The Tenacious Sniper

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: War and Military  |  House: Booksie Classic

The story brings into light the struggle and strife of war through the eyes of an ordinary young man on the aftermath of his deployment to Iraq. After being embarrassingly fired from his meager-earning job at the gym, Mark's life takes a wild turn when he decides to join the army. This piece of literature was inspired by the accounts of the brave Americans risking their lives to serve their country and brings into light the values that matters the most - Country, Honor and Duty.

The Tenacious Sniper

 

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BY  MUNASIB HOSSAIN

The alarm clock started buzzing vigorously as the first rays of morning light shone out majestically through the misty layer of clouds that covered the horizon. Mark Hughes lazily rolled about in his warm cozy bed stretching out his long aristocratic fingers in search of the clock. However to his frustration, like every morning, it was kept just beyond his reach.  After a few minutes of hard-endured struggle to keep the annoying noises out, poor Mark was left with no other option. He got out of his comfy bed, turned off the alarm clock and groaned as his warm feet hit the cold ground.

 

His well-toned body, broad shoulders and muscular features looked stunning in the broad daylight as he stood out in the balcony, sniffing the fresh air outside. His dominant character and defiant attitude were somewhat scrupulously reflected in his appearance.  

 

As he gradually crouched to take a pair of slippers out from under his bed, a shiny metallic medal slipped out from beneath his crew shirt glistening brightly in the morning light. It was a souvenir of his father's - the man who has bravely given up his life for the sake of his country. Although it reminded Mark of the greatest tragedy he ever had to encounter in life, it also served as a memoir  to the man he considered his greatest hero. Despite growing up without the love and support of his father, he had always considered his old man to be an example to emulate, a symbol of everything that made you a respectable man - courage, loyalty and patriotism.

He took the shiny medal into his palms and held it against the broad daylight, scanning the meticulously crafted engravings on its circular face.

General Adam Hughes ( 1959- 1974)

U.S Armed Forces . Served in the Vietnam War

Martyred in Saigon, Vietnam

 

The medal was given to Mark's mother, Anna in honor of her husband's exceptional services to the nation. A young boy at the time, Mark could vaguely recall how his mother reacted when  two army officers arrived at their doorstep to give her this heartbreaking news  A young woman at the time, Anna had neither the patience nor the maturity to deal with a situation like this.

 

Overcome by the sadness of this tragic news, she had decided to throw away this medal into a pile of junk , vowing never to touch it again.

 

Mark had to learn early on in his life that everything had a price. The death of his father had torn the family apart, and Anna had to fight tooth and nail to make the ends meet; even getting her son through college. Nevertheless, Mark doubted if she would ever forgive the army for what they had taken away from her.  It wasn't until he was in college that Mark discovered the aluminum medal among some thrown-away junk in a rusty drawer lined with cobwebs.

 He went  into an ecstatic frenzy when he found out what it really was. He hooked it up with a chain, and wore it like a locket around his neck - and that where it stayed ever since.  

 

 

 Just past his teens and a recent graduate from college, Mark made a meager sum of money by working as a fitness trainer at the local gym.

 

As far as memory went, Mark had never been a sincere student. He knew he wasn't anywhere near gifted when it came to studies but even so, the jolly young lad had never bothered to  try  to make it up with his hard work. As a high schooler, Mark spent his late nights drinking at pool parties and hanging out with friends.

 In fact, not dropping out of college still seems like a miracle to him.

But now, he often wondered whether it would have made any difference . Despite being an  engineering  graduate and having put out more than a dozen CVs to  IT companies across the country,  Mark couldn't manage a decent job anywhere.

 

As soon as he began school, Mark knew his passions lay elsewhere. Even as a child, young Mark was defiant in putting out to the world that he didn't really care. A lively and adventurous teenager, Mark would often join some of his rowdy friends on a trip along the countryside, daring each other to do stunts or anything out of the ordinary that they could think of. On one such adventure, one of  Mark's friends had managed to borrow a hunting rifle from his grandfather and so they decided to spend the evening trying to shoot down some migrating birds. Despite an ample number of tries none of his friends could shoot anywhere near where those magnificent birds flocked the sky, but when Mark's turn came, something amazing happened.

 

On his maiden attempt, the bullet from the shotgun missed the bird only by a few inches, spurring past its broad, elegant wings. As he pulled the trigger for the second time and got unexpectedly  close again, he could confirm that it wasn't mere luck but a talent he never knew he had . In fact, he himself was taken by surprise at how subtle his target was. Two attempts later, when he finally managed to shoot down a later from some 50 feet away, everyone knew that there was something special about this lad. By the end of their shooting session, Mark had taken down an astonishing 5 birds.

 

Inspired by the events of that day, Mark had decided to mould this talent of his into an asset. He knew he was gifted and he wanted to make the most out of it.

 

Young and fresh out of the pack,  Mark was his own motivation and results started pouring down like rain in the Amazon.  Soon, the shooting ranges and the gyms became the pastures of this young lad's biggest passions. However, quite pathetically these hobbies also led him astray from the real purpose of a boy his age - education . Back in his college days , Mark was leading a life every teen would only dream of - partying late into the night and sleeping through the day. Bunking classes and missing college lectures became a common routine.  Nowadays it seemed that he was more than just paying the price for his reckless actions.

 

Nevertheless, he had to move on, and so he decided to take the one decent job that he qualified for and became a fitness trainer.

 

This morning,  his mind was still fuzzy, from the remnants of an unusual dream being chased away by  sirens of the alarm clock. He could recall fragments of a rather intimidating vision - a wounded soldier, a host of army tanks rolling over corpses that lay rotting in the streets and a young child screaming as he was being forced away from the grasps of his parents. Even though these sort of dreams were peculiarly common for Mark, this one was particularly frightening and a more vivid version of his usual nightmares. He could still hear the echoes of the child's cries as he was being snatched away by men whose faces were draped in scarves. He couldn't really make out the what this dream had really meant,  but, in a way, he was glad he had forgotten most of it.

