As Pitcher and his men crested a long rise, a fertile valley spread out before them. Below were the signs of started crops, hillsides dotted with cattle and the pungent odor of hogs kept in confinement. Although it reminded Pitcher nothing of his home in the Georgia swamps, it felt welcoming after more than 1000 miles over treacherous dirt roads.
The central farmstead was busy. From their vantage point, it appeared to Pitcher and his men that a colony of ants was hastily storing away supplies for winter. The main difference was that these bustling figures were loading military vehicles rather than storing food away in the earth.
Pitcher held up his right hand and made a fist as he flattened himself against the ground just below the crest of the hill. Once he had settled into position, Pitcher scanned the busy scene with his binoculars. As he brought the faces of the men below into focus, Pitcher watched for one that he would recognize. Unable to find anyone who looked familiar, Pitcher lowered the binoculars and allowed his naked eyes to take in the entire scene.
Near the middle of the settlement a man appeared to be giving orders. Pitcher zoomed in on his face.
“As I live and breathe,” Pitcher whispered, “Gunnery Sergeant John Hood.”
Pitcher looked back at his men and raised his voice slightly, “He’s here fellas.”
A quiet celebration followed Pitcher’s announcement. This was why they had battled through 1000 miles of rough terrain … the Freeman Militia Center and Gunny Hood. This was their new home.
Pitcher stood, crested the hill and walked directly toward Hood with his hands on his head, fingers laced together.
No sense getting shot after all these miles.
Gunnery Sergeant Hood stopped in mid order. Eight men in what appeared to be a mish-mash of military garb were marching single-file down the hill to his south with their hands on their heads.
“Corbera,” Hood bellowed at the top of his lungs, “check those men to the south … NOW!”
Captain Miguel Corbera nearly jumped out of this skin at the sound of Hood’s voice. His head was on a swivel. His eyes like a hawk searching for its dinner. With the eight men spotted, Corbera swiftly gathered up half a dozen men and double-timed toward the base of the hill.
Corbera’s group and Pitcher’s group reached the base of the hill at nearly the same time.
Pitcher recognized Corbera first, “Afternoon, Captain.”
Corbera stammered, “Pi-i-itcher?”
“In the flesh,” Pitcher responded warmly.
The two had served together, as part of a joint Army-MARSOC initiative, for nearly eighteen months in Afghanistan. Pitcher remembered Corbera as a green lieutenant who matured quickly while leading a platoon of Marines through some pretty dark days in the mountains of a godforsaken country. Corbera remembered Pitcher going to great lengths to ensure that he was in attendance when Corbera’s commander pinned on his captain’s bars.
The two men embraced warmly. The embrace was followed by hearty handshakes and introductions all around.
“I gotta ask,” Corbera finally spoke to Pitcher again. “What are you doing here?”
“Pappy and I had a difference of opinion,” Pitcher had shared stories of Pappy and his upbringing with Corbera during the long hours of boredom between the brief moments of sheer terror.
“Enough said,” Corbera chuckled. “Welcome to the Freeman Militia Center. You’ve come at an opportune time. We’re just getting ready to head off to battle.”
Pitcher cocked an eyebrow as he looked beyond Corbera to the ongoing preparations, “We’re pretty beat, but you know I’d never miss a good throw-down.”
Corbera laughed out loud and motioned for Pitcher and his men to follow him, “I’ll give you the run down while we walk back.”
As they walked, Corbera briefed Pitcher and his men on the events of the last few days.
He began to wrap up his narrative as they neared the center of the FMC settlement, “We left the Union Creek farm just a few days ago. Tanner and three others stayed behind while eight of us set out to return here to the FMC. Along the way, we discovered a force of roughly 250 U.N. soldiers and American irregulars …”
“Working together?” Pitcher interrupted.
“It appears so,” Corbera replied.
At that moment, Hood spotted Pitcher.
“Pitcher!” he roared.
“Gunny Hood,” Pitcher responded in kind.
A second round of hugs and handshakes followed.
“Gunny, I was just bringing Pitcher up to speed,” Corbera interjected.
“Boy, we sure could use eight extra men,” Hood looked Pitcher in the eye, “especially men of your caliber.”
“What’s the plan?” Pitcher asked.
“I can tell you while you grab a bite to eat and a little something to drink,” Hood insisted. “You look like hell.”
Pitcher and his men shared a laugh.
“Your orders, Gunny,” Pitcher feigned acquiescence.
In truth not a man in Pitcher’s group had eaten in the last three days and their water had run out near mid-day the day before. They had simply pushed harder counting on the FMC to have the food and water they needed.
You could always count on Gunny Hood.
Once Pitcher and his men had food and water in front of them, Hood laid out his plan.
“We haven’t had any contact with Tanner or any of the other folks up at Union Creek – that’s about 150 miles northwest – but we figure one of two things is going to happen,” Hood began. “Either our boys that went back to warn them made it and they’re as prepared for the attack as they can be or our boys didn’t make it and they’ll be taken unawares.”
“How are they set for defenses?” Pitcher slipped the question between Hood’s breaths.
Corbera chimed in, “They can muster roughly 100 men. We left behind some heavier weaponry. They already had some before we showed up. They’re led by a guy named David Johnson who seems to have his head on pretty straight.”
Hood took over the conversation again, “From what Corbera found out while he was there, quite a few of the men have served in the military. Few of them are combat veterans, but at least they have some familiarity with weapons and tactics.”
“And the U.N. forces?” Pitcher slipped in another quick question.
“We haven’t seen much of them down this way,” Hood admitted, “but from what we’ve heard they’re not exactly an elite fighting force. Mostly they were sent here to guard the FEMA camps.”
Pitcher nodded as he chewed.
“Our plan,” Hood continued, “is to try to catch up to the attackers and catch them in a pincer between us and the Union Creek folks.”
“They appear to be marching from the Omaha area, just north of here, to Union Creek,” Corbera jumped in again. “It seems that they lack either the vehicles or fuel to move all 250 troops by any sort of motorized carrier.”
“Sounds like we better saddle up,” Pitcher swallowed his last bite of food as he spoke.
“Your timing is impeccable as always,” Hood agreed. “Let’s ride!”
Hours later a scout returned to Gunny Hood’s vehicle.
“They’re just over the next rise, Gunny.” The man was breathless from running hard.
“Roger that,” Hood acknowledged. “Are they on the move?”
“Affirmative,” the scout was close to catching his breath. “They’re marching along the highway. I’d put them about 34 miles from the southern edge of the Union Creek area.”
“Any sign of the Union Creek crew?” Hood rubbed the stubble on his jaw. He hated to miss a day of shaving but sometimes there were other priorities.
“None whatsoever, Gunny,” the scout was breathing normally again.
Hood rubbed the stubble on his jaw with the back of the first knuckles on his right hand and then looked off into the distance. Something caught his eye. He squinted trying to make it out.
“Binoculars,” Hood grunted and held out his hand to the scout.
The scout slipped the strap of his binoculars over his head and handed the sophisticated glass to Hood. Hood put the field glasses to his eyes and adjusted the focus. Just below the top of a ridge nearly a half mile away stood a lone figure … a feminine figure wearing tri-color desert camouflage battle dress trousers.