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Foreword. This story was the idea of my proofreader, Michelle. During a conversation we were having one time I mentioned that while I was in the Gulf war I got "Any Soldier" mail, and loved it. It meant a lot to me and I spent hours answering some of it. She said that I should do a story about that, and about how the relationship between the person who sent such mail, and the soldier who got it, might go on after the war. I thought it was a good idea and put it in my projects folder.
So this fictional story is based on something that is actually true - I really did get and enjoy a lot of Any Soldier Mail. I also answered most of it. More bits of the truth are scattered through this story. Having been in the Army for many, many years, I am familiar with the kind of red tape that flourishes there. Both the mail and red tape have a lot to do with this story.
Other things in the story are purely fictional.
This is an important distinction, because some of the bits of "truth" in this story didn't necessarily happen to me. But they have happened to others, and that is very, very important to remember.
And that gets us to the part where I have to warn you that the prologue begins with some rough
scenes. What happens to the protagonist is unhappy, violent and may cause some readers to want to stop reading. I ask you not to stop. Read the prologue anyway, even if you begin to feel a little squeamish. Thousands of young men have experienced it in person, and more young women than you might think. They expose themselves to this on your behalf. Whether you agree that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are legitimate or not, these people are willing to put themselves in harm's way so that you aren't. This story is dedicated to those young men and women who serve so selflessly.
And thanks to Michelle for a great idea. Even if she didn't think she was being serious when she suggested it.
Around 2300 hours, the night of 17 Nov 08, Achmed Tergazzi, a
twelve-year-old boy, located and removed a thin sheet of scrap sheet
metal that was covering a hole about a foot and a half deep and perhaps
a foot in diameter. He then turned to the piece of plywood he
had dragged to the site with a rope and rolled the old artillery shell
off of it, levering it into the hole, point up. He performed
the other operations the men had taught him how to do, put the metal
sheet back in place, covered it with the dry dirt that had been on top
of it, and retraced his steps, brushing the marks he'd made
out of the dirt.
At 2317 hours, 17 Nov 08, Achmed pushed open the sagging door of an
abandoned house and called out softly. He was answered and a
candle was lit.
"I did as you told me to," he said to a shadowy adult form.
"Where is my sister? I must take her home now."
"Tell me exactly what you did," said the man.
Achmed described his actions. The man pulled out a cell phone
and pushed buttons. He grunted.
"You did well. All appears to be working."
"My sister," said Achmed, his voice shaking. "You promised I
could take her home if I did what you said."
"Yes," said the man.
He pulled a pistol from the shadows and shot Achmed three times in the
At 0830 hours, 18 Nov 08, Irwanna Husseini left her house hoping to get
to the market safely, buy some food, and return to her home.
She saw the two bodies before she had gone a block. One was
of a boy, perhaps twelve, and the other a girl, a little
older. Both were obviously dead, so she passed around
them. If there was a policeman at the market she would tell
him of the bodies. She could not know they were Achmed and
his sister, or that the young woman had been repeatedly raped before
she was strangled. No one would ever know, except the men who
did it. There would be no autopsy. The parents of
the children would never know what had happened to them, because the
people who eventually came and took the bodies away didn't try to
identify them. They were just added to the group of
unidentified victims of the American war and would, within seventy-two
hours, be buried in a common grave with all the others.
At precisely 1303 hours, 18 Nov 08, the man who had shot Achmed watched, his finger
poised above the cell phone in his hand, as the convoy approached the place where the IED was buried. None of the true believers had been risked to place this one.
The helicopters with their night vision devices and spitting chin
cannon made that too dangerous. But the kidnapping of the
girl, and the false promises to the boy had gotten the IED in place,
and that was all that mattered. Now the glory of Allah would
be served as the infidels were punished for soiling Iraq with their
He let two vehicles pass by before he punched the last button in the
number that would set the artillery shell off.
The Stryker next to the IED, when it went off, weighed 36,240 pounds,
fully loaded with three crew and nine troops aboard, plus all the
associated gear and ammunition. It was armored and could
withstand the vast majority of munitions that could be expected to be
flung against it.
But not an artillery shell only six feet away.
