Never Forsaken, Never Forgotten – Thomas Calabrese
It was a moonlit night in Calexico, California and a windowless van was parked in the Hotel Lucerna parking lot. Nathaniel ‘Nate’ Logan exited his room on the first floor, walked over to the vehicle, unlocked it, got in and drove off. When he reached an isolated area of the California Mexico border without a barrier, Nate pulled over and opened the back doors of the van and rolled out a Kawasaki 450 dirt bike. He slipped on a large backpack and helmet and locked the van. Nate started the motorcycle and headed into Mexico.
It only took him 30 minutes to reach his destination in the Mexicali Valley, one of the largest most fertile valleys in Mexico. Dozens of warehouses were filled with produce and destined for the United States. One of the buildings had more than fruits and vegetables in its inventory. Workers carefully placed packages of synthetic drugs inside the crates of radishes, broccoli and peppers. The wooden containers were then forklifted into the trucks.
Nate Logan drove up the narrow path to the top of the steep hill and shut off the engine of the motorcycle. He set the pack on the ground and removed the entire contents that included an M-7 grenade launcher and sixty 22 mm rounds. There was also a large satchel charge (A satchel charge is a demolition device, primarily intended for combat, whose primary components are a charge of dynamite or a more potent explosive.) filled with ten pounds of C-4 plastic explosives and five pounds of metal ball bearings. He pounded a metal stake deep into the ground and tied a tripwire from the stake to the detonator then placed a piece of double sided tape to the back of a burner phone and attached it to the top of the satchel charge. Nate loaded the grenade launcher and rapidly began firing at the warehouse and trucks. Explosions rocked the area and by the time he finished firing all 60 rounds, the building and trucks were all ablaze. He got back on his motorcycle and raced off. Two minutes later, a dozen vehicles occupied by heavily armed drug cartel soldiers arrived on the hill. One of the men saw the cellphone and carelessly picked it up, pulling the tripwire in the process. The bomb exploded and everyone was killed.
Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bellini was sitting in his office at the Delta Force Battalion area when a clerk knocked on his door, “Excuse me, sir, Nate Logan is here to see you.”
Lt. Colonel Bellini was out of his chair in a split second and into the lobby, “Nate! Good to see you!”
“I didn’t catch you at a bad time?” Nate asked.
“It is never a bad time to see a good friend, c’mon in.”
Both men entered the office and sat down. “Can I get you something to drink? I don’t keep alcoholic beverages in my office, but I have several kinds of fruit juices, aloe vera drinks and freshly brewed herbal ice tea,” Lt. Colonel Bellini offered.
Nate responded, “How about half aloe vera and half orange juice?”
Lt. Colonel Bellini walked to the refrigerator and took out two containers and set them on a counter then took a glass out of the cabinet, “I thought you were in California; what are you doing here in North Carolina?”
“I’ve been all over the country lately, California was just my last stop, but I’m here at Bragg to see you,” Nate said.
Lt. Colonel Bellini handed the glass to Nate, who took a long refreshing gulp from the cold drink, “That hits the spot on a hot summer day.”
“You said you were here to see me…what for?” Nate handed Lt. Colonel Bellini a folder, “What’s this?”
“Open it,” Nate suggested.
Lt. Col. Bellini complied then asked as he flipped through the pages, “What exactly am I looking at?”
“It is a list of Army, Navy and Marine Corps personnel who have been discharged in the past last five years.”
“What do the yellow and pink markings next to the names designate?” Lt. Colonel Bellini inquired.
“Yellow means overdose and pink means suicide,” Nate answered.
Lt. Colonel Bellini flipped through the pages and saw numerous color markings, “All these men? You’re not serious.”
“Deadly serious, after I retired from Delta, I kept in touch with some of the men under my command to see how they were doing in the civilian world. I came across a guy who volunteered to create website where veterans could post job openings, their experiences with the VA or anything else they wanted to share or could be useful,” Nate said. “I wasn’t into the details, but it seemed to be working so we expanded its services.”
“Sounds like you’re doing some good work,” Lt. Colonel Bellini commented, “You didn’t come all this way just to tell me this, you couldn’t have done that over the phone.”
