Inside The Fire
Thomas Calabrese — There are many old sayings in the military, but none of them are truer than ‘no man left behind.’ To most people, sending fifty men into harm’s way to bring back one dead body makes no sense, but to those who fight our country’s battles on faraway lands, it is a code that cannot be compromised. Every American warrior needs to believe that if he makes the ultimate sacrifice, his body will be sent back home to his family. That same feeling also extends to being lost, outnumbered or wounded, he knows that he will not be forsaken and someone will always come for him.
The 18th Special Tactics Rescue Joint Personnel Recovery Squadron was an ultra-elite group of individuals comprised of all branches of the military and support agencies. The mission of this unit is to rescue, recover, and return American or Allied forces in times of danger or extreme duress.
Whether shot down or isolated behind enemy lines; surrounded, engaged, wounded, or captured by the enemy; the 18th Squadron will do whatever is required to deny the enemy a victory and bring our warriors home to fight another day. “Leave no Airman, Marine, Soldier, or Sailor behind” is our nation’s supreme promise and responsibility of our brave war fighters. Members of the Joint Recovery Squadron hold true to this moral imperative and are the elite ground forces that provide our nation with the capability to execute this noble responsibility.
Captain Joseph Hammond, call sign ‘Hammer’ or Slammin’ Hammond, as his men sometimes called him had been with the 18th Squadron for six years. He started off as a Marine Corps infantry officer then transferred to Force Reconnaissance before applying for the ultra-elite unit. From his call sign, nickname and reputation people expected to see a big powerful brute, something between the Hulk and Thor who shook the earth when he moved, but instead saw a quiet unassuming individual who stood six feet two inches tall and weighed a lean 195 pounds. Joe did not smoke or drink alcohol and carefully adhered to a diet that was specifically designed to his DNA. He read voraciously and was often compared to Secretary Of Defense James Mattis (The Warrior Monk) who had read hundreds of books in his lifetime. One of Captain Hammond’s favorite quotes was from the studious and dangerous former Marine Corps General who said, “Be professional, be courteous, but be prepared to kill everybody you meet.”
Captain Joseph Hammond met Danielle Devereaux when he was on his third deployment to Afghanistan. She was working as a security analyst and helping his unit put a rescue mission together. There was an instant connection between the two and it wasn’t because either one of them was lonely, needy, looking for a relationship or even a short term fling. In fact, that was the last thing that was on their radar. They weren’t the kind of people who did anything halfway and they kept their emotional perimeter well-guarded.
The mission was a success and Danielle and Joe exchanged customary congratulations and farewells at the same time on the tarmac, then boarded different helicopters and disappeared into the deep blue skies. Joe couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness, then thought about what a mess it would be if he had somebody in his life that he had to worry about. This was the logical, reasonable and professional way to look at this, but the sense of loss still did not leave him.
Danielle (Dani) Devereaux had met a lot of men during her career in the Marines and in many cases, she would be outnumbered 15 to one by the men on the base and she was never tempted to get involved with any of them. She wasn’t sure what there was about the soft spoken Captain Hammond that stirred some emotions inside her and didn’t know whether to be concerned or worried. It was a moot point because what were the chances of them ever crossing paths again?
Sometimes, fate can be a good hearted fellow who decides to reward the valiant and dedicated and other times he is a mischievous rascal, in the case of Joe and Dani he was a little bit of both.
Three months later, Colonel David Huddleston retired as Commanding Officer of Headquarters and Support Battalion on Camp Pendleton. There was a farewell luncheon at the San Luis Rey Officer’s Club and Captains Joe Hammond and Danielle Devereaux were among the attendees. These individuals had faced death and high risk situations during their military career, but when they saw each other, they were completely out of their comfort zone and in unchartered territory with no credible Intel on how to proceed.
Their attraction to each other was so intense that Joe and Dani kept looking for some serious character flaw in each other that would allow them to walk away without regret. That did not happen because love makes even the little annoyances seem cute and endearing. Their next course of action was to find situations where the other person failed, but that was also a doomed endeavor because they were so playfully competitive with each other that it didn’t matter who won or lost as long as they were together. Finally they had no other choice, but to accept the reality of their situation.
“So what now?” Dani asked.
“Could you be a little more specific,” Joe answered.
“Us, you and me,” Dani snapped back.
“We’ve identified the enemy and it is us.”
“So that is how you perceive our situation?” Dani was less than pleased.
“You know what Don Corleone said?” Joe smiled.
“Who’s that, somebody from out of your checkered past?”
