Don’t Give Up On Me Now
Thomas Calabrese…The Marines of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines had been engaged with a large force of Taliban fighters for over a week and the battle raged on. The enemy had been pushed back into the Darai Nur district and while some of the Taliban had run away and a few had surrendered, the remainder of the force were hardcore and determined to fight to the death. When Company Commander Captain McCallum received orders to attack, he knew that his men would have to go building by building to clear out the area. He briefed his men on the situation and warned, “Listen to your NCO’s and keep your heads on the swivel.” Captain McCallum led the attack and it was even worse than he expected, every square foot had to be taken by force. Snipers and improvised explosive devices were all over the place and by the time the battle was over, a lot of American blood had been spilled and the men of Bravo Company who had not been killed or medevac’d were physically, emotionally and mentally spent.
Instead of receiving a well- deserved rest, the Marines were given another dangerous assignment by Division leadership. Taliban fighters were crossing over from their safe havens in Pakistan to conduct raids in the Nangarhar Province and escaping back across the border to their sanctuary before they could be engaged.
Captain McCallum’s orders were to eliminate the threat and if that wasn’t possible, severely diminish their capabilities to create havoc in the region. Despite extensive patrolling in their sectors of responsibilities, Bravo Company had nothing to show for their efforts except for some boot prints and several piles of discarded garbage.
1st Lieutenant Sami Kyle was an analyst with the 2nd Marine Division and was currently assigned to Camp Leatherneck. She was young, bright and had an aptitude for counter intelligence. Her commanding officer, Colonel Tim Carlisle called her into his office, “Lt. Kyle, I’m assigning you to work with Bravo One Five. They’re having trouble finding some Taliban fighters.”
“Yes sir,” Lt. Kyle responded.
“Your point of contact is Captain McCallum,” Colonel Carlisle handed a folder to Lt. Kyle, “Read this and be ready to hit the ground running.”
That evening, Lt. Kyle went over the intelligence report and at 0500 hours the next morning, she boarded a chopper and flew to Firebase Condor to meet with Captain McCallum.
Mike McCallum grew up in Stillwater, Oklahoma. His father was a mid-level executive with an oil company and his mother was a real estate broker. He was the middle child with an older sister Janet and a younger sibling, Julie. He grew up in a strong home environment where his parents told their children that they could be anything that they wanted to be, if they had the skills and determination to succeed. This was proven by the fact that his older sister was a successful lawyer and his younger one was a decorated paramedic with the Oklahoma City fire department.
Mike’s maternal uncle David Scott was a Sergeant Major in the Marines and whenever he was stationed stateside, which was usually at Camp Lejeune or Camp Pendleton, Mike would spend part of his summer vacation staying with him and his family. Uncle Dave showed his young nephew around the bases and imparted honest insights about the military and life in general and by the time Mike decided to enlist in the Marines, he already had a strong foundation to build his own career. Mike was an honorable young man who respected the traditions of the Marine Corps and the sacrifices of those who preceded him. He also grew up with a firsthand knowledge of the strength of women, having witnessed what his mother accomplished on a daily basis as well as the abilities of his sisters.
If Captain Mike McCallum was a different man, he would have been intimidated or offended that a subordinate female officer was sent out to help him accomplish a mission that he had been unsuccessful at so far. It never entered his mind to go down that road because he had two priorities of equal importance; accomplish the mission and protect his men, and he didn’t care who helped him do that.
After a week of looking at hundreds of satellite photos and Intel brought back from Marine patrols, Lt. Kyle came to a conclusion as she pointed to an area on the map, “It is my assessment that they are using a tunnel in this mountainous terrain for their penetration and exit.”
“That would make sense,” Mike agreed, “The problem is fighting inside tunnels, we could sustain a lot of casualties, depending on how many enemy fighters that we encounter.”
“Ever hear of GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast?”
“Mother of all bombs, yeah?” Mike responded.
“We would have to find where the main tunnel is located first, before we could request the Mother.”
“Then I better make sure we get that,” Mike knew that getting approval for the ‘Mother’ was not going to be easy since it was the largest non-nuclear bomb in the American arsenal. If they were going to bring this up the chain of command, they’d better be damn sure, otherwise it would probably end their military careers.
The next morning, Captain McCallum led fifty of his Marines to a nearby mountain range with high tech surveillance paraphernalia that included thermal imaging equipment. After seven days of watching enemy fighters enter a canyon and disappear from view, Mike was certain enough to risk his career that Lt. Kyle had made the right call.
