Genre: Fiction – Adult
Author: Jonathan Raab
Publisher: War Writers’ Campaign, Inc.
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About the Book:
In FLIGHT OF THE BLUE FALCON (War Writers’ Campaign; July 2015; PRICE), a chewed-up Army National Guard unit heads to a forgotten war in Afghanistan where three men find themselves thrust into the heart of absurdity: the post-modern American war machine. The inexperienced Private Rench, the jaded veteran Staff Sergeant Halderman, and the idealistic Lieutenant Gracie join a platoon of misfit citizen-soldiers and experience a series of alienating and bizarre events.
Private Rench is young, inexperienced, and from a poor, rural, broken home. He’s adrift in life. The early signs of alcoholism and potential substance abuse are beginning to rear their ugly heads. He wants to do right by the Army, but doesn’t quite know who he is yet.
Staff Sergeant Halderman has one previous combat tour under his belt. He got out, realized his life was going nowhere, so re-enlisted to serve with the men he knew, and to lead the inexperienced guys into combat. He is manifesting the early signs of post traumatic stress, but is too focused on the upcoming mission to deal with it. He sees the Army for what it is—a big, screwed up machine that doesn’t always do the right thing—but he doesn’t think all that highly of himself, either.
Second Lieutenant Gracie is fresh, young, excited to be in the Army, and trying to adjust to the new to the military and his life as an officer. Although he faces a steep learning curve, he is adaptable and has a good, upbeat attitude. As he tries to forge his own path, he nonetheless turns to the experienced NCOs in his unit for guidance and support. He must continually make tough decisions that have no “right” or textbook answers. Yet these decisions are catalysts enabling him to grow in maturity, experience, and wisdom.
Preparation for combat is surreal: Rench is force-fed cookies by his drill sergeants. Halderman’s “training” is to pick up garbage in the blistering heat of the California desert for four days straight. Gracie contends with a battalion commander obsessed with latrine graffiti.
Once they reach Afghanistan, things really get weird.
FLIGHT OF THE BLUE FALCON is the story of three men who volunteer to serve their country. It’s about what it means to be a soldier, to fight, to know true camaraderie—and to return home.
This is a war story. This is their story.
Only the most unbelievable parts are true.
ONE: SAND HILL
Private Zachary Rench
Rench knew there was trouble coming.
His battle buddy, Private Arturo, had come bounding into Third Platoon’s bay, a sheen of sweat on his dark forehead, a look of terror in his brown eyes.
“Anybody five-foot-four or shorter,” he gasped, holding on to the door frame for support. Hot, humid, unforgiving Georgia air flowed into the bay, shattering the illusion of comfort provided by the air conditioners. They whirred with exhausted effort.
Rench, like the other privates in the bay, stared at him with indifference. Many of them shrugged and then went back to cleaning their M-16 rifles. Arturo wasn’t a drill sergeant, so they didn’t have to listen to him.
“Uh, okay,” Arturo said, standing up straight and sounding off with his best drill sergeant imitation. “Listen up, Third Platoon! Drill Sergeant Bond wants anybody five-foot-four or under down to the company training area.”
No one moved.
Arturo’s eyes bulged with desperation. Panic and anger crept into his voice. He ran his sweating hands over his waistline, wiping his palms on his gray PT shirt. His belly held a stubborn layer of fat that managed to linger on, seven weeks into the mad animal kingdom world of Basic Combat Training.
“Seriously, this is serious,” he stammered. “Seriously guys. Five-foot-five and under. Five-foot-six! Five-foot-seven! Come on guys, no kidding!”
Some of the braver privates, realizing that this problem was not going to go away (and knowing that, even if they didn’t go downstairs to meet some terrible fate, some terrible fate would inevitably come find them) and neither was Arturo, hastily reassembled their M-16s and began to move toward the open bay door.
The heat embraced them. They walked into hell.
