Fallujah, Iraq.

Probably the most godforsaken city on this enormous sand trap; despite the brilliance of the sun, there was hardly any respite from its rays. Here, at least, there were three things that could be certain: it was impossible to go a day without getting sand in your boots, the place had adopted the scent of a perpetual battlefield, and the fear that all could go to shit at any second was as real as the sun was constant. But wars didn't fight themselves, nor did the politicians who had sent them to this desert hellhole.

A convoy was driving down the road, maintaining a speed somewhere between cautious and pedal to the metal. One truck was carrying a platoon of soldiers to their patrol post. The sand colored, camo clad members of the United States Army chuckled lightly at the thoughts on the entertainment coming at the end of next week. Some have their weapons casually in their laps, while others cradle them closely. But in spite of their smiles and conversation, each one of them is at the ready; but all that training still cannot calm the instincts and the nerves.

KA-BAM!

An explosion from the front shakes the world in a deafening fireball. There are screams from fleeing civilians and shouts of shock from the startled soldiers. They leap out of the truck as it skids to a halt; from amidst the chaos a voice cries out:

"RPG!"

A second explosion shakes the world; the rocket smashing into a nearby building vanishes in a cloud of dark smoke, raining glass and rubble onto the street. Gunfire erupts from down the road, shrouded faced men popping from behind windows and baring down on their AK-47's. The soldiers duck behind the cover of their vehicles, their M4A1's belching fire in retaliation.

~o Name: Pvt. Codie Lewis o~
~o Location: Dinwiddie, Virginia, 2 months earlier o~

"Why in the hell would this lousy-ass government send an idiot like you overseas? Huh? What possible use could you be to the army?!"

Codie let the words of his father wash over him; he had only come to say goodbye, but of course, he had to make this one more shot at his son before he left. Life here had never been easy, especially since Codie's mother passed away, leaving him with a father who neither knew he had a son at that point, nor cared at all about the point. He only cared about three things: his welfare checks, having his fridge stocked with booze, and making sure that he never missed an episode of Judge Judy.

"Well, you never know" said Codie disinterestedly, having spent the better part of eight years learning to ignore half the things that came out of his dad's mouth "Maybe they'll have me spit shining boots."

"Don't get cute with me, you son-of-a-bitch!" he shot back heatedly; Codie glanced down at his watch: only two o'clock in the afternoon and already he was drunk…not quite his record. "This country is fucked up enough without garbage like you defending it."

"This country needs help, Dad" said Codie, his temper flaring from the shot at his mother "and assholes like you aren't going to doing anything about it, so it's up to garbage like me."

He quickly ducked, avoiding the bottle aimed at his head, which hit the wall and shattered spectacularly.

"DON'T YOU TALK TO ME LIKE THAT!"

"Yeah, whatever" said Codie rudely, heaving his bag onto his shoulders, "I've got to get going, I'll see you in a few months."

Despite himself, Codie actually let a chuckle escape him, chased by his father's final retort ("BY ALL MEANS, LET THE DOOR HIT YOU ON THE WAY OUT!"). However, waiting outside the house, was someone Codie genuinely wanted to say goodbye to. She was a short, brunette woman with wire-framed glasses on her face. Vicki was smiling sardonically

"He's in a good mood."

"Who knows, maybe he'll actually miss me."

He curled his arms around her, taking in the pineapple scent of her hair, choking back the thought that he would be away from her for all that time. She looked him in the eyes, caressing his cheek, the glint of the diamond on her ring shining in the afternoon sun.

"Be careful, okay?"

He nodded "I will."

~o Present Day o~

Codie slapped another mag into his weapon, the operating rod snapping back into place with a helpful 'shik-shik'. Another rocket whistled shrilly and then burst over his head; drawing back only for a second before leaning from behind his cover; aiming down the sights, Codie felt the sharp kick of his M4 in his shoulder as he unleashed return fire.

Pulling back behind cover as four of the jihadists turned their attention on him, he forced a deep breath as bullets tore into his cover.

What the hell was he doing? Why was he fighting this insanity? Every basic instinct was telling him to get as far away from there as possible, so why did he stay?