 

Swaying from side to side, he haphazardly made  his way through the dimly lit hallway and into to the bathroom .Turning on the warm water, he rubbed his sore eyes with the back of his hand one more time and peeked a glance at the huge grandfather clock that stood down in the hallway. His half-closed  eyes  widened into a look of unmistakable dread as he watched the shorter of the clock's hands creep slowly towards the 9 hour mark. He knew all along that he was going to be late, but this time, it  by a long way off. Racing against time, he hastily opened his cupboard doors and changed into the first set of clothes  he could get his eyes on.

Wondering  what excuse he would make up this time for being late, he grabbed a cup of hot ,smoking coffee and raced down the stairs. Hopping into his car, he pulled  it out of the parking lot and swept through neatly mowed driveway. Even though it had only been a month since he took up his current job at the gym, the young man has been testing the patience of the otherwise calm and composed  supervisor with his ridiculous sense of punctuality and arrogant antics.  Mark had been warned several times before, that keeping his clients waiting was not in line with the gym's  commitment and terms of service but he never budged. His late arrivals continued and so did the  disgruntled faces of supervisors and complaints from frustrated clients. He knew he was playing a risky game and as he glanced at his car watch,  Mark really had to wonder how far he could push the limits of tolerance before the balloon explodes.  As he pulled his car into the parking just outside the gym, Mark tried imagining the supervisor's epic reaction - fuming rage, mounting frustration and  the same arid lecture that he jibber-jabbered every time someone arrived after eight in the morning - and as so far Mark had been his biggest victim. After a brief hesitation on the threshold, Mark swung open the doors with confidence and went in. He was slightly taken aback to find the supervisor standing right in front of him, with his bushy eyebrows and his short-grown beard that made him look like a character right out of a comic cartoon.

 Just as Mark was about to blurt out one of his meticulously crafted excuses as to why he was late, the supervisor beat him to it. " Save your breath," he shot out sharply, drawing several heads in their direction as an ominous silence fell over the place. Like always, he seemed to be in an epic rage but  this time, there was an unusual edge to his voice and Mark instantly knew something big was going on " We have had enough of your goddamn excuses ! So since you seem to be having so many problem recently", he continued , raising his voice, " we thought it would be a good idea to relieve you of the burden of turning up here every day. In other words. You're fired ! "  

This was exactly what Mark had feared all along , but even so, he was taken by surprise when the words were actually put to him . He stood there, dumbfounded, not knowing what to say.. He could feel all the eyes staring at him and all the heads turned his way. Mark's face flushed red as he stood there, rooted to the ground ,sweat pouring down his forehead. He instinctively wanted to fight back but with the ego he had, he said not a word.  Convincing himself that it wasn't worth it, he simply turned around and left the place, never to come back again. The ride back home was disappointing to say the least. Mark felt enveloped in an anguish of grief and regret. He was unemployed again and feeling more like a refugee hopping from camp to camp than anything else. He had his chances, and he knew he had to move on - after all, it was the only option.  

He couldn't really feel his feet as he climbed the long flights of stairs to his apartment on the 3rd floor. After reaching home, he slumped down on the spongy sofa and turned on the TV as was his routine ; but this time he came home a bit earlier. Today was just one of his bad days. Browsing through some mainstream TV channels, something typically unusual caught his attention. It was a featured CNN reporting on "The War in Iraq" . Although he was initially planning on sitting back and enjoying some classic HBO shows, something made him halt up and hear what this reporting had to say . An elegantly dressed presenter was putting the words flamboyantly into flow in front of a giant poster of George Bush shaking hands with an American soldier in Iraq.

 

 

The reporter read out in a classic news reading tone :

"The nation's top military officer said yesterday that more U.S. troops are needed in Iraq to tamp down an increasingly violent insurgency posed by Saddam Hussein's loyalists, but the Pentagon does not have sufficient forces to send because they are committed to the serving in the war in Afghanistan. Fearing that the Iraqi war  may go on for longer than expected, the Defense Minister has called on eligible volunteers  to offer their services to the U.S army. In response, recruiting camps were set up across the country.  At one such recruiting camps in Missouri, Florida , we witnessed an inspiring scene.

 

A picture of a man with a prosthetic limb appeared on the screen as the voice of the presenter continued on the background.

This is Alan, a veteran with a prosthetic leg begging the officers at the  recruitment camp to let him re-join the army. The 47-year old war-hero returned to his homeland with a severed leg after serving his third tour in Vietnam.

 

Upon hearing the word "Vietnam", Mark shuffled around in his sofa and sat up straight .  After all that had happened to him, so early in his life, he couldn't stop thinking about his father and imagining how his life would have been had he lived on. He wondered whether this man, Alan,  had fought alongside him too.

" In spite of having already served his country in the Vietnam War " , the reporter continued, " Alan, now barely able to make his own living, wants to re-join the army and serve his country yet again - something which our young generation may find shocking. According to the United States Bureau of Labor and Statistics , just 1% of the American population serve in the military today, a number that has come tumbling down in recent years. When asked about a possible motive, Alan replied that you don't need a reason to fight for your country; you just need to love your country.

Alan reminds us of his old days when people dreamt of joining the army.  But now as ailing America calls on its citizens to stand up on its defense, we have to ask ourselves the question - Is it the lack of national patriotism or faltering bravery that has made our young men so hesitant in answering the nation's call to arms.

 

 

  The reporting had left Mark open-eyed staring into blank space. He was touched and inspired. Mark was one of those people who knew what being a hero really meant because like this man, Alan, his father was one too. As a child, Mark had always wanted to be like his father, a man of honor, courage and bravery who fought for his country. But he had never considered it as a viable option. This reporting wasn't anything much out of the ordinary but it had touched him so deeply, probably because he himself was so connected to this world of wars. He then remembered the dream he had that very morning about soldiers and wars. Was it a sign ? Destiny fulfilling itself ? Was he really meant to be a soldier? Born to serve his country ? Mark wondered with buzzing curiosity.  He felt as if the whole dilemma of his life was solved, flashing right before his eyes . All he needed to do was to join the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle and wait for the magic to happen.

He pulled out his father's medal from the under his shirt and squeezed it in his palm. Would he be following his dad's footsteps like he had always dreamt of ? Or would he live like an ordinary man.  He had to make a choice - and this time, he decided, it wouldn't be about money or fame, but the things that  really mattered to him.