Still, the crew compartment remained intact as it was blown free of the
shredded vehicle, landing some fourteen feet from where it had been
only seconds before. The smoke, dust and debris from the
explosion blanketed an area twenty-five feet further out than that, but
one piece of red hot metal ejected from the cloud was all the bomber
needed to see to know that Allah had punished the invaders.
He turned and left quickly, knowing that the retribution of the Great
Satan could be swift and thorough.
The attempt to recover survivors and bodies was hampered by .50 Cal M2
and Mark 19 40mm grenade ammunition cooking off in the fire that was
attempting to consume everything it could reach. A second
Stryker bulldozed the crew compartment out of the fire and then went
on, to make sure it wasn't exposed to the heat too long
itself. Helicopters appeared overhead, circling like eagles,
looking for prey. An armored HMMV ambulance screamed up to
the smoking crew compartment as soldiers attempted to pry the access
Once access was gained, bodies were lifted out.
Some went on the ground, abandoned almost immediately. Others
went on the side of the ambulance away from the smoking crater, where
medics hovered, trying to save lives. Eventually six bodies
were stacked into two ambulances, which left at high speed, on rocking
springs. Other bodies, now contained in black body bags, left
the scene for another destination.
The remainder of the convoy formed up, drove around the debris, and
continued on the mission.
First Lieutenant Andrea Foreman received the gurney from the two medics
who rushed it into the ER. She pulled it into a curtained
alcove where her team was waiting to assess the casualty.
They had done this many times before, and the practiced ease with which
clothing was cut off and equipment utilized made her both proud and sad
at the same time. Her team was one of the best, which made
her proud. That they had to have these skills at all was what
made her profoundly sad.
"Staff Sergeant Robert C. Hickory, type A positive," said Specialist
Anderson, removing the dog tags around the soldier's neck. He
would also go through the pockets of the bloody uniform and secure any
personal property found.
"I've got a compound fracture with a bleeder!" called out PFC
Williams. "We may have arterial bleeding here!"
Lieutenant Foreman went to the left leg. Pain management
wasn't an issue, since Sergeant Hickory was currently
unconscious. "Help me set," she said. PFC Williams
took the ankle and she gripped the shin just below where the two jagged
bones were protruding from the skin. "One - two - three," she
said, and the leg was straightened. Bright red blood welled
out of the open wound, which she pulled apart with gloved fingers.
"I've got bone fragments all over the place, and the popliteal artery
is damaged," she said. "Pressure points and surgery, right
now! Move it, people, or we're going to lose this one."
Major Donald Ferguson stepped back from the leg containing the artery
he had just repaired.
"He's all yours, Tanya," he said. "What's next?"
Sergeant Tanya Phillips pulled the gurney out of the OR and into the
recovery room. The patient had shown no signs of recovering
consciousness, but his vitals were good, now that two pints of blood
had been put back into his body. He had a long way to
go. The emergencies had been dealt with. Now he
would have to be cleaned up and the other cuts and bruises on his body
tended to. They couldn't cast the leg yet, but they could
splint it with an inflatable collar and keep it rigid. The
orthopedic doc had ordered tension on the lower leg, just to keep the
bones apart until the surgeons back in Landstuhl could assess whether
the leg could be saved or would have to come off above the
At 1703 hours, exactly four hours after the IED changed SSG Hickory's
life forever, the plane carrying him back to the huge Air Force
hospital in Germany lifted off the tarmac of the runway in
Iraq. It would be the last time SSG Hickory ever
visited the country.
Not that he was aware of his early return to "the
world." His brain, traumatized by sound, motion and
impact, would not repair itself enough to let him regain consciousness
for another four days. But in some ways that was a blessing,
because during those four days many painful things were done to his
body in the interests of keeping most of it alive. He was
stitched up in six locations. He was operated on in
two. It was determined that the tissue damage resulting from
the compound fracture was too devastating to heal properly and the
lower leg was amputated three inches below the knee. Pressure
inside his cranium was released by drilling holes in his
skull. But he was breathing on his own, and his
blood pressure was within acceptable limits.
He was put in ICU and people around him, none of whom he'd ever met
before, hoped for the best.
SSG Hickory had been gone from his unit almost a week when he first
opened his eyes. He knew something was wrong immediately, but
he also knew, somehow, that there was nothing he could do about it at
this instant. He began assessing his environment, in an
attempt to gain information. It was just a habit,
and he did it without thinking.