Images raced across his mind: of children playing happily, of friends laughing and joking…of a bespectacled Hawaiian journalist. All of them seemed so far, but they were also cathartic to the terrified young man. They seemed to light a fire in him, pushing him past his fear of death as he slid another cartridge into his weapon and threw himself back into the fight.

One jihadist fell in a mist of red…two more…five more came in their place, all screaming as they bore down on their own assault rifles. It was like someone had turned on a faucet, and all of the Taliban was pouring down on them.

"GET TO THE BUILDING…SEVEN O'CLOCK…GO, GO!" screamed a voice from behind; in his peripheral vision, Codie could see the stocky bulk of Sgt. Jason Keating throw forth his arm. A tiny, black dot soared through the air and bounced once off the ground; Codie threw himself back behind his cover, hands over his ears!

An earsplitting blast bellowed from the direction of his enemies; all of whom screamed in agony as the frag dissolved and blasted into them.

Pushing off into a run, Codie tore down the road, following his teammates to their new base of cover. He could see the Staff Sergeant blasting the door open with his shotgun.

Codie screamed as something as small as a tack hit him in the back with the ferocity of a truck; something hot and wet trickled down his back. A second, booming roar lit up the air, and the boy screamed again, dropping the dirt, clutching his leg.

It was pain passed any attack, verbal or physical, his father had ever dealt out. He felt himself flush as he saw red stain the street. His eyes flew upwards, seeing his teammates breaching the door, leaving him behind. However, the familiar boots ran past him, skidding to a halt. Codie looked up at his fellow private, his eyes pleading, doing his best to hide the pain and fear on his face.

The Private, Josh Clark, stared back with a contemplating look…

~o Name: Pvt. Joshua Clarke o~
~o Location: Colonial Heights, Virginia, 2 months earlier o~

"OUCH! JOSH, YOU JERK!"

"Shut up, you know you're going to miss me."

The look of outrage on his brother's face was one that Josh had always found amusing. However, standing there decked out in his gear, he still warranted disapproving looks from his mother.

"Joshua, will you please grow up?"

"Mom relax, this is going to be over before you know it."

"Josh," said Dad sharply; the young soldier rolled his eyes at the familiar tone. He was twenty-three years old, why did he still talk to him as though he were a naughty ten-year-old. "This isn't a game son. War is nothing to joke about."

"Here we go again" thought Josh, struggling to keep from rolling his eyes. This lecture came so often that he could almost recite it by heart.

"The military is going to make a man out of you, Josh. Maybe seeing what's over there will change your tone."

"Yeah, sure Dad" he said curling his arms around his parents necks; grabbing his bag, he took one last opportunity to rumple his brother's hair again ("DANG IT, JOSH!"). Waving them goodbye one last time, he couldn't help roll his eyes. Nothing was going to happen…

~o Present Day o~

"C'MON, GET SOME, YOU UGLY MOTHERFUCKERS!" shouted Josh, baring his teeth and spraying bullets towards his enemies. Despite the action hero moment, he allowed himself a moment to marvel at the impressiveness and stupidity of his actions.

Why in the name of God was he risking his neck for someone he barely even knew, let alone even liked? Codie was just as worthless as every other Private he'd trained beside, and nowhere as reliable of a shot. Josh stared down at his teammate, feeling the blood drain from his face at the sight of all the red staining the road; hadn't he answered the call of duty same as himself? When his country needed him most, he didn't run away…now he was bleeding for that very country; that was enough him. Josh moved slowly, swapping cartridges to keep his numerous enemies suppressed, he slung the weapon across his shoulders, kneeling next to his writhing brown haired comrade.

"Codie!" he said, grabbing Codie's arm and curled it around his neck "Hang on buddy I've got you!"

Codie groaned as he was hoisted upward over Josh's shoulder in a fireman's carry, but Josh persisted. He felt his face redden, sweat dripping down his nose, but with his ally across his shoulders, he pushed forward and ran. His brother had usually told him, at least, once a week that he was an idiot, but Josh never believed him until he was running down the road, carrying an injured soldier, defenseless from the Taliban insurgents firing at him.

