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Sown In Peace

By Joy Avery Melville

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Afghanistan ~ Forward Operating Base (FOB) ~ July 4, 2014

Heated words pinged against the outside wall of the port-a-john. Military Police Staff Sergeant Victoria Archer leaned, dipping her head, trying to catch the rapid torrent of dialogue. Why was the angry conversation in Dari at a U. S. FOB camp? Men’s voices. Too bad she was suffering brain-fog. If she’d only studied the local language more.
Spending a lot of time with children in the village at her last post, she’d traded some English for Dari. Ten-year-old Adiva had caught on fast, and one of her little sisters, Lina, hadn’t been about to let her get ahead.
Wait. I recognize that voice. One of the interpreters. A university graduate from Egypt. Pay attention, Tori. She shook her head, leaning toward the wall behind her. A grin tugged at her dust-crusted lips. Port-a-johns weren’t as soundproof as the latrines on stateside bases. Well, unless you don’t count the ones when in the field at Fort Hood. Different story with those. She’d have traded any of them for her private bathroom back in Three Rivers, Michigan. That would’ve been nice.
Tori, back from a forty-eight-hour convoy mission, had hurried to the latrine area as soon as she could leave the after action review, having obtained her post-mission assignment. The AAR had taken longer than normal with two jokers in their midst. She released her breath in a sigh. They’d have never gotten away with that stuff stateside. Even Lieutenant Colonel Nelson had been hard pressed to keep his features from so much as twitching. That shocked them all. She might have cut loose with a laugh, if her bladder hadn’t screamed for release. Yesakes. Not a pretty picture. Not to mention how physically depleted she’d become. Another two or three hours and I can rectify that by hitting the rack. Okay, Jesus?
One of the two voices outside changed decibels. Tori shook her head and hauled her wandering mind back. “Fuel.” He’d used the word fuel. The second was truck. She’d had no trouble recognizing that. Yup. Fuel truck. As many deployments as she’d experienced in the country of sand, rocks, and dust, she should have netted more than an occasional recognized term or phrase.
Okay. She knew a second one. Place. That much had penetrated the mush in her brain. A convoy crossing the base smothered the argument beyond her cubicle. Place? What came after place? Why would either of those guys have to place fuel trucks? No, that would put the word place out of order… even for Dari.
Tori stood and fastened her pants. If only she could get that other one pulled into the sentence. She readjusted her vest and Military Police brassard at her bicep and headed outside to the washing stand in the center of the latrine complex.
She glanced around. The guys had been behind the semi-circle of port-a-johns. I can probably find an excuse to—
“There you are, Tori-bow.”
Tori jerked and turned her head. Recognizing the MP approaching the washing station, she relaxed, accustomed to the nickname.
“You’ve got another hour of duty, don’t you?”
“I’ve got two hours. Why?”
“I was wondering if we could switch duty.” Tori’s battle-buddy and fellow military police officer, Coop, known to her superiors as MP Angela Cooper, scuffed her boot in the sand-covered rock at their feet, and her cheeks reddened.
“You realize the colonel stands at the door of HQ every time a convoy shows up. I’m going to be exactly where I’m supposed to be when those trucks roll in. Besides, I’ve got an issue I need to deal with before I can hit that gate.”
The soldier’s shoulders slumped. “Fine. Got it.” She did a half-turn.
Tori shook her head and scanned the area with a nonchalance she’d had to dredge up. No sign of the interpreters.
Without changing position, she spoke. “Oh, Coop. You might want to watch your back when you’re flirting with a specific somebody who will remain nameless for now.”
Angela shifted, walking sideways a few feet. “I’m careful.” Rapidly completing a pivot, she left.
“You definitely don’t need another reprimand,” Tori called before bending to finish rinsing her hands.
Going through the conversation she’d overheard while in the port-a-john, Tori knew there was an issue. What had those guys been yelling about? With wet hands, she removed her helmet, clamped it between her thighs, and roughed up the shortened layers of her thick hair.
Some women soldiers let their hair grow long, wearing it in a tight bun, but in the higher desert temperatures, Tori did what she could to keep as cool as possible. Caps or helmets, either one, were plenty hot enough without her thick, heavy mop.
She splashed her eyes then her cheeks with the tepid water, hoping it would make her more alert, while watching to see if the two involved in that agitated discussion would come from behind the johns.
Unable to wait any longer, she ambled outside the latrine compound, sorting through the overheard discussion and trying, once more, to put context to the parts she hadn’t recognized.