He put his options on the balance. If he chose to be a soldier, there would risks, pain and hardships unlike anything that he had ever faced before, but his name, like his father's  would be etched on the war memorials to be remembered for ages to come. It was a shot at greatness, an opportunity to become the hero as the world knows it.

However, if he chose otherwise, and followed the path billions other have done, he would be nothing out of the ordinary. And as far as things were going, Mark felt that this life wasn't really meant for him. 

As the world had broken around him today, he had to turn a corner and move on. It wasn't a tough choice. He came to realize that all his life, all the doors were  closed, not because he was doomed to fail but so he could find the right one and fulfill his destiny. He had the perfect body, a bull's strength and most importantly love  for his country. He slowly came to  realize that he didn't need to choose anything at all ; that the stage was already set for him. He only had to follow his father's footsteps.

The next day, Mark smiled as he walked out of an old Army recruitment camp and into the bright California sun. Unlike many of the volunteers, he didn't need a interview to get in. Mark was told that he would have to begin his training by tomorrow morning. Hoping for a bit more time, he tried  to negotiate another starting date with the army officials, but instead, he got to learn his first lesson of joining the army - Don't ever argue with a senior official. Walking across the dusty pavement, thoughts about his father filled Mark's head. He wondered whether his dad was watching him from the heavens because Mark knew that he had just made him proud. the  

. Even though he had just taken a life changing decision, Mark couldn't help but think of his parents. He had decided not tell his mother, knowing that after what had happened to her husband, she could not bear to take this news. The decision was already taken, so Mark knew he had no time to waste.

 

At 5 in the morning, when Mark was still in his deep sleep, he received a tap on the door. As he opened the gate and peeked a glance at the hazy figure before him, he was stunned to find an army drill sergeant at the threshold. At first he was wondering what is going on. A military personnel on your doorstep is way out of the usual but then Mark remembered that this was the time most soldiers had to get up.

"Mark Hughes?", he enquired .

"Yes that's me", came the reply .

"You've got 5 minutes. Get ready and come with your luggage downstairs. Your escort is waiting" , said the officer and left immediately without another word.

Precisely 5 minutes later, Mark was standing in front of a truck filled with other young men of his age , who, like him also wanted to join the army. He crammed himself into the congested vehicle, and shook hands with all those he could reach. He knew that they were going to be living with him in the same compound, and so he wanted to make a good lasting impression. Rocking up and down on the uneven terrain, the rickety truck set along in its track as some of the older men started singing the  Spangled Banner out loud.

As the boot camp loomed closer, Mark tried to make out its vague borders stretching out into unmarked grounds. Anyone could see that camp's premises were huge ! The camp was marked off with tough steel fences with a huge iron gate at the entrance. A run-down, derelict building, presumably the headquarters stood in the centre, with algae sprouting on its outer walls. It wasn't, by any means, a  welcoming sight but Mark knew that there was no turning back. 

" This will be your training camp for the next 9 weeks," the officer explained, " After which, you will be placed in the reserve units and your rank will be determined upon experience and tests that you will be taking this week. Unless of course you prove to be extraordinary , you may get accepted into the Special Forces unit which, in case you didn't know, is reserved just for the best". The officer then led him through the a pair of huge iron-wrought gates, a couple of guards, and into the building where he showed Mark his dormitory. There wasn't much to it- it was a small room with a single bed topped with a thin, flat mattress, a set of military  clothes that hung by the window and a pair of boots. The officer wished him luck and left Mark to the privacy of his dormitory - he was glad that he didn't have to share it with anyone because this was now his home .  It was early morning and a booming voice emitted from the loudspeakers echoed across the building.

" ALL TRAINEES DOWN NOW ! MEET YOUR INSTRUCTOR IN THE JOGGING GROUNDS."

It was 6 in the morning and the sun could barely be seen through the mist and fog that covered the grounds outside. Peeking one last glance out of window, Mark left his dormitory and mixed up with the throng of trainees making their way down the stairs. As he walked closer, he could see the enormous field on the horizon opening up towards him, and in the middle was the silhouette of a man with a slouch but bulky posture who stood there awaiting their arrival. He stood silent the whole time as the trainees lined up in front of him and spoke only after everyone's attention was directed at him.

"As we all know, today, you are assembled here to serve your country, your motherland," said the officer stressing each and every word . "Our nation is waging  wars against dangerous forces abroad - enemies who threaten the safety and security of every American citizen. Therefore, to undertake such responsibility, you need courage, loyalty and discipline and that is exactly what we are here to teach you. Next week, we will hold an audition in front of a judging panel to determine your strengths and weaknesses. So now, as for many of you it's the first time, I'm going to explain what you will have to do every day from dawn to dusk".  He went on to explain the routine exercises that they were going to do every morning , demonstrating each one with a level of pure perfection. After the demonstration, Mark and the others were instructed to repeat.  Mark had no problem understanding or doing any of those workouts, but as time wore on, his body started to ache;  but still, he was tougher than that ; he did not want to show his weaknesses. Mark had one of the best-built bodies among his fellow trainees but he was certain that he wasn't the strongest. By the time they had finished, Mark couldn't move his limbs. He lay flat on his back for so long that he lost track of time. During the lunch break, he got to know many of his fellow trainees and headed up to his bunk with some of his newly acquainted friends.  They chatted about  soccer, basketball and some other random topics; Mark was surprised to find that they had so many things in common - perhaps it was these hobbies that had brought them together. In the evening, they had to undergo a more rigorous training specializing on certain skills and by 9 o'clock the whole camp was snoring out loud, except for the few guards who were placed on duty. Even though it had been a tough day, and his body ached all over, Mark felt this is where he really belonged. The first days were always the hardest and he struggled to get up at 5 every morning. Halfway into his first week, full-body combat was introduced into their daily schedules and things started to get a bit rough. Even though Mark was certain that he wasn't the best among the pack, he knew that he could easily come out in the Top 10 without shedding a sweat. Well into their 2nd month, everyone could feel a change in themselves - it wasn't just physical durability but also mental maturity.  The long-awaited tests were due in a week and an ominous, tense atmosphere enveloped the campus. The nervousness escalated when a team of top military inspectors were spotted being escorted into the camp. The test was supposed to determine the weaknesses and talents of each trainee but no one had any idea of what it actually was. Mark couldn't think of a task that he couldn't manage to pull off . In fact, the only weakness he thought he had was lack of teamwork. Throughout the 3 months that he had been there, Mark had never seen any of his fellow trainee's skills stand out.  But deep down, he was a humble lad, never boasting his of merits or trying to stand out from the rest ; He simply waited patiently for the right time.