He ducked behind an abandoned vehicle, letting a particularly accurate volley barrel into the cars fender that than into him and Codie. He glanced upward, seeing the gunfire issue from the windows of their target; they were less than twenty yards away, if there was a break in the firefight, then that's when they'd make a break for it!

Codie moaned in pain.

"Hang on Codie, we're almost there!" But the heavy fire did not subside actually it seemed to intensify, if that were possible. Even worse, it seemed to turn its focus back on them; Josh reactively threw himself over his injured comrade.

A chorus of assault rifle song sang out loudly from very nearby; Josh looked up and grinned at the sight of his squad moving from their position to give them support fire. One of their numbers broke off from the rest to charge towards them.

"He looks bad" said Pvt. Michelle Johnson, eyeing Codie very seriously.

"He's been shot" said Josh quickly "Give me a hand."

The two of them each grabbed one of Codie's arms, slung them around their necks and moved together, dragging him inside.

~o Name: Pvt. Michelle Johnson o~
~o Location: Prince George, Virginia, 2 months earlier o~

It was always hard, saying goodbye, but nothing hurt worse than to be saying it to your child. Michelle was squatting down, doing her best to not break down in her driveway, as she held her sobbing seven-year-old.

"Momma please don't go" whined Alicia, tears streaming down her face. Michelle stroked her daughter's braided hair.

"Hey," she said soothingly "We've talked about this. Your momma's going to be just fine; trust me, my tour will be over before you know it."

Alicia hiccoughed as she released her mother, looking as though she'd never smile again.

"C'mon" said Michelle encouragingly "Be brave for Daddy, and let me have a smile before I go."

The girl sniffed but gave a brave attempt at curling her lips. Mother and daughter hugged one last time before she pushed up to her fullest height. He husband, Ola (a dark skinned man in a t-shirt), smiled as he embraced her.

"Be safe, for all of us" he said in a slow, deep voice.

Michelle kissed him on the cheek and nodded; as she turned to leave, a hand tapped her shoulder. Ola was smiling and offered out his arms. She hadn't realized that her arms were still full, but not from her bag or gear. Taking the advice she had given Alicia not a minute ago, she took in a deep breath and handed her sleeping infant son back to his father.

She choked, eyes brimming with tears. It was hard to be asked to leave behind what seemed so recent. Still Michelle scooped up her bag and tossed it into the truck; blowing kisses to her family all the way, the tears finally fell as she pulled out of the driveway and they disappeared from sight.

~o Present Day o~

The house was cramped but perfect for their needs, the shade providing the added bonus of shading them from the heat of the sun. They eased Codie onto the dusty sofa, but Michelle quickly took post at the window, her M4 spitting fire as her squad filed back into the building.

As her weapon clicked empty, Michelle reached for another clip, however, she found nothing left in her reserve. Pvt. West had taken post opposite her and had taken over where she'd left off.

"Toss me a Mag!" she shouted, her hand extended towards her squad mates. Josh, who was still knelt over Codie, reactively reached for his own pouch.

"Last mag, make it count!" he shouted tossing the little clip. Michelle snatched it out of the air and quickly slapped it into place. She threw herself against the wall as it burst into dust; why the hell was she doing this? She was a wife and a mother, what in the world possessed her to do another tour? But looking around at her teammates, she immediately felt ashamed; hadn't they families too? Weren't they here fighting to protect what they loved just as much as she was?

"Overlord," Capt. Velez shouted into his radio "This is Hunter Four-Three, we've been ambushed by Haji's, we're pinned down and we've got one injured, over."

The radio was silent for a moment before the deep, comforting voice of Overlord came back "Roger that, Hunter Four-Three, what's your position, over."

"We're holed up in a building, south, south-east, of the main plaza; we're tight on ammo."

"Copy that. Stryker Team's got a gun-truck 6.5 kilometers west of your position. ETA is ten minutes. We need you to hold your position and wait for extraction, over."

Captain Velez looked ready to throw something, but stifled his thoughts and replied tersely "Copy all, over."

As the Captain turned away swearing loudly, Michelle found herself privately agreeing. With the limited ammo that they had, ten minutes was the same as asking them to swim across the desert.

