(Author's notes: Jump over to the Flash Fiction Friday website and read the other, better crafted stories. The theme this week was broken promises.)
Make no mistake, Captain Jeffery Hawthorne was an incompetent dick. I first met the guy during the final phase of ROTC out at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I was part of a group of over two-hundred cadets being run ragged by the most sadistic collection of NCO's and commissioned officers ever to wear an army uniform. Before the first week was over thirty of the cadets had quit from either injuries or simple fear of the staff. I almost quit twice myself figuring I'd rather deal with the nightmarish complications of failing than have to go through one more day of such demeaning and dangerous behavior by the instructors.
It didn't take long for those of us working together to survive that Hawthorne somehow seemed immune to all the crap coming down on our heads. On those rare occasions when the instructors would actually give us a few hours to rest it was damn near normal to see Hawthorne walking around still looking like a fresh, clean flower while the rest of us were dead tired with our bodies and uniforms caked in mud or something worse. It didn't take much to realize that Hawthorne had the type of personality that allowed him to bullshit his way out if nearly all the instructors had planned for us. Making matters worse, Hawthorne could even shuck and jive a good number of fellow cadets into doing what dirty, strenuous, or monotonous work did come his way.
As anyone who has ever encountered such person could guess, Hawthorne had those dubious combinations of good looks, extreme but easy-going charisma, and slightly above average intelligence that allowed him to pretty much write whatever ticket he wanted in life. It didn't take to long before someone learned that Hawthorne came from a rich and well connected Georgia family hoping to break into the realm of politics and the easiest way to do that was have one family member join the military. The fact that Jeffery was the vanguard of such dynastic aspirations actually made me question my commitment to serving in the armed forces.
Yeah, the rest of us loathed Hawthorne but quite frankly we didn't have time to do much about it other than harbor a smoky hatred and hope the bastard fell down a deep but camouflaged hole in the ground. It all seemed beside the point once we graduated. For the most part we went our separate ways, as much as you can in the United States Army, with the new Second Lieutenant Jeffery Hawthorne utterly disappearing as if he was just some figment of our collective sleep-depraved imaginations. All that changed for me two years later when my platoon sergeant walked into the tiny office I shared with fellow First Lieutenant Nathan Riggs, a survivor of that awful period out at Fort Knox.
By that time Nathan and I were platoon officers in the 4th Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment out of Fort Tanner, Texas. A nice place if you liked desolate prairie that was broiling hot in the summer and Siberia-like in the winter. Throw in the occasion rainstorm and on the warmer days we all got to play in waist deep mud for up to a month.
“Hey Lieutenant Bryant,” SFC Taylor said coming in and sitting down in a chair next my desk, “just got word from battalion who our next CO is going to be, and I believe you might know him.”
Sergeant First Class Mike Taylor was probably the best NCO I had ever met in my short career but he often treated me like a slightly mentally deficient kid brother, which irritated they crap out of me. Truthfully, I realized that was generally how all platoon sergeants thought of their lieutenants but I still didn't like it.
“What's the guy's name?” I asked with the faces of about ten to fifteen guys quickly running through my head.
“His name is Captain Jeffery Hawthorne and if I remember correctly he graduated from ROTC about the same time you did.” Taylor said absentmindedly while grabbing a copy of the Army Times newspaper off my desk.
Not only did I almost fall out of my chair upon hearing that news. My stomach turned so abruptly I about puked up the macaroni salad and turkey sandwich I had for lunch less than an hour before in the mess hall. Several hours later Nathan and I were sitting on the little patio balcony of my apartment chugging down cheap beer and wondering about the nature of a cruel universe.
“How in the hell did the slimy bastard make captain before either of us?” Nathan said finishing off another bottle of Rolling Rock beer.
“Connections my friend,” I said feeling the slightest tingling of an alcohol induced buzz “our great nation may not be as corrupt and despotic as say Russia or Nigeria or any other second rate country but we're trying.”
“Seth, you know Hawthorne is a disaster waiting to happen. He's going to get people killed.” Nathan said to me with a dire look on his face. “Dude, he continued, “given what we already know about the guy we've got to promise each other to expose him if people die for his incompetence.”
“Damn straight,” I said as I gently put a now finished bottle on the floor beside fifteen other of his empty comrades. Somehow I slightly knocked that bottle over causing a chain reaction of all the others to fall down like bowling pins. The alcohol running through my system almost allowed me to ignore the possible allegory to our future.