The big day was up and like many of his fellow trainees, Mark could barely sleep well that night. Like every morning, they woke up and got dressed as the clock struck 5. But this time, they were instructed to go the sergeant's office instead. Mark had never been there and so he waited anxiously amongst the others, trying to guess what awaited them inside. One by one, the long queue of trainees shuffled into the room beyond the half closed door. It took a few moments for Mark to figure out that the names were getting called by alphabetical order. . When Mark's turn came, he slowly made his way past the others and into the room beyond. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the sudden change in light. It was a magnificent hall, covered up with ivory black tiles and a huge painting of the American Civil War adorned the wall . Four men dressed in army uniform were seated on the far right hand side of the room, whispering to one another. In front of him, stood three ornate tables. The first one had a knife in it, the second held a sniper rifle while in the third one was an ordinary pistol.

"Choose", came the order. Mark knew where it came from but didn't know which one of the judges had actually said it. Without thinking for a second time, he walked in long strides towards the rifle and picked it up. If he had one talent, that was going to be it.  Taking a deep breath, he aimed the heavy weapon at a target striped with concentric circles on the wall right in front of him. Resting his index finger on the trigger, he placed his eyes on the scope and fired. A loud  gunshot echoed throughout the room. As he took gun down, and glanced at the target to see how well he had done, he was surprised to find  a gaping hole  only inches away from the centre. He paused, smiled to himself and turned towards the judges. He could see them whispering excitedly to one another. A couple of them even wore looks of stunned amazement. Mark was confident that he had done well but was it enough of an impression ? Finally, one of them spoke up

"  Mark Hughes is it ?" , he enquired.

"Yes, sir ",came the reply.

" Well, frankly, throughout the ten of our experience we haven't seen anyone pick up a rifle and fire on target, let alone getting close to the centre. You are no doubt, special. That's why we all have decided to transfer you to our Special Forces branch in Nevada . Congrats ! ," said the judge. Mark couldn't believe what he was hearing. All he could do was to stare back with a look of stunned astonishment. He left the room in an euphoric mood because this was this was, so far his biggest accomplishment in life. During the next week, Mark had to undergo a rigorous selection test for the U.S Special Forces as recommended by the judging panel and to his delight, everything had gone well. Even though one of the requirements of every SF member was to be resilient in every aspect of war, Mark's outstanding shooting skills had helped compensate for  his other weaknesses.

*******

The next evening, Mark was escorted in an armored vehicle into a lavish military compound, which, to his astonishment was all complete with swimming pools,  Jacuzzis,  tennis courts, football fields and some other high-tech facilities that he had never seen before. But the star of the show that really stood out was a huge, elegantly designed building, painted in vibrant shades of blue and black . It was in fact so big that it could be spotted from miles away. Mark looked in utter amazement as the majestic compound zoomed up on the horizon . He was having a hard time convincing himself that it was actually an army base.  With over 500 acres of kill houses, firearms ranges, and other full-sized obstacles, it looked more like an elaborate movie studio back-lot than a military training range. Sealed off in a remote part of the Nevada desert, Mark never knew that training facilities such as this even existed. As he got off the vehicle and walked briskly past the checkpoints that guarded the entrance, he looked up at the facility before him and beamed in amazement ; he was going to have a great time here. Walking past the hundred yards of green turf towards his designated bunk, Mark's attention instinctively drifted towards some of the junior trainees doing all kinds of mind-boggling stunts, military drills and trainings for guerilla attacks. He had been in the army for quite a while now but this seemed like a whole new level. Special Forces was cooler than it sounded. As he reached his bunk, he unloaded his luggage and laid down flat on his back. The last few months had been a wild ride for him and he knew much more awaited him here. He was glad that he chose to join the military - it was easily the best thing that had ever happened to him. As he lay there daydreaming, an officer entered and informed Mark that his training would begin next week.  He further told him that during the course he would be taking, the main focus would be long range shootings with sniper rifles and man-marking.

*************

A year passed by and Mark was completely unrecognizable from young man that he had been when he first joined training.  He was tougher, smarter and easily the best marksman among the 150 other trainees who attended. During his time in training he had also come to appreciate the values of friendship, companionship and loyalty.  His astute vision, precise targeting and swift shooting had made Mark an invaluable asset in U.S military. Having been assigned to keep eyes on and protect some important senators in Washington last month, Mark had pulled off each one of his assignments with unwavering perfection, recording two out of two possible kills.  But now it was time to showcase his talents on the real battleground and save some worthy American lives. Mark and the others celebrated when they learned  that their first overseas tour would be into the heart of war-worn Iraq, Baghdad.  

Mark and his platoon's deployment to Iraq were looming closer and their training had gotten even more intense over the past two months. As was the practice, just a few days before their deployment, the men were partying wild, getting drunk and enjoying life as much as they could because this might well be their last enjoyment. Everyone could feel enveloped in a sense of mounting nervousness. They all have heard devastating tales of dread and horror from seniors who had just returned from their tours in Iraq and it intimidated them more than anything else. On the day of the deployment, the nervousness and fright had risen to the breaking point so much that two of the soldiers even suffered a nervous breakdown on their way to the army base in Florida where they were supposed to board the aircraft bound for Iraq. It was becoming increasingly hard for everyone, including Mark to control their fears but nevertheless, most of them managed to keep it hidden. It was a dramatic scene as members of the departing platoon took one last breath of their sweet homeland and set route for the challenges that lay ahead. Mark, along with the rest of his team walked briskly up the inclined plane at the rear of the aircraft and sat down on either side, gazing out as the plane's door gradually closed down. As the airplane lifted  into the clear sunny sky, Mark gazed out of the window as the large square houses of downtown Florida shrank to look like colorful  LEGO blocks scattered on sand.