Priming her M4, she stuck the barrel out the window and squeezed the trigger. One insurgent…three insurgents…they dropped like flies if they crossed her line of fire. However, even she would admit their training was fairly impressive, as they dodged and weaved across obstacles as masterfully as they would have. Eight insurgents…eleven insurgents…but to Michelle's horror the gun roared one final time before giving a gut wrenching clicking of an empty mag.

"I'M OUT" she bellowed dropping her rifle and switching for the .45 at her hip. However, the gun had barely been drawn when something hit the wall outside; Michelle couldn't see it at first, but saw it rolling. The small black bulb.

"GRENADE!" someone screamed, but there was a deafening blast and everything disappeared in a cloud of rubble and dust.

~o Name: Sgt. Jason Keating o~
~o Location: Fort Lee, Prince George, Virginia, 2 months earlier o~

Jason sighed as he readied himself; to a career soldier such as himself, going back for another tour came almost as quickly as the end of a three-day weekend. As he laced up his boots however, he noticed something in the corner of his eye.

Tall, thin, long honey-blonde haired, his wife glared at him; her purse on her shoulder and a suitcase in her hand.

"Where are you going?" asked Jason quickly, abandoning his half tied bootlace. Her gaze did not waiver, but instead she spoke strongly:

"I'm going to my sisters."

"Oh, how come you never said anything about visiting-"

"-I'm not going for a visit, Jason" she snapped "I'm moving out."

The news reared nothing but a moments silence; Jason stared at her as though she had just slapped him. Katherine turned on her heel and stalked off down the hall.

"Katherine!" said Jason, regaining his voice "Katherine, wait a second!" He barreled out of the bedroom and down the hallway, catching her as she crossed the tiny living room. "Kat what's going on, why are you doing this?"

"WHY AM I DOING THIS?" She raged dropping her luggage "HOW CAN YOU ASK ME TO STAY?! YOU DISAPPEAR FOR MONTHS, SOMETIMES MORE THAN A YEAR, AT A TIME AND YOU EXPECT ME TO WAIT AROUND FOR THE DAY THEY TELL ME YOU'RE DEAD.

"I CAN'T LIVE LIKE THIS ANYMORE JASON!"

"What are you talking about" shouted Jason feeling his temper rise "I fight to protect our country, I fight to protect you. I'm sorry if you feel neglected but this is my job!"

This was, evidently, the wrong thing to say.

"SO YOU'RE JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER GUY, WHO PICKS HIS WORK OVER HIS WIFE!" Katherine grew quiet, huffing large deep breaths. "I was going to offer you a choice: the army or me…but it looks like you've made your choice."

Snatching up her bag, she moved down the door and slammed it shut. Jason called out to her, but she did not turn back around and disappeared down the steps.

~o Present Day o~

Consciousness returned to coughs as loud as the insurgents screaming outside. Jason could feel all of the dirt and grit on his face, and a startling acrid taste in his mouth. He gave himself a hefty shake, causing rubble to fall out of his hair. The house was a wreck, the front wall had a large hole blasted into the side, while the sitting room had been devastated from debris.

He spat blood from his mouth "Anyone still with me?"

The pile of rubble moved slowly, and a pair of bodies emerged; Michelle was among them, Pvt. West the other, both were covered in grit and looked deeply shocked but were otherwise fine. However, looking around the room, the others were not so fine. Lopez, Gaines, and Volker were all slumped against the wall, and bodies shredded by the shrapnel. Pvt. West gasped, wide-eyed and dirty hand covering her mouth; Jason turned quickly and words failed him altogether. The Captain was laying face-down on the ground, a large dent in the back of his helmet, blood leaking from underneath as though he were a squashed tomato.

Michelle pushed to her feet and moved swiftly towards the overturned sofa and flipped back over. Two groaning bodies fell out onto the floor; as much as he wanted to sigh in relief, Jason couldn't find the ability to. Josh rolled on the floor, clutching his bloodied and mangled arm, while Codie remained pale and deathly still, and his face shining with blood from where the shrapnel had slashed it (Michelle breathlessly declaring that, despite all impossibility, he was still alive).

Captain Velez radio was going off loudly to his left "Hunter Four-Three, what's your status? Hunter Four-Three do you copy? Do you read me, over?"