At that exact moment, thousands of miles away, Sergeant First Class
Ralph Butler was supervising the packing of the belongings of his
former third squad leader. They were being sent back to
Riley, where the unit's home base was. Not that anything
would happen to them there. Hickory wasn't dead, but he had
no wife. The only person listed in his next of kin records
was a sister named Claudia, who lived in Arkansas.
Butler watched closely as the two privates packed the boxes.
It had been known to happen that valuable items went missing in
situations like this, and he wasn't having any of that crap on his
watch. As the bottom of the footlocker came into view Butler
saw stacks of envelopes and tablet paper with drawings on them ...
"What the hell is that?" he asked.
Private Willie Nelson, who wished his parents were dead within ten
minutes of arriving at his basic training company, grabbed a fistful of
paper and held it up to the Platoon Sergeant.
The other private picked up an envelope and looked at the front.
"Any Soldier mail," he said. "He's got a ton of it."
Butler sorted through a dozen envelopes. Most were blue, pink
or yellow. The ones on top were addressed to him, not "Any
Soldier". The return address was from someone named Julia
Miller, in Boonville, Missouri. There were at least ten of
them in the group that Nelson had handed him. He lifted them
to his nose. Perfumed.
"Hickory ever talk about a girlfriend?" he asked.
Nelson looked up and shrugged. He tried to shrug at every
question. He'd gotten more attention in his eight months in
the Army than he could have used in his entire life. It might
have helped if he could play the guitar and sing. He could do
Private John Rhyes shook his head. "Never, Sarge."
"Hmph." Butler handed the bundle of letters back to
Nelson. "Put them all in there. Mark them
as personal correspondence on the receipt."
"Yes, sir," said Nelson, and then winced.
"How many fucking times do I got to tell you I ain't no fucking
officer, Nelson?" growled Butler. "I work for my fucking
"Sorry Sarge," said Nelson.
"Well get that sealed up and take it and your sorry ass over to the
APO. And get a fucking receipt!"
Julia Miller, aged twenty-two, and in her first year as a real, live,
certified second grade teacher at David Barton Elementary School, in
Boonville, MO., clutched the letter to her breast as she hurried down
the hallway to her room. She wasn't worried that Alicia, her
aide, wouldn't be able to control the class. She was just in
a hurry to share with them the latest development in their project.
Julia had become aware of the "Any Soldier" mail concept on the
internet. She was unaware it had been official during the
Gulf War, but had become unmanageable during the wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq. The services had tried to stop it, but the quantity
of mail addressed to "Any Soldier" had continued to swell.
The US postal service didn't give a damn. All that mail
required stamps, and that was good. They forwarded it to the
APO, or Army Post Office, which had to do something with it.
If they just pitched it and some asshole representative of the media
found out about it and reported on it, it could be very bad
press. So they kept shoving it on down to units, and letting
them worry about it. This mail was a perfect example of the
old saying: "One man's trash is another man's treasure." Most
units loved it and passed it out to the troops as a diversion from the
crushing routine of cleaning weapons and hoping you didn't die.
Julia simply read about it on a 'Support Our Troops' kind of website
and thought it would be a good citizenship project for her class to do.
So she had all the kids write a letter, put them all in a big manila
envelope, and sent it off to "Any Soldier, Iraq."
Hearing nothing for a month and a half, she had about given up on the idea
when a letter came, addressed to her class with a return address that
was completely unintelligible in terms of making any sense, except for
the name: Staff Sergeant Robert Calhoun Hickory.
That first letter had shocked her to her core. That was
because that first letter ... the first six pages of neat handwriting
from a man she'd never met, and who was ten thousand miles away, and
who was writing to seven year old children ... made her panties wet.
He was warm, and funny, and thankful to the children. He told
stories about children their age in a far away country, children who
smiled and begged for candy and gum. He described beautiful
buildings and a night sky that had so many stars in it that they lit up
the ground when there was no moon. He told them tidbits of
what his life was like, such as what he ate, and how often he got to
take a shower.
It wasn't that it was all sweetness and light. He did mention
that it was a dangerous place to be, and that war was never a good
thing to be involved in. But he used those comments to
encourage them to find ways of resolving conflict without escalating it
to violence. He told them they were lucky to be safe, and to
listen to those who would keep them that way, including Miss Miller.