“The Godfather! Don’t you watch movies?” Joe asked.
“I’m more of an Animal House, Caddyshack and Wild Bunch kind of girl.”
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” Joe pulled Dani close and kissed her.
“I guess when you explain it that way, I can see your cinematic reference.”
Joe and Dani discussed the idea of marriage, but now was not the right time for that. Not because they weren’t ready for that commitment, but it would only add complications to their careers. They were private people and keeping their relationship secret was very easy, but they knew how the military worked and one of them was bound to receive orders soon, so they made the best of their remaining time together while on Pendleton.
Finally the time came, “I’m shipping out,” Dani said as she shared dinner with Joe at the Cabo Grill in downtown Oceanside.
“Where to?” Joe asked.
“Don’t know or can’t tell?” Joe asked.
“It must be on a need to know basis and they must think that I don’t need to know.”
“Part of the job,” Joe tried in vain to hide his disappointment, “This is what we signed up for.”
“Am I mistaken or do I detect a tinge of sadness in your voice?” Dani smiled.
“Either that or I’m catching a cold,” Joe grumbled.
“You’ve probably never been sick a day in your life.”
“Then you got your answer,” Joe spoke in a hoarse whisper.
Three days later, Captain Danielle Devereaux left Camp Pendleton. Two weeks passed and when he didn’t hear from Dani, Joe became concerned. When he started caring about the beautiful intelligent woman, Joe knew from that point that her welfare was always going to be more important to him than his own. He was a seasoned Marine and knew the serious risks that he was taking when he stopped off at Major General McDougal’s office, and requested permission to see him.
“What can I do for you Captain Hammond?” General McDougal asked.
“Sorry to bother you sir, but I’ve been trying to contact Captain Devereaux,” Joe stated.
“So what does that have to do with me?”
“Captain Devereaux mentioned that you were in her chain of command,” Joe answered.
“You should know by now how the chain of command works, Captain,” General McDougal lashed out, “You start with the next rank above you, then work your way up to me.”
“Yes sir, I am aware of the chain of command procedures.”
“You’re with the 18th Tactical Squadron aren’t you” General McDougal asked.
“I know that some people in the Corps like to cut you rescue guys a lot of slack, but I am not one of them!”
“What is Captain Devereaux to you anyway?” General McDougal.
“We met on a mission overseas and when she left a couple weeks ago she asked me to watch her dog. I haven’t heard from her so I’m going have to turn her Labrador in to the shelter. She’s kind of old so I hope they won’t put her down.”
General McDougal swallowed hard, “You shouldn’t do that. What happens if she comes back, I mean when she comes back and her dog isn’t here.”
“Yes sir.” Joe replied, “Sorry to bother you, sir.”
By the time Joe got back to his unit, hell had already broken loose. Five Marines at different times were quick to call out, “The C.O. wants to see you, Captain.”
Colonel Bill Fields was pacing back and forth when Joe knocked on the doorframe, “You wanted to see me, sir.”
“Come in and take a seat,” Colonel Fields ordered, “I just got off the phone with General McDougal.”
“He didn’t waste any time.”
“He chewed me out pretty good,” Colonel Fields said.
“Sorry about that, but I had to find out something,”
“Care to enlighten me?” Colonel Fields asked.
“I was trying to find out about Captain Devereaux, I worked with her when I was in Iraq.”
“The General said something about a dog, make sure that you don’t give it away or turn it in,” Colonel Fields then inquired, “What the hell is that all about?”
“General McDougal is a big dog lover. I mentioned that I had Captain Devereaux’s dog to see his reaction and I could tell that he doesn’t know where she is.”
“Do you have her dog?”
“No sir, I do not, it was just a minor interrogation ploy.”
“Let me see what I can find out,” Colonel Fields offered.
“Thank you, sir,”
“Consider this meeting an off the record disciplinary action,” Colonel Fields stated, “One more thing, stay away from generals, they can be trouble, especially for me.”
Three days later, Captain Hammond was training with his men at combat town when Colonel Fields drove up, “You’re right, something is definitely awry. I’ve called everybody that I know in the system and I’ve only gotten two answers; I don’t know and you need to stop asking.”
Joe was never off the clock when it came to being vigilant so every morning when he left his condominium in Oceanside, he placed a strip of scotch tape from the door to the frame. This time when he returned home, he instinctively looked at the bottom of the door to see if the strip of scotch tape had been broken and this time it was. He turned around, walked back to the parking lot and looked around. A gray Chevrolet sedan with government plates was in guest parking so Joe walked back to his car, opened his trunk and took off his camouflaged shirt and put on a black baseball cap and picked up a clipboard, walked back to his condo and knocked on the door, “Maintenance, we have a report of a gas leak.”
