They hadn’t gone far when Lewis was tugging on Brannigan’s sleeve. “Sir, we just got a message from Team Two,” he yelled in the Colonel’s ear. “They are mission complete, but are pinned down under fire, and cut off from the beach.”
Brannigan glanced forward, where the wounded Lance Corporal Clark was lying on the deck. Time was short, but he had a responsibility to those boys down on the ground, too. He started working his way forward, stepping over and past knees, boots, M27s, and two LSATs, carefully moving around Clark’s supine form, until he got to the cockpit.
“We need to divert to Shilka Position Two,” he shouted to the pilot. “Some of my boys are in trouble, and need some support.”
“This ain’t a gunship, sir, and we’ve got a casualty aboard,” the copilot protested.
“Don’t try to bullshit me, son,” Brannigan replied. “We’ve got a minigun and a 240 mounted for a reason, and it’s more than that team on the ground has. Take us in.” He stayed where he was, but motioned for Lewis to hand him the handset, cursing the multiple tac frequencies that went along with combined arms warfare. The recon teams were on one channel, the Battalion Combat Team was on another, and the birds were on a third. And that was after he’d ranted and raved to simplify matters as much as possible.
Lewis handed him the handset and he flipped his right-hand Peltor headpiece out of the way, pressing the black plastic to his ear. “Tiburon Two, this is Kodiak Six,” he called.
The answering radio call came after a moment’s delay. He could hear the rattle of gunfire in the background. “Kodiak Six, Tiburon Two,” Staff Sergeant Holmes replied.
“We are inbound to your position with air support, Tiburon Two,” Brannigan said. “ETA two mikes. Give me a sitrep and a position. We’re going to lay waste, and I don’t want you boys getting burned down by accident.”
“Roger, Six,” Holmes answered. The man’s voice was calm and professional, but there was an undercurrent of relief in it. “We are five hundred meters east of the burning Shilka, and one hundred meters south of the coast road. We are taking fire from dismounts and a pair of technicals that are still on the road, between us and our BLS.” The Boat Landing Site would have been where their Zodiac was concealed. “Our position is marked by IR strobes.”
The Ospreys were coming up on the beach fast. Leaning forward and peering through the windscreen, Brannigan could just make out the strobes, along with the flickering muzzle flashes coming from the technicals ahead. “Good copy, Tiburon Two,” he replied. “We’ve got you. Stand by.”
He pointed. “Technicals and dismounts on the road,” he told the Osprey’s crew. “The team is marked with strobes. Kill everything that ain’t the team.” He switched his personal radio to the air freq and repeated the instructions. If the Vipers still had any 20mm left, this was the time.
The pilot acknowledged, and brought the Osprey into a wide, sweeping turn, aiming to come in on the road from the west. Brannigan braced himself in the cockpit doorway, bending his knees to maintain his balance against the maneuver. A moment later, the pilot leveled off, and bore down on the road and the dimly visible shapes of the Toyota pickup trucks, flame still stabbing from the machineguns mounted in the beds.
The underslung GAU-17 7.62mm minigun opened up with a deep, growling buzz. What looked like a solid line of red light reached out from the Osprey’s underbelly and tore a ravening line of destruction down the coast road. The closest technical exploded under the hammering impact of that stream of high-velocity metal. A moment later, the second truck suffered the same fate. The driver hadn’t had time to process the incoming threat enough to even attempt to evade.
Then they were past, and the pilot was pulling for some altitude. The rain of death from the sky hadn’t ended, though, because Trash Hauler One-Two was coming in right behind, sowing more raving, fiery death among the men on foot who were now scattering and trying to find cover after their heavy support had suddenly blown up.
The Remington Vipers swooped in next, hammering away with their 20mms, doubtless cursing the Colonel, the Osprey drivers, and anyone else who had poached what they considered their rightful targets. After another minute, there wasn’t much shooting going on, because there wasn’t much moving down there anymore.