“The guy developed an algorithm and compiled information and found some startling correlations and theories,” Nate said
“And you thought it was so important that you had to show me in person,” Lt. Colonel Bellini assumed.
“How long are you going to be around?” Lt. Col. Bellini asked.
“As long as it takes to get your opinion,” Nate answered, “I’ll value your feedback.”
“Give me three days to look this over and I’ll meet you at the Texas Roadhouse in Fayetteville at 1800 hours on Thursday.
“I’ll be there,” Nate left the office.
Joe Bellini and Nathaniel Logan were close friends and had served together in Delta Force for eight years and originally met in Officer Candidates’ School twenty three years ago. Major Logan medically retired six years ago after he was injured during a mission in Somalia. Joe’s tentative plan was to leave military service after he attained the rank of Colonel with a better retirement package.
When they met at the restaurant, the two men ordered their meals and proceeded to discuss the issues in the folder. “What do you think?” Nate asked.
“I read the report in detail and then made some phone calls. I also talked to a couple of Army doctors on base to get their opinions; one said one thing and the other had a completely different opinion. There is no doubt that there’s a drug problem in this country and with many of our fellow veterans, but what exactly is it? Is it the wrong medicine for the illness or is it the right medicine, but the wrong dosage or even the wrong diagnosis. Are some doctors are over-prescribing medications while other are so nervous and paranoid that they are under-prescribing? Do some veterans want more than they can legally get so they’re buying it on the streets, not knowing exactly what they are getting? What about the homeless veterans’ problem? I read that over 80% of the people living on the streets have some kind of substance abuse problem or addiction. Is there another course of treatment besides drugs that would work, but some veterans don’t want to do it. That’s a lot of unanswered questions that your report doesn’t address. My grandfather once told me that the drug of choice was liquor during World War II and they drank excessively and at every opportunity. In Vietnam, veterans smoked marijuana laced with opium, took speed and some got hooked on heroin. If you are genuinely concerned about this problem and want to help veterans, you’d need an organization with a variety of experts. They would evaluate each case of suicide or overdose to see if anything was missed or could have been done differently. They would take that research and use it to help others with similar issues. A computer looking for key words or phrases might tell you that a problem exists, but beyond that… well I think you get my point. ”
Nate took a bite of his steak, chewed it slowly then answered, “I’m glad that I came to see you because you just gave me an entirely different perspective on this issue. That’s why you’re such a good officer; you always see the big picture.”
“And this is why your men followed you anywhere because they knew that you were always concerned about their welfare even in the midst of battle,” Lt. Colonel Bellini replied.
The two men ate for several minutes before Lt. Colonel Bellini thought of something, “You haven’t done anything about this yet, have you?”
Nate took a sip from a beer and said, “Like what?”
Nate saw no reason to mention his recent attack on the drug warehouse in Mexico, “No, nothing at all.”
Three months passed and Joe Bellini received his promotion to Colonel. The first person that he called was Nate Logan, but his message went directly to his voicemail. “I made it…give me a call.”
There was no return call from Nate, however Joe received one from someone else the following day, “You don’t know me, but this Bart Billings, Nate told me to call if he wasn’t back by today.”
“I know of you, Colonel. I read your book, Invisible Scars and I also did some checking up on you. You’re a very controversial figure.” Joe said.
“Not everyone is a fan of my research,” Bart replied, “Nate told me that you weren’t convinced of the seriousness of the situation.”
“What I said was that I couldn’t make an informed decision because I didn’t have all the facts. Medication protocols are out of my job description. I’m a first responder, not a chemist, pharmacist or a counselor,” Joe retorted, “Not to change the subject, but you said that if Nate wasn’t back by this date…do you know where he went?”
“No, but he did leave a letter for you,” Bart said.
“That is standard procedure to do before every mission in case we don’t make it back. Where are you right now?”
“I live in Carlsbad, California,” Bart replied.
“It’s not like I can walk over and pick it up,” Joe said.
“I got up early and went to Federal Express and sent it overnight delivery. You should have it by tomorrow.”
“I’ll be in touch once I’ve had the chance to read it,” Joe said.