One of the men inside looked through the peephole but did not respond. The other man said, “Ignore it.”
“I have to enter so if anybody is at home, and then please open the door,” Joe called out.
Both men nodded to each other and the door slowly opened, Joe walked in while keeping his head down.
“How long is this going to take?” The first man asked.
“Not long,” Joe mumbled and walked into the kitchen and bent down to check the hot water heater pilot light. One of the men continued to look out the front window while the other one stayed right behind Joe.
“Find anything?” The man asked.
“No problem here,” Joe grabbed the man’s ankle, yanked him off his feet and quickly disarmed him. He used the man as a shield and pushed him into the living room, while keeping his weapon pointed at the other man, “Set your weapon on the table…slowly.
The man complied, “You’re making a mistake, Captain Hammond.”
“I’ve made them before,” Joe walked over, picked up the weapon and was now holding a pistol in each hand, “Have a seat on the couch.”
Both men sat down and one of them reached inside his coat pocket
“Easy…don’t make me shoot first and ask questions later,” Joe warned
“Just reaching for my I.D. Take it easy Marine.”
“Toss it over,” Joe said.
The man complied; Joe looked at it and threw it back, “C.I.A… what a surprise.”
“We’re here to deliver a message,” The second man said.
“I’ve got an e-mail and a cellphone,” Joe retorted.
“These kinds of messages have to be delivered in person,” The first man responded.
“Does this have to do with Captain Devereaux?” Joe asked.
“Back off,” The first man warned.
“Message received, don’t let the door hit your backsides on the way out,” Joe popped out the magazines and cleared the chamber before handing the weapons back.
They left and began walking back to their car, “Do you think that he’s going to listen?”
“Not just no, but hell no!” The second agent answered.
“Damn Marines and their code of honor,” The first agent growled, “I’m going to hate to kill him if it comes down to that.”
“I’m going to hate to try,” The second agent’s voice was barely audible.
Joe sat down on the couch and felt that his world was crashing down all around him. He had been ordered and now threatened to forget about the woman that he loved, and that only made him more determined to find Dani. It was obvious that he was not going to be able to go through normal channels and if he kept disobeying orders then he would just end up in the brig. This was not the way that he expected to end his Marine Corps career, but he saw no other way. Joe would resign his commission in the morning and go after Dani on his own. If he died in the process then so be it, his life wasn’t worth the C-4 to blow it to hell without Captain Devereaux in it.
When Joe left for Camp Pendleton at 0500 hours the next morning, he saw a large manila envelope on the rubber mat outside his door. There was no address on it and Joe assumed that it was hand delivered in the middle of the night. He went back into the house and took out the contents from the envelope. What he saw captivated his attention so he sat down and began reading and when he finished, he packed a travel bag and put his passport in it
Joe was an hour late by the time that he arrived on base, but the last thing on his mind was punctuality. He made a beeline for Colonel Fields office and did not even bother to check in with the company clerk. He put off his resignation for the time being and went for something more expedient.
Joe knocked on the door, “Permission to enter.”
“Come in Joe.”
Sir, I need to take emergency leave,” Joe stated without hesitation.
“Anything serious?” Colonel Fields asked.
“Very, I won’t know how bad it is until I get there,” Joe answered.
“Take whatever you need and call me if I can help,” Colonel Fields said with true sincerity.
“I appreciate that sir.”
Joe exited the base and drove south on Highway Five to Otay Mesa where the Vigilance XL headquarters and training facility was located. They were currently the largest security contractor in the Middle East with over fifteen thousand former American military personnel working for them in various assignments. It was founded by former Marine Corps General Robert Krulan in 2003 after he retired from military service.
Joe showed the paperwork that he received to Robert Krulan who reviewed it, “So what do you want to do about this?”
“I want to go in and get them,” Joe answered without hesitation.
“I know your record in search and rescue and it is very impressive, but this is a lot different.”
“Not to me, we’ve got Americans in harm’s way and it’s my duty to go get them,” There was no equivocation in Joe’s voice.
“It’s your duty to follow orders and the Marine Corps frowns on its officers free lancing while they are on leave. No matter how this turns out, you’re finished,” Robert Krulan warned.
“I know the risks.”
“Let me see,” Robert Krulan said as he scanned the paperwork, “There must be somebody on this list that is important enough to throw everything away to get them back…Captain Danielle Devereaux…right?”