“Tiburon Two, Kodiak Six,” Brannigan called. “Status?”
“Kodiak Six, Tiburon Two,” Holmes answered. “If there’s anybody still alive up there, they won’t be for much longer. Targets are all down, burning, or suppressed.”
“Good copy. We’ll run racetracks overhead until you boys can get to the beach and out on the water. Any friendly casualties?”
“A couple of us got trimmed, Six, but we’ll live,” Holmes replied. “Thanks for the assist. We’ll see you back on ship. We are Oscar Mike.”
“All of my boys come home, Tiburon Two,” Brannigan said. “Them’s the rules.”
Below, the six Recon Marines got up and started moving toward the beach, dark figures encrusted with sand and dust, visible from above only by the flashing IR strobes on their shoulders.
It took a few minutes for the Marines to get to the beach, get their Zodiac turned around, and launch. The Vipers, nearly out of ammo and getting low on fuel, headed back toward the Boxer. Brannigan kept the Ospreys circling, determined to make sure that the Recon team got well offshore before the motorized column of government troops coming down the coast road could get too close. Once the boat was a good hundred yards off the beach, he finally gave the signal for all aircraft to return to base.
He let out a deep breath. That could have gone so much worse.
“This is a fucking disaster, Colonel.”
Brannigan sat back in his chair and eyed General Mark Van Zandt, whose angry face was filling the VTC screen. Van Zandt was actually five years younger than Brannigan, but the two men had gone different routes. Van Zandt had entered the Marine Corps as a 2nd Lieutenant. Brannigan had been a Gunnery Sergeant before he’d gone to OCS.
“You gave me orders to secure the hostages and get them out of the country, sir,” Brannigan said evenly. “I accomplished the mission, with only three Marines wounded, and only one of those seriously. So, kindly explain to me how this is a ‘disaster.’”
“Your men killed over two hundred National Army troops, Colonel,” Van Zandt snarled. “Government troops were strictly off-limits in the Rules of Engagement. President Haroun has already lodged formal diplomatic protests, and is bringing a complaint to the United Nations. And with that many corpses to show, it’s not something we can pass off as GaM propaganda.”
“ROE included ‘hostile act/hostile intent,’ sir,” Brannigan pointed out. “And those government troops were engaged in direct support of the Gama’a al-Mujahidin forces. And you know it just as well as I do.” He stabbed a finger at the screen, momentarily failing to give a damn that it could be construed as insubordination. “The only reason for those Shilkas to have been sited where they were was to shoot down any force attempting to rescue the hostages. And if that wasn’t enough, have President Haroun explain why there was at least a company of government troops in the exact same village where the hostages were being held, apparently doing nothing until we moved in to rescue those hostages, at which point they opened fire on us.”
“The word we are getting from the President’s office is that they were moving into position to attempt a rescue at dawn,” Van Zandt said. When Brannigan raised an incredulous eyebrow, the General’s expression didn’t change. “This has created a major diplomatic incident, Colonel. I’ll be honest with you. The fact that you succeeded in rescuing the hostages intact is the only reason that Washington is not demanding that you be relieved for cause.”
That, and the fact that the MEU’s cruise is almost over, and it would be much less hassle to just let us head home and shit-can me afterward. He also didn’t really buy the “major diplomatic incident” nonsense, either. Haroun was a big fish in a very, very small pond, nothing more. This was just the excuse being used by people who simply wanted him gone.
“I can’t guarantee that there won’t be later legal repercussions, Colonel,” Van Zandt said officiously. “But I’ve been assured that you will be allowed to retire, after you have handed command over to Colonel Linkous.”
They don’t want it to go public. A court-martial would turn into a circus. I’ve got too many witnesses, too many Marines who saw what was really happening on the ground, who saw the National Army defending the GaM terrorists on the ground. The narrative would fall apart if they let us have our day in court.
