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  • shanercollinsautho

Short Story: PCI: Pre-Combat Inspection


"PCI: Pre-Combat Inspection" is an excerpt from my unpublished collection ROTC-Land and first appeared in the Sand Canyon Review in 2015




            Cadet Pacheco, naked from the waist up, leaned toward the mirror and held the skin of his chin taut with his palm as he dragged a razor against his throat. His Army ID tags dangled from the chain at his neck and he thought about one of the four Army Ethos: never leave a fallen comrade.

            Pacheco hated the phrase 'dog tags.' because it implied that soldiers were dogs. For two years, he had listened with silent revulsion as cadets called them that. Now that he was a third-year cadet, it was well within his power to make cadets do pushups for such an offense.

            Every contracted cadet was required to wear Army ID tags but no one checked to ensure their accuracy. Pacheco knew of some cadets who wore tags with phony names like John Wayne, PVT James Francis Ryan, and Auddie Murphy. Under the category of religion, Cadet Savage’s ID tag read Jedi Knight.

            Pacheco wore the tags that his grandfather had worn in World War II. His grandfather had been an enlisted soldier in the First Infantry Division. He’d pulled a wounded soldier out of a burning Sherman tank in the frozen forests of Belgium on Christmas Eve. Or Christmas. No one was sure of the timeline. Pacheco had heard the story countless times from his father, uncle, and second cousin. His grandfather had been quiet on the matter all the way to the day that he died of pancreatic cancer seven years ago.



            Captain Chan had recently told Pacheco that never leave a fallen comrade was the most important Army Ethos. He'd been thinking about that a lot because recently, the cadre who ran the UMass ROTC program, had left a fallen comrade, another cadet named Flowers.

            The razor caught on his skin. A dot of blood bloomed beneath his jaw. Pacheco ripped off a square of toilet paper and dabbed at the cut. He wondered if bravery was a hereditary trait. Was it a recessive or dominant gene? He looked at the blood-stained toilet paper and squinted. Did he carry his grandfather's heroism in his own blood? Was it hiding beneath the hemoglobin? What was the chemical breakdown of courage? Its atomic mass? He tossed the square into the toilet and flushed.

            Pacheco's fiancée, Gina, had neatly ironed his woodland camo BDU fatigues. The army Battle Dress Uniform was an old, outdated uniform retired within the real army, replaced with the sleeker Army Combat Uniform. ACUs had Velcro instead of buttons, inserts for knee pads, pockets specifically designs for pens, notebooks, and maps, and did not require ironing. Pacheco would be issued his first pair of ACUs in just a couple months, one of the final milestones before he commissioned as a lieutenant.

            Gina sat in their one-bedroom apartment's loveseat and watched a reality show about grocery shopping. "Thanks, Hon," he said, shrugging into the blouse and buttoning it from the top down.

            She nodded without looking away from the television.

            "Might be back late. More paperwork now that I'm squad leader."

            "Right," she said. "You're filling in for that jerk."

            Pacheco winced. She meant cadet Flowers. Pacheco had never really liked Flowers. Flowers had been obnoxious. He never took ROTC seriously. He said things like dog tags. Pacheco had, when speaking to Gina, called him jerk and worse. But to hear it from her, irked him. He didn't know why.

            He bent down and kissed Gina on the side of the head.

            "Bye bye, babe," she said. An infomercial advertised a knife that could slice through pineapples in midair.

            During the ten-minute drive to the ROTC building, Pacheco kept the radio off. When he got to the building, he parked to the far side of the ROTC van so that anyone standing on the steps of the building wouldn’t see him. Tapping his finger on the cracked leather steering wheel, he lit a cigarette and took a puff. He checked his watch. Five minutes until first squad, first platoon was scheduled to have a PCI.

            Pacheco had been stunned to learn what Flowers had done, but had been even more stunned by the program’s reaction. Or, rather, lack of reaction. Flowers had been kicked out nearly two weeks ago and yet, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Locke, hadn’t said a word about it. He’d had a lot to say about the incident behind closed doors – scuttlebutt had it that there was going to be a major crack-down of drinking within the company. Any underage cadet caught drinking could lose their pay or even their scholarship. And any cadet old enough to drink would get in even more trouble for supplying alcohol to minors. The Colonel had begun, in private, a witch hunt to find out what happened.

            Pacheco had eluded the Colonel’s Inquisition, as it was being called, because Pacheco had more sense than to socialize with other cadets. Don’t shit where you eat. Many of the cadets seemed to spend every waking moment with each other. They drank at the same off-campus bars, planned missions in each other's living rooms, and even slept together.

            Despite all this backroom finger-wagging bullshit, the Colonel hadn’t said one word about the incident to the company. Flowers was at PT on Friday but gone Monday. It was like he had poof, disappeared. A cheap magic trick. Had he ever existed if they all pretended he hadn’t? What was his squad supposed to think? And because he was filling in as squad leader, replacing Flowers, Pacheco knew they'd look to him. He patted his chest and felt his grandfather's tags.

            Pacheco looked at his watch and lit up another cigarette. He was the squad leader now – he could be five minutes late. The PCI wouldn’t start until he got there.

            In two weeks, they would go on a weekend training trip to Fort Devins. The FTX – or Field Training Exercise – was the cornerstone of ROTC. They trained all semester in preparation for this one weekend. The PCI was to make sure everyone had what they needed. Deficiencies revealed, noted, and resolved immediately. Pacheco had the master list in his pocket: equipment that every cadet needed to pack and was responsible for.

