Sergeant Kira Duval's earpiece rang with the warning from Army Captain Aaron Michelson, the Special Forces A team leader. The night was black and an RPG exploded right in between the two Humvees they were riding in. The twelve-person team halted and all hell broke loose.
Kira exited the vehicle, hearing the hollow thunk of another RPG being fired in their direction. She heard more orders in her earpiece as she threw herself on the muddy Afghan ground, hands over her head, mouth open.
The night erupted into red, yellow and orange flames as the second RPG hit the first Humvee, which Aaron was in. She wanted to scream, but the blast lifted her off the ground, hurling her several feet, and she started rolling to minimize the impact. Keeping her mouth open to equalize the pressure between her lungs and the outside air so they wouldn't melt into jelly, Kira had the M4 strapped in a harness across her chest. She fell hard on her side, the weapon jamming into her rib cage, making her cry out.
Another explosion erupted. Her eardrums were pounded. The pain in them caused her to grunt. The shouts, screams and orders roared into her head. She saw dark shadows exiting her Humvee, the other four men trying to escape and run for cover.
Someone jerked her up by the shoulder of her uniform harness, dragging her along, heading for a group of shadowy rocks. Gasping, Kira struggled and then lunged to her feet with the help of Sergeant Garret Fleming, who was at her side. He was screaming into his mic for the four operators, ordering them to get to the safety of the rock fortress just ahead of them.
Another RPG was fired. AK-47 fire was like a fusillade slamming into the escaping Special Forces survivors. Kira didn't have time to cry. The first Humvee was twisted metal, flames roaring into the dark sky, sending long, dancing shadows across the muddy soil. She slipped, but Garret kept a tight gloved hand on her uniform, keeping her on her feet as they raced three hundred yards to safety. They had to get cover or they were all dead.
Her mind spun. There had been six men in that first Humvee. Had any of them made it out? She heard Garret yelling into the mic for Captain Michelson, but there was no answer from their leader. Oh, God! She'd lived with this team for three years. Each of these men were like beloved brothers to her. They couldn't be dead. The just couldn't!
Sobbing, tears burning in her eyes, Garret suddenly went down. She heard him curse. He released her shoulder, sending her spinning and falling to the left of him. Bullets were digging up mud all around them, geyser spouts flung into the air. They were not only ambushed but surrounded on half of the area where they were scrambling to find cover. Landing hard on her knees, she twisted around, the mud making everything slippery. Kira saw the shadows of two other A team members running in their direction. Bullets mowed them down. Screaming, Kira lunged for Garret, who was grabbing his left leg, blood spurting from his calf.
Just as she reached Garret on her hands and knees, a second bullet struck him in the head. He suddenly collapsed, lifeless, on the ground.
No! I love him! You can't kill him! You can't!
Kira grabbed Garret's shoulder. The man was six foot two inches tall, two hundred and twenty pounds without counting the seventy pounds of gear he wore on his body. Jerking at him, she managed to get to her feet. Adrenaline gave her the strength of two men and she hauled Garret behind the rocks that stood five to ten feet tall in a semicircle around them. She called for their 18 Delta medics. No answer from either of them. There were two on each team. Were they both dead?
Gasping for breath, Kira knelt down by Garret, seeing the blood pouring from his calf. With shaking hands, she pulled off the tourniquet he kept on the epaulet of his left shoulder, quickly fashioning it around the upper part of his right calf. Yanking it hard, she stopped the bleeding on his leg and tied it off. Hauling the M4 off her shoulder, she took a position at the end of the rock pile.
Her earpiece came to life as she heard Warrant Officer Ethan Torrence radio for Apaches to come help them. She heard him calling off the coordinates, asking any black ops in the immediate area to race to their aid. Kira wasn't aware of any other friendlies who were around their sector. She sighted her M4 against the rock, firing at the muzzles of the AK-47s spewing out death into their compromised position. Her breath was coming in huge, ripping gulps and sobs. The tears stopped and she huddled in a kneeling position, continuing to slow fire and take out Taliban who were in the rocks across the road from where the Humvees had been attacked.
She saw another of her brothers go down, slammed forward by several bullets. He was so far away that she couldn't get to him. The superior Taliban force would kill her if she exposed her location again. Throwing a glance behind her where Garret lay unconscious, Kira didn't know if he was alive or dead. She saw black liquid alongside his head where he'd been struck by an AK-47 bullet.
Another RPG exploded between the rock fortress and the last Humvee. Kira knew the Taliban was trying to destroy it as well. She didn't know where the other four men were. Three were lying between that Humvee and her position. None of them moved. Her heart ripped in half. These were men who were married, had children, loved their wives. Oh, God, no!
