THE NEW STANDARD • by Joshua Joseph Barella

Getwright and I were in the DFAC one day — this was before deployment, pre-mob maybe. He looked over and said to me, And every year when the goslings hatch dad lets the hounds after them. Separate mother goose from her young. Otherwise they just shit all over the place. Nest any-damn-where. Doggone things. Sounds cruel but it’s to keep things on an even keel you know. Believe me. It can get real out of hand real fast.

I drank my kool-aid that tasted like water. Hm. I can imagine.

So what about you, sir? Where you from?

Wichita, I told him. Oklahoma. Not Kansas.

Getwright’s dead though. And so is Becker. Miles. They were cousins from Idaho. And I lost Drinkwater too. Lookingbill.

It’s Wednesday again. And the shrink tells me that I’m making progress. Tell him that’s probably the line he feeds to all of his patients. He says that it works with the Marines that he sees. We’re in a room devoid of anything. I ask him for another cigarette and as he shakes one out of his pack he goes: I hope this isn’t the reason you come down here, LT. For the free cigarettes.

I shake my head. Don’t be crazy.

The shrink says, Take it from the top.

Inhale, exhale. Okay.

We were just National Guard attached to a Brigade Combat Team that was in theatre. Didn’t think shit happened in country if you were part of that outfit. Hell, we were weekend-warriors to the full-timers. FUBAR. They usually kept their distance. The way I saw it though, we were cut from the same cloth.

The whole thing started when Force Command sent down the order to begin including Automatons on platoon MTOEs. The new standard. Fundamentally they were indispensable assets and would only enhance mission readiness. It was a proven algorithm. Numbers and dashes drawn up by some nerd sitting at a desk running R&D modules and reporting directly to some airtight panel out of Washington.

Each platoon was allotted four. One to each squad. The Automaton would serve as the end-all-be-all in any situation, combat or otherwise. Needless to say it was a wash. An Automaton was a robot and nothing more. A shell made of metal and blinking lights for a brain. No one felt comfortable with the things. I sure as hell wasn’t impressed. Just another initiative to prove the soldier could always be perfected. A dick-showing contest.

We ran patrols with them. Got our feet wet. But all the while, in the back of our minds, we were thinking, when the shit hits the fan, we don’t want to be within a hundred kliks of these bastards.

Our platoon had Roger, Harry, Kyle, and Mark. Their voices were tinny and when you asked them a question you either got this textbook excerpt or: Cannot compute. But according to the TM their fortes weren’t talking, rather reacting. They weren’t meant to share a beer with you. Take a bullet, maybe. Find a mine, sure.

Was 2203 hours on a Thursday. Our Tactical Operations Center called in a Quick Reaction Force. Patrol from Charlie Company was reacting to contact and on the verge of being overwhelmed. They requested reinforcements and medical attention stat.

My squad was next in the chute. I got them out of their racks and we put our boots back on and slung our rifles and I checked everyone out the door.

Ten men. Two Regular Army Specialists I barely knew and then Becker, Miles, Drinkwater, Lookingbill, Iniguez, Johnson, Murphy, and — according to SOP — one of the Automatons. Harry.

I told the team to mount up and when Miles asked me about Harry I looked over at the hunk of metal charging in the corner and said, Fuck Harry. I’m tapping Resendez for one of his guys.

Road was black as pitch. The temperature had dropped. Everyone had their night optics on but since we were in a tunnel of dirt they were practically useless. The tires were kicking up rocks and the sounds the big ones made tapping against the doors of the Humvee startled me. A line of sweat from the back of my neck was cool as it traced down my spine.

Johnson was on the radio, picking up chatter from Charlie Company. I asked him what the status was and he said we were coming up on a sharp right that would take us directly to their position. Three mikes.

I asked for the radio. Sent up a SITREP to the TOC and got a good copy from the Commander.

It happened too fast but right about that time both Becker and Iniguez’s Humvees were vaporized by the IED. Our Humvee rocked from the shockwave and we swerved into the brush but Johnson managed to keep it on all fours as we came to a stop.

An intense ringing in my ears.

I shouted in the dark, Is everyone alright?

Looked around the cab and when my eyes fell upon Foley from Resendez’s team I saw that he was missing half of his face. The door was off and the radio was out and all I could smell was rotting meat. Johnson and Murphy pulled security while I held Foley until he was cold and still and I thought: You shouldn’t have even been here, man. Harry would’ve seen this coming. It was one of his parameters.

The shrink nods and writes on his steno. Chews on the end of his pen. Regards me, the former lieutenant in the orange jumpsuit, with apathy, knowing that at home is the missus and the kids and dinner’s warm and waiting and Spot’s barking in the backyard.

At night, I tell him, I wonder if in that desert we were the goslings. And when sleep never comes the tears do. And through the lucid haze there’s Getwright and me in the DFAC, and he’s still saying: It can get real out of hand real fast.

Joshua Joseph Barella is a husband, father, banker, citizen-soldier. He writes from New York’s capitol-region.

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