Arturo’s eyes fell on his battle buddy, Rench. Private Zachary Rench was white, five-foot-six (or -seven, depending on how straight he stood up), with tired, dark brown eyes, and ears that stood a little too far out from his shaved head. At nineteen years young, he blended right in with the majority of dumbass privates interned at Sand Hill.
But you couldn’t always blend in. Sometimes, the day had your number. Sometimes, your number was fucked.
Rench sighed and stood up.
Seven privates from Third Platoon jogged down the winding concrete steps to the company assembly area below. Warm wind carried the scents of Sand Hill—cut grass, sweat, and fried food from the DFAC—through the open-air square.
The concrete radiated waves of shimmering heat. A mural of the infantry combat knife against a baby blue background was painted in the center. Around the edges of the mural, the cheap paint had begun to curl in twisted little fingers of frustration.
The seven privates fell into a straight line formation in front of three drill sergeants, who stared at them with a menacing disinterest. There were three cardboard boxes on the ground before them. The shortest drill sergeant spoke up first. His sunglasses reflected the golden rays of the sun reaching through the barracks’ towers. A withering scar ran along his left cheek to the edge of his lips.
“Privates, God has not been fair to you,” he said. His voice was the sound of a truck driving over gravel. “Life has been difficult. You have been denied much. Because you are short.”
Rench, standing at parade rest with his hands behind his back, his legs spread shoulder-width apart, and his eyes straight forward, didn’t understand what the fuck this was all about.
“Today, you get a chance to grow up,” the drill sergeant continued. As Rench’s eyes adjusted to the bright light of afternoon, he recognized Drill Sergeant Bond as the man speaking. A real nasty, hateful son of a bitch, who liked to force the privates to PT until someone passed out from exhaustion and the medics had to come in.
“Today, we will help you where God failed you,” Bond said, pushing one of the boxes forward with his desert tan boot. “Eat up.”
Bubble wrap and wax paper reached up from within the open cardboard flaps. Inside were small, brown, glistening cookies tightly packed in blue and pink plastic wrap.
“Eat the cookies, privates,” Drill Sergeant Bond said.
No one moved. Bond kicked the other boxes toward the line of frozen soldiers. He kicked them like he once kicked detainees, back on his first tour, back when shit was still fun. They weren’t allowed to call them prisoners in Iraq. They were detainees. You couldn’t kick a prisoner. But you could kick the fuck out of a detainee. But these boxes didn’t have hard heads and soft stomachs.
“This isn’t a trick, privates,” Bond said. “Go ahead and eat.”
The other drill sergeants chuckled.
The rank broke and the privates descended on the cookies like eagles descending upon field mice. Their hands, black with carbon from cleaning their rifles, searched for delicious, sugar-laden morsels to shove into their emaciated, feral mouths.
Rench approached the cookies slowly. Arturo stood with him, looking at him for support with a What the fuck should we do here painted on his soft brown face.
When Rench glanced up to see Drill Sergeant Bond’s eyes on him, he dropped to his knees and reached for a stack of white macadamia nut cookies.
The first few bites were wonderful. Sugar, fat, carbohydrates—all things that his underfed teenage body had been denied for weeks. He practically swallowed the first two cookies whole, and saw that many of the other privates had already finished entire stacks and were searching for more.
Rench pulled himself out of his sugar-euphoria and saw Drill Sergeant Bond looking at his watch. The relief and excitement Rench experienced when he took his first bite vanished, as he thought back to Bond’s words:
“This isn’t a trick, privates.”
Which meant, of course, that it was a fucking trick.
He nibbled a chocolate chip; he chomped on a peanut butter disc. The other privates started to slow down as their stomachs began to rebel against the sudden onslaught of sweetness.
Like a voice from heaven, Drill Sergeant Bond made his doomsday pronouncement.
“You have two minutes to finish these cookies.”
Rench’s heart leapt through his rib cage. The others froze. He wasn’t surprised, not really, but the other privates—stupid bastards—suddenly realized how screwed they all were. Privates were always screwed, no matter what.