Pushing himself over to his fallen commander, Jason stripped the little radio from his vest.

"This is Hunter Four-Three, Sgt. Jason Keating reporting in."

"Where's your Captain, Sergeant?" Overlord's voice was stern; despite being nearly 30-years-old, Jason had to fight back his intimidation.

"Wasted sir," he said "along with half the squad. Overlord we need a way out ASAP, over."

The radio was silent, opening us all up to the sounds of fast spoken Arabic outside the building. Jason held his breath, staring from each of his comrades, the nerves building in their faces reflected his own. Suddenly the radio blared to life again

"Roger that, Stryker Team's gun truck is meeting up with a convoy that will extract you and your team back to base. ETA 3 minutes, over."

"Roger all, Overlord" said Jason pushing himself onto his feet, however he caught sight of Codie and Josh (who was pushing away Pvt. West as she bound his arm). "Overlord our cover is blown, and we've got two men down. Haji's are still all over us, we have to get out now."

"Affirmative Hunter Four-Three, you need to get to the hotel down the street. We can get you within range of a sniper team. Confirm, over."

Jason had moved as Overlord spoke, gently easing Codie (who whimpered in pain) onto his shoulders and ordered Pvt. West to assist Josh "10-4 Overlord, over and out!

"Listen up" he said turning towards the others "Our target is the hotel down the street. Be smart with your bullets, we don't have many left! You two, on my six" Jason pointed at Josh and Pvt. West "Johnson, you're on point. We move on my mark!"

They all stood by the door, the voices outside growing closer, Michelle was at the ready staring back at him. Jason sighed privately; how the hell did he get into this mess? He was leading a group of people he'd barely known six months and to safety from bloodthirsty Al-Qaeda insurgents that wanted them dead. And for what? He had nothing to go back to, nothing waiting for him back stateside. But glancing at each of his teammates (including the one on his shoulder, bleeding all over him), it occurred to him: they did have something. And it was his job to get them all home…

"NOW!" Jason shouted at the top of his voice. They moved together, Michelle kicking open the door, and moving back out into the Arabian sun. Racing the bullets, Codie flapping on his shoulder, the remaining members of Hunter Four-Three charged towards their goal.

~o One Year Later o~

Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

It was one of the most somber places, but peaceful among the rolling sea of emerald and its crashing waves pallid marble gravestones. The endless rows of history that painted our nation red with their sacrifice lay here in eternal memoriam. Even today, these grounds continue to be filled with the sacrifices of the brave men and women who protect our freedom.

A teary-eyed woman moves down on the rows accompanied by two men and a family of four. At last they come to a halt in front of one specific wave in the sea. The teary woman stares down at it before collapsing to her knees, shaking with fresh tears.

CODIE J. LEWIS

PVT

US ARMY

AFGHANISTAN

IRAQ

SEPT 14 1990

JUN 8 2011

Michelle, stands with her family, stony faced but holds her daughter close, placing a comforting hand on Vicki's shoulder (Ola watches on with Tyler in his arms).

Jason stares down from her to the stone…if only he had been quicker, then maybe Codie would still be here. He makes no comment (sarcastic or otherwise) for the tears been shed to his right.

Josh keeps his tear-filled eyes glued to the gravestone. His mind races with so many questions, the most prominent being: why couldn't it have been him? Wasn't losing his left arm punishment enough for being a jerk, but why take Codie? And to see his poor fiancée mourn him, it just wasn't fair.

One year had passed since their escape in Fallujah, the memories of that day have and never will fade. The three remaining members of Hunter Four-Three exchanged looks; each stood at attention, their right hands angling upwards, resting on their eyebrows in a salute. As Vicki's cries filled the air, the mournful anthem of Taps danced ephemerally across the stillness.

To many of us, they are the faceless defenders of our homeland. When, in reality, they are no different from the rest of us. They sacrifice their safety and, sometimes, their lives so that we may live a life of freedom and dignity. Though time may forget them, these men and women are heroes.

In honor of Memorial Day, I wanted to have this finished and ready. I realize that it's probably not one of my better written stories, but I'm pleased and proud of how it turned out. But here's to the soldiers, wherever they may be, of the United States military. Thank you for your service.