*********

As the huge aircraft carrier hit the ground with a vehement thud, every man on the plane suddenly sat upright as if shocked by electricity. The door opened up and Mark and his team nervously stepped out of the vehicle and into the one of the most dangerous war-zones in the world. Upon arrival, they were greeted by an officer from the U.S Marines who introduced himself as General Kyle Levine - the man in charge of directing their operations.  Raising a hand to shade his eyes from the scorching sun above, Mark scanned his surroundings and stole a first peek of hell. They were in a deserted airport  with its runways covered by a thick layer of sand and the walls of the airport's main compound crumbling away from disrepair. Several armored SUVs, tanks and helicopters were parked haphazardly just across the runway, guarded by a dozen infantrymen whom Mark had never seen before. The general gestured at the nearest helicopter, indicating to them to mount the vehicle. Walking in the general's shadow, Mark paced past the huge aircraft that they had just arrived in and mounted that copter that already had its rotor spinning.

In about ten minutes time, they had arrived at their military base. From first sight, Mark knew that life here was going to be tough.  The base was basically a barren terrain with a dozen tents , a fort-like structure that guarded the base and a safe-house for the storage of ammunition and arms.  There were heavy security at both the entrances and the exits as well as anti-aircraft missiles . Now and then, a ground-shaking grenade explosion could be heard in the distance and  ear-splitting gunshots were merely the run-of-the-mill .  After getting some time to relax following their exhausting  journey, Mark and the others were summoned to the general's camp to discuss the plans for their upcoming operation. It was by far, the largest tent in the base with enough space to accommodate at least 30 men ; the place also held the general's office, his living quarters and a high-security vault that was guarded at all times. When they entered, the lights were dimmed and a blurry image of a bearded man was being projected onto the whiteboard in front of  them. They took a seat as instructed by the general and waited for him to speak.

"This man you see here is Musaab Al Zarqawi  a.k.a "The Butcher" , formerly, a loyalist to Saddam Hussein.", he said, pointing his index finger at the board . "Today, he runs one of the deadliest terrorist troops in Baghdad - the Al Qaeda . Your first mission and priority is to gain intelligence on this man, by going door to door, house to house until you find a hint on his hideout. We have been trying to track him for the last two years but our efforts had  all gone in vain, be it for mere luck or the sheer inefficiency of our troops. But this time, we have got something that we didn't have before - eyes in the sky", he said cheerfully, gesturing to Mark. Mark flushed with pride as several heads turned in his direction with mixed looks of appreciation and envy. The general went on explaining the more shrewder details of their mission strategies as the silent audience listened intently. Mark was tasked to keep watch from a high-rise spot and take down any threats to the Marine convoy who would be patrolling the streets below. The other Special Force troops were assigned to provide backup and assistance during  evacuation.

On the day the plan was about to fold out, Mark woke up earlier than usual and made up his mind to read the Bible; he felt that from all days, today was the day he needed God's blessings the most.

An hour later, Mark was lying flat on his stomach on one of the rooftops with a long, sleek sniper rifle set up in front of him. He kept a vigilant watch on the surrounding area as the Marines' convoy patrolled the streets below, checking and double checking every house on every street they set foot on.

 

  An hour went by without any notable incidents. Then suddenly, Mark spotted the silhouette of a man popping out from nowhere on a rooftop at least a hundred feet into the distance.

"Bearded man. Armed. Within 200 feet radius", Mark said, describing the hostile in a low voice as he held the walkie-talkie to his face.

"Copy.... , shoot target down immediately ! ", cried the Marine chief over the radio.  

Astutely aiming the gun at his target, Mark effortlessly pulled the trigger as he watched the man tumble over the roof's boundary wall and fall onto the streets below with a thud. As he followed the troops deeper and deeper into the city, the job became seemingly harder, even for eagle-eyed marksman. It was his first kill and Mark knew there were more to come.  The broad highways turned into shadowed narrow aisles and the building on its either sides had started to look congested. A few minutes later, Mark spotted two more armed men coming out of a deserted garage and within a mere 5 seconds, they were both  dead on the floor, their blood frozen midway in their veins. After two more of Mark's signature headshots, the troops were given their orders to evacuate and so Mark returned with the rest of the pack back to their base. Thanks to him, there was no fatal casualties but they had ultimately failed to collect any information on their prime target - Al Zarqawi. Nevertheless, Mark was happy to find the general satisfied. Impressed by his pin-point accuracy, a sergeant from the Marines congratulated Mark and had decided to give him a "treat". It was a simple box containing several Mars, Twix and Tobleron bars, but as Mark had already come to realize, these dime-a-dozen stuff were priceless here in these parts of the world.

********

It was 5 in the morning and the first glimpses of sunlight were starting to brighten up the dull night sky. Mark was perched up on one of the rooftops, providing cover as the troops went door to door, in a desperate search for Al Zarqawi. They were told that any military-aged male who remained in the city should be considered a threat. Everything was calm and quiet until Mark noticed a door open up and watched closely as two figures walked out, moving in long rapid strides towards the patrol. Just when Mark was about to end both of their heartbeats in an instant, he sensed that something was not right. As they walked out of the shadows and the first rays of morning light fell upon their faces, Mark was shocked to discover that the short, slim silhouettes actually belonged to a woman and a boy barely into his teens. Even though training had hardened him up and taught him to keep emotions out of the way, it was only human for these sentiments to creep up at one time or the other. This time, he was put to a nerve - wrecking test, posed with the challenge of shooting down an innocent child and woman. But then, the unexpected happened. He watched in horror as the boy pulled out a grenade out of his pockets and continued in his run towards the convoy. Mark knew he had to do the unthinkable or it would cost the lives of many of his colleagues. As the young boy started running toward the convoy with the grenade in his hand, Mark closed his eyes and pulled the trigger as calmly as he could. The boy fell on the pavement, as still as stone. The woman started wailing and running toward the boy, as  he watched her closely. She ran past the boy's body to grab the grenade he had dropped and continued at the convoy. Just as she was about to fling the explosive at it, Mark shot her in the nick of time.  The grenade fell just short of the convoy and exploded, leaving the troops unharmed.