“Go ahead, privates. Finish those cookies. But if you don’t finish in two minutes…”
More snickering from the other drill sergeants. Crossed arms and flat-brim campaign hats and clean uniforms. Hard faces with predatory smiles.
“You better hurry up,” one of them said. “Time’s a-wasting, assholes.”
The privates tore into the cookies with a new fervor, desperately choking down as many as they could as fast as their bodies would allow. Arturo gagged; Rench chomped into two cookies at once.
“One minute,” Bond said.
They had managed to clear one and a half boxes’ worth, but a whole other box remained, and there were broken stragglers scattered along the ground, their colorful plastic wrap twisted and discarded along the concrete like used condoms at a Wal-Mart parking lot.
“Thirty seconds,” Bond said.
Rench’s stomach twisted into a knot of pain and acid, and he swallowed back the urge to vomit. And yet, more cookies remained. And yet and yet.
The privates stopped eating. One private looked around, his face smeared with chocolate and grease, wondering how something so good had gone so fucked so quickly.
“You have failed,” Drill Sergeant Bond said. “There’s a ton of cookies left. I tried to help you out, privates. I tried to give you a leg up. But you did not listen. You have failed me and failed yourselves and failed the Army by not completing your mission.”
Labored breathing, gurgling stomachs. Running cadence echoed from far away, songs of war and death.
“Position of attention, move!” Bond barked.
All of the privates stood up, ramrod straight.
“Toe the line at the end of the CTA!”
The privates scrambled over to the edge of the assembly area, next to a wilting garden, and lined up.
“Ya’ll played sports before, right privates?” Bond asked, walking smartly over to them. His shadow loomed large.
“Fuck no, they ain’t played sports,” another drill sergeant piped in. “Look at these midget motherfuckers. Gay-ass motherfuckers. Ain’t none of them ever made a team.”
Rench stared out at the lined breaks in the concrete of the assembly area, evenly spaced, ten meters apart. He felt dizzy and his stomach grumbled in pain. He would have to be careful to avoid the brick columns that supported the barracks overhead. Smashing his face wasn’t on his list of things to do while he visited the great state of Georgia.
“You better run your asses off, privates,” Bond said. “Suicides, go!”
The privates groaned as they trudged forward, stopping at each line and returning back to the garden. Rench’s legs burned with lactic acid. Cookies and bile churned up into the back of his mouth, and he burped and farted with comical volume with every labored step. No one noticed; everyone else was too busy trying not to shit their PT shorts.
“Stop!” Bond hollered out. The privates skidded to a halt. The stench of sweat and shit lingered in the air. Someone was moaning. Someone else was mewling in half-words and mumbles.
“You have sixty seconds to…” Bond started. He looked up from his watch. “What is that noise? What the fuck is that noise?”
Rench’s body was frozen at parade rest. He wouldn’t allow himself to look behind him, to look at the private who shivered despite the heat, who sputtered despite his fear, who cried despite his pride.
Drill Sergeant Bond stalked over to the shuddering private.
“What—what the hell is your malfunction?” Bond demanded, his anger echoing off columns of brick.
“Drill Sergeant… D-D-Drill Sergeant…” the private said.
“You shit your pants, didn’t you?”
“Y-y-yes, Drill Sergeant.”
Rench closed his eyes, thanking whatever god there may be that it wasn’t him. This time.
“Hole-lee fuck,” Arturo said, despite himself. Bond whirled around. He was a flash of ACU camo and fingers and fists and spittle and rage.
“You! You and all the rest! Get upstairs to the bay, right now! You have sixty seconds, sixty goddamn seconds, to get your promasks, don them, and return to the start line!” He pointed a quivering finger toward the edge of the assembly area. The finger floated in front Rench’s right eyeball, which had begun to twitch.
I could probably bite it off before they could stop me, he thought.
“Go! Go, motherfuckers! Run!”
All of them—except for the private who had shit his black (now black and brown) PT shorts—scrambled toward the staircase. They bounded up, spilling over one another in a wave of flesh and stink.
Inside the bay, the other privates were still cleaning their rifles.