~ ~ ~ ~

Tori made it to the gate as Medic Vincent Morelli jumped from the passenger side of the first truck of the convoy when it rolled to a stop at the base. “Hey, Doc, you guys bring ice and real food by chance? Maybe a way to celebrate America’s birthday?” She grinned large at the cheery medic. Tori had a soft spot for the Italian. He was taller and slimmer than the other Italian soldiers she’d known. The guy continued to wear a grin when most soldiers scowled because they were overheated, overworked, underfed, or just because they happened to be male and irritated. Her grin widened as she gazed upward at the friendly, brown-eyed soldier.
“We wish.” Doc shook his head. “Sorry. Those MREs the Army provides, just don’t extend to as much as a resemblance of real. Definitely not ice, Tori-bow.”
Tanner “Micky” Michaels, Convoy Commander and dog handler, walked around the front of the truck with his Military Working Dog, Halley, to join them.
Micky took off his headgear then shook his head, sweat drops flying in such a way Tori was reminded of the water coming off Halley after one of her baths. “That trip was about as hot and grueling as any we’ve taken out there. A hundred and twenty degrees, at least. I traded places with Gunner in the Turret to guarantee he got down long enough to get hydrated. It was sweltering in that thing. I could use some ice in some strategic spots about now.” He bent and rubbed Halley’s head. “You, too, huh?” Straightening, he leaned sideways toward Tori with a grin. “Happy Fourth of July, Tori-bow.”
Tori glanced over her shoulder, noting with surprise their CO wasn’t standing in his normal position overseeing the trucks’ check-in. He had been when she’d hurried past on her way to meet the convoy. She sighed her relief. No need to ignore the friendly, five-foot-ten-inch, prematurely graying soldier at her side. He and Doc were the most placid and compassionate of any of the soldiers she’d been privileged to serve with. It’d been unusual that they’d also been with her three of her four deployments so far.
“So, going to help celebrate American freedom tonight, Sarge?” Doc’s words had her partially turning back their direction.
She shook her head but grinned at her buddy. “Seriously? I get enough of the real thing out here. Don’t need to be purposely shooting off firepower.” Releasing the lighthearted banter and, with it, her grin, she turned farther to peer at the truck behind the soldiers. In a much more serious vein, she responded to her friends. “Yup. Happy birthday, America. I hope and pray what we’re doing over here gives them more to celebrate back home.” She straightened her shoulders and spieled her usual reminder. “You’ll need to report in, and—”
“Get the trucks over to Preventative Maintenance and Service Checks, and have everything refueled before we head to AAR and get our camp assignment,” Doc rattled off, as he turned to peer at the line of vehicles behind theirs.
“Yup. I’m going off duty in ten, Micky.” Tori nodded, and before pivoting toward the gate to double check she’d taken care of everything, she bent and rubbed Halley’s neck. The dog, oblivious to the affection Tori gave her, gazed up at her partner, enrapt and ready for the next command. Poor Halley. A heavy vest, dark black fur with that touch of tan, and a lot of penetrating sun. Too bad she isn’t a lighter color.
The German shepherd didn’t seem to notice. She was all about her work, and nobody could call her off except her soldier when she was in the zone. From all appearances, she was still on the job for the time being. Tori knew Halley had more than work in that body of hers. She’d seen her streaking across portions of the base at times, loving speed. No wonder they’d named her Halley.
Micky touched Tori’s forearm, drawing her focus back to him and Doc. His grin dipped a bit. “You doin’ good, Tori-bow?” He studied her with narrowed eyes. “Somethin’ eatin’ at you?”
That reminder revived the tension clawing at the fringes of recall, signaling a sensation of wrong. Very wrong. Tori’s palms were wet with sweat but not from the desert heat. Taking time to sleep had been a reward she’d anticipated. That’s what being dead on one’s feet did to a gal. “I’m exhausted after the heat of our mission a few hours ago. Unusually so.” She was careful to directly meet his gaze… not flinching. “Maybe after a good rest, I’ll be back on top.” Maybe. So, what’s keeping me from being able to hurry myself toward an overdue MRE, and then my cot? Although food doesn’t even sound good the way my stomach’s clenching in this desert… besides the feeling I’ve missed something.
Micky nodded and turned to walk with Halley, following Doc toward HQ.
Tori pivoted and strode toward her assigned quarters. About to enter, a third term from the argument she’d overheard clarified itself in her mind. Her breath catching in her throat, Tori pulled to an abrupt stop. Even while trying to process more of the debate in her memory, she spun and sprinted across the camp toward HQ, fatigue forgotten. She was nearly there when noisy activity at the fueling area drew her attention to a group of soldiers, standing about and jawing while fueling the CO’s vehicle. He was there.
She changed course and picked up speed.
Sweat flowed from every pore, dripping into her mouth as she opened it to scream, “Lieutenant Colonel! Get back! Away from the trucks! Colonel, move out!” She gulped but didn’t slow.
Her commanding officer turned and ran a few steps in her direction.
Even yards away she noted his scowl. Based on his expression, he was not amused at her order. She could only hope he’d have reason to reprimand her after hearing what she had to impart.
Adrenaline surged, and Tori waved her arms, screaming as loudly as her punished lungs and vocal cords allowed. “BOMB! Colonel. Get. Away. From the trucks. BOMB! MOVE OUT!”
Colonel Nelson swiveled toward those near the trucks. He joined Tori in yelling for the soldiers to get out of the area before switching back to run her way again.
She concentrated on getting to him, no longer bothering to look at the others around the vehicles. Her heart pounded, pressure building within, and she drew on one more spurt of adrenaline in order to yell.
“IED under tru—”
A blast bellowed up. Its forceful energy stopped Tori from taking another step. She stared, powerless to budge or help.
Her commander fell forward into a depression in the dirt just yards from where she stood.
She’d hardly absorbed that fact when percussion slammed her chest, effectually snapping her mouth shut on her tongue and making it impossible to draw a breath.
Debris penetrated her limbs, neck, and exposed skin. The intensity of the impact drove her to her back, shoving her helmeted head into the ground beneath. 

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