Mark felt as if he had just committed a crime. His heart was beating vigorously, so much that he could even feel the pulses in his arms. His breathing grew shallow and his heart was heavy with the guilt at his own dark deeds. The emotional trauma haunted him for days  and even though he kept insisting that he was just fine, Mark's unusual condition worried everyone, partly because of the irreplaceable post he held among the troops. After setting a record tally of kills within just a single month, rumors have been swirling around in Baghdad that the insurgents have placed a $ 50,000 price upon his head.

" Now I've got to watch my back from you guys too. I bet you are gonna go after that money. Right ? ", Mark said in a sarcastic tone, laughing and joking around with his colleagues.

 Following that day's traumatic events, the general had initially decided to give Mark some time off to recover. However the determined lad was adamant and kept insisting that he was completely capable of carrying out his duties. Out of respect for the young soldier's feelings the General  decided to allow him to go to the battlefield as a part of their ground convoy because he feared that Mark's  lonely over-watch could worsen his emotional condition.

So on their next mission, he set about patrolling the dark shadowed streets of Baghdad accompanied by the Marines as they  continued their frustrating search for Al Zarqawi. Mark had never walked these spooky, deserted part of the city before. The buildings were adorned in gaping bullet holes, with many of their walls crumbling and breaking away from disrepair. Some were missing doors and windows, while others were bombed or burned down to rubble. The signs of the shelling and massacre that struck the city were evident all over.

 

 

Mark wondered how something as tragic as this had been allowed to happen in the first place.  Once the shining beacon of civilization, Baghdad now laid in ruins - an asylum to some of the most hostile extremists on the face of Earth. They claimed that they fought for their religion but Mark often wondered what kind of religion justifies the murder  of innocent lives. To many of his colleagues, serving in the military was nothing more than a mainstream job but  Mark saw the bigger picture. He had always wanted to explore the bare truth beyond the adornments and media censorship ; he had wanted  to make a difference for the better. Carrying out their routine patrols down the streets littered with rubble and blood, the team checked on each and every house that fell on their way, searching for anyone who could provide even a minute hint on Al Zarqawi's whereabouts. Clearing roughly one house every minute, an hour passed by and they weren't any closer to finding Zarqawi than they were at the beginning of their campaign. Frustration started to creep up upon the group; they had searched almost a quarter of the city but their endeavors all went in vain . Everyone felt that the door-to-door strategy clearly was not working and more importantly, it was ineffective and time-consuming. Nevertheless, when you serve in the army an order is always an order, so they continued as instructed. The scorching sun rose up high above their heads heating up their helmets to the point where they  could no longer keep them on. Mark could distinctly notice the heat waves dancing up and down in the distance as they walked past two more houses.

" There ! I see something ! ", one of them suddenly shouted out, pointing to a building two yards away. The marine troops moved in quickly barricading the area, while some of them stayed behind to provide cover. Through the small gap in the window, Mark could see silhouettes moving within the building. They had hit the jackpot !

Following last year's massacre, most of the town were ordered to evacuate amidst rising insurgency in this part of the country. Those who remained were either innocent civilians who couldn't get away at the right time, or Al - Qaeda chiefs with strong connections with Al- Zarqawi. Mark and the others hoped that it would be one of the latter.

With their arms at ready, the captain broke in through the rusted door, leading his troops into the building. It was an ordinary house and apart from some bullet-holes on the walls, it looked rather new and tidy. They could hear a man's voice emanating from somewhere inside the house.  The group dispersed and Mark headed down to the living room along with some other men, straining their ears for the source of the noise. Just then, the chilling cry of a woman rang throughout the house as Mark ran to the guest room to discover a Marine hustling another man down to the floor, his hands pulled behind his back. They searched him and found a gun  tucked in his pocket. The man was screaming out loud, his face red with vituperation as the soldiers kept on  pressing him harder down against the  ground. 

" I didn't do anything wrong! How dare you come into my house and assault me in front of  my family ! ", he shouted in rage. In the room was a woman covered in headscarf, a young girl and 5 - year old boy, all of whom were shocked by what was happening before their eyes. The wife started sobbing loudly as the daughter screamed in fright.  The pandemonium went on for a few moments before the soldiers shouted "Silence!"

" If we want information from him, we have to treat the man with respect in spite of the his suspected involvement with terrorism.  We only need information", Mark whispered to the captain in a low voice so that the others couldn't hear him.

The captain nodded and then gestured to his men to untie him. The man vehemently lunged his arm away from their fragile grips and let his weight down  on the sofa, panting and glaring at  the captain and the others in the room. The woman rushed to her husband's aid, while the daughter ran to bring him water. After a few moment's pause, Mark sat on sofa before him and tried to converse with him  politely.  Noting the embarrassment blatantly etched across his face, he told the others to leave them alone .So now it was just Mark and the other man in the room. Mark learned that the man's name was Hassan and that he was a local who had refused to leave his hometown despite the orders to evacuate .

" We are sorry for everything that had just taken place. I personally apologize for the unfortunate incidents of this evening. We are here to make sure that this country remains safe from terrorists but we cannot accomplish our mission without  help from you", Mark said in a mild tone. He took out a photo of Al - Zarqawi and showed it to Hassan. As soon as his eyes fell on the photograph, Mark noticed fear show up on his wrinkled face.  " Do you know who this man is ? Can you provide us information on his whereabouts ? ", he enquired. Hassan immediately replied that he had never seen the man in the photograph  before but to Mark, the lie seemed obvious.  

" This country is worse than hell - We can keep you and your family safe and we will pay you , in cash. All we want in exchange is information on THIS man," he assured Hassan, pointing to at the photograph.

"How much do you offer ? ", he asked.

"20,000 dollars", Mark replied

Mark watched him as he got up, walked  to the window and pulled the curtains down. After a few moments of hesitation, in a quivering voice, he told Mark about one of Zarqawi's hideout spots, describing the location and the surrounding buildings. The fear in his eyes was evident as he paced up and down the room, revealing his dark secrets.