Fifteen months later we're all in Afghanistan with the battalion broken up occupying little outposts on top of mountains. For most of our deployment us and the Taliban had an unspoken agreement, they halfheartedly attack us twice a day and with the exception of patrols we didn't willingly bother the local too much. This arrangement worked too, until intel got word that a new guy had taken over as leader of the Taliban units in our area. This fellow had same commitment to God as a preacher I knew back in my home state of South Carolina. So no one will misunderstand me, I considered that a bad thing.
It was a Tuesday when the shit absolutely hit the fan. The Taliban decided to assault the outpost where Nathan's and my platoons were located. Twenty minutes into the battle it was clear that their intention was to overrun the place and everyone of my fellow Americans knew what would happen if they did.
Making matters worse good old Captain Jeffery Hawthorne had picked that day to visit. Up until then the little weasel had holed up exclusively at Headquarters making his presence known through daily inspirational speeches over the radio. For reasons none of us ever could figure out about a week before he had started flying to the mountain outposts to visit. I guess for photo-ops and to shake a few hands for his future political campaigns. Truthfully things had been going good for the guy. Our deployment had just passed the halfway mark and with an experienced First Sergeant to back him up Hawthorne hadn't yet made a fool of himself or our unit until then.
Forty minutes into the attack the mortars and RPG's started pounding and everyone of our guys were either at their positions or running ammo. When the two guys tasked with resupplying ammo to the others in my platoon were taken out I took up the job. That was when I saw Nathan, he had caught a round in the chest and while he had a couple of medics working on him there was just too much blood soaking the ground underneath his body.
The Apaches gunships flew in at the last minute and ended the siege. As the bodies and injuries were being counted I found Captain Hawthorne inside one of the bunkers underneath a table. The smell of piss and shit signifying his actions during the battle. I wanted to kill him but my better judgment only allowed me to cut the bastard down his face and forcing him to promise to leave the army once we returned home.
When we returned to the States I left the army myself. I never realized it during the worst of the battle but a piece of shrapnel had gone through my left knee and while it seemed minor it had nicked several tendons and they eventually popped due to the wear and tear. The operations to repair them was a bitch and because I would never get full use of my left knee I jumped at the chance to return to civilian life.
After that I tuned out from the world and left it all behind me. I rode a motorcycle across the country, joined the crew of a fishing boat in Alaska, and eventually made my way down to Costa Rica to work at one of those high class resorts Americans and Europeans like to go for that rain forest experience without forgoing full service spas and room service. That was when I learned about Jeffery Hawthorne's senate campaign.
I immediately wanted to kill Hawthorne out of simple spite. But I had begun to build a real life in a place that made me happy and it was stupid to do anything that might threaten this existence. Of course, I soon remembered my promise to Nathan, that I would expose Hawthorne as the incompetent and cowardly fool if he got people killed. The fact that Nathan had been my best friend pushed me over the edge. I was on a flight a couple of days later, whether it was just to expose Hawthorne or kill him was something I hadn't yet decided.
I arrived in Atlanta with a campaign rally already in progress. As luck or fate would have it I bumped into an attractive campaign worker and began talking with her. Somehow I let it slip that I had served in Afghanistan with Hawthorne and the next thing I know she is introducing me to the bastard's mother.
“I have no idea what Jeffery went through in that godforsaken country, but he was a changed man after leaving the service.” His mother confided in me as if I didn't already know. She was clearly from one of those aristocratic Southern families who obsess over such things as heritage and history. She smelled of old money and privilege and I hated every part of her down to the DNA in her cells.
“Jeffery's father and I had such high hopes for him,” she continued. “We had already lined up millions in campaign funds and all he had to do was agree to help our longtime friends. But the ungrateful twit rejected all that, he said he was going to chart a different course for himself and that he would do it alone if forced. Never since the day he was born did he show such a backbone, of course my husband washed his hands of the boy but I found Jeffery's change refreshing. You know he actually wants to help the workers and immigrants and says we've been all wrong about poor people. Poor Jeffery almost sounds like a Roosevelt socialist my grandfather use to rail against.
“What brought about this change?” I asked actually quite puzzled for a moment.
“It was something in Afghanistan,” his mother whispered as if she was talking about a disabled child. “He doesn't actually come out and say what happened but whenever he talks about charting a different and better course for himself I always see him touching that scar running down his face.”
I stayed a few more minutes but eventually slipped out before Hawthorne's mother forced me to see him. I know what I had promised Nathan but somehow that didn't seem to matter anymore. The war in Afghanistan was a huge cluster fuck and would continue that way for decades to come. It had killed and wounded far too many good and decent people, both locals and Americans. But somehow it seems one man walked out of the place changed for the better and I felt he should have a chance to make the most of that new perspective.