They put their findings together and took it to Battalion Commander Colonel Carlisle who reviewed it, then ordered them to make their presentation to Major General Severide who responded, “Looks good to me, I’ll let you know. Good job, Marines.”
For the next week, there wasn’t much to do except wait for word from the Pentagon, so Captain McCallum and Lt. Kyle had plenty of time to make small talk. As they sat side by side on a clear star filled night, Mike asked, “What’s your favorite western movie?”
“That’s a good question,” Sami replied, “I liked Good, Bad and Ugly, epic in size and scope and what a memorable soundtrack.”
“I agree, The Outlaw Josey Wales is pretty damn good too,” Mike said.
“Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and Tombstone were fun to watch,” Sami added.
“Confirm that, you can’t forget Shane either,” Mike countered.
“Wild Bunch,” Sami blurted out.
“The Searchers,” Sami added.
“One Eyed Jacks,”
The playful banter went on for twenty minutes as the two Marines tried to outdo each other with the famous lines from each movie until Mike sighed, “I concede, you’re too good for me.”
“My dad was a big movie buff, he used to quiz me all the time,” Sami smiled.
Defense Secretary James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis received the request and flew to Afghanistan to discuss the situation firsthand with the two Marines, “I read your report, do you both still agree that this is the best course of action?”
“Yes sir,” Captain McCallum responded.
“Yes sir,” Lt. Kyle seconded without hesitation.
“It’s a go then, do you feel like marking the target, Captain?” Secretary of Defense Mattis asked.
“That honor should go to Lt. Kyle, it was her Intel that made this mission possible, sir” Mike answered.
The Massive Ordnance Air Blast was loaded into the Air Force MC-130 Combat Talon transport aircraft. The MOAB weighs 21,700 pounds and is filled with 18,700 pounds of H6 explosives. The thirty foot long aluminum casing weighs only 3,000 pounds, which is an unusually low proportion of the bomb’s overall weight. Unlike many bombs, for which steel shrapnel is a primary effect, the MOAB is designed to generate explosive shockwaves and is stuffed as full of as much explosive as possible. The MOAB itself never touches the ground and detonates 6 feet above the surface and is well suited for destroying cave complexes and collapsing earthen tunnels.
Lt. Kyle, Captain McCallum and Defense Secretary Mattis were among a group of military and civilian personnel in attendance on a hill when Sami painted the target with a Ground Laser Target Designator.
The pilot radioed, “Target acquired, bomb away in twenty seconds…fifteen seconds…ten seconds… bomb away!”
Even at the distance of two miles, the earth shook under their feet as if they were in the midst of a violent earthquake as they watched a section of the mountain range collapsed into the earth.
It was later determined that three hundred Taliban fighters, an intricate tunnel complex and a weapons storage facility were all destroyed by the explosion. The mission was a complete success and Captain Mike McCallum and Lt. Kyle were meritoriously promoted to Major and Captain respectively.
Mike’s unit rotated back to the states two weeks later and Sami stayed in Afghanistan for three more months, but they stayed in touch by e-mail until Captain Kyle also returned to Camp Pendleton. They began spending time together and before either one of them realized it, their relationship had moved from fellow officers to something more romantic.
After a year of dating, Mike proposed to Sami over a July weekend at Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch Restaurant in Carmel, California. When the famous actor who was in the establishment at the time overheard the proposal and later found out that the couple were active duty Marines, he generously paid for their meal and their accommodations and quipped, “You just made my day.”
Clint also joined them at their table, where they discussed the movie, Heartbreak Ridge, in which he played a salty Marine and American Sniper, the film he directed about Chris Kyle, “Any relation?” Clint asked Sami when he found out that she had the same last name as the famous Navy Seal sniper.
“No sir,” Sami replied.
Clint was deeply interested when Mike and Sami shared their story about the bombing of the massive cave complex, “I just might have to talk to the Department of Defense, sounds like that might make a good movie.”
Mike and Sami married on Valentine’s Day, 2015 in a small ceremony at the Camp Pendleton base chapel and sent an invitation to Clint Eastwood in care of his restaurant. They didn’t really expect him to attend, but it was their way of showing their appreciation for his generosity and to let him know that the mission was completed.