“She’s a good friend,” Joe failed in his attempt at skirting the truth.
“She’s more than that, but that’s none of my business. I can’t officially help you, but if one of my employees went rogue and wanted to help you on his own then I guess I would have plausible deniability. I’m going to write down the name of a retired Master Sergeant who works at the Al Asad Airbase.
On this piece of paper will also be the departure time of a cargo plane leaving this evening from San Diego. After I exit my office, I won’t have any idea what happened to the Intel or how you hacked my private password to get on the flight.”
“And last but not least, you probably won’t even know how grateful I am since I was never here in the first place,” Joe smiled.
Robert Krulan imparted this famous saying, “Semper Fi,” without looking back as he left his office.
Joe made the flight and after two layovers where more security contractors and equipment was picked up, he arrived in Al Asad Airbase. Joe had no problem finding his point of contact, retired Master Sergeant Bill Everett, who had the look of a man who had seen his share of combat, his eyes were clear and his gaze was straight and stead. He was completely aware of his surroundings and one step ahead of those around him. As soon as Joe approached, Bill Everett said, “Follow me.”
Twenty five security contactors were sitting on metal folding chairs inside a storage building, “This is Marine Corps Captain Joe Hammond and he has something to tell you,” Bill Everett announced.
Joe assumed that General Krulan found a subtle and untraceable way to alert his men about his arrival, “I appreciate your time and before I get started, I need to tell you that I have a personal interest in this mission. Someone that I care about is being held at an Iranian detention facility with some other prisoners and I’m going after them. This is a high risk and low reward operation and if I was in your position, I’d probably walk out right now.”
One man in the back row with a beard and a thickly muscled body stood up, “Are these Americans that you’re talking about?”
“They are,” Joe answered.
“I heard that you’re with the 18th Squadron,” The man inquired.
“If you’re going, then you can count me in,” The man stated in a voice that left no room for indecisiveness. It was unanimous as every other man voiced his commitment.
The mission was set and twenty seven highly trained operatives that included Master Sergeant Everett boarded a C-54 Douglas Skymaster transport aircraft and headed for an isolated area near the Caspian Sea. Only 7 per cent of Iran’s land surface is forested and there was a secret detention facility built among the tall Cypress trees.
Several weeks earlier, Captain Danielle Devereaux suspected something was not right when she was assigned to do a threat assessment about the exchange of three hundred million dollars in return for twenty tons of high grade heroin. She was told that this was a back channel negotiation between the State Department and Iranian officials to keep the drugs from falling into the hands of terrorists, who planned to smuggle it into the United States for the purpose of flooding the illegal drug market.
Captain Devereaux did not believe this explanation so she voiced her concerns to Army General Robert Grady and immediately became a liability.
“Thank you, Captain Devereaux for your conscientiousness. I will ensure that everything is in complete compliance,” General Grady lied, “Your concern is duly noted.”
The exchange was made and it was determined by high ranking and unscrupulous individuals in the American government that Captain Devereaux could not be trusted to remain quiet, so she was turned over to the Iranians for indefinite incarceration. This would have been a reasonable solution to their problem, except for one flaw in their plan; Captain Joe ‘Slammin’ Hammond was on his way and a reckoning was coming with him.
The plane flew low through Iranian airspace to avoid radar detection and the American force executed a low altitude parachute jump into an open field. The detention facility was five miles away from their drop point and if they failed, there would also be no reinforcements or rescue teams coming for them. They would be abandoned, disavowed, tortured and executed in that order. That was a hell of an incentive for success and since they only had twelve hours to complete the mission and return to the extraction point, they needed to be fast as well as efficient.
As the men humped through the forest, Bill Everett turned to Joe, “It’s been a while since I’ve done anything just because it was the right thing to do…brings back some good memories.”
“Let’s hope my Intel is accurate…don’t want you to lose that feeling.”
“This Captain Devereaux must be a hell of a woman,” Bill Everett commented.
“She is to me…ever meet someone that you couldn’t live without and was willing to die for?”
“No, can’t say that I have.” Bill answered with obvious regret, “but I have met a few women who hated me so much, they probably thought about killing me.”
They found the detention facility and while it was guarded, it was far from being a maximum security facility, since the Iranians never expected anyone to have the audacity to attack it. The Americans simultaneously approached from all four sides while barely making a sound and eliminated the perimeter guards.
Once they made their way to the building, the order was given not to use firearms because they didn’t want to make any noise. Every man was proficient at hand to hand combat so a few pulled out their knives.