Kira jerked awake, screaming, bathed in sour-smelling fear and sweat. It took her precious seconds to realize she was in a motel near the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Sweat burned in her eyes. Little whimpers tore between her compressed lips as she fought not to cry. She had to get a shower. Water always soothed her. Dazed, her white cotton nightgown clinging to her damp body, she stumbled into the small bathroom. The water was tepid coming out of the nozzle. How she wanted nearly scalding hot water. A hot shower always helped tamp down her anxiety from her PTSD. But not this morning. She scrubbed her hair and body, wanting to get rid of the nightmare that haunted her weekly. Sometimes more often, depending upon the stress she was under.
Today, she was a civilian, no longer in the US Army thanks to her wounds and PTSD. But her old commanding officer, General Barbara Ward, US Army, had ordered a meeting between them — in person. That had been two weeks ago.
Kira felt broken as she climbed into a black wool pantsuit with a white blouse. She liked General Ward, who had asked her to take part in a secret operation. Kira had become one of the twenty women volunteers from the Army to be trained by the Army Special Forces. She'd already passed the Special Forces schooling when she had been invited into the inner, top-secret operation. For three years she'd been assigned with her twelve-person A team in Afghanistan.
She'd loved those years, never regretted them. But nearly a year ago she'd lost ten of her brothers in that horrific nighttime ambush. Only one other man had survived: Sergeant Garret Fleming. And as much as Kira had tried to find him after she'd been transferred from Landstuhl Medical Center to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, to recover, she never had. Garret had literally slipped off the map. She had no way to find out where he was, how he was, or anything else. Hurting, Kira's mouth thinned as she pulled on a dark green parka. It was cold and rainy on this late October morning. She had no umbrella, but the hood would protect her. Her heart was heavy. Why was General Ward insisting upon seeing her in person? The Army had jettisoned her shortly after discharging her from the hospital. They had handed her her walking papers, separating her permanently from the military. Her PTSD was bad. She had nightmares. Anxiety. Insomnia. She refused to take medication because she hated how she felt during and afterward taking it. The adverse side effects were worse than suffering with the symptoms without taking them.
Was that what this meeting was all about? Kira left the motel room with her purse and headed to the parking lot. Her father had given her an old Ford pickup when she'd come home and it was her wheels now. The Pentagon was two miles away in the pall of gray, cold rain.
Barbara cared deeply about the women under her command. She'd helped create the concept and training to prove women were equals in combat alongside men. That they could do the job just as well. And Barbara had proven that, hands down. Kira felt warmth for the Army general. Barbara had never rejected her even after the military had. She called her every month to see how she was doing.
On her part, Kira had gotten so she dreaded the monthly check-in phone calls because they would be time to tell the general she'd been fired from another job. Why? Because her PTSD symptoms hiked up her anxiety due to the stressful demands of the job, and she'd either quit or get fired. Usually, she was summarily dismissed. Kira felt like the bottom had fallen out of her life, and now she was in free fall. No helping hand was going to shoot out of the darkness, grab her and stop her plummeting into nothingness. Depression haunted her like a good friend.
She parked near the Pentagon and climbed the shiny white stone steps leading up to the front entrance to the octagon-shaped building. Inside, Kira had to go through several layers of security before being allowed to find General Ward's office in the "E" Ring.
Kira was used to the questions, the tests and working with the general's staff who rated and watched each woman in the top secret test. But this was different, and it left Kira feeling wary and worried. Nothing else in her life had worked out. She'd fallen in love with Garret Fleming, never told him, but had spent three years with a man who made her so happy. And he had disappeared from her life.
She'd lost eleven other brothers, the men of her A team. It hurt so much to visualize each one of them, to remember them, their wives, their children and parents. Kira had loved those three years with her team. They'd been the best of her life until the Taliban ambush had killed everyone she'd ever loved, with the exception of her father, who was still alive.
Rubbing her forehead as she walked down the highly polished hall, Kira tried to ignore her depression. Her mother had been born with severe depression. She'd committed suicide when Kira was nineteen, unable to stand it any longer. And she had mild depression — a genetic predisposition for it, Kira supposed — brought to roaring life thanks to her PTSD.
Entering the office, Kira gave her name to a red-haired office assistant, a civilian woman named Trina Smith, in her forties. Sitting down, Kira waited outside the closed door that would lead to the general's office. What did she want? It couldn't be good, Kira surmised. The rest of her life was a certifiable disaster, an unending mess of bad news and being constantly fired from jobs. She was on welfare. All she had left was food assistance.