“I’ll do anything for Nate,” Bart vowed.
After receiving the letter, Joe put in for emergency leave and was on a commercial flight for San Diego within 12 hours. Former Navy Seal Master Chief Jesse Hanlon and Marine Corps Captain Chase Bradley were waiting for him when he arrived in Southern California. The two men immediately recognized the Delta Force commander, “Good to see you again, sir.” Master Chief Hanlon said and they exchanged a handshake, “Do you have any luggage?”
“I’m traveling light,” Joe turned to Captain Bradley, “What’s it been, three years since we’ve seen each other in Afghanistan?”
“About that,” Chase answered, “I heard you made Colonel, congratulations.”
“Thank you, that’s as long as we’ve got for pleasantries, let’s get down to business, gentleman,” Joe replied.
When they reached a small warehouse in Otay Mesa, Bart Billings was already there. They exchanged brief greetings and Master Chief Hanlon walked over to a map and pointed to the Ensenada Port, “Our Intel was that a shipment of fentanyl and designer drugs were coming in.”
Flashback- Nate Logan, Jesse Hanlon and Chase Bradley used special equipment to rappel up the hull of the large freighter without being noticed by the numerous drug cartel guards on the docks.
Captain Bradley continued, “We eliminated several armed personnel on deck then worked our way down to the cargo hold where we found twenty pallets of various narcotics. We estimated the street value at 5 billion dollars.”
Jesse Hanlon took over, “Our plan was to blow up the drugs and make our escape during the confusion.”
“I have two questions, first one is how did you find out about this shipment? Joe asked.
“Nate knows a DEA agent from when he worked on a drug interdiction team in Columbia. This agent has a contact at the Port of Shanghai and the Chinese crane operator has family in the states. They’ve been given special asylum status and receive financial compensation every time he passes on valuable information about important shipments. Since there are too many people in our government that are on the payroll of the cartels and the Chicoms, the DEA hasn’t been able to plan an operation without the people in Mexico being tipped off in advance. The DEA agent has been giving us the Intel 72 hours before turning it over to his superiors,” Bart said, “This allowed Nate enough time to come up with a plan for the mission and the team to carry it out.”
“So what went wrong this time?” Joe asked.
Flashback- “The charges went off right on schedule and flame and black smoke bellowed out of the portholes and escape hatches. We were spotted by armed members of the Chinese crew on deck and engaged them in a firefight. Two minutes later, Nate gave the signal and we went over the side at the same time,” Chase Bradley said.
“I saw him get hit, but couldn’t tell how bad it was. We lost sight of Nate when we hit the water. Our scuba gear was secured to the hull and the plan was to swim to a rendezvous point and make our escape back across the border,” Jesse Hanlon said, “We desperately wanted to stick around and look for Nate, but we were taking heavy fire and had no choice but to submerge.”
“We were going back to look for Nate, but Bart said to wait because you were on your way,” Chase Bradley blurted out, “For the record I was against any delay because every minute counts, but I was outvoted.”
“Your preference is duly noted, Captain,” Joe then inquired, “What was your plan when you went back?”
“We all wear transponders; Logan has been sending us a short signal every three hours. He’s being careful not to keep it on too long, probably worried that they might intercept it,” Jesse Hanlon answered.
“Have you considered the possibility that Logan has been captured or killed and the Chinese and the cartels are sending the signal to set up an ambush?” Joe asked.
“We have, but we don’t see any other alternative but to go back and find out for sure,” Chase Bradley responded.
“Let’s saddle up then,” Joe said, “Like you said, every minute counts.”
“We’re retired, but you’re still on active duty. If you get caught, they’re going to send you straight to Leavenworth Stockade,” Jesse reminded his fellow elite operative.
“If we get caught, none of us will have to worry about going to prison. They’re won’t be enough left of us to fill a small trash bag,” Joe said.