Brannigan briefly considered fighting it, demanding a court-martial. It was his right, after all, under the UCMJ. Sure, it would turn into a shit-show. He had too many political enemies, especially among several younger men with stars on their collars. But he suddenly found that he was tired. Until one more thought occurred to him.
“Fine, sir, I get the message,” he said. “But I’ll only go quietly under one condition.”
“You’re not exactly in a position to make demands, Brannigan,” Van Zandt warned.
“Bullshit,” Brannigan snapped. “You just said it yourself, Headquarters Marine Corps doesn’t want this to really go public.” Which probably wasn’t entirely fair. It was more likely Congress that didn’t want it to go public. There were still a few warriors left at HQMC. “So fine. I’ll retire. On the condition that none of my Marines gets scapegoated for dead National Army troops defending GaM terrorists.”
Van Zandt glared at him for a moment. “That’s a rather nasty veiled accusation, Brannigan,” he said.
“Oh, was it too veiled?” Brannigan replied, finally losing his patience. “Fine. I’ll make it explicit. I will not be party to scapegoating enlisted men and junior officers ‘for the reputation of the Corps.’ If there has to be a sacrificial lamb, it’s going to be me, because I gave the orders, and I led the assault on the ground. Is that explicit enough?”
Van Zandt stared at him from the screen for a moment, before finally putting his head in his hand. “Damn it, Brannigan, why do you have to be so difficult about this?”
Because you gave me a mission along with ROEs that made that mission impossible, sir.
“I mean, seriously?” Van Zandt continued, jerking his head up to glare out of the screen. “What the hell were you doing on the ground in the first place? That’s not the place for a MEU commander.”
“Do you remember the OCS motto, sir?” Brannigan asked. He knew Van Zandt had been an ROTC cadet, rather than an Annapolis ring-knocker. “It says, ‘Lead By Example.’ Tell me, how the hell was I supposed to do that from an air-conditioned COC, fifty miles from the action?”
“I am well aware of your complaints about recent Marine Corps leadership procedures,” Van Zandt said tiredly, “which is another reason you’re being allowed to retire, instead of turning this into a media circus.” He sighed. “Fine. We’ll concoct some story about bad intel, unfortunate accidents, etc., etc. State’s going to hate it, but we’ll make it work. Is that enough? Will that get you to agree to retire, and end this quietly?” And get out of my hair? The last was unspoken, but Brannigan picked up on it anyway.
For a long moment, Brannigan just stared at the image of his superior officer. He and Van Zandt had known each other for a long time, and while they had never been friends, they had never exactly been enemies, either. It still remained that Van Zandt was a careerist, always keeping his own reputation and advancement in mind, while Brannigan was still in uniform for the same reason that he had signed up twenty-three years before. He was a warrior. Always had been, always would be. He ultimately cared far less about his own career than he did about the fight, and his Marines.
But along with that warrior ethos came a strict sense of honor, one that he had felt was rarer and rarer in the modern officer corps. And the idea of concocting such a lie to cover the corrupt President Haroun’s ass for supporting terrorists stuck in his craw.
But at this point, what am I going to do about it? If I go public, they’ll do whatever they need to do to shut me down. Either way, my career is over.
“Fine, sir, you win,” he said heavily. “Once we return Stateside, and I pass command on, I’ll retire. No news conferences, no trial, no memoirs. I’ll quietly disappear, and the diplomats can sweep all of this under the rug, where it won’t interfere with their neat, tidy theories about who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in this part of the world.”
Van Zandt didn’t comment on Brannigan’s final, bitter pronouncement. He had what he needed. “Glad to hear it, Colonel,” he said brusquely. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry that it had to come to this.”
No, you’re not. The VTC ended.
Brannigan sat back in the chair and stared at the overhead for a moment. Just like that, twenty-three years was coming to an end.
Now what the hell am I going to do with myself?
Thus ends Brannigan’s Bastards #0 – The Colonel Has A Plan. The story will continue in Brannigan’s Bastards #1 – Fury in the Gulf, coming to Kindle and Paperback in November.