There had been a separate page in that letter, addressed only to
her. He had thanked her personally, and told her he'd never
forget her or the children, because their letters had reminded him of
why he was there, and why it was worth it. His letter had
made it clear he never expected to hear from her or the children again,
but encouraged them to write to more servicemen.
The class would have none of it, of course. Staff Sergeant
Hickory might have started out as "any soldier," but now he was "their"
soldier. They had questions for their soldier.
Julia winced at some of those questions. Several children
wanted to know if he had killed anybody, and what that was
like. She didn't feel like that was an appropriate question
for someone so young to ask ... maybe for anyone to ask, outside the
mental health arena. They wanted to know if he had children,
and she was afraid that was too personal a thing to ask a man who might
be separated from said children. In the end, she decided that
she wasn't the one to censor their letters. She just
apologized to him in a personal note and told him he didn't have to
answer anything that made him uncomfortable.
He wrote back. He didn't sidestep anything, but the way he
answered was in general terms, toned down to be less shocking, such as
when he explained that there is death in all wars, which is why wars
should be the very last resort to solving problems.
He said he hoped he never had to hurt anyone. He said he had
twenty-two children, and then listed the names of each child in the
By the end of his second letter to the class, he owned them, though she
knew that wasn't what he was trying to do.
And by the end of his personal letter to her, he owned her too, though
she knew that was silliness of the most shocking caliber, and that she
needed to get a grip on herself. Julia had had some
fun in college, but hadn't wanted to risk having a teaching career by
falling in love, so she ensured that she didn't date anybody long
enough to get to know him well enough to fall in
love. Now that she felt like a real teacher, part
of her wanted to feel like a real woman too. To her, that
meant having a man interested in her.
So she wrote him a letter just from herself. And he
answered. And she wrote more, and he answered those too.
Not that SSG Hickory was overt in his comments to her. He
just flirted on paper, saying things like he wished he was in second
grade again, or asking if he was naughty, would she keep him after
school. It was little harmless things like that, but she felt
them deep in her belly.
The class' third set of letters to him were all about Christmas wishes
and holiday plans. The class voted and said their wish
concerning him was for a photograph. Julia couldn't
send him pictures of the children without their parents' consent, which
she hadn't had time to organize yet. Instead, she sent him a
photograph of herself. The only one she had handy was her
graduation photo from college.
His third letter to them contained the photograph. It was of
a smiling man, wearing sunglasses and Army clothes and a
helmet. His rifle was slung in such a way that it could be
seen, but was behind him, emphasizing it was a necessary tool, rather
than something he wished to carry. There were
vehicles in the background, and other soldiers. On the back
of the picture were the words "Merry Christmas to all my kids" and it
was sighed "Sergeant Bob."
Folded into his private letter to her was another photograph.
He was sitting on his bunk in pants and a tight brown T shirt, holding
up the children's letters in one hand, and hers in another.
He was kissing her letters. On the back was written "Thanks
for keeping me going." It was signed "Bob."
In subsequent letters the children wanted to know when he'd be leaving
Iraq, and would he come see them, and would he go back.
They'd heard sometimes soldiers had to go back. He
said he didn't know for sure when he'd leave there, or get back to
America, and that he'd be happy to visit them if he could.
In his private letter to her, he wrote: "I know I have no
right to say this, but I'd love to meet you. I feel like I
know you. I know that's not possible just through a few
letters, but you've brightened so many of my days. And the
kids! Wow, how lucky you are to have them every
day. I can only hope I do get to see them some day though, to
tell the truth, they'll be in third grade by the time I get
back. They're talking about extending us again. I
know you probably have a boyfriend, and have just been being nice to a
poor lonely soldier, but I dream of actually getting to see you and
talk to you. I hope that doesn't scare you. I'm
harmless, really. If it bothers you just tell me to shut the
fuck up (the words "the fuck" had been crossed out numerous times, but
she could still detect them faintly) and I'll try to behave myself."
There had been more, bits and pieces about his day, and the fact that
they were going on another mission later that day. He ended
by saying he needed to get ready for that and get this letter in the
mail. He said he hoped he'd get to write again soon.
That was the last letter she got from him. It was dated the
eighteenth of November.