After a discussion on who should resign their commission, it was mutually decided that Sami should leave the Corps because her skills were more marketable than Mike’s infantry officer ones were. She applied to Homeland Security as an Intelligence Analyst and was hired to work in the San Diego Regional Office.
The newlyweds moved into a three bedroom condominium in the Rancho Del Oro area of Oceanside and their love for each other grew with each passing day. Colonel Andy Traynor received orders for NATO Headquarters in Brussels and since it was a three year accompanied tour of duty, he could take his family with him.
“I’ve got a deal that you might be interested in,” Colonel Traynor said, “How would you like to rent my home while I’m overseas? I live in Arrowwood Estates, just south of the base, in fact our backyard borders up against the perimeter fence.”
“How much is the rent?”
“My wife doesn’t want to live in California and this is my last duty station before I retire. Your basic allowance for housing is about 3300 a month and the appraised value of my house right now is about seven hundred and twenty thousand.”
Mike replied. “You’ve got my attention, Colonel.”
“We can do a lease with an option to buy for one year with a purchase price of seven twenty five, this will give me a little cushion if the value of my property goes down, but here is the thing that protects you, I’ll apply the entire first year of your rent toward the purchase price. That would be 36 thousand dollars, so at the end of the first year the sales price would be 689,000. I look at it as a win-win for both of us.”
“Definitely sounds good,” Mike thought for a moment, “And if we decide that we don’t want to buy it?”
“No harm, no foul and depending on my situation at that particular time, I’ll either put it on the market or continue renting it to you at your current basic allowance for housing.”
When Mike told Sami about the offer, they set up an appointment to look at Colonel Traynor’s home. It was 3500 square feet, five bedrooms, three full baths, three car garage, big backyard and an open floorplan with a panoramic view of the southern part of the base. It was much more than either Mike or Sami ever expected to have at this point in their marriage, so they gave notice at their rental and moved in one week after Colonel Traynor and his family left for Europe.
Things were going well for the McCallums; Mike was with a good unit and on track for a promotion to Lt. Colonel. Sami had distinguished herself at Homeland Security and had been promoted twice, but what she really liked was that her new position allowed her to telecommute three days a week from her home. When their schedules coincided, Sami would meet her husband at the 14 Area Fitness Center for a workout or they would take a run on one of the many trails on Camp Pendleton.
Six months into their residency at Colonel Traynor’s home and they were sure that they wanted the home. They contacted the sister of one Sami’s co-workers, Christine Madison, an agent who worked at the Coldwell Banker real estate office in Carlsbad, who helped them pre-qualify for the agreed price. At the end of the lease agreement, Mike and Sami purchased the property and began adding their own personal touches to make it their own.
When Mike received word that his unit would be deploying in the next few months, he wanted to make sure that Sami would not be alone during his absence, not that she couldn’t handle it, but it would make him feel better. He left his name and cellphone number with the base animal shelter and asked them to call him when they received a breed of dog that liked to run. Three weeks before Christmas, someone turned in a female mixed breed that was determined to be part Labrador and part Rhodesian Ridgeback. The dog was pregnant at the time and Mike put his name on the list for one of the litter. Puppies are supposed to stay with their mother for the first eight weeks of their life so when the dog gave birth on December 15th, the timing was perfect for a special gift on a very special day.
On the morning of February 14th, 2017, Mike picked up the eight- week old tan puppy with black markings that he named Spencer in honor of a friend of his who was killed in combat. With a dozen roses and a Hallmark Card, he drove home to celebrate his two year anniversary. Mike parked in the driveway, opened the small crate that held the puppy then reached into the backseat for the flowers. Spencer nudged the door open, jumped out of the car and ran toward the street.
Mike took off at a full sprint when he saw a car coming down the street and reached the puppy, a split second before the vehicle would have hit him and tossed him out of harm’s way into a neighbor’s lawn. Instinctively Mike jumped up to avoid having the car smash into his legs and rolled over the hood, smashed the windshield, flipped over the top and trunk, and hit his head on the asphalt.
The impact caused severe trauma and bleeding on the brain and Spencer ran over and licked his new owner’s face and lied next to the motionless body until help arrived. Paramedics rushed Mike to Tri-City Medical Center where doctors diagnosed a severe Subdural Hematoma and recommended immediate surgery.
“What do you have to do?” Sami tried to keep her fear under control.
Doctor Mark Buckley responded, “Surgery to manage an acute Subdural Hematoma usually consists of a large craniotomy centered over the thickest portion of the clot to decompress the brain and stop any bleeding and if indicated and required, evacuate the hematoma.”
