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The day started long before dawn, before hints of sunlight were even thought about. Fort Bragg was always easy to navigate. There were 4 or 5 main points of entry to this large military base, a sort of city within the city of Fayetteville and every main gate connected to one or more of the few main streets that seemed to get you everywhere on base. It was a place only a fool could get lost in; despite its size, yet it managed to happen all the time. I was instructed to head to the 2nd Brigade’s 319th Artillery Battalion to conduct a mass psyche evaluation. There wasn’t much to go on from the notes that Thompson, my boss, handed me, just a stapled bunch of papers with 300 or so names accompanied with social security numbers. Odd thing about the list was that some of the names where greyed out, while some were highlighted in red. Thompson said that I would get debriefed once I arrived at the unit. The clock read 5:37 am when I pulled in front of the Longstreet gate. Two MPs greeted me at my car window and instructed me to pop the hood and trunk of my car while I presented the proper paperwork. It was a fast inspection; they didn’t conduct inspections like this before 9-11. It seemed as if they were just going through the motions, not a thorough search, but what could you expect at such an hour. The poor souls, they were probably on the last stretch of a 24-hour shift. When the senior ranking soldier came back around to hand back my license and registration, he greeted me with a rough
“All The Way!”
I was in the middle of offering a salute when I looked up and staring back at me was a face as blank as an egg! At first, I just thought it was too dark for me to make out the face properly; but on second glance, there really was no face! The officer asked me if there was a problem and in a dumb tone, I managed to muster a half formed and feeble--
“Not at all”
Before I jotted along my way. I assumed that I was just shaking off the exhaustion from pulling an all-nighter and that my second wind would kick in, saving me from these weird apparitions.
I’d been to Fort Bragg before. It wasn’t a military installation I was overtly fond of, like Carson, and it wasn’t half as bad as Fort Polk. I will say that it is the most “American” base I had ever been to; however, soldiers tend to be the same no matter where you go, a happy and simple lot, they normally enjoy burgers, beer and women that remind them of whatever state they’re from. Most soldiers are eager to help a citizen in need, they never complain, whine or protest. Therefore, I enjoyed working with soldiers over civilians, it made finding the root cause of problems easier too. With civilians, they always want to make everything more dramatic, as if that adds gravity to the actual event, on the contrary I find that drama only dilutes details, seriousness is often found in the real repercussions of an event and civilians tend to be out of touch from what is real or serious.
I pulled into a relatively empty parking lot; I took that as a sign that I was early. Hoping to find a hot pot of coffee somewhere in this imposing set of buildings. This was one of the newly designed units. It looked more like a high school campus than those shoddy tin shacks you see in the movies. There was a point-of-contact number on the packet, a Specialist Harry Jackson, I dialed the number while I lit a cigarette. I was still a bit shaken by the image that I had witnessed at the gate. I took that as a sign that I was overworked and was due for a long vacation, someplace simple and sexy, someplace with a lot of single women around. A deep voice answered the phone and disrupted my daydream.
“Black Falcons S-1, Specialist Jackson speaking.”
An unimpressed tone carried a rich, full, deep manly voice of the other end.
“Yes, this is Doctor Roy England I’m scheduled to conduct a mass psych eval for this Battalion.”
There was a brief pause on the other line, then a long intentional grunt.
“Please hold one Sir.”
I saw a blind on the first-floor shift open slightly, an imposing figure could be made out in the window.
“I’ll be right out to greet you Doctor.”
I was outside of my car leaning on the driver side door, enjoying the second half of my cigarette when a burly man came out of the building. He had to be at least six and a half feet tall with shoulders as wide as a park bench. He was dark like a cup of coffee and had these slightly bulging eyes sad eyes that had a hint of maroon against his dark brown pupils.
“Ah man, you mind if I light one up with you. It’s been a long night.”
Specialist Jackson casually leaned on the backseat door next to me while he pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his shoulder pocket and stylishly ignited a zippo lighter on the side of his pants, lighting the cigarette and closing the zippo with a satisfying cling. While blowing smoke out the side of his mouth away from me he asked—
“So you got here pretty damn fast, when they called me in at 10 o’clock at night I thought they were exaggerating about how early you’d get here; but, I’m glad I got started on all this shit when I did or there’s no way it’d would’ve been ready.”