Two BDU Blouses

Two BDU Trousers

Three Brown T-Shirts

One Web Belt Harness

Two Canteens

Two Canteen Covers

Two Ammo Pouches

One First Aid Pouch

 And on and on. One hundred and twelve items in all. There was no process for missing cadets. Flowers had been a pain in the ass. But wasn’t he more essential to the squad than a spare pencil or a third pair of OD green socks?

            Pacheco smothered the half-finished cigarette on the pavement. Why was he so upset? Flowers was the weak link. Weren't they technically better off without him? With Flowers gone, he had an opportunity for leadership experience, to prove that he could do a better job, but it didn't make him feel better, and he didn't know why it didn't.

            Inside the ROTC building, cadets sat at the main conference table, rucksacks and Kevlar helmets on the table in front of them.

            “Good evening, everyone,” Pacheco said. Two cadets looked up from a card game. Another pulled headphones off to listen. “Sorry I’m a couple minutes late.” He immediately regretted saying that. He was only a few minutes late. He didn’t need an apology. Perhaps no one had even noticed until he had just mentioned it. He had already undermined his own authority. Flustered, he blurted out, “Everyone take out your ponchos and lay them on the ground in front of you.”

            “Already done,” Cadet Dutch said.

            Pacheco nodded. “Good work, Dutch.” Dutch reminded Pacheco a bit of himself. Dutch was a second-year cadet and one who did not socialize with the other cadets. Though for Pacheco, that was a conscientious decision – for Dutch, it seemed to be a side effect of some underlying social disorder. Dutch seemed to completely lack any semblance of a personality. He rarely smiled and never laughed. Pacheco didn’t care – he was a smart cadet, responsible, and if nothing else, took ROTC seriously; a good man to have around when other first-year cadets didn’t know an Army guidon from a hole in the ground.

            “You have a notepad?”

            “Hooah,” Dutch said.

            “Outstanding. I need someone to keep track of squad deficiencies.”

            Dutch nodded, whipping out a water proof Army notebook from his pocket.

            “Okay,” Pacheco said. “As I read, take each item and put it on your poncho. Bed roll. Three-part sleep system. Reflective PT belt. Watch cap. Boots. Spare boots…” Pacheco went through the list, keeping an eye out for cadets missing an item. Dutch made note of all the missing items. They were nearly through his entire list when one of the cadets raised her hand.

            “What is it, Sanford?” Pacheco asked.

            “What happened to Cadet Flowers?”

            Pacheco swallowed and looked around the room. “As I’m sure many of you have heard, Cadet Flowers is no longer with us. He got into an altercation with police, was expelled from school and therefore, no longer in ROTC.”

            “Why?” asked a first-year cadet named Krieger. “Why did he hit a police officer?”

            Pacheco thought for a moment. The day before the incident with Flowers, some cadets learned that an IED in Iraq had gravely injured Lieutenant Steele, a graduate of the program. Pacheco was a third year Military Science cadet, known within ROTC as an MSIII. Pacheco hadn’t joined ROTC until his sophomore year. He’d never known Steele. The cadets who did, worshipped him. Flowers had been one of those cadets.

            Pacheco realized why the cadre had not made an announcement. What could they say? Their main job – besides preparing the cadets to be officers – was to recruit and retain cadets in the first place. If they started telling them that recent graduates were coming home in pieces, it was bad for morale. Suddenly, a civilian office job away from IEDs and sniper fire was more appealing. Flowers knew that. Maybe he got kicked out on purpose. Owing the government seventy-five thousand dollars of scholarship money was better than owing them body parts.

            But now Pacheco was left to answer the hard questions.

            “What happened is between Flowers and UMass." He rubbed the ID tags through his BDU blouse like they were a lucky rabbit foot. "It’s none of my business and it’s none of yours, cadet.” Pacheco hated himself for saying that. He understood the cadets' concern – he shared it. But he couldn’t give them the answers they deserved. It wasn’t up to him.

            Pacheco looked back down at the list. “One compass. One stick of deodorant. One tooth brush. Three pairs of undergarments.”

            When the PCI ended, Pacheco walked back to his truck. It was beginning to rain. He cracked the driver’s side window as he lit another cigarette. As he smoked, his phone vibrated. It was Gina, probably checking in to see how his PCI had gone. Not well, he would tell her. Maybe he'd cry.

            "Can you stop and get some Greek yogurt?"

            "Sure."

            "And olives," Gina said. "Don't forget the olives."

            While he had never approved of the social aspect of ROTC, he did appreciate the sense of community. If he ever found himself in a burning tank, he wanted to know someone would rescue him. When he signed his contract two years ago, he had believed that. But now? Now he realized that despite his other qualities, Flowers would have pulled him from that tank. Flowers was the first to suggest carpools, always eager to offer rides. He had stolen a handful of reflective PT belts from the ROTC closet and kept them in the trunk of his car. Cadets knew that if they forgot their PT belt, Flowers was ready to dole out extras so as to escape the wrath of Sergeant Peralta. The cadre were supposed to be paragons of Army values. Loyalty. Duty. Selfless service. They were just words, abstract and meaningless, and they embarrassed him.

            Flowers had been a jerk, but he had also been one of them. He had contracted into the program three weeks before Pacheco had. Never leave a fallen comrade. Flowers had fallen. And the cadre had left him to burn.

            Pacheco left the parking lot. He forgot the olives.





 


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