" He is a very dangerous man.", he said . "If he finds you, he won't only murder you but hang your body on a pole for all people to see. His brutality is beyond imagining.  Do you understand what great a risk I am taking now in giving you this information ?  I am not only putting my life on the line but also my family's ", Hassan said, his face constricted with fear.

"Our gratitude for your help knows no bounds", Mark replied. "We will make your safety our priority. Just hold on a second while I verify the information and get going with the transaction", Mark told him. He took  the walkie-talkie out of his belt and made a call to the base to confirm the information  that he had just managed to pry out of Hassan. The data was verified and the money was negotiated at $20,000 as promised. Mark gave him an assuring look and despite the worries buried in his heart, Hassan beamed in reply.

As the Marines drove back to the base to bring the man his money,  a violent gunfire broke out of nowhere with people throwing grenades and firing rifles from the rooftops . The bullets plummeted on the SUV's roof like hail. Had it not been for their vehicles' sturdy armor, then all of them would be dead in minutes. The captain desperately tried to contact the snipers but received no response. Presuming they were all dead decided to contact the base and ask for backup. Suddenly, amidst all the gunfire and pandemonium on the streets,the car started swaying as the driver's hands fell off the steering wheel. Before even realizing what was happening Mark and most of the others instinctively jumped out of the vehicle as it crashed into a building. With bullets landing all around them, they scurried for shelter inside a partly destroyed building. Mark watched in horror as another of their vehicles burnt to flames. He could see the heads of several  hostiles propped up on the rooftops. Mark tried to take them out, but, pinned down by the gunfire, he

 barely got close. It was then that he realized how crucial his place was in their operations. He wished he was up there in the peace if rooftops, calmly taking down one target after another. Down here, in the thick of the battle, Mark's sharpshooting skills seemed useless.

 

He couldn't bear to see the Marines struggling helplessly in the street. As a member of Special Force amongst a group of "young, twenty-year-old kids" barely out of basic training, Mark felt he had a special obligation. It had been beaten into his head throughout training that "You're the better, more effective warrior.'" That meant he had to go get those soldiers, no matter what.

Mark and the others darted out into the street to the injured men, sprinting twenty yards into a torrent of gunfire.

 He scurried into the storm of gunshots and grabbed one of the injured Marines. The man was screaming in pain from a wound to one of his arms , and worse, a devastating gut shot that had somehow slid below his body armor. With bullets filling the air, Mark began to drag him toward safety.  He focused on the man he was trying to save, doing his best to block out the rounds that danced at his feet and zipped by his head.

Mark tugged and dragged and pulled the wounded man until they both fell backwards into the alley, finally shielded from the guerillas' fire. He felt the Marine's blood all over his hands. He heard the man's anguished screams, "Don't tell my mom that I died screaming like this!" The screaming continued for a few more agonizing moments.

And then it stopped.

 

Mark was relieved to see more troops arrive at the site but he was furious at the backup team for their poor response time.  More than a dozen American lives were taken that day and Mark was one of those lucky ones who had gotten away just fine.  Apart from some shallow bruising to his limbs,  Mark was able to leave the battlefield unscathed. In a way, Mark felt responsible for what had happened that day because it was his own emotional trauma that had prevented him from carrying out his sniping .

 

 

He was really thinking hard about the attack and realization came to play with his head. He thought to himself self that during these attacks one round might get lucky and from then on sleep went right out the window. He was afraid that he would never wake up. It just made him angry that his life was out of his hands - no control over whether he lived or died. So he went to another buddy’s CHU and talked to him. He felt better about it in the end, but it also reminded him about the camaraderie and what it means to have fellow brothers and sisters that will go through it with you and watch your back. Each other is all you have and today , he had tragically lost many of them.

The General was elated on their success as they had managed to gather crucial intel on their prime target's whereabouts but his mood was let down when found out about the unfortunate deaths. That evening, the martyrs were honored, tears were shed and Mark couldn't help but think of his father and the struggles he had faced. He was walking in the same footsteps, but little did he know if he would meet the very same end.

An elaborate plan was laid out for Mark and the other members of his Special Force squad as they prepared to infiltrate Zarqawi's defenses and take him out, dead or alive. This time, Gen. Kyle Levene decided to take no risks, assigning Mark to his specialty of sharp-shooting up in the rooftops. Spying convoys were occasionally dispatched  to those dark parts of town to observe the place and help in mapping down the premises but these were especially risky missions as one wrong move would ruin the entire plan. By the looks of it, Zarqawi still didn't have the slightest clue that the location of his hideout had been leaked. The run-up to the big day was a tense one.
Lives have been taken, and many more wounded and Mark was starting to feel the scars of war set in upon him. He couldn't sleep, suffered from nightmares and the sight of dead corpses floated into his vision, making him shudder. Every time, a gunshot was heard, he couldn't help but think about the life it just sucked out.  On the last day before they had to go in, the whole base went into a partying frenzy. Mark watched his colleagues as they drank and feasted, pretending to be unaware of what laid before them; for many of them, this may be their last drops of enjoyment before they were martyred in the battlefield tomorrow. As for Mark, a thin line separated their enjoyment and the horror of war that laid ahead. He tried but couldn't stop thinking about the man who died in his lap. After the feast the general gave a speech.

" Today you have feasted, but tomorrow you march into the battlefield as brave as a lion. I am proud of all of you for what you have accomplished so far - this is the best team that I have had the honor of leading. Lives have been taken and I can't guarantee whether you will leave the battlefield alive. The hopes on a nation now rest on your shoulders but I cannot force you to fight. Whoever wishes to stay away, can do so without fear of retribution", the General said in an inspiring tone.

" You are about to undertake the most dangerous mission yet. So if you are ready, step forward", he ordered. 

Mark was the first one to do so and soon each and every one of them followed his lead. Even though he wasn't the captain, Mark was held in deep esteem for his bravery, courage and extraordinary skills with the rifle.  

" Very well then. Just what had I expected from you . I am  very proud of you all", the general beamed at them.

" You will dispatch tomorrow at noon. Have a good sleep - it's important. " he said , bid them goodnight and left.