He was surprisingly warm and conversational despite his intimidating appearance. Something about him made me feel safe and welcomed. Initially I had wondered why someone of his build was in administration instead of combat arms; but, after a minute or two of speaking with him, I could see him in politics instead of the front-line.
“I’m sorry if I inconvenienced you Jackson, they woke me up at an ungodly hour to get down here. I think I left home around midnight from DC.”
“Oh, so we’ve been up since around the same time.”
Jackson uttered with a hint of hearty laughter.
“Well in that case let me get you some coffee and I’ll give you the run down of what’s going on.”
Jackson threw his cigarette on the ground and stomped out the butt with his boot before picking up the remaining paper and filter clinching it in his fist before loftily tossing it in the trash can right outside the building, I noticed as we walked towards the main entrance of the Battalion headquarters that it was impossibly clean and upkept. Once inside I felt like I was ambushed by stern faces glaring at me, the pictures of commanding officers, members of congress and the chain of command going from the Secretary of Defense up to the President of the United States seemed to be glaring at me, almost grinning at me as I walked into the office at the corner of the first floor. Jackson’s office was modest enough, a decent open space with cubicle section offs, there seemed to be four workstations, only three of which had computers on them, the fourth was in the corner and had a cluster of folders and paperwork laid out on it. On the corner of that desk was a coffee pot and on the wall behind it had pictures of award ceremonies.
“I take it that you’re the soldier for the job, seeing that you’re the only one here”
My curiosity got the best of me. Then Jackson replied with a deep chuckle.
“No sir, more like, I’m the only solider for the job.”
He then signaled me over almost like he knew that I was curious about the list of names tucked away in my suitcase. When I made it over to his desk, he offered me some coffee, I promptly and eagerly accepted it and he poured a huge portion in a big Styrofoam cup.
“I’m sorry, I’m not to fond of cream and sugar; however, I do have some packets of cocoa if you need something to sweeten it up.”
I was intrigued by the combination, but I opted to take my coffee black. I handed the list over to him and he turned on a desk light while going over it with a pen. He pulled out a list identical to mine except his had more entries highlighted in red. He was cross-referencing the information. He looked up to me after a minute or two and calmly stated—
“It would seem that there’s been 21 more deaths since I emailed this list to your boss”
I looked at him concerned.
“So, the names highlighted in red means that these soldiers are deceased? Why then are they on the roster for evaluation?”
Specialist Jackson rubbed his forehead and lifted his head up to the ceiling, eyes closed, leaning back in his chair.
“Well, technically deceased, as far as our records and files are concerned. The nature of these occurrences is a whole other matter. They seem to be suicide pacts and not your run of the mill Kool-Aid variety. They all seem to have killed each other, as if they were taking turns stabbing each other or something over, that seems to be the case every time. I’ve gotten calls all night about these sorts of things happening.”
I’ve heard of things like this happening; but Jackson seemed a little to casual with the situation. It was if these occurrences happened on his end all the time, like it was just s typical Monday hang-up. Looking at my list I realized that out of the three-hundred-forty-seven entries, fifty-eight of them were highlighted in red and twenty-one of them were grayed out.
“Oh, that reminds me”
Jackson said after taking a long sip of coffee as he checked through our corresponding lists again and annotated then grey entries on his list versus mine.
“And that makes seven more disappearances since last night. This has got to be the biggest shit show I’ve ever seen.”
Jackson crossed out some more entries on the list, shaking his head in disappointment.
For a split second I thought about the soldier at the gate, that nonexistent face, then just as quickly I snapped back to, I had so many questions, I wanted to get the obvious curiosities out of the way.
“What exactly happened? Your battalion wasn’t deployed you guys were conducting training in garrison, how did you all sustain so many causalities?”
Jackson looked at me as if I had asked the right question. Pulling out a stack of manila folders 6 inches thick.
“I can’t show any of these to you until our CID officer gets here; however, I can tell you that none of what happened strikes me as your run of the mill training incident. Everything seems unnatural.”