The surgery was a complete success, but Mike never awakened after the procedure. Doctor Brett Hamel, a noted neurologist from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington was called in for a consultation. After a thorough examination of Mike, Doctor Hamel met with Sami, “I wish I could be more definite in my prognosis, Mrs. McCallum, but comas are very unpredictable, sometimes a patient wakes up in a matter of hours, sometimes days, weeks or…
“Or even longer,” Sami added.
Sami made arrangements with the Tri- City hospital discharge planner and the Camp Pendleton medical representative for Mike to receive homecare. A special bed and medical equipment that included supplies for tube feedings were delivered to the McCallum residence. The downstairs guest bedroom was turned into a hospital room with an additional single bed for Sami to sleep on. She made arrangements with her supervisors to extend her telecommuting from three to four days. On the occasions that Sami was required to go into the office, a home nurse was scheduled.
Mike was very close to his family so when they found out about his accident, they took turns coming out from Oklahoma to help out, in fact his younger sister Julie, the paramedic even took a three month leave of absence from the fire department to help Sami.
Nine months passed and there was still no significant improvement and family members were hesitant to verbalize what Sami’s mother finally had the courage to say, “You may have to consider the possibility that he may never awaken.”
“I can’t let myself think that, I have to believe that he is coming back to me,” Sami’s voice cracked with emotion, “I won’t give up on him.”
Mike was in a fog and he could hear voices in the distance, but when he opened his mouth to call out to them, there was only silence. There was a mountain located at the other end of a flower field and he ran at full speed through it and began climbing up the steep rock face. At the very top was Sami encouraging him, “You can do it…don’t give up!” Sami held out her hand and just as Mike reached for her, he slipped and when he hit the bottom, he yelled out.” “Don’t give up on me now, I’ll make it.”
Sami made sure that Mike’s muscles didn’t atrophy by manually doing passive range of motion exercises with his arms and legs three times a day.
Mike could feel his wife’s touch, “This is good… I need this.”
Every day, Mike had the same dream about being in this dense fog, then running across a field and climbing up the mountain only to be inches from the top before sliding back down into the abyss. Over and over, this scenario kept repeating itself and no matter how hard he tried, Mike could not quite reach Sami’s hand as she stood at the edge of the clouds.
No matter what anybody said about facing the gravity of the situation, it could not change Sami’s heartfelt belief that inside that motionless body was a strong heart and an even stronger soul struggling to get back to her. Mike sensed his wife’s hope and love every time she got close and he was bound and determined to climb that mountain. There was a spiritual and supernatural connection between this man and woman that spanned two different worlds and could be strained, but never broken.
It was Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2018, the McCallums’ three year anniversary and one year to the day of Mike’s injury. Spencer the dog often slept on a thick quilt that was folded over twice between his owners. Sami came in with a vase of multi colored flowers and set them on the nightstand. Mike had the same dream that he had a hundred times before, but instead of running all the way through the field, he stopped to pick up a flower and smelled it. The fog began to slowly dissipate and he could see clearly now.
“Happy Anniversary and Happy Valentine’s Day,” Sami whispered and kissed her husband on the forehead then looked down at Spencer, “I’ll fix your breakfast and then we’ll go for a run when the nurse gets here.” When she left the room, Spencer jumped up on the bed and started nuzzling Mike. In his recurrent dream, something else was different, a dog was now helping him up the face of the mountain and when he got to the top and reached out …
Sami was preparing Spencer’s food at the kitchen counter, “Spencer, come boy!”
When Spencer did not answer her call, she walked back into Mike’s room and saw her husband’s quivering right arm elevated about two inches above the bed and his fingers grasping for something. She stared in disbelief for several moments then walked over and touched Mike’s hand… and when she did, his eyes opened wide!
After several examinations over the next six weeks, doctors could not explain why Mike had finally come out of his coma or why the results of his various tests were completely normal and he showed no residual effects from his injury or the coma.
Mike offered one explanation, “I know what the answer is, I kept saying over and over in my mind, “Don’t give up on me now and Sami never did.”
Doctor Brett Hamel, “That is better than anything I have, you are a very lucky man, Major McCallum”
“I have a different opinion,” Sami smiled as she held Mike’s hand in hers.
“What’s that?” Doctor Hamel asked.
“Never underestimate the power of The Warrior Heart.”