Joe saw a guard and sneaked up behind him and stabbed him through the heart while holding his gloved hand over his mouth. Some men on the team did a variation of this maneuver while others snapped the guards’ necks or crushed their windpipes in deadly chokeholds. When they had taken control of the facility they began searching for Captain Devereaux. There were six male prisoners and all of them had been in the prison for several years, of course the Iranian government had publicly denied any knowledge of their whereabouts. They were released from their cells, but there was no sign of Captain Devereaux.
One of the Americans walked up to Joe, “I’m picking up radio chatter, Iranians on their way.”
“Get the prisoners, I’m right behind you,” Joe said.
“I’ll stay with you,” Bill offered.
“Appreciate the gesture, but I can handle this. Your priority is to get your men and the prisoners out of here.”
Bill hesitated for a moment, “Roger that,” then called out, “Let’s go!” and his men withdrew.
Joe wasn’t leaving without Dani, he didn’t know how he knew, but he was damn sure she was there. He ran down the hall, kicking in doors and looking in each room. When he saw a padlock on a thick wooden door, Joe shot it off with his assault rifle and entered. There she was and in this particular moment in time, nothing else mattered, “Ready to go home?” Joe finally stammered.
“I knew that you would come for me,” Dani exclaimed.
“We’re on the clock, the Iranians are on their way.”
Joe placed two shape charges on the cell door hinges and Dani shielded herself behind the mattress. The explosions caused the metal door to fall to the floor and Dani rushed out to embrace Joe.
“Let’s go,” Joe said and they ran out of building. Iranian soldiers were just arriving and the Americans provided cover fire so that Joe and Dani could make it to the treeline. Sharpshooters kept the Iranians pinned down, but the Americans were vastly outnumbered and time was running out.
Bill Everett turned to Dani, “I’m been waiting to meet you, Captain Devereaux.”
Joe called out, “Move out! Double time!”
The group raced into the wooded area and the Iranians pursued them. Two hours later, Joe turned to Bill and Dani and while looking through his binoculars at the approaching enemy, “They’re either going to catch up to us before we can reach the LZ or get there right when we’re taking off. Neither one is a good option, we need to buy us some time. ”
“Want to stay and fight?” Bill asked.
“I got a better idea,” Joe replied as he picked up some dried brush and tossed it into the air and it blew back in his face, “We got a headwind, pass the word to set fire to the brush.”
Every man found something to burn and in a matter of minutes the hillside was ablaze and the flames were licking the treetops and racing toward the Iranians. The team and the rescued prisoners made it to the extraction point just as the fire encircled their position. The pilot took a great risk by landing in the visibility limited area. There was not a moment’s hesitation as everyone boarded the aircraft and it took off into the fire, disappeared into the thick black smoke and elevated into clear blue skies and freedom.
There were a lot of angry people who wanted Captain Joe Hammond’s head on a platter when they found out about his unauthorized actions. The Iranians called the intrusion into their country an act of war and wanted him returned to their country. The criminal element in the American government was just as irate and wanted harsh retribution for Joe’s interference into their secret agreement with the terrorist regime.
Captain Joe Hammond refused to implicate the other men who helped him with the rescue and was court martialed on Camp Pendleton and found guilty on six charges. He received the maximum sentence on each one and was sentenced to forty years at Leavenworth Military Stockade.
When President Donald Trump, Secretary of State James Mattis, Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Advisor H.L. McMaster received undisputable evidence from an anonymous source that some individuals were conducting ‘black ops’ diplomacy without their knowledge, they were outraged. Former Four Star General Jack Keane was appointed as special counsel to investigate the conspiracy.
Captain Danielle Devereaux met with the President and his security team and she was a woman on her own mission and would not be denied. It took several months to process, but Captain Joe Hammond received a full pardon, reinstatement to his previous rank and all back pay.
Dani was waiting outside the stone walls and steel gates when Joe was released from Leavenworth. She had these words for the man she loved, “Sometimes in life, you get to be the rescuer and other times you just have to sit back and wait to be rescued.”
Joe responded with, “A beautiful woman once told me; I knew that you would come for me,”
There was not a force in nature that was strong enough to keep these two Marines apart and those who thought otherwise made a serious error in judgment.
Joe looked over Dani’s shoulder as he embraced his soulmate, then saw the two C.I.A. agents in the distance and instinctively knew that they were the anonymous source. He nodded in appreciation and they responded with a salute and faded back into the ‘deep state’.
Sometimes when you’re Outside The Wire, you’re Inside The Fire, but there are a very few who were born to take the heat.