You can’t put your finger on it, and you can’t quite identify what it is. It is a certain presence that resides permanently around him. He stands straight, the type of posture that is rarely seen in men today. The posture silently screams self-confidence. It is the kind of confidence that comes from going out night after night to hunt other men. Men that hunt back. His back is rounded, shoulders wide. The arms are like leather. The neck thick. A man doesn’t get this way by accident. It comes from hours under a ruck, climbing ropes, lifting heavy things, climbing walls, carrying other full-grown men. Running for miles, endless miles. Miles that make the feet bleed, soaking the white socks red. Miles over road, on gravel, on sand, on dirt, up hills, down hills, up stairs, down stairs… Miles that crush a man’s soul at the mere thought.
He wears a watch on one wrist, a simple Timex. It is well worn from the hundreds of missions it has been on. The other wrist has a black metal bracelet. It is scratched up, beat up, but never leaves the wrist. It bears the name of a fallen brother. The name of a man who left behind a daughter, a wife, parents… The name of a man with who he shared a room, played Halo with after the mission, drank beer with… The name of a man who received nothing but silence in response to the Sergeant Major beckoning him during that final roll call.
His arms are tattooed. They bear the images of skulls, Spartans, a tattered American flag, and flames. There is a weird way in which the ink compliments the blank stare on his face. Almost a slight frown, yet a look of deep thought. His hair is longer than the average soldier, but not too long. He’s particular when he explains what he wants at the barber. But then again he is particular about everything in his life.
He pulls his kit out from its cubby in the ready room. It falls over his shoulders in a familiar way. It’s weird how the distinctive sound of the Velcro on the cummerbund can be so easily associated with the looming prospect of combat.
The Peltors go on, plugged into the radio on his side. He turns them on and turns them up. It just got real loud. The MICH goes on; the NODs are flipped down and tested. He’s paranoid and knows he put fresh batteries in last night, but changes them out again anyway.
The amber lenses are dusty, so he takes a red rag and rubs them clear. The helmet is heavy and weighs on a man’s neck, but he is used to it. Hours have been spent under the weight of Kevlar, night vision, strobes, Velcro, flashlights… He snaps the safety line around his waist, pulls his gloves on, and slips his Oakleys over his ears. You hear a sigh, and then see him do a few squats to make sure everything is on just right. Finally, he grabs his wrist Garmin and his quarterback forearm pad. One goes on each forearm.
He turns the knob on his MBITR and asks for a radio check. He gets a response and is satisfied. Someone yells out that “FMC” will be in five minutes. The others start shuffling away from their cubbies. He grabs his rifle, pulls the charging handle back checking to make sure it is clear, and then releases the bolt. He slides a plastic magazine in and routes the adjustable sling over his shoulder and starts walking for the door. As he walks away you notice that all that heavy gear looks kind of small on his V-shaped torso. He walks with a gait that is swift but quiet.
He floats into the dark, his playground. The air is thin, the moon barely visible. All you hear is the crunch of pea rock under his hiking boots as he walks away toward the flight line. It dawns on you that you just witnessed something few will ever set eyes on. Half the world away, men of a similar age are drinking, playing beer pong, setting new high scores on games. But he is boarding a rotary-wing aircraft in the hopes of taking a few more souls off his planet during this period of darkness. Few have seen or done what he has, and fewer still do it with the ferocity that he does.
He is a Ranger. He is the hammer some nights, the scalpel others. His work is carried out with unprecedented speed, surprise, and violence of action. He does not seek glory, nor recognition of any kind. He lives by a Creed, but for his brothers. He is satisfied knowing that he is doing exactly what needs to be done.
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on April 14, 2014.
Marty Skovlund, Jr. is a veteran of the 1st Ranger Battalion and Syracuse Recruiting Battalion, a former small business owner, the author of Violence of Action: The Untold Stories of the 75th Ranger Regiment in the War on Terror (Blackside Publishing) as well as Ranger Knowledge: The Complete Study Guide (St. Martins Press). He is also the executive producer of the award-winning documentary Nomadic Veterans and the award-winning short-narrative Prisoner of War. He is currently working on his third book as well as pursuing a career in film and television.