Her first clue that there might be a problem was when the packet of
letters she sent him the next week was returned to her with the cryptic
stamp across the address "RETURN TO SENDER. ADDRESSEE NO
LONGER PRESENT IN UNIT". She didn't know what that meant,
because it didn't make any sense.
Weeks passed and she worried.
She had no idea where to go to ask questions. There was no
Army post near Boonville. The closest was Fort Leonard Wood,
which was hours away. She had a "eureka" moment when she was
stopped in traffic and glanced to her right, where there was an Armed
Forces Recruiting office. She pulled in and went in to talk
to a man in dark green pants and a light green shirt who she disliked
instantly because his eyes stripped her bare before he said a
word. He continued to lust after her as she explained what
she wanted. He said "Soldiers are deployed and redeployed
regularly. It's hard telling where he is." She
worked up the courage to ask if he might have been injured.
"Even if I could find out," he said, "which I can't, I wouldn't be
authorized to talk to you about it."
"So you can't do anything for me at all," she said, unhappy.
"Maybe I could do some poking around and see what I can find out," he
said. "Can you come back tonight?"
"Oh, around eight or nine. It will be quiet by
then. I can stay late ... on my own time ... and maybe do
some ... poking around." His eyes raked her body.
She looked at his left hand automatically ... not because she was
interested. She saw the glint of gold on his ring finger.
"Wouldn't you rather be home with your wife?" she asked.
"Not necessarily," he said.
She was horrified that he expected her to be attracted to a man like
"Sure," she said, smiling. "See you tonight."
She left. She didn't intend to go back. He could
wait all night. She hoped he did. She wasn't ever
going back to that place. A fantasy wafted through her mind
as she drove home. She could think of one way she'd return to
the horny, cheating bastard. If she could find his wife, and
the wife was watching when she went back, so she could see what her
cheating bastard husband was trying to do ... Yes,
she might go back then.
He looked over at the doorway of the enclosure. He knew he
was in a hospital, but that was about it. The woman standing
there was plump and short.
She was obviously waiting for him to tell her his name, but he was
pretty sure she should already know that.
"Hi," he said.
He saw the relief in her eyes and she stepped closer. "What
do you remember?"
He had to think about that for a while. He knew he was a
soldier. He knew his name was Bob. Then he
remembered he was the squad leader of third squad and memories started
tumbling around in his head.
"Am I still in Iraq?"
"No," she said. "You were injured. I'll be right
She either didn't hear him, or ignored him, and disappeared.
She was back, shortly, with an officer. Bob knew he was an
officer, even though he was wearing blue/green scrubs. He
could just tell.
The man was a doctor, Colonel something-or-other. Bob learned
a little about what had happened to him while the doctor learned
everything he needed to know about the state of mind of one Staff
Sergeant Robert Hickory.
"I'm going to have you flown back to Walter Reed," he said.
"I'm very happy with your condition."
Three days later Bob sat up in a bed in a ward at Walter Reed Army
Medical Center. He wasn't happy with his condition.
He could still feel his foot, and it bothered the shit out of
him. He had headaches that came and went for no
reason. Part of his life was a complete mystery. He
could remember mounting the Stryker, but everything after that, until
he woke up in Landstuhl was a mystery. He ignored his aches
and pains, for the most part, but the missing foot couldn't be ignored.
It wouldn't have been so bad except that nobody seemed to give a shit
about him. Once he wasn't unconscious any more, he was
warehoused in a ward with twenty-three other injured
warriors. For the most part the men were on their
own. They went to chow at the prescribed time. Some
of them went outside for walks. But they weren't allowed to
leave the campus. It seemed like the only people who came to
check on them now were the people making sure they hadn't gone
They'd provided Bob with a wheel chair, but he wasn't used to it
yet. He could get to chow, but the chair was configured to
prop the short leg up, so the stump stuck out and was in jeopardy of
running into just about everything. It hurt like a
motherfucker when anything hit it, and several times he was left in
He felt helpless, and useless and abandoned. Nobody from his
unit had been to see him. He didn't even know what his
fucking doctor's name was, or when his next appointment was, or even
what his next appointment might be for.
A Red Cross volunteer came around, pushing a cart full of
books. He chose three paperbacks. He was
about twenty pages from completing the third one when his name was
called from the entrance to the ward.
"Yo!" he called out, raising his hand.
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