On a hill, somewhere in Helmand
It took Frank forever to get his guys settled down enough that he could walk off – not too far off, this was still Afghanistan – and have a moment by himself. Dzioba had pinkeye, Reis had the shits, Rodriguez was having a meltdown over fuck-knows-what, Lazcano was just being a dumbass boot, and Frank felt less like a squad leader and more like a kindergarten teacher. But he’d finally gotten them all to stay the fuck put (except for Reis, who was to go downwind when necessary) and leave him alone unless there was enemy fire.
“This a private pity party or you got room for two?” Billy asked as he dropped down heavily next to him. “I just traded two titty mags to Third Platoon for radio parts. I feel taken advantage of.”
Frank half-smiled. “It’s not so bad. You should see what TP goes for.”
“These were clean titty mags, Sergeant,” Billy said with real despair. “Pristine. Not a speck of jizz on them.”
A whole smile. “Well, then you got yourself fucking hosed. Your RTO better know how much you love him.”
“I only love him when he’s not bitching at me that he’s got no comms,” Billy replied. “We’ve been wandering around this country for ten years already. Why the fuck can’t they figure out what to pack?”
“Cuz we’re Marines, Russo,” Frank answered unnecessarily. “We do with what we got. You want creature comforts, you should have joined the Air Force.”
Billy’s answer was to spit off to the side. “I’m not the right kind of pretty for the Air Force.”
They were quiet for a bit then, just enjoying a few minutes of peace in the middle of a war.
“You think about it?” Billy finally asked.
“A little,” Frank replied. “You probably are the right kind of pretty for the Air Force.”
He could see Billy flip the bird at him in the dark.
“That’s not what I’m asking about, dumbass.”
He’d known what Billy was asking about, but talking about it made it real. Made it an actual thing that had happened and could happen and Frank hadn’t finished wondering about the first to consider the second.
“Yeah, I been thinking about it,” he said, since Billy was owed the truth. Billy was in the same boat up the same shit creek.
“And I don’t know,” Frank admitted. “I didn’t join up to make Powerpoint slides.”
The offers – and Frank didn’t know if they were offers or “offers” – had come on Tuesday. Battlefield commissions for Sergeants Russo and Castle in recognition of their accomplishments and valor in combat. Which was just a fancy way of saying congratulations on failing to get killed despite our best attempts to sacrifice you. Frank would have preferred a promotion, to be honest.
“You get your rocker, you think you’re not gonna be sitting in an office making Powerpoint slides?” Billy asked, because of course he knew what Frank had been thinking. “What do you think the ‘staff’ in Staff Sergeant means? One way or another, our cowboy days are numbered.”
Billy didn’t sound all that broken up by the idea. Disappointed, sure, but not like he was being asked to give up everything he knew to turn around and come back and stare at it like Alice through the looking glass. Frank griped about his squad sometimes, but at the end of the day, they were all brothers in arms. Marines. Us. If he took that commission and became Second Lieutenant Castle, he’d lose all that. He’d be Them. And what he’d seen of Them, well…
“The grass ain’t any greener over in officer country,” Frank said.
“The paychecks are,” Billy shot back. “We pick up butterbars, our base pay goes up $1500 a month. Butterbars! You stay in and finish your twenty as what, an O-4, maybe even a light bird if you get really ambitious? That’s fucking eight grand a month, Frank. And then that’s what they base your pension on.”
It didn’t surprise him at all that Billy had done the math already.
“You got kids, Frank,” he went on. “I got a lifestyle I aspire to and mean to keep. This ain’t pocket change.”
Frank made a noise that was somewhere between acknowledging Billy’s point and disagreeing with its importance. Billy wasn’t wrong; the extra cash would help a lot. But what he had to do to earn it…
“It’d also be a chance to maybe unfuck one stupid order that maybe keeps one marine alive who otherwise wouldn’t be,” Billy said softly after a long moment. “We’ve shepherded enough to the slaughter because we got kids in command who don’t know enough to do more than follow orders as written. Fuck, that’s why they’re giving us this in the first place – because we can get shit done and still have men walking afterward.”
And then there was that. Frank was under no illusion that a junior officer, even a prior enlisted junior officer, could do any more than an NCO when it came to keeping a bad order from being executed. He didn’t think Billy believed that, either. But they might be able to shield their men from the fallout better than a kid on his first deployment after ROTC.
“It’s not like we’re going to be getting off this merry-go-round any time soon,” he said, mostly to say something. “Ten years and we still don’t know what the fuck we’re doing here.”
In the end, they took the commissions. Frank still wasn’t sure if he’d have been able to say no if he’d wanted to. But he’d gotten a chance to talk to Maria – the FRG might look different to an officer’s wife, he didn’t know – and if he wasn’t as enthusiastic about it as Billy, he was at least at peace with it.