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Lessons in Life and Freedom

Lessons in Life and Freedom
by Wendy W

Rating: PG-13
Warning: Some remembered bloodshed
Summary: One veteran's thoughts on the 4th of July
Disclaimer: Don't belong to me; couldn't afford the ammo
Comments: As long as they don't involve fruit or vegetables being hurled at me


He slid the screen door open and stepped out onto the balcony. He walked across the small space, and leaned against the railing, a cool ocean breeze gently caressing his face. He watched as the brilliant rays of the sun slid slowly into the water, and the sparkle of man made light illuminated the growing darkness. He turned and sat down on the sturdy patio chair, and eased into it's padded comfort. He set his drink down on the small glass table, and as the breeze grew stronger, he settled in for some quiet reflection. He wasn't a man given to soul searching, but with the lifetime of experiences he'd had, it was unavoidable at time. Today was one of those days. As he closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift, and he returned to the day he'd received his first command.

The military was his life, for as long as he could remember, and that day had been one of his proudest. He had been so young, arrogant and brash, and convinced beyond reason that he would single handedly turn the tide of the war in their favor. He would achieve victory, despite all obstacles, and return home covered in glory. And then, he met Tom. Tom was on his second tour. He was hardly more than a child, it seemed, but was more idealistic than any soldier he'd ever met. He was the classic image of fresh faced youth, with a young wife, two year old son, and another child on the way, and he believed in God and country with all of his heart. Tom was the first soldier assigned him, once he'd taken command, and he was determined to impress Tom with his skill and military prowess. He would be the perfect leader, and all of his men, especially Tom, would flourish under that leadership. He would be respected and revered, and have men gladly willing to give their lives for him.

He looked out at the night sky, and remembered the first night maneuver he'd lead with Tom and the rest of his new unit.

His orders were simple, and he figured they'd be home by dawn, bathed in the glory he craved. Tom was by his side as they took a break, and he was regaling him with stories of his mighty deeds and battles won, when he felt a change in the air. Suddenly, they were surrounded by the cracks of gunfire, and everyone scrambled for cover. Once they'd found cover, he and his men returned fire. Unfortunately, it was too late, as many of them had already fallen, never to rise again. Others lay gasping and moaning in pain, dirt and blood obscuring their young faces. The enemy had fallen back, and the silence returned. He looked around at the men who he'd set out to dazzle, and felt overwhelming shock and anguish. These men had been entrusted to him, and
while he'd been worrying about impressing them, they'd been worried about survival, both his and theirs. Suddenly, all the glory and honor meant nothing to him, as the cost in human blood was quickly tallied all around him. Rallying his wits, he began giving orders and working only toward getting his men home, both the living and the dead. His thoughts suddenly shifted to Tom. He hadn't seen him, once the shooting had begun, and he searched desperately for any sign of him. Tom suddenly emerged from the darkness, helping another soldier, who was struggling to walk. He looked at his CO expectantly, and completely without judgement. As his gaze fell upon the two young soldiers, it hit him with the force of one of those bullets, that his first responsibility was the lives of each and every one of these men. He was there to protect them, and not to impress them. Suddenly a single shot tore apart the darkness, and he felt himself being shoved to the ground. Another shot quickly followed as his men found the sniper with deadly accuracy. He stumbled to his knees, and realized it had been Tom who had pushed him down. The relief he felt at being spared the sniper's shot, was quickly replaced by horror, as he realized that Tom had taken the bullet instead. It had torn a path through his chest that shredded the vital, loving, idealistic heart that had beat within. He had most likely been dead before they hit the ground. Suddenly, he realized that he didn't want this, any of it. If command meant watching young men die he was supposed to protect, he didn't want to be a leader. In one fateful night, his fervent wish had been granted. One of his men, his soldier, Tom, had willingly given his young life, for him.

As he watched the beads of condensation, trickle slowly down the sides of the glass, he could still see the beads of sweat and blood that had decorated Tom's heroic face. He took a drink, and then let his thoughts drift back to that dark time and place.

A week after Tom's death, his request for transfer stateside already written, he sat down to perform his last duty as a commanding officer, returning Tom's effects to the family, along with a personal letter of condolence. He had tried to write that letter a hundred times in the last week, and just couldn't seem to find the words. As he set the pencil down for the fifth time, he noticed a piece of paper in the pile of items being returned. He unfolded it and found a letter Tom must have started just after he'd arrived. He willed himself to put it back, but he felt drawn to it's words, and started to read:

Dear Cathy,

How's Tommy, Jr.? I'll bet he's getting bigger every day. I miss him and
his mom so much it hurts, but I hope "he" understands why I need to be here.
You told me before I joined up, that it wasn't my fight, someone else should
go. I told you then, that we're all Americans, and that makes it our fight.
You see, sweetheart, I'm not just fighting an enemy, I'm fighting for the
right to choose where I live, to marry a girl I love, and raise our children
to fight for those same rights. You see, it's a battle we all have to help
fight, somehow. You by taking care of our son, and our daughter (my fingers
are still crossed for a girl), and me by carrying a gun in another country.
No matter what happens, never doubt that I'm doing the right thing. This is
how I'm contributing...

The letter ended there. His eyes were streaming with silent tears. He reached over and tore up the request he'd written. Tom had given his life, how could HE be willing to do less? Suddenly, the words that had eluded him for days, poured forth on the page, extolling the courage and virtue of a young soldier named Tom. As he carefully signed the letter and added it to the box of effects to be returned to Tom's family, he looked again at Tom's letter. He had only known the young man a few days, but in that time, Tom had taught him more than most soldiers learn in a lifetime. He stepped out of his tent with a renewed sense of purpose, and a confident, compassionate leader emerged to replace the brash, arrogant, glory hound of the previous week. John Smith now understood what it meant to be a true leader, and he was ready to fulfill that duty.

As he finished the drink, and set the glass down, he heard footsteps behind him. He didn't need to turn around, as he recognized the lighthearted arguing of his team. Suddenly a loud explosion filled the sky, and glorious showers or red, yellow and blue fell in vivid arrays.

"You guys are just in time. Grab something to drink and come on out," he called.

As the squabbling disappeared into the kitchen, he thought about his men. All of his men. There had been a lot of them over the years. Some had died, some had gone home to wives and children, and the ones with him now, had become his own family. But as he watched the fireworks that marked another year's celebration of freedom, he thanked them all, Tom, BA, Murdock, Face, and every soldier he'd who'd served with him. Not only had they helped him become the man he was, but they'd also helped preserve his freedom.

As the others joined him on the balcony to watch the fireworks, he looked at each one with pride and contentment. "Happy Independence Day, guys."

The End (Happy 4th of July everyone!)

Lessons in Life and Freedom by Wendy W