic in the background.” A gentle titter ran around the tent. “Was that you?”
Hilda would have blushed if she could. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry.”
“I did not know you spoke Arabic.”
“No one asked, sir.”
“What was that?”
“Assorted curses on them, sir, and references to the porcine ancestry in their family lines.” Led by the colonel, the room broke out in hearty laughter.
“Where did you learn such colorful language?”
“My father, sir. He’s an Army linguist and thought I should know the language if I planned to enlist.”
“Smart man. I’m impressed.” The colonel looked at the major, who came over to them. “Where’s her company commander?”
“Still coming back in, sir. He’ll be here as soon as he checks his people.” The colonel accepted that with a nod.
“More to the point, Paisley,” he said, “is your shooting. The gunners in the combat vehicles gave us a running commentary. We heard you swap places with your gunner. Then take out the six trucks like an assassin on a mission. Do you know how many rounds you fired?”
“Thirty-six, sir. Twelve bursts.”
“You fight like a combat infantryman, Paisley, not a medic.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, sir. For obvious reasons, the Army wouldn’t let me enlist as an eleven-bravo.” Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) 11B denoted an infantryman.
“We’ll fix that someday, count on it.” He led a round of applause. Hilda hated the attention but ground her teeth in silence.
“You may go, Paisley. We wanted to see the Black Amazon in person.”
“Thank you, sir.” She did an about-face and marched out into the setting sun. Black Amazon? What the hell was that about?
Back at their living area that night, Hilda tried to relax from the day. Delores came over with a bottle of red wine from the package store. It was a pleasant change from the beer and soda in the mess tent.
“The colonel called me the Black Amazon.”
Delores took a sip of her wine. “Chica, I heard that the day I met you. Someone in the motor pool said, ‘I see you know the Black Amazon.’ I had no idea what he meant, but I think the whole base knows about you. Especially now.”
Hilda chose to drop it. “How’s our truck?”
“Just scraped paint and a long dent on either side. We might not fix it, just to make an impression.” Hilda smiled and clinked glasses with her.
“I hope we’re pushing them back. It was gutsy to push out in tents like this. Usually, we hole up in buildings and walled compounds.”
“The grapevine says that ISIS is seriously pissed. Some of the sergeants are worried about a retaliatory strike at the base itself.”
“Too bad they haven’t invented armoured tent fabric, eh?”
The familiar whistle and exploding thump of mortar shells snapped Hilda from a deep sleep. A klaxon alarm wailed. She slipped into her utilities and boots, grabbed her M-4 rifle and ran outside. Two tents were ablaze a hundred metres to her left. As she ran toward the medical tent, she saw the next volley of mortar shells walk toward the command tent.
At the medical tent, she met Pac-Man. They donned their helmets and comm gear and started the Stryker ambulance. Hilda took the gunner position and told Pac-Man to drive toward the last incoming explosion, behind the path. Schwarz ran up to them and hauled himself aboard.
“Where to, Paisley?”
“Hell, I don’t know, but we need to stay safe until someone checks in.” She found the company radio frequency and reported in. “Pac-Man, head for the gate, but stop about fifty metres short.”
Near the gate, Hilda and her team watched the combat vehicles rolling out to deploy in a line beyond the camp. A noise in the dark beyond the column caught her attention.
She swore in Arabic, “crazy jihadis. They’re coming in.” A suicide attack. “Pac-Man, point us at the walk-in gate.”
Just as he got the ambulance pointed at the small gate about a hundred metres beyond the main gate, the first Toyota Land Cruisers came crashing through it.
“Schwarz, tell them what’s going on. Pac-Man, get us closer.”
The ambulance roared into life. It was like picking off ducks at an arcade, coming through one at a time. Hilda disabled the trucks as they came through, leaving the foot soldiers to face the base personnel gathering at the pedestrian exit with their small arms. Hilda heard the Blackhawk helicopters flying out to the mortar positions.
In twenty minutes, it was all over. Hilda’s ambulance drove closer, joined by another ambulance from the medical tents. The MP’s rounded up two dozen ISIS fighters who weren’t wounded, and helped the medics secure the thirty who were. Sixteen trucks and two dozen bodies littered the entrance to the base.
Hilda’s team took their load of wounded jihadis back to the medical tent. While she acted as an interpreter and dressed wounds, the combat vehicles returned, empty-handed. The ISIS mortarmen had either died or killed themselves when the helicopters attacked their position.
Pink fingers stretched out across the sky as Hilda leaned on a pole of the medical tent. Her exhaustion matched that of the other medics and nurses in the tent. Everyone who only spoke Arabic was either asleep, dead, or resigned to silence.
Something undone nagged at her. She shrugged herself off and walked to the tent where the wounded Americans were taken. Inside, she found six beds with seriously wounded soldiers. Among the drip bags and hoists holding limbs, she found a still form that only filled half the bed.
The black eyes opened. They were glassy from the morphine, but the Puerto Rican smiled. Hilda looked around quickly and realized that all but one of the wounded were mechanics.
“Hit our sleeping tent,” said Delores in a small voice. She grimaced and reached for Hilda’s hand. “I was holding on to see you last before I go.”
“Thass awright, chica. You’re still my battle buddy. See? You’re here, just like always.” She squeezed Hilda’s hand harder, then relaxed with a long sigh. The eyes went blank, staring over Hilda’s shoulder.
“Nooo!” Hilda shouted. She fell to her knees and sobbed on the bed. A medic gingerly reached for her shoulders, but a nurse caught the movement and slapped his arm away.
“Don’t touch, remember?” They stood there, feeling the tears well up in their own eyes, as the Black Amazon mourned her best friend.
© 2021, JT Hine
Next week, the Freewheeling Freelancer will interrupt River Run 2017 to resume Breaking out 2021. Come on over!
Then come back here for more stories in two weeks.