Rench ran to his wall locker, Arturo panting right behind him.
He spun the combination as fast as he could. Little white numbers smearing together. Cold metal. His gray PT shirt sticking to his back.
Rench dug through his rucksack for his promask. He found the green bag, faded from years of use by stupid privates like him, and stained with mud. He threw the strap over his shoulder and clipped the string around his leg.
“How much time we got left?” he asked Arturo, who slammed his locker shut, his own promask bag hanging from his hip.
“We should go.”
“We’re not gonna make it.”
“Does it matter? We were never gonna make it.”
“We should go.”
They ran toward the rear stairwell, careful to keep their sneakers away from the painted line that ran in a rectangle around the open bay, just a few feet shy from the bunks. Inside that rectangle was the “kill zone”, and anything that went inside was dead fucking meat.
The privates weren’t dead meat. Not yet. For some of them that would come later, on nameless streets in Iraq or lonely stretches of road in Afghanistan. But for today, they were alive, and it was good to be alive, even if you were just cleaning your M-16 for hours at a time or force-feeding yourself cookies or shitting your shorts in front of your drill sergeants.
Arturo and Rench heard Drill Sergeant Bond scream, “Time!” when they were one flight up from the exit. Arturo cursed and they bounded down the rest of the way to the company training area.
The private who had pooped himself had disappeared. Arturo and Rench were the first ones down. They ran to the edge of the garden and lined up while the others jogged down and filed in next to them.
“You were late, dicks!” Bond’s voice rasped and broke, as it often did when he yelled.
“Gas, gas, gas!” he said.
The privates popped open their cases and pulled out their promasks, donning the black rubber masks with practiced speed. Rench pressed his palm to the canister and inhaled. Condensation from his breath began to fade away from the plastic eyelets. He had a good seal.
“Five seconds!” Drill Sergeant Bond said. Rench and Arturo had managed to don their masks; the other privates weren’t so lucky. “You two,” Bond said, pointing to the dicks who still struggled with the straps of their masks. “You’re dead. Privates, the rest of you run the sprints, but carry your buddies. They’re fucking dead because they’re stupid and you’re all stupid because you couldn’t eat the cookies in time and you had to eat the cookies because you’re fucking short and your recruiter failed you because you’re so fucking short and he let you in the Army anyway. Being in the Army doesn’t make your dick bigger, morons. Small dick is for life.”
Drill Sergeant Bond paused to stare at the privates, their insect faces black and grotesque.
“Pick up your buddies and run the suicides. Go, go, go!”
The survivors picked up the prone bodies and limp limbs of their comrades, putting them in two-man carries that dragged the casualties’ feet along the ground. They pumped their legs and dragged their dead friends toward the lines in the concrete. First line. Back. Second line. Back. Third line. Back. Last line. Back.
“Back to the line!” Drill Sergeant Bond said. The privates rushed back to the edge of the garden. “Your idiot friends are alive again. Stand up on your own, dicks.” The dead privates came back to life. Everyone breathed heavily into their masks, their eye ports fogged over. Rench looked at the garden and saw a sunflower growing out of a pile of woodchips. He wanted to stomp the life out of it.
“All clear!” Bond said. The privates took their masks off, carefully replacing them in their carrying cases.
“Now you know I’m serious when I give you a mission, right?” Bond asked.
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!” they answered in exhausted unison.
“Good. So when I give you a task, you’ll complete it, right privates?”
“Yes, Drill Sergeant!”
“Good.” He glanced at his watch. “You have three minutes to finish the rest of the cookies.”
The privates groaned.
“Eat up, privates. Time mother-fucking-now.”
Rench suppressed the urge to vomit. He clenched his butt cheeks tight against a suspicious fart. He stumbled over to the cookies.
Sugar, chocolate, butter, and salt. They made mockery of his determination and willpower.
The drill sergeants smiled. The privates choked back vomit. Sweat dripped onto concrete. The sun set over distant green hills, and everywhere was beauty and misery.
Rench suddenly realized that coming here had been a mistake.