by Luke Byker
The air was dank and moist as we descended into the valley. Eucalyptus trees and massive pines hung over the road, blocking it from the unforgiving summer sun. The sweet smell of swamp descended upon my platoon, barely masking the rank odor of our unshowered bodies. Five day old sweat soaked my back underneath my heavy body armor. My rifle fatigued my shoulders; too many miles unslung in my hands.
Just as we reached the lowest part of the valley, a machine gun erupted just ahead of the platoon's point man on the right side of the road. All forty of us hit the ground instantly, clawing for cover. I bit my tongue as more automatic fire erupted from the other side of the road, effectively surrounding the platoon. I heard cries ahead for the medic. Radio handsets blared, calling for action. I heard my team leader screaming for a flanking maneuver.
I lurched to my feet just as my friend ahead of me did the same. We dropped into the subtropical swamp below the road, looking to ambush the machine gunner. The roar of gunfire was all around us as we screamed our position to our platoon mates. As I dredged through the shallow black mud, I had one of those rare moments of déjà vu.
I flashed back to almost exactly a year before, before I was a soldier. I was a kid, a high school senior. My spring turkey license had been for late April that year. I remembered one of the last mornings of my hunt, when in desperation I set up on a largely over hunted piece of public land near my parents house in Western Wisconsin.
After the gobbler I treed at first light went silent, I trekked after another gobbler I could hear across a flooded oak swamp. Black mud sopped at my boots and released a foul smell. Oaks held the nights darkness as the sun crested the horizon. I crept as quietly as I could, shotgun ready to mount. The gobbles got louder as I approached. Just as I prepared to stop and set up and attempt to call, a gobble was cut in half. I looked up to see the tom fleeing on foot into the towering red oaks. I threw my shotgun to my shoulder and tracked his bulbous blue and red head as he bobbed and weaved through the buck thorn and low brush. I tracked him out of sight, never firing a shot.
I came back to. With the roar of the machine gun ahead snapping me out of my trance, I ducked low, tracking the bursts of fire like I did the gobbler a year before. As I pulled myself over a fallen log, the gunner appeared a mere ten feet in front of me. His look of surprise proved he was as off guard as I was.
My weapon flew to my shoulder and I fired two rounds. The machine gunner got to his feet and said “You guys really snuck up on me!” The rounds I’d fired were blanks. The machine gunner was a US Army sergeant dressed as a Taliban insurgent. All of the rounds in the machine gun’s massive magazine were blanks. The entire ambush was a last training exercise. Finally my year long quest to become a US Army signal soldier was over. And this hunt had ended much better than my match with the turkey.