CHAPTER THREE:

9:57 AM

Even the sun was becoming unbearable, even this early in the day, because they’d been at it so long. But still, Ryan shouted,

“Again!”

And his dead-tired, but loyal platoon of twenty-three ROTC students, weighted down with overstuffed backpacks, attacked the steps of the track stadium bleachers once more with what little was left to give of their quads, calves, hamstrings, glutes, and hearts.

Ryan ran with them, of course, always. These were his cadets and he knew how much they probably hated him right now. But he needed them to be ready. And he needed himself to be ready. The war was clearly coming; there was no questioning that anymore for Ryan. He had had a man-to-man with FSCU’s Professor of Military Leadership, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Golding, who after two tours in Iraq, one in Afghanistan and some key advisor placements in some of our lesser-known or discussed “operations” of late, still very much had his ear to the reserved talks going on amongst the bureaucrats of the US Military. The drumbeats to war were not just political and pundit pounding—they were being beaten out far from civilian earshot in ships being repositioned, munitions being stockpiled, logistics taking shape. “The seeds of this war are all planted.” Professor Golding had said. “Like a million little bombs just waiting to be lit.”

The war was coming and Ryan and his cadets would be graduating right into the shit of it. A year and a half from commencement on The Commons, Ryan knew he would be leading a platoon of 40 men—and not a platoon that in three more minutes would hit the gym lockers, pull off their sweaty IPFUs (Army-green “ARMY” t-shirts and the super-short “silkies” that Tracy always wanted Ryan to wear to bed, clean ones, of course, which, when feeling frisky, Ryan sometimes obliged) and turn back into the lazy days of college life—but men who didn’t know if they would ever make it home, but if they did, knew for certain they would never be the innocent youth they once were again.

They reached the top and bent over for air. If only they had water there too.

Ryan looked over his crew, proud of them. Then he stepped over to look out at the handful of students on the track field who were tossing a football, maybe waiting to start a game of pickup. He knew his crew would rather be out there. He would too.

He checked his watch. Not 10:00 yet. “Come on guys, one more.” And started toward the steps.

He could hear the thoughts behind him. No one moved.

“Ryan, come on bro. Enough’s enough, huh?”

Are you fucking kidding me?! That was Scotty. His fucking Platoon Sergeant. Ryan was fucking Platoon Leader and this asshole just whipped out his dick and took a piss on Chain of Command like it was nothing! Like we were those cubicle-bound fucks down there tossing a football!

Ryan stepped over and got in Scotty’s face. He was about to lose his shit, but he felt it coming and checked himself. Ryan knew he had serious anger issues. ROTC Command knew, and it’s why Ryan, as a senior, wasn’t higher up in the Battalion Command. And he knew where Scotty and half his guys’ minds were: they were also his fraternity brothers and had shit to do for the party Thursday. It was a huge deal for everyone in the House. A year ago they had been put on probation by the University for some alleged hazing and underage drinking incidents. The hazing evidence couldn’t be substantiated though—the Fraternity’s national headquarters had hired a big Florida law firm for the proceedings and that helped a lot. So they weren’t suspended, only on probation, and told they couldn’t have any events with alcohol for a year. Probation ended this week and Thursday was going to be their comeback party. On top of that, the following weekend would be filled with Halloween madness, probably at least three days of partying for that, and most people were racking their brains to plan multiple costumes for the different events. There was a lot going on, a lot on their minds. Ryan knew Scotty had to drive over to Miami today to pick up the inflatable waterslide that was going out one of the back, second-floor windows of the House. He calmed himself down and decided to address his cadets rather than his asshole “friend”/”brother”/Platoon Sergeant.

Still working for air himself, “You guys know shit’s about to get real for us.” There were three girls in the platoon, but everyone just said “guys,” the girls too, even though they’d had that conclusionless discussion on whether that was a gender-neutral term. “Yeah, we’ve got parties to plan or what-the-fuck-ever, but all that’s about to end real soon. Real fucking soon. Even for you freshmen. This war gets going, it’s not ending for a long fuckin’ time. This is the big one. The one that stirs everything up. You graduate in three more years, yeah? That’s probably just about the time some insurgency that could give a Goddamn about the ‘Rules of War’ we get in class is gonna be fucking us over with IEDs and suicide kids. The least we can do, the abso-fucking-lute least, is be in the best shape of our lives, right? I’m goin’ again. You can come or not.”

And Ryan headed back down the steps. One by one, his platoon followed. Even Scotty, who was proud of his boy for holding back that deadly temper of his.

But, as Ryan descended the steps, his anger grew. Why did he have to tell them this? How was this fucking news to them? Goddamnit, they needed to wake the hell up!


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