Nate Logan was hit in the upper thigh and while it wasn’t a fatal wound, it was enough to severely limit his mobility and weaken him. After exiting the water, he found the nearest building as refuge to hide as dozens of armed men searched the area for the perpetrators of the explosions on the Chinese tanker. Dragging his left leg behind him, he crawled into the corner behind a stack of large crates. Nate knew that he could only hold out for a few days at the most because he had no food, water and needed medical care. As the hours passed he came to realize that the warehouse that he had mistakenly chosen as his refuge was the one that the Chinese and Mexicans were using for their drug smuggling operations. Drugs were stacked to the ceiling and pallets of cash filled one entire section of the building. Nate actually hoped that his comrades wouldn’t come for him, but he knew that unbreakable code of ‘leaving no man behind’ remained in effect and would not be broken.
The three men arrived at the Ensenada port with one goal in mind; find Nate and get out of there as quickly as possible. Once they did a visual assessment of the area, they knew the odds were against them. They waited for another signal to pinpoint Nate’s exact location, but when it didn’t come, they proceeded on their last Intel.
The three men were proficient and deadly and operated in complete silence. They dispatched the guards on the west side of the building, breeched the door and entered the building. It took them several minutes to find an unconscious Nate. He opened his eyes and flashed a smile after Joe gently awakened him, “Good to see you.”
“Same here,” Joe answered, “I see that you didn’t take my advice.”
“Actually I did, you were right about legal drugs; someone else is going to have to figure that out. I decided to focus my attention on the illegal ones coming across the border that are killing Americans, veterans included,” Nate grimaced as Master Chief Hanlon cleaned his wound and injected him with a powerful antibiotic to deal with the infection.
The four men prepared to make their escape when Nate pointed to the pallets of cash, “You said it would take an organization of qualified professionals to provide the proper help for veterans. This money would go a long way in creating that organization.”
“Are you using my own arguments against me,” Joe turned to the other men, “What do you think?”
“Take the money,” Chase responded without hesitation.
“Absolutely,” Jesse concurred.
“It’s unanimous then, Jesse and I will see if we can get us a truck,” Joe added. “Chase, look around for a forklift.”
“Roger that,” Chase replied.
When the two men reached the dock, they saw a group of men guarding the area. Joe gave a hand signal to Jesse and both men fired at the same time and killed every man with accurate shots. After securing the area, Chase began loading twelve pallets of cash while Jesse planted explosive charges at strategic locations in the building. When the truck was filled, Joe helped Nate into the passenger seat then got behind the steering wheel. Chase and Jesse got in back and pulled down the roll-up door, leaving it open just enough to see if anyone was following them. Nate held the remote detonator in his hand and when they had driven a hundred yards, Joe nodded and he detonated the charges inside the building. The massive explosion was enough of a distraction for the truck to exit the port area without being stopped.
A high ranking Homeland Security official was waiting at the San Ysidro border checkpoint when Joe pulled up, “Hey Victor.”
“Good to see you again, Joe” Victor waved the truck through.
The 20 million dollars taken from the warehouse went a very long way in helping Bart Billings create a full service organization that provided veterans with the finest medical treatment. This included alternative and innovative care for individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as assistance with homelessness, job training and family counseling. Each veteran was carefully evaluated, examined and interviewed then had a wellness program specifically designed to his needs.
Joe Bellini retired later that year from the Army and joined Nate, Chase and Jesse on the board of directors. On the three years anniversary of the successful operation of the Never Forgotten organization, he prepared a Sicilian banquet that included; Pasta con le sarde, Coponata, Panelle and stuffed eggplants. The recipes were handed down to him from his parents who got them from their Italian ancestors.
Bart opened a bottle of Sangiovese red wine and filled each man’s glass and proposed a toast, “To all men and women that have been altered by their military service. Your love of country will always be deserving of respect, admiration and gratitude. You are no strangers to the pain and when your country ordered you into harm’s way, you went without question. Although your fight with foreign adversaries may be over; some of you still remain locked in battles of the heart, soul and mind. Our pledge to you; Never forsaken Never forgotten.”
NOTE: Aspiring Writers Join us on the 3rd Saturday of each month between 11:00 am and 2:00 pm Veterans Writing Group of North County (non veterans are welcome) 1617 Mission Avenue , Oceanside,Ca. 92054
(619) 991-8790 www.veteranswriting group.org – www.facebook.com/VMGSDCounty