That night, sleep was the last think they could think of. Mark and the others chatted about their families, , the good times they had back  home and basically anything they could think of that would distract them from the frightening thought of war.

 " It would be an honor to have you at my place. After all you are the greatest sniper in this country's history ", one of them told Mark, as he relaxed in his bed, smiling.

" I would love to visit, but after we get off with this war", Mark chuckled in reply.

 Mark didn't know when sleep took over but when he woke up that morning, their bunkhouse was filled with sand and dust swirling around all over the place. As he looked around, he found the others looking just as confused as him. Covering his mouth and nose in handkerchief, he got out of his bed and went outside. It was early morning and he could distinctly spot a towering  sandstorm approaching them. Their impossible mission had just gotten harder.

A few hours later, the whole team was outside coughing and rubbing their eyes with the back of their hands as the scorching sun blazed above them. 

" We cannot scrap this plan now despite the storm. It's too late ", the general said wearily. "The tour ends this week and we cannot afford any other delays. It's now or never - so just get over with it . I am going to ask you one more time - Can you do it ? ", he asked, raising his voice.

" Yes sir ! ", they replied in unison.

Mark put on his body-armor, dressed up in his military uniform and prepared for combat. He and the others got up onto a helicopter which would escort them to the location where Zarqawi and other top Al-Qaeda leaders were presumed to be hiding. In addition, a ground convoy and two other patrolling helicopters were also dispatched to help in their mission. The half-destroyed, deserted houses of Baghdad vanished into the huge stretch of sand below as the copter lifted up into the air and headed towards the danger zone. The sandstorm was getting closer and  a dull opaque mist of dust and sand appeared on the horizon. The timing couldn't have been worse. The entire city below them looked like a ghost neighborhood as if life had been sucked away it from it. The houses were abandoned, shops closed down and the malls destroyed. Its once magnificent mosques were now laid to ruin in the barren city. 

" We're here. Time to get down. ", the pilot said, as the helicopter started descending. One by one, every member of the team, wrapped their hands around a cord, and slid down the rope, landing on one of rooftops.

 

Mark was the last one to go. As he was sliding down the cord, bullets suddenly started to fill the air and loud gunshots could be heard from below. They were spotted! The helicopter started swaying and Mark let go of the rope, landing hard on the rooftop.

They heard the whooshing sound of a missile launching and moments later, the copter blew up in flames, the heat of the explosion blowing against their face. Mark concealed himself behind the boundary wall of the roof and set up the weapon that had made him a hero - his precious sniper rifle. The others made their way down the stairs towards the attackers on the ground. The rooftop was right in front of the building presumed to be Zarqawi's hideout spot.  The storm was getting closer  and the air was already  thick with sand. The gunfire continued as the Al - Qaeda militias firing on randomly at the building which Mark and his team now occupied. He pressed his eye onto the rifle's scope and aimed at the armed men below him. His breathing was shallow and his attitude as clam as ever.  In a simple, swift movement of his finger, two people fell dead on the ground, sending the others into a frenzy. Frightened by what was happening around them, the hostiles started firing on all directions, hoping against hope that one of their rounds might just get lucky."These people are just a bunch of sadistic idiots with guns.", Mark thought to himself. " They do not understand the concept of a bullet's subtle motion, or the value of having family, loyalty to your country or any of the things that matter most in life".  Below, a cross-fire broke out between Mark's platoon and the hostiles as several of the latter fell dead on streets as the pandemonium raged. Mark, laying down flat on his stomach was as calm and composed as ever, even in the thick of the battle. He smiled to himself as he took out a few more of his enemies and cleared the path up for his team to move into the building. With their weapons held up, Mark watched the Marines closely as they crossed the street below and went in. From here, Mark could no longer watch upon and protect his fellow Americans. He considered going in, but a flashback of what had happened the last time he was on ground, drove the thought right out of the window. Instead he decided to continue doing what he was best at. He placed his eye in front of the scope and scanned the horizon. The sun was directly in front of him and its bright vivid light rays made it difficult for him to aim and shoot. The sandstorm made it all worse as an enormous gust of dust moved in towards the area dramatically reducing the visibility. Mark covered his face

with a traditional scarf and pulled out a pair of night-vision glasses so he could see through the mist of dust . Suddenly a loud gunshot echoed through the silent neighborhood as a bullet struck the concrete only inches away from where he was . Mark's heart took a leap and his worry soon turned into an anguish of grief when he realized how close the bullet was to hitting him. Suddenly realization drew in upon him - Someone was targeting him !

Panic started to creep up upon Mark as he into the scope and desperately scanned the horizon for the source of the sound. Mark was sure that the shot was triggered by someone inside the building in front of him, but he couldn't pin-point who it actually was. He searched every window but it couldn't spot anyone. A few moments later another gunshot was heard and right then, an excruciating pain swept through Mark's arm. He was hit and it was pain unlike anything he had ever felt before. The bullet mercilessly tore through his muscle fibers , nerves and ligaments differentiating none from the other. He was just given a taste of his own medicine. Rather than screaming out in agony, Mark steadied himself and tried to think. Suddenly a brilliant idea came up to him; he wasn't sure whether it would work or not but being his only option, he  decided  to give it a try. His severed arm shook with pain as moved around on the rooftop and repositioned his rifle. The sun was now behind him and from this angle, Mark could distinctly observe what lay in front of him without being distracted.  As expected, Mark spotted a glint of light flash. It was the sunlight reflected on the scope of a rifle and Mark instantly knew where his target lay. In the midst of all the suffering and pain, Mark mustered the urge to hold his rifle close to his face and pull the trigger. The hostile's weapon dropped out of the window ; and Mark was partly sure that the man who tried to murder him was no more. The gunshots stopped and his vision started swaying and shifting out of place. He was bleeding excessively and could  neither feel nor move his right arm. Mark laid down on the rooftop and stared up towards the heavens, wondering if it had a place for him.  He thought about how he would meet his father after his soul left the body. He took out his father's medal from under his body armor and held it in his palm, gazing at it.  The peaceful sight was disturbed


Submitted: April 17, 2015

© Copyright 2021 Munasib Hossian. All rights reserved.

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