Trina stood and came around her desk. She smiled at Kira. "The general will see you now." She opened the door that led to a hallway. Kira was familiar with Rooms A and B. The assistant pointed to Room A.
"Just go in there, Ms. Duval. May I get you some coffee? The general has already ordered some Danishes for the two of you."
Why not? Kira nodded. "Yes, thank you, Trina. That's very nice of you."
The assistant stepped aside, gave her a warm smile. "Not at all. It's the least we can do for you ladies. I'll be back with your coffee shortly."
Kira removed her parka and left it on the chair, pulling her leather purse across her left shoulder and walking past the assistant. The door was half glass, pebbled so no one could see through it, with gold stenciling announcing: GENERAL BARBARA WARD, US ARMY, across it. Taking a deep breath, Kira tried to gird herself for more bad news. It was the only kind she ever got these days. Knocking on the door, she heard an "Enter ..."
General Ward was a powerful military woman, and one of the youngest women generals in the US Army at fifty-six. She was in her Class A dark green winter uniform. Kira entered and the general came around her huge maple desk, a welcoming smile on her face. Kira tried to return that warm, genuine smile. She was surprised as Barbara threw her arms around her and hugged her hello. When she released her, Kira felt her hopes rise as she looked into the tall woman's intelligent, narrowed green eyes.
"Thanks for coming, Kira," she said, gesturing for her to follow her to a long, polished table in the next room. "Come on, join me for breakfast?"
Following her, Kira felt deflated. At one time, before the ambush had occurred, she'd had that quiet, powerful confidence that radiated from the officer. Now, she felt anything but confident. Kira hated feeling hopeless. Looking toward the long table where she had sat before, she saw a plate of Danish rolls, two gold-rimmed porcelain plates, white linen napkins and flatware. Barbara pulled out the chair to the left.
"Sit down, Kira. Are you hungry?"
Kira sat down and placed her purse in her lap. "Not really, ma'am."
"Well, eat one anyway."
Trina brought in a container of coffee, cups and saucers, along with cream and sugar. She poured them both steaming cups and Kira thanked her, pulling over the coffee. It warmed her cold fingers. She hadn't brought gloves from home and didn't have money to buy a new pair.
The assistant left, and reluctantly, Kira used the aluminum tongs alongside the plate of Danishes and chose the smallest one possible. Her stomach was tied in knots and she had no desire to eat anything.
Barbara sat down, giving her a sharp look. In front of her was Kira's personnel file, opened to her quarterly assessment. She had monthly check-ins and, every three months, a physical. "You've lost more weight."
Grimacing, Kira sipped the black coffee, both hands around the cup. "I don't have much of an appetite anymore, ma'am."
"I see." Barbara studied her in the growing silence. "You've had it rough. This last report indicates you've run out of money."
Shrugging, Kira said, "I've still got a little left, ma'am. I make ends meet by translating Arabic on an Internet website. My father sent me some when I told him I got fired from my last job." That hurt to say it, too. Her father, Les, had wanted her to stay home to recover, but her nightmares, the screaming, was keeping him up half the night several times a week. Kira felt so ashamed of herself, and the fact that she couldn't stop or control them, that she left. Her father was a hardworking man running a lumber business and he needed his sleep. If it wasn't for his generosity, she would have starved by now.
"Is the stress and anxiety stopping you from holding a job, Kira?"
Nodding, it hurt to admit it. Shame, deep and invasive, flowed through Kira. Her stomach tightened until it felt like a boulder was sitting in it. Barbara had requisitioned the money for her truck trip, reserved her a motel room and given her a food stipend to get her here because Kira couldn't afford to do it on her own.
Kira forced herself to bite into the sweet apricot Danish.
"My placement team has a lead on a job for you," Barbara said briskly, choosing a lemon Danish. "One of the things my team is tasked with is to get returning black ops women who have PTSD long-term employment."
Kira knew that. The team had found five jobs for her in the past. She'd been fired from all of them. "Yes," she whispered, unable to meet the general's eyes. She'd failed her, too.
Reaching out, Barbara gripped her lower left arm and squeezed it. "I'm not disappointed in you, Kira. You have PTSD. You were one of two survivors in your team. You saved your fellow sergeant's life. And for your valor, you were awarded a Silver Star, not to mention a Purple Heart. You should be proud, not ashamed. You've done nothing wrong. You've served your country with courage and honor."
Hollow words. They only deepened Kira's sense of hopelessness. At one time, she had been the cream of the crop as far as women in combat went. She was good at what she did. And she'd never failed Barbara or anyone else in those three years. Her teammates admired and respected her. General Ward was pleased.