I looked at him with a certain disposition. The way Joe Rogan looks at guest on his show when they bring up valid points, not quite disbelief, not quite interest, just digesting the information being presented. I had dealt with some incidents that most would consider unnatural. Survivors of religious cults describing being raped by hordes of members; both men and women alike. Then there are those horrific incidents where children who survived school shootings are so shocked that they withdrawn from society and refuse to accept that it even happened; I guess it’s equally as bad for refugee children from all over the world who describe detention centers as a sort of dull hell. None of them ever have any pleasant to speak about. That’s the nature of my job. Things are never pleasant. This was a far cry from pleasant. This had an air of a sinister luring threat.
Jackson explained to me that the soldiers in the Battalion had a late-call today and would not be in the building till after lunch (this was mandatory after a traumatic event or mourning period within the unit). He went on to tell me that the CID officer assigned to this case should be around any moment and that’s when the real work would start. Apparently, the top brass at Fort Bragg suspects foul play and wants all the soldiers to have a mass psych evaluation because it doubles as a police investigation. Anything you say during a therapy session can be taken as viable evidence given that the information lines up with the situation at hand. Obviously, the military doesn’t want to be held accountable for the deaths and disappearances of over 100 soldiers, especially while not in theater.
The only thing that made sense was that either some practice artillery rounds were mishandled or that some non-potable water was consumed during training; but that didn’t explain why soldiers were missing. Nothing about the situation made much sense to me, so Jackson and I sat there in the darkness, that unimpressed expression on his face, as if he were biding his time for something, for what, I couldn’t possibly tell you.
Around nine-thirty that morning there was a terrible banging on the office door, despite all that coffee I had dozed off to sleep. Jackson was still awake, typing feverishly. I started walking over to the door when Jackson motioned for me to remain seated as he went to see who it was.
“Ah Captain Burns! I was wondering when your old ass was going to wake the fuck up and get on over here”
Jackson’s voice boomed across the office, shaking loose the rest of my grogginess. The captain exchanged a slick handshake with Jackson followed by a synchronized snap, even though there was a noticeable rank difference between these two, they interacted like old college buddies.
“Doctor this is Captain Burns, our Criminal Investigations Department officer assigned to this case. He’ll be dealing with any legal formalities that we may encounter.”
The captain reached out his hand to me and gave it a firm but appropriate shake.
“Nice to meet you Doctor.”
The captain was polite enough. Not as statuesque as Jackson; but he had confidence written all over his face. He had a sharp jawline sprinkled with stubble, his tan skinned hinted at someone who spent most of his time intentionally outdoors and his shirt was untucked, not in a sloppy way, more along the lines of professionally relaxed. He was in a sense, the opposite of Jackson; however, they seemed to compliment each other in behavior
Burns went on to explain the situation at hand.
“According to intel gathered from troops in this battalion along side evidence gathered at the training ground so far, during a two week training exercise conducted by 2-319th Field Artillery Regiment, 21 soldiers went missing during the first night of training, it was assumed to be a mass AWOL and the military police were notified and standard search procedures were conducted. The following morning the medical company consisting of 26 soldiers was found slaughtered in their tents. According to soldiers that found that found the bod—”
“What do you mean slaughtered?”
I interrupted angrily.
“These reports strike me as something that should be on the news, not dealt with in-house!”
“Let me finish Doctor”
Burns calmly replied with a long pause as he held up his index finger, his glance didn’t even deviate from the paper as he continued.
“The soldiers found the bodies beaten to death with remains of what appeared to be splinters of wood embedded in different parts of their skin.”
This time, Burns started at me, not a trace of aggravation on his face, gave me a silent pause while he turned to the next page of his documentation and then he walked over to me, and handed over the folder in a manner a doctor would if you just got tested positive for herpes. I’ll never forget those photos. It was bamboo stalks. Bamboo stalks were growing out of their bruised bodies. These weren’t normal bruises either, it looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to every viable inch of their frames. Legs were bent in half, rib cages crushed in, several of them had their faces sunken in like an old Jack O’ Lantern. All with those perplexing bamboo shoots growing out of their stomachs and backs.
Joshua Thomas © 2019